Sasuke Uchiha flexed his newly replaced muscles. He, along with his dear mother, had been skeptical when the infamous Don Orochimaru had approached him about the artificial body enhancements, but the results were worth the operations.

After the rather painless surgery, thanks to anesthetics, he had the muscles of someone who had been training from a very young age. From what he was told, they had been harvested from an androgynous clone, specifically bred to be compatable with any recipient so that the body would not reject any sort of replacement, from organs to muscles. As it was, he was faster than most Jounin, and with the nerve therapy, his reaction time was significantly enhanced as well. Coupled with his Sharingan eyes and his clan's training, he was a formidable opponent to anyone who would dare to cross him.

Thanks to his clan's stigma against cybernetic enhancements, he didn't have any skill with hacking, but since he had a very limited amount of cyberware on or around him at any given time, it didn't work against him either.

He grinned malevolently. He was a powerful warrior, and his family had purchased a spot in the upcoming tournament. He knew that he would win, no matter what. Even if he had to bend the rules a little bit. The Uchiha clan, despite its weakened state, still had great connections with the Fire Country military, as well as its police force. If he couldn't win by defeating his opponents face to face, then he would find something to use against them. All that mattered was that he won. Then, when he ruled Fire Country, no one would dare to oppose him. It was his divine right, his manifest destiny; he was an Uchiha, after all, and everyone eventually would bow to the Uchiha. It was fate.

The tavern was hazy with tobacco smoke and stank of stale nicotine and alchohol. The sweaty stench of unwashed manual laborers permeated and almost overpowered the smell from the vices. In the ceiling, the air recyclers were working overtime trying to overcome the pollution, but they were failing miserably. Their moaning belied their lack of maintenance and need of a good work over and a replacement filter.

At the bar, a lady dressed in a strange outfit nursed a small cup of warm sake. Most of the patrons gave her a wide berth. Those that knew who she was did so just because of her reputation, and those that didn't steered clear because of the dent in the wall on the other side of the room behind her. The pool of blood was a good reminder not to drunkenly hit on this woman.

Her sandy grey robe-like shirt strained from her sizable bust, not so subtly oogled by the bar-tender because of her somewhat hunched position. He didn't dare make a move, though. This bar got its fair share of illicit deals, and this woman was mired in them.

A man dressed in loose forest green old fashioned garb with a gaudy red overcoat slid onto the stool beside her. The only indication she gave to his presence was to slide the sake bottle over to him. He nodded gratefully and poured himself a serving into a glass he pulled out of one of his large pockets. The two, not even looking at each other, touched the rims of their bowl-like cups before downing the alcohol.

After a moment or two, the white haired man said, "That kid," he gestured towards the holo, "looks far too much like Minato for coincidence."

"So he does," the blonde replied, pouring herself another glass.


"So what?" she growled defensively.

"What do you think of him?" the old man intoned, pointedly.

She regarded the holo for a moment. "He looks prepared, though I doubt his abilities would stand up to most ninja." She huffed, feeling annoyed. "I suppose he could have some skills."

The white haired man smirked. "Don't tell me you're losing your edge. Look closely."

"I already know he looks like Minato, you were quite forthcoming with that little tidbit. His presence in the tournament is more than suspicious. This has 'subterfuge' written all over it." She took a small sip, letting the man sigh in impatience.

"Fine, then. Since you don't seem to think he can do much, how 'bout a wager? What do you day… 5 on the blonde kid?" The man grinned challengingly. The blondie took notice and rose to it spectacularly.

"Make it ten, and I'll give you two to one odds in favor of the feral one," she said, turning to stare into the other's eyes.

"Ten million? At two to one? Hmm. I suppose I could use the money, I need to start up a few more brothels…" the man trailed off with a gleam in his eye. He extended his hand, saying, "You've got yourself a bet."

The blonde took it, smirked, and turned back to her drink. Despite the cold shoulder, the man pressed on. "Tsunade… keep an eye out. Hebi is on the move, interfering with the tournament. I've got my spies trailing him, but he's too damn slippery. Even my spiders aren't picking up much."

"And your point is?" she drawled.

Jiraiya sighed. He shook his head. At one time, the three Dons had been the rulers of the underworld. Their influence reached all the way to the previous Fire Daimyo and they practically ruled Fire Country. Now, though, since Orochimaru had broken their agreements and split them up, they weren't on good terms. While they'd probably kill Orochimaru on the spot if they met him, the other two's relationship was strained, both professional and their friendship.

Once the Dons started fighting, their power waned, allowing street gangs and other syndicates to start moving in. With the sucession of Jiraiya's one-time friend and unofficial pupil, Namikaze Minato, to the throne, they'd hoped things would go easier. They weren't.

Admitting defeat, he said "Just be careful, okay?"

Tsunade rolled her eyes, mumbling , "Whatever," before finishing off her cup. Jiraiya grumbled, but took the hint and left.

Once she heard the tell-tale sound of the bar door closing, she grabbed the bottle by the neck, tipped it back, and took a long pull. Carelessly tossing the now empty thing behind her, where it shattered on the floor, she turned to watch the upcoming fight on the holo. She had to keep an eye on her interests, after all…

The crowd was extatic. Today was the day of the first fight of the tournament. The hype was so extreme that the fighters were already minor celebreties. Some have already been asked to participate in photo shoots, and others have been mobbed on the streets by fangirls and admirers.

As it was, a very robust betting pool had opened up on the contestants. Some had higher odds than others, but for the most part, it was a pretty level playing field. Nearly everyone with money had made at least one bet, while nobles had bet much more on their favored fighter. Some had even christened them 'Gladiators', but for the most part, it was an unpopular name.

The crowd in the Fire Capital GravBall arena was impatiently waiting for the first match of the tournament to start. While GravBall was an extremely popular sport, the leagues were put on hold until the tournament was done. Some people were disappointed, but the free live holo coverage of the matches more than made up for it. The betting pool helped, though.

When the three musical tones blared over the cacophony of the crowd, the din died down. "Ladies and Gentlemen! Welcome to the first match of the Fire Country Tournament! We ask that you please remain seated and behind the protective screens until the match has ended. This is for your own protection. Now, please welcome the participants!"

The crowd screamed and applauded. "From the esteemed Inuzuka clan, I present to you, a Chuunin Cyberninja and heir of the Inuzuka clan, with his ever faithful Ninken, Akamaru, Inuzuka Kiba!"

The crowd rose as one, eagerly welcoming the quite popular boy. Though he was barely a teenager, his rugged and wild looks were much liked by teenage girls, and his manliness and confidence made him a role-model of sorts to teenage boys. The Inuzuka clan was pretty well liked by everyone, save for their few enemies, and the response of the crowd showed their appreciation.

Kiba entered through his side entrance, practically prancing into the arena. With a few dramatic bows (which made his mother groan in embarrassment) he took his place next to the holographic referee.

"Now presenting his opponent. His skills are unknown, but his confidence is sturdy as a mountain! With both of his cybernetic arms and his trusty pistols, he will do his best to achieve the greatest prize! Please welcome Uzumaki Naruto!"

The response was much less enthusiastic than it was for Kiba, but then again, Naruto was relatively unknown.

The boy slowly strode into the arena. On the huge screen suspended above the middle of the arena the camera showed a close up of the boy's face. His medium length blonde locks stood out in many directions, giving the impression that they were spikes, though none stood straight up. His whisker-like tattoos stood out quite dramatically against his slightly tanned cheeks. Quite a few teenage girls swooned over his sparkling blue eyes and his confident grin. The few who recognized his whisker marks knew him for who he really was: the Cyberfox. Those who did recognize him scrambled to change their bets in favor of the blonde. They knew what he was capable of. The two to one odds didn't hurt any either.

Naruto approached his place about halfway between the entrance he used and the middle of the arena. The holographic referee turned its head to give the illusion that it could see the contestants. The referee's recognizably false voice broadcast over the loudspeakers, saying "Do you both understand the rules?"

They both nodded, staring the other down in a ridiculous display of attempted intimidation.

The referee's hand extended between the two. "Ready?" the voice said, followed by "Set…"

The crowd tensed in sync with the two contestants, preparing for the start of the fight.


Hyu… no, Uzumaki Hinata sat in one of the high private boxes, overlooking the arena below. The box was a modest size, only large enough for three or four people. She was the only one inside it, though. Quite anxiously, she waited for the fight to start.

While she knew how skilled Naruto was, and she respected his strength, she couldn't help but worry. Though they had been married for three months, they had only known each other for three months. They had spent almost every waking moment together during that time, save, of course, for bathing time. She had grown quite fond of her husband, though she was still too nervous to express it. She couldn't help but worry.

The door opened, and she spun around, smoothly pulling out one of her pistols and aiming it perfectly at the head of the person entering the room.

"Daimyo-sama!" she exclaimed. "Please forgive my rudeness." She bowed her head and smoothly holstered her gun.

"It's no big deal, Hinata-san." His casual voice reassured her.

"Um… if you don't mind me asking," she carefully intoned, being sure not to stutter, "what are you doing here?"

"I got my bodyguard, Asuma-san, to pose as me for a while. I thought I'd spend some time with my daughter-in-law," he said cheerfully. Hinata couldn't help but to smile, knowing how much alike her husband and father-in-law were alike, even though Naruto hated to admit it.

"I see," was the only thing she said. When Minato pulled up the chair next to her and sat down to watch the match, she tried to focus her attention on the posturing boys down below her. It didn't work.

"Daimyo-sama," she began, only to be interrupted.

"Hinata-san, please, call me Minato. We're family, ok?" While his voice was serious, it was not intimidating. It helped to reassure the nervous girl.

"As you wish, Minato-sama." After a moment, she spoke. "Minato-sama, how did you convince Asuma-san to pose as you?"

Minato cocked and eyebrow, giving the young girl next to him a small grin. "Did you forget already? Asuma is one of the Ninja Guardians that were assigned to protect me. The Hokage was very gracious about it, volunteering some of his best, including his own son, to make sure that I wouldn't be assassinated."

"Ah. I see," Hinata carefully intoned. She had forgotten, it seemed, the lessons her father had so ruthlessly pounded into her head about the politics of Fire Country. Steeling herself, she resolved to try and remember everything, hoping that someday she could help her husband that way.

During their conversation, the referee and the two contestants had walked onto the field. It seemed that the conversation was over for now. Just then, the referee signaled for the match to start.

Kiba crouched, letting Akamaru jump onto his back. With a cry of "Juujin Bunshin!" there were two nearly identical Kibas. The first rushed at Naruto, his elbow slamming into the boy's sternum. Naruto went flying backward for about a dozen feet, coming to rest on his back. Unfortunately, the other Kiba jumped high off the first Kiba's back and started spinning in mid air. With a loud cry of "Tsuuga!" the Kiba in the air began to rapidly spin, using a little chakra to turn himself into a whirling tornado of claws.

Naruto kicked his legs up and back, allowing their momentum to carry his body into a backward somersault, effectively moving out from underneath the falling dervish of death. The attack struck the solid steel plating of the arena with a resounding clank, depositing the bestial boy onto the ground, moaning slightly in pain.

The other Kiba, also using the dangerous attack, was coming in from the side. Naruto tried to jump above the attack, but it clipped his foot. Surprisingly, the tornado-like attack was sent off, eventually ceasing in mid air as the other Kiba was deposited onto the ground, clutching slightly bloody fingers.

Naruto completed a backflip, landing on both feet and a hand, sliding backward for a few meters. The leg that had been struck by the attack was unharmed, though the boy's pants were in rags below the knee. A shiny, if somewhat scratched, metal appendage grew from an artificial joint at the knee. The false leg ended not in a foot, as was popular, but a boot that was seemingly built into the leg itself.

Naruto stood up and stomped the leg that had been damaged. A small section of the leg popped out from the calf. With a tiny pop, a small ball was shot into the air. The crest of its flight ended at Naruto's eye level. His arm shot out and caught the ball. Naruto took a deep breath, shut his eyes tightly, and threw the ball right between where the two Kibas lay, recovering from their botched attacks.

The ball struck the ground with an excruciatingly bright flash, a loud bang, and a cloud of dust. Despite covering his ears, Naruto heard the bang quite clearly. Once it was passed, without opening his eyes, he ran at a right angle to the area he threw the ball at. After about fifteen meters or so, he stopped, opened his eyes, released his breath, and regarded the scene.

Chocking and coughing, two Kiba look alikes stumbled out of the cloud of dust, frantically rubbing at their eyes. Naruto pulled his gun from its holster, hoping to pop off a quick shot before the two recovered. However, Kiba had already hastily thrown a kunai. It clattered to the ground next to Naruto. When he heard the sizzling sound of an activated explosive note, he threw himself away from the attack, spinning so that his mechanical limbs were between his curled up body and the explosion.

The blast sent shrapnel in all directions. Some of the deadly pieces of scrap metal harmlessly bounced off of Naruto's mechanical arms, but a few scratched his relatively unprotected sides. The two Kibas weren't so lucky. One piece of shrapnel dug itself into the neck of the boy.

With a puff of smoke, that Kiba disappeared, only to be replaced by Akamaru. Luckily, the piece of shrapnel had only grazed the top of the dog's head, but it had taken out a fair chunk of his ear. Without any indication that he was hurt, save for a small whimper of pain, Akamaru managed to recover and roll to his feet.

Naruto hit the ground with a dull thud, rolling over and over a few times to put out the small embers that his cloths had caught. The used the momentum to roll himself safely to his feet, carelessly throwing away his pistol. It had caught a piece of shrapnel right in the tip of the barrel. It had pierced through the gun, blocking the opening. A potentially deadly backfire, if he actually tried to use it.

Instead, he pulled his rifle, currently in a shortened version, a more abbreviated form from the typical assault rifle setting. Flicking the switch to a three round burst, he lined up the sights and squeezed the trigger.

Ba-ba-bam! The report cracked through the stale, recycled air in the arena. Three rubber rounds spat out of the barrel, moving too fast for nearly anyone to see. Kiba tried to dodge, but he just didn't have the speed required to dodge the bullets. While he avoided critical damage, one struck about 6 inches to the left of his solar plexus, another hit him dead in the sternum, and the last struck his right clavicle, almost dead center from the neck and the shoulder. There was an audible crack slightly obscured by the report of the rifle that spoke of the bullets effectiveness. He rolled out of his dodge clutching his left side. From his slightly labored breathing and barely hunched form, a rib or two were broken.

Akamaru shot off with a bark, rushing the crouched Shadow Runner. Naruto adjusted his aim accordingly and squeezed off another burst. The shots went high and wide. Quickly, he flipped a switch on the side, activating the shotgun attachment. A bone-rattling boom made most of the crowd flinch at the sound. The flashette rounds ricoched in all directions, missing their target. Naruto quickly stood, whipping the butt of the rifle in a sweeping uppercut. It impacted solidly against the flying dog's chin. The force of the blow sent the canine flying over his head, where it landed and bonelessly rolled. Its legs twitched for a few seconds, but it didn't rise, quite unconscious.

With a quick adjustment of his swing, he shouldered the rifle with a practiced motion. As Kiba approached on all fours with lightning quick speed, Naruto whipped out a small metal rod with a handle and a switch, flicking it deftly. He waited until the beastial man was close. Dodging to the side, he twisted slightly and jabbed the tip of the device into Kiba. The Inuzuka managed to dodge slightly. Instead of taking the blow in the small of his back, he took it in the shoulder. With a cry of pain, he slid across the ground, clutching his shoulder. When he stood again, his arm was limp.

Growling, he said, "You're good, for a Shadow Runner, but you're outclassed. Give up!"

Naruto just smirked and extended his hand, palm up, and curled his fingers in an obvious challenge. Cautiously, Kiba pulled out a kunai and a roll of black tape. Keeping an eye on his opponent, he speedily wrapped the handle in the tape. Before he was half way done, Naruto rushed at him, swinging the strange baton wildly, but with a practiced ease.

Kiba had to do some skillful dodging, but most of the blows missed. Growing tired of it, Naruto struck diagonally downwards, aiming for the neck. The blow, of course, was dodged, but the following backswing caught Kiba in his upper thigh. The pain made the brown haired boy flinch. This was just the opening that Naruto needed. A few more touches and Kiba's other limbs were out of commission as well.

"So, Ninja, how's it feel to lose to a Shadow Runner? Not feeling so confident now, are you? Got any last words?" Naruto gloated, though not quite so smugly as some might have. Behind his words, however, was an air of respect. Though his words were harsh, they showed that the fight was, indeed, a respectable challenge.

The subtlety was lost on Kiba, who spat on the ground at Naruto's feet. Naruto grunted in dismissal. He grabbed Kiba by the hair, pulled the boy's head down, and struck him in the back of the head with the device. Kiba slumped to the ground in unconsciousness.

The referee calmly approached Naruto. Crouching down at the bonde's opponent, he felt for a pulse. Apparently satisfied, he turned to the press box and gave a nod.

"And the winner is," the announcer's voice boomed over the speakers, "Uzumaki Naruto!"

A fair amount of applause arouse from the arena along with not a few groans. There was some money exchanged, as befitting for a public even. Naruto calmly walked off the stage, slightly dragging his right foot as he did so, as the medics put his opponents on stretchers and rushed them out of the emergency exit.

The first battle of the tournament was over

Hinata met her husband just outside the changing rooms. His hair was slightly wet from a quick washing and he was dressed in fresh street cloths. He carried his equipment duffle easily, belying its weight.

Naruto was quite startled when she practically flew into his arms. Nearly dropping his duffle, he gently returned her nearly bone crushing hug.

"Naruto-kun! I-I was worried, but you did it! You won!" She said, her smile radiant.

Naruto couldn't help but notice that, in her excitement, she was the least self conscious he had ever seen her. He returned the embrace with a smile of his own.

"Yeah… I suppose I did." He shifted the bag off of his shoulder and set it on the groung. "How was the view?"

"Spectacular! I could see everything! It was my first time, being here in the arena, but I loved it!" Her enthusiasm made Naruto's smile widen slightly. "But… I could see all the blows, too. Your leg… How is it?"

Naruto chuckled. "It's fine. The metal casing needs to be replaced, and I think it could use a little recalibration. Don't worry about me."

"But I do worry about you." Her words smoothly slipped out of her mouth, even surprising herself. Naruto drew back slightly, startled by the sudden declaration, no matter how quiet it was.

"Thank you, Hinata-chan." Slowly, he pulled her closer until their faces were almost touching me. "I haven't heard that since… since mother died."

Their eyes connected, and a metaphorical veil was torn asunder from between them. "She was right… to worry…" Slowly, their lips met and their embraces tightened. They pulled each other close, as if they would never let go. All of eternity could pass, and forever they would be holding each other.

From around the corner, Minato watched. A sad smile grew on his face and a shadow of something passed over his eyes. "Kushina…" he whispered. "If only you could see him now. You would be so proud."

With nary a sound, he left the two alone. That small nostalgic smile hinted at cherished memories, bittersweet and haunting, but impossible to resist.

The messenger scurried through darkened hallways. The few and far between lights flickered, providing inadequate illumination. Though the hallway was dry, being high above ground level, he couldn't help but crush the manila envelope closer to his side as he imagined a dank stone hallway, the oder of musk and mildew, and the steady drip drip drip of water in the background as it slowly puddle on the uneven cobbles. The atmosphere seemed to make him hallucinate. Steeling his resolve, he quickened his pace.

At the end of the hallway, the double doors opened of their own accord. The stereotypical conference chamber, so typical of the type that business owners would meet in, that met his eye fit well with the general decorum of the building. The man in the business suit that sat at the head of the table blended in quite well, except for the incredibly pale skin, long black hair, and very effeminent features.

"O-Orochimaru-sama. I have a report for you." He held out the manila envelope to the man, releaved that his hand wasn't shaking. Orochimaru took it, deftly sliced it open with a fingernail, and removed the contents. He quickly skimmed the paper, wrote something on the bottom of it, and folded it back up.

"You may go." The messenger, relieved, started to exit the room. "But…"

The word halted the man in his tracks. He slowly turned around to regard the man who so casually held a pistol pointed directly at him. "Maybe next time the messenger will show me proper respect…"

With a bang and a splatter of blood, the man died. Orochimaru pushed a button on a nearby console. "Send someone to clean up this mess." The speaker buzzed a reply. Carelessly walking over the corpse in the doorway, the pale man left. He had business to take care of.

Tenten slowly stumbled out of the changing room, absently rubbing the many bruises on her arms and legs. She groaned as her fingers hit a particularly sensitive spot just above her navel where her opponent had landed a vicious blow. Gingerly, she sat down on a nearby bench, deciding that resting would be a good idea.

"That was a close fight, Tenten."

She looked up at the familiar voice. Giving a small smirk, she said "That's because I didn't want to reveal all my tricks yet, Neji. Still, for a Shadow Runner, that guy wasn't bad."

Neji nodded. "Still, you should be more careful," Neji huffed in frustration.

"What's got you in a mood?" Tenten's sarcastic voice asked him.

"You should be resting for your next match, which I should remind you is tomorrow. Your decision to accompany us on this mission was folly and you know it."

"Neji-san, you should not berate her for wishing to show her flames of youth. It was entirely her decision, and I do not see how it is your responsibility to tell her what she should and should not do," Lee said, calmly walking up behind the two.

"…Perhaps you're right, Lee. It's none of my business." Retreating back into his cold exterior, he said "We should return to headquarters to give our mission report."

"Right" the other two said in unison. Tenten, as if she wanted to prove her health, took off at a fast run. Neji was about to follow after her when a hand stopped him.

"Neji… " Lee's voice was uncharacteristically serious. Neji refused to turn to his teammate. "I know you worry about her. The fact that you care for her isn't lost on me, and I'm sure Tenten knows as well. But what she needs is someone to support her, not someone to parent her."

"Ah," was all Neji said. Lee sighed. "Look, Neji, if you like her, just tell her. This roundabout way might be the norm in the Hyuuga clan, but it's different out here. Don't baby her, just be there for her, ok?"

"… hn." Lee shook his head.

"I'm going on ahead. I'll see you later."

With that, Lee jumped off after Tenten, leaving Neji to stew in his own thoughts.

As per tradition in the court, the Daimyo would throw a feast for an important event. This one just happened to be for the conclusion of the first round of the tournament. Of course, as per tradition, all the noble ladies and lords had come. It was, after all, a major social event, and no one wanted to be out of the loop. It was a chance for the ladies to gossip and talk about the various affairs and goings-on, and for the men to greet their friends and make some political allies. More than a few deals would be discussed throughout the night, and at least one political marriage would be decided upon.

None of that mattered to Haruno Sakura, though. Tonight was a big chance for her. In honor of his victory, Uchiha Sasuke would be here. Maybe… just maybe she could talk to him, dance with him, and perhaps he'd sweep her off her feet and carry her away into the sunset…

"Keep focused, girl. No time for daydreaming, you've gotta look and act your best tonight!" she said to herself, mentally.

Still, she had a good chance. While the Haruno family wasn't from a long line of nobility, her grandfather had made a very large fortune through various business deals. The Daimyo at the time had raised them to nobility in exchange for a large donation to help with the nation's rising debt at the time. Though their status amongst the upper eschelon of the nobility was for the most part nonexistent, their extensive wealth and business contacts gave them a fair amount of pull when it came to politics.

She smirked to herself. Her father, no matter how good a businessman he was, had a soft spot for 'his precious little princess'. It was easy to get access to his 'business' related information. The betting for the tournament positions had left the Uchiha clan rather… limited in their current funds. A marriage between herself and Sasuke would bring wealth to the Uchiha clan, status to her own, and get her with her long-time crush. Now, all she had to do was make him love her.

Absently, she brushed imaginary dust-motes off her pink dress. The thing was rather… showy for something in the noble class. The slit running up the side of her leg was there for more than show. 'After all, a young lady needs to protect herself,' she thought, brushing the hilt of the M32-04 Sakura flachette pistol strapped to her upper thigh.

"Oh, hello, Sakura," a voice called out to her, thinly veiling the contempt hiding in the words. "Fancy meeting you here. I thought this soiree was invite only."

"Hello, Ino." Sakura resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Her somewhat friend and rival Yamanaka Ino casually sauntered up, dressed in an opulent dress somewhat reminiscent of the type worn during the reign of Louis XIV in the Palace of Versailles. Sakura casually observed the dress, a hint of jealousy flashing across her face. The fine embroidery and intricate patterns looked hand sewn. The thing must have cost a fortune. Ino's parents spent untold amounts of money on their daughter, buying her anything she wanted, no matter the cost. Sakura's father, however, was something of a penny-pincher. He spent enough so that they would fit in at most gatherings with the other nobles, but little more than that. Even though the Haruno family was one of the richest in Fire Country, they didn't spend the money like it.

"So, still wearing the same dress?" Ino said. "I swear I saw you wearing the same one last week, at that dinner party the Akimichi threw to celebrate the start of the tournament."

"I just believe in actually washing my cloths," Sakura replied, quite annoyed. She scowled and waved her hand in front of her face. "I believe in washing myself as well, but you wouldn't know anything about that, would you? You can't just douse yourself in perfume and expect people not to notice."

"I'll have you know that this is the most expensive perfume on the market!" Ino growled. Smirking, she continued, "It goes along well with my matching soap, bathing salts, shampoo, and conditioner, all in the same beautiful scent."

"Apparently, you don't have a sense of smell. Neither does the person who made that particular scent, either."

Ino huffed. Sakura was about to begin her gloating, spurred on by her inner confidence, when the doors opened once more. Two figures, one male and one female, walked in. They were dressed in fine robes in a very traditional style, as well as in matching colors. Sakura couldn't catch a good view of them before the crowd blocked sight of them, crowding around the two to give their greetings. Rolling her eyes at a barely registered insult from Ino, Sakura made her way across the room.

The crowd eventually said their piece and thinned a bit, allowing Sakura to get close to whoever it was. Finally, she got close enough to see who it was. The first thing that registered was the red and white fan sewn onto the back of the male's robes. The second was the slightly spiky black hair. For a second, Sakura spaced out, recognizing her crush: Uchiha Sasuke.

When she came to, she heard the twittering of early teen girls. Sasuke was surrounded on all sides by girls who were avidly fighting for his attention. Though not so violent as most low-born girls would 

compete, these noble girls were incredibly underhanded. The posturing and veiled insults grew too much for Sakura. So, without even getting a chance to speak to her crush, she returned to her place towards the edge of the room.

For a while, she lost herself in thought, barely hearing the ongoing conversations around her. She gave brief responses when required, but didn't really participate. She was snapped out of her thoughts by a pair of shoes clicking against the marble floor, coming to a stop right in front of her.

"… Would you like to dance?"

The low tone of the voice, spoken almost in a monotone, was very familiar to her. Glancing up, she registered the speaker. "I-I'd love to… Sasuke-k…san."

Keeping with tradition, Sasuke bowed and took her hand. Ignoring the glares sent at her by the other girls, Sakura allowed herself to be lead onto the dance floor. Despite her outer calm (or what appeared to be calm) Sakura frantically reviewed her dance lessons. She was sure she could do it… well, maybe.

The staccato beat of a calm waltz began playing. In perfect timing, she moved her feet, shifted her weight, and turned. The dance had begun.

"Sasuke-san, congratulations on your victory in the tournament," Sakura said, not missing a beat.

"Hn. It was nothing."

Despite his underwhelming response, she continued, "If you keep this up, you'll be next in line to the throne."

"From what I've seen, this tournament will be easy." He gave a little smirk at that.

"Then please treat us all well when you rule, okay?"


The dance continued without conversation for a while. Before Sakura could rack her brain for more conversation ideas, the dance was over. She hesitated for a second, wondering what to do. As she tried to walk away, Sasuke's grip on her hand tightened slightly.

"It's a little warm in here. Would you like to go to the balcony gardens?" He asked her.

"I… sure." She allowed him to lead her (again) through the crowd and out the side door. The nighttime air was cold and clear. The usually strong breezes at such altitudes amongst the Upper City were mostly blocked by the barriers along the walkways. Despite that, the gardens were beautiful. Stone lined paths wove through flower gardens sporting the most beautiful and fragrant flowers, between carefully trimmed shrubs detailing various animals, and a selection of bonsai trees that were carefully maintained. Sakura vaguely noticed that the plaques underneath the bonsai trees indicated that they were personally attended to by the Fire Daimyo.

Finally, the two reached a secluded spot, off the beaten path. Sasuke guided her to a stone bench underneath a blooming sakura tree. The heady scent of the flowers all around and her close proximity to her crush made Sakura slightly hazy.

"It's a beautiful night, isn't it, Sakura-chan."

"Yeah… it is."

"I… There's something I wanted to tell you." Sasuke said. "I had to get you away from the fan girls to say it. That's why I bought you out here."

After a moment's pause, Sasuke continued. "You're different from other girls. I've been watching you for while, and you're very intelligent and very sensible. You don't waste money on overly extravagant dresses like the other girls. Nor do you crowd around me, posturing against the other pests for my attention. I like that about you."

Sasuke leaned in really close, taking one of Sakura's hands in his own. "I think… you're the type of girl I could fall for…" With that, he leaned just a little further, l.etting his lips meet her own. The gentle kiss sent Sakura over the edge into bliss. The softness of his lips, the gentle way his hand squeezed her own, and the atmosphere made it a kiss she wouldn't ever forget.

Ino, hiding in the bushes, wiped away the tears of jealousy and loss as she turned around to go inside.

"So, Sasuke… how did it go?" Makoto asked her son.

"I don't know what you're talking about, mother."

She smirked. "Right. So, that plan of yours to seduce and marry that Haruno girl to help our clan was all talk?"

"Oh, mother, won't you ever realize that a plan is best realized when none save yourself know of it?"

She laughed. "And that is why you will make an excellent clan head… and Fire Daimyo."

"So, what about this deal with Orochimaru?" Makoto continued.

"It is relatively simple. He helps me win the tournament, and I give him amnesty and a position as an advisor. His financial support has kept our clan from falling to pieces, and the improvements he's given me will ensure my victory." The two shared a low, dangerous chuckle. "This Haruno girl will merely give our clan a larger financial base to operate on. It will make our inevitable expansion easier."

"Ah, but aren't you worried about having children with pink hair? I've heard that the Haruno's hair color is a very strong gene."

"Orochimaru-san has a plan for that as well. He has been most helpful."

"Ah. So tell me… do you actually plan on honoring your end of the bargain?" Makoto asked with a sly look in her eye.

"But mother," Sasuke said with a dangerous gleam in his eyes that did not belong on the 'innocent' face he was putting on. "I don't know what you're talking about."

Makoto smirked once more. "Sasuke, you are far too devious for your own good. Why, I might believe that you'd sell your own mother if you had something to gain by it."

"Mother, you must remember one thing: Family first. Everything else is secondary." Sasuke said very seriously.

"Ah, that is true," she said. "But we will continue this conversation later. We have a celebration to return to."

Sorry about the update. I know, it's coming VERY late, but I haven't had internet in quite some time. I could have used the library, but I had no way of getting the document uploaded. It's on my hard drive, and I don't have the money to get a flash drive or anything like that. Right now, I've dragged my computer to a freind's house so I could update. It's so troublesome, though. Anyway, hope you like. I'll try to get another chapter updated soon.

Forgive me for my tardiness.