A/N: I've had this drafted for a while, but I've decided to suck it up and get on with it. :D
The House of Crows
There is a house built out of stone
Wooden floors, walls and window sills
Tables and chairs worn by all of the dust
This is a place where I don't feel alone
This is a place where I feel at home
She'd seen pictures in Tsunade's office, but they really didn't do the place justice. Pictures couldn't capture the tranquil bird song of the surrounding rainforest, nor had they really warned her about the phenomenal humidity and heat. The moment Sakura arrived at the front gates of the estate she sunk wearily onto her travel pack and tried to gather her strength. A week of constant travel was enough to tire anyone, but she hadn't been prepared for this kind of taxing climate. Only a few days after crossing the border had she been fully introduced to the concept of 'tropical'. Here the trees seemed to tower all the way to the sky; some so wide they could only be spanned by no fewer than twenty people holding hands. The animals were larger, the snakes were deadlier, the insects more numerous and annoying, but the scents and colours were unlike anything she'd ever seen before in the fire country.
Yet any charm the environment had possessed wore off rather quickly as the obstacles began to slow her down. It did not help that virtually every morning she woke feeling sick to her stomach, deathly tired, and desperately hungry for something more substantial than substitute rations. Her well stocked supply of chocolate bars that should have lasted her a fortnight had been consumed in the first two days, leaving her with four days of utter cocoa deprived depression.
But she was finally here, and for a moment struck with awe with what she was about to do. Get used to this place, she warned herself as she swiped the sweat from her brow and flicked away one of the enormous local butterflies with amorous intentions for her kimono's flowery sleeve. This is practically your new home now.
Eventually she gathered her courage and rose to her feet. With one last deep breath to try and ease the tension from her chest, she picked up her heavy pack and walked through the gates.
"No riff raff are permitted through the main entrance."
The voice startled Sakura so much she let out a yelp and stumbled sideways, away from the old gruff man who had apparently been standing on the other side of the wall beside the gate ever since she'd arrived.
"I – I'm very sorry," she said hastily, giving him a full bow. He looked like one of the gardeners with dirt under his nails and mud caking his boots up to his knees, but one could never assume a man in a garden was a servant. Some lords liked to garden for themselves.
"If you're selling wares, girl, don't bother. They never accept," he said, nodding to the old mansion further down the path, obscured slightly by mossy boulders and mossier trees.
"I'm here for a job," she explained. "They should be expecting me."
Now he gave her a more scrutinising look, and if Sakura hadn't been a kunoichi, she would have found his wild hair and beard and haggard face quite intimidating. He seemed harmless enough though. But by all accounts, the people here were suspicious of outsiders. And with good reason.
"House servant? Go back out and around widdershins until you come to a stile. Follow the path and you'll come to the kitchens. Someone there will probably know what to do with you."
She bowed again, but by the time she lifted her head he was already stumping away like she'd never even existed. Sakura watched the back of his grizzly head for a moment before daring to call out to him, "It's a beautiful garden, by the way."
He slowed and glanced back at her. His expression wasn't pleasant, but Sakura didn't think it was possible for that face to hold anything resembling pleasantly. He at least didn't look quite so hostile anymore, so Sakura smiled and quickly backtracked through the gate as she'd been told.
Well, that hadn't been too bad a start. However, she wasn't here to impress gardeners, because ultimately it was the household staff that she would have to be convincing.
Following the man's directions, she circled the property anti-clockwise until she came to a stretch of mossy wall broken by a few stone steps that dipped in the middle from the many, many years of use. The stile was an awkward one, and though Sakura managed to climb over it easily enough, she had to wonder how many more months it would be before that was no longer the case. The narrow path behind it led through a slightly wilder patch of garden to the informal side of the house. As she followed it, delicious wafts of cooking herbs and oils wafted over her, making her stomach clench in agonised knots of longing. It had been so long since she'd had anything decent to eat. She'd probably lost a few pounds since leaving Konoha with nothing but this heavy bag full of imitation chicken broth.
And the closer Sakura got to the house, the more she thought she could hear the soft titter of light conversation. Girls, undoubtedly. When she rounded a corner in the path and emerged from behind a patch of bamboo, she saw her suspicions were correct when before her lay an open doorway to a noisy, clanging kitchen and a porch lined with three finely dressed and inordinately beautiful girls her own age.
The moment she appeared however, their light-hearted joking ceased and they all turned to stare baldly at her as if she'd just been spat out of the ground. It made Sakura want to shrink back behind the shrubs. It wasn't exactly contempt in their faces, but they clearly thought she had some explaining to do, appearing out of nowhere like that.
Then one of them said blithely, "New girl."
"Oh," the other two chorused, and they all promptly went back to the previous conversation.
This was even worse. It was one thing to be stared at like a strange animal, but another to be ignored entirely. Sakura shifted uncomfortably and looked around, wondering where the hell she was supposed to go. Being a kunoichi, she'd never really had to apply for a job before. She had only a vague idea what to expect from what Ino had told her, but other than that, she was suddenly deeply and acutely aware of how alone she was. Her nearest friends were a week away, and this place was so strange and foreign, and no one seemed all that nice…
"Girls, if you will chatter all day, at least pretend to be busy while doing it," said a woman as she appeared in the doorway of the kitchen, flapping her hands to shoo the string of girls perched on the edge of the porch. They only smiled like it was a joke, but then the older woman herself didn't look particular serious.
When she spotted Sakura, however, she began to look confused. "Oh… who is this?"
"New girl," said the same girl as before.
"Sakura, ma'am," Sakura offered. "My last employer sent you a reference…?"
"Oh. Yes. Sakura." The woman still looked confused. "You were expected last Tuesday, though."
"Um, the journey was a little harder than expected."
"All the way from the Fire country, I see? Your accent is strong."
"No matter," the woman shrugged and assumed her previously pleasant demeanour. "Pass me that heavy case of yours and we'll get you sorted."
Relieved to have found someone who knew who she was, Sakura quickly obeyed and followed the woman indoors, through the cluttered and busy kitchen and out into the quieter corridors beyond. It was a little cooler there, but not by much. Sakura dreaded to think what she looked like to this spotless woman, or what she even smelled like. A week of travel, no proper bathing, and sweating like a pig in a jungle… she couldn't have been making that good an impression, but the woman seemed cheerful enough.
"I'm Himiko, I'm the Lady Zuru's retainer and head of the household staff. You'll be answering mostly to me. Your job will be much like your last job – cleaning, mending, washing, serving the family, mostly. Do you sing?"
"No," Sakura said rather quickly and firmly.
"Pity. Your face is a nice shape though, so that's good. The master does rather insist on being surrounded with exquisite girls. Oh – don't worry. It's purely aesthetic reasons; he's a man who wants everything pretty and perfect, but only to look upon." But then she gave Sakura a slightly hesitant look over his shoulder. "Although his son… well, we'll talk about that later."
Sakura busily tried to take in all this information as Himiko pushed open a screen door. "This is where you'll be sleeping with the other girls," she said, leading her inside the empty room. "Although mostly they'll be busy keeping you up with their incessant chatter and games. Let's put your things down here, shall we? Yes. Right, now let's sit and you can tell me what on earth you think you're doing here."
Sakura froze. "I'm sorry?"
Himiko was already kneeling down and pleasantly gesturing for Sakura to do the same. "I can tell just from looking at you, you know. It's fairly obvious. You're not a servant girl at all."
Sakura sank to her knees, despair welling up thick and strong within her. Great. No sooner had she arrived than she'd already been found out. Now this woman probably planned to interrogate her to discover who had sent her, and then maybe one of the guards would be called in to execute her. Where had she put that cyanide pill anyway?
"Was I that obvious?" she whispered brokenly.
"Only to a woman as experienced as me, my dear," Himiko said, patting her hand. "All girls in your situation have a similar air and look about them."
"I swear, that'll go away if I just had a bath...!"
The older woman laughed lightly, worryingly calm and friendly despite the fact that she was addressing a spy. Sakura feared she was one of those women who could smile like angel while driving a knife across your throat. Until she asked, "How far along are you?"
"Pardon…?" Sakura asked hesitantly.
"You're not really showing yet, and I imagine it's your first. I'd guess maybe one month or two."
Sakura's mouth had run inexplicably dry all of a sudden. She didn't know if this was worse than being caught out as a spy. But the woman before her was so knowing and confident that Sakura knew it was pointless to deny. "Just over eight weeks now, actually," she said weakly.
"Oh, don't look so worried. I'm not going to cast you off. That would be cruel," Himiko said dismissively. "But I suspect your reference letter held a few fibs about your experience in order to foist you off onto us. Who wrote it? Your hands may show the calluses of honest, hard work, but you've certainly never been employed before, so I sincerely doubt it was your 'last employer'."
It had been her Hokage, actually. But Sakura had already been building a story to explain away her condition, since it was only inevitable that she would be found out if the mission lasted as long as projected. "My guardian wrote it," she said, with suitable humility. "I'm in disgrace, really. I just need a job for a while to find my feet. I hope I won't be a burden to you."
"Servants have married and raised children here alongside the family for many years. You won't be a burden," Himiko assured her. "But what about the father?"
Yes. What about the father?
"It's just that in my experience," the woman went on, "men either want nothing to do with their child, or everything to do with their child. I just want to make sure he isn't the type to track you down and cause a scene. The family won't like that."
Sakura swallowed. "No… no, he won't be coming."
Himiko arched a thin eyebrow speculatively. "He wasn't your lover, was he?"
She shook her head. "No."
That eyebrow lowered quickly in distaste. Sakura could already read the conclusion she'd drawn.
"I wasn't forced," Sakura added hastily. "It was just a stupid mistake."
"How old are you, Sakura?"
"An unfortunately young age to be making such mistakes." Himiko shook her head sadly. "It's always the women who pay the most in these things, but we'll do our best to make you comfortable here."
Sakura gave a wobbly little smile, trying to ignore the guilt squeezing her insides. She was only here to worm her way into the inner workings of this place in order to stab them in the back. Perhaps that task would have been easier if this woman was a stone-cold bitch. Being welcomed with open, compassionate arms gave Sakura deep discomfort at the thought of ruining this woman's employers, something that would invariably lead to most, if not all the staff here being made redundant.
Well, she was getting ahead of herself. Her job first was to ascertain any connection this 'family' had with the growing crime syndicate Konoha had under observation. It might well be the case that there was no connection at all, and Sakura's time would have been wasted here, but at least this nice woman would still have her work.
Of course, there were other more important reasons why Sakura had taken this mission, ones which had nothing to do with crime syndicates or noble families and everything to do with the tiny problem growing inside her. But there was still plenty of time for that yet.
"I'll show you to the servant's washroom and let you recover from your trip, young lady," Himiko said kindly. "When you're finished, there'll be a tray of food waiting for you here, and then we can talk more about your duties."
There was nothing quite like a bath when you truly needed one. As Sakura later sank into the blessedly warm water of one of the servant's baths, she allowed her mind to try and adjust to her new situation while the water soothed her aching muscles. A lot of people lived and worked in this place, and Sakura had to keep on their good sides. They would suspect her naturally, being a foreigner, especially if this really was the base of many a dodgy operation, but Tsunade had warned her that the best way to blend in was to simply be herself and hang back for as long as necessary for the scrutiny to pass.
She had to be careful though. The reports were that the master of this estate was ruthless. With her closest back-up on the other side of a distant border, there would be no one to help her if she was caught. Should she screw up, it would be weeks before anyone in Konoha noticed a lack of communications. Months before anyone came to investigate.
But it wasn't just her own life that she had to look out for now. Every move she made from now on would be second and third guessed to avoid making any mistakes, because she couldn't afford to be careless now. All because of one stupid mistake she'd already made…
Sakura passed her hands over her belly, exploring the faintest of bumps that was now quite familiar to her. Beneath her palms lay a flicker of something apart from her. One day she would hold it in her arms, and then one day after that it would be a full person as deep and complex as herself.
Not for the first time, the prospect left her feeling overwhelmed and she hastily blinked back hot tears. She wished again that it simply wasn't happening to her. That she'd never made that mistake eight weeks ago that had, in some ways, cost her her life. It would never be the same again after this, would it?
But this was the only way.
Next chapter: One Day in July...