Beginning notes: Wow, finally, and update. A new arc, and I hope you enjoy. Some sweet conflicts coming your way!
Disclaimer: I do not own any part of Naruto.
Chapter 9: Seeing New Life
Two days on the road, dawn was settling and the carriage was headed toward the edge of Fire Country to the east, where land ended to meet the strip of water that separated it from Water Country. The carriage interior was plush but still uncomfortable as they made their journey together. Sakura, presently playing the role of the wife of a wealthy merchant, fingered her black locks with a tinge of sadness—no matter how much her pink hair had stood out, she had loved it because it made her unique. Neji, who was pretending to be the wealthy merchant by the name of Matsui Hizashi, sensed her mood change as she sighed as if weighed down with a heavy burden.
"What is it?"
"It's nothing, Neji-san."
Neji eased back in his seat across from her and closed his eyes to meditate. "I did not realize that we would become so awkward with the prospect of living each other looming ahead."
Sakura, or rather, Matsui Takara, threw him a glare. "I just need time to adjust, Neji-san."
"Well, you can start by calling me by your husband's name." He said without moving a muscle.
Without wanting to, she flushed but did not know why. She heaved another sigh and nodded before suddenly realizing that he had taken his father's name. "Why did you decide to take your father's name?"
There was a pause while Neji thought about her question. "Perhaps I felt safer taking my father's name. It was the first name that came to my mind. It would help me take precautions so that I do not dishonor it in any way while I am in Water Country."
"Did you pick my name?"
There was a hint of reminisce in his small smile. "My father once told me that it was the name of his very first love."
Sakura grew curious. "Takara? Who was it? What happened between them?"
"They met when my father was a teenager. He was among the many participants for the jounin exams. Takara was a year younger but she also there to take the tests. My father said she was extraordinarily beautiful with black hair and gray eyes. For the jounin exams, they had to have a battle much like the ones we had for the chuunin exams." He cleared his throat. "They were to battle each other, and so they did, and my father came out on top.
"However, during the battle when he used a kaiten, stray shrapnel of the broken floor hit her in the eyes which caused her to go blind. After the battle, she was taken to the hospital and he decided to apologize to her. When he realized that he ruined all of her chances of becoming a kunoichi, he took care of her and helped her to recover. Soon, they fell in love but the Hyuuga clan refused to accept her as a part of the family. With no special bloodline and eyesight, she would be useless in the Branch House's duty to protect the Main House."
Sakura moved so that she was sitting next to him and grasped his hand. "And then?"
Neji turned to face her, his gray eyes bittersweet. "My father once told me that the greatest regret of his life was not to run away and marry her. My father and my mother were arranged to be married soon after the family saw what kind of woman he wanted to marry. Fortunately, the two of them were childhood friends so they did get along while my father was still alive."
"What happened to Takara?" Sakura felt a growing dread creep upon her.
"It is said that she disappeared. No one really knows what happened to her." The words sent a small shiver down her spine in apprehension.
The blind man gently squeezed her hand to reassure her. "I won't let anything happen to you."
"Neji…I mean, Hizashi-san, I hope we will go on being friends. I don't really want to end up like your father."
He nodded firmly. "We won't."
Sakura let out a breath of relief. "I think we can pull this off. Let's do our best."
Neji longed to touch her face but he restrained himself by changing the subject. "I can smell the sea."
Indeed, the salty spray of the sea was evident even to Sakura and it was fresh like the first breath of oxygen to one's lungs after holding her breath for a long time. She opened the small carriage window and let her hair fly with the wind, her eyes beholding the approaching waters with delight and happiness. It had been a long time since she got to see the untainted ocean, and the color matched her eyes almost to the very shade and hue. The rising sun lit up the sparkling surface with orange, creating an interesting mix of colors, all of them vibrant and beautiful in their own way.
There was a sense of calm as the carriage eventually stopped at a ferry that waited to take them across the sea. Neji adjusted his clothes while Sakura did the same. Their new lives would start from here; as soon as they would step foot outside of the carriage, Neji was going to be a helpless blind man and Sakura would be his wife that would have to guide him through the long months ahead. But they trusted each other and they knew each other too well. Neji was on unfamiliar ground anyway and needed Sakura to guide him.
Sakura got out of the carriage first and helped Neji by taking hold of his elbow like the old times. She linked arms with him and carefully led him down a safe path to board their ferry, her free hand holding up her kimono so that it was kept from dragging on the ground.
The captain of the ferry boat eyed his rich customers and immediately bowed to them. He was a big man dressed in a working peasant clothing and he wore a tattered hat which did not fit very comfortably on his square head. His eyes were kind and as blue as the sky, and his hair was unruly with the constant wind and ocean spray around him. His voice was gruff and scratchy as he spoke. "Welcome abroad. This journey will take most of the day, so your cabin is ready for you and if you'd follow me, I will take you to it."
Playing the ever gracious wife, Sakura bowed prettily. "Thank you, sir. That would be appreciated. My husband is rather exhausted from the carriage ride."
Neji gave the man a fake, easy smile. "My wife exaggerates. I slept all the way through the ride. The smell of the sea brings back memories."
As the captain led the way, he gave them a curious look. "Where are you from, sir? It's not common to see such a lovely couple on board."
"We are citizens of the Mist, but we moved to Fire Country when I lost my eyesight." He answered with practiced ease. "My father just recently passed away and willed me his estate and business." Sakura could not help but be impressed with his acting abilities.
"Here we are." The captain opened a worn door, but the room was nicely decorated and clean for their use.
Sakura bowed again to the captain. "Thank you kindly."
"If you need anything, please do not hesitate to ring the bell." He left with a small incline of his head and left while closing the door behind him.
Neji wrinkled his nose. "It smells of smoke."
The kunoichi nodded. "Perhaps the occupants before us were smoking in the room."
He seated himself on the couch and yawned. "The carriage is an awful mode of transportation. Remind me avoid it by any means possible."
She giggled and sat down beside Neji who was resting his eyes. She automatically reached out to guide his relaxed form down on her lap so that his head was resting on it. She played with strands of his long hair and traced the outlines of his jaw. "Sleep, Hizashi-san."
Another carriage awaited their arrival in Water Country at which Neji sighed and reluctantly agreed to ride. The roads were surprisingly well paved and less rocky, but Sakura wished that she could say for the neighborhood around them. The outskirts of their town were run down and meager compared to the rich district at the heart of the town, where they were headed. She watched the little children play in the street, all of them wearing tattered kimonos she hardly considered suitable for even dogs.
The slums then passed into a beautiful area where the people of Water Country had ingeniously created a system of irrigation to water an expansive garden all around the rich district. Gorgeous flowers bloomed everywhere along the roads.
"You seem like you're enjoying yourself." Neji said as he sat back in the carriage.
Sakura giggled. "It is beautiful, Hizashi-san."
"I believe our house should be upon a hill. I have been told that it is surrounded by a garden, and a small waterfall should be located near it."
Her eyes searched for his description, and she soon spotted the waterfall. She gasped at the splendid sight of nature while Neji picked the sound of the rushing waters of the waterfall.
They arrived at the manor, much like the Hyuuga manor, and Sakura led her pseudo husband inside, arm in arm. The beautiful polished floors sparkled in the sunlight streaming in from the open shoji doors, and fresh air hinted with vanilla permeated the air. Neji almost smiled unconsciously at the smell. It was a pleasant odor.
"Matsui-sama, your luggage has been placed in your room. This way." A servant ushered the couple through the manor, pointing out various rooms of importance, to their private quarters.
Sakura, still toying with the pretense of a rich woman, waved the servant away before she slid the door closed. She let out a heavy sigh. Neji sensed her depressed mood and also let out a sigh.
"It will take some getting used to." He said quietly. Sakura looked at him; he was so calm and so controlled.
"So, what's next?"
Neji looked at her with a straight face. "A gala."
The kunoichi did a double take and blinked. "A gala?"
"Yes, Takara, it is an event where spoiled rich people like to dance and socialize with each other in pointless conversations and flattery." He said sardonically, letting his sarcasm show. "It is also when our team will survey the people around us and try to find out information about Orochimaru's whereabouts."
Sakura bit her lip. "So early? I haven't had a chance to fit into my role yet."
"Then you should work on that for the next two days. The gala will have the pretense of a fashionable neighborhood party since we are the newcomers. Apparently, it is a tradition around these parts."
She sighed again. "This is going to be fun."
The couple spent the next two days rehearsing their parts and familiarizing themselves with the house. Sakura watched Neji work out the precise amount of steps it took from one end of the hallway to the other and which doors led to which room. He quickly learned everything about the huge manor since it was similar to the Hyuuga mansion.
The day of the gala finally came, the servants bustling about the place getting everything organized and decorated with Sakura's careful guidance. Neji decided to let his pretend wife handle everything and meditate. Besides, he was supposed to play the helpless blind man who could only rely on his wife.
The event was to take place in the evening and it was late afternoon. Neji would have to get dressed and ready to take on a full night of superfluous flattery and vanity, where he would also have to pretend that he was one of them. Indeed, it was going to be a rough night.
He wandered into the main room where Sakura was instructing several butlers to put down the silverware and plates on the long, low dinner table. He could hear her telling them to put them precisely in place with the exact measurements that they were to be away from each other. He smirked. She was definitely enjoying this new authority.
Sakura jumped in surprise and turned to see him in the doorway. "Oh, Hizashi-san, what is it?"
"My clothes are not laid out in the room. I don't know what I am wearing."
She smiled and took his elbow. "Then let's go pick something out."
Their large closet was a smaller room that was adjacent to their bedroom. Sakura rummaged through the mass amounts of fabulous clothing (most of them belonging to the Hyuuga clan anyhow) and picked out a formal navy blue kimono for him to wear. She carefully took it back into the room where Neji stood waiting for her near their futon bed.
There was an awkward pause.
"Should I help you?" Sakura asked hesitantly.
He smirked. "You offer to take off my clothes?"
She blushed furiously but with her head held high, she said boldly, "I am, after all, your wife."
Neji could not help but bow to her politely with the same, teasing smile on his face. "By all means, proceed."
Sakura stepped closer and her tiny hands trembled as they reached to undo the sash around his waist that kept his traditional yukata closed. She looked into his deep gray eyes and found herself missing their pale ivory color; somehow, Neji was not Neji without his white eyes. She slowly breathed in as the sash slowly loosened from his thin waist and the yukata fell open in front of her eyes, revealing his tone upper body. It was true that she had seen him shirtless countless times, but the circumstances seemed to make the moment different than it had been. Her heart beat faster and the color rose on her cheeks, and she hoped that Neji could not feel hear her heart beating loudly in her chest.
She laid down the yukata on the futon and picked up the formal kimono. She stepped behind him and held it open while Neji searched for the sleeves with his arms in order slip his arms through them. Neji almost shivered at the warmth of her fingers when he brushed by them accidentally. She tied the silk sash around his thin waist.
The encounter was over. Both relief and disappointment flooded through them at the same time.
The first guests arrived and by seven o'clock, the gala was in full bloom.
The evening progressed further, and Sakura led Neji, arm in arm, to greet the numerous guests as they stood in the great expanse of the living room. Their chakra concealed and their guises perfectly in place, it came time for them to play each of their roles to absolute perfection that the situation required.
Sakura smiled her reserved, pretty smile for the guests that they were entertaining, her eyes still searching their faces for some sort of recognition when she slipped out a mention of the Sound Village. Her character was superficial on all levels, but she knew how women gossiped. She used that flirtatious tone with the men in the room, her pretty face attracting their eyes and also their information to her.
The Hyuuga, on the other hand, was supposed to play the business part of their partnership. With his connections, he could find out what the wealthy business men feared about their businesses. He got a handful of rumors that sounded suspicious and thus made capable, mental notes of each of them to discuss later with the entire group.
However, as the gala went on, he seemed to focus more on Sakura's actions as she acted out the part of a gracious hostess. Her laughter, though mostly fake, rang like bells in his ears, and her subtle flirtatiousness distracted him from his own conversation at times. He could not see, and therefore, his blindness helplessly increased the sensitivity of all the others. He was noticing the expensive perfume of the ladies around him, and the smell of cigars that wafted throughout the room like incense. But with her next to him, he oddly grew more and more possessive (why does that word sound so wrong?) and insecure (was a Hyuuga ever insecure?) as he noticed that more men than women were in at the party.
After the socializing, dinner was to be served, and as a traditional Japanese dinner, people were seated at a long, low table made of mahogany. Neji was seated at the head of the table with Sakura at his right hand so that she could help him with his dishes and eating utensils. People conversed easily with each other, laughing and joking emptily, while Sakura had to act like Neji could not feed himself. She pulled it off without appearing too awkward, and it was really the Hyuuga that had the most difficulty trying make it seem like he was incapable of feeding himself. The two shinobi knew that their act was drawing sympathy from the others, which would allow them to break into their circle of social elitism.
"Matsui-sama, there is a guest awaiting permission to enter." A servant bowed. All eyes traveled to the head of the table.
Neji drew himself up by straightening his back and he nodded to the servant. "Of course, a guest is a guest. Please, show him inside and prepare another place for him at the table."
The shoji door slowly slid open to reveal their tardy guest, and before she knew it, Sakura let out a small gasp of terror and surprise.
The guest was tall, his rich black hair rather disheveled, and he wore a deep blue kimono that almost matched his depthless ebony eyes. They slowly swept the room, observing each face with care, until they came upon Sakura's emerald ones. He bent at his waist in a graceful bow, and his face was dull and without expression.
"Excuse my tardiness. I am Uchiha Sasuke."
The room exploded with quiet whispers, and Neji remained calm even when he felt Sakura tremble beside him. He searched for her hand and found it, and he squeezed gently to reassure her. The host nodded.
"Welcome, Uchiha-san. Please, sit." He said formally, careful not to show any appearance of being surprised. He felt Sakura trying to regain her composure as the Uchiha took his seat at an empty spot across from her.
She swallowed to wet her dry mouth and forced a pretty smile on her face. "To what do we owe the honor of your presence?"
Sasuke stared at her calmly. "I came to pay my respects."
She was growing suspicious. "Are you quite alone, Uchiha-san?"
Neji narrowed his eyes minimally in disbelief before calling his guests to continue eating, all the while a familiar burning sensation of jealousy flamed in the pit of his stomach. Sakura felt uncomfortably vulnerable before him and she took comfort in the fact that she had a capable shinobi like Neji beside her.
"You remind me of someone I once knew, Uchiha-san." Sakura said before taking a small bite of rice.
Sasuke met her eyes with his own steady gaze before he bowed his head politely. "Your eyes remind me of someone I knew also."
The Hyuuga bit his tongue to keep from snapping a biting remark. The burning sensation grew hotter. It's natural for a man to get jealous over his wife.
But she's not technically your wife.
"Uchiha-san, may I ask where you live? Perhaps I can do some business with you."
The other male shook his head. "My partner is more interested in business than I am."
"Oh? What is the name of your partner? Perhaps I know him."
Before Sasuke could reply, a man next to Sakura quipped in, "You must be talking about Orochimaru. Matsui-san, you'll only get into trouble if you deal with him."
Sakura felt a murderous aura shift higher from across the table, and she quickly squeezed Neji's hand to resolve the issue before someone got hurt. "Of course I heard of Orochimaru. Indeed, that leads me to know a little bit about you too, Uchiha-san." The Hyuuga said smoothly.
Sasuke turned his attentions away from the unfortunate man and his gaze darkened. "They told me you were blind."
The hostess noticed the way he quickly changed the topic away from himself.
Neji smiled. "I hope that doesn't bother you."
"No, but I would have no purpose if I were to be blind."
"I had thought the same until a certain woman helped me realize that my sight was not the end of my world."
Sakura tried not to blush.
The Uchiha looked at her again. "If you had the choice between your wife and all the money you could have, which would you choose?"
Her blood froze in her veins. Her eyes grew wide, but Neji did not skip a beat.
"My wife, of course." His tone was firm like rock.
"I would choose money." Sasuke said bluntly. Sakura felt her heart shrink a couple of inches.
Neji voiced the question that was ringing inside her head. "Why?"
"Because with money comes power, and power provides me what I need. I could buy a wife if I wanted." His eyes swam with nothingness, and they scared her like nothing had scared her before.
The Hyuuga felt like punching his face; though he couldn't see it, he could clearly imagine it, just like how he could clearly imagine the hurt look on Sakura's face. His festering anger simmered quietly beneath his calm exterior.
They did not pursue the issue any further, and dinner was over after another tortuous hour for Sakura, sitting across from the man she had been loving throughout her life. She watched him bow to her and slowly walk away, his steady gait still unchanged fro how she remembered it to be from their days at the academy. She felt like crying.
After the gala was over, the couple retired to their room, and Sakura was wordless as they changed. Neji could literally feel the heavy, brooding silence in the room.
"I did not expect him to show his face so soon. Orochimaru must be getting desperate."
Sakura only nodded in response, something that he couldn't see, and therefore, he thought that she was purposefully ignoring him. "Sakura, if you cannot handle this mission, then I will send you home."
"I can handle it." She said rather unconvincingly.
"We have to go to a business meeting tomorrow. I think Uchiha will be there with Orochimaru. The rest of our team will be there with us. You don't have to worry about him."
"It's not him I'm worried about."
Neji remained in an angry silence.
Sakura let out a small chuckle. "He already chose power over me. What can I do?"
Forget him. A part of him thought.
She sighed. "Forgetting him seems like a good idea."
A very good idea. He goaded.
"I'm sorry, Neji-san, I'm making you uncomfortable."
He waited for Sakura to crawl into her futon, and he tucked her in. "Get some rest. I'm going to meditate."
And he left her to her thoughts so that he could battle with his own.
Ending notes:Okay, finished. So this chapter pretty much sucked because I wrote over a long period of time, so it skipped around a lot. My mind just got stuck, then thought of something, then got stuck again, and so on. Forgive me, but I wanted to update what I could.