I know, it's been forever and I apologize. I had so many time-consuming computer problems and the holidays were extremely hectic. Nevertheless, I'm going to work on a tad quicker updating, which should be easier now that I have a new laptop with a full functioning and customized word processor. We're getting into the plot more, now, which I am happy about, and yes, I will remind everyone this is rated M for Mature, even though I'm not phased by it. Remind me to do a Reviewer's Corner so I can list you amazing reviewers in an upcoming chapter.

Other News: Those who read my high school AU, expect an update soon. For those who enjoy the NaruIno pairing, keep watch for a one-shot. Sha La!

Reviews make me happy, as always.


Chapter Three: Unconventionality

She's got all these men around her

Reeling them in

Her beauty's a sin.

(Follow the mission).

But the one in her heart

Put the rock on her finger

Amidst their pending deaths.

--

Six shinobi, poised on figurative tenterhooks.

One silent room.

Curtains drawn and fire fed periodically by whomever happened to be pacing past it at the time; whoever was not unwillingly forced into a corner by common fear of the unknown, the news they wished to know. None dared to speak, however, for they were lost in the convoluted horror that was still viscously sinking in and reducing them to a buzzing silence.

A silence in which everyone thought, yet no one spoke. The tension was painfully overwhelming.

Two males paced in front of the fire; it hissed and crackled and spoke to them with an obstinate, snide tone that they promptly ignored. The taller of them stalked haughtily, his arrogant air of grace notwithstanding; hands weighing down the thin pockets of his lean ANBU uniform, he kept his blank façade in place. Unfortunately, the bitterness was hard to miss, and his companion threw him the same questioning glance of concern.

Cerulean eyes stared at the girl curled up in the chair, catlike, long cobalt blue locks spilling over the patterned blanket tucked tightly around her form. Arms folded, the blonde stood behind the Hyuuga with her lean frame supported by the wall, gaze unfocused. Naruto's unnaturally observant expression lingered upon his childhood crush, a woman so strong in both medical skills and mind, flicking the end of a sharpened kunai across her knuckle, lips tight.

Sasuke had ceased his unnerving pacing, a shadowed expression clouding his aristocratic face; Sakura reacted to the slice across her hand as much as she had to the popping fire. Everyone else had given a start.

KNOCK, KNOCK.

Six pairs of eyes stared at the bolted door, apprehension skewed upon every pale face. Shikamaru turned from the window and the contemplative, pale sky he had been covertly watching through a slit in the heavy curtain, crossing the wood floor with firm steps to put his hand around the knob.

"Yes?"

"Kakashi Hatake, returning to assume command."

Naruto bounded toward the door, but Sasuke put out an arm to halt him. "Ask him a question."

Shikamaru nodded. "What should I ask him?"

"OH!" Naruto exclaimed, and ducked under Sasuke's outstretched arm, pressing his face obnoxiously against the wood; Hinata stifled a giggle.

"Kakashi-sensei-; that is, if you really are my sensei," he added hastily, furrowing his brow in a mockery of a well-seasoned detective. "Question me this!"

"Answer me this," Shikamaru corrected quietly, rolling his eyes.

"Kakashi Hatake," Naruto whispered dramatically, "What is your catchphrase?"

"Ah, catchphrase?" the jounin repeated, amused.

"Ya know, when you always used to make us wait on the bridge, when we were younger, and I would be all 'He's late, damn it!' and Sakura would agree with me and then Sasuke would just 'Hnnn' and fold his arms and not care, and then you would show up on the railing and say-"

"Got lost on the path of life," he murmured almost wistfully through the door; a lingering, nostalgic sadness tinged his words. As if he missed those innocent days with his Genin.

Naruto lunged for the doorknob, eyes alight and boyish grin in place as he yanked open the door. "You're right, sensei! And that was a long time ag-"

"Kaka-sensei!"

Sakura clapped a hand over her mouth, kunai forgotten as it slipped from her hand and clattered to the floor with a piercing, resounding ring. Hands shaking as she rose from the couch, eyes widened in silent horror as they surveyed his injuries. The other young shinobi gaped as he stepped over the threshold and shut the door behind him without a word to satisfy their curious and stricken expressions. With a sheepish grin and a half-hearted wave: "Ah… hey!"

"What happened to you?" Sakura whispered, clearly distressed.

"The first shinobi was a decoy that I didn't expect to run into. Seems as if he didn't expect me, either," the jounin stated conversationally, walking further into the room. Hinata jumped up from her chair and hurriedly crossed the room to prudently place it at the head of the table. "Nevertheless, there wouldn't be foreign shinobi in a place like this; so full of little villages and commoners, he must have been tipped off."

The injured man sat heavily upon the proffered chair and could not help letting the back of it support his weight; watching him, Sakura straightened a bit as she walked briskly to the table, summoning leadership and take-charge attitude without missing a beat. Professionalism abounded, but nevertheless her eyes betrayed the worry sinking claws into her soft heart.

All eyes, whether or not shadowed, perfidy the truth.

Her sensei appeared so… uncharacteristically weak. And he knew how it looked.

"So someone knows we're on a mission. Or at least, on the move," Sasuke said flatly, shattering the silence.

"Unfortunately, yes," his former teacher replied. "I have a lot to say in a short amount of time, as well as our new mission from Tsunade."

"Wait, new mission? We're already on a mission. Are we splitting up?" Naruto barraged the jounin with questions until Hinata took his arm gently and gave him a saddened look. Leading him to a chair, the rest followed suit. Settling themselves around the table, silence descended swiftly as Sasuke took his seat last and without a disturbance, the chair flanking, empty. Sakura inspected Kakashi's arm deliberately, as if memorizing by sight alone every puncture and scrape and peculiarity sustained from his fight.

"Your shoulder is dislocated," she murmured, more to herself than to anyone else listening, and gently, but firmly, maneuvered the arm until it quite literally popped into its socket. Kakashi grimaced.

"Anyway, let's get started. We have no less than fifteen minutes and I have details to give you, roles to assign," he began, recalling their wandering attention from sanguinary, less-than-pleasing memories of the morning. The medic continued to scrutinize his injuries and heal them as needed, little eyebrows furrowed and expression proficiently stoic.

Sasuke watched, arms folded and strictly-business façade in place. She heals all the broken things.

She heals me. At least, she tries. I'm beyond that.

The pink-haired woman paused, looking at the Uchiha out of the corner of her eye. As if she had heard.

Blood dripped resolutely from the jounin's injury, forming a crimson puddle. As each drop hit, it shook the rest.

She resumed, and Kakashi spoke.

"I gave Tsunade-sama a full account of the events that occurred in the unnamed village we discovered, clearly attacked by hostile shinobi. There is a possibility that it is linked to our undercover mission and those shinobi were searching for us, or hoping for us to stop for whatever reason. It's suspicious, and since it is so far from home, she is refraining from dispatching troops to investigate lest we draw attention to ourselves. It's probably what they want."

The thought of leaving so many innocent deaths pass under the radar without retaliation, rankled. So unjust.

"We have a deviation from the original plan, if only slight. Instead of heading straight to Damashi and laying low for a few days as the hired organization of Itachi, we have to, quite literally, take a detour to another town. Hidden shinobi of Konoha have reported several suspicious incidents, not to mention disturbing."

"Disturbing? How?" Ino asked.

"Reported accounts of public lynching, unprovoked beatings with no interference, other unconventional forms of death and genocide all conducted by several powerful shinobi that appear to be hired men. Presumably, someone else is pulling the strings. The inhabitants of the town are villagers, easily led and unaccustomed to technology, and there is unnaturally tight security."

"All unprovoked? Are they ritualistic?" Sakura inquired, pursing her lips as she delved into the speaker's arm wound with a pair of silver tongs. Removing the kunai fragment from within the folds of muscle tissue, she tilted her head slightly as she peeled the layers of dead skin away, leaving fleshy pinkness underneath.

"Yes, and somewhat," he responded, speaking to the table at large. "While several deaths seemed to be sport, many were accused of treason and charged with attempts to escape the village. Even children died for that."

"They don't want anyone leaving," Shikamaru said.

"Well, we'll have to," Kakashi stated grimly. "After a short infiltration, of course."

"Will we be fighting?" Naruto demanded.

"No. This is strictly infiltration, information-gathering. Everything collected will be sent along to Konoha on a tight-security line, and Tsunade-sama will judge it from there. We have more pressing matters to deal with."

"More pressing than this?" Sasuke inquired. He steeled himself for a moment, then continued. "Does Tsunade realize that-?"

"Itachi could be part of this, just as he is suspected to be for our main mission? Yes, she realizes that, Sasuke. You have a more important mission to be ready for. Not only that, you're not on action for this one."

Lips insufferably pursed in offense, the Uchiha eyed him in annoyance and indulged in his forte of short, clipped, angry sentences. "Why?"

Sakura finished wrapping Kakashi's arm, and smoothed the last tape edge as the green chakra faded from his limb. Looking up, she was startled to find him looking down at her with a very serious gaze; he motioned for her to sit.

Sasuke unfolded his arms and pulled her chair out with ample room for her to settle, and watched her carefully as she scooted up to the table. Turning his dark eyes on the jounin, he dared not repeat his question aloud. Kakashi's eyes flickered to Hinata, then to Ino, and back to Sakura.

"The only members of our group crossing those village limits will be…" he paused, unsure of how to continue.

"No. Not alone," Sasuke interjected. Naruto seemed puzzled, but even Shikamaru seemed hesitant to resign to a mission dictation set in stone.

"We don't have a choice. The only men that were reported crossing the borders were those that worked for their boss, and most of the men inside were being separated from their families and killed. Men will appear suspicious and we will be discovered. They have to go, Sasuke. She has to go."

"Hold on, are you saying Hina-chan and Sakura and Ino-pig are all going to do a mission on their own? In a place like that?" Naruto demanded maddeningly, glancing worriedly at the quiet female next to him. "Why are only the girls allowed in?"

"They can cross the borders easier," Kakashi replied quietly.

"Because?" Sasuke asked harshly, ignoring some nagging, uneasy feeling.

The jounin paused for a fraction of a second. "Because the women shipped into the village are… slaves."

Ino made an indistinct noise in her throat; Sasuke's threatening breaths whistled through his nose.

"Slaves for what, sensei?" Naruto asked, unconsciously latching to Hinata's sleeve under the table.

"Think about it, dobe."

The Kyuubi vessel raised his eyes to his rival's and held his gaze; Sasuke's anger and modicum of disgust was written all over his handsome face. Naruto flinched.

"That, Sasuke?"

"That."

Naruto's fingers curled around the Hyuuga's flowing sleeve as his eyes fell to observe his lap.

An uncomfortable silence descended, and the only palpable sound was that of their breathing, as everything else seemed otherworldly and detached. Sasuke was nearly quivering in suppressed anger that was coursing through him without an outlet, and it made his insides twist to see the girl next to him nod her head silently, resigning herself to it.

"They will be disguised. They will go in alone, gather information alone, and return without help from us until we can secure an area. We can't give ourselves away. No radios; it is likely the shinobi in charge will be able to intercept it, and we can't have that."

The Uchiha stared at the medic's thin hands, vibrating uncontrollably, ivory fingers twisted in her lap as if clinging to the only thing she had. Pretty face, expressionless.

And he felt the piercing fangs sink into the back of his neck, pumping a feverish power through his burning veins. They left, painfully tearing his skin and he fell to his knees. So young, so young…

"SASUKE! SASUKE!"

She was screaming for him, hysterical, and he found her hand and clutched it. Clung. He fell upon her; he found her. She held him and cried, and pleaded and prayed and oh god, please be all right, don't scream anymore.

He found her.

And he hung on.

She seemed startled as his calloused hand protectively covered both of hers, and he inwardly cursed, for his was cold. Sakura was always so warm when he touched her, whether brushing accidentally or taking her by the wrist or forearm, his fingers against her face… whatever, she was inviting, and he was detached. Those fleeting memories in which she-

-touched his arm, or-

-raked her nails through his hair-

-her lips to his ear-

-bodies molded-

-and he would want her so badly, it frightened him-

-but he always drew back.

"It will only be one day. And we have a train to catch," Kakashi announced, jerking every shinobi from their painful reveries and ending the discussion abruptly. "Change into commoner attire. The station is a few blocks away, so don't waste time. Dismissed."

The jounin left without another word; Ino took one glance at her best friend's expression and motioned for Shikamaru to grab the bags and let them have the room. Hinata heeded, and led Naruto with her despite the blonde's attempts to catch Sasuke's eye; she cast a sorrowful glance to her friends before bolting the door from the inside and shutting it carefully.

Neither Sasuke nor Sakura had moved from the table and had left their hands just so, words, in retrospect, seeming a dismal failure.

Minutes passed painfully until Sakura tugged her hands from him and stood, closing her eyes for a long moment before nodding to him. "Let's dress."

Kneeling upon the hard wood floor, they rummaged through respective duffel bags in search of clothing with less shinobi flair as was necessary. Sasuke rose first and glanced at her; she was holding something, staring at it.

"Hn?"

"Go ahead, Sasuke," she replied, waving her hand in a blasé fashion.

Proceeding to strip off his ANBU uniform completely, he realized when redressing just how many layers he wore, including the bandages adorning his arms and chest. Jeans felt incredibly light and not nearly as skin-tight but then, he could never run in them. All he could leave wrapped were his wrists and palms; the feeling was almost unnerving, as if completely unprotected.

Exposure.

"Hn," he repeated conversationally. She looked over her shoulder, eyeing him up and down in such a scrutinizing fashion that he thought it imprudent, then stood.

"Turn around, Sasuke-kun," she said quietly, almost teasingly. He dutifully obeyed, folding his arms across his chest and shifting his weight from foot to foot, clearly uncomfortable. She was silent for a minute or two and then startled him with an obstinate, stubborn grunt.

"Ah, Sakura?" he inquired tentatively, daring to glance over his shoulder.

THUMP.

Forgetting he whirled around to find her topless, sitting on the floor and making an angry face as she struggled to button her jeans. Blowing a strand of hair from her vision, she looked up at him sheepishly as he raised an eyebrow in her regard.

"Heh… they're tight."

"Ah. Don't wear them so tight."

"Well, when you're thin, you don't have a choice. They'd fall off, otherwise. Besides, they fit when they're on."

With a satisfied smirk, she succeeded in buttoning them and scooped her shirt from the floor, yanking it haphazardly over her head, displaying her almost childlike lack of patience. He held out his hands for her to grasp, and pulled her to her feet.

They faced one another, fingers never separating; Sakura's grin faded against his stoic, serious façade.

He squeezed. "Sakura-"

"Don't even think of apologizing, Sasuke."

"…"

"You can't protect me from everything," she whispered.

His thumbs unconsciously rubbed her knuckles as he let her words embed themselves wholly in his mind. "Be careful."

"Wouldn't be anything but," she retorted.

"… Stop having an answer for everything," he replied in a frustrated tone, still moving his thumbs across her skin.

"Oh, you like it when I talk," she giggled, leaning forward to press her lips to his cheek.

"Don't-laugh," he said tersely, each word staccato, an effort. "You could damn well die. Or worse."

"Worse?"

"Don't even," he warned, pulling her body to his, eyes narrowed.

"I won't die," she stated casually. "We need to head out."

He let her sling both of the bags over her shoulder and tug him along, unbolting the door and opening it-

His arm shot out-

SLAM.

"Sakura."

"Sasuke, I know, but I'm not going to mope around and think about it!" she said loudly, voice pitching horribly in distress. "I can't…"

Trailing off, she closed her eyes once more, fighting back the same panicked helplessness and fright, fighting back the tears. She did not open them until she felt his fingers sweep gently across her eyelids, then take her chin and forced her to look at him.

Stare.

Stare.

"If you choose to die," he whispered, "You'd better do it damn eloquently."

Wrapping an arm around her waist, he led her away from the door and crushed his lips upon hers, forcefully and without pretense.

Burn, burn.

Pulling away, he lowered his mouth to her ear, breaths heavy and lingering as he said:

"Uchiha die with eloquence."


"I wish I could see you."

"I still know you're there."

"Still, it's difficult."

"Difficult is a matter of opinion, I suppose. I know you are there. I feel you."

"I'm not touching you, I don't think. Wish I could tell."

"We know each other well, Tenten. I can… sense you there."

"… You're cheating! You have Byakuugan."

"I am not."

"Fine, then. What am I doing with my eyebrows?"

"Ah… raising your left one, then your right, then you furrow them as if thinking."

"You are so using-"

"I am not. I know how you are, Tenten."

"… I'm sorry, Neji."

"Quite all right."

"I'm bored."

"As am I."

"…"

"I actually was using Byakuugan."

"YOU!"


"Ah, it's that one."

"Which one, Sasuke?"

"To the left of the conductor; look a few feet along."

"Quit talkin' s'damn loud!" Ino hissed, noticeably haughty and ruffled. Whether she cared to admit it or not, nervousness was creeping into her normally overconfident, aggressive core. The boy at her side nudged her silver earring with his nose and murmured something in her ear; her face, in response, twisted into an ugly grimace. She silenced, though none too willingly.

The pink-haired girl stuck her tongue out at her best friend childishly, then stuck her thumbs into her belt loops and looked over her shoulder. Watching her teammate's eyes survey the fairly large gathering of passengers, her voice was low as she asked, "The surly-looking one?"

Sasuke stole a covert glance at the man, then nodded in affirmation. Stepping forward without a sound, he wrapped his fingers around her elbow and rested his chin upon the top of her head. Giving an impression, no doubt, that his sultry tenor was whispering sweet nothings into her ear; everything relied on the entire situation holding no suspicion. They were on a vacation and nothing more.

Blend.

"Look, Hina-chan!" Naruto yelled loudly, pushing his face into a hole of a cardboard cutout with a "body" that resembled that of Jiraiya-sama, his former instructor. "Who knew that the old pervert was famous like this? They know him even way out in the middle of-"

"Naruto," she interrupted, giggling.

"I wonder if they'd make one of these for me?" the Kyuubi vessel asked excitedly, looking down at Jiraiya's "body". "Though when I don't have this much hair."

Overcome by a wracking fit of giggles, the Hyuuga covered her mouth with her hands and hid her face, long midnight locks forming a curtain over her flushed cheeks. Thoroughly embarrassed, she turned away from him with perhaps the intent of hiding from him completely; if so, this notion was derailed as he stepped around the cardboard cutout and tilted his head quirkily, watching her.

Heavy flush deepened to a rich crimson. Peeking from through her fingers at his excited smile which was almost childish and shy in nature whilst his eyes held no shame in giving her his full attention.

"N-Naruto?" The Hyuuga's voice was startled.

"I like your laugh," he muttered quietly. Seeming, at last, to fall victim to naturist self-consciousness he blinked and gazed at a spot on the concrete platform, unable to disguise the wide, boyish grin on his face.

"HEY!"

Both of them turned from each other to see Ino snapping her fingers with great impatience, apparently oblivious to the boy behind her, carrying both duffel bags with a disgruntled expression. "We're leaving!"

Gathering at the boarding queue, the six shinobi waited anxiously for their tickets to be taken while Kakashi, donning a round hat pulled surreptitiously over his masked visage, lectured them in a hurried manner.

"Make at least an attempt to blend in. You are all on a vacation, and you two," Sasuke and Sakura glanced at Kakashi to show they were listening, "Need to get into character. This isn't a joke."

Sakura made it a point to appear abashed despite her volatile inner raining obscenities on a cowering jounin, but Sasuke regarded his leader's words with little importance, instead glaring darkly at the same surly man standing a few feet ahead, in the line. Not taking his eyes from the stranger, he unconsciously stepped forward as the people ahead climbed onto the train, keeping Sakura at his elbow. Tightly, and close.

They reached the conductor and embarked the steps in pairs; Shikamaru and Ino, Naruto and Hinata, and Sasuke and Sakura with Kakashi bringing up the rear. Through several compartments they traveled, carefully stepping around passengers and children, luggage and miscellaneous items already strewn about the blood-red, carpeted floors. Progressively, the crowds grew thinner and the people, quieter until they reached one of the last cars of the train.

Unfortunately, the same suspicious man took a generous seat not more than a few rows away from them; Kakashi stole a glance at him, then settled into his window seat with a newspaper, expression thoughtful as Naruto and Hinata occupied the other two. Shikamaru and Ino took the seats in front of them, and Sasuke settled into the opposite window seat from the jounin, still keeping a tight grip on Sakura's forearm as they sat.

"It's already nightfall," the medic commented, leaning forward to gaze out the window at the dark platform, now empty. Only the chandeliers in the compartment provided light, for the inky sky outside was resolutely starless. Sakura continued to stare at the glass, unknowingly lost in a whirl of deep thought and her companion did nothing to occupy himself but observe the seat in front of him.

His hand toyed with the velvet box that he still, for some reason, felt prudent to keep close to him as if it held something that could, perhaps, be used in a moment's notice. Needless to say it was irritating him that the ring was still nestled in its case and for reasons unknown to him, not on her finger. It was what it was for.

Moreover, it was right. It had to happen, and he had no idea what the rational justifications for his thoughts were. No clever segway, no underlying pretext. It was indefinable, rankling, yet he knew it had to be.

Somewhere below an engine stirred and wheels hissed potent steam. The night was young, the young were old. Lights dimmed slightly to grant a solemn atmosphere upon the tired travelers heading home, whether at the beginning of their long excursion or near the end. The young medic laid her head on her companion's chest, jade eyes still watching the swiftly blurring lights out the window as the train picked up speed. Breaths startlingly quiet and mellow and soft; she glanced up at him.

"Do you mind if I had a blanket?"

She felt rather than heard him: "No."

Smiling faintly, she stood quietly and crossed the aisle to ask Hinata for a quilt, keeping her voice low as not to disturb passengers. When Sakura had thanked the girl and turned away, Hinata looked at Sasuke, a strangely knowing but nevertheless kind smile playing on her lips. It reminded him of the medic's calculating and unearthly smirk of intuition, or even worse, it was like Kakashi's.

Sakura bypassed her seat and instead settled herself in Sasuke's lap, tucking the blanket around them both as she laid her head on him again, sighing in content. That same warm sensation enveloped him as her breaths fluttered against his collarbone, and he recognized it as something akin to comfort. Though it was still a brutal sting when she placed her hands against his chest, for as always, she held the warmth that clashed horribly; he was cold. Skin. Personality.

Heart.

Why did she put up with it?

Because she loves you.

He came to the same answer every time.

Why?

What am I to her?

You're everything to her.

Do I love her too?

He did not know.

Round and round in circles he goes.

(His conscious is toiling and ravaged by throes.)

I don't know why I love her.

"Sasuke," she murmured, an angel's whisper vibrating against his chest. Gazing up at him with curious eyes that simultaneously scrutinized him. "What's wrong?"

He did not speak.

She leaned back and stared at him with a familiar expression of worry, fingers curled delicately around the material of his shirt. "Sasuke?"

Cautiously, he placed his fingers over hers and surveyed her with a striking and steady gaze, leaning closer. She was always so warm. And his mouth pressed against her temple so she could feel every word, lingering.

"Do you love me?"

She frowned and muttered, "That's a really stupid question, Sasuke."

"I'm… serious."

"So was I."

Grip tightening, he weaved his fingers through her long locks and dragged her closer, forcing their noses to touch. "Answer me."

"Of course I do," she muttered bitterly, clearly offended as she attempted to pull away from his grasp. "Idiot," she hissed, balling up the quilt and shoving it roughly in his chest. Without making a scene, she rose to her feet.

Dark eyes followed her as she tiptoed down the aisle, courteously maneuvering around luggage and sleeping children; he forced himself to lean back into his seat and catch his breath. His calloused fingers gripped the armrest tightly, forcing it to crack against the anger rising with him. He could feel it leaving. She pulled away all the warmth she gave him and for some reason it could not stand alone. He didn't want it leaving so soon.

He didn't know if he could stand it.

And there it was, just sitting it in his pocket, the only thing he had to give her. Everything, he had to give her. There was no doubt of the enormity the situation held, but the looming death that seemed almost prettily prepared and waiting for them would drive him to chase it.

I won't lose it again.

Because it was not only their mission, it was his last chance.

It was a blur: Throwing the quilt aside and storming through the obstacles that had no label or description, he didn't remember. They weren't important. His footsteps echoed as if he were the only one stalking down the corridor, existent and alive. Turning the knob and hearing it catch, locked. Breaking the cheap lock and opening the door despite feeble protests from others, slamming it shut behind him and turning to face her.

She was startled; he, determined. She half-turned from the sink and blinked as if stepping into a bright light, clearly taken aback by the manner in which Sasuke had forced his way in.

"Is there something wrong?"

No answer. Step forward, step true. Closer.

"Would you answer me, damn it?" She was getting angry, beautiful color rising her ivory cheeks. "You've been acting strange ever since we boarded the train, and it's starting to-"

"Marry me."

Sakura whirled around, hands gripping the counter behind her as she leaned back. Skin stretched over her thin knuckles, white. Her eyes darted frantically around the room waiting for that seemingly inevitable "Just kidding" that never did come.

Mouth opened, closed, opened again with no words emerging.

She locked her eyes on him and challenged him silently, daring him to admit the joke. His proud, towering stance with the signature, aristocratically set jaw and glaring, glittering eyes that were almost coaxing her to get it in his angry, now slightly amused, face.

"…"

"Sakura." He spoke her name carefully, every syllable a staccato, rich bite of tenor.

"Marry me."

"… ARE YOU CRAZY?"