Things I have done since last updating my story: (1) Complete all but the last six credits of my Masters' Degree, (2) Taught over 100 elementary school classes, Grades Pre-K to 6 in every subject including Specials, (3) Turned 23, (4) Get set up for my Student Teaching placement for the fall, (5) Recovered from the Flu. Twice. (6) Gained a new love for Hinata's character in the Naruto manga, (7) Almost get killed by my old car yet again, (8) Convinced my parents to let me get a new car in response to 7, (9) Became addicted to the Sookie Stackhouse/Southern Vampire Mystery book series, and (10) Come up with ideas for 6 new one-shot stories.
(I've been busy, huh?)
On the subject of future one-shots, I currently have a poll up on my profile asking readers which of the proposed stories they would like me to see uploaded first. Please take a few seconds of your time to go and reply; the results will directly affect my decision!
Now, on the subject of this story, I have a few comments to add before getting down to business:
(1) I'm tired of being nice, so I'm just going to come out and say it: anyone who wastes a review just to tell me how much they hate Sakura and wishes she dies in the next arc can go suck an egg. Suck two if you then start randomly accusing me of "ripping off" a story that I've obviously stated is a series rewrite, and therefore WILL contain similar themes to the original series (initially). I find it rude and offensive, and I shouldn't have to apologize for writing a story the way I want to. People like that are half the reason why I took an extended hiatus in the first place.
I like Sakura. I like her character, and I like the new backstory I gave her. If you can't tolerate seeing her in a different light, then you might as well just click the back button right now. If you're willing to be open-minded...read on.
(2) To reviewers who offer fair criticism, but think they're "nitpicking": PLEASE, don't EVER apologize for such a thing. I welcome the advice! Ever since college, I've held to the belief that the better a story is, the harsher the critiques—it shows that you find my writing worthy enough of such scrutiny.
(3) As I told my beta reader, this chapter marks the first time since my Teen Titan days that I've had so much fun writing. In fact, a lot of the "mystery" and subliminal messaging was heavily inspired by what I had done in my story, 1000 Words. Without spoiling the last scene, I admit that I was also inspired by the return of the SHAMAN KING manga (from which the characters of Yoh and Anna obviously came).
I dedicate this dedication to Phoenix Claw, my fanfic guinea pig—I mean, beta reader—whom I (and I quote) "made...use [his] brain at 11:15 at night." Remember, you volunteered for this, pal. :P
(...and I don't know where I'd be if you hadn't!)
Sasuke froze at the sound of his birth name, so caught off-guard that he forgot to hide his surprise.
"How did you—?"
But the mysterious assailant interrupted before he could finish the question, a hint of dark humor behind his voice. "It's hardly a secret where I come from. 'The Legend of the Last Uchiha', they call it..." A dim light illuminated his features as he came forward, revealing the appearance of an oddly bright smile. "Ninjas do like to whisper amongst themselves, after all."
What killing intent they had all sensed so fiercely not a moment before vanished, leaving them questioning whether they had been imagining it all along. The stranger held his hands in the air as he approached to demonstrate his lack of ill will; the shadows haunting his gaunt features lessened with each step.
"Do forgive me for startling you." His apology came out in a light tenor, soft and radiating innocence. "I was just so shocked at seeing you here, of all places, that I could not help making myself known to you." He looked directly at Sasuke as he said this.
Had the circumstances been less unnerving, Sakura might have allowed herself a small giggle. This guy was already starting to sound like yet another one of Sasuke's "fans"!
The boy in question, however, was finding the thought slightly less amusing than his teammate.
"Given the fact that we're currently in the middle of an exam—and on opposing teams, no less, you'll understand if we're not so quick to trust you," he stated dryly.
"A valid point." The stranger nodded. If he was affected in any way by the open display of distrust, he hid it masterfully. "Yet, what if I were to prove myself?"
A dark eyebrow raised. "And how would you go about doing that, exactly?"
"Well...for one," he began, lowering his hands enough to motion in the direction where Hinata stood. "One of your teammates is quite obviously injured, leaving your team at a clear disadvantage. Even if she were completely removed from the fight, and it were still two against one, I could have easily used her handicap to my advantage."
Sasuke's eyes narrowed considerably at the mention of any harm coming to his adoptive sister. It didn't matter to him that it was hypothetical at best; there was still something about this guy's tone that did not sit well with him. Shifting his weight, he inched closer to Hinata (who looked noticeably paler than before).
"That is, of course," the stranger continued as if oblivious to the rise in tension, "were my intentions to do so."
Sakura also grew more uneasy as the seconds ticked away. There were just too many factors taken into account regarding this whole situation that left her on edge. She glanced nervously between Sasuke and Hinata, uncertain as to which was the intended target.
"For another..." With such speed that none of them had a chance to react, the stranger moved to stand directly in front of Hinata. A chakra-charged hand raised itself before the girl's eyes, wrapping them in a pale blue glow. She gasped at the sudden cooling sensation that swept over her senses; the slight tingle around her eyes concentrated on the muscles beneath the bandages.
"Hinata!" Sakura cried out.
But it was already over as the stranger stepped back and turned...only to find a kunai at his throat and a very pissed Uchiha on the other end of the blade.
"Retinal damage was minimal." The stranger explained with surprising calmness, hardly batting an eyelash. "I was able to heal most of it without much difficulty. In fact, most of the pain should be gone."
Sasuke was too mad to speak, so Sakura took it upon herself to check on her friend's condition.
"Hinata, are you okay?" She cautiously guided the girl into a sitting position atop a nearby log. "Did he hurt you?"
At first, it was as if Hinata had been caught in some trance. She remained silent, hardly acknowledging either question. Aside from allowing Sakura to help her sit, the only sign of movement from her was to raise a single hand to her temple.
"A-actually..." she eventually spoke up, lifting her head. Sakura exhaled deeply in relief. "He was right; the pain's gone, along with the dizziness."
"What the hell did you do to my sister?!" Sasuke hissed without thinking, not having heard the girl's reassuring words.
For the first time, the stranger was oddly taken aback by the outburst. He glanced between the two for a moment, a thoughtful look on his face, before catching himself. Sakura noticed this, mentally storing the information in the back of her mind for later use.
Lightly shaking his head, the stranger quickly regained his composure. "I-I was trained in the area of healing on the field," he explained. "Emergency situations, such as temporary blindness from being caught in a flash, are easy to spot when you know what you're looking for."
"How did you know she was blinded by a flash?" Sakura questioned, making a show of her disbelief. "How did you know she wasn't poisoned or otherwise injured?"
"As I said," This time, he was much quicker with his response. "It's all about knowing what to look for. There is no actively used poison that would have blinded, but not visibly attacked other parts of the body. And an injury so severe as to damage the eyes would have soaked her bandages with blood."
Sasuke was still holding the kunai to his throat, but he ignored it as he turned back to the face the two girls. Things were not going as effortlessly as he'd planned.
"In fact," he walked over to where they still sat and knelt down. A hand raised to peel back the bandages around Hinata's head. "I would hardly be surprised if your vision had already—"
"No!" Hinata exclaimed suddenly, flinching back the moment his fingertips brushed against her skin. She leaned into Sakura's shoulder for support. Away from him. "I'd...rather keep them on for now. Just a-as a precaution."
The stranger broke character for a second time as a slight frown marred his expression. Even Sasuke was quick to pick up on it this time, glancing over to share a knowing look with Sakura. She nodded once as he wordlessly motioned towards the girl beside her; Hinata wanted to keep him from seeing her tell-tale Byakugan. From knowing she was Hyuuga.
She trusted this "helpful" stranger about as much as they did.
"So," Sasuke interrupted, deliberately drawing attention away from his adoptive sister. "If you're not here to attack us, why are you here?"
The stranger stood up, (fake) smile returning. "It's just as I said. I wanted to see the last of the Uchiha clan for myself." Lowering his head, he placed a forefinger to the bridge of his nose. It was an odd habit, reminiscent of one who had worn glasses at some time in their life and was yet to break the routine of 'pushing' them up. "Allow me to properly introduce myself. My name is Kabuto...and I wish to challenge you, Uchiha Sasuke, to a duel."
There was a lengthy pause.
"You want to spar with me?" Sasuke restated in partial disbelief. Though he had no intentions of correcting the guy on the matter of his name, it was still strange to hear a stranger refer to him as such. "Why?"
"Call it a matter of bragging rights," was the answer. "As a field healer, I've spent my life studying the manipulation and precise control of chakra. I wish to test myself and my skills against the famous Sharinghan. Of course," he spared a glance at the two girls, "As I am requesting that your teammates remain separate from this battle, there will be no scrolls on the line. Merely pride as a fighter."
Every instinct was warning heavily against it. The look in Sakura's eyes, as well as the way Hinata's lips pursed together, told him the girls agreed. Absolutely nothing that 'Kabuto' (if that was his real name) had said or done thus far gave him any reason to think otherwise.
"...very well. I accept."
The Forest was quiet. Not too quiet, though, as the cliché went (Neji hated clichés, anyway). A gust of wind would occasionally blow through a few of the higher branches and set off a flock of twittering birds. Aside from the local avifauna, he had yet to detect a single presence within a mile's circumference. With or without the aid of his bloodlimit.
But even that couldn't shake the feeling he was being watched. Pursued.
Moments later, his instincts were founded.
A glint of light in the corner of his eye provided the only warning before a silver kunai whizzed by his ear, catching the tail of his hitae and pinning it to the rotting wood of a nearby tree. He recovered quickly, coming in from a low, sweeping dodge in to a defensive stance. A few strands of hair flew across his bare forehead, pale and unmarked.
"Impressive," came a deep, haunting bass from the shadows. "But then, I would expect nothing less from the Pride of the Hyuuga Clan."
Neji remained unfazed at the voice's knowledge of his heritage. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of Konoha's history would be able to tell from his eyes alone that he was Hyuuga. As if to further this, he unabashedly activated his Byakugan and began to search for his assailant.
"Show yourself," he demanded. "Who are you?"
Neji spun around as the voice echoed from behind, but was met with nothing aside from the emptiness of the Forest.
"A chance," it continued, "to give you the power you would never have otherwise experienced, that you would be forever denied as nothing more than a lowly branch member.
There was a sudden cawing of crows as a murder took flight, rustling though the aerial brush in their haste to escape the area. Neji watched them absently though his peripheral vision, finding himself counting how many he could detect in a vain effort to mask his otherwise helplessness.
"You're wasting your time," he called out to the darkness. "I am proud of my heritage and would never do anything to betray my family in such a way."
"You say that now, perhaps. After all, your uncle was so gracious as to 'spare' you from bearing the Mark of a Cursed servant. A Mark your own father hides from shame."
Neji's hands went to his forehead, fingers brushing over the area where he knew his father bore the Seal. He could feel the anger rising within him...not at the thought of such a fate, but at the voice that dared speak of things it knew nothing about. Bearing a Seal was hardly something to be ashamed of, but it was a closely-guarded clan secret.
"You speak ignorantly," he told the voice, clenching his fists tightly in an effort to regain control of his emotions. "My father wears his Seal with pride to show he would gladly die for the Head Family. There is no greater honor than that."
"Then what of you, Hyuuga Neji? You are his son, yet why do you not bear the Mark as well?"
Neji hesitated, uncertain of why he would speak so openly of such private matters. But the words flowed from his lips nonetheless: "I was rewarded for my actions in saving my uncle's youngest child, my dear cousin."
The darkness of the Forest let out a low chuckle, one that reverberated off the thick wood of every tree in the area. A chill ran up Neji's spine as he once again was reduced to darting his head about in search of its seemingly omniscient source.
"How interesting," came the amused reply. "Your reward for such a noble act is to be spared the so-called 'honor' you claim your father wears with pride. Surely, your family must regret having denied you your proper badge?"
"Hyuuga regret nothing!" Neji snapped back.
He did not see the needles until it was too late, so distracted by his fury. A sudden stinging sensation tore through his neck. Gasping in both pain and surprise, Neji raised both hands to find twin senbon protruding from the skin, each coated in a foreign substance. He had just seconds to comprehend what had happened before succumbing to the darkness already clouding his vision. As his eyes rolled to the back of his head, gravity claimed him.
Half a minute later, Orochimaru appeared beside the fallen genin. A wicked smirk tugged at his pale lips as he bent down to retrieve his weapons. He lingered over the boy's prone form a moment longer, brushing a lock of silky hair from his face as he leaned in to whisper:
"Oh, they will regret letting you our of your cage, little bird." He could not help a low chuckle over his victory. "Once they come to realize that error led to their inevitable destruction...at the hands of one of their own."
Placing a palm atop the unconscious boy's head, he held up the two needles in the other. Blood and venom mixed together on the tips, dripping down to where the needle marks on the young Hyuuga's neck were already beginning to close. The skin darkened, and a distinct mark began to take shape.
Orochimaru watched this with a look of pure satisfaction, waiting until the shape had fully formed and faded before he disappeared once more into the obscurity of the Forest...to wait.
It began the instant Sasuke's eyes opened to reveal the pride of his blood heritage: a fierce red, burning with intense determination.
Kabuto did not waste time. Instead of going in for an initial attack, he jumped back into the area. A quick succession of hand seals—so quick that Sasuke was just barely able to read them—had his hands glowing once more. But the dull yellow light was a far cry from the soothing blue that had been used to heal Hinata's eyes.
Just as Sasuke began the first seals to his counterattack, Kabuto pulled out a set of senbon. These were unlike any needles the boy had seen before; at least half a foot long in length, they were made out of a dark copper material rather than the usual silver. As Sasuke watched in awe, the needles absorbed the glow from Kabuto's hands before sailing into the air.
Sasuke ducked to avoid the first wave, but another came flying right behind. A series of back flips left him within a hair's width of danger. On his third flip, he found his center of gravity while still balanced on his hands and used the momentum to spin himself around. His weight shifted just enough that it took a single push to slid himself into a low stance at his opponent's far left. He had observed after the first throw that Kabuto was right-handed.
Now better prepared for the attack, Sasuke easily parried the next wave of strange needles with his own set of shuriken.
"Not bad." Kabuto paused long enough to call out, spinning into a more aggressive stance. "Do not expect me to hold back, young Uchiha, just as I expect nothing but your best."
Again, a similar combination of seals registered in the Sharinghan-user's eyes. He realized with a start that they were similar to those utilized in a number of Hyuuga techniques. This time, the glow was concentrated at the fingertips.
Within a fraction of a second, Kabuto grinned and disappeared.
Sasuke's eyes widened. The move had been so fast, he hadn't even been able to—
His left knee began to burn at an intensity so great it knocked the very breath out of him. It collapsed under his weight, leaving him kneeling in pain. A thin trickle of blood ran down the side of his shin, yet there was no other visible sign of attack. Clenching his muscles together, Sasuke willed himself into silence, not willing to give his opponent the satisfaction of hearing him scream.
He's going for my chakra gates! A string of mental curses rang through his mind as he realized Kabuto's agenda. But how could he know where to strike? Only Byakugan eyes could hope to even see them, let alone to such accuracy!
The pain was beginning to subside, but the numb feeling that took its place left him even more concerned. A bead of sweat made its way down the side of his face as he willed himself to stand.
No sooner had his back straightened when Kabuto came in for another attack, this time aiming for Sasuke's right arm.
If possible, the invisible flames that licked at every muscles in the limb burned hotter. Sasuke bit his lip until he drew blood, grasping at the point of impact.
A stroke of good luck had him look up just at the right time to avoid a third blow to his other arm. He jumped back, stumbling as the weakened knee collapsed again on impact. His bloodlimit whirled with a ferocity as it struggled to follow his opponent's distinct chakra signature. Using his remaining useful arm, he pushed himself out of the way of a flying needle and tossed a kunai in the direction he had anticipated Kabuto to land.
It missed, but only just barely.
Either Kabuto was unusually poor at hiding his chakra, or he didn't find the effort necessary. As he paused to collect himself, his presence shone in Sasuke's eyes like a white-hot light. Sasuke took the opportunity to catch his own breath, following the signatures to recognize a set of smaller charged senbon protruding from Kabuto's fingers.
The older ninja, having already recovered from the sudden break in momentum, slid down low in obvious anticipation of a closer fighting range. He pushed himself off the back foot and dashed in for a series of punches, the needles acting as an extension of his own fists. Sasuke was only barely able to keep up.
Dammit! He internally swore. His eyes could see every move Kabuto made with taunting clarity, but the sheer amount of chakra it took to keep up visually made it near impossible to do so physically. He's relying too heavily on speed and basic manipulation!
A blow to the cheek caught him in the middle of his thoughts, sending him flying. It had only been from the back of Kabuto's fist, though it felt like he had been struck by a solid metal object. He staggered, but was able to catch his footing.
Frowning, Sasuke was forced to admit that his bloodlimit was almost useless. It may have been able to copy any attack within his power to replicate, but all too quickly was he becoming aware of the vast limitations of that power. Namely, it was monopolizing too much of his chakra reserves.
Resigning himself to the fact, it was with a wounded pride that Sasuke was forced to deactivate his Sharinghan, turning back to his opponent with normal, unaided eyes.
Kabuto could not hide his pleasure at this. "I see you've already caught on," he told the boy as if he had been expecting this turn of events all along. "And so quickly. I must applaud you, Uchiha. Few clan members are ever so easily willing to admit to their bloodlimit shortcomings."
"Just shut up and get one with it," Sasuke muttered back, not happy. In his mind, deactivating the Sharinghan was only slightly better than admitting defeat. Even worse, his arm and leg were already numb, if slightly usable, and his breathing was much heavier than it should have been for such a brief period of combat.
"As you wish."
Had he still been watching with enhanced sight rather than blinded by humility, Sasuke might have seen the unnatural shift in aura suddenly enveloping his opponent. He might have seen that the dull yellowish fingertips had darkened into a deep red, almost black. He might have seen that the senbon needle Kabuto now brandished was vastly different than the others, the sudden twisted smirk tugging at his lips, and realized that something was very, very wrong.
Even from beneath her bandages, Hinata saw everything.
Not allowing Sakura a chance to stop her, she flung herself in front of her dear brother to shield him from the oncoming attack. Something sharp sliced against the back of her neck, and she let out a choked cry at the shock. Her kneels buckled under her, and she collapsed into Sasuke's outstretched arms.
The boy stared down at her in a stunned silence.
"Hinata!" Sakura was at their side, helping him to lower the girl to the ground.
In that frozen moment when they waited for her to show signs of life, Sasuke raised his eyes in anticipation of seeing Kabuto looming over them, preparing to deliver the final blow.
They were met with an empty clearing.
Hinata began to stir then, and Kabuto was instantly forgotten. The girl raised a hand to her wound as she moved to sit, despite multiple protests.
"Try not to move," Sasuke insisted lamely, despite allowing her to do just that. "Are you okay?"
"I...think so." Hinata pulled her hand back and held it out for them to see. Only a thin line of blood colored her palm, and even less trickled down from the shallow cut on her neck. "He just scratched me."
Sakura was already scanning over the wound. "I don't see any signs of poison." Her lips pursed together tightly in concentration. "I mean, I haven't really done any medical training since the Academy, but none of the tell-tale signs are there."
Sasuke let out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. He sat back and looked his adoptive sister. "And your sight."
"Fine." She nodded, unwrapping the last of the bandages. They fell to her shoulders in a light heap. "He really did heal me."
"But that doesn't make any sense." Sakura frowned as she helped the girl lift the last of the wrapping off over her head. "Why would he heal you one minute, then make a vicious attack on Sasuke-kun the next? During a mutually-accepted sparring match, no less?" She seemed to be mostly talking to herself at that point. "Were we just overrating?"
Hinata shook her head. "I don't think so. There was no mistaking that aura..." Her voice trailed off, whole body shuddering at the memory. She returned her hand to the wound on her neck, though the pain was more psychological than anything. "I don't know what his intentions were, but it was certainly nothing good."
"He was after me." Sasuke stated. "He was after me, I knew it, and I still agreed to that stupid fight." Both girls opened their mouths to protest, but he continued anyway. "I guess I should be glad he was so skilled, otherwise he might have carried out the attack and fully struck Hinata."
Silence overtook them, each pondering of the mystery that was this Kabuto person. There was little doubt that he was more than a mere genin, but that left question upon question. What was he doing in a Chuunin exam? Why did he go after Sasuke?
And, most importantly, would he return?
A faint barking in the distance drew Hinata's attention first. She stood up, turning towards the source and smiling as she recognized it.
"Akamaru!" Sure enough, the tiny nin-pup came running out of the bushes at hearing his name. He was quickly followed by a highly flustered Kiba and seemingly indifferent Shino. "Kiba-kun! Shino-kun!" she exclaimed, then frowned at the lack of a third human ninja behind them. "Where's Naruto-kun?"
Kiba shoved his hands into his pockets. "That idiot ran off somewhere shortly after the attack." While he would normally apologize after insulting any friend of Hinata's (more out of respect for her than the friend), he was too pissed off at the moment to care. "We've been trying to track him down ever since. Then Akamaru caught your scent, Hinata, so we figured we'd meet up with you lot first."
Despite everything he had just been through, Sasuke managed a low groan. The hand that wasn't still numb (though that was one was starting to recover) went to his forehead at the thought of having to waste even more time searching for the blonde. Especially since he—according to Kiba's story—had knowingly took off alone.
"Leave it to Naruto," he muttered.
"He can't be too far," Sakura came to the defense of her missing teammate, if nothing else but out of pity for what Sasuke might do to him when he was inevitably found. "I mean, if Akamaru was tracking his scent until now, he must be close. Right, Kiba-kun?"
"Unless he's just running around in circles, sure."
Sasuke rolled his eyes. "Exactly. This is Naruto we're talking about. It doesn't take that much to get his sorry self into a whole mess of trouble."
I am most definitely not in trouble. Naruto mentally assured himself as he turned left...and stared into the same clearing for the fourth time. He gulped. Okay...maybe a little.
In hindsight, it hadn't been the smartest idea he'd ever had to run off the way he did. At the very least, he should have taken Akamaru with him (the little runt would have been able to sniff out the others in a heartbeat). He'd just been so blindsided by Shino's comment that he couldn't think of anything but getting away.
Justing thinking about what the boy had said evoked a fresh wave of anger from within. Naruto kicked the nearest tree he could find and quickly learned that in a battle of human foot vs. tree, tree wins.
This is all Shino's fault! He hissed, hopping on one foot as he grasped the other tightly in his hands. If only he had minded his own damn business!
Unless I am mistaken, it is his business. At least, in part.
The unexpected reappearance of his inner demon caused Naruto to lose his balance and land ungracefully on his bottom.
"Aren't you supposed to be threatening me with bodily harm and such?" the boy huffed, speaking into the air as he rubbed at the sore spot.
I take delight in all your misfortunes, whelp. Especially the ones you create yourself.
"Piss off, Fox."
Go disembowel yourself. Then I would be free to do just that.
Naruto fixed himself into a cross-legged position, folding his arms as he closed his eyes and willed the unwanted presence away. He could sense the demon retreating back into his cage for the moment, chuckling to himself at the verbal sparring victory. Ever since realizing that his preferred line of threats no longer held impact, Kyuubi had settled for merely taunting and insulting Naruto every chance he got.
Unfortunately, Naruto soon realized that his brief bout of anger at his inner demon had only served to distract him from his original train of thought. What's worse was that, the more he thought about it, the more the stupid fox was right.
Shino had been a part of the search party, the boy glumly admitted to himself. Even if he didn't know all the facts about what had happened, he still sacrificed his time to help Hinata-chan after those Cloud guys grabbed her. He was there to help when I wasn't.
To that day, it was Naruto's greatest regret.
Closing his eyes, he leaned back against the soft, moss-covered ground. He figured that if he remained in one place long enough, the others were sure to find him. Running around with no sense of direction certainly wasn't getting him anyway. And if he kept his mind clear and senses alert, he figured it would be easy enough to avoid any of the opposing teams. Why would they want to bother with him, anyway, when he didn't have a scroll?
After all, what was it that Iruka-sensei used to tell us? His thought back to his days in the Academy, smiling as he recalled a younger version of himself being constantly poked by a younger Hinata in vain efforts to get him to pay attention. 'Ninja who rush into things don't get the chance to rush out', or something like that.
Minutes later, his eyes snapped open. He sat up with a frown, rising to his feet as he sensed the familiar presence approaching. Only once before had he come across this signature, but he would never forget it.
His teammates were with him, of course. The blonde and that boy with the weird puppet...things. They looked as uneasy at the situation as could be, staring warily at the redhead. It was almost as they were more frightened of him than they were of any enemy.
"Leave us," came the orders, blunt and brief.
The puppeteer obeyed at once, leaving without a single glance back, but the girl lingered. An emotion that Naruto best interpreted as concern was written all across her face as she stared after the younger boy.
"Gaara," she began, "I—"
"Leave or I'll kill you."
Naruto was taken aback at the vicious threat, but the girl hardly flinched. She was obviously used to her teammate's manner of speech, and while knowing there was very little chance he would carry out the promise, that didn't make it any less empty. A single nod and she, too, was out of sight.
From within, Gaara heard the malicious whispers waste no time in making their desires known:
Kill the boy, the demon told him.You wish for his blood as much as I. Do it now!
But, for the first time in years, he did not satisfy the notion with a second thought. What he desired was more than mere death and suffering. He wanted answers.
"The girl," he finally spoke, taking a step towards his would-be prey.
Naruto's eyes narrowed. He knew exactly who Gaara was referring to. "What about her?"
"Why do you allow her to cling to you in such a manner?" He got straight to the point. His tone, subtle but evident, told more of curiosity than anything else...for the moment. "She is nothing more than a pathetic human, after all."
Now where have I heard that before?
Mentally rolling his eyes, the blonde was too surprised by the sudden line of questioning to be angry at the insult. "So what?" He shrugged his shoulders. "We're human too, you know."
"Is that what they tell you here?" Had he a trace of humor left in his soul, Gaara might have laughed. "A far cry from what they told me, for certain...yet no less of a lie, I can assure you."
If anything, Gaara felt that the boy was even more misled than he. At least Suna was willing to admit to his true nature. This pathetic village was either extremely naïve to think otherwise, or too frightened to accept the truth.
Meanwhile, Naruto's frown deepened. It was clear to him that Gaara really believed what he was saying, believed he was imparting knowledge on a fellow jinchuuriki. His intentions were not to infuriate or belittle the boy, which made it all the more difficult to argue.
What kind of life had Gaara led in the Sand Village to make him think in such a manner?
"You don't understand, do you?" Naruto stated softly. "What it's like to have people in your life. Friends...family..."
"I have a 'family', as you refer to it as." Gaara countered, making it clear the word meant very little to him. "And nothing ties me to their existence save for some insignificant bond of blood and the human label of 'teammates'."
Naruto thought back to the pair he had seen with him earlier. "Those were your siblings?"
"So I have been told," the Sand ninja stated nonchalantly. He might as well have been speaking of total strangers. "But our kind do not have family, nor friends. Truthfully, I was not aware there was even another like myself until we met."
With every passing moment, Naruto found himself pitying Gaara more and more.
"I've spent much of my life alone, without any family at all," he told the redhead. "No parents, no brothers or sisters. Nobody to go home to each night. Whatever you think of them, you still have your family. I would have been completely alone f I had never met Hinata-chan."
"Such things are meaningless. You would have been better off without—"
"What makes you think that?"
Gaara paused. It was becoming more evident that this boy simply did not understand. "Because..." He closed his eyes. "I have spent my life with the knowledge that my flesh and blood wish for nothing more than my death. A few have even attempted the deed themselves." Looking up, his eyes shone of warning; if Naruto chose to remain ignorant of human intentions, he would surely be the one to inform him. "Eventually, they will begin to thirst for your blood as well."
At a loss for words, Naruto stared at the boy in hope of some sign that there was more to what he said than face value. What shocked him most was not Gaara's warning (he couldn't bring himself to even entertain the possibility), but—once again—the fact that he believed it so unquestioningly.
"I see the pity in your eyes, Fox." Gaara's voice startled him out of his thoughts. "And I tell you now, I neither need nor want it. In fact, if I were to care enough, I would pity you for allowing yourself to be fooled so easily."
Not allowing the blonde time to respond, he reached under the thick sash around his shoulders and pulled out a small object. Naruto caught it with one hand as it was tossed into the air, then did a double-take when he recognized what it was.
An "Air" scroll.
"I expect to see you in the third round," Gaara stated as his explanation. With that, he abruptly turned and walked away.
But his inner demon was not through.
Now is as good a time as any to tear him from limb to limb and devour the power going to waste within him, Shukaku hissed his disappointment. You've never waited before. What makes this morsel any different from the others?
"Because," Gaara murmured aloud. "Fighting him now would mean nothing."
You're starting to think like a human, boy.
It was oddly unfamiliar territory—the raccoon had not accused him of such since he was a small boy still unaware of the ways of a demon carrier.
Even to himself, Gaara could not explain exactly why he cared so much; why it mattered that there was another who shared his fate (if still blind to the fact). Yet, he could not shake the sensation that had begun to nearly consume him since learning of the blonde's existence.
Though the reason behind it lay foreign to him, he knew he wanted nothing more than to show the boy what it truly meant to be a demon among mortals.
As his senses gradually returned, he became aware that somebody was violently shaking him. As if that weren't enough of an insult, they were also addressing him by his given name, without the custom honorific.
"Neji, get up!"
And a female voice, no less. A really, really bossy female voice. One that sounded oddly familiar....
"Hyuuga Neji, you open your eyes this instant before I bring out my backup arsenal!"
Yup. It was definitely Tenten.
Emitting a low groan, the boy winced as he willed himself to roll onto his back. "Yelling is not necessary, and threatening me with your kitchenware is even less necessary." He blinked his eyes open and was greeted with the sight of twin odangos attached to a stern glare. "Besides, you know I know every single weapon you store in that scroll, anyway."
Tenten exhaled deeply in relief as she slouched back, knees under her. "Well, what did you expect me to do?" Folding her arms across her chest, she blew exasperatedly at her bangs. "You scared me there for a second, Neji. I was starting to think I would be struck with Lee as a sparring partner from now on."
"Glad to see you care," he retorted, going along with the girl's infamous dry sense of humor.
As the vertigo subsided, Neji moved to sit up. Tenten automatically reached for his arm as he did, fingers lightly brushing against the bare skin of his unwrapped arm. The sensation sent an unexpected jolt of electricity through him, but when he looked at her questioningly, she hadn't seemed to notice.
"Are you sure you're okay?" She asked, feeling him tense under her touch. "Maybe you should get some medical help to make sure nothing's wrong."
Only then did Neji realize her body was still trembling slightly.
"I'm fine," he insisted, attempting to casually brush her off.
Much to his gratitude, Tenten frowned but did not question the dismissal, instead making herself useful by standing to retrieve his hitae. The fleeting distance between them brought about a rush of relief (from what, he had no idea), and he allowed himself a moment to exhale slowly and deeply. His eyes closed.
"Here's your hitae, Neji," he heard her say.
A nod was the only indication he offered He'd meant to simply acknowledge the act, but Tenten misinterpreted it as something more. Wordlessly, she moved behind him and lifted her arms to place the cool metal against his forehead. Half a dozen moments sprang to mind of situations between them that had been more intimate, yet Neji could not help stiffening as the girl delicately weaved her fingers through his hair, combing the loose strands out of harm's way so they would not be caught up in the knot.
Did she realize what she was doing? Or had he never paid attention to similar actions on her behalf before? Twenty seconds felt like an eternity to him as he waited for the girl to reappear in his line of vision, and only when she did was he finally able to relax.
"What happened?" She questioned, taking a seat beside him. Close beside him.
Part of him was distracted by the closeness, but the other was struggling to find some semblance of memory that would hint as to what exactly had happened. His senses—not just sight but smell, sound, touch, etc.--were overwhelming him at the same time his mind was failing him. He tried to think back to just before he had lost consciousness.
He opened his mouth to answer. No words came out.
"...I don't know," he eventually admitted. "I can't remember."
Tenten's lips pressed together nervously (a habit Neji had seen before but never really noticed until then).
"Are you sure you don't want to see a mednin?" She asked cautiously, as if wary of offending him.
He shook his head. "If I went to seek medical attention now, we'd be disqualified."
Holding up one hand to silence any further protests, he stood up on his own strength and turned to her. His eyes softened when he saw how worried she looked.
"Look," he amended, "If I show signs of injury or illness after we get past the second part of the exam, I promise I'll head straight for the nearest hospital. This way, at least you and Lee would still have a chance to move on. Deal?"
Tenten's heart warmed slightly knowing that he was thinking of them, but that didn't help to ease her mind much. She nodded hesitantly and allowed him to aid her to her feet. An unspoken promise between them ended the discussion there and then, and they simultaneously turned to head out in search of the remaining member of Team Gai.
The green-clothed ninja in question, meanwhile, had been aimlessly wandering through a particularly thick brush for the past hour. Not that he was lost, of course. He just didn't know where he was or where he was going.
It was still too early, according to his internal clock, to reconvene with his teammates. Even if Neji and Tenten had already met back up (which he suspected they had, given their uncanny ability to find where the other was on most occasions), he had his own separate agenda.
Not surprisingly, he was searching for Haruno Sakura...though not for the reasons most of his peers would have suspected. It wasn't romantic daydreams of a chance encounter or even the heroic notion that he might arrive in time to execute some last-minute rescue.
He was worried for the girl's mental state.
It could have been an overreaction, of course. Just because the second exam was taking place in a forest didn't necessarily mean it would affect her. But it was still hard for him to resist making sure she was okay, knowing what he did of her past. Knowing the dark woods would be the last place in the world she might ever possibly want to be in again....
He liked Kikyo; she was one of the nicest nurses in the whole hospital. Most of the others didn't have time for a nine-year-old boy who was breaking some bone in his body every other week or so, but she did. She always stopped to visit him during her shift, usually with a wide smile and some age-appropriate hospital gossip to share.
That particular night, however, he couldn't help noticing that she wasn't smiling quite as widely as she usually did.
"Kikyo-san, is there something wrong?"
The older girl looked up from where she had been unraveling a fresh roll of bandages. Her shoulder-length chestnut hair, streaked with reddish highlights, fell across her eyes, and she quickly brushed it behind her ear. Rock Lee was peering innocently over the rim of his glass of milk, bits of chocolate frosting still coating his lips from dessert.
She hadn't even realized she had unrolled far too much for his head wrapping until he had spoke up.
"Oh, forgive me, Lee-kun." Her smile returned, though it looked forced even to him. "I was just thinking of another patient."
Lee nodded once to himself, immediately accepting her answer. It made sense. Kikyo was always so worried for him every time he checked in. Especially last week, when he'd broken his right wrist, hairline fractured his right ankle, and managed a concussion at the same time. Her shifts usually ended before dawn, yet she had insisted on staying up with him throughout the night to be sure he didn't accidentally fall asleep.
She'd had to beat him in Crazy Eights four rounds in a row before he convinced her that there were others who might need her attention more. Worrying over newly-admitted patients was like a routine habit for her.
"She must be about your age, the Haruno girl." Kikyo continued on, though Lee had not asked. Taking a seat on the edge of his bed, she looked on with distant eyes as she began removing his stale bandages. "The poor thing! It's been some time since I've seen one so young hurt so badly."
Given the state he regularly found himself in, Lee's curiosity was piqued.
"What happened to her?" He wanted to know.
The young nurse hesitated, as if just realizing what she had been saying. "Oh, I probably shouldn't have said anything. You're only in here for a few more days, and here I am, burdening you—"
Kikyo looked uncertain for a moment, but Lee's wide-eyed gaze quickly won her over. She signed in defeat, unable to say no to the boy.
"Well, I don't know much since I'm not her attending nurse." She returned to tending to him as she spoke. "All I know is the bits and pieces I've overheard in the lounge. She's pretty tiny, probably a few months shy of eight. Her hair was singed within a few inches of her scalp, her arm was broken in three places, and there were bruises up and down her whole body."
Lee's eyes were round as saucers, but he thought it rude to interrupt.
"She could barely move when she was found, lying on the cold floor of the woods a few miles outside the village. She wouldn't speak, either. The doctors initially thought there might have been damage to her larynx, but it turned out she just...didn't want to talk."
"How did this happen?" Lee whispered sadly.
The last of the stale bandages were removed, and Kikyo reached for the fresh set. "Botched kidnapping."
"Someone tried to kidnap her?" he asked, sitting up straighter. "But why? Why why would her kidnappers hurt her so badly? Were they trying to kill her?" The monitor connected to his heart rate started beeping faster, alerting the boy that he should probably clam down. But the conversation was so intense, he felt a surge of adrenaline from just thinking about it.
Kikyo shook her head in response to his line of questioning. "That's what's so sad about the whole thing. They weren't even after her. Someone had tried to kidnap one of the Hyuuga girls and took her by mistake." Tears began welling up in her eyes, but she quickly brushed them aside. "They just threw her away, like a piece of garbage, once they realized her presence was useless to them. It's a miracle she was even found at all."
Lee looked absolutely horrified for a moment, but then something caught his attention: "They were after a member of the Hyuuga clan? But earlier, you said her family name was Haruno. Surely, her eyes would have instantly given away who she was...or, rather, who she was not." Confusion took over. "How could they possibly have mistaken her for a Hyuuga?"
"I can't say." Kikyo shook her head. "But could you just imagine what she must be going through right now? I mean, it's hard enough seeing the poor thing lay in a hospital room, alone...but to think that she almost died because even her own kidnappers abandoned her the way they did..."
"She is alone?" Lee questioned. "Does she not have a family of her own?"
"A woman came by earlier who looked like she could have been a relative. Possibly even her mother. But the visit was brief, and she left hours ago."
Lee was quiet for a long while, so deep in thought that he hardly noticed when Kikyo finished her task. The cut on his forehead had closed days ago, though the site still gave a dull ache on occasion. Even his ankle and wrist still left him in need of regular doses of painkillers. Though he was not due for the next dose until an hour from then, his mind was anywhere but on his own discomfort.
"What room is she staying in?" he called out just as Kikyo was getting ready to leave.
She did not need to ask why he wanted to know. "Three doors down, on this side of the hallway."
He shouldn't have been moving much. No matter how much he had already healed, his wounds were still severe enough that the medication left him light-headed with sporadic periods of nausea. Still, he pulled his own weight out of the bed and, with the aid of a single crutch, hobbled out the door.
The room adjacent to his held a set of twin beds, both occupied. A young boy slept peacefully in one, with a (slightly blood-stained) bandage similar to Lee's around his head. The other held a slightly-battered little girl as well as a very upset-looking blonde boy around the same age as she. He sat on the edge, motioning wildly between the girl and the prone figure in the bed next to theirs. Several adults were in the room as well, all dressed in a manner that did not bother to obscure their social standing. The air around them felt a little stiff, but no less warm and caring.
Beyond them, in the following room, lay an elderly man. He looked to be deep in sleep. A respirator covered his mouth and nose, and an IV drip was connected to the arm nearest to the door. His free hand was held in a firm grasp by a woman whom Lee could only assume was a loved one. Possibly even his wife. The man looked peaceful, as if aware that he was not alone.
In contrast, the third room—his intended destination—was both dark and lacking in visitors. The girl was elevated into a sitting position, though her head was rolled wearily to one side. She was conscious, though heavily medicated, and obviously in pain.
Even in the dimly-lit setting, the extent of her injuries were on full display for Lee to see. What must have once been a thick mane of cherry blossom colored hair (he could just barely make out the roots) hung limply from her head in charred strands. Someone had burned most of it clean off...though, by means of torture or neglect, he couldn't tell. Her arm was in a fresh cast, the plaster still glistening in the soft moonlight that shone in through her window. Nearly every inch of her skin was covered in bruises and cuts, though a nurse had (thankfully) washed away most of the blood.
What stung Lee the most, however, was not the sight of her physical state. It was the twin trails streaking down her cheeks that shone as she turned her head, and the fact that she had no one to wipe them away. No crowd of loved ones (no matter how stiff or proper) surrounding her bed, nor a single visitor to hold her hand.
Quietly, so as not to disturb her, the little boy hobbled his way into the room and took a seat in the nearest chair. The girl turned her head at the sound, gazing at him through a drug-induced fog.
"Hi." Lee tried to smile, but the action felt way too forced.
The girl slowly blinked twice at him before accepting he was not a figment of her imagination. A tiny smile appeared, happy to have somebody visiting like the people in the other rooms.
"H...hello..." her voice, tired and hoarse, managed to croak out.
Soon after, she succumbed to the pull of sleep.
Lee stayed with her until Kikyo came to bring him back to his room before the end of her shift.
It would be almost two years before Rock Lee came across that same girl again, finding her prospering in the local Ninja Academy as one of the top kunoichi candidates. He never had much of a chance to speak with her, but he had ample opportunity to observe. To see what kind of person had evolved from that one night.
What he saw left him convinced she was one of the strongest girls he had ever known, ever would know, in his life.
She worked hard. Perhaps not always at what she should have, but even that was considered normal for girls. Her rivalry with the blonde girl in her class only fueled her desire to become stronger in life (and love), and seemed to strengthen her self-confidence (Lee often wondered if that had been Yamanaka's hidden intention all along).
His admiration for her grew as he witnessed every achievement, every overcome obstacle, every smile she wore for the rest of the world. A fake smile, perhaps (he could always tell, knowing something about feigning happiness himself)...but a smile nonetheless.
And he would sooner lose the chance to become a Chuunin than to see her lose that.
Asakura Anna gazed at the setting sun with her forehead leaned against the cool pane of glass from her seat on the windowsill. Her eyes did not see the fading ball of light, however, nor the village below. They were focused on something far beyond what lay before her, so lost in her vision that even the subtle chance in beeping patterns of her fiancé's heart monitor could not disturb her.
Yoh watched her through a fog of sleep, taking in every detail. How her eyelashes gently fluttered when she blinked. How her shoulders moved as she inhaled deeply, growing rigid to fight a deep shudder. How her eyes clouded over when she eventually turned to face him.
"I know that look, Anna," he murmured softly, slightly muffled by the oxygen mask. "What did you see?"
To the rest of the world, she looked calm and disinterested as she moved to sit by him, opting for the edge of the bed over an adjacent chair. Yoh knew her far too well for that. She was trying to make sense of what her Sight was telling her.
"The village. It's...wrong," she began slowly.
He remained silent, knowing her habit of speaking in vague terms and half-completed sentences whenever she fought to come out of a trance. He also knew that his presence was one of the few that calmed her enough to even garner partial-coherency. It had been that way every since they were children.
"Something disturbed natural order. Not how it should be. Can't...mission or not, want to go home. Away from here. It."
The trembling was beginning to grow worse.
Freeing a hand from the confines of the bed sheet, Yoh reached up and gently trailed the back of his fingers down her soft cheeks. It was not so much a romantic gesture as an act of bringing her back to reality; usually, even the slightest physical contact was enough.
Anna's eyes closed again as she reached up, cupping her hand against his. When she reopened them, Yoh knew she was herself again.
"I'm going for a walk," she told him. "I'll be back shortly."
He nodded, and she quietly slipped out of the room.
No more than thirty seconds into her trip, the same feeling washed over her once more. Like a rush of invisible waves cascading from her head to the tips of her toes. She turned back around, every movement slow and deliberate, in time to see a relatively young woman—possibly in her thirties—exiting from one of the examination rooms. The woman held an air of clan nobility, dressed in fine clothing and brandishing well-groomed hair. Her eyes were bright, milky whites that betrayed her heritage.
When those eyes met with hers, Anna knew.
"You're not supposed to be here."
The woman turned to face her. "Pardon me?"
"Your presence..." If possible, the feeling grew even stronger than before. Anna's voice lowered. "It's you. Supposed to have died years ago. But didn't. Lived."
Hyuuga Haruko grew still, heart beat rising as she stared at the young girl standing before her. She knew the words were no threat; if anything, the girl sounded more frightened than vengeful. They had never met one another until that moment...and yet...
...it was hard to deny a truth she had already believed for so long.
"Your existence. The balance is disturbed. Unnatural order." With every word, Anna's eyes grew more and more distant...and Haruko's face grew paler and paler. "What has been, never will. What never will, has been. Terrible things. Should never have."
She was making less and less sense by the moment. In the far back of her mind, she knew this. Yoh. She needed Yoh. He was always able to find her now matter how far she went. Only he could.
Haruko had followed her every word, unable to move. Unable to breathe. It was as if she were frozen in place, forced to listen to the condemnation of her very being.
Anna was trembling violent now.
Haruko was trembling too, if for a different reason.
What little left of herself remained called for Yoh one last time before Anna fainted, her last words to Haruko coming out in little more than a whisper:
"It will be your fault."