A/N: Sorry this took a while (quite the understatement).
Chapter 3: A Short-lived Reprieve
"I've got good news and bad news."
Silver-gray hair, bobbed impertinently in the looming darkness. With characteristic nonchalance, the willowy bearer strolled towards a humble huddle of oaks and birches. He approached a gnarled tree, nondescript save for the gangly bodies that dangled from its weary branches. If it were granted the power to move, Kakashi was certain that it would shudder violently in mad protest. Its four restless occupants, he surmised, weren't exactly the ideal adornments. They were bored. And, boredom always finds a victim.
"So which do you guys care to hear first?"
"Whatever." the Uchiha replied flatly. A pile of chipped away bark was steadily growing, twenty feet below him. "It doesn't matter."
The ANBU paused from de-veining yet another leaf, and followed eagerly.
"By convention, the bad news is relayed after the good news. Hence, the bad news..."
"Oh for sanity's sake Sai," Sakura, who was busy flicking holes on the tree's trunk, turned pleadingly towards the copy-nin, "Kakashi-sensei, the bad news please!"
"And you Naruto?"
Only the blond, sat listless on the mossy ground.
"Huh? What was that again?" a hollow rumble enunciated the shinobi's bodily gripe, "I'm really hungry"
Kakashi fell silent and watched them curiously. A minute passed. And then another. Expressions morphed from expectant, to annoyed, to deadly. Even the cicadas wailed in anticipation, their cries magnified in the utter stillness.
"Oy Kakashi." Sasuke finally hissed "You're making the mosquitoes very happy!"
"And you guys have made this birch very sad. Sasuke, maybe you should try knitting as hobby instead of mutilating vegetation. They say it's therapeutic."
"Hmmm...vegetation." Naruto added, ocean-blue eyes glazed, "You know, I could really eat this tree. All I need is soy sauce."
"Alright then! Before one of you starts resorting to cannibalism," The copy-nin quickly shifted his attention to the other three, "the bad news is you guys have to sleep together."
"And the good news?" Sakura asked.
"Well, boys," Kakashi raised a placating palm at the glaring kunoichi " …and girl. You get a roof over your heads, a warm bath, and a home-cooked meal for tonight."
The inn's narrow hall basked in orange and black, as the soft glow from newly lit candles welcomed guests both old and new. Through half-opened shutters, the soothing scent of jasmines streamed in accompanied by the serenading of restless night creatures. Away from the hustle-and-bustle of the villages and cities, many had sought refuge in the quaint inn, their muffled tones emanating from the hollow unadorned walls. Floorboards groaned as four men padded their way through the corridor.
"So Sai, Naruto, Sasuke...you guys take the room on the left"
"Huh, what about Sakura-chan?" asked the blond immediately.
"We'll take the room across."
"Sakura and I."
"and why not?"
"You read porn!"
"Icha Icha, my ignorant subordinate is not pornography. Did you not spend two and a half years with Jiraiya? Did he not teach you how to read?"
Sai raised his index finger emphatically in the air. "Pornography dates back to the ancient times..."
"Sai," Naruto continued, slapping a rough hand over the ANBU's mouth, "not now."
Student and teacher stood unwavering. Naruto stared heatedly at Kakashi. Kakashi gazed lazily back at Naruto. Sai eyed them both curiously. While, Sasuke leaned against the wall and yawned.
The willowy jonin finally drew in his breath. "I guess, I have no other choice, do I?"
A victorious grin began to spread across Naruto's face, but faded just as quickly when he noticed Kakashi's hand rest on the lopsided hitae-ite.
Shadows shifted, so swiftly that flames flickered in fright. The copy-nin flinched backwards as he found himself gazing into a pair of blood-red pupils.
"Naruto?!" a startled Sasuke glowered in hostile resistance, gathering flecks of paint with his fingernails as he viciously clung to the walls. In a confusing instant, his blond comrade had leaped behind him, and was giving a more-than-encouraging shove.
"Only Sharingan can beat Sharingan!"
"C'mon Sasuke, be a pal. Take one for the team."
"Team? What the hell are you talking about?!"
Sai again raised his index finger, "Team. A group of individuals working towards the achievement..."
"ANBU," Sasuke snapped sharply "Not now!"
Kakashi let out a tired sigh
"First silly games, now this. Again."
Shaking his head, he thrust both hands into his pockets,
"I was sure the Godaime would punish me, sooner or later, for my tardiness. But I'd take an S-class mission without pay any day, than endure your relentless bickering. Kids, I'm too old to be babysitting. "
"Kakashi-sensei--" Naruto persisted
"Now might you two forget, despite being trained by the legendary sannin and being made of stuff that would make bingo-book stats look like the fine-print in a generic clothing catalogue, in our wonderful village of Konoha both of you are still considered genin." Kakashi's leered beneath his mask "The only two remaining in your batch."
By the way the two faces contorted into an amalgam of embarrassment, scorn and disbelief, the copy-nin was more than pleased at how effectively he had driven the stake. They always said he had a way with words. He gave himself a mental pat for not having lost his touch. However, convinced that a little more persuasion wouldn't hurt, the jonin continued.
"I know you guys don't care about titles. But, you do understand how it is with more cats getting lost and more vegetable gardens being overrun by weeds."
Kakashi scratched his chin.
"As your former teacher, it would give me the deepest sense of fulfillment and pride to nominate the two of you for this month's chunin examination, since you do have to get nominated. But you know me well enough by now, "half-lidded eyes narrowed meaningfully "I could get pretty lazy and forgetful, especially when it comes to paperwork and all things that have a set deadline."
Not another word was uttered.
Naruto finally threw up his hands in surrender.
"Okay, Kakashi-sensei. It was wrong of us to doubt your intentions..."
"Us?" Sasuke spat, as he sank back onto the wall, "Hey Naruto, you were the only one yapping!"
The blond, however, wasn't paying attention.
"But Kakashi-sensei, I just don't understand why you won't let Sakura-chan sleep with us."
"Because she isn't twelve anymore."
"You aren't either."
Naruto paused, expression pensive. Looking up, his brow knit in apparent ignorance.
Kakashi almost laughed. Then again, he was quite relieved that his student had not acquired all things legendary from the legendary Jiraiya. Although reputed to be the first to concoct a perverted jutsu, in many ways Naruto was still a naïve and open-hearted kid, without a single bone of ill-intent. And perhaps, it was best to leave him that way. Ready to let it go without discussion, Kakashi made motion towards his room but was abruptly grabbed by the blond shinobi and dragged to the far end of the corridor. Once out of earshot his tone turned serious.
"Kakashi-sensei, I don't know if you've noticed..."
Kakashi watched as Naruto glanced furtively at his other two teammates.
Blue eyes slowly widened beseechingly,
"--is just about ready to tear off Sai's head any time now!"
"And so?! Kakashi-sensei, I'm gonna get caught in the middle!"
"You're the only one who could stop them!"
"That's flattering Naruto, really. But you're on your own."
"They wouldn't dare fight if Sakura-chan were with us."
"You're on your own."
"You'll be fine." Kakashi began to walk away.
Conversation was sparse during dinner. Only the staccato of high-pitched clinks spoke for the band of shinobis occupying an inconspicuous corner in the inn's bar. Sakura's attention flitted from one comrade to the next, trying to wheedle out an explanation, or at least a simple reaction. She, earlier, had taken a quick detour to the ladies room. Upon rejoining the group, she found Naruto and Sasuke sneaking poisonous glares at Kakashi. Something had definitely happened…again. And, she wasn't one bit surprised.
Finally, she huffed, frustrated at the futility of her barely subtle approach.
"Sakura, your food will get cold." Kakashi warned, face unseen behind his usual manuscript. Not a single grain of rice in the bowl before him had been touched.
"On another one of your diets? You know sensei, you could strip off that mask oh-so-precious mask of yours. At this point, none of us really cares what you might look like."
"In the spirit of camaraderie, I was actually going to take it off. But since you guys don't care, I guess it's not worth it then."
The kunoichi made a stabbing motion with her chopsticks.
"Patience. You'll get the chance to kill me later, since we are sharing a room."
When bowl after bowl had been stacked up, they headed for their team leader's quarters, to get into the nitty-gritty details of their mission. Satiated, the four teenagers sprawled their languid forms in haphazard fashion across the nicely waxed floor. The copy-nin was nowhere in sight.
"How long do you suppose we'll be waiting this time?" Teary-eyed, Sakura fought to stifle a yawn.
Naruto eagerly sat up.
"Hey Sakura, I have an idea!"
"Oy" Sasuke cocked an eyebrow inquisitively "has this got something to do with what happened a while ago?"
An unconvinced snort followed.
"Okay! Maybe. Besides, a little payback won't hurt! "
"Well." The Uchiha's deep even voice was cautionary, "better tell us what it is before Kakashi decides to puff out of thin air."
"Being a Shinobi is as much an art of deception as it is the mastery of combat techniques."
In the tiny room, three shinobis and a kunoichi waved their arms frantically in the air. The characteristic "Poof!" did little to jolt them upright. It was the excessive smoke that ensued that got them scrambling to their feet.
"Easy on the smoke bombs sensei!" Sakura struggled to speak between coughs "Are you trying to kill us!"
Without replying the willowy jonin tossed each of them a package.
"This is a reconnaissance mission. Gathering information is the sole objective. Hence, the least dangerous yet most effective means is the best option—deception."
A look of bewilderment marred the fine features of the Uchiha. He held up the red silken material, unwrapped from linen bindings that pooled across his lap.
"Oy, Kakashi, I think this is Sakura's"
"I got a woman's robe as well, Senpai" added Sai
"No mistake, you two are going in as orphaned twin sisters."
"What?!" Sasuke scowled.
"…and you''ll be working in a tea house. You know what I mean by tea house, don't you."
Sai smiled. "A place where they serve tea."
"And, women!" added the Uchiha furiously, " He wants us to disguise ourselves as geishas. Where the hell did you get this idea, Kakashi?"
"Sasuke," Sakura begged, shaking her head. "don't let him flip through his book and show you the page."
"Men would say anything to a beautiful and skillfully tactful woman." Was Kakashi's staid response
"Well then why not let Sakura do it?!"
A long, long time ago Haruno Sakura could have built a queen-sized bed from all the incense sticks she burned, praying that Uchiha Sasuke would one day call her pretty. This time, however, despite the insinuation that she was beautiful enough to make any man talk, Sakura found herself seething at her teammates offhanded reply.
The copy-nin was quick to interpose.
"We want them to talk, not try anything stupid. Sasuke, you've got the Sharingan. Whereas Sai here…" he paused giving the ANBU an once-over, "Well, I'm sure Sai has something up his sleeve besides his pleasing personality."
"I appreciate the compliment, Senpai."
"Sai," Sakura gave him a gentle pat, "You haven't read up on 'sarcasm' have you?"
Kakashi continued " Lure them, make them spill out any vital info, then put them to sleep. And, I mean sleep in its literal sense. We don't want to leave a blood trail. Are we clear on that? Sasuke?"
The Uchiha grunted.
"Why are my clothes so… brown?" jade eyes winced in disgust "And why'd you give me this bottle of dye. Wait a minute! Oh my god, you don't want me to dye my hair do you?!"
"The less you stand out, the better. And by the way, you're a stable-boy."
"Tell me you're kidding!"
"Men gossip in the company of horses."
"This sucks." Sakura angrily mumbled. But catching sight of a very red Sasuke staring with undisguised horror at the kimono in his hands, she hastily bit her tongue. Being a stable-boy wasn't half as bad.
"What's my role, Kakashi-sensei?" Naruto gaped nervously at his unopened package.
"Relax. I haven't thought of anything specific. But, I'll make sure you love it."
Sasuke, looking paler than usual, stood and paced towards the window.
"So what's your role in this whole masquerade Kakashi?"
"I'll be the ordinary citizen, wandering the streets, well-worn book in my hand, minding my own business."
"You mean like an unemployed free-loader?" Sai graciously offered.
"That's about as accurate as you can get" Sakura jeered
Apparently unscathed, Kakashi simply ambled lackadaisically towards the door.
"Since that's settled, let's call it a night."
"Sensei, I'll stay by the door"
"Don't you want to stay by the window?"
"Um, I have an irrational fear of windows at night."
Kakashi eyed the kunoichi suspiciously ." A phobia of windows? at night?"
"Like I said, 'irrational'." Sakura forced a lighthearted laugh, and immediately buried herself underneath the thin cotton sheets. Heart pounding, she prayed that the plan would go without hitch. Once Kakashi was well asleep, she would unlock the door to let the boys in. The plan was simple. Four against one: the odds were in their favor. And, this time, they were no longer the complacent twelve year olds who were too stupid not to realize that they were taking on the legendary copy-nin.
After tonight, Kakashi would have wished he'd glued that wretched mask to his face.
In the spirit of camaraderie.
Sakura was giddy with mischief.
Ever since she and Naruto had pulled off the bell test, defeating their sensei using the most asinine method, Hatake Kakashi seemed to have acquired a more human persona. Of course, they would always look up to him as their formidable, albeit eccentric, sensei. However, in some strange way, he was becoming less of, and inexplicably, more than, that teacher.
A curtain of darkness fell over the room. With her ear cupping the coarse mat, she listened as the soft thudding on the wooden floor disappeared. An expansive moan startled her frozen. Peeping cautiously from underneath her blanket, she could make out his faint silhouette behind the canvas screen that separated their sleeping areas. Both his arms stretched out as if yearning for the sky to fall, and dropped almost immediately like a pair of flaccid wings. In just a few minutes, the silence was punctuated by Kakashi's even breathing.
Asleep already? Are you kidding me?
Sakura knew for a fact that without any excessive use of the Sharingan, Kakashi was a relatively light sleeper. His uncannily keen senses were like smoke detectors, that jolted him awake even by the slightest disturbance. During their genin days, whenever Naruto had dozed off in the middle of his watch, Kakashi would manage to kick him awake without opening an eyelid. Once, she could not help but watch with fascination as he lay stretched out in his sleeping bag, seemingly dead to the living world. There, however, was a subtle tenseness in the way he embraced slumber, as if he could will a part himself to stay conscious and alert.
That night however, he flopped to sleep like a fly swat dead. Perhaps, being with his trusted student, in a comfy room, on a mission with no real threat of being attacked, had swayed him to throw caution to the wind, and with it, the rest of his defenses.
That night, of all nights.
Sakura could taste sweet victory.
Sweet dreams, sensei. Sweet dreams.
"Sai, don't forget your ink. Kakashi-sensei won't be needing that mask for long." Naruto sniggered nefariously, "I'll make sure I paint the perfect disguise for him." Excitedly, he twisted the cold doorknob.
"Shit! What the hell's wrong with this?" He rammed his entire weight against the door. But creak was as far as it went. " It won't budge!"
"What do you mean?" a supine Sasuke didn't even bother to open an eye "Are you sure you're turning the knob right?"
"I'll pretend I didn't hear that."
"There's a window, you know."
Naruto stepped over the Uchiha, heading straight to their alternative exit. With a good push, it merely squeaked in defiance. After three vigorous, yet unsuccessful tries, the blond shinobi finally slammed his fist furiously against the wooden shutters.
"There's something wrong! I should've been able to unhinge the entire thing by now!"
Blue-eyes widened in sudden realization.
"No way. "
Sai approached the window. Sinewy fingers traced its outline along its frame.
"It's a sealing jutsu. Similar to the ones used for protective barriers, meant to keep intruders out."
"But this one's meant to keep us in. That sneaky bastard! Kakashi-sensei must've plastered it onto the window while we were waiting for him in his room."
"And, he sealed the door right after he checked up on us."
"Hey Sasuke, why don't you make yourself useful and Katon us outa here."
Sasuke shot him an incredulous look, "Yeah, and torch the entire place down. Great suggestion."
Naruto began stomping back and forth, while Sai watched him with cat-like interest. Abruptly, he slumped onto the wall and ruffled his already unruly hair.
"Ack! I can't think when I'm hungry!"
"We just had dinner." pointed Sasuke gruffly.
"But Sasuke-kun, Naruto just ate half his usual amount."
"I'm familiar with his eating habits, ANBU" A caustic glare from charcoal eyes underscored the acerbic reply.
"You were gone for more than two years Sasuke-kun," the darkness rendered Sai's expressionless countenance ominous. "A lot has happened since you were away. Many things have changed."
The awkward silence swelled in the tiny confined space, while the candlelight sputtered its feeble admonition. Straightening himself from the wall, Naruto shifted uneasily. He had long been accustomed to his comrades' powerful chakras. The way they flowed and intermingled was as familiar to him as the back of his hand. So, when he felt the hairs on his nape stand on end, his stomach tightened as did every muscle in his body. The flame had to be doused before it ignited into a blazing inferno.
Douse, he did.
And everything went pitch black.
What's taking so long!
Sakura's lids were getting heavier by the second. Waiting was the most excruciating task. Waiting, with the tune of another's hypnotic breathing as a grating reminder that blissful slumber was a mere blink away, was pure, unadulterated agony. She could almost feel her own fingers closing around Naruto's neck.
It could've been her imagination, but she was certain she had heard a rooster crow. The night had held so much promise. But the door had been unlocked for what seemed to be eons ago, and still not a sliver of blond came bobbing in. After pinching the only remaining patch of un-pinched skin on her arm, she abandoned the last thread of hope that mischief would prevail.
Then again, she had come this far. She could, either, let sleep finally claim her and wake up with a crappy mood topped by a pounding headache. Or, she could carry on 'the mission' on her own, and watch Naruto's face crumble the next day when she gloatingly recounts every detail of her triumph.
The supposedly dormant inner Sakura jerked her wide awake. Quietly, Sakura slipped out of her blanket, and crouched on the smooth floor. So as not to wake Kakashi by the sound of her movement, she inched towards his side to the rhythm of his breathing. Beads of sweat were forming at her temples despite the cool draft that filtered through the slightly ajar shutters. A sudden grunt made her breath hitch and halted her immobile. She dared not exhale fearing that the slightest change in the movement of air molecules would stir him awake. With the copy-nin, one could never be too safe. Kakashi, who was lying in a semi-fetal position, turned to lie on his back.
Sakura grinned in the darkness. Once she noted that Kakashi resumed his regular breathing, she then continued her solo procession. A darker shade of gray eclipsed the contours of the copy-nin's half-draped countenance, as Sakura loomed just over his head. She felt her finger begin to itch. Now came the hard part. Sitting on her heels, she dallied on her approach--quick but slapdash, or slow but cautious. Remembering how Tsunade always commended her surgeon-steady hands, she settled on the slow and measured method.
With utmost precision, she managed to clip the edges of his mask with her fingertips. Carefully, Sakura began lifting the material off his skin. Her shoulders tensed, as did her arms and nape. Holding her breath, she started pulling the cloth away from her, towards his chin. A wave of excitement surged through her veins, which she struggled to keep at bay. The slightest twitch could spell disaster.
Even in the dark she could see how nicely straight and chiseled Kakashi's nose was. Just as she was coming to its tip, strong calloused hands gripped her wrists making her fists clench. Her heart stopped for a second and tugged fiercely at her throat. Wide-eyed she found herself staring into a disparate pair of irises. Although her heart jabbed hard against her chest and her extremities turned cold, she could not help but peer curiously into the Sharingan. It was her first time to see it up close.
"Sensei!" Sakura gasped. Her mouth instantly dried up. "I--"
"Didn't you want to wait for the boys?"
"I…er…What did you do to them?"
"Just something I'd like to call 'don't-try-anything-funny-on-Kakashi-while-he's-sleeping'."
An impish grin etched visibly on the dark mask.
"No one can help you now."
"Oops." Naruto coughed up a strained laugh. "Sorry about that."
Since his vision had not adjusted to the dark, he resigned himself to groping his way towards the center of the room. If anything 'went down', he'd best be at the most strategic location to intervene, which was right in between the his two strangely identical teammates.
"Ouch!" The hiss was definitely Sasuke's, "Naruto you poked my eye!"
"Sorry, I can't see anything!"
"Who put out the light in the first place?!"
"It was an accident."
"Oh yeah, and your hand just happened to be by the candle the exact moment everything went black."
Suddenly, a startling thud accompanied by a loud yelp sliced through the stillness.
"Ow!" came the raspy groan, "What was that?!"
"My apologies, Naruto" Sai answered, "That was my foot you tripped on."
"Naruto, hand me the candle." Sasuke said sternly
"Uh, give me a sec."
"You were holding it, right?"
"Yeah, but I dropped it when I fell."
"If this were a real mission," Sai chortled, innocently amused, "we would've been killed by now."
By the way Sasuke was exhaling by his ear, Naruto knew the Uchiha's patience was wearing thin.
"We're still working on his conversation skills." The blond laughed nervously, in the hopes of mollifying his irate teammate.
Sasuke finally stretched out on the floor.
"This is useless Let's just go to sleep."
"But, Sakura's going to kill me."
"You're already dead. What difference does it make?"
A series of thumps and clatters resonated in the small room. Sasuke could only guess what Naruto was doing.
"Oy Naruto, give it up. We have a long day ahead of us."
The rattling continued.
"Fine. I'll just take nap."
Sasuke felt a rigid body flop next to him. The hearty yawn that followed sounded like mooing from grazing cattle. Hardly a few seconds had ticked by when a sonorous snoring suffused every obscure inch and corner in the stuffy room. Without much of a choice, Sasuke listened while he stared absently into the darkness.
"Why the hell am I a delivery boy!" A black-and-blue Naruto scowled. Two stainless metal containers jangled noisily at his sides.
"And of ramen!" Of all the possible things!" the blond's tummy grumbled as his nostrils caught the mouth-watering aroma of noodles, chicken, beef, spices and soy sauce.
"Lemme guess, Kakashi-sensei. Men tell all in front of food?"
The willowy jonin striding next to him was dressed in an understated gray robe. A black patch covered his special eye.
"No, I just thought that it was a great way of tormenting you." He gave Naruto a passing glimpse as he flipped another dog-eared page in his book. "Besides, according Sakura this isn't enough payback."
"She already beat me senseless a while ago, even though it was you who rolled her up like a spring-roll with her mat!"
"Well, you were supposed to save her from her evil sensei."
A few paces in front of them, two fair ladies clad in red silken kimonos sauntered through the busy market place, leaving a trail of second-glances and lecherous stares. A couple of women approached them, complimenting their alabaster skin and ebony hair. Whereas, a few others sneered at them green-eyed with envy. When asked where they were from, they shyly whispered their reponse--their town was burned down by bandits, and along with it, their entire life and family. Both were so arresting in appearance and manner that no one cared to ask why they had covered their necks, or why their shoulders were a tad broader than that of other girls, or why they were lagging proportion-wise in pubertal development.
No one asked.
So far so good.