Disclaimer: By induction, disclaimer holds.

A/N: To answer your questions...I guess this story roughly follows the Naruto timeline. Let's go with the assumption that the genin sent to bring Sasuke back succeeded in their mission, and that Itachi is still very much alive, but things have more or less settled down in Konoha for the time being. A sort of unsteady peace, if you will.


Chapter 7: The Path

A clear night sky forecasted a beautiful summer day. The crisp air and peaceful silence was a textbook example of serenity - or at least, that was the case for most of Konoha. An unlucky section of the sleeping town had the effect somewhat ruined by the sound of Naruto's voice.

At a time when the sun had not even thought of beginning to rise, Naruto sprinted up the walkway to Kakashi's house, all the while yelling at the top of his lungs.

"Kakashi-sensei!!!" he called somewhat breathlessly. Having not received a discernible response upon reaching the entrance he promptly resorted to banging heavily on the door.

Kakashi opened the door and stumbled out onto the front porch, sloppily dressed and his droopy eye more sleepy than usual. "Aaaa..." he mumbled, staring through Naruto.

"Good morning Kakashi-sensei!!" said Naruto cheerfully, shoving a small book towards his sensei's visibly fatigued form. "Here's Sakura-chan's diary! Sasuke wanted to go home so I brought it to you myself!"

Summoning up his last remaining bit of energy, Kakashi straightened himself up and smiled through the mask. "I didn't think you were serious when you brought it up yesterday," he began. Noticing the crestfallen look on Naruto's face, he hastily added, "...but this will give me all the information I need. Good work."

Once again wearing his characteristic ear-to-ear grin, Naruto exclaimed, "You can always leave it to me to get the job done!" He departed, but not before giving Kakashi an enthusiastic thumbs up.

Kakashi watched the happy blond walk away, a bustling bundle of yellow and orange. "That boy's beginning to sound like Gai," he muttered to himself. "Going to have to do something about that."

He was about to go back inside when he thought he saw a shadow move across his lawn. Warily he uncovered the Sharingan, slowly and carefully surveying the area around him. But just like that night when he was outside Sakura's house, Kakashi could see nothing amiss. His eyes narrowed, but mentally he shrugged it off. Maybe the sleepness nights were finally getting to him.


After leaving an obnoxiously jovial Naruto to deliver to Kakashi the fruits of their reconnaissance mission, Sasuke trudged home with his hands in his pockets, his mind troubled. It had been two days and he still he hadn't managed to block the incident with Neji from his thoughts. As he had many times already, he once again ran through the events that he could remember. Since when had he started to see Neji as his rival? They had barely ever talked, save for the time Neji had asked his name before the Chuunin exams and Sasuke had arrogantly refused to give it. There was no rivalry between Uchiha and Hyuuga that he was aware of. There was no bad blood between them. There was no...

A pair of liquid brown eyes passed briefly through his mind. Sasuke blinked, stopping dead in his tracks. Tenten?

After taking a brief moment to mull over this new idea, he resumed his walk home. The more he thought about it, the more convinced he became that Tenten had somehow been central to their conflict. But why? He barely knew the girl.

While his thoughts were occupied with this new piece of information, Sasuke unconsciously changed course and headed towards the property of the Hyuuga clan. When he finally returned his attention to his whereabouts, he was already at the gates. He shrugged. What the hell. He might as well talk to Neji about the situation. Chances were that the Hyuuga was just as confused as he was. And maybe together they could talk it out and uncover just what was going on.

That's all he was going to do. That's all he was there for.

Just to talk.

Neji stared out his window, steadfastly ignoring the tempting call of sleep. He would not, could not sucuumb until he settled the question that had nagged him incessantly ever since the altercation with Sasuke. After session after session of reflection and meditation, he had arrived at the conclusion that he was a pawn in someone else's game. The sole question that remained to be answered was the identity of the person pulling the strings. He considered for a moment. Well, perhaps not the sole question. He wouldn't mind knowing how. Or, for that reason, why.

The moon shone through the window to gently illuminate his pale complexion. The silver rays emanating from the sky were eerily similar in shade to his eyes, reflected in the glass of the windowpane. The entire Hyuuga family slept and all was quiet. For a fleeting moment, he felt strangely relaxed.

That feeling disappeared instantly when he sensed the presence of another somewhere outside. He closed his eyes briefly, reopening them to reveal the activated Byakugan. He carefully and efficiently scanned the extensive Hyuuga lands until he found what he was looking for.

Uchiha Sasuke.

A sharp hiss escaped from Neji's lips as a nagging voice at the back of his mind prodded him. What was HE doing here? Surely he hadn't chosen now, of all times, to settle their dispute?

Neji shook his head rapidly, the effect being that of an involuntary shiver. He didn't know exactly what was happening to him, but he was going to put an end to it now. Sasuke bothered him, but like him the Uchiha was a genius ninja. Surely between the two of them, they could figure things out. Sasuke had probably arrived at the same conclusion that he had, and had promptly come here to discuss the matter.

Neji dressed quickly and quietly opened his window. He would meet Sasuke halfway. He glanced briefly at his weapon pouches on the table, and after a split second of consideration he grabbed them and jumped out onto the tree outside his room. Surely he wouldn't need them...but he'd take them just in case.

Just for protection.

After all, that's all he was going to do. That's all he was meeting Sasuke for.

Just to talk.



The two boys met on the path connecting the cluster of residences belonging to the main house to those of the branch house. A sudden breeze drifted across them, creating gentle eddies of leaves around where they stood. Their gazes locked, they stared each other for a full minute before Neji finally broke the silence.

"What brings you to the Hyuuga residence at this hour, Uchiha Sasuke?" he said formally, his voice cold.

Sasuke hesitated. "I..."

Neji raised an eyebrow, obviously impatient for Sasuke's answer.

Sasuke was suddenly overcome by a violent urge to wipe that indifferent, know-it-all look off of Neji's face. Ignoring the emotions which unchecked would have provoked him to physical action, he found his voice and answered in a similar tone, "I wanted to talk about what happened that day."

"Then talk."

"Not here," said Sasuke. "Somewhere where no one will overhear our conversation."

Neji shrugged dismissively. "If you so wish," he said in a voice of an adult humoring a child.

Red flashed before Sasuke's eyes. Quietly seething at the older boy's condescension, Sasuke forced himself to remain calm. When they reached a spot not far from where their first confrontation had taken place, Sasuke stopped. Turning to Neji, he said, "I think there may have been something influencing both our behavior when we were here the other day. I don't know what it is, but you must have felt it as well.

Neji's empty eyes stared into Sasuke's. After a tense moment Neji capitulated with, "That is true."

Sasuke nodded, not showing it but secretly relieved. "Do you remember what triggered the whole thing?" he asked.

"As I remember it, you were conducting yourself in a manner ill-befitting a shinobi," came Neji's cool answer.

Sasuke stared, uncomprehending.

Once again, it was Neji that shattered the overhanging silence. "I can see many things with this Byakugan, Uchiha. Including how you were looking at my teammate. I deemed it necessary to inform you that I would tolerate no interference in such matters. From anyone."

Shadows flitted across the ground as the precursors of dawn streaked the sky with dark red and orange. Neither of the boys noticed one particular, irregularly shaped shadow pass across their bodies, nor would they have though anything of it if they had.

Not generally quick to anger, Sasuke surprised even himself. Suddenly livid, Sasuke snorted. "Would you, of all people, presume to tell me what I can and cannot do?" he asked scornfully.

Eyes flashing a dangerous silver, Neji said coldly, "Watch carefully what you say next, Uchiha."

But something inside Sasuke had snapped, and try as he might he could not restrain himself. In a rare burst of emotion, Sasuke flared, "Unlike you, Hyuuga Neji of the Bunke, I possess control of my own destiny."

Neji's eyes widened briefly, then narrowed in anger. "Don't be so sure, Uchiha Sasuke," he said in a voice that bespoke of his inner fury. "Your brother, not you, is the true heir to the bloodline. Your..." Here he paused deliberately before continuing, "...skill. It does not even come close to his."

Sasuke glared and opened his mouth as if to speak, but Neji was not finished.

"You and I both know it. You are no comparison to the true master of the Sharingan. The only reason you are still alive is because Uchiha Itachi allowed it."

An audible intake of breath from Sasuke upon hearing Neji speak his brother's name gave way to the retort, "And you are only alive because the Souke allows it."

Neji snorted derisively. "And you are only alive because we brought you back from the darkness that you were too weak to face on your own," he shot back.

Sasuke's voice suddenly became very quiet. "What do you mean by that."

"You know exactly what I mean," Neji answered calmly.

Sasuke looked up, his Sharingan blazing. Neji's face remained expressionless as Sasuke, back to his usual confidence, smirked and said simply, "Allow me to show you which one of us is truly weak."

As he had done once before this night, Neji closed his eyes briefly in concentration and opened them in a sudden movement to unveil the terrifying Byakugan. "You may think you control your destiny, Uchiha," he said, still calm as he shifted easily into his fighting stance. "But that is untrue. Right now, I control both my own destiny...and yours."

The sun was just rising over the horizon as Sasuke rushed at him with an angry yell. This time, there was no one there to stop them.


For the second time that morning, someone banged impatiently on Kakashi's door. Groaning, he forced himself to wake and stand up, dropping his blanket and Sakura's diary to the floor in the process. He stared at the book on the ground for a brief moment, rubbing his eyes. He still hadn't had a chance to read it, having passed out on the couch shortly after Naruto had left. Only renewed banging from outside brought him back to the present. Quickly pulling his mask up, he opened the door to see Gai standing there. Kakashi could immediately tell that something was amiss from the absence of the bright smile from Gai's countenance.

"Kakashi," said Gai. "We still can't find her. The ANBU fear the worst."

Kakashi took a step backwards as if Gai had physically struck him. "What?" he hissed. "What do you mean, the worst?"

Gai sighed. "They think that maybe she has been kidnapped and taken out of the village against her will."

Kakashi shook his head emphatically. "That's not possible. The ANBU are approaching this completely wrong. I - "

He was cut of by a wave of Gai's hand. "They told me that you'd say that. Godaime wants to see you as soon as you can be ready. She says that you have a unique perspective on this matter and she wants you to brief everyone."

Kakashi nodded slowly. "Fine. I'll meet you there."

"Be on time, Kakashi," warned Gai goodnaturedly as he turned to leave. He would never have admitted it, but he was worried about the wellbeing of his rival. Kakashi seemed drained somehow.

"Aaa," answered Kakashi, closing the door. He was halfway up the stairs when he heard another knock on the door. Thinking that it was Gai again, he threw open the door exasperatedly. He blinked in confusion, briefly muted by his surprise.


Her hair was dishevelled and dirty, her dress was torn and she was without her forehead protector, but it was very much Sakura that stood on the doorstep. Without a word, she slowly walked towards the open door. Kakashi moved aside quickly to let her pass, and closed the door behind her. He turned just in time to watch her knees give and catch her before she hit the ground.

Tsunade paced the floor of her office, stopping every so often to cast a baleful glare at the clock on the wall. Gai and Anko were seated on chairs in front of her desk, neither one feeling it wise to speak. Tsunade was not normally of a patient disposition, and recent events had put her even more on edge. She was fuming at being kept waiting.

Gai winced at the thought of Kakashi striding in, nonchalant excuse for his lateless on his lips. Don't be an idiot, Kakashi, Gai thought to himself. She'll kill you. For once, don't be a smart ass. Prostrate yourself before her and grovel.

As if on cue, the door to the office opened and Kakashi walked in. Gai and Anko both found themselves staring at Tsunade expectantly, and sure enough, she strode towards the silver haired jounin with her hands clenched tightly into fists. BUt before she could say or do anything, Kakashi reached through the door and pulled Sakura in by the hand. Tsunade stopped dead in her tracks. Anko had jumped out of her chair, recognizing the genin from both the Chuunin exam and the picture in her file. Gai rose slowly, his eyes fixed on Kakashi's unusually subdued form. Sakura slowly raised her eyes from the ground to lock gazes with the Hokage. Tsunade forced a wane smile onto her face. "Haruno Sakura," she said warmly, only the slightest traces of hesitation in her voice. "It's good to see that you are alright. You had us very worried about you."

"I'm sorry," replied Sakura quietly, bowing from the waist. Concerned, Gai noted that Kakashi was watching Sakura's every movement intently as he stood protectively behind her. He had not seen his rival this serious in a long time. Even Anko uncharacteristically kept her mouth shut.

Tsunade took Sakura's arm and guided her towards the chair that Gai vacated and pulled out for her. Kakashi followed slightly behind them, concern evident in his one visible eye. Sakura gave Tsunade and Gai a grateful little smile before sitting down. Tsunade sat down at her desk while Anko and Gai moved behind Sakura to stand on either side of Kakashi.

"Sakura," began Tsunade gently. "Where have you been for the last day?"

When Sakura did not answer, Tsunade sighed softly and revised her question. "Did you leave Konoha?"

Sakura shook her head, indicating a negative answer. Tsunade seemed relieved. "Okay...have you been with anyone in the past day?"

Her eyes glazed over as if looking into the past, Sakura answered with hesitaton, "Yes."

The four adults in the room seemed taken aback by her answer, Tsunade even more so than the others. "Who?" asked the Hokage, her worry now audible in her tone.

"She speaks to me in my mind," said Sakura in the way of an answer.

Anko raised an eyebrow, poked Gai and moved her index finger in circles around her head. She stopped abruptly when Kakashi glared threateningly at her. Tsunade motioned for the three jounin to leave her alone with Sakura. Anko and Gai readily did as they were told, but Kakashi seemed unwilling to comply. Shooting a worried look back at him, Gai turned back and signalled Kakashi to follow. After a slight delay, Kakashi too exited the room.

Sakura stared expectantly at Tsunade, who waited until she was absolutely certain that they were alone before speaking. "Sakura," said Tsunade seriously. "I want you to answer me honestly. Can you promise to do that?"

Emerald eyes wide open, Sakura nodded slowly. Tsunade asked gently, "Have you ever heard of Shiraishi Miyako?"

Though she took care not to show it, Sakura's mind was working a mile a minute. Not only did she feel a deep connection to Miyako, but Miyako had shared with Sakura her life, her abilities, and promised to show her the path to take. In return, Sakura had promised to help Miyako achieve peace, trusting Miyako to help make her strong. She arrived at a firm decision. Though she was loathe to lie to someone she had so much respect for, her promise with Miyako took precedence.

Thus Sakura shook her head in answer to the question.

Tsunade nodded slightly. "You should probably go home and get some rest. We'll talk later, when you've recovered a bit. Okay?"

"Yes. Thank you, Hokage-sama," answered Sakura.

Sakura stood up and turned to leave when Tsunade called out, "Sakura." She turned to face the Godaime, who was now standing behind her desk. "Should you need anything...to talk, to ask questions, anything. Please let me know."

A small but genuine small spread across Sakura's lips. "Thank you, Hokage-sama," she said sincerely, adding, "Have a good day."

Tsunade watched the little girl leave, unable to account for the ache in her heart.

While Tsunade and Sakura spoke, the three jounin stood in the waiting room. Anko, who had been keeping her comments to herself for the better part of an hour, suddenly decided that she could take it no longer. In a tone perhaps more derisive than she intended, Anko said, "Kakashi, your student is a nutcase."

Kakashi, leaning against a wall with his arms crossed over his chest, elected to say nothing. Anko took his silence as encouragement to continue. "I mean, she runs off for no reason. Then she disappears without a trace. And now she hears voices? Come on! What a psycho."

Gai had known Kakashi long enough to know when he was angry. It wasn't as if Gai didn't agree with what Anko was saying, to some degree, but for the sake of preserving peace he shook his head slightly. Looked directly at her, he quietly warned, "Anko..."

Anko returned his gaze, oblivious. "What, Gai?" she said, sounding almost cheerful. "It's not like Kakashi doesn't agree with me. Right, Kakashi?"

"Piss off, Anko," answered Kakashi calmly.

Her initial surprise at his reaction quickly gave way to anger. "What the hell is your problem, Kakashi?"

"You are," he said matter-of-factly. "You know nothing about Sakura, therefore you should have nothing to say about her." Pushing himself off of the wall and walking slowly towards the corridor, Kakashi added, "I'm going to go check if they're done. And Anko, you're the last person who should be calling anyone a psycho."

Gai and Anko stared as Kakashi walked away, speechless.


Kakashi walked with Sakura in silence towards the usual meeting area, expecting to see Naruto and Sasuke already waiting. Sure enough, as soon as they were in visible range Naruto ran towards them at full speed, yelling, "Sakura-chan!"

Sakura couldn't help but smile. "Hi, Naruto."

Naruto, seemingly without stopping for breath, let out a stream of questions. "Where were you? What happened? Are you hurt? When did they find you? Why did you leave? Did you hear about Sasuke?"

Only the last question caught the attention of his audience. "What about Sasuke-kun..?" asked Sakura, eyebrows furrowing in confusion.

Before Naruto could answer, Kakashi added, "Speaking of which, where is Sasuke?"

Naruto shrugged. "Who cares?" Seeing that Kakashi wasn't about to let that go, he pouted and added, "Haven't seen him. I thought that maybe he slept in."

Kakashi nodded, unsatisfied but unable to do anything about it. "Naruto, why don't you take Sakura home to get some rest? I'll go get Sasuke and I'll meet you back here in an hour, okay?"

Naruto was overjoyed. "Okay, okay! I'll take good care of Sakura-chan! DOn't worry about it!"

Kakashi stole a glance at Sakura. She didn't seem too in touch with what was going on around her, but for the time being he would chalk it up to the shock from whatever it was that she had seen. He had carried her straight to Tsunade's office after she came to, and during the short travel time she had not spoken. Maybe after she had rested, she would have recovered and be more forthcoming with details. He watched as Naruto walked off with Sakura. When they were out of sight he took off towards the Uchiha residence, a strange feeling in the pit of his stomach telling him that something was very wrong.