A Terrible Splendor
Author's Note: Wow, I really am obsessed with Naruto. And Sakura. And Sakura pairings. Argh. Anyways, I was so hyped by the enormous fanbase for my last fic, The Art of Deception, I decided (big surprise) to make a new fic. The pairing on this one is odd, yes, but extremely lovable. I'm doing ShikaSaku, just because it's totally underwritten and totally fun to read and write. Please don't discriminate because of the pairing and read it anyway, because I'd really like to see how many people end up liking it. Yes, Neji is in this story, but only as a brother figure, and only because he's just so cool I couldn't resist putting him in.
Disclaimer: I wish I owned Naruto. I don't. If I did, Neji, Gaara, or Shikamaru and Sakura would be hooking up, and Sasuke wouldn't be such a jackass. 'Nuff said.
Act I: Commencement
Team Seven's leader's only visible gray eye crinkled in delight, and his mask folded slightly at the sides, a sign that he was smiling. A gloved hand swept through his usual shock of silvery hair as the other dug into his pocket. "It's good to see you all again," he said cheerfully, his eye opening to survey the three people in front of him.
Uzumaki Naruto gave his former teacher his trademark fox grin. "Kaka-sensei, you old scarecrow! We haven't seen you in months!" The Kyuubi-holding blonde's spiky hair now had a gold tint to it, and his cerulean eyes were clearer, a little less wide. He had a strong jaw, giving him a handsome profile, and the whisker markings on his cheeks no longer looked out of place. All the training he'd done with his Ero-Sennin had given him a more toned physique and a healthy tan, along with a sprinkling of freckles across his nose that his girlfriend, Hinata, absolutely loved. Yes, this nineteen-year-old Naruto was certainly different physically than his fifteen-year-old self, but his personality was the same; he still loved fun, and regularly played pranks on his fellow teammates.
One of said teammates actually managed a small smile. "Yeah, where were you?" Uchiha Sasuke's arms were folded in their regular position, and he pretty much looked the same as ever. His hair was longer, though still spiked in the back, and his eyes were a little brighter since he'd returned to Konoha in a half-dead triumph from escaping Orochimaru's tight grasp, Itachi's head dangling from his belt. He'd received a full pardon from the Godaime Hokage, Tsunade, and a village-arrest for six months was his only punishment. Surprisingly, his personality had actually lifted after his escapades with Orochimaru, and he was now like a brother to Naruto and the only girl on the team.
The girl in question ran to her ex-sensei and gave him a huge hug. Kakashi thought he heard a rib crack. "Kakashi-sensei!" Kakashi smiled gently and stroked her short pink hair. She pulled back, and he nearly keeled over. Since when did Sakura look like that? He'd have to start fighting off the boys with more than kunai now. She was still rather petite-- somewhere around 5'5" and 125 pounds, Haruno Sakura was still very fit, with muscles down her arms and legs. She had also developed curves in the past couple of years. Also, no longer was she the self-pitying girl she had been at age twelve-- Sakura was determined and strong. She had surpassed the Hokage in medical skill and chakra control, and had also been trained by various other people; Rock Lee helped her with taijutsu, TenTen with her weapon skill (which was now formidable), and Hyuuga Neji with her ninjutsu. To put not too fine a point on it, you didn't want to get on her bad side anymore... well, not like you did before, either.
All three of them were ANBU jounin, and all three made up Team Seven. Sai had left once Sasuke came back, promising to come again after finding emotions, and though he was sorely missed (even by Sakura), everyone was looking forward to his return.
Kakashi coughed. "Sakura... can't breathe..." Her monstrous strength was scaring him.
Sakura blinked, then released the man with a sheepish smile. "Gomen, Kaka-sensei."
He let out another cough and waved his hand in an 'it's okay' movement. "And to answer your question, Sasuke, I was on a mission. Top secret." He sat on the grass, stretching his legs out.
"A mission? Are you injured?" Sakura frowned, readying her medic's hands.
"No, no, there wasn't any danger," Kakashi answered dismissively, gesturing towards the rest of them to sit. They automatically sat, Naruto with his eyebrow raised.
"What was it?" he asked, looking confused.
Sasuke rolled his eyes. "He said it was top secret, dobe. He's not going to tell us."
"Shut up, teme!"
"Nar-" Kakashi tried to stop the fight, but they kept on.
Sakura looked at Kakashi, rolling her eyes with a sigh and cracking her knuckles. Kakashi wisely scooted out of the way.
Boom. Sakura looked at them over the smoking crater in the ground, seafoam eyes narrowed pointedly. "Shut up."
"Hai, Sakura," they both mumbled, and Kakashi chuckled. Who had control over Team Seven, after all?
Naruto spoke first, glancing nervously in Sakura's direction. "Kaka-sensei, why'd you call us over here, anyway? What's up?"
Kakashi's face suddenly turned serious. "Not for fun and games, actually," he said gravely, looking at them. "Although it's great to see you guys again, we're going to have to get down to business right now. Tsunade-sama is briefing the other ANBU, but she let me break it to you guys so we could all talk about it together."
Sasuke looked at him intently. "What is it?"
Kakashi took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, through his teeth. "There have been outbreaks of an unexplainable disease on the borders of the Fire Country and Sound, and it's never been seen before. It's an unknown disease, and the symptoms don't even match up."
"What are the symptoms?" Sakura asked, her medic's analytical mind springing into action.
"Fever, vomiting, and..."
Kakashi frowned. "It acts like the worst kind of genjutsu, and it's nearly impossible to break out of. It makes to relive the most horrible things in your past, and then makes up the most horrible things you could think of in your future and shows them to you. It's like Chinese Water Torture; it slowly makes you go insane, thinking that you're seeing what will happen to you or your loved ones in the future."
Sakura nodded. "Okay. Keep going."
Kakashi looked uneasily towards Sasuke. "Also... a curse seal appears on their neck."
Sasuke stiffened noticeably, and Sakura put a hand on his shoulder. It was a token of their growing brother-sister relationship that he didn't shrug it off. "Hai?"
The silver-haired jounin nodded. "Except... the curse seal doesn't feed off of chakra. It does, in a way, I guess, but not directly. Nobody knows exactly what it takes its energy off of, but it totally wastes the sick person. It kills them in three days."
Naruto's mouth was open, and his eyes looked horrified. "Where did it come from?"
Kakashi frowned. "Nobody really knows, which is why we're sending a team out there. It spreads quickly, so we have to find out where it comes from and destroy it. Because of the curse seal, though, we're leaning towards Orochimaru. If he somehow made up this illness, he could infect the entire country and many more, and then flaunt the cure in our faces so we surrender to him. That just increases our need to hurry."
"Who's the team?" Sasuke asked curiously, fingering a blade of green grass.
Kakashi shrugged. "Tsunade-sama will decide that. She has to take the most skilled for this particular mission... which means that there's absolutely no way of knowing who she'll choose. This mission is S-class, definitely, so it'll require ANBU skill or something close to it, and it needs all sorts of specialists."
Silence fell on the group as Sakura looked at the trees. What a horrible thing... a disease that could kill someone in something as little as three days? What a weapon. Kakashi was right... this was bad. The faster they got a team out there, the better. "Kakashi-sensei."
"You said you wanted to tell us. Why? We could have just gone to the briefing with the others." She looked at him sharply. "And don't say it's just because you wanted to see us. You can see us plenty without saying all of this. You're hiding something from us."
The two other teens in the group turned towards Kakashi with their own respective glares in realization. "That's right," Naruto agreed.
Kakashi shifted uncomfortably. Damn it, why'd she have to be so smart? I was hoping I could avoid this. "Orochimaru sent us a message earlier about the disease."
Naruto's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "So, it isn't just speculation that Orochimaru was causing this-- it's fact. Why lie to us?"
"The message contained something else." He looked away determinedly.
Sasuke and Sakura exchanged glances. "What did he say?" Sasuke asked, fists clenched.
"He didn't say anything-- he asked for something. Someone, actually."
The three felt a gnawing feeling of anxiousness in their stomachs.
"He said he'd heard about the Godaime's new apprentice."
Sakura's eyes widened.
"He remembers her as a weak little girl who could hardly protect her friends."
Naruto's eyes narrowed.
"Or her parents."
Sasuke looked confused and angry at the same time, where Sakura now looked on the verge of tears. "M-my parents were killed in the last Sound raid," she told Sasuke in a wobbling whisper. He closed his eyes briefly. How could he not have known?
"He said he wants to see how she's changed. He says she... she interests him." Kakashi looked at Sakura. "I'm sorry, Sakura-- he asked for you to be on the ANBU team."
Sakura's face paled around five shades, and Naruto put an arm around her. "No way is that sick bastard going to take our Sakura-chan," he said through gritted teeth. "He took Sasuke once before-- I'm not going to have Team Seven broken anymore. I won't allow it."
Sasuke put a hand on Sakura's and squeezed it gently. "Neither will I."
Kakashi ran a hand through his hair. "Neither would I, if we had a chance. But this could be our only lead to getting to Orochimaru... and... well, honestly, it's Sakura's descision. Hers and the Godaime's."
"Oi, Forehead!" Ino's usually boisterous voice sounded slightly weary as she trudged over the hill to get to them. "I guess you heard the news?"
Sakura nodded numbly.
Ino said nothing for a moment, but then burst into tears, pushing the boys away and launching at her friend with a hug. "S-Sakura, please refuse," she hiccuped as the pink-haired girl calmly stroked her hair. "I-I don't w-want anything to h-happen to y-y-you!"
Sakura looked almost serene, though her face was white. "Ino..."
The chuunin blonde drew back, sniffing. "Hokage-sama wants to see you."
Sakura nodded, looking towards the others. "Kaka-sensei... it was great to see you."
Her old instructor bowed his head. "We'll meet back here at nine. Can you make your descision by then?"
Sakura nodded almost dazedly. "Hai. I can." She smiled slightly at their worried faces. "Don't worry. I'll see you all at nine. Ino-pig?" She helped the girl up and they started walking towards the tall Hokage's Tower, leaving the three male members of Team Seven sitting on the grass.
Naruto looked at them, his eyes the picture of concern. "Sakura-chan..."
"She's stronger now, Naruto," Kakashi pointed out. "You of all people should realize that, considering how many times she's kicked your ass."
Sasuke managed a smirk. "True. But still. This is Orochimaru."
Kakashi looked at the sky, watching the clouds pass by slowly. "Hai. It is."
"Tsunade-shishou?" Sakura knocked lightly on the door. The voices continued, and she sighed irritably, knocking louder. "Tsunade-shishou!"
The voices stopped suddenly, and the door opened. Sakura's jade eyes met the pearly white ones of Hyuuga Neji, and she nodded her head. "Arigato, Neji-san."
"Sakura-san." He nodded as well, opening the door wider so she could pass by.
Ever the gentleman, Sakura thought with a small smile, feeling guiltilythat it was hardly warranted in the situation she was currently in. The other four occupants in the room were Nara Shikamaru, who gave her a lazy wave; Jiraiya, who gave her a wink and smile; Shizune, who looked close to tears, went all-out with a tight hug; and Tsunade herself, who smiled sadly and motioned for her apprentice to sit.
Sakura sat between Shikamaru and Neji, tugging nervously on a strand of rosy-pink hair. "Tsunade-shishou. I hear that Orochimaru asked for me specifically."
Tsunade bowed her head in a 'yes'. "I'm afraid so, Sakura. This could be the only way to catch Orochimaru in the act, the only chance to actually capture him and put him away. But I understand if you don't want to go, if it might be too dangerous."
"No, no, really, it would be okay. We'd send a team out, anyway, probably with Shizune as our medic nin. It would be fine. You can stay."
"Shishou, I really-" What was with people interrupting other people today?
"Orochimaru is dangerous, Sakura, and you've only seen him a couple times, let alone fought him. It's all for the best, really, and none of you want to comply to a homicidal maniac's demands anyway. You-"
"SHISHOU!" For the second time that day, a boom caused by Sakura's fist rocked the ground. Shikamaru was jolted out of his reverie, and Neji looked slightly schocked. Tsunade blinked a couple of times, and Ton-ton jumped out of Shizune's arms, squealing in fright. Jiraiya's mouth fell open, much like Naruto's had earlier."Damn it, Tsunade-shishou, I accept!"
Tsunade's hands fell limply onto the desk. "I... wh... pardon?"
"I accept the mission," Sakura repeated, standing from her chair. "I'm more than capable."
"I know, Sakura, but..."
"Shishou, I'm not a little girl anymore. I'm ANBU." Sakura put her hands on the desk so she was directly facing her teacher. "I love you for trying to protect me, but I'm going to have to face him sooner or later if he wants to see me, and it's better if I go directly than risking more lives just by not sending me." She held up a hand, for Shizune was showing every sign of interrupting. "Kakashi-sensei told me about this. It's a disease. I'm a medic nin. The best medic nin we have.You told me so yourself. One of the stages of this disease is genjutsu, right? That's my specialty. My strong point."
Tsunade looked at the girl with a motherly compassion. "No, Sakura, I won't let you. It's too dangerous, and-" Jiraiya cleared his throat, and Tsunade turned on him with an almost inhuman growl. "Yes?"
"I think it's a good idea to let her go," he said simply. "I think, in her words, that she's 'more than capable'. She's the best we have in the fields themission needs. Sakura sent the old pervert a thankful smile, and he returned it with a nod.
Tsunade looked lost for a moment. Were those tears collecting at the corners of her eyes? "Nara-- Hyuuga! Get out of here and come back in when I yell for you."
The two jumped as their names were addressed, and filed out of the room, closing the door softly behind them with a click.
Tsunade got out from behind the desk and hugged her apprentice, her massive breasts pressed against her student's chest. "Ohh, Sakura, Sakura... are you sure you want to?"
Sakura, not used to this open display of affection, hugged her teacher back. "Shishou, I'm positive. I can do this. I need to do this."
Tsunade released Sakura and went back behind the desk, head down. When she looked back up, all traces of tears were gone. She was Hokage again. "Nara, Hyuuga, get your asses in here!" she shouted. The two shinobi walked back in and sat back down, looking slightly disconcerted.
"Shishou, can we have a more detailed explanation of the disease? Kaka-sensei was kind of vague." Sakura sat back in her regular spot, respecting her teacher's need to vent.
Tsunade nodded. "Shizune?"
Her assistant distributed glossy, blown-up photos. "These are photographs of a victim of the disease."
Sakura frowned. They looked like they were in terrible agony. The man's muscles were tensed and his fists were clenched. The curse seal on his neck was spread all over his body, and his eyes were open, though glazed over. The photo was blurred at his arms and legs, which meant that he had been fidgeting and shivering violently when it was taken. "Are there any particular stages?" Sakura asked, running a finger down the man's face in quiet, horrified sympathy.
"Each of the three days reveals a new, more horrible symptom. On the first day, the curse seal appears andstarts spreading and the victim gets a small fever. On the second day, the seal grows more, and the fever rises to around one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. The vomiting starts, as does the shuddering. The genjutsu starts. On the third day, the fever reaches up to one hundred seven degrees. The vomiting stops, but the genjutsu reaches its peak, and the victim screams violently for most of the day. Finally, the disease ends in inevitable death, always at sunset. It has to be some sort of seal on it to keep it from ending after or before that, but we haven't found anything yet. We'll have a team on it while you three are on the field."
Sakura grimaced as Neji asked his question. "Where exactly will we go?"
"The western corner of the border between Sound and Fire. That's where most of the victims are, and where Orochimaru will probably be around. The town is closed down and in quarantine, but you might be able to find out something from the people that are still standing."
Shikamaru frowned. "How troublesome. Are we in danger of contracting this disease?"
Tsunade bit her lip and tapped her red-painted fingernails on the desk, making a nervous rhythm. "Hai. Very much so, especially because we don't know what Orochimaru does to cause it. This is why the mission is so dangerous, and why we need a skilled medic nin. But you three... you're the best I have, the best that'll go."
The three shinobi nodded in mutual agreement; whatever would happen, they did it on their own free will. They volunteered. They had a choice.
My choice. I chose to do this, Sakura thought with determination, subconsciously clenching her fists. "When do we leave?"
"Tomorrow," Tsunade answered, regret evident in her voice. "Tomorrow. You leave tomorrow at five AM sharp so you can get there early. I'll give you a maximum of one week there. At the end of seven days, you come home immediately, understand?" She gazed at them gravely, hands folded.
They nodded in understanding, and Tsunade unfolded her hands, raking them through her hair with a sad sigh. "Dismissed. Gomen nasai to all of you."
The three ninja exited the room, walking down the long staircase of the Hokage's offices in silence. Only when they reached ground level did Shikamaru start speaking. "Well, as troublesome as it is, I'll see you two at five tomorrow. I have to go pack. Troublesome mission."
Sakura shook her head with a smile. "Sayonara, Shikamaru-san."
He smiled slightly at her. "Sayonara."
Neji nodded to him, and the two continued walking. Sakura fidgeted anxiously with her hands, playing with her slim fingers. "Neji-san?"
What was that, the answer of the generation? She sighed. "Are you nervous?"
He was extremely quiet for a moment, and Sakura was afraid she'd offended him. Opening her mouth to apologize, she was shocked into silence when he put up a hand to stop her. "Hai. I am. I think I'd be a fool not to be."
Sakura smiled in relief. "The almighty Hyuuga Neji is scared? That's a relief. Now I know I'm not alone."
The tall, sepia-haired man put a hand on her shoulder like a brother. "Don't worry, you're not. I could tell for a fact that Nara's chakra spiked dramatically when he saw those pictures."
Sakura shuddered. "So did mine. I could feel it. But don't you feel horrible for those poor victims?"
Neji nodded as they neared the Hyuuga estate. "I do. But that's not the point. We're going there to help them, Sakura, not pity them."
Sakura's lips rolled in in a picture of anxiety. "I know, I know. But it makes you think, doesn't it? Like... what if that was me? Or Naruto? Or even Lee or Ino or Tenten or Hinata? Can you imagine what it would be like to watch them in the state they'd be in?"
Neji frowned and put his hand on the gate.
"With any luck, we won't have to."
Sakura finished off the last of her sashimi and walked towards Team Seven's meeting place, contemplating their reactions to her descision. Oh, well... it didn't matter. This was her choice. She was their greatest hope, after all, both for treating and curing the disease and luring Orochimaru out of his hiding place so he could be captured and killed. What a mission that would be! Killing Orochimaru, the person that had caused all this suffering for generations...
"Sakura-chan!" Before she could think anymore, a blonde, orange, and black blur nearly tackled her in a hug. "What did you say? What's up?"
Sakura ruffled Naruto's hair, looking up at the other two. Kakashi sat, his orange book sticking out of his pocket instead of in his hands, and Sasuke sat in his usually brooding position, his fingers interlaced and in front of his mouth, his elbows resting on the knees of his crossed legs. "Sakura?" Kakashi prompted.
She sat down across from Sasuke. "I said yes."
Suddenly, she was enveloped in another hug, though this time it was by all three men of Team Seven. Surrounded by two 'brothers' and a 'father', she let the tears come. She cried into Sasuke's shoulder as he held her, Naruto's arms tightened around her waist, and Kakashi stroked her hair. "I... it was the right thing to do," she sniffed, tears running down her face and onto Sasuke's shirt. "They n-- they need me. My medic skills, my genjutsu. They need me for Orochimaru. It was the right thing to do, right? Right?" Reassurance. She needed reassurance that yes, it had been the right choice. Yes, it had been the right thing to do.
"Damn, Sakura," Naruto said, his voice somehow choked. "You're wonderful. I don't think I could have been brave enough to take that on."
Sasuke sighed into her hair, watching the pink locks fly back. "Don't worry, Sakura. You did the right thing."
"We're proud of you," Kakashi murmured. "Very proud."
She pulled back slowly, sniffling. Naruto wiped away her tears with his thumb. "Aaah, Sakura-chan... you're like a sister to us. We're happy for you no matter what, and I know for a fact that you'll do a fantastic job with this mission."
Sakura smiled wearily. "Arigato, Naruto. I love you guys."
Kakashi's eye crinkled, but in a sort of halfhearted way. "Right back at you, Sakura. You'd better go now... get some rest before you leave."
Sakura nodded, wiping away the last of the tears. "R-right. I will. Wish me luck."
"Every ramen bowl I get," Naruto promised with a small smile.
"That's a lot of luck, then," Sakura said, laughing slightly. She walked away slowly, as if trying to memorize the earth she stepped on with her feet.
"Kakashi-sensei," Sasuke said lowly, "what if she... she doesn't..."
Kakashi looked at the sky for the second time that day, gazing at the stars and wishing that his only female student... the student that he had shamefully neglected in her younger years... could be spared.
"It was her choice."