Seeking Guidance

Joint project of BullyKilla and neonate
Rating: PG-13

Disclaimer: Naruto and its characters belong to Kishimoto. No more fancy disclaimers for a series that has jumped the shark. Too much pain.

A/N: Gosh, the last update was October last year. At least it hasn't hit the one-year mark (was totally going for it, though). My deepest gratitude to the readers and reviewers who keep supporting this story, even when I was this close to forsaking it. Your kind words tell me that this story has hope. However, my humblest apologies as well to those irked and annoyed by the insane inactivity. Now I guess you want reasons (or blood, I can't tell). Visit the profile page for the full-blown, verbose angst. I guarantee you'll be satisfied!

Finally Neji opened his mouth.

"We must end this."

And time stopped.

Chapter Five: Shino Still Gossips

Time did stop.

Only to run its course again when Sakura's fingers clutched the front of Neji's shirt and twisted the fabric. She pulled him close, her face a mix of confusion and hurt, searching for explanations from the silver gleams.

He let her. His gaze were steady, the perfect false mirror.

The kunoichi did not say anything. Her lips pursed, she swallowed the question she was dying to ask. Why? Why end it?

The truth was she did not want to hear his answer. If there was the slightest chance that he was dissatisfied with her, Sakura didn't think she could ever look at him or herself the same again. The only thing she could do was to hold on, for as long as he allowed her. No tears. Kunoichi don't shed tears. Not even when their hearts break into pieces. A kunoichi has to be strong, a kunoichi has to be smart. She has to be able to see beyond what's there.

It was getting unbearable for her, but it was as bad for him.

The words coming out of his mouth could not be more poisonous than the silence she kept. Neji was expecting anger, disappointment, breezy denial, anything but this. She had not said a thing, she had not pounded him into a bloody pulp, and she had not burst emotionally. Neji took a deep breath, controlling the sudden urge to run. He wanted to avoid her eyes, for if he kept looking at them he feared he would blurt out the truth.

Suddenly her whole body swayed toward him and her head rested softly on his chest, her hand still holding his shirt. He stifled a gasp. Instinctively he grabbed her waist and steadied them both.

"Sakura?" he called.

Neji tried to touch her face, but she buried herself deeper on his chest. "No," she said. "Don't."

His fingers itched. She was so close…

"Sakura." He sighed.

"Fifty-nine," she began the countdown. "Fifty-eight. Fifty-seven. Fifty-six—"

Neji was taken aback. Why was she counting? He shook her shoulder gently. "What are you doing?"

"I'm giving us, if there were such a thing," she answered bitterly, "another minute."

He stiffened. That wasn't the answer he wanted to hear at this point.

"So," she said, her voice breaking, "don't say anything and let me... do this." He heard her sniffle. "After one minute ends, I don't know you."

He choked. "Sakura—"

"Fifty-two, fifty-one…," she raced down the numbers.

Something ached inside of him. His heart, maybe, if it hadn't turned into stone already. It was only a pretense, he reminded himself. She didn't have to get so attached, so trusting of the lies. After all it was only a front, a façade to fool everybody else. They had been strangers before; they could still go back being strangers. Even if he would think about her for a long, long time, it could be done.

"—forty-seven, forty-six—"

Less than a minute. He could do it. This was nothing. He was a prodigal shinobi of the Hidden Village of Leaf—had cheated death many, many times, had been hurt worse, had bled more.

The hand clutching his shirt trembled. Neji was about to pull her closer when he caught himself in time. No, not good. He shook his head slightly and looked up at the sky. A shadow of a bird flew by and he squinted when the sun hit his face. It had been bright and sunny like this when they had first collided on the Hokage's rooftop one strange summer day, several weeks ago.

"—forty-two, forty-one—"

There had been no wind that day as well. The heat was scorching, the air scented of dust. Exactly the same. But back then, he wasn't holding her like this, she wasn't counting toward the end, and they were not about to go their separate ways.

"—thirty-eight, thirty-seven—"

They had been laughing, hadn't they? He'd said a lot of nonsense, she'd taken them with glee, and somehow the whole thing had seemed right. She felt right. The jokes, the walks, the hand-holding, the whispers, the stares, the heap of food she'd forced down his throat, everything.

He shook his head again.

A minute, eh?

Somehow that didn't feel right.

And his mouth ran ahead of him again. "Why only a minute?" he asked, his tone offended.

She stopped counting and lifted up her face. Her brilliant green eyes curiously looked at his own silver. "Why do you care?" she whispered the question, cocking her head to the side.

"Because." He paused. "Because that's a bit too short, don't you think?" he said and regretted it immediately.

Neji wanted to hit himself. He wasn't gonna say that!

"Well, no," Sakura said, her eyes glinting. "In fact it's a bit too long."

"Too long?" Neji repeated out of bruised ego, completely forgetting that he was supposed to act tough and that wasn't his intention to sound petulant. "How come it's too long?" He scowled.

"Because I should not waste precious seconds just to be with someone who doesn't like me," she said, her gaze boring into his.

"I never said I don't—"

Sakura cut his reply short. "—or with someone who's too scared to admit that he likes me," she said with finality.

That silenced him. "I am not… afraid," he finally muttered.

"Could've fooled me," she said with a hint of smile. She did not want to point out to Neji that his hands were still on her back and waist. Let him figure that out by himself.

He frowned and thought for a while. "You're tricking me, aren't you?"

"No way, you're too smart for me."

"See? You're doing it again," he accused.

"All right. The truth is, I think you're really, really dumb," she said. "And ignorant, dishonest, stubborn, arrogant, infuriating—"

"I think I like it better when you're tricking me," he quickly pronounced.

"—an absolutely wretched boyfriend material, but I'm willing to stand all of those," she continued, still looking into his eyes.

He didn't know what to say to her statement except a hoarse, "Why?"

And the hint of smile on her face blossomed into a stunning one.

"Because you're worth it, Neji."

Unknown to the couple, on the ground behind an old and tall tree, quietly hidden by bushes and wild grass several feet away from them, there was an imprint of a pair of shoes. It was a fresh one, slightly damp, as if one had sprinkled water while making the impression on the soil. The owner of that shoeprint had been hiding there for some time.

But he, tear-streaked, had left when the pink-haired girl reached forty-five on her countdown.

He had not needed fifteen seconds to know that she was in love.

It just had taken him a while to accept that she'd fallen for the wrong guy. No, maybe it would take him more than a lifetime to do so, but fifteen seconds had been enough for the heartbreak.

And as he sped across the forest, face wet, trying to get away from that place as far as possible, one thought crossed Rock Lee's mind.

Ah, it hurts.

Neji still didn't know what to say. It wasn't the first time, he realized, and it sure wouldn't be the last as long as he was around this girl. She said the most outrageous things, did the most life-changing things to him—all without batting her eyelashes. He was worth it, she'd said, and her body was still leaning against his. He felt a lump in his throat. His mind was torn between gently rejecting her and keeping his composure, or forcefully opening his heart and exposing all.

It was a dangerous bet, but she was a dangerous opponent. He decided to tread slowly, even though his heartbeats were anything but slow.

Neji held the hand that was still holding onto his shirt. "It is supposed to be a pretense."

"I know." Sakura nodded. His hand is so warm, she thought. He had always been warm. No wonder she wasn't ready to let him go.

"Until everything dies down."

"Uh huh."

"Then I'm going to dump you."

"Well, that's where you get ahead of yourself," she snapped. "I'm doing the dumping, not you."

He looked gruffly surprised. "Why can't I do it?"

"Because you'll do it for the most idiotic reasons," she said. "Like I steal your kunai or something."

"Kunai's important!" Neji was indignant.

"See? That's why you're not doing the dumping," she said triumphantly.

"Fine," he said, even though he was still smarting from the fact that she considered him incompetent in dumping his own girlfriend. "Then when are you going to do it?"

"When do you want me to?" she asked back.

That wasn't exactly the reply he'd been expecting. And what should he answer now? He couldn't possibly say, oh, how about Thursday at four o'clock? Afternoon snack and all. Good times!

Seeing her boyfriend's silence, she asked again, "Neji, when?"

He suddenly knew the answer. "That's a trick question, isn't it?" he asked with a straight face.

She sighed in exasperation. "I did say you're ignorant—"

"Wait," the Hyuuga prodigy declared. "It's not fair to ask me that question. When do you want to dump me?"

"Never," she said in a soft voice. "But I'm biased because it stopped being an act a long time ago for me."

He was touched by her honesty. "Sakura…"

"It's okay if you're not going to say it. It's even all right if you are only humoring me," she said hurriedly, looking at their intertwined fingers. "But don't say something stupid like the one you said before, as if you can't stand being with me."

Neji knew defeat when he saw one. This was one he would not fight to the death. He touched her face with his other hand. "You make it impossible for people not to like you, Haruno."

"It's funny." She let out a hoarse laugh. "One boy from a lifetime ago doesn't think so."

He knew who she was referring to. The missing genin, the unspoken survivor of a great clan, the person Neji almost died trying to rescue. Was she still harboring feelings for him?

"That boy," he said coldly, parting their bodies apart, "is long gone."

"Will you be?" she asked, reaching for his sleeve. "If you really want to leave this relationship, then leave. But if you are having even the slightest doubt, I'll fight for you."

As she said that, her green eyes fierce, he could see that she was dead serious. This kunoichi knew what she wanted. She was strong and she would strive to gain it. And—this was where Neji felt a light blush coming—she had just told him that her feelings were real. Even he (the king of socially-challenged teenagers) knew that it had been a rather straightforward confession.

He wanted to laugh. There were no lies. He didn't know when, but all of their pretenses had been abandoned. Probably from the moment they'd first held hands it had become obsolete. Right now, he felt like a ten shinobi in one. With a kunai. That was a strangely addictive feeling he could enjoy.


"Yeah, Neji?"

"I think this will answer your question."

After saying that, he closed the distance between them and covered her lips with his own. This time they would not be interrupted and they would not play it meekly. There was hunger—good, honest hunger—and the feeling of euphoria with every meeting of their skin. And because they were brave, they would give everything to follow this sensation. Their hearts, their youths, their souls. When yearning came, they were more than ready to be swept away.

She was his. He was hers.

It was so right.

The revised evening edition of Konoha Shinbun began selling like hot crackers just when the sky turned into a blast of sunset colors. Within fifteen minutes, newspaper stalls were crying out for more since their supplies were vanishing like mad. People were buying (and some stealing) the edition at an unbelievable rate. All vied for the latest news, the freshest of the freshest from Konoha Shinbun's desk. Word of the mouth was, the elusive Ardent Shinobi had struck again, and they all knew what this meant!

While everybody who could read was busy absorbing every word of the article on the front page, those who couldn't only gawk in awe at the glossy picture accompanying the exclusive report.

The image was kind of dark, but you could see a fine young man wearing a formal robe and an exquisite young woman in her best kimono. The background scenery was obscured, though nobody would pay attention to it. The young man was holding the young woman close, one hand on her waist, the other on her cheek. Even with the dim lighting, there would no mistaking the kiss he was planting very lovingly on her forehead.

Dreamy sighs escaped lips of teenage girls and light bulbs of ideas were twinkling brightly in some boys' minds. Wives remembered their younger days with fond blushes and husbands reminisced their times spent conquering the maidens.

One boy, however, browsed the article with cold detachment, for he had written it himself not several hours ago. The content was still fresh in his mind and Aburame Shino felt a raw sense of pride upon reading it line by line.

Night of the Fireflies

By Ardent Shinobi

Nighttime is the hours we seek rest and sanctuary from the harshness of the day. Summer nights, however, are made for the outdoor fun—lighting fireworks, gazing at the stars, or sitting on the riverbanks, to name a few. And if you're lucky, you may find more than just fun.

Love may come along.

Last night, illuminated only by the glow of fireflies and serenaded by the crooning of summer cicadas, one Hyuuga Neji was seen giving a silk-wrapped gift to his beloved flower, Haruno Sakura. This romantic event took place at the Hyuuga estate's garden pond, during a dinner party held for the couple.

While the rest of the residents were in festive mood, the lovebirds decided to steal some time to be together. Apparently it was the correct decision to make, since whatever curio the Hyuuga prodigy procured for his companion, it earned him a very, shall we say, affectionate embrace from her. At this point, even the dim glow of the fireflies could not hide the blush on the stoic Hyuuga's face.

Oh, have we been granted a private glimpse of the red thread that connects them?

As informed by a very credible source, there is a speculation that the young couple may have been promised to each other as last night's feast bloomed into a merry celebration. There certainly were encouraging hints of their future together, the source confided, since it was a rare occasion for the noble Hyuuga household to offer their hospitality, let alone to such a grand extent!

Does this mean that we will soon become witnesses to another celebration of a different cause? A betrothal? Or even, perhaps, a wedding? If so, I will be very pleased to have been a part of their courtship, as, I'm sure, so will you.

Until then, we shall wait and see.

A. S.

To Be Continued

A/N: Fluff? What fluff? –whistles innocently- As always, you're welcome to give constructive criticism. This chapter is unbeta-ed, yadda, yadda. Okay, that's done. Who's watching Avatar: The Last Airbender? Raise your hand! (oh, me, me, me!)