It's a joke among Konoha ninja that you don't, in fact, make Jounin. Rather the morning after the Hokage will say,

"Congratulations on your first S-rank mission. See me about your new rank when you can walk again."

It's one of the jokes that are funny until you make Jounin yourself.

Name. Rank. Registration Number.

You don't give them anything else, when you're captured. Every question you answer with those three options and nothing else, anything else would break the cycle, the delicate pinwheel you've got desperately spinning the thread of your fraying life-line. One wobble, one pause and the thread will snap and the person, the child, will come undone, unglued and everything in him will come pouring out one way or another.

They picked him out of the three-man squad because he was youngest. The other Chuunin were twenty and twenty three, hardened, seasoned, men. It was easy to pick him out because they knew instinctively every decent human being doesn't want to see a kid get hurt and they could tell these men were decent human beings.

For those times he shoves his mind deep back in the recesses of his brain, some far corner where there's nothing but breath and the thrum of chakra through his ailing body. He won't feel and he won't scream and he knows waking up will devastate him so he stays comatose, corpse-like in the hands of his captors. His lack of response vexes them, prompts them to be vicious, to pin him against the wall - wrists, cheek, stomach pressed into the stone able to see everything despite and plunging out of his own mind before it comes.

They throw him back to the floor in a cold huddle, convulsing as the last of the pain drains out of him and he goes still. For a moment, suspension, there is nothing but that hot pins and needles sensation of over stepping, going too far, of almost reaching the razor edge of yourself and falling into…into…He just shudders and the moment is gone.

The men are gone. The door shoved into the frame, chakra seals slapped and pasted like postage stamps across the front of the heavy iron bolted door. The cells are old and earthy, smelling like freshly turned earth and rotting life. The stones have soaked up the history of this place like a sponge soaking filth, stinking like wet fur and rabid dog. The scent is enough to make his eyes water, his stomach to clench despite already emptying itself previously.

How long since he'd last eaten? Days? Hours? Time ticks back in a blinking, drags on in slow motion. Hands pull him gently into a partial sitting position. Arms, already battered and bloodied during their failed escape, check his neck and chest for serious damage. A matted head is pressed to his chest, listening for the heartbeat which should be racing, frantic, like a rabbit in a snare. He's surprised when it's slow and steady and nearly lethargic.

"Kid?" A hand wipes the blood off his forehead. "Hey, kid?"

One of them tips stale water into his mouth. He can barely get it down. "He's in shock," the medic says stiffly. "No… trance." He's trying to fall back on his training, what he knows how to deal with, broken bones, internal bleeding, lacerations, and abrasions. He can handle that. The broken, battered, blank-faced kid in his partner's arms he doesn't know what to do with. His can't read their young comrade's opaque eyes, gazed as if dead while his chest still rises and falls with breath. He doesn't know what to do with a wound that deep. "Keep him warm. Tear your jacket I'm making a splint for his ankle."

The one at his back – the one who plays cards well, he remembers that – says delicately, pained. "If you do they'll just –"

"Damn it!" the medic erupts. "Give me your damn jacket and shut up!"

They make a splint and bind his deep wounds and slip him a blood pill one of them hid under his tongue.

They coax him to bite down and swallow the chemical, designed to replenish what precious fluids he's lost. He swallows but his throat is stripped dry, tasting like blood and salt and rot. He suddenly wants to vomit but he can't; his body is too weak for even that and he just lies like broken doll in his teammate's arms, his head propped against a shoulder while their medic-nin tries to make sense of what wounds are fresh or fatal or just look far worse than they are. Deft hands search his skin, outline arteries and bones that are vital, that only he understands to be vital. He's assured, he's confident and he's thorough. None are fatal, they all look worse than they are; feel almost as good at that. Deep in his chest, the young Chuunin recognizes something like disappointment.

He won't die from any of them. Part of him cries knowing that and to his surprise some of the sobs rush up the back of his throat into the cold air. One or two dry almost mechanical bursts, like a child falling on the playground: Loud sobs with no real hurt to accompany, immediately dropped realizing there's no pain.

The only difference is the damage is not imaginary and his ankle is broken, one of many things broken. His teammates seem disturbed by his lack of crying because it's unnatural, just as bizarre as his silence during the torture. Creepy as the cold nothing in his pale eyes when they strip his outer robe and his forehead protector and leave him like that. Inhuman as his calm, unfitting of a teenager as they drown and revive him again and again and again, until the enemy medic decides one more time will destroy his lungs. They dump the water over his head and leave. Shivering and humiliated he limps back to his surrogate team each time, crawls back if necessary and lies beside them while they abandon things like masculine pride and cradle the boy's head.

Another day.

"Hey kid?" His voice is a shaky laugh, fighting to be confident and strong. Twenty-something is not that old after all. "I hear you're really good at poker."

He manages something like a yes.

"Heh. Was it you that cleaned out old Ibiki? He had to teach you some kind of genjutsu as payback?"

A nod.

"Really?" The other one is in on it now. "I thought that was a joke. He really taught you?"

A smile. Another nod. This encourages them and they keep talking.

"Now be honest are you cheating? You've gotta be cheating with that eye-thing, right?"

He smiles again. His lip splits.

The medical-nin sneers. "Moron. Byakugan has to be activated before it sees anything. I think someone would notice if he was playing with his eyes all strung out."

"Don't call me moron, moron. You're the one in gambling debt, not me."

"Pff, hey kid? Could yu' give me tips?" Grinning, trying to sound casual, and assured that learning how to play poker is a worthy goal, that he will be given the chance to utilize his new skills. "When we get back I'd like to clean this clown's clock and get my money back."

The door opens and all their conversation becomes snarling and swearing and desperate attempts to protect their youngest comrade. All pointless, all futile and they have him on the floor screaming and sobbing in minutes. This time it's genjutsu. They flay his brain until he's raving, babbling anything and everything in an incomprehensible jumble so cocktailed not even his comrades can't tell of he's spilling something secret. They use the last of the ruined water to cool his fever and pull in close around his torn and battered body and give him as much human contact as he can assimilate before their tormentors come back. They talk to him, muttering quietly, speaking (he imagined) as they would to their kid brother or a cousin. He never wanted to strangle someone so badly as he did then, suffocate them, stop their disgusting words.

Their captors don't touch the other two, don't bother to hurt them physically, when they can watch them die mentally, their youngest member cracking slowly, dying fast. It's a cold and effective method. They will only torture him, until he either hates his comrades enough to betray them or his comrades knuckle under and tell all. If he dies, they still have two, fresh unspoiled captives to question. How many days? They tell him two. He asks about rescue and they tell him yes, at any moment but he can tell they lie. They want to give him hope, strength to hold on and not to die. Part of him wonders if they just don't want to end up like him. As along as he's alive to take the punishment, they don't have to.

He knows that's exactly what the enemy wants him thinking, but he doesn't care. It won't work he can't hate his team because they're all he's got now. So strange what war can do to you, how it warps you, alters you until you can't even recognize yourself. The older Chuunin aren't friends. They aren't even his usual teammates, but it was a B-rank mission and they needed a scout and a 'strong' team leader. He shouldn't care about them. He shouldn't value them. He should hate them actually. But whatever their reasons to protect him, he needs it.

Disgusting and shameful but he needs to feel like he's cherished somehow, that he's not expendable, that he's human. He only met these men two weeks ago and they are the only two human beings in his whole world. The way they cling to together; they all know it, all think it secretly but won't say. They can't think about what happens when the first of them dies. What will happen to them…

Another day.

This time when they come in, they're strange and gentle. They pick him up like a precious child and carry him rather than drag him across the floor. A woman scolds the other ninja for not being more careful with him, to be more careful. For a moment he doesn't understand, then the door closes and he realizes they've taken him out of the cell. Away from his team. Inside he feels himself screaming hysterically but his throat has no moisture to voice those screams.

The woman (the medic-nin who decided when his body reached its limit) tells him they've discovered something about him. She says that he's valuable to them now and he's to be taken care of. They ask for his name again and he gives it, along with his rank and registration number, mechanical, the only words he knows how to say anymore.

They only want his name. The clan name actually.

They isolate him from the others, into a nicer cell with a bed and give him food and water that he refuses to put in his mouth. They send a woman to question him, a sweet-tempered motherly type with a dimple at the left corner of her mouth and soft hands. His own are broken, the delicate bone structures shattered through his palm and going untreated. Whatever pleasantries they single him out for they won't heal his hands; they are too dangerous to risk healing. The blood is still on his skin, congealed under his fingernails and smeared all up his pale arms. It's not his; he killed a lot of people with his hands before they finally called their country's version of ANBU down on his head. Because some idiot recognized him for what he was, the valuable commodity.

The woman washes his arms and his face and dampens his long hair, sponging blood out of it because the teenager is wearing filth like a second skin, brownish rust colored grime stinking with sweat and saliva –

the female Jounin crawling on top of him, clawing and spitting in his face as she dies, frothing at the mouth from the poison senbon rammed through the muscle walls of her belly. Foaming lips, smelling of stinking death mixed with curry rice, fall all over his throat while she moans, panting and mewling in a disgusting masquerade of sex, pawing his clothes like she might find the antidote he doesn't have. Her teeth on his skin, like she's trying to tear his throat out with her last spasms of life and for a horrible, delicate, razor-edged moment he can feel it, her blood dark and slick, spreading against his stomach, soaking their clothes, making them cling to cold, sweaty skin.

Then she dies and he lies still, inert among the bodies of his victims, of the civilians as enemy ninja pass. They run by in dark shadows, flitting to the main body of the skirmish gone wrong. Their simple scouting mission is blown, the enemy is not only plotting against Konoha, they are hostile and dangerous and more than a three-man Chuunin team can take. His mind ticks off routine, strategies, everything the Academy taught him, everything his sensei taught him, everything he just plain knows. They're gone. The young Leaf-nin breathes again, just as he began to think he never would again. As he rolls the corpse off him all he can think about is the curry rice he could smell, her last meal and the fact Lee loves curry rice


A voice asks him questions.

With a twitch he comes back to the present. Inquiries, what Konoha knew, what he knew, the purpose of their mission. To each he answers with his name, his rank and his registration number. She tries to coax him out of his clothes but he recoils like a burned thing and he feels like an animal, barely human in this state, covered in other humans' blood and gore. The woman he killed with the senbon looked like Tenten and the Rock Genin that tried to grab him looked like a younger Lee. Then he blew the boy's face off with variation of the Juuken that popped the kid's eyes like rotten fruit and ripped the meat off his skull. There was no time for clean kills, too many enemies to make mercy kills for kids. The blood sprayed in his mouth, in his face and hair, forcing him to spit and blink the hot, acrid liquid out of his eyes as he darted to catch up with his team.

He remembers the medic staring at him in horror.

It's not until months later he remembers they spent the majority of his time there dunking his head under water. He'd been imagining most of the filth that had already washed off while his interrogators drowned him in a wash bin repeatedly. The blood the woman wiped off his skin probably was his own, he just wasn't capable of seeing any other blood but that of others.

Sometimes, he can still smell the inside of the first cell, the sick animal stink in a place meant to hold human beings until they stop being that. Where the captors dehumanize their prisoners then put them down like so many stray dogs. The scent will follow and find him sleeping, when he's standing next to his teammates before a mission or sitting close to a family member he cares for. In those moments, he stops feeling human and knows – in that respect at least – they succeeded.

They send a much younger woman the next time, only five years his senior perhaps and she talks gently to him, gives him human contact and affection. The knowledge they are killing and butchering his teammates only a couple halls over ices his blood and he feels nothing when she touches his face. He can't feel her. The world is a colorless blur that has nothing to do with the Byakugan. He feels like a piece of hot glass left in the freezer, cracking slowly, splintering into a billion pieces. Frail, scented hands explore his shoulders and his back, run through his hair and minister sweet caresses. Murmurs and touch, sensation and sound, nothing, nothing, nothing. He can't feel. All he knows is the heat in his skin and the cold seeping, the feeling of glass breaking into pieces in his ribcage. Tears are beyond him, emotion and humanity beyond him. He'd tell them everything if speaking wasn't beyond him.

How long? Blurred grays and greens. The world spins by until, with a ripping jolt it comes to halt and someone else is in the room with him. They hand him a bloody bandana, one of his teammates' and he just stares at it, tangled in his broken fingers. The man has a slight disfiguration in his left eye so it doesn't open properly. He sneers as he opens the door. "Pissed himself and died mewling. The other one's just barely alive. Our best girl's almost finished with him, but it's disgusting. You Leaf-nin die so loudly." The man starts to leave but words finally betray him and sneak up over his tongue, cracked and rasping, hardly human.

"Please…don't kill him."

The man smiles. "What can you give me?"


"Nothing? That's a shame."


"If you tell me where you sent those Kage Bunshin with our jutsu scrolls and battle plans, I won't kill him." He man smiles almost gently, like he might reach out and stroke the teenager's dirty black hair. "I'll even let him see you if you tell me something I like. Maybe something about those pretty eyes of yours, I'd be willing to let him live. How about it?"

He only has three things to say and the man leaves him with a disgusted look and slams the door shut. It's dark, there's no light so he screams silently into his knees and sobs without tears or sound, face contorting, brutalized in muted agony. He almost loses himself, nearly throws his shoulder against the door and shrieks the coordinates that have been burning in the back of his mind since they first asked him if he had any information that might interest them. The words that would take him away from all this, that would free what remained of his team. But in the end, he knows, they are going to die, both of them, him and his single living comrade, the only person left in his world. They will die, the warning will get to the Leaf and new battles will begin afresh, without them.

They come in a few days later and throw him the ruined flak-jacket, saturated and stinking of expired human life. "He died like the other one," the interrogator says. "He lasted longer though, poor bastard."

That night the fifteen-year-old assassin tears the flak jacket apart and eats the soldier pills stitched into the lining, five in all. They taste like dog-food and dissolve like yogurt and coat his tongue with slime, but it didn't matter. He uses chakra to unlock the door and crept down the hall in silence and shadow, his entire body vibrating from the influx of precious chakra and chemical stimulants keeping his brain functions on high.

His eyes pierce the walls and the single sentry is slumbering at the corner of the hall. The young ninja ghosts up behind him, stepping delicately into the space behind the man and severs his spinal column with a single thrust of his Juuken. He takes the man's weapons, senbon needles, kunai, shuriken and assassin wire with him. He finds a short, blunted knife in his boot, probably meant for whittling; not killing, but he takes that too.

He methodically checks every cell for his comrades, searching with childish hope, moving like a mannequin in mechanical, pattern. Open door, look inside, close door. Next door. Open, look, close. The only trace he finds is the lingering stench of blood in one dingy cell, flaking smears of burgundy brown smearing the floor. Wide, almond eyes reflect nothing in the dark and he closes the door. His eyes lead him through the underground complex where he kills four more people, two in their sleep because he recognized them from the Bingo Book, or at least he thought he did. His body moved without feeling, nothing but the sensation of fired glass like every nerve ending was hot and cooling until he was ice, a cold and broken silhouette.

The above ground complex is almost empty but his eyes betray the unfortunate five. Two are medics, one of them the girl from the torture session, the other he doesn't know. He kills them both, one strike each to the heart, overkill so they die silent. The soldier pills prevents him feeling pain, his broken hands feel fantastic. The other three are the interrogators. They are playing cards when he opens the door, still dressed in his bloody under armor, long hair hanging in his pallid face. The men don't kill him immediately; don't react because for a second they don't recognize him. It gives the Leaf-nin a moment to observe, take it all in.

The scene is cozy, three comrades playing poker around a table. It seems the pot is an amalgamation of money and three Konoha forehead protectors, he can also make out the bleached and scrubbed whiteness of his clan-styled robes. The men are gambling with his pack of playing cards. Their pack.

His vision splinters into monochromatic tunnel vision. He kills one with a single senbon to the throat. Like a trigger has been pulled, the others lunge at him with kunai. He deflects them with chakra greater than their own, his drugged, homicidal strength. His kawarimi puts him on the second man's back and he kills him with the garroting wire, the silver line vanishing through the skin under a choker of crimson liquid. The last one – the man who gave him his comrades' clothing as evidence of their death – he stabs in the eye with the whittling knife.

The Leaf ninja spent a couple minutes doing unspeakable, psychotic things to the corpse.

Then he pulls his old robe back on (soaked in blood as it is) and takes the forehead protectors back. The rest of the night he can't remember but by the time he takes off from the enemy strong hold he has no kunai left, no senbon, no shuriken and no chakra. Deep inside himself he knows he's done something unforgivable to other people…something black and white and stained with warm liquid. His hands drip sweat and slippery, syrupy – No. Don't think. His journey back over the borders of Fire County passes without incident, though he stops after a moment of curious dizziness and throws up without conviction, dry-heaving as he empties his stomach.

He wipes his mouth on the back of his hand and slowly the details of his mission come back to him ticking off like beads on an abacus. The men and women in that complex were supposed to be B-class guerilla. Rock ninja? Sending a three man team for surveillance was a B-rank mission.

Realizing the B-class guerilla were actually A-class Rock Jounin and their Chuunin subordinates prepping for war made it S-class.

He wonders obscenely if one got docked pay when you come back the lone survivor of your squad? He wonders if you got paid extra, when you did the job ANBU was suppose to do when you came back with information. Was that considered insubordination? He giggles and stifles himself with a fist, jamming his fingers in his mouth to choke back the high-girlish titter. His tongue tastes blood. Not his own and he spits it out. He breathes and his heart pumps heat through his body and the soldier pills keep him going, his training keeps him going and the fact tomorrow is November 27th. He hasn't bought Lee a present, he didn't last year and he won't this time. He didn't buy Tenten anything either.

It's late, the streets are dark and he makes his way back to headquarters on instinct alone, seeing nothing, knowing nothing and trying desperately to remember his comrades' names because all he can see are their faces, burned in his brain like embers cradled in the back of his eyes.

He pushes the door open and crosses the foyer, blinking in the bright florescent light of the room and makes his way to the front desk where a sleepy looking woman chews on a pen, reading through a magazine. Night shift, she checks in all the late missions and she doesn't bother to look up at him, chewing, chewing her pen. She asked mechanically for name, rank and registration. Then she looks up at him and the pen falls out of her mouth and she lunges to her feet, screaming down the hall for a medic. He ignores her, answering the only words he can remember to say.

"Hyuuga Neji. Chuunin. Zero-one-two, five-eight-seven."

Author's Note:

I've written a second companion piece to this one. Am working on a longer Neji-centric project.