Solstice, Chapter 1
The air was filled with the stench of fish and horse manure, the heavy clop of hooves and the creak of rolling wheels nearly drowning out the cries of the hundreds of merchants congregating on both sides of the makeshift platform.
A ceaseless flood of people poured from the horse-drawn carriages and merged with the shifting sea of bodies in this place, thousands of voices melding into a dull and singular roar. Coachmen barely had a chance to unload their cargo before they were once again hefting luggage onto the racks, as groups that boarded for departure were almost immediately replaced by incoming parties. A barely tangible spring breeze drifting over the sweaty, dirt-smudged faces served as the only relief from the oppressive heat generated by the tightly packed bodies.
Towards the outskirts of this massive crowd stood Naruto, a lone blonde head in a sea of brunette.
Huffing impatiently as he craned his neck to see above the turbulent masses, he cursed his own eagerness to take on the task at hand. He was only half-Japanese himself, so it was only natural that he would jump at the opportunity to receive the Asian-American that was to become his lord's English tutor. What he hadn't anticipated upon volunteering, however, was how long carriages took to get from the opposite side of the country to Edo.
Snorting softly, he watched hopefully as another team of horses came into view, only to curse in disappointment as they continued trotting straight through the station. Uzumaki Naruto had never been a very patient person, but he was beginning to wonder if this mysterious 'Haruno-san' from America would ever arrive. It simply wouldn't do if they had changed their mind and failed to send notice that they weren't going to make the journey to Japan, after all.
Rocking on the balls of his feet, he sighed for the umpteenth time that afternoon, wiping the perspiration from his furrowed brow.
In the wake of the recent and somewhat unexpected onslaught of Westerners, Japan was struggling to keep up. The days of the shogunate were over, and the time had finally come to accept the new world order and change with the times or forever be lost in history. His master was one of a handful of Great Lords that had decided to learn English once it became apparent that the Westerners had no intentions of leaving—if only as a precaution. America was beginning to take a firmer hold on Japan's resources by the day, and more and more often it was necessary to communicate with the Western people. Never had any of the shogun (or, ex-shogun, as it were) in Japan liked to depend upon a person other than themselves for communication, and the need to summon a translator was viewed by many as a substantial weakness. After all, how could the notoriously Western-wary people of Japan be certain that their American mouthpiece was being entirely truthful?
For this reason alone, his lord had grimly sent for another half-Japanese like Naruto, despite the blonde's protests that he knew the language perfectly well. To this, Naruto was greeted with a rare, fleeting laugh and a reply that "if you speak English like you speak our native tongue, that's hardly what I'd consider perfectly well."
The blonde sighed, yawning widely and scratching the nape of his neck as a small carriage—room only for one, he supposed—pulled to a stop directly before him, the coachman rapping on the door for the sake of politeness as he took the trunks and set them neatly on the cobbles. There was a long moment of stillness before a delicate, pale hand drew the window curtain aside to give a partial view of a most unusual woman.
Her face was half-obscured by curtain and the grimy window, but Naruto managed to catch the flash of a smile before she pushed the door open herself, staring out at the station with a look of awe. Normally, he would have laughed at anyone looking at this dirty section of Edo like that, but with this woman he could do little more than stare.
Her eyes were a delicate shade of spring green, bright and clear, and she was wearing a bizarre sky blue dress trimmed in ivory. The sleeves sat low on her shoulders, the material hugging her waist before spreading to such an impossible width at her hips that it left him wondering how such a small frame could possibly hold up so much fabric. She reached up to unlace the small travelling hat from her head, and Naruto was once again taken aback as she smoothly pulled it away.
If her wardrobe did not set her out of place in a country where women were seen in nothing but conservative kimono and yukata, then certainly her hair would: it was pink.
Staring up at this intriguing woman, Naruto did the only logical thing that came to mind and extended his arm to her, offering her a strong, tanned hand. Instantly, her emerald irises were focused only on him, and the intensity of her gaze might have discouraged a man with a stronger sense of self-preservation. An almost cursory soft smile was still present on her lips, but mistrust was evident in the stiff line of her neck.
He offered her a genuine grin.
"May I assist you?" he asked her in English, because this lady was obviously not from Japan. Though, looking at her as she set her small hand in his and stepped out of the coach, her eyes were unmistakably almond in shape and slightly slanted, her bone structure and short stature hinting at Japanese lineage.
She looked at him for a long moment with pools of fathomless jade before smiling a lady's smile, comprehension drifting across her eyes.
"You must be Uzumaki-san?" she prompted him in Japanese, surprising him. He had not expected her to know their language.
Actually, he hadn't expected her to know his name, either.
But then, her knowing his name would mean that she knew who he was, which would mean that she was the English tutor his lord had sent for.
He had been expecting a man, someone old and all business and—and not this!
"You're—I mean, are you the—" he took a breath, starting over. "You're the one he sent for?"
She frowned at him.
"Were you anticipating something…different?" she asked, gesturing vaguely at herself. He opened and closed his mouth several times, looking every bit a fish out of water, before managing to find any words at all.
"Well, I mean…yes."
Her frown deepened, a gentle tip of the lips, before she crossed her arms firmly beneath her breasts. Naruto tried really hard not to glance down at the added cleavage she had exposed with the action.
"You were expecting a man," she said, rather forcefully.
"Y-Yes," he managed.
"Perhaps with some sort of handicap."
"Because you believe a young woman is not suited for work?"
"Ye—I mean, no! No, not at all, it's just—you—you're not…"
She raised a fine pink brow at him.
"I suspect," she said, her tone clipped, "that your master is awaiting our arrival."
He looked at her incredulously. This woman was…well, not at all what he would expect from a person coming to tutor an ex-shogun. She was beautiful, stubborn, and, beneath all of her skirts and hair, not a lady at all.
Naruto nodded at her, smiling to himself as he picked up her luggage. Somehow, he had a feeling that his lord would be just as surprised as he was—which only made his smile crack wider.
They would certainly have their hands full.
They were nearly at the estate. Travel through this poor section of Edo was fast, seeing as there were never any carriages about. No one could afford them, here.
The woman, Haruno Sakura, she had told him her name was, looked away from the window and raised a brow at him, silently urging him to continue.
"I was just surprised, that's all," Naruto said sheepishly, scratching the nape of his neck again. "My master…well, he sort of implied that you were a man."
She smiled softly, and the blonde saw an emotion he couldn't pinpoint drift across her face before she looked back out at the passing villages.
"I know," she said after a pause, returning her gaze to his. "Can I confide something, Naruto-san?"
He flushed at the formality, nodding. She smiled, biting her lower lip gently.
"I may not have been entirely upfront about myself before I came here," she admitted hesitantly, the pink flush of shame dancing across her cheekbones. Naruto blinked a few times, surprised at her honesty. He had known all along that it was extremely unlikely that his lord had knowingly employed a woman for such an important task, but until now he had been willing to chalk it up to a misunderstanding on their end, not deception on hers. A slow smile stretched across his lips before he dissolved into a fit of laughter.
Sakura tensed, brow furrowing in confusion.
"I'm sorry," he chuckled, wiping a small tear from his left eye. "It's just…no one's managed to dupe him like that in a long time."
"I'm afraid I don't—"
Naruto shook his head, winking.
"No worries, Haruno-san. Your secret's safe with me."
She studied his face for a moment before smiling back at him, nodding.
"Thank you, Naruto."
Her gratitude was genuine, but before he could ask her for a more detailed account of just what, exactly, she had written in her letters that wasn't "entirely upfront," the carriage lurched to a halt. The woman across from him immediately turned back to the window, and he watched her shoulders slump slightly in disappointment as only terraced green hills greeted her eyes. Naruto smiled softly to himself—her window was on the wrong side of the carriage.
"Just a moment, Haruno-san," he said politely, pushing the door open before once again turning to offer her his hand. He studied her face eagerly as she slowly stepped out of the carriage, her green eyes lighting up with wonder at the grand estate before them.
"It's beautiful," she breathed, forgetting her belongings as she took a few tentative steps towards the front gates. Naruto smiled, thanking the coachman as he gave him his coin and gesturing for one of the servants to collect the luggage.
He stepped before her, inclining his head slightly towards the long path to the front.
Uchiha Sasuke stood on the wooden porch overlooking the garden of his estate, wondering vaguely why his servants even bothered to keep it up. It wasn't as if he cared for the flowers that grew here, or the greenness of the grass.
Perhaps they thought it pleased him, to have this one, gigantic reminder of his mother.
Honestly, he'd rather see it burn.
He sighed deeply, suddenly quite weary of everything. The life of an ex-shogun was hardly what he'd call glorious—but then, life for him never had been. He had little time for anything these days, what with the Americans constantly banging on Japan's door. Everything was negotiation, with Westerners, with the Japanese, with other former members of the shogunate…and he was sick of it.
People from the Western world wanted nothing more than their trading goods, despite their efforts at convincing them it was for their own good that they were ending Japan's isolated ways. It was easy for anyone in his position to see that it was a load of bullshit fed to the Japanese people on a silver spoon, but nothing could be done—not with American guns always pointed at their backs. They had come on their ships with cannons raised, prepared to use any means necessary to make the Emperor cooperate. With war on his doorstep, Sarutobi was left with little choice but to schedule a meeting with American ambassadors; the treaty papers he signed were the beginning of an end for Japan—or, at least, the Japan that Sasuke and his fellow shogun (former, he reminded himself) knew.
Sighing again, Sasuke attempted to clear his head. The tutor he had contracted from America would be arriving any minute, and it wouldn't do for him to be agitated. Though he had little patience for formalities, playing the gracious host for the time being would be far more palatable than finding himself at the wrong end of a Westerner's gun simply because he had offended some overly sensitive English teacher.
Footsteps sounded from behind him, and he knew from their slowness and the quiet yet awkward way that she dropped to her knees and bowed that it was Hinata.
"Uchiha-sama, t-the tutor has arrived."
She spoke with the same quiet deliberation with which she moved.
Vaguely, he wondered if it had been a mistake to ask them to come at all. Perhaps he would instigate a rebellion with the remainder of the former shogunate, or maybe the Americans would realize it was a waste of their time to bother with the small group of islands that was Japan.
The girl behind him shifted slightly, discomfited by his silence.
Regardless, he supposed it would be better to work his way into the Westerner's good graces for now, in spite of the bitter taste it left in his mouth.
"Take them to my office. Instruct them to wait for me there."
Sakura's brow unconsciously furrowed as she listened to Naruto having a rather fast exchange with the woman across from them.
They had barely stepped into the main room of the estate when the girl had abruptly stormed in from around the corner, anger radiating from her slender frame in waves. After little more than a glance at Sakura, she had promptly pushed a finger into a befuddled Naruto's face and begun berating him in seething Japanese.
From what little Sakura could gather from the conversation, her name was Ino. She was wearing a simple green yukata—something that seemed radically out of place in accompaniment with her pale blonde hair and blue-green eyes.
Naruto, she could tell, was part Japanese. This woman clearly was not, however, and she wondered vaguely how she had come to be of service to the notoriously Western-wary shogun.
Naruto let out a rather indignant cry before shaking his head in disbelief at something that had been said—the two were obviously arguing, and the woman was gesturing wildly. Sakura caught her own name somewhere in the mass of quick-paced syllables, and Uchiha-sama's as well.
Regardless, she could feel a massive headache coming on from trying to decipher the rapid speech. While excellent in America, her knowledge of the Japanese language was, as she had discovered on her journey, little more than passable in its native country. She could understand almost everything if spoken to directly, and her accent was spot-on. However, it simply took her brain too long to translate complete sentences for her to pick up much of anything in the midst of the two blondes' rapidfire exchange.
The fact that they probably knew and were counting on this was beginning to irritate her, as the strange girl's cerulean eyes kept flashing over in her direction.
Inwardly, Sakura shook her head of the disheveled phrases she had been trying to decipher, lest she give herself a migraine. Outwardly, she pursed her lips and crossed her arms—something she had gotten in the habit of doing since she was small—and waited for them to finish.
Abruptly, and with a rather unladylike snort, the fair-haired woman turned to Sakura, stepping in front of Naruto and dropping to her knees to bow with her forehead nearly touching the floor, fingertips pressed together before her.
"It's lovely to make your acquaintance, Lady Sakura," she said in forcibly polite English, rising far too quickly for the bow to be sincere. Sakura had known that the woman was completely American, but was still taken aback by the sudden language switch.
The girl searched Sakura's face, her own hard and unsmiling.
"My name is Ino."
Sakura narrowed her eyes at the woman before her, hardly believing her cordial tone. The least she could do was try to smile; after all, even Sakura knew how to feign sincerity when the occasion demanded.
"I had gathered," Sakura returned in syrupy Japanese—she wasn't about to pretend if this girl wasn't.
Ino frowned, opening her mouth to say something, but she was cut off by a quiet, feminine voice drifting in an open door across the main room.
"I-Ino-san, he requests that they w-wait in his office."
Naruto turned towards the voice, beaming. Sakura searched the open doorway, but found only a small, feminine hand gently grasping the side of the screen from outside, as if afraid she might break it if she held any tighter.
"Thanks, Hinata-chan!" called the blonde man.
Sakura didn't miss the way the hand gripped the frame more tightly at his voice, and wondered why whoever it was refrained from coming in. Were they intimidated by Ino, or herself? She supposed she couldn't blame them, given the rather loud and heated exchange that had occurred just moments earlier. Perhaps it was some absurd Japanese custom to wait outside until invited.
Sakura was about to open her mouth to tell whomever it was to come in, but she didn't get the chance.
"Follow me," said Ino curtly, back to Japanese.
Sakura cast a last glance back at the hand before doing as she was told and following the woman down the hall.
Ino shut the screen behind them with a snap, and Sakura took in the room she and Naruto had been led to.
Bookshelves lined the walls on either side of them, filled with scrolls—Sakura even spotted a few leather-bound tomes with English titles down the spine. At the far end of the room was a low table, some cushions spread around it as seating. Beyond it was another open door which led to the gardens, a small pool surrounded by greenery visible. Distantly, Sakura could hear a bamboo fountain's hollow, rhythmic clacking from somewhere further outside.
Taking in the neat, purposeful organization of the shelves and the perfectly placed cushions, Sakura couldn't help but think that whatever kind of person this Uchiha Sasuke was, he was extremely tidy.
Silence filled the room, but for the soft sounds of nature drifting in through the open screen. The quiet was growing slightly uncomfortable, and she racked her brains for something—anything—to chat about.
Thinking back to the mysterious hand, Sakura turned slightly to Naruto.
"Who was she?" she asked softly, afraid to disturb the quiet of the room.
He looked at her oddly.
"Who was who, Haruno-san?"
"Please, Naruto, you don't have to be so formal," she said with a smile. "That hand on the screen…why wouldn't she come in?"
Naruto's expression visibly shifted to something indiscernible.
"Sakura-chan, then," he amended with a stiff sort of cheer. "That was Hinata. She's another servant here, like Ino."
"Is it some sort of custom, then? Is that why she didn't come in?"
Frowning, Naruto looked outside absently.
"Hinata-chan doesn't like strangers to see her."
"Why not?" asked Sakura, brows furrowed.
Naruto turned back to her, searching her face and seeming to contemplate over whether or not he should say anything at all. She wondered what sort of relationship he had with the girl, for him to take this much care in revealing her secrets.
Then again, based on their few interactions thus far, Naruto just seemed to care about people in general. It was a good quality, not to mention rare.
He continued to look right through her, and just when Sakura was beginning to think he wasn't going to say much of anything, he began to talk.
"She was from a powerful clan, once—the Hyuuga," here he paused, searching her face momentarily before returning his gaze to the open entryway once more. "Their house is notorious for excellent fighters…even the women can handle a sword. With Hinata-chan, it was always different, though. She was clumsy, and she couldn't fight like the rest of the girls her age; a lot of them picked on her, and eventually her father got so angry that he even tried teaching her himself." He stopped for a moment, taking a deep breath through his nose before wrinkling it slightly, lip curling with distaste. "Regardless, when she was seven, her family disowned her. She came here, was given work, and…that's it—she's been here ever since."
Naruto turned his cobalt irises back to her, and almost immediately Sakura's overlarge heart broke.
To have your own family boot you from their household…how terrible the girl must have felt. It had been hard enough for Sakura to be accepted in school, with her pink hair and strange, slanted eyes—but to come home and know that no one in your family was there to comfort you…
What an awful existence.
"They disowned her because her clumsiness was dishonorable?" she asked, shaking her head. "How cruel."
He looked her in the eye again, a small frown on his face.
"Naruto," interrupted an unfamiliar voice, rich and masculine, "where is the tutor?"
Both heads turned towards the newcomer, standing in the doorway with one hand tucked casually near the belt of his robes. Naruto immediately stood taller, squaring himself to the man in the entrance to the gardens and pulling his chin up. He clucked his tongue softly.
Sakura, however, found herself incapable of doing much but staring.
Just as Naruto had not found what he had been led to expect at the station this morning, so too did Sakura experience a similar feeling of bewilderment at the sight that greeted her. From the stiff formality of his letters to the rumors spread that the former shogun were nothing more than a group of stubborn old men clinging to archaic tradition, she had always envisioned Uchiha Sasuke to be someone many years older than the person across from her now. He couldn't have been more than a year or two beyond her own age, at most, and was—she was almost ashamed to admit it to herself—surprisingly good-looking.
"This is the tutor, Sasuke," said Naruto from her right. Shaking herself mentally, Sakura clasped her hands delicately before her and bowed slightly at the waist, making sure to smile charmingly at him as she straightened.
His face remained blank and impassive as he looked her over, raising an eyebrow. He turned back to Naruto.
Sakura puffed up immediately, narrowing her eyes at the man and taking an involuntary step forward.
While she may not have been completely upfront about certain aspects of her physical person in their correspondence, the fact that he had immediately disregarded her presence entirely and turned not to her, but to Naruto with his question had her bristling. Ever since she was a child, her father had taught her to never let anyone talk down to her just because she was a girl. She had fought tooth and nail in America to be seen as something other than a woman, someone to be stepped upon and used. Her father had warned her that in Japan things were far worse, and Sakura had been prepared to defend herself from the moment she stepped out of that carriage in Edo. The facts that this man was both her employer and a very powerful ex-shogun weren't about to deter her now.
"You were expecting a man, I realize," Sakura began, rather forcefully, and in her very best Japanese. He turned his dark eyes back towards her, looking her over once more with a bored sort of disdain. "However—"
"At the very least," he interjected coolly, turning back to the blonde beside her in yet another blatant dismissal, "I was anticipating someone more…capable."
Sakura downright snarled—to hell with manners.
"Listen here," she practically seethed, "I'm just as capable as any other man you could have asked to come here, not to mention experienced. I'm certainly more capable than you, you pi—"
A large, tanned hand promptly slapped itself over her mouth, effectively cutting off the remainder of her speech.
"Sasuke," said Naruto, positively beaming at the man across from him, "meet Haruno Sakura."
Uh, yes, hi, hello! It has been a very long time since I have contributed anything to the fandom, or even to this story...but I always find myself drawn back to Naruto sooner or later, and I was quite unwilling to let this work rot any longer than it already has. I'm in the midst of making some major edits to the plot thus far as well as working out the kinks in writing that is well over three years old, at this point. But enough of my rambling! Read, enjoy, and please don't be afraid to review or ask questions! Questions are my favorite.
Until next we meet,