Thank you so much for all of the amazing, motivating reviews! They made my day! Also, just a quick shout-out to one of my most faithful reviewers – DiamondForest; thank you for supporting this story from the very, very beginning!
By the way, *DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU HAVEN'T READ/SEEN CHAPTER 641 OF THE MANGA!*but I'm currently in denial. I mean, Kishimoto had literally just killed off my all-time-favourite character. WHY KILL NEJI?! So yeah. Since I refuse to believe that our destiny obsessed, Juuken-wielding brunette is no more, there is a small, totally irrelevant part of this chapter dedicated to him. And our Sakura. So although it doesn't serve to move the plot across at all, I needed it.
Anyway, hope you all enjoy the chapter!
It was chaos. Screams and the smell of burning flesh penetrated the air; bodies, so mangled that they barely held any resemblance to a human being lay motionless on the floor, those few who still had a spark of life in them were currently burning to their deaths as the flickering orange flames consumed the whole clearing, and all the while the pinkette stood silently, observing the execution with no small amount of fascination.
The scenery was gross; it was bloody and gory, but she watched on, the knowledge that she had been the one to deliver the final blow still fresh in her mind, a part of her overwhelmed with the discovery of how fragile ninja really were, while another small part of her mind whispered those traitorous thoughts that she had enjoyed the show, that she had-
I jolted awake, cold sweat running down my face in small rivulets which made me shiver. I looked around frantically, panicking slightly when I was unable to recognise my surroundings in the darkness of the room.
"Sakura, Sakura." A quiet voice alerted me to the presence of my teammates. I blinked a few times before my eyes focused on the shady contours of Kaoru's face, and his concerned expression as he took in my shaken form.
"Where am I?" I whispered, not trusting my voice. The brunette's eyebrows scrunched up as he frowned at my pitiful state, but I didn't care.
"It's OK, Sakura. You're at my house, you just had a nightmare. I invited you and Akane over for dinner, remember?" he explained patiently. I racked my brain, and indeed, I remembered. I relaxed and willed my body to stop shaking, but flashes of the nightmare kept appearing in my mind. I buried my face in the pillow, and felt a familiar weight settle next to me. "That nightmare," Kaoru began as his hand rose to tentatively stroke my back. "Was it about the mission?"
I stilled, and sighed. Of course Kaoru would be the one to figure it out. I nodded. "Pinky, relax. It's over. Don't worry about it." Another familiar voice spoke from my side, as Akane made himself as comfortable as he could on the narrow bed. I shook my head and made a noise of denial, still not looking up. "Sakura, look at me." Kaoru's voice was filled with authority, still soft, but somehow, I was inclined to obey. When he was sure I was looking at him and listening, he said; "It is over. You saved our lives. Those men got what they deserved. Learn from your mistakes and move on."
In the back of my mind I was amused at how this reminded me of my conversation with the Hokage, only that now the roles seemed to have been reversed. I sighed. "I guess you're right. Thank you." I mumbled into the pillow, but I knew they heard me. Both boys tried to get off the bed, but for some unknown reason, my hands shot out to keep them in place. "Can you stay…please?" I asked feebly.
Akane chuckled. "Sure, pinky. Just don't kill us when you wake up and find yourself squished." I managed a small smile at the fact that he still had his humorous nature, even at ungodly o'clock. "Goodnight."
Next morning found me waking up alone, snuggled up into the warm duvet and inwardly cursing the sun which glared at me through the open window. Slowly, the events of last night which had been previously overshadowed by the nightmare filtered through, and I remembered the amazing dinner, the games and laughs. Kaoru's mother had proven to be a wonderful woman who went by the name of Kiyoshi. She was most probably in her late thirties, and I was amazed by how kindly she welcomed me and Akane, and how happy and carefree Kaoru became around her. The dinner was incredible, and we were all so immersed in each other that by the time we were done it was already eleven o'clock. Naturally, Kiyoshi insisted we stay the night since it was 'too dangerous' to be out alone so late. Unable to resist the motherly nature and with the knowledge that it was raining buckets outside, we agreed to stay. Now, as I stretched lazily, I appreciated our decision even more, especially as the delicious smell of what could only be pancakes filled the room.
I quickly dressed and went downstairs. Since yesterday was filled with talking, I didn't have a lot of time to explore the house, but now, with the light from the outside shining through the window, I noticed that all of the walls were lined with pictures. Most of them were of Kaoru as a young boy, while some also had Kiyoshi and another man whom I assumed was Kaoru's father.
Huh. I only just realised I had never thought about my teammates' families before. But I dismissed the thought for the time being, instead focusing on following the delicious scent of freshly made pancakes.
I'll think about the more pressing matters after I have some food.
"Thank you for letting us stay at your house, Kiyoshi-sama." I thanked and bowed to the woman as we prepared to leave the house.
"Ah, Sakura-chan! I already told you, it was no problem! And drop the –sama child, it makes me feel old!" she replied good-naturedly. I nodded and gave her a small smile.
Kaoru who stood beside me smiled at her as well. "I'll be back in the evening. Arigato, kaa-san." He murmured and turned to me. "Where is that idiot now?" he asked, and I immediately knew he was referring to the missing redhead. Unfortunately, I had no idea where he had gone, so I shrugged. The brunette sighed and took a deep breath. "OI! Carrot-boy! Where the hell are you? We're getting older with each second we waste waiting for you, you baka!" he hollered into the house.
"I'm coming, I'm coming!" we heard Akane's distant voice, followed by a few thumps and crashes. Finally the redhead appeared at the bottom of the staircase, adjusting the strap of his scroll. "Geez, chill your pants, Kaoru-chan. I was only gone for a few minutes." He whined.
"Well, we're late to training now, because of those 'few minutes', so don't expect any sympathy from us when sensei makes you run." Kaoru grumbled, before he turned on his heel and walked out of the house. I stayed a bit longer to wait for Akane, as the redhead in question stopped to bid Kaoru's mother goodbye.
"Arigato, Kiyoshi-san! You're much nicer to me than your son is!" he joked as he bowed, making Kiyoshi laugh. "Ah, thank you. Now, off you go, Akane-chan, Sakura-chan, or I'm not to be held responsible for what my son does to you. He hates being late."
I nodded and dragged Akane out of the house, not looking forward to an enraged Kaoru. However, the brunette looked calm as we approached him, and I was almost fooled if not for the kunai which he was clutching tightly in his hand.
Deciding I valued my life more than sticking up for a teammate, I quickly Shunshin'ed away to the training ground.
The first half of training was gruelling as always, if not more, considering sensei was quite agitated by the fact we were late. We sparred, switching partners when one of us won. As always, I won against Akane as he still couldn't keep track of my speed, but I grew frustrated when I couldn't immediately best sensei, which ended in him pinning me down with a kunai at my throat. He congratulated me on my effort, but it didn't change the fact that I still lost. Much to my chagrin, I lost to Kaoru yet again as I was once again fooled by one of his intricately woven genjutsu, and, as if to add salt to the already aching wound in my pride, I had no idea I was trapped in the illusion until I realised that the air around me had become distorted by a masking genjutsu which was deliberately becoming undone. Something akin to admiration registered itself in my mind as I noted the few opportunities he'd to perform such an advanced technique.
It was with much bitterness and resentment that I realised that my incredible speed or proficiency in taijutsu meant nothing when faced with an opponent who excelled at tricking the mind. Thus, having discovered a problem in my defence, I decided to deal with it in the best way I saw fit.
At break, when we were all sitting around, resting, I approached Kaoru, my mind set. He looked at me in confusion, so I said. "Teach me. Genjutsu… is my weakest point." I forced that confession through gritted teeth, and I saw Kaoru raise an eyebrow at the annoyed expression on my face. "I don't like having a weakness." I explained. "Point of the matter is, I suck at genjutsu. I can't break it, I can't cast it, and I thought that since you can, maybe you could… teach me? Please?" I asked.
Kaoru smiled, and nodded eagerly. "Sure. What do you want to learn first? Casting or breaking?" he questioned as he got up.
I pondered his question for a few seconds. "Breaking." I decided. "If I know what to look for in illusions to be able to break them, I'll be able to apply that knowledge to my own genjutsu to make sure it doesn't have the same setback." I justified.
"OK. Let's get to work then, Sakura-chan." He said happily, but the raised eyebrow remained.
I was panting and sweating by the time training ended. If I ever thought jutsu which dealt with the mind were easy and did not require much physical strength and endurance, I was wrong. My head was pounding, my chakra was almost gone and my heart was beating like mad. Kaoru's teaching style was so painfully reminiscent of the way dad taught me that it hurt. In other words, that teaching style meant being subjected to multiple genjutsu until I found out a way to break it, with only a hint of what I should be looking for, all the while fighting one-on-one with Kaoru so that I couldn't predict the moment he cast the illusion. In the end, once I detected the illusion, I settled for what I learned was the old-fashioned 'cut off the chakra flow, then restart with a massive burst that disrupts the caster's chakra' technique.
When I was able to successfully break the genjutsu almost immediately after detecting it, Kaoru educated me on the key points of casting one. He said that the caster needs to have good control over their chakra and the ability to concentrate in difficult situations in order to cast the illusion properly. Next, he started me off on the simple D-Rank genjutsu called the Demonic Illusion: Hell-Viewing Technique – a technique which dug deep into the enemy's heart to find what they fear the most, then projected it in the illusion. However, although the technique was one of the easier ones, having never tried genjutsu before, it took me a good half of the afternoon to master it enough to make sure that it won't backfire on me.
Kaoru had warned me to be careful with the genjutsu I experiment with – techniques which deal with the mind tend to have the most dangerous consequences if not executed perfectly. When I was ready, and Akane had oh-so-conveniently volunteered to be my guinea-pig, I performed the necessary hand-signs and held my breath. A cluster of leaves swirled around Akane, but other than that, the redhead remained unaffected. I sent a confused look at Kaoru, but the brunette only had a small, knowing smirk on his face.
"Is that it, pinky? Three hours and it doesn't even work? I was expecting to at least be take-" Akane suddenly cut off, his jaw went slack and his eyes glazed over.
I stared at him for a second, perplexed, until I heard quiet chuckling by my side. I looked up at the same time Kaoru looked down at me, and I raised my eyebrow in a silent question. "The Hell-Viewing technique starts a few seconds after it's cast, since the target would have most likely moved from their position in a real-battle scenario. It gives the victim that fake sense of confidence before it strikes, so even now, when Akane was expecting it, he's still struggling with dispelling it because of the shock." the brunette explained patiently, the smug look still not leaving his face.
"Should I dispel it?" I asked curiously.
Kaoru looked at me, then at the still redhead, before he grinned. "Nah, let's leave the idiot to suffer a little more." I smirked and stuck out my hand for a high-five.
Izaya-sensei cast us an exasperated look. "You know, when I first met you two, I thought Kaoru was a shy, kind boy, and you an anti-social genius." He sighed tiredly. "I was such an idiot. You're both evil."
The next three months went by smoothly, or as smoothly as they could with constant life-endangering situations. Interestingly enough, our record as Team 13 now contained the following:
D-Rank : 19
C-Rank : 9
B-Rank : 4
A-Rank : 1
Also, the village now recognised us as 'Team Troublemaker' since we were only 'officially' assigned 14 C-Ranks, five of which had spiralled out into B and A-Ranks which was more than anyone had ever seen. It unfortunately resulted in our team coming home injured and bruised most of the time, but we made sure the mission was always completed. None of us were really complaining though, since the higher-ranking missions paid incredibly well. Only Izaya-sensei was constantly cursing his luck, since when he talked with other senseis in the Jounin HQ, most of the other teams hadn't even had their first C-Rank yet.
The A-Rank was an… interestingsituation, at least in my opinion;
We were escorting a monk who carried some scroll of great value to the Earth Village, but we were intercepted by a group of cloaked ninja. They wore straw hats and black cloaks with red clouds, and the moment we saw them, sensei became white as a sheet. "Run." He choked out. I could understand why he was scared – even when I had no idea who these men were, the mere aura they radiated made me shiver. When I didn't move, sensei turned to me, fear and fierce determination evident in his eyes. "Take the monk and run!" he yelled again.
I snapped out of the daze and nodded hurriedly. I discreetly glanced at Kaoru, who nodded back. We had worked on strategies multiple times in the last couple of weeks, and now it was time to finally use them. I waited a few tense seconds as Kaoru subtly set up his most recent creation – the multi-layered, no-escape false surroundings genjutsu.
I ran to the monk's side, but before I could so much as scream, a kunai ebbed itself deep in my shoulder making me hiss in pain.
"Genjutsu doesn't work against my eyes." A monotone voice came from the shorter figure which stood on the tree. "Although I must applaud your effort, my patience is running out."
In that split-second, I caught sight of slanted crimson eyes. Sharingan. I realised. Though an intense fear had set in the pit of my stomach, I continued what I was doing. Throwing an explosive kunai in the direction of the two men as a last, desperate diversion, I grabbed the monk and Shunshin'ed away from the scene.
Although my teammates and sensei had survived the blast, the entire operation was pointless since the two ninja got what they wanted in the end, only later, during the night - they had somehow slipped past our guard and killed the monk in his tent, taking the scroll. When we returned to the village, heads down in shame, it turned out the monk had lied about almost everything, from his identity, to the importance of the scroll he was carrying – we found out that the scroll contained multiple Forbidden jutsu, and that though it was bad that it had gotten into the hands of very dangerous men, we were lucky to have escaped with our lives.
I snapped out of my reverie as a hand was waved in my face. I glared at Akane who stuck his tongue out at me in response. We; Kaoru, Akane, Izaya-sensei and I, were currently seated around one of the tables in the BBQ restaurant which had become one of our most frequented places, waiting for one of sensei's 'friends' to arrive, because, apparently, she couldn't wait to meet us.
I played with the food on my plate, not in the mood to eat. Since my team had come over to my house last week and had discovered that I mostly lived off dango and onigri, they had taken it upon themselves to introduce me to a 'healthier' lifestyle. Everything would've been fine, if not for the fact that a 'healthier lifestyle' meant 'no sugar' and therefore, no dango.
With my daily sugar supply taken away, I was currently sulking, and have been for about five days already, which meant that I was caught completely off-guard by a sudden burst of smoke on the seat next to Izaya-sensei. When the smoke cleared, it revealed a navy-haired woman with an amused smirk on her face.
While Akane jumped almost a foot in the air and shrieked, Kaoru choked on his drink and I had to use every ounce of self-control I possessed to refrain from throwing a kunai at the woman's head, sensei just sighed irritably, as if it was the most common thing in the world.
"I told you to stop with the flashy entrances, Anko. You almost gave them a heart attack." He remarked.
But the woman ignored him, instead giving the three of us an assessing look. "So, they are your brats?" she asked rudely.
Sensei pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed exasperatedly. "They are my students, Anko, so if you try to so much as touch them to 'see if they're worthy', I'll kill you." The sentence was delivered with humour, but the glint in sensei's eyes told me that he was serious.
"Whatever, whatever! Jeez, you sound like their mother!" she exclaimed, and I thought she noticed that I flinched at the word 'mother', but if she did, she didn't comment on it and turned to us. "Anyway, my name is Anko Mitarashi, Izaya's on-and-off girlfriend." She introduced.
"Pleased to meet you, although I would appreciate it if you didn't harass our sensei." Kaoru stated at the same time as Akane yelled; "You're his girlfriend?!" I remained silent, wordlessly assessing the woman in front of me.
Anko seemed unaffected as she regarded the two boys with an amused smirk. "You know, Izaya, they really do seem like your kids. Especially the pink one." She noted, pointing at me as she nibbled on her dango.
I gritted my teeth in annoyance at her statement. Before she could blink, I leaned across the table and flicked one of her dumplings off the stick then quickly sat down and pulled out my senbon, smoothly catching the small sweet and bringing it to my mouth.
I looked up and noticed sensei's raised eyebrow. "She called me a child." I grumbled under my breath. I was startled by the loud, boisterous laughter which came from the woman and as she calmed down, she reached over to ruffle my hair, but I quickly dodged her hand and settled even deeper into the chair I sat in.
"She's feisty. I like her." She commented to Izaya-sensei before she turned to me. "What's your name, kid?" she asked.
"Sakura Haruno." I replied, still frowning. "And I would like it if you stopped calling me 'kid'. It's annoying."
"Sure, whatever you want, kid." Anko teased and I restrained the urge to pout. All the while, the rest of my team watched the exchange between the two of us, and when we were done, Akane pointed an accusing finger at Izaya-sensei.
"Why don't you say anything? If I did that, you would've told me to run ten laps around our Training grounds!" he yelled in indignation, his bottom lip jutting out.
Before sensei could reply, Kaoru, having sensed a way to annoy Akane, jumped in. "Hey, sensei, who do you like better, me or Akane?" he asked innocently.
"You. No contest." Izaya-sensei replied easily.
"Hey, Izaya, you can't pick favourites between your kids." Anko mock-chastised, but she was visibly amused by the situation.
"He's not my kid. He's not even my dog. If I had a dog, and that dog had a kid, and that kid had a pet, that would be Akane." Sensei replied, also grinning.
Kaoru and I chuckled while Akane sulked in the corner. Suddenly, the redhead bounced back. "And what about Sakura? Who is she?" he asked, confident in his victory.
"Sakura? Sakura is my student, of course." He responded, making Akane deflate and return to sulking.
The banter went on for a good few hours, however, the more I learned about Anko the more I suspected she was hiding something. But I was too absorbed in the conversation and how nice it was to be spending time with my team to act upon that suspicion.
It was the third of July, the warm morning sun was shining on the village, and since Team 13 had no missions today, I decided to seek out a certain brunette for a nice spar and birthday wishes. Arriving at our usual training spot, I was not surprised to see the Hyuuga sitting in the lotus position, eyes closed and meditating. That boy lived by a strict schedule which he followed with the conviction of a madman, which made it easy to locate him once I memorised said schedule.
"Is there anything in particular you want, or are you going to stand behind that tree for the rest of the day?" his annoyed voice drifted over to me, and I walked into the clearing to sit beside him.
"God, Neji, so early in the morning and you're already so grumpy? What the hell happened?" I asked, frowning. A grumpy Neji was an unpleasant Neji, and that meant trouble for whoever disturbed him.
"Uncle Hiashi and the Elders happened." He grumbled as he finally opened his eyes and turned to face me. "They wished to… properly celebrate my birthday." He complained.
I realised that I could never fully appreciate that day when we had stumbled upon each other, yet I was glad that we had. I knew I was the only one who got to see the relaxed, human side of Neji, and Kami-sama only knew how much that boy needed to relax.
"Well, since you're so annoyed with traditional celebrations, how about you try it my style? And answering your previous question, all I wanted is to give the birthday-boy his gift and wish him happy birthday." I said innocently. "And… perhaps a spar, if you're up for it." I added for good measure.
The brunette smirked and rose gracefully, and it was only then that I noticed he was wearing formal robes instead of his usual ninja outfit. So much for the spar.
Unperturbed, I simply nodded and fell into step with him, swiftly retrieving the gift I had prepared for him from my pouch. "There, happy birthday, Neji-chan." I said, looking anywhere but at him. We both knew I wasn't one for kindness or thoughtfulness, and I silently prayed he could just appreciate by out-of-character gesture.
Luckily, the Hyuuga didn't say anything and set to unwrapping the package. After a few seconds, he pulled out a small black leather bag. He turned it around in his hands and froze. I watched, curious of his reaction; on the side, there was a golden embroidered bird cage, empty, its' doors hanging on one hinge, the bird was a few centimetres away from the cage, its' wings outstretched, and, if birds could look happy, that bird would've been ecstatic. Directly below the flying bird, in small, neat cursive, there were the words 'Take control of your destiny before somebody else does'. It was always a reason for argument between us, him with his talk of destiny and me religiously denying everything he said.
He glanced up at me, amused and… appreciative? "You never do things halfway, do you?" he snorted.
"Open it." I said simply, avoiding his question. He did, and lightly pulled the drawstring open, and his forehead creased in a frown as he stared at its contents. He looked at me questioningly, before sticking his finger inside. When he pulled it out, it was covered in lime-green powder. "Poison." I stated. "You're a fan of subtlety; a tiny bit of this is enough to bring down even the best of the best, whether added to their drink or inhaled." I explained. His expression remained unreadable, but there was a small spark of something in his eyes, before he shook his head as if chasing away an annoying thought and faced me.
"Thank you." He said, and I was surprised at the sincerity of his words. Just for a moment, his eyes lost their guarded look, his face softened, and for the first time I saw him as the troubled twelve-year-old he really was. But then, the cold, self-assured look returned and he was once again the Neji I knew. "I'm going to take you up on that spar, but first, you're coming to the Hyuuga compound with me. Uncle asked me to invite you over for dinner." He stated, not a hint of question in his voice.
I stared at his retreating back, surprised beyond belief. "Well?" he turned to face me, the familiar smirk back on his face as he attacked the bag to his belt. "Are you coming or not?"
I shook my head to clear my mind and jogged to catch up with him.
This will certainly be interesting…
Well, hope you liked it. The next chapter is where the real story begins so stay tuned!
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