Of course, keep in mind... they ARE twelve. Best to be patient...
Hinata stepped as lightly as possible as she approached the main family quarters. Odd how she didn’t really think of it as home anymore. Staying at Kurenai-sensei’s house, she’d felt more welcome there than she’d ever felt in the Hyuuga compound. At least since her mother died. Things had been… at least a little different then… but that had been so long ago that it was becoming hard to remember.
These days, she had little wish to be here, not to mention the risk of encountering her father. Unfortunately, she’d been instructed to prepare for an extended journey and some of the gear she would need was still in her old room. There wasn’t time to purchase new supplies, even if she did have the ryou to waste. She just had to hope she could avoid her father and any inconvenient questions he might want answered.
As she neared her objective, a panel abruptly slid aside. It took all of her willpower not to flinch away. Showing fear to her father would only make things worse.
But it wasn’t Hyuuga Hiashi behind the rice-paper panel.
“Neji-ni-san?” she blurted out. Against her will, her eyes were drawn toward the bandages on her cousin’s forehead. She had little doubt he would find a way to make her pay for her teammate’s actions – no matter what anyone said.
“Hinata-sama,” he said in a perfectly controlled voice. His eyes seem to pierce right through her, reminding her uncomfortably of her father.
When he said nothing more, Hinata stepped forward to continue on toward her room. But she froze when Neji spoke again.
“Three meters past me and you will fall within range of Hiashi-sama’s Byakugan,” he said. “I believe he has several questions he wishes to pose to you, especially considering this mission the Hokage has given you.”
Hinata stepped back again, not wanting to take any chances. She was surprised that Neji could track the range of father’s vision that closely – it implied that he could see almost as far with his Byakugan as the leader of the clan. Yet another realization that must have rankled, given his being born into the branch family.
Neji’s mouth twisted slightly. “I take it you have been instructed not to speak of your mission?”
Hinata nodded. He would not doubt enjoy watching father make her squirm as he tried to make her talk. But this mission was also her chance to get away from Konoha and the Hyuuga complex for an extended period of time. She could endure anything in the short term to make that dream a reality.
“I took the liberty of securing the shinobi equipment from your room,” Neji continued, pulling Hinata’s familiar backpack out from the room behind him. He gave it a small toss and Hinata caught it reflexively, too shocked to do anything else. Through the heavy fabric she could feel tent poles and the outline of her canteen.
“Thank you, Neji-ni-san,” Hinata said after she gathered her wits.
“Thanks are not necessary,” Neji replied coldly. “It is, after all, the destiny of the branch family to serve the main family, is it not? Retrieving your gear for you is merely my duty.”
“As you say, Neji-kun,” Hinata murmured, too happy at the chance to avoid her father to care about his sarcastic tone. Sarcastic or not, his voice also didn’t seem quite as cold as she was used to. She bowed deeply to her cousin, far deeper than a main family member had any business doing to a member of the branch family.
Neji merely nodded, but his brows drew together just a fraction of an inch. That alone spoke volumes. “Leave straight the way you came,” he instructed. As Hinata turned to leave, he added, “and tell Uzumaki that I will pay my debt.”
Naruto paced nervously near the western gate. The Old Pervert was supposed to meet them both there to begin their mission. He wasn’t quite late yet, but he sure as hell wasn’t early. Of course, Hinata-chan wasn’t there either, but he knew she was going to have to try and sneak her gear out of the Hyuuga compound – something he was more than a little worried about.
He’d suggested she just forget about that stuff – they could share his tent after all. Right after he said that, Hinata turned bright red and Naruto wanted to smack himself in the face. He’d offered innocently enough, but he knew exactly how Jiraiya would take that. Best friends or not, a boy and a girl his age sharing the same two-man tent would garner some comments from him…
Naruto shook himself out of his reverie. Just being around the Sannin a short while had him thinking about dirty stuff. Kurenai-sensei would be ashamed of him. Hinata deserved better too.
He resumed pacing. Blaming the lecherous old fart was better than sitting around worrying about Hinata-chan. Her father was a major jerk and there was no telling what he might try to pull if he ran into her before they left town. Naruto wondered if going back for her traveling supplies was a way for Hinata to prove to herself that she wasn’t really afraid of him. Maybe he’d ask Kurenai-sensei when they returned.
“Oi, where’s your girlfriend?” a loud voice asked from behind him.
Naruto had to control himself to keep from jumping. Pervert or not, the Sannin was, in fact, a great ninja, and he’d been able to sneak up on Naruto while he was actively looking for both him and his teammate. It almost made up for his personal habits.
Naruto clenched his fists as he spun around, but refrained from lashing out at the old jerk. That would just egg him on to do worse. “Hinata had to pick up her gear from the Hyuuga main house,” he explained. “She should be here any minute.”
A ghost of a frown skittered across the face beneath the horned forehead protector. Naruto wondered if Kurenai-sensei had told Jiraiya anything about Hinata’s father. He opened his mouth to speak, then relaxed when he saw a flash of gray out of the corner of his eye.
“I am sorry to keep you waiting,” Hinata said breathlessly as she ran up.
She started to bow in apology, but Jiraiya carelessly waved it off. “You’re just on time,” he said. “You brats ready to go?”
Naruto and Hinata both nodded.
“Then say goodbye and we’ll get started,” Jiraiya said, nodding toward something behind them.
They turned and Naruto saw Kurenai-sensei and Shino step out of the shadows of the guard house. She’d already bid them good luck on their mission, but Naruto was touched that she and Shino still wanted to see them off. After waving to Shino, Naruto and Hinata both bowed deeply to their sensei. She returned the bow. Then they were off.
No words were needed.
Their first destination was Otafuku City, one of the larger cities within Fire Country. To Naruto’s surprise, they simply set off down the road at a comfortable walk.
It took less than fifteen minutes for him to crack.
“Is there a reason we are traveling so slow?” he finally asked. “I mean, we want to find this person as quickly as possible, right?”
Jiraiya sighed. “You ever see a cat try to catch a bird?”
“Does that cat run around like its tail is on fire, looking for birds, or does it sneak up slowly?” the Sannin asked sarcastically.
“Do you think Tsunade-sama will try to avoid us?” Hinata asked curiously.
Jiraiya shrugged. “It’s possible,” he said, making a vague gesture with his hand. “She can sense chakra usage from a ways off, and she tends to avoid shinobi these days, even ones that might be from Konoha.”
“I thought you wanted my clones to help find her?” Naruto asked, remembering the conversation in the Hokage’s office.
“I will. After I ask her the first time and she turns me down. By that time, she’ll already know we’re in the area. I’d just like to get close before we have to start actively chasing her.” Jiraiya grinned. “She can still move pretty fast when she wants to.”
“Great,” Naruto groused, “then that means we can’t practice while we’re walking, can we?”
Jiraiya looked puzzled, so Hinata helpfully explained how Kurenai had them practice various minor jutsu as they traveled.
“Well, I suppose the runt here needs all the chakra control practice he can get,” Jiraiya mused aloud, much to Naruto’s annoyance, “but now is not a good time. Consider it patience training, brat. You need more of that too.”
Naruto glared at the older man, but then realized Jiraiya was deliberately winding him up. With an effort, he turned away from the annoying old coot and spoke to Hinata in little more than a whisper, deliberately ignoring the Sannin.
Hinata was just a little bit impressed. Naruto was normally so passionate that… well… it was easy for someone to provoke him. She had to suppress a smile when she saw the disappointed frown on the mission leader’s face.
“So… any trouble getting your stuff?” her friend asked.
Hinata swallowed. Things had been rather tense at the Hyuuga compound, but Neji’s actions were even more unnerving. “I didn’t see Father, but…”
Naruto just raised an eyebrow, something he’d picked up from Shino at one point. He only did it around his teammates and she originally thought he’d done it deliberately to tease Shino, but now she wasn’t sure. When they talked in the hospital, he used it to great effect every time her words jammed up in her throat. Just thinking about that conversation again made her a little light headed, and for a moment, she had to concentrate on where she placed her feet.
“I talked to Neji,” she whispered as the silence stretched out. “He was… different, at least a little. He intercepted me right before I would have encountered Father and gave me my pack. He was still very cold, but not… not as angry as usual. I don’t really understand.”
“Well, he doesn’t have that seal on him anymore,” Naruto ventured. “Maybe that changed him.”
Hinata stared at her teammate. She knew Neji’s seal had been damaged during their match, but after the elders had convened, she’d heard no more about it. Were they unable to repair it? More importantly, how did Naruto know? “How did you know about that?” she asked hesitantly.
Naruto grimaced, scratching at the back of his head like he’d been caught doing something. “Well, you didn’t want me to kill him, or cripple him, so I figured I’d see if I could pull that stick out of his butt.” He blinked and grimaced.
Hinata stared at her best friend as he muttered about ‘unfortunate metaphors’ and looked faintly embarrassed.
Elsewhere, Kurenai, Asuma, and Kakashi had finally met up to discuss their bets. Actually, it was more like Kurenai cornered the two Jonin.
There was a… slight dispute regarding the exact terms of their wager. Since the third part of the chuunin examination had not been concluded, there was some precedent for saying that all bets were off.
On the other hand, the words “will get farther than yours” had been used, at least casually, with respect to their genin. By that measure, Team Eight had, with Naruto’s and Shino’s victories, at least made it to the second round of the finals.
Of course, the final decision regarding promotions was not dependent on the results of the matches. A careful, thoughtful candidate eliminated in the first round by a more powerful opponent might be selected for promotion, while the powerful, but rash fighter might be passed over. Chunnin were generally stronger than genin, but it was their leadership qualities that made the final grade.
Shikamaru, Asuma argued, only forfeited his fight because he realized something was wrong – and anticipated the betrayal and invasion. That was something Kurenai’s students couldn’t claim. If he’d stayed and fought in a complete tournament, it was entirely possible that he’d have found a way to overcome both Naruto and Shino as well.
Kakashi didn’t really have much of an argument – none of his students had even made the final round. He was attending more as a referee and because he hoped he might find a way to avoid giving up his little orange books for two months.
In time, however, the wrangling of his colleagues began to get a little boring – right up until he noticed two cloaked figures drifting through the street traffic.
Bored out of his mind, Naruto tried to invent new ways to amuse himself. He couldn’t really train or do anything involving chakra at the moment. He didn’t know if the old pervert was serious or not, but he didn’t want to be responsible for failing the mission if he was.
He also couldn’t really do much physical training while they were traveling. This Tsunade-person could move pretty fast if she decided to avoid them – at least that’s what ero-sennin claimed, anyway. That meant he couldn’t really afford to get tired out, either.
That left mental training, but he couldn’t exactly pull out a scroll while they were walking. Not on a mission. Maybe he could work on his observational skills, he thought after a while. Of course, the scenery was much the same, at least until they got farther away from Konoha.
Eventually, he settled on trying to make covert observations of his companions as well as other travelers. The old pervert was pretty oblivious, but Hinata always seemed to fidget a bit when she knew he was looking at her. As observant as she was, watching her without her noticing was quite a challenge.
At first, just watching her out of the corner of his eye and not stumbling in the road was challenging enough. He supposed being able to focus like that might prove useful if he ever had to tail someone in a crowd.
With a little practice, Naruto got good enough at observing that he could actually pay attention to what he was seeing. Hinata seemed… different.
She didn’t duck her head down as much as she used to. It wasn’t a big difference, but he’d noticed in the past when they sparred she would have to straighten her neck from her normal posture when she slid into her Jyuuken stance. Now she seem to look straight ahead. He supposed it didn’t make much difference which way she faced since she had the Byakugan, but it was more subtle than that.
Kurenai had lectured them a couple of times regarding body language and how to interpret it. This was one of those subjects that Hinata was far more adept at than her teammates. Of course, she’d tried to hide that at first, at least until Shino had asked her point blank if she’d been trained in this subject by her clan. It was only then that she revealed exactly how much farther ahead she was than her teammates. She’d seemed almost embarrassed, at least at first, until Naruto and Shino had let her know, in their own ways, that they didn’t mind at all.
At least Naruto had stopped himself right before he asked her what her own mannerisms meant.
But he supposed it was probably a good thing that she wasn’t looking down quite so much. She’d been kind of worse in that respect after she fought Neji and ended up in the hospital, but ever since… ever since the invasion, when she’d subdued Temari. Maybe she was a little more confident? After all, the Sand girl she’d defeated had smacked Tenten around pretty good. That had to mean something, even if it had been a bad match-up for the weapon expert.
Hinata’s gait also seemed a little… looser? More relaxed. Her whole body seemed to be that way, not that he was ogling her or anything. Maybe it was because she was finally over the lung damage that had hospitalized her for so long. Maybe it was because she was happy to be on another long mission again. He and Shino both noticed how much happier she’d been on the border patrol mission. He felt his jaw clench again when he thought about why.
He needed to do something nice for the Hokage and Kurenai-sensei when he got back to Konoha.
For someone who’d been accused, with some justice, of living in the past, Hatake Kakashi was still surprised by how the passage of time could change your perspective. He still remembered the last Great Shinobi War. He could remember the battles, the foes he’d killed and the friends he’d lost. But time had a way of passing, of wearing smooth the edges of the hardest memory, until you could recall the facts, but not how it felt.
Years of being one of Konoha’s elite jonin, feared by many, featured in countless bingo books, had robbed him of some of the worst recollections. Like the sensation of what it was like to face an enemy that outclassed you almost as easily as you outclassed your genin pupils.
He’d gone back and forth with Uchiha Itachi while Asuma held off his partner, Hoshigaki Kisame, with his trench knives. Kurenai tried to ensnare them both in a genjutsu. Three on two seemed like pretty good odds, except Asuma could barely block the massive blade wielded by the shark-man, Kurenai’s illusions were almost instantly countered by the renegade Uchiha’s Sharingan eyes, and Kakashi… well, he had the distinct feeling the Uchiha was merely playing with him, curious to see what his transplanted Sharingan eye was capable of. Every trick, every stratagem Kakashi tried was countered almost as soon as it was begun, and with far more ease than he was able to stop Itachi’s attacks.
Kakashi grabbed Kurenai after Itachi reversed her own Demonic Tree Bind back on her. He got her clear of Itachi’s kunai as quickly as he could… but he was fairly certain the Uchiha had time to stab her if he’d wanted to. From the thoughtful frown on Kurenai’s face, she’d come to a similar conclusion.
So rather than press the counter attack, Kakashi held back for a moment, assessing his foe while keeping his gaze focused away from Itachi’s eyes. Even without making himself vulnerable to hypnosis, he could still read the nukenin’s body language with his peripheral vision.
“You have a lot of nerve coming back here, Itachi,” Kakashi said in a low voice. “What could possibly make you want to return to Konoha now?” He paused and smiled a little under his mask. “Homesick?” If anything, Itachi took himself even more seriously than Sasuke. Or Kurenai.
“I have been given a task,” Itachi said as the tomoe around his pupils began to spin. “A task which I shall complete.”
“Don’t look at his eyes,” Kakashi barked to his comrades, leaving only his one Sharingan eye open now. “Only someone with a Sharingan can face him now.”
Itachi smiled faintly.
Kakashi swallowed. “You’re after Sasuke?” he asked. It made sense, of a twisted sort, given the last words he spoke to his brother.
“No,” Itachi said slowly. “We are here for the key to the Fourth’s Legacy.” He blurred forward, faster than Kakashi could even see clearly, and buried his fist in the pit of Kurenai’s stomach. Even as Kakashi spun towards her, she gasped and her eyes flew open reflexively. Kurenai’s red eyes met Itachi’s Sharingan.
And she was lost.
Kurenai found herself in an odd place, tied to a pole like a criminal about to be executed. Something was wrong with her eyes… and then she realized the light that was wrong. Everything around her, including the parts of her own body that she could see, was shaded like a photonegative.
Itachi appeared in front of her, shaded the same way. “This Dojutsu is the ultimate expression of the art of Genjutsu. This is the world of Tsukiyomi, a world where space, time, and substance are all controlled by me. From now on, you will endure seventy-two hours of torture. The suffering of your soul will be real. Your spirit will not understand that this is not reality. Some never recover from the experience, and even the strongest will be incapacitated for some time. Long enough for my purposes.”
“Purposes?” Kurenai asked reluctantly. No matter how hard she concentrated, she couldn’t feel the underlying chakra of this illusion. She’d already bitten her lip, but even foreign pain couldn’t shift this perceived reality.
“I will make you face your worst fears, repeatedly, for seventy-two hours, rendering you insensate at best, and permanently impaired at worst.” Itachi informed her. “Either way, you will serve as bait and a bargaining chip with your student. Even if his current protector forbids it, he will offer himself up in exchange for you.”
Kurenai tensed and opened her mouth, but even as she began to curse, time seemed to slow down until her words were distorted and meaningless.
“This is the part where you make some tedious statement of defiance. I shall instead begin the torture now.” He paused and blinked. “If you retain your sanity afterward, I will be curious as to what you think of the ultimate genjutsu of the Sharingan.”
The world dissolved and all awareness of Kurenai’s body was swept away. She abruptly found herself pilloried in the large square in front of the Hokage’s tower. Also tied to the posts were her students. Surrounding them was a large crowd of faceless people. Despite their lack of features, they still shared common traits, the primary one being a palpable sense of hatred. This was a lynch mob. Looking up at the balcony near the Hokage’s office, Kurenai felt her stomach twist as she saw a tall faceless man in the Hokage’s robes of office. The faceless Hokage made an angry gesture and the crowd surged forward.
Naruto was the first to feel their wrath, fingers tearing at his face, gouging out his eyes before hands with knives could stab into his torso. He screamed in agony far longer than Kurenai would have believed possible, until he went limp in a pitiful gust of red chakra, shaded dark by the odd light.
Hinata was crying and screaming as she watched Naruto die in front of her, and the crowd turned on her next. Her voice rose in shrill arpeggios as they tore at her body, until it finally trailed off in a gurgle.
Shino was silent until close to the end, when he gave out a single strangled yell.
Kurenai was almost numb when the hands came for her.
And then she was back in the square again. She shook her head, wondering for a moment why her hair was back on her scalp and free of blood. She looked out over the crowd, blinking rapidly as they surged forward again. Only a single figure near the edge had a face. Itachi.
This time they started with Shino, and then her as Naruto and Hinata screamed their names as they died.
By the time the scene reset again, Kurenai was already beginning to go numb with horror. The Tsukiyomi was feeding on her fears of what might happen to her students if everything went wrong. If an unfriendly, unjust Hokage came to power, they might well be made scapegoats to appease certain factions in the village. It had happened in other lands.
And the so-called Ultimate Genjutsu was working. She wasn’t sure how many repetitions of this scene she could endure before her mind shut down, at least temporarily, to protect itself. Seventy-two continuous hours of this horror would break her.
As she braced herself for the next round of screaming, Kurenai racked her brain for some way of countering the arrogant Uchiha’s Dojutsu. She remembered Kobaru-sensei’s introduction to the subject of genjutsu, and how he told her privately that he thought she had the mental discipline and imagination to specialize in that area. Not that it was doing her much good now as the crowd ripped at her with frenzied hands.
Imagination… she remembered Kobaru’s lectures on breaking genjutsu and on how to beat them. They weren’t the same thing. Beating a genjutsu means working with it, through it, or despite it to achieve your objectives, even if you couldn’t directly break it. He liked to use physical metaphors for complex subjects, and he once compared genjutsu to mental wrestling. Sometimes the only way to break a hold was to move with it, instead of against it…
As her ravaged body fell from the post to hit the ground in a spatter of blood and other fluids, the scene reset again.
This time Kurenai didn’t even try to disbelieve it. Instead, she channeled every morbid thought she’d ever had into making this scene real. This really could happen, she convinced herself, and felt her psyche sink deeper into the genjutsu. Her eyes focused on Naruto as the crowd tore Shino from his post, ribs snapping before the ropes broke. The blond shinobi struggled to free his arms as the faceless villagers threw the bug user to the ground, stomping and kicking at him. Shino reached one hand toward Naruto, two broken fingers twisted obscenely, as his colonies drowned in his own blood.
Kurenai barely felt it as the crowd tore her to pieces. Her own viewpoint seemed to separate from her tattered corpse as it focused on Naruto’s face. Tears poured from his eyes as he screamed and cursed as he watched his team die.
And then they went for Hinata.
Kurenai’s attention was focused to a razor’s edge as they attacked the young Hyuuga she loved like a daughter. Her own imagination supplied new tortures for the Tsukiyomi to inflict on the innocent young girl. But her eyes stayed focused on Naruto’s face as he watched Hinata beaten, tortured, raped.
And when he snapped, as she knew he would… KNEW he would… she pushed with all of her will and forced the genjutsu to follow it’s own internal rules and make Naruto react… realistically.
Naruto’s eyes turned to slitted pupils as he threw his head back and roared. Chakra blasted out in every direction, obliterating the posts and tearing the faceless crowd to pieces. The Itachi observing this didn’t even have time to react before he was reduced to a smear on the wall of the Hokage’s tower.
Chakra gathered back around the screaming Naruto as the Kyuubi’s jailor retired and set his prisoner free. Flesh flowed like wet clay as the boy’s body was remade in the Kyuubi’s image. The faceless Hokage signaled for his ANBU to attack, and began the seals for a jutsu – right before a massive tail removed the top three floors of the tower.
The Kyuubi reborn roared his defiance to the heavens. The only sign that Uzumaki Naruto had ever existed was a slight pause as the fox stopped and sniffed at the body of a young girl that lay cooling near one gargantuan forepaw. Then the nine-tailed fox quite deliberately stepped over the body as it engaged the arriving ANBU.
Kurenai felt like she’d be somewhat sick to her stomach – if she knew where hers was. But mixed in with that was a strong sense of vindication. If this ever came to pass… well Konoha would get what it deserved. If the Will of Fire ever descended to murdering the innocent as scapegoats, then it deserved to be extinguished. There would be… justice.
With that sense of elation, Yuuhi Kurenai shattered the Tsukiyomi like a soap bubble.
Kakashi was still turning toward Kurenai and Itachi when the Uchiha flinched back like he’d been struck. He raised one arm as if to shield himself from a blow before he shook his head.
Kurenai had her arms around her middle where she’d been punched. But she was slowly straightening as she stepped back. And there was a smile on her face.
Kisame landed next to Asuma and the jonin barely got his knives up in time to block the shark-man’s chakra-eating sword, Samehada. “Itachi, what the hell just happened?”
The Uchiha threw the shuriken in his left hand toward Kakashi. With only one eye open, he had to dodge a little wider than he normally would.
During that split second, Itachi palmed a kunai and hurled it toward Kurenai who was still straightening as she blinked away the aftereffects of whatever Itachi had done.
No time for a jutsu, Kakashi tried to throw his own kunai to deflect it… But the angle was wrong and he’d had to have thrown his blade three times faster than Itachi to make a difference.
With a heavy thump, the Uchiha’s kunai buried itself up to the handle in Kurenai’s forehead.
Naruto eyed the hotel Jiraiya had selected with some distaste. It wasn’t exactly located in a nice section of town. On the other hand, he was tired from their plodding journey and Ero-sennin was paying the bill. He’d even splurged on two rooms, so Hinata could have some privacy.
It was almost respectable of him.
Of course, those thoughts evaporated when the old pervert declared he needed to do some ‘solo reconnaissance’. He might have been a little more convincing if he hadn’t had his tongue hanging out of his mouth as he left.
Still, he wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. He and Hinata had been walking most of the day, with their weights on. It was surprising how tiring it was to travel so slowly, not using chakra at all. After a hot bath, it felt good to lie down for a while and take a nap.
But his dreams were troubled as he slept, filled with a nameless sense of dread.
“What the hell, Itachi?” Kisame demanded, ignoring Asuma’s trench knife sticking out of his shoulder. “This wasn’t in the plan.”
“The plan has been changed,” Itachi rasped, dodging Kakashi’s next kunai as quickly as it was thrown. “She proved far more skillful than I had reason to believe. She is too dangerous to keep alive, even as a hostage.”
“I don’t even know why we bothered in the first place,” the shark-man growled as he missed the bearded jonin with Samehada on the backswing. These Konoha wimps were finally getting serious after Itachi killed their friend. What a waste.
“The target has training at evasive tactics,” Itachi replied in a bored tone. It bugged Kisame how little his partner seemed to care. “Given his capabilities and who he was seen leaving with, it was logical to seek leverage.”
“Well what does your logic say we should do now?” Kisame demanded. It was merely a matter of time before enough of Konoha’s ANBU showed up with enough numbers to make things… difficult.
“We meet at the third location,” Itachi replied, dropping an armed explosive tag from the wide sleeve of his cloak. It detonated even as it touched the water, sending spray dozens of feet up into the air.
Before the air had cleared, the red-and-black cloaked figures were gone.
Naruto and Hinata, minus their hitai-ite and in clothes that could pass for civilian wear, slowly made their way through the festival quarter. Otafuku City seemed to thrive on tourism – from the posters they could see, every possible minor occasion had its own festival and some of the vendor booths looked more permanent than the houses.
Naruto had been… discouraged… from participating in many of Konoha’s yearly celebrations, so he was content to follow Hinata’s lead. A few subtle changes to her gait, facial expressions, and mannerisms transformed stiff Hyuuga formality into the behavior of a merchant’s daughter. Before they left the hotel, Hinata had Naruto leave his jacket behind and purchase a bright red tee shirt that did not clash with his pants as badly as he anticipated. She also encouraged him to smile as much as possible after she used small amounts of makeup to conceal the whisker marks on his cheeks.
Naruto thought she was maybe going a little overboard, but any comments died aborning as she delicately smoothed foundation across his cheeks with her fingertips. She evidently found this just as awkward as he did, because she was blushing as well. On the other hand, Naruto knew there was zero chance of him applying anything to his own face without it being obvious. So he kept quiet.
Still, it was almost a relief when she was done and he could relax, being careful not to move his face too much before the traces of makeup finished drying. He watched, fascinated, as Hinata took a small case from a pouch on her backpack and carefully slid tinted circles of some soft material onto her eyes. After a couple of blinks to align them, his friend had blue eyes to go with her fair complexion.
Without her own jacket to hide in, Hinata’s body looked different as well. Naruto realized that because it was slightly oversized, the jacket tended to make his friend look smaller, meeker, and younger than she really was. Able to see her arms for once, he noticed that their training regimen had definitely had an effect. If Hinata wanted to disguise herself as the hard-working daughter of peasant farmers, she had the shoulders and forearms to carry that off as well.
They’d been gone five minutes, with Hinata growing increasingly edgy, before Naruto realized he’d been glancing sidelong at his friend the whole time. He awkwardly complimented her acting skills and she relaxed a little.
They threaded through the booths, slowly winding their way through the festival grounds, heading toward the more adult areas of the tourist district. From what Jiraiya-sensei had told them of his former teammate, Hinata figured that they would be more likely to find her in such areas, especially those with gambling.
It was a little hard to imagine a Sannin ‘retiring’ to become little more than a traveling gambler, but Hinata could tell there was a lot their mission leader was leaving out of his story. Shinobi of their skills didn’t just leave a village without being labeled missing-ninja – not unless there were truly unique circumstances.
From the way Jiraiya-sensei acted, Hinata suspected that his departure was more of a long-term mission than a true retirement. There was no awkwardness as he took command, no unfamiliarity of protocol. He was still on active duty, reporting directly to the Hokage. She was sure of it.
Hinata jerked out of her reverie when Naruto took her hand. The crowds they were weaving through were tighter, the people bigger and older on average. He was only acting like a boy his age might when accompanying his sister or friend in such surroundings. That was the only reason. It had to be.
But that didn’t stop her lips from forming a small smile.
Naruto tensed up as they began to move through the more ‘adult’ sections of Otafuku’s festival quarter. There were a lot of “those” kinds of places, a lot more than in Konoha, and he wondered again what kind of Hokage hung out in places like this.
He also noticed some of the men there were looking at Hinata, the same way they looked at the other women. He took his teammate’s hand to make it clear that she wasn’t there by herself, but he wasn’t sure all of them got the message. Mission or not, the first person to try anything was going to get seriously hurt.
This covert operations stuff was harder than he thought.
Once upon a time, Kakashi being late for a team meeting was pretty much par for the course. But after Team Seven was so easily eliminated during the Chuunin exam by their former classmates, that had all changed.
Sasuke had challenged their sensei to train them as hard as they could endure and his teammates had backed him on that. Wounded pride wasn’t the best of motivations, but neither Kiba nor Sakura enjoyed the thought of being left behind. The fact that they were all struggling as hard as they could to keep up with the new regimen seemed to improve their teamwork as well. It probably helped that Sakura was usually too tired to even talk to Sasuke at the end of the day.
The events of the Chuunin exams seemed to shake up their sensei as well. Sakura didn’t think she’d seen a single orange book cover since then, and he was always on time for training sessions.
So when sensei was late this afternoon, the pink-haired kunoichi was concerned. Then she heard a strange bird call, and suddenly leaping figures appeared, darting across the rooftops. She glanced over at her teammates. Sasuke was sitting quietly, but his eyes had popped open the moment she heard the bird call. Kiba had been fidgeting for the last several minutes. He couldn’t really stand to sit still. “Let’s go,” she said.
“What?” Kiba asked, clearly confused.
“Sensei is late for the first time in weeks, and I think they just called an ANBU mobilization,” Sakura explained as she stood up.
“She’s right,” Sasuke added quietly.
His simple agreement might have made her heart race once, but Sakura was still annoyed with her teammate. Bad enough that he didn’t think she could kill a simple snake, but what he’d said about Hinata to Naruto was uncalled for. Even if it was a valid tactic, he had insulted someone who defended him while he was helpless from the curse seal. Sakura was secretly glad that Naruto had punched him for it… just maybe not quite so hard.
The dog user picked up Akamaru and Team Seven set off in the general direction the ANBU had gone. Sakura remembered Naruto’s words she’d overheard. ‘Sakura isn’t as nice as she seems. She only likes one person and she doesn’t really give a damn about anyone else.’
It was nearly as hard as sensei’s new training, but Sakura was determined to become a better person.
Sasuke couldn’t fault Sakura’s reasoning, even if she was barely talking to him.
A nine-block area near one of the canals was completely locked down to non-ANBU personnel, but Kiba picked up their sensei’s scent trail leaving the area, mixed in with a lot of blood that wasn’t his. That trail led them to the hospital, where the simpering young woman at the front desk refused to give any details.
At least, she refused to give any information to Sakura, but when Sasuke quietly asked her for information regarding the location of his Jonin-Sensei, she blushed, stammered, and finally directed them to the basement level. It took no small effort to keep his face from twisting in disgust. For one thing, the woman was easily twice his age. For another, it always annoyed him how people made exceptions for him because he was an Uchiha. He wanted recognition just like anyone, he supposed, but he wanted it for things he’d actually done, not just because of the family he’d been born into or the eyes he inherited. Yes, the Sharingan were powerful, but he hadn’t done much with his yet. People throwing themselves at his feet for no reason was just wrong, and he found he had little respect for most of Konoha.
He had nearly killed the first civilian that tried to console him about his loss to Naruto, explaining how his clan had tried to get the results overturned by the Hokage. Like that would mean anything – a victory given to him on a silver platter because he wasn’t good enough to earn it himself.
The idiot had thought Sasuke had drawn his kunai at the mention of Naruto’s name.
If anything, he owed the blond-haired idiot for the lesson he taught. He’d been coasting too long at the Academy, assuming he’d be ready for Itachi when the time came. Naruto put paid to that little fantasy. Some quiet observation and a few questions revealed just how hard the dead last of his academy class had been training since they graduated. Rock Lee was another genin that should never have graduated at all – yet he had trained himself in Taijutsu to the degree that most chuunin didn’t really want ‘just a friendly spar’ with the fuzzy-eyebrow weirdo.
And he was Naruto’s regular sparring partner.
At least now Sasuke felt like he was making progress.
As they rode the elevator down, Sasuke glanced over at Sakura, who was looking increasingly apprehensive. She looked over at him. “What is it?” he asked quietly.
“My aunt used to work at this hospital,” Sakura replied. “There aren’t any treatment areas on the basement level.”
“What is down here?” Kiba asked in a hushed voice. From the expression on his face, as well as Akamaru’s, the smells associated with the hospital must be overwhelming.
Sasuke didn’t react, aside from a small tic under his left eye. But when the door opened, they walked very quietly down the hallway. Voices were coming from the corridor junction up ahead, voices they recognized.
“How did you know?” they heard Kakashi-sensei ask in a tired voice.
“One of my allies was staying with her,” they heard Shino say. “When the… event… occurred, it followed instructions to return to the hive and report.”
Edging a little farther along the corridor, Sasuke could see Kakashi now, facing away from them, his body bent with fatigue. He had not seen his sensei so drained since the mission in Wave Country when he collapsed from chakra exhaustion after fighting Zabuza. His voice was even more ragged. “I think he was trying to capture her. He used some special genjutsu technique from his Sharingan, and she was able to counter it. But it left her off balance long enough to…”
Shino nodded once. “If she had developed a counter for his technique, he would not want her to share that information with others. It was… logical… that she be killed.” The Aburame’s voice was flat, but it still put chills down Sasuke’s spine. Then the rest of it sank in.
“I need to report to the Hokage,” Kakashi continued, pushing away from the wall. “I wanted to warn you. He’s after Naruto; that’s why he tried to capture Kurenai. He might try to use you next.” Kakashi didn’t seem aware of his students’ presence, but it was more of a miracle that he could even stand, let alone stagger down the hallway. He didn’t even seem to hear the muffled gasp from Sakura when he said Kurenai’s name - that’s how badly the copy-ninja was out of it.
It took all of Sasuke’s self-control not to move, not to breathe, until Kakashi was gone. Then he shot forward and grabbed Shino’s arm. In a flash, the air around them was thick with flying insects, each of them buzzing with rage, but Sasuke ignored them. “Do you have a tag on Naruto?” he hissed.
“And what if I do, Uchiha?” Shino asked, his voice even colder than before.
It occurred to Sasuke that it was possible the bug-user might decide to extract vengeance on himself as the closer target, rather than waiting to find Itachi. And he was already in the middle of the Aburame’s swarm. “We need to warn Naruto,” he said quickly.
“He’s out of town on a mission. I’m sure the Hokage will-“ Shino began, but Sasuke cut him off.
“Wherever he is, do you think anyone can find him faster than you?” Sasuke asked.
“Perhaps, perhaps not,” Shino said. Then his brows drew down. “Why is this your concern?” he asked pointedly.
Sasuke started to snap back, then paused. He sighed. “Itachi is… was an Uchiha. It’s my responsibility to stop him, or at least keep him from hurting anyone else if I can.”
Shino’s eyes seemed to bore into him through the dark glasses. “I can agree, but only to the extent that my teammate’s safety is a higher priority than your vengeance.”
“Then let’s go,” Sasuke agreed.
“Not without us,” Kiba interjected, stepping forward. Sakura was half a step behind him.
Sasuke shook his head. “You can’t leave the village outside of a mission without parental or clan permission.”
“Then how can – “ Kiba started to ask and then cut himself off. “How can Shino go?”
“My allies are already conveying a message to my father,” Shino supplied smoothly. Sasuke wondered if it was really that fast or if the Aburame was lying through his collar.
“Sasuke,” Sakura began, “Kakashi-sensei will-“
“He will remember that we don’t currently have any missions scheduled,” Sasuke cut in. “The only assignment we had was to meet for training and he didn’t show up.”
Sakura frowned, but didn’t say anything. They both knew that it was a technicality, even if it was true. But there was no way he’d miss out on a chance to frustrate his brother’s plans.
“I’ll mark the trees as we go, like Kakashi showed us,” Sasuke offered. “Meet up and follow as soon as you have clearance,” he couldn’t help but add. He had resented being ordered to shepherd civilians when others were fighting off the invaders, and been lectured about the importance of following orders and doing his duty. Well, now he was doing his duty as acting head of a one-man clan and it was their turn to follow standing orders.
If that made him a little petty, then so be it.
It took a while before Naruto or Hinata saw a familiar face. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the pig-tailed blonde with the buxom figure that Jiraiya had described. Naruto was rather disgusted to see their so-called mission leader living it up. He had an attractive brunette hostess hanging all over him, and the old pervert was grinning like a white-haired baboon.
Naruto turned to Hinata, scowling. She was blushing a little, so no use hoping she hadn’t seen it already. “Perhaps, ah, Jiraiya-sama is interrogating a source?” she asked hesitantly.
“Maybe,” Naruto said, swallowing. He was glad Hinata was leaving him an out. She always tried to do that – going out of her way to avoid embarrassing anyone. It wasn’t like Naruto was responsible for Jiraiya’s behavior, but he felt profoundly embarrassed on behalf of the entire male gender. What kind of shinobi took time in the middle of an important mission for that?
At least it was late enough to justify heading back to the hotel. The naïve young villagers they were posing as were starting to stand out a little, and it would only get worse as the night wore on.
After a whispered conversation, the two of them began working their way back to the festival grounds and to their hotel. No telling when Jiraiya would turn up.
To tell the truth, Uchiha Sasuke was at least somewhat self-aware. He knew the reputation he’d developed as a brooding loner at the Konoha Ninja Academy. It wasn’t something he’d purposefully cultivated, but he’d have to be an idiot to maintain no idea of how others saw him.
Privately, it still boggled his mind how so many of his female contemporaries became completely irrational where he was concerned.
For the most part, he was satisfied with the results. He didn’t want the meaningless sympathy of strangers, and a cold exterior kept them at a comfortable distance where they belonged. The lasting effects of the genjutsu his brother tortured him with instead became useful habits for minimizing useless attachments.
But now, he traveled with someone even less talkative. And, if it was possible, even angrier. Aburame Shino didn’t say a single thing after they left the morgue and slipped out of the village. The fact that they went over the wall instead of using the gate confirmed his suspicions about whether Shino had formal permission yet. Not really his problem though. Not like Itachi.
As they took to the trees, Sasuke was a little surprised at the pace Shino set. Aburame were known for their jutsu, not for their speed, but he was actually having to push a little to keep up. He didn’t remember Shino being this fast when they were classmates. Had he been holding back, or was everyone getting stronger like Naruto?
Sasuke tightened his jaw, scowling.
Naruto and Hinata were both silent as they slipped into their hotel. Between her natural reticence and Naruto’s embarrassment over the old pervert’s behavior, no one really felt like talking. Naruto almost regretted talking the Hokage into sending Hinata along, right until he remembered the look on her face when she was going to be sent back to her family. There were worse things than the old pervert’s amusements.
It was child’s play getting to their rooms unobserved. Light as it was, Naruto was still relieved to scrub the makeup off his face. From the way she was blinking, Hinata probably felt the same way about the blue contacts.
After removing their disguises, they were about to head down for a late dinner when a knock came at their door. Naruto supposed the lecherous old goat struck out with the hostess if he was back so early. He flung open the door, ready to give Jiraiya a piece of his mind, but it wasn’t his erstwhile tutor.
Instead it was an older version of Sasuke, wearing a black cloak with red clouds. He also wore a Konoha hitai-ite with a slash through the symbol. Naruto felt his stomach turn to ice. Itachi. Sasuke’s older brother, the one that killed off the rest of the clan, including his own parents. He quickly averted his eyes. He knew from Kurenai-sensei’s lecture on Dojutsu that a fully evolved Sharingan can do things to anyone foolish enough to look into them.
“Hello, Naruto-kun. We would like you to come with us,” the man said in a quiet, even voice. Behind him, Naruto could see a hulking figure in another robe. There was something… wrong… with the second one’s face. His skin seemed to be tinged blue.
Hinata sucked in a shocked breath, and Naruto felt like kicking himself for not letting her check the hallway before he opened the door.
“If you come along quietly,” the Uchiha continued, “no one else has to get hurt. You wouldn’t want your friend to have an accident, would you?”
“I still think we ought to take a leg off,” the figure behind him growled. “Keep him from trying to run off.”
Naruto was still in shock when he heard a cry of rage coming from the hallway behind the missing ninjas. Itachi spun with preternatural speed and caught a hurled kunai that was moving faster than Naruto could see. The blond shinobi jerked back as a swarm of familiar-looking bugs descended on the blue-skinned killer.
Itachi used the captured kunai to expertly deflect a hail of flaming shuriken. He almost looked bored. His partner swung a huge cloth-wrapped bundle through the swarm of kikai bugs. In its wake, they either fell to the ground lifeless or veered drunkenly. The motion pushed back his cloak and hat. Naruto’s stomach tensed. He looked like nothing more than a fish-man with sharp teeth.
Behind the shuriken came Sasuke with a kunai in each hand, moving faster than Naruto had ever seen him go, his eyes blazing red with spinning Sharingans. He flew into some impossibly complex taijutsu combination, but his brother merely reached out and grabbed his ankle, a millisecond before his kick landed. “Too slow, little brother,” he gently chided, then swung Sasuke headfirst into the wall.
There was a crash behind Naruto. Hinata had thrown the nightstand through the window. She grabbed his elbow and hauled backward as Itachi turned back toward them.
“Kill the Aburame,” Itachi murmured. “He is of no use to us. Send him off to meet his sensei.”
Naruto froze as the words sunk into his mind, nearly pulling Hinata off balance.
“It is foolish to resist the inevitable,” Itachi continued. “You will come with us. The only variable you control is how many more of your allies will die today.”
“She looked pretty stupid with that kunai stuck in her head,” the fish-man added.
With a wordless cry of rage and despair, Naruto’s head snapped up. Before he realized what he was doing, his eyes met Itachi’s Sharingan and he knew nothing more.
Hinata was nearly weeping with frustration as she tried to get Naruto away from the missing-nins. She’d heard enough about Uchiha Itachi to know they were no match for the S-classed mass-murderer. She hoped Shino was just trying to provide them with a diversion, like one of their tactical exercises.
Her stomach twisted when they announced Kurenai-sensei was dead. Worse, Naruto went completely rigid, and her task became impossible. She just wasn’t strong enough to haul him bodily out the window if he resisted.
That was her last thought before her vision filled with red chakra and she was thrown back against the bed. She painfully blinked away the tears that filled her eyes, her head already aching.
And she was behind Naruto.
In front of him, most of the doorway was gone. As was a good bit of the wall. In the hallway, she could see Shino staggering back, his swarm trailing after him. Itachi’s partner had forgotten all about him, and was instead trying to swing a massive blunt sword horizontally at Naruto’s side. As it plowed through his chakra flare, the bandages wrapping it burned away to reveal a mass of dull grey scales that glinted like teeth.
Naruto’s left hand shot out and the blade stopped two inches short of his palm. Red chakra sheathed his arm, and swirled around the sword that seemed to drink it in. Her Byakugan confirmed that the sword was indeed consuming the chakra, but it was being replaced just as fast, with no signs of it being diminished.
But all that was forgotten as Naruto spoke in a voice that was not his own.
“Thank you ever so much, Itachi-kun. Your little Genjutsu utterly ravaged the boy’s will, allowing me to subvert the seal. Now I am in control, and the seal protects me from outside influences – like your filthy Sharingan.” The voice was hollow, mocking, but with a feral undercurrent that made the hairs on her neck rise up. Naruto’s free hand rose, and red chakra coalesced around it, forming claws of fire that grew longer even as she watched.
Then a deep voice called out, “Ninpou: Gama Guchi Shibari!”, and the walls, ceiling, and floor were covered with a thick fleshy material that was bright pink and smelled like rich earth and forests. Through the walls, she saw Jiraiya stride into view at the end of the hall, the woman he’d been flirting with earlier slung over his shoulder. “It’s really kind of insulting,” he continued in a conversational tone. “Did you really think you could distract me with something so obvious?”
“It worked long enough,” Itachi countered.
“Not long enough,” Jiraiya snapped. “Because now you both die, food inside the gullet of Iwagama-san.”
The fish-man growled as he jerked his foot free of the sticky material. The red-sheathed Naruto shoved his sword aside with a contemptuous flick, knocking the bulky man even more off balance. He growled and brought the sword back for another swing, but Itachi barked “Kisame, come!” and they both flashed toward the opposite end of the corridor.
Hinata’s eyes tracked them through the walls as they turned the corner. The stairwell was already blocked, and the pink masses were growing over the last window at the end. But there was a flash of black fire, chakra so intense it was nearly solid, and then they were gone, moving beyond her range so quickly they effectively disappeared.
Jiraiya cautiously followed them, scowling as he turned the corner and saw they’d escaped. “Dammit, they got away,” he grumbled. Then he turned back to Naruto and froze. That’s when Hinata realized that her best friend’s eyes had turned completely red with slit pupils.
“Ah good, I still have a little time before the moron recovers,” Naruto said in a darkly sardonic voice that was not his own. “Plenty of opportunity to deal with you and properly thank you for teaching that blond idiot how to use seals.”
Hinata felt like she was watching someone else as her body stepped in front of what was clearly a Naruto possessed by his prisoner. She swallowed and said “I w-won’t let you do that.”
Naruto’s brows drew down into a scowl. “Don’t think I won’t hesitate to crush you like the insect you are. Step aside.”
For an instant, Hinata wanted nothing more than to do that. She ruthlessly pushed down her fear. “N-Naruto-kun said I was his b-best friend. Do you think he’d let you live if you k-killed me?” She couldn’t ever imagine saying something like that out loud, but it was the first thing that came to mind.
The thing wearing Naruto’s body looked her up and down in a way that made her very uncomfortable. “You have a lot of spine for someone so small, insect. Perhaps you’d make good breeding stock.”
Despite the terror that made her want to throw up, she still felt her face redden.
Naruto’s body shuddered.
“Maybe you aren’t as in control as you think you are,” Jiraiya observed. Hinata didn’t need her eyes to tell he was smirking at it. Him. Naruto.
“Dammit, without them here, this idiot’s rage is fading. Now the seal wants to work properly.” Naruto shook his head, clenching his fists. “Hypocritical thing. I’d love to take the time to rip your face off, you frustrated old virgin, but I need you to get this idiot somewhere safe.”
With that, Naruto’s eyes faded back to their normal blue and white as they rolled back into his head and he crumpled to the floor. Hinata barely managed to catch him before he cracked his head open.
“I’m getting too old for this shit,” Jiraiya observed.
Yes, I’m back. My job situation has improved markedly with a new shift and a new boss… and now I release one of the more depressing chapters.
Killing Kurenai off wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t done on a whim. I’ve actually had this plot point in the outline since day one. But I am going to miss her and her exasperated sarcasm. Using her internal monologue to point out things I found amusing or ridiculous was surprisingly addictive.
Bibliophile asked a good question that I wanted to repeat here:
B: “Checking my timeline here; they fight in Konoha, head to the city where Naruto is, hire a distraction to keep the perv occupied, and then go after Naruto. The time it took them to hire a distraction and make sure it worked is what let Shino and Sasuke catch up, correct?”
Me: “Yes, and it took them significantly longer to find Naruto than it took Shino, since he had Naruto tagged.” (Also, the ‘distraction’ was under a genjutsu, not hired. I guess even Akatsuki have limited expense accounts.)
Yes, Sasuke isn’t always a big jerk. Getting his bell rung in the preliminaries by dead-last was sort of a wake-up call. His words to Shino may end up being one of those things you tell someone because it’s what you think they want to hear… only to discover it’s more true than you realized.
A couple of final reminders:
This story was outlined well before the whole “Itachi was actually a good guy working for Konoha” shark jump. At some point you have to just draw the line and say “based on canon up to this point in the series” and not change everything when the source material reveals that “everything you thought you knew about _____ was wrong!” Besides, I think Itachi, embodying some of the more classic attributes of what we normally consider a ninja to be, makes a great villain. Especially when contrasted with everyone else in the series who are about as ‘ninja’ as Elmer Fudd. (“Be vewwy qwiet. We’re hunting Bijuu!”)
This story is an AU. If you notice someone acting out-of-character when compared to canon, then rest assured there is a reason. An event occurred before Naruto was even born that had wide-ranging consequences. What that event was will eventually be revealed in a future chapter.
Given that I just whacked my primary mouthpiece, I hope it’s clear to everyone that no character in this story has ‘plot armor’. Some things may go better than canon, some may go worse. Sometime bad things happed to good people. All I can do is promise to make it as interesting a ride as I can.