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Animal Crackers

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Summer was a calm and uneventful time, at least for schoolteachers. Still, with the academy closed down for the break, there was plenty of time for other activities, and Iruka always seemed to have something to do that filled up his days and kept him surprisingly busy. Today, for instance, he was on an excursion outside the village walls, and using all of his observational skills both as a shinobi and as a teacher to keep track of the situation and his companions.

The woods outside the village of Konoha were mostly quiet and peaceful, as long as you kept away from certain places, such as the Forest of Death and its immediate surroundings. Going in the other direction, all you found was just ordinary trees and quiet little ponds and small, pleasant clearings, the perfect area to take a few small children on a nature hike to start to teach them about the shinobi way of interacting with the environment.

Which was easier to concentrate on when you weren't being followed.

Iruka decided that the best thing he could do was build a trap. He couldn't outrun his pursuer, certainly not while his own pace was determined by four small children who were little more than toddlers, and who were more likely to stumble across roots than follow him in leaping from branch to branch. Possibly he couldn't outrun his pursuer at all, toddlers or no toddlers, but there was no point in dwelling on that, particularly not as it got him annoyed enough that his blood pressure spiked when he thought about it. He had the children to think of, it wasn't as if he'd leave them here while he ran off, and that was that.

The shinobi following them wasn't even trying to catch them. Or to catch up with them and say hello, the way a normal person would. One of these alternatives would be considerate and civil, the other at least marginally useful as a training exercise, but no: he'd come close enough to make his presence known, several times, then fallen back again. Iruka didn't appreciate being mocked like that, particularly since it wasn't the first time, either. No, this presence had been making his summer a lot less peaceful, this year. He decided that the best thing he could do was build a very cunning and painful trap.

"What are you doing, Iruka-sensei?" Hitomi-chan asked, clinging to his leg and staring.

"Something a shinobi must know," Iruka said, "is how to make a trap. The kind to catch food, and also the kind to catch enemies."

"Ohh." She looked very thoughtful.

"I know how to make a trap," Shuusuke said from behind Iruka's other leg. ”My brother showed me.”

”That's nice,” Iruka said, trying to sound encouraging while he immersed himself in construction. He didn't just need to build a trap, he needed to outthink his pursuer so the man would actually go in the trap, or the whole point of building a trap would be lost. The landscape here was too open, he thought in some annoyance. A little slow to move through at ground level, with its uneven surface, but comfortably wooded and very easy to get around in if one left the ground and travelled through the treetops. There were no unavoidable routes that a pursuer would have to follow. All Iruka could do was leave a trail and hope it was just the right degree of obvious but not too obvious, pray that his pursuer would actually follow it.

After a few minutes of very focused work, Iruka realized with a chill that the area around him was suspiciously silent, and Hitomi-chan's small hands weren't holding on to his pants-leg any more. He looked up sharply, and was relieved to see the trailing ends of An's pink sash flutter just on the other side of some bushes.

A moment later, An herself looked out through some branches. She had leaves in her hair and a mark on her cheek that Iruka hoped was from falling in some very green and streaky mud, as opposed to eating it on a dare from Shuusuke. Shuushuke's dares were notorious for combining messiness on the outside with messiness on the inside, and Iruka thought his day was being quite interesting enough without added stomach upsets.

"Shuusuke is making a trap," she said in a confiding way. "Hitomi-chan is telling him he's doing it wrong."

"That's nice," Iruka said, relieved to find that the children were both nearby and safely occupied. "Is he digging a hole?"

"No." An's brows drew together. "Is he supposed to? Is that how you make a trap?" She looked at Iruka's preparations. "You're not digging a hole, Iruka-sensei."

"No," Iruka said hastily, "there are many different kinds of traps, I just wondered if Shuusuke-kun might be digging, that's all. Come here and let me wipe the mud off your face."

"Yes, Iruka-sensei." An came closer and turned her face up with the resigned docility of an obedient child, and he scrubbed at her cheek with his sleeve. Since she was both close enough to reach and holding still, for once, he also plucked the leaves from her hair and re-tied her sash in the back into a tidy bow, tucking the ends in so they wouldn't get caught on anything. He was pleased to see that she herself checked on the kunai at her waist to make certain it hadn't slipped when he worked on the sash.

"There," he said and patted her head, "all done. Now I really need to work on this again. Perhaps you'd better go and make sure that Shuusuke-kun hasn't done anything foolish."

An giggled. "Hitomi-chan's doing that," she said.

"Yes," Iruka agreed, "but I bet Ryoma-kun is encouraging him. You know how Ryoma-kun is."

"Yes," An said solemnly. "Ryoma likes it when other people do foolish things." She stuck her lower lip out, which Iruka recognized as a sign of deep thought. "Maybe you should come too, Iruka-sensei."

"As soon as I'm finished here," Iruka promised. "This won't take long." He gave An a light push between the shoulder-blades. "I'll be right with you, I promise."

She ran off, and Iruka went back to his trap-construction, trying to plan for various contingencies: if the pursuer came this way, following that line of trees, or if the pursuer came that way, following this outcropping of rock...

Iruka looked up quickly, because he thought he'd noticed something, though he couldn't say if he'd heard or seen or felt it. The forest was still and silent all around. He looked suspiciously in the direction An had disappeared. He really ought to check on the children. They couldn't have gotten themselves into too much trouble in this short time, surely, but he'd still feel better if he knew for certain what they were up to. He just needed to make a final check of--

There was a loud splash.

Iruka leapt into motion, going through the shrubbery more like some kind of deforestation equipment than a stealthy shinobi. He was going so fast, he barely had time to stop when he came to the tiny pond, and only saved himself by dropping down on one knee, particularly when the children all crashed into his back, shifting him forward by another handsbreadth.

”My trap worked!” Shuusuke said, pride and excitement somewhat muffled by Iruka's flak vest.

Iruka looked down at the pond, where a very familiar figure was just surfacing, soaked to the skin and with his spiky grey hair drooping down over the mask and the lopsided forehead protector. ”This is why a shinobi needs to be observant at all times,” Iruka said, with only the faintest trace of smugness in his voice. ”He shouldn't be taken by surprise by any-- Alligator!”

"That's big," An said worriedly. "Do you think it will bite him in half?"

"No," Iruka said as Kakashi leapt straight into the air, "I don't." He caught Shuusuke by the seat of the pants and hauled him back from the edge of the pond. "Any one of you, though, it wouldn't even need to chew, so stay back."

"Ooh," Ryoma said, sounding genuinely impressed when Kakashi's hands began to spark and chitter with chakra. "What's that?" He peered up through his hair. "Iruka-sensei's hands don't ever do that."

"No," Iruka said levelly, "they don't." He gathered the children close to make sure none of them would fall into the pond. "That's a famous lightning release technique called raikiri. It might not be the best choice in this situation, though. Can any of you children tell me why?"

"I know," Shuusuke said, excited. "I know!"

"I do too," Ryoma said instantly, and the boys elbowed each other a little, until Iruka tightened his grip on them.

"Because he's in the water," Hitomi-chan said with an air of superior knowledge. "You shouldn't mix electricity and water. Oh, now his hair's standing on end."

"Well, it did that before," Iruka said. "But you're right, it's important not to mix electricity and water. You can hurt yourself badly."

An shook her head. "The poor man," she said. "Oh, the alligator is going to eat him!"

"No, it won't," Hitomi-chan said from underneath Iruka's arm. "He's going to -- look, he turned around and--"

"That's a lot of blood," Ryoma said thoughtfully.

"It's not," Shuusuke argued at once, "it just looks like a lot because of the water."

"I bet it feels like a lot to the alligator," Hitomi-chan said. She bounced a little against Iruka's side. "Can I learn to do that? I want to learn how to do that!"

"You might learn how to do that," Iruka said slowly, watching as Kakashi methodically separated the alligator from its tail, because of the thrashing, and then its head, because of the teeth, "but not for a while yet. It's a difficult jutsu, and you need to learn a few other things first." He couldn't hold back the wicked grin. "You should ask Kakashi-san, though, when he thinks you'll be ready. He's taught it to others before."

"I'm not a walking jutsu academy," Kakashi called up from the pond, slapping water out of one ear (at least, Iruka very much hoped it was water) but apparently hearing just fine with the other one. "And I don't teach anyone who doesn't ask me herself."

"I bet it's not as exciting as it looks," Shuusuke said.

"My mother is going to teach me all the traditional jutsu that have been in our family for generations," Hitomi-chan said. "There's one for cleaning fish that looks just like that." She pointed at the chopped-up alligator. Iruka hoped that it really did not look just like that. "I bet it would work. I'll ask my mother."

"Oh," An said quietly, shrinking into Iruka's back. But then he felt her take a deep breath, and she squiggled forward until she was at least at his side, if not in front of him. Iruka grabbed the back of her kimono, just to be on the safe side. "Kakashi-san? Will you teach me, when I'm old enough?"

Kakashi looked up at her and grinned. A real grin; Iruka could tell by the way his eye curved, the way all the tiny laugh lines creased at the corner. "Yes," he said. "If you still want to learn in a few years' time, I'll teach you. Come to me when you've passed your genin exam."

An wiggled in what Iruka suspected was excitement. Either that or Shuusuke had put mud down the back of her neck. "Yes, Kakashi-san!"

"Maybe I will, too," Hitomi-chan muttered.

Kakashi put one hand on the surface of the water and swung himself up, then walked towards them. His soaked clothes clung to his body, and An frowned. "Kakashi-san, you're too skinny," she said. Then she ducked down behind Iruka's shoulder and didn't come up again. "You should eat more," she whispered into the fabric of Iruka's flak vest.

"If you'll all come with me back to Konoha," Kakashi said, "I'll treat you to ramen at Ichiraku's." His eye darted from face to face, studying the children's reactions. "Or dango, maybe you like dango better?"

"Not for dinner!" Shuusuke said, his eyes shining with a thrilled mix of hope and glee. "My mom would never let me have dango for dinner."

"Your mom isn't here," Kakashi said, stepping onto dry land and starting to wring out one of his sleeves. "But you're right, we'd better have dango for dessert, then." He started in on his other sleeve. "Who wants me to carry them back to Konoha?"

The children all promptly hid behind Iruka, scuffling and shoving until Hitomi-chan fell over. Iruka picked her up, got to his own feet, and eyed Kakashi. "Nobody, I should think."

Kakashi blinked in his very mildest way. "Do I look scary?"

"You look wet," Iruka said. He hoisted An up on his shoulder, because she was the smallest and always fell behind, and held out his other hand to whoever wanted to take it. "Come on, it's a long way back for short legs."

"Oh. Oh, wait." There was a blur of blood and scrolls and summoning, and a very large dog popped into existence, nearly squashing Shuusuke. "I don't suppose any of you are Inuzuka," Kakashi said, "so here's your chance to ride a dog."

"I notice you don't ask me," the dog said in a deep, resonant voice. It turned to the children, tongue lolling. "I'm Bull. I can probably carry two of you."

"Me!" Shuusuke and Hitomi-chan said at the same time, while Ryoma beat a strategic retreat and took hold of Iruka's outstretched hand. Iruka resigned himself to carrying two children, and scooped Ryoma up under his free arm just as Kakashi swung Hitomi-chan and Shuusuke onto Bull's broad back, leaving wet handprints on their clothes from his gloves.

It would have been useful, Iruka thought to himself, to have a summon-animal that could cart children around when necessary. Much more useful for him than for Kakashi, who rarely had any reason to transport toddlers anywhere. He sighed a little as Kakashi made the first leap into the trees, Bull followed, and Iruka himself went after Bull. An's heels slapped against his chest. Ryoma wriggled against his side. Iruka wondered if he could learn to summon an elephant. Plenty of seating.

They weren't far from Konoha, and Iruka was just starting to plan the rest of the afternoon and evening in his head, when a wave of chakra with killing intent like dirty, menacing water washed over him, almost making him lose his footing. Up ahead, Kakashi stopped abruptly on a tree branch, and the big summon-dog came to a halt just behind him, Shuusuke and Hitomi-chan clinging white-knuckled to its fur.

"Wh-what was that?" An said very quietly in Iruka's ear. He was impressed, because a child as young as that, with no training to speak of, shouldn't have noticed.

Iruka got a better grip on her and on Ryoma. "You must do exactly as I say now," he said, landing next to Kakashi.

Kakashi met his eyes. "Right, I'll go back and deal with this," he said. "Iruka-sensei, take the children and run for the village."

An gave a very tiny squeak, and her fingers clutched tight at Iruka's neck. Her fingernails needed trimming, he noted. "I can't let you go up against that alone," he said, appalled. Whatever it was.

"Your responsibility is to take care of the children," Kakashi said. "I can handle this."

Bull butted his massive head against Kakashi's thigh. "Call up some of the others, boss," he said. "We'll get the kids to safety, then come back and help."

"Get summon animals, they said," Kakashi muttered. "Summons are so useful and obedient, they said." He cut into the ball of his thumb as he spoke and slammed his bleeding hand down on a scroll that seemed to appear out of nowhere. Two slightly smaller dogs popped into existence, and Kakashi glared up at Iruka. "Just like schoolteachers."

"Schoolteachers aren't supposed to be obedient," Iruka said, putting Ryoma and An down. "That's school children." Both of them were picked up almost at once, one by her sash and the other by the back of his vest. Bull was growling instructions at the newcomer dogs, and just like that, they were off, popping away through the trees at amazing speed.

Iruka took a deep breath and turned towards the dirty, malignant chakra that was coming closer and closer.

"Well, it was worth a try," Kakashi said. "I'll go in high, you go in low. Try not to get killed." He was gone before Iruka could reply. Iruka said some choice words under his breath and followed. He did stay low, and hoped he wouldn't suddenly get a lightning bolt in the head.

The dirty chakra flared, and Iruka dodged in behind a tree trunk just as a bush up ahead exploded in a shower of leaves and wet sparks. When the leaves settled, he finally saw their target. To his horror, it turned out to be the alligator Kakashi had killed before. Now it was three times its previous size, and glowing with dark red chakra energy in a spectrum that Iruka could actually see; air showed in the gaps between the head and the trunk, the trunk and the tail, and it moved in a way that no alligator should move, dead or alive.

Going in low, Iruka realized, meant being on the same level as the alligator. He couldn't exactly trip it up, because it had short, stubby alligator legs, and also it was a ghost, running above the ground rather than on it. Iruka frowned. He darted out and vaulted over the thrashing tail, and the alligator turned towards him, trying to follow his movements with its beady little red eyes. That was promising, and Iruka ran the other way, trying to keep the animal's attention on him. If it followed him, Kakashi could just move in and--

A lightning bolt hit the ground less than an inch from the alligator's head. The alligator turned towards this new threat, tail lashing and swinging and nearly clipping Iruka across the legs. He could feel the wind of its passing. The alligator might be a spirit version of its former self, but it clearly had a physical presence that could affect the rest of the world. And it could be affected, presumably, by things other than jutsu.

To test that theory, Iruka got out a kunai and stabbed the alligator in its ghostly tail. It roared in anger, shaking the trees and sending leaves spinning, and yanked its tail away, taking the kunai with it. Iruka cursed under his breath, because he only had a couple with him, and he wasn't a fancy high-level jutsu user who could shake endless weaponry out of a scroll.

He dodged to the right as the alligator came for him. It was very fast, and he rather thought it was moving about a foot above the ground by now, unaffected by rocks and tufts and muddy hollows, while Iruka had to be careful where he put his feet down.

Another bolt of lightning grazed the alligator's head, ripping up a wound that dripped with some kind of glowing ichor that had the same kind of feeling to it as the ghost alligator's dirty chakra. Jumping in behind a tree trunk just as the animal started to roar again, Iruka thought that this fight would be much better at night. The ghost alligator did spread its own kind of darkness, but in the thin light of early afternoon, it just wasn't scary enough.

It roared, and Iruka thought its teeth grew another couple of inches. All right, so maybe it was a little scary. It was still more of a night-time monster, though, stuck in a daytime fight. They should be able to deal with it efficiently and well, if Kakashi's lightning attacks would just hit their target instead of digging inconvenient craters in the ground that Iruka had to remember to dodge around. The alligator, of course, had no such problems.

He tucked and rolled and came up next to the thrashing tail, intent on getting his kunai back, but he was a little too close, and it clipped him across the shins and sent him flying. It didn't even feel like being hit by a flesh creature, Iruka reflected dizzily as he spun across the small clearing. The tail had felt solid and hard in the way that stone or metal did, and he supposed he was lucky not to have broken anything. At least, he could stand up afterwards, even if his head spun, so he didn't think he had broken anything.

And where was Kakashi, anyway? Useless jounin, never around when you needed him (but frequently when you didn't). Iruka supposed that Kakashi's copying abilities were fairly pointless here, since the giant ghost alligator was, well, a giant ghost alligator, not a rival nin, but the man could at least do something, like actually hit it with one of those lightning blasts, instead of just--

More lightning sizzled down just behind the alligator, scraping its tail and driving it forward, towards Iruka. "Draw it off that way!" Kakashi hissed from somewhere up in the trees.

Iruka bared his teeth, just as the alligator did the same. Draw it off, was it? From what? He threw a rock and hit the alligator smack in its ghostly snout. It made him feel about five years old, but at least it got the animal's attention without wasting another of his kunai. "Why don't you come over here," he invited.

The alligator stared at him for a moment, then charged, moving with unnatural speed. Iruka leaped backwards, hoping he wouldn't slam himself into a tree. He zigzagged that way -- away from the village, he was relieved to note -- slowly enough that the alligator kept following him, but fast enough that it didn't actually catch him. Iruka had no desire to find out what it was like to be eaten by a ghost alligator. He thought it would probably be at least as unpleasant as being eaten by a live one.

When the alligator lashed its disconnected tail, Iruka could see his kunai still stuck there, sunk deep and with the ghostly flesh around it seeping ichor. The lightning wound to the alligator's head had mostly cauterized itself as it happened, and was actually harder to see now.

The alligator took another few steps after Iruka, but then started to turn around, as though it wondered where Kakashi had gotten to. "You and me both," Iruka muttered, because Kakashi seemed to have vanished. Iruka threw another rock and missed, then a branch that turned out to be unexpectedly aerodynamic and glanced off the alligator's head, making it turn back towards him again. He jumped up and bounced between a couple of tree trunks. "Over here," he ordered in his best recess-is-over voice. "Come on, now."

At this distance, and as loud as Iruka was being, the alligator couldn't possibly ignore him. It turned in an indecisive circle and then apparently made up its mind and charged.

It was very, very fast. Iruka leaped straight up, because he wasn't at all sure he could outrun it, not over a short distance when the alligator ignored the ground. Surely it couldn't climb trees, though.

Except that the ghostly alligator wasn't as firmly tethered to either gravity or plausibility as it had been when it was alive, Iruka realized as it reared up in a way that no alligator should be able to move and opened its enormous maw wide, every tooth dripping with disgusting spirit spit.

Iruka didn't think the kunai he had left would be very effective, particularly when the alligator's teeth seemed much bigger. He was stuck halfway up a tree with a ghostly alligator in three pieces leaping for him in complete defiance of the laws of physics, which granted probably didn't apply to ghosts and menacing spirits, and all he had to defend himself with was a piece of metal shorter than his own hand, and where was Kakashi? Iruka fumbled to the right and pulled loose a tree branch, ramming it vertically into the alligator's open mouth. The alligator snapped its jaws closed, sending splinters flying.

Then it seemed to rise higher in the air, and its thrashing tail shook the tree. "This isn't how I was planning to die," Iruka said conversationally, and tensed his legs in preparation for a jump.

Something exploded in the distance, shaking the ground. The alligator roared in apparent response, an extremely loud and unlikely sound that sent leaves flying and whipped Iruka's ponytail straight back. Outraged birds rose from the trees in screeching flight. The alligator shivered oddly, like the image on a television screen with very bad reception, expanded for a moment to half again its already enormous size--

--and then popped like a soap bubble and disappeared.

Iruka fell out of the tree in surprise, but he turned in the air and landed on his feet, so he decided to call it a jump. Down on the ground, he saw that his kunai was just lying there on a patch of grass, gleaming in the thin sunlight, looking as clean and sharp as when he'd tucked it into his vest that morning. He picked it up, and turned it over to check both sides of the blade. Not a trace of ghostly alligator ichor to be seen.

When Iruka shook his head and stowed the kunai away again, Kakashi arrived with a soft pop and a swirl of leaves. His Sharingan was spinning madly. "Well, it's good to see you still have both arms and legs, Iruka-sensei," he said.

Iruka glared. "What was that? What did you do?"

"That little pond back there," Kakashi jerked one shoulder in a minimalistic gesture, "had turned into some kind of chakra reservoir that fueled our friend with the big teeth on his second appearance."

"But that's not possible," Iruka said. Then he grimaced, because obviously it was possible; it had happened. "You mean it was a trap?" A much more dangerous trap than anything either Iruka himself or Shuusuke had constructed, clearly.

Kakashi nodded. He pulled the forehead protector down over his left eye again, and his right eye blinked open, ordinary and unassuming. "That's what I think. And it's got Sound telltales all over it."

Iruka stiffened. "We have to talk to the hokage. And check on the children."

"The dogs haven't come back." Kakashi's one visible eyebrow drew down a little. "Right, let's go."

Iruka imagined the children and the dogs running into some other ghostly beast on their way back to the village, or any other kind of Sound trap, for that matter, and his heart was in his throat as he followed Kakashi up into the trees and back towards Konoha at high speed. When they reached the treeline at the village wall, they dropped down to the ground and walked briskly towards the gate. Iruka wanted to run, but then he saw Bull ambling to meet them and relaxed a little.

"Sorry, boss," Bull said, nudging his massive head against Kakashi's hip. "The kids are at the dango shop with the others. That little girl with the topknot is already trying to order, and the other little girl is hiding underneath a table."

"They would," Iruka said. "Both of them." He rubbed at his forehead, pushing the forehead protector up a bit. "I'm due to meet the children's parents outside the hospital after the day shift is over."

"Then we have plenty of time to talk to the hokage first," Kakashi said. "That's good." He looked at Bull. "Just let the children order what they want within reason. I'll pay when I get there."

Iruka grimaced, because that was definitely not his idea of responsible childcare. "Do you have any idea what kind of havoc Shuusuke can manage to wreak?"

"Well, he can't be another Naruto," Kakashi said, which was true, of course, "and the dogs will keep an eye on him." Bull drooped the tiniest bit, and Iruka gave in to temptation and patted his head. The dog leaned into his hand, and he could feel how heavy and solid it was. Of course he knew summons were real and solid, they'd hardly be very useful otherwise, but feeling that solidity against his palm was somehow different. Definitely different from seeing a giant snake destroy buildings, and much more pleasant.

"We'll be waiting for you there, boss," Bull said and trotted off back into the village.

Before Iruka could say something about trying to find an actual person to deal with the children, Kakashi nodded to the gate guards and then nodded at Iruka in much the same way. "Well, come on."

Something in the way he said it made it sound as if this was an unnecessary delay and completely Iruka's fault, and when he flickered away Iruka followed just so he could yell at him. Kakashi didn't stop until they were in the hokage building, though, and when Iruka drew a breath to get started, he was interrupted by Shizune slamming out of a door and stomping down the corridor, nearly crashing into him. She stopped when she saw Kakashi. "You're here to make my day worse, aren't you?"

"Of course he is," Iruka said.

"Such harsh words!" Kakashi clapped a hand to his chest in the general vicinity of his heart. Not too close, though, Iruka noticed with grudging approval, because a gesture that worked as a targeting aid for enemies wasn't a good habit to get into. "But we do need to talk to the hokage. There's something out there."

Shizune's back went from perfectly straight to disturbingly tense. "Coming here?"

"Not right now," Iruka said, a little concerned about her spine.

"That we know of," Kakashi added, and he sounded disturbingly cheerful as he said it. Shizune just pointed at the door.

They went in, and Tsunade-sama, without looking up from the document on her desk, growled, "Did you bring me--"

"It seems a Sound agent has placed traps all around the village," Kakashi said.

Everything on the desk went flying as Tsunade leaped up. Iruka could understand that. He turned to stare at Kakashi as well. "Do we really know that?"

Tsunade marched across the floor and poked Kakashi in the chest. She pinpointed the heart with great accuracy, Iruka noticed. "Tell me everything."

"There are hidden pools of chakra in the woods," Kakashi said, "apparently designed to target creatures that die in the vicinity and turn them into bigger and meaner spirit versions of themselves that attack Konoha shinobi."

"It didn't want to follow me at first," Iruka said slowly. "You think it wanted to head for the village?"

Tsunade gave one final stab to Kakashi's chest with the tip of a finger and went back to perch on the corner of her desk. "Tell me everything from the beginning."

"I was taking some small children out in the woods on a training exercise," Iruka said, although the training had mostly been in not eating anything poisonous and not getting eaten by anything at all. "They found an alligator. And Kakashi-san--"

"I killed the alligator," Kakashi said, conveniently leaving out the part where he'd fallen for a four-year-old's trap and gone headlong into a pond. He was still quite damp, Iruka noted, though not actually dripping on the hokage's floor. "Then it came back to -- well, not life."

"A ghost version of the alligator attacked us." Iruka gestured, trying to sketch the alligator in the air. "Bigger, more aggressive, didn't walk on the ground, and it had very unpleasant chakra... it didn't actually use any chakra-based attacks, though. Unless you count the air-walking, but then, it was a spirit."

Tsunade's sharp eyes flicked between them, but settled on Kakashi. "Do you think this is related to the reanimation jutsu?"

Iruka tensed. He hadn't seen it himself, but he knew that undead versions of the first and second hokage had appeared during the joint Sound-and-Sand invasion of Konoha, reanimations of these very powerful men.

"No, not really," Kakashi said, and Iruka relaxed just a little bit. "This trap works differently. It's not the actual animal coming back to life, it's a copy, sort of."

"A spirit clone," Iruka offered. "Or not a clone, precisely, because it's bigger. A spirit copy of the animal as it was when it died, or the head and tail would have been attached."

Kakashi nodded. "Maybe this was meant to be triggered during the invasion to spread more chaos, maybe not, but I'm not sure how it would work on something as complicated as people."

Tsunade nodded. "So it's a trap for animals." She shook her head at once. "The trap is animals. Or would it create ghosts of people, too?"

"Well, that's hard to know. The trap must be set to target creatures of a certain size that die in the vicinity," Kakashi said. "Otherwise we'd already have been attacked by rabid squirrels."

"Midges," Iruka said. "Worms."

"And the alligator probably didn't use any chakra-based attacks because it didn't know any chakra-based attacks." Kakashi shrugged. "But if a shinobi has an accident out in the woods, that might be a different story. I don't know if it would just be a spirit version of the body coming back to fight, or the jutsu skills as well."

"Let's not test that," Iruka suggested. "That explosion, that was you blowing up the chakra pool?" Kakashi nodded. "Could you find them before the traps are triggered?"

Kakashi nodded. "Now that I know what I'm looking for, yes. And it would probably be useful to get a couple of Hyuuga on this, they should be able to spot the chakra pools as well. Better than me, probably."

"Well, I don't see what you need me for," Tsunade said briskly, in the voice of someone coming to a decision. "You seem to have the matter well in hand. Kakashi, organize this and take care of it, please." She paused for a moment, then turned her eyes on Iruka. "Iruka-sensei, make certain this happens as promptly as possible. I have a meeting with the daimyo in four days, and I'd like to be able to tell him that we've identified and neutralized a threat."

"Yes, ma'am," Iruka said, the words not even pausing for his brain to look them over.

"But Iruka-sensei is a terribly busy man," Kakashi said. "He needs to rescue my dogs from those children, and--"

Tsunade-sama pointed at both of them. "Out! And don't forget regular reports! Coordinate with Shizune if you need anything."

"I need dry clothes," Kakashi said mournfully as they walked out. "But I don't suppose Shizune--"

"First we're going to pick up the children," Iruka said. It really wasn't his concern if Kakashi was uncomfortable because his wet pants were riding up. "Then you can change and take care of your dogs while I return the children to their parents, and we'll meet up at the mission room after that to find out which Hyuuga are on duty and who's available to help us."

"Very decisive," Kakashi said, and Iruka tried to decide if the mocking note in his voice was unkind or just teasing. But they were back outside the building, and Kakashi just disappeared in a swirl of leaves, to Iruka's great annoyance. He really hoped Kakashi had gone to the dango shop, since that's where he went himself -- on his own two feet, without any fancy body-flicker jutsu.

The street outside the dango shop was rather crowded. People shouted, dogs barked, and a thin stream of smoke curled out of the dango shop's open doorway. Iruka began to push people out of his way, making for the doorway and the worst of the barking, which worked quite well until someone pushed back. "Hey, I was here before you. You want free dango, you just wait your turn."

Iruka looked up at the incensed face of his grocer, normally a mild-mannered man. "Saki-san. I'm here to pick up some children at the-- Did you say free dango? Oh, no."

"Yes," Saki the grocer said uncertainly. "Of course, if you're just here for some kids, go ahead, Iruka-sensei."

Iruka filled his lungs with slightly smoky air and bellowed, "Shuusuke-kun!"

It was An who turned up, though, slinking out of the shop's door and wrapping herself around Iruka's legs. Her clothing was mussed and her sash was crooked. "He's in the back, Iruka-sensei," she said to his knee. "Trying to put out the fire." She glanced up quickly. "Hitomi-chan is helping him. Ryoma-kun is, um."

"Making things worse," Iruka predicted without difficulty. "And where is Kakashi-san?"

"I don't think he's here," An said, apparently trying to hide inside Iruka's kneecap.

"Right." Iruka wished he could feel surprised. He bent down and scooped up An, turned to the bewildered grocer, and put her on his arm. "Saki-san, please stay right here and keep track of her. I'll try to get you some dango, I just need to find the other children. I'll be right back, I promise."

He ducked in through the doorway. Inside, every table was crowded. Some people were eating, others coughing and watching the door to the kitchen area, where the smoke curled thicker. No one was doing anything remotely useful, and Iruka wondered how a village full of ninja could have produced a group of people who would apparently sit back to eat dango and watch in the face of disaster.

Clapping his hands together briskly, Iruka shouted, "Evacuation drill! Line up and get out!"

To his great pleasure and relief, it actually worked. Maybe because he'd called it a drill, without pointing out that something was actually on fire. Everyone who had trained at the academy was very used to drills. People got up and started to leave, and no one stepped on anyone else's feet -- or worse yet, head -- while doing it.

"But I haven't finished my food yet, sensei," a young woman said. There was always one.

Iruka sighed. "Then take it with you and go." He shooed the last stragglers out and went in the other direction himself, back into the kitchen.

"My brother knows an ice jutsu," he heard Ryoma saying as he came into the room. "I bet if we had some ice we could just drop it in there and everything would be fine."

Five steaming baskets were piled directly on the stove, rather than set over a pot; two of them were on fire. Hitomi-chan was standing in one corner of the room, eating dango from a skewer and dripping sticky glaze down the front of her shirt. Shuusuke was advancing on the stove with the air of someone about to do battle. He had a small cup of water in one hand. There was no sign of the staff anywhere.

"This is an utter disgrace!" Iruka said, and reached down and caught Shuusuke by the back of his vest before he could manage to set anything else on fire, such as himself. "Stand in that corner and don't move."

Shuusuke dropped the cup, and the smell made it obvious that the liquid was sake, not water. Iruka made a mental bet with himself that Ryoma had found the sake. He turned the stove off and beat out the fire with a couple of wet aprons that he found hanging over a chair and ran under the cold-water tap. Then he turned to the children. Shuusuke was trying to steal Hitomi-chan's dango, and she was threatening to stab him with the skewer.

"Ow!"

Succeeding to stab him with the skewer, Iruka amended. "Stop that, both of you." He looked around. "Where is the staff?"

"Chasing the dogs," Ryoma said cheerfully. "I asked the dogs to go back here and get me some dango because it was taking too long, and they said no animals in the kitchen and then there was shouting and we came back here and I think they all went out the back door, sensei."

"So we thought we would cook while they were away!" Shuusuke said. "Only then there was a fire."

"But Iruka-sensei has put out the fire," Ryoma said, "so maybe now if we--"

"Oh, no," Iruka said. "You're not allowed to cook anything without a supervising adult present. Right now, we're all leaving this place and you're going back to your parents."

Ryoma's lower lip trembled. "I didn't even get any dango."

Iruka pointed at the doorway back into the restaurant. "Go!"

Ryoma's lower lip trembled some more, but all three children went. Hitomi-chan was noticeably stickier than before. As they made their way out through the front room, Iruka quickly put together a few untouched skewers of dango on a single plate, and also handed one skewer to Ryoma and one to Shuusuke. Hitomi-chan stared at them in outrage. "That's not fair!" she said. "I want one too!"

"You already had one," Iruka said.

"So did they! Shuusuke ate lots, and Ryoma-kun had--"

Iruka reached out and snagged a skewer of completely seasonally-inappropriate hanami dango and thrust it into Hitomi-chan's hand, then pushed all three children ahead of him out to the street outside, which was a little less crowded and chaotic now that the guests from the dango shop had mostly left and started to spread the word that free dango time was over. Saki the grocer was still there, though, with An on his arm.

"Thank you," Iruka said to him, handing him the plate of dango and taking An instead. She looked sadly at the dango skewers in the other children's hands.

"Not a problem," Saki said. He took one skewer from the plate and handed it to An, and she shone up immediately and said a polite thank you before tilting the skewer to bite down and getting sticky sauce on her chin and all the way down to her sash.

Iruka sighed. "We're going to meet your parents," he said. Shuusuke lifted a hand (sticky) and pointed into the distance. "Then I have to leave you, to take care of some business with Kakashi-san." In the direction Shuusuke had pointed, barking and yelling was coming closer and closer. "And then I'll make sure he comes here," Iruka said between his teeth, "to take care of some other business."

Because this was clearly all Kakashi's fault, beginning to end. Iruka's day was going to be a peaceful woodland walk and then dinner with Hitomi-chan's parents, and here he was with four sticky children outside the probably smoke-damaged dango shop while a pack of nin dogs came baying down the street, chased by an incensed cook, an incensed waitress, and--

The manager of the dango shop came up to them, noticeably out of breath, and clutched at Iruka's arm. "Are these your children, Iruka-sensei?"

Iruka wondered if the man thought he had really produced four children of the same age, at the same time, without being married to even one woman, let alone four different ones, since none of the children looked alike enough to be twins. But before he could ask if the manager thought he was a secret Lothario, he admitted to himself that he knew perfectly well what the question really meant. "I'm looking after them for their parents," he said.

The manager huffed, still out of breath. "Fine looking-after!" He pointed at Shuusuke. "That young rascal ordered free dango for everyone in the shop! He said he had permission to order anything he wanted!"

Iruka looked sternly at Shuusuke. "That is not what Kakashi-san told Bull," he said. "Anything you wanted within reason, Shuusuke-kun. Surely you must have realized that did not include free dango for everyone in Konoha who wanted it."

"But Iruka-sensei," Shuusuke said, and his lower lip stuck out alarmingly. Iruka put a hand in his pocket to check that his handkerchief was still there and not left behind in the forest or eaten by the alligator before it vanished. His fingers met a damp cloth mess. Maybe, remembering the kunai, he should have let the alligator eat the handkerchief; maybe it too would have come out looking clean and untouched at the end.

"But the dog said," Ryoma put in, a little muffled by his last bite of dango.

"You said the dog said," Hitomi-chan sniffed. She wiped her sticky fingers on Ryoma's sleeve, and he howled in outrage, not muffled at all.

"Quiet!" Iruka yelled. "Ryoma-kun, you will not hit Hitomi-chan. Hitomi-chan, Ryoma-kun's shirt is not a napkin. Either wipe your fingers on your own handkerchief, or wash your hands."

"Don't have one," she said to her toes, also distinctly muddy where they stuck out at the end of her sandals. But An tugged out a handkerchief from her sleeve and handed it to Hitomi-chan, and Iruka patted her head before turning back to the dango shop manager.

"The bill for the food," he said with a certain innocent glee, "should be sent to Hatake Kakashi-san, a jounin of this village. He promised to treat the children to dango. Also," he added, hearing little disappearing pops down the street that resulted in the relentless barking being suddenly cut off, "those are his nin dogs."

"Hatake Kakashi-san," the manager said. Judging by the look on his face, he knew very well who Konoha's infamous Copy-Nin was. "Um. Yes. Of course."

"If you don't know where he lives," Iruka said helpfully, "a message to the mission room should take care of it. Someone will pass it on from there." He collected the now-empty skewers from the children before Ryoma threw his somewhere or Shuusuke tried to stab someone with his just to see if it would work. "I'm afraid we have to go now," he said and smiled brightly, first at the manager and then at Saki the grocer. "Thank you for your help!"

The manager huffed.

"Don't forget your grocery bill's due next week," Saki the grocer said phlegmatically. Iruka sighed, put the children's empty skewers on the man's plate, and started to lead them away.

After only half a street, he realized that the children were drooping after the day they'd had, and Iruka didn't have the patience to slow his pace to theirs after the day he'd had. He wished once again for an elephant summon, but if wishes were summons, the streets of the village would be a great deal more crowded. Iruka sighed and picked up An and Ryoma once again, seized Shuusuke's hand, and looked sternly at Hitomi-chan. "Take Shuusuke-kun's hand," he said, "and don't let go. We're going to the hospital to meet up with your parents."

"Yes, Iruka-sensei," the children chorused, sounding reasonably subdued for once.

To Iruka's great relief, nothing happened on the way to the hospital, and he still had all the same children in the same order ready to meet their parents when they came out after their shift. The parents exclaimed a bit at the state of their children, who were not just muddy and tired, which could have been predicted, but also sticky and smelling of smoke.

"There is something peculiar going on in the woods," Iruka told Hitomi-chan's mother, bypassing the entire dango shop incident. "I have to go to the mission room at once, so I'm afraid I can't make it to dinner."

"Oh, what a shame," she said, taking a firm grip on Hitomi-chan's hand and then grimacing ever so slightly. Iruka wondered if An had gotten her obviously not very thoroughly used handkerchief back. "We'll hope to see you some other time, then! You must let us know as soon as you're not so busy. Thank you very much for taking care of our little Hitomi-chan!"

Shuusuke's father was trying rather inefficiently to brush him down with one hand while holding on to his collar. "Is that dog hair?"

"Yes!" Shuusuke said enthusiastically. "A really big dog. Daddy, can we get a dog? A big one that comes out of a scroll when you want it to?" Shuusuke's father did not look pleased at the idea.

"Lots of big dogs!" Ryoma said.

"And an alligator!" Hitomi-chan said.

"I really don't want an alligator, mother," An whispered. "It was scary."

"But lots of dogs!" Ryoma bounced up and down. "Lots and lots and lots and--"

"Well," Iruka said, relatively sure that no one was listening to him, "I have to go."

Now that he didn't have the children to take into consideration, he could move a great deal faster. It was a relief to be able to take to the roofs and go straight to the hokage tower. When he went into the mission room, he actually found Kakashi, which was a bit of a surprise, leaning against a wall and chatting idly with Genma rather than doing anything useful, which was less of a surprise.

Kakashi looked up as Iruka stomped closer. "There you are, Iruka-sensei," he said. "You're a little late."

A hundred things to say spun through Iruka's head, and he felt his cheeks flush with a spurt of irritation. "That is entirely your fault," he pointed out. "You were supposed to be at the dango shop as well." He looked closer at Kakashi, who was still damp -- in fact, he was leaving a mark on the plaster of the wall. "And you haven't even changed your clothes!"

"Shame on you, Kakashi-san," Genma drawled. "Missed your dango date and you still look like the same untidy lout." He shifted the senbon in his mouth slightly to the right. "I heard an interesting rumor that the dango shop was giving away free food, too. Could have been a cheap date, if you'd made it."

"He'll pay," Iruka said grimly. He fixed Genma with a glare. "And it wasn't a date!" Genma just looked amused, so Iruka turned back to Kakashi. "Shuusuke-kun ordered free dango for everyone, because you said he could get whatever he liked. The manager of the shop will send you the bill."

Kakashi's eye widened a little. "Well, now, I think he may have misinterpreted a little..." Genma started to laugh.

"And your dogs set the kitchen on fire," Iruka went on ruthlessly. "You'll probably get the bill for that, too."

Kakashi's eye widened even more. Genma thumped the wall with one fist, cackling. "A very expensive date, it sounds like," he said. "Especially since you missed it. Shame, that." He looked over Iruka's shoulder. "Hey, Raidou, come here, you have to hear this!"

"It wasn't a date," Iruka said. He turned back to Kakashi. "Have you checked the roster? That's Hyuuga Mariko-san over there, isn't it?"

"But I still need to change my clothes," Kakashi said. "If you'll just wait here a moment--"

"No," Iruka snapped. He'd heard enough, from Naruto and others, to know that Kakashi's 'just a moment' could stretch to half a day on occasion. "These Sound traps could activate at any time. We're just lucky they haven't yet."

"Traps?" Genma said from where he'd been laughing with Raidou. There was a whole different tone in his voice now. When Iruka turned his head, he saw that Genma and Raidou had transformed subtly from two gossiping idlers into two Konoha shinobi, alert for any threat. "Sound has set traps?"

"Yes." Iruka took a great deal of pleasure in saying, "Kakashi-san will explain while I look at the roster."

Iruka discovered Mariko was the only Hyuuga listed as being on duty and available today, so he supposed it was lucky that she was actually in the mission room rather than out on a mission somewhere. He walked up to her and bowed politely. She was one of the sterner Hyuugas, calm and unsmiling, who always seemed to be looking through things rather than at them, whether she was using her Byakugan abilities or not.

"Konoha needs your particular skills, Hyuuga-san," he said. "Earlier today, Hatake Kakashi-san and I discovered a possible threat to the village, and the hokage has authorized us to put together a small team to deal with the problem."

Hyuuga Mariko looked at him. "The hokage," she said. "Really."

Iruka bared his teeth and hoped it looked like a smile. "Really. Please come with me, Hyuuga-san, and Kakashi will explain everything."

Over by the wall, Kakashi was already in the middle of explaining everything to Genma and Raidou and, rather to Iruka's surprise, Shirakumo Hayama; he wouldn't have expected the serious older man to have become part of this fairly rowdy and flippant group, but Hyuuga Mariko definitely looked pleased to see him.

When Iruka and Hyuuga Mariko joined the group, Kakashi started his explanation over again. When Mitarashi Anko came up to see what they were doing, Kakashi started over again. Anko waved at someone whose name Iruka thought was Riichi, he came over, and Kakashi--

"Enough!" Iruka said. "The hokage didn't authorize us to make every shinobi in Konoha take part in this mission." He looked over the rather motley group. "We need to find and disable chakra traps left around the village by enemy nin."

"I assume you want me to look for these traps," Hyuuga Mariko said. At least no one could accuse the Hyuuga of being slow on the uptake. "Where should I start?"

"Well, I have a plan," Kakashi said, and it turned out that he really did have a plan, one that involved a map, and a search grid, and efficient use of those who were present and their particular talents. Iruka was surprised, because he had started to think he would have to organize this search himself, and also relieved, because he didn't particularly want to organize this himself. The group had ended up heavy on jounin, and they didn't always take well to being ordered around by someone of lower rank, even if he had authorization from the hokage to lean on.

Kakashi was actually a quite decent group leader, and soon enough they were out in the woods again, close to where they'd stumbled on the first trap, and began to move in a slow zigzagging pattern towards the north. Hyuuga Mariko was in the lead, looking more distant than ever as she activated her Byakugan and scanned the ground for another hidden pool of dirty chakra.

She found one surprisingly close to a training ground used by several genin and chuunin teams, and Iruka imagined that the agent who placed the trap must have been hoping for a serious training accident, with no medi-nin on hand to help. They left Riichi and Hayama behind to deal with that one, and moved on.

"I don't like the idea that Sound agents have been this close to the village," Iruka muttered. "They must have been here for days, setting all these traps."

"Nobody likes it," Anko said bluntly. "But they wouldn't have set traps outside the village if they could actually get inside and do some harm there, would they?"

"Depends on what they wanted," Genma said. "A trap out here isn't likely to be an attempt to assassinate the hokage, you know? But it's a way to unsettle us and weaken us."

"Imagine a training accident," Raidou said, showing that his thoughts had gone down the same path as Iruka's. "Or a wounded shinobi coming back towards the village."

"Really, you're not very cheerful company today," Kakashi said. "Maybe the traps have been in place since the attempted invasion, and just never triggered. We found out about the traps, we're disarming them now, there'll be no harm to anyone."

"The children nearly got eaten by an alligator," Iruka said.

"But they weren't," Kakashi said, grinning behind his mask, "they came back safe to the village and had dango."

"Everyone had dango," Iruka said pointedly. Well, except for him: no dango, and he wasn't going out to dinner, either. "Before your dogs caused all that chaos and there was a fire in the dango shop."

"I'm sure you're exaggerating," Kakashi said, but his words were almost drowned out by the sound of Anko's low growl.

"Your dogs destroyed the dango shop?" she said menacingly.

"Of course not," Kakashi said. He might be the amazing Copy-Nin, master of a thousand jutsu, but no one got between Anko and her dango. "Iruka-sensei, you were there, you can explain to Anko-san that the shop is fine."

"I put out the fire," Iruka said, and then staggered as Anko jumped on him and gave him an affectionate embrace, slightly marred by the sleeve of her mesh shirt grating against Iruka's bare neck. Also, something was moving inside her coat in a place where nothing should be moving on any ordinary person, so Iruka was kind of relieved when she let go. "The shop will probably open again as soon as they've replaced all those steaming baskets." Truthfulness forced him to add, "And it wasn't actually the dogs that started the fire."

"Oh?" Kakashi said. "But didn't you say before that they did? Of course I'll pay for the damages my dogs did, but if they weren't involved, then--"

"Oh, they were involved all right," Iruka snapped. "If your dogs hadn't--"

"Quiet, please," Hyuuga Mariko said coldly. "I need a calmer environment if I'm to be able to concentrate."

"That's right," Genma said, but much more cheerfully. "You can have your lover's quarrels on your own time."

"It's not a--" Iruka caught the look on Hyuuga Mariko's face, and was able to tamp down the explosion, but he seethed inside as their little group moved on in relative silence. Genma looked smug, and Iruka hoped he choked on his senbon.

Hyuuga Mariko found another trap not that far from the Forest of Death. Iruka shuddered, thinking about one of the vicious creatures from that lethal training ground dying and being revived as a bigger, stronger, even more aggressive ghost self. From the looks on everyone's faces, he guessed he wasn't alone in imagining that. They all stayed to see that trap destroyed.

To everyone's relief, there was nothing else in the vicinity of the Forest of Death, at least. They moved on, following the search pattern Kakashi had set out for them, and the next trap was in a deep crack where a rockface had been shattered during the attempted invasion of Konoha.

"If we blow this up, the rock might crack even more," Iruka said.

"But if we set counter-charges in the right place," Anko said cheerfully, "it will collapse in on itself. Just as well, I think bears den here in the winter, and it's really too close to the village for that." She cracked her knuckles. "I have paper bombs. I'll do it."

"But not on your own," Iruka said. "I'll stay with you." He turned towards Kakashi and Mariko Hyuuga. "We'll catch up with you as soon as we're done here."

Kakashi nodded, and the others took off. Digging into one of the pockets of her coat, Anko produced a number of explosive tags, and Iruka checked his own pocket to see what he had. He hadn't gone out that morning intending to blow anything up, precisely. In fact, he had an embarrassing lack of ninja tools on his person, though he did find a few tags tucked into a side pocket of his vest. He didn't remember when he'd put them there, but they looked none the worse for wear, although one had a crumpled corner from having been tucked away too firmly.

It was easy for them to agree on the best way to set the tags out; they'd both taken the same classes, after all, and they had the same opinion about how the rock would crumble and which way a tree might fall. Anko's tags were more powerful, and she set hers up at the edges of the small chasm, while Iruka planted his counter-charges a little further down and to one side.

When he came back again, Anko was almost done. She glanced up at his arrival and grinned. "So, you and Kakashi, really? I have to say, I didn't see that one coming."

"Nobody saw it coming," Iruka said irritably, "because there is no coming!" He caught sight of Anko's face, and instantly regretted not thinking through his choice of words better. "I mean, there is no it! I mean--"

He was too late, though; Anko was already crowing with laughter. She set the last two of her exploding tags in place, straightened up and dusted her hands off. "Does Kakashi know that's what the problem is?" she asked, wicked amusement dancing in her eyes. "He must have noticed that there's no--"

"There's nothing going on!" Iruka said. "We hardly ever even meet!" He reviewed this statement. "Well, sometimes I think he goes out of his way to annoy me. Honestly, you'd think a celebrated jounin of Konoha would have better things to do than follow me around. Like earlier today."

"Aw," Anko said, "he's pulling your pigtails!" She elbowed him in the ribs, then did it again to get him to move. "Well, your ponytail. I think you'd look great in pigtails, though. Hey, do you think--"

"No," Iruka said, taking several steps back. Anko pushed him in behind a tree, and followed herself. "You're not touching my hair." He grinned. "Not unless I can put yours in braids, anyway."

"Why you--"

They did hand signs in perfect synchronicity, and the tags exploded, all at the same time except one of Iruka's that lagged about half a second. Probably the one with the crinkled corner, he thought. The wash of dirty chakra rose up and then vanished in a flurry of rock dust as the small chasm collapsed, and he sighed with relief.

"Well, that's one more taken care of. We'd better hurry and catch up with the others, now," he said.

Anko frowned. "I wonder where Riichi and that old man Hayama disappeared to. They should have caught up with us, at least." Her eyes snapped. "You don't think they screwed up? Maybe something went wrong when they tried to take out the chakra trap."

The dirty chakra rose up again, in another cloud of rock dust, and there was a dull roar as the ghost of a bear lumbered out of the ghost of the chasm. A dark red glow hung around it, and its teeth dripped with ichor. Iruka pointed. "You mean like that?"

Anko's eyes widened. "Bears don't get that big!" She had kunai in her hands in the blink of an eye. "This is like the alligator you and Kakashi fought? How did you kill it?"

"Kakashi blew up the chakra pool," Iruka said. "The way we just tried to. We must have failed to destroy it somehow, and when the explosion killed the bear..." The giant ghost bear did look a little mangled down one side, now that he got a closer look at it. Which he did because it was coming closer. Fast.

"Change of plan," Anko said. "I fight this, you blow up the chakra pool, and you'd better hurry." She leaped forward with a maniacal grin. "Come here, ugly!"

"Blow it up with what?" Iruka yelled at her back. They'd just used up all their explosive tags, after all, and he didn't have any fancy lightning jutsu that he could call up on demand.

Anko's coat rippled, and snakes leapt from her sleeves. "Improvise!" she yelled in return.

Iruka scowled, because of course she was right: the chakra trap had to be destroyed, and he had to figure out a way to do it. He took a moment to admire the way Anko fought the bear, vaulting over it while her snakes struck at its flank. Then he turned and ran up to the ruined chasm again. The explosion had made one side crumble, and loose rock had filled most of the empty space. The trap, Iruka realized glumly, was underneath all that rock somewhere. He would have said it was safely inaccessible and could be left like that, except that the trap had already been triggered and the chakra was fueling the ghost bear, which just now reared up on its back paws and let out a roar that made the trees shake.

Jumping out onto the unsteady rocks, Iruka wondered how long it would take for the reservoir of chakra to run out and the bear-ghost to fade away. Probably a bit too long for Anko's comfort, he suspected. Well, he didn't have any more paper bombs, and he couldn't get at the chakra pool anyway, since it was underneath a lot of rock. It was too bad that being inaccessible to him hadn't made it inaccessible to the bear...

"Of course!" Iruka said out loud. He needed to seal off either the chakra pool or the spirit bear, blocking the connection. And of the two, the chakra pool was probably the easier choice, since it kept still, unlike the bear.

Iruka wished he had some tags with protective seals to use, but another search of his pockets got him nothing but lint and an old garrotte, which wasn't precisely helpful. Still, a good shinobi could build a barrier with nothing but willpower and air. Well, and hand signs. He mapped it out, jumping from rock to rock, making sure his intended barrier would enclose all of the dirty chakra reservoir, then came to rest on a flat piece of earth between two trees, a bit downslope from where they'd set the original explosions.

Going down on one knee, Iruka was just about to start a quick series of hand signs when another roar from behind, coupled with a curse from Anko, made him turn his head. She had called up a large snake, much larger than anything he'd seen her produce before, and it was wrapped around the bear's neck, trying to strangle it, but the bear was lashing out with its paws, trying to trap Anko in a narrow space between two tree trunks and a large rock.

Iruka wanted to rush that way and help her out, but he knew the most helpful thing he could do was to make this barrier idea of his work. He closed his eyes for a brief moment, and then began the precise sequence of hand signs that would allow him to seal off his chosen area. Iruka didn't do this very often, so he knew he had to maintain a slow pace and take great care not to make any mistakes, as much as he wanted to just tear through the gestures as fast as possible. He had to trust Anko to take care of herself against the bear, as she'd be the first to point out she was more than capable of doing, while he tried to--

The air flickered, and then the barrier snapped into existence with a pop, like turning on a noisy electrical light. It was blue, and Iruka tried to remember if it had been blue last time, or if he'd got it wrong somehow.

The bear's roar cut off in the middle. There was a moment of silence, and then Anko gave a victory yell, and Iruka turned around just in time to see her sprinting towards him. At least she tucked away the kunai before thumping his back. "Nice work," she said, nodding at the barrier. Then her eyes narrowed. "What happens when you take it down?"

"I don't know," Iruka said slowly. "Nothing?"

"I mean, that bear thing won't come back, will it?" Anko jerked her head back at the place where the bear had blinked out of existence. "Because the chakra wasn't destroyed, was it, just cut off. I don't know if that means the ghost of the bear wasn't destroyed either, just--"

Iruka sighed. He really didn't know, and the idea of the bear ghost popping back up to continue its rampage as soon as he took the barrier down again was just appalling. A creature like that could do a lot of damage.

"I can keep the barrier in place," he said, trying to keep the reluctance from his voice, "while you go and get more explosive tags, or something else that will destroy the chakra pool."

Anko nodded, and the head of the snake that peered up from the back of her coat collar nodded, too. "I'll be right back," she said, jumped straight up, and took off through the trees.

Well, that was certainly for the best. Iruka deliberately kept himself from sighing again, because it wouldn't do any good. He sat down cross-legged and watched the blue walls of his barrier. It was a steady drain on his chakra, but he could keep it up easily enough for the time it would take Anko to get what they needed, even if she had to go all the way back into Konoha.

Sitting down, he couldn't help but notice that it was getting darker in under the trees. The late afternoon had changed into early evening, and Iruka reflected that if this day had gone according to plan, he'd be sitting down to dinner with Hitomi-chan and her parents about now. Which would have been nice, since he couldn't remember eating anything since breakfast.

He really should have taken some of those dango for himself, Iruka thought, and the barrier flickered a little in response to either his irritation or his hunger. Seeing that, he straightened up and focused his mind, and was just trying to shut out all distracting thoughts when a pair of sandals landed with an almost soundless thump beside him. A pair of sandals that were definitely not Anko's.

"All alone, Iruka-sensei?" Iruka looked up to see Kakashi shaking his head in disapproval. "I thought Anko was with you." Kakashi looked around as if he expected Anko to jump out of hiding behind the nearest tree. Then he cocked his head a little, looking at the barrier. "Nice work," he said, just as Anko had. "But you don't mean to sit here with it forever, do you?"

Iruka bared his teeth. "No." He reported, as he would have to any other mission leader. "We attempted to blow up the chakra trap, but it wasn't wholly destroyed, and the explosion killed a bear. Anko fought the ghost of the bear while I erected a barrier to cut it off from the chakra. She's gone to get more explosives."

"I'll do it," Kakashi said, "if you just take down the barrier so I can see better." Lightning began to spark in his cupped hand.

"Most of the chakra pool is covered in rock," Iruka said. "But if you come at it from the other side, I think you can send a destructive jutsu in underneath the rocks."

"Well, that sounds reasonable enough," Kakashi said and went around the barrier, disappearing out of sight behind its straight blue walls.

Iruka clapped his hands together, the walls of the barrier popped out of existence again, and the interrupted roar of the ghost bear came back, in full force, from somewhere not all that far behind him. He jumped up and spun around, and there it was. Definitely nearly three times as big as a bear should be, and now that daylight was fading, that dark red glow around it was really coming into its own.

Anko had wounded the bear in several places, Iruka saw, but it was still mobile enough, and very fast, charging a comfortable foot above the ground straight at him. Which meant it was also coming straight at Kakashi, just on the other side of the broken rocks, and that would never do. Iruka threw a chunk of rock at the bear's snout, just as he had at the alligator, then vaulted up over the growling head, put his hands down for support on the broad ghost bear back, and propelled himself behind it.

Well, Anko's leap before had been more stylish, he thought, but at least he had the bear's attention. Iruka backed away as the bear turned around and started lumbering towards him, picking up speed as it went. He dodged around a tree, and the ghost bear nearly crashed into it. Fast but not all that agile, then. It had also been rock hard to the touch, just like the alligator. Iruka kept going from one tree to the next, drawing the bear farther away and wondering how it could possibly take Kakashi so long to unleash the lightning that had been in his hand on the chakra pool. The ghost bear swiped a paw at him and nearly hit his shoulder; Iruka picked up his pace.

"Disgusting creature," he muttered as he caught a whiff of bad bear-breath. Presumably it could climb trees, too; living bears certainly could, and these spirit versions of their dead counterparts didn't flout gravity altogether, no, but they came closer to it than they had before. Actually, Iruka thought with a scowl, they moved like shinobi. Which should be reserved for shinobi.

Odd sounds came from the ruins of the chasm: something that sounded like the shrill, protesting scream of stone being sawn apart. Iruka bared his teeth at the bear charging at him and decided to leap over it again. He jumped, but at the same time, the bear started to rear up on its hind paws. Taller than an ordinary bear to start with, and a foot up in the air at that, it caught him across the hip and knocked him sideways and down.

Iruka landed and rolled, feeling the shock of the bear's blow turn into pain. Blood began to seep down his thigh. The bear roared triumphantly. "You're already dead," Iruka snarled at it, "and soon you'll be dead twice over, so you can stop sounding so pleased with yourself."

He went straight up the nearest tree trunk, trying to ignore the way his right leg wanted to drag and slow him down. When the bear started to follow him, Iruka leapt to the next tree. The bear growled and tried to follow, but it wasn't built for leaping, and only made it halfway -- landing on the air above the ground again, Iruka noticed. It kept moving forward without stopping, and then started to climb this second tree.

Iruka shrugged silently to himself and leapt again. When he landed, he had to steady himself with one hand against the tree trunk. Iruka said things under his breath that a reputable schoolteacher shouldn't even think, and dug in his pockets while the bear slid down the tree trunk, claws scoring the bark, and charged towards the new tree. He found a roll of bandages, probably left over from the field medicine teaching seminar in the spring, but then he realized he had no idea how to bandage his hip, of all places, and still be able to move.

Particularly when there was a giant ghost bear coming at him that seemed to have picked up speed somehow. Iruka quickly jumped up to the next branch, and then back to the first tree.

The bear turned and ran, too, and -- oh, it was higher up now. Wasn't that excellent. Soon he'd have to try vaulting over the bear up here in the treetops just as he had down on the ground. Iruka wondered if Kakashi was building a rock garden over by the chasm, or if he'd simply gotten bored or wandered away, or fallen asleep, or...

A loud explosion made the bear flicker, finally. Iruka jumped to the second tree anyway, because being mauled by a flickering bear probably wasn't any fun, either. But when he landed, he turned his head just in time to see the bear disappear like a blown-out candle flame, leaving a faint trail of dark-red smoke that hung in the air for a moment and then blew away.

"About time," Iruka said ungratefully and jumped down on the ground, biting his lip as he landed. His right leg wasn't moving at all the way it should, and wanted to fold up beneath him. He still had no idea how to bandage his hip, so he started walking towards the chasm, limping now that he could allow himself to do that.

Kakashi was coming down the slight slope, covered in rock dust and with his forehead protector even more crooked than usual. "Well, now, that was--" He caught sight of Iruka. "I think we'd better get you to the hospital, Iruka-sensei."

"I can get there myself," Iruka said irritably. "Don't you have a mission to attend to?"

"Our Hyuuga said it was getting late and dark and she was going home," Kakashi said, coming up to Iruka and drawing Iruka's right arm across his shoulders. "We'll do the rest tomorrow. Iruka-sensei, you're bleeding a lot."

"It just looks like a lot," Iruka said and looked down to see that his right pants-leg was soaked. Something uncomfortably warm was starting to trickle into his right sandal.

"Mm hm," Kakashi said, put his own left arm around Iruka's back, and took off.

Iruka wanted to protest, because Kakashi was essentially carrying him, much as Iruka had carried Ryoma and An earlier that day. Iruka wasn't four years old, and he could navigate the treetops under his own power, thank you. Mid-leap was probably a bad place to complain about it, though. And when Kakashi took enough of his weight on every landing that Iruka barely had to put his right leg down, that did make a difference.

They came to the ground at Konoha's gate just as before, and when Iruka tried to bear his own weight, he staggered a little. Kakashi didn't take to the rooftops for speed once they were inside the village, but he did pull Iruka's arm more firmly into place across his shoulders, and they hobbled towards the hospital -- well, Iruka hobbled, feeling strangely light, or maybe that was just light-headed. As soon as they came within sight of the hospital, a pink blur ran towards them. "Iruka-sensei!" Sakura inserted herself under Iruka's other arm. She'd certainly grown taller in the years since she'd been his student. And stronger. "Kakashi-sensei, are you hurt, too?"

"No, I'm fine," Kakashi said, "but Iruka-sensei is losing a lot of blood."

"I can see that!" Sakura said, sounding appalled. She picked up their speed until Iruka felt that he was flying towards the hospital entrance, feet not even touching the ground. "You really should have put a bandage on that wound earlier, sensei!"

"Please don't worry about me, Sakura-chan," Iruka said, wondering why he was talking as though his mouth was full of hot ramen. "It was an awkward place to, to..."

They came into the hospital, Sakura flicked a finger, and a legion of medical professionals descended on them with bandages and thermometers and a stretcher with one squeaky wheel. Lying down made Iruka realize that Kakashi and Sakura really had been carrying him, because now he could feel the full heaviness of his own body, and between that and the way his head was starting to spin, he felt rather grateful that he didn't have to stand up any longer. A cold sensation along his right leg turned out to be his pants being cut open all the way up to the waistband. A firm hand slapped a bandage in place over his hip and held it there with considerable pressure, and Iruka bit his lip, hard.

"Now, Iruka-sensei," Kakashi said in his ear, "be careful with yourself, you're already bleeding in one place."

"Move, please, Kakashi-sensei," Sakura said and hip-checked him to make room for herself. Kakashi went backwards over the reception desk, and Iruka chuckled. "...Oops." She looked that way long enough to see that Kakashi landed on his feet and offered a charming eye-crinkle to the receptionist, and then she fixed Iruka with a steely glare. "You need a lot of stitches, Iruka-sensei," she said. "And then you need to lie absolutely still, with an IV of fluids and antibiotics, and drink a lot. You're about this far," she demonstrated with her thumb and forefinger, "from a blood transfusion. And your hip is a mess. What did this?"

"A bear," Kakashi said, coming up behind her again. "Well, a ghost bear powered by a chakra trap. I destroyed its power source, but I wasn't fast enough to keep Iruka-sensei from getting hurt." He actually sounded as if that mattered to him.

"You should take better care of him," Sakura scolded. Iruka blinked, because that made him sound like Kakashi's responsibility, which he wasn't, and also rather like an underfed housepet, which he really wasn't.

Then she whisked him away on the squeaky stretcher and started to sew up his hip, while a nurse put an IV in his left arm, and Iruka bit down on his lip again for as long as needles kept stabbing into him. The green glow of healing chakra was soothing, though, and as soon as Sakura finished with the stitches, he fell asleep.

He woke up again to a much quieter room, and also a much lighter one. The sun was streaming in through the window. He must have slept for the whole evening and night, then. Iruka sat up in bed and took stock of the situation. He was on a proper bed now, so they must have moved him and he hadn't even noticed. His hip hurt, but not nearly as much as it had the day before. He was still hooked up to an IV, though the current bag was nearly empty. Probably the medical staff had kept replacing the bags through the night, and now he really needed to go to the bathroom. Also, he was extremely hungry.

Iruka swung his legs out of bed, gripped the IV stand firmly in his left hand, and attempted to stand up. That went well, and he wasn't feeling light-headed at all, so he started to walk. Well, shuffle. He was grateful for the IV stand's support as he came to the door, which was open, and slowly shuffled out. He was barefoot, and the floor felt chilly. He was also bare-legged and bare-armed and stuffed into some kind of hospital-issue garment that made him wonder where his own clothes were, and who had managed to get everything off him without him even noticing.

"Iruka-sensei!" Hitomi-chan's mother came hurrying towards him. "You shouldn't be out of bed yet. But did we thank you properly yesterday for looking after our little Hitomi-chan? We're both very grateful, and I know if my husband was here, he'd--"

"Bathroom," Iruka said.

"--tell you, too, that you've been very kind to her, and we were both very distressed to see you here, and we hope that as soon as you're well, you can come to our house for--"

Iruka grabbed her arm, partly for support and partly for interruption. "Bathroom," he said again, considered making a full sentence of it, and then decided just the one word conveyed the urgency better.

"Oh, I'm sorry!" She flushed a little and nodded. "Over there, second door on the right. Oh, walking must be so uncomfortable for you! Would you like me to fetch you a wheelchair instead?"

"No," Iruka said without turning his head, already headed for the door her outflung hand had pointed at. He knew he was being rude, but he figured he'd do a better job of apologising for that when he was a little more relaxed.

A few minutes later, Iruka felt considerably relieved, and began the slow process of shuffling back up the corridor again. He looked around for Hitomi-chan's mother, but she was gone. Another door opened farther down, and Riichi came out, also in hospital clothing -- though he had managed to get a pair of loosely-fitting pants somehow, Iruka noticed -- and with a quantity of bandages around his left shoulder and upper arm.

"Good morning, Riichi-san," Iruka called to him.

Riichi looked at him. "It got you, too?" Then he shook his head. "No, Hayama said he took care of it, the vicious little bugger." Then he shook his head again. "The badger, I mean, not Hayama. Sorry, I think I'm still a bit sleepy."

Iruka stopped and put most of his weight on his left leg, hoping it would make his right hip less likely to complain. "There was a badger by the chakra pool you disabled?"

"Yes," Riichi said glumly. "The trap was actually inside a badger sett, and when the badger came rushing out, we..." He looked even more glum. "I suppose both Hayama and I were thinking about threats and that earlier time with Sound, and we both struck the badger a bit too hard."

"And it died and came back to life," Iruka deduced. That wasn't a very difficult conclusion at this point. "And bit your shoulder?"

"It leaped at me," Riichi said, looking less glum and more outraged. "Leaped! Badgers don't leap up like that."

"The alligator tried to jump into a tree," Iruka told him. "These chakra-driven spirit versions don't act like normal animals."

"An alligator bit you?" Riichi looked at Iruka's hip.

"No, that was a bear. The alligator was at the first trap we found." Iruka frowned and shifted his grip on the IV stand. "I thought the trap you and Hayama-san stayed to disable was set where it was to take advantage of any training ground accidents. But it sounds as if the traps were all placed at animal lairs -- the alligator pond, the bear den, the badger sett."

"Those are all good places to hide something, though," Riichi said. "And if these traps were set to target anything big enough to be dangerous, they'd be more likely to catch something in an animal lair than if they were just placed at random in the woods."

"That's true," Iruka said. "And we don't know what kind of range they have. The alligator and the bear and the badger all died practically on top of a trap." He tapped his fingers against the IV stand. "There wasn't anything at the trap by the Forest of Death. Maybe they couldn't get close enough to place the trap inside the training grounds."

Riichi froze. Then he said, apparently to the ceiling, "Did we look inside the training grounds?"

"I don't know," Iruka said numbly. "Hyuuga Mariko-san said there was nothing else close by. But maybe we all assumed that no enemies could get inside the actual grounds." Catching sight of Hitomi-chan's mother again as she came out of a room down the corridor, he lifted a hand to wave at her, but that meant letting go of the IV stand, and he lost his balance and staggered.

Riichi caught him, then swore as Iruka's weight pulled against his wounded shoulder. He raised his voice instead. "Excuse me! Hey! Ow!"

Hitomi-chan's mother came hurrying down the corridor. "You should both be resting!" she said. "Iruka-sensei, you need to lie down -- and Riichi-san, you're bleeding again!" A red stain was slowly spreading through the bandages on Riichi's shoulder. "And Iruka-sensei, I want to check on you, too." She reached out as if to pull the hospital smock up over Iruka's hip, and Iruka, who wasn't wearing anything underneath, took a step backwards and promptly fell over, hitting his hip on the way down.

"I need assistance here!" Hitomi-chan's mother shouted, and moments later a whole bevy of hospital staff descended on them. Two burly orderlies helped Iruka to his feet and started to half-carry him towards his room again; the IV stand rattled along at the same alarming speed. He craned his neck to see that Riichi was being towed off in the other direction.

When they deposited him on his bed again, Iruka grabbed a hold of the nearest orderly's arm. "We need to speak to Hatake Kakashi-san," he said urgently. "Either myself or Riichi-san. As soon as possible. It's important."

The orderly looked startled. "I, I don't have that kind of authority," he said. "I mean, the Copy-Nin?"

Iruka rolled his eyes. "Everyone has the authority to raise the alarm when there's a fire," he said. His hip hurt quite a lot where he'd fallen on it, and he had a feeling that it was, in fact, bleeding again, which didn't improve his temper. "Either get me Kakashi or someone who can find him for me. Now."

"Yessir," the orderly said and ran for the door. Iruka could hear him run into someone right outside and begin to apologize profusely. "I'm sorry, I'm most terribly sorry, but Iruka-san said there's a fire, and--"

"A fire?" Tsunade came leaping into the room. Despite everything, Iruka couldn't keep himself from nodding in approval. Running towards a rumored fire was definitely a sign of a good hokage. "Iruka-sensei! Where's-- There's no fire."

"No, Tsunade-sama," Iruka said. "The orderly misunderstood. But I really need to speak with Kakashi-san." He probably shouldn't get the hokage to run errands for him, that was a complete reversal of the proper order of things, but this was important, and if she couldn't make Kakashi appear here, no one could.

Tsunade leaned out the doorway and bellowed, "Shizune! Get that masked brat to come here right now!" The corners of Iruka's mouth tilted up. Then she stomped back in. "I think you're bleeding again. Get that smock up so I can see." Iruka swallowed. "And that IV bag is empty and there's backflow from your arm, hold it up until the nurse gets here."

Iruka looked in dismay at the thin, clear tube that was beginning to stain red where his blood slowly pumped out instead of fluid being pumped in. Then he yelped as his smock was ruthlessly yanked up on one side. "Tsunade-sama!"

"Oh, don't be ridiculous," she said, "I'm a medical ninja. Lie still." She raised a greenly-glowing hand. "You've completely ruined all of Sakura's fine work here. And she was so pleased with herself for being able to heal you."

Hitomi-chan's mother came in, clucked her tongue at the IV, and quickly shut it down. She didn't take the needle out of Iruka's arm, though, just carried away the empty bag and the bloodied tube, and came back a little later with a full bag and hooked him up again. "I thought this would be best, Tsunade-sama," she said, "since he's lost more blood."

"I'm fine," Iruka said. "And I need to go--"

"You're not going anywhere on this leg," Tsunade said. "See that call button by your bed? Get someone to bring you a bedpan next time, since you can't be trusted not to fall over when you get up."

Iruka felt his dignity, what little he had of it, evaporate under her stern gaze and the green glow from her hands. But maybe he could persuade that orderly to help him to the bathroom next time. He absolutely refused to use a bedpan, though it was probably better not to say that to Tsunade.

A little later she straightened up from where she'd been crouching at his bedside. She dusted her hands together, drew a breath, and seemed about to say something when Kakashi poked his head into the room. "Hokage-sama," he said politely. "You wanted me?" Then he caught sight of Iruka. "My, Iruka-sensei, what a daring outfit."

Iruka blushed hotly, because the way Tsunade had yanked at the smock left his modesty preserved by the narrowest possible margin. Tsunade bent her gimlet eye on Kakashi instead. "I remember what a fuss you made the last time we tried to get you into one," she said, "until you finally passed out and made our lives easier." She moved towards the door and patted Kakashi's shoulder on the way. "Iruka-sensei needs to speak to you. Don't let him get out of bed. Or do anything strenuous in the bed."

"But he's just so feisty," Kakashi, "he's hard to control. In or out of bed."

Iruka grabbed an empty water-glass from the bedside table and hurled it at Kakashi's head. Before it could connect, Kakashi leaned to one side, and the glass crashed harmlessly against the opposite wall, but at least Iruka had given vent to his feelings a little. Tsunade, of course, had slipped outside already. Iruka was alone with the most annoying jounin in the village. "Did you talk to Anko?" he said suspiciously.

"She talked to me," Kakashi said, and his eye crinkled in a grin. "Really, Iruka-sensei, she told me I was going about things completely wrong. Did you really explain to her how you'd prefer to be courted?"

"No!" Iruka snapped. He looked around for something else to throw. The pillow probably wouldn't work. "Anko misunderstood everything I said. On purpose! The way you're doing right now!"

"You're hurting my feelings, Iruka-sensei," Kakashi said, once again clutching at his chest in that absurd, theatrical gesture. "I admit I didn't know we had a date until Genma explained it to me, so clearly I behaved in an ungentlemanlike way, but--"

"It wasn't a date!" Iruka yelled. He fumbled for something, anything, on the bedside table, found nothing at all, and threw the table instead. Kakashi dodged it and came to sit at the foot of Iruka's bed, looking up Iruka's bare leg in a way that made Iruka yank the blanket practically up to his chin. "We're just co-workers!" he snapped. "Who don't even see a lot of each other! And why were you following me out in the woods, anyway!"

"Well, no reason," Kakashi said with a shrug. "I had nothing particular to do."

"Do you think I don't notice you?" Iruka snarled. "It's not the first time."

"I've been bored a lot lately?" Kakashi's smile behind the mask this time was blatantly insincere. "I have to amuse myself somehow, and I suppose I just like the way you look when you're angry."

There was a knock on the door, the only reason why Iruka didn't try to break Kakashi's head with the IV stand. Riichi looked in. "I'm sorry to interrupt," he said, "I'm sure you two would rather be alone, but I just wanted to make sure that Iruka had told you about the forest, Kakashi."

"We do not want to be alone," Iruka growled. He crossed his arms and made an effort to speak normally. "Why don't you stay here and explain it, Riichi-san, you're the one who thought of it in the first place."

Riichi looked at Iruka, at Kakashi's easy sprawl, at the crushed glass down by the wall and the table lying on its side in the middle of the floor. "All right," he said, walked into the room, and sat down on the empty bed across from Iruka's. "It seems as if there's been large animals at all the chakra traps except the one by the Forest of Death."

"That's true," Kakashi said thoughtfully, both his pose and his voice changing from most-annoying-jounin-ever to mission leader. "At the last trap yesterday, we ran into a few deer and had to scare them off first, before we dealt with the trap. There was the alligator, and the bear, and you met something, too?"

"A badger," Riichi said, sounding a little embarrassed about it. "Did we really check the Forest of Death properly? Agents from Sound have been inside the training grounds before. And the next chuunin exams aren't all that far away."

Iruka hadn't even thought about that, which was careless of him. Something was bound to die inside the training grounds during that exam, and hopefully it would be one of the giant leeches, or a tiger, rather than one of the young genin taking the exam, but whatever it was, it shouldn't come back as a vengeful spirit. The exam was difficult enough as it was, and he didn't want to think about a team of genin facing something like yesterday's ghost bear.

"We'll go back and take another look," Kakashi said. "I hear Guy's bringing his team back today, they've been acting as escorts to some of the daimyo's relatives. With two Byakugan users, one group can continue the sweep around the village and one can go to the Forest of Death."

"I'll go to the Forest," Iruka said, starting to swing his legs over the side of the bed.

Kakashi caught his ankles and tugged his legs back up again. Kakashi's bare fingertips were a little chilly. "You're not going anywhere, Iruka-sensei," he said. "Not until you get the all clear from a qualified medi-nin." He looked at Riichi. "That goes for you, too. It's bad enough that I've already had two team members injured on this mission. There's no need to make things worse."

"But," Iruka said, and then thought about it from Kakashi's point of view. He was responsible for them. The team had only been out for a few hours yesterday, and two people had ended up hospitalized. Instead Iruka said, "Make sure no one goes to the Forest to train until the whole area has been searched."

Riichi snorted. "No one goes to the Forest to train."

"Oh, Guy does," Kakashi said, "but I'll tell him not to. And I'll get someone to post signs." He stood up, nodded to Riichi, and leered at Iruka. Iruka didn't know that it was possible to leer through a mask, but yes, there it was. "Stay right where you are, both of you. Especially you, Iruka-sensei. When I think about you today, I want to think about you in bed."

Iruka threw the pillow without even thinking about it, but Kakashi had already disappeared. Riichi bent forward and picked the pillow up, and brushed a few leaves off it. "You two have an odd relationship," he said.

"We don't have a relationship," Iruka said between his teeth. "Genma and Anko made that up yesterday to annoy me." He caught the pillow when Riichi tossed it back. "Well, I think Genma was trying to annoy Kakashi, but Anko was definitely trying to annoy me."

Riichi got up and shook his head. "That would be more convincing if he didn't talk to you the way he does," he said, grinned, and caught the pillow without trying to duck. Iruka growled. "Or look at you the way he does." Riichi tossed the pillow back again. "And I think you have more visitors."

The door opened, and an adult voice said, "Now, remember to be quiet and careful--" before it was drowned out by cries of "Iruka-sensei! Iruka-sensei!" and four small children burst into the room.

Hitomi-chan made straight for the bed and jumped up, planting herself on Iruka's chest. Shuusuke and Ryoma scuffled to get a good place by Iruka's side, and Iruka had to lift Ryoma out of the way before he could manage to kick Iruka's hip, while Ryoma's father stopped Shuusuke from getting tangled up in the IV tube. An sat down by Iruka's feet and shyly patted his ankle through the sheet.

"Iruka-sensei!" Hitomi-chan bounced. "We're here to see you so you get better faster!"

"That's very nice of you," Iruka said. "Stop kicking me in the ribs," he added in another tone of voice, and Hitomi-chan actually stopped. "Thank you."

"Iruka-sensei!" That was Shuusuke. "I was sick yesterday because of all the dango."

"I ate more dango than you and I wasn't sick," Ryoma said. He elbowed Shuusuke, Shuusuke elbowed back, and Ryoma fell off the bed. Ryoma's father picked him up and put him back on the other side, which put him right by Iruka's bear-clawed hip again, so Iruka kept a sharp eye on him.

"Is that why Iruka-sensei is in the hospital?" Hitomi-chan stared closely at him. "Did the dango make you sick?"

"No," Iruka said. "Do you remember the alligator yesterday?"

Hitomi-chan snorted. "Of course I remember the alligator!"

"Iruka-sensei fought an alligator!" Shuusuke said excitedly.

"No, the alligator man fought the alligator," An said from her perch at the foot of the bed. There was a snort of laughter, and Iruka realized that Riichi was still in the room, probably getting ready to go tell Kakashi that he was now 'the alligator man' to the creche-sized population of Konoha.

"The alligator was really a trap for Konoha shinobi," Iruka said, "and we looked for more traps yesterday, and that's how I was hurt."

"I'm good at traps," Shuusuke said. "I made that trap for the alligator man yesterday and he fell in it!" Riichi made another muffled sound. "I can help!"

"They don't want to make traps," Ryoma said. "They want to, to un-make traps. But I bet you can do that too, if I help."

"Captain Kakashi has already chosen his team," Iruka said. "That's the alligator man," he added for clarification, glaring at Riichi, who was definitely enjoying this far too much. "And he's only selected adult shinobi for this mission, Shuusuke-kun, Ryoma-kun. You'll need to learn more ninja skills before you can go on missions."

"Iruka-sensei fought another dangerous animal," Riichi said from the other bed, and all the children turned towards him at once, like flowers towards the sun. "He fought a big bear, and the bear hurt him."

"Stupid bear," Hitomi-chan said, thumping her fist on Iruka's shoulder for emphasis. "Hurting Iruka-sensei, that's unforgivable! I'd kick it so hard!"

"Ow." Iruka caught Hitomi-chan's hand before she could thump him again. "Well, but the bear's dead now. And Captain Kakashi and the team are out there working to keep Konoha safe for all of us."

"And we should let Iruka-sensei get some rest, so he heals faster," Ryoma's father said, starting to swing children down from the bed. "When you feel better, Iruka-sensei, my wife and I hope you can come to dinner some day."

"Yes, that would be very nice," Iruka said a little distractedly, lifting Hitomi-chan off his chest. "Don't kick-- Ow," he said as she clipped him in the chin.

An ran up the side of the bed and tugged at Iruka's sleeve. "Iruka-sensei, please tell the alligator man thank you," she said. "And the dogs, too."

Iruka smiled and patted her head. "Yes, of course I will." Ryoma's father shepherded the children out of the room, with Ryoma tucked under his arm to prevent any last-minute escapes, and Iruka sank back into the bed and shoved the pillow into a better position. A stray leaf crackled under his ear. He looked at Riichi, who was leaning back on his uninjured arm and grinning. "They'll want to hear the story of the bear," Iruka predicted. "And their parents will want to hear the story of the bear."

"You can probably get four good dinners out of it," Riichi said cheerfully. "I wouldn't think a single man who lives alone had any cause for complaint there." His grin turned wicked. "Or were you planning to spend all your nights with the alligator man?"

"I wish the badger had bitten your tongue," Iruka said. "Riichi-san."

Riichi got up, still just as cheerful. "I'll leave you alone to rest," he said. "Looks like you'll be here for another couple of days, though I'm hoping I can go home tonight -- at least I can walk."

"Yes," Iruka said glumly. His hip was throbbing after the fall earlier in the morning, even with Tsunade's healing. When Riichi left, Iruka tried to nap, because he had nothing else to do, but he didn't manage to fall asleep until Hitomi-chan's mother came by with a couple of painkillers.

When he woke up again, the light outside the window said afternoon, and Haruno Sakura was poking at his hip. His once again very nearly bare hip. Iruka yelped and yanked the blanket over himself, almost elbowing Sakura in the face. "Sakura-chan!"

She looked at him and sighed. "I am a medical professional, Iruka-sensei." Then she bit her lip. "Or I will be very soon, anyway."

"I was asleep," Iruka said. "You could have woken me up first."

That made Sakura blush. "I'm sorry, Iruka-sensei!" For a moment, she looked almost as young as Hitomi-chan. "It's just that when I heard that Tsunade-sama worked on you this morning, I wanted to see for myself how you were healing."

Iruka sighed and sat up in the bed. He could feel the new stitches in his hip pull and compress as he moved, but there was no renewed bleeding. "I'm fine, Sakura-chan. You shouldn't worry about me. The only reason Tsunade-sama had to redo some of your work this morning was because I," he grimaced, "fell over in the corridor and hurt myself a little bit again."

"Yes, I heard that." Her brows drew together. "You need to stay lying down, Iruka-sensei. You should lie flat now, too, to make sure the skin and muscle is stretched out when you heal, not all bunched up." She pushed at his chest and easily made him fall back again. She really was becoming very strong, learning more than healing from Tsunade. "Would you like me to bring you a bedpan?"

"No!" he said, appalled. "And really, there's no need for me to stay in the hospital any longer, taking up people's time. I could just as well rest at home."

Sakura shook her head. She must have trimmed her hair just recently; the ends were very even and neat, for once. "We're not letting you out of here until you can at least go to the bathroom without falling over and bleeding, Iruka-sensei."

"My apartment is a lot smaller than a hospital," he pointed out. "I wouldn't have nearly as far to go."

Sakura shook her head again. "No. Riichi-san can go home, if he comes back for check-ups, but I'd like to keep you here a while longer." She talked like a medi-nin four times her age, and Iruka smiled, because even if it was annoying for him personally, it was also good to see her so confident. "There could be side effects from the jutsu on these animals that we're not even seeing yet."

"Do you know what happened today, with-- No one else from that team has come in today with any injuries, have they?" Iruka wasn't quite sure how long he had slept, or what time Guy's team would arrive in the village, but surely even Kakashi wouldn't have let the whole day pass without taking any action.

No, that was unfair. Kakashi might be extremely annoying and frequently lazier than a cat in the sun, but he was a good team leader, Iruka had seen that much, and he took threats to the village very seriously.

"Oh, no," Sakura said. "Everyone seems to be safe. I heard from Hinata that she and Neji are going to be part of the teams that go over the Forest of Death tomorrow, too."

"Tomorrow? I should be there," Iruka said. "I'm sure I'll be much better then."

"Not enough for missions!" Sakura poked him in the chest again, even though he was already lying down. It was like being poked with a hammer. "I'm sorry I couldn't heal you better, Iruka-sensei, but some things the body has to do on its own!"

"It's not your fault, Sakura-chan," Iruka said at once. He patted her hand. It certainly didn't feel like a hammer when he was the one doing the touching. "Thank you for your hard work."

"If only Tsunade-sama would let me use the speed-healing jutsu," Sakura muttered, "I'm sure it would all be different and you'd be much better. I know I can do it!"

"Speed-healing?" Iruka blinked in surprise. "I've never heard of that."

"No, it's something I found in an old scroll of Shizune's," Sakura said. "I don't know why medi-nin don't use it all the time, it would cut down recovery time for all patients and it sounds tremendously useful! But the scroll said only very strong medi-nin should try to use it, so maybe that's why."

"If Tsunade-sama doesn't want you to do it, there's probably a good reason," Iruka said.

"I know I can do it," Sakura said again. "I just need to try it on someone, to find out how it works." She looked at him with a gleam in her eyes. "Iruka-sensei, you'd like to get better fast, wouldn't you, so you can rejoin the team again tomorrow?"

"Of course I would," Iruka said. "But Sakura-chan, if Tsunade-sama told you--"

"And you could make sure that Kakashi-sensei doesn't forget anything," she went on, then giggled a bit. "I heard in the staff break-room that the children have started calling him the alligator man. That's a bit less glamorous than Master of a Thousand Jutsu, isn't it?"

"A bit," Iruka agreed.

"And did he really come to see you this morning?" She looked a little uncomfortable, in a way that reminded Iruka of how young she really was, growing medical competence or no. "Because I heard in the break-room that you-- Iruka-sensei, Kakashi-sensei is a great shinobi, but he's a terrible pervert. Are you really--"

"No," Iruka said, appalled that this completely unfounded rumor had even made its way to Sakura's ears. "He came to see Riichi-san and me about the mission, that's all."

"Oh, I see." Sakura relaxed. "I'll come back later tonight, then, and try that speed-healing jutsu on you. I'm sure it will have you back on your feet in no time."

"Wait, Sakura-chan," Iruka said, but she was already heading out of the room at a brisk clip, so like her mentor Tsunade that he had to smile.

And he had to find a bathroom again. Iruka got out of bed very carefully, went to the door very carefully, and intercepted an orderly who was passing in the corridor, so he had company and support all the way there and all the way back. When he rolled into his bed again, his legs felt as limp as overcooked noodles. He probably wouldn't be able to rejoin the mission tomorrow, unless Sakura's new jutsu was really as amazing as she said it would be. And if Tsunade had forbidden her to use it, there was probably a reason for that, and she shouldn't...

In the middle of that thought, Iruka fell asleep again. A nurse he'd never seen before woke him up for some food, and he fell back asleep as soon as the cleared tray was whisked away. He was drowsing now, rather than sleeping heavily, and he'd woken up at least halfway enough times to have a sense of time passing before Sakura returned to his bedside.

Her hair was messier now, but she looked very cheerful. "You're right, Iruka-sensei," she said, "it's time to get you out of this hospital bed and back out in the village where you belong."

"Yes," Iruka said sleepily. He raised himself up on one elbow. Looking towards the window, he could see that it was night now. "Wait, Sakura-chan. If you shouldn't use this jutsu--"

"It's a healing jutsu," Sakura said. "It can't hurt you. Even if I get it wrong, you won't feel worse, all that can happen is that you won't get better. But you will get better!"

She poked his chest with her index finger, just as before, and Iruka fell back and wondered if he'd have bruises from it, on top of the bruises from Hitomi-chan. Something crackled under his ear again; it was probably still that one leaf from Kakashi's teleportation jutsu that hadn't fallen off when Iruka and Riichi had thrown the pillow back and forth. Sakura flung the blanket aside and pushed the hospital smock up, and Iruka reached down to make sure it stayed covering the parts of him that she really didn't need to see. Her hands started to glow green. She mouthed something, and the next moment her hair lifted to stand straight up, and her hands glowed too bright white-green for him to look at. Iruka opened his mouth to tell her to stop, but then she slammed her hands against his hip, and it was like being hit by the ghost bear all over again, a forceful impact, a brief numbness, incredible pain--

Iruka gasped for air. His ears were ringing. The pain had vanished completely, and he felt bright and new and strong and confident. The feeling of confidence lasted until he turned his head and saw Sakura slumped against the bed, one hand trailing against the mattress and then falling limply. Her eyes were closed, and she was so pale, her hair almost looked dark against her skin. There was a tinge of blue around her lips.

"Sakura-chan!" Iruka sat bolt upright, without so much as a twinge from his hip. "Sakura-chan!" He hit the call button that everyone had pointed out to him before, jumped out of bed, and lifted her up to take his place. She didn't move as he tucked the pillow under her head.

The nurse who'd brought the tray came in, saw Sakura, and gasped. "I'll get Tsunade-sama!"

Iruka knelt at the bedside and clasped Sakura's hand in his. She felt chilly, and he tugged the blanket up around her. The IV in his arm was in the way, and he tugged it out. When the door crashed open again, he looked up anxiously, feeling both relief and fear as Tsunade came storming in with her coat and her hair swinging. She marched up to the bedside and looked from Iruka to Sakura and back again. "She tried that accelerated healing jutsu on you, didn't she?"

"Yes, Tsunade-sama," Iruka said. He shifted to make room as Tsunade ran her hands over Sakura's head and chest.

"Little fool," Tsunade said, straightening up. "This is why we don't use that jutsu. The person who is healed experiences all the pain of normal healing in a very short time, which could kill them depending on how serious the injury is, and the person who does the healing is completely drained of chakra and energy."

"But she'll be all right?" Iruka got to his feet without letting go of Sakura's hand. "She only wanted to help me."

"She'll be fine," Tsunade said dismissively. "She just needs rest and fluids." She looked at him. "Sakura asked me why I never use this jutsu myself. Now she knows. A healing jutsu that means the healers have to take their patients' places isn't very useful."

"No, I don't suppose it would be," Iruka said. Now that he was standing up, he could see the moon through the hospital room window. "It must be very late," he said.

Tsunade nodded. "You might as well stay here overnight," she said. "Take the empty bed in Riichi's room. I can't think why they didn't put the two of you in together to start with." The nurse came in and hung a fresh IV bag on the stand, gathering up the IV bag and tube that Iruka had been using. "We'll take care of Sakura."

Iruka padded out into the corridor. He looked around, and saw another nurse hurrying by. "Excuse me. Excuse me! Do you know where my clothes are?"

Riichi was already asleep, and Iruka settled down in the empty bed, sorting through the items of clothing that the nurse had been able to bring him. Shirt, flak vest, forehead protector, sandals... but his pants had been destroyed when he was brought in. Before that, really, because he imagined the ghost bear's ghostly claws had left rents in the cloth as well as in him. The right sandal had a few bloodstains, but Iruka was relatively confident that he'd be able to get it clean with a little work.

The nurse had promised to find him something to wear before morning, so he could actually leave the hospital. Iruka sighed and lay down. He felt full of energy and not at all sleepy, but there wasn't anything he could do at this hour. The accelerated healing jutsu had just left him brimming with vitality. Then he reflected that all that vitality had probably come from poor Sakura.

Iruka shook his head and settled the blanket and pillow comfortably, pleased to have a pillow that didn't crackle in a nice clean bed free of leaves. He hoped someone would tidy up around Sakura and make her comfortable.

He wasn't sleepy, but he was a shinobi. Iruka closed his eyes and resolutely went to sleep.

He woke up early, and immediately went to the door and looked out, trying to catch sight of that nurse, or an orderly, or anyone. Iruka didn't want to run all over the hospital in a smock that left his legs mostly bare. Maybe he could borrow Riichi's pants.

As he stood there, Tsunade came out of the room across the corridor. She must not have gotten any sleep at all, yet she looked calm and fresh. When she caught sight of him, her brow wrinkled a little. "I would have thought you'd be running out of here as soon as the sun came up."

"I don't have any pants," Iruka said. "Tsunade-sama, how is Sakura-chan?"

"Fine," Tsunade said with a sigh. "She'll sleep most of the day today, but she can probably go back to her ordinary duties tomorrow, if she's careful." She looked him up and down. "And I can see that you don't have any pants."

Iruka flushed hotly and fought not to tug at the hem of the smock. "They were cut off when I was brought in," he clarified. "I'll leave as soon as I can get dressed properly."

Tsunade chuckled. "I see. But I'm sure the village has seen worse things than a chuunin with no pants. Or you could consider it a stealth challenge to get home without being seen."

"You have a terrible sense of humor, Tsunade-sama," Iruka said.

An orderly brought him a pair of pants that were a bit too long and a lot too wide, but Iruka didn't care as long as he could get dressed. He folded the pants legs up and the waistband down, and sighed in relief when he could finally settle the forehead protector in place again. Riichi was still asleep when Iruka took himself off.

He thought about looking in on Sakura, but the door to her room was closed, and he didn't want to wake her. Iruka went out and then stopped in the street outside the hospital, trying to think where he should go next. His stomach growled. Iruka headed for the hokage tower. There was a small hole in the wall not far away, open all hours, which served the same food morning, noon and night to shinobi who came staggering away from the mission room: season's vegetables and tofu in a plain broth, and the guest could spice up the meal by using sauces or herbs out of any one of a number of mysterious bottles and jars. Iruka would never forget seeing Mizuki ladle on the mayonnaise. Their rice was excellent, and at this hour, it shouldn't be crowded.

In fact, the place was empty except for the owner, a grumpy old man who ran it together with his two daughters. Iruka ate his meal plain, just the way it was handed to him, and asked for seconds. When he was finished, he bid a polite farewell to the old man, who muttered something ungracious to him in return.

The mission room was very nearly empty, too, and the sleepy-eyed chuunin on duty had no objections to Iruka inspecting the roster. A genin team came bouncing in, eager for a mission, any mission, anything at all, while their jounin team leader leaned against the wall and yawned in a way that reminded Iruka of Kakashi.

There was nothing on the roster about the mission to clear out Sound traps, or the team that had been assigned to it. Iruka sighed impatiently at this sloppy record-keeping, and wondered if the best thing he could do was to go to the Forest of Death and wait for the others there, or track down someone in the village who could tell him the current status of the mission. He didn't even know where Kakashi lived, but he supposed he could always go to the Hyuuga compound and ask for Mariko-san, although he felt a certain reluctance to do that. The Hyuugas had always been perfectly polite to him, but they had a way of looking at a person.

When he left the mission room, though, Iruka ran into Might Guy, who greeted him like a long-lost brother rather than a distant acquaintance. "Iruka-san! I heard that you had been injured on the mission that my brave students and I are joining!" He took Iruka by the shoulders and inspected him closely. "Yet you look perfectly healthy."

"Sakura-chan healed me," Iruka said, disentangling himself from Guy's grasp, which wasn't actually as hard as disentangling himself from four four-year-olds, probably because Guy had better manners. "Guy-san, do you know what happened yesterday, and where everyone is meeting today?"

"Of course!" Guy said. "My team, and Kurenai's team, both of whom have Byakugan users, will sweep the woods outside the original search pattern, to make certain all the traps have been found. And I believe my eternal rival and his original team will make a closer investigation of the Forest of Death," he dropped his voice to nearly-normal conversation level, "since Sound agents could have had access to it after the chuunin trials."

"I'd better go there, then," Iruka said. He smiled at Guy. "Your students are doing well, aren't they?"

"Yes, indeed they are!" Guy beamed. "They are fine shinobi, and I have every hope that they will continue on their path towards excellence."

Iruka thought so, too, particularly with Might Guy giving them regular inspirational speeches. Guy expected excellence as a matter of course, but there was a great deal of kindness in his expectations, and Iruka felt sure that Guy's students would benefit a great deal from that kindness, particularly Neji, if he could only manage to accept it.

Guy cleared his throat. "Iruka-san, may I be permitted to congratulate you? I understand that you and my esteemed rival are--"

"No!" Iruka said, flailing a little. "No, no, we're not. It's all a joke that Genma and Anko made up."

Guy drew his brows together, which was an impressive sight. "But when I spoke of this to Kakashi, to express my joy that he was living up to the springtime promise of his youth, he did not deny it."

Iruka slumped. "Of course he didn't." He looked up again. "Guy-san, I don't know why Kakashi has decided to play along with this joke, but all I can say is that it definitely goes against my wishes. I've made it very clear to him--" He thought about it. "Well, I've tried to make it very clear to him how I feel about this, but he just won't listen."

"Has he hurt your feelings?" Guy's eyebrows twitched. "That is intolerable, and I would not have expected it from him! Don't worry, Iruka-san, I will defend your honor!"

"That's really not necessary," Iruka said weakly. "You know what an odd sense of humor Kakashi has." In fact, he was surrounded by people who had an extremely dubious sense of humor. "I'll talk to him during the mission."

Guy still scowled, but Iruka managed to break away and leave, wondering how he had suddenly become someone Guy would defend against Kakashi, who was arguably his best friend. On his way out of the tower, Iruka caught a glimpse of Lee, who already accepted everything Guy said as sacred truth, and was tempted to stop and chat for a while and see if he could perhaps gain a little insight into Guy's mind in the process, but he had a feeling Lee wouldn't really be of any help there -- Tenten or Neji, perhaps, but not Lee -- and besides, he had a mission to get to.

The morning air was still fresh and crisp in his lungs when he reached the fence around the Forest of Death at the point closest to the village. Iruka wished he'd taken the time to find out which of the forty-four gates Kakashi had chosen for a meeting place. He didn't want to run all around the fence to find people.

A moment later, though, Genma and Raidou appeared next to him. "Good morning," Raidou said politely.

"All better now?" Genma smiled. "I'm sure Kakashi will be pleased. You can make new arrangements for your date."

"Genma-san." Iruka struggled with his respect for an older, more skilled shinobi. "Genma-san, you made that up. And everyone I meet has heard the story and believes it's the truth!"

"They'll find something else to talk about in a week or two," Genma said, unconcerned. "Unless you start seeing a lot of Kakashi in public, of course." Kakashi, Hyuuga Mariko, and Hayama came out of the trees to join them. "Like now," Genma added. "You know how jounin gossip."

Iruka growled, but he didn't say anything. Kakashi nodded at them, then turned back to the treeline just as Anko jumped down from a branch. She grinned, bright and sharp. "Everyone ready for the Forest of Death?"

"We're not here to train," Kakashi said mildly. "Try not to engage the animals in the forest unless you have to. Mariko goes first, the rest of you follow me. We'll move in a counter-clockwise spiral. Try not to fall nose-first in any centipede nests."

Iruka thought that sounded suspiciously specific, and Raidou made a face. "Do something once when you're thirteen," he muttered, "and no one ever forgets it."

"I didn't expect to see you here," Kakashi said, coming up to Iruka while Anko unlocked the gate. "Weren't you staying in the hospital for a while longer, Iruka-sensei? I hate to think of you being out here against the hokage's advice."

"Sakura-chan healed me," Iruka said shortly. "Did you find any more traps yesterday?"

"So businesslike," Kakashi said mournfully. He started to walk in Mariko-san's footsteps, and Iruka followed at his side. "Yes, we found one more, and completed the original search pattern. I've sent two other teams to look farther away, just in case, but I think the Forest of Death is probably our main concern now, just as you and Riichi suggested."

The forest rose up around them, dark and unwelcoming. The tall trees grew densely here, and barely any of the morning sunshine made it down to the ground.

Iruka nodded. "I met Guy this morning," he said. "He offered to defend my honor against you in case you hurt my feelings." That actually made Kakashi blink. "Don't you think this joke has gone far enough, Kakashi?"

"Oh. Mm." Kakashi shook his head. "Guy is so hot-tempered. It's his greatest failing as a shinobi. Well!" He was grinning behind the mask again. "I suppose I should be more considerate in the future, then!"

"You could be considerate enough to leave me alone!" Iruka said. "Then everyone will realize this was nothing but a stupid story."

"But Iruka-sensei," Kakashi said. "Spending time with you has been a revelation." Iruka looked sharply at Kakashi to see that he was still grinning. "I see why Naruto feels the way he does about you."

Iruka glared, because bringing up Naruto just wasn't fair. The boy had left with Jiraya, and Iruka missed him almost painfully at times, although to judge by Naruto's infrequent and imaginatively spelled letters, he was having the time of his life. "That's not--"

Ahead of them, Hyuuga Mariko lifted her hand, and Iruka immediately fell silent. She was tense, and the lines around her eyes trembled as she maintained the Byakugan. "There's one chakra pool there," she said, pointing to a narrow space between two trees growing close together.

Kakashi nodded. He had pushed his forehead protector up, and the Sharingan glowed red under his pale eyebrow. "I see it. Hayama, Anko, the two of you--"

"Wait," Mariko said. She tilted her head a little. "There's something... This pool is linked to another one, or so I believe. There is a line running that way."

Kakashi nodded again. "So there is. Let's investigate both, then, before we divide up the team." He gestured to Mariko to lead the way.

Iruka felt useless, walking along in Mariko's wake. Whatever she and Kakashi could see, he was completely blind to it. Mariko followed a trail Iruka couldn't sense at all, and glancing around at the other shinobi, he didn't think they could, either. He wouldn't be able to sense these traps until they were set off.

"The line leads here," Mariko said, stopping not far from a small stream. "There's another pool down in the water. But captain," she frowned even more, "there's a second line leading away from it."

Kakashi gestured at his team to gather round. "We need to start marking these on a map," he said. "The chakra traps we found before, outside Konoha, seemed to be randomly placed close to animal lairs, and they were all isolated from each other. If these are linked, I want to know what will happen if we destroy them."

"Or accidentally set them off," Genma said. "Look at what happened to Riichi and to Iruka-sensei."

Hayama, unsurprisingly, had a map of the Forest of Death in one of his pockets. "It's not completely accurate," he said. "This is an old map from before the last set of chuunin trials, and some things may have changed and some animals shifted their lairs."

They marked the first two traps, and Mariko tentatively sketched in the line between them with a light hand. She moved on to follow the second line, and Kakashi was at her side now, map and pencil in hand.

It was a long day. They found traps set in a half-circle on one side of the round training grounds, from the point where the river entered the area to the point where it left, with the last trap being down in the water. "With the alligators," Raidou said.

"There was one just where the giant poisonous centipedes nest," Genma pointed out cheerfully. Raidou flicked some water at him.

There was nothing on the other side of the river, though, or near the tower. "This is the area where the Sound genin team were during the exam," Anko said, poring over the map. "They would know it best. But I'm surprised there's nothing by the tower."

"Nobody goes to the tower," Genma said.

"And the animals live here around the edge, even if they hunt farther in," Hayama added. "But what does it mean that the traps are linked?"

"I believe setting one off would trigger the others," Hyuuga Mariko said. Iruka sucked his breath in. That wasn't good.

"So we have to destroy them all at the same time, hmmm." Kakashi sounded very calm and matter-of-fact about it, but Iruka thought he was lucky that most of his face was hidden from view. Ears didn't tense up so badly. "And there are six traps." And seven of them. They would just have been six if Iruka hadn't unexpectedly been able to leave the hospital. "If six of us prepare to destroy a trap each," Kakashi went on, "the seventh person can send up a signal, so we all act at once. That way, one trap won't trigger the others."

"A signal that could be seen in all these places?" Hayama looked doubtful. "Can that be done?"

"The top of the tower," Anko said. "There are emergency lights in the tower stores, and they're designed to be seen all the way to the village. No one could miss that."

"And when reinforcements arrive from the village in response to those signals?" Hayama asked dryly.

"If something's gone wrong, I expect we'll be glad to see them," Raidou said.

"And if nothing's gone wrong, they'll be relieved to be able to go back." Kakashi nodded. He looked at Anko. "Is the tower locked?"

"No," she said, "and the store room with emergency supplies isn't locked, either. Exactly. It opens to anyone from Konoha who has this," she pulled a fuda from one pocket, "and puts it on the door."

"Well, then." Kakashi tapped the map with one finger. "Mariko here, Hayama here, Anko here, Raidou here, Genma here, and I'll take this one. Please split up all explosive tags between you, for those who don't have a suitable jutsu to destroy the traps. Iruka-sensei, go to the top of the tower and set off a flare. Give us one hour," a quick glance checked with the rest of the team, "to get in place and be prepared."

"That should do it," Hayama said. Anko, probably wise from the experience with the bear, was offering handfuls of paper bombs to anyone who would take them. Iruka took the fuda he needed for the door instead, and tucked it away safely.

"One hour," Iruka said, trying not to feel as if he were being shunted aside to safety. "And we'll meet at the gate where we came in afterwards?"

"Unless you track us down by the screaming," Genma said with a crooked grin.

"By the gate," Kakashi confirmed. "One hour, Iruka-sensei, starting now."

Iruka took off running. The ground was level here, and he preferred to stay down rather than leap into the trees, where giant centipedes and spiders waited to pounce on the unwary. Down here, the worst thing he could run into was a tiger. Or a bear. Iruka told himself he was done with bears, and he was on the wrong side of the forest for leeches. He reached one of the bridges across the river and stopped for a moment, looking up at the tower. Surely a signal from the top would be seen by everyone.

Iruka ran on, keeping to open, sunlit spaces as much as he could. He wasn't in the forest to train, and he wanted to avoid rather than seek out the most difficult areas and the more aggressive animals. All he saw was a hawk, high up, but when he finally reached the foot of the tower, there was a tiger lazing in the sun on the steps right in front of the red double doors.

"Oh, that's just what I needed," Iruka muttered. He glared at the tiger, which didn't seem to have noticed him yet. That gave him an idea, and he backed up a few steps, picked up a rock from the ground, and threw it into the treeline on the other side of the tower entrance.

The tiger looked up at the sound, but when nothing further happened, it just yawned, showing off a splendid set of teeth, and settled down again. Iruka grimaced. "Lazy." He picked up another rock and made ready to throw it, then stopped to think. There had to be a way of making the rustle under the trees more appealing to the tiger. Iruka wasn't about to transform himself into something tasty for tigers, but if he could make the rock appear to be, say, a plump little pig...

It would be partly like a transformation jutsu and partly like a substitution, he decided. Iruka threw the rock and flashed through a series of hand signs while it was still in the air. When it landed, it transformed into a perfect copy of the pet pig Tonton, complete with bead necklace. Iruka smothered a laugh.

The fake Tonton ran around in a small circle and made piggy noises of confusion and distress. The tiger sat up, and its muscles bunched under the skin. Iruka held his breath. Then the tiger sprang. Tonton, or rather Non-Ton, squealed and bolted, the tiger went after it in pursuit, and Iruka rushed across the open area in front of the tower, tumbled through the right half of the door, and slammed it shut behind himself.

The inside of the tower was dark and echoing and looked dingy. No lights were on now, when the tower wasn't in use for anything in particular. Iruka squinted through the shadows, and spotted the store room that Anko had told him about. He went there and slapped the fuda on the door, and watched as bright lines spread from the tag to every edge of the door, flared up into whiteness, and then disappeared.

When Iruka opened the door, the inside of the store room was almost pitch black, and the light switch did nothing. Of course. Not only were the lights not on here, apparently the power was turned off entirely. Or maybe the lightbulb was just broken. Either way, it was really dark.

Iruka couldn't turn chakra into a glowing ball of light, the way it was rumored some of the jounin could do. At least he had plenty of time, not that he could see to check his watch in here. Iruka sat down cross-legged on the floor and waited for his eyes to adjust.

Something had to be done, he decided, about the ridiculous idea that he and Kakashi were, that they had, that something was going on between them. He'd never thought that anyone would take Genma's throwaway line seriously, but then he'd heard it again from Anko, and from Riichi, and from Sakura, of all people. Could it really be true that the whole nursing staff of the hospital gossiped about such things in the break room?

Iruka thought about the way academy teachers gossiped in their break room, and sighed.

It didn't help that Kakashi was playing along, either. Iruka had no idea what could have possessed the man to think this was funny. He had no idea why Kakashi had decided to follow him and the children the day before yesterday, or why he'd popped up in unexpected places before that, making a nuisance of himself.

Kakashi had certainly done his part in keeping the children from being eaten by the alligator, that was true. And he'd been surprisingly sensible and responsible about disarming the chakra traps. But the way he'd completely failed to go to the dango shop -- and as a result, probably owed a staggering amount of money both for dango and damages -- grated on Iruka, and the way he was currently pretending interest, pretending to be a, a suitor, well...!

It was a whole new level of annoying, Iruka decided, and as soon as this mission was over, he was going to tell Kakashi so. He looked around the store room, where he could now make out shelves, and boxes on the shelves. One set of boxes in particular had a giant red flare drawn on the front, so Iruka grabbed one of those as he stood up. Then he grabbed a second one, just in case the first one was defective, or fell off the roof, or was snatched by a giant bird. Iruka was starting to think that anything that could go wrong with this mission would go wrong.

He tucked the boxes under one arm and started to jog up the stairs. At least the tower had windows, and from what he could see in the dim grey light, the only spiders in here were normal-sized ones.

When Iruka got as high as he could go inside, he checked the ceiling for a roof access hatch, just in case, and then checked the only room on this level, which was empty and echoing except for a chair with one broken leg, which leaned uncertainly against the wall. The dust was thick, and Iruka wondered if anyone ever went here.

He opened the window and swung himself out, and climbed the last bit along the sloping roof until he got to the very top. There was a bird's nest in one corner, blocking a drain. The sun was quite warm up here, and Iruka settled himself comfortably at the highest point and checked his watch. He was still in good time. Looking out over the forest, he tried to see any of the others down there.

Then he caught himself, because if there was any sign of one of the others, that would mean that they were in trouble. Just as he thought that, a small flock of birds flapped up all at once with a series of shrill cries, and Iruka tried to judge whether that was by Anko's position or not. Well, if it was, maybe she'd just startled them with one of her snakes.

From up here, even the Forest of Death looked pretty and peaceful. Iruka let the wind blow through his hair and thought about nothing in particular, and when he checked his watch again, it was time. He opened one of the boxes and took out the emergency flare. It looked like a firework -- well, of course it did. He read the safety instructions on the inside of the lid, out of habit, and shook his head. This had to be made for civilians, but even so, anyone following the instructions would need time and peace and a nice flat area and no stress, and if you had all those, what was the emergency, precisely?

But Iruka did have all those things except a flat area, and he figured the rounded top of the tower would do. He set the flare up, checked his watch one more time, and fired the flare off. A bright red light hung in the sky above the tower.

Iruka turned on his heel to look at the forest, and yes, there were the answering explosions, one, two and three, four, five, all of them as near to simultaneous as made no difference. But there should have been six.

The sixth explosion went up a full half a minute later, and Iruka knew it must have triggered the trap. He sighted on it -- it was Genma's assigned area. This time Iruka went down the outside of the tower, jumping from roof to roof as the tower grew wider, finally leaping to the ground and taking off running. He had the spare emergency flare tucked under his arm, still in its box, he realized as he ran. Maybe it would be useful somehow.

He crossed the river and kept going, running all out. The Forest of Death was big, but Iruka was very determined. As he came closer, he heard a growl, and a rather alarming shout. Genma's words about tracking people down by the screaming suddenly seemed unpleasantly prophetic.

The trap Genma had been sent to disarm was the one nested in the roots of a giant tree, Iruka remembered as he drew closer. Maybe there'd been some kind of difficulty about how to blow up the chakra reservoir without toppling the tree. When Iruka finally came close to where traces of smoke from the explosion still lingered in the air, he didn't know what to expect, but what he saw was Genma swearing as he fought a giant centipede with a dark red glow dripping from every leg, while a little farther away, Raidou, who had been responsible for the trap closest to Genma's, was trying methodically to cut the legs off a giant spider. The spider was two legs down so far, dripping spirit ichor from the stumps, but that didn't seem to hamper its movements at all.

Iruka's first thought was that he would construct a barrier around the chakra trap, the way he had when Anko fought the bear. That way these ghost animals would vanish temporarily, and they could try to destroy the trap one more time. But although he could feel the dirty chakra in the air, he couldn't actually see it, and he didn't know if more chakra was somehow being pumped in through those mysterious connecting lines, or if they had been destroyed when the other traps had been destroyed.

Just as Iruka was ready to take the chance anyway and set the barrier according to his best guess, he heard a loud, hollow roar. The ghostly remains of a tiger leaped into the small clearing, heading for Genma with as much enthusiasm as the tiger at the tower had shown in going after the fake Tonton.

This spirit tiger was beyond ragged, though. Since it was nearly three times the size of an ordinary tiger, Iruka could easily see that it was missing some crucial parts; some of the belly had rotted away, one eye was completely gone, and the left hind leg showed bone and a stump. The tiger didn't limp, though, nor did it appear to be blind on the side that was missing an eye. It moved smoothly, confidently, and fast, just as the alligator and the bear had done. But perhaps it could be blocked off from the trap, just as the bear had been.

The tiger roared, distracting Iruka from his thoughts and reminding him that he had more urgent things to do at the moment than just standing and pondering. Iruka reprised his favorite trick once again, and threw a rock at the tiger. He couldn't hit it in the face from this angle, of course, but the rock bounced off the ghost tiger's rump just to one side of the tail, and it stopped its charge at Genma, which was the general idea, and twisted around and roared at Iruka.

Iruka nodded to himself, then cursed as the tiger sprang for him instead. He spun and kicked, and swore again as the kick actually connected and he remembered that the ghost versions of the animals were like stone to the touch. That did make Raidou's accomplishment in cutting legs off the spider more impressive.

"We have to separate them from the chakra source," Iruka yelled at Genma. "Drive them together and put a barrier around them."

It was Raidou who answered. "They're too fast," he yelled back, taking off another spider leg with a clean swing. "I thought this one would stop moving!"

"They move as long as there's chakra," Genma put in, running up a tree trunk and then jumping out over the centipede, which had reared up to follow him and nearly overbalanced as it twisted around. "That damn tiger is missing a foot to start with!"

Iruka snatched up another small rock from the ground and wondered if this tiger would be distracted by an illusion of Tonton, too. But he needed a few moments to construct the jutsu, and he didn't have a few moments; the ghost tiger now pursued him as enthusiastically as it had gone after Genma before. Iruka vaulted over the tiger much as he had once vaulted over the bear, because tigers didn't rear on their hind legs the same way, or at least he and his hip really hoped not. Though it would have been interesting to see, since the tiger only had one hind leg. Iruka frowned as he landed. This tiger certainly hadn't been killed in the destruction of a trap; it was long dead, several weeks at least. The trap here in the Forest had to work differently somehow, to call up spirit versions of animals that had fallen long before.

Or maybe this jutsu didn't create spirit versions of what the animals had been like when they died, Iruka realized, but spirit versions of what their bodies had been like when the trap was sprung. It was only chance that those things had coincided for the alligator, the bear, and the badger.

But then what had set off the alligator trap, if it hadn't been the alligator's death? And the death of the bear had seemed to trigger that trap, too. The spiders did nest here, and the centipedes were close, too. Either of those animals could have been close enough to be caught in the explosion. As for the tiger, well. Maybe the traps here in the forest were more powerful, and had a wider range once they were triggered.

The supply of vicious animals that had died on the training grounds must be staggeringly high, Iruka thought, dodging around a tree and seeing the tiger's claws rip the bark away and put white scores in the wood. The trap had to run out of chakra at some point, but he had no idea how many animals could be called up before that happened. Of course the trap must have a range, but he didn't know how far out that range extended -- the giant spider and centipede had already been here when he arrived, but from just how far away had the tiger come?

"You must have flown here, Iruka-sensei," a voice said in his ear, and Iruka nearly planted an elbow in Kakashi's stomach on pure reflex before they sprang apart as the tiger came for them. Kakashi shouldn't have been able to sneak up on him like that, Iruka thought, throwing his Tonton-rock in front of the tiger and taking advantage of its momentary distraction to blur through hand signs while the rock arced through the air. He felt entirely out of his league, and very cranky about it.

This Tonton-illusion was steadier than the first one, and instead of running, it stood its ground when the tiger turned on it, and tried to plant a dainty little hoof right in the tiger's muzzle. Kakashi burst out laughing just as the tiger bit down and the illusion vanished with a pop. Iruka cursed some more.

"I'm sorry, captain!" Genma called breathlessly from where he was twisting around some bushes, drawing the centipede along -- was he trying to get it to tie itself in a knot, Iruka wondered darkly, or just exhaust it? "There's something under the roots of that tree! It put a time delay on everything!"

Iruka shook his head, because the tree fouled my jutsu sounded very much like the dog ate my homework, which he didn't believe from anyone (particularly not from Inuzuka, whose dogs most certainly knew better), but Kakashi turned his head that way with a glint of red. "I see it." He went kunai-to-claw with the tiger for a moment, then jumped back. "Iruka-sensei. Big square rock, Genma's second bush, the tiger-marked tree, that mound of fresh dirt. We'll keep the animals out while you make a barrier."

It was a big area, but Iruka wasn't about to complain. Kakashi was the one who could see the outlines of the chakra trap, after all, and knew if there were trailing ends of the connecting lines flapping from it. Kakashi was also the one drawing the ghost tiger off into the treeline, while Raidou chopped another leg off his spider. Iruka resolved to handle the barrier much better than the overly-aggressive Tonton illusion. Maybe that particular creation had picked up a little too much of Iruka's own feelings towards the tiger.

Iruka set the corner points of the barrier according to Kakashi's swift description and knelt down on a tuft of grass. Before he began, he glanced quickly over his shoulder to see that Raidou was still holding his own against the spider, although it moved as easily on four legs as it had on eight, that Kakashi was a blur of blue and green and silver going against the tiger and keeping it busy, and that Genma was starting to have trouble with the centipede that moved in ways no centipede should be able to move.

A cry echoed through the Forest as Anko dropped out of a tree to fight at Genma's side. Relieved, Iruka turned back and began the series of hand signs, doing them a bit faster now after the practice two days ago, but still being slow enough for caution, now that he knew the others could manage those few extra seconds.

He finished the last sign, and nothing happened.

The air between the chosen corner points stayed inert, and behind him, he could still hear the tiger roaring, the scuffle of feet and paws and spider legs. Iruka half-turned and looked over his shoulder. Hyuuga Mariko and Shirakumo Hayama had arrived and joined the fight, too. Maybe that would give him time to do the jutsu over, though the complete failure felt like it had punched all the air out of him. He must have skipped over a sign after all, without noticing.

"Don't, Iruka!" Genma yelled just as Iruka raised his hands to start again. "It's the delay! Just wait!"

All Iruka could do was take it on trust. He waited, counting seconds in his head, as Hayama blew the tiger backwards with a swipe of his sword. At least no one was seriously hurt, although both Raidou and Genma were starting to look a little bruised and scraped around the edges. Kakashi was moving too fast for Iruka to be able to tell.

After the strange thirty-second delay, the barrier rose up with a solid hum, and the spirit animals vanished abruptly. Both Raidou and Hayama had to twist to the side and pull their sword strikes, Hayama to avoid cutting Anko and Raidou to keep from cutting his own toes off. The wind from Hayama's strike still rattled the nearest trees, sending a shower of leaves and bark fragments down onto Genma's head.

"Good," Kakashi said, coming up to stand next to Iruka. He had no bruises or scrapes; he was barely even out of breath. Iruka scowled. Not that he wanted Kakashi to be injured, of course -- he was relieved, his insides humming with it. He was just annoyed at the same time. "This will buy us all the time we need."

"I have more paper bombs," Anko said cheerfully. "Just tell me where to set them!"

"Do we take down the tree?" Hayama frowned, the lines of his face drawing even deeper down. "We already destroyed two with the other traps."

"Three," Kakashi said. "Don't worry about it. I'm sure the Desolate Wasteland of Death will be just as popular as the Forest of Death."

"This is where the birds live that we domesticated to make messenger birds," Hayama said. "If anything happened to the supply of birds being bred in the village, we'd have to go back here."

"But the birds in the village are thriving," Iruka pointed out. The mother of one of his current students worked on the breeding program, and had told him about it at great length during the latest parent-teacher meeting, possibly to keep him from telling her about how her little Yui was really doing.

"And our primary responsibility is to destroy every trace of the Sound trap," Mariko said. Her Byakugan was active, and she stared at the roots of the tree. "There is... something there. I can't quite make out the shape of it through the barrier." She glanced at Kakashi.

"Told you," Genma said. He had brushed himself off, but a trace of bark still clung to one shoulder. "There's something beneath that tree that causes a half-minute jutsu delay." He grinned lazily at Iruka. "Did you think I was making it up?"

"No, why would anyone suspect you of making things up," Raidou said. "That never happens."

"Maybe they needed that delay when they were setting the trap," Iruka suggested. "No, there's no reason-- It must have been aimed at us."

"Us?" Genma said quizzically.

"Anyone trying to destroy the traps," Kakashi said. "I think Iruka-sensei is right. The time-delay makes sure that the trap will be triggered if anyone tries to disarm it, even with the method we just used."

Raidou nodded. "So we're bound to have some degree of trouble, and if they're lucky, injury or death."

Anko bounced on her heels. "So do we blow the tree up or not?"

"We do," Kakashi said. "The birds will just have to move."

Hayama kept frowning, but he joined in the discussion about how to best destroy the remains of the trap. Iruka wanted to join in, too, but instead he sat back on his heels and focused his mind on the barrier. It was a darker blue than the one he'd made two days ago, shading into purple in places, and he thought it was stronger, too. Maybe he should practice this more, with and without supporting fuda for corner seals. A good barrier was a very useful thing for a shinobi. And for a teacher, he thought with a small, crooked grin.

The others milled around him, talking and pointing, and finally split up in two groups, with Mariko and Hayama going off to the other side of the barrier, and Anko, Raidou and Genma returning to the places where the giant spirit animals had vanished. "More to the left," Anko called to Raidou, "or it'll come back right on top of you."

"Or right inside you," Genma suggested. "You'll be half man, half spider!"

"And probably all dead," Anko said. "Left. There!"

Kakashi stayed next to Iruka. "I'll use a lightning cutter from this direction," he said. "Once I move, you'll have to watch your own back, Iruka-sensei."

"I'm perfectly capable of watching my own back," Iruka said, trying not to sound huffy. "Unless you mean literally. Just tell me when to take the barrier down."

"Now," Kakashi said.

Iruka clapped his hands together, and nothing happened. That blasted time-delay was very annoying. He stood up and turned towards Anko, Raidou and Genma; in the absence of other instructions, it seemed to him that the best thing he could do was help them to distract the spirit animals while the others finally destroyed the trap. "Twenty-five seconds now," he said. "Please keep your attention on the trap, Kakashi, and I'll deal with the tiger."

"But Naruto asked me to look after you," Kakashi said.

Iruka scowled. He could just imagine that. "I am going to strangle him."

"Why, Iruka-sensei. I thought you cared about that boy."

"I love him like a younger brother," Iruka said. "And I'm going to strangle him like a younger brother, too." The barrier came down, and the animals came back into existence with a quick flicker. Iruka ran for the tiger, which hadn't needed even a fraction of a second to think before charging Anko. He thought he himself would have been a bit disoriented by a reality shift like that, but then the spirit animals weren't even really ghosts, they were just driven by the power of the jutsu, so probably impossible to confuse like that, even if the prey they'd just been chasing had disappeared and another had taken its place.

He kicked the tiger's stony flank, and it twisted around and snapped at him. At three times their usual size, those ichor-dripping fangs looked really, really big. Anko kicked it from the other side, and the tiger roared.

On the other side of the nearest tree, Genma had clearly given up completely on stealthy shinobi silence and was swearing out loud at the centipede, with some creativity. Iruka stored away some of those phrases for future use, just in case he ever needed them, not that he'd ever address his students like that. Maybe in the privacy of his own head.

Maybe Naruto, for apparently sticking him with a complete nuisance of a jounin baby-sitter. Iruka hoped Jiraya was being strict with the boy. Then again, he'd hoped that Kakashi was teaching a measure of order and discipline, too, and Kakashi wouldn't know order and discipline if it bit him.

The tiger's teeth snapped, and Iruka put all his attention to keeping from being bitten, himself. Or clawed. The tiger tried to claw Anko with its missing left hind paw, and she laughed.

Iruka realized he still had the extra emergency flare tucked under his arm. He pulled it out and threw the box away. This would be a good test to see if the flare could be used under actual emergency conditions, not that he intended to shoot it straight up for visibility. Instead, he held it in his hand, which the instructions said never to do, and lit it while he was still holding it, which the instructions said never ever ever to do, and threw it with as much accuracy as he could manage into the roaring maw of a giant ghost tiger, which the instructions hadn't said anything about at all, probably because whoever wrote the instructions hadn't imagined that anyone ever would.

The tiger's head exploded in a very satisfactory manner. Anko laughed even louder. "Take that, you miserable--"

A deafening boom came from behind them, much louder than the flare going off between the tiger's teeth, and the animals flickered again, grew larger, smaller, larger, and then disappeared in a flash, leaving dark-red after-images on the eye. There was a moment of silence, and then a drawn-out crash and screech. Iruka turned in time to see the huge tree falling, coming to rest at an angle when it was caught against other trees farther away.

Hayama jumped up on the tree trunk and began to run along it towards the tree's crown, presumably to check for bird's nests, although Iruka thought this year's brood would already have grown up enough to learn to fly. Kakashi and Hyuuga Mariko were both moving in towards the same spot with great determination, eyes fixed on a spot in the grass.

"We should destroy it," Kakashi said at the same time as Mariko said, "It could be useful."

Kotetsu and Izumo burst out of the woods, both of them with weapons in their hands, chain glinting between them. Behind them followed Morino Ibiki, three masked ANBU, two random shinobi, and a dog, because one of the shinobi was an Inuzuka.

"Now, now," Kakashi said. "We're all fine, but thank you for coming so promptly."

Ibiki shouldered his way forward and fixed them all with a level stare. "Who set off the emergency flare?"

"I did," Iruka said. Both of them, really, but with any luck, Ibiki only knew about the first one.

Ibiki turned to focus on him, and Iruka knew how his students felt when they had to admit they were the ones who put jam on someone's seat or nailed a long braid to a desk with a kunai. He wondered if he would ever be able to look that intimidating. He was fairly sure he wouldn't be able to radiate killing intent at a bunch of small children.

"There's a punishment for frivolous use of emergency signals," Ibiki said. "They're only meant for actual emergencies, and all Konoha ninja must be able to trust that their response to a signal is--"

"I told him to do it," Kakashi said. "As team leader, I take full responsibility."

"Besides, there was an emergency," Genma said. "We fixed it."

"There could have been an emergency," Raidou said more temperately. "Although the second time was really--"

Ibiki's eyes snapped. "Second time?"

Iruka discovered that he could definitely radiate killing intent at Raidou. Raidou looked a little sheepish.

Anko flung her arms in the air. "Why don't we all go back to the village?" she said. "You can explain on the way, and bring that thingy to the hokage and she can decide what to do with it."

The thingy in question was a small round piece of metal, slightly corroded on one side and with dirt ground in. Ibiki wasn't happy about taking an object that had a Sound jutsu on it into Konoha and handing it to Tsunade, but both Kakashi and Mariko assured him that all it did was cause a thirty-second delay, and one of the ANBU summoned a chakra-proof box to carry it in. Hayama came back down from the tree with a half-grown bird on his shoulder, and they all set off together. Kakashi fell in next to Ibiki and started to explain it all to him, and Ibiki, while still looking grim, relaxed a tiny bit, enough that Iruka stopped feeling like someone had a kunai to the back of his neck.

Trudging along, Iruka had somehow ended up surrounded by the three ANBU. Presumably if Naruto could see him now, he'd at least think that his old teacher was staying safe. Iruka sighed. It was clear to him that Kakashi would only do this when he had the time between missions, and for as long as he found it amusing. Iruka could only hope that Kakashi would stop finding it amusing very soon, because Kakashi's version of looking after was what Iruka would call blatant and annoying persecution, particularly with this ridiculous dating notion thrown in as well.

"Kakashi!" Guy came pounding up at the head of his team. "We saw the signal -- what's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong now," Kakashi said. "The emergency has been dealt with."

"All the ghost animals are dead," Anko said. "Except they were already dead." She eyed Tenten, who was slightly out of breath and carrying a giant scroll across one shoulder. "Is that your main weapons scroll?" She fell into step besides Tenten, and they started an intense, low-voiced discussion about senbon.

Lee and Neji greeted everyone with silent nods and drifted to the end of the line. Guy caught sight of Iruka and turned and said something to Kakashi, low enough that Iruka couldn't hear it. Kakashi winced. Iruka had time to think that it could be worse, and then Guy burst out, "But while romance may thrive in secrecy, true love requires trust and open communication! And Iruka-san is an honest, straightforward person. You should remember how lucky you are, Kakashi!"

Everyone within earshot, which was everyone present, stared from Iruka to Kakashi and back again, while Guy pushed between Kakashi's shoulder blades and Kakashi let himself be moved to Iruka's side. The ANBU politely lengthened their stride until they were ahead, and Kakashi and Iruka walked side by side. The air between them was thick enough that you could probably stab a kunai into it and make it stick.

"In the spirit of open communication," Iruka said, keeping his voice level with an effort, "don't you think it would be better to tell Guy-san there's been a misunderstanding?"

"Oh, but I couldn't do that," Kakashi said. "Guy would be devastated if it turned out that the springtime of our love had been blighted by his careless words."

"You keep your springtime away from me," Iruka hissed. "There is no secret romance, there haven't been any dates, and I may strangle you before I strangle Naruto, you're closer."

"Well, that's a terrible oversight on my part, I admit," Kakashi said, "the lack of dates, I mean, so we'd better go to lunch after we've seen the hokage. I promise there won't be any dango involved."

Iruka tried to let Ibiki inspire his glare, and gave up on volume control. Everyone already seemed to think they knew all about his business, anyway. And this was something he really wanted them to know. "We're not dating."

"Not dating!" How Kakashi could manage to look shocked from behind the mask was a mystery. "But so many reputable Konoha shinobi have told me that we are! And Guy threatened terrible violence to my person if I broke your heart. Do you think Naruto had a word with him as well?"

"No," Iruka said, resigned, "I think he's Guy. Kakashi, did you pay the dango shop owner yet?"

"Yes," Kakashi said. Iruka looked at him. "I did! Clearly you're a good influence on me, Iruka-sensei. You could at least come to lunch, keep me from painful death at Guy's hands a little longer."

At the gates into Konoha, Kotetsu and Izumo disappeared into the gatehouse, and the random shinobi and the dog peeled off. Everyone else marched on to the hokage tower, and the ANBU spread out as it they were guarding them. Of course, when they came in, it turned out Tsunade was at the hospital, and someone had to go get her while they all stood around in a hallway that became uncomfortably crowded.

The team members slumped down or leaned against walls, except Hyuuga Mariko, who had appropriated the one stool that the hallway offered. One of Anko's snakes had crept out over her collar, and she petted it absently while she talked to Genma and Raidou. Guy gathered his team in one corner and gave them a little speech, while shooting reproachful glances at Kakashi. The bird on Hayama's shoulder fluttered up and settled on the box in Ibiki's hands, chirping into his stoic face and shifting from foot to foot before leaving a messy bird dropping right in the middle of the box's carved lid.

Iruka tried very, very hard not to laugh. Then he glanced sideways at Kakashi, and wished he, too, had a mask. He had to turn his face to the wall for a moment.

"At least it didn't decide to sit on his head," Kakashi said quietly, and then thumped Iruka's back when he choked on the laugh that he wasn't letting out.

Tsunade came in at a sedate pace, for her, and looked them all over, hands at her hips. "I can't imagine that it takes this many shinobi to report on a mission," she said. "Well, brat?"

Kakashi, Ibiki and the bird-decorated box came with Tsunade into her office. The ANBU disappeared in a flurry of leaves to wherever ANBU went at such times. Guy came up and put both hands on Iruka's shoulders and said earnestly, "I hope everything will work out! Kakashi is a good man, and his hip, modern style hides a true and steady heart." Then he gathered his team and went off before Iruka could figure out how to answer, which was probably just as well.

Most of the trap-destroying team drifted off, too, and Iruka thought that he might easily slip away himself, except that Anko and Genma came to stand on either side of him, close enough that their arms brushed his. Anko's snake leaned over until its tongue flickered against Iruka's ear. "Gah!"

"Oh, don't be such a baby," she said. "Everything will work out with Kakashi, won't it?"

"It would be a tragedy if you broke such a true and steady heart," Genma said.

Iruka glared at the snake until it actually reared back and crept down under Anko's collar again, but Anko herself just grinned at him. Genma shifted his senbon. "There's nothing to work out," Iruka said in the voice that he used for explaining to six-year-old children that they were not going to be sent on missions tomorrow. "There's no dating and no heartbreak--"

"No coming," Anko said seriously. "I remember. You should really do something about that."

Genma choked and spat his senbon on the floor, where it stood quivering. "That really is a tragedy," he said breathlessly. "No wonder Guy looked so sad for you. You two should just go on another dango date and let things happen naturally."

Iruka huffed. "Genma-san, stop littering inside the tower. Do you realize you've probably ruined my life by making up this ridiculous date rumor? Everyone I meet keeps talking about it!"

Well, or Naruto had ruined his life by trying to get Kakashi to look after him. There was no doubt that Naruto meant well, though. Genma, on the other hand, probably only meant to entertain himself. Perhaps Iruka would strange him first.

"You might as well give in to fate," Genma said, unaware of the danger he was courting with every word. "There's nothing as romantic as a dango date, after all."

"There's a sensible attitude," Anko said. She reached across Iruka and grabbed Genma by the front of his shirt. "One you'd do well to copy, Iruka. We'll be watching for you at the dango shop!"

Both of them disappeared, and Iruka sank down until he was sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall, head tilted back. There was no daylight in here, and it could have been any hour, day or night. His hands smelled faintly of gunpowder from the emergency flares. Maybe he should have looked more closely at the place where the tiger disappeared, to see if the second flare would have lain there unexploded in the grass, much as his kunai had been left behind when the alligator disappeared. But then again, the kunai hadn't exploded, just been cleaned of the alligator gunk that had disappeared with the alligator.

Iruka wondered what he was doing there. He should just leave, as he had thought to do before. Everyone else had, after all. He was just tensing his leg muscles in preparation when the door to the hokage's office opened again.

The first to stride out was Ibiki, now minus the chakra-proof box. He stared down at Iruka, a bit less menacingly than before. "I suppose that was an acceptable use of the emergency flares," he said.

"Don't forget to restock the store room," Iruka said automatically, his last-pencil-in-the-box reflex kicking in before he could think about it. Ibiki's stare grew a little more menacing after all, but he strode off without saying anything more, and Iruka felt relieved that he could have a halfway normal conversation with someone that didn't involve the words Kakashi or date.

(Even if it was a very short conversation. With Moreno Ibiki. About emergency flares. Maybe normal wasn't the best word to use.)

And the relief was short-lived, because Kakashi himself came out of the room, closing the door on whatever Tsunade might decide to do with the box and its time-delay contents. He looked down at Iruka, too, head cocked to one side, and then held out his hand.

Iruka took it and let himself be pulled to his feet. He wasn't about to stay on the floor outside the hokage's office for the rest of his life. Kakashi's fingertips were still cold.

"All alone, Iruka-sensei? Oh, by the way," Kakashi said, tone shifting from teasing to straightforward in the blink of an eye, "Tsunade says Sakura-chan is fine."

Iruka slumped a little. Of course he'd believed Tsunade when she'd said that Sakura would be fine, but it was much better to hear that she really was fine. He would never have forgiven himself if she'd actually done damage to herself in trying to heal him, particularly of such an inconsequential injury. He turned and started walking at Kakashi's side down the hallway. "Good. So that's the end of it all, then?"

"The end of the mission," Kakashi said. "But not the end of everything, surely. I'm sure you can't be that cruel, Iruka-sensei."

Iruka sighed. He was not, had never been, and would never be Kakashi's sensei. "Stop calling me that," he said. "It doesn't make any sense, coming from you."

"I suppose I picked it up from Naruto," Kakashi said. "He loves you a great deal, you know."

"And stop talking about Naruto," Iruka went on, though he felt his heart simultaneously warm and twist in his chest when he heard those words. "It's really not fair, and you're not going to manipulate me into anything that way."

"You're very harsh," Kakashi said. "Iruka. Very strict." His eye creased in a smile. "At least you're not blowing my head up with fireworks." Then he winked. "Yet."

Iruka smacked Kakashi on the back of the head before he had time to think about it. Then he wondered if Kakashi had let him do that. Then he wondered why Kakashi had let him do that. Then he shook himself all over and cleared his throat. Kakashi would lose interest in this game soon enough, so Iruka might as well get something out of it.

"I'll go to lunch with you," he said briskly, "because you made me miss dinner with Hitomi-chan's parents the other day. But no dango." Anko and Genma would just have to find a different way to amuse themselves. Iruka was sure that they'd think of something.

"No dango," Kakashi said with a hint of a smile. "We'll have ramen and talk about barrier jutsu. That was quite an impressive barrier you created back there."

"We'll talk about barriers," Iruka agreed. "And traps."

Because one day, if he had to take lessons from Shuusuke to do it, he'd manage to construct a trap that Hatake Kakashi would actually go in. Head first, by preference.