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your crooked smile and counterfeit soul

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There is something to be said about coming back from the dead. Not that he actually died, but his heart did stop for about a minute before Sakura managed to bring him back, which does count for something. So let's say that there is something to be said about coming back from a one minute-long death. He can't seem to see the world the way he used to. For a Hyūga, it does make for a strange epiphany.

Neji would have never pegged himself to be the type to linger on rooftops at six in the morning, quietly enjoying a sunrise, or stopping at a dango stand to enjoy a sweet after each training session. And yet here he is, walking the streets of Konoha at night just to enjoy the festive atmosphere, the paper lanterns and the stars. He doesn't remember when he last looked at the stars other than to find the north.

The rebuilding is going along fine, better than he would have expected at first, given how many people they lost. But strangely, it brought a closeness to those left and made them work together in ways a lot more efficient than they would have been before the war. Neji hates to see it that way, but the war did bring some good things after all. When he sees the lingering looks on his friends' faces as they look at each others, relationships forming and parting with a lack of care typical from people who just realized how short life is.

He has seen some strange things since everything ended. People he never thought would get along ending in bed together, friendships forged in blood and grime turning into happy marriages— Shino and Tenten, who would have thought? And yet Neji had found himself nodding when Tenten asked him to be her bridesmaid, giggling along with her as he did her hair. He doesn't remember the last time he laughed either.

The war did change everything.

And so there he is, wandering around in the alleys where bars are open and shining warm lights into the dust of the streets. He's quietly enjoying the feeling of people moving, laughing, breathing, of the blood pumping through his veins and reminding him that he's alive.

Neji doesn't expect to hear a somewhat familiar voice coming from a nearby bar, and curiosity draws him to enter. He's never been there before, his team being used to another bar closer to the center. That one is of the traditional kind, where the only people you find are old shinobi missing limbs and ANBU coming back from months-long missions with a slaughterhouse in their hollow eyes. There is a counter in the center and about thirty small booths made to house two or three people at the time, not a single more. All of them have a view of the door and the back entrance, with a quick access to either in case of emergency. The lair of paranoia in its purest form.

And there she is, ordering another bottle of sake if the empty one she's bringing back is anything to go by. He hasn't seen her since the war, since she plunged her hands into his chest to heal his wounds from the inside, sealing the blood vessels as quickly as she could and leaving him gaping open but alive to go back to the fighting. She's very different now.

Her hair is as short as Kiba's, brushing her temples where it falls in small strands. Her red outfit is gone, replaced by a standard blue jonin uniform, the green jacket forgotten in favour of a white medical coat. There is a second seal on her forehead, and he can't resist. Neji activates the Byakugan and can't control a wince when the full force of the supernova hits him. It's bright like two suns and exhilarating, shortening his breath without his consent. He's quick to close his eyes and revert back to a normal vision.

She's going back to her booth, the bottle in a steady hand, but she slumps on the seat without a care in the world. He takes a step in her direction and she immediately raises her head, her posture straightening without missing a beat. Neji doesn't falter and keeps going, sitting next to her a second later. Sakura doesn't look at him and pours herself a cup of sake, offering him the bottle as she downs it with the other hand.

 

"Sup, Hyūga?"

Neji snorts. "Exactly how drunk are you?"

 

Sakura squints at her empty cup, a frown on her tired features, before looking back at him.

 

"I don't remember."

 

Then she bursts out laughing, like she just said the funniest thing in the world. The other patrons carefully don't pay attention to her, which tells two things to Neji. First, she's as terrifying as ever, and second, it's not the first time she drowns herself in sake in this bar.

 

"You should go home, Haruno."

"Nah, I'm good. Whatcha doin here?"

"I heard you, so I came inside."

She shakes her head. "I meant outside. At night. You know, walking alone in the dark."

"You make it sound creepier than it is."

 

Sakura snorts in laughter, the sound quickly turning into another fit of giggles, and this time she drinks directly from the bottle. She puts it down a little too strongly and wipes her mouth with her hand.

 

"What is going on with you, Haruno?"

 

She's smiling like a loon, eyes crinkling and cheeks pink with amusement, the picture of happiness and mirth. She's relaxed and confident, her green eyes sparkling in the orange light of the bar, and she looks like a queen-

 

"I'm dying."

 

She looks like a queen as she keeps on smiling, and repeats.

 

"I'm dying."

 

Then she takes a mouthful of sake, keeps it in her mouth for a second and swallows it.

Neji is trying to remember how to breath.

 

"It's actually pretty funny, when you think about it," she says with a tilt of the head, like she's actually considering the subject. "Naruto has a giant fox sealed in his stomach, Sasuke has murder eyes that should make him blind, and yet here I am."

 

She smiles again, her shoulders hunched and leaning towards him like she's about to tell a joke.

 

"I'm going to die at nineteen and those bastards will keep on flipping the bird to the shinigami until they're a century old and counting."

 

Sakura pours herself another glass and gives him the bottle.

 

"What a funny world we live in."

 

Neji lifts the bottle to his lips and empties it in one go.

 

He's never been in this position before. Granted, he didn't have many opportunities to be, but every time one of his teammates asked to cover for them, Neji had always carefully stayed clear of it. Now, he's carrying a secret so heavy he feels like it's choking him, and he didn't even think about it at the time. Though, to be fair, he might have drank two or sixteen cups of sake too many when he had agreed to keep her secret.

He doesn't see her much more than he did before, and yet he feels like she's everywhere. Every time he turns, she's breathing behind his shoulders and it's like they're drawn to each other by the sheer magnitude of what's happening.

Neji sees her going to train with the Uchiha, laughing at something he said and bumping her shoulder with his. He sees her bringing grocery bags to Naruto's apartment when he's busy at the Hokage Tower, helping the Rokudaime. He sees her posing for Sai whenever she's not working at the hospital, gifting him with a blinding smile and a kiss on the cheek. He sees her keep on living as whatever's killing her eats slowly at her insides.

Neji regrets not asking what she's suffering from. He's a bit afraid, too, because whatever is capable of taking down the best medic of all times is one fucking scary thing. He wonders how no one noticed the weight she's lost and the bluish tint her skin has taken where her complexion is too pale now to hide her veins. Then he sees Shikamaru hiding a sob at a party after hugging her and he understands. It's not about noticing her illness. It's about the warmth back in Sasuke's smile and the relaxed line of Naruto's shoulders and the sincere happiness on Sai's face, all of it because Team 7 is back together.

So Neji slips next to Shikamaru on the couch where he's pretending (and doing a good job at it) to be okay. He carefully presses his arm against the Nara's and admires the inner workings of the disaster squad that Team 7 is. He hears Shikamaru holding his breath and feels his eyes burn a hole in his cheek. So Neji gently pushes him with his shoulder and Shikamaru exhales, his head falling back on the couch.

 

"You know?"

"She told me, about a month ago," Neji whispers.

"I don't get it. Why is she doing this?"

 

Neji shrugs, staring at this incredible woman who had their lives into her hands and saved them all without a care for her own safety.

 

"And those morons, how come they don't see it? I can feel her ribs when I hug her!"

Neji briefly puts his hand on Shikamaru's knee. "I know, but we can't exactly force her to tell the truth."

 

Something dark unravel in the Nara's eyes and Neji holds his breath.

 

"But we don't have to force, do we?"

"What are you thinking?"

 

Shikamaru doesn't answer and gets up, sneaking past their friends scattered in small groups all around the house. He goes straight to Sakura and grabs her by the arm, nodding at Ino who looks at them with an amused smile. He then proceeds to drag the pink-haired woman straight to their couch and sits her next to Neji, before sitting as well on her other side.

 

"That was surprisingly energetic of you, Shikamaru. What is it?" she says, a smirk on her face.

"Don't bullshit me, woman. I know, and I know that Neji knows. So tell me, what's your reasoning? How did you come to the conclusion that shutting up was the best idea?"

 

Her face darkens suddenly and she clenches her jaw. Her eyes screen the room and then she's up, taking both of them by the hand and leading them to a bedroom. She doesn't slow when their friends start whistling and catcalling them and closes the door behind them. Sakura gestures to the bed and the two men sit down, looking at her with a frown. She crosses her arms and sighs, beginning to pace in front of the bed.

 

"You seriously need to keep quiet. I can't have the story running around, are we clear?"

Shikamaru snorts. "Please tell me you don't expect anyone else to not notice. Have you looked at yourself in a mirror lately?"

"Thanks," she grumbles. "I'm keeping this up for as long as I can, and you better back me up on this.

Neji scowls. "Only if you explain."

 

Sakura sighs again and slumps against the wall, sliding down until she's sitting with her knees against her chest, facing them.

 

"I have degenerative pathway disorder." At their puzzled face, she explains. "Apparently, it's particular to the Uzumaki genome, and I have enough blood relation to them to get it. You know how big their chakra reserves are? Well, they have to adapt their pathway to accommodate it, right?"

Neji nods. "I've seen it on Naruto, it's frightening when he's calling the Kyūbi on top of it."

"Yeah, well this means the pathways enlarge when you pull a stunt like, I don't know, unlocking the fucking Yin Seal in the middle of battle while summoning a small thousand of slugs. The disorder makes it so that they never revert back to their original size."

 

Neji can't help himself. He activates the Byakugan and ignores the supernova on her forehead, concentrating on her pathways. He's never done that before, always drawn to the burning pyre of chakra, and what he sees is horrifying.

 

"You're-"

"Yeah. My pathways are almost as large as my thumb, which means they're sucking up all my chakra faster than I can replenish it. I'm basically bleeding myself dry."

Shikamaru recoils like he's been hit. "That's how you managed to get a second seal in barely half a year."

She shrugs. "I have to do something with the excess chakra, you know? Otherwise I would have to go blow shit up in the training ground every day."

"I'm guessing there's nothing you can do."

"Nope," she says with an exaggerated pop. "I tried surgery on a pathway in my feet and I basically killed one of my toe. I can't feel it, I can't move it, it's all but gone. I'm not chancing it on my hands or heart."

"What does Tsunade-sama think about that?"

Sakura grimaces. "She's pissed. She's been trying to find a solution for the past year, but nothing yet. It's hurting her more than I expected.

"Of course it's hurting her," Neji says through gritted teeth. "She's your mentor. What do you think we feel?"

She levels him with a cold glare. "Well, I don't know about Shikamaru, but I don't expect anything from you. You've always made clear how stupid you thought I was to hang onto Sasuke as a kid, and me saving your life didn't even get a thank you out of your arrogant Hyūga ass."

"I-"

"She's kinda right, man," Shikamaru shrugs.

Neji looks down. "I'm sorry. Thank you, Sakura. None of us would be here without you."

"I wasn't fishing for compliments," she grumbles.

"You should, though," Shikamaru says. "We owe you a lot. And I'm not sure you realize how devastated your team will be. Gods, Ino, I don't want to think about Ino. She's never gonna forgive you."

Sakura snorts. "I trust you to handle the pig, lazyass."

 

They fall silent, quietly getting lost in their thoughts. Neji has a hard time wrapping his head around what he just learned. No one would know about the disorder, with the Uzumaki gone for more than two decades. They're going in blind, with apparently only Tsunade and Sakura working on the matter. There must be something they can do, she can't just... die.

 

"How about using the chakra in your seals to replenish your reserves?" he offers.

She shakes her head. "We've thought about it. I tried, and forty minutes later all of it was back in my forehead and I had a gigantic headache."

 

Shikamaru frowns, looking at Sakura before staring at Neji and going back and forth. The other two let him, knowing his formidable brain is on the matter now and might just come up with something.

 

"Sakura... how much do you rely on medical techniques when you fight?"

She thinks about it for a moment, muttering things under her breath. "I'd say about sixty percents of my fighting style is based on medic-related jutsus."

"So you could theoretically fight without it, right?"

"Yeah, I mean I would be a bit handicapped, but I could. I'd mainly use my dōton and strength."

 

Shikamaru nods, his hands locking in a familiar position that means he's deep in thoughts. Neji looks at Sakura and sees the careful hope settling over her sunken features, the paleness of her cheeks matching the while wall behind her. A few minutes pass as they stay quiet, letting the Nara think. Then Shikamaru sucks on a deep breath and looks at her with wide eyes.

 

"I can save you. Sakura, we can save you!"

She's shaking. "Tell me!"

"It's not a perfect solution, you'll be severely disabled for a few months, if not a year, and you'll have to adapt your entire fighting style and frankly, probably all of your life choices and career plans at the same time but-"

"Nara Shikamaru, you will tell me right now!"

 

A blinding grin slowly spreads on his face and a surprised laugh escapes his throat.

 

"The solution is standing right next to me."

"Neji?"

"What is the sixty-four palms all about? Come on, indulge me."

"Stopping the chakra flow by blocking-"

Shikamaru giggles. "By blocking the pathways!"

"You're kidding me."

 

Sakura stares at him with watery eyes, her breath quick and pained.

 

"You're kidding me. Shikamaru, you beautiful genius!"

 

She starts laughing, tears streaming down her face, and Shikamaru joins her. Neji looks at them, not even realizing his own tears until Sakura grabs his hands and puts them on her heart.

 

"You can save me," she whispers and he nods slowly, his mouth slightly gaping.

 

Like Shikamaru said, it does involve a lot of planning. The sixty-four palms isn't meant to stick, only to disable an opponent. Now, Neji needs to do it hard enough to permanently shrink down her pathways, with the risk of blocking them forever. It also means Sakura will be unable to move on her own for a least a week, until her system adapts and the chakra starts flowing back into her muscles.

His uncle is surprisingly open to discuss the jutsu with Tsunade, coming up with ways to do it in the safest way possible. It the end, they agree to perform it three times, instead of making it stronger. Hinata will start, then Neji, and Hiashi will deliver the final blow. Shikaku offers the Nara forest to do it, because it's going to be loud and flashy and Sakura is most likely going to scream. She's still hellbent on not telling anyone, which means she doesn't want her friends to hear her.

The day of the procedure, Neji can't stomach any food and he sees the same anxiety on his cousin's face. They could permanently disable Sakura, condemn her to a bed for the rest of her life if they don't do it right. No matter how confident Hiashi and Tsunade are, it's still one of their comrades, one of the Konoha 11 who helped end the war.

In the end, it goes better than expected. Oh, she screams, she screams so loud her voice breaks and she's left shaking on the ground, blood spilling from the corners of her mouth. They carry her inside the Nara Compound where a gathering of nurses is already waiting to put Sakura to bed. But instead of the expected week, Sakura takes three days to recover. She's walking to the bathroom by herself on the morning of the fourth day.

Tsunade warned her, though. Medical ninjutsu is over for her. She'll never have the chakra control to back it up now so she can forget about her hopes of research and surgery, her dream of overseeing the hospital. Her chakra reserves are through the roof, so large she can barely stick a leaf to her hand for the next eight months after the procedure. When she finally gets it under control, almost a year has passed.

Sakura never told anyone else about what happened. Kakashi covered for her and assigned her a long-term mission to study the Nara medical techniques (which is a load of bullshit because she already did that the first year after Tsunade accepted to teach her). It does mean no one asks question about her lack of field trips and suspiciously long stays in the Nara Compound.

She's still not cleared for leaving the village, her fighting style having shifted in a way she never had to adapt to before. She's a powerhouse, a tank of fists and mud barrelling through the training grounds with the force of a earthquake. She's absolutely useless in a real fight as it is, because her strength is so big she's likely kill her teammates as well as their enemies. Until she gets it under control, she trains every day and tries not to break the doorknobs every time she enters a place. It's a work in progress.

The secrecy does mean she spends a lot more time with Shikamaru and Neji than her actual teammates. Naruto, Sasuke and Sai are absolutely terrifying and completely useless for missions because they have the stealth of an elephant in a china shop paired with a complete inability to fight long range. Finding them missions is a nightmare and Kakashi is suffering.

It all comes to an end after a risky sparring session where Neji almost lost an arm to Sakura's sudden loss of control. Shikamaru is trying his best not to laugh, resting against a tree at the edge of the training ground. Then Sakura playfully pushes Neji when he tries to sneak up on her and she accidentally sends him straight through a nearby treetrunk. Shikamaru loses it completely and falls down laughing, small tears rolling down his reddening cheeks.

 

"Oh gods, Neji, I'm sorry!"

 

Sakura is running after the trail of shattered trees and Shikamaru is rolling on the floor, howling with laughter. She comes back with a battered Neji grumbling about unfair strength and backstabbing Nara boys. They sit down next to Shikamaru and wait for him to recover, finally joining their circle under the tree's shadow. Sakura is looking at them with a lazy smile, the relaxed line of her shoulders telling about the trust and happiness she's filled with at the moment.

Slowly, she extends her hands and patiently waits when they exchange an unsure look before each taking one in theirs.

 

"If it's not too much to ask-" she begins with a soothing voice, but Neji interrupts her by blurting out;

"Anything. Really."

 

And Shikamaru is laughing again as Neji blushes sharingan red and Sakura hides her mirth in the Hyūga's shoulder, her hands still in theirs.

 

"As I was saying, if it's not too much to ask, I'd love to fuck you."

 

Shikamaru immediately stops laughing, choking on his breath and becoming as red as Neji.

 

"Hum, who-"

"Which one-"

 

Sakura smiles playfully and tugs on their hands.

 

"Both. Both is good."