Sizheng: Wow! Thank you very much for the response; I was pretty worried about the writing. In fact, I'm still worried: this chapter includes my first fight scene and I'm more than convinced 'tis quite terrible. But I'll leave that up to you!

I'd just like to thank Verna Jast for being so kind and reading over a draft of the chapter last night. The story's for my darling Nova, but the chapter dedication is all Verna's! I hope you enjoy; please tell me what you think.

That Which One Hears

A Naruto fanstory by Zhang Sizheng

For Novocain

Part Two—In Which There is Bondage

When Sasuke answered the door to find his jōnin-sensei standing on the threshold with a trussed up and gagged teammate under each arm, he seriously considered sliding the door shut on Kakashi's masked grin.

After a moment of silence, he heaved a deep breath and did not sigh. "All of my wrappings are in the wash." He'd gotten blood on them the previous day, and if they got any dirtier, he wouldn't be able to use them in certain exercises: the scent alone might give his position away. Not that he stank. Because he was Uchiha Sasuke and he didn't smell.

"I've plenty. I'm surprised you don't have spares, though."

Sasuke's expression was a study in stoicism, although it was very slightly ruined by the slight tic in the muscles by his left eyebrow.

"I did, until dobe there managed to chew them up two days ago." Sasuke normally wouldn't have bothered defending himself, and wasn't sure why he did this time. Of course, it had nothing to do with feeling insecurity of any kind while in the presence of his lazy, yet admittedly capable jōnin-sensei.

"Excuses, excuses!" Kakashi shrugged, apparently unaware of the blatant hypocrisy of the statement. Turning jauntily on his heel, he began to walk briskly away, Sasuke's teammates still in tow. "Well, come now, my woefully ignorant little flock…"

And Sasuke immediately regretted not putting up more of a fight and just slamming the damn door on that absurdly cheerful face, because anyone who made a career of irritating the shit out of children fully deserved it.

It was astounding how quickly one's reputation could drop within the space of half a day. In the morning, Hatake Kakashi was a credit to his village and the pride of the Elite. He was held in awe by the Academy students who knew their history, and well-respected by his peers in the shinobi ranks. But hearts were fickle, and all ninja loved a good scandal. After all, the problems and missteps of others gave them something to laugh about before they died in some terribly inglorious way.

This was why Ino, upon returning home, hadn't been all that surprised to find her parents conversing gleefully with the Akimichi matriarch. The horror of realisation hadn't speared her until she realised just whom they were talking about.

"Ne, Mama?" she asked, taking up her station at the till again and hoping desperately that she'd heard wrong. "Are you talking about Hatake-sama?"

"Bless you, what a polite child!" Akimichi-mama exclaimed. "No need to refer to that vagabond so reverently, Ino-chan."

Ino was sure the sinking feeling in her stomach wasn't the peaches she'd eaten at Sakura's house. "Excuse me?"

"Such a pity, too," the plump housewife continued sadly. "My niece Kiko-chan has been pining after the Copy Ninja since she saw him at the grocery store and he helped her reach for something on a high shelf…" A woeful shake of her head preceded the simultaneous sighs that rang through the flower boutique.

"And to think, we all thought he was such a fine, upstanding gentleman…" Ino's mother said fretfully.

Ino blushed at her mother's hypocrisy. "…but Mama, just the other day, you told me no gentlemen would read the Icha Icha series and that even though he's amazing at what he does, Hatake-sama is a 'shameful example to the younger generation and should know better.'"

"And wasn't I right?" Ino's mother snapped. "Look at what reading that filth gets people? Abusive and unfaithful and…"

"Calm down, dear," Akimichi-mama said. "Maybe someone should just… go and tell him to let the poor girl down gently?"

'This isn't happening. This isn't happening.' So it had been Ino's thoughtless words that had sparked this flurry of activity in the gossip mill. If Kakashi-sensei found out…

She was dead meat. She'd get tied up and stuck with kunai or… or something awful. Like Sakura probably was, at the moment. Those shinobi self-preservation instincts kicked in again. "But Hatake-sama just… he came in to buy flowers for someone!"

"You don't say?" her mother said, sounding even more forlorn. "So there is another woman… Ino, you should have charged him more for the bouquet. As far as I'm concerned, he didn't pay nearly enough for them…"

For what was quite possibly the second time in her life (the first having taken place just earlier that day), Ino wished she hadn't opened her mouth. "N-no, he just—"

"Outrageous," Akimichi-mama murmured. "Simply scandalous."

She sounded a little too pleased.

"No! Hatake-sama—sorry, Hatake-san came in to buy flowers for someone, and it really was such a strange bouquet, Mama. The meanings sounded almost too awful to be true; it could all be a big misunderstanding! Men don't know anything about flowers, after all—"

"Nonsense! Years ago, when your father was a chūnin assigned to the Academy, he taught floriography to Hatake Kakashi. That man has a mind like a steel trap—I hear he doesn't forget anything he hears, and he only needs to see something once to commit it to memory…"

"Maybe that's why he got tired of his sweetheart so quickly?" Akimichi-mama hypothesised. "It could simply be that his genius works against him?"

"That's no excuse," Ino's mother said grimly. "Ino, I'm sure you interpreted the situation correctly—"

Ino gave up on reasoning with her mother and hoped that Kakashi-sensei wouldn't hold her responsible for his reputation being dragged through the mud. Her mother was an intelligent shinobi—being employed by the Bureau of Torture and Interrogation meant that she had to be shrewd enough to pick up on the smallest snips of information and extract all truth from them.

However, when off-duty, Yamanaka Minako turned into an entirely fluff-brained woman who wasn't so much interested in the truth as she was in a good story.

'She should've been a journalist,' Ino thought with dismay as her mother, still chattering gaily, marched Akimichi-mama upstairs for tea. 'Well, this'll all blow over in a couple of days, if no one sees Kakashi-sensei in the meantime. Please let him get sent on a mission for three months… or go for a training trip for half a year… or just never find out about this…'

Sasuke-kun looked somewhat blanker than usual. Not that Sakura was complaining—he was all the more attractive for his brooding—but she couldn't help thinking that she had more reason to be sulky than he did. The wires cutting into her skin weren't exactly a picnic, and the gag was drying out her mouth.

All in all, she was fully, uncomfortably aware of how stupid she looked, and in front of Sasuke-kun, no less! At the moment, she bore a more than passing resemblance to a well-reprimanded cat slung under the arm of its abusive owner.

When they had come within sight of their usual training field, Kakashi-sensei had begun to speak again, presumably about the day's agenda. However, Naruto had cut him off by loudly wondering about "whatever the hell Sensei had for breakfast, because we normally can't get him to open his dumb mouth and, for some reason, he just won't shut up today."

"My diet hasn't changed, Naruto," Kakashi-sensei retorted, depositing (tossing) Sakura's teammate none-too-gently on the grass of their favoured training field. "I'm sorry to see that yours hasn't either; I saw the lettuce I brought wilting on the table when I went to get you."

"Vegetables are gross," Naruto sniffed. Sakura rolled her eyes as she felt herself being set down, a little more gently than Naruto had been. "They're poisonous and taste bad and—"

"The best safeguard against constipation."

Sakura couldn't decide whether to be revolted or to laugh at Naruto's expression. She settled for attempting to wriggle out of her bindings and realised with consternation that Kakashi-sensei could tie a mean knot. Unable to resist what was by now an almost instinctual glance at Sasuke-kun, she was dismayed to see him look away as soon as she sent her silent plea for help.

Flushing, Sakura gritted her teeth and mentally ran through her list of rope-escape techniques. 'You said you'd get stronger on your own—Sasuke-kun's not going to wait for you, so you're going to have to catch up to his level before you can catch him!'

Naruto was watching her now, as was Kakashi-sensei. Sakura felt her hackles rise. "What am I, a freak show?" she hissed at her blond teammate.

"No," Naruto shrugged as best as he could with the bindings on. "But you were the smartest in our class, so if I watch you get free, I'd probably be able to as well."

A little taken aback by the compliment, Sakura blinked and, inexplicably, felt herself flushing. "Thank you," she said coyly. Then she remembered that it was Naruto she was blushing over and the pinkish hue in her face became a defensive, angry red. "You cheater."


But she was ignoring him now, closing her eyes. If she let out all her breath and sucked her belly in—no, no use. Kakashi-sensei knew that trick and had arranged the wires tightly enough to cut into her even when they should have slackened. 'Sadist.' She opened her eyes, feeling her teammates' stares burning into her—all three of them.

So now Sasuke-kun was watching her, too. Sakura grimaced and began to strain against her wires, feeling her skin break in some areas. But the cutting edge of the bindings meant that she knew where they tied her, and where there were fewer loops… less strength…

"Ne, ne, Kakashi-sensei," Naruto was saying, "is this really necessary?"

"Watch Sakura." Sensei responded, but without heat. Naruto fell silent.

Below her right hip. Under her elbow, just above her left wrist. Her hands were effectively mummified, but if she could just shift one wire over another, then keep up a steady sawing motion, cutting the wires on their own… there.

"Excellent, Sakura," Sensei beamed as the wires slackened and she began to unwind them from herself, wincing as they stimulated the hairline cuts painfully. "Technique thirty-two—I expected you to use number twenty-seven, though."

Sakura wasn't going to admit that it was only because she was too impatient to work one hand free to form the necessary seal; Kakashi-sensei's approval was rare and she couldn't help but be a little pleased with herself.

"Naruto, did you see what she did?"

But Naruto was already up and bouncing, bleeding profusely from several cuts where he'd torn the skin in his haste to free a hand. "No need, Sensei," he said cheerfully. "I used technique twenty-seven!"

"Hn. It just figures you'd be too impatient to do it carefully." Was it Sakura's imagination, or had there been a break in Sasuke-kun's usual monotone? He sounded… irritated? Concerned? "You risked destroying all the skin on your fingers, dobe."

Luckily, Kakashi-sensei intervened before Naruto could retort, tossing a roll of linen bandages at Sakura's blond teammate. "Cover up your hands, then. We've already wasted half the afternoon watching you two breaking free from a C-rank wire jutsu."

Of course, that just aggravated the argument between Sakura's teammates. She closed her eyes and accepted a short length of the linen bandages with which to clean away the blood on her arms and legs. Really, Kakashi-sensei only ever made anything much worse by helping.

"Stealth," Kakashi-sensei said, after he'd calmed Naruto down by throwing him into a tree, and then calmly followed through by sitting on him. "The first courtesy of all shinobi."

Naruto's muffled voice sounded out from beneath their teacher's backside. "I thought you said that fore—whazzit… thinking ahead was—"

"Foresight's the first virtue, Naruto."


"So. Stealth."

In spite of the fact Kakashi-sensei had walked in on her and Ino on her day off training, calmly listened to her thrashing his character with an iron skillet, then tied up, gagged and kidnapped her from her own house, Sakura couldn't help feeling just the slightest bit excited. Mostly because… well, it appeared they were actually going to learn something.

She would mark the calendar as soon as she got home.

"As the first courtesy learned by all and any shinobi," Kakashi-sensei drawled now, easing up slightly on a blue-faced Naruto, "being stealthy will keep you from embarrassing your teachers—that'd be me, I guess, and Iruka-sensei, among others—your village, and, least importantly of all, yourself.

"However, at present… mmm," he drew the sound out thoughtfully. "How shall I phrase this?"

Sakura got a distinct sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach as his eye arced in mock-pleasure and he snapped his fingers. "Ah, yes. As you stand now, the lot of you are an embarrassment that transcends all other embarrassments."

Naruto made a muffled noise of protest that perfectly complemented the mad spasm in Sasuke-kun's hand. If Sakura didn't know better, she would have thought their dark-haired teammate was twitching his hand towards a kunai.

"None of you should be able to deny that without shame," Kakashi-sensei said, with more seriousness than before. "I don't think I need to remind you of what happened eighteen days previous."

'Eighteen… days?' Sakura blinked. Then went bright red. Two and a half weeks ago, she, Naruto and Sasuke-kun had made their first attempts at unmasking Kakashi-sensei. It seemed it had been a fiasco immense enough that their instructor had seen fit to take note of it. In hindsight, it had been a rather pathetic attempt to satisfy their curiosity, and… well…

"…exemplified failure in a way that I haven't seen since Gai-kun tried to infiltrate a brothel by impersonating one of their, ah, women," Kakashi-sensei drawled.

If the nauseated expression on Naruto's face was any indication, the mental image that had sprung to his mind had been almost as terrible as the one burned into Sakura's.

Sasuke-kun, however, looked admirably unimpressed. "You keep talking, Kakashi," he said. "But are you really going to teach us anything?"

Naruto snorted. Sensei braced a foot callously against the blond head and shoved it into the dirt. "Oh, forgive me. I sort of like the sound of my own voice." He spread his arms wide. "But since you're so eager to learn, here's your first task:

"I want you to punch me. In the face. As hard—"

There was a blur of blue-black motion, then a sickening crunch that tore at Sakura's ear drums. Then a brief pause in which Sakura tried not to feel ill. 'That blow broke Kakashi-sensei's nose for sure,' she thought anxiously, looking at the small dust cloud whipped up by Sasuke-kun's speed. 'He is going to be in so much trouble for this…'

But as the dust cleared, the air was rent with a litany of curses Sakura knew but had never quite dared to use.

"Ah, well… you missed that time." Sakura looked wildly about before spotting Kakashi-sensei, who was perched on the tree branch above them. He flicked his eyes towards where Sasuke-kun was attempting to wriggle his hand free from where it had been buried wrist-deep into a small log. Both were entangled with the prone Naruto, who was attempting to squirm free and only exacerbating the situation as he shouted profanities at the top of his lungs.

Kakashi-sensei shook his head in mock-sorrow. "Such anger. Shocking, really."

Sakura wondered why she felt the absurd urge to laugh. "Sensei, you shouldn't've—"

"Never mind that." Kakashi-sensei looked suddenly bored with the state of affairs and jumped down to kick the log away from Sasuke-kun's hand, then pressed several bandages into the bleeding palm. He barely dodged the retaliatory swipe. "Anyhow, let's play a game of tag. You'll want to get close enough to grab these—" Two silver bells gleamed in his hand, and Sakura's mind sparked in recognition.

Naruto recognised them, too. "Kakashi-sensei, aren't those the—"

"You have until sundown." Sakura's eyes darted to where the bells were now secured to a belt loop. "And because I'm not very creative, I'll make the lot of you dinner if just one of you gets these. I'll eat, too." With something resembling dark humour: "In front of you."

Sakura suddenly found her voice. "That's not fair!" She shouted after his retreating form. "It's not like you'll show it to us anyway, so you won't even give us a chance to catch you!"

A breeze tickled her ear, and it spoke with Kakashi-sensei's voice. "Well, then, you're just going to have to try extra hard now, aren't you?" He sidestepped Sakura's clumsy lunge, then back flipped neatly over Naruto-the-whirlwind-of-blond-hair-and-bared-teeth. "Try again. With less stumbling, this time."

With a startling, wholly uncharacteristic roar, Sasuke-kun rushed forward, a mad light illuminating his eyes before the dark irises bled Sharingan-red.

Thus commenced what Team Seven would eventually agree on being Kakashi-sensei's most ridiculous teaching episode to date.

Kakashi was enjoying himself.

It had been three hours since he'd issued his challenge, and he had not been allowed to stand still for more than two minutes since then. Even those little reprieves had only been due to his students taking a moment to wrack their little brains and come up with new ways of inflicting great and terrible bodily harm upon him.

So far, they had failed on every occasion. Miserably, even.

Sasuke came at him now, bloodline limit kindling to life again as he blew a long tongue of orange fire at his teacher. Kakashi side-stepped it easily, spinning adroitly to duck under Sasuke's follow-up kick. He smiled as he felt the power in the displaced air; the boy was getting stronger by the day. Nevertheless, Kakashi couldn't much recommend him for his subtlety.

"Katon jutsu make poor cover at best," he lectured as the boy blurred into an almost flawless Taijutsu form and attacked again. Kakashi recognised the stolen techniques of Gai's prized student and grinned, catching Sasuke mid-blow by the arm. "You're not fast enough to best me with a flimsy attack like that." He completed a swift turn on his heel for momentum, wrenching Sasuke powerfully into thrown flight.

"Sasuke-kun!" He heard, and was prevented from turning to face Sakura when he felt his feet grow roots and sink into the ground. As his only female student passed into his line of vision, he looked into her eyes and broke the genjutsu without even forming the seal. "Don't announce yourself like that next time, Sakura," he scolded, and some sliver of compassion or courtesy made him rethink his initial decision to grab her by the hair and launch her after Sasuke. The Uchiha had recovered admirably in mid-air: twisting catlike, he'd used the tree he had been about to impact as a springboard. He was now flying back at Kakashi, hands picking out perfectly formed seals for another katon jutsu.

Feeling almost sorry for having considered such a cruel course of action for Sakura, whom he admittedly held a soft spot for, Kakashi settled for picking her up by the collar of her ludicrous dress and drop-kicking her into the nearby brook. Shrieking wildly, she soared through the air in a graceful arc before landing with an audible squelch in the shallow water.

As Kakashi clasped his hands together into the tiger seal and gathered chakra in his fingertips, he wondered idly why Naruto, crouched under a bush roughly three hundred metres five o'clock of Kakashi's position, hadn't moved for the last ninety minutes.

Sasuke's fireball jutsu was made ineffectual as Kakashi blurred behind him, protruding forefingers blazing with bluish energy. His most prodigious student's eyes widened in horrified recognition and he curled into a ball to both protect himself and force his fall faster.

Kakashi's infamous "Thousand Years of Pain" jabbed him painfully in the back of his right thigh instead of its intended target. Kakashi swore he heard a howl of disappointment from where Naruto was hiding before Sasuke tumbled into a heap on the ground, his right leg temporarily paralysed. His normally pale face was flushed with pain and humiliation.

Kakashi might have felt sorry for him if he hadn't found it so damned funny, and not a little disappointing.

In all honesty, he'd been expecting his team to grasp the lesson behind this "game" at least an hour ago. Oddly enough, Sasuke, who was normally the most level-headed, was acting as hot-tempered as the other two normally would. By contrast, while Sakura had initially attempted to coordinate her attacks with Sasuke's so that she could steal up on Kakashi, even she had begun to lose sight of the primary goal.

As ridiculous as it was to say, Kakashi's only hope for salvaging the lesson was Naruto. When the challenge had first been issued, Naruto had been just as undisciplined in his approach as Sasuke was. However, Kakashi was sure Konoha's self-proclaimed Number One Most Unpredictable Ninja was currently plotting something.

He smiled as Sasuke hauled himself to his feet, limping visibly, and Sakura appeared behind him as back-up, her small hands already weaving a genjutsu. While the sporadic bursts of teamwork had both pleased Kakashi with their ability and frustrated him with their lack of coordination, teamwork was not what he was preaching this time round.

Hopefully, Naruto would clue in.

If not, then it was probable that they were all going to be playing tag for a long time…

Naruto had in fact, worked out part of the puzzle.

From previous experience, Kakashi-sensei didn't like to simply hand anyone answers—not even to teach. During Team Seven's first test and training session with the man, he could have just said "work as a team to capture these bells". Instead, he had played an ingenious, albeit somewhat cruel, mind game in the hopes of their figuring out what he wanted. 'Or just failing altogether. You can never tell with Kakashi-sensei…'

In any case, Naruto remembered what Sensei had meant to teach them in the first place. It had been rather quashed into his head, what with his being sat on and all.

'Stealth,' he thought with uncharacteristic grimness while watching his teammates being soundly thrashed on the training field. 'We're never going to get near him… and if we did, he wanted us to use the number one ninja courtesy-whazzit he talked about. Still, getting us to focus on beating his face in did a great job distracting even Bastard over there…' Naruto huffed quietly, stricken with admiration for their jōnin-sensei's cleverness. 'Cheater.'

Nevertheless, watching "Bastard" just missing being subjected to the humiliating arse-poke Naruto had once been privy to had brought a smile to the blond's face before he hummed meditatively.

"So the game of tag is a distraction," Naruto concluded.

While not the brightest crayon in the box and possessing an unfortunate penchant for inappropriate jokes and humour, when Naruto knew what he wanted, he gave his all in getting it. Being all but tethered to his team-mates had taught him to calm down and think things through a little more often, and he had been spending the last hour puzzling things out, coming up with plans, plan Bs, and figuring out how to get Sakura-chan to listen to him.

He got his answer a split-second later when a low, whistling shriek preluded Sakura's crash-landing almost directly atop Naruto's head.

'Kakashi-sensei planned that,' Naruto thought grimly, spitting loam and dead leaves as he reached out and dragged Sakura under the trampled bush. He was repaid with a painful thump on his head that had his eyes tearing. "Owww, Sakura-chan—"

"What do you want, Naruto?" Sakura-chan spat. Although she was covered head to two in mud, her normally jade-green eyes were live with wrath. Naruto took a moment too long to admire them and was rewarded with a blow that raised another bruise atop the first lump already decorating his forehead. "Well?" she hissed as he held it in mute agony.

"Kakashi-sensei wanted us to be stealthy," Naruto muttered through watering eyes and clenched teeth.

But he immediately knew that it had been the right thing to say, because Sakura-chan lowered her fist, an expression of comprehension crossing her pretty features. "Stealth…" she muttered. "I already tried that."

Naruto wisely held his tongue.

Sakura-chan looked to be thinking hard. "Maybe," she muttered. "Stealth… simply trying to sneak up on him to the bells isn't going to work. We're missing something."

"Of course we are. But Kakashi-sensei didn't tell us it was teamwork the last time, and we still passed," Naruto pointed out. "This time, he actually told us he wanted us to practice stealth, but you and the bastard wore yourselves down anyway."

"Don't talk about Sasuke-kun like that," Sakura-chan responded, but the reprimand was without heat. Naruto felt a swell of pride as he realised his observations had given her something to think about. "Oh… what if…"

Her response was cut off as a spitting, furious Uchiha heir was dropped atop their heads.

After disentangling themselves and relocating to another bush—a feat only slightly hampered by Sakura-chan fussing over Naruto's rival—Naruto filled Sasuke in on his conclusions (mostly because he could show the bastard that he'd figured something out before the Uchiha had).

He hadn't expected Sasuke's bleeding mouth to bend into a twisted-looking smirk. "Of course," he said softly.

Naruto bristled. "You've got a better idea of what's happening?" he spat.

"Naruto," Sakura-chan said warningly.

"Kakashi wants us to be stealthy," Sasuke interrupted. "But we're never going to get past him the way we are now." He said this as if it were a fact as painful to him as it was to Naruto. "So we have to trick him."

Sakura-chan nodded her head, staring rapturously at Sasuke. Naruto felt hurt lick briefly in his chest before he squashed it with a smile. "You had an idea earlier, Sakura-chan?" he prompted.

"What? Oh, yes." The glow disappeared from her eyes as her voice took on a more businesslike tone. "Never mind what I thought. Sasuke-kun is right, though—we have to trick him."

"Well, do you have a plan?" Naruto hated it when Sakura-chan just dropped her own opinions just to look good in front of Sasuke when the stupid bastard didn't deserve her, anyhow. "Or—" he broke off suddenly as the answer came to him.

The other two looked at him in what could have been confusion as he burst out laughing. "What is it, usuratonkachi?" Sasuke asked coldly.

Naruto waved him aside, feeling euphoric with the sudden revelation. "When you get caught doing something you're not supposed to, and you don't want people to know you did it," he said excitedly, "then you act like you didn't."

"What does that have to do with anything?" Sakura-chan asked, attempting to comb her hair with her fingers. Her face contorted with frustration as they snagged in knots and pulled painfully. Catching the flat expression on Sasuke's face, however, caused her to drop her hands immediately.

Naruto felt another little spike of annoyance, but continued to speak. "The best way to keep from getting caught when sneaking around, though, is to pretend you aren't doing anything weird or bad. When I—" he caught himself. "I mean, if you want to get somewhere where you're not supposed to go, then walking around like you have the right will make people think that you're not doing anything wrong."

"Is this something you do when pulling one of your jokes?" Sakura-chan asked, rolling her eyes.

Naruto tilted his chin defiantly. "So what if it is? And they don't catch me if I don't want to be caught."

"…nice," Sasuke's eyes held a rare warmth as he looked at Naruto with comradely approval. Naruto grinned fiercely back.

Afire with the implications, Sakura-chan nodded with enthusiasm. "If one of us just walks up to him and say something to make him think we're not after the bells, he'll let his guard down enough that we can just reach out and grab them," she suggested. "Maybe if we pretended we were hurt and wanted to give up?" It sounded just crazy enough to work, Naruto thought with approval.

Sasuke looked down at himself and grimaced. "I sustained the most damage," he admitted with surprising good grace. "He'd be more likely to relax if I—"

"That's stupid," Naruto announced. "He'll never believe it if you did it, because you're too much of a stick to bend like that. You'd rather break first."

Unbelievably, Sakura-chan giggled. "He's right," she said, to Naruto's surprise. "Sasuke-kun wouldn't give up in front of Kakashi-sensei like that. But Naruto… you've never stopped trying for anything." Her chin, white and unsoiled with mud, lifted. "So I'll go."

It felt good, Naruto realised. Just being accepted by them like this—working out a plan, executing it. Knowing that his frequent declarations touched other people—even Sakura-chan.

He felt warm.

But Sasuke broke the companionable silence. "Wait, Sakura," he said, looking contemplative. "Maybe we can give him a show, first…"

It had been a full fifteen minutes since Kakashi had thrown Sasuke into the bush where he knew Sakura and Naruto were hiding, and the jōnin was getting suspicious. More suspicious than usual, anyhow; he almost jumped when a shriek of fury and offence split the air and threatened to destroy his sensitive hearing.

"Bastard! I wasn't napping!" Naruto shouted from somewhere behind him. Hearing a muffled thud of bodies impacting the ground, Kakashi turned to see Naruto and Sasuke exchanging haphazard blows as they rolled around in the grass. Biting. Clawing. "Take that back, asshole!" Naruto yelled as he tumbled away and into a feral-looking crouch. "I was so not sleeping!"

"Maybe you weren't," Sasuke smirked, having rolled gracefully into a standing position. "You were just lying down with your eyes closed for no reason, right?" Naruto snarled, and the two genin met together in a clumsy, disgustingly undignified fistfight free of anything resembling form or grace.

Kakashi palmed at the right side of his face in exasperation as clothes started getting torn in the ridiculous brawl. "Oy, oy," he said sharply. "You're both too young for that sort of thing."

"Shut up!" Naruto roared, and Kakashi noted with alarm that he was gathering chakra in the palm of his right hand. Similarly, Sasuke's arm crackled with blue-edged electricity.

"Stop!" Sakura cried, bursting from the trees and throwing herself between her warring teammates with admirable, if stupid, bravery. She spread her arms beseechingly as the two bore down on her. "Kakashi-sensei, make them stop fighting, please! You two, it's so stupid, just—"

He'd suspected foul play—a bluff, at the very least—but this was going a little far. Especially with Sasuke's Chidori not two feet from Sakura's chest. Kakashi was between the two in a flash, kicking the boy's arm upwards and breaking his Chidori movement before catching and restraining Naruto's arm until the premature Rasengan faded.

Kakashi heard Sakura exhale shakily before stumbling haltingly towards him. Her arms circled his waist from behind and he let her have that comfort, having fixed the two guilty-looking boys with a glare. But realisation lit a light in his mind as she heaved a dry sob into the small of his back.

He was too pleased with them to stop her from closing her hands around her prize.

"Good work," he said, gently unwinding her arms from about him and turning to ruffle her poor, bedraggled hair. Her answering smile of victory was catching—she held the two silver bells up and shook them so that their distinctive tinkle resonated in the clearing. He let out a chuckle in spite of himself, and reached out with both hands to deal the same treatment to Naruto and Sasuke. "Good work, all three of you." Effusive praise wasn't his thing, but they all glowed nevertheless.

"Now," he said, seating himself cross-legged on the grass, "what have you learned?"

"Being sneaky won't always get you everywhere," Sakura said instantly. Opting to sit by Kakashi, she had passed the bells off to her teammates, who were tossing and catching them with smug grins. "Naruto figured it out, Sensei—"

"I expected as much," Kakashi murmured, feeling proud in spite of himself. "And? How would you apply this lesson as a ninja if, say… you were to shadow the Hokage?"

"I'd come up with a reason to be around her," Naruto said, joining them on the ground. He yanked up fistfuls of grass as his brow creased in thought. "There are ANBU all over the place, and they'd know it was me straight off if I tried to sneak around. It makes more sense to just hang around because she likes me—maybe I'd bring her sake and say I wanted to see what being Hokage was like for when I take over."

"I doubt anyone would sell you sake, Naruto," Kakashi mussed the yellow hair again, eliciting a yelp of dismay. "And you, Sasuke? How did you contribute, other than your staged little performance just now?"

The Uchiha didn't rise to Kakashi's bait, a fact that pleased the jōnin immensely. "If there's someone strong that you can't hide from, then you should try to trick them into thinking there is nothing wrong, or redirect their attention," he answered.

"Excellent," Kakashi leaned back. "My thoughts on this are that the lot of you shouldn't have tried that so soon after such a long silence. Anyone would've been suspicious of that sort of performance—no matter how convincing—after that. In any case—"

"We're not going to forget it even if you talk a lot! Sensei, you can't get out of your promise!" Naruto crossed his arms, squinting up at him. "Even if we made a mistake, you still lost the bet. You're going to show us your face!"

Kakashi flicked his eyes to the west. "Actually, the sun set over twenty minutes ago and I told you that you had until sundown, so the promise is nullified by your inability to keep up your end of the agreement." He held up a hand to forestall the angry flood of complaints. "But,since I'm a wonderful jōnin-sensei and feel touched by your great affection for me, I'll still cook you dinner."

"You want to get out of it by poisoning us?" Sakura rolled her eyes, grinning. "No way."

I never said I'd show you my face. I said I'd cook something and eat with you, so take it or leave it," Kakashi stood, took a moment to crack his joints satisfyingly, and padded cheerfully towards the exit. "Surely you guys would like to know how your beloved Sensei cooks his rice?"

"W-was that supposed to sound so perverted?"


'Sometimes,' Kakashi reflected, listening to his adorable students bicker good-naturedly as they followed him home like a trio of sullen puppies, 'being a teacher isn't so bad.'

To be continued…