Disclaimer: If we owned Naruto, none of the events of the past two years of manga would ever have happened.
Authors' Notes: Sorry for the long wait, but that's how life goes. Thanks to our beta, Phoenix of Eternity, for her willingness to kick us in the pants. And thanks to our fans and reviewers, who've refused to give up hope.
Masks and Shadows
In Which Naruto Is Bewildered And Harry Goes for a Run
The miserable rain had trailed off again, leaving only the squelching of forest mould underfoot and the scattered sounds of water dripping from leaves. Deep in the Forbidden Forest, however, even these sounds dimmed to nearly nothing under the hum of energy coming from the twisted, ancient tree looming in front of Naruto and Shikamaru. At a guess, Naruto would have estimated it had been dead for decades—but it hadn't decayed. For meters around it, no plants grew. At the very edge of the clearing, nearly ten meters away from the tree, sickly scrub and stunted trees struggled for life.
"The hell is this?"
Naruto took a careful step towards the impossible tree. The toad he'd summoned just moments before had taken one look at the tree and demanded to be anywhere else. Jiraiya would arrive soon, but until he came, they had to figure this out on their own.
Shikamaru didn't seem to have an answer to his question. Even his footsteps sounded muted, and his body grew duller and fuzzier as he stepped away from Naruto to study the tree. Colors blurred, almost as though the tree was attempting to suck up everything around it. Naruto's chakra roiled and churned. Deep in his mind, the Kyuubi growled, and its anger burned through the seal.
If the demon-fox was upset, they had to be on the right track. Naruto's long-ago fight with Gaara, and his more recent experiences with other bijuu, had taught him that the tailed beasts were by nature solitary and aggressive. They were also extremely territorial. With the Kyuubi this disturbed, clawing at the bars of Naruto's mind, he was pretty sure they had to be infringing on something else's territory.
And that something didn't want them there.
"Naruto. Come here." Shikamaru's call tugged him out of his thoughts. He jogged over to the other side of the tree, trying not to shiver as he passed close by. He'd thought that Lupin-sensei had a strange presence, but his feeling of unease around the werewolf teacher was nothing compared to this. The tree exuded a sense of malevolence as hate-filled and violent as the Kyuubi's.
"You find something?" he asked, nervously jogging from foot to foot.
"Maybe." Shikamaru knelt down, hands brushing at the roots, pushing moss and lichen away. "There's a faint glow from here." He dug a little more before pulling his hand away with a strangled yelp.
"What's that?" Naruto demanded. He peered over his partner's shoulder, staring at the strange glyphs carved into the tree root. They glowed with an ugly yellow light, uncomfortably like demonic chakra. The symbols certainly weren't Japanese, but they didn't look like the English letters he knew, either.
Shikamaru stood and brushed off his knees. "I can't read it—it's not any language I recognize. Jiraiya-sama should be here soon, though. He might know it." He looked up at the tree, and Naruto could picture the frown tugging at his partner's face. "This has to be it."
Kyuubi's chakra burned in Naruto's gut, fighting to break free. Naruto squashed it back; at this stage, it was still easy enough to control. He was more concerned about what to do with this thing. Obviously the seal hadn't been broken, but he also had no clue how they were going to return it to Konoha.
"Ero-sennin better get here soon, or—" He cut off abruptly and turned around, dropping into a crouch. His hands darted down to his holsters and came up filled with kunai. Shikamaru was already lifting his own hands in the first seal of a binding jutsu.
But the rumbling voice was instantly familiar. "Looks like your senses haven't been dulled by that thing, whatever else it's doing." Jiraiya stepped out of the shadows on the edge of the clearing, his goofy smirk quickly sobering. "I could feel the energy at the edge of the forest. Once you get through the barrier, it's nearly suffocating."
"Barrier?" Naruto glanced at Shikamaru, whose shoulders lifted in a shrug. He turned back to his old teacher, frowning behind his mask. "We didn't go through any barrier."
"You did—you just didn't feel it." Jiraiya picked his way across the dead ground to stand between the two ANBU. He laid a hand on the tree, but his palm barely brushed the bark before he hissed and pulled away. "Kyuubi must have burned a hole through it for you two; I had to break it myself." He crouched down to look at the characters Shikamaru had found carved into the gnarled root, but he didn't touch them.
"Can you read it?" Shikamaru crouched beside the sannin. The harsh glow reflected off his mask, turning the white ceramic a demonic yellow. "This character looks a little like our kanji for binding, but nothing else makes any sense…"
Naruto quickly grew bored with their murmured discussion. He circled the edge of the clearing, still gripping his kunai. If the enemy ninja had sensed Jiraiya's approach, or had found the barrier as well, they didn't have much time before a fight broke out. And since he didn't have the faintest clue what his teammate and his old sensei were talking about, he'd have to make sure they had the time they needed.
He paused in his prowling to quickly form a shadow clone. Hinata and Neji needed to know about this.
It was well past midnight when Hinata finally returned to the infirmary and Neji. The halls were quiet—even the ghosts were elsewhere—and she silently slipped into the room. Her cousin hadn't moved since she'd last seen him and she took a seat on the nearest bed, watching him closely.
"You don't need to worry about me."
His voice was hoarse, barely more than a whisper, but Hinata still jolted slightly. She slipped off the bed and moved to his side, careful not to touch him. "How do you feel? Can you…?"
Within the dark holes of the mask's eyes, white glinted. He turned his head toward her, but Hinata still hesitated before gently removing his mask.
"I can see." Darkness shadowed his eyes, and the skin was blistered like he'd been burned, but he watched her closely and she knew he wasn't lying. "I…apologize."
Hinata shook her head and smiled. "There's no need."
"Be that as it may." He shifted to sit up but paused, not quite able to hide the flash of pain in his face. When Hinata moved to help, however, he waved her off. "I'm fine." Eventually, after a few failed tries, Neji was able to sit up in the bed, head resting against the backboard of the bed. "Where are the others?"
Hinata didn't pull away until she was absolutely sure he was fine, but the question was easy to answer. "They're still out in the Forest." So far out she couldn't even see them with the Byakugan, even from the tallest tower in the castle. She'd been trying not to worry about them—and with Neji unconscious she'd had something much more pressing to fret over—but now she couldn't deny the heavy feeling that sat in her stomach. They should have returned long ago. Even the groundskeeper had returned a little under an hour earlier.
So where were they?
A scuffling noise outside the Infirmary disturbed both Hyuuga. Hinata sprang off the bed and into a ready crouch, facing the door. Even injured Neji tried to reach for a kunai he knew couldn't be there.
"Sorry. It's just me."
Naruto stepped through the door, frog mask still covering his face, his untidy flop of yellow hair dulled in the moonlight streaming through the windows. Hinata didn't straighten from her fighting stance. She engaged the Byakugan and traced his chakra paths. Regardless of similarities in style or lineage, no two ninja had the same feel or arrangement of their chakra coils, and the Byakugan couldn't be fooled.
But Naruto's chakra was nearly as familiar as Neji's, and it was really him. Hinata straightened, releasing the Byakugan with a relieved smile. "Naruto-kun. We were beginning to worry."
He flapped his hand in a dismissive gesture. "What's been going on? Why's Neji lazing around in bed?" He continued before Hinata could answer, a new urgency trickling into his voice. "We found it! Or at least I'm really sure we did. Jiraiya and Shikamaru and me are still there checking it out, but if Ero-sennin and us could reach it, then the enemy isn't far behind."
Bedclothes shifted behind her; Hinata spun and reached out to push Neji back into bed. He was trying hard to pretend that he could move without effort, but she could still see his faint grimace and the sweat beading his forehead. "Neji-niisan, no! You have to stay here and rest!"
Neji shook his head and pushed her hands away. "I'm fine. This is what we came here for." He pushed away any further arguments and stood, although he swayed slightly as he reached for his mask. "I'm not incapacitated. I'll be fine."
Naruto didn't quite hold Hinata's reservations. "Good. We have to hurry." Neji nodded and took a few steps away from the bed. Hinata hovered at his side. She was well aware of their true purpose, but there was such a thing as pushing oneself too far. And her cousin had the bad habit of doing that frequently.
But the shadow clone was already moving, and they had no time to waste. One hand on Neji's arm, Hinata strode as quickly as she could. They stopped at their quarters for only a few moments to pick up her armor and what weapons they would need. Neji remained silent at her side, skin dabbed with sweat. Naruto jogged in place with impatience. As soon as Hinata slid her mask over her face, he bolted for the door. They followed him out of the castle and towards the Forest. By the time they reached Hagrid's hut, Naruto wasn't the only one running.
Harry rushed out of the Owlery as soon as they'd finished their cleaning. His friends stumbled after him, feet pounding on the stone stairs. They didn't have much time and every second counted.
"We need the Cloak," Hermione was saying behind him, and he could imagine her counting down on her fingers even as she ran alongside Ron. "We have the Map and our wands."
"What? No books?"
"Don't be daft, Ron," she chided, and Harry smiled as he jumped three steps and skidded around a corner. Gryffindor Tower was close by, and Harry had to fight the urge to pause to glance at the Marauder's Map again. They'd been lucky to spot the three names rushing off towards the Forest as early as they had; he didn't want to use up anymore of their time. The Map would still work once they were in the Forest.
The Fat Lady scowled as they skidded to a stop in front of Gryffindor Tower. "Do you know how loud you were? I was just trying to get to sleep when—"
"Lionheart!" Hermione panted.
The portrait hmphed in annoyance, but she swung open the door. Harry and his friends leapt through. "Stay here!" he called as he rushed up the stairs to his room to grab the Cloak. Seamus and Dean lay snoring like logs, but Neville stirred and almost woke. "Harry?"
"Go back to sleep," Harry hissed. He couldn't spare the time to explain; he rushed down the stairs again, jumping the last few steps. He tossed the Cloak to Ron and pulled out the Map. "C'mon, we can still catch them by the edge of the Forest if we hurry."
Getting out of the castle was easier than they'd expected. The Marauder's Map and the Invisibility Cloak made it possible to easily bypass any teachers, and at this late hour no one was expecting them to sneak out anyway. The difficulty would be in catching up with the guards, already dangerously close to the edge of the Forest.
They ran hard and fast across the grounds, barely half-covered by the Cloak. Creeping down a hallway without showing a foot was hard enough; dashing together across uneven ground was practically impossible. Harry was pushing the hardest; if they lost this chance they would probably never be able to catch up with the guards. And if they didn't…
Well, Harry had survived the forest before, with help and a good bit of luck. The guards might have skills he couldn't even understand, but even they could probably use a hand.
The trio had barely covered half the distance from the castle to the Forest when Harry caught sight of the guards, already edging close to being lost in the outskirts of the trees. He didn't pause to think of the possible consequences as he dashed out from under the Cloak, sprinting flat out, his feet pounding against the uneven ground. Ron and Hermione called out after him, but he ignored them. The guards were entering the tree line and he had no time.
Harry slowed his frantic pace only enough to grab his wand, but the change in speed tripped him up and he bit back a cry as he fell. He dropped flat, without trying to catch himself; better to bruise his nose than break his wand. Pain seared his knees and his shoulder, but he ignored that, too, rolling back to his feet and into his run.
But the guards must have heard the noise of his fall. They stopped in the shadows of the trees, all three eerie masked faces turning to face him. Harry was more surprised when they waited for him. He pounded to a stop just a few feet away and bent over in a vain attempt to catch his breath. Hermione and Ron caught up a moment later, equally winded. At least they weren't bleeding. Hermione took one look at Harry's ripped jeans and whipped out her wand. "Oh, Harry—"
Hinata cut her off. "Why are you here?" Her voice was harsher than Harry had ever heard it. "Go back now."
He shook his head and stood straight, fighting past the searing stitch in his side. "No," he panted. "We're gonna help."
Even without seeing her face, he could hear the frown in her voice. "You cannot."
"We can," Harry insisted. He glanced appealingly at the other two guards. Naruto stood with his arms folded, head tipped back as if he were content to watch the show. Neji stood stiffly straight, hands fisted at his sides. He was sweating, and the cords in his neck stood out as if he'd clenched his jaw against pain. Harry winced with guilt. But if Neji was here, that meant he was healed, and now wasn't the time for regrets. Harry'd been in enough battles to know that.
And he was very sure now that there was a battle on the way.
"Go back to castle," Neji said, quietly. His voice was raw but strong. Harry forced an equal strength into his own voice.
Ron set a hand on Harry's shoulder as Hermione stepped up to stand squarely at his other side. "We're not going anywhere," Ron insisted. "We want to see the school safe even more than you do. We can help."
Neji took a sharp step forward. Hinata reached for him, but Naruto's sudden movement caught her attention. He leapt straight up, cloak flaring around him. Steel clashed, and three knives spun off into the undergrowth, deflected by Naruto's own. "Three!" he snarled, landing crouched in the overhanging boughs of an tree. "Two mahoutsukai. Neji—"
The two guards were already moving. As brilliant red light jetted between the trees, Neji dodged sideways and then sprinted forward towards the two hooded, black-robed men emerging from the darkness. Hinata stepped sideways, in front of the three students. She raised her empty hands and settled into what even a wizard could recognize as a fighting stance.
Her hands were glowing.
And she was trying to protect them from something she couldn't understand. "Those are Death Eaters!" Harry yelled to her as he drew his wand. "Wizards!" Whoever the guards were, whatever their magic was, they weren't invulnerable to wizard's curses. Malfoy's blinding hex had proven that. And if these guards couldn't even defend themselves against a student, they'd be badly disadvantaged against experienced Death Eaters.
Harry and his friends would have to protect them, in return.
One of the Death Eaters had peeled off to engage with Neji; the other charged straight for Hinata and the students. Harry fired a jinx at him, and missed, but the light from the spell illuminated the dark woods enough for him to see the third figure sprinting towards them. He'd barely opened his mouth to yell a warning before Naruto was there, golden hair blazing in the dying light of Harry's spell.
Harry had no time to watch. The second Death Eater retaliated with a flash of red light, and Hermione countered with another hex. Hinata sprinted forward, bent low as she ran; she dodged one of the Death Eater's spells, and was thrown into a tree by the next. An almost casual flick of the Death Eater's wand deflected Ron's jinx. Harry shot blue fire at him, and then all three of them dove for shelter as the Death Eater conjured a shield to reflect it.
Harry had long ago learned not to let other noises interfere with his own battles—he'd had enough to get the practice. But he couldn't ignore the yell from behind him, another clang of metal on metal, and a loud sound like a balloon popping. The Death Eater faltered for a moment, laughed, and then raised his wand. "Ava—"
The words of the curse choked into a bloody cough, and the wand dropped from his hand. His body followed it a moment later.
Hinata stood behind him, both hands still glowing. "You are not hurt?" she asked Harry his friends anxiously.
Harry shook his head, shocked into silence. But it would take more than that to stifle Hermione's questions . "What did you do?" she demanded.
"Jyuuken," Hinata said. "My family technique." She mimed a palm-thrust up against an invisible man's back. "No one can shield his insides. Now go!" She spun, whipping around the trunk of a twisted oak tree, and sprinted towards the sounds of fighting. Harry, Ron, and Hermione shared one glance, and followed.
They nearly stumbled over the other Death Eater on the way. There was a knife in his throat. Harry tried not to see it, or to think of his own opponent vomiting up blood as Hinata—did whatever she'd done. He gripped his wand tightly in his fist and focused on the battle before him.
Naruto was gone. Neji had engaged his opponent, a slim, dark-haired man clad in tight-fitting clothes that bore no resemblance to a Death Eater's robes. The enemy was using knives like the ones Naruto had deflected—identical to the throwing knives the guards used. Neji was bare-handed, and beginning to falter. Hinata dashed towards him, dodging a spray of metal stars as Neji's opponent noticed her arrival. The man's pale face creased in a faint sneer. Harry caught his breath. Were those eyes red?
He had to help. Neji was obviously not fully recovered from the effects of Malfoy's curse, and this man was clearly better than the invaders Naruto had faced; Hinata might not be able to handle him on her own. Harry wrapped sweaty fingers around his wand and narrowed his eyes, trying to at least follow the fight. Even with Neji beginning to slow, their movements were still almost too fast to follow.
And then Neji was staggering back, one arm limp at his side, the other hand pressed to his head. Hinata thrust herself between him and the enemy, and Harry saw his chance.
"Expelliarmus!" he bellowed, dashing with Ron and Hermione at his back. The jet of light from the spell splintered uselessly against the bole of a tree as the dark-haired man jumped out of the way. Hinata seized his moment of distraction to attack from the side, her hands moving too fast for Harry to follow. But the enemy blocked her attacks, moving as fluidly as she did. "Help Neji!" Harry panted to Ron and Hermione. "I'll try—"
"Harry, no!" Hermione protested.
"Don't be a bloody fool," Ron warned him. "C'mon, Hermione." He grabbed her arm; she glared furiously at him until he let go, and then both of them ran to Neji's aid. He was trying to bind his useless left arm to his side; Harry could hear Hermione chiding him even before she reached him.
His friends could take care of Neji, get him out of the fight and into safety, before they returned to back Harry up. Harry himself crouched low in the bracken and watched the flurry of movement that was Hinata and her opponent break apart. Hinata landed, panting, on the ground; the dark-haired man hit a tree branch and rebounded, throwing a shower of knives down towards her. Without even leaving her crouch, Hinata spun on one heel. Blue energy hazed around her in the same kind of spinning shield Neji had used when he'd deflected Crabbe's jinxed rocks and failed to block Harry and Malfoy's hexes. This time, the knives spun away. Harry ducked low as they whistled through the air over his head. A spell formed on his lips, but the enemy was behind the cover of Hinata's energy-shield now; Harry couldn't hit him without hitting her. He edged sideways, trying to gain a clear shot—
And Neji tore away from Ron and Hermione and charged forward, loose hair flying behind him. The other man barely jumped out of the way in time, and Harry took his chance. He leapt from his crouch and threw a binding jinx. The enemy dodged—far more easily than he'd evaded Neji's attack. How did these people move faster than spells?
One of the man's hands snapped out; a knife sliced through the air towards Harry. He dropped, rolled, and came up again to find the man was ignoring him again in favor of Neji and Hinata, presumably the bigger threat. He hadn't even noticed Ron and Hermione spreading out to catch him in the center of their triangle, or hadn't considered them worthy of his attention. Harry caught his friends' eyes, and held his free hand up.
The crackling, chirping sound, like a thousand birds taking frightened flight, was the first thing he noticed. Then the light, sputtering silver-blue. It looked like lightning, cradled in the man's hand. He lunged forward, drawing a sword from a sheath over his back as he sprinted towards the guards.
"Protego!" Hermione's charm reached the guards half a heartbeat before the handful of lightning did. Sparks flew everywhere; wet leaves smoldered and smoked. The enemy stumbled back, the lightning dissipating from around his hands, and the shield still stood. It wouldn't hold for long, though. The strain already showed on Hermione's face; her wand trembled as she tried to hold it steady. Ron and Harry both raised their own wands.
The spell choked in Harry's throat as an ear-shredding roar ripped through the forest. The ground shook; trees swayed violently, and some snapped. Harry fell hard, hitting his shoulder with enough force to numb his arm. His mouth tasted of blood; he'd bitten through his lip. He spat onto the wet leaves and pushed himself to his knees, switching his wand to the other hand. Ron was clambering to his feet again; Hermione had fallen to her knees, too, but her shield still held. Light splintered against the charm as the enemy attacked again with both sword and hand-held lightning, and Hermione swayed and cried out. "Harry!"
Harry pushed himself up faster than he'd ever thought possible. "Expelliarmus!" he bellowed, as Ron shouted, "Stupefy!"
This time, both spells hit their target. The sword flashed through the air, bounced off the edge of Hermione's shield, and embedded itself in the trunk of a fallen tree. The dark-haired man dropped bonelessly to the ground, and Ron cast a Full-Body Bind on him before he could move.
Suddenly, it seemed very still.
Hermione released the protego shield and rose slowly, painfully, to her feet. Ron was there to catch her before she fell again; he steadied her against his shoulder, and motioned Harry toward the fallen enemy. He joined the two guards just out of the downed man's range. Hinata looked at him for a thoughtful moment before inclining her head in an almost-bow; Neji ignored him in favor of glaring down at the motionless body. "Uchiha," he hissed. It sounded like a name; Neji spoke it like a swear word. The guards began a low, urgent discussion in their own tongue, obviously discussing the man on the ground.
Harry glanced back toward Ron and Hermione, who were limping slowly toward him. Both of Hermione's knees were bloody; Ron was gripping his wrist in a way that meant yes, it hurt very much, and no, he didn't want to discuss it. "What're we gonna do?" he asked softly, as they drew closer to Harry. "We can't wait around here with this guy."
"We can't exactly take him with us," Hermione pointed out. She was still breathing heavily, and hissing a little with pain.
"Well, we can't just leave him here, either," Ron frowned. "My Full-Body Bind doesn't last that long. And I only hit him with one Stupefy; who knows when he's gonna wake up?"
"Honestly, Ron." Even frazzled, bloody, and biting her lip against the pain, Hermione still had the ability to make the tall Weasley flush in embarrassment. "All we have to do is—No!"
Neji stood above the unconscious man, a knife in his hand. Hinata was talking quickly, too fast for Harry even pretend he had any idea what she was saying, but he could take a guess as to what she meant.
"You can't kill him!"
The falcon-masked guard didn't even bother to look up at Harry's cry, just knelt and held the knife to the downed man's throat. Harry pointed his wand at Neji in turn, and Ron and Hermione echoed him. "Don't kill him!" Harry ordered again. "He's a prisoner!"
The tilt of Neji's head said quite plainly that he didn't see Harry's point. But Hinata took over, touching his shoulder gently as she spoke again, very quickly. She gestured to the man on the ground and then to the trio beside her. Neji said something, short and angry. Hinata's voice sharpened.
And then the roar shook the forest again, louder than before, like an avalanche of agony in Harry's ears. The ground trembled, and more trees swayed and came crashing down. The rising wind caught up a whirl of fallen leaves and tore at Neji's long, loose hair. He said something in a low, tight voice, and stood up, sliding the knife back into a pouch strapped to his leg.
"We must hurry," Hinata said in English. She glanced down at the unconscious man—Uchiha, Harry reminded himself, if that was the man's name. "What do you do to him?"
"A Full-Body Bind," Ron said. "It should last a while. I'm not sure how long."
"We will save him for question," she said, and glanced around. The wind was still rising; it blew Hermione's tangled hair out like a banner. "But we have not much time."
"Sticking Charm!" Hermione exclaimed. "If we use a Sticking Charm to pin him to something, he won't be able to get away even after the stun and the Body Bind fade." She chewed her lip again, glancing nervously around. "Although if any more trees fall—"
Neji bent down and grabbed Uchiha by the collar, one-handed. The muscles strained in his bare arm, but he hoisted the limp body up without a murmur of complaint. "Where?"
"Um. There." Hermione pointed to a fallen tree so massive that Hagrid could have stood on one side of the enormous trunk and not have been able to see over the top. "We can stick him to that tree. And cover him with the Invisibility Cloak, in case…anyone else comes looking." She glanced back into the darkness, in the direction of the fallen Death Eaters, and shivered.
It only took a few minutes to get everything set, and everyone backed away as Harry tossed the Invisibility Cloak over the limp Uchiha. That too he Stuck to the tree, and once they were sure they would know where exactly to find their prisoner later, they set off towards the eye of the storm.