The Gate Amidst the Ivy
Dear, your father is sick again…Wouldn't you do anything to help him?
Yes, Mama, yes, of course—
I've found a job for you, at the castle.
At the castle?
And it's best you cover your hair first, Sakura—you know the Prince isn't fond of peculiar hair colors.
Yes, we all know that, after her—
Don't say her name!
Catching her reflection in the window she was polishing, Sakura scowled and blew the errant strand of ebony hair from her face.
Of course, dear—just like me—)
She hated its unfamiliar weight on her head. It was slippery and heavy and coarse and itchy and unpleasant and she hated it.
(Snip, snip, snip—the unfamiliar brush of short hair against her cheeks…
Snip, snip, snip. Wincing as the scissors caught in a tangle, slipped, her beautiful hair, her beautiful hair, gone—
Your papa is sick, Sakura.)
The damned strand of black hair fell into her face again. The wig smelled funny, too, she reflected absently as she mechanically wiped the same spot on the window at least ten times. Maybe Ino would let her borrow one of her many hair clips for that stupid lock of hair. But God knew the girl needed all the clips she could scrounge from those rich bored old ladies, what with that wonderful, soft, long mane of honey-blonde hair of hers.
The heavy wig brushed against the small of her back, and Sakura felt a drop of sweat trickle down her forehead.
I'm so tired, Granny Tsunade!
You've almost got it, just concentrate a bit more, Sakura—
Can't I take a break?)
Sakura took a break. She set the dirty rag down on the windowsill, righted her wig (which had begun to tilt to the left), and glanced through the foggy window at the perfectly manicured lawn below.
(Why are you crying, Sakura?
I'm scared, Mama.
Papa needs this, Sakura. And it's a wonderfully easy job I got you too.
Easy? Oh, Mama, if you knew…
It's at the castle where both those princes grew up. Aren't you glad Mama gave you the chance to stay at such an amazing place?
Aren't you glad?)
The castle was a horrid little place too. It was small and cramped and drafty. The corridors were wretched and cold. The only amazing part about the castle was its gardens, its many, many gardens, especially that secret garden—
(Why is that garden locked off, Ino? Why won't someone take care of it, trim the ivy?
I don't know, Sakura, but don't go anywhere near it.
None of the servants do, ever. Isn't it a horrid dark little place, anyways?)
It had been a horrid dark little place at first. But Sakura's insatiable curiosity had refused to rest till she found out what was behind those gates, and anyways she hadn't felt that ominous feeling Ino had spoken of at all.
What's up with that garden over there? The one no one ever goes into?
How would I know?
Aren't you the head gardener?
Well, sure, but, like you said, everyone leaves that place alone.
Who knows? Sheesh, you're so troublesome…)
The gate had been rusted shut due to years of disuse. But a peek through the wrought-iron gates, draped with thick vines of ivy, had revealed a tantalizing glimpse of an untamed forest beyond.
And, it turned out, near the back of the abandoned garden, the thick ivy had concealed a broken part of the forbidding fence, a hole just big enough for a petite girl like Sakura to crawl through. And so she had. And so she had finally found her sanctuary in this castle she absolutely despised, this prison with manicured lawns.
Sunday—her one free day—she should have been in the marketplace with Ino, window-shopping. She should have been in the postal office, sending every last cent she could spare to her father, to pay for his medical expenses.
Can't take your break today, Sakura. The prince is coming, we need all the extra hands we can get.
Next week, I'll give you Saturday and Sunday off. Perhaps. But in the meantime, make yourself useful.
Yesyesyesyesyesyes to everything! Perhaps if she was obedient, calm, quiet, polite, well-spoken, she could keep her job. Already some of her closest friends had been fired as the prince's arrival approached.
Her emerald eyes glared at the streaked window, and distorted limp seawater eyes glared back (Mama's eyes, sad, exhausted, dead, like seawater—) at her. The sweat trickled from her temple, to her cheek, down her neck. It was a miserably hot day. She was certain it would be cool within the shade of the abandoned garden, the secret garden, her garden.
She set to work, rubbing the windows clean with a newfound fury and strength. Perhaps if she finished a bit early, she could disappear for an hour or two into her garden. It was spring, and the little green shoots of bleeding hearts and candytufts and columbines and poppies and bluebells. And perhaps she could help them along with the little bits of healing and growing magics Granny Tsunade had taught her, before Father became sick, before she became trapped in a dismal excuse for a castle.
She could almost envision those rose vines, shedding their dead brown husks, breaking free of those crisp brown leaves. And the bare trees growing tender green little sprouts that would become leaves and branches and flowers—
But there really was no use fantasizing about such things until she had finished the chores that testy head maid had assigned her.
Narrowing her green eyes determinedly, Sakura continued cleaning the windows with a furor.
(Why doesn't the prince ever come here, anymore? This is where he grew up, right?
Too many memories, Sakura. If you knew his history here—
We don't speak of it. You oughtn't, either.
Do you think he'll ever come back here, Tenten?
Doubt it. If he does, it'll probably be because his dear elder brother, our king, ordered him to, not of his own volition.
The brunette's lip twisted in scorn at the mention of the king.)
She had done it. She'd had to jump behind dusty tapestries and run through unused secret corridors that she was sure had been long-since forgotten, and she'd been a gasping, panting mess afterwards, but she had managed to finish cleaning the windows and avoid the head maid, who would have just given more chores to Sakura had the crabby old woman seen her.
So, under the pretense of taking a break for lunch (though she'd already had it), Sakura picked her way past the impeccably landscaped fields, expertly navigated through the seven-foot walls of the enormous maze, and squeezed herself through the opening in the gate (which was covered by an imposing veil of ivy). Sakura winced when her dress caught and tore. She managed to work herself free but knew it would be another night of staying up past curfew to mend her skirt. It was a somber drab little cloth creation, black, nearly shapeless, with long sleeves and a skirt that was just a bit too long for her. It was what nearly all the maids wore, however, and Sakura's goal was to be as unobtrusive as possible.
(Whispers—whispers—she was sick of them—
Pink hair? Does she dye it?
Her mother tells me it's natural—I don't believe it for a second, though.
Yes, it's probably just a ploy to attract attention. Wouldn't put it past that woman.
Mocking, cruel laughter.
And that forehead? Oh, that poor child.
Yes, now there's a child that'll be ridiculed, wherever she goes.
Sticks out like a sore thumb, doesn't she?)
She smiled at her little haven. The life and greenness of spring was beginning to show through the bareness of winter. On an impulse she pulled off her boots, lay them aside, and relished the feeling of her feet sinking into the cool, fertile soil, untouched by the sun's hot unforgiving rays. The one weeping willow in the garden, large and ancient and sturdy, threw its shadows over her, shielding her from the relentless heat of the day.
Sakura allowed herself a flutter of pride at the white, gleaming marble fountain in the center of the garden.
(A muddy brown mess, suffocated by vines, its water rancid and green and unclear—)
She had trimmed the vines (with a pair of garden shears she had borrowed from Shikamaru), then emptied out the disgusting water, then set to work scrubbing every bit of dust and dirt and algae from the vine. And with Shikamaru's help, she had even managed to hook it up to the castle's water pipes. The fountain's cheerful burbling filled the garden.
Shikamaru!? What are you doing here?
Tch, how troublesome. Didn't I tell you to stay out of the garden, woman?
Well—how did you even get in anyways!?
The jingling of keys. I may not ever go in here, but I'm still head gardener, Sakura. There's precious few places I can't get into. Anyways, the gate has a key, and I just happen to have it.
Shikamaru, don't tell anyone, please? It's my only sanctuary—don't you understand?
Women. Anyways, if you talk so loudly to that robin, someone's bound to discover you sooner or later. You're just lucky it was me.
Can I—can I stay here? No one uses this land anyways, Shikamaru, and at least I take care of it—
How troublesome… Fine. But if anyone asks, you don't even know me.
Shikamaru! You're wonderful! Now, about this fountain right here…)
Pulling off her stifling wig, Sakura shook her pink hair free and gave a little delighted laugh as the wind fingered through it. It was a feeling she hadn't experienced in far too long. She threw the black hairy wig down, near the boots she had pulled on for her trip to the garden. Her short, spiky hair tickled her neck—it was slightly longer now—but she knew she would have to give herself a haircut soon.
(Ino, I have a question.
Why doesn't the prince like strange hair colors? Say, if I had pink hair—
Pink hair? Where do you get these crazy ideas, Sakura? Sure, you're named after a cherry blossom, but there's no need to get so literal—
Just pretend I have pink hair for a second, will you!
Fine. Well, first off, if you had pink hair, you wouldn't be here anyways. I know the prince never comes here, but on the off chance he does, the head maids would never want to risk their own jobs by hiring someone like that.
But why does he hate pink hair so much?
Do you know about her?
Of course I do!
Just making sure. You're so dense sometimes, Forehead-girl.
Anyways, she had a unique shade of hair too. I suppose it just reminds him too much of painful memories.
Awfully selfish of him, don't you think?
He's the prince, Sakura. He can do whatever he wants.)
She sat by the fountain. A woman, clothed in a toga, poured water from a vase into a wonderfully sculpted, delicately beautiful flower. Her features were strong and determined, very Roman, with a jutting chin and an aquiline nose, yet she looked strangely ethereal and fragile. She was an angel, without wings.
"Hey," she began softly, her clear, high voice cutting through the silence. "It's been far too long, hasn't it? You know I try to come every day, but yesterday one of the head maids kept me busy all day. It was all I could do to drag myself to bed. And the day before that, I had to go with Ino to the bazaar, and also I had to stop by the post office. Haven't I told you how sick Papa is? Well, I'm certain you understand."
Perhaps it was a bit fanciful of her to talk to her garden. She was under no delusions that the plants could understand her, but it was still a handy way for her to lift her shoulders of her daily troubles.
(Sakura, child, are you alright?
Granny Tsunade! Papa got sick again—he coughed up blood last night, and nothing you taught me helped! Why?
You must understand that we all die, Sakura. And sometimes Death is far more insistent than any treatment we can give.
No! Papa will never die! You don't know anything!
An understanding sadness in her eyes. I was like you once, Sakura.)
"Oh—sorry, I got lost in my memories. Say, how do you suppose Papa is? Last I heard of him was at least three months ago. I know paper and ink is difficult to get ahold of, but I wish Mama would make a more concentrated effort to update me. I get worried for him…"
Sakura trailed off.
(The first thing any mage must learn, Sakura, before they can go on and learn anything else, is to track auras.
Why? Isn't that fairly—useless?
It refines your control over your magic, not that you need much help on that front, but it also loosens the boundaries on your magic and makes it easier to use. And who knows? It may come in helpful one day.
But I want to start learning immediately!
Relax, Sakura. This exercise probably won't take too long for you to get the hang of anyways.
Sakura fervently thanked Tsunade as she sensed a presence just outside the garden. Quickly she hid herself behind the thick wall of vines, plastering herself to them, and hoping that her black dress would help camouflage her with the shadows. Nimbly she repressed her own aura. How long had it been since she had had to use any of the skills Tsunade had taught her? Two years? Three?
Suddenly, she realized that she had left her wig and outdoor boots by the tree—right in the middle of the garden. Biting her lip, she debated whether she should jump out of her cover to retrieve them and risk exposure, or stay hidden, but she did not have the time to make the decision. With a creak the gate—which she had assumed to be rusted shut—swung open, protesting loudly, and in walked a man she was quite sure she had never seen before in her life.
He was pale. His hair, as ebony as the hair of her wig, stuck up in spikes that would have been comical on anyone else but merely added to his aura. Obsidian eyes, unreadable, blank, darted around the garden. He was tall. His features held a vague resemblance to the features of the angel in the fountain—hard, unforgiving, jutting, yet magnetic. And his white shirt, unbuttoned, revealed the toned chest underneath.
Sakura tentatively examined his aura and recoiled. It was a black, seething, oily, dangerous mass, like thunderclouds before a deadly storm. He was dangerous and dark and destroyed, but a destroyer as well.
(Hey, Tenten, what's Prince Sasuke like? I heard all these girls talking about him once, and I was wondering.
Sakura, you are oblivious, aren't you?
Comes of living in a small village since you were twelve.
Got a point there. Um… fine. I've heard he's very handsome. The epitome of tall, dark, and handsome.
And he's dark in more than one way—the dark past appeals to the noble ladies very much, apparently.
But he seems more interested in leading the wars the king orders, rather than in conquering a woman's heart.
The nobles are very disappointed, I'm sure.
To put it gently.)
And immediately, Sakura knew from his aura that the man before her, the man in her garden, was the prince of all the land—Prince Sasuke.
She shrunk even deeper into the vines. Without her wig, she felt strangely exposed, and Sasuke's dislike of… strange hair colors was well known throughout the land. What would he do if he found her? Throw her in the dungeons? Take her to the gallows? Or worse, fire her?
Tentatively, she cloaked herself with a notice-me-not spell, the only concealing magic Tsunade had ever taught her.
She fixed her eyes on his riding boots, which sank into the ground he tread upon. He truly was a tall man, not exactly broad, but large in a more abstract sense, in a way far more menacing than mere physical size. Suddenly, like a flash of light, the thought occurred to her: might she actually be afraid of Prince Sasuke?
Even though it stung her pride, Sakura had to admit her answer was a resounding yes. One glance at his roiling aura was enough to cement that fact.
The boots moved forward, towards the center of the garden, towards the fountain, towards her wig and boots.
(Be careful with that wig, Sakura.
Do you know how difficult it is to get ahold of a decent wig at a price we can afford?
Are you grateful?
Yes, of course, Mama. No, of course not, Mama—why won't you let me stay with Papa?)
He bent down, inspecting the wig. She felt him reach out tendrils of his black magic, examining the wig, the boots, for traps or hexes. He found none, as she knew he would not, and instead reached out long, strong, pale fingers and picked up the wig.
His eyes, dark, blank, scanned the garden for any possible hiding places. Sakura bit her lip so hard she felt sure that she had drawn blood. He would not find her. She still had to help Papa, a promise to keep to Mama. She felt the gate pressing into her back. A pink-colored bang fell into her face, and she cursed her strange hair color. Who had pink hair anyways? At least with the wig, no matter how much she hated it, no one looked at her twice—
(Sakura, you look so beautiful!
Yes! That pink hair of yours really stands out.
That's a good thing. Why, no one could ever forget you once they saw you! And who wants to be forgotten?
Warmth, creeping through her whole being.)
She could have sworn his eyes stopped on hers. She dared not even breath; she was still, she could not make a single sound. He took a step towards her, then another, then shook his head. His eyes moved on, to her left, examined the rest of the garden, and still he had not found her.
"Where are you?"
Gods, his voice. As terrifying as his aura was, his voice was as smooth as silver. Now she knew why so many of those genteel ladies ignored the blatantly potent aura of danger around him. A voice like that could convince a woman to jump off a cliff and laugh while she did so. A voice like that was dangerous, but in an entirely different way than the rest of him.
And he'd spoken only three syllables to her (albeit indirectly). Sakura felt vaguely foolish.
"I know you're here," he continued. "Why won't you show yourself?"
Sakura even felt her mouth opening to reply, but squashed her voice while it was still in her throat.
There was a tense silence for several minutes. The prince seemed uninclined to break it, and Sakura refused to answer.
Then, finally, he spoke, "This garden is forbidden. I'll have to speak to the head gardener about this." His words were casual, but the threat in them was clear.
Sakura's eyes widened. Shikamaru! But—if she came out—Papa—but if she didn't, Shikamaru—
She remained frozen.
(Sakura! Let Hoshi play with the doll as well!
You selfish child!)
The prince smirked, an expression which did not quite reach his eyes. "Now I'll have to find you," he informed her. He snapped, a superbly imperious gesture, and suddenly, Sakura's wig and dirty boots disappeared. She stared, wide-eyed, hidden behind the ivy but feeling so very exposed.
"In the meantime, I'll be keeping your belongings. I hope I will have the chance to return them soon."
That damn bastard!
(—Naruto, you damn bastard!
Ahh, Sakura-chan, you're so violent!—)
She collapsed, hating herself for her silence.
Sakura winced, her feet stinging. The idiotic pig of a prince had taken her boots with him, and she had had to make the trek from the garden to the castle barefoot!
(Running through the forest—laughter—blue eyes and blond hair ahead of her, taunting, teasing—her feet stung, but she didn't care, she was having such fun!—such fun—)
And on top of that, to ensure that she wasn't seen by anyone else, she had had to take the long, winding, forgotten routes of the castle, jumping behind statues and suits of armor. And that tear in her dress was annoying her.
Eventually, feet tender, she found herself in front of Ino's room. Sakura could only hope the other girl would understand—the pink hair would naturally be a shock, but hopefully not too much. Ino was the only one in the castle with hair dye that Sakura felt comfortable enough with.
She took her necklace off and inserted one of the keys into the keyhole. They had given each other copies of the key to their room for emergencies, and Sakura couldn't be gladder. The key jammed a little in the lock, and Sakura let out a word that ladies weren't supposed to know, but the door swung open. She flung herself into Ino's room and shut the door behind her.
Ino saw her and screamed. "Who are you—!?"
"Ino! Ino! It's me, now stop screaming!"
"Sakura!? Is that you!?"
"Yes! What did I say about the screaming?"
(A house burned to the ground, little more the cinders. And screaming, horrible screaming, a sound coming from her mother's mouth that should have been inhuman—)
Ino blinked. "What is wrong with your hair?"
"It's a long story, Ino, but my actual hair color is pink."
The blonde blinked. "Oh, no wonder you kept on asking all those questions about why the prince hates strange hair. And to be honest, I'm kind of hurt you never told me, but I'll forgive you this once. And bitch, if you're keeping any other secrets from me, you'd better spill or else I'm not talking to you ever again."
Sakura rolled her eyes. Should she tell Ino about her garden? She supposed not, so she gave Ino an abbreviated account of the encounter, artfully omitting any mention of the word "secret".
By the time Sakura was done, Ino's sky-blue eyes were wide. "That is… wow. I don't even know what to say. You met the prince? Everyone was wondering where he went off to those last two hours, but… wow. Are you telling the truth, for real?"
"Yes, for real!"
Ino nodded. "Fine, I believe you. You don't really have a reason to lie, do you?" She took a step closer to Sakura, maneuvering herself around the bed. Maids' rooms were small, after all. Ino reached out a hand and fingered a strand of Sakura's hair.
(Ow, Mama! That hurts!
Just sit still, would you, Sakura? We need to get all those knots out of your hair!
The other girl's eyes suddenly became sharp. "What're we going to do about your hair?"
"I—do you have black hair dye? I suppose I could dye my hair and just tell everybody I got a haircut."
"But—you'd ruin your hair—"
"Well, at least for two or three months. Then your roots would start showing and you'd have to either grow your hair out or dye it again."
Sakura bit her lip, considering. "Two or three months is plenty of time to get a new wig." To be honest, pink hair was her one vanity, her one uniqueness, and though she hated it at times, it was a part of her, one she was not willing to change.
"Hmm. Fine, then. Let me get out some of my dyes. I don't think I have the same exact shade as your wig, but I think I can get pretty close."
Impulsively, Sakura drew Ino into a hug. "Thanks, Ino-pig. I don't know what I'd do if you didn't help me."
The taller girl laughed and extricated herself from Sakura's embrace. "See? You're utterly useless without me."
"I resent that!"
The two close friends shifted into comfortable banter, Ino showing Sakura the wonders of hair dye.
But all the while, Sakura resented the very moment Prince Sasuke had come back to Castle Konoha.
How was it? I'm unsure about this story, so I'd love to hear your feedback!
Oh, and were Sakura's flashbacks confusing? I tried to make it clear who was speaking, but I'm not exactly known for my coherency. XD
Read and review! Please! I'm shamelessly begging here. It'll make me happy... and make me want to update quicker. -wink wink- -nudge nudge-
Oh, and please please please point out any mistakes I made here, or any honest criticisms you might have. Or, if not that, any lines that made you smile or stood out to you. It'd be much appreciated! :D
And as you may have noticed, the setting for the story was inspired by The Secret Garden. I plan on making the story very different though. :D