Sakura and Lee do not wait for him to fall. They already know that his body will never hit the ground. Instead an arrow-laden log bounces across the factory floor. By the time it comes to a stop, they have scattered. There is no sign of an enemy but Neji knows that they are there and that he cannot see them. In this fight he is blind and unsure of what to do.
Sakura makes the decision for him. He sees her jump back on to the ground, Lee suddenly appearing behind her. A few hand signs later and she holds her fingers to her lips, an explosion of fire coming forth from there.
Lee follows the flame as it is deflected off an unseen foe. Neji knows Lee's weights are still on but he moves with inhuman speed none the less. A low sweep and there is a distinct clang as the metal on his ankle hits something solid. It's over now. A flurry of punches that even Neji sometimes has trouble keeping track of is unleashed on the hapless foe and it clatters to the ground moments later.
But they still can't see it, they only know it's there by the fact that Lee appears to be standing in mid air and several feet off the ground. Lee looks around him, confused until he feels whatever is beneath him start to shake. Quickly, he jumps out of the way just moments before it explodes and unwittingly leaves Sakura vulnerable.
Neji watches as her next fireball hits something. Before the enemy can react, he appears at its side, a Kaiten in motion almost instantly. There is a horrible wrenching sound and a explosion of sparks. Two limbs are thrown to either side of the room, leaving an armless and visible metal beast struggling.
Sakura passes by him and Neji watches as she makes contact with her fist. The lrumors are true, she has the Hokage's strength. What was left of the creature explodes under her attack. Lee has to hurry to catch her as the aftershock throws her several feet back.
They regroup in the center of the room and wait silently for the next attack.
"Nothing?" Lee asks.
Neji shakes his head. It is just as before. There are creatures but they can't be seen by man or Hyuuga.
"I've got an idea," Sakura says. She brings a fist up and they realizes at the last second she is about to hit the floor. They barely leap out of the way as the factory floor cracks in each of the cardinal directions. For a moment, Neji thinks she has lost her mind but the dust on the abandoned floor kicks up and blankets the entire factory, including the remaining three stalkers.
They split without a word, each taking a target. Neji reaches his before it can react. His hands glow blue with chakra and he hits it on the outline of the shoulders, amputating its arms. Without pause, he sweeps his right hand across what appears to be its neck and decapitates it. When that doesn't appear to get its attention, he turns and plunges both hands into the center of it, disemboweling it and spilling wires and oil onto the ground. He is about to attack again when he is pulled away roughly.
Before he can argue with Lee for denying him the right to finish the job, the machine explodes and collapses the floor under it. He gets a better look at Lee and sees that one of his eyebrows has been singed.
"They'll explode before you can finish them," he states grimly.
They turn and find Sakura doing her best to avoid being hit by the third. The two start to advance but she sees them before they get too close.
"Don't!" she yells. "We need one intact!"
They hold their ground, confident in their teammate's skills. She weaves under the attack of her enemy, graceful as she avoids the punch. It is like watching her again, the way she dodges and delivers well timed strikes with her kunai. And for a moment, Neji thinks he can see her again.
But it's not her, it's Haruno. Haruno who was once easy to dismiss as being weak. Haruno who followed, longed for that traitor Uchiha no matter what he did. And Haruno who helped bring him back. He often wondered what she and Uzumaki had to say to convince him to come home. Apparently, they were more then capable of beating him into submission.
The enemy hits her and she crumples backwards. And then suddenly, Neji is moving, completely unaware that he is. Because the line between Haruno and her has blurred again and he doesn't think twice. The machine is dead on the ground in an instant and Sakura is glaring at him angrily, a drop of blood trailing from her lip.
"I was fine!" she yells, spitting out some more blood onto the floor. He blinks in surprise and doesn't even know how to apologize. He is frozen as he tries to understand his actions. He is so lost in thought he completely forgets Lee's warning.
They are lucky that the floor, already weakened by Sakura's attack, buckles and falls under them before the brunt of the explosion can hit them. They fall at least twenty feet, ninja training saving them as they use chakra to disperse the impact. Then it's a simple matter of dodging the debris. It's all over in a matter of seconds.
Lee calls down to them to make sure they are okay as he descends slowly. Neji puts a hand to his head and watches it come back red with blood. There's a soft tingle as Sakura closes up the wound. She's frowning as she does so.
"I'm sorry," she says. "I forgot."
But the statement doesn't mean anything to him. He doesn't understand. Lee lands next to them and kicks up a layer of dust. Sakura starts to cough.
"Ah, sorry Sakura-san, I didn't…"
He trails off suddenly and Neji looks up, following the path of Lee's gaze. The entire basement of the factory is ashes. There is a smell, something in the air that makes him think that this is more then just ash.
He looks over and sees that Sakura has gone pale. Lee puts a hand on her shoulder and she collapses to the ground, shaking and tears in her eyes. Neither of them understands what she can feel. For a medic-nin so in touch with life, she has realized what happened before Lee steps on the skull.
His and Neji's eyes meet and they understand Sakura's reaction. Neji stands up and starts to scan the area in some desperate attempt to comprehend what has happened. Instead, he is met with darkness. There are no signs of life.
He leaves Lee to take care of their emotional teammate and starts to walk through the ashes, attempting to not think about what they represent. There are more bone fragments and bits of cloth scattered throughout the expanse. He tries to ignore that some of them are too small to be adults.
He walks towards a small pile and carefully pushes the debris around until he can find a clue. It's an embroidered badge, badly burned but the name of the factory is still visible.
There is nothing. Not a shred of evidence of what caused this massacre. When he returns to the group, he can only shake his head at Sakura's hopeful look.
"Who were they?" she asks softly.
"Factory workers," he replies grimly.
He thinks about it, trying to understand the rational of the madman who would order this. "Whatever they were building here needed to be kept secret."
The pieces start to fall together. The team before them had come here to investigate a possible weapon. It had been built and in order to ensure the secrecy of how that was done, anyone involved was killed. Not just the workers, but from the look of it, their families as well.
"What sort of monster would do this?" Lee asks.
But there is no answer to a question like that. So instead they sit in the silent graveyard for a few moments before Neji starts to head back up to the main floor. It is a quiet climb and that should bring some relief. They know nothing is waiting to attack them but the silence is eerie and unnatural.
The burning husks of their enemies are still there and he knows it won't be long before reinforcements arrive. But he can't leave just yet. There is no clue of where to go after this. He needs to find the trail again.
Sakura and Lee are anxious as he scours the expanse of the building until finally, his eyes settle on a small doorway up a flight of metal stairs. From here, close to 80 meters away, he can make out the word 'Office'.
She ran a finger over the blue badge on the overalls before Shikamaru took it away. Almost immediately, he started to rip some of the lining out. She wanted to ask what he was planning but Chouji returned a grim look on his face.
"I don't know about this," he said, tugging at the sleeves over his jumpsuit. "I look like a blimp."
She laughed and didn't try to apologize this time. It had only been a couple of days since she started working with them, but she was comfortable joking around a bit. "You look like a middle-aged factory worker."
He sighed. "Maybe I'm in the wrong profession then." He lifted his arms to try to stretch the uniform and heard something tear. Shikamaru looked up at the noise and gave him a look of disgust.
"Come on! I spent a good ten minutes getting that thing ready," he complained.
"Sorry," Chouji replied sheepishly under the glare of his friend. She picked up a spare needle and some thread.
"Turn around, I should be able to fix this easily," she said, threading the needle with little effort. She found the tear in the lining and quickly went to work. She saw what Shikamaru was trying to hide, a small camera and some blank paper.
It made sense. After all, the plan was that she would distract the manager while Chouji made his way to the manager's office. This would let him quickly record anything interesting without arousing too much suspicion. She finished the last stitch and tied the thread off with a flourish.
"There!" she smiled.
"Damn it," Shikamaru cursed. "If I knew you could do that, I would have had you do this work."
Without waiting for an actual invitation, she walked over and plucked the work from his hands. "What, didn't Ino sew?"
Shikamaru snorted while Chouji tried a more verbal reaction. "Ino would not need to sew. If something gets torn or looses a button, she gets a new one."
"If something is a week old, she gets a new one," Shikamaru added.
"It's not that bad," Chouji retorted. "It's at least a month and that's because seasons change and it's not practical anymore."
The other two are silent before they start to laugh. "Man, she has you trained well," she managed through the fit of giggles.
Chouji was about to reply when Shikamaru's mood shifted. "Makimoto! What are you doing in my office?" he snapped.
She barely blinked, knowing that Shikamaru was testing his teammate's resilience again. She wondered if he had planned it this way, getting them into a more relaxed state before forcing them to remember their stories.
It wasn't the first time he had done that. Last night, he had forced them awake at three in the morning and made them recount their covers. It was cruel but necessary. The slightest slip could give them away.
"I was looking for a pencil, sir!" Chouji answered almost immediately. "Mine broke and..."
"Why didn't you just sharpen it?" Shikamaru demanded.
Chouji held up the pencil, showing that it had broken into three small pieces. Shikamaru glared at him for a few minutes, watching the emotions as they played out across Chouji's face.
"Good. You're ready."
Chouji smiled, this shift in his emotions dramatic but a testament to the hours he spent training. She wished she could be that confident. But for a kunoichi who has spent her life dedicated to ranged attacks, a close up defense is always more tricky.
Tricky but not impossible. She smiled to herself as she remembered the endless hours of being at the center of a whirlwind. If she could survive that, she could survive anything. She caught Chouji looking at her and followed a tilt of his head tilt towards Shikamaru.
She jumped and quickly delved into her bit, batting her eyes as she did. "It's just too hot to be working," she complained, leaning back on the wall like she was supposed to on the mission. She let out a long sigh and casually fingered one of the top buttons on her shirt. "I could use a nice," she started, popping the first one out of its hole. "Cold." The second came free easily. "Drink," she finished pulling the last one.
She paused there and waited for a response. When one didn't come she blinked a few times and looked over at her teammates. "Was that wrong?"
Shikamaru answered first. "No… just eerie," he said. "You channeled Ino perfectly." Chouji managed a nod.
She smiled. "Well she did train me for a few days before we left."
"You're a fast learner," Chouji muttered.
She shrugged off the compliment, feeling a bit of heat come to her face. "Okay, I'm done," she said quickly, changing the topic of discussion as she knotted the thread and cut it. Shikamaru examined her handiwork and gave her a nod of approval.
"These are your communication earpieces. You won't be able to talk to me but I'll give you direction. Chouji, you'll have to move fast when I give you the signal, we'll only have a small window."
"Got it!" There was a pause. "I saw this Korean Barbeque place on the way home from the factory…"
Shikamaru couldn't help but grin. "Yeah, yeah, if it's a success, it'll be my treat."
Chouji cheered and picked her up, swinging her around in a dance to his impromptu tune about delicious pork. She laughed and tried to keep up, eventually tumbling into an irate Shikamaru.
It was enough to forget the danger of this mission, even if only for a few moments. Three minutes later, out on the main road, their mood changed dramatically. Heavily armored soldiers moved through the crowds, randomly choosing people and demanding to see paperwork. Not even their attempts to blend into the crowd helped. Chouji got pulled aside and she had to leave him behind.
As he was her husband, she was supposed to pretend to be concerned but it was no act. She couldn't help looking over her shoulder constantly to see if he was behind her. Had they found the earpiece? Had they searched him and felt the camera hidden in the lining?
Or worse… was this what they had heard rumors about? The death squads that assassinated random people to keep the population living in fear.
"He's clear," came a soft voice in her ear and the sigh of relief was real. She waited at the side of the road until he came up to her.
"Okay?" she asked softly.
He nodded and she took his elbow to make sure of that. With no more words exchanged they made their way to the factory.
The gates were packed, soldiers attempted to push back the unemployed city dwellers desperate to get a job in one of the last working factory in the city. Chouji flashed his id papers and pulled her along, slipping into the role of husband flawlessly as he feigned concern that she might be crushed.
Once inside, they went their separate ways, he to the factory line and she to the mechanics' shed.
"Good morning, Makimoto-san!" one of the mechanics chirped seeing her approach.
"Good to see you made it in," added another.
"The crowd was immense this morning, wasn't it?" she said, watching Chouji out of the corner of her eye.
"It's getting worse. I heard that the company's other factory closed down earlier this week."
One of the men shook his head. "Poor Kuroyama, our city is on its last legs. It won't be long until even this place is closed. And then…"
"Stop that, we mustn't think like that," a young woman next to him snapped. "For now, we have jobs and a company that takes care of us and our children. I have to believe that this job will be here tomorrow."
The group fell silent for several moments, brought back the present only by the harried arrival of another mechanic.
"Hey Shinako, where's your partner in crime?"
Shinako looked at them, still pale and breathing hard. "His apartment… it was completely destroyed. The soldiers there said he had been arrested for treason and shot last night."
"Shit, we have a problem."
She didn't show any outward reaction to the sudden hiss from her earpiece, merely kept making concerned sounds as Shinako related the story in more detail. Dividing her attention between her coworkers and Shikamaru's panicked voice was trying enough but when the whistle blew to signify the start of the work day, she lost most of what Shikamaru had said.
She paused and tried to somehow telepathically tell him to repeat what he had said. She heard some papers rustling in the background and the very disgruntled mumbling of their team leader.
"That idiot! Whoever did information retrieval before we came here was an idiot. Matsumoto doesn't like girls with short brown hair. He likes boys with short brown hair.'
She turned cautiously and caught sight of Chouji, cornered by the factory boss and looking decidedly uncomfortable.
"Switch roles!" Shikamaru barked. "Get the camera and papers from Chouji"
She wanted to ask how but she had no way, so instead she excused herself and quickly moved over to where Chouji was, already formulating a plan in her mind. He looked at her approach and almost seemed relieved that she was intruding.
"Fuji-kun," she cried, quickly maneuvering in front of him and enveloping him in a hug. "Something terrible happened."
Chouji caught on quick, feeling her hand run down the back of the overall and towards the false stitching. "What happened?"
Her fingers worked quickly and the seam fell apart in her hand. She quickly removed the tiny camera and paper. "Something happened to Shinako's friend and…" She trailed off and pretended to suddenly see their boss.
"Oh… I'm sorry, Makimoto-san, I didn't see you there," she said quickly, slipping the items into the back of her belt.
Their boss looked annoyed but managed to say something about the troubling times they were facing before unceremoniously dismissing her back to work. As she left, she heard him mention something about a hole in Chouji's overall.
"It's… it's hot in here. I… could use a c-c-cold drink," Chouji stuttered.
"Good boy," Shikamaru celebrated, almost laughing at his friends' predicament. "The naïve innocent routine will cover us for a bit. Our window is here, get to the office."
She pulled a pencil from her pocked and tripped slightly on her feet, grabbing onto the wall. The pencil broke into several pieces and she held them tightly in her hands. She changed direction and started towards the stairs. Her foot was on the first step when a voice behind her caught her attention.
"Stop right there."
She didn't have to pretend to be surprised. She was caught completely off guard. And for a shinobi of her caliber that was a shock. For a moment, she was worried that she missed something but Shikamaru had returned to his irate tone of voice.
"Where the hell did that guy come from?" he asked. "He wasn't on the video on a second ago!"
She couldn't answer him so instead she acted as innocent as she could, holding up the shattered pencil. "The boss said I could replace it," she tried, hoping that he had seen her little scene with him and Chouji before.
The guard looked at her and then back towards Matsumoto. She could see a few tufts of brown hair under his helmet and tried another tactic. "I could just get one from my husband, he's speaking with Matsumoto-san right now."
It did the trick. The guard obviously didn't want to lose the chance of having Matsumoto's attention elsewhere. He gave her a gruff nod and pointed up towards the steps, following on a few inches behind.
"Don't risk it!" Shikamaru barked. "We'll figure out another way."
She couldn't argue the point. The guard was standing at the door as she walked over to the desk and started shuffling through the debris there to find a pencil. She desperately tried to find something, anything they could use. Shikamaru might believe that there was another way but this could be their only chance.
It was only two minutes before she could sense the guard was getting restless. She grabbed the pencil there and let a little sigh out. "Sorry, he's not very neat is he?"
The guard didn't answer but instead escorted her down to the floor. The rest of the day, she felt him watching her. She made a great show of working on some of the factory machines, taking the occasional note on her clip board. When the final bell sounded, he was gone again, as if he had never been there at all.
She met up with Chouji and the poor boy looked exhausted. He must have spent the majority of the day attempting to avoid the attention of Matsumoto. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
But she shook her head with a small smile. Halfway home, she pushed him towards the barbeque place. When he tried to protest, she pulled out some of the papers that had been on her clipboard. He studied them for a second, looking at the notes she had scribbled with confusion.
"Numbers?" he asked.
"Part numbers," she replied. "A few items I saw on an order sheet from a company in this town called Guju Industries, dated last week. About two hundred of each of them."
"Ah, hell," Shikamaru sighed, walking up to meet them, his voice somewhere between annoyed and relieved. "Looks like dinner is on me then."