Author's note: Hi there everyone, surprised to see I'm still alive? sheepish laughter I'm really sorry for the late update, but this chapter just refused to come to me. And even now, I'm not too happy with it. I decided to stop writing, rewriting and editing because I didn't want to make it much worse than it already is. So if you think this chapter is sub-par, well rest assured I do too. :(
Sidenote: This story is now considered to be AU due to the recent developments in Naruto. If you are up to date on the manga, you'll know what I'm talking about. If you are not, I won't spoil it for you. Have a good day!
Being the former teammate of Uzumaki Naruto and Uchiha Sasuke was never easy. People came to expect that if you were chosen to be placed in the company of two such extraordinary young men, then you must be as talented as them. No matter that one of them was the container for the Kyubi and the other was from the prodigious Uchiha clan, if you were on their team, you had to be on their level.
But for a kunoichi who had no special skills growing up, such expectations were hard to live with then. And even now, when she was the apprentice to the great Tsunade, such expectations were still hard to live with.
It didn't help that she was repeatedly getting her assed served to her by Hyuuga Neji, another shinobi extraordinaire. Neither did her dismissal from the hospital do any good to her self-esteem.
Lately, Sakura found herself wallowing in self-deprecating thoughts. All of her friends and comrades were out making themselves useful - carrying out missions for different countries, gathering information on dangerous criminal organizations or bringing up a new generation of shinobi. What was she doing? She was playing babysitter to a man who needed neither a training partner of her caliber nor a medic to treat his already healed body.
As much as Neji insisted he still required her constant presence, Sakura was no idiot. It felt good at first to train with him, for she felt that was she learning new things from him and that she was slowly improving. But soon, Sakura would grow moody when she remembered why he was really at her doorsteps every morning with a challenging smile on his face. She knew from their first sparring session the true nature of his offer, but she chose to continue the charade if only it made her feel a little better.
It distracted her a little from the fact that her growth as a ninja had of late been stunted. It felt as though she had reached a dead end.
When Sakura first trained under Tsunade, every small step of progress, every new jutsu learned, every new medical principle grasped gave her the greatest joy. All the blood, sweat and tears she had poured into each day of her training made even the smallest of achievement feel as though she had done something great. It was by far the greatest emotion she had ever experienced, and she came to cherish all of her little successes.
She remembered vividly the day she had healed her first patient, the day she had smashed her first boulder and the day she made chuunin.
But when she compared herself to Naruto and Sasuke, she felt that her growth counted for nothing.
The new Sannins?
She could barely hold back a bitter laugh when she had first heard the youngsters in the academy speak of it with awe and admiration in their voices. They didn't know that unlike her Shishou, she held no chance against her former teammates if they were to battle.
Both had grown leaps and bounds in their abilities, so much so that it scared her.
Even though she had not seen Sasuke since their ill-fated meeting at Orochimaru's lair, there were always reports from various sources that hinted at the phenomenal change in the Uchiha's abilities. There were rumors where he had taken on a hundred shinobi in a mock battle, and emerged with nary a scratch on him. And if he did indeed kill his brother, then Sakura thought that he had definitely grown much more than anyone could expect.
Naruto was well aware of Sasuke's incredible development and again, with sheer determination and perseverance, pushed himself to limits no one knew existed in him. Within two year, he had amassed an arsenal of new jutsu, some of which he could thank the Fourth for inspiration, while others he could proudly claim as creator and sole possessor.
All this made Sakura feel like she was looking at Naruto and Sasuke's backs again.
She was lost in their shadows.
The floor of Neji's room was cold. He felt the chill from the cement floor even through the tatami mats and his cotton pants. He was accustomed to the discomfort; it was a permanent fixture during his dawn time meditations. He had woken up much earlier today, however, and thus the floor was even colder than it usually was. But even then, the young man would bear it with no complains just as he had bore many things in his life.
Neji found that by learning to ignore the biting cold on his skin, and the soreness in his legs increased his capacity to focus his attention on whatever he desired. Because the nature of many of the Hyuuga's ninjutsu called for the greatest concentration, daily meditations became an important ritual for not only Neji, but for many of the house as well. It was due to his diligent meditation as a child, that he managed to pick up the Kaiten all on his own. His uncle had been impressed to learn that when he had first begun to take Neji under his wing. That level of determination and discipline was rare even among the Jounin of the village and here was an adolescent boy who would put them to shame. The knowledge that his nephew would surpass his own children made Hyuuga Hiashi lament regretfully that Neji's position in the family would never exceed that of a bodyguard for the main family. But he was also very proud that his brother had sired such a great heir. And thus, he took it upon himself to complete what Hizashi could not – to raise Neji into an honorable man and shinobi worthy of the Hyuuga name. Uncle and nephew would spend many a day sparring each other and though words were rarely exchanged, there was no denying the warmth and affection that began to grow.
But with the morning chill in his bones, that memory seemed like eons ago.
That warmth seemed to have left him since Hanabi-sama's death, replaced by the cold, angry stares of the Main branch.
Again, the young man bore it with silently, like a weed weathering the storm that patiently waits for the sun to shine once more. Only, Neji felt that the sun would no longer shine on him and like the weed, he moved and shook wherever the wind would blow.
Where was his focus now?
The muffled voice from the other side of the door made Neji grimace slightly.
'What now?' He thought, annoyed at the intrusion and the prospect of having to do something unexpected.
"Uhm, well, Hiashi-sama wants to see you. Right away."
Neji's eyes shot open and he unconsciously tensed. This was beyond having to do something unexpected and the thought of meeting his uncle made him uneasy.
Slowly getting to his feet, Neji flexed his legs to relieve his body of the aches one acquires after sitting motionlessly for an hour.
He reached out to gently slide open the wooden door, so that the scraping sound of wood against wood was barely heard over Haneshi's rapid breathing. The boy had an expression of worry and dread on his face and Neji knew that Haneshi was concerned for himself. It wasn't a secret to the clan that after Hanabi's death, Neji had lost favor in Hiashi's books. Their training sessions were abruptly halted since then and Hiashi no longer addressed his nephew unless there was a great need for it.
Looking up into the face of the man he idolized, Haneshi's pale eyes began to fill with tears and his lips began to quiver. As he ran to deliver Hiashi-sama's message, he had feared the very worse.
"Haneshi, stop crying." Neji spoke softly as he patted his cousin's head. "Tell Hiashi-sama I'll be there very soon."
"I'll be okay, Haneshi." Neji gave him a small smile and watched as the boy smiled shakily in response before he turned and ran to give their uncle his message. As he slid the door shut, he tried to convince himself that he would indeed be okay.
"What's going on? Why isn't she getting better? WHY?"
"N-Neji-san, please. I-"
"Why is she still not breathing!?"
"I-I don't know-"
"You're the medic! How can you not know? Fix her, Yayako! Fix her!"
"I'm trying! It's not working! I-I don't know why."
"Fix her! Make her breathe again!"
"Enough with the excuses! Just do something, anything!"
"Neji, she's trying her best! Yelling at her like that isn't going to help. Calm down!"
"You don't understand, Shikamaru, you don't-"
"I do. You've done all you can for her! You've protected her to the best of your abilities!"
"If I've protected her, this wouldn't have happened! You don't know, you don't!"
"Neji, calm down! This isn't like you!"
"Just fix her!"
"S-stop yelling and listen to me."
"You shouldn't talk. You should rest so you'll get-"
"I won't get better, Neji-niichan."
"No… No! You will, you will!"
"No, I won't. You know that."
"I- I wanted to change the Hyuuga, I wanted so bad to change it for you and your children. I wanted to make sure no one would be branded anymore. That no one w- would suffer as you did. Sis- sister and I used to talk about how we would do it."
"Hanabi-sama, please. You must rest!"
"I will rest, Neji-niichan. Just not where and how you want me to."
"No… Please, no."
"Tell sister she has to do it now. Give her your help, Neji-niichan. She's going to need it."
"A- and tell, tell father I, I said not to bla…blame y-…"
"No… NO! Hanabi-sama! Hanabi-sama!!"
Neji decided that one thing about having to bow to your relatives when speaking to them was that it gave one a different perspective. And it wasn't about having to look at the tatami mats so closely that you could tell when they had been cleaned or if a younger cousin had been careless with his food. But having to speak with your head on the floor made one think about many things differently.
That and the floor in the main hall was even colder than his room.
"Hiashi-sama, you called for me?"
It was a redundant question, nothing more than a polite and formal statement of the obvious. But it was necessary to demonstrate his respect and regard for a family elder.
Neji heard the slight sipping sound one makes when drinking tea that is still too hot and then a small clunk as the porcelain cup was set on the wooden table.
"Uzumaki Naruto's team has returned from their mission in the Sand."
The young man frowned at his uncle's words.
Naruto's team wasn't due to report back for another two weeks. If Tsunade-sama saw enough reason to hasten his return to Konoha then something very important must have occurred. Neji wondered what it could be but waited patiently for his uncle to continue. To interrupt an elder was one of the worse mistakes a younger Hyuuga could commit in the house and Neji wasn't about to dig a deeper hole for himself to sink into.
"There has been fresh news on the whereabouts of Orochimaru."
'I see. No wonder Tsunade-sama pulled Naruto back.' Neji thought, his brow furrowed. 'But what does this have to do with me? I'm scheduled to leave soon.'
"He was sighted near the Hidden Village of the Mist and Hokage-sama wishes to send two elite teams to pursue him."
Hiashi picked the cup up and took a long sip before he continued again.
Neji could swear that he heard an inaudible sigh escape Hiashi-sama's lips. But the fleeting sound was replaced by his uncle's stern voice, carefully schooled not to reveal any emotion.
"She requested that Hinata be placed on one of the teams."
'She wants Hinata-sama?'
Pursuing one of the legendary Sannin was no easy feat and the mission would most definitely be S-ranked, if only because there was no rank higher than that. Such was the dangers this mission would pose to the shinobi involved. It was no wonder that the Hokage wanted one of Konoha's best medics to serve on the teams. But to send the sole remaining heir of a clan as mighty as the Hyuuga, Neji wasn't surprised that Tsunade-sama felt the need to inform Hiashi of her decision.
But the gesture wasn't done out of courtesy or formality. The young man knew immediately that she was giving the Hyuuga patriarch an opportunity to refuse.
'Take it,' Neji pleaded silently. 'Hinata-sama would be placed in great danger if she were to go. Tsunade-sama has given you a way out, take it!'
But even as the thought of escape entered his head, the feeling of hope was short-lived for the jounin knew that his uncle would never take up on the Hokage's unspoken offer. He was too damned honorable. Hyuuga Hiashi's loyalties would always lay with his village first and his family second. He would send his daughter to the grave if Tsunade-sama commanded it.
Neji barely could give a damn why his uncle would tell him of all people this latest news, especially after the tragedy. He was more concerned about Hinata-sama's safety. If the Hokage was to make such a request of the Hyuuga, then she would be willing to make a concession as well. He suspected that Tsunade would allow Hiashi-sama to elect a member of the branch family to serve on one of the teams in order to protect Hinata-sama.
Yet on such a high risk mission, that individual would not only have to fulfill the expectations of the village but also the clan. Granted that the Branch family had many talented shinobi but Neji wasn't sure if any of them could bear such a burden. None of them had experience in a situation such as this where one had to balance the priorities of the mission and also the safety of another individual beyond the call of professional duty, no one but-
"I have requested that you be placed on Hinata's team."
Neji had to call on all reserves of his self-control in order not to bolt up and stare wide-eyed at his uncle's sudden declaration.
'What did he say?!'
Keeping his head firmly on the floor, he attempted to word a polite refusal.
He was oddly relieved that his voice did not waver when he spoke. Neji supposed that like his uncle, he had learned to keep all emotions from showing.
"Hiashi-sama, I'm grateful that you have requested for me. But I am due to leave Konoha for a mission in another month."
Neji wanted to get out of this, he needed to. The risks of the mission were too great and there were too many things that could go wrong. Even though Orochimaru was weakened by the loss of his right hand man and the destruction of his main hideout, the title of legendary Sannin reminded everyone why he should never be taken lightly. The last two encounters with Orochimaru ended in ways none of the Konoha shinobi had expected. Such was his talents in trickery and deceit.
There was no reason to think that this mission would go any different. And this was a risk he refused to take.
But Hiashi-sama would not relent.
"Neji, you will be on her team. I'll speak to Tsunade-sama regarding your mission."
Neji knew that tone of voice; he knew it very well. When Hiashi-sama used that tone, it meant that one should shut the hell up and do as he was told. And Neji always did as he was told. This feeling of desperation unsettled him but years of unforgiving training had come to override one's natural inclination to shrink back when faced with situations such as these. So he bit his tongue and swallowed the lump in his throat.
"And you will protect her."
The young man's head swam.
'Protect her? I couldn't even protect Hanabi-sama!' He thought desperately. 'How can he expect me to do this? What is he thinking??'
The soft rustling sounds indicated that Hiashi had gotten up from his place on the floor. Neji could hear his uncle's well placed footsteps grow fainter until it reached the end of the hall where the brush of skin against the mats stopped suddenly. The gentle sounds were a stark contrast to the rushing of blood in his ears. All he could think about was how he had failed Hanabi-sama, and how he would ultimately fail Hinata-sama as well.
And still, Neji remained on the floor, his fists clenched and his muscles tight with frustration. He was still kneeling not out of respect for his uncle but because the jounin was afraid that if he were to get up, he might throw up. For a moment, he felt disgusted at himself.
Disgusted at his inability to remain composed in front of his uncle, disgusted at failing to protect his cousin and disgusted that his uncle had no choice but to pick him as Hinata-sama's protector.
But Hiashi had not said all he wanted to. And Neji felt the hesistation in the air as the older man turned to address his nephew again.
"Neji," Hiashi said gently, "I do not blame you for Hanabi's death."
If his uncle's earlier declaration stunned Neji, this one electrified him.
This time, the young man could no longer keep his head down and he looked up to meet his uncle's gaze. His silver eyes were wide and brimming with unshed tears and he saw that his uncle's eyes mirrored his own.
"I do not blame you not because it was her last wish but because it wasn't your fault."
And Hiashi's words were like a whisper, blown away quickly like dry leaves in the wind. But like an eager child, Neji caught every single thing his uncle had said.
"Forgive an old man for not being able to forget that pain."
With that, the elder Hyuuga exited the main hall, his proud shoulders slumped in grief. Leaving his nephew to consider all that had transpired as the sun's golden rays began to filter through the curtained windows.
Ino's annoyed voice brought Sakura's wandering thoughts crashing back down.
"Hmm…? What is it, Ino?"
The medic's dreamy reply made a vein in Ino's head throb.
"I just got back from a death-defying mission and you look like you just came back from a funeral."
Sakura had to laugh at her best friend's exaggeration. She would hardly call escorting a daimyo with an inflated sense of self a death-defying mission. However, spending a week with a balding, rotund old man who had a reputation of being strangely incapable of keeping his hands to himself would seem like dying to Ino. This mission had paled in comparison to her previous one, where she acted as liaison to the Hidden Village of the Sand and where many of their shinobi consisted of young men her age.
"I'm sorry, Ino, I'm just a little preoccupied."
The young woman gave an apologetic bow of the head and smiled weakly at her friend. But anyone who knew her would agree that Yamanaka Ino was a shrewd woman who never missed a thing. That and growing up with someone means you come to know the person like the back of your own hand.
"Well, just stop feeling sorry for yourself." Ino replied firmly.
"What are you-"
Sakura's brow creased in confusion.
"I know that face, Sakura. You're going to bring Sasuke-kun back and you're going to help Naruto beat the Akatsuki. So stop feeling sorry for yourself, y'hear?"
Sakura opened her mouth to speak that but the blonde woman cut her off. Ino wasn't about to listen to her best friend make excuses and interrupted Sakura before she could attempt a pathetic explanation for her morose behavior.
"And if you can off an Akatsuki member, you can damn well kick Hyuuga Neji's ass. Y'hear?"
A look of astonishment crossed Sakura's face but it was quickly replaced with a small smile of satisfaction. An image of Neji lying defeated on the ground with her thick heeled boot on his chest came to mind and strangely enough, it made her feel much better than she had in a long while.
"Yes, I hear."
After his conversation with his uncle, Neji had remained on his knees until the women came to chase him away. They had needed to prepare breakfast for the family and found that having a grown man kneeling on the mats in the middle of the hall made their task awkward.
Neji returned to his room, clutching the wall for support, his head still swimming and spinning with shock.
He had ignored Haneshi's exclamations of delight as well as relief and dropped heavily on his futon, still dumbstruck by his uncle's words.
'I need to clear my head.' He thought, irritated at his current lack of control over his wayward emotions.
Glancing over at the clock on his dresser, he saw that it was now already eight in the morning. It would be a while more before Sakura would be awake.
'Damned if I care about disrupting her sleep.'
As the young man stalked out of the Hyuuga compound, pulling on his outer robe as he broke into a brisk walk, the only thing in his head was a flurry of pink.
And it didn't bother him in the slightest that by thinking of her, his thoughts had found their focus again.
Endnote: When I first had the idea for this story, I didn't want it to be a "Sakura and Neji suddenly fall in love!" kind of fic. I wanted to take time to develop their individual characters and their relationship since it is completely nonexistent in the manga. Thus, this chapter has limited SakuxNeji interaction as I wanted to focus on their feelings and problems. I had great ideas but it all ended up 'blah'. Therefore, I ask for your constructive advice on how to improve the story. Please tell me what you think:)
P.S. Someone commented that my flashbacks were annoying, I hope it doesn't annoy you. I'll try to cut back on them!
P.P.S. I don't know if a guy can manage a hard-on while suffering from blood loss, but remember it's all in the mind! XD