AN: Hello loyal readers, and new ones! Thanks for all the support! I´m on winter break here in Japan now, so I took some time to write. Don´t worry, I haven´t given up on this story.
One place mentioned in this chapter is Fushimi Inari Shrine, please, google it. It is an amazing place and that´s why I decided to use it in this fanfiction.
Akai faces the wall as she gets dressed. Her pale, porcelain white skin covered with a couple of bruises and a big scar over the stomach is soon covered by her forest green ninja outfit. The scars from the war have not fully healed yet. She ties her headband firmly over her eyes. She won´t fight for Grass in this exam, but she will wear the Grass symbol anyway. She recently earned her village´s respect, and can finally wear it with confidence and feel the belonging the symbol represents.
The noise from downstairs tells her that the others have started to wake up as well. The sound is almost unnoticeable for the untrained ear, but Akai picks it up easily. She sighs a bit to herself, her nerves made her wave up a lot earlier than planned. Luckily, today is only a ceremony and not an actual test.
Akai does her best not to think about the second reason why she didn´t sleep that well. However, she fails almost immediately. Akai's cheeks turn a bit red. She is so relieved that Neji still feels the same way about her as he did when they parted in Grass, even though they hadn´t seen each other for a year. Yesterday was amazing. Akai sighs for a second time. A dreamy sigh.
It´s time to get real. Akai is taking another possible step towards fulfilling her ninja dream, and she can´t risk getting out of balance before the exam even starts. She pushes the Hyuuga out of her mind with a shake of her head.
When she finished eating the morning snack Kumori brought her, Akai grabs her staff and descends to the first floor to be greeted by her fellow Grass comrades. Kanaye gives her a gentle smile, and Akai can´t help but feel relaxed in his presence. He is a lot calmer than her, after all, and even though she couldn´t see his smile, she could feel it and she returns the gesture.
Akai and Kanaye watches how the other Grass ninja prepares themselves, and they both calm down when they realize that they two of them probably has most experience among the people here. Even their leader seems a bit out of it this morning. Grass is still not a strong shinobi nation but traveling to other countries to take the exams is a good step in the right direction.
T.J is in charge, and he makes sure everyone is present and prepared. The jounin has a bit of a frown on his face as he talks with Momo, who seems to be the most nervous member of team Grass about the exam. Akai knows that Momo is a great medic, but she has no idea of how strong the kunoichi is when it comes to battle. Akai feels the need to help her out, Momo is a friend of her mother after all. Yukiko however, seems to be irritated by the lack of confidence in the other girl. Tsubasa, who sometimes seems to be Yukiko´s male counterpart when it comes to being distant and cold, eyes her without a word. Kanaye shrugs, he seems to be a bit uncomfortable with the fact that there are at least two shinobi that will be hard to get along with. Hikaru and Ginga are eagerly and loudly discussing the exam, wondering what kind of tasks they will go through and how difficult it will be. Tsubasa sighs, probably thinking that they are childish and that they shouldn´t have come in the first place. The oldest member, Hanatarou, and the youngest member, Ken, seem to have warmed up to each other. The fourteen-year-old seems to have sought the older man´s company yesterday night for reasons unknown. Po, already looking exhausted due to the problem with his papers, is sitting down silently. T.J moves to the door.
"It´s time to go." He informs them.
Akai looks for Kumori one last time before she leaves. It seems as if the young journalist already left.
In the grand meeting hall, there is a small group of people wearing a forest green headband. Compared to the other ninja countries, they are the smallest group there. The largest groups are from Konoha and Suna, but there are also warriors from land of water, and land of lightning and land of earth. It´s very noisy. A frown covers Akai´s face. This is a reunion of friends across nations, and it´s bound to get loud.
"Your friends are here." Kanaye mentions in a quiet voice, referring to the Konoha and some Suna ninja that came to their aid during the war in Grass.
"Mm?" Akai turns to him with a smile. "Our friends, you mean?" She chuckles.
Kanaye shrugs. It seems as if he´s a bit unsure if he should call the Konoha ninja his friends just yet. Akai nudges him playfully with her elbow. Kanaye seems a bit tense and it worries her a bit. He´s usually cool, or, hides his emotions well from her but today is different. Is he staring at Ino again? Akai ponders. Her smile turns gentler. She has learned that Kanaye sometimes have a hard time making friends and letting people to get close even though he wants to reach out to them.
Everyone turns quiet as Tsunade, the Hogakge, walks forward. She stares out over the room, seemingly letting her eyes wander over everyone there, before she speaks.
"I´d wish to welcome everyone, or brothers and sisters, to Konoha for the long awaited Jounin Exam. I recognize some from the exam in Suna, I wish you all better luck this time." Tsunade smiles in a bitter way and you can´t tell if she honestly wishes them good luck or if she is imagining them failing again.
"As the Chuunin exam, this exam will also have three different challenges. It shouldn´t be unfamiliar to you. But unlike other exams, you will be alone from the moment you leave this ceremony. Once you step out those doors, there will be no Ninja nations, there will be no teams or friends: you are all rivals."
The room is deadly silent. It seems that a lot of people weren´t ready to hear that, people who are afraid of being on their own. Akai can hear how T.J tries to calm a panicky Momo down. Will she be alright? The atmosphere is dreadful. The grass kunoichi can´t help but tremble a little. She sighs, trying to collect herself.
"Will you be able to survive on your own?" Tsunade asks everyone, before she smiles almost teasingly again, and sits down.
They are trying to scare all of the ninja here. Akai won´t fall for it. Being alone is her forte after all and a jounin must be able to handle things alone, without fail.
One of the men by her side, known as Hatake Kakashi takes over. "You can still cancel your registration if you think this test is nothing for you , if you want to wait until next exam, please talk with one of us before leaving." He says as he points to Gai. "The first test is scheduled for tomorrow morning. Good luck."
It´s clear that the team from Grass isn´t as tight as the others, because the moment the meeting is over everyone goes their separate ways either to rest or to prepare for tomorrow. Tsubasa is the last to leave, and he doesn´t even offer a "see you later." Kanaye tells Akai he wants to rest before he leaves as well and that leaves her alone in the middle of Konoha. Just when Akai decides she should go home as well, someone touches her shoulder. Kumori laughs at Akai´s surprised face.
"Yo." The girl greets her.
"Kumori." Akai grins.
"Was it just I, or did Hokage-sama try to scare you guys away before the exam even started?" She chuckles.
"I think, that was her intention." Akai agrees.
"You free? Why won´t we grab a bite together?"
"I can´t see why not."
Kumori´s company makes Akai forget her nerves, as the two girls keep on joking around. Their relationship haven´t changed at all. They sit down at a table at a small restaurant they have been to before, and they dig in. The smell of pork is in the air and the employees are from time to time yelling "welcome!" when new customers arrive. Kumori pulls forth a small notebook and starts writing a bit. Akai guesses it´s the notes from the entrance ceremony before. Kumori is really working hard.
"Don´t forget to eat." Akai tells her. "I´ll eat everything."
Kumori laughs as she sneakily snatches a piece of meat from Akai´s chopsticks. It´s rude, but Akai just grins.
"Aren´t you going to prepare for the exams?"
"No, I don´t think I can do anything about it the day before, really." Akai shrugs.
"As collected as ever."
"That must be a joke…" Akai roll her eyes, even though they are hidden beneath her headband."A bad one.."
She is worried, but she rather not think about it. A sigh leaves her dry lips. A lot is at stake. Akai takes a big sip of her drink to swallow her anxiety.
"Ah sorry." Kumori apologizes. "Here, take more meat."
Akai nods, and eats more. They order deserts too, and Akai laughs when she thinks that "desserts" backwards is "stressed". Maybe, she is a bit stressed out about all of this after all, she thinks as she eats another spoon of ice cream.
"It´s your fault if I gain weight!"
"Eh, trust me… you will run all of this off tomorrow. Eat!"
After waving good bye to Kumori, who said she had to attend some kind of meeting, Akai wanted some time to herself so she strolls down the streets of Konoha while bathing in the sunlight of the setting sun. It feels night on her skin. Small clouds of warm air leave her mouth as she exhales in the slightly chilly air.
"Ah-aaaa!" She sighs to herself. "Tomorrow is a big day."
And here I am, talking to myself. Akai smiles to herself.
"And you are here, alone, talking to yourself." A voice from behind suddenly says. "Shouldn't you be preparing?"
Akai tenses before she relaxes again, a smile growing on her pale lips. She didn´t expect to run into him today, but happiness spread through her body as a thought enters her mind: he might have come looking for her. Thoughtful, Neji, did you wait until Kumori left?
"Hmmm?" Akai grins.
The Hyuuga stands there, dark long hair framing his pale face, and white knowing eyes shining in the darkness. Although Akai can´t see how handsome he is in that moment, her whole being turns warmer at the thought of being there with him.
Another sigh leaves her lips as she remembers what he said. She might need to prepare. She´s getting a bit wary. Neji looks at her silently for a while.
"Come." He breaks the silence.
Akai follows him wordlessly. That´s how much she has come to trust him.
She doesn't know where he takes her, she has never walked this path before, so she uses her staff to see the road in front of her. Metallic thuds can be heard as she from time to time hits the ground with her weapon. The landscape gets clearer to Akai. They are walking away from the village, towards the woods, and the road is getting bumpier. Akai flinches as she suddenly feel him touch her hand, a chuckle leaves her lips as she takes his hand in hers. She didn´t expect him to want to hold her hand. Neji is smiling gently but he doesn´t look at her, almost as if he is a tiny bit shy.
Neji takes her further away from the village and into the woods. The sound of singing birds can be heard above, as well as the sound of a current somewhere.
She wonders why he took her here. The landscape is beautiful, even she can tell, but it seems to be special to him for some reason. She loves to get to know more and more about him, even simple things like this. It´s like he is showing her a new side of himself. She wonders, just how much of himself had he been hiding from everyone until now?
"What is this place?"
"I used to come here when I was younger." He doesn´t say it, but Akai understands. "When I needed to be alone."
He came here when the life at the Hyuuga compound got too harsh, when he needed to be himself. This place is full of memories. It´s much like the spot under the sakura tree, but still very different. It´s more isolated and hidden from the world, a place someone who don´t know the way will never find. It´s his spot.
"I like it here." Akai tells him. "It´s very peaceful, still, full of memories and emotions."
He makes a murmuring sound as an answer and she takes it as a positive sign. He sits down and pulls her down with him. Neji keeps on opening up to Akai, and she can´t help but feel happy about it. She entangles her fingers with his, and holds his hand in her lap. His fingers are cold so she tries to use her body heat to warm them: slowly caressing his fingers. His hands are big and firm: formed from years of training and fighting. She likes the feeling of touching his hands.
"Are you ready for tomorrow?" He asks her.
Akai nods her head hesitantly. "As ready as I can get. I´m excited and scared at the same time." Akai tells him while smiling weakly.
Neji doesn´t say anything, but his mere presence is comforting for the albino. He has been through it and she knows he´d stop her if he thought she couldn´t do it. Akai sighs to herself. The butterflies in her stomach won´t stop bothering her. She feels egoistic and needy, so she leans against him silently. Her head on his shoulder. After a short moment, she can feel how he leans onto her as well, his dark hair tickling her cheek. She blushes, and she prays to the gods above that he won´t look at her right now. She must be red as a tomato.
"Stay focused, and stay out of unnecessary trouble." He tells her, his breath in her hair.
Even though he doesn´t show it, Akai knows he is worried about her. It makes her fuzzy and warm inside. She wish that they could spend more time together, but she is aware that she won´t have a lot of time from tomorrow onward. The pout on her face makes her look younger. Akai turns serious as her thoughts wander to tomorrow. She´s not afraid of doing it by herself. She has been on her own a lot through her childhood. What she is afraid of is failing. Either because she´s not good enough, because of her injury or because of her lacking eye sight.
What would she do if she failed? There is no plan B.
Akai bites her lower lip. No, even if she fails she will come back up again and try until she makes it. Determination and pure stubbornness will make her reach her dream. Neji regards the girl´s face in silence as he sees how she makes several expressions as she thinks. His white orbs are serious, especially when he understands that she is thinking about failure. He has become good at reading her during the time he has known her, but it also seems as if she is showing him more of her inner thoughts lately.
"When the exams are over…" He starts slowly. "…Let´s go somewhere together."
It is his way to make her do her best to stay alive; to say he is waiting for her. The thought of going somewhere with him, alone, makes her a bit excited to. They haven´t really been on dates before. Only met up to train, to meditate , talk or to fight side by side in a war. Or to sit down and talk like here, or under the sakura tree. Akai ponders about it for a while. How would a date with Neji be like? Walking side by side down the street wearing traditional clothes, stop by some stores to get green tea and snacks?
…Going to a hot spring together?
"Yeah." She smiles dreamily. "Let´s do that."
They have confessed their love, however, they haven´t dated. Akai´s lets her thoughts wander. She knows that their friends know of them, but they haven´t become a couple officially. Akai doesn´t know what she should call their relationship. They aren´t really a couple, she wouldn´t dare call Neji her boyfriend, and she can´t help but wonder if Neji would be ok showing the world that he likes her.
They are from different worlds, after all.
"Nuh-huh, just thinking about tomorrow."
She´s pretty sure Neji saw through her lie, but he doesn´t say anything more about it. He just squeezes her hand. The fact that he has said he loves her is enough for Akai, she won´t expect him to do anything more than that.
She silently hopes that there won´t come a day when he stops loving her.
The day of the first exam came quickly. Akai looked for her, but Kumori was nowhere to be seen that morning. She must have headed off to work early today too.
They are all gathered at the Konoha gates, and without any kind of explanation, they are told to follow Konoha Jounin into the forest. Ninja from Konoha, Grass, Suna, and other villages are scattered as they all run towards something unknown.
After a while, several red buildings can be spotted in a clearing just below a mountain. Akai uses her staff to see it clearly and as she guesses, it´s the starting point of task 1. There´s a narrow path up the mountain, and that road is full of red torii, gates. Akai have heard of this place. It´s Fushimi Inari Shrine. She heard it´s a beautiful place, a place protected by fox gods who´d either protect you or do their best to make you lose your way in the mountain.
Kakashi walks up in front of a crowd of restless ninja. "Your goal is to reach the top, retrieve something dear to you, and get back. You will get disqualified if you won´t return within 5 hours, if you return without what you was supposed to retrieve and if you damage the shrine. Simple, right?"
Something dear to me? Akai doesn´t get any time to think about it before a jounin tells them to get ready. That´s way too little information! They have been divided into smaller sections that will leap towards the mountain, to avoid a massacre here at the clearing. Akai uses her 4 senses to check out her competition in her section. She swallows her saliva. It´d be good if she was quick and managed to sneak into the forest before them, because they are seemingly both bigger and heavier than her. Then hopefully, she is quicker. She can feel their eyes on her, underestimating her, and she starts to boil with frustration. It´s like things starts all over again. She bites her lower lip as she swears that she'll prove them wrong: that she´s strong.
Kakashi gives her a small hint of a smile before he starts the countdown. With his right arm raised, he shows them one finger.
….Mission 1, Start!" He shouts with three fingers in the air.
A loud, ear-piercing sound echoes as Akai hits the ground with her staff one last time before she dashes towards the woods. It seems that a ninja thought about a similar technique, using a smoke bomb to confuse the others, but smoke doesn´t affect her since Akai can´t see in the first place. The metallic sound plus the smoke surprised the others in her section, and it gave her some time to sprint forward. If she is left behind, she´ll get killed.
She hears a scream behind her and she bites her lip as she accelerates.
This is it.
AN: So, a pretty short chapter. It´s my Christmas gift to you. Have a nice Christmas and New Year.