A belated but much appreciated thanks to eldrfire and omizu for talking out some points in the previous chapter as well as this one. You ladies rock my Kasbah like a hurricane.

"Hey, so how's the poison training going? You haven't talked about that in a while," Ino commented cheerfully as she poked at her seaweed salad.

Shrugging, Sakura scooped up a spoonful of soup and tipped it over again without taking a bite. "It's going okay. I haven't killed anyone yet, which I guess is a good thing," she replied without any real enthusiasm.

Ino, unaware of her friend's gloomy thoughts, grinned broadly and exclaimed, "That's good!" Then, she paused and tilted her head thoughtfully. "Or maybe it isn't since the point of poisons is to kill someone."

Sakura snorted and a brief smile managed to lift the corners of her lips a little. Even in the mood she was in, she couldn't deny the comment was humorously ironic.

Encouraged by the smile, Ino perched her elbows on the table and said, "You know, a new shipment of dresses came in at the store across from my parents' shop. After this, wanna go try on clothing we couldn't afford with a million years of A-ranked missions?"

On a normal day, the offer would have been a temptation she couldn't refuse. Today though … not so much.

It'd been two days since she and Kakashi had … since that night and she hadn't seen a trace of him anywhere since. She'd looked, though she did so as covertly as possible. Every rooftop, comfy looking tree, and Icha Icha poster she passed got a quick but thorough once over to see if there was a familiar disarray of hair or a slouched back. Nothing. Not even one of the ninken wandering about. It was safe to say that Kakashi was nowhere within the village limits and that the reason was more than likely because he was avoiding her.

Of course, she didn't really know what she would do if their paths actually did cross. At the very least she wanted to apologize and maybe see about repairing their working relationship. At best she wanted to see if they could maybe be friends.

She didn't dare hope that they could ever have anything more than that though. After the way she'd treated him she'd be lucky if he spared her so much as a glance.

She shook her head. "Thanks, but I'm gonna pass."

Ino's eyes narrowed speculatively for a moment before she sighed and leaned back from the table. "I don't get it, Forehead," she remarked, setting her chopsticks aside. "Why are you here?"

Arching a brow, Sakura replied slowly, "Because you invited me?"

The blonde stuck her tongue out at that. "What I meant is why are you here and not out looking for Kakashi?"

Heat flushed across her cheeks as she looked away, staring down at the chunks of tofu floating in her soup. "W-Why would I do that?" she stammered. There was a tremble in her voice that matched the one in her hands. "Kakashi and I … we…."

"You had a fight," the blonde supplied. "Guess what, Sakura? Everyone has fights."

"But the way I treated him—"

Ino waved a dismissive hand. "Whatever. You know what I think the problem is? I think you're scared to talk to him."

Sakura bristled at that, her lips pursing into a thin, angry line. "I am not scared of him," she hissed as her hand tightened around her spoon handle.

The blonde smirked as she took a careful bite of seaweed. "Oh, yes you are! You're afraid that he'll reject you. Admit it."

"I'm not gonna admit to anything, Pig! And why should I be afraid of him rejecting me when there's nothing to reject?"

"Exactly!" Ino exclaimed gleefully. "You don't have anything left to lose, so why not do it?"

"Because…." Because, despite her claim to the contrary, she really was terrified of approaching him. She'd treated him awfully… It made her sick imagining all the many painful, but well-deserved and most likely, ways he would respond if she were to ask for a second chance. She would rather not know if things could have been different than have the certainty of his refusal.

She broke from her thoughts when Ino shook her head, a grim expression on her face. "I swear, all my friends are completely messed up," she muttered. "Tenten lands the most sought after guy in the village and decides they're better off as friends, Hinata can barely look at the man she loves without combusting, and you are too chicken-shit scared to talk to the man who quite possibly might love you. I don't understand why guys just – hey, where are you going?"

Sakura tossed some money on the table and called gruffly over her shoulder, "I have things to do." She ignored Ino's protests as she pushed her way out the door, hugging her arms across her chest as a sharp wind kicked up.

It felt an awful lot like she was running away and maybe she was, but part of her hasty escape was because she didn't want her friend to see her cry for the millionth time. As much as she hated to admit it, Ino was right. She was downright terrified of facing Kakashi. She felt bad for ditching her friend so abruptly, but she couldn't stay there any longer. It was too close to confronting her fear head on.

Sakura hurried down the street with her head down and tears stinging her eyes. She needed to think and she couldn't do that when she was an emotional wreck. She had to unwind a bit and there was only one place where she could do that: Training Ground Three

Ino watched her friend leave the restaurant with a mixture of shock and irritation. What the hell was that all about? Sure, she'd been a little harsh, but that was no reason to go storming out of there! She knew Sakura well enough to know that if she didn't goad her a bit then nothing would change. Sakura would continue to sit around moping over a broken heart rather than getting off her ass and doing something about it. And as her best friend and roommate, she simply couldn't allow it.

Well … that and the fact she was sick of finding wads of tissue all over the apartment. It was just plain disgusting.

She picked up the money Sakura had left and tucked it into her hip pouch before replacing it with her own funds. She'd slip it back into Forehead's purse later. Lunch had been her idea, after all, and she didn't think it was right that her friend pay when she hadn't wanted to go from the start. Returning her wallet to the pouch, Ino exited the restaurant….

And very nearly collided with Hatake Kakashi as he was coming in.

Both of them froze, Ino gaping up at him in surprise. Then, her memory helpfully supplied the image of what he looked like beneath that mask and her cheeks became considerably warmer. Secretly and in spite of the fact that Kiba was one helluva good kisser, she was more than a little jealous Sakura had landed someone so incredibly hot. It was just further proof that there was no justice in the world.

There was no doubt in her mind why he was there, and it wasn't because the tofu tempura was to die for. "Sakura left about five minutes ago," she answered before he could even ask. Ino pointed down the street in the direction her friend had gone. "Training Ground Three, I think." That was where Sakura always went to clear her head.

To her surprise (and delight), Kakashi placed a hand on her shoulder and gave a grateful squeeze. "Thank you," he murmured, oblivious to the redness that was definitely spreading down her neck now.

Ino stood in the doorway and stared after him before a smile slipped across her lips. Shaking her head, she headed off to see if maybe Kiba wanted to come over and watch a movie. She had a feeling Sakura would probably be out late – if she even came home at all.

There he was – his rival in love. Hatake Kakashi. After spending nearly two days searching for the man, he had finally shown himself. Now was the time to challenge him, as one man to another. It would be a battle for love, to prove himself to the blossom of his heart. He would show Sakura that he was a man she could be proud of, a man worthy of her youthful beauty.

With a determined crease to his brow and fists by his sides, Rock Lee stepped forward to confront his love rival.

"Don't, Lee."

His eyes widened in shock as he spun toward that all too familiar voice. "Gai-sensei?"

His beloved mentor stepped out from the shadows of a dumpster with an uncharacteristically solemn expression to his face. Lee's breath caught as the older man placed a warm hand to his shoulder. As always, he was overwhelmed that someone as great as Maito Gai would ever favor him. But there was something different in the way that his mentor regarded him today. He seemed … sad, almost. What cause would Gai-sensei have to be sad?

"Listen to me, Lee," the older man said, speaking softly and with a sheen to his dark eyes. "I need you to do something, something that will pit your honor as a man against the passion of your youthful heart."

A challenge! Gai-sensei was testing him and he would not fail! Lee nodded once, decisively, and said, "What would you have me do, Gai-sensei?"

"Let Sakura go."

Lee stopped – breathing, thinking … everything. Gai-sensei was asking him to give up? But why? Was it because he felt Kakashi was the stronger man? His heart sank as he realized that must be the answer. Gai-sensei didn't think he was strong enough yet, and if Gai-sensei didn't have faith in him then … then….

He closed his eyes so that his mentor didn't have to witness how hurt he was and said softly, "I understand, sensei. Your eternal rival is strong. He possesses a fire that I have yet to—"

"Kakashi is indeed a strong shinobi," Gai interrupted. "But what I am asking is that you be even stronger."

He looked up at that, meeting his mentor's gaze in confusion. That confusion only grew when Gai-sensei smiled at him. It was the one he lived to receive – the one that said he was proud of his student.

"It's an easy thing to love, Lee," the older man continued. "But to happily let that special person find love with another? That is the true test of a man."

And just like that, he understood. The mark of a man – a real man – was that he wanted those he cared about to be happy, no matter the circumstances. That was the true beauty of love; it was selfless.

A small smile played across his lips as tears touched his eyes. He let them fall freely, unashamed, and nodded. "That is what I want most, Gai-sensei. For Sakura to be happy." Even if it meant keeping his deep and youthful feelings for her to himself.

His mentor squeezed his shoulders warmly. "You are a remarkable man, Rock Lee."

Training Ground Three. This was where they'd had their date with paintballs. The gate was unlocked and the red side of the sign was flipped up to show it was occupied. Somewhere further in the sound of an explosion reached his ears and shortly after a cloud of dust billowed upward from the tall grass.

The gate creaked loudly as Kakashi pushed it open, pausing just long enough to shut it securely before following the earth tremors to their source.

He found her on her knees in the middle of a crater that was easily ten feet in diameter; clearly, she was still holding back. Her hands were fisted on her thighs, she was covered in dirt and grass stains, and she was panting heavily – or was she crying? It was hard to tell with the way her head was bowed.

Kakashi didn't know what to expect or what he even planned to do. She wasn't angry with him, he knew that. If she was, then Ino wouldn't have been so willing to help. At the same time though he wasn't expecting a warm reception – not if she was out here, alone, smashing things with her fists. He didn't know what to say or do, having never been in a position like this before. It wasn't at all like a typical fight where moves and strategies could be predicted and the outcome was absolute. Here, he was on completely foreign ground, with a goal but no plan on how to get there and an infinite number of ways it could end.

But none of that would matter if she didn't know he was there.

The idea of maybe just turning about and leaving her in peace crossed his mind for exactly half a second before he purposely scraped a foot across the lip of the crater.

She whipped around with a fist cocked and ready to rip the earth from under his feet if necessary. But when she saw it was him, her arm dropped limply to her side and her eyes widened in surprise. "Kakashi…."

The sound of his name leaving her lips in barely more than a whisper made his chest ache. "Sakura," he replied, his voice almost as soft as hers.

Her brow furrowed as she pushed to her feet, swiping her gloved palms across her skirt. Dirty lines the exact size of her fingers were left behind. "What are you doing here?"

He cleared his throat and tucked his hands into his pockets. "I wanted to see you."

For a brief moment, something like hope flashed across her features before she quickly covered it with a hard expression. She looked away, her fingers twisting in the hem of her skirt. Her tongue darted out to wet her lower lip and when she spoke next there was an undisguised tremor to her words. "Y-You did? But why? I thought…."

Kakashi glanced at her questioningly when she didn't finish, his heart skipping a beat. "You thought what?" he encouraged.

Her eyes closed as she shook her head. "Nothing. Never mind."

She started to climb out of the hole and froze when he held out his hand. Her eyes darted to his face and, as if prompted by that look, he reached up with his free hand to pull the mask down. He squatted down, hand still extended, and waited.

Hesitantly, Sakura placed her hand in his and allowed him to help her out.

Once on level ground, she was quick to pull her hand free and put a little distance between them. A sharp pang shot through him, but he carefully kept it from showing. "Thanks," she said, ducking her head to hide the color staining her cheeks.

He shifted from one foot to the other as the awkwardness weighed heavily upon them. "You're welcome."

The silence stretched uncomfortably as she waited and he tried to find his words. Sakura was the one to break first as she let out a harsh sigh and shook her head. "This is ridiculous," she said. There was a sharpness underlying the words that made the sweat run cold down his spine.

"What is?" he asked hoarsely, half afraid of her response.

Sakura gestured between the two of them. "This. We can't keep on like this."

Kakashi nodded slowly. "Agreed."

She paused then, chewing on her lower lip as she stared down at her feet. Her hands were clasped before her, her fingers twisting together in a display of unease. "I'm sorry," she said.

He didn't need to see her eyes to know she was crying; he could hear it in her voice. Kakashi took a step toward her, his hand lifting of its own accord. "Sakura…."

Sakura shook her head "No, don't. I-I don't want you to say it was your fault or tell me it's okay or whatever. Because I know it's not. Your fault or okay, I mean. And … I'm sorry."

Kakashi swallowed hard and tried once more to locate where his words had wandered off to. She turned away, waiting until her back was to him before swiping a gloved hand across her eyes, and headed back toward the training ground gate. If he didn't do something, she was going to leave and there would never be another chance. He had to stop her.

An idea came to him then, one that would hopefully demonstrate more fully than words what he wanted to say. Kakashi, without any hesitation whatsoever, called after her, "Sakura, fight me."

Sakura came to a halt. She turned toward, just enough to look at him over her shoulder. His face was carefully neutral, but there was something in the way he was looking at her that said there was more to the request than what was on the surface. Something underneath the underneath. "What?"

He took a couple steps back, putting a more combat friendly distance between them, and reached up to lift the hitae-ate. The sharingan immediately focused on her, taking in even the slightest movement she made. "Fight me," he repeated, this time with an authority that was all too familiar to her.

Still unsure as to what he was really asking, she gave a slow nod and faced him once again. "Okay. Sure."

And then his fist was swinging toward her and there was no time to think of anything beyond dodging.

Kakashi bent backward to avoid the arching kick she'd intended for his chest, planting one hand to the ground so as to swipe his leg across her ankles. Sakura hit the ground with a yelp, but she was on her feet again in an instant and aiming an uppercut punch for his jaw the next. He blocked the blow, as well as the next several she fired at him. But he wasn't pushing any offensive maneuvers, which was strange.

It didn't take long for her to realize this sparring session was much different than the one they'd had a few days prior. For one thing, he wasn't using any ninjutsu or genjutsu. It was all just sheer physical attacks – her forte. That didn't mean he was holding back in anyway; he had too much respect for her to ever do that. He was playing in favor to her strengths intentionally. There had to be a reason for that.

Sakura managed to hold her ground for a while, far longer than she would have been able to if he'd been utilizing all his abilities, but eventually he began driving her back from the hole she'd made. As with the last time, he blocked every attack she threw his way, though in her defense she wasn't unleashing the full brunt of her chakra skills on him. Oh, she was still using it and he definitely felt the difference if the pained grimaces were anything to go by, but she wasn't coming at him with full killing force.

At one point, she made a miscalculation. She threw one more punch than she should have and soon after found herself being hauled off her feet and slung over his shoulder. Sakura hit the ground hard, a gasp ripping from her lips as pain shot through her back and chest. White spots dotted her vision briefly, disappearing as she gave a couple hard blinks. The afternoon light disappeared and it took her a second to figure out that the shadow looming over her was him.

"Why?" she panted. She closed her eyes again and focused on calming her body down. Her heart was pounding heavily, her chest heaved with every gulp of breath, and her skin was sticky with sweat and dirt. It was only a mild comfort that he was in a similar condition.

She felt Kakashi sit down next to her and opened her eyes a crack to study his bare face. Not that it really told her much; it was just as impassive as his mask. But he was still giving her that oddly intense look, like there was something more to this that she simply wasn't seeing.

He didn't answer her, simply pushed to his feet again and brought his hands together. Sakura's brow furrowed as she watched him go through seals, moving much slower than she knew he was capable of. This wasn't an attack; he wanted her to see what he was doing, and that was the Kage Bunshin no Jutsu.

As soon as the last seal was done and the chakra released, a perfect clone of Kakashi appeared. Unlike its maker, the clone still wore its mask and hitae-ate in place, but that was the only difference between the two. It even gave the same little half wave as it said, "Yo!"

Sakura stood up, dusting off the back of her skirt as she approached the duo. "Kakashi, what's going on? What's this about?" she asked, more confused now than when he'd requested she fight him.

Rather than answer her directly, Kakashi looked back over his shoulder. The barest of smiles curved his lips, but it was enough to make her breath catch.

"Now fight with me," he said. There was a challenging glint to his eyes that was almost as irresistible as his smile.

Sakura's gaze flickered from the clone to him and back again as she mulled over the possible implications of it all. Actions always spoke louder than words for him, so the key to this was in the actions he'd taken so far. First he asked her to fight him, but then he played directly into her strengths. And now, after they'd fought, he was asking her to fight alongside him. It didn't make any sense...

She frowned and pushed her hair out of her face. "Kakashi, what is this? Another test?"

He shook his head. "No."

"Then what is it?"

Kakashi gave her an unreadable look and said, "Just go with it, Sakura. Fight with me."

Taking a deep breath and releasing it slowly, she nodded and murmured, "Fine."

She walked over to him, her eyes on the clone as it assumed a casual defensive stance. Kakashi moved away from her slowly, all his focus on the clone as well.

"Be gentle," the clone pleaded as they rushed toward it in unison.

It was different than the bell exercise when she and Naruto had worked together against him. Whether it was due to his constant lessons on teamwork or something more intuitive, she and Kakashi worked fluidly together in driving the clone back. She was at his back when he needed her, just as he was for her. Where one left off the other took over, operating without any direction except instinct and the knowledge that, should they need it, their partner would be there. She dove over him as he ducked down, moved back when he let loose a raikiri. He diverted attention while she ripped the ground open with one savage punch, went flat to the grass as a boulder was sent whipping through the air.

The clone fought back with everything it had, tossing jutsu after jutsu at them as it strove to hold them back. But she and Kakashi were working as one unit. Independently, they were strong, but together….

Together they were unstoppable. They filled in the gaps in each other's techniques while working to make their strengths more effective. Sakura couldn't remember ever having fought like she was with Kakashi, not on any of the missions she'd completed or in any of the practice sessions she'd gone through. Neither of them held back, throwing everything they had into every attack and counter that came their way.

It ended far sooner than their fight had. Kakashi came rushing up from behind to slam an elbow into the clone's back just as Sakura let out a fierce growl and planted her fist into its stomach. The clone let out a pained grunt and disappeared in a puff of smoke, leaving her panting hard and him lurching forward in pain.

"Ouch," he hissed as he pressed one hand to his stomach and kept himself upright with the other. He cast a reproving glare up at her. "I told you to be gentle."

"Sorry," she gasped, crouching down next to him. She'd forgotten that Kage Bunshins had direct transference of emotional and physical strain to the creator. She sank onto the ground beside him, wincing as her own aches began to show themselves. It was a good thing she didn't have training with Tsunade for the next couple days. She was going to be feeling this workout for a long time.

Sakura worked a little chakra into her twitching leg muscles and watched him from the corner of her eye as he carefully maneuvered himself into a more comfortable sitting position. His mask was still around his neck and tiny beads of sweat slipped down the curve of his cheek, but he was already starting to breathe evenly. It was maddening, especially when she was still sucking the air in like a gap-mouthed fish. She made a mental note to increase her cardio exercises.

Eventually she reached a point where she didn't sound like a panting dog and could finally demand, "So are you gonna explain what all that was about or am I gonna have to beat it out of you?"

Kakashi arched a brow as if considering the two options, causing her to roll her eyes. Give a masochist like him a choice between the easy way and the painful way, naturally he'd pick the latter. A smile quirked his lips, one corner lifting just a little higher than the other. "What do you think?" he asked.

She scowled at him and, with more than a little vindictiveness, gave his stomach a good, hard poke. He grunted and quickly covered the abused area with one hand as a look of discomfort flashed across his features.

"No games, Kakashi," she said sternly. "Just speak plainly." For once.

Letting out a weary sigh, he ran a hand back through his damp hair and stared at a point on the ground between them. "Did you notice the difference?"

Sakura frowned and debated a moment between smacking him for avoiding directness yet again and simply playing along. Deciding it was better to just do things his way (she had said she'd do that anyway, and besides she sort of owed him for everything she'd done) she asked, "You mean between when we fought against each other and then with?"

He nodded, lifting his gaze to her face again. His expression almost passed for neutral, but that intense edge had returned and she couldn't help feeling that the answer should have been painfully obvious to her.

She released a shaky breath and thought back over everything once again, from when he'd asked her to fight him after she'd apologized to when they'd finished beating the crap out of his clone. There had to be something she was missing, but what? What was so important about her fighting him and then her fighting with…?


"Oh!" she gasped, her back snapping straighter. Her eyes widened as she turned toward him, her lips parting in surprise. Kakashi was looking at her fully now and the warmth in his open eye made her insides flutter in anticipation. "You… You…."

She jumped when Kakashi reach between them to cover her hand with his. "I don't want to fight you, Sakura," he said quietly. "I want to fight with you."

For the longest time all she could do was stare at where their hands were joined. Against all odds and despite everything she'd put him through … he still wanted her. More than that even. Kakashi loved her. He didn't say, but she knew it was true. He loved her and he'd come there to tell her that the only way he knew how.

Kakashi fell backward with a startled cry as she suddenly threw herself on him. Her arms circled his neck, her torso was stretched at an awkward angle across his chest, and she was kissing more of his cheek and vest than his lips, but none of that mattered. The only thing that processed through her head was that he loved her and he wanted to try again. For real this time.

It was with some effort that he managed to disentangle himself from her grip, twisting her around so that she was now lying on her back with him looming over her. Sakura grinned up at him, the expression shifting into one of pleasure as he traced his fingers down her cheek gently. She leaned up to meet him as he angled his mouth against hers for a more proper kiss, one that was hard and full of joy and more than a little passion.

"Most guys would have just said 'I love you'," she teased, tilting her head as his mouth began to move lower.

He drew back just enough to smirk at her, his thumb caressing across her lower lip. "True, but—"

"You're not like most guys, I know," she finished, giggling as he favored her with a full out smile. She traced her fingers across his lips lightly before letting them slip around his neck to draw him down to her again. "But I'm glad you're not."

"Good," he murmured. "Because I have no intention of changing."



"Will you just kiss me already?"

"Of course."

And then there was nothing but his mouth and tongue and hands, and god he was wearing too much clothing! Sakura tugged at his flak vest, growling irritably as the zipper refused to budge. It probably didn't help that his chest was pressed close to hers, but try telling that to her hormone-doused brain. Rather than try to reason out the mystery behind the stubborn zipper, she simply took hold of either half of his vest, channeled a little chakra, and tore the damn thing open.

Kakashi did draw back then, leaning away so as to look down at his vest in dismay. "You ripped it," he complained.

Sakura arched a brown and rubbed her thigh across his hip invitingly. "Consider that payback for my underwear," she replied as she hauled him down for yet another kiss.

He groaned in pleasure as she began nipping playfully along his jaw, working her way down to his throat. One of his hands was on her thigh, lifting it higher across his hip. Her gasp was smothered beneath his lips as their bodies came into full contact. She gave a roll of her hips and he groaned again as he responded. Her hand began to move downward across his chest, slipping lower so as to—

He grabbed hold of her wrist tightly just as she reached his fly and shook his head, pulling away from her with a gasp. "Wait," he rasped out.

"You're right," she agreed breathily. "Someone might see us—"

"If we're going to do this, we're going to do it the right way. And that means we can't have sex until after we've started going out."

Sakura went still beneath him, giving him an incredulous look. "You're joking," she deadpanned.

Kakashi frowned. "I'm serious. What, do you think I'll just put out with no date?"

"But we've had dates. Loads of them."

"Yes, but we weren't legitimately dating then, now were we? I'm not a slut, Sakura—"

"I never said—"

"— and I'm deeply hurt you'd think that way of me."

She spluttered wordlessly, torn between outrage and shock that he was doing this to her now. A crafty look crossed her face before her hips surged up toward his.

Except he'd been anticipating the move and quickly pushed to his feet, leaving her splayed across the grass feeling very aroused and very dissatisfied. He had to be joking. Any minute now she was expecting him to point at her and shout, "gotcha!"

But instead he was pulling his mask back up and discreetly adjusting his clothing to try and disguise the erection he was sporting. Sakura huffed irritably and stood up as well, brushing her skirt clean with crisp movements. "You better pick a date and soon," she grumbled threateningly. "Because you might find me outside your window in the near future."

Kakashi paused in trying to piece his ruined vest back together. "Actually, that might be—"

"To beat the crap out of you," she added, guessing accurately which direction his thoughts were going.


"This whole no sex thing works both ways, you know."

"Oh." There was a distinct glumness in the way he said it that time.

Sakura arched a brow at him and smirked. "You didn't think of that when you were being a dork, did you?"

She couldn't see it, but she knew he was frowning at her. Right then, she wasn't feeling particularly merciful. Her body was still throbbing with a need that would go unfulfilled – for now, at least. She crossed her arms over her chest, one hip cocking at a jaunty angle as she prompted, "Well? When's our first date?"

"Two days from now," he answered quickly. "Six-thirty I'll swing by to get you."

"Two days?" She'd been hoping maybe that evening.

Kakashi rubbed a hand across the back of his neck and she could just see the blush peeking out over his mask. "Yeah. I, uh … need to take care of a few things. One of those being to get a new mattress. Apparently, mine has a habit of attacking people."

Despite the fact that this was a very good thing to hear, she couldn't help the redness that came to her cheeks as she thought of why he'd want a new one. Maybe it was a good thing though that there were a couple days between now and their first real date. It'd give them both time to think about everything, not to mention a chance to speak with Naruto in person.

Oh, and she'd have plenty of time to find a new yukata. It wasn't normally something she liked to wear on dates, but given the near nosebleed he'd had the last time she wore one it'd be worth the odd looks.

Sakura nodded then and held out her hand. He took it and they shook. "It's a deal. Two days, six-thirty, and if you're late I'll never forgive you."

"I'll be there," he promised. The way he was looking at her said that it carried over to more than just showing up on time.

She smiled up at him and rose on tiptoe to press a kiss to his cheek. "See you later, Kakashi-sensei," she called over her shoulder as she walked away.

"Bye, Cherry-chan," he replied.

Sakura spun around to let him have it for using that horrible nickname … but in true Hatake Kakashi fashion, he'd already vanished in a cloud of smoke. She shook her head, her teeth grinding together as she stomped out of the training ground. Maybe it wouldn't take her two days to think it over after all.

Genma hummed a cheery tune absently as he pulled the apartment key from his pocket and fit it to the lock. Yet another training session completed with the brats, and he was pleased to see they were finally starting to fear him. All it'd taken was a healthy dose of sadism combined with several lies (most of which were white, but one or two were definitely of the darker variety) to earn their respect, if not their admiration.

He could deal with that. It didn't much matter to him whether the punks admired him, just so long as they did what he said.

He slid the door opened, shucked his shoes and vest off by the door, and padded barefoot into the kitchen to select a celebratory wine. Shizune had pulled out chicken from the freezer, so maybe he'd whip up that sage glaze she liked to go along with it. Combined with a nicely chilled white and it'd be—


Genma froze. A cold sensation shivered down his spine at that one word. Very slowly, he turned toward the source and found Hatake Kakashi sitting in one of the living room chairs. The man was completely at ease, one ankle perched across the knee of the opposite leg and his fingers steepled together. It made an icy sweat break across his skin.

Deciding it was best to play innocent, Genma gave a nervous laugh and said, "Shit, you scared me. What're you doing here anyway? Shouldn't you be off moping or something?" He took a couple steps closer and in the general direction of the door.

Kakashi shrugged. "This seemed as good a place as any to mope."

"Yeah, well it's not. Breaking and entering is a crime."

"So is theft, the last I looked."

Genma feigned confusion, but inside he was having at least twenty heart attacks and could feel a homicidal urge coming on. Had Asuma gone and said something about the book? No, he wouldn't do that. Or would he? After all, he still owed the man forty from the last poker game… He forced a leering smirk. "Oh, really? So, does this mean you're gonna have your girlfriend arrested?"

"Sakura isn't who I was referring to," Kakashi replied, and the senbon user noted that not only had he refrained from correcting the status of their relationship but he'd also immediately associated Sakura with the word 'girlfriend'.

Something had happened between them since the night they'd fought. Yes, he and Shizune had heard it all – and by all, he meant all. She'd been so uncomfortable hearing that damn headboard and her subordinate crying out in ecstasy that she'd actually gone and slept at the hospital. Genma had not been a happy camper that night.

But more importantly than this new development in their highly unusual relationship, more even than the cramping it'd put in his own love life … Kakashi had hinted strongly at another theft.

Which meant he knew about Genma taking the book.

Which meant either Asuma suffered from a big-mouthed conscience or that he figured it out somehow.

Which meant that….

"Oh, fuck!"

Genma dove for the door at the same time Kakashi sprang from the chair. The Copy Ninja was fast, but he was fast and closer to the goal. He jerked the door open, took one step over the threshold … and reeled back when he damn near ran into a pack of snarling, angry ninken. The door slammed shut again and Genma remained facing it. He could feel Kakashi at his back and knew that short of blowing up the whole apartment (which Shizune would really not like) there was no way out.

"Fuck," he groaned, banging his forehead against the door. He was so screwed it wasn't even funny.

He stiffened when Kakashi placed a heavy hand on his shoulder. The other man's breath was warm on his ear as he murmured, "Just take it like a man, Genma."

Genma would deny it later, but he did whimper at those words.

"So … lemme get this straight," Naruto reasoned slowly, taking a break from stuffing his face with ramen to think. Three empty bowls were already stacked next to him, he was half way through the fourth, and Teuchi-san was in the middle of fixing a fifth one. "Four days ago, you an' Kakashi-sensei were seein' each other."

Sakura nodded and sipped her broth serenely. "Yup."

"An' three days ago, you guys weren't seein' each other."


"But today you guys are seein' each other."

"That's right."

Naruto threw his hands in the air and exclaimed, "How am I supposed to keep track of all this when you guys change status every other day?"

Seriously, this whole thing with Sakura and Kakashi-sensei was so freakin' confusing! That pervy sage didn't know what the hell he was talking about. Relationships were complicated – especially when you were the friend of the people in the relationship!

Sakura sighed impatiently and set her bowl down. "Look, Naruto, it's really very easy," she explained, adopting that voice she'd used when she had to lay it all out for him back in the Academy. "Kakashi-sensei and I had a fight."


"We broke up."

"I'm with you there."

"Then we fought."

His eyes narrowed in concentration. This was where she lost him.

"And now we're back together again," she concluded, smiling as if all of this was perfectly normal – which it wasn't, not by a long toss of a kunai.

"That makes even less sense than before!" he shouted, scratching his head as he tried to reason it out. "If the reason you broke up is because you guys had a fight, how does fighting get you back together?"

"Will you just listen to me?" she snapped. "I've already told you like six times!"

"Yeah, and now I'm six times more confused by it." He shook his head, pausing to slurp up the remainder of his noodles. "Geez, I've heard of couples dressin' alike, but I didn't know they could act alike, too."

Sakura's bowl slammed onto the countertop as she whipped around toward him, her eyes narrowing dangerously. "What did you just say?"

"You're bein' all mysterious and not explainin' things, just like Kakashi-sensei," he accused, jabbing his chopsticks in her direction.

"I am not!" she shouted back at him. Her chopsticks snapped between her fingers. Naruto gulped, belatedly remembering what kind of damage she was capable of. "I'm nowhere near as annoying as that!"

"Annoying as what?" a voice said from behind them. The owner of that voice slid into the stool next to Sakura, his one exposed eye creasing cheerfully. "Naruto, what a pleasant surprise."

Naruto frowned at Kakashi and said, "I'm always at Ichiraku Ramen, sensei." He must have missed something because Sakura giggled into her ramen.

Kakashi leaned across the counter to grab a menu and flicked it open, even though they all knew he'd just get the same thing he always had: salty ramen with extra pork. "So, what aren't you as annoying as, Sakura-chan?" he asked casually.

Sakura flashed him a beaming smile that reminded Naruto of the one she used when she was sucking up. "Oh, nothing," she replied quickly. "Naruto was just being himself. You know how that goes."

Their team leader hummed in response.

Naruto scowled and nudged her side. "Hey, hey! What's that supposed to mean?" he demanded. The way she said it made him think that maybe him being himself wasn't such a good thing.

She shot him a warning glare and said through clenched teeth, "Drop it, Naruto."

He gulped and quickly returned to finishing off the last bit of his ramen. If she wanted it dropped, he was gonna do it. No way in hell he wanted to be punched through the wall of his favorite restaurant. He'd get banned for life, and then what would he do? Starve to death, that's what!

Fortunately, Kakashi rescued him by distracting Sakura. "What did you get?" he asked, nodding toward her half empty bowl.

Momentarily flustered, she pushed a strand of hair back behind her ear and said, "Oh, um … miso ramen. It's really good, sensei. You should try it."

"Are you offering to feed it to me?" he replied, causing her to blush and quickly turn away.

Naruto choked on his broth so badly that Sakura had to give his back a couple good whacks before he could breathe properly again. Was Kakashi-sensei … flirting with her? He shuddered at the idea and was about to shove it from his mind when something even worse popped up in its place. Something so terrifying and horrible that it made the blood drain from his face.

Very slowly, just like the main character in a horror film did when the monster was right behind them, Naruto turned to regard his teammates with rounded, frightened eyes. "H-Hey," he asked hoarsely, "you guys aren't gonna…." He paused, gulping heavily. "You know. Hold hands and stuff. Are you?"

Sakura regarded him with a look that said she was probably thinking about all the ways she could smash his face in.

Kakashi, however, blinked once as if confused by the question and then gave a thoughtful hum. "I hadn't really considered it until now," he mused out loud, scratching his chin as he cast a contemplative look at the ceiling. "Seeing as we'll be busy training more than usual, this might be the only opportunity we have to do a little handholding. And maybe some other things."

The way he said those last two words in that weird, deep tone made Naruto grip the countertop fearfully. "Other things?" he repeated in a whimper. He wasn't serious about that … was he?

"Kakashi-sensei," Sakura hissed disapprovingly.

In answer, the older man very calmly slid his arm around her shoulders. Naruto leapt into the next stool over with a startled yelp. "Yes, shmookums?" he returned, his eyes creasing happily.

With that, Naruto was out of his chair and racing for the entrance, his fresh bowl of ramen untouched and completely forgotten. Handholding and maybe some kissing, he could tolerate. But stupid pet names? Hell, no! He drew the line at having to listen to that crap!

As soon as the blond disappeared, Kakashi chuckled and removed his arm from her shoulders as Sakura jabbed his side with her elbow.

"Was that really necessary?" she demanded irritably, giving her noodles a harsh stir with her chopsticks. "He already has to deal with us dating, and now you're trying to scar him for life?"

Much to her dismay, Kakashi continued to be amused by the situation. His exposed eye gleamed with laughter as he gave an indifferent shrug. "He'll survive. Can you pass his bowl down, please?"

Sakura huffed but reached for the bowl all the same. She paused just as she was about to hand it over to him, her eyes narrowing suspiciously. "You did that on purpose, didn't you? Just so you could steal his food."

His mask was still in place, but there was no doubt in her mind that there was a mischievous smirk lying beneath it. "It'd be a shame to waste such excellent food," he replied. "Plus it's not stealing if someone pays for it."

"But we haven't gotten the bill yet and – oh, no. No, absolutely not! I am not buying your lunch!"

Kakashi pulled his mask down and she sucked in a sharp breath when the full force of his pout was directed at her. He was a dog person and therefore knew how to pull off the puppy dog look thanks to his canine companions. "But, Sakura-chan, my wallet was stolen, remember? The fiend took all my money, leaving me penniless and on the brink of starvation. Why, if it weren't for the generosity of—"

"Alright, fine. I'll pay your share of it," she grumbled. If it was a choice between listening to him carry on or paying to get him to shut up, she'd happily hand over her money. Besides … he was irresistably adorable when he pouted.

Pleased to have gotten his way, he pulled out a fresh set of chopsticks and said, "Have I told you that you're my favorite girlfriend?"

She snorted as she took a sip of broth. "I better be your only … hey." Her head lifted quickly, her eyes wide in shock as she regarded him.

Kakashi was watching her from the corner of his eye as he sucked down some noodles. Even while chewing, she could make out the edge of a smile to his lips.

He'd said girlfriend. As in, he labeled her as a girlfriend. To him. Sakura didn't know whether she was going to faint from shock or tackle him right there in the middle of Ichiraku Ramen. Fortunately, she recovered enough of her senses not to do either. Instead, she very calmly continued on with her lunch as if he hadn't just made a very personal declaration. He wasn't the only one who could do blasé.

She saw his smile widen into a full out, lopsided grin and had to once again fight down the urge to grab him by the collar for some light to medium molestation. Sakura tried to hold back an answering smile, but failed when the word 'girlfriend' continued circling in her head. It sounded good, especially when he said it.

"You know," she began conversationally. "The lesson was actually a success."

Kakashi looked at her, his eyebrows raised inquiringly. "Hmm?"

"The lesson about seduction missions. It worked. They really can come back to bite you on the ass."

She half expected him to come back with something pervy to that (and she had no idea how close he was from doing just that) but all he did was nod and say, "Like a double edged sword."

Sakura rolled her eyes and shook her head. Trust him to dig up the most clichéd line in the book and use it. But, she had to admit, it was an appropriate analogy. Neither of them had expected to fall for each other, and now here they were eating ramen and referring to each other with relationship labels.

And all because she'd set out to seduce him and he decided to seduce her back.