Chapter 6: Dancing Snake

"P-Please…no, no more – I beg you!"

Momentarily, the hissing sound of the electric blade subsided, dark crimson blood spraying in a circular motion at the gradual loss of momentum.

The unfortunate creature twisted and turned in excruciating pain.

The temporary halt only seemed to intensify the sensation, the gaping wound left unprotected amidst the cold atmosphere.

But it was the sight of an abnormally long tongue sliding across like a lazy predator to capture the droplets of the victim's essence that had the incarcerated other gasping in fear. Dry, cracked lips widened in soundless petrification as blood-shot eyes almost rolled back in hypertension. Complete numbness grappled the weakened heart, falling prey to the foolish desire of freedom and escape. A nightmare; a teeth chattering nightmare that surpassed all they had heard as children. This was so much more...this was so much less... This was hell.

His battered body adorned with bruises, cuts, deep indentations and mutilations twitched instinctively as pale white fingers lightly teased a patch of abdomen skin.

"Now, now – no need to fret, my pet," the disguised soothing tone of his voice – as slimy as a deceiving snake – bounced off the cold stone walls decorated with various tools designed to slash, poke, dissect and kill. "A frightened little thing, aren't you?"

"…Whatever shall I do with you?"

The infinite echo of the approaching footsteps highlighted how far underground they truly were.

There was no hope. Life feigned and waned in this place. Death was all that sustained.

He reigned and ruled the hidden shadows.

"Orochimaru-sama, they've taken the bait." Not even bothering to knock, the right-hand henchman stalked in to confirm the already known fact. "The scroll is within the confines of Konoha."

Scoffing at the final statement, cold calculating raven orbs slid at the sound of whimpering by the shaking experiment.

Immediately, they narrowed in disgust at the sight of unfocused eyes.

Habitually twitching the metal frame of his glasses to set them upright at the bridge of his nose, the silver-haired ninja tossed an uncaring glance of indifference.

Such pathetic weak beings

"Now, now; do not underestimate our dear Hokage and her little ANBU group." Momentarily turning away from his experimental plaything, the former Konoha ninja turned his slatted eyes to his pessimistic subordinate. "She already knew the scroll was a decoy, Kabuto."

"Sending out her best team was her message back to us – her warning."

"The game has finally begun." Maddened orbs darted from side to side; as if on guard for invisible enemies. The deadly consequence of the obtaining of uncontrollable power…

"We shall soon have our war."

With a gleeful laughter, Orochimaru swiftly turned back to his bloodied table. "So much to do, so little time…So much to play with, but so little games…" Frantically whispering his words like a forbidden chant, the power-driven male gazed into the trapped being once again.

"Do you know, my dear, it's better to make sure one's toys reach their full potential?"

With pain-staking slowness, he lightly fingered a long silvery ornament that resembled a moderated pitch-fork.

"It means they won't break so easily." Deaths, fear, sadness, despair and defeat… "It means I get to play with them longer." His perfect world – his creation, his desire, his purpose… He would paint this world the dark crimson colour of blood. "…I hope you won't disappoint me."

Madness, incomprehensible madness

"I do wish to play with you some more."

The man was no longer in control of his powers. The man was no more.

And sharp claw like hand plunged into the intricately crafted wound in merciless precision, grinding aside bones and skin as blood spewed everywhere.

The screams of agony and despair only came to an end by dawn.

xXxXxXxXxXxXx

At times like this, Sakura felt like a trapped animal.

…In actual fact, more like a little caged rabbit standing before the calculating eyes of a hawk before the inevitable pounce.

The intense shade of silver rendered her incapable of a single coherent thought or speech.

Before the pink-haired kunoichi could properly work the strained muscles of her jaw to come up with a brilliant excuse, or at least blurt out something instead of staring at him like a gaping fish; an unexpected interruption came to her rescue. "My, aren't we looking particularly like a headless chicken, Sakura dear. I hope Neji-san isn't interrogating you or anything?" It came in the form of scheming blue orbs and long flirtatious blonde hair. Oh well, beggars can't be choosers. "I sincerely would not wish to use my mind disturbance techniques on an ANBU captain."

"Ino!" Releasing her saviour's name like a mounting prayer, emerald orbs stared indecisively at the newest addition.

Presenting her panicking friend with a reassuring smirk, the smoldering gaze challenged narrowed silver orbs as Ino placed her hand firmly on top of Sakura's shoulder.

"If you would permit, Neji-san, I would like to borrow Sakura for the rest of the afternoon."

Decisively not at all pleased with the underlying implications, the stoic ANBU captain silently regarded the individual considered to be Sakura's best female friend – Yamanaka Ino.

Never the one to keep tabs on others merely for social reasons, Hyuuga Neji was genuinely at a loss regarding this particular female.

Her skills as a ninja was reasonable, at best, and her relationship with his team's strategist and medic had previously deemed her unworthy of his intense scrutiny. But it seemed he needed to keep a closer eye upon this wild card if he was to pursue Konoha's cherry blossom. Perhaps it was the challenging gaze coupled with a manipulative smirk packaged in all that sultry feminine haughtiness that had the sharp Hyuuga regarding the blonde with caution. She could prove to be quite meddlesome. No wonder Shikamaru found her particularly troublesome.

This woman was not to be trifled with.

Not quite ready to sign himself up for her black list, Neji opted for graciously granting the seemingly straightforward request.

Besides, it was common sense to not make enemies with the best friend of ones romantic interest – at least not quite yet.

"Of course, Ino-san." With a swift nod, the sharp Hyuuga allowed his gaze to penetrate startled emerald orbs and flushed skin while addressing the blonde. Purposely dragging silver orbs from her dainty feet, shapely hips, swan like throat and silky rosette locks; the powerful ninja relished in the obvious nervousness of the pink-haired kunoichi. Smirking at the fidgety female one last time, taunting clear eyes darted to visibly annoyed blue ones.

"I would not wish to selfishly monopolise Sakura's schedule." His deep voice concluded.

The energetic blonde had to forcefully bite her tongue from bitterly lashing out that the possessive bastard was already doing exactly just that; even way before the event-turning mission that had somehow switched his gears into full mode.

In all truth, Ino had never approved of the young Hyuuga; knowing very well of his silent high-and-mighty ways.

Plus, the bastard had the sheer audacity to flirt with her best friend under her very nose. It was simply unforgivable.

And what made it decisively worse was that since getting back from that dreadful mission exactly a week ago, Ino hadn't been able to catch a glimpse of her pink-haired friend.

Gossip had it that the dashing Hyuuga had been sighted taking a slightly blushing medic to various exclusive restaurants of Konoha.

…Fine wining and dining his girl, was he now?

Well, he would certainly need to pass the test of an equally persistent best friend.

After the dreadful events involving another high-and-mighty Uchiha traitor, Ino had sworn upon her very soul that she would protect her best friend from these deadly enemies approaching in forms of harmless looking teenage boys. Despite Tenten's reassurance of Neji's good intentions and amiable ways, she was far from convinced. She didn't care if he had another set of fingers sprouting from his ass.

All that was important was that Sakura was happy, taken care of and cherished dearly. This was her responsibility as the medic-nin's best friend.

Give me your best shot, Hyuuga.

"…But if you would permit, I would like her back for the evening." As if reading her thoughts, Neji did not disappoint. "I remember a certain individual wanting to go to the new Italian restaurant down the street."

Almost wishing she could punch herself for bugging every single individual to go with her to the newest joint before the fateful mission of hell, Sakura feverishly pleaded that the ground swallow her whole.

"Ah, well, that is…I'm sure that you-"

With a full-fledged laugh, Ino effectively blocked her friend's stuttering attempt to fruitlessly pull herself out of the gaping hole. "Unfortunately, I will most likely be keeping Sakura all to myself for the rest of the day."

"I apologise in advance, Neji-san." Ino replied in a feigned honey-dripping tone.

Hadn't she warned her naive friend to never carelessly drop invitations of brunch, dinner, or drinks to males in general?

Truly the girl was absolutely hopeless.

But partially, she was also to blame. When Ino began suspecting non-platonic emotions emerging from the stoic ANBU captain, she had decided not to warn the generally oblivious medic due to the social barriers feverishly upheld by the old farts of the prestigious Hyuuga clan. It was, therefore, a guarantee that he wouldn't dare to inappropriately cross the line of formal social bonding. And besides, not only did Sakura seem genuinely uninterested in the opposite sex but her overprotective teammates were just as effective in hording off unwanted males as they were in battle fields.

Even when they both were hand-picked by the Hokage as part of the newest ANBU group, Ino hadn't been too worried over the proximity and the greater amount of times they would spend together. It was only when Neji began accepting the group outings to lunch and dinner, mostly organised by the food-loving Sakura, that Ino became suspicious. She had presumed his feelings to be of mere infatuation; sprouting emotions that would fade with time.

How wrong she had been...

It also did not help that her pink-haired friend seemed to be generally fond of the silent ninja as well.

And she was still uncertain as to the extent of Sakura's...affections.

Ino would need to analyse and examine the current circumstances quickly and swiftly before planning her next set of actions.

"No need, Ino-san. Sakura has always been on popular demand, has she not?" The Hyuuga presented a side-long glance that almost had Ino gritting her teeth to release some of her nasty temper.

Not in the mood for a comprehensive battle of the mind, Ino swiftly put an end to the banter with an almost sour expression. "As it would be expected. Now we really must bid you good day, Neji-san."

Forcefully dragging Sakura away from the insufferable and all-too-smug-looking male, the fuming blonde reluctantly released her hold only when they were a safe distance away.

"…Thanks, Ino." The pink-haired kunoichi quietly whispered, nervously tucking away a stray lock behind her right ear.

But before the pretty medic could make her get-away, she was promptly blocked by the overwhelming presence of the furious relationship guru of Konoha. She should have known...

"Don't think you're getting away so easily from me."

Ino enthusiastically pulled a protesting Sakura for an overdue girl talk session. Hot chocolate, dark rich fudge and ice-cream was in order.

"You should already be aware by now that I have spies everywhere, my dear." Casting a know-it-all look over her shoulders, the blonde dragged the less reluctant other towards the former's apartment.

"…Tenten." Realisation finally clouded emerald orbs.

And all Sakura could do was promptly gulp in dreaded apprehension.

"Smart girl. Now start talking, forehead-girl."


The sun was almost setting by the time the ANBU medic had escaped the crutches of one persistent blonde.

The interrogation session had gone as well any interrogation sessions could go; intense one-sided questions addressed in bone-chilling obsession.

However, considering how Sakura had been a long-time favourite victim for an over-dramatising Ino, the pink-haired kunoichi was used to the suffocating situation. All in all, her best friend seemed to be generally satisfied with the current matter at hand. Nodding approvingly after hearing the fateful 'proposal' by the handsome Hyuuga; she had promptly exclaimed along the lines of: "that cold fish has been pursuing you for years," and "I gotta hand it to him, he's one persistent asshole."

And Sakura had been at a loss.

Not only had the emerald-eyed female remained entirely oblivious to this so-called 'pursuit,' but she was mostly mortified of the idea that others knew about it.

After all, Haruno Sakura and 'public declarations' were mortal enemies from the start. Her former teammate, Uchiha Sasuke, being the primary examplification. The point was that it hadn't been the 'golden moment' of her life, notwithstanding the fact that it seemed to be the most memorable one, and the pink-haired kunoichi had been absolutely horrified when she had finally – finally – broken free of such insane adolescent dreams.

And the word 'embarrassment' didn't even begin to cover the whole ordeal.

In all retrospect, it would have been so very simple if she had been born the subtle-obsessor like Hinata-chan, for example.

Lurking in the dark alley observing, fawning, note-taking and drooling over the said eye-candy… It wouldn't have been hard. On the contrary, it would have been the most sensible option at the time being. She was, after all, a kunoichi for heaven's sake! A profession in the stalking industry would have been the next step down.

And the best part, the infatuation wouldn't have been a public one.

It would have all ended in a harmless fixation that would have ended up being safely stashed away in the hidden depths of her under-developed mentality of her younger days.

That much was certain.

xXxXxXxXxXxXx

"That just shows Neji likes you – God knows why – even after seeing you at your best and your worst."

Ino had responded to such moaning and groaning while eagerly munching away the homemade cookies.

...Yamanaka-san does make the best cookies in all of Konoha.

Twirling a loss blonde lock in an uncaring manner, she unexpectedly continued. "…And just for that, I approve."

Ignoring stunned emerald eyes, the blonde haughtily continued; ignoring the look of absolute amazement in slight embarrassment.

It was rare for Ino to compliment any of the males who had pursued Sakura in the past, deeming them as freaks (perhaps they were a little obsessive), gay (a nice male nurse who worked in one of her departments), or too much of bushy-eyebrows (no guesses who).

"I say it's about time he makes it official."

"But mark my words, if he turns out to be an I-dun-need-to-do-anything-in-a-relationship-cause-I'm-so-freakin-hot type of boyfriend, God so help me; I will personally hand his great looking piece of ass to the ramen-loving freak and that perverted sensei of yours." This seemed to be the threat of the century.

"…What about Sai?"

"He will be given the special privilege of an isolated room to release his sadistic tendencies to the fullest."

"Ouch…" Instinctively blanching at the very thought of her non-conformative teammate and his creative methods of 'torture,' Sakura wisely chose not to comment any further.

Who knew what Ino would feed into the unpredictable artist when he got back from his solo mission...

Over the years, Sakura learned that an overprotective Sai was scary to the point of being utterly creepy and she had always taken extra care to not provoke his...brotherly side.

"Exactly," With a grin that Sai would have been proud of, Ino held up a finger in a lecturing manner; emphasising the next crucial statement.

"So your boyfriend better watch it. He cannot afford to screw up with you or else he will be facing the painful consequences."

xXxXxXxXxXxXx

Passing through the dimming streets of Konoha, consisting of storeowners packing away their goods for the day, Sakura waved at some of the familiar faces all the while trying not to groan out loud.

Why did everything have to be so...complicated? It felt like everything was moving too quickly, too fast... But most importantly, it felt like she no longer had control over the situation.

And with such uncertainty, questions were beginning to bombard her confused state of mind.

Simply liking the ANBU captain in her own special way and having him reciprocate and admit such emotions were two complete different things. And the emerald-eyed kunoichi was still not hundred percent certain whether or not she could risk their friendship for this foreign territory.

The past few days consisting of the 'dinner dates' with the eager Hyuuga had only served to emphasise how devastated she would be if things didn't work out.

And it scared the shit out of her.

"...I see your meeting has finished earlier than anticipated."

Almost doing a double take, widened emerald orbs met amused silver ones as Sakura quickly spun on her heels. "Neji!"

Standing in all that glorious masculine dominance; firm chiseled muscles, defined features and that silent confidence that begged for attention, Hyuuga Neji merely regarded a startled Sakura.

With a side-looped grin, the ANBU captain was on a roll. "Now, how about that dinner?"

It took immense inner restraint to hold back a blush that was threatening to surface.

Not at all liking the way the conversation was heading, Sakura stubbornly declined; desperately trying to cling onto her sanity. The pink-haired medic didn't think she had it in her to face the main object of confusion just now.

"I already ate with Ino." It wasn't exactly a lie. They had practically gobbled up all of the pantry cabinets of the Yamanaka household.

"Sweets and chocolate are hardly adequate sources of nutrition, Sakura." Neji drily retorted; reading through the poor attempt to escape. "Besides, I believe I have a certain scroll that a certain individual has been hoping to see..." Instead, the sharp male opted for persuasion – intense, single-mindedly focused persuasion that held firmly onto the pretty medic.

And it was proving to be an effective method.

Having been stuck in the hospital since the completion of the mission, Sakura had only heard snippets regarding the retrieved scroll.

In an instant, she perked at the bait, initial awkwardness all forgotten as the powerful kunoichi came to light. Intelligent orbs gazed directly into his steady ones.

"...It's a decoy, isn't it?"

Silver orbs flashed in a heated manner; inwardly marveling at the sharpness of this enticing woman.

"I never said that." A hint of a grin was all that was necessary.

"You didn't have to." With a triumphant smirk of her own, Sakura mercilessly resumed with her hypothesis. "...Orochimaru?"

Unable to stop himself, the young Hyuuga drew closer; ultimately reaching out to caress silky rosette strands. How she pulled him like a moth to a flame.

"You'll find out at dinner."