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Stripped Bare

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Hey everyone. I am pleased to post my first story of the New Year! This particular plot bunny has been growing inside my head for a while now and I hope I can portray on the paper everything that's jumbled inside my head!

Thanks Cyn and Serre for your comments and critiques. I love you guys!

I do not own Naruto and this story contains mature content.

XXXXX

Stripped Bare-Chapter 1

"Hokage-sama, you can't really be serious about assigning her to this job can you? She is unfit for this type of mission and the training to prepare her for such work would take more time than we could afford. With all do respect, I think it would be better to choose someone else."

The honey eyed woman raised a blonde eyebrow in silent admonishment. She understood what he was getting at for she too had felt the same way, but she had gone through the roster time and time again and her conclusion had been the same. There simply was no one else available to take this job. However, she was not expecting such a strong resistance from the man in front of her. Being a former ANBU, he usually took orders without question, trusting his superiors to make the correct choices for the good of the village. Considering her history with Lady Luck, it figured he would pick today of all days to talk back.

"I understand that you're worried Kakashi, but I believe you are underestimating her."

She folded her recently manicured hands and set them on the desk, evenly meeting the gaze of his single dark eye.

"There was a time when you knew her abilities better than anyone, but that time has come and gone. She hasn't been your student for years and I have seen her grow by leaps and bounds in the meantime. Her lack of experience in this field will no doubt make the mission more difficult, but it will by no means make it impossible."

Inexperience? Kakashi wanted to scoff at the statement. Inexperience was putting it mildly. The mission called for a girl well acquainted with the dark world of seduction and lust. His former student clearly didn't match that description.

"Since you request that I accompany the chosen kunoichi, I would feel much more comfortable with a different candidate. The Yamanaka girl or even Ten Ten would fit the profile better."

Tsunade sighed irritably, fighting to keep her cool, Kakashi was being abnormally adverse to the whole situation and she hated to be made to repeat herself. She didn't like the situation any better than he did considering the girl she had chosen was like her own daughter and she couldn't help but feel she was sending her straight into the lion's den.

Earlier that morning she had received a request for a girl between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five to come to the aid of a small club in a province between Wind and Earth Country. That particular area, though excelling in modern technology, was known to lack a consistent form of government and not many missions came from that area, most potential request going to Suna which was closer, or resorting to hiring thugs to solve problems with brute force. However, a successful mission with Leaf shinobi could possibly lead to more of the area's requests going to Konoha, a fact that was too tempting for Tsunade to pass up.

However, this particular mission seemed a little more delicate than the average assassination or attempt at peace keeping. The assignment came from a man in a crime ridden city named Fuzen Machi. Tsunade had even been there a few times considering the hell hole was a gambling hot spot. The man owned a club with exotic dancers and recently, several of his girls had turned up missing, threatening to put him out of business completely. The message had asked that a single girl arrive dressed as a civilian and shadow as an undercover dancer in search of the culprit, using feminine charm and her own body to get the answers she needed from the club's patrons.

If only Anko had been a few years younger, she would have sent her without a second thought, but there was no way the snake summoning kunoichi could pass for the requested age. She agreed Ino would most definitely have been the prime pick, except that she had left on a mission with her team nearly a week ago and wasn't due back for another ten days. Ten Ten too was gone on a simple escort mission with Neji which would last another three or four days. The one assigned would need to leave immediately.

"Kakashi, you have made your concern very clear but my decision remains the same. All other eligible kunoichi are already on assignment. The only other available girl fitting the profile is Hinata and I think you will agree with me that Sakura is definitely the better pick between the two of them."

Kakashi, who had been standing abnormally straight during this battle of wills with the Hokage, slumped a little. He couldn't deny that she indeed had a point. If you were to even mention such a thing as strip dancing around the Hyuuga heiress, she no doubt turn a startling shade of pink before promptly passing out.

Tsunade saw him deflate and sighed in relief, hoping his return to his normally abominable posture signaled he had conceded. However, with that infernal mask covering his face, he was even harder to read than most shinobi she dealt with.

"You are an excellent ninja Kakashi, and are a master in many fields and that's why I'm sending you along with Sakura," Tsunade said, her voice taking on a gentler tone. "You know her better than most and have protected her in the past. I expect nothing less from you this time around."

"Yes Hokage-same." He replied, his voice betraying the weight that was in his chest.

The masked man bowed slightly, still not happy with the final decree. He wasn't trying to spare the young kunoichi her innocence, for that was something you relinquished when you were given the title of shinobi. He simply thought this mission would go far better with a different girl, but he supposed it couldn't be helped if Sakura was the only one.

However, he was thankful that he would be at her side to keep her safe and make sure she got through this mission. On the other hand, he was well aware of the endless possibilities for awkward situations their partnership during this mission would produce. She had been his student at the tender age of twelve and in some ways, he still thought of her as that same little girl. He knew he would be in for a rude awakening when she assumed the role of a burlesque dancer.

"Thank You Kakashi, you are free to go. Don't forget that her hospital shift ends at six and you are to meet back here so we can brief her on this mission and go over the details."

He replied with a silent nod of his silvery head, his hand already straying to the pocket of his flak jacket to retrieve his most prized possession, flipping the orange jacketed book open to where he had left off. He was almost out the door before Tsunade stopped him.

"Oh, and one more thing. Since you are without a doubt the expert of all things perverted, I've left her training in such matters up to you."

Her words were enough to stop him dead in his tracks and if his mask hadn't hidden his face, it would have been possible to see his mouth agape, his visible eye wide in shock at Tsunade's casual amendment to his mission agenda.

Slowly, he turned around to face the Hokage, not quite sure he had actually heard her right.

Tsunade smiled at his obvious dumbfounded reaction. She knew Kakashi enjoyed his dirty books, but that didn't mean he wasn't a gentleman. She had correctly guessed that showing his former student how to fulfill the average man's desires while gleaning information at the same time was not exactly his idea of a good time. Because of this, she trusted him to do it all the more, and if she ever found out that he had for some reason, taken advantage of her apprentice, she would have a fist ready with his name written all over it, and perhaps a lit match to set flame to all his precious books.

"The walk to Fuzen Machi should take about five days," she said. "You will have to make the most of it and teach her on the way."

Kakashi nodded mutely before turning and walking out of the room, flipping open his book but not seeing the words on the pages. This complicated mission just got a lot more complicated, and it hadn't even started yet!

XXXXX

A tickling sensation had invaded Sakura's nose and she was barely able to grab a tissue in time before the sneeze came. She hoped she wasn't getting sick but it wouldn't be all that surprising considering she did work at a hospital. Perhaps someone somewhere was talking about her.

She blew her nose and tossed the used tissue into the trash before resuming her work. She was seated on a stool before a microscope and should have been analyzing the culture on the slide but she simply couldn't make her mind focus today.

She let her eyes travel to the view outside the window. From the third floor lab, she could see down into the streets below and watch the people passing by and for a moment she envied them for being out in the afternoon sunshine while she was stuck inside.

It wasn't that she didn't like her job as a medic. She loved what she did for it proved to everyone, and most importantly, herself that she was not useless as a Konoha shinobi. She felt needed, important, and she was given the chance to help someone everyday. But lately, she couldn't help but feel the job was getting a little monotonous.

Her eyes gazed over the colorful throng off bustling villagers below and her eyes came to rest one a particular blue clad figure, one with black spiky hair and her heart immediately began to beat a little faster.

Sasuke had returned to the village over two years ago after at last defeating his brother. After the fight he had limped back to Konoha, barely alive and had collapsed at their gate unconscious.

Sakura had been the one to nurse him back to health, and all that time she had spent at his side, infusing her chakra into him to knit broken bones back together gave her plenty of time to think. What he had done to his village, to his team, had been wrong. He had tried to kill Naruto more than once and if she had taken greater initiative to interfere, he probably would have attacked her as well. But even so, butterflies filled her stomach and her heart leapt to her throat every time she saw him and she knew deep down, she still held deep feelings for this man.

When he had awakened, he had been interrogated for hours by Tsunade and nobody really knew what went on in that room. When she asked him later about it, he had shrugged and said he had done what he needed to do, for his destiny was to kill his brother, and Konoha lacked the tools to allow him to do so. Now that his goal was accomplished, he had no reason to run anymore and was ready to take full responsibility for his actions.

The consequences had indeed been severe. For months he had been locked up like a common criminal, chakra inhibitors preventing him from hardly lifting a finger while he was subjected to an endless series of medical tests to determine just what exactly Orochimaru had done to him and how the curse mark had effected him over the years. When they had at last determined he was safe to release among the population, they had watched him like a hawk, restricting his training to only taijutsu at first and then gradually allowing him more use of his chakra. His probation forbade him to take missions of even the lowest rank and he was under no circumstances allowed to leave the village but the whole time Sasuke didn't seem to mind, training away diligently and seeming to enjoy the frequent sparring matches with Naruto, who hardly left his side unless he was dragged away on a mission, so enthusiastic was he to have his friend back.

Even though she was overjoyed to have the team back together, she couldn't help but feel his return had once again placed her at the bottom of the pecking order. When she sparred with Sasuke, he always won without fail, and even Naruto was having an easier time predicting and avoiding her attacks. She was once again the weakest link, still trailing behind them and struggling to catch up, and she couldn't help but wonder if all that training with Tsunade had been for nothing.

After nearly a year of supervision, Sasuke was allowed to take missions again, and was even allowed to participate in the Chuunin exams which he of course, easily passed. He would no doubt make Jounin at the next exam and was even considering joining ANBU after that.

He had discarded the clothes that marked him as Orochimaru's apprentice and had gone back to wearing the blue shirt that bore his family insignia on the back. Their team was whole again and even held a new member, considering Sai had never gone back to ROOT and it seemed everything was just how it was before Sasuke had left, right down to the fact that she still adored him and he brushed her off as if her affections were nothing than an annoyance.

Sakura sighed on her stool, watching the distant figure disappear into the crowd. She had dreamed of the day when he would come home, only, in her version he would finally realize how wrong he had been to ignore her and welcome her with open arms. She was realizing more and more how naïve she had been, for while he openly admitted she had gotten a great deal stronger and she was indeed a skilled medic, he hadn't shown her an ounce of affection or even made a single move that suggested he wanted to be more than just team mates.

It had torn her apart, it still was tearing her apart, piece by piece, day by day, but she couldn't stop herself from caring for him even though the realization was gradually dawning on her that he was all wrong for her. It was as if he held her heart in his fist and he was squeezing it a little more with each passing day, and soon she would be crushed completely by him.

She had liked to think she was stronger than that, but the truth was, when it came to Sasuke, she wasn't. She was still the weak little girl she had always been and it killed her inside. She wished there was something she could do to make him see her as the woman she wanted to be to him.

Just then a sharp knock on the door broke her out of her self reflection and she instantly snapped to attention, turning to face the source of the sound.

"Come in."

The door swung inward to reveal Kotetsu, bandages covering the bridge of his nose as usual.

"I'm sorry for the interruption Sakura-san," he said with a slight bow. "But Tsunade told me to give you the message to meet her in her office once your shift is over."

Sakura nodded and told him she would be there and he let with another bow of his dark brown head.

The kunoichi turned back to the work before her and commanded herself to focus. She had a lot to do before her shift was over and daydreaming about Sasuke wasn't exactly productive.

She wondered what Tsunade wanted to discuss with her and hoped she hadn't seen through the fact she no longer enjoyed her work as she once did.

Sakura bent forward and peered through the lens of the microscope, turning the knob on the side to make miniscule adjustments in focus. As the cells on the slide gradually shifted from fuzzy blobs to crystal clear specimens, Sakura wondered if maybe this unexpected call signaled a welcome change of pace.

XXXXX

"You want me to do what?"

It turned out that change of pace she had been dreaming about had come much sooner than expected. The only problem was the alternative she was being offered was something she couldn't picture herself doing…ever.

Tsunade sat back against her chair wearily. First Kakashi and now Sakura. It seemed the whole world was in opposition to this mission.

"Sakura, calm down," she said firmly. "I will not have you throwing a fit in my office, understand?"

The kunoichi seemed to wilt a little, smoothing her pale pink medic skirt as she struggled to regain her composure.

"Yes shishou," she muttered.

She let her eyes dart sideways to the silver haired man that was sitting casually in a nearby chair. Just why the heck was he here anyways? And why was he so calm?

Little did she know, that despite his relaxed posture, Kakashi was still having just as hard of a time with this mission as she was, but he would never show it. He would have to be strong for both of them until Sakura got used to the idea.

"Now," Tsunade continued. "You will go to Fuzen Machi disguised as a civilian. That means no fighting unless absolutely necessary. Upon arriving, you will report to the club and meet with Dajaku, the owner. He will brief you on what exactly you will be doing there but considering the establishment is a gentleman's club, I think you already have a pretty good idea of what to expect."

Sakura nodded mutely, biting the inside of her cheek to keep from groaning aloud.

"You will befriend the women there and find out as much as you can from them as to where the missing women might have gone as well as use all possible means to extract information from suspicious patrons of the club while maintaining your disguise."

Sakura swallowed audibly. She knew what 'all possible means' meant. How could Tsunade expect this from her? She knew more about the male anatomy than anyone, but when it came to handling it like…that, she was beyond clueless. She couldn't dance and she certainly couldn't perform a convincing strip tease. She was a virgin dammit, one who had only been kissed a handful of times and none of them could be considered smoldering moments of passion. Hell, she had either been half drunk or nervous beyond description.

"Tsunade-sama, I'm unfit for this!" she blurted out, unable to remain silent any longer. "Surely there's someone better, someone who's not a…"

She trailed off as her cheeks flushed pink. She was embarrassed enough as it was. Confessing she was a virgin in front of her former sensei might just be the death of her.

The Hokage eyed her expectantly, waiting for her to finish. When she didn't, she prompted her.

"Someone who isn't a what, Sakura?"

The kunoichi shook her head, sending cotton candy bangs into downcast eyes.

"Never mind shishou, it's nothing."

"Very well," the blonde said with a sigh. "Kakashi will accompany you to Fuzen Machi in the guise of a civilian as well. He will meet Dajabu with you but from that point on, I don't want it to be apparent you two are working together. He will visit the club nightly as a patron and survey the scene for possible suspects as well as make outside investigations during the day. When you two need to communicate at the club, you must make it appear that you are simply a dancer and an observer."

Sakura couldn't believe what she was hearing and she turned to fix her wide eyed stare on the masked man. He had finally looked up from the apparently fascinating floor boards and gave her a patented eye crease.

"Looks like we'll be partners Sakura-chan."

This was just too much. Not only did she have to strip for strangers, but her own teacher would be watching as well. Her cheeks were warm before but now they positively burned at the thought of dancing on a pole in hardly more than a scrap of fabric as Kakashi looked on. This was without a doubt, turning into the worst day of her life and she found herself wanting to deliver a bone shattering punch to the man's face just so he couldn't watch her dance. But that of course, would be unprofessional and she would only have to use her chakra reserves to heal him anyways so she remained standing quietly, trying not to scream.

"You are to leave as soon as possible," Tsunade continued, noting the scarlet state of Sakura's face and feeling a little sympathy for her flustered apprentice. However, she had one final blow to deliver.

"Sakura, I have left all matters of training in required fields for this mission in Kakashi's hands. You won't have time to do it before you leave so you must do it on the road. If you have any questions at all, please ask him. The success of this mission lies in your ability to apply those skills properly."

She was dumb struck, her gaze switching from Tsunade to Kakashi as she desperately hoped this was all one big prank. She felt tears begin to form in her eyes as pure mortification overwhelmed her, but she blinked them back angrily. They both knew she was inadequate in the fields of expertise that this mission required and yet they were sending her on it anyways, and if that weren't enough, she would have to learn the tricks of the trade not from another woman, but from a man, and not just any man, but Kakashi, Konoha's resident pervert.

The urge to send a fist through Tsunade's desk and reduce it to nothing but a pile of splinters was so strong that her hands twitched at her sides but she fought down the urge as she choked back the tears.

"The two of you will leave in the morning," Tsunade announced. She turned her head to Kakashi and gave him a condemning glance. "And I trust you will not be late."

The lanky man gave a curt nod.

"Yes, Tsunaded-sama."

"Well then," she said, glad this meeting was finally over. "You are dismissed. Pack only what you need for the journey there. Dajuku will provide provisions and appropriate wardrobe for you upon arrival."

Sakura fought down a bitter laugh. She should have said "the appropriate lack of wardrobe" considering what she would be doing.

Kakashi stood and immediately withdrew his usual orange book and Sakura wondered just how many of those scenes would be inspiration for her future training.

She was about to follow Kakashi out the door when Tsunade called her back. Instead of punching a hole through the door in frustration, she took a deep breath and walked back to her desk.

Tsunade could see she was on the verge of tears and didn't blame her. Sakura was still surprisingly innocent considering she was nineteen and had been a shinobi for her entire teenage existence. It killed her to rip that away from her so suddenly, thrusting her into such a dark world, but it had to happen sooner or later and she knew the experience, though painful, would aid her on her path to becoming a superior kunoichi.

"Sakura, I know this is hard for you, but I truly believe you can do this. I would not have assigned you this to mission if I didn't."

The younger medic nodded, her throat raw with the need to cry but she would not break down, not here in front of her mentor.

"I assigned Kakashi to go with you because he knows you well. He is a professional and he will act accordingly. You don't need to hesitate if you have a question. He's on this mission to support you."

"I know," Sakura said, her voice coming out in a choked whisper.

"Good girl," Tsunade smiled, taking her hand in her own and squeezing it in a rare display of affection. "Go make me proud Sakura."

The kunoichi nodded, giving her a half hearted smile that didn't reach her emerald eyes.

Without another word, Sakura left the room, closing the door quietly behind her, leaving the blonde Hokage alone.

Tsunade rested her elbows on her desk's wooden surface and took her head in her hands, hoping fervently that the decision she had made was the right one.

XXXXX

Konoha was by no means a large city, although at was a little on the big side as far as villages went. Unfortunately for Sakura, that fact worked against her and the news of her upcoming departure with Kakashi spread fast. Luckily, nobody seemed to know what her mission with him entailed and whenever anybody asked, she curtly replied that it was classified.

That only worked or so long because when Naruto heard she would be leaving, he tracked her down in no time, running to meet her as she wearily walked home.

"Sakura-chan!" he cried happily, grinning from ear to ear idiotically as usual.

"Hey Naruto," she replied with far less enthusiasm. All she wanted to do was go to bed abnormally early and enjoy her last night in her own room for quite some time but Naruto would have none of it.

"I heard you'll be leaving on a pretty long mission with Kakashi-sensei huh?" he asked, cutting right to the chase.

"Yeah," Sakura grumbled. "Tonight is my last night here."

Naruto seemed to think for a moment and she could almost see the wheels turning behind those blue eyes.

"You haven't been on a mission in a long time. You're always stuck in that hospital all day."

Her temper was shorter than usual thanks to the large weight that has just been hefted onto her shoulders and so she was already on the verge of punching his lights out. He just had to point out that she spent most of her life behind hospital walls didn't he? Along with the lack of missions, why didn't he just add a social life and a boyfriend to the list of things she didn't have?

"You must be excited to finally get to leave town," Naruto continued cheerfully, oblivious to the vein that was starting to throb in her forehead. "And since it's with Kakashi-sensei, it's probably high ranked too."

Sure it was high ranked, but they weren't paying her nearly enough for what they expected her to do.

"So," he pushed on. "What do you have to do? Escort someone? Rescue a prisoner? Steal something valuable?"

The blonde's eyes glittered with excitement and Sakura found her anger dissipating in the face of his child-like enthusiasm.

"Sorry Naruto. It's classified," She said simply, turning to resume her walk home but Naruto caught her hand, refusing to let her go.

"Aw come on Sakura-chan. You know I won't tell."

Those big blue eyes looked an awful lot like a puppy's, all big and pleading, but she wouldn't let his pouting get to her.

"Naruto, I'm not going to tell you," she said with a finality that warned him he had better drop the subject.

Even as the years had passed, so much about Naruto remained the same. His body had matured, growing taller and more muscular as his strength increased and he was indeed a formidable fighter, but as far as maturity went, there were times when she imagined he hadn't aged a day. The thought was both refreshing and incredibly annoying.

"Fine," he sighed, giving up his quest to extract details from her. "But at least come to Ichiraku with me. The team is having dinner there and you have to go considering you're going to be gone for a while."

At the word "team", Sakura immediately tensed. He was no doubt referring to Team Seven which originally included Kakashi. After what had happened in Tsunade's office, she didn't think she was ready to face him just yet.

"Is Kakashi going to be there?" she asked, trying not to sound nervous, but lucky for her, Naruto was not the most perceptive of people.

"Nah, he said he had some stuff to do," he replied, crossing his arms over his chest and looking a little put out that his former sensei could possibly have something more important on his agenda than meet his grown students for ramen.

Sakura let out a breath she hadn't known she had been holding. At least something was going right today.

"All right, I'll come," Sakura agreed, turning to fall into step with Naruto. "But you're paying."

XXXXX

It turns out that Team Seven not only included Sasuke, but Sai as well, for they found the two of them occupying adjacent stools in uneasy silence upon their arrival.

It was no secret that the two of them didn't get along. Their relationship was even rockier than it had been between Naruto and Sai upon their introduction. Sasuke didn't like the idea that Sai had essentially replaced him and Sai thought Sasuke was no better than trash for abandoning his village. However, the two of them had agreed to at least act civil in each other's presence when Sakura and Naruto were around.

"Jeez, what took you so long?" Sasuke huffed, disliking that he had been kept waiting.

Sai on the other hand greeted the couple with a usual fake smile.

After ordering, Naruto tried his luck with Sakura again.

"So Sakura, what are you going to be doing on your mission with Kakashi?

The kunoichi rolled her eyes and took a sip of her tea.

"I already told you it's classified."

"Really?" Sai chimed in. "I was in Tsunade's office earlier and the folder for that particular mission was in the non-classified stack."

If Sakura hadn't had two bodies sitting between her and the artist on the other end, Sai would have felt the full force of her fist against his face.

She heard Sasuke chuckle quietly as her lie was revealed and felt her cheeks flush pink. When she got back from this stupid mission, she would make sure that Sai would pay for embarrassing her in front of him.

Just then, their ramen arrived and she silently prayed the steaming bowls would be enough to divert their attention off of her, but as she grabbed a pair of chopsticks from the container on the counter and broke them apart, Naruto tried interrogating her again through a mouthful of noodles.

"Come on Sakura, what's the mission about? It's weird you're being so secretive about something non-classified."

"It's probably something so embarrassing, she doesn't want to tell anyone," Sasuke sneered as he fished a piece of pork out of his bowl and ate it with much more finesse than Naruto who was wolfing down his food as if he expected it to disappear at any moment.

"Embarrassing?" the blonde pondered, slurping a noodle noisily. "Like rescuing puppies or something?"

"No you idiot. Why would Tsunade send two elite shinobi for that?" Sasuke scoffed, rolling his eyes and taking no notice that Sakura sat up a little straighter, her heart beating faster at the fact he had called her elite.

"Well then what do you think the mission is?" the whiskered man said, jabbing a chopstick at Sasuke's face.

The dark haired Uchiha was silent a moment, a smug smile spreading over his features as he paused for dramatic effect. Sakura ate her ramen and tried to act like she was ignoring them but Sasuke spoke loud enough for her to hear too.

"Maybe, they have to act like husband and wife, and they don't want anybody to know."

Sakura practically chocked on a noodle and when she looked over at him with wide eyes, his own coal orbs were trained on her, his lips twisted in a smirk as he gauged the effect his comment had had on the kunoichi, seeing if he could loosen those tight lips a little.

"What? Kakashi-sensei and Sakura-chan acting married? That's just gross!" Naruto exclaimed while Sai ate his ramen quietly, impervious to the whole thing.

"Think about it," Sasuke continued, his eyes never leaving her shocked face. "They would have to hold hands in public and act all affectionate. They would sleep in the same bed, and if they really wanted to keep up appearances, maybe they would even—"

"Shut up!" Sakura exclaimed, finally loosing her cool. "We are not acting like we're married!"

"Then what is your mission exactly?" Sasuke asked smugly. "Or would you like me to keep guessing?"

The kunoichi sighed in defeat. She didn't want to know what other humiliating scenarios he could conjure up so she might as well just spill it. They were trustworthy enough not to go blabbing anyways.

"All right, I'll tell you," she said, setting down her chopsticks and leaning in so she wouldn't have to talk so loud.

The boys leaned in as well and even Sai perked up and took an interest, waiting expectantly for what she was about to say.

"I'm going to city with Kakashi, pretending that I'm a…dancer."

The blank stares from all three men told her they didn't know what to think, but she really didn't take Sai's into account. He always looked that way.

"I thought you were going to tell us the truth," Sasuke said after a moment, narrowing his eyes at the pink haired woman on the other side of Naruto.

"It is the truth!" she hissed angrily, wanting to wipe the incredulous expression right off his face.

"But Sakura-chan, you can't dance," Naruto said, his brow kitted in confusion.

"I know!" Sakura exclaimed desperately before catching herself and lowering her voice once more. "I don't get why Tsunade is sending me on this mission in the first place."

"What kind of dance?" Sai piped up from the back. "Ballet?"

"Um…not exactly," Sakura answered, rubbing the back of her head nervously. She hadn't wanted to tell them all the details but the artist among them had a talent for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.

"Good. The sight of you in a tutu would be frightening," Sasuke remarked blandly.

"What kind of dance then? Traditional?" Naruto asked, imagining how pretty Sakura would look in a kimono.

She shook her head, her cheeks warming all over again.

"Exotic?" Sasuke chuckled, obviously joking as he took a sip of his tea.

Sakura cringed and didn't say anything, letting her silence be her admittance.

Naruto's eyes grew wide as the realization dawned on him.

"No way," he murmured in awe. "You're going to be a stripper?"

She nodded meekly, chancing a glance over at Sasuke to see how he was reacting and was dismayed to see he had frozen with his glass halfway too his lips, a look of complete disbelief on his face.

"Man, Kakashi-sensei is so lucky! He gets to see you dance! Man, I wish I could go with you on this mission," Naruto pouted childishly.

The man next to him had apparently recovered from his stupor and sneered arrogantly.

"It's not like you'll be missing much," he said. "Her boobs aren't big enough to put on a descent show."

Sakura felt her eyes burn as tears began to form in them for the second time that day. Honestly, she thought she had grown out of her crybaby stage but the stinging remark from her crush cut her deep. However, the only thing worse than the Uchiha hurting her was to let him see that he had done so. She blinked back her tears and bit down on her trembling lip and threw one of her chopsticks at the one who had insulted her, hitting him in the neck.

The Uchiha looked slightly shocked and that alone was enough to make her feel better and she noted that as he rubbed the red mark with his hand, a small bruise was already forming where the point had hit him.

"Hey, good shot Sakura-chan!" Naruto laughed. "That's what he gets for saying mean things about you."

Sasuke simply "hmphed" and went back to his meal while Sai spoke up again.

"So why is Kakashi going with you? Is he a dancer too?"

"Eew! No!" Sakura cried, her mood lightening a bit at the thought of her sensei's tall, lanky form stuffed into a sequin bikini.

Ok…that thought needed to go away before what she had just eaten decided to come back up.

"He's my escort," she clarified. "I'm traveling to the city as a civilian so if I get into trouble, I won't be able to fight, and once we're in the club, he'll be there…keeping an eye on me."

She didn't really want to go into any more detail, because honestly, she wasn't sure how much she should say. She was going undercover after all and she didn't want to blow it before the mission even started.

"Oh, he'll keep an eye on you all right," Sasuke smirked, knowing the Copy Ninja's affinity for dirty books and imagined he would be enjoying this mission a little too much.

The thought wasn't any comfort to her already frazzled nerves. She had been assured her sensei would act quite professionally but that didn't make it any easier to dance in front of him.

"Don't worry Sakura," Naruto assured, seeing the flustered look on her face. "If he does anything perverted, just tell me and I'll punch him good for you when he gets back."

Sakura giggled at chivalrous gesture but shook her head.

"There's no need for that Naruto. If he does anything perverted, I'll knock him out myself."

At that, both of them laughed together, knowing full well that it was true. Sasuke and Sai remained quiet, finishing up their meals as the sun went down and the surrounding paper lanterns were lit.

"Well guys," Sakura said, stretching in satisfaction before patting her full stomach. "I need to get home. I have to get up early tomorrow."

Naruto offered to walk her home and she accepted, knowing she wouldn't get to see him for some time.

Sai and Sasuke took off in the opposite direction and she called goodbye to both of them. Sai turned around to give her a fake smile and Sasuke simple raised a hand in the air in a silent farewell, not even looking over his shoulder at her as he walked away.

As she walked side by side with the orange clad man, she wondered what kind of effect the knowledge of her new mission had had on the Uchiha. Did he picture her dancing sensually, clothed in practically nothing? Did that image force him to view her as a woman and not as an annoying girl? Sakura blushed a little at the thought but sincerely hoped it had changed his perception of her for the better.

"Hello? Earth to Sakura?"

Naruto's voice broke through her daydream and brought her back to reality in a hurry.

"What? Oh, sorry! What did you say?" she asked sheepishly as she realized he had been talking to her.

Naruto shook his head and laughed.

"Come on space case, you do that on a mission and you could end up dead!"

"I know, I'm sorry," Sakura sighed tiredly. "It's just that I'm really nervous for this assignment. I've never done anything like this before."

Naruto grinned, making light of her comment by saying, "Well if you had, I'd be disappointed you didn't practice on me."

Unfortunately, his words did little to soothe her and her shoulders dropped visibly.

"Yeah well, I get to practice on Kakashi instead and that's the weirdest thing I've ever had to do. Naruto, I don't even know if I can pull this off!"

The blonde could sense the panic and desperation rising in his friend's voice and his heart went out to her. As a whole, kunoichi were assigned far more missions that forced them to use their bodies to gain information than their male counterparts and since Naruto had never been in that sort of situation, he couldn't really relate to what she was going through but he sympathized all the same.

He stopped walking and noticed Sakura had been staring at her own feet as she walked, her pretty face scrunched into a worried expression.

"Hey," he said softly, grabbing her hand and bringing her to a stop as well, letting the thinning evening crowds move around them. "If there's anyone I know who can overcome challenges, it's you Sakura."

Her eyes remained stubbornly fixed on the ground, despite the whiskered man's encouragements.

"You have always found a way to get though," he continued. "Like that time in the Forest of Death, even though you had to cut off most of your hair, and during your training with Tsunade and all those years when Sasuke was gone. You're a strong person Sakura. Don't say you can't do this because I know you can."

The kunoichi hesitantly lifted green eyes to meet his lucid blue ones.

"Really?"

"Hell yeah," Naruto said with a smile. "And if Kakashi gives you any trouble, tell him you're going to burn all of his Icha Icha books."

At this, Sakura couldn't help but giggle as she imagined their teacher on his knees in front of a pile of ashes, sobbing over the loss of his porn.

"But if you don't believe you can do it, you've already lost the battle, right?" he said, placing a hand lightly on her shoulder.

She nodded, her eyes reflecting the light of the lanterns all around them.

"I know. It's just…going to be hard for me. I'm going to have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable."

Naruto gave her shoulder a squeeze before letting his hand drop away.

"Yeah, I think that's just part of being a ninja. Our job is fun and fulfilling, but hardly ever easy."

Sakura smiled and nodded again, wondering just when her once obnoxious friend had gained such wisdom. Even though he had been back from his two years of training for some time, she found she was still surprised with how he had changed, or maybe the change had happened more recently and was just now showings itself in his words and actions.

"Thanks Naruto," she said sincerely, a small smile now gracing her lips. "I'm glad you believe in me. It's really means a lot."

His face split in a toothy grin much more characteristic of his younger self.

"Don't mention it Sakura-chan."

They continued walking in the direction of her house, letting a comfortable silence settle between them before Naruto started to snicker.

The medic was immediately wary, slowing until she finally stood with her hands on her hips.

"What the heck is so funny?"

"Sasuke is such an idiot," the blonde said through his chortles.

"And why is that?"

Naruto sobered a moment, appearing to be thinking over whether he should say the next sentence or quit while he was ahead.

"Well?" Sakura prompted impatiently.

"That bastard doesn't think you're boobs are big enough to dance at a club, but I think you'll look great in a thong and a bra!"

Her jaw clenched at his words. And just why the hell was he imagining her in such an outfit anyways?

"Naruto…" she said, a definite warning tone in her voice.

"Hey, since I don't get to come with you, do you think you could take a picture of yourself in the outfit they put you in and give it to me when you get back?"

Ok, that was going too far!

"Naruto!" she yelled, advancing on him and cracking her knuckles menacingly.

"Oh come on," he laughed, backing away and holding his hands up in defense. "Just one picture?"

"That's it!" Sakura yelled, lunging at him, but Naruto had been expecting her attack and took off laughing, running full speed down the street towards her house, no doubt expecting her to pursue.

And pursue she did. He was lucky she would be gone for a while, otherwise she might have to beat him senseless over the next few days for making a request like that.

XXXXX

Naruto trudged back to his own house just as the last of Konoha's shops and eateries were closing. The food in his stomach had finally caught up with him and he was starting to feel sleepy.

The little chase to Sakura's house has ended with her delivering a powerful blow with her fist as always, but lucky for him, she had spared his face and had instead hit him hard enough in his shoulder to give him a dead arm. Even now the feeling was only starting to trickle back into it. He didn't really mind though. He was happy he was able to help her take her mind off her troubles even for just a little while. She had looked so nervous and flustered at diner and he hated seeing her so upset.

It was no secret that he had had a crush on her during their academy years but recently, he found that all the awe and reverence he held for her now was because he thought she was an extremely skilled medic and kunoichi, not because he was head over heels for her.

He wasn't exactly sure when it had happened but his adoration for her had waned and in its place grew an incredibly strong friendship, one that he treasured more than any action of hand holding or hugging.

He thought she was extremely cool, no doubt, all composed and calm in the heat of battle but he didn't chase her like a lost puppy anymore. Somehow, he knew deep inside that it never would have worked anyways as long as she harbored such deep feelings for Sasuke, although he personally thought she deserved someone better.

However, she threw herself into her work so completely that it seemed unlikely that she would ever find someone new. Naruto secretly though that even though difficult, a mission far away from the village would be good for her. She needed some time away from the hospital.

Naruto had almost reached his house when he saw a tall lanky figure walking towards him.

Even if he hadn't been sporting a messy crop of silver hair or his hitai-ate slanted over his right eye, Naruto would have known it was him in an instant from his pronounced slouch and the fact he was walking along while reading a bright orange book.

"Hey, Kakashi-sensei!' Naruto called, running to catch up with the older man.

The Copy ninja hadn't been his instructor for years, but somehow he could never seem to get used to calling him "senpai", even though Kakashi always said being called "sensei" made him feel old.

The sound of his voice was enough to pull the Jounin out of his book and he looked up and raised a hand in greeting to the orange and black jacketed man who was running towards him.

"Hello Naruto," he said, his smile hidden beneath his mask but his eye crease communicating the gesture all the same. "Why are you out and about this evening?"

"I was just walking Sakura home," the blonde said, falling into step with Kakashi even though he was walking in the direction opposite of his own house. Even though he was tired, there was something he wanted to say to the masked man before he left on his mission in the morning.

"Oh, is that so?" Kakashi said, controlling his voice carefully despite the slight wave of aggravation that passed through him just at the mention of her name. He had been doing his best to forget about his predicament all afternoon and Naruto had gone and brought it up again.

"Yeah, she told me you two were going on a mission tomorrow, some place far away."

The younger man kept his tone casual but in reality he was curious to see how Kakashi would react. The Copy nin had refocused his attention on his book as they walked but Naruto knew he wasn't reading it, for he saw his former sensei tense almost imperceptibly before getting a grip on himself and putting his calm façade back into place.

Kakashi "hmmed" mundanely but was inwardly groaning. He had hoped Sakura wouldn't divest the details of their mission to any of the curious people who were no doubt asking her but it appeared she had at least told Naruto and probably the rest of her team. Now the question was, just how much had she said?

"She said she was really nervous," Naruto continued, interlacing his fingers behind his head as he walked. "But I told her not to worry. She always figures out a way to get through difficult situations."

"That she does," Kakashi responded without shifting his eyes from his dog eared page.

"Yeah," he said, deciding to drop the bomb. "Even if she had to undress and dance for strange men, I'm sure she'll make the best of it."

Kakashi damn near dropped his book at Naruto's comment but managed to disguise his shock well and stopped in his tracks, finally giving him his full attention.

"This is not an easy situation for either of us," he said evenly, unsure what Naruto was getting at.

"I'm sure it's not, especially since she has to learn everything from you."

"What are you trying to say Naruto?" the taller man asked flatly, tired of the blonde's insinuations and wanting to get to the point.

"All I'm saying is that this is hard enough for her. Don't do anything to make it harder." Naruto said, crossing his arms defensively over his chest.

"And how do you propose I would do that?" Kakashi asked, arching a silver eyebrow.

"Well…I mean…you know…" Naruto began, beginning to fidget as he tried to find the right words. "Like what's in your books. Like…perverted stuff."

Kakashi sighed patiently, knowing his student meant well, but some things were just unavoidable.

"Naruto, I don't know if anyone has told you, but gentleman's clubs are full of "perverted stuff" and it is my job to make sure Sakura is adequately prepared for it."

"I know," Naruto whined, looking down at the rock he was currently toeing with his sandal before mustering his courage and pointing an accusing finger at him. "It's just that… you better not take advantage of Sakura-chan, because if you do and I find out, you can be sure that both Tsunade and me are going to kick your butt!"

Kakashi had to admire the kid's gumption, but in all honesty, the thought was a little ludicrous. He didn't want to be the one to train Sakura any more than she did, and the thought of seeing her little girl body in skimpy attire, shaking her absence of curves was going to be a little uncomfortable to say the least. Teaching her how to shake would be even worse but it was what he had been assigned to do and he would do it, with or without Naruto's threats.

"I appreciate your concern Naruto, but nothing is going to happen. I will do what I need to do, nothing more, nothing less."

For a moment the two men just stared at each other and Kakashi could feel piercing blue eyes appraising him as if he were trying to see through any lie Kakashi might be telling. Just when the Copy nin wondered if he was going to stare at him all night, Naruto thrust out his hand in an unexpected gesture and waited for his sensei to shake it.

Hesitantly, the Jounin gripped his calloused hand with his own and Naruto squeezed back.

"Take care of her Kakashi," he said softly, but earnestly as they shook hands. "This will be really difficult for her."

"I know Naruto, I will," he answered, releasing his hand and placing it back into his pocket while his other held his book.

The blonde nodded, seeming satisfied with their conversation and then out of nowhere, flashed him his usual smile.

"Well, I guess I'll see you when you get back then?"

Kakashi dipped his head in affirmation.

"All right well, goodnight!" he said before walking back the direction they had come, towards his house and his bed.

Kakashi watched his back for a moment, his mind replaying their unexpected conversation. The thought of taking advantage of Sakura honestly hadn't even crossed his mind and he chuckled softly at Naruto's overreaction. He planned to be nothing but completely professional on this trip and he assumed his partner would do the same, although he had no doubt that he would need an infinite amount of patience for the training that lay ahead in the next few days.

Sakura had been so innocent and naïve when he had first met her and he supposed in some ways she still was. She had grown battle hardened over the years and had seen her fair share of bloodshed, but as far as the wicked thoughts of men and what they desired to do to a beautiful women, he doubted she knew much more than what she had read in her medical books.

Oh, yes, he was really in for it this time around.

By now it was too dark to read since the lanterns had been put out as the townsfolk went to bed. He pocketed his book and shoved both hands in his pockets as he continued his trek back to his own apartment, knowing morning would come much too soon.

XXXXX

She knew she should be sleeping since she was in for a busy day tomorrow, but she just couldn't make her mind stop reeling with endless thoughts about the mission…and Sasuke.

She was so sick of thinking about him but she couldn't help it. His reaction today had been nothing if disheartening, although she wasn't sure what she had expected from him. For him to say he thought the idea of her dancing was sexy? That he knew she would be good at it? She knew that was preposterous but deep down she had kind of hoped that through her mortification, something good would come out of it, like Sasuke finally seeing what had been in front of him all these years.

She supposed that was far too much to ask.

Even though every fiber of her being wanted nothing to do with mission, she knew she had a lot to prove. Everyone expected her to fall flat on her face, to utterly suck at being sexy. Isn't that why Kakashi was coming along? He would coach her in how to be sexy since she apparently didn't have a clue and it was a little offensive to think she would be receiving such lessons from a man.

Sakura rolled over and huffed to herself, letting out a little of the pent up frustration she had been harboring all day.

Like it or not, she would successfully conclude this mission. She was tired of trailing behind her other team mates. Even Sai was superior to her most of the time as long as it didn't involve social interaction. She wanted to show them she was just as good, that she could do anything and do it well. And who knew? Maybe some of the tricks Kakashi would teach her would come in handy next time she saw Sasuke. Maybe by the time she came back, she would exude sex appeal and attract every guy for miles.

Sakura doubted it, but it didn't hurt to dream.

She rolled onto her back restlessly and willed herself to stop staring at the ceiling and instead shut her eyes. Gradually her breathing slowed, as did her racing thoughts and finally, Sakura was asleep.

XXXXX

Well, that's all for now. Tell me what you think of it so far. Am I off to a good start?