Standard Disclaimers are depressing, soul-sucking oubliettes of truth that should never be forced on anyone even remotely sentient. It's just cruel and unusual punishment, you hear!

Authors Note: I have no idea how this chapter came to life. Honest to the writing Gods I don't. See this is how I make usually end up writing stories: A. some of the time it's an idea that nags at you until you give in; B. some of the time its situation you explore; and at times it's like C. you write dialogues but with absolutely no description or narration of any sort whatsoever.

Now this part falls under that last category. I really don't have any idea how something that's a measly 800+ words on notepad grew to become this monster of nearly 8000+ written, convoluted mess.

Well, at least it moved the story along. Sorry I don't have a concrete update schedule. Writing comes in varying stages of intensities and fervor—the product I suppose of catering to an utterly unpredictable fickle-minded Muse. I am however, looking forward to turning our beloved dobe into something that would make Pretty Woman , Pretty in Pink and every other make-over princess positively green with envy-even more so than Elphaba or Maleficent.

So here's to hoping you'll enjoy this installment and if you have any idea of what he should look like, drop a line-who knows, I might indulge you. My eternal gratitude to the first ones that reviewed this story—its continuing existence owes much to your initial interests.

5/21/14 – Editing sucks. Especially when I end up tweaking it over and over again. It's officially at 9000+ words.


DAY TWO:

THE DARE

"What have you been reading, the Gospel According to St. Bastard?"

Eddie Izzard


Naruto woke up to the light of the new morn in slow, gentle increments ...a luxury he has not had in many years. Wars and training for years under his previous master, his summons's master, and even his fellow jinchuuriki has not allowed for such opportunities. Deciding not to look a gift horse in the mouth, he took opted for an early breakfast of his favorite cup ramen and a leisurely bath. He chose to forgo his usual outfit and simply came out of his room attired in a black long sleeved shirt and shinobi pants, thinking that he would lounge around and wait out what the rest of the day might bring about when he noticed the tiny scroll that was jauntily perched alongside one of Mr. Ukki's tiny branches.

Checking the mark that came with it, he broke the seal without undue haste and read the scant few lines written within. It took him three times to finally understand what was written. It also took him twice as long as that to figure out what the hell Kakashi-sensei meant by it.


In the northern woods of Konoha stands a venerable structure unlike any other. Set smack in the middle of heavy woodlands, three stories high, painted a generic cream color and trimmed in dark greens stands the one building devoid of any discernible sign of purpose or reason. There was no civilian presence anywhere for miles around Shinobi are the only visible presence that one could feel within or around the perimeter of the building with the surprising addition of one or two ANBU. And it is in this place that the members of team seven—both new and old—found themselves meeting.

Team seven, four members, sans jounin leader, all present and accounted for. Black clad, pack-less and with no visible weapons in sight as per their mission commander recommended, stared at the innocuous façade of the building, four faces ranged from dismay, discontent, disgruntlement and indifference as they gazed at the location of their current assignment.

Naruto couldn't help but grimace in irritation as he glanced at the scroll bearing their latest order. "This is the weirdest request I have ever read. I freaking hope that I will never receive one ever again. What the hell was Kakashi-sensei thinking? Who in the hell sends a mission assignment that states minimal clothing required to get down and dirty? I had half mind to track that heterochromic bastard to the nearest strip club before the address hit me."

A dark chuckle caught his ears and he turned to see Sasuke smirk at his clearly disgruntled appearance. "Caught you unawares, didn't it dobe? Years spent with a pervert finally catching up with you?"

Naruto snorted, "Just because Ero-sennin lived, breathed and pretty much thought of perversions more hours than there are in a single day doesn't mean he was contagious. He wrote porn and he was pretty straightforward about it—unlike some pale-face snakey pedophile who I can mention, he likes to write things all descriptive like so it doesn't require anyone to think very hard."

"All in all, that makes most of his fans pretty much like you, then."

"So I like things laid out and clear-cut teme, sue me. Subterfuge annoys me." Scrubbing a hand across his face in frustration, he tried to clear his head and focus on the matter at hand, "Speaking of annoying things, tell me, why do we have to do this again?"

Sai answered without any discernible inflection in his smooth voice. "Because Tsunade-sama ordered us to do so and because she said she will punch your face into the stratosphere if you so much as complain."

Naruto stared at his other pale-skinned teammate and wondered why he even bothered to wake up today. "Gee, thanks for reminding me Sai, you're a real pal."

"You're most welcome Naruto-kun." A beat passed and Sai turned to his bright-haired companion who continued to stare at him for some oddly unfathomable reason like he was waiting for something. Sai paused for a moment before a thought seemed to grip him. "Ah! Was that sarcasm you were attempting Naruto-kun?"

A derisive snort and a growling voice answered him. "If that was an attempt, we can rightly assume that it was a complete and utter failure. Much like your every attempt at wit dobe."

Naruto turned towards his other raven-haired companion and smirked, "I see someone didn't get their morning coffee soon enough. Too bright and early for you, teme? The sun bringing out your inner asshole?"

Sasuke glared at the blonde for hinting at his current cause for anger. "Hn."

Sakura finally decided to butt in before her male companions spent the entire day growling out even more inanities. "Gentlemen, shall we get started? And Naruto, for the record, we are taking this assignment because this is a mission given to the village as a whole and we need to help scour through all these candidates to help Tsunade-shishou on whom to pick."

Naruto sighed and relented and simply started walking towards the building. "Fine. Let's just get this thing done and over with. But for the record, if I die here of boredom, I am holding all of you responsible."

Sasuke grunted and Sakura huffed in exasperation as Sai looked at the pouting blond with something close to approaching amusement.


Inside the genealogy room of the Konoha Shinobi Records and Archives they worked across the expanse of the space busily pouring over boxes after boxes of papers and registry books, hands flying here and there as they scanned compiled and sorted out the paperwork of that spans nearly two decades. After a quick conference on how to tackle the daunting task of securing the files of every women of appropriate age who even has the faintest connection with the Senju clan from the depths of the archives paper-filled oubliette, they proceeded with the task at hand.

Sasuke and some of Naruto's clones would scan all the filed profiles and pull out the files that needed a more in-depth study. Sakura would categorize based on age, lineage and suitability then redirect every name they pull out into piles and Naruto and Sai would pin them on a wall and where they would do their final cull.

Five minutes into their task, Sasuke was already threatening body harm against his team of clones who refused to call him anything but 'bastard', 'teme' or other colorful permutations of both.

Ten minutes into the assignment Sakura was ready to kill her teammates who kept arguing about whether it was the mothers' line or the fathers' who would be more credible.

And fifteen minutes into it all, Naruto was already sprawled on the nearest flat surface, whining and throwing a tantrum like a four year old toddler.

"This is so boring! Ugh, what is this place anyways? Is this is a paper mausoleum? Or is it paper cemetery?"

"According to the ones at the mission room—this is the place where paper work goes to die, get buried and forgotten along with all the other pesky paper works that is part and parcel of being part of a shinobi village."

The members of the original Team Seven stared at the pale former Root for a full minute, unable to figure out how to react to the young man's laconic statement. It was Naruto who finally shook his head and grinned at his less than reactive teammate.

"You know Sai, if you weren't so expressionless when you said that shit it would be funny as hell, you know that man?"

"It would?"

"Absolutely. Ugh, this place is the pits. We haven't even been inside the place yet for full hour and I can feel my brain cells dying."

"Is that so? Then I pity you dobe, because if we spend more than an hour at this place you would become a complete and utter moron. Oh, wait too late—you already are."

"Can't be more of a moron than you bastard, now can I?" Naruto quipped, hands filled with even more pages of paper given by his clones as he grinned at the smirking former avenger.

"Ugh, please would the two of you just shut up! Or so help me I swear I will bury you in here and those papers would be your actual graveyard and this building would be your very own cozy mausoleum. Now go back to work!"

The two young men abruptly ended their little word war and went back to their task, much to Sai's glee. Sasuke was standing in front of wall of filing cabinets, meticulously reading the minute labels and pulling out folders after folder that he deemed related to their current task at hand. The pile was steadily growing with every file drawer he opened and growing just as steadily was the vein throbbing on his brow for what he would clearly label as grunt work.

"Did these people ever throw away anything? I'm finding receipts and voucher forms along with residency forms and birth certificates. Do they even know what they're doing?"

Sakura grunted in exasperation as she sorted through even more jumbled documents, "More like—do they even know to file? Or organize files? These are woefully out of date."

"Or clean. This place has more than two inches of dust on every surface. The place has not been disturbed for quite some time." Sai ran a hand across the nearest shelf and displayed his now grey fingers. "The dust in this place must be here since it was built."

The blond-haired sage scoffed as a few of his clones climbed the walls and noted the same dusty conditions, "Not disturbed? Try not bothered to remember. I think they chuck everything in here that could fit, sealed the doors and forgot it ever existed."

Sai helpfully turned towards the calendar hanging close to where he stood and noted monotonously, "Naruto-kun, this calendar is current and I've seen current paperwork in the last batches we've mapped out."

The blond screeched, grabbing at Sai's arm and crying out with exaggerated drama, "Dear God this place is alive! It's growing all on its own! Hurry, we should go now before it's too late!"

Sasuke watched as the blond flail about and run around the room like the usual idiot that he was, wondering why the sight didn't disturb him nor arouse within him the usual disdain that he felt for such ridiculous antics. For the past year, he has done all he could to make a life for himself in this time of peace and so far he has managed to convince himself that he has made progress. Since evidently, he hasn't felt any desire to try and murder the idiotic battery bunny now delaying their assignment once more with his idiocy. But it doesn't mean he couldn't enjoy baiting the gullible little fishcake whenever the opportunity presented itself.

"Yes, just like your stupidity. Now move your ass moron, I can't read the files while you block everything and while you're at it, drag Captain No-Emo with you. I can't concentrate with the living blockhead right next to me."

Naruto stared at Sasuke for a full minute before dissolving into loud chuckles. "Whoa—was that an actual pun there Sas? Is the end about to come? Are you finally unclenching that giant icicle lodged up your pale ass?"

"No and if you call me 'Sas' one more time I will kill you." Sasuke threw a book lying conveniently at hand at the grinning blonde and grinned at the satisfying 'thunk' he heard when it hit. Sure it hit a clone but the dobe would feel the pain later on anyways.

"You bastard teme! What the hell was that for!"

"If I have to explain even something like that, you should be sent back to the academy dobe."

"You two are the biggest pair of idiots that ever existed this side of the elemental nations." Sakura huffed before getting out of dodge. She knew better than stay at close range when resident idiot pair in her team starts bickering.

"Sakura-chan! It's not my fault, the teme started it!"

"Tattle-telling now dobe? What next?"

"Oh just shut up teme! This is all your fault and now Sakura-chan's gonna be mad at me again."

"The pair of you—just grow a pair and shut up! You two already went through wars and battles and at the first sign of peace you revert to being juvenile, mouthy brats. Now, I will say this again—get back to freaking work!" she hollered.

"Fine, fine", Naruto grumbled, grabbing the smiling, pale boy next to him back to their spot, "Come on then Sai, my friend, let's leave the icy bastard to his files and you can help me plot out the Senju's messy family tree. Who knows, maybe we would finally find 'The One'."

"As you wish Naruto-kun." Sai murmured, missing none of the quick dark look at Sasuke leveled his way before the former avenger turned back to his files.

For a brief period silence ensues and all that could be heard from the room where the unmistakable rustling of papers, the soft patter of chakra enhanced feet against the dark stucco walls and the occasional mutterings of a bored raven and an even more bored fox.

Sakura was diving into yet another storage box, carefully making notes on a scroll, occasionally making frustrated noises as she thrusts another sheaf of papers to her blond teammate and accepts another folder handed out by the raven head.

Naruto meanwhile, with his clones spamming the room to pin profiles, pictures and names, helped Sai to create a complex family tree that started with the Shodaime on the right side of an empty wall and his brother the Nidaime on the left side of the same wall.

The two have been working seamless for a good half an hour when Sai looked up and pinned Naruto with a look the other interpreted rightly so as inquiring. With a short nod and a hum, he waited for the other to speak.

"Naruto-kun?"

"Yeah man?" Naruto's eyes flickered up to meet with twin pools of curios, fathomless onyx and then fell back on the sheets of paper clutched in his hand. "You've a question for me?"

The former Root nodded his dark head. "Yes. This task—does it mean we're searching for a woman from the Senju line?" Naruto gave an absentminded nod and Sai paused before asking once more, aware that the blond was yet to notice that their exchanges were garnering the attention of both the roseate-haired medic and their former and now again teammate. "A civilian woman who would then be made suitable for this would-be task?"

"That's it in a nutshell I guess."

"And these females are all the candidates for the mission?"

Sakura decided to take pity on her teammates—one of whom was clearly lost and the other clearly clueless.

"Sai, these are females who could lay some kind of connection or claim to the Senju line. The mission parameters require that Konoha send a contingency that has members of the ruling clans of Konoha and by extension the Fire Nation. That's the most viable noble house we can lay claim on since they had extensive filial lines all over the elemental nations and they would offer a wide array of would be last names and appearances. That also means, we can pass off someone suitable enough as a member of the Senju even if they have no actual connections to Konoha or even being a shinobi."

"That doesn't make much sense. If any person would do, why put a civilian in danger?"

"I know." Naruto stopped fiddling with the sheets of profiles in his hand and shrugging handed it over to a couple of clones who gave him a short salute and proceeded back to the family tree they were reconstructing. He looked at Sai thoughtfully before speaking, his hands reaching up to rub the back of his head in a tell-tale betrayal of nervousness. "There's one other thing I can't figure out about it, though."

"Only one thing, dobe?" a smooth dark voice quipped from the corner of the room and Naruto's head whipped back go glare at the smirking Uchiha.

"Shut up teme."

Sakura reached out and slapped the back of Sasuke's head, ignoring the fearsome glare he leveled her way without so much as batting her lashes. She turned towards the unusually pensive looking blonde and inquired, "So what's really bothering you about this assignment Naruto-kun? I mean, this isn't the usual infiltration assignment I know; it wouldn't be a long term undercover mission but rather a long training period before the actual assignment. Are you afraid we won't be able to find anyone?"

The blonde was already shaking his head before she even finished and the frustrated look in his eyes made everyone with him wonder why the he was so reticent about this relatively-risk free mission. They weren't foolish enough to think that there wouldn't be any risk, but compared to some, this was still relatively tame. Strategically significant yes, but not lethal in any way, shape or form unless they become really, really careless or unlucky. She was about to open her lips to ask him to clarify when he decided to speak.

"Why do they need a civilian girl for such a job anyways? Or any girl for that matter? Why does it have to be a freaking princess anyways? I don't want to imagine some helpless girl to be locked in the middle of a situation that would turn her into a damsel in distress. I mean can't it be a kunoichi for this job? Doesn't the old hag understand that there are hundreds of ways a mission could turn into a clusterfuck quicker than you can say 'Senju'?"

Sakura blinked. She turned towards Sasuke who was still staring at their blond with a really inscrutable look in his eyes. Her eyes fell on Sai and she could only sigh at the blank look in the young man's face at what Naruto just said. Rubbing away the furrow that she was sure was forming on her brow, she faced her team mate and tried not let her frustration color her voice.

"Naruto, I don't even want to know why the heck you describe them that way, but I really have to ask or else it will drive me crazy. Can you explain just what the hell you mean with all that?"

Naruto shrugged and looked down at his hands in thought, marshaling his thoughts as well as he could. "Blame Iruka-sensei. When he taught me how to read all he had on hand were fairy tales and nursery rhymes other than training scrolls and history books. So now, whenever the word princess comes to mind I think of all the worries and problems and demands I'd have to handle if were to protect one. I don't really like thinking of a girl—any girl—even kunoichi's I know who are strong enough in danger or getting hurt." He picked at the hem of his shirt, looking for all the world like a painfully shy, precocious little boy who was earnestly trying to explain his point, "Girls are meant to be—you know—protected and cared for and stuff, like I would do for Tsunade-baa or Shizune-nee or Ayame-nee. Putting them in harm's way—that's just not right, you know. Makes me itch and think of all the ways a girl could get hurt."

Sakura found herself blinking and fighting off what she feared was the beginning of a blush. It didn't help that there was that amused, if resigned smirk painting the corner of both raven-heads' lips. She gave her blond team mate a chuckle and a grin, "Damn, Blondie, if I didn't know you better, I'd have fallen in love with you for that. You can be so incredibly sweet at times."

He gave her a brilliant smile that seemed to brighten even the darkened corners of the gloomy archives, cerulean eyes awash with cheer and merriment that could rival the sun, "Ah Sakura-chan! That's so nice of you! Does that mean you've fallen in love with me now?"

"What do you think idiot? Didn't I say that if I didn't know you?"

The blond winced, "Ouch. Harsh as ever—hey wait! Does that mean you don't love me yet? Even now and after all we have gone through?"

She sighed in fond exasperation, "I wish I didn't. And not the way you think, you big lug." She ruffled his head when he gave her a kicked-puppy dog look from those devastating eyes of his, "I told you that already—I am swearing off love until I find a guy who can punch better than me."

Naruto blinked before grinning in his usual impish grin, "Then Sakura-chan, then that would make your ideal guy Lee then. That guy is a freak of strength."

Sasuke promptly lost the battle to remain stoic and grunted, "Pot meet kettle."

"Huh?"

Seriously, the dobe couldn't be that dense. No one who goes through a war and remain so convincingly oblivious, now could they? But then again I am talking about the dobe here. Is there any point in wondering what could be accomplished by the most unpredictable Shinobi of the Elemental Nations? Reminding himself that there was a task at hand, he turned away only to be held back by the question look leveled at him with those sea-sky eyes.

"What?"

"What do you mean by that?"

"Know what, never mind. It would just hurt my head just thinking of trying to explain to you that one."

Naruto looked at Sasuke like he wanted to pursue the conversation some more but decided to simply shrug off his curiosity and muttered, "Whatever, back to the question Sakura-chan—why can't it be a guy? What's wrong with a good old fashioned spoiled nobleman?"

"Are you two going to work or just gab all day? I thought this was a rush care to explain why I'm the only one working?"Sasuke cocked an imperious eyebrow at his teammates and gave them a chilly nod when the two gave a chagrined smile.

"Sorry Sasuke." Sakura murmured quietly before returning to her seat on the large table already filled with half-opened folders and registries. Naruto looked at Sai who gave him a nod and dutifully went back to plotting the two Senju's impromptu family tree. Meanwhile, the usually hyperactive ninja gazed at his teammate, tilting his head to the side and asked simply,

"How about you teme, what do you think?"

"About what?" Sasuke replied absently, eyes locked unto the files in front of him.

"Weren't you listening?"

"I try very hard not to listen to you. Saves me hours of therapy, my sanity and my brain cells thank me for it later."

"I don't even understand why you need therapy. Any more talk with shrinks and you'd be so nonreactive you'd be an inanimate object."

Sasuke snorted, "You're one to talk, I could only wish you could turn into an inanimate object."

Sai snickered and Sakura huffed in annoyance, "If you two don't stop right now, I'd make sure to turn you guys not just inanimate—I'd rendered you immobile."

The shiver of dread that crawled up their spine made them silent for a bit but it didn't hold him silent for long so after a bit, he continued where he left off, "So teme, back to my question—what's wrong with picking a guy to play noble instead?"

Sasuke closed his eyes in clear aggravation and released a pent up sigh. He wanted to finish the assignment as soon as possible and it was being made improbable by the dobe's incessant inquiries. "Technically there's nothing wrong with one."

"So why can't we just look for a shinobi with Senju blood instead? That would solve the problem of risks, right?"

By now even Sakura abandoned the pretense of working and gave Sai the signal to take a seat. Since Naruto had a bee in his bonnet there was a 100 percent chance none of them would get any work done until he could satisfy whatever curiosity burned inside the mischievous, convoluted cavern he calls his head.

"What's the matter now, Blondie?"

"I'm just saying, why bother with a civilian girl we would all end up protecting anyways when we could just get a guy or a shinobi so we reduce the risk?"

"A guy?"

"Yeah you know, why not someone who can just henge into a girl? That would work right?"

Sai looked at the hopeful blond and wished he didn't have to shoot down his idea but reasoned it was the logical thing to do and the blond would understand anways. "There is merit in what you say Naruto-kun." Sai praised the blond, "But even if we do find a volunteer who could do it—you must remember that the Henge is just an illusion not a corporeal transformation. The person would have to mingle with people, touch and be touched in turn. Not to mention the fact that the mission would last anywhere from seven to ten days and no one could maintain such a technique without succumbing to exhaustion if not death."

"Oh!" Naruto bit his lip, nibbling on the vulnerable flesh thoughtfully missing the dark gleam in Sasuke's eyes and the speculative ones in Sai's. "What about disguises? We can just find the prettiest, girliest shinobi we have and send them right? That would take care of the physical concern."

Sakura shook her head sadly, "I know you mean to protect these girls, but Naruto, what makes you think that they won't check that the decoy we sent is an actual female? This maybe a shinobi operation but it is also a political one and a delicate balance must be maintained. They would be rigorous in their security and it wouldn't be an exaggeration to assume that they would have a means to check for henge and disguises."

Naruto was outrightly frowning and moaning about the situation, "Fine, but I still can't figure out why it has to be a girl!"

Sasuke stared impassibly at the other pale-skinned shinobi before turning back to the clearly awaiting blond.

"You may not think much of it but there is a reason for the Hokage's decision. The reason why we need a girl is because while males predominantly and traditionally lead clans and make decisions and attend summits like these they can also pose problems of intrigue and aggression. The intent of this summit is for peace and alliance—it's a show of camaraderie and allegiance. They need to foster the idea that they mean peace and joining together and everything that goes with it—including but not limited to the idea of marriage for convenience and political gains."

When Naruto snorted, Sasuke, Sakura and Sai wondered if perhaps the explanation was a bit too complicated and involved for the hyperactive, attention-challenged shinobi. Sakura glanced at Sasuke who gave her a shrug and Sai who merely blinked back at her. She sighed, opened her lips and was completely floored when Naruto nodded his head and muttered,

"So in short, this summit is the shinobi-world equivalent of a marriage mart?"

Sakura spluttered, eyes bulging in clear disbelief, "Where the hell did you learn that term?"

Sai who normally had no reaction was staring at Naruto in clear interest and even Sasuke lost his usual cool disposition, the curiosity blatantly clear in his dark eyes. Naruto pinned a look at his teammates before chuckling and rubbing the back of his head self-consciously before raising his right hand and giving a short wave.

"Uhm, hello—one-time wandering shinobi and unwitting errand boy to a former perverted author right here." He straightened his shoulders before shrugging, "I traveled, lived and unfortunately survived three years in the company of a pervert who was determined to call what he wrote as romances. He made me do tons of research on literary terms and genres I wish I could unlearn to have some space left over in my brain.

Sasuke shook his head before giving the blond a long considering look, "If space gains precedence in your head, it would really be empty then dobe."

"Har-de-frickin'-har teme. Just because you apprenticed your lily white ass to a pedophile with fashion-impairment doesn't give you the right to criticize my mentor. And just for the record, you don't get to talk about him—ever—if you know what's good for you."

"Naruto, stop being so antagonistic and Sasuke stop being an insensitive twerp. Can we now go back to this mission before I end up archived in here along with all the ancient crap they consider important?"

Naruto waved a conciliating hand Sakura's way. He looked back at the walls littered with names and pictures before turning back to her and asking, "Hey Sakura-chan, did the Shodaime and Nidaime have a lot of kids?"

Sakura stared off at the distance as if to recall her lessons before speaking, "More like a lot of affairs. The two of them certainly didn't care for the question of fidelity. During the wars, there certainly weren't much need for stable lives and homes since the entire elemental nation was at war then. But once Konoha was established and the village had its leader, the Shodaime was said to be very faithful once he was wed to Mito-sama. The Nidaime, however, was another matter altogether. He had quite the little harem back then, not to mention all the ones that were rumored to be linked to him outside the walls of the village."

Sai looked at Sakura inquiringly, "Mito-sama?"

"Uzumaki Mito was the Uzushiogakure princess. The only daughter of the ruling clan of Uzu. She was wed to the shodaime to cement the alliance between Uzu and Konoha. Her son was Tsunade-sama's father, I believe."

Sasuke choked at this information and Naruto solicitously reached out and thumped him on the back. Sai stared at their pink-haired companion contemplatively when Naruto suddenly blurted out,

"So wait, doesn't that make me Senju clan heir then?"

Sakura ran a hand through her hair and gave a short nod, "I-I suppose so."

Naruto gave an exultant shout, "Sweet! Hey, maybe I could play the princess! Hah! Wouldn't that be the ultimate prank ever! I would boss you all around all day and Sasuke-teme would have to wait on me hand and foot and he couldn't complain!" he cackled in glee, clutching his stomach as laughter poured forth from smiling lips like a bubbling brook.

Sasuke sighed even as the sight of the blond laughing with such cheerful abandon make something inside of him clench tight. For some reason the tingling awareness that ran through him made him frown and wipe his face clear of any sign of amusement save for the sardonic tilt to his lips.

"Like that would ever happen. You couldn't even act civilized on a normal basis. What makes you even think acting like you're noble-born would be something you can do?"

Naruto stopped laughing long enough to wipe his eyes free of moisture before turning towards the clearly sneering raven. Tilting his head in query, he spoke to the raven simply, grinning all the while, "Oh you mean act like you and go around with an icepick stuck up my ass all day. Shyeah right. Like that's hard? I mean sure, I'd probably have wrinkles on my forehead from all the times I have to frown, and my jaw might ache from all the teeth-grinding and grunting that passes for conversation amongst you cool clan heirs but it's not like that's impossible to learn."

Sasuke's dark eyes turned icy and his lips twisted into a sneer, "You couldn't do it if all of the Elemental Nations were offered to you."

This time, there was a tightness to the smile that graced Naruto's lips as he struggled to control hs temper and not prove his rival assumption that he was incapable to showing decorum.

"Couldn't do what? Act like a noble? Or act like a princess or a damned prince? I can too! I can do anything I put my damned mind to—and I've proven it too."

Sasuke sighed as if highly put upon and gave his blond companion a clearly patronizing look from beneath his lashes, "Dobe, I don't think you understand. Sure, you can fight and do impossible, wildly powerful techniques. But for this assignment—where does your strength come in? You can't bluster, prank or blast your way out of something like this, usuratonkachi. For this assignment to succeed we would need someone you will never be in a million years."

"And what would the hell would that be teme?" he yelled heatedly, all manner of pretending to be in control quickly eroding in the face of Sasuke's disdain.

For such an important mission, dobe, clean your ears out and pay attention." Raising a pale fist, he quickly enumerated the mission requirements.

"We need someone with the grace and poise of a true noblewoman trained in womanly arts."One pale, slim finger rose. "Someone who displays elegance in both her style and attire." Another finger. "Someone with sophistication and witticism enough to charm the members of the court." Another digit is added. "Someone who speaks and acts with refinement worthy of a noble name and upbringing." Another. "And finally, as we've pointed out to you, we need an actual female body." The pale hand, now displaying all their raised digits hovered in front of Sasuke's face before he slowly pulled it back to his side. "Of all that requirements you could provide all of one. Tell me again how suitable you are for this task."

There was no pretense of good-natured bantering in his voice now as Naruto stared at his rival and teammate's impassive face.

"I could learn to be all that shit if I wanted to."

Sasuke scoffed at the clearly agitated blond, "You couldn't learn it if I bothered to pay trainers for you. You barely act like you've been out with cavemen and barbarians for the most part and with the bare month and a half we have left—there's no way someone like you could do a passable job of passing yourself off as a member of civilized society let alone a princess."

"The hell do you say—! You bastard—!"

"I can't deny that you are a worthy shinobi and a more than admirable adversary on the fields of combat—"

"Gee thanks teme, I never really thought you'd think of me that way, let alone say it—"

"But that is neither here nor there. For this assignment you are sadly and totally inappropriate and ill-equipped—and I think someone more suitable should be—"

"Inappropriate—!" Naruto screeched, scrambling to grab his smirking teammate when Sakura got between them and Sai paused long enough to grab the blond's wildly thrashing arms.

Sakura huffed, torn between laughing and screeching at the clearly ready to brawl blond "Wait, Sasuke that's a bit harsh don't you think—saying such things to Naruto—I mean, sure he's brash and all but you didn't have to say such things to him."

"Giving him false hope and even more, half-truths wouldn't aid him in the long run Sakura."

"Teme!"

"What he says has merit too Sakura-san. I'm afraid that his logic is sound."

Naruto turned his head towards Sai so fast he almost gave himself whiplash as he stared at the still smiling pale man that gripped his arms in his firm grasp, missing the dark glare that flashed in the other raven boy's eyes at the proprietary hold the former Root member had on the dobe's limbs.

"Hey Sai, you smiley bastard what the hell are you saying? You're supposed to be on my side!"

Sai smiled at the pouting ball of sunshine and nodded solemnly, "And I always will be Naruto-kun. However, I cannot belie the fact that the smirking traitor has made an undeniable point."

Gobsmacked at the utterly deadpan delivery made by Sai, Naruto found himself ceasing his struggles, signaling the pale young man to release the suddenly slackened arms. The blond stared at his less-than-completely sane friend (and sad as he was to admit it—very few of the people he knows or calls friends could be categorically considered sane) and wondered how he could make the man see just how utterly wrong he was to say such a thing. Taking a deep, fortifying breath to center himself, he grasped one of Sai's arms and spoke earnestly to the clearly lost teammate.

"Sai, I know that you don't know Sasuke that well or have any clear concept of what passes for teasing between teammates, so believe me when I say you missed this mark okay? Do you get that?"

Sai shook his head but replied cheerfully anyway, "No, but I am sure if you explain further I might get the insight you desire."

"Alright. Now, first of all, don't call the bastard that, you bastard—he's not a traitor anymore, he paid for his crimes and he was pardoned remember? We've talked about that didn't we?"

This time Sai nodded. "Yes, we did, I remember Naruto-kun and I understand what you mean and that the law has repealed his sentence."

Naruto sighed, relief evident in his clear cerulean eyes, "Good, you got it. Try and remember that and everything would be just fine. As for the smirking—he does that all the time—he doesn't know how to smile so that's all he could do but I will teach him to smile, I mean I managed to teach you didn't I?"

Sai nodded agreeably once more, "Yes, you did do that Naruto-kun."

Naruto nodded as well and then he took a deep breath and then suddenly bellowed, "Second of all—WHAT THE HELL DO YOU MEAN HE HAS A POINT!?Why the hell are you agreeing with that smirking bastard! "

Unfazed by the sudden sound or the ferocity of the blond's tirade, Sai merely shrugged before retorting, "He has a point in delineating the things in which you are currently ill-suited for this task."

"What the heck—!"

"See?" Sasuke gleamed, "Even that emotionally-crippled minion of yours agree with me. Face it, you're outvoted, dobe."

"Now see here bastard—!" Naruto fumed, pissed even more by the turn of events faced Sasuke's smirking visage and waved a fist to start upbraiding the clearly amused raven, "First of all, don't call him emotionally crippled. That's just insensitive and thoughtless, especially coming from an emo-bastard like you. He had a bad childhood just like we did and he was trained by that war-mongering, fanatic psycho leader from Root Danzo, so the way he is isn't his fault. And second of which—didn't I just go through something like this a minute ago? Ugh this is so exhausting!" Naruto rubbed his face in utter dejection and turned accusing blue eyes at the clearly amused former Root, "And Sai I will never forgive you for agreeing with this bastard! How am I unsuitable to play freaking prince?"

Sai merely blinked and Sakura cheerfully pointed out, "You mean princess, right sunshine?"

"Sakura-chan!" he wailed.

She smiled cheekily at him and whacked him softly on the head for good measure, "Just making sure you understand that point. Look Naruto, fact of the matter is you don't have to have your panties—"

"What the hell Sakura-chan!"

She waved his protest aside and continued as if he never interrupted, "Fine, fine, boxers, up in a twist—there you happy? Tsunade-shishou is still scoping out options and we have close to two months to prepare. So even if you do have the flimsiest of ties with the Senju—it doesn't automatically mean she'll pick you for this job. She needs a girl remember and last I checked, you aren't one, so what's the big deal here?"

"The big deal is that you wouldn't even consider me for the job."

Sai pinned Naruto with a look before inquiring, "Do you want the job Naruto-kun?"

"That's not the point you know—it's the principle of the thing—!"

Sasuke stared at the sputtering, flustered sage and asked, "Does that mean you want in on every 'kunoichi only' missions too, dobe?"

"Stop twisting my words around, teme! We're talking about this assignment."

"SO you say, but I stand by my decision and assessment that you cannot do this mission."

"I can learn it in a month. Believe it."

"Is that a dare?" Sasuke knew as soon as the words left his lips that he made a tactical error of epic proportions. Nothing stirred the ball of sunshine's streak of competitiveness more than a little matter of dares. Especially when it involves anything related to the last Uchiha.

Naruto gave the pale (paler, in truth, though no one can quite tell) young man and gave him his best foxy grin. "Heh, you bet your sissy, pale ass it is, teme."

"Stop dragging my ass into the discussion. What is with you and my ass anyways?" Sasuke snapped, the faint flush of color that bloomed on his porcelain cheeks noted by a sharp pair of ebony orbs.

Sai smiled at his two hissing teammates and pointed out gleefully, "Why are we even arguing about this? We have Sakura-san with us. If our team gets point for this mission, she can be the decoy. She doesn't even have to be henged since she is biologically female is she not?"

Sakura cracked her knuckles and turned towards Sai who took one look at her face and promptly stepped behind their hyperactive blond teammate.

Sasuke was glaring at the same blond, the look in his eyes hot enough to incinerate a much lesser mortal. "Well tell that to the overly emotional dobe over there. The moment the word palace came into play he was blustering like the fool that he is and insisting that I am daring him to do this thing."

Naruto pointed at the scowling raven-head and glared back for good measure. "Oi, teme, you're the one that started this mess. What the hell is your problem anyways? All i said was wondering if it's fun to act like a princess and shit and you got all over my case."

"All I said was that you wouldn't know how to act all noble if it stomped close to you and hit you on the head. And like all other times, you just had to be stubborn about it and turn it into another thoughtless, ill-conceived challenge. Why don't you just accept the truth and move past it?" Sasuke nearly snarled in frustration.

He would've said so much more but something about the darkening blue orbs stopped his words short and he felt a shiver of unease when the blond spoke once again. The tone, unlike most of his quips since the argument began was not loud, aggressive or emotional. This time, the words were quietly spoken and tinged with an unusual bitter edge.

"Think so? Is that because I don't belong with all you members of noble houses and clans? Because I'm an orphan and I wasn't raised with just the right background? Or is it because both my parents were? Is that your reason Uchiha?"

"That's not what I meant—and that has nothing to do with this—"

The three of them watched as the blond suddenly stood still in front of them, head bowed and eyes concealed beneath the fall of dark gold lashes. His voice, so normally boisterous and loud was suddenly so quiet, restrained and flat. He didn't look at them in the eye as he turned and walked away, his last statement echoing in their ears.

"I know precisely what you meant. Foolish and obtuse as I am I did learn some time ago how to look underneath the underneath. I know that in your and every other noble's eyes I am not worthy because my blood isn't as noble as yours will ever be. You think that I don't have the means to learn all the important unspoken shit you seem to think that comes from being born noble but I'll show you—I'll show you that even a common street rat like me could make believers out of skeptical, judgmental in-bred nobles like you."


The room did not increase in space, length or breadth in the last minute or two but for the remaining members of Team Seven it was as if a large gulf just up and appeared between them and the front door where their incensed fourth member vanished through.

Sakura took a deep steadying breath. Then she took another. And then another. It surprised her to note that it took ten of those and about a full minute to clear her throat, still the trembling in her hands, marshal her thoughts and speak. "You over did it again."

The recipient of words gave no sign that he understood the subtle rebuke. His eyes, deep-set steel-grey flared with vermillion lights for a moment before becoming still intense, still obsidian pools. When he spoke, his smooth, deep voice held no inflection of any sort.

"It got the job done didn't it? And besides I didn't hear you come up with anything new so I wouldn't be taking pot shots at my methods when it clearly brought about the desired and expected results."

With that last Parthian shot, the once-lost dark avenger of Leaf melted into the shadows and left behind two clearly bemused individuals.

Sakura rubbed the migraine already blossoming on her brow as she tried to assimilate the rapid deterioration of their mission. Or success of it, depending on whose point of view she would be asked. Sometimes it never paid to be at the center of so much drama.

"It's scary how well Shikamaru knows just what buttons to push with those two. He warned me that there might be some kind of friction but to narrow it down to Naruto walking out on a huff or Sasuke being chased out by an indignant, insisting ball of sunshine, I never really thought his projection of the first being a 75 percent certainty to pan out."

Sai looked at the rose-hued head now bowed in thought in front of him and tried his best to give the prescribed words of encouragement according to his recent readings. "The skillful application of the most suitable weapon and the knowledge of when to strike is the most basic of requirements for a strategist. We should be thankful that Nara-san has proven himself most adept. And it also helps when the pawns that needed to be manipulated happens to be as predictable as those two."


Flashback, six hours ago…

Inside a secure conference room within the Hokage Tower the members of the famed Rookie 12 plus one minus one were in the midst of a mission brief. Situated at the head of the table was Nara Shikamaru, the acknowledged genius strategist of the new generation and tactical consultant to the Godaime Hokage. Sitting clockwise from him was Chouji, Ino, Hinata, Shino, Kiba, Lee, Ten-Ten, Neji, Sai, Sasuke and Sakura who sat on his immediate left.

He gave them a short run down of the mission parameters with the advent that their talents might be tapped at certain points and parts during the duration of mission prep. It was when he made his last instruction that their focus deviated from its smooth flow. Sakura blinked at the unusually alert looking Nara in front of her and couldn't resist actually voicing out her inquiry.

"You want us to do what?"

Shikamaru released a great big sigh, as if already regretting the need to speak.

"I need for the members of your faction to efficaciously and methodically influence an unwilling party to agree with a project that we will be undertaking and it must be done so without said subject realizing the subtle manipulation and with the advent of actually agreeing coming from said same party."

Sasuke, Neji, and Shino, gave a short nod. Kiba looked at the others and muttered to the mission commander.

"In plain speech, genius."

"I want his closest associates to bring about a result that would best suit our current predicament."

Sakura,Hinata, Ino, Ten-Ten, and Chouji gave a nod to acknowledge their consent. This time, it was the rest of the Konoha rookies that looked at Kiba.

Blink. Nope. No go. This time Kiba growled."

"In plainer speech—never mind that, just dumb it down for the masses."

Shikamaru sighed despondently before scrubbing his face as if it say this was a huge waste of his time.

"I want his teammates to dare him into agreeing and making sure that he volunteers for the job himself."

Kiba grinned triumphantly at the light that showed on Lee's face. "See? That makes so much more sense and it's so much shorter too boot. Why the hell did you have to start with something that sounded so bad?"

"If I had to make that any shorter or simpler I'd be reduced to drawing stick figures and sock puppets for you."

Ino smacked the back of Kiba's head and sniffed. "Seriously, where you dropped on your head when you were a kid?"

Kiba scowled at the yellow haired harridan, but oddly didn't lift a hand in retaliation. "Yes I was. Ask my sister, she does it all the time."

Ten-ten blinked before asking, "Why the hell would she do that to her own brother?"

Kiba shrugged, "Said it was because I was headstrong and she needed to make sure I understood."

Ino stared at Kiba like she couldn't believe that he would simply accept such treatment, "And you just let her?"

Kiba frowned at Ino's incredulous look and pouted, "You do know my sister right? My clan?"

Sakura couldn't resist asking, "Did you even understand her sarcasm? That she was just being, maybe a bit sarcastic, you know?"

Kiba snorted indelicately. "What makes you think what she said seemed sarcastic to you? My sister doesn't do sarcasm—she has only two modes: growling and threatening. I'd take the growling any day. It hurts more when she threatens and then you give her reason to growl."

Sai smiled at the clearly cowed and oddly accepting Inuzuka, "Is your sister is certifiably violent Dog-face-san?"

Kiba blinked at the always tactless pseudo-Sasuke before shrugging, "She's Alpha. They're all like that. My mom's even worse, so it's not like I don't know how bad it could get." He looked around the conference room and at the others who were either subtly or overtly gawking at him and he asked, "So are we done?"

Shikamaru gave an uncharacteristically evil chuckle that made everyone in the room look for the nearest exit. "Not even close."