-xxx-

"I have a favor to ask, my lady."

"It will cost you, my lord."

"What doesn't come with a price these days, my lady?"

-xxx-

Ch.8 Wage Not Just with Words

The first thing Sakura did when she arose the next morning was check the bruising flesh covering her neck. She was surprised, to say the least, that the salve Itachi had procured actually allowed some improvement to her damaged skin. Though the salve was not a miracle in a jar, it certainly showed impressive workings over the course of the night. The outline of the mist demon's fingers was less prominent, as was the discoloration, but a purple hue still remained. Luckily enough, Hidan's parting gifts had disappeared from her ivory tone.

The morning was already starting to look promising.

Until a knock on her bed chamber alerted her to the presence of another. It was as if everyone in the capital had an additional sense that allowed her never to have a moment to herself. She was sure it had something to do with Madara and his little spiders. Even her maids couldn't be trusted with such an enigmatic Uchiha in her midst.

The chambermaid at her door alerted her that her presence had been requested in the gardens for breakfast. As much as she wanted to decline the offer, she knew it wasn't an offer at all. It was a demand, though it was phrased much more eloquently. She nodded towards the maid and told her she would need to be dressed before she could join them.

Sending the maid off with her reply, she dressed in soft gray dress decorated with a pale purple floral detail across its fabric. The neckline did nothing to hide the discoloration along her throat, but she found she preferred it that way. It was obvious that the king and the men accompanying his court were uncomfortable with the painful decoration to her person. Though she wondered if the king was only displeased because he was not the cause. She decided she would flaunt them as an accessory, for she was not at all ashamed of them. It proved the unpredictability of the game she and the king played, to herself as well as the king. An evident reminder that not everything would go the king's way.

To rub salt in the wound further, she pinned her hair away from her neck before she exited her room towards the gardens. Recalling that the last time she visited the gardens, she had much better company. Kakashi was certainly better than the jesters she was stuck with now. But she would have to grin and bear it, as her father would always phrase it when she was stuck entertaining visiting nobles back in Konoha.

The guards keeping watching outside the terrace doors announced her arrival before the doorway parted. Though she found herself hating Suna more and more as each day passed, she found that the King's garden was nothing short of breathtaking. It could not compare to the lush colors of green and vivid floral colors she was accustomed to in her home town, but the desert flowers and greenery had their own sense of beauty. It was unfortunate that it would be tarnished in the presence of the nobles that would suffocate her through breakfast.

She noted that upon her announced arrival, most of the noble men already seated at the large table stood as a sign of respect, and common curtesy. The only ones that didn't were the king, because of his higher status, and Kakuzu, because he didn't seem to have an ounce of respect for her.

He would be tough to break.

"Thank you for joining us, my lady," the king's cold tenor brushed through the humid outdoor air around them as he signaled to an empty seat for her at his table. "I hope the invitation did not find you with any inconvenience."

Not that he gave a damn about her inconveniences, she thought to herself bitterly, but put on her diplomatic smile and greeted the room. "Of course not, Your Grace. I simply couldn't refuse an invitation such as this."

She paused after her as she provided the king with a short curtsy before making her way to the open seat between Deidara and Madara. The Uchiha lord was kind enough to pull her chair out for her, to which she gave a polite smile before directing her attention back to the king. "Passing up the gardens at this time of year would be a sin."

Her prod towards the invitation was clear enough to those who were searching for it, but those who were more ignorant would remain unaware of the shift in mood. She didn't need to look around the space to know that most eyes were on her in the moment. Whether it was from her opening statements, or the fact that her previous day damages were displayed so openly across her exposed neck. She couldn't find it in herself to care as she lightly feasted across the food that was prepared before her, noting that some of the men at the table had already broken into the first wine barrel of the day. Surely, it wouldn't be the last.

"How are you feeling this morning, my lady?" Itachi finally asked, voicing the words she knew they all wished to ask.

"Peachy, my lord," her soft voice graced the room as she toyed with a succulent peach slice that laid across her plate. Her fork pierced the juicy skin of the ripened fruit. She pulled the skewered fruit to level with her eyes, spinning the utensil to inspect the piece further before her eyes tilted up to meet his across the table. The faintest smirk tilted upon her lips while her amusement sparkled through her emerald eyes as the soft fruit passed her lips. She allowed the sweet bouquet to delight her senses as she broke eye contact with the young Uchiha lord before delving into the other slices gracing her plate. She gave no indication of a further response as she plucked another fruit away with her fork, repeating the process of spinning it at eye level inspection.

"We will need to find some way to cover those before the gala tonight," the master of coin's voice broke the silence harshly. Like a sword piercing flesh. The room knew as to what he referred, but none had planned to touch on a topic so bluntly.

Sharp green eyes swiped in the treasurer's direction and away from the succulent fruit previously occupying her vision. "Correct me if I'm wrong, Kakuzu, but you refer to my bruises, do you not?" Her tone, though trying her very hardest to still remain polite, border lined discourteous.

"Such unprepossessing bearings should not be exposed at an event hosted by the King, let alone in his own castle," Kakuzu's deep baritone cut through the air once more. He did not formally answer her posed question, but his response was clear none the less.

"Because I would never want to foretell unfavorably upon the King," her voice was low as it passed her lips, and the spite in waterfall native's direction did not go unnoticed. Her eyes were still trained sharply upon the tanned man's figure, staking her claim in the verbal exchange. No matter what this man's status and title may be, she would not roll over and take his words like a frightened little girl. "Perhaps if my bearings are too ghastly, I should not attend. In fear of misrepresenting such a negative image, as Kakuzu so openly postulates."

The intonation of her words hit her exact feelings like a hammer upon a nail. Her interest on the fruit at the end of her fork was lost. Instead, it was gained with the need to bend the thin metal in her grasp to contain her fueling anger.

"That won't do, my lady," Madara's voice spoke up, breaking the battle that seemed to be sparking through the air. "As it is to be a banquet in my honor, I would not be contented unless you were in attendance."

"Ah, but as the guest of honor, my appearance reflects upon you just as it does the King, my lord. I wouldn't dare reflect so poorly on you as well."

He let a light chuckle escape his lips as his dark eyes turned in her direction, allowing her own to part with Kakuzu to meet his attention. His long fingers reached out, trailing along the exposed skin of her neck. "I have no fears of you having a negative effect on my person, my lady. I foresee you only improving it."

She knew Madara Uchiha to be a man to get what he wanted, no matter what the cost proved to be. If he wanted her at this gala in his honor, she would be there. Even if it was against her will. She felt the pads of his fingers trail across the discoloration of her throat until he reached her collarbone. His fingers receded, but his words did not.

"Beside the point, I find your bruises to be a reflection of your character, my lady."

A pink brow rose in his direction. "In what way, Lord Uchiha?"

His attention flickered from her blemished neck to the head of the table where the King sat. If a word could describe the smirk the now played across his lips, it would be provoking. "If anyone underestimated you before, my lady, they wouldn't dare do the same a second time."

He had the audacity to taunt the King. The King. She supposed a man with as much power as he thought he had such rights, but it was refreshing to have someone who would not simply roll over to appease Sasori. Instead, Madara outright challenged him.

"I appreciate that you find such powerful reflections in my character, my lord," she replied with a small tilt to her lips. She wasn't sure if it was because of Madara's challenge, or towards the fact that he so blatantly shut down Kakuzu's attacking language.

Taking her crisp cloth napkin, she traced the soft material over her pink lips, removing any remains of her breakfast, before she stood from her seat. "If you'll excuse me my lords," she inclined her head to the group at the table before turning towards the King, providing a simple curtsy, "My King." She turned her head towards Madara, giving him a simple smile. "I find myself late for plans with your nephew."

Eyes turned towards the other Uchiha at the table, some raising inquisiting brows, while others felt their jealousy simmer slightly in their subconscious. "I was not aware that we had made plans, my lady," Itachi's cool tenor spoke with grace as he watched her risen form.

Her smirk widened as the attention seemed to shift back to her. She glanced back at Madara. "With your other nephew, my lord."

"Ah," he answered back, curiosity peaking. "And what could you possibly need with young Sasuke, my lady?"

"He doubts my professional training with a sword," she began as she stepped away from her seat, connecting eyes with the man at the head of the table. "I intend to prove him wrong."

"Perhaps you will have an audience, my lady," Deidara's voice spoke above the pause, his blue eyes seeming to spark with the wealth of new information. "I find myself curious to see your artistry with a sword with my own eyes, yeah."

She did not answer, only giving him a simple smile before she departed from the room. Though she did not truly have an appointment with the youngest Uchiha lord, she knew that Suigetsu would be at the training grounds at this hour and she had the insatiable need to hit something. If she hadn't escaped the garden's quick enough, it would most likely have been the master of coin's face.

-xxx-

She had returned to her room, changing into an outfit more suitable for excessive movement. A pair of dark pants cured from an animal hide. They were fitted to her legs so not to hinder her movements. She paired them with a long sleeved blouse made of light weight cream material that she tucked into her pants that came up past her hips to rest at the small of her waist. It had a slight dipped neck with strings that hung down across her chest. A leather tunic styled jacket draped over her blouse and ended where the top of her pants hugged her curve, serving to protect her from the harsh sandy winds that were expected to flow through Suna today. Her leather boots that cuffed right below her knees and her final accessory remained tucked into her blouse clasped on a string of gold keeping it close to her heart.

Making her way through the streets, she knew she was receiving many looks as she passed. A woman, dressed so unappealingly to her nature, strutting the streets. Perhaps they would not have been so surprised if she were just any woman. But her calling card had been displayed proudly as it splayed across her back, dancing in the breeze. She heard the whispers, but she didn't care. Her excitement brimmed through her features as she reached the training ground for the King's guard.

Her eyes traced the fields until she found a familiar face, practicing his sword progressions through the air. His movements were fluid and exact. Each swing held a deadly precision and if anyone had doubted his skill as a swordsman, she would encourage them to watch him practice.

"You're very good with a sword. It's actually quite beautiful to watch," Sakura commented as she leaned against the boundary that separated them from one another. Her voice called him from his practice and her sight brought a smile to his pointed features.

"Your praise honors me, my lady. What do I owe the pleasure of your company this morning?" he replied as he moved closer to her form at the fence, stopping in his practice.

"I feel the need to release some frustration and wondered if the offer was still on the table to spar with you."

"I'm honored you thought of me, my lady, but would it really be appropriate of me to spar with you? You are in fact a high born lady, and an honored guest of the king."

"Your observation skills are quite advanced, Suigetsu. Probably the best I've ever encountered," she teased lightly, procuring a smirk from Kisame's assistant. "But the king is aware of my presence here. But if it is my skill set you are worried about, I promise not to damage your pride too terribly."

The last comment delivered an amused chuckle from the purple eyed fighter. She watched his eyes flicker to the bruises across her neck, but it seemed he read her mood well enough to know not to prod. "Very well, my lady. I shall humor your request. Shall I have someone summon Lord Sasuke?"

"I think that would be wise. I'd like to avoid childish complaints of being uninvited if the opportunity presents itself. Young lords seem to act in such a way if not included." Suigetsu chuckled again at her quip towards the young Uchiha lord as he called a fellow guard to summon Sasuke to join them at the training fields. Another guard had gone to retrieve practice swords for them to use, handing them to the young guard as she joined him in the training arena.

He held one out for her to take, and she did with a grateful smile. Though it was not a real sword with a sharp enough point to slice skin, it felt good to have the added weight in her grasp once again.

"I can't have you cutting up my handsome face, my lady. You understand," Suigetsu commented as he watched her inspection of the practice weapon now in her grasp.

"Of course," she replied with a small smile as moved the item in her hand, familiarizing herself with its weight. "I would not want to damage your abilities to charm the skirts off of Suna's women."

His laugh was heartier as it escaped his lips this time. Obviously amused by her lack of filter in terms of speaking. He watched as she followed the movements of her sword with graceful feet. "You insinuate I wish to charm only the women of Suna, my lady."

"You insinuate he can charm any women at all," a new voice spoke entering the practice field. Their attention turned to the young Uchiha lord and he held high shoulders making his entrance. She noted that he walked like his uncle and his cousin, yet his stride was still unique to himself. His held an air of arrogance, but still provided to be stiffer than his soft spoken sibling. He had dressed himself in a dark navy practice tunic and charcoal cured pants. His sword was already strapped to his waist, but he quickly took notice of the lack of real metal weapons on the training field. Placing it in a sword rack gracing the entrance to the practice arena, he grasped a practice weapon and met them in stride.

Suigetsu scoffed before placing a hand across his chest and giving the lord a short bow. "Lord Sasuke," he greeted before rising and giving a defeated huff at his new rival. "Words such as those will allow Lady Sakura to believe I'm cold between the sheets."

The look the crossed the dark hair male's face was humorous to witness, showing shock and annoyance in the same instance. Sakura let out a light laugh before she could stop herself. Not only at Suigetsu's comment, but Sasuke's reaction. Sasuke spared a glance in her direction at the sound of her melodious laugh, glancing over her appearance before turning back to the assistant captain with a mild glare.

"I have no desire to know of your activity between the sheets, cold or not. Are we going to spar, or will you continue to bore us with your shortcomings?"

"Don't be too hard on him, my lord," Sakura defended as she stepped closer to the middle of the ring, next to the two men. "One can appreciate a man with a sense of humor."

The young lord let out a small scoff at her comment, "You may be the only one."

"Which may be why I carry myself without a stick shoved up my ass," Sakura commented lightly under her breath as she turned away to complete some warm-up moves before the spar.

Suigetsu lost himself and doubled over with laughter, needing to wipe away some tears from the corners of his eyes. Sasuke, on the other hand, proved to be completely unamused by the additional commentary. "If you're finished wasting your time as well as mine, let's get this over with."

She turned back to him with a challenging smile, her pink locks following behind her in the wind as she took her fighting stance. As the two men watched her take her stance, it looked as though she belonged on the battlefield. Suigetsu stepped up first, knowing that Sasuke would want his chance to watch her skills before he engaged her in a spar. He also wanted proof that she even knew how to fight. "Come at me whenever you're ready, my lady."

Her smile turned into a smirk as she narrowed in on Suigetsu's lithe form. She knew he would underestimate what she was actually capable of, and she decided she would use it in her advantage. She pressed her left foot into the ground, giving leverage to her sped as she sped towards him. Her right arm held her sword as she placed her left at her back so it wouldn't get in her way. She swiped lower than Suigetsu thought she could, providing that he had to block quicker than he was expecting. Pulling out of the block against his own weapon, she swiped again and again. She watched shock flicker through the swordsman's eyes as she continued her strikes, blocking each time. She had more skill than he believed.

"Take me seriously, Suigetsu," she spoke, her tone sounding as a command as it passed her lips. "Treat me like you would any other man who asked you to spar. Treat me like an equal."

Suigetsu seemed to realize his mistake in treating her like a proper lady on the battlefield, for she was certainly more skilled than that. Guest of the king or not. Lady of Konoha or not. She deserved to be met at her full potential. He sent her a small smirk, purple eyes darkening slightly at the prospect of a challenge. "Very well, my lady."

He came back at her with speed rivaling her own as he sent his weapon in her direction. She dodged when she had to and defended when she didn't. He was not holding back, and she knew she would be sore once they were finished, but she let that exhilaration fuel her fire as she came back with the same amount of intensity.

Sasuke watched carefully each move the Konoha Princess made as she sparred with the mist native fighter. She was fairing much better than he had hoped she would. When he offered to test her abilities, he had hoped she would be all talk so that when he proved she was weak, she would understand it. But now, she was proving that she was more of a puzzle than he thought. Perhaps he should take her more seriously as well.

Suigetsu pulled a fast slash towards her with momentum behind his strike. Seeing the move coming, Sakura used her speed to dodge to one side and her free hand to grasp the loose material of his standard guard tunic, pulling him forwards. His violet eyes widened at the unexpected move before he attempted to twist his body out of her seemingly delicate grasp. He was surprised when her so called delicate hold wasn't so delicate and the force of her hold pulled him back to their close battle. He dared a glance at her features and saw the determination in her eyes and small bit of triumph in her smile.

Her move was enough to grant her with the advantage of battle, and while Suigetsu tried to regain his footing from her brisk tug, Sakura had her practice weapon placed at his neck.

"That was a dirty move, my lady," Suigetsu panted as he felt the material of the practice blade at his neck. He looked up to see her smile change to a smirk as she let out a light laugh between her short breaths.

"You should know better than anyone that you must always be on your toes with your opponent, especially one that you severely underestimated," the pink haired victor chided as she pulled the weapon away from his neck and extended her hand in his direction.

The defeated guard took the extension of her delicate hand to pull him from the ground. He brushed the new dirt off of his uniform with his free hand, letting out a sigh in the process. The two onlookers could tell it was one of defeat.

"You let yourself be beaten by a woman," Sasuke prodded from his position at the sidelines, arrogant smirk present on his features just as whiskers were on a cat. It was if his face was designed to hold such a proud look. "A woman with pink hair."

Sakura scoffed at his blatant sexism. "As if my hair has anything to do with the way I fight. If we're playing off that note in this, perhaps you fight like a bird with the resemblance your hair holds to such."

Suigetsu found amusement to her quip, while the young lord had no such luck. He scowled at her taunt as he entered the practice arena, wooden tool in hand. "You will not have such luck against me, pink wench," Sasuke shot back with a tone pointed like his handsomely welded sword sitting on the sidelines. The weapon he truly wanted to use in his spar against her.

"Try as you might, the look in your eyes as I fought cannot deny the surprise you felt to the skills I displayed," Sakura taunted further as she removed the leather tunic jacket from her person, tossing it towards the fence where her previous opponent was heading as the next moved closer. "But I shall not pry for a compliment when I know you are incapable of them, my lord. I am ready when you are."

Sasuke gave a quiet scoff before his posture changed and he sped forward. His fighting style was much more aggressive than Suigetsu's; that much was obvious from the way he approached each strike. It helped that she had seen him fight before, taking in his moves as he fought Suigetsu at the tourney. He was a heavily offensive fighter who focused on the power of his swings, counting on his opponent to be worn out by the raw power and defeated quickly. Thankfully, Sakura prided herself on her speed and stamina. She knew her power, though surprising for someone of her size and stature, would never compare to Sasuke's. So she would depend on her ability to defend and evade his attacks as they came.

Sasuke continued his onslaught of strikes, continuously going for her left side noting that she was dominant to her right hand. She continued to dodge away from his strikes, finding no need to defend when she could move her body out of the way fast enough. As Suigetsu watched from the edge, he felt as though Sakura was dancing around Sasuke, not fighting him. And it was beautiful.

"How typical of a woman to avoid the fight. I thought you wished to be taken earnestly as a fighter, but this is not far from pitiable." Sasuke was trying to ignite the temper he was aware that she possessed, but instead of an outburst, the pink haired noble simply smirked as she continued her dance away from his strikes.

"For a decorated fighter, you have much to learn, Sasuke," she challenged with his first name as she faked a sweep towards him with her sword successfully catching his attention before sweeping low with her left foot. It caused him to step back and give her the opportunity to send in a powerful blow of her own. He moved quickly to block it, but with his distraction she was able to turn her body for another quick strike. With her speed, she gained the upper hand enough to be the one swinging on the offensive.

It surprised Sasuke, just as much as it surprised the new audience members surrounding the practice field, that such a fighter could gain the advantage.

Sweat beaded across Sakura's forehead as she continued her swings. The Suna heat was taking a toll on her body, but she would not stop. She would prove herself a worthy adversary in the game for her life.

"My lords," Suigetsu greeted the new company with a low bow before he saluted his captain, whom was in the new party.

"Seems that she is holding her own just fine, yeah," Deidara commented as he leaned his elbows against the outlying barrier and gazed upon the spar. He watched as she procured a particularly powerful swipe that had Sasuke pressing harder to hold his ground. His eyes lit up like fire taking over the wick of a candle. "More than fine."

"Certainly not a princess that takes her position lightly," Kisame added with muscled arms crossing his chest as he watched her skilled movements. He turned to his second in command, "How long have they been at this?"

"A respectable amount of time, Captain," the purple eyed guard answered back. "And this is after she warmed up against me."

Kisame couldn't prevent the pointed smirk that crossed his mouth. "I take it from your position amongst the sidelines that you lost?"

"She is more skilled than I anticipated, sir," Suigetsu grumbled quietly to his superior.

"It appears that she may not be as skilled as the young Uchiha though, yeah," Deidara added as he called attention back to the ring where Sasuke took advantage of a slightly slower strike Sakura had sent his way. He was now back on the offensive. And he looked far from pleased.

"You have the audacity to tell me what I have to learn when you are fighting a losing battle?!" Sasuke yelled over the clashing of their earth based weapons. His strikes kept coming down hard, as did his words. "A useless wench has no right to tell me what I should learn when she needs to learn her own place in this world! It seems someone had the right idea of showing you your worth when they gave you those bruises around your neck, little princess. Your place is at man's feet or warming their bed like the whore you are. In fact, if you get down on your knees and beg, perhaps that's where I shall take you."

The spark had caught, and now the fire would burn brightly.

The next blow the young Uchiha swung towards his opponent was blocked with such force that it pushed his feet back through the gravel. His movement shifted the balance in power and now he was being pelted with blow after blow from the young Haruno princess.

"And who are you to tell me who I am, you craven little Uchiha bastard?! You think that just because your title is handed to you on a platter crested with rubies, that you are better than the rest?" Her heated temper aided in ignoring the soreness in her muscles, the fatigue that seeped into her bones, and the sun that scorched down into her pale skin. Sweat matted pink locks to her forehead and the skin at the back of her neck. Her breaths were deep and heavy, yet still powerful. The emotional dam that had built up since her arrival in the capital was now shattered, and the young Uchiha would feel her wrath.

"You know not of the true hardships of this world, as your virgin eyes have been shielded through the course of your pathetic life! What do you know of betrayal? Have you experienced the loss of those closest to you?! You know nothing of what plagues this country and kills hundreds, perhaps thousands, of innocents' every day!" Her swings were unrelenting as her spark continued to burn freely through her emerald eyes seeming as they were trying to light Sasuke aflame with will alone. Tears welled in her eyes without her knowledge and tricked down her cheeks as she continued to fight. "You are a spoiled little brat who does what he is told and questions nothing. You roll over and take your orders like a dog without questioning what is right or wrong. You are pathetic, Sasuke Uchiha, and I pity those whom call you their lord or leader! For someone with lowly views, such as your own, does not deserve the luxuries they have been gifted with."

Her leg raised in a kick that made his jump back in avoidance. Noting that he had moved back, she threw her practice weapon to the ground and met Sasuke's eyes as she moved to walk passed him to the arena exit. "This battle is over."

Sasuke's free hand shot out to grab her wrist as she passed, pulling her back to him. She noted that his normally dark eyes were flecked with red, showing his true emotion. "We are not finished," his deep baritone sounded as he clenched the practice tool tightly in his opposite hand.

Her eyes narrowed sharply as she took advantage of Sasuke's occupied attention. Her fist reeled back and struck the young Uchiha square in the jaw, sending him back in pain. "We are finished, Lord Sasuke."

Not looking back at the freshly damaged Uchiha, she made her way towards Suigetsu who was now holding her previously discarded jacket. Her eyes met his where she could clearly see apathy alongside appraisal. She spoke his name aloud in thanks and acknowledgment before she left the area, not bothering to waste time with the other arrivals. They had seen more than enough already.

Once Sakura was out of earshot, Deidara let out a gleeful chuckle as he watched the Uchiha lord rub the damaged portion of his face. "That's quite the accessory you'll be wearing to the occasion tonight, little Sasuke."

"Shut up," he shot back.

"You must know that you deserved that, yeah," Deidara added as he ran a hand through his blonde locks before turning to exit with a smirk across his features. "At least that makes one less in the chance for her affections. That performance sure as hell knocked your royal ass out of the running, yeah."

"Shut your mouth before I cut out your tongue."

Deidara chucked once more, "Let us see if you can, young Uchiha."

-xxx-

By the time evening fell across the Suna sky, Sakura had already bathed and readied herself for the celebration in Madara's honor. Thankfully no dresses were gifted to her on this occasion, but she was requested to wear something that wouldn't draw so much attention to her newest lacerations. She had taken the chance to reapply Itachi's miracle salve, but her bruises were still prominent to the eye.

So instead of standing down and following orders, the young princess decided to play on the master of coin's previous words. She would cover her new designs; but in her own way.

She had decided upon a formal gown with a deep set neckline and full length sleeve that came to hang low around her wrists, as was popular to the woman of her native country. The dress clipped in to accentuate how small her waist was until it flared out at her feet. The color was a deep forest green that accented her pastel locks and lightly sun-kissed skin. She decided that her method of covering her blemished neck would be to cover it. So she decided to cover it with the largest piece of jewelry she brought with her, which happened to be a silver crested necklace with large amethyst gems decorating it. The piece clasped snuggly around her neck just barely covering her bruises. If looking close enough, there would be no mistaking the discoloring of her neck for anything but what it was.

Her hair was lightly curled as it displayed its color proudly against the dark color of her dress while smaller sections were pulled back and clipped away at the base of her skull.

She knew the party would be a lavish affair. All those in the city of high enough ranking to attend, would attend. All of the strongest game pieces would be in attendance, including the king. Part of her wished to fake feeling faint so she would not be required to attend, but the more stubborn part of her knew she should go to show now weakness. And she also wanted to flaunt her covering technique to Kakuzu, just for the smug satisfaction of it all.

A knock at her door signaled that her escort had arrived. Making her way towards the entrance, she opened the door to reveal Ame's leader standing with statuesque posture on the other side.

"Good evening, my lady. You look divine." His tone was deep, as she'd grown accustomed to as she listened to him speak during her time in the desert.

"Thank you, my lord. Your words are too kind," she replied sweetly, as she took the arm he held out to her. They made their way towards the grand hall, and she knew he wanted to speak to her about something, but was choosing not to do so.

"Say what you need to, my lord. Though I have a feeling it regards to how I hold myself tonight."

She caught the faintest of smirks tugging at his lips, but it was gone as quickly as it came. "This is a rare opportunity, my lady. Though this dinner is meant for Madara, all eyes will be on you."

"How lucky for me," Sakura drawled lowly with sarcastic undertone.

"Madara is a very powerful man. Enemy or friend, you should prefer the latter."

"Though it is likely to cost me," she finished for him as they made the last turn before they were to reach the hall. "Which I am still debating the worth of this friendship."

"A man like Madara could have you out of the city by tomorrow," Pein contended, though he kept his tone light to play the devil's advocate. She needed to see all sides, which she knew all too well.

"He could take me out of this city just to lock me in his own. I do not gain freedom from his friendship," Sakura shot back as she paused in her steps, pulling him to a halt with her.

"His price could be much higher than your freedom," Pein furthered as he stared down at her from his higher vantage point. "You must be prepared for all possibilities."

"And what good is your council when you speak in riddles?" Sakura questioned sharply. Her temper was starting to resurface, even after she thought she calmed herself when encountering the youngest Uchiha. "Council me in fairness and not from all possible advocates, my lord. I do not have the time to decipher each of your words with a fine toothed comb."

His smirk seemed to barely resurface at the presence of her temper. "An opponent must know all possible moves before making their own, Lady Sakura. Surely good council should be able to provide such."

She let out a short breath and averted her attention, knowing he was right. She felt his hand reach out to grasp her chin, pulling back her attention. "This is the chance to earn more pieces, even if they aren't Madara. There is already a rivalry for your attention. Use it in your favor."

She hummed at his answer before her lips pulled into a small smirk of her own. "A straightforward answer," she mused before she pulled away. Their steps continued as they entered the more civil of the fighting pits. Sakura felt just a sliver safer doing so at the side of Ame's feared leader. Sometimes playing your strongest pieces first was bold enough to work in your favor.

-xxx-

Author's Note: I'm not dead. Hello. I've been having serious writer's block, not just with this story but with all of them. And being a teacher does not give you the luxury of much free time. I've finally broke through with this one, though I wanted to go a bit further. The next chapter will be the celebration in Madara's honor, and there will be plenty of interactions galore.

This chapter gives us a big scene with Sasuke. Oh, Sasuke. I feel like that was all much deserved. He's kind of an ass. Actually, not kind of. He is. I also enjoyed writing Suigetsu's sense of humor. He is an underappreciated character. The next chapter will contain almost every character we've met so far, minus our friends from Konoha and probably Zabuza. But don't worry, he shall make his eventual return.

Thank you again for the continued support, even when my life is so hectic and ever changing. Your reviews and words of support, even after such long periods of time, are what help bring back my inspiration to write. I hope to have another chapter out for another story soon. And if there is anything you would like to see in this story, or any other story, please share your ideas with me. It's always nice to have another perspective and fresh ideas to help move mine along. Ciao for now, friends.