"Give your ninja girl our regards."

Kurotsuchi winced. Her father was a man of few light moods and he sounded particularly upset. Naturally it was understandable considering what they'd just discovered, but now he'd be grumpy for the rest of the trip. She looked over glumly at Akatsuchi when their commander crushed the CB's microphone in his hand.

She opened her mouth to say something, but a throb from the thick vein straining on the side of his neck kept her silent.

"Our mystery ninja has overcome your sabotage," he remarked, crossly, but still supremely controlled. There wasn't any hiding that he was more than a little disappointed, though. "This is an important mission and now we have loose ends. Eastmarch was one of the canals you did, wasn't it? I thought I could trust you with the smaller ones, Kurotsuchi."

Her father's tone made the young girl want to jump overboard. "I thought my quicklime would be good enough." It was cement; cement was supposed to keep boats out, right? "You didn't tell me I had to collapse the entire canal."

That excuse wasn't cutting it. "I left the method up to you and your method has failed. You rushed the mission too much and cut corners." Kitsuchi drummed his large fingers across the boat's wheel and stared out over the water for a long moment. Finally, he sucked his teeth and yanked back on the throttle. What little headway they'd been making out River Country came to a sudden halt.

"We can't leave it at this. We're going back."

Kurotsuchi didn't want to hear that. She hated River with a passion. It was too hot, too humid, and too boring for her. "Dad, you said that you didn't expect the sabotage to last forever. It's been two weeks already. That should be enough for anyone!"

Wrong argument. Kitsuchi rounded on his daughter with an even deeper frown than before. "I didn't think my daughter would be so eager to see her first mission outside of the village fail so badly. You must be rethinking your ambitions. More training is needed."

More training is needed. Kurotsuchi knew what her father meant by that – she'd be breaking rocks out in the mountains for days, maybe longer. For sure until the Jounin thought the lesson had set in. She remembered how she'd begged and pleaded to go on this mission; how she'd made promise after promise.

Days in the mountains and if Grandfather found out…

Properly reprimanded and fuming silently, Kurotsuchi swore bloody vengeance on whoever had been dumb enough to wreck her work. Her father couldn't get this tub back into River fast enough.

Loyalty, Chapter 17

Sakura resisted the very tempting pleasure of belching as she stepped over the extended gangplank to the Sepiida. It was late in the afternoon, cool and breezy, and her belly was full of the finest food the fisherman of River Country could offer her. No more slipshod fish stew for Sakura; only fine meals in captain's quarters for her now.

What had started as a two-person pilgrimage to the Eastmarch Canal was now a flotilla. Trailing behind Floki's Sepiida were no less than a dozen boats. When Sakura looked out over the river their lights glimmered like stars bobbing on the water. More would come and go in the morning, sailing off to different parts of the country, but there was a core of ships that were going to follow them right into the River Country's capitol. Those captains would be the cargo traders that had happily been entertaining her for the last few nights.

Three canals had already been cleared in as many days. Sakura had little to do at most of them. Her trick with the fire could be replicated by anyone with industrial equipment. Just this morning two of the larger ships had backed up to a cement plug and shot engine exhaust for a few hours while Sakura slept in and enjoyed breakfast in the stateroom of a two-decked, flat-bottomed barge that was carrying exotic silks and spices from Wind Country. When the cement had been dried out enough, Sakura had simply broken it down into sand to the admiration of the river-going masses and the whole cavalcade had continued on.

"You look more stuffed than a goose fattened up for a festival." Floki was sitting in the wheelhouse, looking down at the girl on deck, holding what looked like an entire bottle of champagne in one hand.

Sakura made a show of patting her stomach and laughed along with the captain. The old man was much more pleasant to be around these days and he no longer took every opportunity to insult her. Sakura wondered if that was because he'd come to respect her abilities, or because he was suddenly the Poseidon of River Country for having been the one to ferry around their ninja.

"I knew people would be thankful, but I didn't know they'd be this thankful. Captain Paul opened fresh crates of food for me tonight," Sakura said. She would have felt guilty if the food hadn't been so very delicious.

"He's the spice trader from Wind Country, isn't he? The one in the big barge? He sent me a whole crate of fresh whiskey. High dollar stuff, too." Floki waved his bottle. "My guess is that he'll make a lot more trading in the capital than he'll waste keeping us happy and moving in front of his competition. You know how they are: 'The spice must keep flowing' and all that trader babble."

There was no denying that they were in some rich company. Sakura and her mother lived a comfortable life with her father's pension and only having to take care of two people (one of whom was now drawing a paycheck), but some of the opulence that Sakura had experienced in the last day dwarfed anything she'd ever tasted back home. Already she had a small stack of gifts from grateful admirers that ranged from rolls of fabric to spare fishing tackle. Whatever the captains nearby had, they shared when she cleared a waterway for them.

Sakura stretched her arms as she walked up to the top of the wheelhouse. "Where's the next canal?" she asked.

"No more canals. This close to the capitol everything was bridges." The captain set his bottle aside and spread out one of maps. "Once we're out of the capitol we sail right into the Funaho."

"And from the Funaho, the Land of Fire." Sakura followed the wide line of the Funaho River all the way up the northern border of the Land of Rivers. She could slip into Konoha from a dozen different places and be back home in less than a day if she pulled out all the stops.

That thought brought both elation at the prospect of getting home and trepidation at the thought of what might be waiting for her. Kakashi knows, Orochimaru's voice whispered from the depth of her memory.

Sakura hid her worried expression behind an exaggerated yawn. "You'll wake me up before we get into the capitol, right? I want to see it."

"Sure thing, kid."

Sakura nodded and stumbled down to her cot on deck, not noticing the blank expression on Floki's face. The captain grunted and tilted back his bottle, settling in for another hour of solitary drinking in the dark.

True to his word, Floki laid on the ship's horn early the next morning. Sakura didn't even grumble much as she snapped awake at the jarring noise that had woken her up for most of the river trip. She rolled out of her deckchair and gave the captain her customary sarcastic wave at the wheelhouse, to which he blared the horn at her again.

She looked out over the water. Boats were still trailing behind the Sepiida and deckhands were plodding around their decks stowing rope and line and unfurling canvas. The trader that'd hosted her the night before was sitting on a great big deckchair, fanning himself and speaking with his first mate. He noticed Sakura and they exchanged waves.

"Floki," she called out, "how much longer until we get to the city?"

"We'll get there when we get there," he grunted, not turning away from the wheel, and Sakura realized he was in one of his moods this morning. Probably drank too much last night.

Sakura clicked her tongue. Well, Floki was entitled to a few bad mornings. Instead of dwelling on it, she began her morning stretches. The deck of the Sepiida was large and clear enough that Sakura could improvise a bit of a workout for working out the many kinks ship life put in her joints and muscles. She did a few toe-touches and back-bends, seeing how well her range of motion was. To her immense satisfaction, she could bend all the way back until her hands touched the deck without her chest scar making so much as a peep of discomfort. The y-shaped incision from her Suna operation had already turned white and Sakura wondered if the medics had been having fun with her when they'd said she'd have to stay bedridden for the better part of a month.

With everything working, Sakura walked over to the mast and leaped up to hang on the boom. The first time she'd done pull-ups on the thing Floki had raised a horrible racket about "monkeying up on important equipment", but Sakura had pointed out that they rarely used the sail instead of the engines and that it was unlikely that her slight weight would break the thing. The captain had still complained and even now she could feel his glare between her shoulder blades as she did a few experimental reps.

If there was one bright spot to getting so grievous an injury and so tedious a recovery as Sakura had, then it was that it kicked her out of the rut she'd sunk into after graduation. Physical recovery demanded physical exertion and Sakura was forced to confront the fact that she'd been neglecting her exercise. The ninjutsu experience she'd gained since exiting the Academy had been immense, but the paces Iruka and the other instructors had put them through had fallen by the wayside.

Sakura had never enjoyed personal training (what cool and mysterious boy would want to date a girl that was sweaty all the time?) and it showed in how slowly her body got back into its usual condition. On top of that, Sakura had never considered herself to be a reservoir of chakra and all the new jutsu she was putting into practice were wearing her down considerably. She should be thankful for the quick physical recovery, but Sakura knew that her body would give out if she didn't put aside her distaste for physical conditioning.

And so she trained. Not in jutsu or chakra control like she would have preferred, but instead working up a sweat with push-ups and sit-ups and what little legwork that could be done on the cramped boat. It was blistering exercise. Sakura had more cramps and aches now than right after getting out of her hospital bed in Suna. Remembering how easily the Rain Chuunin had dominated her physically, though, was good incentive to try and get up to snuff, as were the lingering memories of how her body had performed when it was flooded with the power of a solider pill. Trying to recapture that feeling without having to rely on some kind of drug was very, very tempting.


The sudden attempt at conversation from the captain broke her rhythm. Sakura clenched her teeth and forced her arms to yank her back upwards. "I already told you I won't break the darn thing," she grunted. Had she stopped on fifty-eight or forty-eight? "You made me lose count!"

She didn't need to see the man roll his eyes – she could hear it in his voice when he said, "So sorry. Won't bother you again." He waited until she'd started again and then laid on the ship's horn. Sakura was so shocked by the sound that her hands slipped from the boom and she landed butt-first on the deck.

"Real mature!" she shouted over the man's raucous howling. Before a proper scolding could form, Floki mastered himself long enough to point toward the stem of the ship.

At first she couldn't see what he was pointing at. Trees covered the riverbank in a thick mat that went all the way up to the water. A further moment of scrutiny, though, showed her what the captain had seen.

Smoke. Smoke above the treetops.

Sakura struggled to her leaned over the bow railing. Thick, black plumes of smoke, lots of smoke, were lazily puffing into the sky from somewhere downriver. Now it was obvious why Floki was making such a fuss – they were nearly to the capitol! She bolted down into the cargo part of the ship where she kept her (mostly) clean set of clothes, hoping that they wouldn't get there before she could freshen up.

When Sakura reappeared on deck a few minutes later, she was treated to the extraordinary sight of River Capitol's skyline.

Everything was over the water. Every building, every walkway, every shop and office and restaurant – all of them stood over the swirling headwaters of the Funaho River on great stilted platforms for as far as Sakura could see. Buildings as tall as Konoha's tallest apartments shot up from the river like wooden cattails. Closer now, Sakura saw that even the space under the stilt city wasn't wasted – small one and two-man boats plied the waters between the supports.

"It's something else, isn't it?" Sakura blinked away her awe at the city and turned. Floki was walking up the deck and the background growling of the engine, that Sakura had all but gotten used to these last few days, was gone. The Sepiida was simply bobbing in the river, well off to the side.

Soon Sakura saw why that was. All the ships that had been following behind them had now broken away from the pack at the first smell of civilization. Traders hungry for profits were now pushing their barges for all the power they could, gunning it down the river with heedless abandon. Each of them could see the goal in sight – a city that had been starved of goods for nearly two weeks; freshest pickings for those who got to the dock first. There was no doubt that word of their little exodus had already reached the capitol and the merchants, and starved customers, would be ready and waiting.

Floki shook his head at the sorry display, making his cigarette trace red line of embers in the air. The river barges were too slow and bulky to give each other a proper race and the shouts and curses of the crews when one boat bumped into another filled the river.

"Idiots. They'll be in customs for the rest of the morning no matter what time they get there."

"Where are we going to dock at?" Sakura asked.

"At Tannhauser Landing. That's one of the fishmonger berths, closest to the canals leading out to open sea." Twin belches of smoke poured from his nostrils as the worst of the mid-river commotion passed them by. The fishing boats that had been with them trudged along next at a much more reasonable pace and Floki hobbled back to the wheelhouse.

As the engines throttled back up, Sakura settled against the railing so she could watch them come into port. It turned out that Tannhouser Landing was on the other side of the city and shewas afforded a wonderful view of the riverfront districts of the city.

The effects of the infrastructure sabotage were obvious, even to Sakura. Small ships the size of the Sepiida lined most of the pier space that they passed and it was reminiscent of the situation at Floki's village. These small fishing boats and barges were all bottled-up in port with the canal closings. Bigger ships, which Sakura assumed were oceangoing due to their size, were the only ones out in the water.

It took close to half an hour to navigate to the landing Floki wanted. Konoha was a large city in terms of density, but the River Capitol was spread out for a good two miles of river and riverbank. The Funaho at this juncture was fed by three different tributary rivers and the sheer span of the river made Sakura blush at her earlier fantasies of swimming across it when she'd first crossed into River. With the morning fog still clinging to the water, Sakura couldn't even see the far bank.

Floki laid on the Sepiida's horn as they made their way into dock. Tannhouser Landing was a wide semicircle of piers and docks and boat ties that broke the long parade of warehouses that went right up to the water. Unlike the smaller landings they'd passed earlier, Tannhouser still seemed to have quite a bit of business. The big ocean ships that prowled the river seemed to congregate here. As Floki brought them in, Sakura realized that the Sepiida was the smallest boat at the landing.

There were people waiting on them at the dock. Sakura shied away from the railing even as Floki stomped down from the wheelhouse to get at the securing ropes. He tossed them down to the pier and the workers tied them off and dropped a gangplank.

Floki motioned for Sakura to come over. "I'm going to go check the ship in with the harbormaster," he said. He glanced back at the coolies already spreading out on the deck, opening the large cargo hatch in the center and maneuvering a pier-mounted unloader into place. "Let them take care of everything. They'll unload your things too."

Sakura had to think a moment about what Floki was talking about. When a flash of red fabric caught her eye on deck, the gifts that various captains had given her over the last few days sprang to mind. She nodded, having no other ideas of what to do with the gifts; it wasn't like she could cart them all back to Konoha with her.

No one bothered her while Floki was inside the harbormaster's office and Sakura took the opportunity to walk up to where the harbor proper met the streets of the capitol. It was jarring to have a complete look at a landscape and not see water, but that's what Sakura had as she peered past the chain-link gate that kept the crowds out. It was still early and this didn't look like a real urban hangout spot, but there were still throngs of people making their way through the streets.

Unlike Suna and its obvious decline, River Capitol was a city on the upswing. If Sakura strained her ears she could hear the sounds of furious construction rising above the din of the industrial noise and the river; in the distance she could see the tips of cranes peeking up over the skyline.

The telltale blaring of the Sepiida's horn dragged Sakura's attention away from the city. Floki waved at her from the wheelhouse and she walked back to the boat.

There was a finely-dressed man with him. Cropped and styled brown hair, thin wire glasses, and a pressed business suit – he certainly looked out of place standing next to the Sepiida and her captain. When Sakura bowed, the man simply held out his hand for a more civilian handshake.

"It's a pleasure to finally meet you," he said as he vigorously shook Sakura's hand. "We've all been following your progress through the country for the last few days and I must say that you do impress."

"I always aim to please." Sakura glanced at Floki and saw him shrug; he obviously didn't know any more about this than she did. "I don't mean to be rude, Mister…?"

"Ning." He gave Sakura's hand another firm shake. "Maoto Ning, Undersecretary of Commerce for the River Country Council."

With the introductions out of the way Sakura was able to politely pull her hand away. "It's an honor, Ning-san. I didn't expect a reception." It was an honor, right? An undersecretary was an important person.

"We didn't know exactly when you would be getting in or there would be a bigger one here, you can count on that. Half the coolies in the city would be here just to shake your hand after what you've done for them." He reached into his suit pocket, pulled out a thick letter, and handed it over to Sakura. "That's from Secretary Isshi. He wanted to be here personally, but only half the Council is in the capitol due to the infrastructure sabotage."

At Ning's obvious prompting, Sakura broke the fancy seal on the back of the envelope – and very nearly dropped it in shock. She pulled out a stack of ryo that was as thick as her hand. Sakura didn't dare count it all up, but she did thumb through the stack's edges and saw that they were all twenty and fifty-ryo notes. Likely she had over fifteen hundred ryo in her hands. It would take dozens upon dozens of little D-Rank missions to generate that much money!

As impossible as it was to miss, Ning laughed at Sakura's shock. "That's a gift from the River Country Council for services rendered."

Sakura licked her dry lips. If Konoha found out that money had changed hands between an official government and her, a lone ninja that hadn't checked in with the village for days, there would be hell to pay. Someone could say it was signs of her going rogue or stepping (well) above her station. On the other hand, how would they find out? It was a "gift" for actions she'd done of her own volition. No one had hired her to do it.

"Take the damn money, girl," Floki said as Sakura turned the thought over and over in her head. "You won't be holding onto it for very long since I expect you to help with fuel fees, docking fees, and the customs deduction for the cargo."

Ning waved his hand. "All fees and customs have been waved for your ship, Captain, and all its goods. Surely you didn't think that your role in helping your country would be overlooked?"

"Thank you kindly, Mister Ning," Floki replied, his eyes wide. He turned to Sakura with a smile. "Well, you'll still be getting off some of that for fuel costs, but you'll have a pretty little stack left. Maybe you'll have enough to pay someone to get close enough to hose you down."

"You're no spring garden yourself." True enough, there hadn't been many chances to shower and days of sweat and grime had built up. Boat captains might be understanding about such things, but thinking about how long it had been since she'd even changed clothes made Sakura flinch. Another few days and she would have taken a dip in the river, alligators or no alligators.

Looking at Floki and Ning's expectant expressions, Sakura slipped the envelope of ryo into her pouch and bowed to the undersecretary. "I guess I'll be accepting this with thanks, Maoto-san, if only to spare my company his delicate nose." With the money she could at least cut the paper trail her outing would give Konoha; cash had a way of disappearing like an official village IOU never could.

The undersecretary clapped his hands. "I was worried I'd have to beg," he said with a laugh. "Now, if you two will excuse me I have to see to your account with the harbormaster. Lady Sakura, Master Floki, once again the River Country thanks you for your initiative. If you should need anything, my office will always be open."

Sakura and Floki both expressed their gratitude to the man and Sakura pocketed his business card. She didn't expect to pay a visit to the capital building during her stay, but having any kind of contact with a River official couldn't hurt. Ning again told them to drop by if they had any problems before heading off to the squat little harbor office to get their fees waved.

Floki let out a low whistle when Ning was far enough away not to hear it. "Do you have any idea how much money that suit just made us?"

"Saved us, you mean," Sakura corrected. "He didn't really give us anything other than my envelope."

"Don't you remember what I said earlier about the traders? How they'd be bottled up in customs for the whole morning?" Floki gestured out over the water to a few barges that had moored nearby. "See any cranes or cargo being unloaded? We're going to be the first inland traders this place has seen in weeks! Supply and demand, girl."

Sakura saw what he was driving at, but she regarded him with more than a little dubiousness. "You think a few hours are that much of a head start? Whoever will be buying your things will have to know that we came into port with a group. You can't jack the price up that much."

The captain crossed his arms. "I guess they don't teach economics up in your ivory ninja towers, do they?" He didn't wait for the inevitable sarcastic response from his one-girl audience. "You just go waste the day spending your little bit of lunch money and leave the heavy lifting to me. We'll be out of here by tomorrow morning."

"Sure, sure." The call of a nice, long shower was starting to grow louder in Sakura's ears and she couldn't be bothered with a lesson in River Country microeconomics right now. "Go ahead and sell my gifts too, would you? I can't take them with me."

"Is the great-and-fearsome ninja differing to her elder's wisdom? I'm shocked you trust me that much."

Sakura waved over her shoulder as she stepped down the ship's gangplank. "I trust that you'll get the best deal you can because most of the stuff in your hold is from your village. They'd string an old goat like you up if you slacked."

The rumbling of the harbor complex's chain-length gate finally drowned out Floki's griping.

River Capital was just as lively as it had seemed from the water. Sakura slipped into the crowd and quite quickly, and happily, got lost in it. She'd missed this kind of urban-ness that was absent from both Suna and the places she'd been to in River so far. In Konoha, the crowds were so thick that midday you could be pulled along with a stream of people from one end of the village to another without seeing anything on either side of the street. Getting around back home had used to be a hassle, but Sakura only realized how much she enjoyed urban living when she was taken away from it for a few weeks.

Sakura discovered that the harbor area was part of a larger industrial district that included warehouses, boat outfitters, and more than a few bars that Floki would probably be belly-up in come nightfall. Most were built out of simple bits of wood that looked like they'd been fished out of the river. Given the disheveled, blue-collar style of the people milling around Sakura decided that it was fitting. People didn't so much as glace at her here either, considering the state she was in - just another child worker running an errand. There were enough kids in the crowd that she blended right in.

That blanket of anonymity didn't last long. Sakura went with the crowds up the river, toward the nicer-looking parts of the city she'd passed coming down the river. There wasn't a sudden, obvious divide between the "working" district and the "living" district, but subtly the buildings began to seem of firmer make and the people in the street wore nicer clothes. Sakura was getting looks now as she squeezed by shoppers and businessmen and women. Before she knew it, the plank streets had lost their grubbiness and now came in varnished hardwood; the channels that cut into the heart of the city from the river were filled with water taxies advertising rates; buildings that had seemed large from the water now became overwhelming.

In the shadow of one of those titanic waterfront skyscrapers, Sakura pushed her way out of the crowd and found a step to sit on. It was starting to heat up and she'd been walking for a solid hour.

The city was amazing. Suna had been near death, but River Capital was overflowing with people and commerce even though the interior of the country had been cut-off for days. Sakura imagined that it would get even livelier in the afternoon and resolved to go out and see some more of the city – once she'd managed to find a hotel for the night.

She'd seen plenty, of course. Some were nothing more than bunkhouses back in the warehouse district while others were functional works of art sitting beside the boardwalk with their carved facades that beckoned to people of means to come inside and enjoy. Sakura, having never stayed at such a place, had no idea how to actually go about renting a room and had dragged her feet past a dozen adequate businesses on her walk. Sakura wanted to find a hotel quick now that she was drawing unwanted attention.

A gaggle of laughs and hoots drew Sakura's attention a little further down the building she was using for shade. There was a group of young adults, perhaps five or six years older than Sakura was, that spilled out the large glass double doors that Sakura had avoided stopping in front of. With their trendy clothes and personal effects, Sakura instantly tagged them as tourists; they probably were fresh off one of the big ocean boats that plied the coast.

As they disappeared into the crowd, Sakura took serious note of the building she'd been standing beside. It was tall, at least ten or eleven stories high, looming over the river and many of its neighbors with its gleaming, dark wooden exterior. Certainly it was one of those ritzy hotels Sakura had seen up and down the boardwalk.

It looked expensive. She could probably afford it, especially for just one night, but a lone girl renting out a hotel room was pretty suspicious, wasn't it? Civilian kids her age usually weren't by themselves in a big city like this. Would checking in here draw more attention than wandering around for another hour?

It does look nice, though, Sakura thought. She hadn't slept in a real bed for a solid week and hadn't bathed since getting out of the hospital in Suna. It wasn't like she was going to make the village pay for it, either – she had money. Showing up back home with so much ryo would actually be a bad thing: people would ask questions about what she did to get it.

Decided, she skirted the edge of the crowd and went through the double doors of the hotel. Belatedly she noticed the fancy sign above the door that read Alestidae Hotel. Seemed fitting enough.

If the outside had been pleasant to look at, the inside of Alestidae was a feast for the eyes. Rich hardwood covered every inch of the lobby's floors and the morning sun was allowed to spill into the room from top-to-bottom bay widows that looked out over the river. Never before in her life had Sakura seen such a den of opulence. Not even the Hokage Tower back home was this nice.

She ignored the looks and whispers from some of the guests in favor of staring slack-jawed like a true yokel at everything she saw. Further in, Sakura could look straight up from the middle of the room and see the sky – the middle of the building was hollowed out with the top capped with an enormous skylight. All the hotel's rooms were lining the central atrium and Sakura saw people walking along the railing.

The magic of the moment was broken by a hash cough from the service desk. Behind the beautiful mahogany counter, a well-dressed man of youngish years stared at her with a gaze that was one tick away from being murderous. When Sakura didn't immediately jump to attention, his little pencil mustache started to bristle.

"Can I help you?" he asked, louder and rougher than his fake cough. Sakura imagined that the man had a point to be abrasive, given how nice everything in here was and how shabby she looked.

To Sakura's annoyance, the top of the desk very nearly went over her head and she had to stand on the tips of her toes to not completely embarrass herself.

"I'd like to rent a room," Sakura said. She hoped her voice sounded as even as she had intended.

It didn't. The concierge looked at her as if she were a small child who had wondered in off the street. Which she was, really. "Are your parents guests here? Do you know their room number?" Even that sounded forced. It was obvious the man was just trying to hustle her out of the hotel without making a scene.

"My parents are a hundred miles away. I just told you that I want a room."

"We do not allow children to rent rooms. If your parents are not guests, then—"

Sakura cut him off by slamming her forehead protector down on his very nice desk. "I want," she said again, slowly, "a room."

The man looked at the polished bit of metal like it was a snake ready to bite. It was the same kind of reaction that Floki had shown at his village when he'd found out Sakura was a ninja. He flicked it away as if its sitting on his desk was somehow ruining it.

Still, to Sakura's satisfaction he pulled out a check-in book.

"How long will you be staying? What accommodations do you want? Will your business affect the other guests?"

"One night, just a basic room, and of course not." Sakura made an effort to keep a smile on her face if only to annoy the man.

She became a tad worried when he smiled back. "Our regular rooms are all booked up, I'm afraid."

Of course they were. Sakura may not have known much about checking into a hotel, but she certainly knew when someone was lying for their own convenience. It took a bit of effort not to groan, "So what do you have available?"

"Only our luxury suites," he said, growing smugger by the second. "They run for five hundred ryo a night." The man's pen clicked as he pulled it from his pocket. "Shall I book one for you?" The look of serine grace on his face was beatific; at this moment he was euphoric in the knowledge that soon the dirty little maybe-a-ninja would be out back on the street and out of his hair.

Therefore, it was an incredible surprise when Sakura started counting out ryo. "I'll pay in advance," she said, slapping down a third of her available funds on the desk. It was worth the money to see the concierge look as if he'd just swallowed a frog; his little mustache was now just a thin line above his clenched lips.

Deciding to take a bit of pity on the man, she asked, "Is there a place close to the hotel where I can buy a few changes of clothes?"

A perfectly manicured finger pointed to a hallway on the far side of the lobby. "Thehotelboasts a full boutique."

"Are the prices there as reasonable as your room rates?"

Sakura could hear the concierge's teeth grind and his pen slipped from writing in the registry. "Our prices are competitive for the area," he snarled.

Sakura decided that was enough revenge for the time being. She thanked the man when he informed her of the Alestidae's various amenities. The suits all came with three complimentary meal servings per dayas well as laundry and water taxi services. She would have to check out before noon tomorrow, but that was fine with Sakura.

Surprisingly, the Alestidae's boutique was somewhat reasonable with its prices. Most everything inside was obviously intended for tourists, but Sakura found a few pieces of clothing with decent stitching and practicality. Three full sets of casual clothes ate another two hundred or so ryo, but it was money well-spent. She was still wearing the dirty clothes Baki had given her in Suna, after all. Next to that even a burlap sack would be a welcome change.

Ignoring the looks staff and the other guests were giving her, Sakura happily started up to the floor of the hotel where her suite was. It took more than a few minutes to make it all the way to the top of the atrium and Sakura was starting to breath heavy when she reached the last stair landing.

It was quiet at the top. Sakura took a moment to catch her breath and surveyed her new home for the time being. She'd left behind the bulk of the guests a few floors down and it looked like no one even shared rooms up here with her. There were only a handful of doors, too. Sakura looked at her key – room 603. That was directly across from her, on the side facing the river.

The splendor from downstairs was nothing compared to what waited for Sakura when she opened the door to her suite. A beautiful sitting room was before her, complete with a loveseat and a few chairs, but then the space opened into a lavish living area. Sakura trudged inside and tossed her bags onto a leather sofa that was sitting just inside. Space-wise, Floki could have sailed two of his boats into the room and have room to spare. To one side, Sakura spied a kitchenette behind a cutaway bar that faced the enormous bay windows that dominated the river-side wall. As a ninja she naturally was wary of so much open glass, but the view was undeniable. The entire Funaho delta was spread out before her.

Sakura felt so out of place here. There were paintings and sculptures and potted plants of all shapes and sizes in this suite; there was even a piano set off to one side. Not even three hours ago she'd been asleep in a rotting old deck chair on the Sepiida.

Moving on, Sakura finally discovered exactly what she'd been dreaming of: a massive four-poster bed that took up nearly an entire wall by itself and, even more glorious than that, a full bathroom with a sunken marble tub. Sakura wasted no time opening the water full blast. She gathered more complimentary hotel hygienic amenities than one road-weary girl could carry and dumped a precious mini bottle of shampoo into the water. When it was good and sudsy she shed her clothes and sank into sweet-smelling bliss.

The bubbles and water did much to ease the many knots and kinks that had worked their way into Sakura's muscles over the course of her mission. Her tub at home was only big enough to stretch out in; this one was suitable for dog paddles if she so desired. Sakura took a deep breath and let her head sink under the suds and water, nearly forgetting the lack of air for a pleased groan as the heat seeped into her scalp. Sakura wouldn't have believed them if someone told her that she could still get sunburned with a full head of hair before this trip.

It was a solid hour before Sakura felt clean enough to grudgingly get out of the tub. What had gone in as a dirty, smelly kid came out pruned-but-groomed kid. Sakura wrapped up in one of the big, fluffy hotel towels and stepped up to the vanity. Like with the complimentary shampoo and conditioner, there were basics waiting on her such as a nail file and a few combs and brushes which she availed herself of.

"Hair's grown," Sakura mused as she brushed her pink mop out. By her estimation it had added an inch or two since leaving Konoha. It didn't really matter to her since she was fine with letting it grow as long as it would, but now it rested nearly at the base of her spine. She opened a few of the vanity's drawers and discovered just what she was looking for: a handful of hair ties. A few minutes of finagling later and she had her locks in a passable braid. Tightly wound, it still reached her lower back, but now it was simply a weight resting on her back and not a constant distraction.

Well, it wasn't a distraction as long as she reminded herself it most certainly did not mimic Ino's preferred hairstyle. "Even if it did, I wear it better," she told her reflection.

That bit of business concluded, Sakura wandered back into the bedroom – her bedroom – and looked over the outfits she'd bought. River's climate was nowhere near as harsh as Suna's, so she felt comfortable with just a pullover short sleeved tee and some kaki tourist shorts.

She stepped up to the mirror and almost didn't recognize the girl staring back. The Suna sun had cooked any exposed skin during the hazy span of time she'd been unconscious after beating the Rain-nin in the desert. Suna's hospital had tempered the worst of it with ointments and oil treatments, but there was sun scarring on her arms and legs in the form of dark, rough patches of skin. The blotches mixed with the white scars that stood out even starker against her tan.

Not all the chances were so negative, though. Sakura tensed her arm and was pleased with the way it instantly firmed up. Her morning exercise was starting to pay off; there was a deftness to her movements now that hadn't been there before leaving Konoha.

In short, Sakura felt good. She felt fit and clean and rested and, most importantly, recovered. The day she'd woken up in the caravan's makeshift hospital seemed a lifetime ago, as did her injuries. A good soak in a hot tub had been just the thing to wash away the last lingering aches.

She practically skipped back to the suite's living room. The kitchen was bare of anything to fix, but she did discover a room service menu sitting on the bar. Unfortunately, breakfast had already passed; she'd spent too long in the tub.

A trip to go and find something to eat suited Sakura. She wanted to move around some after being trapped on the Sepiida for days on end. Without all the extra baggage Sakura had carried up with her, the trip back down to the lobby took only a few moments. Guests gaped and grumbled when she squeezed past them on the stairwells, but Sakura, seized with a new wellspring of energy, nimbly avoided any type of collisions. The tight squeezes and exasperated looks reminded Sakura of the gymnastics she'd been pulling at home every morning for the last few months. She could only imagine the looks she'd get if she started using chakra to cling to the walls. Maybe she'd do it just once, on her way to check out tomorrow.

No one glanced at her when she made it to the ground floor. The unkempt girl in rags with ratty hair covered in a hundred miles of dirt and dust was gone and now she blended in with the other preppy tourists. She was just another face in the crowd – until the concierge caught her eye. He waved her over and Sakura readied herself for another round with the man.

"Madam, you will have to forgive me," he said the moment Sakura was within hearing distance. "I was discourteous and rude during your check-in."

That was certainly not what Sakura had expected. It threw her for such a loop that she kept the anxious man waiting for a beat longer than was probably healthy, given the way he was wringing his hands. She did remember how to be polite eventually. "Oh, ah, it's no problem? I know what I must have looked like walking into such a nice place like this."

"It was still irresponsible of me to be so off-putting. It's entirely my fault and—"

Sakura held up her hands. People were starting to stare again, only this time because of the gratuitous apologies being heaped upon her. "Did you get in trouble with your supervisor or something? You can tell him that I love the room; it makes up for everything. No complaints from me."

The concierge reached under his desk, fished out an envelope, and held it out. "I am pleased to hear everything is to your liking. If there is anything you need, please ask."

There was an official-looking seal on the front of the envelope that Sakura didn't recognize and it was sealed with a fancy bit of wax. She popped it and quickly scanned the contents.

"Lady Sakura…cordially invited…dinner reception?" Sakura's forehead crinkled when she got to the end. "They're having a formal dinner at the capitol building and they want me to attend? What is this?"

"They have one every week and they always invite people of note. It's quite the honor." The man squirmed a bit. More than just quite an honor judging by how apologetic he'd gotten. "A courier delivered it a few minutes ago. I was about to have someone run it up to your room."

Sakura considered that. Maoto Ning, the Undersecretary of Commerce, must have had a hand in it. She hadn't wanted to skirt any closer to the "taking on clients without village permission" line than she already had, but Sakura had to admit she was a bit flattered. Anything that could cowl a concierge at a fancy hotel like this was probably pretty important.

"I don't have any clothes for a fancy party like this," she said, not-so-subtly glancing up at the man behind the service desk.

"Of course, the Alestidae boutique also stocks evening ware."

Sakura shifted closer. "And everything there was so beautiful, but after making myself presentable for the hotel's standards, as well as paying for a suite, I just don't know if I can swing the cost…"

"Perhaps, for a valued guest, you could enjoy a premium discount."

"Oh, but that's still so much and I have a long way to go. I don't want to spend all my money now, you see. I guess I'll just have to tell Maoto-san that I can't come. He's the Undersecretary of Commerce, you see, and—"

And there was the look of barely-contained loathing Sakura had come to expect from the concierge; his little pencil mustache didn't look right unless it was bristling. "Perhaps the honored guest should simply pick something out," he said, pulling the words from his mouth as if someone were pulling teeth instead. "The Alestidae would be…honored to oblige. To correct our earlier rudeness."

Sakura smiled and said her thanks before skipping back toward the boutique. Tonight just got a lot more interesting.

I know I promised action this chapter, but it's already over 8k words and I wanted to keep up my writing momentum. Somehow I managed to update this in just a tad over a month! That's a record for me, I think.

As I said in the last chapter's notes, I ship out for basic training in August. That gives me a month and a week to get as much done as possible in this story. God willing, I might be able to get another two chapters out the same length as this one so I can leave my dear Loyalty readers with a more-or-less complete story arc all the way up to Sakura's return to Konoha. She's getting closer to home, that girl.

In any event, thank you for reading and leaving me reviews last chapter. I hope you enjoy today's offering and look forward to next chapter!