|The Drawing Board
Author: Annie Sparklecakes PM
Because Konoha has too many citizens and they each have too many stories to tell. Drabble collection, pairings vary. 59: Neji and Sakura, finding little glimmers of hope in the worst kind of hell.Rated: Fiction T - English - Sakura H. & Sasuke U. - Chapters: 59 - Words: 61,308 - Reviews: 1,442 - Favs: 603 - Follows: 374 - Updated: 10-12-11 - Published: 05-07-07 - id: 3527390
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Word count: 3,125 (these are clearly not drabbles)
Prompts: AU; mental and/or physical abuse; red apples; a Buddhist monk
Notes: Possibly the wrong drabble to ask this on, but has the SasuSaku fandom just, like, died? I checked it out last night, and it seems to have slowed down a lot. How sad.
The entire room stills when the screams start. Tenten reaches out and clasps Neji's fingers tight – she had been the newest up until three days ago; she still remembers the torturous, terrifying first few weeks – before Neji pulls away. He doesn't want anyone to see Tenten needing him, or he will be stripped away from her.
Orochimaru enjoys stripping people of their power, their support. He likes to leave them feeling naked and alone.
Tayuya snaps at them to get back to work, and the training resumes, and Neji feels his muscles tear under Zaku's watchful eye, and no one says anything except when the leaders bark insults and orders, but in the background, one room over, the screaming doesn't stop.
Naruto nudges Neji's foot under the table, and next thing he knows, someone is being shoved roughly onto the bench beside him.
"Stop crying, bitch," Kin growls. A whimper. "Shut up and eat. Quickly. Orochimaru-sama wants to see you after this."
Neji glances over. His vision is blurry after all the experiments, but he can make out one thing: a splash of pink against a sea of grey. The girl – the new girl – hiccups softly as she shovels brown slop into her mouth, and Neji knows what she must be thinking, because everyone thinks the same thing every day: What did I do to deserve this?
Naruto kicks him again, and Neji knows the silence is killing him, but Kin is still hovering over them, so Neji can't say anything, like, "Don't cry" or "It gets better."
Anyway. It never gets better.
She doesn't return to her room that night. Or the next.
The halls are silent and still without her screams, and she doesn't return to the cafeteria or the training area. Naruto grows frantic, and is sedated and given new medication. Neji tries not to worry.
Sasuke gets into a fight. Sasuke is Orochimaru's special project. He is the most dangerous, and he has the fewest constraints. He slashes Karin across the face in a spar, damaging one of her eyes – the eyes Orochimaru gave her – before Kabuto manages to restrain him and take him away.
Kabuto brings her in. Neji recognizes the pink but can't make out her expression. Naruto, several feet away, growls deep in the back of his throat, and the ground beneath Neji rumbles, just slightly. He wonders if the medication is actually working.
But he doesn't have time to think on that. Because Kabuto speaks, and when Kabuto speaks, it's usually best to listen, even if he rarely says anything anyone wants to hear.
"Sakura." (Her name is Sakura.) "Heal her."
This is new. Neji stiffens, and a rustle sweeps the room as everyone turns to watch Sakura. This room of broken, mangled human beings needs a healer.
Neji squints, cursing his vision, cursing Orochimaru and his experiments, as a glow surrounds Sakura and Karin. Twin gasps from the girls, and then the glow is gone, Karin isn't bleeding, and Sakura is on the floor.
"You healed me," Karin says wonderingly – and then she sucks in a breath.
The whole room – the people, the walls – seems to draw back and expand. But Neji can't see.
He can only hear Sakura. Crying.
"Kin," Kabuto says calmly. "Take Sakura back to her room." A pause, then he adds, "Orochimaru will be pleased, Sakura."
He leaves. Kin and Sakura leave.
Everything begins to change.
Sakura is treated much like Sasuke. Rich meals in her bedroom; freedom to wander the halls without a guard; special care by Kabuto; regular meetings with Orochimaru.
Naruto becomes more and more agitated, but he can't speak and Neji can't see, and he doesn't know what's wrong. Tenten, whose senses are the sharpest, is constantly on verge of a breakdown, especially when Sakura is near. She tells Naruto and Neji to be very careful, to not let themselves get hurt.
But getting hurt, here, is inevitable.
Neji spars with Kiba, who was fused with his dog and is losing more and more of his humanity every day. His cousin, who was abducted along with Neji all those years ago, tells Neji that Kiba will probably be put down soon.
She uses those exact words: 'put down.'
Neji is strong, but he was stronger before the experiments. Without his sight, he is at a disadvantage, and without his conscience, Kiba is at a very strong advantage. So after six minutes of a mostly-even match, Kiba swipes at his shoulder, Neji dodges, Neji stumbles, and Kiba sinks his teeth into his forearm until blood spills onto the cold, hard concrete beneath them.
The smell sends both Kiba and Naruto into a frenzy. Sasuke demands Naruto be led to his room, and Kabuto comes to drag Kiba away for the last time while Hinata forces herself to stay silent and unnoticed.
Neji kneels alone by the wall, cradling his arm to his chest and not saying a word. He doesn't need to see her face to feel Tenten's fear, and he doesn't want Sakura to appear.
But appear she does.
She takes his arm with gentle hands, and Neji winces.
"Sorry," she says, and that green glow surrounds her. Coolness sweeps through him, and the pain fades.
"Wait—" Neji pulls away. "Stop. I'm fine."
Sakura stares at him. She's so close, he can see her big, green eyes. He swallows, hard.
"I don't need any healing."
Sakura takes his arm.
Neji tugs it away. "Stop."
"I can't." She lowers her voice and reaches for him again. "Please. You'll get me in trouble."
Her hands are cool and soft, which surprises Neji. Everyone has coarse, calloused hands here. Sakura's hands are a reminder of the past he dreams of every night.
He stops resisting.
The glow gleams around them once more. Neji feels his skin mend, and the pain vanishes. Sakura takes in a breath, hold tightening for a moment on his arm, and Neji instinctively reaches out – but the moment passes, she lets him go, and she walks away.
Neji watches her go until Zaku hits him in the back of the head and orders him to Orochimaru's clinic for a check-up.
They get one hour of free time every day, and not a minute more, right after dinner. They may do anything they want, as long as they stay supervised. No escaping alone to their bedrooms. No wandering the halls for too long.
Mostly, everyone sits on the worn couches in the lounge, too tired to do much else. They talk, and sometimes play cards. The experiments use their free time to remember being human.
Tenten falls asleep on the couch, and Naruto plays a game of Go Fish with Sasuke and Gaara in the corner. Neji leaves the lounge to walk and stretch his legs.
He turns a corner and finds Sakura leaving the infirmary. It takes him a moment to recognize her, even with her bright hair.
She stops when she sees him. "Hello."
"Hi." He squints past her. "Is someone unwell?"
Her voice gets small and tight. "Kin sprained her ankle."
Neji bites his tongue. He hates these people. He hates that they are frail and weak and still manage to keep him and his friends – acquaintances – in such a firm hold.
Sakura approaches him slowly, then yelps and stumbles. Neji lurches forward, but she has caught herself against the wall. She breathes hard, leaning heavy against the stone for a long moment.
"Sakura?" Neji asks when she doesn't move.
Sakura bows her head, and when Neji moves to her side, he realizes she is shaking.
"I hate it here." Her voice quivers and shakes. "I hate it so much."
Neji glances at both ends of the hall. It's clear. So he reaches out, and puts his palm between her shoulder blades in a poor attempt at comfort. But it works. She stops shaking and looks up at him.
Her eyes are so green, even Neji can see them.
She sputters a laugh. "How can you not?" She turns to lean back against the wall, and slides to the floor. She rubs her ankle. "What's your name?"
"Neji. Hi, Neji. How's your arm?"
"Fine, thank you."
Sakura tips her head back against the gray stone. "Are you always so polite?"
Tenten asked him the same thing when he met. "It's how I was raised."
"Keeping those lessons in mind, even here, is pretty amazing." She draws her knees to her chest and drops her chin to her knees, watching him closely. "Yours is the first smile I've seen here."
"Oh." He's surprised to find a smile, however small, on his lips. "Well." The smile drops. He doesn't know what to say.
"How did you get here?"
"I was kidnapped." Neji wonders how long they've sat here. Maybe Sakura is allowed, but he should return before Zaku comes looking for him.
"Oh. I'm sorry." She shifts on the cold stone floor. "I was sold."
Neji knows this happens sometimes. Families too poor to support their children, human traffickers, even slave-owners sometimes sell teenagers to Orochimaru's group. He's well-known enough to have a steady stream of fresh humans to experiment on, but hidden enough to avoid the authorities.
"Neji, are you blind?"
"Nearly. Orochimaru had hoped to give me sharper vision, capable of seeing through objects, for miles all around. It didn't take."
"I'm sorry." Sakura studies him. "Can you see me?"
"A little." When she doesn't say anything, he says, "Your hair is very bright. I usually notice that. When you're this close I can see your eyes, but… everything else is blurry."
"Maybe I could heal them."
Neji's heart leaps, but he forces himself to shake his head. "I'm fine."
"I could try."
"Why not?" She sounds frustrated. "Why don't you want my help?"
Because Tenten gets so scared she can't speak whenever Sakura heals someone. "Because you collapsed the fist time I saw you heal."
Sakura is silent.
Neji stands up. He's already been gone too long; he doesn't want to push his luck. He holds a hand out to her, but she doesn't take it.
"I'm going to stay here a little longer," she says. "I'm very tired."
Neji nods and leaves without another word.
They don't speak for a week after that. Sasuke and Naruto, the closest of friends possible in this underground hell, come to blows one evening and are gravely injured. Sakura spends two nights healing them, then six more recovering.
Neji doesn't realize he's waiting for her until Tenten asks, during their free time, who he keeps looking for.
"No one," he says, surprised. "Who would I even be able to find?"
He can't make out Tenten's eyes – they're small and colorless – but he's close enough to see the upturn of her lips.
"Turn around," she says, "and maybe you'll see."
Neji turns. Sees someone behind him. He can't quite make out their features.
"If you're hungry," she says, and it's Sakura. She presses something vibrantly red into Neji's palm – an apple – and adds, "Kabuto's been feeding me extra lately."
"Neji loves apples," Tenten tells her.
Neji stays silent, staring at Sakura. Her spine slouches, her hair is starting to match the cold stone walls.
This place is sucking out her color.
Neji stares at the apple – color so vivid, even he can make it out – and mumbles his gratitude.
You are fading away before my eyes, Neji thinks.
There is something about Sakura that he can't pinpoint. Something wrong with her. In the three months he's known her, she has slowed down. Her hands become softer
And her voice becomes quieter.
But he doesn't say anything about it.
They sit together on the couch during free time – their only time together. Sakura talks to Naruto, and Neji listens to Tenten, but he is aware of her shoulder blades digging into his back through the entire hour.
"I love you," she blurts one day, right in the middle of an empty corridor on their way to their rooms. Neji falters midstep, one hand against the dry stone wall, and looks back with eyes that barely make her out.
"What?" His voice rasps; he feels terrified.
"I love you," Sakura repeats. She reaches out to take and guide him by the elbow. They've spent too much time loitering; Zaku or Kin will come for them soon – or worse, Kabuto. "Please don't reject me," she says in a rush. "I just – this is me, I need to love somebody." A pause. "I need something to live for."
Neji doesn't reply. They keep walking.
"Okay," he says when they reach their rooms. He looks Sakura straight in the eye and nods and repeats: "Okay."
"Okay," Sakura says, then leans forward, on impulse, and kisses him on the cheek. Neji skitters back and bangs his heel against the door, and Sakura laughs. It seems to already be working. "Thank you."
Neji nods again, cheeks pink, and disappears into his room.
When Sakura turns around, Kabuto is standing against the wall. Watching her.
Her hair is beginning to fall out.
The color has already mostly faded. Her spine bends, her skin sags in deep wrinkles, and her bones grow frail.
In four months, Sakura has aged forty years.
Neji hasn't realized it yet, though he knows something is wrong. Sakura has told the other not to say anything to him; she doesn't want Neji to know she's dying. She wants to enjoy this time with him – as much as she can, under Orochimaru's eye.
She worries about Kabuto. He hasn't said a word about her and Neji. She thinks he's waiting for the most opportune moment, but doesn't know when that might be. But she doesn't want to worry the others, and since Tenten and Naruto don't notice, Sasuke doesn't realize what it means, and Neji can't see, she can pretend Kabuto doesn't stare at her with cold, calculating eyes when he knows she's watching.
Sakura sits in the lounge during free time with a mug of bitter tea between her palms. She suppresses her disgust when she chokes down the medicine. Neji watches her with pale, damaged eyes, and she has to hold in a cough until her eyes water.
Naruto speaks, and Neji turns away.
Sakura coughs into her palm.
Kabuto walks in and stands by the doorway. He looks around, and his gaze lands on Sakura.
Sakura is allowed luxury chocolates and three-course meals. Her king-sized bed takes up half her thickly-carpeted room, and her clothes are brand new.
But the one thing she may not have is Neji.
Orochimaru sits in an office all day, poring over research and tables and statistics. He fancies himself a God, training young adults to follow his teachings. He models the rules of his underground world after numerous philosophies.
He sends her a note one evening, resting on her pillow when she returns early from the lounge, bones creaking with exhaustion and breathing labored and short.
Calm in body, calm in speech, tranquil and composed of heart, the note reads in flowing script. Whoso has spewed out worldly wants, "Serene" is such a bhikkhu called.
Sakura stares at the note and wonders how such a disgusting man could feel worthy to steal the words of such a peaceful religion.
She crumples the note, feeling nauseated, and lies down.
Sleep doesn't come until dawn.
She heals Naruto's dislocated shoulder and Gaara's broken nose and Hinata's bruised ribs in one eventful afternoon, and goes back to her room with a sore body and a tightness in her chest.
She collapses onto her pillows and spends six minutes in a coughing fit, and when she stops, her sheets are spattered with blood.
She sleeps for four hours, then drags herself out of bed and to the couch in the lounge where Neji always waits for her.
Neji wonders if he should tell Sakura he loves her. He wonders if it would help her. He wonders if it would help him. He wonders if it won't just hurt both. They can never be together. Not unless they leave.
But they cannot leave.
Sakura touches his knee and gives him an apple from her unfinished dinner. His stomach growls, and he takes it.
The color is so vivid and alive, and she may be colorless and fading, but that means nothing when her leg is arm against his and her eyes are close enough to see.
This could be real, he thinks.
Sakura inches down the hall, breathing hard. Her hands shake and her legs tremble, and she takes three more steps and then collapses. Her knees hit the stone with a crack, and her scream chokes off into a gurgle as liquid fills her mouth.
She can't breathe. Her heart stops, and she can't breathe.
Kabuto is there. He crouches down, leans over her, eyes soft and concerned. He checks her pulse, urges her into a sitting position. On her other side, Zaku fishes in a steel-gray first-aid kit for a vial. He pops it open, tips it to her mouth. The liquid stops at her blocked-up throat and dribbles back out.
"Come on, Sakura," Kabuto says, and she could even think he cares.
People begin to pass, on their way to lunch. Kabuto barks at them to find another path, and Kin appears to divert them.
The halls clear, and Sakura continues to die alone.
A slow shuffle meets her ears, and Sakura's stopped heart echoes a faint beat. Neji rounds the corner, hand against the wall, steps careful and slow.
She watches him and tries to speak, but the words can't pass her throat. She waits for Neji to see her.
But Neji has poor eyes, and her hair is white.
He looks at them for a moment, and pauses, and Sakura struggles to sit up.
"Go eat, Neji," Kabuto says calmly. Nothing to see here.
Neji hesitates, then nods – Sakura could be anyone, suffering from anything – and shuffles on.
Sakura watches him go, throat blocked with untold feelings, eyes brimming with hot tears. Kabuto looks down at her blankly, nudging his glasses further up his nose.
Her eyes squeeze closed, tears spurting down her cheeks, and she lets her world end without a word.
On instinct, Neji glances back over his shoulder. The person – the girl? – in Kabuto's arms is still and silent. Her eyes flutter, and Neji's heart stops.
He thinks he sees green.
But he isn't sure, and her eyes close, and Zaku snaps at him to go, and Neji walks on.