"Damn…what am I doing here anyway?" He sank down the grassy ground separating the solid garden ground from the near-frozen lake of the palace back garden. The icy water had begun to affect his nerves already—he was beginning to feel numb all over.
Cursing under his breath, he lifted his legs from the water and lied down the grass, exhaling heavily.
This was the last place where he should be—he, the young ruler of the most powerful kingdom in the continent—but here he was, chilling himself to death for something as stupid as…
He shut his eyes, and the events that took place awhile ago replayed in his mind…
This sidestory of TFTP I lovingly dedicate to Jiri-chan. Thank you for inspiring me since the beginning of TFTP, and for being so encouraging. Happy Birthday!
Nine-year-old Uchiha Sasuke groaned in exasperation for the eighteenth time since he and his classmates left the classroom to do some gardening under Starlet Asuma-sensei. Lady Ino had "accidentally" tripped on his path for the nineteenth time. At first, he thought it was just inadvertent show of clumsiness, but really now, they were already treading on smooth, well-cemented catwalk, and it was getting very stupid already. It was either her feet rebelled against her by turning into leftists, or her motor skills weren't polished well enough by her toddler years.
He was giving that point some thought when he heard an audible snort behind him.
Haruno Sakura crossed her arms in front of her chest. "Hah! So the pig cannot walk straight today eh?"
Yamanaka Ino merely flipped her hair behind her shoulder and got up. Ignoring the reluctant hand that Nara Shikamaru offered her way, she placed her hands on her hips. "I'm feeling kind of dizzy today…" She turned to the prince, and then rubbed her temples. "In fact, I think I'm going to…" She swayed once more, making him sigh once more.
"Lady Yamanaka," he muttered in his most controlled voice. "If you are not feeling well today, then you must approach Asuma-sensei and inform him of your condition. Do not push yourself."
Immediately, her eyes shone with happiness, and he immediately regretted being too soft on the lass. The girl shook her head. "Ah, Your Highness, your OVERFLOWING concern for me is overwhelming but…"
He gaped at her blankly.
"…I must go on and continue with my pursuit for education!" She smirked at the other court lady. "After all, the future queen of the palace must be intelligent enough to support the future king of Leaf!"
"Why you—" The next thing he felt was the steaming Lady Haruno walking past him and facing her former best friend, hands on her hips too. "If Sasuke-kun needs brains, then he won't make use of yours, Ino dear." She grinned mockingly. "Confidentially, between my grades and yours…"
"Grades aren't everything!" retorted Ino, smirking back. "Grades won't help you decide when the welfare of the Konoha people is at stake."
"They may not be everything, but they spell majority!" The cherry blossom's eyes flashed. By the look on her face, losing to this girl was the last thing on her mind. "How can you decide on laws when you do not understand the situation of the population and resources of the kingdom?"
Ino's cheeks flushed, and then turned to Shikamaru for help.
"This sucks," muttered the butler, scratching his head. "Lady Haruno, the queen's decision will still be influenced by the grand council of the Starlets, so getting the highest grades in class will not assure you of the sure seat beside the prince."
Sakura paused, and then rolled her eyes. "Ino, you are such a pig! Can't you fight your own battles?"
"My battles are his too," said the Yamanaka flower, somewhat proudly. "Just admit it…you lost!"
"I lost to Shikamaru, not to you!"
"Shika works for me…"
"No, he does not! He works for your father!"
"He's my butler."
"Fighting for you is NOT a butler's job!"
"What do you care? You're not the one paying him…" Ino stuck her tongue out.
"You're not the one paying him either!" Sakura stuck her tongue out back at her.
Making Sasuke groan in irritation once more. This was one of the problems of being near girls—the world could become so small when they start talking.
"Hmp!" The two turned their backs at each other, signaling yet another of the unresolved conclusions of these ridiculous schoolgirl quarrels.
There were times that he felt he had something to do with these trivialities too. When the news broke out that the Starlet Council was looking for the proper queen for him, all hell broke loose among the female population of the kingdom, or so Kakashi described.
"Sasuke, you should have seen the swarm of women who went to the palace gates to inquire about the mechanics," narrated Kakashi in one of their breaks from their chakra trainings. Hatake Kakashi, in his early twenties, previously sounded like a bad joke to him when they were first introduced to each other as guardian and student, but he had later on respected the man in silence after he had shown to him the extent of his skills. But that didn't change the fact that he was perverted, annoyingly smart-alecky, and could outdo even the devil in vexing marathons.
Proof for that was this situation now, where in his usual backhanded way, he was mocking his sorry state of affairs.
"Women of all ages were there…I even saw Kiba's mother there!" continued Kakashi, cheerfully wagging his book…that damn For Mature Readers only book.
"Kiba's mother is the head of the front gates security," he reminded the Starlet dryly.
"Oh…right. Hey, I also remember seeing the widow of one of the earls in court!"
"Get real, Kakashi." He mechanically sipped his ice-cold water, quietly counting to ten. Their break was taking too long—he had to get strong FAST.
"I heard the Lord Haruno had made his daughter apply for the position too."
For some reason, this caught his usually Olympic gold-elusive attention. Among the many people in the palace, this was one person that he actually bothered to remember the name.
"W-Well, you can't have it! Get your own name!"
"Your face changed," remarked the Starlet, who was obviously watching for his reaction.
"Did it morph into something like yours? My heart bleeds," he retorted.
"Nah. Still the pretty boy face those girls swoon and drool readily for. That's why Hyuuga Neji hates you so much." The Starlet chuckled some more. "Anyway, am I right to infer that you and the young lady Haruno had previously met?"
"Even if I tell you that you're wrong, you would refuse to listen anyway," the boy said warily, giving his guardian an I-know-you-damn-well look.
"Because even if you lie shamelessly, I would still see through you," smiled Kakashi, giving him his You're-not-the-only-one look.
"If it would satisfy your pregnant lady's curiosity, then fine, we had met," he snapped.
Triumphant smile from the Starlet. "How often?"
"We HAD met."
"WE HAD MET."
"Thrice." A sigh of defeat escaped him. "Kakashi, drop it. I've rested way too long. My chakra is starting to revert to its sleeping state!"
"…ne, Your Highness?" Ino's cheerful smile was pasted on her face, making him blink. In the end, he just nodded so the people around him wouldn't ask why he was in a daze awhile ago. If there was something he hated more than noisy schoolgirl bickering, it was unnecessary questions.
"YAY! He agreed to be my escort for my birthday party!!!" Ino beamed at the fuming Sakura once more gloatingly. "Hah!"
Kakashi advised him that if he couldn't enjoy the situation he was in –being fought on by women—he should just ignore it. But it was getting more difficult everyday, since he was starting to feel like a toy of possession already. Whoever gets him gets the glory.
Damn, and Kakashi even thought of telling him to enjoy this demigod pedestal?
On second thought, the Yamanaka court lady did look very happy when he said yes…
He groaned – he had lost track of how many times he had do so already--, feeling guilt seep into his system. Was he that unfeeling to deprive anyone of that kind of joy he could see in her face by being selfish with his presence?
Finally, he decided that it wouldn't be that bad to stand the Yamanaka court lady's asphyxiating company even if only for her birthday.
He stole a furtive glance at the pink-haired court lady. The girl's eyes were wide with surprise and hurt, but in a flash, they were replaced by her haughty emerald mask.
"Ino-chan, Sasuke-kun only pities you, that's why he did that." She placed her hands behind her. "He turned me down back then because he knows that many men wants to dance with me in the party."
Oh yes, the court lady Haruno had once tried to ask him to escort her in her ninth birthday party. He only gave her a flat denial, and he refused to give further explanations. He did not owe her one anyway—she was just a pesky noisy girl in the palace.
Since that day she publicly declared her affections for him, he suddenly felt that it had become imperative for him to avoid her, at all damn cost. Even if he had to hurt her feelings, or push her away in the most ungentlemanly manner possible, he had to maintain their distance.
She was too dangerous, simply too overwhelming. She was unafraid of consequences, and she was too carefree and high-spirited for him.
Whether he would admit it or not, it intimidated him. She was someone he never was and never could be—her courage and determination, her insurmountable fighting spirit, and her toughness. It fascinated and annoyed him at the same time.
"Whatever!" Ino waved her hand dismissively. "The important thing is, I get to dance with the prince, hmm…"
Before the verbal wrangle could further escalate into full-blown battle, Asuma-sensei had finally decided to appear in class. He was dressed in a laborer's outfit, but his trademark cigarette was still in between his lips. Upon sensing the glare of the prince though, the man apologetically threw the cigarette into the trash can.
"We'll be working on the plots by partners. I had drew up a list last meeting…"
"Waiii!!!" The Yamanaka court lady squealed happily. "I want to be in the same team with you, Your Highness!"
His face darkened. Fate did not dare deem him THAT indestructible, did it?
"Earl Hyuuga Neji and Mage Tenten…"
A chorus of colorful protests from the two, but Asuma had moved on to the next partners. "Lady Yamanaka and Earl Rock Lee…"
Sakura suddenly leapt happily. "Which leaves me and Sasu—His Highness!!!"
Ino was not too jovial. "Wait, wait, Asuma-sensei!" She raised her hand and waved it frantically. "Asuma-sensei, that's unfair!!!"
"Let's just get this over with," he muttered, just so the two would not start another shouting match. He had enough headaches to last him several lifetimes.
But damn him and his sharp Uchiha senses, for he heard the almost inaudible gasp from the Haruno small lady. He did not like the tug it did within him, so he quickly shifted his attention to the garden plots they would be tending. Endless patches of green leafy ones. Geez.
He could not understand the philosophy of Anko-sama for letting him study along with the non-royal blood members of the palace, which included him having to work in the gardens forcibly for grades, but he respected the senior Starlet as much as he did with his deceased mother, so he went along with her idea.
"Go to your assigned areas now," ordered Asuma. "I will be back to check your progress in an hour."
As soon as the teacher disappeared, everyone had drifted into groups already.
His eyes went to the first pair.
"We're doing it this way, Earl Hyuuga Neji. It's what the book says!" Mage Tenten, infuriated this early in the labor.
"I've personally planted in the garden of the Hyuuga Main Family. The book is wrong." Earl Neji, calm at first glance, but his sharingan could easily expose the volcano threatening to explode within him.
His eyes roved towards the other pair.
"Rock Lee, we're doing this MY way, understand?"
"I suppose…" The taijutsu genius scratched his head. "So how do we start…"
Ino blinked and then turned to her butler. "Shikamaru, a little help here please…"
"Sasuke-kun, let's start?"
He turned to Sakura, eyeing her blankly. "Don't get in my way."
She blushed, and then laughed uncomfortably. "O-Of course not! Ahahaha!!!"
They both picked up their gardening tools quietly, with the Haruno court lady surprisingly silent now. She began to dig out the weeds surrounding the plants. The prince, on the other hand, looked helplessly at the tools beside them, wondering what to do with each. It stunned him when he saw the court lady using the gardening tools with such ease, considering that as an only child of the Haruno court, she was not responsible of learning these things anymore. Not to mention that her grades in written exams could easily exempt her from these kinds of activities…
"Daijoubu ka, Sasuke-kun?" came her whisper, jolting him back to earth.
"Mind your own business," he hissed, and then picked up one tool that looked like a huge pair of scissors. He could only imagine what this instrument was for.
"You use that when you cut the branches or leaves that are strangling most of the plant already." She looked at the shears, and then smiled sadly. "This is the most difficult gardening tool I have to use."
He didn't say anything, but she went on.
"With that, you have to cut away a part of the plant in order for it to continue surviving," she explained. "It pains me, especially when I see how beautiful the blooms are." She cupped her cheeks, uncaring whether mud was smearing on her face. "Those wild flower envelope the real plant with the intention to shield it from the dangers of too much sun or wind…it didn't mean to be in the way of the plant to survive…"
"You're just making a fuss out of it," he shrugged.
Her eyes remained on the shears. "Sasuke-kun…I don't mean to be in your way every time…" she murmured slowly. "It's just that…" She looked up, beaming shyly. "…I like you so much, and you only deserve the best love anyone could give. I know I'm the only one who could do that."
If it was her outspokenness or the tremendous conviction of her words for someone her age, he didn't know. All he knew was he was rendered speechless by this girl for a few moments, causing his alarm bells to ring one second too late.
"Heh." He turned away at last. "The future queen of the kingdom does not speak of abstract ideas such as love. She speaks support for her husband, but never emotions."
Her joyous facial expression was dampened. "I'm…I'm going to be a queen not because of the title…but because I want to be by your side," she said softly.
"I do not need a wife who will stay by my side. I need a queen who will stay back so my ruling will be proper." He shifted his eyes towards the sky. "The queen is only needed for formality's sake, but if I can have things my way, I don't need anyone else but myself."
He looked up, puzzled.
She turned to him, undaunted, as evident by the fire blazing in her jade orbs. "You are not the Sasuke-kun I know."
"What are you talking about?"
She nodded. "I can determine the real Sasuke-kun…the kind boy who taught me what chakra control is for the very first time, and that thunder is nothing to be feared. He is not you, mister!"
"Ridiculous," he muttered.
"Even if I have to wait all my life, I will. He is my destiny, and the stranger before me can't stop me." She smiled—the confident smile he knew so well. It was her smile when she leapt down the tree using chakra for the very first time, and the smile she wore when she announced on the eve of his ninth birthday that she would be his future queen, by hook or by crook.
"I will bring back my Sasuke-kun!" she vowed, her eyes reflecting the strength of the promise. And he had to admit—he was a bit affected by the tenacity of her words. It almost sounded like a prophecy only bidding its time before its actual revelation. It was scary indeed, an open future waiting to materialize, irregardless of protests and objections.
Will she really…? He gazed at her for some more moments, and then shrugged. "Whatever you say."
They both were silent for the next fifteen minutes, with the court lady finishing the garden chore for both of them, and he making meaningless patterns and mini-crop circles on the ground. Behind him, he could still hear the debates of Earl Hyuuga and the sorceress, which had breached the topic of gardening and had now came across the basic rights of a peasant in court trials. On the other hand, Shikamaru, along with a stream of complaints and mutters, had finished the chore for his mistress.
"Finished," said Sakura quietly. "Ne, Sasuke-kun, I'll just wash my hands…"
"Why are you telling me? I'm not carrying the water," he snapped.
She shrugged, and then headed for the irrigation duct. Water flowing through the gardens of the palace would pass here and end up in the mini-lake of the flower garden, where water lilies float gracefully above the icy thin sheets of water.
He sat down for awhile, composing himself. He was just getting awfully jumpy, right. After all, he was soon to take full rein over the affairs of the Hidden Leaf palace. It would only be a matter of time…he just had to graduate in the academy, and he could then fully utilize his position as the highest lord of the Leaf palace.
It wasn't his fault that Lady Haruno's viewpoint on the queen's throne was too romantic.
His thoughts were disrupted by the sudden scream, and then the giant splash of water. More screams followed.
"What the hell—" He approached his classmates and peered at the scene.
Ino turned to him briefly. "Your Highness, Sakura was washing her hands in the pool when the ring her father gave her slipped and sank down. Lee jumped into the water to retrieve it."
Sakura was hovering over the edge of the lake, near to tears. "Lee, come out of there! It's way too cold! You'll freeze to death!!! Lee!!!"
Tenten, on the other hand, was crouching by the water, groaning. "Hey Lee, you don't have to come out so soon. You'll just be facing hypothermia and frostbite anyway. Not much to worry about."
Sakura faced the mage, outraged. "You're encouraging him!"
To this, the sorceress rolled her eyes. "Ever heard of reverse psychology, Lady Haruno? By asking him to stop what he's doing, he's only getting more motivation. The forbidden always prevails over any man's will."
Neji coughed. "There you go again, witch, making baseless generalizations…"
"On the contrary, I based my findings on you."
"You need some more practice with your research then." He smirked. "How will you get to examine me as the representation of men if you are too safely far away from me?"
Her eleven years multiplied by two experience-wise shone in her wary eyes. "My definition of safe distance equates to my desire to preserve my sanity."
Sakura stomped her feet. "Stop it, you two! Stop Lee now!" She cupped her hands and yelled at the lake. "Lee, don't look for my ring anymore! I-I can explain to Papa what happened…Lee!!!"
Tenten shrugged. "The chill of the water might have been too much for him. He could have drowned already, that moron."
"Don't say that!" she exclaimed, tears filling her eyes. She searched her classmates' faces for anyone who would help her. Then her gaze landed on him pleadingly.
Damn…and he was feeling it again…that annoying tug in a part of him he refuses to acknowledge…something only this girl could elicit from the depths he himself could not gauge.
But before he could act, Lee's familiar face bobbed up the water. "L-Lady…L-Lady Ha…Haruno…" His teeth were chattering.
Sakura covered her mouth with her hands, yet her sobs couldn't be stifled. "That is so…incredibly stupid of you…"
"If that's your way of saying thanks to his martyrdom, then you're welcome, Lady Haruno!" Tenten rolled her eyes at the court lady, and then took off her own winter jacket and offhandedly walked down the icy water to help the numb earl up. "And you, piece of moronic IQ in the flesh, we have to talk."
"Ssh. Stop talking. You're making my name sound awful." Despite her attempt to sound cool and casual, relief was undeniable in her eyes upon seeing that he was safe.
The earl flicked a wet strand of hair behind his ear and sadly bowed his head. "S-So…s-sor…ry…I-I promised…to g-get t-the…ring…d-don't…c-cry…p-please…"
She shook her head, wiping a tear that had finally dropped down her cheek. "N-No, don't worry, Lee. I-I…want you to get rest…"
He nodded shakily, before he was pulled gently by Tenten. Neji, who was watching the scene, paused, and then followed the two.
Just then, Asuma arrived, whistling. When he saw his class by the lake, he jogged towards them. "Hey, what happened?"
Shikamaru was the first one to speak. "You were in Kurenai-san's class again, weren't you?"
"Ahahaha…" Asuma sweatdropped. "Uh, well enough about me. So what happened?"
He received looks of disbelief from the whole class.
The sharp gust of cold wind and slap of cold ripples from the lake woke him up. Groaning, he got up and looked at the sky. He had sneaked out of the bedroom chambers some time after the clock struck midnight. It was now near the break of dawn, as evident by the movements of the birds.
Until now, he couldn't find that damn ring that the girl lost.
In the first place, why ever did he think of going here anyway? At best, he had only twenty percent of success in finding an article as small as that piece of jewelry. His only hope was it fell down in an enclosed body of water, and it couldn't go anywhere but sink down.
Nothing as insignificant as an ornament could humiliate his sharingan, and if Earl Rock Lee was too weak for the challenge…he couldn't do anything about that.
But he was already tired—hours of exposure in chill had weakened his chakra reserve considerably. Apparently, the stamina he was inwardly proud of was still no match against Mother Nature.
He had to do something about that.
He jumped, startled. He wasn't counting on someone walking into him in this situation!
"W-What are you doing here?" Sakura's eyes were wide in surprise. "A-And you're so…drenched." She knelt down beside him, losing her court lady aura and absent-mindedly sitting down the grassy field beside him. "Sasuke-kun…"
He immediately got up. "It's not your ring."
"It's not?" she asked.
"It's not," he repeated, teeth gritted. "Good day, Lady Haruno."
"T-Then what were you doing here?" she asked, a hint of smile on her face. It took him all of his self-control not to snap at her and tell her to wipe that silly smile off her face.
"Training." The word intended to conclude their exchange. He had to hurry back to his bed—the worst case scenario was Kakashi seeing him and coming up with all those dumb double-entendre questions.
He didn't turn around, but he paused.
"Arigatou…Papa did not scold me…"
He looked down. "I see…" That was one of the small reasons he had for venturing into the dark to look for the ring. He heard about what happened to her after she tried to run away from the palace. He may not approve of her aggressiveness, but he didn't want to imagine her getting hurt again.
"Besides, when we grow up, you'll give me my own ring too. The most beautiful one, in fact, because with it, you'll finally accept that I am your destiny too," she said slowly, a smile spreading on her face. "Sasuke-kun, we're meant to be. Someday, you'll understand that."
"Hmp." He could only shake his head at that moment. It was funny but awhile ago, when she declared that he was doomed to end up with her no matter what…
…it made the uncertain future a bit more concrete.
For some reason, that made him smile a bit.