XOXO and Other Affectionate Letters

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto. That copyright belongs to Masashi Kishimoto.

Chapter 5

Morning, that daily promise of new beginnings and better times, was met with hopeless countenances and resentful looks, as it arrived the next day. As shinobi, the men were used to weathering the elements and enduring all manner of discomfort. But that was when their mission was of actual importance, not for the sake of some bullied brat. All their suffering, all their carefully controlled irritation, their will to endure for the sake of the mission—it all meant nothing. There was no higher purpose; they were loathe to call it a mission—there was no point in enduring this past week. Pointless suffering was one of the most disheartening trials in life. Waking up on the cold, hard, damp ground after a scanty hour of restless sleep, only reaffirmed that sentiment.

They had all stirred at the first vestiges of dawn, unable, in their discomfort, to ignore such an intrusion of light and sound. Sakura was the only member still asleep, being well-guarded from morning's disruption by the tent she occupied. Someone had started a small fire beside the koi pond to ward off the clinging chill of night and Sai had taken it upon himself to make breakfast.

"Ohhughh... My back... I think half my vertebrae have fused. I can't bend it," Naruto moaned, awkwardly clutching at his back. Tired, bloodshot blue eyes stared unseeingly at a nearby hedge, mind absently ruminating on the horrible night he had just suffered through. "If I get scoliosis, I'll know who to sue." He cast a sour look back at the tent he had been so uncaringly tossed from last night. "She could've at least thrown our bedding outside, too. My feet are numb." He settled by the small fire next to Sasuke and stuck his feet out toward it, letting out a satisfied sigh as the heat permeated his chilled toes.

"Get your grimy feet away from the food, or I'll burn them," Sasuke muttered flatly. He was hunched over by the fire, appearing as exhausted as the rest of them, eyes longing for sleep, face drawn.

"They're freaking ice cubes!" Naruto insisted, sticking his limbs closer yet, just to spite the Uchiha.

A moment later, the blonde's feet were feeling more than toasty, as Sasuke made good on his threat by sending a small fire ball toward them.

"Agh!" Naruto yelped, drawing his seared appendages closer for protection, blowing on them to ease the burn. "You jerk! WTH, dude?!"

Sasuke frowned in mild confusion at Naruto's exclamation. "'WTH?'"

"What the hell, you noob!" he explained, rolling his eyes as though everyone should have known that.

"'Noob?'"

"Oh, would you get schooled in online lingo!" Naruto groused, setting his feet back down, almost daintily, so as not to aggravate the nonexistent burns on his skin.

The other male scoffed derisively. "We're not online."

"It's the age of online talk! Get with the times, teme!"

"Why would I want to mar my educated vocabulary with that trashy vernacular?"

"Because it's the way of the future!" Naruto insisted, that self-assured light in his blue eyes that spoke of unfathomable thoughts swirling just behind them.

"The future is doomed." Sasuke replied bluntly.

"Yeah! And it's gonna sound fly while it's doing it!"

Sai looked up from the food he had prepared and cocked his head to the side as he studied the blonde. "You have highly selective hearing, don't you, Naruto-kun?"

"Hell yeah, I'm awesome!" He gave a flashy smile, chest puffed out. "You don't need to tell me! But you can anyway, 'cause I like it." He gave a soft chuckle, oblivious to the unimpressed looks the other two were giving him.

"And people say this is my rival," Sasuke sighed, feeling terribly insulted by the thought. He gave a small shake of his head and asked, "How did you happen?"

Naruto let out a "pfft" and waved off the insult with a careless hand. "You wish you had my brain power." Nothing could get him down when he was in his I'm-the-Man mode. A thought seemed to strike him, as he was clearly losing himself in the self-perceived state of being all-knowing. Perturbed furrows lined his face when he turned to Sasuke and said, "You know, teme. If you had just followed my advice from earlier, none of Sakura-chan's drama about making us sleep outside would have happened."

Sasuke jerked at the accusation, eyes narrowing. "Tch. What advice?"

"About the cake and the fly."

The Uchiha's jaw clenched violently at the mention of the accursed cake and fly metaphor. "I did take your advice," he muttered darkly, eyes turned to slits of angst. "Which is why she got pissed off at me!"

"No way!" Naruto defended, shaking his head at the accusation. "There's no way something I thought of could have ended badly! You must have screwed it up, like you screw up everything else you do."

The twitching in Sasuke's eye increased ten-fold. "Or maybe your so-called advice was as retarded as you are!"

Naruto gasped dramatically, rising to his feet, clearly taken aback by the insult. "Is that how you speak to your blackmailer?! I should show Sakura-chan your filthy porn pics to teach you a lesson, boy!"

Sasuke leapt to his feet, as well, temper rising at light speed. "Don't talk down to me, you prat! And I've had it with you and your porn pictures!"

"Well, that's too bad for you! 'Cause I'm not letting go of these babies any time soon!" He patted his chest, where he was keeping the incriminated photos in a hidden pocket of his jacket.

They were both seething by now, muscles coiled and tempers through the atmosphere, as the irritation from the past week compounded with the aggravation brought on by the blackmailing. It was obvious this wasn't going anywhere good.

"I'll get them from you, if I have to drag them from your cold, dead corpse!" Sasuke hissed, taking a step forward with clear intents.

"Oh, I'd like to see you try, you loser!" Naruto goaded, looked as unconcerned as ever, despite the threat. A condescending grin broke his face as he snidely commented, "Can't even get a girl on his own."

"Look in a mirror, dobe!"

"Hoping to blind me with my handsomeness?" He stuck a finger out at the Uchiha. "Nice try, teme, but I can't be distracted that easily!"

The anger in Sasuke's eyes was unmistakable. His temper was long past its endpoint. "You're not holding this over me, anymore."

"I wouldn't be holding this over you, if you had just used my advice to its greatest potential," Naruto drawled, insincere pity on his face. "I gave you every opportunity to free yourself from this, yet you still perpetrated epic fail! That's on you, not me."

That last remark was what made the fists start flying. Sasuke made a move to punch Naruto's face, but the blonde dodged, retaliating with a jab to the other's midsection. The Uchiha registered the hit with a grunt and sent a sharp kick into Naruto's flank. The momentum sent Naruto tumbling into the nearby koi pond. Unfortunately, it also took Sasuke with it, as there was no way Naruto was taking a dive alone and had grabbed onto the dark nin just before the kick had landed. The terrified koi fish went streaming away from the flailing shinobi as the scuffle continued in the water with Naruto taking the distraction of the unexpected fall to deliver a heavy hit to Sasuke's unprotected abdomen. Retribution was swift, as a fist connected with the jinchuuriki's jaw before he had even finished with his own assault.

They both pulled back a bit from the hits and staggered to their feet in the water.

At the taste of copper, Naruto wiped his mouth, seeing red on his hand, as he had expected. His blue eyes narrowed angrily on the other male. "Teme! What the hell is your problem?!"

Sasuke glowered back at him, stance prepared for another attack. "You're my problem! This is your fault! The first time I try for something decent in my life, and you make it impossible!"

"I helped you!"

"You're blackmailing me! How is that helping me?!"

"It gives you incentive to not screw up! And I have done nothing but give you opportunities and some priceless advice!"

"Advice?! I'd get better advice from a sponge!"

"No you wouldn't!" Naruto shook his head, clearly confused at the comment. "Sponges can't talk, teme," he explained in a 'duh' tone.

"Tch..." Sasuke rolled his eyes in exasperation.

"It's not my fault you're incapable of understanding the wisdom hidden in my metaphors."

Sasuke's eyes flashed as he shot forward suddenly, shoving Naruto down into the water. "Screw you and your metaphors!" he growled, forcing Naruto's face under the water as his rage ran rampant. "Stop giving me advice! Just keep your metaphors to yourself!"

Struggling to the surface, Naruto managed to sputter out, between being pushed under and coming back up, "But metaphors are so—useful for illustrating—life's problems and—solutions in—colourful and quaint—ways!"

"Metaphors ruined my life!" Sasuke spat, leaning on the struggling blonde to force him back under the surface.

"Are you sure?" An instant later, he was back under the water, and he pulled himself back up to gurgle out, "This could simply be—a long winter!—Life will bud and bloom in the—warmth of spring!" He kicked and flailed as the need for air increased, but Sasuke wasn't letting up in the least.

"Stop it! For everything holy, stop!" the Uchiha shouted, intent on keeping the other male underwater until he could no longer speak his hated words of wisdom.

But, despite Sasuke's leverage and Naruto's lack of air, the blonde still managed to pull himself up enough so just his mouth was out of the water and said, "There's always a light—at the end of the tunnel!"

A violent spasm jerked Sasuke's neck and shoulders at his victim's tenacity. "You won't shut up and I want to kill you! It's you or me!" He increased the pressure and Naruto sank back down again, his struggling noticeably weaker than earlier.

"Shouldn't we stop him?" Yamato asked, watching the scene alongside Kakashi, their discussion of today's plan having been interrupted by the abrupt splash the two shinobi had made when they hit the water.

"You do that." Kakashi drawled, his lazy eye surveying the altercation with vacant interest.

"They're your students."

"They're old enough to go without my interference," he shrugged

Yamato was incredulous. "So, you're just going to let one of your students drown one of your other students, because they 'don't need your interference?' When, clearly, they do?" He shook his head at the other man.

"If you feel that way, then by all means, do something about it," Kakashi replied, no more anxious now than he had been earlier. He might have just as easily been watching a placid lake in place of attempted murder.

The ANBU captain shook his head again and stared at his senpai with the hollow gaze of someone who had just had all his admiration for his hero dashed to smithereens. "After seeing firsthand just how apathetic you are in regards to their violence toward each other, I've come to the conclusion that you're just as much to blame for the mess they've been through as they themselves are."

"Believe what you will."

Yamato's eyes flattened further at the careless comment. "Tell me you're never training another genin team, ever again. Because the village won't survive another group of emotionally and mentally scarred shinobi-on-the-edge like the ones you produce."

"They're fine, Tenzou," Kakashi waved off the other's comment.

"I swear, you call me Tenzou again, that's going to be you drowning in the pond." He pointed at their two fighting underlings, his patented I-Doom-You! look in place.

The Copy-nin was clearly unperturbed by such threats and pulled out his life partner—Icha Icha Paradise—and disappeared into his own little world.

The flap of the tent was pulled to the side and Sakura stepped out, her hair slightly mussed and clothes dishevelled, a frown of confusion on her face as she had clearly hastily prepared herself to come see what the fuss was about. When she rounded the corner of the tent and laid eyes on what appeared to be Sasuke standing in the pond, bent over and struggling with something that wasn't putting up much of a fight anymore, she stopped and could only stare uncomprehendingly.

"Sasuke-kun. We're not going to eat the koi. Leave them alone," she called out, coming to the conclusion that the Uchiha must be trying to catch a fish, considering his position. She didn't see the nearly unconscious orange-clad figure just below the surface.

"I'm not catching fish," he muttered lowly, staring intently at the bluish face under the water. "Just thirty more seconds."

Confused at the male's response, Sakura stepped closer and the sight of a floating foot caught her eye. Everything clicked into place rather quickly after that. "Sasuke-kun!" she shouted, running onto the pond with chakra, so as not to get her sandals and leg guards water-logged. She pulled the dark-haired ninja back from his victim, and he didn't resist the interference. "You can't drown Naruto every time he irritates you! Do have any idea how much brain damage you're causing him?!" she cried, dragging the unconscious shinobi to shore before rapidly checking his vitals.

"It can't get much worse than it already is, can it?" Sasuke answered blankly, clearly unashamed of having nearly killed his supposed best friend.

Sakura shrugged, unable to argue with the male's point. "Yes, well, he needs those few brain cells that he has left, so you need to stop that!" After checking Naruto over, Sakura paused for a moment and eyed the blonde calculatingly. A hard light filled her eyes as she contemplated something. With a sudden movement, she slammed a fist down hard on Naruto's unprotected gut, eliciting a loud "Oomf!" from him, as his limbs and body jerked at the assault.

From his spot by Kakashi, Yamato withered and felt his insides tremble. Good lord, even the nearly-dead were unsafe from her violence! What was wrong with her?! When he got back to Konoha, he was so putting in for a transfer from Team Seven. He couldn't take it anymore!

"WHA! Sakura-chan!" Naruto screeched, gasping between moans as he clutched his abused stomach and stared at the kunoichi incredulously. "Is that how you revive someone?!"

"Are you revived?" she asked succinctly.

He paused, actually needing time to think about it. "Well...yeah."

"Then, yes. That's how you revive someone," she clipped out, not at all sorry.

"Sakura-chan!" Naruto whined, frowning at the woman as he rubbed his stomach to soothe it. "You're supposed to do mouth-to-mouth!"

The glare he received for that was enough to send Yamato, an entirely uninvolved party, cowering behind a tree.

"I'm not supposed to do anything for people who pretend to be unconscious and are not in need of medical help," she snapped, rising to her feet and crossing her arms.

He shrugged, silently saying 'you got me,' but the frown didn't leave his face as he kept his arms tightly wound around his stomach. "Why'd you have to hit me? That hurts! Not that I mind the pain, but—"

"What?" Sakura interrupted, looking taken aback, staring at him strangely.

"Huh?"

"You don't mind the pain...?" she repeated slowly, eyebrows rumpled at the comment. Then the meaning hit her and she stepped back, nose wrinkling at the thought. "EW! Naruto! You like pai—"

"NO! That's not what I meant!" he shouted, leaping to his feet, eyes wide, waving his arms in his insistence. "I swear, dattebayo! I'm not like that!"

They didn't look convinced.

"That would explain a lot," Yamato commented thoughtfully.

"Aa," Kakashi hummed, nodding in agreement.

A deep blush was threatening to cause Naruto to spontaneously combust right before their eyes. In an effort to escape his embarrassment, he turned to attempting to re-instigate the altercation that had landed him in the pond, being drowned, to begin with. Whirling around, he shouted, "Teme!" clearly challenging the Uchiha.

Sasuke stared at the blonde flatly. "Don't worry. I won't be hitting you anymore. Not if that's how you take it."

"TEME!"

"You had better not be trying to start another fight, Naruto," Sakura warned. "I did not appreciate being awakened by shouting and loud splashing." She gave the two males unimpressed looks that said she was not to be trifled with.

It seemed to work, as, instead of launching into another fight, the shinobi opted to exchange dirty looks and then stalked over to their gear and changed their soaked clothes before returning to the fire where Sai was doing, what else? Stirring breakfast.

"Sai, what is this?" Sakura asked, sniffing tentatively at the lazily bubbling pot, eyeing it as though it were possibly a poisoned offering.

"It's porridge," the male answered blankly, giving the pot's contents a quick stir as though to demonstrate his point.

The girl's eyebrows skewed themselves even more severely as she studied the food anew. "I wasn't aware that porridge had fish in it."

"Protein is a very important part of one's diet, Sakura-san. To exclude it from such an important meal like breakfast would be irresponsible," Sai admonished, face ever-so slightly troubled.

"Yes. I'm aware. But you don't have to combine the protein with everything else." She blanched at the sight of chopped up carrots and...was that eggplant? "Some things are meant to be kept separate, Sai," she added, sighing internally, knowing she would be going breakfast-less today.

The artist shrugged at the female's distaste. "It all gets combined in your stomach, anyway. What's the difference if it's done before it's eaten?"

"The difference is, people will actually be able to eat it if it's kept separate, unlike how it is now."

"What?" Confusion overtook his features. He looked between the pot and the kunoichi. "It's perfectly edible. Naruto-kun, you try some." He offered a spoonful of the concoction to the wide-eyed blonde.

"Oh no!" He shook his head in vehement denial. "I'm not being the food tester again! Last time, I had diarrhea for a week!"

"Thank you for sharing that," Sasuke muttered.

"Any time," Naruto answered sweetly, grinning boyishly.

Yamato approached the group along with Kakashi, and asked in a strained voice, "Is everyone ready for today?"

A smattering of grumbles was his answer, as his subordinates hunched closer to the fire and imagined life beyond this week. Could they make it? Someone might have to die but they'd find a way.

"I don't even want to ask, but I have to," the captain sighed, eyeing the four with a cringing look. "Has anyone thought of how we're going to solve our client's problem?"

Naruto waved off the question absently. "Kaka-sensei will come up with something."

"I have my own thoughts, but I want to hear yours first," Kakashi spoke from his new lounging spot on a tree branch above their heads, that notorious orange book propped in one hand.

"Well, I got a few—"

"Thoughts that don't involve killing or otherwise harming the client," Kakashi interrupted calmly, bringing a dissatisfied scowl to Naruto's face. There went all five of his ideas.

"If you didn't want my ideas, you shouldn't have asked," he muttered, pouting as he crossed his arms in indignation.

"Anyone else?" His eye landed on Sasuke and he almost asked for the Uchiha's input, before he caught himself and thought better of it. Naruto's plans would be better. Turning to the artist, he asked, "Sai? Your thoughts, please?"

He set the spoon aside and seemed to genuinely give the question some serious thought. Yet his response was still thus: "We could just whore Ugly out to him; he seems to have a fetish for hideous beasts."

"Excuse me?" Sakura snapped. She narrowed her green eyes on the ROOT member. Always with the 'ugly' comments... "You know what? Why don't you go and make out with Naruto?! I'm sure you'd like that!"

"WHA?! Sakura-chan! What the heck?!" the blonde screeched, obviously against the idea, even if it was meant as an insult to Sai. "You could have said anyone else! Anyone! Like Kakashi-sensei here!" He gestured upward at their lazy sensei.

The aforementioned male raised a grey brow. "Why are you dragging me into this?"

"Yeah right, Naruto." She rolled her eyes. "Like that would ever happen."

He frowned. "What d'ya mean?"

"The guy reads hetero porn twenty-four/seven. Like it would even be possible for that to happen."

"See, Naruto. The ladies never doubt the porn," Kakashi explained, waving his book in the air, all-knowingly.

Blue eyes narrowed to calculating slits. "Maybe you're just supplementing; you're way obsessed with it just to make them think you're straight."

Kakashi continued to page through his book, unconcerned with his student's suggestion. "What sounds more like a sexual identity crisis? Reading hetero porn or transforming into a naked woman in the middle of crowded streets?" He cocked his eyebrow meaningfully.

After a few moments of ponderous silence, Naruto finally answered with, "...Screw you, sensei."

"I would rather you didn't. Remember? The porn?" He waved his book again.

Turning away from his teacher with a huff, Naruto directed his attention back to an amused Sakura. This guy was way too easy to bait.

"So, you're saying that it's not possible for Kaka-sensei, but it is possible for me?!" he clarified, his machismo obviously rearing at the thought.

"Exactly," Sakura nodded, suppressing a smirk at Naruto's expense.

"What the heck is that?" he shouted, voice slightly shrill, a testament to his embarrassment.

Putting on a serious face, Sakura said, matter-of-factly, "How, exactly, did you have your first kiss?"

That did not count. It didn't even happen, Sasuke thought to himself in his spot of brooding.

"...Th-that didn't even count!" Naruto shouted piercingly, face reddening to Hinata-levels. "It didn't even happen! Yeah!" he went on, somehow mirroring Sasuke's thoughts.

"Oh, it counts, Naruto," Sakura drawled. "And our entire class can attest to it having happened, so you can stop with the denial."

It was the dobe's fault for being such a retard.

"It was the teme's fault for being such a douche!"

Green eyes rolled to the sky at the response. "There's no sense in laying blame, Naruto."

It was an accident. A horrible, scarring accident.

"Fine! It was an accident!" Naruto huffed, his blush still in place. (Were the others tuned into Sasuke's thoughts, they would have had to ask whether the two weren't psychically joined somehow.) "And it was not enjoyed by either of the parties involved!" he stated firmly, nodding in agreement with himself.

"Well, maybe Sasuke-kun didn't, but you've done nothing but chase him ever since. And perhaps Sasuke-kun is simply playing hard to get..." she trailed off slyly, biting the inside of her lip to keep a full-blown grin from ruining it.

"Gah! Sakura-chan! You have a dirty mind!" He shook his finger disapprovingly, a serious frown on his face, but the effect was considerably dampened by the ever-present blush that even burned the tips of his ears. "I demand that you stop at once!"

Unable to help herself, Sakura laughed at the blonde's reaction. "I'm joking! I'm just kidding, Naruto! Jeez. Could you be more homophobic?"

He scowled at the accusation. "I'm not homophonic—"

"Phobic."

"—homophobic," he amended smoothly, as though no error occurred. "Whatever. I'm not scared of anything!"

"Because you're a manly man," she supplemented, sarcasm running rampant.

"Exactly! Because I'm a manly man. And manly men aren't scared of anything, especially not of—"

"Men who want to have sex with them."

"—men who want to have sex with—Sakura-chan! Stop doing that!"

She laughed again, and there were quiet smirks on the faces of the others as well, at the jinchuuriki's easily led mind.

Sai had that mildly troubled look on his face that said he was thinking intensely about something that ne needed clarification on, and it was only a few moments later that he asked, "If I am to understand you correctly, Sakura-san, are you saying that Naruto-kun and Sasuke-kun had their first kiss with each other?"

"Yes, Sai. You inferred correctly," Sakura answered blankly, shaking her head slightly at the things the artist chose to ruminate on.

Naruto and Sasuke simply glared and scowled at the other male, knowing along what lines his other thoughts were running in that emotionally-repressed mind of his. They had been putting up with it all week.

"So, there really is a history with them, then," Sai concluded, looking at the two males as though he had just discovered the answer to all his questions.

"Yes, they're both gay, Sai," Sakura said sarcastically, rolling her eyes. "You fit right in."

His head whipped around at the comment, taken aback but unable to find the words to express it. Naruto and Sasuke just smirked at his expense, glad he was finally feeling what it was like, even if Sakura had thrown them into the same boat, too.

"As enthralling as discussions of your orientations are, I think a better use of our time would be to get back to the matter at hand," Yamato interjected, bringing everyone's attention back to the mission. When all eyes were on him, he continued, "We need to find a way to solve Matsudaira-sama's...grievance before we can go on our way. Now, I—"

"I vote we just leave," Naruto interrupted, staring back at the ANBU captain with a purely bored look.

"That won't solve his issue."

"But it will solve ours," he nodded, satisfied with his logic.

Yamato's shoulders sagged slightly as he sighed. "I think you missed the point..."

"You know, there's a very simple way to solve this little problem," Sakura stated, drawing everyone's attention.

However, the blue-eyed boy seemed sceptical. "How's that?"

"Simple," Sakura shrugged. "He said something about a pretty girl doing the job. So, we give him a 'really pretty girl' to be seen walking around with."

"There is no way you're gonna act as arm candy for such a huge douche!" Naruto shouted, shaking his head vehemently.

Sasuke was nodding right along with the blonde, eyes narrowing dangerously at the thought of that little wimp prancing about, showing off Sakura as if he had actually won her affections. As if he were actually worthy of her. Of all the nerve... Oh, that punk was so going down. A public shaming. That was what he deserved. A painful public shaming. Yes.

Sakura shook her head at Naruto's outburst. "Not me!"

"Then who?!"

She smiled conspiratorially, a terrible glint in her green eyes. "Nariko."

The other nin stared back at her, delightful understanding taking hold.

"Oh, ho ho! You sneaky little vixen, Sakura-chan!" Naruto chuckled, returning Sakura's mischievous grin. "I like how you think!" He flew through his hand seals and produced a bunshin. "Get to work!"

"Yes sir!" the bunshin cried, giving a smart salute before performing Naruto's 'ultimate' technique—Orioke no Jutsu. Seconds later, a blue-eyed, buxom, and bare blonde was standing in their midst, the lingering smoke doing nothing to hide what should be left to the imagination.

"Put some clothes on, you idiot, Naruto!" Sakura shouted, smacking the male on the back of the head.

"Ah! Sorry! I don't usually use this for respectable reasons!" The bunshin performed henge once again, and when the smoke cleared, 'she' was fully clothed in a skimpy but still marginally appropriate outfit (his first inclination was to dress it in lingerie, but that oft-ignored voice in Naruto's head got through the static in there and managed to convince him that Sakura would just smack him again for something like that).

"There's no way I'm even going to accept payment for this mission. I don't want any paper trail linking me to this mess," Sasuke muttered, rubbing his temple tiredly. Realizing exactly where this was going, Sasuke couldn't resist an internal gloat-fest. But, despite that, he knew the whole debacle would end horribly—he did know Naruto, after all. That guy had something properly mortifying set up for Harusato. He deserved it and Sasuke wanted him to experience it fully, but that didn't mean the Uchiha wanted people to know he was involved.

"You're the only one this doesn't work on, you know," 'Nariko' commented, gesturing at 'her' body. "What does that say about you?"

Sasuke scowled. "That I'm not a retard."

"A guy who doesn't like looking at naked girls is a gay guy," the real Naruto insisted, shaking his head at his friend.

"That's not a naked girl," Sasuke retorted with a scoff. "That's you living out an identity crisis. Not something I want to see."

"Oh, you're gay for me, teme," the blonde spoke, smiling in what was probably meant to be a falsely flirtatious manner, but just ended up looking like Naruto was drunk. And maybe he was. Maybe he was...

"Not even in your dreams, dobe," the Uchiha answered, rolling his eyes.

Naruto seemed to fight a gag at that. "Of course not in my dreams! I don't dream about guys! I dream about—!"

"No one wants to hear that!" Sakura shouted, shooting Naruto a warning look.

From his spot in the tree, Kakashi commented, "I wouldn't object to hearing about it."

"No one wants to hear that," Sakura repeated, emphasizing every word.

"I...stand corrected," the greyhead amended demurely. "No one wants to hear that."

Having been silently observing his teammates for the past few minutes while pondering the new load of information he had learned from Sakura's earlier teasing of Naruto, Sai had come to a conclusion and decided to voice it. Turning to Naruto, he said, "The homoerotic undertones between you two are quite prevalent." He looked back and forth between the blonde and Sasuke by way of illustration.

Naruto scowled at the comment. "Well, there are no undertones with you! It's just full-on flaming flamboyancy all the time!"

Sai jerked at the implication. "I'm not—!"

"Yeah, yeah. Mr. Belly-shirt." Naruto waved a dismissive hand. "You and your 'artsiness.' You're not fooling anyone." He met Sai's gaze to make certain he got his point across and explained, "Now, I can't speak for this one," he thumbed in Sasuke's direction, "considering how questionable his orientation is, but I can say that I am nothing less than as straight as they come. This one is probably hot for me, but it's not reciprocated." He was as matter-of-fact as they come the entire time, all the while ignoring the Uchiha's rising ire.

"Usuratonkachi."

Naruto spun around, as though surprised. Shameless as ever, he answered, "What?! I'm not judging you! I'm a pretty fine piece of ass. I don't blame you."

"I think your comments say more about you than they do about me," Sasuke snapped.

"Uh-huh." The blonde's blue eyes stared back blankly. "I'm not the one who ran off to be with some creepy old guy who was lusting after my body."

Sasuke's head snapped up, nearly cringing at the comment. "It was for power! And he wanted my body for the Sharingan, you idiot."

"Say what you will, but, no matter how you look at it, an old recluse who shows up in disguise—in drag, no less, remember he was a chick for a bit there—and says he desperately desires your body isn't someone a person would generally run to when he makes his intentions known. That's a little weird, don't you think?" He raised his eyebrows meaningfully at the other.

"It wasn't weird!" the dark nin insisted. After a moment's pause, he amended, "Well, it was weird, but it wasn't that kind of weird!"

"I understand if you feel uncomfortable talking about it, teme," Naruto replied, raising his hands in a blameless manner.

The other male's comments were seriously getting to Sasuke. It almost didn't feel like he was joking. "What the hell do you think happened there?!" Sasuke demanded.

Blunt as can be, Naruto answered, "I think he touched you."

The breath froze and stuck itself in Sasuke's throat. He could do nothing but stare at his teammate for the next few moments, stuttering and completely taken aback. "...Wh...What?!"

"I think he—"

He held up a staying hand. "Oh, don't say it."

A sympathetic look softened Naruto's features as he took a step closer. His voice was soft and comforting as he spoke, "It's okay, Sasuke. You can talk about it with us. We're here for you."

Sasuke was too shocked, otherwise he probably would have taken a step back to maintain the distance between them. But, as it was, he could barely think clearly enough to string together a response. "...You...have seriously thought this whole time that...that he..." he fought a gag, "...that I was sexually...abused...?"

Naruto gave a nodding shrug. "Well, these things do happen."

"Well, they didn't happen to me," the Uchiha stated, narrowing his eyes slightly, still obviously uncomfortable.

Naruto, however, wasn't convinced. "You came back more standoffish than ever. I mean, shudder the thought that I would hit you during a spar; you'd be all defensive and flighty."

"Because I was defending myself," Sasuke snapped. "That's what you do in a spar."

"And your...difficulties with certain intimate endeavours of late?" He quirked a blonde brow as he gave a subtle nod in Sakura's direction. "You're sure that's not a result of the trauma of what he did to you?"

"He didn't do anything to me!" His forehead furrowed as his dark eyes narrowed in irritation at the mention of certain recent failures of his. "And those difficulties can half be attributed to you and your sadistic power-trip."

"You'll blame me because I'm here and Orochimaru's dead, so you can't lash out at him anymore," Naruto nodded, that infuriating sympathetic look never leaving his face. "I'm the only outlet you've got, so you're being hostile toward me to vent your frustration and hurt. I understand that. It's okay. I forgive you." He patted his friend on the shoulder, to which Sasuke violently swiped it away. This only served to further support the blonde's suspicions of Sasuke's abuse, and made the caring look intensify.

"Are you two quite finished with your heart-to-heart talk?" Kakashi asked as he stepped over to them. He cast a weary look back at Yamato and Sakura—who was fending off Naruto's teasing Orioke no Jutsu bunshin—and took in their tired countenances. "I think everyone would just like to get this over with."

The two nodded, wanting nothing more themselves than to be rid of this place for good.

"Yosh! Let's go show that rich loser the sexy me!" Naruto shouted, all excitement. "Oh, and we should show him my Orioke no Jutsu bunshin, too! Heh heh!" he laughed at his own joke, while the others just rolled their eyes.


"Holy...! Where did you find such an angel?! And what a body!" Harusato let out a low whistle, which was quite a feat, considering how low to the ground his jaw was hanging. The lust in his eyes was unmistakeable and it only made the six shinobi smile even wider when his face flushed a deep crimson at 'Nariko's' flirty wink.

"Now, why don't you kids run along?!" Naruto suggested, shooing the two toward the entryway. "Our mission is complete and you've got some 'in your face!ing' to do in front of your snobby friend."

"Yes!" Harusato nodded enthusiastically, eyes never leaving the overly 'friendly' fake female before him. "You certainly have done your job! Gin will give you your payment." He sent a small nod in the older man's direction, who quickly scurried forward with their fee in hand, offered it to Kakashi, waited for the nin to count it, and then scurried back to his corner.

"Well, we'll be off then, Matsudaira-sama," Kakashi said, giving a short bow.

"Uh... Perhaps Sakura-san would like to join us?" The young noble cast a suggestive look between 'Nariko' and the pinkhead, failing miserably at being enticing. His meaning was unmistakable, regardless.

A resounding "No!" was the group's reply, with cringes and scowls all around.

Naruto, however, was left considering the implications of Harusato's offer. Anything that went on with his bunshin would become part of his knowledge, after all... A heated blush lit his face, as he spoke, "Maybe you should, Sakura-cha—"

A brain-jarring hook to his jaw cut his words off abruptly. "Absolutely not! That's disgusting! You pervert! How can you even think something like that!" she screeched at the blonde, bonking him on the head with each word.

Off to the side, Yamato cringed. Violence was Sakura's automatic reaction to everything Naruto said, it seemed.

"What?! It's just a girl who wants to have sex with you!" he whined, nursing his sore head. Blue eyes full of vindication snapped up onto the ticked off girl. "Or does that scare you, Sakura-chan? Who's homophonetic, now?! Aha!" he cried, pointing accusingly.

"That's not a girl! That's you!" she hissed quietly, ensuring that Harusato did not hear the truth of his dream girl. "And just because I don't want to engage in certain acts with another girl, doesn't make me homophobic! It makes me straight, you retard!"

"Ohhhh! I see how it is! When I don't like the idea of going at it with another guy, I'm homofrenetic, but when it's you, you're just 'straight,'" Naruto groused loudly, taking on an affronted stance. "Double-standards like that are what perpetuate inequality between the sexes, Sakura-chan! I should think you would know better." He tsked quietly while shaking his head.

"It was a joke! The thing before was a joke! For goodness' sake! You and Sai are going to sit down together at the library and read all about sarcasm and its variants," she seethed, kicking Naruto in the shins for good measure.

While the jinchuuriki bemoaned his fractured legs, Kakashi once again excused them from Harusato's presence.

Obviously disappointed by Sakura's swift refusal of his offer, the teen quickly rebounded with one look at the, ahem, 'girl' on his arm. "Yes! Thank you for your hard work!" the daimyo called back, not sparing them a single glance, as the new couple made their way out the door.

"You two have fun now! And remember what I told you about 'sealing the deal,' Nariko-chan!" Naruto called out, sharing a conspiratorial wink with his transformed clone.

Harusato missed the wink and only heard 'sealing the deal' and Nariko's subsequent giggle. Every other thought went out the window after that.

As they made their way out of the young noble's home, Sakura turned sceptical eyes on her limping blonde friend. "'Sealing the deal?'" she asked, eyebrows quirked.

Naruto let out an evil little chuckle, his eyes scrunching up in that manner that made his face more fox-like than ever. "When that loser's loser friends come into the picture and start gawking at my Orioke no Jutsu, my bunshin will henge back to normal."

"You mean..."

"Heh! Yup! He's gonna be so hosed!"

"You know, if news of this gets back to Konoha, you could very well be reprimanded," Yamato commented. "We could all be reprimanded, actually," he added, but no one seemed terribly concerned by the idea.

"I don't care what that prissy boy does!" Naruto answered, arms behind his head. "Serves him right, messing with my nindo like that."

"I still don't see how this mission was an affront to your nindo," Sakura said with a sigh.

"Fake mission. Fake," Naruto stressed, pulling his pack up higher on his back.

"Yes, but your nindo is to never give up—"

"And to never go back on my word!" He shot a finger in the air, face intense. "This mission was a fake! A lie! It will be a permanent lie on my record! He has made a liar out of me and has therefore screwed with my nindo to never go back on my word!"

"Ah," she commented blandly.

"'Ah?' 'Ah?' That's all you can say?"

"Oh my goodness, Naruto! How could he do something so horrible to you?! Unforgiveable! Utterly unforgiveable! We should burn an effigy of him!" Sakura exclaimed in a vapid voice that was nothing but sarcastic.

"Exactly!" the blonde agreed, nodding his head avidly. "Let's burn an effing...Sakura-chan." He paused and gave the girl a reproachful look. "That's a pretty vulgar term, Sakura-chan, even if it is an abbreviation."

"I said 'effigy,' you idiot. Effigy."

"Oh, so that's what the kids are calling it nowadays? That doesn't change the fact that a lady shouldn't have such a foul vocabulary!"

"Naruto," she spoke quietly, eyes cast in shadow as she stilled her twitching limbs. "You will come with me. Now."

"Huh? Where are we going?"

"To find a bookstore. You and I are going to buy a dictionary and when we get back to Konoha, you will sit your butt down in a corner and you will not get up until you have read all of A through E!"

The blonde wrinkled his nose at the thought. "That sounds boring!" he whined, kicking at the ground.

"I'm willing to have you suffer through a few hours of boredom if it will mean less retarded misunderstandings from you in the long run."

He frowned as he mulled over her words. "Hey! How come I'm the only one getting the short end here?"

"Because we've been getting the short end for the past seven years! It's time you paid your dues. And don't think you can get out of it! For every minute you resist, I'll add double the amount! And I'll probably hit you repeatedly in the process."

The blonde scowled at the thought of being forced into learning and likely being beaten mercilessly for the duration with Sakura's inhuman strength. Unwilling to be resigned to his fate, Naruto formulated a plan to get himself out of what he viewed as inhumane torture. And he had just the thing...

Nonchalant as could be, he slyly commented, "Oh, by the way, Sasuke has inappropriate pictures of you."

"WHAT?!"

"Nice deflection of an unpleasant situation, Naruto-kun," Sai commented quietly, smiling his Cheez-Whiz smile.

Naruto blinked at the pinkhead's outburst, ignoring the hard eyes and creased brow, not to mention the clenched fists and flexed arms, as though there was no chance at all that this could potentially go horribly, horribly wrong.

"See?" He pulled the papers from his jacket and tossed the illicit photos for her to catch. That was, very much so, a mistake.

Though outwardly he was the picture of calm indifference, internally, Sasuke was freaking out. He told her about the pictures. He. told. her. All the nerve-fraying threats and the pride-damaging concessions he had endured that week, and now the dobe just up and told her anyway? WTH?! (Yeah, he knew how to use it.) He was about ready to die inside at being sold-out by Naruto. Dear lord! Why?!

Now, most people had pictures of the people they were fond of. Most people had no problem with those other people knowing that they possessed those pictures. But Sasuke wasn't most people. He didn't do sentimental. And pictures were as sentimental as it got. The idea of someone, particularly Sakura, knowing that he was in possession of such personal mementos of her was mortifying. One he probably could have gotten away with brushing off as an effort to be closer with his teammates, but three? No, he would never be able to just brush that off. It would be so very obvious that he had those for more personal reasons than for the sake of camaraderie. And the thought of his feelings being exposed like this... Oh, he couldn't do it. It couldn't happen like this. It just couldn't. He would run back to Sound, crawl down that little hidey-hole he lived in there, and just curl up and die. He seriously would. And the fact that the pictures Naruto had just handed over to Sakura weren't even the original pictures Sasuke had once had, made it that much worse. She would have been a little weirded out at him having normal pictures of her, but sleazy porn pics? He might as well just bite his own tongue and get it over with now.

Sakura stared at the photos in her hands with an eerie quiet that could only precede the most violent of storms. Her face was ashen, her eyes wide and unblinking as she just stood there and stared. "These are...?!" She turned her horrified green eyes up, staring questioningly at the accused Uchiha. "Sasuke-kun?!"

His heart leapt into his throat and strangled his breath for a moment, before he managed to exude a false calm and met her eyes with a steady, blank gaze. "I have no inappropriate visual paraphernalia with you as the subject," Sasuke replied, even-voiced with not a hint of dishonesty. "Those pictures have never been in my possession." All true. He never did get his hands on the extra copies Naruto had made.

Sakura studied him for a few moments, eyes shrewdly surveying his features before deciding he was being truthful, and then proceeded to reprimand Naruto for lying to her. "You tricky little liar! You're going to get ten-fold what I would have done to you before, because of that!"

The blood drained from Naruto's face at Sakura's dark threat. He knew first-hand that she always made good on her threats. "No! They're his! I swear, dattebayo!" he insisted shrilly, shaking his head vigorously.

She cocked an eyebrow in challenge. "Yeah? Then why do you have them?"

"Bu-Because I snatched them away from him so he couldn't disgrace the sanctity of your image anymore than he already did!"

"Oh, please! You expect me to believe that Mr. A. Sexual was in possession of these filthy things?!" She snapped the pictures through the air in disgust.

Naruto snorted a laugh at the name, but it quickly died as Sakura's menacing form towered over him.

"Someone had to have used a computer for this, and we both know how hostile Sasuke-kun is toward technology!" Green eyes narrowed to slicing slits that brought the blonde's very soul to cower in fear. "This was your doing, if ever I've seen you do anything! It's got 'Naruto' written all over it, you depraved, disgusting, sicko! I'll see to it that you're truly sorry for this." A sadistic light hardened her eyes as she turned back to the other males and asked, "Which is worse: getting kicked in the crotch or being pile-drived into sharp rocks?"

"Kicked in the crotch," was the unanimous response.

"Guess what you're getting, Naruto?" she spoke, far too pleasantly for the blonde's comfort.

"Sakura-chaan! STOP!!!! NOES! AHHHHH!" He rolled about on the ground, clutching the family jewels, wishing for the first time in his life that he really was, as Sai called him, Dickless. He glared darkly at the other males. "You traitors! All of you!" he shouted, voice a couple octaves higher than normal. "Sakura-chan!I can't have children now, thanks to you!"

"And the world thanks me for that," Sakura replied, hands raised to the sky in righteous vindication, as she stepped over the injured male and continued on down the road.

"'I have no comment on that?' 'I have no inappropriate visual paraphernalia with you as the subject?'" Kakashi repeated quietly, eye on his book. "You should go into politics, Sasuke."

"I don't know what you're talking about," the dark-haired nin said, voice steely in response to his teacher's indirect accusation.

"Well, you could still have inappropriate visual paraphernalia, but not have any that has Sakura as the subject. Or you could have visual paraphernalia of Sakura, and they could include compromising subject matter in some people's eyes; it all depends on your definition of inappropriate." He waved his porn in the air as a case in point. "A perfectly ambiguous response. Bravo, Sasuke. Finally, you are learning my ways."

"Don't lump me in with you; I consider you reading porn in public inappropriate," Sasuke muttered, keeping his eyes on the ground before him.

"And I consider your unauthorized photos of dear, innocent Sakura-chan to be inappropriate," Kakashi hummed nonchalantly, as he turned another page. "Like I said, it all depends on your definition."

"I don't have any—"

"—inappropriate pictures, yada yada, so on and so forth. I heard you. Of course, if that were true, you wouldn't even bother defending yourself, trusting in your righteousness and pride to prove your guiltlessness for you. In short, me thinks thou doth protest too much."

"...For the record, none of them are inappropriate." He paused and then added, "None of the originals I had are inappropriate. They're all normal pictures. There is nothing...voyeuristic about them."

"Except for the fact that Sakura doesn't know that you have them and look at them when you're feeling lonely."

"You make it sound creepy!"

"It is creepy!"

"It's not...like that." Goodness! He could feel that accursed blush seeping through his skin again. Why did these things always happen to him? He got out of one mess, only to fall into another.

"Mmhmm."

"I didn't even take those pictures; they're technically not even mine."

"Oh, so you just steal other peoples' pictures of her so you can look at them when you're feeling lonely." Kakashi raised a brow. "Yeah, that's much better."

Sasuke gritted his teeth, realizing exactly what had just happened. He had been freed from Naruto's blackmailing by the blonde's own folly, but he had also been made victim to his own sensei's exploitation in the very same instant. That cinched it. The world hated him. It did. What did he ever do to it?! ...Oh. Right.

Letting out a quiet sigh, Sasuke steeled himself, preparing to do whatever it took to rid himself of this predicament once and for all. "...What's it going to take for you to keep it to yourself?"

"He's trying to bribe me!" Kakashi exclaimed, nearly giddy at the idea. "Oh, this is kind of exciting. No one's tried to bribe me before. But what will you offer?" He turned to his subordinate, eyeing him questioningly. "What can you offer someone who has no real want for worldly things?"

Sasuke paused for a few moments, considering his options. Truth be told, he didn't have much. Worldly things he could get in spades, if that had interested Kakashi, which it obviously wouldn't. Beyond that, what else was there? His eyes landed on the book in his sensei's hand, that ever-present trademark of his. And there it was. "I will finance—"

"I'm not interested in money, Sasuke," Kakashi interrupted. "Worldly things, and all that."

"You didn't let me finish." He paused, waiting to see that he had Kakashi's full attention, and then continued, "I will finance...a movie adaptation...of whichever one of those smutty books you choose." He watched the other male's reaction and instinctively knew he was on the right path, but he needed something else to guarantee it... "And you can...direct it...?" he trailed off, unsure if that was the clause he needed for success.

After a moment's silence, wherein Sasuke waited anxiously for an answer and Kakashi simply stared back at the youth with an unreadable eye, the Copy-nin finally answered. "...Oh, you're good. You are really good. Seriously. Politics. Get into them."

"So...?"

"Icha Icha Tactics. I want some unknowns to play the leads. I know it sounds pretentious, but I like the idea of providing newcomers with the opportunity to expose themselves to the world."

You couldn't have picked worse phrasing, Sasuke grumbled to himself, as he did a mental face-palm.

He stared at the older man for a moment, noting the lack of hesitation with which he had presented his plan and the unmistakable glow of excitement in the usually lazy eye. "You've been waiting all your life for something like this, haven't you? This is your dream, isn't it? Naruto dreams of being Hokage, Sakura dreams of being a top medic-nin...Idreamofkillingpeople, and you dream of making pornos. Real nice."

Kakashi shrugged unapologetically. "Oh, you know what they say. 'Dream no small dreams for they have no power to move the hearts of men.'"

"This is you dreaming big?"

"At least I have a dream. You killed everyone in your dream. How does that saying go? 'When you cease to dream, you cease to live.'"

"Enough with the quotes, Kakashi."

"Well, I'm just saying. What do you dream of, Sasuke?"

The dark-haired male paused at that, wondering for a moment at what his purpose could be now. It was true. He had killed everyone in his dream. Well, that had kind of been the point of his dream, actually. But still. What else was there?

That rare introspective was interrupted, as Kakashi continued. "I mean, I know what you dream of. You've got voyeur pictures of your teammate, for goodness' sake. Doesn't take a genius, such as myself, to figure that scenario out."

Sasuke nearly swallowed his tongue in his indignation. "Excuse me?! Just what do you take me for?"

"I take you for a nineteen-year-old male with hormone issues," Kakashi answered bluntly. "I don't need any carefully ambiguous responses from you to know what you do and do not dream of. But I mean your real dreams; you're life dreams. Is the girl in your night dreams also in your life dreams? Or is she solely confined to the unmentionable part of your life you hope she never finds out about—"

"And won't find out about, that is if you want that movie made," he snapped, glowering mildly. A silent sigh escaped his lips as he awkwardly added, "And you already know that...I've been...trying to get her to..."

"It's this stellar eloquence, right here, that's the reason the closest to affection you can get from her is a kick in the crotch."

"I'm aware of that," Sasuke snapped.

Just then, an epic Brainwave! hit Kakashi and he knew he had to run with it. "You know what you could do? You and Sakura could play the leads in this new movie I'm directing. It would allow you two to spend more time together and could bring you closer. Actors and actresses have torrid affairs with each other on set, all the time. It's perfect!"

A few moments of silence passed by with Sasuke blinking every now and then at the greyhead and Kakashi smiling widely at his blank-faced student.

"This is why I never listen to your advice," Sasuke finally said. "You're insane."

"That's a tortured creative genius that hasn't been allowed to properly express itself that you're seeing there," Kakashi clarified. "People often confuse it with insanity."

"I'm not acting in your porno, you sick, sick man." The Uchiha shook his head vehemently at the thought.

"It would have been the perfect opportunity for you," the other sighed, shaking his head at his student's refusal. "I fear that Sakura might find out about those pictures you have of her if you don't join the cast and convince her to do so, too."

Sasuke's eye twitched at the loosely veiled threat. "I fear you might not have a budget to make your movie if Sakura finds out about those items."

"I fear that if I don't have a budget to make my movie, she might find out about those items anyway."

"...I hate you."

"That's just your repressed hormones talking," Kakashi replied with a careless wave of his hand. "They're screaming for release in the only way they know how—aggression. We can work with that. It'll be an interesting character trait." He pulled a script out of nowhere and jotted down some notes on it.

Staring at the script—he has a freaking script!—a pervasive sinking feeling swept through Sasuke's being. "...You're actually serious, aren't you?"

"Oh, I'm always serious about my porn, Sasuke. That's just not something you joke about."

At the end of his rope, Sasuke let out a huff of air and went for broke. "Okay. Fine. I will finance two Icha Icha movie adaptations for you to direct."

"Mm, tempting, but no. I have a tortured creative genius, not a greedy one. And it's maybe a little shy, so one is enough for now." He gave that familiar closed-eye smile, further infuriating Sasuke with his laidback attitude. Like it was perfectly common practice to blackmail one's student into being in a porno you're directing. How was this guy not locked up?

"I am not going to be in a hardcore XXX movie!" Sasuke insisted, voice nearly going shrill in his adamancy.

The Copy-nin waved a hand at that. "Oh, it'll barely even be X-rated."

"It's still got an X on it!"

"Look. If you're going to be such a prude about it, I'll make you a deal," he sighed, rolling his eye at the younger male's reticence. "Neither you nor Sakura have to be in it—even though I was only insisting on that for your own good—and I won't tell her about the pictures, if you can pry your foot out of your mouth and finally succeed at what you've been trying to do for the past who knows how long."

Sasuke stared back at his teacher, clearly hesitant to accept the compromise. Sure, it was a far more desirable outcome than being blackmailed into doing porn, but his track record when it came to trying to confess was pretty abysmal. If he didn't get it right, he could potentially destroy any future chances he might have with Sakura. Oh, hell. Either way, he was screwed. And in one of those ways it would be literal.

He steeled himself and muttered, "Fine. I just have to ask her out, right?"

An amused look softened Kakashi's face as he watched his student for a moment. "I suppose that will suffice. Yes."

They were nearing the town that was built at the foot of the small mountain the daimyo's castle was on. Up ahead, Sakura and Yamato were pausing at a tea house for refreshments, since no one had been able to bring themselves to try Sai's 'porridge' and were therefore quite famished. It didn't take them long to catch up and join them. Sai was off somewhere down the road, drawing something, since he had been the only one who had eaten his breakfast, and Naruto was still a ways behind, slowly dragging himself along as he tried to walk through the pain of Sakura's retribution.

Walking up to the ANBU captain, Kakashi gestured at the table where he sat and the table where Sakura sat and said, "This is just sad. You can't even sit at the same table as her, now? You need to get over your fear of her, Tenzou." He seated himself across from the man and stared at him pityingly.

Yamato was completely unrepentant and stiffened his posture at the comments. "Look, I would rather see him Kyuubified," he nodded at Naruto, who had just collapsed on a bench by the entrance, "than see her pissed off! Because at least that I can control!"

Kakashi shook his head. "You really are a wimp."

"I'm not a wimp! I just have a healthy survival instinct! And it's telling me to stay far, far away from scary little girls with inhuman strength."

He shook his head again and glanced over at Sasuke, who was standing a few feet away, stiff as a board and clearly trying to bolster his courage for going over to sit with Sakura.

The Uchiha's blood was running cold and hot at the same time, he was so out of sorts. What if he screwed it up? What was he saying? Of course he was going to screw it up! He always screwed it up! He screwed everything up! It would be a disaster. A disaster.

No. No. It will be fine. All I have to do is tell her I want to...marry her. Okay. Probably shouldn't lead with that. Start out small. A date. We are looking for a date, here. Tell her you want to go out with her. That you would be pleased if it would please her to go out with you. No need for fancy words. You'll just botch them, anyway. Just, straight to the point. She knows you suck at talking. She'll forgive you the inarticulateness it. It won't even be half as bad as you think it will be. ...Probably. You talk to her all the time. It's just that this time, it won't be about the mission or to insult her. No. No insults. Words that can be misconstrued by her as insults are not allowed. Otherwise, just be cool, don't over think it, and above all, do. not. panic.

Okay. Let's do this.

His palms were sweating, and he quickly rubbed them on his pants before making his way over to the seat across from Sakura. She seemed to be quite focused on her tea, and didn't look up until he had sat down across from her. Taking the plunge, he hesitantly spoke, "Sakura... I have something to tell you."

She set her tea cup down and leaned forward a bit. It wasn't much, but it was enough... "What is it, Sasuke-kun?"

He drew in a deep breath, staring at the tabletop. He was ready. He could do this. It was going to work, this time. He knew it. Bolstered by his own internal support system, he looked up at her and all of it went out the window. "I...can see down your shirt."

"WHA?!" She leapt back, shocked, hands coming up to cover herself.

"That's... That's not what I wanted to say," he hastily explained, running a quick hand over his forehead, ignoring the heat in his face. "It's just you were leaning forward and it was right there—"

"No, no. I get it," she nodded, waving the incident off, though her face still burned bright pink and her hand remained over her chest, despite her having pulled her zipper up as high as it could go.

"I wasn't staring, or anything..."

"No, it's okay. I get it. Thank you for telling me."

"Just didn't feel right continuing on with what I was going to say with...that right in my face." Oh, goodness! He was rambling! Someone stop him! He murdered conversations by rambling!

"Of course not." She nodded her head, her blush deepening at his poor word choice.

His words came back to him a few seconds later, and he amended, "Well, I don't mean in my face. That's not exactly accurate."

"I understand what you're saying." Sakura was fighting an uncomfortable smile-cringe by this point, staring at everything but him.

"It's actually quite inappropriate, now that I think about it." Where was a hole when you needed one? All he wanted to do right now was fall down a very deep, very dark hole and just curl up in a ball of misery and failure and just die! Why was this so freaking hard for him?!

"You didn't mean it like that."

"No, I didn't mean it like that. It was just—"

"A poor choice of words."

"A terrible choice of words and it's only getting worse, isn't it?"

"Oh, not at all."

He stood from his seat, eyes darting about, landing on everything that wasn't her. "So, I'm just going to go now."

"Weren't you going to tell me something?"

"I'm fairly certain I've already said enough," he answered before making a hasty retreat.

Oh, that was horrible. Just horrible. What's wrong with you? I'll tell you what's wrong with you. You're doomed to be alone for the rest of your life, that's what's wrong with you. This is the world telling you to stop dreaming because it's never going to happen. ...The world sucks. Screw you, world!

As he walked past Kakashi, the Copy-nin caught his eye. He was paging through his script, clearly in creative mode. "So, you're going to need to get a few piercings before we start production," he explained looking up at Sasuke between scanning the pages. "They can be quite painful, but you'll get over it in a couple of weeks. Just make sure you don't wear loose clothes." He shook his head. "That's just asking for disaster."

Sasuke eyed him strangely, seeing that ever-unreadable expression on his sensei's face. "...I don't want to know, do I?"

"Prude that you are, probably not."

He knew what that meant. He had no choice, now. Back to the disaster zone he went.

He slid into his seat quietly, not making eye contact or saying anything at first. Sakura seemed to accept this mute companionship, as it was their normal mode of interaction. She continued on with her tea, not making any mention of the debacle from a few minutes ago.

It was a few more minutes before he spoke and when he did, it wasn't something she had been expecting.

"So, I've been thinking about what you said."

She glanced up at him, green eyes frowning ever-so slightly. "What I said? About what?"

"About going out with the Banshee," Sasuke explained bluntly. His face was a perfect mask and she was hard-pressed to determine whether he was serious or not.

"Really? And you've changed your mind?"

"I...am willing to make a compromise."

"You're going to compromise?" she repeated, taken aback. This had to be a first. No, make that two firsts. He was compromising and he was willing to go out with Ino. "You? And how do you even make a compromise over something like that?"

He took in a steeling breath. Here goes nothing... "I will agree to go out with her, but only if...you go out with me first."

Silence followed that. A surprisingly short silence, actually. An amused look crossed Sakura's face, as she replied, "If you think you can deter her by pretending to be going out with me, you've got another thing coming, Sasuke-kun. She'll just try that much harder."

He looked her square in the eye and kept his tone even and calm as he spoke, "Well, she'll have to learn how to give up, because I'm not going to be interested in anyone else after I go out with you."

A furrow puckered her brow as she processed his words. "...Okay. What?"

"I'm asking you to go out with me, Sakura," he explained, having to fight with his lungs to force them to release the air he needed to give voice to his words.

"No, I get that. It's the other part that's giving me trouble."

He thought a moment and then answered, "I'm saying that I would like to continue to go out with you, after the initial date."

Her response was short and unexpected. "I see."

His heart leapt back into his throat, but he swallowed it back down again. That tiny bubble of hope was rising again... "You do?"

"Yes."

"Yes?"

"Yes."

Oh, he was terrible with these things. He needed straightforward answers. "Yes, you understand, or yes, you'll go out with me?"

"Yes, I understand."

He paused, thinking her words over. Hesitantly, he asked, "...But not yes, you'll go out with me?"

"No."

"No?"

"No."

"So...you won't go out with me?" ...And that tiny bubble of hope went 'pop!'

"No!"

He sat back in the chair, staring hard at the tabletop, though not seeing it at all. A hard, crushing pressure was slamming repeatedly into his chest from all directions and he couldn't stop it. This was what rejection felt like, huh? It really did suck. It felt reminiscent of failure, only more stifling, more defeating, more disheartening. "...I see," he murmured quietly.

"No, I will go out with you!"

His head snapped up and he saw her smiling, amused exasperation in her eyes. Now he was just straight up confused. "You just said no," be blurted out with a frown.

"I said yes!" she insisted, shaking her head, her smile widening.

"I distinctly heard you say, and I quote, 'No.' So, unless the feminists having changed their stance, that does in fact mean no," he pointed out, watching her face carefully, for what, he wasn't sure.

Sakura shook her head again, smile still in place. "I said no to your question, not to your request."

He stared off to the side for a moment, considering her statement. "Then why didn't you just say yes?"

"Because I would have been saying yes to your question that I was refusing to go out with you when I wasn't."

"No, you would have been saying yes to going out with me."

"Look!" Sakura said, raising her hands in a 'see here' manner. "You said, 'But not yes, you'll go out with me?' so I said no to disagree with that question, not to say no to the request that had preceded it."

A frown of pure confusion furrowed his features. "How is that language to you?!"

She rolled her eyes. "Oh, I really want to hear that from you, Mr. Tch-Aa-Hn!"

"Tch!"

She raised a thin eyebrow at her proven point.

He turned away, ignoring her self-satisfied smirk. She was very pretty like that, too, after all. He would get distracted again. "Whatever. So, are you going out with me, or aren't you?" he asked, hoping his face wasn't as red as it felt.

"Yes."

"Sakura..." he sighed.

"Yes, I am, Sasuke-kun," she answered with that bright smile curving her lips. "Don't worry. I learned long ago that you need things spelled out for you. I'll try to do better at dumbing down relationship discussions for you in the future." She nodded in agreement with herself, eyes laughing at the flat look he was sending her way.

"...Thank you," he muttered sarcastically, fighting off a smirk despite himself—it was true, after all.

"Oh, it's no problem, Sasucakes."

He blanched, choking on air at the familiar and hated nickname.

She smiled coyly back at him and he couldn't really say anything when she was looking at him like that. Like he didn't have oratory issues as it was, but that smile was as good as a gag for him. He stared back at her, leaning forward absently, not really paying attention to anything but Sakura's eyes and lips and...

"What? No objections? Hm." She leaned on the table, tapping a finger to her chin, appearing thoughtful. "And Naruto said you hated that name. I guess that one's a keeper, then!"

"Sakura..."

"What? You don't like it?"

"No."

She smiled widely again. "So, you do like it, then."

"No! I just said no," he argued. Conversation would be the death of him one day, he just knew it.

A laugh shook her shoulders. "Sasuke-kun, we've been over this! You giving a negative response to a negative question ultimately results in a positive answer. It's the law of semantics." She shrugged at his lost look, another quiet laugh bringing his attention back to her lips again. "You know wh--"

He closed the small distance between them and pressed his lips softly against hers. Ah, blessed silence. No more talking. No more semantics and metaphors. Just a kiss.

He wasn't terribly good with words, anyway.

The End

Guttersnipe's Word: Gasp! You should know, this was the very first time I've ever brought myself to write a kiss into anything. How awkward... I hope it didn't come out sounding too cheesy. Well, it was to fill my fluff quota for you readers who requested it, anyway. I'll just blame you all! Whoot! Longlive shirking responsibility!

Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed it! And a big, BIG thank you to all those who have reviewed and put this story on their favourites! It is greatly appreciated!

Later.