Author's note: Ahh, you guys are awesome. I had such a great time laughing at all you're wonderful and amusing reviews. The story's not even halfway finished yet either. I really can't wait till this hits the big finale. I'm just as excited as you all are about the future of this fic. And I'M WRITING IT! Hahaha. Well, since this IS a Neji/Saku fic, I think now's the time I add in a lil sumpthin sumpthin between the two of them, ne? Haha, let's see where my keyboard takes me…
You're my counterpart
Neji froze at what the kunoichi had just informed. What the bloody hell is going on?
The jounin frantically searched around him. He craned his neck to the sky to see that it was midnight blue, free of clouds and bursting with twinkling lights. The storm, like the barrier, had completely vanished. Neji let out a horrified breath. The trees, the sky, the constellations… There was no doubt about the kunoichi's correctness…
They were back in Konoha forest.
The Hyuuga smashed the X-marked tree with a clenched fist, and filthily cursed in his mind. What the hell had they all been doing for the past fourteen hours? Why couldn't he sense the fricken barrier? And who could've possibly erected such an undetectable, gigantic, advanced technique?
A billion questions raced through the jounin's mind, causing him to blow a fuse. Although he had kept his stoic behavior (unwilling to ravage on like he did to Sakura), frustrated anger immensely radiated off his silver eyes.
"Dammit!" was all Neji could spit out. His head exploded with incredible fury. And to think, he had been angry enough for wasting mere minutes...
…They pretty much wasted a bloody day!
In the tense atmosphere, Naruto still didn't understand what was going on.
"I don't get it! " he exclaimed. "What do you mean we're in Konoha territory?"
If Sakura had the energy, she would've punched the guy's face to smitherines for shrieking so deafeningly in her ear. Fortunately for him, she had none, due to her dispelling of the powerful jutsu just moments prior. Instead, she decided to calmly and slowly explain the predicament.
She took a breath. Simple words, she muttered to herself, inhaling deeply, So the baka can understand.
"The Illusion Chakra Barrier Technique," she began, "Is a complicated jutsu capable of taking an area and looping it together to form an endless ring of ground. The land beyond the jutsu grounds isn't visible to the person who is trapped in it. Depending on how long the user decides to keep it up, a trapped person could be traveling the same road for the rest of his life."
She took another breath.
"I hate to say this, but we've been running in circles for God knows how long. We haven't left Konoha territory."
That made Neji cringe.
"Ahh!" he grunted. "If I had summoned Byaakugan, I would've been able to spot this!"
Inwardly, he beat himself over the head a thousand times for being so careless. He couldn't remember why he called his byaakugan back in the first place.
Sakura simply shook her head.
"I don't think so."
Neji shifted his eyes on her in defense, as if being insulted by her comment. Excuse me? Are you underestimating my capability? Sakura sensed his irritation with her, but nevertheless, she continued.
"I've read about this technique in Tsunade's library of books. The jutsu requires a great amount of chakra, refined to the smallest bit of perfection. It somehow distorts the regular sound waves so outer areas are entirely shut out. Since it is so advanced, the user can easily learn to camouflage it, so that it is completely untraceable." Sakura stared at the Hyuuga straight in the eyes. "Even for your bloodline limit to catch."
Neji's patience with the kunoichi was rapidly growing thin. She had deflated his ego once again, and quite frankly, he was tired of being trampled on…
…especially by a girl.
The Hyuuga made a move forward, hoping to prove his superiority over her, when a firm hand prevented him from lashing out. Shikamaru pulled Neji back by the shoulder, and signified his impatience with the both of them, by constricting a tighter grasp. Neji's tense shoulders dropped as he jammed his hands in his pockets, surrendering to the commander's authority.
"Be nice, Neji." Shikamaru cautioned. "Let her finish."
Sakura nodded and took another deep breath, attempting to make her dizziness disappear. All the energy she was exerting to explain was making the world around her spin.
"This technique was forbidden decades ago, but rumour spread around that the sound village had not completely destroyed the jutsu documents. That's why there was a bit of tension between the sound village and Konoha. Konoha knew that Sound would use the technique sooner or later, despite their pledge not to. It would appear that our Second Hokage was correct."
Sakura closed her eyes and breathed through her nostrils in slow gulps of air. Blood was rushing through her system too quickly for her body to handle, making her migraines intensify. The kunoichi inwardly shook her fist at her weak appearance. She had promised herself that she would never look so helpless ever again. But the colossal amount of chakra she dispelled, had, in turn, taken a lot out of her. Even the great Kakashi-sensei would have felt the after effects of breaking the technique.
Naruto put the kunoichi's head on his lap to ease the blood rush. He stroked her pink hair affectionately.
"Sakura-chan, you should take it easy. Your hand's bruising." He said.
Sakura glanced at her palm in which she had completely forgotten about. Her hand was so numb, she barely felt a thing when she lifted it. The kunoichi's fingers trembled at this gesture. Goosebumps formed on her arms as she saw the ugliness of the bruising. Rings of blue, purple, and red blotched a random pattern around the seal. The illusion chakra barrier technique was undoubtedly a powerful one, and Sakura knew that this was only the beginning of the aftereffects.
The big jackpot question now was, Who put the barrier up?
Sakura tried to make herself seem strong by brushing off Naruto's hand. She cleared her throat.
"Our biggest bet of the perpetrator is a Sound-nin. And by the size of the barrier, as well as how long it was put up, I'd say he or she is an extremely advanced shinobi." She informed.
Naruto scratched his chin, attempting to look intelligent. That, of course, failed miserably. They all knew he still didn't have a clue what was going on.
Shikamaru pondered the kunoichi's point.
"Makes sense…" he considered. "Sasuke's location is at the Sound village. If they had somehow known we were coming for him, they probably were the ones who sent a defense ninja, who would've been the one to put up the barrier."
Neji immediately pounced out an opportunity.
"Well, the barrier's gone. If we leave now, we might be able to make it to the village in a couple of hours." He suggested. Naruto lowered his eyebrows.
"We can't leave now. Sakura-chan is sick! Plus, you're in no shape to go either. You lost a lot of chakra while fighting Sakura-chan. That's why you were instructed to call back Byaakugan, which was why you couldn't sense the barrier."
Neji was struck. Despite Naruto's moronic stupidity, he had made an excellent point. And he had just reminded the Hyuuga why his bloodline ability was not called the entire time they were traveling.
Dang. Shot down by two of the most unlikeliest people…
…This was not Neji's day…
Naruto peered around him.
"We're in Konoha territory, right? Well, why don't we just go back to recuperate and restock on supplies? I'm sure we all are in need of it."
The fox boy's proposal was very tempting.
Shikamaru remembered the acidic pain on his massive gash from his unpleasant battle with the kunoichi. He chose to ignore it and shot his eyes up at the sky. Judging by the constellations, he could tell that Konoha village was approximately an hour (or so) away. Continuing the journey to the Sound Village on half the energy was folly and dangerously risky, in which could result in unnecessary deaths. It would seem, to the commander, that returning to Konoha was their only option.
Shikamaru moved his eyes to the girl who was now aggressively shivering and clenching her eyes shut. She grasped her hand in silent agony, and the jounin could tell that she had fallen unconscious. The kunoichi was completely warn out.
Come to think of it, Shikamaru's whole team was warn out, due to the battle with Sakura, as well as their fourteen hours of wandering in circles. Even the one hour of traveling back to Konoha would wipe them utterly out of energy. They needed a good night's rest.
"Ma. It can't be helped." He said, sitting down into a cross-legged position. "We'll camp here for the night. At dawn, we'll leave for Konoha to recover as well as restock." The commander stretched his muscles and unbuckled the weapon pouch from his waist.
Neji did not approve of this plan.
"We'll have wasted a whole day." He said in an angry, yet low tone. Yelling, he had discovered, did not get him very far. Plus, it would make him more and more like the Uchiha, in which he did NOT desire.
"And if we go back," he continued, "Tsunade-sama will have to file this mission as incomplete."
They all knew that failure simply wasn't an option for the Hyuuga. He wanted to get things done, and on the first try.
Shikamaru began sharpening his kunai.
"Well, it pretty much is incomplete. You know as well as I do that we can't continue, not just because of Sakura. You're more exhausted than you think. Besides, Tsunade-sama would rather have us come back with all our men, then to continue, and be left with none. Leaving the mission is tough, but disregarding a teammate's safety is trash. You should know that."
That, they ALL knew, was lesson number one, back when they were fresh genins graduated from Academy school. A teammate's survival was to be valued above any mission, any day.
Neji gritted his teeth, knowing that Shikamaru was right. He glanced at Sakura's pained form. She wasn't exactly his teammate, since Tsunade had not allowed her to initially be on the mission. But she was his counterpart, whether he liked it or not. If they had continued the journey to Sound, he would have HAD to carry the kunoichi around, and THAT he did not like.
The Hyuuga sighed, signifying that he would go with the plan. After all, if they went back, Sakura would have to stay behind in Konoha when they set out again. There was no way the Hokage would let her escape so easily the second time to pursue them. That thought brought a little peace into his system. You lose some, you win some, He mentally noted. And dropping the kunoichi was very much a win to him.
Shikamaru continued sharpening his kunai.
"Good. So it's agreed then?" he rhetorically asked. The shinobis nodded and collapsed to their rears in fatigue and relief. Neji, however, remained standing.
"Alright. We're going to have to split up the night duty." Shikamaru directed. "We'll keep it in partners. One of you stays up while the other sleeps. Every half hour, switch."
Shikamaru had not forgotten the odd pair consisting of Neji and the injured Sakura. The commander turned to the Hyuuga.
"I'm fine." He interrupted stoically. "Sakura will need the sleep."
Shikamaru lifted an eyebrow. "You're staying up the whole night?" he curiously asked. "You were the one drained of the most chakra."
Neji inwardly flinched at this fact, but he managed to keep his face straight.
"I'm fine." He repeated, his silvery eyes unblinking at the seriousness of his intent. Shikamaru nodded and left him alone, unwilling to irritate the other jounin any more than he had been.
The commander instinctively took out a toothpick from his pouch and wedged it between his teeth in a casual manner. He pointed to Kiba and Akamaru.
"You two, I need you to gather some fire wood. We'll need as much as we can get to dry our clothes off. Naruto and Lee, I want you to set up explosive kunai around our camp to signal any intruders. Chouji and I will build shelters. Once you have completed your tasks, report back here and set up your posts anywhere you like, within the vicinity of the explosives. Try not to go off too far."
Naruto had been reluctant to leave the kunoichi alone, especially with the Hyuuga who had just attempted to strangle her hours before. However, he eventually followed the tired ninjas to do their commander's bidding, leaving Neji to stand in solitude. Inwardly, the Hyuuga shrugged his shoulders in growing annoyance. What about me?
Shikamaru tossed his toothpick aside. His eyes moved from Neji to Sakura, and back.
"Just watch Sakura's condition. If it worsens, call Naruto." He said, and then kissed his teeth. "How troublesome it is to have the medical expert injured…"
Shikamaru leapt into a tree and disappeared, abandoning Neji in mid-opposition. Dammit, would he be chained to the girl for the rest of his life! He was one of the strongest on the team and yet he was left with the dinkiest of all jobs. Baby-sitting a kunoichi was not he had expected from the mission, and he would definitely let it be known that he was hell pissed when they all returned.
The Hyuuga moved toward the kunoichi, whose facial expression screamed unbearable agony. Her soft face was glazed with perspiration at her struggle with the pain. Neji observed the hand she had dispelled the jutsu with and winced in repulsion. The bruising had covered her whole hand now, and had even spread to just above her wrist. What kind of colossal power was capable of doing that?
Although the Hyuuga was not one to show sympathy or pity, it wasn't as if he never felt it. And seeing the girl in excruciating suffering, it was all Neji could feel. After all, his father had died in the same anguish before his very eyes, years ago.
Neji squatted down beside the girl and took out a tenser bandage from his supply stored in his pouch. To his content, it had not been soaked by the rainstorm. Tenderly, he wrapped the cloth around her hand to ease the pulsing. Ahh, this girl did not deserve this, as much as he disliked her…
The jounin shifted his eyes around to secure that no one had been watching him. It was terribly out of his character to show such…affectionate care, especially for the girl who had just whooped his bum AND deflated his ego. He wouldn't want them to get the wrong impression of him. The Hyuuga had NO feelings for her whatsoever.
Besides, her heart was already taken by the dark and mysterious Uchiha.
Deep in the pits of his gut, he felt a tingle of envy, which he immediately tried to smother. He wasn't jealous of Sasuke, THAT WAS FOR CERTAIN. He just couldn't understand what the female population saw in that arrogant jerk. Even though Neji could barely stand the kunoichi, he knew that Sakura deserved far better than Sasuke. The Hyuuga himself would've made a better candidate to receive her heart than the Uchiha, and they all knew how likely that was to happen.
Neji shook off the topic and exterminated his thoughts. Blast it, the girl was even tormenting him in his mind and while she was unconscious! Could he never escape from her torture?
Earlier, Neji had planned on carrying Sakura onto a tree for protection, but he quickly crossed out that decision. The Hyuuga wanted to limit his physical contact with the girl to a bare minimum. So instead, he left her at her spot and chose to build the shelter around her. It would take more energy exertion, but it wasn't any more than when he was trying to demolish her from his thoughts.
Before Neji made a move to collect building materials, the kunoichi stirred, stopping him in his tracks. She mumbled gibberish in between moans of pain. Then, she breathed something that caught the Hyuuga's attention.
"Neji-san…" she slurred in oblivious sleep-talk. Neji froze. Was she dreaming about him?
For a while, Neji didn't move, hoping it was his imagination. Then, after a few moments, she spoke again.
"Neji-san…" she mumbled. "…Gomen ne…"
Ahh. So she wasn't sleeping.
Neji stayed in his crouched position, unsure of what to say. Despite his uncertainty, he responded in a monotone bored voice.
"Nani?" he asked. Hey, it was the only thing he could think of.
The kunoichi's breathing deepened, as sweat drops rolled down her temples. She let out a laboured chuckle, attempting to lighten the mood.
"I'm sorry… I must look very weak right now."
If Neji were his usual blunt self, he would've easily replied Of course. You're a girl. Strangely enough, he didn't.
"Forget about it." His mouth retorted before his mind could think. "Get some rest."
It was as if his mouth had a mind entirely of its own, as he did not plan to say what he did. It made him sound terribly… nice. A total contrast of his icy demeanor.
Surprisingly enough, Sakura just forced a smile.
"Ahh…" she sighed before falling into the patterned breathing of deep slumber, leaving Neji completely speechless. This girl had to be the most bizarre female he had ever met in his life. One moment, she was a fierce warrior, incapable of surrendering to the likes of a man… The next, she was as yielding as a wife to her beckoning husband.
Neji examined her character. She was indeed a complex girl, with many ranging emotions and expressions. The only expressions he ever displayed were anger and bitterness. The Hyuuga oddly found himself drawn to her spark of life that made her simply Sakura. Not attraction, mind you, but rather… curiosity. She had a warm aura that had an unexplained magnetic force on him. But of course, that was to NEVER be discovered. Ever.
The Hyuuga was entranced by the pattern of her paced breathing. She was in pain, and yet she carried such a melodic sound to her sleep. Neji sat down and leaned his back on the X-marked tree beside her. He hadn't fully realized how exhausted he was until his muscles were relaxed, unfurling its tension. How much energy DID she take from him?
It suddenly occurred to the jounin that he was incredibly sleepy as well. The result from more than 48 hours of consciousness was not pleasant on his silvery eyes and left heavy bags underneath them. He wondered how long he could last, and inwardly regretted agreeing to stay up on night duty.
Neji shook off the coming drowsiness and returned his gaze towards the kunoichi, trying to ignore the temptation of sleep. At least she doesn't snore… he thought. Actually, she barely made any noise, with the exception of the occasional groan when her bruise was accidentally punctured in her movements. Despite her injury, she slept rather peacefully…almost… enjoyable.
The back of Neji's head met the tree bark in his silent admiration of her tranquil form. She really was very pretty, in a different way than the show-offs like her friend Ino. Haruno's attractiveness was more of a simpler beauty… like the cherry blossom itself. But the Hyuuga liked that far better than Ino, that seductress devil. He shuddered once more. The blond was NOT a pleasant thought.
A few moments later, Neji found himself in a struggling fight against sleep. How he had ever managed to stay awake before, he had no clue. The Hyuuga moved restlessly to prevent himself from dozing off. He stared enviously at Sakura. The girl was robbing him of his much-needed slumber… And she was taunting him.
Neji blinked his burning eyes. It was nearly impossible to keep them open any longer. Slowly, but surely, his eyelids lowered in extreme heaviness. Just a few minutes… He reminded himself. I'm just resting my eyes.
Soon, sleep overtook him, and he found himself wandering in the thoughts of the cherry blossom next to him.
Something stirred that jolted Neji to consciousness. He shot his eyes open with a start and instinctively reached for the kunai in his pouch.
A bandaged hand grabbed his.
"Relax. It's only me."
Neji found himself staring into a pair of emerald eyes and blush hair. He let out a breath. It was only Sakura. My God, what was she trying to do, kill him with a heart attack?
He let himself catch his breath. How long was I sleeping?
Sakura read his thoughts.
"I let you sleep for an hour. You looked like you needed the rest." She said, releasing her grip on him. That surprised him. You let me?
His eyes moved to her hand wrapped in bandages and she immediately recoiled it, as if touching fire.
"I'm better now. Thanks." She said, stroking her hand. The Hyuuga raised his eyebrows as if to silently ask Are you sure?
The kunoichi smiled. "I am a medical ninja, mind you." She reassured. Neji nodded and then sat up. He'd been sleeping for an hour and yet he still felt drained of energy and chakra. He'd never felt so weak in his entire life.
The Hyuuga tried to brush it off.
"I've had my rest now." He said, clearing his throat. "You should get yours."
Sakura shook her head and got up to sit beside him. "Can't sleep."
Neji observed the girl's movements with the corner of his eye. He felt it strange to have her sit so close to him, especially from her own free will. The Hyuuga could see that she was fully staring at him, as if examining his thoughts.
"I know this jutsu," she informed matter-of-factly, "It might help with your chakra shortage."
Neji made no gestures to protest. He was enticed.
Sakura put a hand on his shoulder and immediately, he flinched. She retracted her hand.
"It won't hurt, I promise."
Why she was so tempting, the Hyuuga had no idea.
Sakura put her palm on the arch of his back and pushed it in a little. It was almost the same position she had to use on her male patients in the hospital, and normally she hated having to perform the technique. This time, however, she didn't mind at all, and it baffled her a little.
"Your muscles are so tense." She sighed. "Loosen them up a bit."
It was a bit awkward for Neji, and it took him a while to follow her simple directions. Unfortunately for her, 'loosening up' was something he did not do often.
After a while of pointless attempts, the kunoichi got on her knees to concentrate a little harder.
"It might help if you leaned back on my knee." She instructed. Uncomfortably, the Hyuuga shifted his back away from the tree to give the girl some room behind her, all while eying her in suspicion. Just what was she up to?
Neji let his lean muscular back rest on Sakura's elevated knee, unable to figure out why he was so willingly doing as she asked. Although his eyes were averted, his keen sensing could feel the kunoichi forming quick hand seals. When she had finished, she placed her hand on his back, right between the two shoulder blades, and pushed lightly.
As if a river flowing down a path, Neji felt the soothing aura of chakra, streaming into his system. The sensation was so utterly relaxing, the Hyuuga had almost forgotten to breathe. He had no idea what she was doing, but his inwardly pleaded for her not to stop.
Sakura sensed his satisfaction.
"I'm doing a chakra transplant." She notified. "I'm sending some of my chakra directly into your system."
Neji was struck by this. Why was she doing all that?… Moreover, why for him?
The jounin couldn't understand why, but he became strangely angry. Perhaps it was because she was slowly chiseling her way through his stubborn wall around his heart so easily. No person ever regarded him with so much care. Not since his father was alive…
Sakura continued the transplant in silence, contemplating on what to say next. As an aggressive, confident girl, she always knew what to say at all times, however, at this particular moment, she was speechless. It was an awkward moment for the two of them, but at the same time, it felt normal. Both wondering what the other was thinking at that meticulous time.
Then Sakura cleared her throat.
"Look, if we're going to be counterparts, we might as well be accountable for one another, right?"
Neji said nothing, but inwardly agreed. Perhaps it was time that he trusted someone a little more. And Sakura was becoming a more perfect candidate each time.
"So," she exhaled. "Tell me. What does Hyuuga Neji fear most?"
Neji jumped at how quickly she changed topics. A little openness he could handle. Now she was just being nosy.
"I fear nothing." He simply said. What a useless question.
Sakura rolled her eyes. This was a typical answer from someone as stubborn as an Uchiha. Petty boys always thought they were so macho…
The kunoichi completed her jutsu and dusted off the tingling in her hands. She sat cross-legged next to him and stared at his profile.
"Please. That was a total Sasuke answer." She scoffed, hitting a nerve on the Hyuuga. "Shikamaru told us to learn about each other, and that's what I'm doing. Everyone has a fear. I'm asking you what yours is."
This girl definitely knew how to grab the bull by its balls. Or so the saying went.
Neji cringed. What WAS it about this girl? And why did he suddenly feel an obligation to answer her question? The great Hyuuga Neji feared nothing! Fear was not in his genius vocabulary!
"Being lonely." He replied, too quickly to take back. Dammit, his mouth had run off again!
"I fear being alone."
Now THAT was unexpected.
Sakura analyzed his face, which, for a split second, looked sad. The all-powerful Hyuuga Neji feared isolation?
The kunoichi sighed and got up. That would enough torture on the poor guy for one day. She needn't hear more. She had already cracked some information that probably NOBODY knew, and in that she felt honoured.
Neji watched in confusion as Sakura dusted off her rear and headed behind the tree.
"I'm getting a drink in the stream over there. I'll be right back." She assured.
Before she could take another step, the Hyuuga spoke.
"Wait." He called. It sounded odd that a beckoning would come from his mouth. Nevertheless, he continued. "You never told me your fear."
Sakura paused a moment, pondering. Actually, she had never thought about fear. Probably because the list was too large for him to grasp. However, there was one that scared her more than anything in life.
"Dying without a cause." She simply replied.
She turned her back and resumed her trail towards the stream, not giving him any opportunity to ask questions. The kunoichi knew he was pondering it well, and decided to leave it at that. Neither of them needed explanations. It was a mutual understanding.
Neji watched as pink hair danced into the distance of the moonlight breeze. She was a strange girl, no doubt. But the oddity of the circumstance was that he liked her company. It felt as natural as his byaakugan summoning. He never thought he'd see her in such a different light.
But after their conversation, he didn't see how he couldn't.
Chapter 9 Preview:
Neji breathed a silent sigh of relief when he saw the pink-haired kunoichi returning from her drink. It began to worry him when she had taken a bit longer than expected. But he tried to brush it off. Nothing was supposed to worry the Hyuuga.
The kunoichi smiled as she saw him and wiped her dew-stained lips.
"Sorry, it took so long." She panted. "The water was so refreshing."
Suddenly, the Hyuuga sprang forth and slammed the kunoichi face flat onto the bark of the X-marked tree. He wrestled her arms back so that she could not use them in defense. The girl squirmed beneath his body.
"Neji! What the hell is wrong with you!" she gasped for air through pressed nostrils on the tree. Neji slammed her harder on the rough trunk.
"Where's the girl!" he demanded. Sakura writhed in denial.
"I don't know-"
"Where's the girl!" he asked again, digging her pale face into the tree.
Instantly, the slender figure melted, and the Hyuuga had in his grasp, a tall man, wrapped in bandages with the Sound Village crest embedded on his forehead protector. The stranger chuckled in between pursed lips.
"How did you know?" he asked.
Neji angrily dug his knee into the curve of the man's back while clawing at his left arm.
"Because." He sneered. I put the bandage on her RIGHT arm, genius."
Author's note: Wow. That was, by far, the longest chapter I've ever written in the span of one night. Whew. I'm exhausted. Ok, well without further ado, I shall leave you all pondering on the future events to come! Stay tuned!