Title: Lady Usagi
Claimer/Author: This story is written by and belongs to Emmy Kay.
Summary: A quiet girl working in an inn meets a noisy young lord, but all is not what it seems.
Disclaimer: Naruto and all affiliated characters belong to Kishimoto Masashi. This story is written without permission and for personal/fan/nonprofit entertainment purposes only.
They called her Usa-chan. Because, some of the girls said, she reminded them of a little rabbit – the quick way she ran to do her chores, or the very quiet way she had about her. Or perhaps it was her soft brown eyes, blue-black hair, and pale skin that reminded them of a small cottontail. Either way, she didn't mind.
The owner of the ryokan had thought something was different about her from the moment she was hired – something about the way she carried herself was different – almost noble – but that he let go. Hired help was important to keep an inn running, and he didn't have time to worry about any nonsense about what made one pair of hands different from another. He assigned her to the dorm mother and forgot about her.
Usa-chan also didn't mind the work at the ryokan – hard as it was. She never complained. She had not done any of the cooking for the inn, but she had done nearly everything else – the cleaning of the rooms, the dusting of knick-knacks, the serving of meals, the clearing up after, the endless washing of the linens and dishes. The cook was the jealous type and did not want any assistance. The other girls laughed and told Usa-chan to forget it. The cook was a sourpuss. Come with us, they said, appreciating the help and the sympathetic ear.
On her one day off a week, Usa-chan would head into the nearby town. She always went with another girl or two to see the sights, have a simple meal out, run a few errands, and then return. After all, it wasn't as if her wages were generous enough for much more. Once, when the weather was fine, she went flower-picking, bringing back an armload of lovely late spring blossoms.
Late at night in the dormitory, when the lights were dim, Usa-chan would look at her hands. She could not remember when her hands hadn't been calloused and worn, but the constant wear of hot and then cold water and harsh soap had caused new chafing, redness, and sometimes cracking that would bleed. So before she went to sleep on her bunk, wrapped in heavy quilts to compensate for the poor heat, she would rub in a healing cream. Someday, her skin would return to its former state. This cream she did not stint to share. This too was appreciated by the other girls at the inn.
Usa-chan heard many things in her time there – stories of love and heartbreak, accounts of loyalty and betrayal, tales of hurt and comfort. She also heard stories of the local powers here in the Land of Stone; military, religious, and commercial.
Being from another country, she had questions, but these were so mildly expressed, so very general, people felt sorry for her ignorance and tried to fill in what blanks they could. Even though she claimed that she was nearly 20, Usa-chan seemed a child to them. Nobody asked her why she had come – everybody had their own reasons for leaving home, and kept those close.
She had been there almost exactly four weeks when the daimyo visited, along with a handful of his most trusted advisors and troops. This particular ryokan, was, after all, well known to be Lord Kamakura's favorite place to rest and relax.
All the girls, even one so new as Usa-chan, were lined up along the stairs, bowing for their honored guests, welcoming them into the inn.
"It's him!" breathed someone, and everyone knew she didn't mean the portly, middle-aged, sleepy-looking Lord Kamakura. Nor did she mean the tall, weedy, second-in-command, Lord Sukemori. She clearly meant the strikingly handsome young soldier with hair like sunshine striding up the stairs in the honored place just behind his lord. He was dressed in armor lacquered with the daimyo's signature colors of black and poppy orange, black helmet held under his arm, katana strapped to his side.
Usa-chan shifted her weight - and something about her movement caught the soldier's attention. He hesitated a moment, his bright blue eyes scanning the crowd before he continued into the inn.
All the other girls were terribly excited as they followed the men inside. They were bursting with information about the blond young man – how he had been with Lord Kamakura for less than a year and yet had risen like a star to his current position as number 2 retainer. How his name – Nakago – fit him so perfectly.
The girls expressed disappointment that he had never, as far as anyone knew, and if anyone would know, it would be them, had ever expressed any interest in a romantic liaison. Ever. Someone had been surprised he had come, given that they had thought he had been hurt – perhaps even mortally wounded – in that last, disastrous skirmish with border raiders less than a week ago. The numbers were stacked against them, and yet still, somehow, Nakago's troops had prevailed.
Usa-chan looked blank as the gossip rushed about her. No one would know how deeply relieved she was to find him, at last. How that single sight of him had made the whole mission worthwhile.
The owner himself was to serve tea to Lord Kamakura, along with the most senior girl, who suggested additional help. After reflecting on her own bountiful assets so carefully displayed to be at their best, the senior girl's eye fell on Usa-chan. The girl noted Usa-chan's kerchief-covered hair, mousy demeanor, and indeterminate body shape, swathed as it was in a too-large grey apron. The senior girl smiled, and gestured for Usa-chan's assistance with the trays.
Tray in hand, Usa-chan followed a small procession up the stairs; the owner, his wife, and the senior girl. After they were called in, Usa-chan and the senior girl laid out all the tea materials. Then they backed up to the door, and waited while the owner and his wife carried out the tea ceremony.
Lord Kamakura sat in the center of the room, impassive, flanked by two massive bodyguards. Nakago had been wandering about the room, idly inspecting the various ornaments. Sukemori sat a little apart from Kamakura, his eyes following every movement the younger man was making, rather in the manner one follows a suspected pick-pocket.
One of the bodyguards tasted the food, and sipped the tea. After several minutes, he nodded. The small meal could begin.
After tea, Usa-chan approached the table to clear the cups. Nakago jerked forward to start helping, but unfortunately, his heavy placement of an exceptionally large pot caused the tray to tip, despite Usa-chan's desperate efforts to right it – sending it crashing to the floor. The two of them knelt down together on the tatami, attempting to pick up the pieces of the broken teapot. Nakago started to apologize profusely, looking anxiously into Usa-chan's face.
Usa-chan was unprepared for the owner grabbing the back of her kimono, dragging her backwards, and then slapping her hard across the right cheek, sending her head rocking back on her neck. He wound up to backhand her on the other cheek for good measure – only to find that Nakago had inserted himself in front of Usa-chan, his own hands raised.
"Hit me," he challenged the owner, angrily. "I broke the pot."
Sukemori grimaced. "Nakago – you never do like to see the help corrected."
Nakago breathed in short, sharp bursts. "My lord, I'm very sorry to argue – but I don't like to see women hurt."
"Yes, yes," humphed Lord Kamakura. "Just put the cost of the pot on the bill," he instructed the owner. "Also, you might want to 'correct' your help out of sight of your guests," he added, dismissing the matter with a wave of a meaty hand.
"You are t-too kind, my l-lord," stuttered the owner.
"Now then," Kamakura said, "I want to talk about dinner, and then get into the hot springs."
"Whenever you would like, my lord," piped up the owner's wife, nervously.
"Excellent. I'm sure preparations will be up to your usual standards."
Usa-chan noiselessly finished clearing up, and made her exit as quickly as possible. Once safely in the scullery, she pulled a tiny pellet of paper out of the spout of the broken pot. She smoothed it out, carefully. On it was hastily scrawled, "11pm. Stables."
Usa-chan was resting, chatting with the girl in the bunk opposite hers, when the dorm mother came rushing into the room. "Lord Kamakura asks that you serve dinner."
As Usa-chan froze in surprise, the dorm mother clucked, "Hurry girl! There's no higher honor." She paused. "But first, you've got to change out of that apron! And that head kerchief has got to go!"
"I heard what Nakago-sama did for you – the least you can do is not offend his eyes!"
Freshly bundled into a silk kimono, a decorative comb inserted into her hastily combed hair to great effect, Usa-chan carried a heavily-laden tray to the door. She entered, finding all of Lord Kamakura's entourage waiting, dressed in the yukatas provided by the inn. Nakago stood against a corner, cleaning his armor, Sukemori sat in the center, and Lord Kamakura reclined farther back in the room, a scroll in his hand. She began to lay out the meal.
"So…Usa-chan." Her head jerked up from her task. Lord Kamakura's sleepy manner and smooth voice belied the sharpness of his eyes. "Where are you from?"
"A very small village on the edge of the Land of Lightning, my lord."
Sukemori wore an expression that would be called a grin on another, more congenial face – on him, it merely looked like a rictus of pain. "How interesting. Like our own Nakago."
Usa-chan turned her eyes down to the various dishes on her tray.
Visibly irritated that his comment produced no reaction, Sukemori said, "Continue serving, girl."
"Yes, my lord." She continued until her tray was empty. "I shall return with your next course." Usa-chan backed up to the door, only to find it opened by Nakago.
"Are you all right?" he asked, his normally husky voice turned even raspier in his attempt to whisper. "I'm sorry."
She looked up, and saw the concern darkening his eyes, as they traced over her right cheek. Usa-chan nodded, her eyes darting to the witnesses in the room. "Thank you, my lord," she murmured. Then she hurried out of the room.
As she slid the door closed behind her, she could hear Sukemori's querulous tones begin picking at Nakago for his solicitousness over a simple serving girl.
Then, the heavier voice of Kamakura chided, "Leave it alone, Sukemori. Boy has a heart, that's all. I am sorry you were unable to join us in the hot springs, Nakago – but with a wound like that – a bath is probably not recommended."
When at last the dinner courses were complete, Usa-chan began stacking dishes to remove them. She was stopped by Sukemori's sharp voice. "I hear that the women's dances of the Land of Lightning are something to behold – why don't you give us an example – Usa-chan?"
"My lord – it was a very small village, very isolated. I am sure you would have seen much better in your own capital."
"Modesty is certainly becoming for one in your social standing," Sukemori sniffed. "But surely, for the sake of Lord Kamakura, you could demonstrate just one?"
Usa-chan said, a little desperately, "My lord, I only know the dances of my family." Growing a little bolder, she suggested, "Perhaps you would prefer a professional dancer – and the inn has many contacts –"
Kamakura nodded. And for a moment, Usa-chan felt relief. This was dashed at his words. "Yes, child, show us a dance. Heaven knows it's been years since I've seen anything new."
As a final plea, Usa-chan tried, "What shall I do for music?"
"All true dancers can improvise. Can't you?" Sukemori twitted, his features turning sharp.
Usa-chan looked at the floor, and nodded.
"Do your best!" urged Nakago, as Lord Kamakura's men moved the furniture out of the way.
Usa-chan stood, and then shut her eyes. She thought of her father who taught her these steps – who had demanded power and strength and pride. And when her father's disappointment became visible because she had not been powerful, or strong or proud enough, Usa-chan had rushed to the arms of her mother, now long-dead, who had told her a story to comfort her.
Once upon a time, when the earth was young, there lived a fisherman and his wife. They loved each other very much. One day, the man did not return from a fishing trip. So the woman cried out to the heavens and the earth to help her husband. The stars arranged themselves so the fisherman could find his way home. It was not enough. Then she wept. So the wind blew in a favorable direction. Still, that was not enough. Then she danced. Finally, the moon stirred itself in sympathy and created the tides so at last the fisherman found his way back to his home.
And that, her mother finished, was because of the power of a woman – the power of love. There is nothing stronger. No power could defeat it. Certainly nothing is more proud, nor more humble.
Usa-chan's eyes opened. She took a breath, and started humming. Then she began. Usa-chan thought of the stars, and the wind, and the moon, and a dream of love so great that all the powers that be responded.
Some minutes later, she stopped. Then she knelt down and bowed to her audience. She looked up at the complete silence following her dance. Sukemori had stiffened, and Nakago looked at her with his mouth hanging open. Only Kamakura's expression remained unchanged.
"I hope," she said miserably, "I have not offended you, my lords."
"Indeed," murmured Kamakura. Then he smiled. "For such a dance, the gods themselves would have been offended to miss it."
"My lord?" Usa-chan queried, as if she could not believe her ears.
"You did….very well," Sukemori conceded.
"Nakago – your thoughts?" prodded Kamakura.
"Huh? Oh." Nakago suddenly came to. "That was awesome!"
"Thank you," she said, shyly.
"Go on child, finish your job, as you have far exceeded all our expectations," Kamakura dismissed her.
Usa-chan bowed again, and made her escape.
It was unusually warm for a cloudless late spring night, and the moon almost full.
Usa-chan hurried across the grounds of the ryokan to the stables. She carried an unlit lamp in one hand, having hesitated to light it. She congratulated herself on this – there was plenty of moonlight. She slid through a small gap between the large wooden doors –only to find herself turned about, pushed back to the doors, a hand pressed against her mouth. She sucked in a startled breath, smelling the faint mustiness of the hay and the distinctive smell of horses, trying to focus.
In the moonlight that came in through the doors, she found herself looking into the unmistakable blue of Nakago's eyes. She was quickly released. Then she held a finger to her lips. She gestured to him to follow her. As they passed, some of the horses pricked their ears forward, but remained silent. One snuffed, and Nakago petted him for a moment before continuing on. She led him up the stairs at the far end of the stables.
As he came up, he asked, "What is this place?"
"It's extra storage for the inn. Nobody comes up here." She fumbled with the lamp, and the large open space became visible. There was the faint odor of disuse in the air. A large stack of extra futons sat against one wall, rolls of tatamis against another, tables and cabinets lay clustered throughout.
"Sh!" Her eyes widened in alarm at the volume of his voice.
"Usa-chan," he tried out, quieter. "Usa-chan. What happened to your eyes?"
She held open one eye, touched the center pupil, and pulled out a thin brown semi-translucent wafer. It was like looking at someone through a strangely broken window – one side Usa-chan, the other with the distinctive grey-on-grey eye of the Hyuuga. "Hokage-sama was afraid that my eyes would be too identifiable." She re-inserted the contact. "It does cut down on the effectiveness of the Byakugan, but I really haven't needed it."
Quickly, he returned to business. "Why're you here?"
"Hokage-sama hadn't heard from you in a long time – and you missed a number of couriers – so she sent me to find out what happened."
"I was sent away to do border patrols – a lot of them. I never knew where I'd end up. And then, last week, I ran into some trouble." Nakago started to untie the cloth that held his yukata closed. Before Usa-chan could find her voice, he stopped. "Hey – could you help me?"
"I sewed the reports into the seams of my yoro hitatare – and ah, might have made it a little small –" he seemed more embarrassed by his lack of sewing skill than by his disrobing.
"A-all right." She had not wanted to stutter. She really didn't, but she really couldn't help it. Tentatively, she reached forward, but only to have Nakago grab her hands with his own. He flipped them over, noting the wear and damage over the knuckles.
"What happened?" he asked, lightly tracing over the cracked and broken skin with his thumbs.
"It doesn't matter," she said, turning red, pulling away, shamed by the state of her hands. "It's nothing. A side-effect of the mission." As she grasped one of the sides of the raw silk undergarment to pull it away, it slipped off his shoulder and she gasped in horror. "Nar – Nakago – what happened?"
"Heh – just one of those things mission side-effect things." A large, raw-looking scar marred the pale gold of his skin – running across the right pectoral, under his necklace, and over his shoulder, the edges still puckered from the depth of the wound. "So, you see – I can't quite reach as far back as I used to – but soon," he said hopefully. "The doctor who saw it thought it would have killed anybody else – but I heal pretty fast. Actually, I've been trying to pretend it's taking longer –"
Usa-chan hurried to pull a few futons down onto the floor. "Sit," she said. Obediently, he sat. She knelt down next to him, pulling at one sleeve, and heard him draw a sharp breath in sudden discomfort. She stopped.
"I think my sewing made the shirt a little stiff," he said, a little sheepish.
"Let me look at your shoulder," she urged, quickly making a hand seal, as the veins around her eyes bulged.
Nakago pulled away. "Hey, I thought your Byakugan wasn't working."
"It's range that's effected," she tried to reassure him. "This will be fine. Please, let me help you." He settled down, a little reluctantly.
Usa-chan traced the keirakukei around the affected area until she spied the local tenketsu. With a touch as light as a first kiss, she gently pushed on the chakra points.
"Hey, it's warming up," Nakago said, pleasantly surprised.
"The effect should last for a couple of hours – I just gave the wound a little chakra boost – it will help promote healing and remove the stiffness," she explained.
Nakago rotated his shoulder experimentally. "That's nice." Then he stopped. "But the shirt's still too small – so if you could…."
"Oh!" Usa-chan said, moving quickly backwards. "Yes, of course." She tried to pull gently, and tugged the sleeve off the unwounded arm. She tried to be gentler with removing the other sleeve, fully aware of how intimate an act this was. "How did you manage to get it on?" she asked, trying to distract herself.
"It seemed easier getting it on than it is taking it off," he shrugged – and then winced.
With a final pull, the undershirt slid off Nakago's body. For a moment, Usa-chan clutched the still-warm garment, the paper-stuffed seams nearly holding it upright. Then she turned her back to Nakago, making sure his back was also to her. With a firm resolve, like one makes before jumping into frigid winter-melt water, she put his shirt down, inhaled deeply, and then she began to undo her own kimono.
"Wha-what're you doing?" Nakago asked, his voice breaking, turning as he heard the unmistakable dry whisper of cloth on cloth. "Geez!" he burst out, quickly turning back as he glimpsed the emergence of her naked, pale, perfect shoulder from her nagajuban. "You've got to tell a guy when you're taking your clothes off!"
"I'm sorry," she gasped, blushing to her toes. "But I can't just walk into the dorm carrying your undershirt!" She hurriedly pulled the yoro hitatare on – for a moment, she felt enveloped in the softness of the silk and the stiffness of the paper, sensed the remains of the heat of his body, and drew a breath of his scent.
"I hope you don't take your clothes off on every mission," he grumbled. "It's not right. Not in front of other people - and not guys. Modesty is a virtue."
"Somebody's coming," she warned. "A hundred meters, maybe." She released the Byakugan. Critically, she looked down at herself, noting that the shirt fit loosely across the shoulders and waist, a little tighter across the front, but would not be detectable by a casual observer under her own clothes, if she rolled up the sleeves. She began to rush, panicked, trying to get the rest of her robes on and tied closed, however sloppily.
Nakago grabbed his own yukata, and with a barely audible groan as he yanked it across his injured shoulder, as the first of the loud steps and voices reached them. The horses below stamped and snorted at the disturbance. One whinnied.
It was Sukemori – "My lord, I thought I saw lamplight coming from the stables! Anything could be happening to the horses and I just wanted to scout it out."
The large forms of the bodyguards leapt over the steps onto the floor of the storeroom, followed by Sukemori and Lord Kamakura.
With a great flourish, Sukemori said, "Ah-ha! Look what we've got! Spies!"
Nakago had shoved Usa-chan behind his back, his arms held out, attempting to shield her.
Lord Kamakura's small eyes glinted. "Spies, huh?" He walked around to Usa-chan, and took her chin between his thumb and forefinger, lifting it so he could look into her face. "What say you, child? Are you a spy?"
She could not imagine her hectic color becoming more vivid – but it did. "N-no, my lord."
"Ha!" said Sukemori, "What do you think she'd say?"
Nakago tried to get Lord Kamakura's attention. "She's with me."
Drily, Kamakura said, "I think I can see that, Nakago." He turned to Usa-chan. "Why are you here?"
She looked at the daimyo directly. "M-my lord – I came here at the request of Nakago's grandmother. She hadn't heard from him, and she was afraid, my lord. Afraid something had happened to him."
"But why you, a mere slip of a girl?"
Usa-chan gulped. Her answer could determine their fate at the hands of this deceptively lazy-looking, sharp-eyed, very powerful man. Her heart beat madly – a heart that was wrapped in Nakago's garment. Then, softly, "Because I have loved him since I was a child – and she knew I would do anything to find him."
Lord Kamakura let go of Usa-chan. His eyes moved to the young man at her side. "What say you, Nakago?"
Kamakura sighed, patiently, obviously familiar with some of the less than brilliant aspects of Nakago's personality. "A young lady has spoken of you with some fondness, Nakago. What say you?"
Sukemori protested, "My lord – how is this relevant?!"
"She's among the most precious of people to me, sir." He blushed as he said this, and ducked his head. Then, as if drawn by an invisible but all-powerful force, he turned to look at Usa-chan, and caught her looking at him in wonder.
"Well, it's obvious. They're up to no good." Kamakura sighed heavily. "But it's not the kind that I can trouble myself over." He gestured languidly to his bodyguards. "Come – the show's over."
"My lord? Aren't you going to search them for weapons? Or – or secret papers?" Sukemori suggested, peevishly.
Kamakura sighed again. "They don't have any weapons – otherwise we would have faced something when we came in, and look at them, Sukemori – their clothes are a mess – what kind of papers do you think they could be carrying? It's clear we interrupted some kind of lover's tryst. I, for one, could have remained ignorant about this whole episode and been perfectly happy." He started for the stairs.
Sukemori protested. "But still, it's very suspicious – "
"Sukemori – the only good that comes of this incident that I can think of is that at least we know now that Nakago is interested in girls – and one in particular." Kamakura paused. "Unless, of course, you believe someone I trust deeply could behave so basely and betray me? Hn, Sukemori?"
"Certainly not, my lord!" Sukemori said, a little too vehemently.
Kamakura shot him a look that gave the barest indication of how the large man rose to the position of daimyo. "Enough. All I desire tonight is to find my bed. Sukemori, you'll wake up the innkeeper and have him get me some tea, won't you?"
"But – but – what about those two?" Sukemori pointed to Usa-chan and Nakago in almost comic dismay.
"Oh yes." Kamakura raised his voice, without turning around, "Good night, Nakago, and good night to your lady. So sorry for disturbing you." Without another word, he disappeared down the steps, followed closely by Sukemori and his bodyguards. While one of the guards was visibly embarrassed, the other shot Nakago a thumbs-up behind the daimyo's back.
A dark-haired girl hurried through the night, hugging her secrets to herself. She wished with all her strength, please, let him come home safely. As the moon gazed down steadily, the stars found themselves reflected in the gathering wetness in her grey-grey eyes. A sudden warm gust of wind dried the tears on her cheeks.
As morning broke, the denizens of the inn woke to a realization – the girl Usa-chan had vanished.
Several weeks later, Tsunade was sitting at her desk, sipping tea, going through the reports about the events in the Land of Stone. "So Shizune, what do you think?"
"Well, some of the reports were sort of hard to reconstruct because of the sewing damage Naruto made to them, but they were very revealing. We should not send Naruto on any more missions where he'll be doing any sewing – he's terrible at it." The brunette commented. "I mean, what did he use? A leather punch? Woodworking tools?"
"Noted." Tsunade said, amused. "I received a very generous payment from the daimyo of the Land of Stone, and an interesting letter. He thanks us for the loan of one of our finest ninjas, and tells us that Naruto successfully flushed out the traitor in his ranks – a Sukemori." She frowned. "I just wish Sukemori hadn't faked Kamakura's orders – which caused Naruto to be so severely wounded we had to send Hinata to find him."
"But didn't that lead to the clear evidence of Sukemori's betrayal?"
"Yes, but still." Tsunade sighed. "I don't like any of my ninjas hurt."
"Tsunade-sama, when he arrived in Konoha last week, he went directly to the hospital. They released him in good health the same day."
Tsunade's eyes were drawn to the letter Kamakura had sent. "My dear lady," and she smiled, thinking about Kamakura's deceptively large size and mild voice. "I apologize for having to borrow one of your men – but as I was dealing with a rather tricky internal problem, I prefer using outside talent. Much simpler that way, I find…..I don't know if you sent me your finest liars, or your worst. I would suggest, however, that they not be sent out together again like this – until they have resolved whatever it is that is between them. Certainly, that much was clear. Only a fool like Sukemori wouldn't have understood. I shall, in the interests of discretion, find another party to remove my little problem."
The Hokage raised a large hand seal and stamped "Mission Complete" across the scroll.
Usa-chan = a pet name, sort of translates to "Miss Rabbit" (I've never read any Usagi Yojimbo - somebody mentioned it to me way after I had started this idea. Any similarities are purely accidental/coincidental.)
Ryokan = traditional Japanese inn, often located around onsen (hot springs), or other sites of natural beauty, and offer very complicated and beautiful meals as part of the service. A lot more can be found on the web about this interesting aspect of Japanese tourism.
Nakago Boshi = (heart star) part of the constellation of The Azure Dragon of the East (Spring)
Yoro hitatare = undergarment for armor, relatively tight-fitting with drawstrings at the wrists
Nagajuban = kimono undergarment in the shape of a kimono
#20 of the 30 kisses challenge - "the road home."
I would have thought that ninjas might also be sent on long-term missions of infiltration and intelligence gathering. Thinking about how "shinobi read the hidden meanings within the hidden meanings."
This one is due to mech pencil name – who wanted more Naru/Hina fluff. This story came out more fable-like than I intended – and that style isn't necessarily compatible with fluff. So please let me know how I did. Thanks. (Blame The Tale of the Heike (trans. Helen Craig McCullough – which is fabulous, by the way) – so there might be some purely unconscious echoes of style.)