Chapter 12: Paranoia
“Remember, our goal is the ring. Nothing more, nothing less.”
“Yes, but if we manage to get our hands on the brat at the same time, that’s two for one, right?”
“The ring is all we need.”
“Is Ino going to be joining our team?” Naruto asked.
Sakura was walking backwards in front of Team 7, arms crossed behind her neck. They were leaving a restaurant where they and Team 8 had been having a “meet and greet”. It had been… alright. He hadn’t hated it or anything, but right now Naruto didn’t like losing time from his own training. He was close, so close since he’d started on his shadow clone training.
But his mind kept coming back to the reason for the meet and greet. The ‘fifteen kilometre rule’. Apparently they and Team 8 would be within fifteen kilometres from each other for the foreseeable future.
“Nope,” Sakura answered his question with her usual popped word.
“We’ll just be working together with Team 8 or in the same area on parallel missions,” Kakashi said. “Which is good, because with more of you available it means you guys can do more C-Rank missions.”
“All right!” Naruto pumped his fist. “It just sucks that we have to do it with Ino.”
Sakura gave him a level look as she moved her hands to her hips. “Oh, really?”
“Yeah. Ino’s always been bossy, walking around the academy by herself like some princess too good for the rest of us.”
Sakura looked down, considering his words. Sasuke let out a soft grunt, not really caring. Kakashi just walked behind the team, letting them talk amongst themselves.
“She did spend a lot of her time alone, didn’t she?” Sakura said.
“And she still treats me like an idiot.” Naruto frowned and squinted at her. “And I don’t like the way she treats you.”
“…she’s nothing but kind to me, considering,” Sakura said, crossing her arms over her chest.
“Yeah, she says nice things and she smiles at you, but it’s all… fake.” Naruto shrugged. He didn’t think Sakura would really get what bothered him about that. To his surprise Sasuke clapped him briefly on the shoulder and nodded. Naruto nodded back. He knew. After the Shukaku, Sasuke knew how much Naruto had grown up with fake smiles and empty words.
“…maybe,” Sakura said. “She can be mean and bossy. But…” She ran a hand over her brow. “She’s in a cage.” Sakura tapped her temple. “Imagine what that’s like, being stuck looking out of someone else’s eyes all the time. Not able to move anywhere that the jailer doesn’t want you to. Not even being able to feel anything they don’t let you.
“If I were in that position, I might be an asshole too.”
“You know, I always heard that Konoha had defences like a sieve, but it’s been surprisingly difficult getting in here.”
“They have mended most of the holes in their territory.”
“Then we better get out of here quick.”
Naruto stood on the rocky mesa, one of a thousand. Across the plateau, dotted with multistory rock pillars, was a sea of orange-clad young ninja. Each had spikes of blond hair that didn’t so much flutter as swirl clockwise as if caught in a miniature tornado. Each Naruto stood in a circle with as many others of their identical doppelgangers as could fit around a single pillar, their hands pressed against the stone.
The air was filled with the roar of a thousand voices raised at once. There was no visible effect, other than the strange non-electric motion of Naruto’s hair. If a person were to walk into this scene, however, they would begin to feel it. The air was thick in a way that had nothing to do with humidity or pressure. It was a slick feeling, a heaviness on the limbs. It came and went, causing the hairs on the body to twist in waves from right to left.
Here and there came a sharp snapping sound, something between a crack and a pop. Following these came the soft clatter and rustle of pebble-sized stones dropping to the mesa floor, as if the pillars were eroding rapidly under an invisible tide.
“Okay, that’s enough, Naruto,” Kakashi said. He was lying on a wooden bench flipping through a well-thumbed dirty book, and sat up as he spoke. “Dispel all of your clones and absorb what they have learned.”
“Right!” The reply was made thunderous by the sheer number of voices speaking it. With a series of pops they vanished one by one into clouds of chakra smoke that sublimated into the atmosphere. For a moment, Naruto’s eyes widened in understanding. Then they struggled to stay open, his lids suddenly heavy. He floated on his feet, his body drifting in a circle before gravity unbalanced him and he began to faint.
Ebisu arrived before he fell, holding him up by the shoulders. His eyes were hidden behind his dark wire-rim glasses, but his mouth was upturned in a reluctant smile.
“I never would have thought he had it in him,” Ebisu said.
Kakashi walked over with a more casual pace. He helped prop Naruto against one of the pillars. “He once told me that he would never give up or go back on a promise, that it was his ninja way.” He paused. “Granted, he was bleeding from a self-inflicted kunai wound at the time, so I didn’t take it too seriously.”
Naruto sneezed and opened his eyes. “I…” He pushed himself to his feet and stood unsteadily for a moment, before his legs firmed up and his face broke up into a grin. “I think… I think I got it!”
He glanced at Kakashi and Ebisu, then past them to Yamato, who was still holding his palm towards Naruto while sitting within his circle of Foo Dog-headed wooden columns. Naruto rubbed his nose with the ball of his thumb and turned to face the pillar. He clapped his hands together, palms pressed together and fingers raised as if in prayer, and then slapped both hands against the rock.
He focused, feeling the chakra flowing out from him and into the stone. It spread and spread, thinning as it did. He wasn’t going to fill the whole thing. He just didn’t have enough chakra. Yet that was the trick, the thing he had finally figured out. You couldn’t do the transformation piecemeal. It had to be all at once. So simple and yet so daunting. If you didn’t do the whole thing at once, then the friction between the transformed and untransformed would cause the whole thing to collapse before you finished.
He didn’t have enough. So he needed more.
He reached deep and pulled-
–the stink was almost the same, but also missing something. He rose up to his knees, then his feet. The light was dim, almost completely absent, just enough to suggest the shape of the boxy sewer and the twisty maze of pipes up above. Then there was the metal cage, really little more than two barred doors with a small slip of paper holding them together.
(It said ‘seal’. Naruto could learn things.)
“You aren’t carrying the One-tail or that wretched Uchiha with you, this time.”
Naruto walked forward. He stared through the bars at the shadow figure, really nothing more than slitted red eyes the size of a man and the suggestion of a head in the depth of shadows.
“So you’re the Nine-tails,” Naruto said.
“You want my power.“
There was a silence in the wake of that word; the enormous sound of the so-called demon fox’s breathing stopping entirely for a few seconds. The deafening silence was shattered as something huge pressed against the bars. The eyes grew larger, pressing closer. There was the shape of a snout, a flicking triangle that could only be an ear.
“Do not toy with me, brat.”
“I don’t want your power,” Naruto said, his voice growing in strength as he spoke. “I want to be able to do this all on my own. But if I can’t… then I can’t.”
“You would give up?”
“No.” Naruto approached the bars. The bars were far enough apart that he could have passed through without even bending sideways. They were perhaps far enough apart so that a single talon, scaled to those immense eyes, could pass through as well. But Naruto wasn’t thinking of that.
(“If I were in that position, I might be an asshole, too.”)
Naruto placed his hands on one of the great cage bars. “What I want to know… is your name.”
“My name? Don’t be a fool. You do not give your name to insects you would crush underfoot without even noticing.”
“Listen,” Naruto barked, his very limited temper at its end. “I don’t care about your attitude or the fact you’re some super beast which is so much better than me. You and me? We’re stuck together whether we like it or not. So we better learn to like each other, or else this is gonna be miserable for both of us.”
“Your misery will end when I chew your soul to pieces. I am eternal, and you will pass. For me, this is nothing but a heartbeat.“
“Yeah, well, it’ll be a really terrible heartbeat,” Naruto insisted. “So I’m not going to demand or threaten you or something dumb like that. But if you want to sit in your room and sulk until I’m dead, then you better get damn good at sulking because I’m going to be the best ninja that ever lived, I’m gonna be Hokage, and I won’t die until everyone in the village acknowledges me like they do the old man!”
The only response was a deep thrumming in his bones as the beast breathed in and out. Naruto clenched his fists, his mouth caught between a grin and a frown.
“So that’s it. We work together, or I get to the big hat on my own.” Naruto rubbed his nose with his thumb and forced a feral grin onto his face. “Because with or without you, I’m gonna make it. So decide if you wanna watch, help or get out of the damn way.”
It took a moment for Naruto to realize that the horrible skull-vibrating sound that emerged from the cage was laughter.
“Fine. Take my power, brat. Every bit of it will shorten your life and my time to freedom. Choke on it.”
Naruto watched as red mist, bubbling and seething, began to seep out of the bars-
-his eyes snapped open. He could feel it, his teeth were grinding against each other, the canines biting into his lower lip. His cheeks were straining as the marks on his cheeks deepened painfully. His vision became sharper. The smells became clearer, his own sweat mixed with the dry dust of this place.
“Kakashi!” Ebisu was shouting.
“I can see it,” Kakashi said, his voice strained but level.
“Is that… a tail?” Yamato asked in awe.
“I can see it with my naked eyes,” Ebisu said. “Yamato, quick, before-“
“NO!” Naruto shouted.
“Naruto, we have to suppress the fox-“
“I said no!” Naruto cut Ebisu off, his voice deeper and more feral than before.
“Naruto,” Kakashi said.
Naruto continued staring at the rock. “Isn’t this the whole point? What did we do all this for if you don’t even give me a chance!?”
“Yamato, hold off.” Kakashi’s voice was soft.
“But Captain…!” Yamato shouted.
“Let him try.”
Naruto grinned and leaned in, pushing deeper. He closed his eyes. This was it, the whole point. Either he controlled the fox chakra, or it controlled him. He could feel it flowing around him. His skin burned as it crept over his body.
Right away he knew this wasn’t going to work. The chakra was destructive, boiling, energetic to the point of being explosive. If he pushed this chakra into the stone he would break it all right, but only by blowing the whole thing to bits.
Even with the energy he had spent the last month pursuing, he was going to fail.
“Don’t underestimate me!”
What had he been training to do, except to transform? He gathered that malicious chakra and focused his attention on it. There was a terrible moment where he felt like he was pushing boiling acid through his stomach, and then a sense of release.
“Wait, what happened? Where did the beast’s chakra go?” Ebisu was adjusting his glasses. Yamato lowered his hand, the flames atop his dog-headed pillars snuffing themselves out. Kakashi walked forward, hands in his pockets. Naruto sat down hard, bracing himself with both hands. Sweat poured down his brow and cheeks, stuck his undershirt to his chest and back.
Kakashi reached out one finger and flicked the rock pillar.
The air was filled with a sharp series of pops and cracks. Hair-thin lines spread rapidly from the point of Kakashi’s touch, quickly covering the entire pillar. Then, with a crash, the entire thing came apart. A cascade of jagged stone spread across the ground like a wave, covering Naruto up to his knees.
Kakashi looked down and then offered him a hand. “Good job.”
“What is it?”
“A good aberration or a bad one?”
“…come with me.”
Yamanaka Ino guided herself down the street towards the Hyuuga household. She was nervous, but kept her body language normal as it reflected through her interface to her body. Nobody gave her a second look – the illusion Sakura had cast over her showed nothing more than her old self.
The only person who even paused was one of a pair of monks she brushed past on the street. She glanced over her shoulder as she moved past. Monks were common enough wandering the roads of the elemental countries. They were more common in the Hidden Villages, where the pacifist preachings of the monks often fell on unreceptive ears.
With them out of her mind, she made her way to the Hyuuga main house and walked through the open gate. She subtly glanced around, taking the interior of the compound in. It was built in a way that was totally unlike the Yamanaka clan’s home.
The Yamanaka clan was a part of the village. They ran a flower shop right on the main street. Their home was built on the back of the shop itself, giving the entire thing an impression of approachability and earthiness despite how large and well-furnished the household was.
The Hyuuga compound was far more traditional. It was set away from the main streets and commercial districts of Konoha, in an area with broad boulevards and single-story homes that spoke of wealth. The walls were large enough that they blocked out all views of the house from the street and vice versa. Most of the interior was given over to meticulously landscaped parks; traditional cherry trees and red-painted bridges over running brooks and koi ponds, mixed with bamboo groves and flower beds artfully designed to be aesthetically pleasing while not drawing attention to their artifice. The house itself was similarly somewhat archaic, little more than four large buildings connected by covered walkways surrounding an interior courtyard.
Ino knew that the majority of the Hyuuga did not live in the compound. The ‘main line’ lived in this location, with the various branch families having their own apartments or houses throughout the village. Apparently one of two branch families lived in the main compound, mostly those very closely related to the main line members.
One of those branch members stood nearby, gardening in a meditative manner. Ino gave him a short look before glancing at her mini-map. Like many of the other conveniences of her new condition, Ino was rapidly beginning to wonder how she had ever survived without it. The map was a small circle in her vision (she could place it and resize it with a few hand gestures) which showed a ‘top-down’ view of everything around her. Various ‘icons’ appeared on the map based on her expressed interests, including her current destination. If she focused on it, the map even traced out suggested routes.
This must be what it’s like to have a dojutsu kekkei genkai, Ino thought to herself as the map created a dotted line through the compound for Ino to follow. Thinking about the legendary bloodline powers inherited into the eyes caused her to look around. Of course, the Hyuuga were one of the two most famous of those. The other being the Uchiha, of which Sasuke was the only survivor.
The thought of Sasuke caused Ino to look down. Last night she had had a chance to meet Sasuke for the first time since her modification. Unfortunately, she had been hidden behind the layer of Sakura’s illusion jutsu, just like Sakura herself. The boy had dodged away from her various attempts to play grab-arm or corner him for a more private conversation during the ‘meet and greet’ between her team and Sakura’s.
Honestly, Ino didn’t see the point of the get together. It wasn’t like Shikamaru and Sakura hadn’t already known each other, and he spent most of the dinner staring at the ceiling. Choji had spent it taking a double portion of everything (“Neither Sakura or Ino need to eat, after all, right? So we don’t want it to go to waste, right?”) on top of his usual double portion. He had seemed to avoid Sakura, but he and Naruto got along (as much as an argument on the merits of bar-b-que versus ramen could be considered getting along).
If any serious discussion happened during that meeting, it was entirely between Asuma and Kakashi as they sat at the bar across the restaurant from the booth the two teams had occupied.
These thoughts occupied Ino as she moved mostly on auto-pilot through the compound. She ended up heading to the rightmost building (each of which was helpfully labelled by little floating words in her vision, another thing that made her feel like a dojutsu user), where she was required to trade her sandals for house slippers, and from there to a porch which looked out into the inner courtyard.
The porch opened up into Hinata’s room; paper doors slid aside to open up the room into the courtyard, as if to suggest the entire thing was just part of her personal space. The room was much more elegantly arranged than Ino’s own room back behind the flower shop. Ino had stuffed her room full of all sorts of knick-knacks and mementos; her walls papered with illustrations and photographs (only a small portion of which were of Sasuke, more from lack of opportunity than desire) and her shelves full of books and scrolls and plush toys she had cherished since childhood (each one maintained in almost pristine condition despite her tendency to abuse them).
Hinata’s almost spartan room had polished wooden floors and a handful of dressers along with a single desk with a stool in front of it. On the desk was a vase with a bouquet of gardenias and azaleas, Ino was interested to note. A patient or modest secret love. Ino speculated who that was referring to.
There was no bed, but a closet nearby was probably filled with a futon and other furniture. Right now, a low kneeling table had been placed in the centre of the room. On the table was a harness of some kind, made up of straps and ceramic plates with embedded jewels the colour of amber. Hinata sat on one side and Sakura on the other. Sakura held one of the plates up with one hand, turning it back and forth slowly. A great crack had split the embedded gem in half, with smaller cracks radiating out from it like a lightning bolt.
Neither of them seemed to have noticed Ino, so she paused in the doorway, holding her own bouquet (anemone and daffodil to display “sincere respect”, arranged freestyle) and listening.
“Well, there’s nothing else to it, the focusing crystals are completely shot. I’ll have to replace them all, which means synthesising them from scratch,” Sakura said with a sigh as she dropped the plate negligently on the table. “At least the batteries weren’t damaged. They’ll just need recharging.” She placed one hand on the table. “You seriously could have died out there. I guess Gaara did this?”
“Yes. I was… concerned when he buried me under a massive mound. Watching the force field collapse was very worrying.” Hinata’s voice was soft, but the fear in her tone was absent any immediacy. “Still, he gave up just in time and I was able to escape with a kaiten.”
“What on earth were you thinking?” Sakura snapped peevishly. “I told you how dangerous Gaara is at this point. I didn’t give you this exofield harness so you could think you’re invincible and fight a jinchuriki on your own.”
Hinata looked down. “I thought…” She looked back up into Sakura’s eyes, her lips thin but her gaze steady. “I couldn’t stand to see that pain and do nothing?”
“The Rain Nin?” Sakura frowned and crossed her arms. “I wouldn’t be so quick to give them sympathy. Their master is-” Sakura cut herself off and rubbed her face. “Cricket, you’re going to be the death of me one day.”
“It wasn’t just them,” Hinata said. “That boy…” Her fingers curled into fists in her lap. “The expression on his face, it reminded me so much of Naruto!” She frowned. “I couldn’t stand to see a face full of that pain, twisted by hatred. I had to help him.”
“…help… Gaara?” Sakura blinked once, slowly. “How did you plan to do that?”
Hinata blushed and looked down again. “I attempted the five element sealing palm.”
“You what?” Sakura looked aghast. “Cricket, what have I told you about messing around with fuinjutsu? Only Orochimaru and Jiraiya ever perfected that jutsu! The backlash of a failed attempt to seal a jinchuriki could-” She choked off the rest of her words and waved her hands in the air frantically, as if trying to convey the unspeakable with her jerking limbs.
“I just wanted to help him,” Hinata said softly. “He was so sad.” Unlike her recollection of her near-death experience, this time there was a presence to her words as if the emotion of the moment had never quite dulled.
Sakura sighed and drew a hand down her face again, hooking her fingers in her mouth and pulling it open in a silent scream before shaking her head and placing both hands on the table. “Don’t ever change, Cricket.”
Hinata blushed again but nodded. Then she deliberately turned to look at Ino. “I’m sorry, I’m being a terrible hostess.” She stood up and walked over before kneeling and bowing slightly. “Welcome to my home.”
“Please take care of me,” Ino responded reflexively. She presented the bouquet and Hinata made all the correct appreciative noises before placing it on a low table in the corner where it would be displayed to best effect. Sakura leapt up and walked over, dragging Ino to the central table.
“Don’t feel the need to be so formal,” Sakura said without any attempt to be circumspect. “Hinata practically sweats pure etiquette, but in reality she can’t stand it.”
“Sakura!” Hinata said.
“Am I wrong?”
“You’re not supposed to just say it,” Hinata said, smiling. “It’s rude.”
Ino sat down and looked at the mess on the table. She reached out with one hand and left it hovering just above the contraption. With an effort of will, the harness and plates began to rise into the air and float towards a corner.
“You’re scarily good at that,” Sakura said, wrapping her arms behind her neck.
Hinata actually clapped. “Sakura never wants to show off like that.”
“The walls have eyes, especially here.” Sakura smirked.
“It’s fun,” Ino said with actual sincerity. “I’m just glad I’ll never have to worry about weight gain again, because with this Ars Psionica stuff I’m going to laze around like a pampered noblewoman all day.”
“I guess the chakra training must translate over, somehow,” Sakura said in a musing tone. “If you’re this good at running the psychokinetic engine, I almost want to design a telepathic and astral engine to see what you could do. I’d be neat to see what the outer and inner astral is like. I just haven’t had time to explore all the Ars Psionica.”
“You could put more jutsu in my body?” Ino asked.
“Yup,” Sakura popped the word. “At the moment you’re just using the psychokinetic engine. It just manipulates physical things using astral energy. Mainly fundamental field forces outside the body and biological reinforcement of the body through biofeedback principles.” She waved her hand at the ceiling. “Then there is the engine which opens up telepathic communication, like your family jutsu, and the other one which opens up extra-sensory perception, thus access to the astral layer itself.” She sighed. “Too bad it requires extensive brain surgery to install.”
Ino grimaced. “No brain surgery for me, thank you.”
“It always comes back to brain surgery with you,” Hinata said.
“I could solve so many problems with it,” Sakura said with a dramatic sigh.
“No! Bad Sakura!” Hinata said in a teasing tone.
“Noisy Cricket,” Sakura murmured.
“That’s an odd nickname,” Ino pointed out.
Sakura waved the observation away. “Grasshopper was too cliche.” Ino glanced at Hinata to see if that made sense to her, but Hinata gave a tiny shrug and confused smile back.
“I thought your Ars Technica didn’t work away from you,” Ino said gently.
“Oh, that.” Sakura shrugged and looked at the harness in the corner. “One of a few things I made for the Hyuuga. I can build batteries for the Technica, at least the ones not also embedded with Magica. It only lasts a few hours, but it’s better than nothing.”
“So you can make them work for anyone?”
“Well, yes.” She looked at Ino. “Though since you have a reactor inside you, you can also have the broadcast power receivers work as well, if you want me to build you a nanosuit or exofield harness.” She frowned and crossed her arms. “The tau field requires a Magica-enhanced battery, however. So no time-space manipulation for you.”
“There’s a reactor inside my body?” Ino looked down at herself. “Like, one of those giant turbines at the power station?”
“Well, you don’t eat or sleep anymore. Did you think your energy came for free?” Sakura smirked. “Though you won’t need refueling for fifty years, give or take.”
“Can they take the generator out?” Ino asked with feigned innocence.
Sakura actually went white. Not just pale. All the blood drained from her face and her eyes widened, her mouth dropping in a horrified O as her posture went entirely rigid. She shook it off and frantically waved her hands in front of Ino. “No, absolutely not! Never! Do not under any circumstances try to remove your reactor! It’s folded away into a subspace pocket and designed with about a dozen failsafes and redundant backup fail-safes that will vent the fuel into a pocket universe if there is a breach, but if some ninja medic is messing around with fuinjutsu or space-time manipulation they might just breach the entire thing and That. Would. Be. Bad.”
Ino was concerned now. She had never seen Sakura like this. “How bad?” she asked, her voice thin.
“Let me just say that if Sir Isaac Newton is the deadliest motherfucker in space, then Mr. Albert Einstein is the deadliest motherfucker in the goddamn universe and leave it at that. I won’t go into the math, but trust me, do not, under any circumstance allow someone to try and breach your reactor.”
She held Ino’s eyes for a long moment and then leaned back and clapped her hands. “But that’s not why we’re here. Barely one week’s rest and they’re sending poor Hinata off on another long mission to the boondocks of Fire Country tomorrow. So I want to spend time with my friends doing girl stuff, and I was promised a tea party.”
Hinata smiled and rose. “Ceremony, Sakura. Tea ceremony.”
“Don’t make me quote Cid Highwind,” Sakura said ominously. “I take tea very seriously.”
“You both make yourselves comfortable, I’ll be back.”
Ino waited until Hinata had let the room before talking. “Sakura, we can’t even dri-“
“Don’t ruin this for me!” Sakura pointed at her. “Or I swear to god I will genetic engineer baby pony unicorns so cute you will literally die.”
“So that’s her, huh? I’m not impressed.”
“Don’t underestimate her.”
“We should make contact now. This is getting complicated.”
It took a moment for Kabuto to realize the mouse was not normal. Down here in the murk and damp there was a surplus of vermin. The black and white mouse blended into the shadows well. It scampered across the floor towards them and that’s when he saw the apparent rodent looked far flatter and… more liquid than a normal mouse.
Danzo unrolled a blank scroll and the critter leapt up, suiciding against the paper and leaving a splatter of ink. The ink ran quickly into artistic calligraphy. Danzo glanced down at the paper.
“They have arrived,” he said. He looked up at Kabuto. “Are you ready to do your part?”
“Yes, but it might be more difficult than you imagine. The holes in the village’s defences have been efficiently closed.”
“Do not worry. I have arranged a distraction.”
Kabuto knelt, placing one fist against the floor, and then body flickered away.
“Well, well, I wasn’t expecting that.”
“The mission remains unchanged. The ring is our priority.”
“But if we get a chance to grab the brat at the same time, we take it.”
Inuzuka Kiba yawned and scratched at his underarms. Akamaru gave a sympathy yawn and crawled out of his hood and lay across his shoulder, licking idly at Kiba’s fingers as he played with the puppy’s snout. The road out of the village was deserted this morning. The sun was barely risen and no one with any legitimate business was on the road, except four ninja.
Shino came up behind him. He and Hinata were both shouldering large packs. “You have insufficiently packed. Why? This journey will take three weeks to circuit through the towns within Fire Country.”
Kiba patted his smaller pack. “This will be enough. Akamaru and I can live off the land.”
“Survival training?” Hinata asked. “That isn’t the mission.”
“Yeah, but we’re never gonna be better ninja if all we do is walk and camp,” Kiba pointed out. “If I knew C-Ranks could be as boring as this, I’d almost have wished we just stayed doing D-Ranks. At least then there was plenty of time for training.”
“Maybe he has a point, Shino,” Hinata said. “I’m sorry. It’s all my fault you guys get these kinds of missions.”
“Don’t blame yourself. Why?” Shino adjusted his glasses with a pair of fingers. “If we are your team, it is our responsibility to look after you. So if you throw yourself into danger, either we stop you, or we throw ourselves after you.”
Hinata smiled. “Thank you, Shino.”
“Thank you, Shino?” Kiba jumped in front of her. “What about ‘thank you, Kiba?’”
“And you, too.” Hinata smiled at him. Kiba found himself smiling goofily. Hinata reached out and rubbed a hand over Akamaru’s ears. “And you.” Kiba almost complained about Akamaru getting special treatment, but felt his cheeks flushing and his tongue filling his entire mouth at the thought.
“So, it’s survival training for everyone?”
Kurenai had appeared out of nowhere, standing in their midst without so much as a pop or a puff of chakra smoke. Kiba only yelped a little bit, though Akamaru barked happily. Kurenai was dressed in her usual dress made of overlapping heavy bandages. She smiled, blinking her large red eyes a few times.
“Survival training sounds good, Kiba.” Kurenai turned to the two other members of Team 10. “Why don’t we make it a team activity?”
“Right!” Hinata said, giving a tiny pump of her fist. “Never stop improving.”
“I agree. Why? It is the task of a ninja to exploit every opportunity.”
“Good.” Kurenai clapped her hands. “Hinata and Shino, empty your packs of all but the bare essentials. You have fifteen minutes.”
“Ugh. All this sneaking around is getting on my nerves.”
“Yeah, yeah, ‘stop complaining’, I know. We’ll be there soon. Still, this is beginning to raise my hackles. If I don’t destroy something soon, I’ll get cranky.”
“So this is where the third exam would have been held?” Sasuke asked as he looked around the huge auditorium. The actual arena was mostly bare dirt, with a handful of trees and rocks near the large wall. That wall climbed up two to three stories all around the arena, smooth and empty. Probably to keep large ninjutsu from affecting the crowd. About half the wall was topped with auditorium-style seating. “Whatever.”
“Be a bit more respectful,” Sakura said. “The Hokage was nice enough to let us use this place even though it’s supposed to be reserved for special occasions.”
“Oh yeah!” Naruto bounced around, pumping both fists. “This is just a preview! In six months, I’m gonna be back here and then I’ll be seen as a chunin!”
“Idiot,” Sasuke said. “The next exam won’t even be in Konoha.”
“Yeah… well…” Naruto squinted at him and hunched over. “So what if that’s true?” He bounced up, grinning. “I’ll carry the spirit of Konoha wherever I go! That’s the purpose of the Hokage!”
Sakura rubbed her hand through his hair affectionately. “Never change, Naruto.” She looked up at Kakashi, who was standing off the side with one of his books open but held down at his side. “So, do I have your permission to go all out, sensei?”
“It’s fine.” Kakashi snapped the book closed. He nodded towards the other end of the arena. “Just don’t use anything lethal, okay?”
Four figures were walking in. Well, three were walking. One was walking on his hands. He cartwheeled onto his feet as he spotted them.
“Kakashi, my eternal rival!” The voice carried even across the massive arena, echoing off the empty bandstand-style seating. “Truly this will be a test of youth. Which of our brilliant young men and women will burn brightest?” He twirled in space and pointed one finger at them. “My eyes cannot behold this shining majesty, it blinds me with its magnificence!”
“Is this clown really Kakashi’s rival?” Sasuke asked, hands in his pockets. Of course appearances could be deceiving, but this guy was… ridiculous.
“He’s certainly Bushy-brows’ sensei,” Naruto said as he shaded his eyes. In the distance, a green-clad figure with an identical bowl cut was jumping around the taller man. While that one was also shouting, it was much harder to make out his words compared to the older man’s.
The other two figures with them were slowly but surely edging away from the group. Sakura stepped forward and waved frantically. “Neji! Do your best! I believe in you!”
Neji looked at her a moment, his posture stiff, then his hair flew back as he turned his head abruptly away.
“Heh, tsundere defence mode number one; embarrass them into submission.” Sakura grinned and crossed her arms.
“Sakura, do I have to have The Talk with you?” Kakashi asked mildly.
Sakura flushed and murmured, “Of course Kakashi is the one who knows what that means.”
Naruto glanced at her, then at Neji, then back at her. Sasuke braced himself for imminent stupidity. “Hey, Sasuke. That guy is mine!”
“Naruto,” Sakura said sweetly and leaned over next to him. “If you start getting possessive, I’ll break your legs.”
“Uh…” Naruto coughed. “I mean… we’ll do this as a team?” He rubbed the back of his neck.
Kakashi vanished and appeared in the centre of the arena and after a moment Guy joined him. The two began to talk in low tones.
“Right. So, here’s the plan, guys.” Sakura turned to face them, walking backward a bit. “First, no Chidori or Rasengan. This is a friendly fight between allies, not a death battle.”
“Right,” Sasuke said, and Naruto nodded quickly.
“Sasuke, use your sharingan and engage them in close combat. Keep them distracted. I’ll cover you with long range jutsu. Naruto…” She looked at him. Naruto frowned at her. Then she gave him a thumbs up. “Improvise.”
“That’s your plan for Naruto?” Sasuke asked.
“What’s the use of having the world’s most unpredictable knucklehead ninja if you don’t let him be exactly that?” Sakura grinned.
Sasuke found himself smiling despite himself. “She’s right, Naruto.” He stepped past her, eyes on his opponents as he pulled his hands out of his pocket. “She trusts you, even if you are a screw up. Besides, with everything we’ve been through together, we know how each other thinks better than anyone.”
“Yeah.” Naruto rubbed his nose with his thumb and also walked past Sakura. “Just like in the genjutsu world!” He looked back at her. “Besides, she can do that jutsu that lets us understand each other’s feelings again, just like in the forest!”
Sakura was turning to face them when Naruto spoke. She froze in place and blinked. “…which jutsu?” she said hollowly.
“Yeah, like that speed jutsu or the shield jutsu,” Naruto said, not looking at her. “The one that let us all understand each other practically like we were one person!”
“I…” Sakura opened and closed her mouth. “I… don’t have such a jutsu…”
“Ugh, another patrol? You know, with all these security upgrades I’m surprised your old protocols still work.”
“They do not.”
“We are being followed.”
Ino glanced at her observation window for a moment. The rest of her team were hanging out in the Nara clan lands again; Shikamaru was playing shogi against Asuma, and Choji was eating chips under a tree. Ino let her autopilot handle her body for a while as she moved back into the training facility Sakura had created for her. She resized the window with a few gestures and placed it to the side and out of her main field of vision.
She had learned how to have the mysterious Anima Invictus summon up various training scenarios for her. Now Sakura should be off on her pointless exhibition match against Team Guy. All of her attention should be focused there for at least a little while. Something she had said just before the ‘tea party’ had Ino worried.
“Ai,” Ino said as she stood in the wooded simulation. “I need books on a… Sir Isaac Newton and a Mr. Albert Einstein.” She’d look up the other names Sakura casually dropped around Hinata later, but felt it best to start with the ones related to whatever thing Sakura had stuck in her body.
There was a pause, then a voice came out of nowhere. It was soft and feminine, but also somehow electronic and mildly distorted. “Clarification: Do you wish to study information rather than train physical or psionic abilities?”
“Information: Print media is inefficient and archaic. User: Yamanaka Ino has been granted access to all archives. A codex interface would be more efficient.”
“A codex interface?”
Another holographic window appeared. This one had a symbol; a grey sphere made up of interlocking jigsaw pieces, each of which had a different symbol on it. Some she recognised from the common alphabets; others were from the ancient Eigo language, and others she had no knowledge of. Beneath it floated another screen, this one covered with symbols it took her a moment to realise that were the components of various kanji and other alphabets.
“Information: Enter the search term you wish to access. Access other relevant files by selecting the highlighted hyperlinks.”
“Ah.” Ino looked down at the screen and rose her fingers above it. “Thank you, Ai. This will do nicely.”
“Supplemental: Still ancient technology, but direct mental interface is not possible.”
“…right.” Ino shook her head. How many voices did Sakura have?
“So much for quiet.”
“And, begin!” Guy shouted, dropping his hand in a vicious chop, and then vanished. He and Kakashi appeared on the lip of the bandstand seats.
Naruto yelled, charging forward. Sasuke dropped into step behind him, letting Naruto take the lead. Naruto grinned and made a hand sign. “Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!”
A half-dozen Narutos appeared in a wave of smoke. He replaced himself with one of them under the cover of the smoke and led the charge, making it look like he was at the back of the pack.
The members of Team Guy ranged out, Neji in the front and Bushy-brows and TenTen going left and right respectively. The girl began to fling kunai into his line. Despite his attempt to dodge, two of his clones vanished under the onslaught. Where was his support?
Then Sakura appeared next to him and grabbed his collar, dragging him to a halt.
“TIME OUT!” she roared.
Everyone staggered to a halt.
“Sakura?” Naruto asked, taken aback by the intensity in her voice.
“Sakura, we can’t exactly stop in the middle-” Neji began.
“Quiet!” Sakura snapped at him. She pulled Naruto closer. “This effect! Tell me everything about it.”
“Sakura, are you saying you never intended Naruto and I to sense each other’s emotions?” Sasuke asked.
“No!” Sakura shook her head. “This wasn’t supposed to-” Then she cut off and looked up and away quickly. “No, wait-“
Naruto pulled himself away as Sakura’s grip suddenly went slack.
In the distance, a thunderous crack and boom was heard. Then a column of smoke rose into the sky.
They were only an hour out of the village when everything went to hell.
Kiba snapped his head up as Akamaru growled. “That scent-“
Kurenai was already moving when five figures burst from cover and descended on them. Her body flickered to the side, barely a single step. It was enough to avoid being skewered by a golden arrow. The projectile carved a crater nearly a meter deep into the earth where it hit.
“Break for the village!” Kurenai shouted, her hands snapping through hand signs.
“Sensei!” Hinata shouted.
“She’s using genjutsu!” the one in the sky cried. He had six arms and three eyes and his body was bright red, with horns extending from his head.
“On it!” A sound filled the air, sharp and discordant.
Kurenai winced, her hands hesitating. “My genjutsu…”
“That one!” Kiba shouted, rushing forward. A woman with long red hair stood at the edge of the forest, playing a tune on a flute. “Akamaru!” He flipped a pill into the air.
The air cracked. A pale hand appeared, clasped around the pill. Kiba stumbled. Akamaru was already in the air. There was a meaty thwack as the hand came around in a vicious backhand, sending the puppy flying into the woods with a heart-wrenching howl of pain.
“Akamaru!” Kiba snarled and crouched, drawing his fist down. His opponent was a shirtless man, pale skin and pale hair, eyebrows trimmed and stained in imitation of nobility. There was a flicker of movement and the man’s fist buried itself in Kiba’s stomach. It happened so fast that the pain was almost dreamlike, disconnected from the actual blow. He coughed, spraying blood from his lips and curling around the fist.
The air filled with a syncopating buzz as a great cloud arose from around Shino. The six-armed one above them, still floating somehow, took in a deep breath and then released it, filling the air with purple smoke.
“Poison!” Hinata shouted, the veins around her eyes bulging. “Shino, call your kikaichu back!”
A huge man burst from the ground beneath Hinata. She leapt, barely a second ahead of his grasping hand. His fingers curled around empty air where her ankle had been. She landed in front of him, hands coming up defensively as he rose out of the ground.
“They’re prepared for us!” Kurenai shouted.
“Leave the girl to me, Jirobo.” The pale-skinned man said, dropping Kiba. Unable to hold himself up, he collapsed into a heap on the ground. But he wouldn’t give up yet. Despite the pain, he reached out and clutched at the man’s foot, growling through bloody lips.
“She must have spotted me moving through the ground,” Jirobo said.
“Hinata, run!” Kurenai shouted and ran forward, pulling a pair of kunai out of her dress. She was forced to backflip away as another arrow smashed down where she had been.
There was a sound like a knife through flesh and a long white spear emerged from the pale-skinned man’s palm. It extended down and down until it Kiba felt it prick ungently against his temple.
“You can surrender, girl, or I can kill him right now.”
“…Hinata… don’t…” Kiba coughed.
“There is no reason to think they will let any of us live. Why? We are too close to Konoha to allow us to escape or be found and give away information.” Shino had retreated away from the cloud of purple smoke, a trail of dead bugs between him and the settling poison. “There is no tactical benefit to complying.”
Kiba hissed as blood began to well up under the point of the pale-skinned man’s spear. “I don’t care a bit about any of the rest of you. I am told your father killed Lord Orochimaru,” the man said, speaking directly to Hinata. “Since the man is behind an impenetrable security field, I will take out my frustrations on you.” Kiba’s head was pressed against the ground now, and the inexorable pressure of the bone spear only increased, causing him to cry out in pain and frustration as his blood flowed onto the soil. “And exchange your broken body for his attendance at my revenge.”
“Do not consider it, Hinata!” Shino spoke with uncharacteristic force. “Why? Soon the surveillance teams at the gate will notice our battle and come to assist.”
“You think so?” Jirobo said with a laugh. As if on cue, a cloud of smoke began to appear from inside the village. “We’ve arranged a trump card in the village to catch their attention.”
“Stop!” Hinata held up her hands. “If I go with you, will you let the rest of them go? With no further harm?”
“You can’t dictate terms to us-“
“Silence,” the pale-skinned man said, holding up one hand towards the man floating in the air.
“Hinata, don’t even think of-“
“Sensei!” Hinata cut Kurenai off. She turned to her and smiled. “Trust me. I’m in no danger.”
Ino’s hands were shaking. Her body was frozen, and her quivering fists were clenched so tightly she was sure she could have cut her palms if this had been her real body. In front of her was the final result of her browse through the extensive database. Looking up the two men had raised some strange questions (When had these men lived? None of the dates or locations matched anything Ino had ever heard of) but she had shelved most of them. A particular phrase had struck her as important, so she had ended up searching for it.
‘ Sir Isaac Newton is the deadliest motherfucker in space’
Apparently Newton and the other one had been ‘scientists’, some sort of researchers that dealt not in jutsu but in ‘natural law’. But what did that have to do with killing people? So she had searched for the phrase itself. It was some sort of reference to how projectiles fired in a frictionless microgravity environment would just continue and continue until they hit something. So what did that have to do with this Einstein?
Then she had come up with a terrible idea. She’d pulled up the schematics of her body. She’d looked into the reactor specifically. She’d looked up the power source.
“No way… no way, Sakura…” Her hands drifted down to her stomach. “…I have that inside me… you can’t be serious!”
She raised her head up. “Ai, show me an effect map of an unvented reactor breach.”
The image on the window changed. Ino felt her mouth go dry and her stomach shrivel.
“This is too much, Sakura.” She forced herself to look away and dismiss the window. “I have to tell Dad…”
Even as she spoke the air filled with a harsh siren. She looked around as red hexagons began to appear everywhere she looked. Each had “DANGER” spelled out in them.
“Warning: Multiple S-Class Threats Detected. Immediate evacuation is recommended.”
Ino snapped her head down, tapping her bracer; the air filled with a vision of the yard again. A large plume of smoke was rising up nearby. Asuma had leapt from the veranda and stood in the middle of the yard, trench knives in hand.
“What was that?” Ino asked as she stood her body up. Shikamaru was rising as well and Choji was already standing beneath the tree he had been resting beneath.
There was an explosion, the sound blotting out all others from somewhere far too close. A cloud of smoke burst out from just over the wall.
“-inside!” Asuma was saying as sound returned. “Get inside, now!”
She began to move, but it was too late. The wall burst inward, sending debris scattering like shrapnel through the yard. Ino shrieked and raised her hands, reaching out reflexively. She blinked when the wall of debris in front of her slowed to a stop and then proceeded to simply float in space.
“I… did that?” Ino asked.
“Ino!” Asuma appeared behind her and grabbed her shoulder. “Good job protecting your team! Now get inside!”
Choji was already running and Shikamaru had thrown open the door to the porch. Ino began to turn in that direction, allowing the field of debris to crash into a heap behind her. Then two figures leapt through the hole in the wall and landed in the middle of the yard. One was huge; the other was comparatively small, and thin even compared to a normal person.
Something about them and their cloaks suddenly struck her as familiar. Those monks from yesterday? Yes, it was the same abstract red clouds.
Ino was just reaching the veranda when a trio of figures appeared. They wore grey cloaks and porcelain masks.
“Anbu!” Choji cried in relief.
“Damn, we’re running out of places to run,” the large one said. His hat had been knocked askew and Ino could see a flash of blue skin and extremely white teeth as he spoke. His voice was what something with way too many teeth would sound like.
The Anbu broke up, turning to surround them. The slight one turned his head slightly. Red sparks glowed in the shadows of his hat. “They do not intend to let us run anymore,” he said.
“Let?” The large figure was holding a huge, bandaged object now (some sort of enormous club?) which he used to deflect a shower of shuriken.
“We have been herded here,” the slight figure said, looking around. His eyes stopped and stared at Ino. “Ah. This would be why.”
“The kid?” the huge figure said.
“Yes. It appears we have no choice now. Kisame, take out the Anbu. I will deal with the children.”
Ino stared as the man turned and removed his hat. He threw it aside. His face was both familiar and strange. It looked so much like Sasuke, but older and weathered, with thick worry lines on its cheeks. Ino felt herself freezing in place as his red eyes met hers. Within those eyes, three tomoe shapes floated in the irises.
“Uchiha Itachi!” Sakura’s voice came from right behind her.
Kurenai was obviously not going to let Hinata surrender. She moved to attack, only to stop as black snakes snapped out of the grass around her and wrapped around her legs. Another figure, this one with a single red horn, dropped behind her.
“It’s too late,” he said as he grabbed her shoulder.
“Another ambush?” Shino said.
“Don’t move, woman, or I’ll destroy every organ in your body one by one,” the man said.
Kurenai froze, obviously believing his threat.
“You, bug boy, stand still or both your sensei and your teammate die.”
“Do as he says, Shino,” Hinata said. “They can’t afford to kill you all here.”
“Oh, and why’s that?” the six-armed man on the extremely thin line of chakra above them said.
“Because if they are going to use me as a hostage for my father, they need me alive. And if I fight back, the only way they can take me is to kill me.” The five of them exchanged glances. “And with my Byakugan, I can see if they try to kill you once they lead me away.”
“I say we do it anyway,” the one with the single horn said. “We’re wasting a lot of time here.”
“No, she’s right. We need her alive.” He gestured to the huge man. “Jirobo, seal the others away and hold them while we get away.”
“If he does that this close to the village, he will die when their people come looking for them.”
“So be it,” the pale man said without hesitation. “Jirobo, do your duty in memory of Lord Orochimaru.” He withdrew his spear into his palm, the flesh sealing up around it as it vanished.
Jirobo paused for the slightest of instants, his brow creasing, then turned to face the group. If he was bothered by the suicidal order, it no longer showed on his implacable expression. “Right. You, bug boy. Stand next to your friend. Sakon, move the lady into the capture zone.”
Shino glanced at Hinata, who nodded. He moved with some reluctance and knelt next to Kiba, checking the boy’s vitals. Kurenai was duck-walked over to them both before being released as the one-horned man leapt clear. Even as he did, the rotund man slammed his palm into the ground, a dome of rock covering her teammates.
“You will not resist, or Jirobo will crush them,” the pale man said.
“I will not resist.” Hinata nodded and walked forward as they moved to bind her arms and legs. She kept her expression worried but determined, and very much did not smile. What was it Sakura always said at times like this? Ah yes.
Just as planned.
“No, no, no, no, this is not going as planned!” Sakura yelled as she sprinted across the arena. Sasuke didn’t pause, following her. The other four genin came in his wake, obviously thrown off by the girl’s sudden frantic motion.
Sakura didn’t pause, simply running up the side of the wall as quickly as she could. Sasuke and the other genin followed her and landed around their senseis in a loose cluster.
“Kakashi, Guy!” Sakura looked around, her head snapping back and forth, trying to look in two directions at once. “Damn, the worst timing in the world… damn.”
“Sakura, what’s going on?” Kakashi asked, calm but concerned.
“You have to… you have to go to the Nara household, right now! Right away!” She pointed at him and Guy. “The two of you are the only ones who have a chance here. If you don’t move, all of Team Asuma could be dead within minutes.”
Kakashi looked down at her. “Explain.” Sakura looked at Sasuke for some reason. Her hands clenched into fists. She looked up at Kakashi again, her lips trembling.
“I… Kakashi, this isn’t… this is the worst time…”
“Sakura. We talked about this. Tell me what is going on, and then we can act.”
Sakura took a deep breath. “Team Asuma is in the middle of a battle between Anbu and two S-Class missing nin. One is Hoshigaki Kisame. The other…
Sasuke’s heart beat loudly in his ears. His eyes widened. His skin grew cold and then hot in waves. He looked at Sakura and she winced, looking away from him.
“Uchiha Itachi?” Guy asked.
Sasuke did not wait. He was already running before the name finished coming out of Guy’s mouth.
“Sasuke!” Naruto shouted, about to leap after him. Sakura grabbed his arm and pulled him to an abrupt halt.
“You can’t!” Sakura said sharply.
“Guy!” Kakashi pointed his chin sharply.
Guy gave a serious nod and then grinned and gave a thumbs up. “I’ll protect the boy, Kakashi!” He vanished.
“Sakura,” Kakashi said, turning to her. “Stay here. Don’t interfere.” He looked at them all. “That’s an order for all of you.” He looked down at Naruto. “Especially you, Naruto. Don’t come after me. This isn’t a fight you can help with.”
With that, he vanished as well.
“Like hell!” Naruto pulled at Sakura’s grip, but it was like trying to budge a mountain for all it helped. He remembered. That awful face was burned into his memory, so like Sasuke’s and yet so cold and cruel. Now he had a name, but he knew that Sasuke needed him! “We have to go, Sakura! Sasuke needs us, he needs us both!”
“We can’t,” she said. Naruto snarled at her. “Listen to me, Naruto! We have to trust Sasuke with this.”
“Who the hell are you?” Naruto growled. “You can’t be the Sakura I know!”
“We can’t help him, because if we don’t go now, Hinata could be killed!” Sakura shouted.
“Lady Hinata?” Neji gasped. He grabbed her shoulder and pulled her away from Naruto. She released her grip and Naruto rubbed at his arm. “What is happening with Lady Hinata?”
“…we can talk, or we can start moving. Things are falling apart and we need to move now before she gets herself killed!” She pulled her shoulder free and turned towards the wall of Konoha, just visible in the distance. “If things go like I think they will at the Nara compound, we might be the only ones who can save Hinata and her team!”
In the depths of the hidden redoubts of Root, Shimura Danzo sat and listened to his operatives report on the battle breaking out within their village. He clasped his cane with both hands.