Relevant author's note in my profile. Read before or after.
She was fuming, and it was no good if no one could see it.
Sakura quickly deposited her geta in the tea house's genkan and made her way past the attendant at the front to her usual table. Ino was already present. Hinata had yet to arrive. She could only expect that the petite kunoichi's introduction had extended over what Ino and hers' had. It was telling since she herself had felt that they would never leave the blasted veranda.
She did not allow herself to drop into the familiar seat, but lowered herself with great control. Ino watched her with wide, condoling eyes, seeing the gesture for the expression it was.
"That good, huh?" she asked, shoving two dango into her mouth. Sakura said nothing, reaching for the pot of tea that Ino had graciously ordered for them. The steam wafting from the spout told her it was chamomile and she finally allowed herself to frown. Chamomile was by no means her favorite, but Ino obviously thought they could do with a little bit of calming.
"Maito Gai," she said, and that was all that was needed. Ino's grimace vindicated Sakura's displeasure and the petal-haired young woman reached for nikuman. Ino really was fantastic. All of the goodies were ready and had not been waiting long.
She swallowed the sticky bite before asking, "How about you?"
Ino chewed the last of the sweet rice balls and then smiled impishly. Across from her, Sakura frowned even further and practically ravaged the meat bun in her palm.
"Hatake Kakashi," she informed. She was not disappointed when Sakura's chewing halted and they stared at one another. The day had not been all bad afterall.
"You're on Uchiha Sasuke's team, aren't you?" she asked quietly. Ino smirked in confirmation, feeling elated at the reality. For Sakura's sake she could not yet show how happy she was about the scenario.
It was true that she was sad about losing her teammates, but it wasn't like they had died, and they wouldn't anytime soon with their current ninja status. She could not fight the entire system, and if things had to change, she wanted to make the best of her situation.
Being teamed with Uchiha Sasuke was definitely making the best of a bad situation. In their meeting he had not even been as arrogant as she had been lead to believe. If anything, he was confident in his abilities and seemed willing to work as a team.
Sakura grimaced and stirred honey into her tea, asking, "And the other teammate?"
At this Ino did frown, the memory of the loud-mouth unsettling her somewhat as she answered, "Uzumaki Naruto." Sakura started, if the sudden lift of wide eyes could be construed as starting. Her hand remained poised on the stilled teaspoon, pausing for only a second before she resumed stirring.
Simultaneously, both girls spoke, "Karma."
Sakura grinned, bowing her shaking head. The spoon stilled once more before it was removed from the cup and laid aside gently. Ino laughed outright, remembering the scenario from a few days before when they had disdainfully hypothesized about being paired with either of the men. Oh, the universe was laughing at them now.
"So it seems like each jounin instructor is going to keep one of their teammates, then?" Sakura offered before taking her tea cup in both hands. The smooth motion calmed her, seeing Sakura returned to a graceful, controlled state.
"Oh? Who are your teammates?"
"One named Rock Lee," she offered, "who is such a copy of Maito Gai that they have to have been on the same team before, and the other a Hyuuga with his nose on his forehead. He finally said his name was Neji, but I think he might have meant 'Doji.'" If they had not been in public, Ino was sure that the last comment would have been punctuated with a snort. Sakura was fairly radiating disdain and contention.
More important, though, was the idea that each instructor would have maintained a former student. Sakura's eyes flashed, and a moment later the gravity of her best friend's question sunk into Ino's consciousness as well.
"Do you think…?" Ino began, but they were cut off by the sound of a tinkling bell behind them.
Both young woman leaned out of the booth at the Hall's newest arrival. Even in a Western style tea house, Hyuuga Hinata was at ease and poise. They watched as she approached, watched as she smiled to greet them, and then as she took a seat next to Sakura. She was fully settled before she reached for an empty cup, pale fingers complementing the décor perfectly.
She did not bother to greet them verbally. The tension in the air was telling enough, and she had never been good at playing coy with them. Without looking at either, she asked gently, "So you already know?"
It was the only prompting that Ino needed.
"You've remained on Kurenai-sensei's team?" she asked at once, ignoring the frown that Sakura shot her. Someday they were going to retackle the conversation about sheltering their teammate too much. Sheltering her and confining her was what had led to her lack of confidence in the first place. Besides, this information could not be kept secret between them.
Her resulting expression was too flat for comfort, and Ino stifled her ruthless curiosity as concern for her friend resurfaced. Hinata did not miss a beat, though, as she reached for the teapot, one of her favorite blends, and poured a cup.
After a moment, she answered needlessly, "I will remain with Kurenai-sensei."
No breath was heard, nor deflation shown, but some of the tension evacuated at the confirmation. Ino nodded, feeling satisfied at the answer for some reason. It seemed fact now that each of the instructors would keep an original pupil, and she could only guess at the reasons for it. Perhaps the new students would transition better with a former, who could transcribe their instructors teaching style with action? She had to wonder why it had been Hinata and not…
Sakura was meeting her gaze when Ino glanced at her, the barest turn of her head. The blonde froze under the gaze, knowing that it was a question in Sakura's mind too. Hinata's slight pause in stirring her tea said that she noticed it as well.
Any other patron might have thought them a particularly dull group of girls, but they each knew better. Between them a careful ballet of nuance was being danced.
Sakura sighed, really sighed, releasing her tea cup. Her free hand went to Hinata's shoulder and she forced a smile on her face. Ino relaxed silently, sinking back into the seat slowly so to not seem obvious. For Sakura to release herself this way meant she wanted Hinata's full attention. She certainly had it.
"Hinata-chan, I'm glad. I think it will be good for you as well as Kurenai-sensei," she stated and gave the girl's shoulders an affectionate squeeze. Hinata relaxed, a tiny smile perking the corners of her mouth. Sakura's own smile returned at her ease. Ino hid her expression behind her teacup, wondering. She would not question Hinata's competence. Too many rounds of the not-so Gentle Fist and hours of closed tenketsu would not be shamed by thinking the girl incompetent, but her manner was still delicate in a way. It was ironic that in danger she could defend herself and her party without breaking a sweat, and when she should have felt herself safest she seemed to be in constant fear of… Well, many things.
The idea reminded Ino of the moments before their youngest had arrived and she asked, "Hey Hinata-chan." She looked up without hesitation, smiling pleasantly. "Forehead Girl," and she smirked as Sakura bristled pleasantly, "has a Hyuuga on her team. Any idea about a Neji?"
Hinata's calm was damaged once more, and she set her tea cup down on the table with a flat, clipped manner. Her face was just as closed off. For all intents and purposes she could have been glaring at them. Either way, she had their full attention.
"He's my cousin," she said after a deliberating moment. Her audience was careful not to look away from her, but her face was closed off. No more questions would be answered, and therefore, no more would be asked.
Not for the first time Sakura found herself berating the Hyuuga household and its overbearing effects on her friend and (former) teammate. "What the hell?" she thought inwardly, angry. The opinion would not be voiced. Not today. Maybe not ever.
Tension fell on the table, and as usual, Ino was the one to break it. Quickly, she said, "Hey Hinata-chan, guess who's on my team."
"Who would that be?" she asked, her features calm once more, still guarded.
"Oh I think you know. I don't even have to ask you to know you're wishing he was on yours!" She practically leered at the younger girl over her teacup and Hinata flushed despite her best intentions.
Sakura grimaced, taking the bait better than their third member and said warningly, "Pig-chan…"
"Forehead, my love?" she quipped, crossing her hands beneath her chin, and pulling Sakura's annoyance in a completely different direction.
"Want to come closer so I can whisper sweet nothings in your ear?"
"No, you always say that, but you're just a tease."
It worked like a charm, and Hinata was smiling outright as Sakura sighed, gritting her teeth. Ino wiggled her nose from across the table and all of the tension fell away completely. Even as they began to discuss their new team members, it seemed like nothing had changed. The young shinobi were hypotheticals on a distant horizon and the tea house was their safe haven from an already weary future.
"Yosh!" Gai declared as the last wisps of the smoke cleared, his face split in half by a grin of the whitest teeth Sakura had ever seen. His right hand was making a thumbs up to no one in particular as he stood in the middle of the triangle created by the genin.
His impression was certainly going to be a lasting one, she noted sardonically, but then again he probably did not care that he looked like prime candidate for Konoha's Village Idiot. She tried to remain impassive as she took in his green spandex and flak jacket, the same ones from her memory, making that hazy time period fresh and bright in her mind once more.
Discreetly, she quickly eyed both of her teammates, the Hyuuga first, and was partially satisfied to see a frown tugging at the lower half of his face. Rock Lee, though, seemed overwrought with adoration and Sakura gave pause at his watering eyes. Was he- was he really about to cry?
An unpleasant feeling rose in her chest and lodged itself there. Something like disgust mingled with vindication. As Lee began to openly admire his Instructor's "dynamic" entry, Sakura felt that all of her fears had already come true. The man before her was supposed to be the one to mold her into everything she wanted to be when he typified everything she did not.
"Face that smiles," she thought to herself and the corners of her mouth followed obediently, willfully dishonest.
"Greetings, my new cute students. I am honored and overjoyed to resume training with you." His back turned to Lee, and Sakura's conjectures were confirmed. These two definitely knew one another already. When his dark eyes fell on the Hyuuga, the young man stiffened, but turned his face fully to his new instructor.
For a brief moment, Sakura felt an ounce of empathy for him. She was reminded that he too had left his team, left an instructor he had come to trust, and for whom? The slightly creepy visage of Maito Gai bearing down was sure to be intimidating, even for a battle-hardened ninja.
"Neji!" the jounin stated after a breath's pause, his fervor announcing his attention before his words. She watched the not-quite-yet-dialogue with rapt attention. Neji wore his forehead protector in its intended place, a marked contrast to Lee's around-the-waist, while long brunette hair was pulled into a very low ponytail, bound loosely between his shoulder blades. Everything about his bearing was different from the man who had addressed them, the man who was now supposed to mold them into something akin to himself.
Gai nodded appreciatively, oblivious to Sakura's internalizing or the fact that Neji had yet to respond. Gai added, "Your modern manner tells me you are no doubt one of the prized students of Hatake Kakashi, my eternal rival!" At Neji's nod, Gai's grin turned somewhat sinister. He began to ramble on about the rivalry between the two of them. For a moment Sakura listened to the unfolding drama, but when he spoke of the three-day janken tournament that had served only to up his overall score in their rivalry by one, she withdrew. Men.
"I'll be excited to learn your skills for myself, and improve upon them if I may."
She froze when he turned to her, and his stare was even more intense than it had been on Neji. Or perhaps she only imagined it to be so since she was under its force head-on.
"You must be the student of Yuuhi Kurenai," he said, still grinning. She resisted the urge to frown at him. Was she imagining it or had his volume decreased slightly? Maybe she was going deaf after listening to him shout the rest of his words.
"Haruno Sakura," she answered with an incline of her head, and he seemed to wilt momentarily.
"Your name certainly suits you, Sakura-chan," he gushed, not noticing her stiffening spine at the familiarity with which he addressed her. Face that smiles. "As a new member of this team, and also a kunoichi, I'm especially interested to see what you are able to show us."
She did not have a chance to respond before he pirouetted, throwing his thumbs up into the air. "The spring time of youth will buoy us all in our endeavors to grow stronger! With our combined strength, Leaf Village will flourish as never before!"
Rock Lee was nodding furiously, between wiping fat tear drops from his chin. When his nose, too, began to drip, not even Sakura could hide her discomfort. It was an expression mirrored on Neji's face.
"In order to protect our dear Leaf," her new instructor continued, "we must know each other's strengths and weaknesses inside and out. We will teach each other and become a beautiful new strength for the village, based on our beloved Hokage's teachings!" He turned back to them, grin still in place, beaming like the sun. Sakura tried not to wince at him.
"Therefore, in the interest of pursuing such bold dynamics, I think we should conduct a sparring session." Sakura had no need to react. She had expected as much. A brawl. Lee was all but dancing at the prospect, gyrating in time with the nodding of his head. Uzumaki Naruto was looking like a better option for a teammate with every passing moment.
"Now, sensei?" Neji asked calmly. Not a challenge of authority, but a sincere question, if a little flat. Sakura glanced at him, noting his heartbreaking resemblance to Hinata. At least he could not say the same. The semblance ended at features, though. He held himself completely different from Hinata, more idealized- confident in himself. Her mind sparked with questions about Hatake Kakashi, Kurenai, and the Hyuuga household, the differences that each could have made on the two similar and completely different Hyuuga children.
"Now, my bright pupils!" Gai affirmed, and finally dropped his hands to fist on his hips.
Sparring, then. She knew little of Maito Gai, had never had a reason to learn about the man. Stray rumor around the village said he was some kind of taijutsu master, though there was no Maito Clan and so she knew little of what to expect. He had struck a moderately impressive Crane stance during their initial meeting, but that still left her little to go on.
Gai regarded them all as Sakura met his stare evenly. Lee's posturing had stopped, but she could sense him staring at her. Neji had yet to move.
"Neji! Sakura!" he addressed quickly, decided. "Do your new team the honor of sparring one another!" He stood grinning, giving a double thumbs up and Sakura slowly exhaled the breath she had been holding, silence enveloping the quartet. Gai gave no further explanation, but seemed content to hold his pose, as if that were explanation enough. Sakura thought it would be appropriate for the man to show him some of his own fighting style first, or at least have Lee demonstrate- wasn't he supposed to be helping with their transition?
Instead, she swallowed down her growing resentment and cast a glance at Neji from the corner of her eye. He was no longer looking at any of them, but taking a few steps away.
She cast one final glance at her new teacher. He nodded emphatically. A flicker of movement from Neji caused her head to turn back to him. She tucked her fingers into her long sleeves and felt the senbon, warmed from her skin, waiting to do her bidding. Neji had slipped into the basic Hyuuga-ryu that she had fought against hundreds of times. If she closed her eyes just enough, she could imagine that she was fighting Hinata, a taller, more angular form of one of her best friends.
Her eyes were wide open, though. He was not her friend, and he knew nothing about her. He was going to fight her, but there was no resistance in him. Not to Gai, not to the changes. Not to any of it. She commented on it as she took her favored stance when fighting Hinata.
"You're comfortable with your new arrangement, then?" The words were a statement rather than a question, flat and even. After them, she felt a bit of the pressure that had been building in her release. Her muscles were loose and springy, ready for evasion.
A slow smirk spread over his face as he digested the words. Yet he remained still, fingers extended. For a moment, she thought they might be on the same page. He rushed forward, palm extended, but his movements were slow enough to predict without a problem. She sprang to the right, moving in a tight barrel roll before she landed on her feet to meet the opponent who was already coming at her again.
She ducked under the open fist, lashing out with her foot. He leaped cleanly, tucking his knees to his chest, arms wide for balance. His billowing sleeves made as if to distract her, but she pulled in her focus enough to punch him in the chest before his feet could touch the ground. She allowed herself a moment of congratulations as she picked herself up again.
As he flipped backward with the impact, his hand anchored into the ground, twisting his body, and he landed easily. He charged again, and she could see that not so much as a mark showed that she had attacked. Even his clothing was still clean. He had really taken the impact well, almost like she had not even touched him. He approached at a quick sprint, and she realized all too quickly that he had been holding back on his speed as well.
The senbon was an old friend in her fingers as his hand reached for contact. She blocked his searching fingers for a moment, her eyes on the offensive digits, almost imagining she could see the chakra there.
He surprised her when he finally answered her question, "We're ninja. We all have some sort of cage." There was no time to think over his vague answer. His hand was like a snake then, darting around the object with precision. She cast away her surprise and bent her wrist for a stinging snap against his hand so that he withdrew for a heartbeat's time. It was enough to gather chakra to her feet and legs for a back flip away from him.
She would not have bothered with the extraneous movements except for a hope to catch him in the chin with her feet. Stone for stone, kunoichi had as much strength in their legs as their male counterparts. She would need to start relying more on her legs. There was no impact, though, no catch or contact as she landed, and he was already there again when she righted herself. She could not afford to let his hands connect. Anywhere.
Sakura flung her arms forward, releasing a fistful of senbon with one-two throws that had him spinning away from her as gracefully as a pirouette. Pressing his timing, she darted forward to meet him, leaping into the air. Her body spun in another barrel roll, gaining momentum for a kick that would scythe his shoulder into the ground.
When he cleared his own spin and still managed to grab her foot before she connected, she realized he really did have a speed advantage over her. Her back hit the ground painfully, but only when the air was knocked from her lungs did he release her foot. She gasped a deep breath and tucked her knees to her chest, pushing off with her shoulders to roll backwards and away from him.
She had seen the movements before, been at their mercy before, but she was learning that the differences between Neji and Hinata were more than just presentation and confidence. His abilities were beyond her friend's. Only time would tell how far they extended.
It continued on for a few minutes, testing and pressing each other. Neji was clearly stronger in taijutsu. She had expected that from the start and his clean and efficient movements had only proven it so.
She would not tell herself it was unfair, that shinobi were naturally stronger, naturally faster. Enemies would not excuse her on the battlefield for such weaknesses. She would have to rise to the occasion, now and every time after as well.
Gai and Lee had all but been forgotten when she dodged a particular powerful strike from Neji with a backbend. Lee cheered with excitement unbefitting anyone but an eight year old girl, and Sakura's eyes flitted towards him in disdain. Neji's fingers rained over her left shoulder as she rose again, sending pain searing through the joint. The dead weight almost unbalanced her, and she jerked upright quickly to avoid toppling back to the ground.
They reached a lull for a moment as she fully absorbed the shock of his attack- finally, he had broken through. Angry as she was at Lee, she could not blame him for the distraction. Enemies wouldn't forgive her for those, either. More accurately, Neji had worn her down to the point where he could finally get an attack on her.
The chakra flow to her arm was stunted, and she was tiring already. Neji was watching her passively, once more in the basic Hyuuga-style position. His body was relaxed, simply waiting for her movements. She felt a fierce way of resentment towards him. Was he taking this seriously? He hadn't even activated his bloodline, yet.
Gathering chakra in her hands, then legs and feet, she darted forward again. If he wasn't going to take her seriously, she was going to have to give him a reason to do so. If not immediately, then in the future. Her body rolled through the air in the same aerial kick she had used against him before, but he blocked it easily. Too easily. That was understandable, since her mind was preoccupied with two tasks. He seemed to sense it, though, and pressed towards her again.
Her fingers found their way into familiar seals- rat, ox, boar- and the skin around his eyes crinkled tellingly. She smirked at the lateness of the action, at his underestimation of her. There was only one more move to make, and he was so confident in their positions that he set it up for her himself.
His arm in close, aiming for her solar plexus. She had a brief spark of worry that he might actually he trying to do her harm, but she slipped just to the side, allowing the arm to slip beneath her own. Before he could withdraw, she grit her teeth and head-butted him, connecting just beneath his forehead protector. It was a ridiculous move, and an obvious tell, but it didn't stop Neji from falling to the ground in a dazed stupor.
Silence arrested them as she caught her breath. Tension rose up from Lee and Gai's quarter, but her eyes were for Neji, who sat on the ground while his eyes darted from point to point. Her fingers fell into the final seal of the genjutsu, holding the technique. There had been times, oh so few, and precious, when she had held Kurenai in one of her techniques for a few minutes. Neji would not last.
He still felt the sting in his forehead from Sakura's fierce attack against his cranium, but the pain was nothing compared to the sudden surge of alarm he felt when her body turned black. Darkness swallowed her and quickly drenched the training ground around them, the way sunrise woke the world. His eyes sought the sky, but it was already gone. He did not dare look behind him, rejecting the illusion for what he knew it to be.
It did not stop the first attack from feeling very painfully real. Something hit his shoulder, knocking him off balance and sending him tumbling back to the ground. He caught his footing quickly and lashed out into the darkness, but it had already scuttled away. Another rush of air caught his ear from behind and he spun out of the way just as it hissed by his head.
He did not allow himself to dwell on the fact that their sparring session had been going well, that he had nearly won the battle in just a few minutes. Kakashi had warned him that some of the ninja would be upset about the transitions. He did not know why he had expected more grace from the kunoichi about it, especially from his teammate.
From the first moment she had spoken to them yesterday he had sensed her unease, her dissatisfaction, even if their other new teammate Lee was determined to ignore misgivings at the sight of a pretty girl. Her question at the beginning of the session had only cinched his realization and angered him at her arrogant presumption. Either she thought he was blithely happy about the new transition, which he wasn't, or she could discern his thoughts, which she couldn't. After a few moments of testing her, he had attacked with the intention of waylaying her pretension. It had worked, too, right up until the moment he realized he should have been using the Byakugan from the beginning. It left him wondering who had played into whose hands better.
He was on the ground, trapped beneath a snake-like creature, too heavy to push off. Invisible teeth snapped in his face as hot breath threatened to blow his hitai-ate off of his forehead. He could even smell foul bloody decay on its breath.
Her genjutsu was good.
The Byakugan was useless when it only saw what his mind told him was real. He couldn't reach for a kunai to stop the assault against his senses, couldn't even free his arms.
Sakura watched him with fierce determination. He had a strong will, perhaps as strong as hers, but he was not properly utilizing the means to break through the illusion. Without a combination of willpower and skill, he would be trapped here until she ran out of chakra or released him. She was not the only one who realized it.
Gai-sensei spoke, "That's enough, Sakura," and for a moment she wanted to ignore him. The pain in her shoulder wanted retribution, and for the present her growing resentment had a vent.
She only hesitated half a second before releasing the illusion. Gai still saw it. She did not look at him, but instead savored Neji's brief moment of _ before his eyes cleared. He took a deep, involuntary breath before he realized his position and stilled. She knew the horror he had seen, and it only took a split second of their eyes meeting to knew that he knew.
He climbed to his feet without aid, and she wondered for a moment if he did not look even paler than before. It was slightly gratifying, until the pain in her shoulder throbbed again.
"Hinata made that mistake before as well," she explained as he regarded her, his height clearing hers by several centimeters. When he said nothing, she continued, "Thinking her eyes could compensate for everything." Her tone was too flat to be anything but critical.
"That's enough," Gai said evenly. His tone was too calm to be anything but reprimanding. The two combatants parted, and Sakura noted that he did not offer to fix his shoulder. Just as well.
She took a seat a meter or so away from Lee, far away from Neji, careful not to sit too close to any of the trees or sparring posts. She was tired, and wanted to recline, but she would swallow a kunai before she let any of them know it. Lee bridged the distance between them in a single step so that she tensed at his approach. She was grateful when Gai called him away for an exhibition between the two of them for her and Neji's sakes.
She did not speak to her teammates the rest of the day.
After she had gathered her stray weapons, Sakura began to head back to the city, feeling more weary than disappointed or frustrated. Gai-sensei's techniques were nothing like what she had learned before or ever hoped to learn. It was like the path she had always been following had suddenly taken a huge turn off course with no other divergent paths as options.
"Sakura-chan, if I may!" the new instructor's voice called, and she turned to find him much closer than she had anticipated. She had not even heard him approach. Stifling her annoyance, as much at herself as with him, she waited for him to continue speaking. He cleared his throat and gave a smile that might have been an attempt at disarming.
"I would like to begin incorporating more weight training into your regimen."
"Lifting?" she asked, and the idea startled her so that she was sure she was gaping. Gai smiled at the cute expression on her face and nodded.
"Some light lifting," he clarified. "You wore out quickly in your session with Neji." His smile did not let up. "If we can add a bit more muscle to your frame, your endurance should improve a great deal."
She said nothing at first, but did not bother to hide her pained expression. Her resentment was threatening to swallow her whole. When he laughed, she did not even look at him, but listened as he added, "Not to bulk you up! Just to help your chakra and physical capacities."
"Yes, sensei," she said, and left without another word.
"Six AM training in the morning, Sakura-chan! Don't be late!" he called to her departing figure.
Home was empty when she arrived in the still early afternoon. She hoped her father had taken an early lunch and would not be home for some time. The last thing she needed was him making less-than-subtle comments about her careers choice, especially with the state she was in now.
Her clothes were soiled from all of the rolling around on the ground, and her shoulder was still aching with tingling pain at the tenketsu. It had not been a banner day.
Her own emotions were catching up with her, leaving her more drained than the brief sparring session. She discarded her dirty clothing, bathed, and toyed with the idea of lunch before meditation. Would Hinata and Ino be free yet? The tea house had never been the best place for meditation, but if she was honest with herself she was more in the mood for comfort than head clearing.
It was mostly empty when she arrived, after lunch patrons but well before dinner. Their traditional spot was empty, and she wondered if she might be able to get some meditating in just the same.
She had just started in on the lacquered bento before her when a familiar presence appeared, causing her to relax. Kurenai smiled at her and Sakura gestured to the seat across from her, resting her hashi once more. Her (former) instructor smiled and gestured that she keep eating. Before she did, though, Sakura waited for another cup to be brought for her new guest's tea.
"How did it go?" the jounin asked without preamble. Sakura put the fried quail egg in her mouth and did not try to smile. The silence said enough. Kurenai sipped at her tea briefly, just watching her student, because Sakura would always be her student, waiting for a tell.
After another round of chewing and swallowing, the pink-haired kunoichi sighed and said, "I fought with Hinata's cousin."
"Neji?" A nod was her response.
"I had used the ghost illusion to overcome him," she admitted, shaking her head. She did not reach for her shoulder.
"You beat Neji?" Kurenai asked evenly, and Sakura wondered what her tone meant.
She paused, then shook her head, clarifying, "I'm not sure I could call it a victory. He closed one of my tenketsu, and…" Her face flamed, "I think he was holding back." It was shameful to admit, even to a woman so dearly loved as Kurenai, that she had had to resort to such a technique when he might not have even been going all out against her.
"That's… something," the older woman said thoughtfully. Sakura felt her temper flare despite herself and when her head turned, just so, to stare at her former instructor, red eyes were already meeting her.
"Why?" she asked, wanting a new answer, something that might justify the hurt she felt- something that might help her wrap her head around her own feelings.
"Why what?" Kurenai asked.
For the second time that day Sakura felt her control slip as she breathed, "Sensei!" Was the woman going to force her to do everything so openly, pretend that there was no understanding between them anymore? Kurenai's eyes sparked in warning and Sakura cowed slightly.
"Why, Sensei, the transition? Why this team? That man?" she questioned, food forgotten.
"All of your strengths, your weaknesses, your needs… You, Hinata, and Ino- were considered when the decisions for restructuring were made," was the answer that was given. "All of the jounin teachers had such decisions to make." It was new information, something she had not even considered properly.
"You chose to keep Hinata?" Sakura asked, and the hurt was clear in her voice. She did not look away from the woman's red eyes.
"It was as much for your's and Ino's sakes as Hinata's," she answered. It did not feel like an answer at all. "Sakura-chan," the older woman spoke. "This was not a decision that we wanted, but you'd be wise to see that it could not be avoided either… We all have to make the best of it."
She did not outright call the woman a liar, but the slight tilt of her brow was enough to say what she felt about the response. Her teacher knew exactly the words to say to cool her, though. "Are your own goals so cheap?" Sakura started, staring at the woman with wide, cautious eyes. When no verbal response came, she plowed ahead, "You've said from the time you were young that you wanted to be a kunoichi, that you wanted to protect the village."
A white box, a white shroud and screaming and crying filled her eyes, the sounds muted by time and distance.
Still, Kurenai pressed on, oblivious to the memories, "If you don't reach forward and take this with everything you've got, it's as good as quitting. Life, Sakura, is not what we think it is. There is no perfectly lined map that guarantees events will happen just the way you want- even if you plan for them. If you think that's life, you're deluding yourself. You will not succeed."
Kurenai stared at the young woman, feeling a mix of sympathy and ire. It was true that circumstances affected them all, hurt them all, from time to time, but Sakura could not allow herself to take on the mentality of a victim. Everything that was happening was so much bigger than her.
Her student said not a word, did not seem to see her at all. It made her wonder how well the words had been absorbed, and it made her think she did not need to linger.
The words hit her like a well-timed kick to the chin, and she was still recovering when she realized that Kurenai had been gone for some time. Her tempura and sashimi had cooled considerably, and the tea was lukewarm. She nibbled at the food for a bit, its taste lost to her, while considering the painful words.
Meditation, it seemed, would be happening sooner rather than later.