Chapter 7 - Life
Kakashi landed on the ground, eyeing the inert form of Naruto with a frown. Sakura was kneeling next to him, trying to push him awake. Shikamaru was telling something to one of the other Anbu, who disappeared a second later.
"Kakashi-sensei!" Sakura cried, the moment she saw him. He came next to her and gave her a reassuring pat on the head as he glanced at Naruto. There didn't appear to be any physical damage but there was a lingering scent in the air that he recognized.
He reached into one of his pockets and produced a tiny vial. He shook it a few times and unscrewed the top, waving it under Naruto's nose. A second later, Naruto jumped up, staring wildly around.
"Where did it go?" he demanded.
"Naruto!" Sakura said, trying to get his attention.
The blond looked around and suddenly remembered where he was. He looked over at Sakura sheepishly and scratched the back of his head. "Sorry," he said.
"You IDIOT!" she screamed, hitting him over the head. "What part of 'just stay quiet' didn't you understand?"
Sasuke smirked, knowing that he wouldn't have to add his own comment to the argument. Sakura would do just fine with the yelling portion of the discussion. He eyed Kakashi as he spoke into his radio, trying to pick up what was being said.
Kakashi's eye fixed on him just as the conversation ended. "They found Neji."
Sakura fell silent as she looked at Kakashi. "Neji? Why... wait... where's Hinata?"
Kakashi took in a deep breath and tried to think of how best to break the news. "Neji was escorting Hinata home when they were cornered by the beast. It immobilized him the same way it did Naruto. And then it took Hinata with it as it escaped..."
"What?" Sakura cried. "What do you mean?"
"What happened to her?" Naruto added. "Where is she?"
Kakashi frowned, his mask crinkling as he did. "We don't know."
Tsunade grabbed her hair in frustration at the nightmare this day had become. Chasing a phantom through the sewers had been bad enough. But now the Tengu Aviary was in ruins and the Hyuuga heir was missing.
The clan heads were already assembling, discussing what the next move should be. The conversation came to stop as the Hyuuga elder entered the room. Tsunade appeared surprised by his appearance.
"Where is Hiashi?" she asked.
"In the sewers," the elder answered, "with most of the rest of our clan."
"He was told to wait until we could decide on a plan."
"He disagreed," the elder stated. "It was important to track this creature before it got too deep into the system."
Tsunade gripped the table with a strength that threatened to shatter it. "And exactly how are we supposed to communicate with them? Radio won't work in the tunnels."
"I know something that will."
The group turned as the head of the Tengu family limped in, propped up by a younger member. Both were covered in dirt and assorted bandages had been hastily wrapped around their injuries.
"Give us one reason to trust you," came the gruff retort of the Inuzuka clan head. "This thing is yours."
Tengu closed his eyes and nodded. "This is true, we will not deny it."
"The child was to be destroyed," Hyuuga stated. "That was the decision of the bloodline families."
"We thought it had," Tengu replied. "But in the interest of being... humane about it, the mother demanded she be the one to do it."
"And you failed to check to make sure it had been done?" Hyuuga snapped.
"We checked," Tengu said through gritted teeth. "It is obvious now but not then that the child could spawn off physical parts."
"Who was the mother?" Tsunade demanded. "If she is alive, then maybe..."
"The mother has perished," Tengu stated. "Ironically, at the hands of her son."
Tsunade eyed Tengu for a moment and then realized what he meant. "The mother was Hane?"
Tengu nodded slowly. "Though why she kept the child alive is a mystery. She knew it was dangerous. She knew what the council wanted."
"But she was still its mother," Tsunade frowned. "She cared for everyone and everything in that aviary."
Tengu bowed deeply. "I don't know how to begin to apologize for the trouble that we have caused."
"We will leave that for later," Tsunade said. "For now, we have to find it and Hinata. Do you have any idea what its purpose is?"
Tengu shook his head. "Nothing that would help in this."
"The attacks in the towns of Konoha," Inuzuka said. "They began around the same time that this beast appeared, correct?" Tsunade slowly nodded. "Then I wouldn't doubt that this creature was the source. They said it was attacking mostly livestock – though I'm beginning to think it was more like it was hunting them."
"I don't think I understand," Tsunade replied.
"It's establishing a territory," Inuzuka continued. "Like a kit that has grown too large to remain with its parents. They leave and attempt to establish their own place in the world. And the fact that Tengu Aviary is in ruins probably means that in addition to the villages around Konoha, it was seeking to establish a place in the town itself."
"So it eliminated the competition," Tsunade nodded, starting to see the picture. "But what does it want with Hinata?"
"It needed a mate." The anger laced words came from the young man standing in the doorway, surrounded by three other genin. The elder Hyuuga showed no emotion at Neji's words. But he nodded to signify that he should continue.
"When we crossed it," Neji started, "it stated its intention clearly."
"We think," Sakura interrupted, "it's trying to create an offspring with its traits and the Hyuuuga Byakugan. So it can perfect its creation of physical beings."
"Is Hinata even old enough..." Tsunade began, looking over at Kurenai. The jounin nodded once, her lips in a thin line.
"It makes sense then," Inuzuka said. "It established its territory, now it wants to expand its pack. I don't want to think about how dangerous it will be if it completes all that."
"It won't," Neji stated. "Hinata-sama..." he paused, as if the words refused to leave his mouth. "She fought it and managed to discharge a large amount of chakra into it."
"If Ibiki's attack wasn't enough," Tsunade surmised, "then that may be the final blow."
"Which means it's even more dangerous now," Inuzuka growled. "It's wounded, possibly dying. We have very little time to find it before the worst occurs."
"Allow us to use our owls," Tengu pleaded. "Their eyesight will add in the search and they are trained to deliver messages."
Tsunade let the idea run through her mind before nodding. "Inuzuka, we'll need your dogs once more."
"We are here to serve," was the reply.
"Dispatch the Anbu to secure all entry ways into the sewers," Tsunade continued. "And Tengu, the first thing your owls need to do is track down the Hyuugas and make sure they are up to speed."
"We have many matters to discuss," Tsunade stated. "But first, we concentrate on retrieving Hinata and eliminating this threat." The clan head bowed and left to relay their orders. "You four," she said addressing Team 7 and Neji, "have another mission."
"I need to..." Neji started but Tsunade cut him off quickly.
"I will not have a repeat of what happened last time a genin attempted to get involved in something way beyond her abilities," she said looking at Sakura. "You will follow my orders or you will be punished."
Shikamaru watched as the assorted menagerie of animals approached his location. After leaving team seven with Neji, he had been dragged by Kakashi to help strategize the best approach to find the monster.
He had a map of the Konoha sewers as well as a pile of Shogi chips. While the people around him got a bit more organized, he placed the chips down at various locations. Kakashi leaned over him and looked at his work.
"We send the owls through the tunnels to find the Hyuuga," Shikamaru stated. "And then each of these chips represents a Tengu-Inuzuka pair, each with gas mask. Once we know where the Hyuuga are we can rearrange people a bit, but the most part this is the fastest way to search the tunnels."
Asuma reached over and ruffled his student's hair. "Told you he was smart," he said to Kakashi who merely nodded. The clan heads joined them and the plan was explained one more time.
The area was suddenly empty leaving Shikamaru to stare at the map. He knew that he had devised the best plan but it didn't make him feel better about their chances. He really wished he had just stayed in bed this morning. It would have made things so much less troublesome then they were.
But just as he was thinking that things couldn't get worse, he felt an ominous presence behind him. Turning around slowly, he came face to face with the one Inuzuka member that had not been allowed to follow his clansmen due to his personal relationship with the hostage.
Shikamaru moved a bit too slowly and took most of the punch in his shoulder instead of getting fully out of the way. He rolled a bit, just enough so that his attacker could jump on his stomach and pin him to the ground.
"You BASTARD!" Kiba yelled. "You were supposed to protect her!"
"Hey!" Asuma said, finally catching sight of the fight. He ran over and plucked Kiba off of Shikamaru, struggling to hold back the angry boy.
Shikamaru, for his part, decided that lying on the ground, staring at the sky was about the best thing he could do right now. Kiba was still yelling and continued to do so for another couple of minutes before Asuma calmed him down.
"Neji," Kiba said, voice much softer, "I would expect him to abandon her. But... not you."
Kiba pulled free of Asuma's grip and shuffled away, kicking stones while Akamaru whined at his feet. Shikamaru stood up and caught Asuma's apologetic stare. He shrugged it off and sat down by the map again, moving his shoulder to loosen the pain.
"Just make sure to warn me when Shino shows up," Shikamaru told Asuma before turning back to his work.
No matter how much her head hurt, there was one thought still there. Just keep playing dead. Hinata made sure to keep her breathing even despite the noxious scent of rotting carcasses that was slowly causing her stomach to churn.
She listened, waiting for any sound before making her move. There was a muffled voice, almost like something was crying. It took her a moment to realize that it was her captor.
Slowly, she turned to her side, making sure that she didn't make a sound. The beast was turned away, clutching something as it wept. In other circumstances, Hinata might have felt sorry for it.
"It wasn't supposed to be you," it cried. "I wanted to make you happy, not to worry about them anymore. Without her, we could have built a real aviary, one that took up the entire city." There was a long pause. Hinata watched as the shape moved a bit, two round eyes suddenly appearing in the back of its head.
It locked onto her and Hinata didn't realize her mistake until it was next to her, an arm pinning her by the neck to the wall. Her eyes teared up as the beast's breath tickled her cheek. She couldn't fight it; she was still too weak from the lack of chakra.
Something warm fell on her legs and a familiar coppery smell filled her senses. She didn't need to look down to know what it was. The monster in front of her was dying. But she doubted it would be soon enough to save her.
So there was only choice left, to stall and pray that by some miracle they found her or that it died before it could finish its plan.
"Why?" she asked, her voice trembling slightly. "Why did you try to kill Hokage-sama?"
The black mass paused for a moment and Hinata was sure it wouldn't buy into her plan. "To protect the Aviary, of course."
Hinata knew confusion dotted her face. The way the beast spoke it was as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
"They wanted to stop using the birds," the monster continued. "So mother fought against them and won. But she knew it wasn't going to last. They wanted to leave us behind, use the new toys they had made instead of us."
"Konoha... wouldn't forget..."
"They wouldn't? Someone like you would think that. Hyuuga is well respected. Uchiha is mourned. But Tengu is never spoken about. They want us gone, the dog lovers especially. They plot for our demise but mother, she protected us."
Hinata understood now what the purpose behind the phantom dogs were, a ruse to try to blame the Inuzuka.
He looked at her, watching comprehension dawn on her face. "Yes, you see it all now. But you could see the phantoms and that when I realized that there was only one way to make my mother's dreams come true.
The grip around her neck tightened as anger flashed across the shifting face. "I owed mother that much. They wanted me killed but she saved me. She raised me and loved me, even like this. She loved all of us." It sobbed. "She loved all of Konoha and that's why... that's why she stopped my plan.
"Now that she's gone," it continued, "I can take my place as leader. They'll finally recognize me. I won't be the cursed offspring, I'll be the greatest Tengu there ever was. And you... you will be the one to perfect what was started."
Hinata shook her head, face turning slightly red from the lack of oxygen. She clawed at the arm, desperate as she realized was running out of time.
"Please..." she whispered.
The beast appeared to smile, about to mimic her cries when something broke his attention on her.
It sounded like a question but as the beast turned around, he realized that it was no human making that noise. An owl sat perched at the entrance, tilting its head at the scene.
"No..." the beast whispered. He dropped Hinata on the ground, leaving her gasping for air. It walked forward, arm extended to the owl. "It's all right. I'll protect you."
The owl looked at him and then at Hinata. Its eyes locked onto her and then its beak opened. It didn't call out an inquisitive hoot but rather let loose a shrill shriek that quickly echoed off the sewer walls. Hinata didn't bother to wait for the beast's reaction, she just took off running down the nearest exit.
The shrieks were getting louder and Hinata realized that it was no longer one owl making the noise. There must have been dozens in the sewers.
They're looking for me, she realized. With renewed hope, she began to run faster. The water around her feet splashed as she moved. She quickly activated Byakugan just in time to see the danger behind her.
It failed her quickly as her chakra reached dangerously close to zero. Her feet slowly came to a stop despite her attempts to keep moving. She collapsed to the ground, her chest heaving as she tried to catch her breath. The water around her stilled and she looked down at it in surprise. Why was the beast not attacking?
There was a low growl and Hinata looked up, watching the grizzled form of a dog walk into view. She didn't need her Bloodline to see that this one was real. The man who followed it was obviously a member of the Inuzuka clan, followed closely by a bird-like man that must have been from Tengu.
"Hinata, don't move."
Hinata froze in place, recognizing the stern voice of her father. She didn't dare look around but she could only guess that at the other end of the tunnel, another team had arrived to block the other way.
The beast hissed, realizing the danger it was in. It turned to Hinata and lunged but came short as Hiashi grabbed it by its misshapen leg and pulled back. The dog leapt forward and grabbed her jacket by the collar, dragging her away as the pair behind him leapt into the fray.
Hinata didn't want to watch but it was impossible to drown out the sounds. At first it was anger but it slowly changed more to pleading and finally begging the Tengu with them to stop.
"We are brothers!" it screamed. "I only wanted... to rebuild the aviary."
There was silence. Hinata opened her eyes and found they had pinned it to the ground. She could see the familiar glow of chakra around her father's hand and knew what would come next.
"I only wanted to live," it whimpered just as Hiashi's hand slammed into it.
Neji was pacing, trying to wave away the doctors' attempts to check him out. Naruto was pleased with the attention, relating the story of how he had stood up to the monster all by himself. Sasuke snorted at him as he returned, holding out a glass to his sobbing teammate. He really hated it when she cried like that.
Sakura looked up and took the cup with a shaking hand. He sighed and took a seat next to her, eyeing her to make sure she wasn't about to start bawling again. When it looked okay, he ventured his question.
"Why are you crying?" he asked. "We got here in time. They said Ibiki's arm will be fine."
Sakura shook her head. "We got here in time for him, but what about Hinata?" Naruto stopped talking and Neji stopped pacing. "If we had just realized a few minutes earlier... if we had just stopped her from leaving..."
"It'll be okay, Sakura-chan," Naruto said, forcing a smile on her face. "You know, Hinata's been getting stronger since the chuunin exam. She'll be fine."
"Besides," Sasuke drawled, "if we hadn't figured things out, they wouldn't know to look for her."
Sakura looked up. "Thanks," she replied.
She was about to say something more when she caught Neji's head whipping around. Down the hall, a filthy group of shinobi was slowly making its way towards the waiting doctor.
Sakura moved first, dropping the cup of water as she ran towards the smallest one in the group. She moved faster then the doctor, almost tackling Hinata as she reached her. Hinata looked extremely surprised at the action but slowly wrapped her arms around Sakura, trying to hide her blush.
"I'm so sorry," Sakura sobbed.
"It's not your fault," Hinata whispered.
"Told you she'd be okay," Naruto said reaching them.
"Na...Naruto-kun!" Hinata squeaked, turning bright red.
"Ugh, what's the smell?" Naruto asked. Hinata's face fell and Sakura slowly backed off, realizing what it was.
"Dobe, they were in the sewers," Sasuke said.
Naruto pinched his nose a bit and looked at Sakura. She fumed over his complete lack of manners. Here Hinata was getting over a near death experience and he was making her feel worse.
While Sakura pummeled Naruto into the ground, Hinata took the chance to slink away with her rescuers. Neji eyed them from the corner, eyes settling on his uncle. The older man looked at him for a moment.
"Neji, guard the door while they check Hinata out," Hiashi said. The younger Hyuuga jumped, not expecting to be given any more responsibility when it came to the heiress. In fact, he was sure he would be punished for letting her get taken. But Hiashi ignored him and walked into the examination room with his daughter.
It was worse then being punished, Neji realized. By being told to continue his duties it was obvious that Hiashi was telling him that there was nothing he could have done against the beast. And that was more insulting then a simple punishment.
It was several weeks later before Ibiki could convince them that he was well enough to leave his home. It had been annoying to be trapped inside, but Sakura had snuck in work to him every day so he didn't go insane. She was turning out to be a great asset.
Though this brought up the uncomfortable question of what he should do next. He had taught her most of the basics and she had learned them rapidly. He knew she would be good in his line of work but he dreaded bringing up the idea to her normal sensei. It was already clear that they didn't see eye to eye.
He turned, watching as Sakura bounded up to him. She looked different today, out of her normal outfit and in a dress. She was carrying a big box with a bow on it, clearly on her way to a birthday party.
"Is the trial over?" she asked.
Ibiki nodded, knowing that she had helped him with putting together the case against the Tengu. He shrugged his shoulders. "Not guilty on all counts," he said.
"Really? But we worked so hard on it."
"The ruling council didn't agree. Of course, it doesn't help that almost all of them had some marital connection to the Tengu family."
Sakura's eyebrows creased before she relaxed and shook her head. "It makes sense, ne? We thought they were attempting to take over the Hokage's position but Hane-sama was making sure that if word of her child got out, the rest of the Tengu family wouldn't be blamed."
Ibiki nodded. "So, off to a party?"
Sakura nodded happily. "It's Ino's birthday and... she could use some cheering up."
"Ne, Ibiki-sensei when's your birthday?"
"March 20. "
"We should celebrate! How old are you going to be?"
"Twenty-eight this year." Sakura's eyes opened wide and he glared at her. "Why?"
Sakura shook her head, trying to ignore Inner Sakura's outburst. She had assumed he had to be at least fifty. "Eh, no reason. I have to go or I'll be late."
She took off, stifling her giggles as she rounded the corner to Ino's house. She walked in through the front door and was almost suffocated by an excited mother who was telling her how much she had missed her.
Sakura smiled and finally disengaged herself. She had heard that Ino had been upset about what happened with the matchmaker, so much so that she hadn't been talking as much lately. As Sakura entered the backyard, she almost collided with Shikamaru. She glared at him, reminding him she hadn't forgotten why she was there.
She walked past him and up to Ino who was sitting at a table with a nervous looking Hinata who had Neji hovering a few centimeters away from her.
"Yo, Ino-pig," Sakura called out.
Ino looked up at her with a twitching eyebrow. "Forehead-girl, I don't remember inviting you."
"Blame your teammate," Sakura replied, pointing to Shikamaru, who had conveniently started to slink away. "I could leave now, but then you wouldn't get a present."
Ino frowned and reached forward for the box, depositing it on her lap. She pulled at the violet ribbon and instantly the frown on her face disappeared. She pulled out the thin metal and snapped it open, revealing a beautiful fan decorated with flowers.
"It's the most popular weapon for kunoichi," Sakura smiled. "The metal is actually sharpened so it really a weapon. There are a few scrolls in there with basic techniques."
"You can do some real damage with those," Chouji said, appearing from behind her and munching on party food.
"We can practice sometime," Sakura suggested.
"That would be... good," Ino said. She smiled a bit, a wicked glint in her eye. "Your forehead will make a great target."
Sakura smirked, glad to see the old Ino slowly coming back. "Bring it on, Ino-pig" she replied.
"Don't you two ever stop fighting?" Chouji asked but they ignored him and kept arguing until Sasuke entered and everything turned to him. Chouji wondered briefly how Shikamaru had gotten the reclusive Uchiha to come. But watching him getting pulled at by the two girls made him realize it must have been a brilliant maneuver.
He sat down and smiled at Hinata who was watching the other two girls. "Should we help him?" she asked Chouji.
He snorted and shook his head. "You don't want to get involved."
At that moment, Shikamaru made the mistake of walking back into the picture and Ino's rage turned on him, blaming him for inviting Sakura. Sakura had successfully latched onto Sasuke who was attempting to pull away, to no avail until Lee appeared and began spouting love poetry at her.
Hinata giggled and even Chouji let out a laugh at the antics. He stood up and eventually managed to stop all the squabbling just as the rest of the rookie nine appeared. Besides, Ino's mother was bringing out dinner and no one was going to interfere with that.
Hinata watched from the distance, trying to prevent her fingers from twiddling endlessly as Naruto sat across from her. It was good to feel happy again. Ever since the sewers, her family had been treating her like she was glass. Having Neji as a shadow wasn't helping things. At first she had thought maybe he was trying to repay her in his own way. But as usual, he was just trying to prove something to her father.
Here, among friends, she could almost drown out memories of the beast's final words. No matter what had happened, she wasn't sure it should have ended like that. Maybe she was naïve but she decided that all it wanted was to be acknowledged, something she understood all too well.
More then that, it just wanted the chance to live. If a mistake had been made by others, was the beast really the one who had to suffer?
"Ne, Hinata-chan, you look too serious," Naruto said suddenly, bringing the table to silence. They all looked at her and Hinata forced her hands to relax.
"I'm fine," she said softly. "I was just... thinking."
That seemed to be a satisfactory answer and the conversation resumed. Hinata made sure she listened and even participated. After all, she didn't need to think about it anymore. Next time something like this happened, she wouldn't let them destroy a living creature so easily.