Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto. Woe is me.
Comments: Hello, and welcome to my second ever Naruto fic. This was originally going to be a Final Fantasy 7 story but halfway through my writing of it, I decided it should be a Naruto one because I'm fickle like that. I 'd really appreciate comments and concrit. This fic is Semi-AU---it takes place several years in the future of the current storyline (Sakura is 22 and she is a medic-chuunin.). And for all intents and purposes, the crossword is in romaji or in plain English. Your pick.
Another night, another shift.
Where most chuunin would dread the repetitive schedule of work she faced, Haruno Sakura was actually grateful for this bit of normalcy in her life. While she certainly didn't mind doing field work as a medic-nin, she felt she deserved a break from that fast-paced lifestyle, especially after the recent wave of guerilla attacks from insurgents along the Leaf-Mist border.
Being assigned to the Konoha hospital didn't bother Sakura in the least; in fact, things couldn't have been more convenient for her. She was in the safety of her home village, which was always a plus. The hospital staff, although limited, were a pleasure to work with and since she mostly worked the graveyard shift, she had the entire day to catch up on errands and a somewhat bland social life if she wasn't asleep. She really couldn't complain.
Seated on a chair beside the bed of her sleeping patient — her 'mission' for the past month — Sakura chewed idly on the eraser head of her pencil, concentrating on the crossword puzzle before her. 11 Across of the puzzle was: Synonym for red. That was it. It was seven characters in length and no other surrounding words were filled in because Sakura was following her established tradition of filling in the longer-character words in first before moving on to the rest of the puzzle. Usually, the longer ones were the easier parts of the puzzle, but this was different.
This was tricky.
She knew dozens of words that could also mean 'red', and she knew crossword puzzles liked to play around with your head, so this 'red' could have been the adjective or the noun form. Or something else.
Damn mind games within a word game, she thought. Now she began to realize why Tsunade became so frustrated by these things. Unlike Tsunade, though, Sakura wasn't going to rip the book in half.If she was going to finish this, and she was, herbest bet was to write out every synonym she could think of along the side of the puzzle to return to 11 Across later.
She didn't want to consult a thesaurus. That would be cheating. And even if she did, she wouldn't find one in the Konoha hospital anyway. It wasn't stocked with decent food or two-ply toilet paper; she highly doubted a book of synonyms and antonyms could be found anywhere within the building.
Her personal thesauri, Izumo and Kotetsu, were nowhere in the vicinity. No surprise there, seeing as how it was a quarter after midnight. Just about everyone in the village was asleep at this hour.
Sighing lowly to herself, Sakura twirled the pencil in her fingers like a baton and prepared to write, but a figure squirmed and groaned within the plain white bed sheets. That was her cue to put her puzzle down for now. Her patient was awake.
She grinned and helped him out of the entanglement of sheets. "Morning, sunshine!"
He let out a deep groan again in response to her sing-song voice.
She took that with a grain of salt and, as he sat up as best he could within the bed, poured him a tall glass of ice cold water from the pitcher atop the bedside table. "Here you go," she placed the glass into his hand to see if he was strong enough to hold it himself. He wasn't so she held it for him.
When he was done with the glass, she asked him if he wanted another and he nodded so she obliged. "I got lucky at the market today and managed to get three that were not bruised. Want to share a piece of the bounty or do you want me to heat up the dinner Suzuki-san made earlier?"
"Just give me the apples." His voice was like thunder before a storm.
Sakura smirked and placed the plate of chopped apples on his lap. Even the Hyuuga couldn't deny the fact that Konoha's hospital food absolutely sucked.
Neji ate the apples slowly, savoring every bite. Sakura waited patiently for his next course of action.
It was like this every night with him for the past month or so. He'd wake in the middle of the night, mouth like cotton, neck glowing with a sheen of sweat, pale face flushed. She'd give him several glasses of water—she always had a cool pitcher ready—and he'd drink like a camel. He might get the urge to use the bathroom, and since he was too prideful to make use of a bed pan, she'd loop her thin arm through his bandaged one and would help him walk to the adjoining bathroom. When he was done and comfortably settled into the bed again, she would offer him some sliced apples because Sasuke never ate her store-bought apples but this fellow did.
In spite of the circumstances, she felt casual in his presence; if she were younger, she'd feel a little uncomfortable if not embarrassed because word had it that it wasn't everyday that you got to swab a soapy sponge over a practically naked Neji's torso without his protest. After several nights of the same cycle, Sakura had gotten used to the patient-nurse relationship and considered it just as much of a part of her routine as brushing her teeth. She liked to think of herself as a professional nurse now. She no longer giggled when she had to comb out his long dark hair; she no longer blushed when she brushed a hand over the washboard of a stomach he had.
The ambush on the ANBU squad Neji was in charge of left him with several poison-tipped senbon lodged in the side of his neck which in turn left him a complete and utter mess. Exhaustion, dehydration, fever, nausea...the works. Sakura reckoned the symptoms he had were similar to the ones she suffered from mono as a child, although on a much higher scale, and with weakened muscles. They really did a number on him, she couldn't help but repeat each time she saw him struggle to sit up. Even Tsunade had been amazed at what the poison had done to the Hyuuga prodigy.
After a brief coma and treatment, he was put on bed-rest with the occasional therapy conducted by Tsunade herself or the jounin medic-nin Shizune. As the medic-nin appointed to keep a vigil on him mostly during the nights, Sakura was in charge of everything from feeding him if his strength left him to cleaning him. She surmised that the ambush also left the twenty three year old jounin's pride severely bruised. His silent and often curt attitude led her to believe that, anyway. Who knew what went on in his mind. She certainly didn't.
Neji finished the apples and damn near dropped the plate when he handed it back to her. "Do you need something?" she asked, putting the plate aside.
Snippy to the end, aren't you? Sakura thought with a grin. "Well, you know the drill..."
"...hum if you need anything," they said in unison—although Neji more or less droned his part. After years of being on the same team with Sasuke, Prince Stick-in-the-Mud himself, Sakura was not bowled over by such behavior.
"Good. I don't have to say that part anymore." Sakura balanced her opened puzzle book on her lap and armed herself with her pencil. She was going to finish this crossword.
"I don't belong here," Neji said suddenly.
The pink-haired chuunin didn't bother looking up from her book. Patients wanting to leave were common within the hospital. "Of course you don't, sunshine. I don't belong here either, but here we are so we might as well make the most of it."
"Don't mock me."
"I wasn't mocking you, sunshine." Sakura looked up from her puzzle and was met with a pair of pearls glaring daggers right through her. "I was being serious."
"Stop calling me that," Neji snapped.
"But I give all my patients a nickname—I even gave one to Aburame Shino when he was in here a few months back. It helps them feel less patronized, I think."
"I don't care. I'm not Aburame Shino. Stop calling me that," Neji said, tersely. "Pretend I'm not your patient."
"I can't do that."
Sakura mused. "Because you're in a hospital and it's my mission to look after you like this until you're released."
Years of hanging around Hatake Kakashi and his poorly timed bluntness paid off. Helpless anger seemed to wash over the Hyuuga prodigy as he scowled and fixated his glare to the window beside his bed. He must have been really frustrated because his Byakugan had been activated.
It really paid off. Sakura had never seen Neji that frustrated. "By the way," she added, "Tsunade-sama knew you'd be like this so she put some sort of high level seal on the door, just in case the idea of escaping crosses your mind."
Neji grunted and continued staring out of the window.
"She put one on the windows too."
Neji sighed, defeated. Satisfied with her Kakashi-esque effort, Sakura started filling in the answers for the other parts of the puzzle.
Silence lingered in the air for the next twenty minutes or so before the jounin shattered it again, turning from the window to his 'nurse'. "Of all the nicknames, why sunshine?" he asked, his voice uncharacteristically soft.
For the first time that evening, Sakura was taken aback. She half-expected Neji to go off on a tirade about why he didn't deserve to be in here or something to that effect. At least, that's what the Neji she somewhat knew during her genin days would have done. Maybe she didn't know him as well as she thought. Maybe he had just grown past that. Or maybe he was just too tired to continue arguing with her.
Sakura 'walked' the pencil along the knuckles of her hand, a minor testament to her incredible hand-eye coordination. "Well... Think about it: during your time here, we've only interacted during the night hours, so the contradictory factor works there. And your eyes..."
"My eyes?" He grew too curious to wait for her to finish thinking of an ending to that sentence. "What about them?"
"They're the brightest thing in this room at nighttime." She paused and laughed a little, tucking a strand of pink behind her ear. "They remind me of the sunlight peeking out from between the clouds after a bad storm." (1)
Although he didn't look the part, Neji damn near radiated surprise. Sakura saw it in the way he tensed beneath the bed sheets. He closed his eyes and allowed the corner of his lips to quirk some as he shook his head. "You're strange."
Sakura took that as an off-beat compliment. Her being strange meant she was unique, something she sought to be after years of unsuccessful results in the eyes of others. She smiled at him, peridot-green eyes twinkling. "Thanks."
A throaty chuckle escaped Neji and for a moment there, Sakura could have sworn he looked like he didn't intend for it to do so. Neji attempted to avoid her scrutiny, however, as he buried himself beneath the covers and feigned wanting to sleep. But she wouldn't let him get off the hook so easily. They were actually making progress in the conversation department. "Hey, sunshine, you're a genius, aren't you? Help me with this crossword."
"It's Neji. Ne-ji." His deep voice rolled out from under the sheets.
"I want to sleep, woman."
"A yes or no will suffice."
"Fine. I'll help only if you swear to stop calling me sunshine."
Sakura snorted. "Fat chance."
There went that throaty chuckle again. "Then I'm afraid I'll have to decline."
Sakura couldn't believe she was conversing with a guy who was wrapped in a blanket like some corpse on a stretcher. She huffed. "Fine. NEJI, can you please help me figure out this one word? Once you do, I promise to not only let you sleep, but I'll never call you sunshine again."
That obviously super-sweet plea seemed to be the ticket. "Since you need my help that badly..."
When Neji pulled the blanket from over his head, the ghost of a smile was evident on his face. The kunoichi made a face at him and rotated the puzzle book so that he could see what she needed help on. He more or less took nothing but a quick glance at it before yawning: "Crimson."
Flabbergasted, Sakura scribbled in the word and saw that it was indeed the correct one. Pheh! Show off!
"Now, if you'll excuse me," Neji said, "I'd like to sleep. In peace."
"Sure thing," she sneered. "GRUMPY."
-- finis ---
(1) This analogy is credited to Landlady of the Universe, the author of a wonderful Neji x Sakura fic entitled Between that was, unfortunately, pulled from this site. She has it up on and I recommend giving it and her other works a read or ten. :)