A Work of Blatant Self-Insertion
Chapter 6: Eclipse Phase
Hyuuga Hiashi was standing alone, gazing out over the village he loved. As one of the great clans, the Hyuuga possessed spacious grounds for the main branch estate, walls, shielding thickets of bamboo. All lent an air of quiet privacy, even though the scions of the house could easily look beyond it with their all-seeing white eyes.
At just this moment, however, Hiashi briefly wished he could eschew the privilege. Looking past the walls, seeing the morning movements of the slowly awakening villagers, he felt a pang of regret at how separate from it all he was.
There was a shift of air behind him. “That time already?” he asked aloud. There was no answer of course. There couldn’t be.
Nobody in the Hyuuga household had said anything about their clan head’s habit of speaking to himself. They could not. Appearances had to be maintained. Everything depended on it.
“Hizashi,” Hiashi addressed his brother. “They grow up so fast. In no time at all, you are faced with a choice. Take a leap of faith, or not.” Hiashi considered the choice in front of him.
“I do not like this. Lying to the Hokage. Lying to Hatake.” He took a deep breath. “If they knew what Sakura had done for Hinata, for our clan… for you, my brother. But what is that phrase? Ah yes, ‘I can’t help but be greedy.’ Quite a declaration of war, isn’t it?”
There was no response, but then there couldn’t be. For there was nobody there but Hiashi, after all. He smiled bitterly.
“Then I leave this part in your hands, my brother, and trust that you know what you are doing.”
Shikamaru was giving Ino a suspicious stare as they listened to the new proctor explain the rules of phase two of the chunin exams. He had that look on his face that meant he was annoyed by everything in general and Ino in particular. She had gotten used to that look over the years.
It probably didn’t help that the proctor of the second exam was an attractive woman with an abrasive personality. Ino liked her teammates at their best, generously tolerated them at their far more common worst, but they had their flaws. Shikamaru, particularly, was a sexist little pig who found any strong or assertive women ‘too much of a pain to deal with’. Normally, she shrugged off the boy’s misogyny – mostly because it had the benefit that he found arguing with her too much of a bother, and instead would grumblingly comply with her orders.
She dearly wished this would be one of those times he would decide dealing with a troublesome girl was too much hassle and go back to sullen disinterest, but this just wasn’t her lucky week.
“Man, Ino, what is with you today?” Shikamaru finally demanded. Choji was munching noisily on snack chips but he perked up at the open challenge. “First, you sleep through most of the exam, and since the exam ended you’ve been acting all weird.”
“Yeah,” Choji said. “I mean, it’s cool you mastered your family’s jutsu enough to be able to talk with your mind and give us the answers to the exam, but I think maybe you used too much chakra. You’re really out of it.”
“Ha ha! I do not know what you are talking about, human teammates!” Ino’s voice was slightly higher-pitched than normal, but also oddly emotionless. “I am perfectly fine.” The girl paused and then pointed sharply at them. “Also, you should both shut up and do what I say, because I am cuter and better than you.”
Ino buried her face in her hands. “Is that the best you can do?” she shouted, gesturing angrily to the screen floating in the air. “There is no way that anyone would believe that is me!”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the scary-glasses Sakura said over her shoulder. “Hey, I know! Next time I need to program an entire personality capable of regulating all the biosystems of a human body, including an invisible mystic energy which make no sense and produces new laws all the time, then sneaking it into a human body without an entire room of super alert ninja noticing – in less than ten minutes! – I’ll ask for your help.” She didn’t hide her sneer. “That way, I’ll get the bitchiness just right.”
“Why you-” Ino cracked her knuckles.
“Okay, fine, be that way,” Shikamaru said at last and went back to staring at the clouds. Choji looked at him, back to Ino’s body, and then shrugged and returned to eating.
Ino deflated. “Shikamaru, you are the absolute worst.”
Despite everything, Ino had hoped beyond hope that Shikamaru would see through Sakura’s deception and alert her father, or the Hokage, or… somebody. Hell, he was supposed to be so smart, maybe he could figure out how to help her.
But, once again, her teammates had let her down. Just this time, instead of it being in some minor irritating way, they’d abandoned her in the middle of enemy territory.
Sakura Prime, the youngest, the one that Ino was beginning to think of as the ‘regular’ Sakura, patted her shoulder. “Don’t be too mad with him,” she said in a conciliatory tone.
Ino shrugged off her hand and walked away from the image being projected in midair. Apparently what she was seeing was images being ‘streamed’ via some sort of advanced radio antennae which were built into Sakura’s ears.
“I can’t believe I’m even going along with this!” Ino snapped, not bothering to hide her frustration. “We should be in the Yamanaka compound with my dad and a dozen jounin trying to pry me out of here!”
“I’m sorry,” Sakura Prime said, her voice actually sounding contrite. “But we can’t risk being detained at this time. Things are way too critical.” She crouched down next to Ino and smiled in a reassuring way. “Don’t worry, we’ll fix this whole mess soon. If there is anything I have learned to trust from my slightly crazy older brother, it’s that he can do almost anything if he puts his mind to it.”
“Contact,” the boy said, as if waiting for the cue. The activity in the room stopped and everyone turned their attention to the other screen in the room.
The entire group had moved from the comfortable sitting room where Ino had first arrived to some kind of command room. Ino had been… a little emotionally distraught when they’d brought her here, so had not had a good chance to look around. While all the Sakuras (except for the one of them who had vanished to apparently run their body in ‘meatspace’) focused on the other screen, Ino figured now was the time to carefully look over this new space.
That’s what you were supposed to do when you were stuck in enemy territory with no chance of escape. She knew that. Stay quiet, don’t draw undue attention, look for an escape route to arise, gather information about the foe.
And she was trying, she really was, but no professor or shinobi that came before her had anticipated an enemy territory that was anything like this.
The room looked like something out of the imagination of the most strategic-minded ninja she had ever met. Ino knew her own father and his best friend Shikaku would have done anything to have a command centre like this in the village. The place was vaguely circular, with concentric rings made up of short pillars each of which had some sort of screen on the top. The screens were like television screens, but much more complex. Above the pillars and floating in the air were dozens of much larger screens, formed from what seemed to be solid light.
On the screens a variety of information was displayed. One screen had what looked like a complete anatomical breakdown of Sakura’s body, with all her vitals displayed on graphs floating around it. Another screen showed a map of the elemental nations; there were a number of floating displays around it with glowing lines connecting to various locations. Each of the indicators was, from what Ino could tell, a powerful or famous ninja. Though there were a lot of names that Ino didn’t recognise. There were also a lot of the floating ninja ID screens that were unconnected, with large question marks floating behind them. Other screens showed what looked like some sort of constantly updating topographical map of the area around them, focused images of a number of the people nearby, including Sakura’s teammates, Ino’s team, the proctor and a trio of sound ninja for some reason. Each had various vital signs surrounding their images.
“Do we confirm positive ID?” the boy ‘Sakura’ said. He was the only one who wasn’t named some variant of Sakura, instead being called ‘Aaron’ by the others. Ino turned her attention back to the largest screen in the room.
Naruto was cringing as the proctor leaned almost provocatively over his shoulder, her face disturbingly close to a bloody cut on Naruto’s cheek. The proctor froze as one of the foreign genin stepped up behind her. Ino she couldn’t tell what village the ninja was from; their generic brown robes and wide-brimmed straw hat weren’t much of an identifier. Even the gender was hard to be sure of. Wait, was that a giant tongue? Ew.
“Behaviour is within standard deviation,” another version of Sakura called out. “Bioscan confirms at least two DNA sequences: male and female and trace amounts of a third. It’s definitely him.”
“All right,” feral Sakura said. “Let’s get this party started.”
“We start a battle with a Sannin here, and half of the people in this crowd will die,” Sakura Prime said.
“Wait, did you say Sannin?” Ino stepped towards the crowd.
“We stick to the plan for now,” Aaron said.
“I’m sorry, hello.” Ino pushed herself in front of him. “I heard someone say Sannin. As in ‘Legendary Three Ninja’? The strongest ninja alive?”
“Ugh, complications,” another Sakura said.
Aaron was looking down at her, then he jerked his head sharply. “Actually, that raises a fair point.” He turned to the glasses-girl. “Arrange some alone time with Ino’s body, would you?”
Sasuke looked up as Sakura tapped him on the shoulder. “Hey, I’m going to check out Ino. She’s been acting weird ever since she fainted during the written exam,” Sakura said in the outside world.
“Fine,” Sasuke replied. “I’ll make certain Naruto doesn’t get himself disqualified.”
Sakura nodded and walked across the field towards the place where Team 10 had gathered. It was bizarre watching Sakura approach her in one line of vision and her approach herself in the other. Ino rubbed at her forehead, feeling like she should be developing a headache now.
“Ah, hello Sakura unit!” Ino’s voice called as her hand waved enthusiastically. In the bizarre genjutsu world, the real Ino buried her face in her hands. The Ino in the physical world tilted her head to the side mechanically. “I would like to talk to you alone for a few moments.”
“Sounds good,” Sakura said and grabbed her arm in a girlish gesture of friendship. She began to drag Ino’s body away. Ino watched her teammates give the two girls a casual glance.
“Hey, where are you two going?” the proctor said. She had apparently divested herself of the foreign ninja and was about to begin some sort of explanation.
“Just powdering our noses,” Sakura said, waving over her shoulder. “No girl ever goes to the bathroom alone.”
“Yeah, well, be back by the time the exam starts or you will both be disqualified.” The proctor crossed her arms under her ample, barely concealed bosom. She smirked. “And don’t blame me if you miss out on all the information you need to survive in the Forest of Death.”
Sakura pulled Ino’s body behind a cover of bushes and the two crouched somewhat out of sight. “We’re going to need some cover from prying eyes,” Aaron said to the Sakura in the pointed hat.
“On it,” she replied.
In the real world, Sakura ran her hand along the ground, conjuring a series of pink lines and symbols. “Ars magica: Restriccionne in contrarium inde amoveatur, scholae errorem ex creatione sumnut: a perfecta imagine.” A wave of distortion seemed to pass over the two of them and the nearby bush. Sakura stood up and Ino’s body followed along with her.
“Anyone looking in should only see two girls engaged in some small talk,” the pointed-hat Sakura said. “But we only have a couple of minutes before we have to leave, so make this quick.”
“Right,” Sakura in the real world said. Her hand snapped down and pulled a kunai out of her thigh holster.
“Hey, what do you think you’re doing!?” Ino ran towards the boy. One of the Sakuras stepped in and held her back. She struggled for a moment, but this damn world Sakura had trapped her in also seemed to have left her without access to her strength and jutsu. “Let me go! Don’t mess with my body!”
“I have no intention of harming your body, Ino,” the boy said. “That’s why we have to do this. Scienca, have Ino’s body raise her left hand.”
“Right away, primary unit,” Ino’s body said and complied.
“You could leave me with some dignity,” Ino sullenly protested as the Sakura released her.
Sakura in the real world spun her kunai around to reverse her grip, then with deliberate speed drove the knife into her own left palm. Ino winced in sympathetic pain as blood began to well up between from the cut. Then she saw where Sakura’s vision was focused.
Blood welling up from Ino’s hand. Ino gasped.
“The primary weakness of the Shintenshin jutsu,” Sakura said. “Any damage inflicted on the host body is reflected on the user’s true form.”
“You mean not only am I stuck here, I have to worry about you getting my body killed at the same time?” Ino crossed her arms.
“Prohibere sanguinem,” Sakura said, placing a finger on Ino’s wound. It vanished in a cloud of rainbow sparks. “Think of it this way, Ino. It’s proof that in a sense your jutsu is still working normally; your body and soul are still connected. That means there is still the possibility of getting you back into your own body.”
In fact, Ino really did feel better about that, though she wasn’t about to admit it. She kept up her grumbling, but her heart wasn’t in it.
“Damn, I just realised that we have another problem.” The glasses lady turned to look at Ino with an unreadable expression, and then back to Ino’s body on the screen. She waved her hand and an overlay appeared. Ino recognised many of the vitals: blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, red cell count and most of the conventional medical terminology. Others she had no idea what they could possibly mean. ‘Psychomorphic integrity’? ‘Dimensional stability ratio’?
“This isn’t good.” Sakura’s hand snapped out and placed itself against Ino’s forehead. More data began to fill into the image on the screen. The image zoomed toward her face, and then a three-dimensional form projected out. It showed a perfect anatomical model of a human head. Ino’s head, she realised with a gasp.
Layers of the model peeled away, first flesh and then tissue and finally bone. She was now looking at a floating slightly translucent blue-tinted image of her own brain. As she watched, it began to light up with dozens of streams of what looked like red lightning.
“That’s way too much activity,” Aaron said. “By all rights, her brain should be basically comatose. Is this the nanites you injected?”
“No,” Sakura Scienca said with a shake of her head. “Those barely have the processing power of a smart phone. Running anything more powerful than that would produce enough heat to cause permanent brain damage.” She waved her finger like a lecturer. “That’s why the NPC program we’re running is so… basic.” Ino glared at her, but she ignored it. “The problem isn’t with Ino, or the temporary solution to keep her body running.” She gestured at herself. “The problem is me.”
Sakura Prime froze. “The Shintenshin.” She turned her eyes towards Ino. “Any damage affecting me also gets reflected back onto you.” She grabbed Ino, pulling her into a hug. “Oh god. I’m so sorry, Ino!”
“Sorry? What do you mean?” Ino was a little afraid, but wasn’t about to let it show. She had spent enough time freaking out.
“Because of me… your body is dying!”
Ino froze. “D… dying!?”
Scienca pointed at the model of Ino’s brain. “My body has undergone extensive modifications. Move by wire systems that keep my nerves operating in a constant seizure state to induce fast twitch response time, limitations on muscle contraction and expansion have been uninhibited to allow full use of all the human body’s strength. My brain is running at about forty times the speed of a normal human brain. The normal human body evolved restriction mechanisms that keep you from doing stuff like tearing your muscles and overheating your own brain and nerves to cause them to short out or just burn away. My body is designed to remove all those safeguards.
“But my body also has modifications to repair and reinforce itself despite the constant strain it’s under. Nanomachines that constantly repair cellular damage, bones and ligaments made of materials that can resist tearing under the high stress conditions, organs lined with metamaterials that self-repair. Even my brain has damage mitigation and reversal augmentations built in to deal with heat and chemical build up.
“None of which your body has.”
“You mean… your body is breaking itself all the time!?” Ino said, barely able to believe it. “Doesn’t that hurt?” The question seemed feeble to her even as she said it.
Scienca smiled. “You have no idea.”
“So… because you did bizarre and forbidden modifications to your body, all this wear and tear is building up inside me, right now?” Ino grabbed at her temples. “While I’m forced to watch!?”
“It’s not as bad as it sounds,” Aaron said. The way the teenage Sakura was clinging to her undermined his attempt to relieve her tension. “My body is pretty tough. It might be days or even weeks before we build up so much damage that my mahoujutsu can’t reverse it.”
“Or…” Scienca tilted her head to the side and tapped her chin with one finger. “We could burn her out in a few hours. It’s hard to say. We have no idea how her chakra network will react without a trained ninja consciousness to direct it. It’s possible her chakra will react to the damage disastrously.”
“You have to do something!” Ino threw Sakura Prime off and stepped forward. “This is all your fault!”
“Hey, I didn’t try to usurp your body.”
Ino had no response to that, but didn’t let that stop her from growling under her breath.
“Not to mention that in less than a few hours we’re probably going to be fighting for our lives against a Sannin.”
“Wait, what?” Ino asked. “The Sannin again? Are you ever going to tell me what is going on?”
“If Ino is going to survive, we only have one option as far as I can see,” Sakura Scienca said, crossing her arms. She looked at the one in the pointed-hat. The other blinked.
“What? No way! We can’t trust her with that kind of power,” Sakura Arcana said.
“It’s either that or I abandon everything I’ve been working toward for twelve years,” Aaron said. He turned to Ino. “This is the moment. I have one chance to change it all, to stop the runaway landslide by keeping the single stone from being knocked out of place. If I abandon this now, then the future will refuse to change. Worse, I already started changing things in preparation. If I lose the initiative, then there is a very real chance things will turn out far worse.
“I’m sorry, Ino.” He walked up to her. “I’m certain there is a good solution to what happened to you. No doubt Inoichi or one of the other Yamanaka elders could extract you without too much trouble. If I couldn’t heal the stress damage to your body, then maybe we could get Lady Tsunade or some other genius medical nin to fix you up as good as new.
“But I can’t take it easy now. I’m sorry.” He gestured to the screen and the Sakura in the real world gestured quickly before reaching through a circle of pink light and drawing out a small gem-encrusted ring from seemingly nowhere. “So you have two options. Option one, we run your body on the nanites for a few days. Given what I have planned, there is a very high chance I’ll take enough damage that your body will die.” He gestured up at the screen showing Sakura’s hand holding out the ring towards Ino’s body. “Or we have option two, where you take a leap of faith. If your body puts on that ring, it will trigger a transformation that will reinforce your body sufficiently to survive everything that’s about to happen.
“But you won’t be able to return to it for three years.”
Sakura Prime placed a hand on her shoulder. “Because the pain… is unbearable.”
“The only way I survived three years of it with my sanity intact is because I could constantly swap out which ‘me’ had to experience the body at any one time. But that’s not a factor related to biology or technology. If you return to your body, you’ll experience the pain non-stop. Nothing human can endure it.”
“Th- this is crazy!” Ino shouted. “I don’t believe you!”
Aaron looked into her eyes, his expression serious. Teenage Sakura pushed the feral version of her away and laid one arm around Ino’s shoulders.
“The proctor has begun handing out the Earth and Heaven scrolls,” Aaron said in a somber tone. “You’re out of time. I need to go. I really hate to do this, but you have a choice to make.”
Mitarashi Anko smiled as the first screams began to filter out from the forest. She checked the progress of the sun. Less than an hour. That had to be a new record. She tapped her hands against the roof of the shed she was sitting on and reached into her pouch for her lunch.
She glanced up as a man approached the chain link fence separating the overgrown forest from the fields beyond it. She body flickered over to him. The man was wearing a set of white robes with a green overcoat. He glanced down at Anko as she materialised in front of him.
“Lord Hyuuga,” she said. “What are you doing here?”
“I had heard that both my… daughter and my nephew had passed the first exam,” he said, which wasn’t exactly a reply. “I came to see it for myself.”
Anko nodded. The normally stoic man appeared to be having some trouble with his expression. “You’re worried about them?”
He glanced at her, an extremely subtle eye motion that most people wouldn’t have caught, but only smiled thinly. “No.” He shook his head. “Not about them.”
For a long moment there was silence.
“It’s really happening, isn’t it?” the Hyuuga said finally. “It really is.”
“What’s happening?” Anko couldn’t help but feel curious.
“…growing up, I suppose.” He turned to face her. “I think I will watch, if you don’t mind.”
Anko shrugged. There was no rule against it. “As long as you don’t intervene.”
The Hyuga paused and nodded his head. The veins around his eyes bulged and his eyes seemed to bulge out of his face slightly. For a long moment, he was silent. Anko turned and began walking back to her shed so she could have her lunch. She had packed all the dango into her pack, and was planning to have one for every poor genin soul she was hoping to break with this exam.
“Mitarashi,” he said suddenly. She paused. “There is a complication.”
“Guys, hold up.” Sakura held up her hand. Naruto and Sasuke came to a halt on the large branch beside her. Naruto couldn’t believe this place. The trees around Konoha were large. That was how the village became known as Hidden in the Leaf. But this place was unreal. Everything was super-sized.
“We’re about to go into a very dangerous fight here, so it’s time I spread the love around.” Sakura held out both hands, one towards each of them. “Get ready: this can be a bit of a rush.”
Naruto and Sasuke exchanged a look before Sasuke shrugged and Naruto grinned. “Yeah, Sakura! Let’s work together to win this exam!”
She smiled. “Ars magica: Restriccionne in contrarium inde amoveatur, ludo est modus, festina. Preasidio in ludum monita fuisse clipeum, carmine secta meta; beneficium.”
Naruto gave out an appreciative gasp of awe as Sakura’s hands seemed to flicker through the air faster than he could follow. She traced two trios of identical designs in the air before each of her teammates before slapping her hands on their shoulders.
That was when Naruto’s eyes widened.
Inuzuka Kiba was shaking. Just a few minutes ago, he and his team had managed to lure some overzealous foreign nin into an ambush from the giant leeches of the forest. Luck had been on their side: the first team to fall for their trap had been carrying the exact scroll they needed to pass the second exam. After that, it was only a matter of making it to the tower in the centre of the forest and officially passing this exam as easily as the first one.
Now they were crouched in the underbrush and fearing for their lives. In the clearing ahead, between them and the tower, two teams of ninja faced off. One was a trio of Sand Nin from the village of Suna. The other was a trio of rain ninja from the village of Ame.
All Kiba knew about any of them was that the kid in the center of the Sand ninja formation was seriously freaking him out. Akamaru was freaking out too. Something about that kid’s scent was terrifying. Kiba couldn’t make out much of what the dog was saying in his whimpers, but something about being way too strong and also smelling of blood. Oceans of blood.
Shino was also crouched in fear. The normally stoic Aburame heir wasn’t shaking, but from the scent he was giving off he was afraid. There was a slight buzzing in the air around him, a sign that his agitation had passed on to his cloud of chakra-eating beetles.
Hinata was the only one he could not smell fear from. As usual, her scent was hard to discern. She was staring out into the clearing as the words between the two teams broke down into violence. One of the Ame genin had released a trio of bamboo umbrellas into the air, filling the air with a high-pitched buzz as they flew higher and higher.
Then, with a final hand sign, the umbrellas released a rain of throwing needles. Kiba clenched his hands as the dozens and dozens of senbon filled the air, leaving no gap to dodge. They fell down towards the red-haired kid with the ‘love’ tattoo and the giant gourd. For a fleeting instant, Kiba was convinced the small boy was about to die. He watched with gruesome fascination.
Instead of a shower of blood, all that happened was a series of muffled impacts. When Kiba blinked, the air around the redhead had completely filled with sand save for a small crack through which the boy’s face was visible. The senbon were buried harmlessly into the sand. The taller Ame nin was staring in open shock.
“Incredible,” Shino said, just audibly.
“He didn’t use any hand signs,” Kiba said in agreement. “I didn’t even see him move. What kind of jutsu is that?”
“A very dangerous one,” Hinata said. She was frowning, and her hands were clenching and releasing nervously. In the years Kiba had known her, and the months they had been teammates especially, Hinata had always managed to keep a gentle composure. Even when dealing with Kiba’s most rude language and attempts to shake her compusure, she only had pleasant smiles and kind words for everyone. Even that loser Naruto got nothing but praise from her.
Now, she looked angry. Nothing was right all of a sudden.
The lead Ame ninja tried to leap forward, only to find his feet trapped. Looking down, he saw that his feet up to the ankles had been encased while he wasn’t looking. A stream of sand stretched between him and the redhead, who was staring forward intensely as the protective shell dissolved around him. The Suna ninja made a clutching motion and the sand rapidly flowed up and around the taller ninja’s body.
“Oh man, he’s a goner,” Kiba muttered. “That smell, it’s even worse now.” He crouched protectively over Akamaru, who was shivering uncontrollably.
“You just have to watch…” Hinata was saying. “Just watch… nothing will happen if you just watch…” She seemed to be speaking more to herself than anyone else.
The cocoon rose slowly into the air, detaching from the mass on the ground. It floated with no visible support. The ninja inside began to beg and whimper, until his voice was cut off as the sand sloughed over his face. The deceptively frail-looking boy raised his clutching hand towards the sky, and the trapped ninja raised with him. Then he walked over and grabbed one of the fallen umbrellas.
With a sudden lurch in his stomach, Kiba knew what was coming next.
“Just watch, just watch, just watch-“
“We surrender!” one of the caught ninja’s teammates was screaming but the boy was ignoring him. “You can have our scroll, we surrender!”
“Just watch, just watch, just watch-“
“You had your chance,” the blonde with the quartet of pigtails said in mock sympathy.
“Nothing can stop Gaara when he’s like this,” the boy with kabuki makeup and carrying a big package on his back explained. “It’s just your bad luck you ran into us when he was in one of his moods.”
“Shut up, all of you.” The boy snapped open the umbrella and propped it almost casually against his shoulder. “I told him. Anyone who confronts me is nothing more than dead meat.” It was the cold, uninterested tone that really sent the gooseflesh up Kiba’s spine.
“Now, die!” The boy snapped his hands closed. “Desert funeral!”
There was an explosion and sand flew in all directions. For a moment, no one spoke. Kiba could only stare in shock. Shino shot to his feet.
Hinata now stood in the clearing, the ninja from Ame over her shoulder. Her left hand was curled around his waist, her right hand was extended towards Gaara with an open palm. She was in a crouch, one leg extended far to her side and one bent under her centre of gravity.
“The hell- where did you come from?” kabuki boy said with a gasp.
“Oh great, now we have to watch Gaara murder a little girl,” the girl said, crossing her arms.
“I’m sorry,” Hinata said as she unrolled her right arm and allowed the taller ninja to roll onto the ground. He scrambled away on hands and knees, gasping and crying. “It turns out I could not just watch.”
The redhead, however, was not taking this well. His body was shaking, his eyes widening and shivering in their sockets. His face, no longer expressionless, now wore a grimace of frustration and hate. “You came… between me… and my prey…”
“I did,” Hinata said.
“You came… between me… and my prey!” The sand around the boy was writhing and crawling on the ground. Kiba scrambled to his feet as well. Shino was already halfway through the brush.
“Shino! Kiba!” Hinata’s voice cracked with a rare but firm tone of command. “Stay back!”
“You came… between me… and my prey!” Gaara repeated one more time, a terrible finality in his cold voice. “Nobody comes between me and my prey! I’ll crush you to powder!” He screamed, and the sand rose up around him. The rain ninja were fleeing away from the newly arrived Konoha ninja. Gaara gestured and the sand whipped out towards them.
There was a sound like water crashing against a beach. Hinata now stood between the fleeing rain ninja and the boy. His sand had scattered in front of her in a crescent wave. She had both her arms extended, one facing low and the other high, her palms turned upward and outward.
“Don’t worry about me,” Hinata said to her teammates. She smiled. “I think someone needs some… what did she call it? Ah yes, therapy no jutsu.” She turned her attention to Gaara, who was staring at her as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The sand formed abstract shapes of violence in the air around him. Both his fellow sand ninja were backing away slowly, as if afraid to catch his attention.
“You… I’ll destroy you…”
“You will try,” Hinata agreed magnanimously. “But you will find that I have all the help I need to put an end to this right here.”
The sand surged forward.
Hiruzen looked up from the latest pile of paperwork. He didn’t enjoy filing out all the forms and reviewing all the requests and receipts, but it was part of his job. After so many years he even found it relaxing in his own way. His body was old, and the more physically demanding parts of the Hokage position were increasingly difficult. This was something productive he could do for his village beyond moral support.
So he found it somewhat annoying when he was interrupted. The chunin guard had thrown open his doors and stepped in, but came to a rigid halt.
“I’m sorry, Lord Hokage, but he insisted it was a crisis!”
“Let him in then,” Hiruzen said. He was somewhat surprised to see Hiashi step through the doors. “What is the emergency this time?”
Wasting no time on formalities, Hiashi strode to the front of the Hokage’s desk. “You must come to the Forest of Death immediately. There is terrible danger to the genin inside.” Hiruzen raised an eyebrow. That was rather the point of the exam, after all. But before he could respond, Hiashi spoke again. “There is no time to explain now. I will tell you on the way.”
“Very well,” Hiruzen said and stood. The implied threat, if this was not necessary, went unsaid.
Orochimaru approached the trio of genin with a smile on his face. Well, less his face and more the face of some unfortunate Kusa genin who had been convenient when Orochimaru had first arrived. He had been in such a terrible rush that he had left all three of the team sprawled practically in the open. It would be amusing to see how quickly Konoha realised someone had infiltrated their precious chunin exam, and to see their response.
Not that any of it mattered. It was far too late for them to stop him now.
He was giddy with anticipation as he walked towards them, his killing intent driving all of them to their knees. He had planned at first to replace the idiot in the orange suit, but when one of his summoned snakes had attacked him the boy had dodged and driven a kunai through its brain instead. It was a good thing the snake had failed, because when the boy returned to tell of his great deed and failed utterly to properly respond to the password Sasuke had set, the other two had noticeably relaxed.
The boy, Naruto of all people, was busy explaining what had happened in the brush when Orochimaru decided to make his entrance. It would be easier to keep them all cowed without failing to pass their simple security system first. Still, the cleverness of the trick had only made Orochimaru more impressed with the Uchiha boy. He licked his lips, savouring the fear in the air.
Yes, the more powerful and skilled Sasuke was, the more he would add to Orochimaru’s powers in the end. He wondered what visions of death were dancing through the heads of the three of them. Perhaps Sasuke was reliving the massacre of his clan in vivid detail? It would be gauche to ask, but he found he was dying to know. Ah well, in time he would know everything.
“Well, children playing games with adults are always out of their league,” Orochimaru said in the false voice from his stolen face. “I bet the three of you are just paralysed now, right?” He pulled out the scroll his hapless former student had turned over to him without even batting an eye. Ah, what a disappointment… but that was the past. “I suppose you would like this Earth scroll to go with the Heaven scroll you already have?” he asked. “Will the sight of your goal so close to you snap you out of this fear?” He grinned a girlish grin. “Or will you instead offer your own scroll to me in an attempt to make the scary adult go away?”
All three of them were trembling, their bodies barely upright. He made a show of swallowing the scroll. Not that he could care less about it. Yet there was something to be said for presentation. After all, if you couldn’t have fun now and then, what was the point of it? He began to laugh at his own joke.
With a casual flick of his hand he launched a handful of shuriken at Sasuke. It would be a good test of-
Sasuke collapsed, blood flowing from the gashes in his throat and chest.
Orochimaru stared. That, he hadn’t expected.
Kabuto leapt from limb to limb, Orochimaru’s pair of corrupted ex-Root operatives keeping up with him at his casual pace. He had just helped the two of them secure the appropriate scrolls, and now was looking for a place to hide them near the tower until the last day of the exams. He wasn’t certain what Lord Orochimaru hoped to accomplish by throwing the extensively modified ninja at Uchiha Sasuke, but he had some suspicions.
Still, his orders were clear. Give the boy one day to run around as he please, then find him the next day after the sun was up and ‘keep an eye on him’ and ‘whatever happens, make certain he passes the second stage’. That would be harder now, since he hadn’t had a chance to leave an impression on him and his teammates with useful intelligence.
Plus there was the girl to consider. He looked down at his hand, contemplating what he had learned in those brief few seconds of contact. He was certain his master would be fascinated by the information, but had no way of contacting the elusive Sannin until Lord Orochimaru decided to reveal himself.
His head snapped up. Movement? He signalled sharply, and the three of them landed in a small clearing formed by the hollow between three great roots the size of small buildings. He gestured his burden to silence and looked around. The great trees of the Forest of Death stretched many stories into the sky, their leaves blocking out most of the sunlight and leaving the forest floor in shadow. Between those great trunks prowled monsters: giant animals and vermin with all forms of deadly poisons and fangs. Yet that had been no animal he had felt more than seen in the canopy above them.
“Move!” he snapped, and both Yoroi and Tsurugi jumped in opposite directions. Kabuto split with them, forming a triangle as they landed. Three forms dropped from the canopy and landed with a crash in the hollow. He stared down.
Sound ninja? He looked them over. They had been thoroughly and efficiently destroyed. Their bodies were broken but not quite dead. One had a gauntlet on his right arm that seemed to have originally been a resonance-using weapon; that had been cracked and was now useless. The other had some sort of tubes placed through the bones in his arms; both bone and tubes had been broken in multiple places. The only girl of the group had been beaten bloody.
“Pardon us, but we wanted to return this trash to its owner.” Kabuto looked up into the trees again. A trio of genin from the Leaf were standing on one of the great pathway-wide limbs above. He recognised them from the small group the pink-haired girl had driven him away from.
“Team Gai,” he said. “I’m surprised to meet you here. I suppose these three didn’t have the scroll you needed.”
“You would be Yakushi Kabuto,” the one in the lead said down at them. It was the Hyuuga boy, the one called a genius. Second only to Sasuke in terms of bloodline, but ultimately both less valuable because of how common his eyes were – and utterly worthless because of the seal on his forehead that would destroy those same eyes if they ever fell into Orochimaru’s hands. A blind vessel would be less than useless to Orochimaru.
“Multiple times failed rookie, this would be your seventh failed chunin exam, would it not?”
“Well, I think that is premature.”
“Nevertheless, the truth is that you are an obvious target for ambitious young ninja. Such a record would speak to a fundamental failure of character. Perhaps the kind of person more likely to give up in the face of adversity than to struggle past it. That kind of person that would be willing to negotiate and surrender rather than risk his life, don’t you think?”
“I suppose one could think that.” Kabuto glanced towards Yoroi and Tsurugi. The two had shifted into defensive stances, moving in such a way that they could make hand seals without having to reveal their exact motions to the genin up in the trees.
“I was briefed on all the potential opponents in this exam by a good friend of mine, Haruno Sakura,” Hyuuga Neji said evenly.
“Oh, really?” Kabuto frowned. What the boy had said when he first arrived began to return to Kabuto’s mind. “Well, don’t always trust what you hear. If you throw around accusations and gossip without thinking, people could end up hurt.” Kabuto adjusted his glasses with two fingers.
“The only one who shall end up hurt here is you, traitor!” the boy in the green jumpsuit shouted, pointing an accusing finger at him. “I, Rock Lee, the most dedicated student of Might Gai, will put an end to your hateful deceit alongside my friends, the genius Neji and the weapon master Tenten!”
Kabuto’s frown deepened… but this was still only on the level of accusations. He could maybe talk his way out of this. He didn’t feel like killing the three of them. It would be inelegant.
“You’re right,” he said finally. “I am the kind of guy who surrenders. I don’t know what this whole thing about a traitor is, but if you want our scroll, you can have it.” He pulled out both his scrolls. “In fact, we have a matched set. With these, you can get into the tower. We’ll be willing to take our chances against the rest of the competition.” He could see Yoroi and Tsurugi tense, but they didn’t object to his lead.
“Here, see?” he threw the scrolls upward. With a flash, Tenten’s hand snapped out. Both scrolls tumbled away, the scattered pieces ripped to shreds. Kabuto’s eyes widened. He had hoped the genin hadn’t seen the paralysing poison he had laced onto the scrolls. No. They couldn’t have seen it.
“You really had no intention of taking our scrolls, did you?”
Tenten bounced a kunai in one hand and a storage scroll in the other. From what Kabuto recalled, the girl was an enthusiast of hidden weapons, so she probably had any number of them stored in a series of fuinjutsu seals written along the length of that scroll. “Are you still denying it?” She yawned. “How lame.”
“Okay.” Kabuto smirked and dropped his hands to his side. “So you really, really want to fight me for some reason. Well, I guess I have no choice but to do so. Even a coward will fight if pushed into a corner, you know?”
And if he had to kill them? Well, he would try not to. Best to leave one of them alive, at least, so he could wring all the information about the Haruno girl out of them first.
Orochimaru was not certain how to feel about this. He watched as the one in the orange jacket began to cry and scream as he futilely tried to staunch the flow of Sasuke’s blood. A profound sense of disappointment filled him as he walked forward. This was the best the last loyal Uchiha could do?
He knew the child couldn’t compare to his older brother Itachi, but this was just pathetic. He had desired those eyes ever since he had first seen them used so effectively by the older brother. Unfortunate that his first attempt to subvert Itachi had failed so miserably that Orochimaru had been forced to turn to the second-rate younger brother.
“Disgusting,” he said with a snarl as he stalked past the trembling pink-haired girl where she had collapsed on her knees. He approached the boy, who was screaming for ‘Sakura’ to ‘do something’. Orochimaru could probably save Sasuke’s life, but would it be worth it if the vessel was this weak?
Orochimaru paused as he stood over the body. “Absolutely disgusting,” he repeated. “Is this the limit of your ability, undone by nothing more than fear and metal?”
“Sasuke, Sasuke is dying!” the boy cried as he pushed on Sasuke’s throat, red welling between his fingers. “Somebody do something!” Orochimaru sneered and looked away. He couldn’t stand to see such potential squandered. “Just kidding!”
Orochimaru’s head whipped back around, but almost too late. The blond brat had thrown himself at Orochimaru’s chest, his hand drawn back. And in his hands, that was the-
Orochimaru managed to bend backward so the attack went just over his head. It involved bending his spine far past the limits of human motion, but that was a trivial task for the legendary Snake Sannin. What was that boy doing, knowing that jutsu?
Orochimaru’s eyes widened. Sasuke was moving. He was charging in, a rainbow of light fading from around his neck to reveal entirely unharmed flesh beneath. In one palm, the boy clutched a concentration of chakra so heavy it was visible to the naked eye. The sound of a thousand birds floated through the air.
Worse, with those Sharingan eyes and the unnatural position he was in, there was nothing Orochimaru could do to dodge.
With a snap of his jaw, his tongue shot out of his false mouth and wrapped around Sasuke’s shoulder. The Uchiha cried out as he was dragged away and flung sideways, the chakra pulse in his hands carving a trench through the ground and then shattering the side of one of the great trees before Orochimaru released him into a long parabolic arc.
That was when the girl kicked Orochimaru in the spine. His body flopped like a gutted fish as he was sent skyward. He snarled and managed to right himself in mid-air. His foot caught a tree branch and he stood underneath it, held on by chakra. He looked down at the three genin.
The girl planted her foot from her kick. Sasuke was rubbing his lip as he walked out of the bushes towards her. The other brat was already crouched on the side of a nearby tree.
“Haha!” Orochimaru laughed. “Brilliant! You even had me fooled.” The relief and joy was immense. He grinned. “You truly are an Uchiha, Sasuke, to turn your weakness into strength! And is that Kakashi’s precious jutsu? How marvelous. I never expected you to have come so far.”
“Whatever,” the boy said.
“Hey freaky tongue lady,” the boy shouted at her. “You think you’re such hot stuff? Come on down and fight us again, why don’t ya?”
“Naruto, don’t be an idiot,” Sasuke said. “That attack of ours barely even phased her. Right, Sakura?”
“You have no idea,” Sakura said. “I’m honestly surprised such a simple trick even touched him.”
“Wait, him?” Naruto asked, scratching his head.
“Oh yes.” Sakura smiled. “We stand in the presence of greatness, boys. Meet Orochimaru: the legendary Snake Sannin, traitor to the village, murderous bastard and all-around power-mongering pervert.”
He gave the girl a look. How had she seen through his disguise? Ah well, it hardly mattered. “Please. I will agree to everything except the pervert part.” His body flickered across the clearing to stand on a large root not far from them. The three turned to face him. Naruto landed behind Sakura. Sasuke fell into a defensive crouch. “Who has time for sexual gratification when there is knowledge to attain and jutsu to master? You have the wrong Sannin.”
“You know, I could just step aside here.” Sakura gestured vaguely towards Sasuke. “This is the one you want, right?” Sasuke gave her a quick glance before focusing back on the threat. Good boy. “You really couldn’t care less about Naruto or me.” She stepped to the front. “And then things would proceed on according to your plans. Terrible things would happen to everyone, but it would work out in the end, right? I could just play a part and let it go. Preserve the happy ending and all that.”
“Girl, you’re boring me.”
She smiled, a sharp expression. “Then let me entertain you, Orochimaru.” Her hand snapped out. “Iam exceptionibus remotis mittentes carmina multiplicies; et motus praesidio scolarum ex conclamant et mentis imperium!” As Orochimaru watched, a half dozen burning pink mandalas formed instantly in the air behind her. They expanded in all directions, growing in complexity and size at a geometric rate. “Ars magica, ars technica, ars psionica; Anima Invictus: excitant omnia!”
The air around the girl rippled and flexed as the mandalas flowed over her body, leaving brief flashes of colour that quickly faded. Her hand gripped the air… and then she was holding a truly ridiculously large sword. Her long red cloak flowed over her body like water, forming into a skintight suit with ceramic armor extended from key positions. Gems opened across the armour, creating flashes of light that seemed to hug her frame. Rainbow sparks faded from her body, revealing long pointed ears. She also seemed to have grown a few centimetres. Her hair waved in the air behind her as if in an invisible wind.
“Well now,” Orochimaru said eagerly. “That’s a technique I’ve never seen before. Some new type of jutsu? How marvelous!” His teeth showed behind what could only generously be called a grin. “Perhaps I’ll take a few moments to test the limits of that jutsu before I take Sasuke.”
The girl laughed and shifted her grip on that massive blade. She held it with one hand with apparent ease, but still propped it against her shoulder. “You’re so predictable, Orochimaru. Dangle new jutsu in front of your eyes and you drool like a true pervert. But I’m afraid I have a problem.” She looked up at him, her green eyes defiant. “You see, it turns out I’m incredibly greedy. I can’t be satisfied with a ‘happy ending’. I want it all. Every possible good end.” Her smile grew whimsical. “A good friend of mine once coined a proper phrase for it: ‘The perfect possible future.’ That’s what I’m fighting for. And that fight starts…