"Ladies and gentlemen, Sunakagure has won the City Championships!" the man on the loudspeaker announced. The nearly empty stadium groaned. The few people who had come to watch packed up their few belongings and headed for the exits.
Sakura grabbed her towel and mopped her wet brow. Next to her, the forward Ino wrapped her own towel around her neck and tipped her head back, pouring water into her parched throat. All down the bench, the rest of the Konoha girl's basketball team finished putting their belongings in their duffel bags. Sakura sat down and pulled off her basketball shoes, tying on her sneakers.
"Ladies, ladies, I know it's a harsh loss," Anko, the coach, said consolingly, "but at least we made it this far, eh?"
"Yeah, and Suna gets to go to districts," Ino muttered to her teammate. Sakura was burning with anger. The score still glared on the timeboard: 27 to 29. She had been going for that 3-pointer at the last second, and had missed. She glared at the offending net.
"Hey, pinky! Too bad you can't make an outside shot to save your life!" Temari, one of the girls on the opposing team, taunted as she passed their bench. Her friend sneered.
"Yeah! Were you trying to shoot from the 3-point or halfcourt?" Laughing, the victorious Suna team strolled away.
"Ignore her," Tenten gritted out through clenched teeth. She was the center on the starting line-up. Of all the players on the Konoha team, there were five main players. Sakura Haruno was the point guard, Aya the second guard, Tenten the center, Ino Yamanaka and Hinata Hyuuga the forwards or posts. They had played a tough game against Suna and lost.
"See you girls next season!" Anko called as the girls filtered away. Tenten stopped and looked up at the stadium.
"Man! It was almost empty! The guys get such huge audiences for their games."
"Yeah, and their season hasn't even started yet," Ino retorted. Sakura sighed.
"Man, I hate only playing in the summer and fall. I want to play in the winter."
"There's not a lot of girl's leagues open in the winter," Aya said sadly. "I've tried. They're all booked with Sunans and Iwakagurans. You can't get in, even with extra fee."
Sakura smacked her fist against her palm. "It isn't right! I'm going to find a way to play this winter, trust me."
Sakura opened the kitchen door to find her mom crying.
"Mom! What is it?" Sakura asked, banging down her stuff. Her mom wiped her eyes.
"Oh, just thinking about your poor father. He always wanted your brother to go to Firestone Academy, you know. But the tuition's not free, and I can't get a discount anywhere!"
Sakura looked up at the photo of her dad hanging on the wall. Saki Haruno had been one of basketball's greatest stars, the point guard for Konoha's Fire Ninja. He had been unstoppable, and when he had been forced to retire because of lung cancer, he had taught his young Sakura everything he knew. Unfortunately, he had died before seeing her play a single game. A tear came to Sakura's eye, but she brushed it away.
"Mom, it's OK. We'll figure out how to get otoutou into Firestone."
"I checked on the Internet," her mom said, blotting her eyes with a hanky. "It said that if an older sibling already went to Firestone High, both siblings would receive a discount."
"So the more you send to Firestone High, the less tuition it is?" Sakura asked. Her mom nodded.
"Yep. But you know Firestone: it's an all boys' part-time residential school. You live there during the week, and go home over the weekends. It's all the way across town."
An idea suddenly clicked into Sakura's head.
"Mom! What if I pretended to be a guy and got Damien into Firestone?"
Her mom looked up. "You would enroll as Damien's older sibling to get the discount?"
"Why not?" Sakura babbled. "If we enroll under a different last name and change my appearance a little, no one would know."
"Well…" her mom looked doubtful. "I could get you a wig from the store, I suppose…"
Sakura's mom worked at a beauty salon and store, with a 15 employee discount.
"If I keep my head down and act smart," Sakura argued, "Damien'll have the time of his life, and you'll be fulfilling Dad's wish!"
"I don't like the idea of you living in a dorm with a bunch of guys very much," her mother insisted. Sakura sighed.
"Mom, I'm a basketball player. I think I can take care of myself."
It was true: Sakura's arms were strong from the exercise of shooting a ball a hundred times a day.
"They have a roommating system," her mom pointed out. "You'd be stuck with at least one guy."
"They give us separate beds, right?"
"Mom, don't you trust me?" Sakura wheedled. She played her final card. "It's for Dad!"
Her mother sighed. "Alright. If you're comfortable and sure about doing this, I'll enroll both of you."
Sakura nodded firmly. Her mother shuffled through the papers and picked up a pen.
"We'll enroll you as Damien and…" she looked up at Sakura expectantly. Sakura gave the first name that came to mind.
"Sakumo," she said. Her mother raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
"Sakumo and Damien Hayaro," she continued. "Does that sound OK?"
"Sounds great," Sakura said, looking in the mirror and tugging on one short pink lock. "Is my hair short enough to be covered by a wig?"
"Yes," her mother said without glancing up from the forms she was filling out. "I'll get you one as soon as possible."
"I'll need glasses, to make my face look different," Sakura mused. "And make-up to change my face…oh, I'm soo glad that Hinata was into stage art once, she taught me all about stage make-up."
Her mother smiled. "I'll get you the glasses and wig tonight. You'll need a uniform, too."
Sakura stood in front of the mirror and adjusted her wig slightly. She sighed.
"Well, this is as good as it's gonna get."
Sakura had bound a tight cloth around her chest to conceal her feminine form. It made her look like a skinny guy. Her whole body, proportional and full for a girl, looked effeminately strange on a guy. The glasses and long, spiky brown hair helped, Sakura thought, but just by looking at me, I can tell that I'm a girl.
"Sakura! The bus is here!" her mother called. Sakura took a deep breath and talked to her reflection.
"OK, my name is Sakumo Hayaro, I'm fifteen years old, I play basketball, and I'm going to Firestone High," she said. Then she went downstairs.
The bus for Firestone was not a bus, it was a luxury travel bus, Sakura thought. She and Damien boarded the bus, each wearing the required navy blue pants, white button-up shirt, and gold tie. Damien wore a navy blazer over top, Sakura wore a navy sweater. She looked like a geek, and she knew it. As she climbed on the bus and looked for a place to sit, someone waved to her.
"Hey, sit by me, dattebayo!"
Since it was a friend, Sakura took the invitation. She shoved her suitcase with a week's worth of stuff in it in the rack above the seat and sat down. The blonde boy with spiky hair next to her stuck out his hand.
"My name's Uzumaki Naruto, what's yours?" he chirped. Sakura blushed. He WAS rather handsome…
"Ha…Hayaro Sakumo," she said, shaking his hand. Naruto settled back in the cushy seat.
"Never been to Firestone, have you?" he asked. Sakura shook her head.
"Nope, it's my…" she cleared her throat and tried to imitate a deeper voice. "It's my first year."
Naruto nodded. "Well, it's cool at Firestone. You get a lot of privileges, but a lot of responsibility."
"Is there basketball, do you know?" Sakura tried to sound mildly interested. Naruto leaned forward.
"IS THERE BASKETBALL!?!" he yelped. The bus driver glared and Naruto settled down. "Of COURSE there's basketball!" he said. "It's the best sport in the world, isn't it?"
"Do you know when tryouts are?" Sakura asked. Naruto grinned.
"Should be this week. They like getting their team early."
"Who's they?" Sakura asked nervously. The bus stopped to allow several people to board. Naruto pointed.
Sakura followed Naruto's finger to lay eyes on one of the most handsome men she possibly had ever seen. His sweeping black hair was cut at exactly the right length. It stuck up slightly in the back. The bangs in front fell perfectly into his onyx-hued eyes. She could tell, even through the uniform, that he was unnaturally strong and quick. She blushed, then remembered she was a guy.
"Yeah? What about him?" she asked. Naruto nodded.
"That's Sasuke Uchiha. He's the basketball team captain. Very strict, very tough, and impossible to beat. We made it to state last year under him."
"State…" It was a goal beyond Sakura's dream.
"Yup," Naruto said. "But our center and a forward and the point guard all graduated last year. The basketball season, if you make it to district, goes outside the normal school year. It overextends past graduation. But our three senior starters couldn't make the overextended season, they had to leave at graduation. Firestone went to District without three starters."
"Wow…gosh," Sakura breathed.
"Yeah," Naruto said, sighing. "We lost…BAD. Sasuke never forgave Suna for THAT one. One of their players, Gaara no Subaku, shot the winning shot. It was 11-45, that bad. Sasuke's determined to crush Suna this year."
"So am I," Sakura murmured. Naruto looked at her curiously.
"Huh? What was that, Sakumo?"
"Oh…nothing," Sakura said swiftly. Sasuke moved past them, his black eyes fixed on the rear of the bus.
"Hey, Sasuke-teme," Naruto replied. For a second, Sasuke looked at Sakura. Jade and black eyes met in one confused second. Then Sasuke continued to the rear. He sat down beside a pale, tall boy with long brown hair.
Sasuke pulled out an iPod and plugged in. Naruto fished around and pulled out his own MP3. He offered an earphone to Sakura.
"Listen in?" he offered. Sakura took the proffered earphone. She smiled.
"You like Relient K, too?"
"YEAH!" Naruto said.
"Oh, it's you. Man, it's a drag, getting stuck in front of you," a lazy voice drawled. Naruto wrinkled his nose.
"Nice to see you too, Shikamaru."
The brown-haired boy with a ponytail shoved his suitcase under his seat (he was too lazy to put it into the rack) and plopped down in the seats in front of Naruto and Sakura.
"Who's the newbie?" he asked. Naruto shook Sakura's arm.
"This is Sakumo," he said. "I hope he's my roommate! He's awesome!"
Shikamaru looked at Sakura. "Be prepared for early mornings."
"Welcome, gentlemen, back to Firestone High," the voice over the intercom said as Sakura, Naruto, and Shikamaru rolled their suitcases into the huge stone building. "Today is Monday, orientation day. Your classes will begin in the afternoon, the morning will be spent unpacking. Please take your schedule at the front desks and locate your dorm room. Lunch is a 12:00 P.M. precisely."
Sakura dragged her bag to one of the front desks which had a letter 'H' taped to the front. A tired-looking receptionist looked up.
"Can I help you?"
Sakura nodded. "I need the schedule for Hayaro Sakumo."
"Hayaro…Hayaro…" the girl thumbed through the stacks of paper. "Ah, here you are." She handed Sakura a sheet of paper. "The Fire Building, Floor 3, Dorm 32. Next?"
Sakura was shouldered aside by the boy who had been sitting next to Sasuke on the bus. He looked her over. Sakura suddenly recognized his eyes. They were Hinata's!
"You look familiar," the boy said, jolting her back to reality. "Do I know you?"
"Do you know Hinata at all?" Sakura blurted out. The boy snorted.
"I should. I'm her cousin, Neji Hyuuga." His eyes narrowed. "How do YOU know her?"
"Um…my sister knows her," Sakura lied. "She's been over a few times."
"Hnn." Neji let his eyes roam up and down Sakura, stopping at her torso. Sakura couldn't help but blush. Quickly, she grabbed her stuff and headed away for her dorm room.
She turned to see Naruto coming up from the 'U' table, carrying his new schedule. He waved it at her.
"What building are you in?"
"F-Fire," Sakura stuttered. Naruto grinned.
"Really?! What floor?"
"So am I! What dorm room?"
"32," Sakura stuttered. Naruto's face fell.
"Shame! Oh well, we're in the same hall. That'll be great!"
Behind them, Sakura saw the hot boy from the bus get his schedule from the same table as Naruto and head off in the opposite direction. Her heart sank. He wasn't in her dorm…
"Come on!" Naruto squeaked, pulling her to the right. "Let's go!"
Sakura shook him off. "I've got to make sure my little brother's OK," she protested. "It's his first year, too."
"OK! See you in the dorm!" Naruto set off.
The elevator doors opened and Sakura found herself staring up a hallway lined with doors. Behind one of them lay her new room…and her new roommate. She looked at the numbers as she went. Room 1 was on her left, so the evens must be on the right.
26…28…30…32. There it was. Thankfully, the Fire building was relatively new, so each dorm room had its own bathroom. Damien's dorm had communal bathrooms. Sakura shuddered and tapped on the door.
The door creaked open.