Solstice, Chapter Four

"…I don't believe him! That swine! That self righteous bastard! That…that—!"

With a final snarl, Sakura reigned in her rampant tongue—it simply wouldn't do to give him the satisfaction of being so thoroughly upset with him. After all, it had probably been his intention to provoke her into yet another confrontation, a well-thought-out plot to remove the pink-haired woman he so detested from his home.

Sakura had half a mind to resign to it, to let him send her back to America and find a new tutor (an absolute vision of manliness, no doubt) to replace her. What sense was there in remaining here if her employer hated her and his primary housemaid was out to make her life as miserable as humanly possible? Aside from Naruto, who she rarely saw, and Hinata, who was likely so shaken by their last conversation that she would never speak to her again, Sakura had no friends in this place—no friends in this entire country. The pay was barely enough to get her back home at the end of her year-long stay with some change, and Sakura knew that the pressure of working under such abrasive conditions would someday begin to affect her mind if she wasn't careful.

But from a very young age, Sakura's father had drilled into her head the notion that the humiliation of surrender was far worse than the shame of defeat. It was a Japanese ideal to the core, and one that she had strived to embody all of her life. To give up that mantra now was to abandon her sensibilities entirely.

Straightening her shoulders and composing her features, Sakura quickened her pace with determination as she approached the next corner—


—only to stumble, rather gracelessly, into someone's arms.

He had grown tired of waiting.

Naruto had failed to meet him in the usual place, and so he had instead begun to take another leisurely stroll around the estate in search of the busty blonde girl when he had stopped to overhear a most interesting exchange between Uchiha and his new pink-haired tutor.

Smiling that same twisted smile, unnatural and sharp, he had listened to them argue—and when she had stormed off, he took the opportunity to wait for her. If things went awry and Danzo found out that he had purposefully shown himself to her, there would be trouble; but he had once read that all women were in need of constant comforting, and it would be rude not to offer it to her…especially when it appeared that Haruno Sakura was a little more noteworthy than he had originally suspected.

When she quite literally fell into his arms, he had to restrain the devilish faux-smile that threatened to overcome his features, carefully composing them instead into an expression that he hoped conveyed an appropriate degree of concern.

"P-pardon me," the woman stammered, giving him a quick bow as he helped to right her. "I'm sorry, I wasn't—"

"No, no," he cut in, "the fault is entirely mine, I should have been paying more attention—are you all right?" He made sure to pitch his voice with just the right amount of worry, letting his hands linger on her shoulders as if to make sure she had her balance.

"I…yes, I'm fine," she said firmly, blushing rather indignantly as his fingers slid away from her skin. She had a temper he would have to be careful with, at least for the time being.

"My deepest apologies," he said, giving her the most formal bow possible while remaining on his feet. "I was on my way to report to Sasuke-sama and I was shamefully distracted. But I hope…I hope you will not mention this encounter to anyone? I'm one of the security regiment for the estate and I'm supposed to be neither seen nor heard, you understand…"

He watched as her wariness of him eased with his explanation, the tension in her back melting away as she readily accepted his alibi, though no one had ever informed her of any such guards on duty. How naively trusting she was…it would certainly make her an easy target in the future, supposing her value went beyond a startling talent of being able to effortlessly antagonize Uchiha.

Not, he checked himself, that that ability would be rendered entirely useless.

"Of course," she said kindly, smiling sympathetically at him. "Your secret is safe with me."

He crafted his features carefully into his best attempt at a relieved smile, knowing that there was still some tension in it—smiles were always the most difficult, but hopefully she would only take the stiffness in his expression as some residual worry. Quickly, he recomposed his features, lamenting the complications that emotions brought into a conversation.

"Oh! How rude of me, I've forgotten to introduce myself," he said, face shifting yet again. He bowed deeply at the waist, looking forward to all the openings he knew she would give him in the future. "My name is Sai."

She bowed in return. "Haruno Sakura…I am Uchiha-sama's tutor."

He forced his eyes to widen a little as he straightened.

"Surely not!" he murmured, putting on his best surprised tone.

Her eyes narrowed slightly, though her smile stayed in place.

"Whatever do you mean?" she asked. He pushed down a sense of bewilderment at her syrupy tone. Had he said something wrong? Tilting his head to the side, he recalled being told once before that the easiest way to distract a woman was to compliment her.

"Only that…pardon my boldness, Sakura-san, but surely no one so beautiful could subject themselves to Sasuke-sama's ugly manners?"

Years of training allowed him to catch the fleeting surprise and rosy flush that danced across her face before she quickly covered it with a light laugh, one small hand reaching up to cover her mouth. He flashed her what he hoped to be a passably charming smile. By the way her own fell slightly and her brows furrowed, he knew the expression hadn't been his best work. He offered her a final bow, more a quick angling of his torso than anything, before preparing himself for departure.

"Please accept my apologies once again, Sakura-san—but I'm afraid I must excuse myself, I'm already late for my report."

She nodded, and bowed again in return.

"It was nice to meet you, Sai-san," she murmured.

He felt her eyes on his back as he walked away, and once again allowed that eerie un-smile to split across his face.

She didn't entirely trust in him yet, he could tell, but he was confident that he would be able to salvage what good had come from their conversation later. He would be the first to admit that he had been sloppy and unprepared to deal with someone like her, but Danzo would be pleased to know that he had made somewhat successful contact with the girl that all of Edo was so fascinated with.

And next time, he would be ready.

Sasuke waited until Ino had exited his office to put down the scroll he had been pretending to read, lacing his fingers in front of his chin and staring blankly ahead of him.

The blonde had informed him of the recent departure of Danzo's favorite dog, and he had no doubts that Naruto would be in soon to tell him something similar.

Regardless of the fact that he continually returned despite countless refusals, Sai wasn't a complete idiot. He had to know that both Naruto and Ino were reporting back to him in regards to his presence here…so why the secrecy? Why avoid confronting him directly about the information he sought? This had been going on for months now, and Sasuke had grown tired of the game a long time ago.

Obviously, Sai was working for Danzo, though he had yet to come outright and say it—he was a pawn that the Emperor's advisor notoriously favored. That Sai was so well-known in this area brought up questions of its own: clearly, he was very good at whatever it was that he did, or else he would have never been used here. What his uses were, exactly, remained to be discovered—though perhaps that was the entire point.

Sasuke had seen Danzo many a time in the years before his family's massacre, had heard stories of his greatness as well as his unrelenting malice, and knew enough about the man to realize that he only ever kept his own nose out of the game when he thought that something potentially damning could be traced back to him. That meant that whatever he was up to, it was something big—and he needed Naruto and Ino to help him accomplish it.

Which brought up another puzzling matter: why Ino? Sasuke could understand the merits of having someone like Naruto on your side. He was a fearsome samurai, as good with his fists as he was with both sword and spear, and his determination (Sasuke was loath to admit) was something to be admired. But Ino? Ino was a finicky, loud and disdainful woman. Sasuke was aware that she had received some hand-to-hand combat training during her stay with Lord Shikamaru, but it was hardly enough to be called self defense, let alone legitimately useful. She was quick to anger, easily distracted, and increasingly vain. The only reason he even allowed her to keep on at the estate was because she had shown herself to be remarkably loyal to him, even after her banishment to the northernmost Nara forests.

Pushing himself to his feet, he began to pace up and down the length of the small room. There had to be a connection there that Sasuke was missing, aside from the obvious similarities in appearance—but surely—

Sasuke frowned in realization.

Danzo needed Americans.

More importantly, he needed people that would make Sasuke himself look like more of a mockery than he already did. Stripped of his title, without any family of his own, learning the language of the people who had so thoroughly devastated his country and with the whole of Edo swarming with the gossip that he had taken a Western woman as his mistress, it wouldn't take much to utterly destroy him—and Danzo was counting on that. He was counting on the idea that it would only be a matter of the right price, the right bribe.

There was a reason why Sai continued to refuse the two blondes any more details than the facts that their work would be simple, and would take place on the isle of Shikoku. Danzo wanted them kept in the dark, wanted their abandonment to be a surprise even to themselves—if he didn't have them killed first, that is.

While the idea of finally having one of his retainers so close to Amegakure was dreadfully appealing to Sasuke, he knew there was an ample risk involved. He had no idea how, exactly, Danzo planned on skewing their loyalties—or if he even intended to skew them at all. There had to be something deeper going on there.

The Emperor's councilman was far from stupid. He had to know that it was only a matter of time before Sasuke deciphered his plans and figured out a way to counter them.

And if he was planning on Sasuke intercepting his efforts, then what else did he have in store? There were levels here that he couldn't figure out on his own. What he needed was information—on Danzo, on Sai and his organization—and he knew that there was only one place for him to get it.

Sakura stood, as she often did, leaning out the lone window in her room and staring idly down at the gardens.

From the way the sunlight directly behind her bathed the gardens below and the gently sloping hills beyond in fiery shades of orange and red, she knew it must be nearing sunset. That meant that Hinata would be bringing her evening tea soon, and then leading her down to dine with Sasuke. And…and what?

Sakura huffed, burying her face in her hands.

And for all she knew, she could have lost the job. Her father would be so disappointed.

Leaning away from the windowsill, Sakura turned to look at herself in the full-length mirror propped in the corner of her chambers. Her afternoon dress was wrinkled from all the sitting she had been doing (Western fashion was clearly not created for the low-lying tables and floor cushions of Japan), and her disheveled pink hair had long ago come undone from the sloppy bun she had pinned it in that morning. Her eyes harbored all the stress of her afternoon with Sasuke, their subsequent argument, and her ensuing run-in with that strangely stiff man, Sai.

He had given her the strangest feeling—she couldn't quite pinpoint it, but something about his mannerisms and the way he smiled at her had seemed a little off, as if everything he did had the briefest of delays. And that last grin he had given her before excusing himself was downright…predatory.

There was a firmer-than-usual rapping at the shoji screen, and Sakura shook herself of all thoughts of him. She felt shamefully grateful that Hinata would not be able to see her like this.

"Come in," she called gently, hoping for a chance to apologize to the girl for any trouble she may have gotten into with Sasuke.

The screen slid open, and Sakura turned, apology at the tip of her tongue, when her mouth suddenly went very dry.

Ino gave a rigid bow before rising and setting the tea tray on the small table in Sakura's room, not bothering to apologize for the water that sloshed out of the small pot with her rough movements.

"Good evening, Sakura-sama," said the blonde as she turned to face the woman in question, hands clasped demurely before her. A slow, small smirk spread across her full lips as she appraised the pink-haired woman's rather wilted appearance. "Can I help you slip into something more…appropriate for tonight's dinner?"

Sakura's eyes hardened, hands clenching into fists at her sides. She was in no mood for this.

"Where's Hinata-chan?" she asked firmly.

Ino's smirk transformed into an almost wolfish grin.

"Uchiha-san has requested that I take over her duties," said the blonde, voice sweeter than any honey. "I suppose he thought I would be better prepared to meet your needs as a Westerner."

Sakura found her lips parting at the words—so she had gotten Hinata into trouble. Her heart sank into her stomach, a remarkable sadness coming to rest there with it. Hinata had been her only real friend here aside from Naruto, but she hadn't seen much of the carefree blonde since that first day.

Turning to the small, narrow wardrobe beside her bed, Sakura picked the first gown she saw and threw it down across the futon. It was a dusky lavender and hardly appropriate for a formal dinner with a Great Lord (former, she reminded herself sternly), but at the moment she really didn't care to impress him—nor the busty blonde carefully watching her from narrowed eyes across the room. Turning her back to Ino, Sakura lifted her pink mane over her shoulder.

"If you could loosen the strings, I can do the rest," she murmured.

Ino didn't move, just stared at the resigned creature in front of her as if the girl had sprouted a second head. What had happened to the feisty, no-holds-barred girl that Naruto had spoken so highly of?

Everyone knew, of course, about her earlier argument with Sasuke—it was impossible not to know in a house divided only by screens and thin wooden walls—but had it really managed to shake her confidence so much? Damn it all, she had told that idiot Naruto that this would happen. And now she was going to have to clean the whole damn mess up herself.

Sighing roughly, Ino stepped up behind the pink-haired girl and began tugging at the strings of her corset.

"Oh, for heaven's sake, Forehead, pull yourself together," she grumbled, successfully untying the rather elegant bow Hinata had managed to form and working her way up the laces.

"I beg your pardon?" Sakura asked, switching to English in her bewilderment and craning her neck to see the blonde behind her.

Ino met her with a flat stare. "I said: get your shit together."

Sakura balked, and Ino rolled her eyes, turning back to her work.

"Oh, don't act like you've never heard a bad word before…"

Silence filled the room once more as Ino loosened the criss-cross pattern enough for Sakura to slide the dress down over her hips. Left in her thin white slip and corset, the pink-haired woman turned to fully face the taller girl opposite her, only to find her already gathering the second dress in her arms.

"You really should get some less absurd clothing, if you want him to take you seriously," said Ino, scrunching her nose in distaste as she rubbed the fabric between her fingers. "I might have some old things that don't fit anymore, but no promises."

Ino glanced up to find the other woman giving her a bewildered stare.

"Why are you being so nice to me?" Sakura asked, suspicion leaking into her tone. Ino hummed thoughtfully.

"Maybe I'm just bored, Forehead-girl," the blonde quipped, holding the dress out in front of her. "How does this work, anyway?"

From the way the other woman stared at her, Ino knew she wouldn't get off so easily. She sighed again.

"Look, Forehead—"

"My name is Sakura—"

"Whatever," Ino cut in, waving a dismissive hand. "Look, Forehead, I don't want you to get it all mixed up: I'm not your friend. And I'm definitely not your servant, either. But sometimes, a girl needs more people to talk to than a stuttering mess and that blonde idiot. So humor me."

Sakura was torn between punching Ino across the face and hugging her, but she didn't think either was likely to gain her any ground in this area. Ino was…trying. And for that, she was more than grateful.

Ino listened as Sakura taught her how to slide the dress on and how to lace the back of it up properly, feeling an odd sense of accomplishment as she finally reached the bottom of the damn thing and tied the bow—considerably less elegant than Hinata's had been, but pretty nonetheless.

She watched as Sakura smoothed the fabric in the mirror before turning and offering Ino the best bow she could make in her present state. So maybe she had laced it up a little tight.

"Thank you, Ino."

The blonde scoffed, waving both her hands in front of her.

"Don't thank me—you still look absolutely ridiculous in that thing. I'm telling you, Forehead, you really need a new wardrobe."

Sasuke slipped into the candlelit dining hall just as she was settling herself in her designated place, back straight, small hands folded stiffly in her lap. He sat to her left—at the head of the long table—without saying a word. Murmuring a quiet thanks over the meal, he began to eat, and out of the corner of his eye he watched her follow suit after a moment's hesitation.

He clearly made her uncomfortable, a notion that wasn't entirely new to him. He had lived the majority of his life in a relative solitude that was mostly self-imposed, and the comfort of others had never been one of his primary concerns. She had crossed a line this afternoon, and as far as he was concerned had effectively sealed her fate in the process. Naruto had bought her two weeks, and throughout their duration he would take her lessons and play host at these dinners. He had given his word, and so it was done.

But the moment those fourteen days were over with, she would be sent straight back to America. No second chances. No games.

She had wasted enough of his time already, and these days time was one thing of which Sasuke had precious little. If he had known she was a woman—a headstrong, insolent one, at that—he would have never offered her the job in the first place. Not only did it just seem…backwards, but she had no idea how much trouble she had caused simply by being here, for she and him both.

Japan was far different from her precious America. Strange, foreign women didn't take up residence in an elite house to view the local scenery, or to serve as a tutor to someone like himself. To the people of Edo and the surrounding area, she had come to be taken as his mistress. Rumors were flying, his already damaged reputation had been tainted further, and all for naught: she wouldn't even remain for the full year that she had anticipated staying, for the full year that he had hoped to hire…someone for.

Silence filled the room. He noted, dimly, that she had barely touched her food, and suddenly found himself without much of an appetite.

Setting his chopsticks to the side, Sasuke placed his hands flat on the table and was about to push himself upright when she spoke.

"I'm sorry, Uchiha-san," Sakura murmured hurriedly, soft voice breaking the quiet around them before she lost her nerve. His eyes were locked with hers, and she was startled by the intensity she found glimmering in their dark depths.

She cleared her throat lightly before continuing, "It was not my place to ask Hinata anything, nor was it appropriate for me to put my nose where it didn't belong."

He was searching her face for something that she hoped desperately he would find. Resisting the impulse to swallow under the weight of his stare, she noted, not for the first time, how remarkably handsome he was—but there was a hardness in his face and a carelessness to his demeanor which told her that Uchiha Sasuke was a man well used to getting everything he wanted, to being obeyed without question.

It was a disagreeable trait, and one that Sakura was determined not to encourage.

He considered her for a moment longer, face unreadable, before pushing smoothly to his feet. "I'll expect you in my office at noon tomorrow."

Something in her bristled at the command, but she fought it down—she really couldn't afford to press her luck tonight.

"Yes, Uchiha-san," she agreed. Satisfied, he turned and left her without another word, sliding the screen shut behind him with a purposeful snap. Privately, Sakura found herself thinking that the sound felt an awful lot like a new beginning.

Ahhh, this chapter is short and boring and I apologize. It's been a long time since I've written these two and I'm ashamed to say that I'm doing a better job with Ino than Sasuke and Sakura - but she's just so fun to write! Thanks for your patience and support. More to come soon!

Until next we meet,
The Author