A Work of Blatant Self-Insertion
Chapter 11: Silhouette
* Seven years ago *
If you asked anyone else in the village what the most important day in Hyuuga Hinata’s life was, they would tell you a well-known story. It was the story of an act of betrayal disguised as an act of diplomacy, and the sacrifice of one brother for another. For those outside the Hyuuga clan, it was a lesson in how in this shinobi world even friendship and family could hide a murderous blade.
If you asked Hinata what the most important day in her life was, she would lie to you with a smile on her face. It was one of only two lies she ever told anyone. She would tell you about the time she decided to step in and protect a harmless animal from other children. She would talk about the pain of being pelted with stones. She would talk about how it was the first decision she had ever made for herself.
She would say that was the day she met her best friend, and her life started to change for the better.
But if you could see into her heart of hearts, the most important day you would see there was one full of heartache and hope.
Hinata at the time was barely six years old. In a handful of weeks, she would be attending the ninja academy. Yet despite that, she did not feel pride. She had fled into the woods, her heart heavy. Her father had arranged a ‘demonstration’ for her. She had always been happy to spend time with her two year old sister. Yet when she had been in the family dojo, watching the girl perform taijutsu that Hinata herself was struggling with, her heart had filled with overwhelming shame.
“This is the level of ability expected of the head of the Hyuuga clan,” her father said, his arms crossed and his expression severe. He did not look at Hinata once, but the message was clear. Her sister had been a joy to Hinata for the last two years. She had been enthusiastic when Hanabi had started walking at six months, and talking at eight. She had been happy when Hanabi had begun to practice martial arts at only one year and two months. She had laughed with the girl when Hanabi had first awakened her Byakugan only a couple of weeks ago.
Now, two weeks later, Hanabi was activating her Byakugan with a single hand sign. The process of learning how to awaken the kekkei genkai had been perfected by the Hyuuga over the generations; it started with a ten sign sequence, and a Hyuuga was not considered a proper ninja until they could do it without a single gesture.
Hinata was still on four signs.
Hanabi finished her kata, demonstrating the beginnings of the Gentle Fist with aplomb. She turned, a wide smile on her face. The clan had not yet taught her the restraint they were famous for. This normally endeared her to Hinata.
“Big sis Hinata!” Hanabi ran over to her. “Did you see?”
“Yes, Hanabi,” she replied, and Hanabi paused at the sudden strain in Hinata’s smile and voice. Hinata forced her smile to grow more natural and her voice to take on its usual soft tones. “That was very good. I am proud of you.”
Hanabi, however, only glanced at their father. His expression was stern and distant, but he nodded at Hanabi, barely more than the slightest dip of his chin. He still refused to look at Hinata. Hanabi began to look torn, her mouth opening and closing.
Hinata couldn’t stand it. She kissed her sister on the forehead and left. It was only once she was out of the compound that she began to run, poorly suppressed tears staining her cheeks. She was lost in the woods before she knew it.
That was when the three boys, older and stronger, found her. They laughed at her tears, and at her eyes and at the fact she did nothing but flinch back from their insults. They began to push her back and forth between them. They did no damage – not even eight year olds could be that ignorant of who the Hyuuga were – just made her stumble and lose her balance as one thrust her to another.
Eventually they stepped away and she collapsed to her knees, hiccoughing and crying. The insults continued until a new voice arrived.
“Hey, leave her alone!”
The blond boy who charged into the clearing had strange marks on his cheeks and fire in his blue eyes. He charged into the boys… and promptly was grabbed and slammed against a tree. He coughed and slumped as the boys turned their attentions to him, more free with their fists now that their target was an unimportant boy rather than a crying girl from a powerful family.
Yet no matter how much they struck him or pushed him down, the boy struggled to his feet each time. Bruised and with torn clothes he staggered in place, his eyes narrowed and his teeth bared in a devil-may-care grin. “You think this’ll stop me? I’m gonna be Hokage one day, so you better step up!”
Just when the bigger boys seemed ready to follow his advice and move from playground bullying to something more serious, a voice distracted them all. It was Hinata’s nurse, a nervous but kind branch Hyuuga man, arrived to track down the errant girl. The voice of an adult did what all the blond boy’s bravado could not, and sent the bullies scattering.
The boy had just enough time to sit down hard in front of Hinata and smile at her, saying, “Hey, you okay now?” before the nurse showed up.
“Lady Hinata, there you are,” the nurse spoke with some relief. He took her hand and helped her to her feet. “We must return to the house now.”
“Wuh-wait…” Hinata said, tugging slightly at his hand. The man looked at her, then at the boy. Some recognition lit up on his face before he scowled.
“You shouldn’t be seen with this one, Lady Hinata,” the nurse said, pulling her along. “It’s dangerous, you could be hurt if…” He trailed off but continued to pull Hinata away. She tried to look around him, to see the expression on the boy’s face and to mutter out a thank you, but his back was to her the entire time she was pulled along and Hinata didn’t have it in her to refuse her caretaker’s quiet insistence.
That was the day she met Uzumaki Naruto, the boy who never gave up. Later, she saw him in her classes at the academy. He was loud, proud, and terrible at everything. He insulted the teacher when he failed his exercises. Every failure came with laughter and name-calling among the students until Iruka got control again, and each time Naruto declared that he would be Hokage and show all of them.
He was, in short, even worse of a ninja than Hinata.
But he never gave up.
* Now *
Naruto smashed into the tree hard enough that leaves fell from its lower branches. He groaned and staggered forward before going down on one knee. He looked up through squinting eyes. “Damn,” he said and spat. “You think that’s enough to stop me!?”
He charged, his first step uneven as he tried to rise and run at the same time. By the third step he was steady and moving. He pulled his hand back and clenched his fingers into a fist. His opponent raised an eyebrow but didn’t move, keeping a loose stance with hands open and spread to the sides.
Naruto came in high, his last two steps turning into a hop that carried him above eye level and twisted his entire body into a haymaker. Delicate hands shot up, grabbed his shoulder and wrist. Before the boy could register the motion he was face down in the dirt, his arm twisted behind him hard enough that he felt like it would snap if he so much as twitched.
“If you don’t give up, I’ll break your arm,” Sakura said, her tone frighteningly level. Naruto groaned and almost considered it. He was taking deep panting breaths, and with every gasp he could feel the truth of her words sinking in deeper and deeper. She was just faster, stronger, and better than him.
“Then you better break it,” Naruto said with a growl, levering his free hand under himself and pushing his body upward. The pain flared as Sakura twisted his arm in response and for a long second he thought she really was going to do it.
“Snap,” she said and released him. He groaned and rolled onto his back. He sat up and rubbed his shoulder, wincing as the pain went from a sharp insistent stabbing to a long numbing ache.
“Damn, Sakura, do you have to be so rough?” Naruto said with a groan.
“Don’t blame her for your incompetence,” Sasuke said. He was sitting on a tree stump, one leg held up as he rubbed at the abrasions along his shin. “You threw yourself right into that.”
“Like you did any better,” Naruto said snappishly.
Sasuke grunted and looked away. He had been in a mood since his own brief spar with Sakura earlier. Unlike Naruto, he hadn’t ended face-down in the dirt, but that was only because Sakura had grabbed him by the neck in the first second of their ‘match’ and jumped into the pond with him, then held him under water until he’d tapped her shoulder in surrender.
“Well, the problem was neither of you took this seriously,” Sakura said as she sat down cross-legged on the dirt. “I mean, I appreciate you not wanting to hurt me, but I’m a lot tougher than I look.”
Naruto ceased rubbing his shoulder. He was frowning at Sakura. She had changed in the two weeks since he had last seen her during the aborted exams. She looked older, for one thing: like she had aged three or maybe five years overnight. Of course, she was even more beautiful than before. She was taller, more filled out, her baby-fat face having slimmed down and her complexion somehow even more clean and soft than before. The only thing ‘new’ about her was the ears. Even those had an appeal to them, though her whole appearance was somehow too perfect. It wasn’t… Sakura in the same way as before.
His heart ached a little at seeing her. Why did he suddenly feel like he was watching her back as she walked steadily away from him?
“You should have come at me with kunai and jutsu if you wanted to win,” Sakura said. “Without those, it’s easy enough for me to use some grappling to defeat you.” She paused and contemplated that for a moment. “Though really, maybe you guys should work on your grappling. Your taijutsu is all strikes as it stands. You don’t have any ground game.” She looked up at Kakashi.
The older jonin was sitting in the crook of a large tree branch overhead. He was flipping idly through his racy book. He looked down at the three of them, raising his one visible eye.
“Mainly because we’re trained as soldiers, not martial artists,” Kakashi said. “Plus we work in three to four man teams in the field. Any technique which pins you down for an extended period is a death sentence.” He shrugged and slipped his book back into his back pouch. He vanished from the branch and appeared between the three of them in a swirl of leaves. “That isn’t even taking into account jutsu like the Kamiwari or Bunshin. Plus there are any number of ninja you don’t want to touch.”
“Ah well…” Sakura rubbed the back of her neck. “I suppose. I keep forgetting the whole ‘killing people for money’ thing.”
Kakashi hummed at her and helped Naruto to his feet. “I’m glad the three of you are at least getting along.” Kakashi looked at Sasuke, who was getting to his own feet. The bruises and cuts on his shins couldn’t be concealed by his shorts, but he was doing his best to ignore them so Naruto did the same. “I’m happy to see Team 7 won’t be letting a little thing like incarceration keep us apart.”
“So when do we start going on missions again?” Naruto said, bouncing on his feet. He began to mime all his super cool jutsu. “Rogue ninjas? Giant sand demons? Team 7 with the next Hokage! We’ll be even more famous than the Sannin. So what’s next? Rescue a princess? Fight creepy ninja mutants? Kill an evil mastermind?”
“You’re getting carried away, Naruto,” Kakashi said, shrugging and spreading his arms helplessly. “The Hokage gave us a whole month to train, so we’ll finish that first. Then we have to go on missions that will prepare you all for the next chunin exam.”
“You haven’t given up on us getting promoted?” Naruto asked. “All right!” He hopped and shook his fists around.
“Extra training?” Sakura asked. “What for?”
“Normally those students who pass the second exam will move onto the third portion: a one versus one tournament. To give them a chance to exploit the intelligence they gathered in the first two phases, they are typically granted a month-long period to train and develop a strategy.
“Seeing as how you performed so well, the Hokage agreed to grant you that month to train. Think of it as a bonus since you managed to save all the other student’s lives.”
“Yeah, we’re getting extra super-special training!” Naruto danced from foot to foot, spinning his hands around himself. “In no time at all, you’ll be the one catching up with me, Sakura!”
Sakura laughed behind her hand. “Naruto, you have no idea how right you are.”
“Don’t be an idiot, Naruto,” Sasuke said. He looked up from his abused legs, having finished replaced the bandages around them that had been ruined by his little swim earlier. “I heard that Sakura fought an elite ninja, a legendary ninja even stronger than Zabuza.”
“Me?” Sakura pointed at herself and then waved her hand dismissively. “In reality, I just barely held him off, and then the Hokage and a bunch of Anbu finished him because I managed to make a lot of noise.”
Sasuke made a dismissive hiss and stood up, putting his hands in his pockets. “Your evasiveness is almost as annoying as Naruto,” he said. He turned his attention to Kakashi. “We should be able to use her skills to advance our own. Your training is ridiculous.”
“Now, now, give it a chance,” Kakashi waved his hand up and down. “Have you even gotten halfway up, yet?” Sasuke rolled his eyes.
Sakura looked between them, blinking rapidly. Then she shrugged and raised a finger. “Well, even if I’m forbidden from augmenting you guys, that doesn’t mean I can’t help out.”
“Help us out?” Sasuke said, leaning forward eagerly.
“Oh yeah! We can all work together to become super famous ninja!”
“So how exactly do you plan to help?” Kakashi said, slouching against a tree with his arms crossed and his eyebrow raised inquisitively.
“Well…” Sakura rubbed her chin. “First off, I think that just training can be a bit stifling. You need training, but you also need challenges. In a big way, the best way for a shinobi to grow is to compete directly against other ninja.”
“You want us to fight each other?” Sasuke frowned.
“No… I want us to fight other ninja, as a team.” Sakura looked at Kakashi and raised her eyebrows innocently. “I’m kind of friends with most of Guy’s team, and was wondering…”
“…you want to set up a challenge between you?”
“Exactly!” She smiled. “They didn’t get to fight in the chunin exams so… why not arrange some sort of match between us?”
Kakashi seemed to contemplate the suggestion for a while. “On the one hand, Sakura has a point. Ninja do learn best when they have a challenge to overcome. On the other hand, this means I would have to talk to Guy.” He tilted his head to the side and his expression grew haggard. “Decisions, decisions.”
“We can totally defeat these guys!” Naruto insisted. “Come on, sensei, give us a chance to prove how awesome we are!” He pointed to the distance. Then paused and looked around, squinting. “Uh, who are they?”
Sakura giggled behind her hand, smiling. Naruto found himself smiling goofily in response. “Bushy brows, Hinata’s older cousin and… a girl you probably never met before two weeks ago, actually. Her name is TenTen.”
Naruto frowned and gripped his chin. Then he recalled the boy with the bowl-cut and huge eyebrows who had described himself as ‘Sakura’s rival’ during the chunin exams. He snapped his fingers. “Oh yeah, I remember him! Bushy-brows with the loud voice!”
“Didn’t you say that in pure taijutsu, you lost more often than you won against him?” Sasuke asked. From the look he was giving Naruto, the idea of describing any other ninja as ‘loud’ wasn’t something Naruto should do. Naruto stuck his tongue out at him. He could get subtle (sometimes), but it’s not like he needed to!
“Yup!” Sakura said, popping her ‘p’ and smiled dreamily. It was that expression, which never showed judgement or distance, which Naruto liked best on her.
Sasuke and Naruto exchanged a glance. Naruto could see the excitement rising in his partner’s eyes. He grinned, and a smirk tugged at the edge of Sasuke’s lips. Just a few minutes ago, Sakura had manhandled them both with almost humiliating ease. She had agreed at the outset not to hold back or conceal her strength from them anymore. Having seen just how much she was above them both filled Naruto with a fire.
“…I’m going to have to talk to Guy,” Kakashi said with a put-upon sigh. He gave Sakura a mock glare. “This is your revenge for me not letting you perform unethical experiments on your teammates.”
“Well, we can probably at least wait until Sasuke and Naruto have finished their training. So you get a two week reprieve.”
“Ugh.” Naruto grimaced. “I got to go back to the pervert and creepy face?”
“Pervert?” Sakura looked at him and then made an ‘ah’ and nodded. “Of course. Good timing. You should pay attention to your teachers, Naruto.”
“Yeah, but it’s really hard! This climate change stuff is really worrying me.”
Sakura blinked in confusion, and Kakashi sighed. “It’s Nature Transformation, Naruto, not climate change.”
“He probably emits enough carbon from all the yelling to start it,” Sakura muttered in almost too low a voice to hear. Naruto looked quizzically at her, but she just smiled at him. “So, you’re working on that jutsu? I’m surprised. You’re advancing faster than I expected. How is it going?”
“At this rate I’m getting nowhere,” Naruto said, hating to admit it, but felt fine doing so with the three of them. I mean, sensei is sensei, and if I can’t talk to him about my problems who can I? Plus Sakura is always helpful and cute. And Sasuke… Naruto glanced at the boy. …I guess it’s okay.
Neither of them had talked about what had happened during the exam. Naruto still wasn’t sure what to think. Yet, he couldn’t bring himself to ask Sasuke. He got the feeling that the black-haired boy really, really did not want to talk about it.
“At least you’re learning something new,” Sasuke grumbled. He looked at Sakura. “What about you, are you doing any special training?”
Sakura shook her head and waved the question aside with one hand. “I’m way too busy dealing with training Ino right now to focus on anything else.”
“Training Ino?” Naruto said. “How are you doing that?”
She glanced at Naruto, then at Kakashi, and smirked. “Well, Naruto, I have a unique ability.” She held up one finger. “I actually have eight other…” She paused and looked at him, pursing her lips. “Welllll, for simplicity let’s just say I can split my attention nine ways at once.”
“Nine ways?” Naruto said with a gasp. Sasuke was also staring at her in disbelief.
“Yup.” Sakura crossed her arms and nodded. “It’s the second secret of my training regime. Nine separate perspectives running at the same time means that I can accomplish nine times the work!” Now she held up nine fingers.
“Doesn’t that get confusing?” Naruto asked, squinting and tilting his head to the side.
“Nope!” Sakura popped the word again. “Right now I’m…” She looked up and closed her eyes. “I’m hanging out with you guys, and have another one running through some training with Ino, and a bunch running mental theory models and a couple are just chilling out.”
“Chilling out?” Sasuke asked with a frown.
“Don’t underestimate the value of rest and relaxation!” Sakura said, leaning forward and thrusting a finger at him. “The human body can only do so much work before you start to get diminishing returns. A proper training schedule includes sufficient time to recover your energy and heal up.”
“Whatever,” Sasuke said, looking away and tossing his head so his hair waved. Naruto frowned. Sasuke always acted so cool. Naruto pulled his attention away from him and back to Sakura.
“Man, that sounds really awesome!” Naruto said, rubbing his hand through his hair and grinning. “I wish I could train with nine brains at once.”
“Ah!” Kakashi said suddenly. Everyone looked at him. He gazed at Naruto. “That might be an idea.”
“What idea?” Naruto asked.
“Well, I’ll have to talk to your teachers, but I think this will help you catch up with Sasuke.”
“Catch up?” Naruto said. Like he needed to catch up with anyone! Well, maybe Sakura.
“Sasuke already knows shape manipulation and nature transformation for his chakra,” Kakashi said, “While you only know shape manipulation.”
“Yeah, loser,” Sasuke said with a smirk.
“Just you watch, Sasuke! I’ll beat Sakura before you do!”
“Hmm. I’ll need to oversee this myself. Which means nobody will be around to supervise Sasuke’s training…”
“…you don’t supervise it now,” Sasuke grunted.
“So I’ll have to get someone else to supervise!” Kakashi said. He turned to Sakura, his eye entirely innocent. “And since Sakura is forcing me to ask a favour, I guess It’s only fair I ask her one in return.”
* Six years ago *
“A favour, from me?” Hinata fidgeted as Sakura leaned over her. She was just trying to blend in at school, sitting alone in the classroom eating lunch. It had been six months since she had started at the academy. Despite her status as the ‘clan heir’ of the second most powerful clan in the village, she was left mainly alone. This suited her fine.
Well, except for Sakura. Sakura had been always there, finding every excuse to come over and talk to her. This always caused Hinata to hover at the edge of panic. Her throat would tighten and her breathing would become thin, and sometimes she felt light-headed. She was always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Sakura never seemed to do anything but just hang around her and… talk. She kept addressing questions to Hinata. Hinata hated being asked questions. It made her freeze up, and then awkward silence would follow as she tried to force a few words out of her throat which felt like it was the size of a pinpoint.
Sakura never let those silences happen. She just waited a second to see if Hinata would answer, and when she didn’t (which was far more often than not) she would just sweep onto another line of babble. She never seemed to want anything from Hinata, but she never seemed to ignore her, either.
It was… nice.
“Yeah, in all the months we’ve been friends, I’ve never once seen you use your Byakugan.”
“Ah…” Hinata flushed. She didn’t like using her kekkei genkai outside the compound. Her control wasn’t the best – and besides, it wasn’t like her ability with the bloodline was anything special. “Do… I have to?”
Sakura sat down next to her, blowing air out like her mouth in a long sigh. She laid her head down on the desk, pillowing it in her arms. “Nope,” Sakura said, popping the ‘p’ as usual. “In fact, I can say that the moment you use it around me, our entire friendship will change.”
Sakura nodded, an odd gesture given her posture, and looked up at Hinata. “Yeah. I’m… honestly surprised we became friends.” Hinata looked down. Everytime Sakura insisted they were friends, she had no idea how to react. She had never had a friend. She was The Heir. The Heir did not have anything so simple as a friend. “I figured one day you’d Byakugan me and then your… dad… would step in and we’d never be able to talk to each other again.”
Hinata did not wince, but she looked down. Yes. Her father would certainly step in if she started making friends with people like Sakura. ‘As clan heir, you must always think about how your relationships will forge your future as a kunoichi.’ Those had been his words.
“Then why…” Hinata couldn’t force the rest of the words out. Why would she want to be driven away now?
“I just did something really stupid last night,” Sakura said, turning her head so she was speaking into her arms. “Maybe I want to be punished?”
Hinata had no reaction to that. She watched as Sakura looked up, but her eyes were fixed on another boy in their class. Uchiha Sasuke, the other powerful clan child in their year. He was calmly eating his food, ignoring the commotion around him. Sometimes Hinata wished she had his confidence.
“…all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us…” Sakura murmured into her arms.
“I’m sorry?” Hinata said.
Sakura sat up, rubbing her eyes. Had she been crying? She shook her head. “Nothing. It’s just… a good man died yesterday.”
“Died?” Hinata said with some alarm.
“Yes.” Sakura nodded. “They called him The Body Flicker…” She bit her lip, but finally shrugged. “But that’s not why I’m here.” She turned to Hinata, blasting that smile at her. Hinata always felt a warmth spread through her when seeing that smile. Maybe… that meant Sakura and her really were friends?
It was… nice.
“Okay.” Hinata began to go through the signs. She was still at four. “I’ll show you my Byakugan.” And with that her eyes seemed to open again and-
-when she regained consciousness, Hinata was in her home. She could tell by the smell: that familiar blend of wood polish and flowers. She was on a futon, and a warm cloth was draped over her forehead and eyes. Her eyes hurt so she kept them squeezed shut. She could make out voices nearby.
“What were you thinking?” That was her father’s voice. There was a heavy silence before he spoke again. “Did you really think before acting? Do you know how much damage you could have caused?”
“…I can’t just watch…” That was Sakura.
“You have to just watch!” There was a whoosh of displaced air and a slap of flesh against wood. “Our burden is to watch. That is what we have to do.”
There was another heavy silence.
“Well, aren’t you going to defend yourself at least?”
“She’s awake,” Sakura said.
The tension seemed to drain out of the air, and then Sakura heard the soft sound of slippers on wood as the man approached her. She felt more than heard him kneel beside her. A hand came to rest on her shoulder.
“Hinata, are you okay?”
That concern in his voice was unlike Father. Ah, yes, of course.
“I’m fine,” she said and reached up, removing the warm cloth. “My eyes hurt a bit.”
He reached up and rested a hand on both her temples. His eyes bulged as He activated His Byakugan. The pain diminished.
“I’m sorry you had to see that,” He told her. Hinata looked across the room. Sakura was sitting in seiza-style at the far end of the room. Her eyes were downcast and she was quiet, entirely unlike her.
“What… was that?” Hinata managed to say.
“I suppose we have no choice but to explain,” He replied and looked at Sakura. Sakura met His gaze.
“She needed to know, eventually,” Sakura said, uncharacteristically softly. Hinata sat up and stared at the girl.
‘Maybe I want to be punished?’
“It’s okay,” Hinata said. “I… I’m glad.” Sakura looked at her, blinking in obvious surprise. “We’re… friends, aren’t we? I should see my friends… as they really are, right?”
* Now *
Ino ran a hand over the wooden deck. She could feel the resistance of her hand against the surface, but only because her haptic interface refused to allow her hand to move further down. The texture of the polished wood, the warmth of it, was entirely absent.
“What’s up, Ino?” Choji sat next to her, and she turned her eyes to look at him. His body was framed in a window that curved up and around her head, giving her a peripheral view of the world as well. But if she looked up or down enough she could see the edges of the screen and the illusion was shattered.
“Nothing much,” she said. “I’m just… I’m glad I can hang out with you guys again.”
Choji tore open a bag and began to snack on the chips within. “Yeah. You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but Shikamaru was practically tearing his hair out when he figured out what happened.”
“Don’t exaggerate,” Shikamaru said. He was in his usual slacker clothes, sitting across a shogi board from Asuma. The middle-aged man had a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. He had a short black beard and short black hair. He was wearing standard jonin gear with a sash sticking out from the bottom of his armoured vest showing a ‘fire’ kanji on it. “Though it has been troublesome since we can’t do much. Mom is getting to be a pain, saying I gotta train with Dad since we’re not able to go out on missions without you.”
“Well, we’re not going to be able to do any missions outside the village for awhile,” Asuma said, pulling out his cigarette and blowing a cloud of smoke to the side. Ino had always found the smell kind of offensive. She never knew she would miss it. “We have to stay within ten kilometres of the village for now.” He put the cigarette back in the corner of his lips. “So it’s D Ranks again for all of you.”
“D-ranks?” Shikamaru groaned. “Those are even more troublesome. Weeding lawns and painting fences isn’t exactly better than all that training.”
“I’m sorry,” Ino said with some sarcasm. “Next time I have my life upended, I’ll think about how that makes you do chores.”
“Guys, guys,” Asuma said with a grin. “This is a difficult time for all of us, so let’s be supportive rather than taking our frustrations out on each other.”
“Do you… want a chip, Ino?” Choji asked, offering one. Ino smiled at him. Well, at least he wanted to help. It almost broke her heart to turn him down.
“What, are you… dieting again?” Choji said the word ‘dieting’ like it was a particularly terrible disease.
“No. I literally can’t eat.” Ino patted her midsection. “I don’t even have a stomach anymore.”
Ino looked at Choji and flinched back, drawing her hands up and away. That expression! There were no words to convey the horror and despair in his face. He grabbed her hand, tears flowing. “I’m so sorry, Ino! I never realised…”
Ino laughed nervously.
“Speaking of,” Shikamaru said and made another move on the board. “And that’s mate.” He twisted around to look at Ino while Asuma rubbed his beard and tried to puzzle out how he hadn’t seen that coming. “We ever going to get to actually see the new you?”
Ino looked down at herself. It was weird, seeing the double vision of her own body and the image of her body through the window. She looked back up and shrugged. “I guess I could ask Sakura to remove the henge, but Dad thought it best I not walk around obviously changed. Then she’d have to come over and do it again before I could walk home.”
“Sakura can use transformation on others?” Shikamaru asked.
“Yeah,” Ino nodded, making her real body do the same. “And she can maintain it from all the way across the village.” She leapt to her feet. “Oh, that’s right. Quick, Choji, punch me.”
She looked down, but Choji was on the ground, fingers scrambling in the dirt. “…no barbeque… no shish-kebab… no dumplings or noodles…” He moaned. “Truly, that is a living hell…”
Ino sighed. “Shikamaru, you do it.”
“That’s way too troublesome,” he replied. “Besides, even if you ask me, I don’t hit girls.”
“Ugh. Sensei, can you punch me, please?”
Asuma gave up trying to figure out how his latest loss had happened, and stood up. “Really? Won’t that hurt?”
Ino smiled thinly. “As long as you don’t do any permanent damage, it’ll be fine. I won’t even feel it.”
Asuma pulled his cigarette out and snuffed it on the palm of his glove before flicking it into an ashtray set a dozen meters away on the wall of the Sarutobi compound. “Okay. If you say so.” He walked over and slugged her one in the shoulder. Ino felt herself moving back as the interface moved her mental body in response to her physical form’s involuntary motion, but felt no pain or pressure.
From the blow on her shoulder a ripple of rainbow light flowed out across her body, briefly revealing her actual appearance beneath before it snapped back into place like a water ripple rewinding back. A moment later, her ‘original’ appearance had returned.
“I see,” Shikamaru said, turning away and crossing his arms. “This is too troublesome.”
“…no deep fry… no soup…”
“I don’t understand this at all,” Asuma said, stuffing his hands into his pockets and pulling out his lighter and another cigarette. He didn’t light up, instead idly spinning the cigarette in one hand and snapping the lighter open and closed in the other. “But maybe it’s time we did some actual training. Even if it’s just D-Rank Missions, you’ll still need to be prepared for some dangerous situations.
“So you really can’t use chakra, right, Ino?”
Ino sighed and made the hand signs for the Bunshin no Jutsu but no clones appeared, not even the pathetic smoke and monochrome images that Naruto used to produce in class all the time. “See, nothing happened. Can’t use chakra while my spiritual and physical energy are separated like this.”
“That is an issue.” Asuma stuck the cigarette between his lip but still only tossed his lighter from one hand to the other. “Without the Yamanaka family jutsu, the Ino-Shika-Cho combination your team is built around will fail.”
“Hey, could you ask Asuma something for me?”
Ino glanced to the side, seeing a figure standing just beyond the edge of the window.
“Ino?” Asuma’s body tensed and he glanced in the same direction Ino was. Of course, he couldn’t see what Ino could see. Shikamaru seemed to pick up on the sudden tension and also shifted into a position that would be easier to leap into action.
“I’m sorry, sensei.” Ino waved at him. “Sakura has something she wants to ask you, could you wait a moment?”
“So you’re in contact even now…” Asuma’s eyes narrowed, but he nodded.
Ino gestured sharply and the window she was watching “through” vanished to the side, shrinking until it was the size of a hand mirror. Two of the Sakuras were waiting just to her side. She glanced between them. The one with the scary glasses she knew, the one with hair styled in a pair of twin-tails and a haughty expression she had seen around in the crowd but never been introduced to.
‘Befriend the target and relay intelligence to your handler, who shall be me.’
“Can I help you, Sakura?” she asked.
“We hate to interrupt,” Scienca said, with a tone that said she was only being polite out of formality. “But since you’re finally getting back to training your new body, we thought it was time to start experimenting with your control.”
“Experimenting?” Ino said, not keeping the distaste from her voice.
“What experiments?” Asuma’s voice sounded distant and tinny as it came from the tiny screen.
“You’re still linked to your haptic,” Scienca said with a shrug at Ino’s questioning look. “Even if you did minimize the image feed.”
“And that’s what I am here for,” the one in the elaborate dress with the frills said as she stepped forward. She had a device in her hands, some sort of helmet made out of a web of metallic wires. “To improve your haptic interface and start training you on the real mysteries of your body.” She smirked haughtily. “Or your mind, to be more specific.”
“Can we skip being cryptic for now?” Ino said, rubbing her hand over her face. “And what do I call you?”
“Sakura Mentum,” the other girl introduced her. “And this is a psionic induction helmet.”
Scienca adjusted her glasses. “It’s a test of a theory.” She gestured towards Ino. “Since your spiritual form is taking on the exact image of your physical body, I am hoping the brain is similarly there. Thus, even if you aren’t hard-wired into the simulation we can still use emulated-“
“You’re confusing her,” Mentum said as she thrust the helm into Ino’s hand. Ino struggled to grab it. “The ultimate lesson is this: if this works, you’ll be able to control the Ars Psionica embedded in your body.”
“You mean, I could use the mahoujutsu?” Ino asked, alarmed and intrigued.
“Hmpf.” Mentum tossed one drill-shaped hair-tail with the back of her hand. “What you call mahoujutsu is really three different arts, the Ars Magica, the Ars Technica and the Ars Psionica. What you commonly see as jutsu is the Ars Magica, which only we can use properly. The tools you see us use are Ars Technica, advanced machines. The final one is the Ars Psionica: the power of the spirit unlocked.”
Mentum turned and walked away before swinging around and holding up one finger in a lecturing pose. “Ars Technica is purely physical, based on physical laws. The Ars Magica draws on an extra-dimensional energy source that is poorly understood, even by us. The two are as different as reality and imagination. Technica exploits the physical laws of reality, and Magica alters those laws by imposing ones from other universes.
“Psionica is less like Magica and more like Technica, except it works purely on the spiritual level.”
“Spiritual level?” Ino frowned, concentrating and trying to memorise this.
“We discovered in our experiments that there are two layers to this world: the physical and the spiritual. They reflect each other, but only really interact when you create chakra.”
“Where is this ‘spiritual layer’?”
“All around us, all the time. It’s part of reality. We call it Astral Space. As far as I have been able to determine, it is a layer of reality produced by the perceptions of all thinking beings.” Sakura Mentum gestured, and a diagram formed in midair of a human outlined with wavy lines extending out of it. “This energy is produced most during sleep, and least during periods of intense concentration. Though the astral leakage is less ‘energy produced’ and more ‘energy unused’.
“Ars Psionica harvests that energy and uses it to alter the physical world. Though it’s less versatile than Ars Magica because it’s based on actual laws rather than picking and choosing them. The functional range of Ars Psionica is only ten meters, in fact.”
“Well… the ultimate range is determined by the individual. Each person has their own perspective and thoughts, but ten meters is the maximum I can reach.” Mentum shrugged elegantly. “It’s one of the reasons I never bothered to develop anything but the psychokinetic engine. The telepathic engine remains a theoretical exercise at this time.”
“Wait, can’t you already use telepathy? Like when you let me speak to my team at the exams?”
Mentum turned up her nose. “That was an illusion. One only your team could hear, but just an illusion. “
“You can put illusions in people’s thoughts?” Ino gaped.
“It’s less useful than you think. Without specific techniques that Mr. Ethics insists are wrong, anyone can easily distinguish mental illusion from reality.” Ino wasn’t certain about that, but she pushed it aside. Asuma could hear half of this conversation, so he would have more useful insights than she would get from prying for information.
“So… you want me to try this out?”
“Well, with your sensei’s permission first,” Mentum said with a dignified sigh. “I’ve been informed we can’t just do whatever we want anymore.” She gestured. “I asked Hatake Kakashi for permission, but he said, ‘Only if her sensei approves.'”
Ino took a deep breath, then she turned back to the window and gestured to have it fill and wrap around her vision again. “Asuma, I need to ask you for permission to try out some of the jutsu built into these bodies.”
“Jutsu?” Asuma asked.
Ino nodded. “Apparently my body has built in mental jutsu that I can probably use.”
Asuma rubbed his bearded chin and chewed on his unlit cigarette. “Could it hurt you? Or the others?”
Ino looked over her shoulder.
“No more so than any other jutsu. Just don’t aim at them,” Mentum replied.
“It should be fine.”
“Then… I suppose go ahead. It will be useful if you can use some jutsu again.”
Ino nodded. “Okay, let’s try this out.”
“Stand still.” Ino tried her best to do that as she felt two sets of hands begin to weave something into her hair, and attach the wire to locations on her skull. She shivered, fidgeting slightly even as the Sakuras made tsking sounds and had to remove some things and reattach them.
“Right, so what’s next?” Ino asked when the Sakuras backed away.
“Take out a kunai and place it on the ground in front of you,” Mentum said. Ino complied. “Now… focus your thoughts. It’s not like a ninjutsu or molding chakra. You have to expand your perception to include the electromagnetic waves between you and the kunai. If you work at it, it should only take you about two hundred hours to…”
“Is that… moving?” Shikamaru asked. Choji looked up from his undignified sprawl, and even Asuma raised an eyebrow as the kunai steadily rose up into the air and hovered in front of Ino.
“…or you could perform the exercise on the first try with no explanation,” Mentum said, sounding shocked. “That’s… also a thing that could happen.”
“It’s… easy.” Ino said, and had the first genuine smile on her face for what felt like a long time.
* Five years ago *
“It’s hard,” Hinata said, panting as she not-quite collapsed to the ground. Her legs sprawled to both sides, and her hand planted on the ground trying to prop herself up. “It’s too hard…”
“You must learn to stand on your own two feet,” Father said. “If you can not do at least this much, then you will not be considered-“
“Hey, Hiashi, why don’t you leave her alone?”
Hinata looked up. Sakura sat in the rafters, one leg dangling over the edge. She had the red cloak she had taken to wearing only a few weeks ago. It had been less than a year since she and Sakura had become friends.
“What are you doing here?” Father was glaring up at her. “How did you get in here?”
Sakura dropped to the mats of the dojo and walked over to Hinata. She crouched down next to her. “Hey, Cricket, are you okay?” Her hand dropped on the girl’s shoulder.
“I’m…” Hinata coughed and tried to smile.
Sakura grimaced. “You know, I hate it when people go up to girls and tell them they should smile more. If you’re sad or hurt, you don’t need to smile.”
“I… don’t need to…” Hinata nodded along. “I… want to…”
Sakura’s own frown turned into a smile quickly. She shook her head in disbelief. She looked over her shoulder at Father, who was walking up behind Sakura with an expression of annoyance. “And you think she’s weak?”
“What gives you the right to be here?” Father said. “You think that just because of the work you did for my family…”
“Don’t get too full of yourself, Hiashi,” Sakura said, raising to her feet. “Don’t forget what is swimming around inside your eyes even now.” He hesitated. “Oh, don’t be afraid. I’m not the kind of person who would build a way to torture you into my solution.” Sakura flashed her teeth. “Didn’t you tell me yourself that you wanted to end that hatred between you and your brother? That it was your dream? Did I fulfil that or not?”
“Sakura…” Hinata gasped.
Father looked down at her, his expression grave. He turned away with a tch of annoyance, but his composure intact. “Do what you want, then.” Hinata stared at his back for a long moment.
“C’mon, Cricket, stand up.” Hinata snapped her attention to Sakura, a brief flash of betrayal fading quickly as she saw that the girl was extending her hand. Hinata took it and climbed unsteadily to her feet.
Father’s voice was cold. “If she doesn’t learn to do it on her own, she’ll simply be a burden that needs to be protected.”
“You think reliance on others is a weakness?” Sakura sighed. “That explains so much about your family.
“Let me tell you something about weakness, Hiashi. Weakness is what built all of human civilization. Compared to other animals, we’re nothing special. Our hides are thin, our natural weapons feeble. Compared to the ants, we’re even bad at society. Our children are helpless for many years after they are born.
“And that weakness means that the only way we can accomplish anything is if we rely on each other. So I don’t know what you hope to accomplish by teaching her this bullshit. Needing a hand up isn’t anything to be ashamed of.”
Father stood at the far end of the hall. He still had his back to the two of them. “Perhaps you have a point, for normal people. But Hinata is not a normal person. She is a kunoichi. More than that, she is my daughter, the heir to a powerful clan. Do you think that her enemies will give her sympathy?”
“Do you know they won’t?”
Father looked over his shoulder.
“This world is full of damaged people who live in a cycle of hatred.” Sakura laced her arm around Hinata’s shoulder. “And if someone wanted to… they could end it with dreadful finality. Imagine the ultimate expression of hatred. You think you have seen how much damage jutsu can do? I’ve seen entire cities wiped off the map in blooms of baleful light. And that was nothing compared to the horrors that could be unleashed.
“But this world doesn’t deserve that. People don’t deserve that. So much of the hatred in this world can be stopped.
“Hard men making hard decisions isn’t what this world needs. Hinata is a better person than you or…” Sakura trailed off, looking down at her own feet. She looked up. “If you can’t see that, don’t punish her for your blindness.”
“…what would you have me do?” Father asked. Hinata drew in a deep breath.
Sakura grinned. “Maybe we should both try trusting Hinata to make her own path?”
* Now *
The room emptied of the various jonin and division commanders, some walking and others flickering away or vanishing in plumes of chakra smoke. This left the Hokage alone.
Except for one man.
Hiruzen looked over his hands at the man who had, once, been his dearest friend. Even when they had been placed on different teams, they had always been able to talk as friends. Then there had been that unpleasantness six years ago.
“You disapprove of my actions,” Hiruzen said, leaning back.
“It’s not my place to gainsay my Hokage,” Danzo said in response. His tone was carefully modulated.
Hiruzen did not sigh. He instead pulled up a scroll and tossed it to the man. Danzo caught it with his unbandaged hand. “Do you remember back when we weren’t constantly treating each other like enemies, Danzo?”
“I remember when you approved of my work.”
“Yes, your work.” Hiruzen sat forward. “What do they call you outside the village? Ah yes, ‘The Darkness of Shinobi’. The unnamed threat, the knife in the backs of those who will not submit to Konoha’s peace.”
“You know my opinion of words without deeds,” Danzo said. His face was damnably impassive. His one eye was squinted almost to being closed.
“And how many people have to die for that?”
“I will do what is good for the village.”
Hiruzen pointed to the scroll. “Haruno Sakura spent the last six years learning every weakness in our security procedures she could. She found gaps in our sensor barrier that even our sentries did not know about. I invited you to this meeting so you could see me closing up all these holes, and because I knew that even if you weren’t here for that meeting you’d know all about the new security arrangements within two days.”
“What do you want from me, Hiruzen?”
“Haruno Sakura is perhaps the most brilliant young mind I have seen since the Fourth Hokage. Yet, she distrusted her own village enough that she was looking for ways to go Missing Nin. And she was that paranoid because she saw where you existed in the darkness of the shinobi world.”
“And you still trust her?” Danzo leaned forward, resting his weight on his cane. “If this girl is as brilliant as you say, she is a strategic resource for the village. Much like the jinchuriki, she should be held safely within our walls and used to bring external threats in line. Her ninja tools must be studied and exploited and her ability to modify bodies fully understood. Treating her like any other kunoichi is a mistake.”
“So you would dictate her destiny?”
“I would do what is needed.”
“Like you dictated the destiny of the Uchiha clan?”
The silence between them was profound. The words were out there now. Even that day, they had gone unsaid. Both of them knew what had happened and who had arranged it all. Yet, while Hiruzen had disbanded Root and stripped Danzo of most of his influence, the accusation itself had never been said.
“Are we done?” Danzo said a little stiffly.
Hiruzen leaned back in his chair and waved dismissively. Danzo left the room, his movements slow but deliberate. Hiruzen looked down at his hands. He could use a draw on his pipe now, but he refused. His hands trembled slightly. They were thin and feeble, covered in liver spots and varicose veins.
He was old. He was tired, but mostly he was old. The Will of Fire that had once served him well had died down to smouldering coals. Twice now he had chosen sentiment over expediency, and they had seemed like good excuses at the time.
But then that debriefing of the Haruno girl had come in, and he’d seen just how far he’d let things slip out of his fingers. She had seen Orochimaru coming because she had been examining the shadows of the village for threats for years; threats that he had not dealt with.
It was time for him to choose a successor. As much as he wished to preserve Minato’s legacy, he would accomplish nothing by being too weak to hold on to it.
* Four Years Ago *
Hinata moved through the forms as quickly as possible, sliding from stance to stance. Every blow sent a ripple of white chakra from her palms as she moved. She finished the sequence and came to a halt, trying to hold the rigid stance.
“Enough,” He said.
Hinata relaxed, allowing her hands to drop to her side. She was in her second year at the academy now. She glanced around the dojo. Sakura sat on one end, watching with interest. Next to her was Neji, her older cousin, who had a dismissive expression on his face.
Hinata turned to her instructor. Her father’s face looked back at her. He was walking towards her. He paused and dropped to one knee. “The form was incomplete. There were flaws.” His words were soft. Hinata nodded and closed her eyes.
“I understand,” she said.
“This is a waste of time,” Neji said to the man. “You and I should be completing my training.”
“Maybe he’s right,” Hinata said to Sakura. “The form is too complex for me.”
Sakura looked at her for a long moment. “Well, Cricket, do you want to give up?” she asked.
Hinata paused. She thought back to earlier this week, how she had followed Naruto out into the woods. They had been learning the clone jutsu this week, and Naruto’s had been… underwhelming. Yet out in the woods, Naruto had been using the clone jutsu again and again. He hadn’t been improving, but he hadn’t been giving up, either.
“No ‘but’s,” Sakura said as she stood up. “Either you try or you don’t.” She cocked a thumb at Neji. “Maybe he learns it the first time, but if it takes you a hundred, a thousand or ten thousand attempts, you both learn it.”
“And if she just fails?” Neji asked. He didn’t quite sneer.
“Neji…” The elder Hyuuga knelt next to him. “This isn’t helping.” Neji looked at him. Then he looked down and closed his eyes.
“Yes, of course.” Neji looked up again. “But if all she’s going to do is the same thing over and over expecting different results, she will fail.”
Sakura tapped her finger against her chin. “Okay. Cricket, what do you think is wrong?”
“I…” Hinata closed her eyes. “I… can’t tell. It feels right when I’m doing it, but afterwards…”
Sakura looked at her. “Okay, time for an experiment. Create a clone.”
“Yes. Please. We worked on that together at the academy this month, right?”
“R- right!” Hinata made the hand signs carefully. “Bunshin no jutsu.”
There was a puff of smoke and a small popping sound as a clone of herself appeared next to her. The clone was very well done. Hinata had been slightly proud of her progress. Though really, if Sakura hadn’t been there with her every step of the way her clones would probably be as feeble as Naruto’s.
“Okay, time to test something out.” Sakura gestured through the air. “Ars magica: imperium illusio.” A series of lines formed of shifting mathematical symbols appeared beneath Sakura’s feet, then slid over and floated beneath the clone. Hinata felt a sense of sudden disconnection, and then blinked as the clone began to walk around in a way that she hadn’t commanded. “Right. Tell me if you can still see the chakra of this thing.”
“Okay!” Hinata focused and made a single sign. “Byakugan!” Her vision expanded, but as usual she flinched a bit away from Sakura’s bizarre not-chakra. She focused her attention on the clone.
“I can see it,” she said. It was obviously a clone, but she could see the nebulous chakra cloud that made it up.
“Huh, neat. I thought that wouldn’t work. It looks like an illusion is an illusion is an illusion. Just like water is water is water, whether you conjure it with ninjutsu or mahoujutsu.” Sakura gestured, and the clone moved to the centre of the room. “Now I can’t emulate the gentle fist attacks, but I can perfectly record everything I see, and thanks to the wonders of digital playback I can play that back. Now, watch this closely.”
Hinata sat down next to Neji as the clone moved into the starting stance of the sequence. Then she watched as the clone moved through the attacks. Now that she was an observer, she could see the errors and flaws, the imperfections in the motions. She frowned.
Once the sequence was finished, the clone moved off to the side. “Right. Now that you can see for yourself, can you tell where you made the errors?”
“Yes,” Hinata said.
“Good, and can you tell where you succeeded?”
“Watch again, this time with an eye towards what you did well.” Again, Sakura ran her clone through the sequence. This time Hinata tried to ignore her errors and focus on the parts she did well. To her surprise most of the sequence was done correctly; not well, but acceptably.
“I see them…” She murmured.
“Good.” Sakura gestured and the clone moved back. “Now what’s the difference between this transition….” Hinata watched herself smoothly move through the four thrust sequence. “…and this one.” This time the Hinata moved through the sequence but flubbed the last blow.
“My right foot. I miss the last step.”
“Okay. So, how do you fix that?”
Hinata looked down. “I don’t know.”
“Your chakra was off.” They both turned to Neji. He raised an eyebrow. “You can’t see it in the clone, since it’s just a chakra cloud, but when you did the original sequence your chakra flow was off.”
“How?” Sakura asked.
Neji shifted. “It was going to the right places at the right time, but she’s taking shortcuts through the pathways instead of sending it through the right circuits.”
“Why does that matter?” Sakura asked.
Neji rolled his eyes. “Because chakra has weight, of course. It’s like throwing a water balloon. If you just let it slosh around however it wants, you’ll end up with a random arc.”
“Chakra has weight?” Sakura said with some awe.
“So… I need to change what pathways… but how can I control that?” Hinata asked.
“You have the Byakugan. Look at your own pathways and figure out how to do it.”
“Perfect!” Sakura clapped her hands and the clone vanished into a cloud of smoke. “So, we have a new plan, let’s get going.”
* Now *
Anko considered Haruno’s words as they walked up the spike-sided ravine. The girl was walking in front of her, but backwards. She wore a black-and-red bodysuit, the red coming from strips in the otherwise dull black leather positioned in a way that would break up her silhouette. A pair of pouches were strapped to each thigh and the small of her back. Her hitai-ate was wrapped around her neck to guard it from throat strikes. She was spinning a kunai from hand to hand, making a game of catching the ring adorning the hilt with a different finger and spinning it off into the air as she moved.
“…it’s a lot to take in,” Anko said finally.
Haruno shrugged, somehow not missing a throw, and continued backwards up the river. “In the end, I can’t convince you what I’m saying is true.”
“The idea that he was just… jumping from body to body like some… parasite.” Anko rubbed at her stomach, the texture of her mesh bodysuit biting into her palm. “It makes my stomach turn.”
“If it helps, he did it because he failed.”
“Failed?” Anko looked at her, narrowing her eyes. “There was very little he ever failed at.”
Sakura pursed her lips. “That mark on your neck, do you know what it is?”
Anko shifted her shoulders to move her coat up to hide the mark better. “His power,” she said.
“Nope.” Sakura popped the word. “In reality, it’s stolen power from someone else. Orochimaru only tainted it with his own DNA to try and make an anchor for him to steal bits and pieces of natural chakra.”
“Orochimaru’s curse mark is nothing more than an attempt to cheat his way into being a Sage like Jiraiya, by finding people who can be Sages and stealing their abilities. But because he’s using senjutsu without actually learning to control it himself, it backfired on him. His body breaks down the more he uses until he’s forced to find another person with Sage potential and steal their talent as well.
“You were right. He was just a parasite, trying to be someone he was not.”
They moved into the basin at the bottom of the waterfall. Sakura turned here and looked across the water. A boy was sitting on the water, shirtless and wearing a pair of shorts. He was soaked head to toe. He was unwrapping a ragged bandage from one of his legs, revealing a bruised and abraded shin beneath. He winced as he removed the last of it.
“Just like he was trying to steal kekkei genkai he wasn’t born to,” Haruno said softly.
Anko looked from the girl to the boy and back again. “So this is the boy you killed Orochimaru to protect?”
“The snake didn’t teach me much worth knowing, kid,” Anko said sharply, cutting her off. “But he taught me that false modesty is worse than pride. It was your plan, your execution. You may not have delivered the death blow, but you did it.
“So why don’t you stop playing at being the master manipulator and just come out and ask what you want to ask?”
Sakura looked at her for a long time. Anko grinned. The girl was really an open book. After years of having her emotions and perspective fucked with by a legendary Sannin, she wasn’t impressed with a little textbook psychology. The boy at the waterfall was standing up now and had turned to face them.
He frowned and put his hands in his pocket, unashamed and challenging. Anko almost wanted to crack his skull open. Nothing got her hackles raised like arrogant young shits not taking challenges seriously.
“So let’s get real. You feed me a bunch of stuff about Orochimaru because you know that I hate him so much I’m hungry to hear how pathetic he was. Then you butter me up about how special I was, but that he used me for that. Dried up and thrown away just like he dries up and uses up bodies, right?
“No, don’t answer. Then you lead us right to your teammate and point out that he was the one Orochimaru wanted to use. Tie us together, subtly remind me of the debt I owe you for doing what I couldn’t and make it sound like my idea, right?”
“Well, if you want to take all the drama out of it,” Sakura said with a smirk. Anko grinned back. She decided she liked this kid. Anyone who could be caught out playing bullshit and just grin through it was okay in Anko’s book. She still might remove her spine if she was being an asshole, but what was a little bloodlust between friends?
“I kind of wanted you to mentor him,” Sakura didn’t ask.
“What are you two talking about?” Sasuke asked, walking towards them.
Anko patted the pink-haired girl on the shoulder and approached the black hair boy. “Turns out, I’m going to be helping you with your training.”
Sasuke narrowed his eyes. “What about Kakashi?”
“Kakashi is a great teacher, but he can’t teach you everything you need to know. That’s why I have volunteered to expand your horizons.”
“Do I get a say in this?”
Sakura and Anko exchanged a look then looked at him. “Nope!” they said with the exact same tone. Anko walked past him and grabbed his shoulder, dragging him along in her wake as she moved up to the waterfall.
“So Kakashi has you walking up the falls, huh?”
“Not up, through.” Sasuke grunted. “It’s ridiculous, but I think it’s working.”
“And it might, if you had a decade to spend conditioning yourself. But you gotta work smarter, not harder, brat.”
“Smarter?” Sasuke frowned.
“Yeah, you want to go up through the waterfall?” Anko snapped her hands out and ran through the signs before the boy could blink. She bit her lip and slammed her palm into the water. “Kuchiyose no jutsu!”
The snake that emerged from the water was massive, its head easily as large as Anko was tall. It burst up and up, rising from the smoke and spearing up through the water, turning the waterfall into a dozen smaller ones as it parted around the monster’s snout. Up and up it rose, vanishing into the shadows above.
“Yeah, you take the express path.”
Sasuke stared at the giant serpent before turning to Anko, a hungry look in his eyes. Anko crossed her arms under her chest and squared her shoulders. That was the other key to manipulation Orochimaru had taught her. If you can’t dazzle them with bullshit, awe them with results.
* Three years ago *
Hinata was now at the end of her third year in the academy, and she wasn’t certain if she could believe her eyes. She held out the evaluation record to Father. He sat on the somewhat raised dais where he took formal petition. The recent passing of her grandfather had elevated him to head of the clan. Hinata knelt while he examined the scroll prepared by her academy instructors.
“Adequate,” he said and snapped it closed. “You have improved.”
“It is still insufficient to surpass your sister,” Father said.
“I understand, Father.”
“Very well. Then you are dismissed.” He tossed the scroll to her and she caught it with one hand.
Hinata rose to her feet and walked in dignified silence from the room. She took a deep breath once she was outside, but kept her reaction muted. She got all the way out of the compound before she allowed herself one soft sob.
“Let me see that.”
The scroll was snatched from her hand and began to unroll in Sakura’s hands before Hinata could react. Not that she would try to stop her. Hinata had learned that attempting to stop Sakura was like attempting to stop the rain.
“You know, last year you were in the bottom third of the class,” Sakura said as she snapped the scroll closed with a flip of her wrist. “This year, you’re in the top third.”
“Barely,” Hinata said. They were walking through the civilian district now.
“‘Barely,’ she says.” Sakura threw her arms up dramatically. “If you can’t be happy for yourself, can you at least be happy for me being happy for you?”
Hinata tried to sort out that logic in her head and gave up. It was raining, after all. Best to just throw your head back and enjoy the feeling of it on your cheeks. “Okay.” Hinata smiled.
“Cricket, what am I ever going to do with you?” Sakura said with a laugh. She skipped ahead and began to walk backwards in front of the other girl, hands laced behind her back. Her red cloak flapped around her legs. “You should be celebrating. In fact, we are celebrating.”
“Celebrating?” Hinata said.
“It was your idea to put together the study group,” Sakura said.
“All I said was ‘I bet Shino and Shikamaru know the answers’ when we were studying.”
“And they did.”
“They’re very smart,” Hinata said.
“Yes, but Shikamaru is really lazy and Shino is… well, he’s Shino.” Sakura gestured around her. “Honestly, I think both of them would be wasting time at the academy if you hadn’t pushed them to be better.”
“I didn’t do anything much. Shikamaru only went along because I’m less…”
“Bossy than Ino?”
“…I wouldn’t put it like that.”
“And we’re here,” Sakura said. She turned and gestured grandly at… her house. Hinata glanced at her and blinked. “Well, I’m not made of money.” She paused. “At least without crashing the economy, anyway.” She waved the thought aside vigorously. “Mom and Dad bought me a cake for getting perfect grades. Come on.”
She led the way inside, calling out to her mother as she walked up the stairs.
“Hinata, what a pleasure,” Mrs Haruno said.
“Hello, Mrs. Haruno.” Hinata bowed slightly. The older woman bowed back.
“I’m glad to see at least one person can get Sakura out of her shell,” she said.
“Mom…” Sakura dipped her head down the stairs. “We have some celebrating to do.”
“Of course, but don’t fill up on cake. Your father is due back later today and I thought we’d all go out… you know, as a family?” There was a bit of sarcasm in her mother’s tone.
“Sure Mom, later.”
Hinata and Mrs. Haruno shared a look as Sakura walked back upstairs. Their smiles were equally strained, but for different reasons.
* Now *
Inoichi rubbed at his cheek. It itched. His wife had finally dragged him into the bathroom and told him he either shaved or slept on the couch. Also, he was going to shower no matter what option he picked. His cheeks always itched when he shaved off that much growth.
“Master Yamanaka, you’re up late again.”
Inoichi looked up as one of his clansmen entered the room. He had orange rather than blond hair and his pupils were wide enough to be visible: both signals that he was one of the secondary households, not as pure bred as the main house. He wore baggy brown clothes that covered everything but his head. His hitai-ate was worn traditionally.
“Fu? Isn’t that your name?” Inoichi asked.
“Yes, Master Yamanaka.” The man bowed slightly, always keeping his eyes on Inoichi. An affectation of the ninja world. Nobles may show reverence by groveling their faces in the dirt, but ninja could never get rid of that instinct for self-preservation.
“I haven’t seen you in a while.” Inoichi went back to his papers.
“I was incommunicado,” Fu explained. Inoichi nodded. Anbu then. Technically all of them were anonymous. As a matter of practicality, there were almost no Anbu that Inochi did not know the name of. He recalled that Fu had been fast tracked through the training cadre of Anbu from a young age; the Root division under Danzo.
Hiruzen had disbanded that division almost six years ago. Part of his initiative to move to a peacetime footing, like banning excessively young graduations from the academy or promotions to chunin before twelve. Though they were more ‘norms’ and less ‘rules’.
“You’ve been up late the last four nights,” Fu said.
“Catching up on paperwork,” Inoichi said with a forced laugh. “Turns out, can’t waste too much time worrying about family issues.”
“I hear,” Fu said. “My sister Saya told me about it.”
“Not all about it, I trust.” Inoichi smiled. “Some of that is still classified.”
“No. Saya knows how to keep things secret.” Fu shrugged. “But people talk. Rumours and gossip.”
“Yes, of course.” He turned back to his desk.
Fu waved goodbye as he left the room. Inoichi leaned back and looked around. Nothing appeared disturbed. He closed his eyes, seeking out any foreign chakra, but found none. He relaxed. He was jumping at shadows. Too much suspicion lately.
* Two years ago *
Hinata was ten years old today, and she was suspicious. She was beginning to form a strange and compelling idea. One that would, if she was right, turn everything on its head.
“I think he likes you,” Hinata said, whispering into Sakura’s ear.
Sakura started choking on her drink. Hinata smiled and leaned away from her.
Around them the party was in full swing. Shikamaru was under a tree, pretending to sleep with a napkin over his face. Choji was next to him, eating his fifth slice of cake for the day (impressive considering they had served it less than an hour ago). Shino was staring with some interest at a butterfly fluttering against one of the trees in the park.
In fact, there were more people here than Hinata had thought. Father had said he couldn’t come to this out-of-clan celebration. So of course, He had arrived. “Ah, a shadow clone,” He explained when Sakura’s parents asked how he could tear himself away from business.
And since He was here, Neji had followed.
“What are you talking about?” Sakura said.
Hinata nodded at Neji, who was watching them both with a frown.
“No. No way.” Sakura looked at her. “That’s not possible.” She looked at Neji. “No. I refuse.”
Hinata giggled. Ah, it was nice to see the shoe on the other foot for once. “Well, you know… he’s always finding excuses to attend our training sessions.”
“And he joined our study group, despite being a year ahead of us.”
“Cricket. Hinata. I will seriously give you money to stop talking.”
“He’s staring at you even now.”
“Oh dear lord, can he read lips?”
Neji began to blush.
“He can read lips.” Sakura turned to Hinata. “This is wrong on every single level, you have no idea.”
“I think it’s cute.” Hinata smiled. “You’re the only person our age who can routinely defeat him.”
“Because I’m immune to his gentle fist,” Sakura said, pouting.
“It’s good for his ego.”
Hinata looked up. He was here, the Shadow Clone. He knelt next to the two of them and waved at Neji, who turned away and found something else to stare at. “I think it’s cute, too.” He said with a wink.
“You, of all people, should know how horrible that sounds,” Sakura said to Him.
“Well, with all I owe you, sometimes it’s good to get some payback.” He chuckled and began to walk away.
Only for a blast of smoke to explode above his head and a pile of balloons to tumble out of the smoke. They burst, splashing technicolour paint onto everyone in the centre of the clearing.
“Hah! I got Hinata’s dad and everyone!”
“Oh great. Who invited Naruto?” Shikamaru groused as he sat up, looking at his paint-covered legs.
Hinata looked at Sakura.
“Well, your father said under no circumstances was he to be invited. But oops, I lost an invitation somewhere near his place.”
“You’re terrible,” Hinata whispered.
“You have no idea,” Sakura said, slugging her in the shoulder.
* Now *
Kabuto knelt behind Danzo as the two men entered. The orange-haired man walked with a noticeable limp, and one of his arms was heavily bandaged. The other man who came in beside him had short black hair, his face mostly concealed by a tight black mask with inset lenses to see through. Other than that he wore a black, high-collared jacket and slacks.
“Report,” Danzo said.
“I was able to get in and out without arousing any undue suspicion,” Yamanaka Fu said. “The pain suppression jutsu allowed me to act normally.”
“Excellent. And you, Torune?”
“My rinkaichu were able to keep themselves alive on Fu’s cells and chakra until they got into the office. Once there, they dispersed, seeking out all active chakra signals and leaving microscopic pheromone trails in their wake. Since they can survive only seconds outside of a human body, they died and their chakra dispersed before even Inoichi could sense them.”
“So we have a full map of all the fuinjutsu protecting the intelligence department head’s office, then?”
Both men nodded.
“Good.” Danzo looked at Kabuto. “You will treat Fu.”
Kabuto walked over to the man and ran a hand over his arm. He kept his expression neutral, but the damage was… extensive. “Even with cellular rebirth, the damage is beyond my ability to heal entirely. He’ll regain the use of his arm, but he won’t be able to make hand signs.” Kabuto glanced at Torune. “Those nanoscopic insects of yours: an Aburame speciality?”
Torune didn’t respond. Kabuto nodded anyway.
“They certainly are impressive; almost comparable to the SnakeDie nanovirus in destructive potential.”
Danzo settled himself in a chair as Kabuto set to work. “Within a few days, we will have the intelligence department’s psychological profile of Haruno. Then we will have her pressure points and weaknesses. We will also know exactly how deeply she is embedded into the Hyuuga clan.”
“Taking on the Hyuuga is a tall order,” Kabuto noted as he treated the injured Yamanaka.
“They are a powerful clan,” Danzo agreed. “But no matter how powerful the clan, there is always a weakness to be exploited.”
You would know that, old man. Kabuto kept his expression neutral.
“And what of your research into those rings I procured?”
“It appears the report was correct. They’re totally inert. Whatever power source Haruno uses for her jutsu, we’ll have to get within one meter of her to activate them.”
“That can be arranged,” Danzo said. “Do we have any volunteers?”
“Any ninja would be crippled and driven insane by the pain of the modification,” Kabuto pointed out.
“Yes, but vivisection of their bodies will reveal Haruno’s secrets.”
“Then we need less volunteers, and more patsies.”
“You have someone in mind?”
Kabuto smiled thinly. “I have the perfect candidates.”
* One year ago *
“This is ridiculous,” Neji said. He frowned down at the paper in his hands. “This is not a training exercise.”
“I don’t know,” TenTen said, holding up one of the brightly coloured dice. “I mean, as a way of examining the statistical likelihoods of the outcome of ninja battles, I’ve seen worse.”
“My Taijutsu Expert would like to rage!” Lee shouted.
“Lee, you’re not in a fight right now,” Sakura said from behind her folded screen.
“But he burns with the power of youth!”
“Maybe you can rage later,” Hinata suggested.
“I can’t believe you invited them,” Shikamaru said, though his words were muffled as his face was buried in his arms.
“The only way to get their sensei to give them time off to hang out with us was to have a training exercise,” Sakura explained.
Shikamaru said something indecipherable into his arms.
“I don’t hate you.” Sakura smirked. “We could always play shogi.”
“Ugh, and lose again?” Shikamaru looked at her with drooping eyes. “No. At least in this game, you don’t cheat.”
“The dice fall where they may,” Sakura said. “Shogi is a mathematically solved problem, that’s all. This game has randomness, which much better emulates the way actual battles play out.”
“I want no part of this,” Neji said. “It’s silly and you’re all silly for engaging in it.”
“But Neji, you’re busy the rest of the week. This is the only time you get to spend with us. And it would be wrong for Shino and Shikamaru to have wasted so much time preparing,” Hinata said with quiet insistence.
“What dice do I roll to rage?” Lee asked, holding up one of the tiny pyramids. “These are strictly inferior to caltrops,” he observed.
“You don’t use them to…” Sakura muttered.
“…fine,” Neji said, glancing at Sakura. “I’ll stay.” He held up a finger. “For one game.”
“… Neji, if you say you’re ‘not doing this because you like me’ and call me stupid, I will have to hurt you.”
Neji narrowed his eyes at her. “What can I do in this game?”
“Well, you pick either a taijutsu expert, a ninjutsu expert, a genjutsu expert or a medical nin. Then you can use your special abilities to defeat enemy nin and various summons.” Sakura shrugged. “There are categories within the categories as well, and you can multi-class.”
“My dad is going to kill me when he finds out I’m doing this,” Shikamaru muttered as he slumped back in his chair.
“Sakura does not say that the ninjutsu expert is clearly the most powerful character, outstripping all the other types.” Shino, as always, sounded deadly serious. “Though at genin levels the other types outperform them, once you hit chunin and beyond there is simply no comparison.”
“I like my genjutsu expert,” Hinata said.
“Yes, a blond orphan boy with a never say die spirit,” Sakura said in a deadpan tone. “Of course you like him.”
Hinata flushed but said nothing.
“When do I get to rage?”
* Now *
Kimimaro watched as the boy was strung up by his wrists. He was slim, almost effeminate in his build, and his pale skin was covered in bruises. His mask lay broken in the corner. His inky black hair was in disarray after Tayuya and Sakon had worked him over.
He reached to his palm, watching the boy’s expression carefully. The skin of his hand split and a long bone – shaped halfway between a femur and a handle – extended from it. He kept drawing it, slowly, until the end tapered to a wickedly sharp point.
The boy’s expression never changed. He barely blinked. He hadn’t cried out once during the ‘rough treatment’ of his subordinates. Not that a few kicks and punches counted as true torture. Yet Kimimaro sensed that it would be pointless to torment him. No, there was something dead about this one’s eyes.
“Let us cut through the waste, Leaf Nin.” He placed the tip of the blade against the boy’s throat. “Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you right now.”
“If you do that, you will never have your revenge,” the boy said. Kimimaro nodded. He had expected this. The boy had managed to sneak past all their defences and warning systems. If he was not a genius with unique infiltration jutsu, he obviously had an extremely detailed report about them.
“So you came to make a deal?” Kimimaro asked, running the tip of the bone-dagger across the boy’s cheek. No response. Not even a break in his pattern of blinks.
“Fuck this guy,” Tayuya growled. “Let me crush those pretty-boy eyes.”
“Language, Tayuya,” Jirobo said with a grunt.
“Be quiet,” Kimimaro said a trifle snappishly. He was getting weaker by the day. He could feel it in his bones. He turned his attention back to the messenger. “Well?”
“As you have guessed, I am but a messenger. There are some among the Leaf Nin who would have welcomed Lord Orochimaru’s invasion of Konoha. One of them was a close associate of Lord Orochimaru before his exile. He did not either aid or oppose your master’s plans, a decision he now regrets.
“He would like to make up for this oversight by granting you access to Konoha so that you may eliminate the one who eliminated Lord Orochimaru.”
“It’s a trap,” Kidomaru said with a snort. All six of his arms were crossed. “Why should we trust some random Leaf Nin?”
“Why indeed?” Kimimaro said. “But more importantly.” He stabbed the bone through the boy’s shoulder. The boy barely flinched, his eyes narrowing in pain and his mouth tightening as Kimimaro twisted the blade. “Tell me the status of Lord Orochimaru.”
“Lord Orochimaru is dead.”
Kimimaro almost lost it, right there. He could see his vision filling with red flowers and his hearing grow distant and yet also thunderous. His mouth dried and his neck muscles ached.
Yet he forced the murderous impulse down. It would do him no good. So this is how Jugo feels all the time, he mused. He stepped away, leaving the bone dagger embedded.
For a moment, he was dizzy. But he caught himself between one step and the next. He would not fall here, either from shock or illness.
“I do not believe you,” Kimimaro said finally, once he could trust his voice.
“It was anticipated that you would not,” the boy said. “So I was given a message in a code I was told only you would understand.”
“A coded message? Show it to me.”
“The code is not written, it is a single phrase.”
“Fine. Tell me.”
The boy blinked once, slowly, then began to speak, “The white snake will never again shed its skin again, but it can grow a new skeleton.” The boy paused. “Those were the exact words used.”
Kimimaro looked at the boy and then turned away. His body was weakening, and he needed rest. “Clean him up and don’t let him die. As soon as possible, make preparations for all of us to journey to Konoha.”
* Later *
Hinata was twelve years old as she returned to Konoha. Her team was coming back from a long patrol through some of the more stable parts of the Fire Country. A leisurely C-Rank for her team, three long weeks away from home.
Hinata had no illusions about this being a new level of trust in her and her teammates. She knew exactly why she had been sent away. Two days of interrogation, and then the moment she was released, her team had been sent as far from Konoha as they could be sent without putting them in danger.
Hinata smiled as the village walls came into view. Kiba shouted and dashed forward, Akamaru clinging to his hair. Shino kept to the back, not showing any emotions except the slightest easing of the tension in his shoulders and back. Kurenai heaved a sigh as Kiba ran ahead. Her dress was made of overlapping bandages and only came down to mid-thigh. It was more daring than anything Hinata could ever see herself wearing.
When she came within sight of the gate, Hinata herself broke into a jog. She came to a halt just inside the village and smiled at the girl waiting for her. She was wearing her public face.
“Sakura, they let you out.”
Sakura didn’t respond, instead she merely pulled Hinata into a hug. For a moment, she clung to Hinata with a sort of desperate strength. Hinata clasped her arms around Sakura in return. After a long minute Sakura pushed her away, holding her by the shoulders.
“Don’t you ever do anything like that to me again!”
Hinata’s first impulse was to apologise. Instead, she pulled Sakura’s arms off her shoulders one at a time and held the other girl’s hand. “Sakura… if I was the kind of person who would let those Rain Nin die, would you have become my friend?”
Sakura pulled her hand free and shook her head. “When your forcefield maxed out and ceased working, I almost had a heart attack.”
“Thankfully, you have four spares.”
“Ah, Cricket, is that a joke? Are you teasing me?”
“Maybe.” Hinata smiled. She looked over her shoulder. Shino and Kurenai were waiting for her. “I’m sorry, I have to go. Mission report. Can we get together later?”
Sakura seemed about to object, but she lowered her arms and nodded. “Cricket, I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“You’ll never have to find out,” Hinata said. “I promise. For everything I owe you.”