Hyuuga Neji knew calls for help were infrequent in the training areas just to the east of Konohagakure, and too often tragic when they were issued.
And so it was that he was barreling at full tilt through the branches, unable to ignore the high-pitched and increasingly desperate pleas for assistance echoing through the canopy. The greater part of him devoted to duty spurred him on, to render assistance to the apparently dying young kunoichi somewhere over the next hill. An only slightly lesser part of him devoted to pride cherished his new, more senior rank within the ANBU -- no slight feat at nineteen -- and it would be a heavy blow to fail at this. Perhaps the smallest part of him knew it was probably noble to render aid, but no thoughts crossed through his mind besides the preparation of his combat abilities in that moment.
His legs unfurled beneath him, propelling him in an arc of acrobatic distance and balletic grace, even while his hands hammered out the seals of a ritual as old as his family. His feet had not yet touched the next branch before his eyes bloomed with the byakugan and the world laid bare its secrets to his gaze.
So he knew things were already not as he'd imagined them before he leapt over the final rise, over a stream and into the sandy pit that lined its bend.
Through the hill, he could see there were three chakra systems. Not a genin team, however, as genin teams typically did not contain recently-dead, sixty-foot serpents from the Forest of Death nearby. Nor was a genin's chakra the sickly, untrained yellow of the prone body lying not ten feet from the maw of that great snake; a snake whose head had been apparently caved in by nothing less than a meteor strike. And a genin's chakra was not the brilliant golden color of an exceptionally well-trained and well-honed kunoichi, who was, it turned out, the source of the calls for help.
Worse, on closer inspection, the body was that of a pregnant woman, coughing blood and already sweating with a pale sheen of death despite the best efforts of one Haruno Sakura. Sakura, who, with one hand was drawing out what seemed like an interminable fount of the clear, necrotizing poison from the woman's lungs. Sakura, whose other hand was occupied trying to keep the woman's heart beating with a pulsing stream of chakra from her other hand. Sakura, who, all the while, was screaming for help and letting free more curses than Neji knew existed.
She looked up at once, and her eyes locked onto his with the fiercest glare he'd probably ever seen from someone he was not actively trying to kill.
"If you're done staring, asshole," she very nearly growled, "get down here."
Not being one to explain himself, he merely knelt by the victim, opposite her.
"Instructions," he said, a single word neither question nor statement. She was the medic, after all.
"Can you keep her heart going?" she asked, her tone nearly pleading, a far cry from her anger. "Please tell me someone's taught you how."
Neji nodded. It was a basic medic skill, more effective than the physical compressions and breathing taught to unskilled genin, and required learning for all ANBU. Without a word, he simply scooted in to lean over the dying woman's chest and began metering out chakra from his fingertips in a steady rhythm. Even so, this was not something he could do without both hands.
Sakura let free a heavy sigh as he took over, sweeping a bloody hand across her forehead to shift her bangs, leaving a crimson streak across her cheek, a gradient of gore that faded into the soft pink of her naturally unnatural hair. Still drawing poison, though now from the woman's blood itself, she closed her eyes, and Neji fairly goggled in amazement as she contorted her one free hand through a series of seals and began to close the major wound.
"Oh, gods, sweetheart. I hope you'll be alright," she said, in a low whisper.
"Her heart..," he began, but she cut him off with a curt nod.
"I know. It's too far gone with this poison still in her. I'll need at least another trained medic to stabilize her properly."
"He's not a medic," Neji said, tilting his head up in the direction of a new voice. "But it's a start."
Naruto was shouting from the top of the sand pit, twigs and leaves still clinging to him where he'd gone crashing through the brush.
"What's going on down there?"
"Get me a medic! Shizune, Hitomi, anyone! Anyone you can find!" she screamed back. Naruto, to his credit, didn't think twice and disappeared before either of them could blink.
"At least he's fast," she said, groaning with exertion as the persistent multitasking began to take its toll.
She began to work again in earnest, no longer sparing the energy to swear, her frail-seeming body shaking as she manipulated strings of chakra more complicated than anything he'd ever tried over and over again. Minutes flew as her fingers found within themselves an entire surgical kit summoned from the ethers of her imagination. Here her fingers pulled the ends of vessels together, there a strand of her life nourished a strand of her patient's and knit the torn flesh somehow.
And despite the miracle worker kneeling opposite him, Neji could not tear his eyes away from the patient herself. There was something very profoundly wrong with the woman for whose heartbeat he'd been made responsible, and it started with her eyes.
Blindness was anathema to his clan, blessed as they were with the all-encompassing sight of gods. Here was a woman whose eyes, white and clouded as his own, stared up at him, sightless. She'd had irises once, but now they were occluded by opaque grey scars.
Judging by the jagged lines cut into her face from her eyebrows to her cheeks, some healed, some still fresh and raw...her blindness was self-inflicted.
Neji's stomach nearly turned with the realization.
Sakura's whispering, at first below the threshold of his hearing, grew louder with each passing second, and soon he realized she was chanting "C'mon, c'mon, c'mon". In the wound, muscle fused clumsily and sealed with scar tissue, and her mantra of self-encouragement rose to a crescendo and stopped as she looked up at him and grinned.
He wasn't sure he'd seen anyone smile at him like this, not at this range, not that close. The smear of blood, dirt, and sweat creeping down the side of her face from her forehead did nothing to dilute the intensity of that smile, just before everything went to hell.
"Well done, Haruno," he said, and in the half-second of peace they had between them she almost had time to blush.
Their patient came suddenly to life, screeching and thrashing beneath his hands and he realized to his horror that while she was making her escape attempt he was losing his already precarious grip on her heart. Sakura, for the first time since he'd arrived, looked at a total loss before she shook herself free from her stupor and jumped onto the woman's nearest arm and leg in an attempt to restrain her.
Neji, for his part, was too busy dodging the clawed fingers that whipped around his head and face, their nails still bloody from the damage they'd inflicted upon their owner's eyes and face already.
"Haruno! Her pulse is speeding up!"
He could feel it, that precious, fluttering organ through the flesh and bone of the woman's ribcage, accelerating, pushing beyond the limits of its already weakened state, shuddering until it quivered too fast to push blood through her arteries.
He didn't have the knowledge to chase away the native chakra powering the woman's tachycardia, and Sakura was already too exhausted to make good on even her redoubled efforts to stop the seizure.
And then she was entirely still.
What was left of the woman's eyes rolled back up into their sockets. Her head fell to the sand and rolled towards Sakura, and Neji was faintly grateful he didn't have to look at those dead eyes any longer.
Another minute passed, and a slow, agonized moan escaped the curtain of stained pink hair drooping around Sakura's lowered face.
"You...you can stop now, Neji," she said, because even after death, Neji was still trying to keep that heart moving. "She's gone."
"What about the child?"
Sakura went rigid, galvanized with new strength, and there was no hesitation as she willed a scalpel into being and slashed through what was left of the corpse's dress, through the great bulge of what was once a woman's womb, and then plunged her hands into the gap. The cuts bled, and only because Neji was still trying to force blood through that defunct system.
The silence, now unbearable, was broken with a tiny, throaty yowl, one that grew in volume as Sakura began to cry alongside the tiny, incarnadine creature in her arms.
"It's...it's a girl," she breathed between sobs. "She needs...she needs to go to the hospital. Now. As fast...as you can."
She held out the child, and Neji found himself doing something he'd never imagined he would ever have to do. Somewhere behind him Sakura collapsed onto the sand and he wondered if he should have brought her along as well.
At best, the Hyuuga compound was a daunting edifice, an architectural exercise in flawlessness and scale. Standing beneath the main portico before a pair of ten-foot, copper-clad gates, Sakura had a sneaking suspicion that what she was feeling now was precisely the emotion it had been designed to inspire, although in truth she wasn't sure if it was the building or the person she'd come to see that was making her want to discretely turn about and head home.
Despite her long-standing friendship with the somewhat abnormal Hyuuga who went by the name of Hinata, she knew about as much as any other citizen of Konaha about this reclusive clan, which was to say, virtually nothing besides the fact that they were politically and financially powerful.
The feeling didn't last long, though, quelled by something her mentor and Hokage Tsunade had hammered into her skull over diplomatic briefs and negotiation adjournments: the more powerful someone appears, the more they have to hide, so screw them. If Tsunade had terrible luck and was a horrible gambler, she was a far better bluffer and caller in a position where chance had less sway, and Sakura took those lessons to heart.
And so she swung the giant knocker with as much visible effort as though it had been made of paper.
After a pause, a slit opened in the door, and she took the opportunity to introduce herself and her reasons for coming. Another pause, and someone in the coarse but surprisingly elegant dress of a house servant appeared to direct her around a the corner to a small side access cut through the great wall surrounding the compound.
Perplexed, she made her way there and knocked again, this time on the unassuming single door, and was admitted with considerably less hassle by the same servant. When they emerged from the short stairwell into a small courtyard, Sakura was forced to admit she knew even less about the Hyuuga than she'd thought she had.
She'd assumed, perhaps, that the inner grounds would be dominated by training areas, dusty and packed with practitioners of the proprietary jyuuken and target mannequins, an assumption based on Hinata's description of her daily exercises and exacerbated by descriptions of Neji's even more draconian regime. Instead she was brought into a gorgeous, traditional garden which complemented the buildings around it so well that she was unsure if it had been built to accent them or the other way around.
She was still marveling at the garden when she was introduced to a waiting room in the side of what was the largest building by the gardens. As she took a seat at the low table, the servant retreated back onto the outer walkway but left the screen open so Sakura might continue to admire the spread of spring blossoms as she was so clearly doing.
Neji introduced himself to his unscheduled guest not long afterward.
"Good afternoon, Haruno," he said, face neutral and voice flat, a different person from the intent and compassionate man she'd last seen sprinting out of her training pit with a newborn not a week ago. "What brings you here?"
"Well," she said, and found herself grateful for the short interruption offered by the servant returning with tea. "I wanted to thank you for your help last week. You know, when that girl...and I..."
"Of course. You are welcome."
"I wasn't really expecting anyone to show up, right? It was already terribly late and I wasn't at all prepared to have to deal with anything like that. One minute I'm pounding away at the sand there, and the next there's this giant snake that comes crashing down into the river and she starts screaming."
Neji took a sip from his cup and cradled it in his fingers.
"I guess she got bit up at the top of the cliff and fell and the snake just followed her down so I just reacted and hit it and I knew I had to do something because that is what I'm trained for after all. But then I started on her and realized she'd been hit really badly with the poison and her heart stopped the first time and there were just about a million things I ended up having to do so I just started shouting and you showed up.
"So thank you."
"As I said, you are welcome. I am sure any of us would have done the same."
Despite herself Sakura realized she'd been rambling because she was just slightly out of breath. After all her words, the uncomfortable pall of ensuing silence was even more disconcerting and she found herself reaching for the tea to find a way to give herself an excuse for not trying to fill it with more words.
And stopped, when Neji actually spoke, unbidden.
"Has there been an autopsy?"
Perhaps a slightly morbid question, but a valid one nonetheless, and she settled for holding the cup instead of drinking from it right away. The ceramic was warm and smooth in her fingers, the rough ring of its base balanced in her palm.
"Well, yes. Shizune took care of it. Why do you ask?"
"Her eyes. I thought she had injured them."
"Yeah, she did. She heavily scarred her corneas over a period of several months, so she must have been blind or very nearly. It explains how she ended up so far off the main road, at least."
She drank now, looking over the rim of her cup and found that Neji's brow wrinkled beneath the bindings around his forehead. He was either deep in thought or profoundly uncomfortable, which made it oddly easier for her to breathe.
"I...see," he said, and he seemed perturbed by his own awareness of the pun.
"Shizune says she might have been under the influence of genjutsu as well -- there was something wrong with her head, anyway, and it's been chronic. Maybe as many as eight or nine months."
"That would be traumatic, no? In particular for a civilian?"
"Certainly. It's always hard to say exactly what happens to the untrained because there are very few ninja -- even among those that would treat non-combatants poorly -- that would bother with genjutsu on someone who was no threat. There's not a lot of data on the effects of powerful, targeted genjutsu being used like that."
After all, genjutsu was typically used to gain the upper hand over someone who was too strong physically to risk dealing with in direct conflict or to guarantee a certain kill.
"That would...be dishonorable."
"She must have suffered, yeah. I can't imagine, wandering like that, tortured and blind. And pregnant. I can barely imagine that by itself."
"Where does she come from?"
"No idea. My best guess would be somewhere near Nami no Kuni, she has the right kind of face. Not that I mean those people have a certain face, just that there are trends in population genetics. In any case, judging by her clothes and the wear, she's been on the road a long time."
"There have been no wars in that region lately. A missing-nin, perhaps. I will check with the bingo book tomorrow."
Sakura wasn't sure if he was actually talking to her or not, so she finished her drink, glad to be done with it before it got cold.
"Um. By the way, Naruto's adopted her. The child."
Cup half-way to his lips, Neji stopped cold and frowned.
"Naruto. Adopted the baby. I thought you might want to know, since you, um, reminded me." She'd been wracked by guilt all week, wretched that she'd lost track of the child in the chaos of her failed resuscitation attempt, nearly let it die through her own negligence, and she fought to keep her voice clear.
"If this is a joke, Haruno, it is not a very funny one."
"No joke. He was there when I finally made it back to the hospital, arguing with Tsunade about it. I guess he won her over...but you know how seriously he takes his promises. And he's an orphan himself, after all."
"All the more reason to doubt his parenting. You have a point about his promises, however."
"Besides which, Hinata volunteered to help, so at least he won't be completely alone. I mean, I will too, I feel responsible. She won't lack for relatives, in any case," Sakura said, and that thought, at least, was a pleasant one.
They were all young, painfully so to be dealing with these issues but one could do worse for an impromptu family she supposed. Despite the third Hokage's patronage, Naruto had been alone for all too many years, and that was a travesty of justice. More so knowing what he was and what a risk the village had run alienating a bijuu.
"That does sound like my cousin. I do not see what she sees in him, but it is not my place to interfere."
"Well, whatever she's thinking, maybe it'll work this time." She bit her lip, glanced aside, out into the garden and the pastel clouds of petals and budding leaves swaying in the wind.
"One more thing," Neji said. "Why do you suppose this woman was afraid of you?"
Sakura's jaw dropped, and she turned back to him in awe.
"If that is a joke, Neji, it isn't funny."
"She was very nearly stable by the time you closed her wound. She did not have her episode until I said your name, and as I do not generally refer to you by your given name, it was a reaction to at the very least a somewhat rare family name."
"I don't...I don't know. I don't know her, Neji, and who knows what exactly triggered it. I haven't been to that area in a long time, and I don't remember anyone who would have looked like her."
Neji settled back on his heels, gazing slightly upward, no doubt mulling over his curious find. He stayed that way for what felt like an eternity, while Sakura ran through the few faces she remembered distinctly.
"No, no one like her," she said, with certain finality. And then with so much more trepidation she almost could not recognize herself, "That was...the first time I've ever lost a patient."
Neji said nothing but when she dared to look up he was looking back at her, and she averted her eyes from the bottomless white stare. She knew he could see more than she ever could, and deeper, and she was compelled to make good on the promise she'd made to herself before going to his family's manse.
"I've never had anyone die on me before," she said, and the hem of her collar was rough between her nervous fingers. "I just...I was shocked, okay? I didn't mean to forget about the baby. I wouldn't have, normally. It won't happen again."
"You need not tell me," he said, and she was almost angry at how jaded he made himself seem when she knew he was at least compassionate enough to have reminded her of the child in the heat of the moment.
"I just don't want you to think I'm incompetent," she said, her voice dropping a fifth and her eyes already half-way to a glare as they came up from the table.
"I did not think that."
His eyes seemed somehow softer this time despite the fact that his face was still a blank mask as it always was, and she couldn't explain to herself why she was suddenly comforted. Maybe it was because she'd been expecting to defend herself, maybe she'd been expecting something snide or derogatory, and maybe she'd done him a disservice by assuming that. Maybe it was because she'd been accusing herself of malpractice all week and he'd been the only witness.
"Furthermore," he added, "my approval or disapproval holds no water in medical matters."
Gods help her, she was embarrassed.
"Neji...you're not exactly who I thought you were. Thank you."
"Quite," he said, "You are also not exactly who I thought you were."
She almost laughed. The statement was utterly strange, coming from him, but if nothing else she'd learned everything she knew about Hyuuga Neji was apparently bunk anyway so she settled for a smile instead.
"Ten years is a long time, after all. Things change," she said.
She got a smirk in response.