J3F\\\Journey of the Three Failures

Chapter Thirty

Here we are! Sorry it's a couple hours late, but once again,

IMPORTANT! Chapters 27-30 have been released a lot more rapidly than usual! 27 was only posted two weeks ago. Make sure you haven't skipped any chapters, or you'll be lost!

Thanks for reviewing, Guywithafish, LordOfDrow, Gremlin Jack, zigmas, Cuervo Blanco, kurifu gari, mundanebeast, Aeonir, Soraya the All Speaker, Veraozao, Socky the NOT so subtle, and anon signing Sien! Your feedback is greatly appreciated!

The Apocalypse and Behemoth colored drawings, as well as the 'Chapter 30 teaser' featuring both, are now on my deviantART! The colored individual pictures came out especially well, I think; my digital art has improved a lot, and I did my best to make them good bonus pictures, so I'd say they're worth checking out :3 Links are on my fanfiction profile! ^^

Alternately, of course, my deviantART is simply ( hinata0321 dawt deviantart dawt com), replacing 'dawt' with a period, and newer stuff is toward the top of the gallery; they should be on the profile page itself under the 'Newest Deviations' section for probably a few weeks, anyways.

I said I'd change my username, didn't I? Phooey.

Part I song: Earth Rising by Two Steps from Hell. ...Yeah, reusing.

Anywho, enjoy!

Disclaimer: I don't own NARUTO. I don't even own any more disclaimer jokes.


Journey of the Three Failures

Thirty: At the Gates of Hell

Part One: Blade

Naruto ナ ルト

She had struck with all her weight, shattering the momentum of his charge as she knocked him back.

Pausing only to give a roar, she raced after him. Her movements were strong and wild, but terrifyingly swift; in a blur she was behind him, meeting him as he bounced to kick him high into the air. She flopped to all fours and launched in pursuit, and a cross-slashing of mighty, long-fingered claws was enough to pierce and rend the scale armor upon his chest, slinging fresh black blood from the wounds.

She kicked off his chest for air, and whirled before smashing a foot down into his face with a savage yell. He went down with a shriek, crashing into a cluster of jagged earth that had resulted from a blast of the Hachiman less than ten minutes prior.

–"When I fight him, what will I become?"–

The beast that was Hinata landed heavily, a few dozen meters from where Neji had crash-landed, and she fired a warning roar into the looming dust cloud he'd produced.

–"What will I do, confronted with this hatred?"–

I shook my head, still speechless. She had confided in me about this power's existence – that of the Behemoth, the Saber of Houkou, channeled through her mark and her enigmatic blood and only too capable of consuming her, but the shape she had taken to wield it was nothing I could have imagined. Her face was unrecognizable, her head like a canine's down to the black nose tipping her snout; her compact, heavily muscled body was that of a monstrous wolf-human, and her frame swollen to a height almost rivaling that of Neji's present form.

Her body had been largely overtaken with coarse black fur, its density lightest about her tough, grey-skinned hands and feet, while snowy white fur coated her chest and abdominal region, as well as lighting the end of her thick tail and the tips of what remained of her bangs in long fur that framed her face. A spiky mane of black fell down her neck, over her shoulders and tapering down to the middle of her back. Her legs, like Neji's, looked built for power, structured to support her weight atop the pads of long, clawed feet with dramatically elevated heels.

I winced as she bellowed a second time at the clearing dust, from sturdy black fangs casting forth a primordial challenge as white eyes flashed against dark sclera. Without question she posed a formidable sight, but of more consequence was her frame of mind. It was difficult to believe that Hinata the human could control Hinata the beast, given that outward appearance.

The pile of rubble stirred, and Neji broke sharply free, a furled wing lashing about with unbelievable strength to hurl a large hunk of stone in a dead shot for Hinata's head. She opened her mouth to a terrifying extent to catch the makeshift projectile, and her upper body tipped back momentarily at the force before she lurched forward again, easily snapping it to pieces in her crushing jaws. Neji's eyes narrowed as he stared her down. Then he smirked.

"Primitive is the form you've taken, Hinata. After you taunted me before… in your 'complete' form, have you finally lost the power to speak?"

She growled steadily, dusty drool trickling from her teeth and down the fur of her chin as she flexed her claws. Her tail gave a strong lash as her head lowered, fangs snapping belligerently at the air.

Neji bristled visibly, affronted; the feathers patterning his shoulders and chest were agitated. Ears angled back, he spread his wings wide as could be, perhaps for intimidation, and stretched his arms back and head forward to bombard her with a deafening, screeching cry of enmity. Hackles up, Hinata stood her ground and returned the abuse with a deep, full-throated roar. Even at this distance I could feel their power quivering, sizzling in the air as they engaged in this contest, and saw with some disconcertment as the ground splayed wildly with cracks around them even as the two held firm.

Stilling my breath, I edged just enough toward Sage Mode to observe the currents of power that clashed, warred, and twisted languidly through the air between them, immense. I blinked in amazement, and let it fade from my perception.

"What are we seeing?" Hanabi breathed, bewildered. "In those two, in substance… the power born of cursing one's fate, and the power attained in fighting it?"

Who knows… "They've become beasts," I ventured, "and by doing so, they've freed themselves from names like Main Household or Branch family. The most primal depths of their hearts want to fight purely now, to engage in battle without any pretense…"

"To settle who is the strongest, once and for all?" Lee wondered.

I nodded slightly. "That's what I see."

In Neji's shrieks that might well have pierced the heavens, inspiring the souls of the fallen to weep, and in Hinata's roars that shook the earth, no doubt causing their ancestors' corporeal remains to shudder in their graves, the adversary beasts proclaimed supremacy.

Then they went at each other, ground blasted and beaten back by their feet as they charged.

Hinata's powerful form laid into a full dash on all fours, propelling her body forward in long, vigorous bounds; her luminous eyes, white though they were, streaked an afterimage of black light on the air with her every move.

Neji sprinted on strong legs, hands back and claws spreading menacingly. His wings cut forward as they neared, and unfurled to catch and billow with air before smacking it sharply out behind him as he lunged. With a thusly acquired burst of speed he was cutting into her pouncing form; unprepared for the early collision, she took the shoulder he drilled into her gut, hard.

Thrown sharply backwards with a whimper, she did not fall when she landed but instead caught her footing, and enough traction to grab a surprised Neji by the hips and slam him harshly to the ground. His wings flared, stretching back and angling in a flap to drag and fling him backwards just before Hinata brought both her hands down with enough smashing force to shatter the earth, sending spikes of dust rocketing upward around her. With a mad glint in her eyes she shot after him, and his hands snapped up to meet hers. They held for one second, and with a roar of scorn she shoved him back, buckling his stance along with the crushed earth at his feet.

Hers was a form that boasted greater physical strength, then; for the first time in the fight, she had brute power, in its absolute sense, as an upper hand. But that look in her eye, that frenzied intent that could inspire such trepidation among the fury on Neji's cold, ghastly features…

"Don't…" I found myself whispering. "D-don't… fall to his level…"

"She does seem to be losing control," Lee noted evenly, his eyes on the duel – the brawl. "So will you say it aloud, for her to hear?"

"…If she changes back now, he'll destroy her," I said. "She won't stand a chance. So if this is the only way to fight him now, and if fighting this way means she could accidentally kill him, I won't stop her, even if I am the only one who can. You know that."

He did, and he nodded.

Sprawling on hands and knees from a wicked blow, Neji slumped to vomit a stream of liquid darkness across the ground. I didn't know whether it should be called Suiton, but the squirming, dark liquid pooled and darted forward, into the shape of several racing snakes. A jet of flame lanced from Hinata's canine maw, scorching them through, and Neji leapt high above the blast's path and lashed a scythe of dark energy down, from one wing. The swing of Hinata's claws arrested and promptly shattered the energy projectile, scattering fragments of it that careened and dispelled in the air. Tumbling artfully to the earth, Neji darted aside and lunged in a flash of speed, razorlike talons slicing Hinata's blocking forearm at her neck as he passed, before a coiled wing thrust out impactfully behind him, knocking her through the air.

"But if they should both lose their own will…" Lee trailed off, unsettled. "Might this become not a battle between Hinata-san and Neji-san, but one of Houkou-san fighting Orochimaru? Or is the line blurred? In any case, I fear that this can no longer be considered a battle between humans…"

"Kuso!" Hanabi hissed, hands trembling, eyes quietly distraught. "I could've taken her place? What was she getting at, with such a bad joke? I wouldn't have lasted three seconds – not in a fight like this!"

Old man Hiryuu sent one of Neji's witnesses a look. "Did you know that your leader was capable of assuming such a form?"

The man's rapt attention was snapped from the battle. He met the older Hyuuga's eyes, flustered. "We knew of it… It is quite a superior, beautiful form, isn't it? He should best Hinata with ease. Does it matter what shape he must take, to claim his victory over that fiend?"

Hiryuu sent him a withering look, and turned his gaze forward again. Neji's wing, like a whip, lashed at Hinata's ribs sharply enough to draw blood; three more quick strikes shredded at her body and defending arms before she caught another, gripping his wing and yanking him sharply in to ram a shoulder charge into him, bowling him off his feet.

She leapt after him, and with an almost reptilian speed he scrambled from the range of her claws and twirled, lashing his razor-lined tail around in a formidable slash. Hiryuu grimaced. "This, a contest of Hyuuga? We've two monsters fighting blindly for the fate of our clan…"

"No," Hanabi argued, still shaken though she was. "It may try our comprehension, what's happening now… But they're still Neji and Hinata. Whatever their states of mind right now, there's one who would demolish the rift in the Hyuuga by eradicating all opposition, and one who would mend it by seeking peace… For these two paths that cannot coexist, demons or humans, they're the ones fighting for our clan now."

I saw her grasp her mentor's hand.

"I want to be able to stand with all of you, Hiryuu-oji-san, more than anything… so I can only pray she wins."

"M'lady…" he said, and finally he nodded.

She'll win, I thought, swallowing. Don't you worry about that…

That she had an advantage was clear. Where Neji's form aspired to the likeness of a tengu, Hinata had adapted firmly to the guise of the wolf. He was wirier, faster and sharper, but in close combat he could not best her brute, ferocious and burgeoning power.

There – it wasn't just my wishful thinking to see her with the upper hand. Hinata raked the pair of strong wings Neji folded before him, sending black feathers sailing, until he thrust them out to push her back – and he leapt, spread wings flapping to fling him into the air. He panted, visibly discomfited as he flew up and wheeled to hover some forty meters above the earth. He knew he couldn't tangle with her at close range. Staring Hinata down, he wrought up a smirk.

"Your attacks won't reach me here; unlike me, you're bound to the earth."

He spread his wings, and they began to blaze with a rapidly focusing aura of burning darkness.

"All I need to do now is take you down with my long-range–!"

Rather than listen, Hinata had mashed two fists straight into the earth, a shoulder span apart. Wrenching, she broke a large hunk of stone from the ground, staggered with its weight, and reared to hurl it at an utterly ridiculous speed. Just as Neji was drawing back to fire his attack, the projectile crashed clean into his chest, knocking a bark from his lungs as it shattered and disintegrated against him.

He was reeling, flapping clumsily and coughing – when he detected the adversary before him who snarled with malevolence, brought to his height by a gargantuan leap.

A flick of his wings, and he flitted neatly from the path of her slash. Behind her, he shot to throw his arms around her arms and body, dip backwards, and propel her in a headfirst, spiraling dive for the ground. At the last moment he released her and snapped aside – gliding safely away, while Hinata crashed to the ground.

Shoot! I couldn't see her; Neji didn't need to. Ears twitching as he soared, he tilted back his head as an orb of dark water swirled and condensed before his gaping fangs, and he lurched to fire a liquid bullet that split the air with a crack. It pierced a smoke cloud – and its speed explosively dispelled it, whipping it away to reveal its collision with the center of Hinata's chest, as her eyes lay wide above parted teeth. The water bullet burst, flattening her, and Neji dived to slam a set of claws into and across the forearm she flung before her neck.

"Still not ready to die?" he sneered, grasping her forearms in his hands and lifting a foot to drop into her gut. She gave a cry, and he drew back his fists to pelt her unguarded body with punch after punch, rattling force pulverizing even the earth around her and kicking up dust.

The volleying boom of blows cut short in the instant before Neji was hurled out of the forming smoke cloud, sent shooting back at an angle into the air by a ball of fire spat like a cannon shot at his torso. The speeding, leaden fireball exploded against the figure draped around it; some trace of its heat reached me with its shockwave, brushing my cold face.

With a roar, a bodily thrash, and swinging of long arms Hinata broke and emerged from the rubble she'd been pounded into, pouncing after Neji to seize him in his flight and pin him down as he fell and slid. She lifted her stunned foe by the shoulders to slam him down again, in rage; she lifted both her heavy hands, and crashed them down flat against him. A black wing shuddered, shaping its end into a line – a snake? – that lashed to slip and wind about her strong neck.

She released him in alarm, and he got a foot in her gut, causing her feet to jump briefly from the ground, before raking through the white fur of her belly with clawed toes. Grabbing her shoulder, he bashed his knuckles head-on against her nose and the front of her snout. She loosed a monster's cry of pain, and with both feet driven into her gut he tossed her off of him.

She landed on her backside, but sprang to backflip to her feet as Neji rolled into a crouch. She lunged, and he dodged her slash to shred at her arm with his own claws. She turned to dodge his following strike, and arrested a backhand slash with her forearm placed in the path of his. Curtly she knocked her weight against him, her jolt of force kicking him a few meters, and she continued with her motion to leap forward into a tight heel spin kick, swatting Neji back with the strike at the level of his jaw.

She landed in a crouch, her posture predatory as he fell, and she jumped to land slamming both her feet, all her weight, square into his torso. He grunted, black blood breaking from his lips as his legs flailed in a spasm.

His eyes narrowed as he began to recover – and then they widened, as he perhaps sensed the black-and-white droplets of energy calmly afloat in the air around them.

The energy snapped inward, reabsorbed into Hinata's body, and with concussive force the ground around them dented, forming a crater a dozen meters across as Neji yowled in pain, crushed anew.

"The Weight of Spirit?" Lee breathed.

"Her energy's too heavy for him to escape!" I exclaimed, as Hinata pressed her sturdy right hand to Neji's chest. Bent over him, she held his glare with a threatening growl, her hair raising as he hissed and screeched in outrage, his weak struggles to no avail. Her arm began to give off a subtle but escalating glow, filling with and intensifying her activated spiritual power.

"But how?" Lee said. "The seal formula remains functional through that transformation?"

"I think it'd have to be intact, on the skin under her fur… because it's not an inkbrush sketch anymore," I provided. "It's a tattoo."

"Huh?!" Lee, Hanabi, and Hiryuu said in unison, turning to gawk at me.

The charged blast wave of the Chakra Concussion Blast was unleashed at point blank, decimating an even larger radius of the earth around Neji and Hinata.

Neji's head lay far back, his jaw up as he lay there beneath her, blackened eyes blank.

Hinata leaned over him, her nose almost to his before her steady growl broke into a full and vigorous roar of challenge, from deep in her chest. She loosed another resonant bellow clear into his face, and he did not respond.

Then, in one instant, consciousness sparked into his eyes as he whipped his head straight, chakra procuring liquid, and fired a high-intensity water bullet into her face. She yowled, eyes shut tightly as she staggered back.

"You thought you could beat me this way?!" he cried, rising and stepping to try to spear her heart with a thrust of his claws. She diverted the blow, but he grabbed at her skull from above, fingers lacing over her face and snout and seizing upon fur, so that he could smash the underside of her muzzle down onto his knee. "You think you can win at this game? Huh?!" he yelled, maddened, as he struck again and sent her reeling, blood dripping from her fangs. He prepared and shot another, stronger water bullet; it clipped her shoulder, scattering droplets of black blood with white water into the air at her back. "Fight me with your hatred, and see how inferior you are–!"

She brought a fist that suddenly smoldered with throbbing, shuddering power to his chest, in a hammer-like blow; the punch's force tore at his flesh, sending black blood spraying from rupturing skin on his back. Even as he gasped in pain, a deranged smile shivered on his lips.

"Th-that's it!" he screamed. "Go on – hate me!"

WHAM!

Another hit, under the ribs, breaking his flesh with its colossal power. His eyes tipped upward, watering slightly as his eyebrows knitted… and still he smiled, laughing breathlessly even as he reeled. "Hate me even more, and hurt me like the monster you are – like you always have!"

He was laughing and crying as, while his wounds steamed to heal, she swung hard enough to knock out at least one of his sharp teeth. He was excited. It was inadvertent, when I thought about it, that Hinata was making herself easier for him to hate, providing him some sense of substance for his accusations; from the lifelong target of his hatred, perhaps he could wish for no better than to at last receive true and uninhibited ruthlessness, savagery reciprocated in the place of her earlier sympathy or compassion.

So he was indulging in it, relishing in the suddenly earnest abuse, and experiencing euphoria in justification. Hyuuga Neji had become a creature who survived – perhaps who was only able to survive with his mind halfway intact – by turning whatever self-loathing he felt outward, against a familiar and comfortable target. The more real that target made itself, as an object reasonably worthy of repulsion, the further he rejoiced.

He didn't falter, didn't slip from these heights, even when Hinata's slashing claws struck higher, and gouged clear across his left eye.

He shrieked in pain, fangs bared in a twisted grin as he pressed a hand over that side of his face. Falling to a crouch, he jammed the claws of his other hand against the earth – and ropes of darkness, as snakes, burst from the ground at Hinata's feet, winding about her while morphing into black and dark red-tinged energy chains that squirmed with power. Neji yelled out a shockwave on a foul screech, the force disintegrating the bindings as it knocked Hinata back. He lunged, slashing at her body with the edge of a punching wing.

"Even you're not immune," he seethed in excitement, and his sentence was punctuated by her retaliatory fist across his face. Not missing a beat, he caught himself and lunged to crack an elbow into her stomach, stunning her. "If feels good, doesn't it? Giving in to all that delicious, glorious hate?!"

The tips of razor wings morphed and stretched swiftly into their spearlike form, leaping to pierce and catch Hinata by the shoulders before she could retaliate. He yanked her in and kicked her abdomen harshly, denting firm muscle with a sinking foot to drop her to her hands and knees, strong form and all.

"See?!" he cried, whipping furiously about her shoulders with his wings; they cut and hacked through thick fur, dashing welts into her quivering back. "If we fight with hatred, I WIN!"

Hinata flung forward, plowing the crown of her skull viciously into his gut. Before he could recover his wits she was striking forward with claws; he dodged outside the strike, but failed to escape an explosive punch that connected squarely with his straight nose. The blow had rattled the air; it really got through to him. Staggering back, he took to the skies to flee as she attempted to pursue the attack. Spiraling into the air, he blasted out a roar wave; she dodged by running on all fours, escaping its path. He flew in the direction she sprinted, his wings alight with darkness, and hurled blast after blast of black power down at her; each rapidly thrown scythe gouged the ground at her heels, tearing and hurling displaced earth out into the air as they chased his sought target.

"Sundering FLARE!" he roared, drawing back both wings to sling down an intensified twin attack. Skidding to a halt, Hinata rose to bury two sets of claws in each other's palms and slash to fling eight blades of darkness upward in answer. The attacks clashed and ground against each other in midair before they broke in a flash of light and dark, vivid enough to throw the area, as far as my eyes could see, briefly into harsh contrast.

The light wouldn't have distracted Neji, but the sound of the blasts may well have masked his foe's movements. He didn't notice Hinata until she was practically materializing a ways behind and above him, from another grand leap, her eyes wide with intent and poised claws dripping thickly with her own blood.

She whirled powerfully in her angled descent, bellowing a ferocious howl and crashing into him with the dicing strikes of the Yomikiri Souzenzan. The move's third set of hits, with its slashes of tremendous weight, sent him rocketing down through some forty meters of air and splat into the lake below. The resulting splash of water broke upward to several times his own height, and rained to crash down again.

Hinata landed on her feet, on solid ground, with a sturdy crash, and she raised her head with a gruff snarl to glare after her foe. The calming water's surface stirred; bubbles poked up and popped, and increased in number.

SPLASSH!

The fiend rose spinning into the air, as if catapulted from the water's depths. He reached a great height before powerfully spreading his raven wings, scattering water like sailing drops of light around him. Looking down on Hinata, his nose high, he ducked his head and clapped flat hands together before him.

"Die, you stupid beast!" he screamed, half ecstatic, half in rage, as the water quaked about a wide radius beneath him. I noticed a fine trickle of blood falling from one of the many slashes across his torso, and dropping to splatter into the water. His fanged teeth were bared in a widening grimace, his feathers prickling about his shoulders as his chakra burned. "Suiton…

"Water Flowing Uphill: Ryujin!"

The entire lake's surface quaked with an audible, nameless throb.

Then a line of dark water broke and leapt impossibly upward, in one moment snapping to twenty, thirty meters' height and rising still. The steadily erupting wall of lake water, black with frothing power as it rose in calm yet explosive defiance of gravity or any earthly constraint, twisted lethargically before bending forward, fanning out, and crashing down toward Hinata, rising up in a surging tidal wave as it neared her.

"N-Nee-chan–!"

"We have to move!"

I passed the kid into Hiryuu's reaching arms, and with body flickers, jumps, or in my case a string of Shadow Swaps, both groups of witnesses relocated to the treetops of the nearby forest. Even this height would not have come close to protecting us had we been closer to the source of the wave of torrential destruction; Hinata, wild eyes shocked, had no such options in her immediate vicinity.

So she braced her feet, reared to fill her lungs with air, and blasted the onrushing water with a Beast's Roar Wave, punching into it just as speeding water broke by on either side of her and crashed down; the split tides knit together again in their course a ways behind her back.

"Tackling the threat headfirst, huh?" I thought aloud, face pale as I watched. The wall of water before her, held at bay and diverted aside by the nigh-invisible force of her sustained cry, grew shudderingly nearer to her.

"That lake could never have contained so much water at once," Lee breathed as the field was swamped, and waves crashed and cracked against the trunks a few meters below us. "He can bid a water source to multiply in volume…?"

Hinata was still roaring her defiance, diverting the crashing tides, when Neji amplified and refocused his chakra with a hellish yell, pushing up the attack's already insane intensity against the foe that would not quite be crushed.

Then a stray torrent of the water, which had been swirling closer, tighter, at Hinata's sides and back, whirled to instantly snag her foot in grazing it, its force pulling hard enough to wrench her great form head over heels before she tumbled down into the smashing force of the unimpeded froth that claimed her, and was lost.

One of Neji's Hyuuga, standing in a tree nearby, snorted. "She's done for!"

"No…!" Hanabi whimpered, eyes distraught as they searched the churning currents of waters glistening icy black with power.

My gaze was firm, steady. "The fire may be weak against water… and it's true that it shouldn't reasonably stand much of a chance. But for such a reason as that, would you go so far as to demand that its burning spirit not even try to oppose it?"

The girl choked back tears, ducking her head for the smallest moment. Her whisper was followed by a shout.

"N-Nee-chan… Don't lose–!"

A steaming disc of red light sprang up against the water's surface, slipping and gliding freely in the direction of its flow. Then it rooted itself, and fire surged like lava from the spot, a column of white flame expanding into an aura of blazing chakra in the shape of a monstrous, enormous wolf. Water was cleanly vaporized anywhere it came into contact with the fantastic spectre, sending vortexes of mist rolling profusely from its form.

"People like us have to make our own luck," I murmured, staring on at the great cloak that glowed brilliantly under the stars. "We're not all that gifted, all in all, but we'll use everything we've got – if you can't work around it, you hit the problem head-on and pray it works. Crude or not…" I smirked. "It's a mechanism of survival. It's gotten us this far."

Crouched within the great aura Tenrou's heart was Hinata, with fur ablaze and glowing white, intently gathering a ball of dense chakra in her mouth. The cloak dropped its spectral head as she fired the compacted shot, sending a lancing gush of flame shooting from the white-hot behemoth's gaping maw. The massive blast pierced out its path like a fang through the raging water before curving, arcing through the air, in a straight shot toward Neji.

His focus broke; clear blue again overtook the calming water, the change sweeping rapidly out from directly beneath him. Flying backwards in the face of the grand flame missile, he flapped his wings to suddenly corkscrew in the air, releasing chakra in an intense Torrential Rotation before the scorching blast won out, and spiraling lines of its energy scattered fluidly out from against his flesh before it overtook him completely.

When the plasmic shot faded and cleared, there was Neji – flapping crookedly backwards, arms crossed before his face, charred fur and ragged feathers smoking. The flooding waters had lost force and calmed when he was forced to defend; for this reason Hinata, her aura eschewed, had been able to run along the surface and take a mighty leap.

Neji's blank eye swept the ground, ears twitching before he looked up in shock to spot the figure above him, claws drawn back, at the peak of her leap. She opened her mouth, uttering a long and primal roar as she crashed down against him. Her grabbing on weighed him down, and between his enemy latching onto him and his reflex attempt to right his balance, he could do nothing to prevent her decisively ripping apart the black wing in the grip of her clawed hand.

It was a horrible sound that screeched from his throat as feathers of night, liberated with blood, leapt into the air. As the two began to tumble toward the ground together, Neji reached with talons to land a slash through the thick fur of her shoulders, and used his remaining wing to turn them, orienting himself above her. She reached out to the flailing wing – seized it – and lunged to sink her teeth into the thing, breaking with a crunch and shredding it with a slicing row of fangs. He howled again, and she took the distraction to try to wrestle him beneath her. He fought with beating, tattered wings as both combatants struggled madly for the upper hand. Finally the two landed with a crash on their sides, taking even damage from the long drop.

Pained sounds issued from them both at their impact with the now-shallow water and ground. After a stunned heartbeat, falling and rolling apart, they scrambled weakly away from each other and to their feet. Neji's crumpled wings, feathers sticking out jaggedly and matted with blood, drooped lifelessly behind him, his shoulders hunched as he wheezed a bit; Hinata panted heavily for breath, her ears down, tail down, and shaking stance slack.

"They're nearing exhaustion…" I observed. No matter how strong their bodies, they still had limits, then; the channeling of such immense powers had exacted its toll.

Neji's feathery shoulders shook. "I-I don't understand…?" he rasped. "I don't get this, Hinata!"

They shambled and lunged at each other, clawed hands drawn back as they ran.

"If we're fighting with hatred, I should WIN!"

CRASH–!

Their forearms were locked, each one's claws resting before the other's face. Stance low, Hinata raised her head to look Neji in the eye, and gave a wolfish grin. Her teeth parted carefully, and an awkward but powerful rumble shaped slowly from her throat.

"I, not… ffight w-with… 'hate'."

Neji's eyes grew, in bewilderment.

And Hinata lifted her free hand, and drove her claws, as a knife, deep into the muscle outside her own thigh. Her fingers curved as they sank deeper with a squelch, pushing against splitting, parting, crunching flesh. My stomach shook. Wh…what?!

"Have you finally gone mad?!" Neji cried in disgust, as Hinata shuddered. Her face was twisted in a snarl of pain.

And with a cry she wrenched her hand free with an audible splatter and snap, clawed fingers closed securely around the hilt of a dagger whose keen obsidian blade streamed with her steaming blood.

The New Moon Blade…

Embedded in her flesh… while everything else on her person was torn apart or discarded, she transformed around that thing, integrating it to keep it within her access?!

Shifting her forearm suddenly from against Neji's, she grasped his hand tightly in her own. With their palms together, she drove the glinting dagger into his hand, out of hers, putting it to hilt through them both before he could react. They yowled together. The air around them throbbed; energy crackled with instability over their skin.

As his own scream faded, Neji yelled in outrage, kicking Hinata aside. She landed and tumbled, sprawling, and he grasped the dagger hilt and wrenched it from his hand, sending a rain of black blood splattering to the earth. "Th-this thing…?!" His hands shook; he threw the weapon away with a fearful cry, but as it struck down, streaked with both their lives, it still knew their essence. Energy rose spontaneously, rapidly from the combatants' bodies, loosed only to be torn away and drawn in whirling shreds into the heart of the black blade that drank only Darkness.

"No! Chikusho! Stop…!" Neji fell to his knees, breathless as his power was leeched relentlessly. Hinata sat up wearily, with a groan; her thick fur was matted with blood that pooled beneath her. Her lupine face remained calm and knowing as she watched him panic, and she looked to see her own power slipping visibly away. Neji swore again; his wings stirred feebly, now black and skeletal.

Their eyes grew as the drain intensified, tearing great knots of power rapidly away. Keen teeth clenched, the beast Hinata shut her eyes with a gruff sigh, tipping her head back with a wistful look. Then she opened her mouth, and sent a long and pure-toned howl, powerful and clear, into the heavens.

Light enfolded the enfeebled cousins' bestial forms, thickening until neither one could be seen. An imbalance in the energy left over… Then all that could follow was a collapse.

After several moments the light shattered outward, and vanished. Left in its wake, neither wearing a stitch, were a young man and young woman – two perfect humans.

It worked…

Hanabi blushed, turning her eyes away from them. Though I consciously avoided focusing on certain aspects of Hinata, it had taken only a glance to realize that she lacked her tail and lupine ears.

Trembling on his hands and knees, Neji lifted his head to meet Hinata's eyes with scowling annoyance. Both of them were panting for air. In a moment, he put ragged breath to words. "What'd you… do to us?"

She caught and gathered some breath, an arm across her chest as she sat on her knees. "The goal from the start – to change us back. The blade's induced a New Moon state in us both…" Her other hand brushed idly over her quadriceps, passing over that was already a long, messy, indented white scar. "The Blood Seal Final State is a transformation that could never be achieved during a new moon. But neither you nor I will be tapping into any part of our marks anytime soon."

His scowl deepened. After a pause he spoke. "What now, then? Neither of us can fight any longer…"

She smirked, weary and pale. "What, indeed…?"


Thirty, Part Two: Stand

Neji ネジ

The eye I could see from, at least, had mended enough for me to distinguish shape, color, indistinct figures. Hinata tapped at about her hip – perhaps it held a seal marking, but from this distance I couldn't have said for certain. There was indeed a prompt puff of smoke about where she'd touched, and something dark fell lightly to the ground at her side.

"You don't keep a spare set? Here, then," she said, tossing a piece of the dark thing my way. I tensed only briefly before detecting the scent of cotton. I caught the pair of breeches where I sat, sniffing cautiously before looking up.

She must have noticed my hesitation. "On my honor, there's no trick in it," she said, already in a pair of shorts as she slipped a shirt over her head. With a sigh I shut my eyes, in exasperation, and donned the offered pair of pants, dressing without standing, as was she. It would hardly do any good to turn them down…

They came to my shins, but were large enough if not long. Able to stop flashing everyone, I refocused on the matter at hand. "What now, then?" I repeated. "You were foolish enough to change us both back; am I to believe you did so without some sort of plan? Neither of us can even stand up now."

"Perhaps you'll consider my words now?" she tried, but seemed only vaguely hopeful. Her demeanor was calm. "Look – the smoke has almost stopped rising from the village. With Orochimaru nowhere to be found, which force do you think has won while we've been squabbling out here?"

I frowned. "You don't know that…" But even Uzumaki and Lee, waiting out here in reserve to recover their strength, had not been called upon by their allies to help…

She sent a level glare. "The battle is over; Konoha, victorious. We both have learned things in the course of this fight – about ourselves, and about our identity as Hyuuga. We've seen together through the eye of our ancestors, and seen futures that must not come to pass. But we face a different crossroads now. Under my leadership, the clan will be spared. Under yours, our people will be cast to the wind or persecuted as traitors. Please… let me protect you."

I looked down, seething. Again with this, as the new age beckoned? "I refuse!" I said shortly, and reached out to my side – grasping for the source of a familiar scent. My hand drew my bow from one of the many puddles and pools that now littered the ruined field; I tapped a seal on the smooth wood, summoning an arrow – and cringing at the toll that losing even so miniscule a quantity of chakra seemed to exact.

I notched the arrow nonetheless. "The gods smile upon the destined victor, right?!" I cried. "Look at my great fortune, that the bow of the Clan Head washed up beside me, and tell me that I am not the one destined to triumph here!"

But she did not seem troubled. Rather, she took a steadying breath and planted her palms on the ground. "I thought I'd try convincing you first…"

And she began to rise.

Impossible…

"Wh-what are you doing?" I asked, incredulous. A bead of sweat rolled down from my forehead.

There's no way… she can't…

Naruto ナルト

Of course she can, I thought, grasping at my heart as she got a foot under her. We're watching…

Lee リー

I would expect no less… I beamed. You are like us, after all. So this time, shall I remain content to watch you and smile?

Hanabi ハナビ

One more time… stand up for me – for us – just one more time, Nee-chan.

Hinata ヒナタ

Fight…

I shook with effort. My knee inched from the earth.

Even if I have nothing left…

For everyone watching me…

For everyone believing in me, counting on me…

And for what I must do…!

"Y-you can… still move?" Neji sputtered. I smiled.

"Tell me, Nii-san… How many times have you been beaten senseless… ground to a pulp…"

Faces flickered through my mind – Hoshigaki Kisame. Midori of the Iron Sand. The then-Sound Four. Neji himself…

"…and needed to keep fighting?" I asked, planting my other foot. Neji looked on, appalled, hands shaking on his weapon. It wasn't easy to stand up again – but it was natural, all the same. "How many life-or-death struggles have tested your limits? I'm a regular; Death no longer bats an eye at seeing me stumble near. But what of you, a genius? Have you grown so acquainted to working at Death's doorstep?"

I rose to full height with only a slight sway, resolute.

Neji ネジ

"Damn you!" I cried, as she straightened. What's she going to do?!

Hinata tapped at the nape of her neck, and caught her bow as it popped into existence behind her; I knew her wrist was marked for the summoning of arrows. "This is what it comes down to, Onii-san."

I don't even have enough chakra to activate the Byakugan right now, I thought, barely managing to draw my arrow back steady. But she can't either – so, as we are!

THWNG!

Two arrows sailed, each one perfectly capable of killing its target.

They collided head-on, arrowheads shattering, shafts splitting apart.

And as I summoned another arrow, Hinata was charging toward me. A chill jolted down my spine, even as I drew.

There's no way… I can't stand, but she can run?

–"Physical prowess aside, some would say that the proud spirit of a warrior, the admirable heart brim with courage and valor, is an exclusively inherent trait."–

"Why?! I was born stronger than the rest – I'm the strongest in the Hyuuga Clan!" I drew and shot; she did the same, even as she ran. But I had fired first. Just as her arrow was being let fly, mine sank dead into her bow, striking a pressure line and snapping the thing in two from the tension of its own string. The arrow that grazed my bare arm would be her last…

–"But should one hone and forge the spirit laboriously – should one truly struggle, and crawl brokenly through the muck…"–

"I was destined to join L-Lord Orochimaru!" I screamed, backing clumsily away as she tore forward. "I was destined to free my brethren, and lead the clan into the new age! I was destined to kill you!" This couldn't be happening – but it was, and my younger cousin, a five foot tall girl, was barreling toward me with a strength and intensity I could not pray to return. An arrow drawn back, I shouted wordlessly as I fired.

–"Should one face the world in all its might and cruelty…"–

She reached out, meeting the arrow with the palm of her right hand; it punched through, stopping shy of her face, its length more than halfway through her palm. She did not so much as falter, furious in her intent. "If what plays out must be called Destiny, fine!"

–"…bellow forth a roar of challenge, and beat and weather it back…"–

"Stop boasting Fate's work as it suits you, and accept your destiny to be defeated here!"

My breath caught.

She yelled as she closed toward me, her other hand drawing back as my aching arm drew back a new arrow. Time seemed to freeze for one instant. She was as tired as me, but she could run. There was no way… no way I couldn't manage to stand!

–"…and at last come to stand erect atop it, upon her own two feet…"–

I shoved backward, surging onto my feet with a yell as I reached the full draw.

Hinata tried to beat me to it.

–"Is not such a one equally impressive?"–

THAK…!

And Hinata was halted before me, her head jolting backwards, body rigid, and white eyes shocked wide as my arrow shot from point-blank range into her heart.

My eyes grew.

I…

shot her…

There was a breath of stillness, blood flecking from her mouth and from the arrow embedded in her chest as she slowly, slowly, began to keel backwards.

I blinked, awed.

She dropped a foot back, rearing, and lunged strong and straight – a swung knifehand cracking down through the blocking of the clan head's bow, and her plowed shoulder planting itself so solidly into my abdomen that I could've puked.

My breath cleared out up my parched throat, in one hot, yowled burst, despite the ramming strike's brutish force being centered as low as my navel. As I buckled my eyes were bulging in disbelief, and in the undeniable pain that refuted the very same; my heels were sliding through breaking grass and muck as I was driven back with her.

The girl wrapped her arms around my waist, and in one strong move hoisted me up – clear off the ground, bucking me a few inches upward above her shoulder. My limbs flailed.

She can't…

Hinata ヒナタ

I CAN! I thought, turning around to catch him again as he fell. I dropped forward with him, coiling, directing his fall, and with a yell and all my bodily strength slammed him on his back straight into the ground.

WHAM!

The ground buckled beneath him at the harsh collision; a near-breathless, guttural yell croaked from his throat, shaking.

I fell almost flat across his motionless form, but for turning enough to avoid putting weight on the arrow in my chest, and panted for breath, spent.

It's… done…

But I needed to stand… one last time.

In a minute I rose off of him, getting to my feet, trying to straighten. My good hand clapped onto my knee, catching me as I slumped and shook, coughing.

"H-how're you… alive…?"

His voice was almost inaudible; his eyes were wincing in despair, his teeth bitterly clenched as he trembled, too weak to move a fingertip. When I tried this time, I succeeded in straightening, faint though I was. "You've got fine arrows," I noted, clasping the shaft of the one still piercing me. "And that's… well, it was a fine bow, despite its age. Those are the only reasons this thing almost got all the way through the rib you managed to hit dead-on…"

He tensed with an intake of breath; his eyes rolled back a bit, and shut. "Kuso," he hissed. His brow smoothed as emotion faded from his defeated face. He truly had nothing left to fight with, and he knew it. "Just luck, then… You're really something… Hinata of the Main House."

Pulling, I finally yanked the arrow free with a grunt. Bright spots danced briefly on the edges of my vision. "You're something yourself," I pointed out as my head cleared, and I got to breaking the head of the arrow still sticking through my hand. "You're plenty strong, Onii-san. But I won this time."

"I don't understand…"

"Understand what?"

"How?"

I sighed. "I told you… people can change. Someone once showed me that… and now I've shown it to you."

"We can 'change,' huh…? People like you, perhaps…" He gave an exhausted smile. "But not people like me."

"And why not?" I challenged.

"I tried too hard to change my fate… I didn't want to believe that people could change, even while I struggled so desperately to change myself, to be more than Hyuuga Neji of the Branch. But I was always… afraid. Did I refuse to believe we could change… just for a reason not to feel shame in the event that I myself tried, and failed to? Fleeing fallibility… I didn't want to know it, if even I could be susceptible to failure."

I frowned. How desperate had he been to keep all these feelings at bay? "Neji-nii-san… you were trying to do right at one point, weren't you?"

"But in the end, I only made things worse… so… so… What does it mean?!" he whimpered, distraught. "People like me aren't meant to change what we are, after all…?!"

"No – stop it," I said, slowly shaking my head. "It's not because you were born to the Branch. That was never the issue here! And if you say it, it will only become another excuse. You must not resign yourself to your fear of failure. Forget that fear. We are fallible; we all are. We're animals that do things that don't make sense; we can hurt the ones we love, we can keep loving the ones who hurt us; beyond all reason, we can forgive, and we can't fully understand why. It's one thing that shows that we're human. And facing that inescapable possibility for what it is… that's the only way we can move forward, even stand a chance. That's what I believe…"

"Hinata…!" he breathed. Moisture collected at the corners of his eyes as bloodied lips twitched in pained frustration. Weakly, so weakly, he began to reach upward. "It's true… that all this happened b-because… I wanted… to change…!"

"I'm saying that you can."

The corner of his mouth twitched in an upward tic. "So idealistic…" he remarked, and focus faded from his eye as his hand fell. I dropped, a bit clumsily, to my knees at his side, catching his hand in mine. Even now, after all this, my eyes could only soften.

"We'll figure it out… together, Neji-nii-san."

I looked over at the witnesses, as they returned to ground level. None challenged Hiryuu's words as he spoke, sober.

"Hyuuga Neji is unable to continue. I hereby declare that the victor of this duel… is Lady Hyuuga Hinata."

My lip wrinkled. I looked down at Neji. "Surrender now, Onii-san," I whispered firmly. "Or they will expect me to kill you."

"And will you…?"

"Like hell I will."

A ghost of a chuckle. "The rules are what they are, and you've won. Maybe I'm a sore loser… but nothing makes sense anymore, Hinata."

"Someday, it will. Please… trust me for now."

With some reluctance the stubbornness in his eye slipped away, and was replaced. Acceptance… a muted willingness to allow one chance, one precious chance. His hand tightened feebly on mine. "I… give…"

"You did quite a number on him, didn't you?"

At that smoothly musing voice behind me, I froze.

A bruising kick smashed against my back, sending a yelp from my throat. I heard people crying out in surprise at the new arrival, but was suddenly unable to make out much of anything. The snake's suckerpunch had hit the weak spot at a kidney. Since I had fallen on top of Neji, though, I felt it when my cousin went rigid beneath me, crying out in pain.

It didn't make sense – Orochimaru wasn't supposed to have been able to do what he was attempting for another month at least. But it was happening, and I knew it; I could feel Neji's pain and shock as if it were my own. And with this acute connection ablaze, I threw my arms around him, a cheek pressed to his, and went with the first impulse that sprang to mind.

Soul Link!


Thirty, Part Three: Time of Reincarnation

Neji ネジ

My eyes snapped open with a gasp; I blinked numbly, at the world of darkness around me. "Where…?"

"Kukukukuku… you're in my world now, Neji-kun," he said, fading into existence before me. "You have nothing to fear here…"

"M'lord Orochimaru…?" I murmured where I knelt.

"Relax," he said, smooth voice hypnotic to my ears. His confidence, his poise, was so reassuring in the face of all the confusion from before…

I shuddered, a hand clapping against my face. The village in shambles, homes boarded up, shops closed – shinobi beating the dissenters at a rally – a dead beggar – the anguish in Tenten's eyes – Shino, Ino – gods, why?! – Hiyuki, and… and… "Th-the depths of the w-wrong I've done," I choked. "I cannot fathom…" One more – one more, whom I had wronged so terribly I shuddered at the thought, searching for and fleeing it all at once…

His voice cleared away the franticness of my reeling mind. "Poor boy… You've lost the power to coexist with your vileness, haven't you…?"

My eyes watered, miserable.

"You failed me, yes… but even so," he went on, crooning, "to think you might even consider damaging that which you owe to me…"

Hinata ヒナタ

"Neji!" I cried, so far away. I could see them – I could see them, but the air was heavy, electrical with power thrown about by winds of chaos; the storm surged outward from the two in force, fighting me, repelling me as I struggled on. I fought to draw breath through the blustering gusts, arms raised before my face as my feet tried to slip backwards.

"Nejiiiiiiiiiiii!"

Neji ネジ

"A sound…?" I wondered, but his clear voice snapped my attention back, smoothing the furrow of my brow.

"If you look," he pointed out, "you might come face-to-face with something you wouldn't like to see…"

I nodded, shivering. He alone could protect me…

"That's it, boy…" he encouraged, sympathetic. "You, Hyuuga Neji, are the most vile being. I tried so hard to shelter you from this painful truth, but that loathsome girl selfishly forced you to see and suffer it. But make no mistake – more than anyone, you are wretched."

"I-I… am wretched…?" I breathed, aghast, and my head fell in submission to what could only be true. "I c-can't… change this about me… in all this time, I couldn't change a damned thing…"

"It's too much to face, isn't it…?" He sighed. "You can no longer hide from the truth… but there is one way to escape it. You know what it is…"

I looked up, meeting his golden eyes as they glowed. He offered a pitying smile, his voice like honey and warm.

"Turn your back on this accursed existence, and be reborn."

My brow quivered. "I forsook myself… when I grew accustomed to the road of least resistance. At one time… at one time, I fought alone, didn't I? But I no longer remember it now…"

Anguished, I began to reach out, to take that offered white hand.

"I have hurt the ones around me, the ones I love, without fail. If this repulsive pattern is what I have become, all I have amounted to… if this is Hyuuga Neji's true destiny…"

There was a sound – a clumsy sound, and a breaking wall.

Two arms flung around my middle, in an embrace; warmth was pressing against my back.

"…You shouldn't be here," I said, not needing to look back to know, but at the same time not wanting to know. This person… I couldn't face. I would shatter.

"Don't do this," she said, gentle.

I scowled tensely. It was a precarious ledge I stood on, to face without facing, to speak truths that might at any moment spiral out and destroy me. "I no longer have any desire to hurt you," I said, the words spoken as their truth was discovered. My breath shook in halting confusion at the prospect. "But hurting people is all I do." A contradiction – it was almost too much. I went on, voice blank, not sure how long I could keep this up while everything in me said to run away. "I can't even find the will that brought me this far… so what remains? What have I even been doing all this time?"

Her voice was careful. "Do you realize how much it would hurt me… if you were possessed by Orochimaru?"

She wasn't half as confident, half as certain, as the one standing before me. She was vulnerable…

But because of that vulnerability she was real – sincere.

"Neji-nii-san…"

Her arms, arms that had proven strong enough to support a good punch or heft me off my feet, hung gently around me, so warm. Her next words did something that no number of her apologies or pleas for forgiveness could ever have done.

"I forgive you."

They broke through.

–A four-year-old, knocking down his small cousin… pushing away the last loved one he has.

"H-Hinata?" I breathed, unable to explain the tears that fell from my eyes, or the feeling in my chest. Her forehead was pressing her bangs against my bare back.

"I forgive you. So take the rough path, have a long, harsh life, and live with your mistakes! Please! Live owning up to your wrongs, and mending what can be repaired! And no matter what, I'll stand by you! I'll believe in you, no matter how vile your soul is! So… choose ME!"

"Bothersome pest," Orochimaru spat. "What choice is there for him to make? You needn't suffer anymore, Neji-kun! So why – why would you choose to hold onto your rotten life?"

But I could suddenly see him in a different light, as if the touch of the person behind me were providing me a clearer lens to see through.

This person before me… hadn't I begun serving him under an assumption that he was impossible to stand against? "I don't completely understand," I said honestly, water still running from my eyes. This almost forgotten feeling inside me… I lay my hand upon one of hers against me. "But this person seems to believe my own life has some value, even now…"

There was a smile on my face. This feeling… I was happy inside. Wretched, but by some miracle permitted to experience such an emotion.

"You would trust her over me?" Orochimaru growled. "Damnable FOOL!"

An aura grew to a great size around him and reared – a serpent with bared fangs.

"Don't be afraid," Hinata said, feeling me tense.

The beast lunged and crashed into me, overpowering, searing through my form as it was absorbed. I grunted, teeth clenched. My hand tightened against Hinata's. And a gentleness, permeating, seemed to spread through my willing soul as everything else was tumbling down around us. It was as her thoughts had told me – if I had the will to resist him, he wouldn't win here, not with force.

The oppressive presence was dispelled, scorched away, unable to consume a heart that had been touched by hers.

"What?!" he cried, but his furious efforts to complete the jutsu were in vain. Hinata's spirit was powerful and pure, dazzling, and her strength became as my own. To his disbelief, Orochimaru couldn't so much as touch us any longer. The serpent's aura was blasted away, the man's likeness sent reeling a few steps.

"Now drive him out," Hinata said. "I'm only here through your mind; the choice to break from him must be your own."

My master's eyes were wide as I studied him a moment. I held out my hand. "…Sorry," I said.

We blasted his presence away – and with its departure, the influence of a number of curious, unknown mechanisms and meticulously layered fixtures, so deftly hidden and tucked away, were laid bare and purged from my mind.


Everything, white.

I opened my eyes on an entire world of hazy white, blinking in confusion. Then my eyes widened with all that had been revealed – enough to drive me mad.

No… My hands flew to my face. The lies… "NO!"

A gentle touch met my forearm, my wrist. Her voice was compassionate. "Please don't cry, Neji-nii-san."

I lowered my hands, opening my eyes upon the young woman above me. I wanted briefly to tell her not to look, out of shame. But I realized then that those familiar eyes would not judge me, least of all here in this strange space where we drifted together.

"Don't cry," she repeated, hushed. "You escaped from him; you chose the rough path. You did great."

I started to roll my eyes, but wound up just staring off into space, a halfhearted scowl on my lips. "Why would you chase after me so far? I always wanted to be the special one – the one to break free of my fate, with genius…! I hated you for being content with failure, when I couldn't bear to face my own. Then I hated you for trying to change, when I had already decided such attempts to be worthless. Then I hated you simply for continuing to love me, because my own aptitude for love had perished, so how else could I respond?"

Her eyes were understanding – not pretending to be so completely, but trying, yearning to understand. "And if someone like me could be made to give in to hatred, who, indeed, could blame you?"

"But you're strange, Hinata. You never did fall to hatred, did you? I envied you." More moisture rolled from my eyes. "You were so weak, but I envied you."

She embraced me then, shedding tears. "Neji-nii-san…"

I felt it in us both, in all the space around us – a quiet sense of wondering where we now stood. But promptly her hesitance faded.

"It's okay now; we can figure it out later, so…" Her warm arms tightened softly around me. "I won't let go of you. I promise."

I didn't know whether or not to return the embrace. I smiled soberly, shaking my head. This girl…

My eyes slipped shut.

"A promise, huh…"


I woke with a gasp, and felt the coincident start of the weight lying across me. Hinata shifted, her eyes blinking groggily down at me.

"You're okay," she breathed.

Still a bit dazed, I didn't manage to respond before Orochimaru kicked her off me with a yell. She rolled three times, clutching at her side as she came to a halt; her face was taut with pain. I tried to rise. "N-no–!"

My breath caught.

She mattered… this person's wellbeing mattered to me? But it was true that, at that point in time, I didn't wish to see her come to harm.

But Orochimaru had in mind something else altogether, something entirely apart from harming her further. As I reached out toward her, he stomped on my hand; he glowered down at my cousin, a piercing, critical gleam in his eyes.

"A flawed body," he spat, "but you'll have to do."

His chakra flared, and Hinata's eyes went round and bank.

My heart missed a beat.

K-kuso!


Hinata ヒナタ

He nearly got me.

My guard was down, and I was mentally fatigued. But the moment Orochimaru's presence flooded my mind and swept to consume me, four others rose up in my defense, retaliatory – four rays of light, the strength of their will knocking the closing darkness away.

"Heh? Even we can do this much now, it seems…" The ring of light around me separated into four distinct masses; one of the flickers took the shape of Kidoumaru, a grin growing discernible as he looked back at me and took form.

"How's that for a contingency plan?" Tayuya spat haughtily, her eyes combatively intent on the circling, rolling masses of darkness around us. "FXXX yeah!"

"You nearly let yourself get caught," Jiroubo chided, his nose wrinkling.

"I'm sorry," I said, gathering myself. "But you were looking out for me, weren't you? I can't thank you enough."

"Don't sweat it, Taichou-chan," Sakon jeered, taking shape with Ukon's head protruding from his back. "We have a mutual agreement, after all."

I nodded, eyes stern as the darkness shaped into a snake, and then sleekly withdrew, transforming itself into Orochimaru. He took a step back, scowling.

"Leaving so quickly?" I asked, stopping him cold. "You carelessly connected our minds, even knowing mine might be more powerful than yours. You're desperate, aren't you?" I asked, applying enough mental pressure to make the typically collected snake sannin cringe.

"Insolent brat," he hissed, squirming. "How dare you…?!"

"How dare I?" I asked bristling at the nerve of him. "This is what it feels like, when you trample over people and violate their minds. I don't care how insignificant or harmless you suppose I should be; this is a contest of power, so I won't hesitate to hit you with all I've got. And what about you? Your current body has reached its limit, right?"

He didn't answer. My pressure drove him to his knees.

"Fighting Tsunade-sama and Jiraiya-sama, Anko-sensei and Shikamaru-kun, and…" Another was found in his mind – a man perhaps similar in age to Sandaime-sama, his face half-concealed by bandages, an old scar on his chin. I knew, suddenly, that councilman Danzo lay dead in the remains of a half-destroyed Hokage tower.

I blinked. "So you've been hiding away all this time to lick your wounds and restore as much of your chakra in as possible in a short time. Meanwhile, Neji-nii-san and I healed most of the injuries from our fight while in our ultimate blood seal states; our exhaustion at this point is in chakra depletion and mental fatigue. So if you were to take one of our bodies, you might manage to fight at nearly full strength immediately…" It made sense now.

"Hinata?" Sakon asked, eyeing my clenched teeth.

"I can't hold him here for much longer…" I raised my head. "But it doesn't matter. He already knows… that with his current body's condition, he won't stand a chance against the fellows rushing toward him right now."


Orochimaru shuddered, shaken by the harshness with which the Four and I repelled him. Then he leapt over the sweep of a naginata at his ankles as Naruto flowed onto the scene. The blond rose smoothly, levering the blunt end of his staff up into the sannin snake's skull.

The man landed and rolled onto his feet, warily glaring the blond down – and he ducked easily from the path of an invisible Shadow Strike, of the naginata's blade. He dodged another curt move, and smirked.

"That won't work on me a second time, tiny kitsune. I see through your technique; your movements lay bare the course of the clones' attacks, and if you don't move, the kage bunshin will need to exist long enough to create their own momentum after appearing, right?"

"You've seen through that one, huh?" Naruto said, a cold edge in his voice. But he didn't lose his cool; rather, he stowed the naginata on his back and stood tall, back straight and arms crossed.

"Standing still…?" Orochimaru wondered. Naruto shut his eyes, but his posture told of the acute alertness contained within his aura of calm.

That stance is!

"You think I'll let you enter Sage Mode?" the snake scoffed. He stopped short of attacking the blond, however, when he perhaps detected the silent warrior flowing into being at his back, eyes intent, hand clenching smoothly on a katana's hilt. A flash of arcing steel, a jerk of evasion. Lee's sword was in its sheath before Orochimaru's shoulder spat crimson from a lengthy, but shallow, gash.

Landing, Lee grasped the hilt of his other katana as the man turned to face him. The swordsman leapt forward, and his form blurred with foul energy as he slashed and thrust with dizzying swiftness. Orochimaru avoided the strikes, and sent five snakes hissing his way as Lee sheathed his blade with a sure clang.

Violet chakra washed through the air, and five snakes exploded.

Orochimaru turned his head toward Naruto – Naruto, still with his arms crossed, still motionless, but blonde spikes splayed with splashes of color. Then stunning violet eyes opened, accentuated by the orange markings above them but bearing a laterally elongated pupil across a slit one.

And the sannin Orochimaru was thrown backwards off his feet with a crack.

It was as though an uppercut of immense strength had collided with his jaw. Naruto, however, had moved not a muscle.

"Stay back," I said, as Hiryuu began to pass by me. My eyes were wide; there was no mistake.

Just how far have you advanced in the hours we spent apart?

Hiryuu's rushing form halted, and Hikujaku followed suit. They and Neji's trio of witnesses, flickering to the scene, now stood before Neji and I, roughly fanned out in our defense. Hiryuu eyed momentarily the Hyuuga who indeed still wore New Sound's insignia; then his focus returned to Orochimaru. The sannin had staggered, but kept his feet. Now holding the still, icy gaze that Naruto fixed him with, he tensed.

"Kageken: Zen Stance."

And the man was thrown again, by the great momentum of an emerging, briefly extant clone that flowed on the attack. Naruto's physical motionlessness mattered not, if he had the ample supply and intensity of chakra provided by the Nine Tailed Fox to exude into the air, dispersed to balance against the natural energy of his surroundings. He thus twisted natural energy in the air about his foe, commanded and molded it within a certain range outside his own body, and produced choice shadow clones as but a nexus, a conduit or vessel through which free Nature Energy attacks were focused.

But I knew this only from his own then-conceptual description of its workings, one afternoon of catching up and sparring. For as the Demon Illusionist stood with a slight scowl of concentration, arms folded and sharp eyes coldly focused, and his victim was tossed rapidly to and fro by throbbing, blurring air, he seemed to the observer to be punching Orochimaru with his mind.

A harsh volley of strikes ended with a clone that materialized sweeping smoothly downward in an axe kick from above. It smashed Orochimaru into the earth before the dense chakra hanging in the air, hanging under the control of Naruto's unparallelled concentration, shattered and dispersed as Naruto ducked his head with a grunt. This combat stance was a unique one, in that he could continually gather Nature Energy while fighting in it. Even so, as he was the mental fatigue that using it for any extended duration imparted on him was great.

Orochimaru's hands flashed through seals, and a blast of mud shot from the earth and straight toward Naruto. Near me Hiryuu thrust out a palm, with such precision that the Vacuum Palm that went lancing into the attack burst against it and blew it back. Naruto frowned at Orochimaru, contempt in his voice.

"This is as far as you go," he said. "You can't beat us all, in the shape you're in."

Orochimaru scowled. "This body does grow weary," he groaned, in mock-dismay. "To think that even my Neji-kun would reject me, after all this time…"

I glowered. "I saw your tampering all over his mind. You wanted to keep him close, but your mistake was in trying to put Hyuuga Neji in a cage. All you did was guarantee he'd choose me!"

"You think you've won?" Orochimaru asked, furious.

I held his golden eyes. "Neji-nii-san," I said, "They'll keep us safe. For now, I want you to see it – the rest of our clan's 'future'."

My cousin met my eyes as I looked toward him. In a moment I felt him acquiesce, and the picture sprang to envelop the eye of our souls.


The fall of Sand, at the hands of the Snake and the hordes who obey him.

On the next full moon, Cloud follows; twenty-eight nights later, the conquest of Stone. Waterfall gave in without a fight; Grass was wiped off the map by our forces. Mist's surrender seems imminent.

But this new age's glory is lost on a clan at a fraction of its former strength; the battles are endless, inescapable as their demented survivors' own growing hunger for human blood. The white-eyed menaces – though now along with the freshly reanimated, drawn from friend and foe alike – are without fail the first wave of attack. They deal horrifying damage, suffering whatever losses the enemy can manage to deal in return – before the New Oto Empire's shinobi are dispatched to silence the shaken foes who remain.

A week before the full moon; the Bloody Mist has not responded to the offered demands. A show of force may be required after all.

In the empire's Land of Fire capital, Hyuuga Hajime and a dozen others, a feral, ragged look perpetually about them, confront the one, the transcendent being known only as the Shadow. He is in his laboratory, as he so often is, absorbed and frenzied with his ongoing research in multitudes of ever stronger ninjutsu.

Insisting that they are men, not beasts; pleading that they have contributed enough in conquest and sacrifice to New Oto's rise to power; that so few of them remain, and that the empire's great number of shinobi ought be plenty to defeat the last resistance in the Godaikoku.

These points are acknowledged as valid. Sighs of relief; it had been so hard to even verbally challenge him this way.

The group follows obediently as Lord Kage leads them back to the surface, to the center of a village in disrepair. A great bell is ringing, its toll summoning the uniformed citizenry from their homes.

The grand Kage, his body as of yet still that of Hyuuga Neji, publicly thanks and honors the Hyuuga's warriors for their valiant service to the village and the uniting world. He announces their honorable discharge from active duty.

And he forms a seal, causing them to cry out in pain, grasp at their necks, and fall to the ground. The alarmed spectators know better than to look away. The screaming does not subside until the last of the band of fiends has been sent along to Hell.


"No!" he cried, as we returned to reality.

"That's the last of it," I said. "I'm sorry. But he means to enslave and weaponize us, Onii-san. All of our clansmen."

"It's not true!" he protested, shaking his head. "With my own hands, he would…?"

Orochimaru flicked up two fingers, causing the ones before us to flinch. But I knew what he planned, and Neji did not want to believe what he planned, in the instant before the man snarled in outrage and tried to kill us both.

With my lifeline to Houkou, the attack to my mark bounced away, barely noticeable, as Neji screamed aloud.

"O-oi!" Hikujaku cried in bewilderment, resisting an urge to turn and keeping his eyes on Orochimaru.

I lunged to grasp Neji's hand.

He grasped back, taking my hand even if only as an alternative. In that moment he was realigned.

With a grunt, I found and thwarted Orochimaru's attack. "Spiteful bastard," I growled – but I paused, as Neji's relaxing grip on my hand reaffirmed itself with surprising strength.

"What is this?" he muttered slowly, head down. "That future, that, with my own hands… I've become all that I hate…?"

"Neji?" I said, cautious as he rambled hoarsely on. "Can you hear me?"

"'I will drive this clan to Hell'?" He shook his head again. "I don't get it. But it comes to my understanding that a power matching that of the juinjutsu is contained in the Blood Seal, and he holds control over it…"

Orochimaru's eyes shifted. Neji's lips twitched.

"…The seal that I… spread to…?"

Neji's witnesses went rigid, beginning to buckle. But before I could blink, his hand slipped from mine; before they could scream, Neji was flinging himself toward his former master with a truly clumsy yell of enmity, his eye wild.

With his nails barely managing to half-transform into claws, I had to wonder if the pathetic strike could have broken skin even had it hit. As it was, Orochimaru caught his hand with a look of surprised annoyance and effortlessly twisted his arm behind him. If the snake wasn't at a hundred percent, Neji was at less than five. Though the man had broken from his handseal, he held Neji firmly as he backed away a few steps, lifting a hand in signal.

When a few dozen shuriken flew toward the lot of us, it was all I could do to hit the dirt. It wouldn't have mattered; I looked up at a clang to see that Naruto had moved to cover me. And in front of him…

"Y-you three?!" Naruto asked suspiciously of Neji's witnesses; deflected throwing stars littered the ground at their feet.

"What do you stupid mutts think you're doing?!" The speaker was an Oto ANBU captain who flickered in across from them, two more shinobi at his sides. Before Lee, Hikujaku, and Hiryuu, in defense of Orochimaru, two similar groups of Oto-nin appeared.

"No harm shall come to Hinata-sama," one of the Hyuuga said, a cold glint in his eye. At his side, another nodded once in agreement.

"-Sama?" I wondered, baffled. More importantly, there were six more enemies between us and Neji, who was still in Orochimaru's clutches. My teeth clenched. I need to fight, as well!

"Hinata," Naruto said, finding the path of my gaze. "Don't worry. I'll – er, maybe we'll – handle it."

"New Sound traitors," the ANBU said in disapproval, but I knew the Hyuuga's change of heart ran deeper than any feelings of allegiance for either village in this war. That was the troubling bit…

"Oi! And who said you have to be New Sound to be a traitor?!"

"You guys?" I asked as the once-Sound Four joined Naruto's side. "What about the guard at the shelters?"

"Everyone made it there safely," Sakon said. "Your raccoon friend and the others have the guard under control."

"But it's so quiet up there," Kidoumaru groaned. "We figured we'd come where things are more exciting – Cap'n."

"Sorry," Jiroubo said, as the power of their marks began to unfold. "But all we know how to do at this point is follow. And if we have to follow someone, then…"

"We made a good enough choice in you, it looks like," Tayuya said. She glanced at Naruto. "Trust me – we won't let the girl die. No one gets near her."

"Okay," he said. He looked to me, nodded – and leaped, Shadow Swapping across the group to kick at one of the foes before Lee and the others.

His attack was blocked – barely – with a crack.

Both sides charged, and chaos ensued.


Neji ネジ

I broke away with a yell, rounding on the man and raising my fists in a stance, panting. I didn't have the strength for the Byakugan or Juuken; I couldn't awaken my mark. But I snarled, boiling blood shaking me as I glared the man down. Why…?!

He shook his head, chuckling; even in all this, amid the fighting around us, he took amusement in my quivering outrage. "And after all my care to sculpt you… how much do you know now, Neji-kun?"

"More than you'd like, I'm sure," I spat acidly, and leapt to throw a punch. He evaded with painful ease, his cold hand grabbing my arm to lightly fling me past him. I staggered, struggling just to keep balance, and growled again.

"Why?! Why would you do this to me – to the Hyuuga? Why leave a kill-mechanism in the Blood Seal?!"

He smirked. "You're as much a genius as I, Neji-kun," he noted, golden eyes pitying as they took me in. "That's why I bound you to me with the Blood Seal… You obsessed with the power it offered you, remaining none the wiser as it corroded your soul, twisted your will…"

His hand flashed out, catching my fist before him with a smooth clap. "Sasuke-kun presented a similar risk, but with a simpler solution," he said, putting pressure on my hand as I struggled. "If with my training he were to succeed in killing Uchiha Itachi, he might not only eliminate one of my enemies, but agreed to allow me to claim him as a vessel without resistance. But in all honesty, my faith in Sasuke-kun's success was none too great, and I would have no need for an ultimate vessel weaker than Itachi himself. That's where your body, with its strongest Hyuuga blood, enters the picture," he noted, and dropped me with a harsh kick to the side.

I scowled, curled up on the ground. "Y-you don't mean… that w-with the Byakugan, as a foil to the Sharingan…?"

He smiled, madness shining in his eyes. "Sasuke-kun would get his chance to prove himself more suitable, but in the event of his failure, a contingency plan was necessary. With your eyes that pierce illusions, I would defeat the weakened Itachi myself, and claim the ultimate prize I sought from the beginning…"

"So you would pit the Uchiha against each other, and claim the stronger?"

He nodded as I began to rise. "But you," he went on, "you have something else that Sasuke-kun lacks. A clan plentiful in number – the most populous in the village – and willing to follow you. The Blood Seal truly was the proper mark to bestow upon you. Is it not reasonable that I should like to have a means of controlling the only clan to possess a dojutsu capable of countering the eyes I will wield in my ultimate form?"

I grimaced in rage, recalling a glimpse of that future – a glimpse of a clan tragically diminished in number. "'Controlling us," I asked, "or killing us off?! Orochimaru!"

He gave me a curious look. "Hm? Where I could simply massacre them, I found a use to be made with their lives. Freedom, lives of short-sighted happiness, and deaths with purpose – have I not granted you all that you asked?"

"I was willing to sacrifice myself alone to your cause, damn it!" I attacked, again and again, as he evaded every swing. "I believed you! I believed that once your vision was attained, the rest I left behind would know true happiness!"

"And be able to smile?" he scoffed, whipping out a kunai. He sliced my shoulder as I tried to lean away. Still I pressed on, blindly.

"So instead, as your military experiment…" I paused, disgusted. "You were already throwing every rounded-up dissenter sent for 'correction' to them, to my Chosen, on the full moons. In secret, you were already building up their taste for human flesh…!"

He smiled devilishly. "You didn't like the idea then, either," he tutted, "so I made you forget, and all was well as the carnage in our dungeons continued. But you were my special monster, of course; I let you grow dependent on the anti-transformation pill–,"

"Neglecting to reveal that regular transformations and hunting would benefit my stability? Right?"

He only chuckled at the accusation, taunting and bitter. "You act as though I've betrayed you. But you always served me, for our mutual benefit as you saw it, in your noble endeavor to free your kinsmen. Pitiful child. Did you humor it, in the back of your mind, that the sensei I was might have come to see in you any more than a means of furthering my own ambitions? Even knowing better, did you not seek and cling to me over time, in the vague hope that I might assuage the festering vacancy that Hyuuga Hizashi left in your life?"

My eyes grew. "I'll… I'll KILL you!" I roared, throwing myself forward again.

"Unstable, even now," he hissed, blocking a punch and throwing a jab of his own, catching me in the ribs. He was shameless. "You were smart – so smart, you see?! It was necessary to unbalance you, to ensure you would submit to me when I pleased. I would never have tampered carelessly; no detail was spared, for you. A few modified memories, some tweaking your aptitude for the retention of new memories, some impairment of your faculties for concentration and reason to increase your dependence – an instilment encouraging feelings of reverence, loyalty, and trust to arise at the sight of me and the sound of my voice–,"

My eyes were wide as I backpedalled, struggling to avoid his attacks.

"It was brilliant! You were my finest work!"

He slugged me in the jaw, ending the trade of blows and sending me stumbling to the ground. I remained there, panting, my hair falling in my face.

"You're no different," he said. "When people can control others, they do. The Blood Seal took root, and you instinctively spread its influence, consolidating your power and followers. You get one taste of power, and you lust for more."

"I'm n-not… not like you…"

"Perhaps not – you are not so graceful about your acquisition of power, your exertion of control. Your purpose was smaller, pale beside the extent of my own; this is why you could never quite become more than one who is used. So use you I did, and did so well. You seek now to oppose me, Hyuuga Neji? This is the clumsiest act of all. For after all the effort I've put into preparing you, you are fit for nothing, no other purpose or path, than to become my vessel. You would struggle to live out your despicable life, as the ungraceful, broken creature you are?!"

"I don't care about my goddamned life!" I yelled, sweeping a kick at his ankles. I rose as he jumped to evade, and struck again at my master, breath burning through my throat as fists clashed between us, like and unlike so many sparring sessions. "But you won't get these eyes, or my clan! They will never be yours! However ungraceful we are, it's you who depends on us. So without either me or Sasuke, all your grand designs end here–!"

Fwoosh!

I ducked under the path of the flung knife; it sailed over my shoulder.

I blinked, my uninjured eye growing at what it saw.

Ah… he's actually very angry about this, after all…

I was pleased, in a small, sick way, that I had through all his taunting hit the nail on the head, and put such a look on his face – the last one I would ever see.

Then the knife in his hand, whistling forward into my move, slashed my remaining eye through.


Naruto ナルト

I leapt, spinning, into the air as Lee reached up, in request; his hand seized firmly as I swapped to place my ankle in his grasp. The kage bunshin I left behind transformed into a great kanabō, an iron club solid with sage chakra, as I landed twenty meters away again, and Lee's onrushing opponent was soundly crushed by a downward swing.

Now the others, I thought, turning to look at the scattered foes Hiryuu, the other Hyuuga, and the Now-Leaf Four still fought.

When she touched my arm I first whirled, stopping an inch short of bringing the staff into Hinata's skull. She blinked, barely having flinched; her eyes were frantic.

"We have to help him!"

I scowled. A ways off, there were Neji and Orochimaru; Hinata's cousin had been blinded, fresh blood running brightly down his face, but still he fought, too dense to tell that Orochimaru was toying with him or too mad to care. He struck on sound or smell, swinging with surprising energy as Orochimaru danced from his furious attacks.

"Baka," I spat under my breath. "After all that about how the weak should lie down, huh?" But my brow was furrowed, as my mind raced. That idiot mattered to Hinata whether I liked it or not, and his master needed to die – that was more than enough for me to act.

What was the best way to take Orochimaru down? It had to be in one shot, or he would slip away like before. I looked to the two on either side of me.

I held my hand out. "Lee." With his speed, I could condense more power into it…

"Right," he said, hands darting, flying, to tap my outpouring chakra with his own. He couldn't add much chakra, but sure enough, I was able to input far more energy than would normally have been possible to shape and control. The sphere in my hand hummed, glowing with intensity as I began to inject wind chakra into its structure.

"I can add this much," Hinata offered, reaching out at my other side. "Will you be able to take it?"

"We will," I said.

Her shaky palm rested over the so carefully contained orb of power, and emitted a flicker of pure fire chakra into its heart. Lee and I worked to contain it as the sphere jumped in intensity, and Hinata, teeth clenched, mustered enough Fire chakra to balance efficiently with the wind it so eagerly partnered and reacted with.

A perfect fit, in the end

"It is working," Lee murmured.

"Looks like it," I agreed.

"Then, it's…" Hinata began, trailing off. Lee nodded as our eyes met, before we looked forward at our distant target.

"Great…!"

"Fuuton!"

"A-and Katon…"

"Rasengan!" we said, together.

My foot ground down, and with my weapon in hand I dashed forward.

"I can handle it, guys! I know what I need to do!"

Orochimaru and Neji still danced in enmity; the snake punched him across the face, sending blood bursting from Neji's lips.

"Low-born cur!" Orochimaru was shouting, striking at the hapless fool again. "I would have given you everything! A Hyuuga clan free from oppression! A legacy of glory!"

Neji deflected the hand that thrust a knife; the kunai was buried in his shoulder, and violently withdrawn.

"AND THIS IS HOW YOU REPAY ME?!"

He was stunned and off-balance, as the knife closed for his heart. He wouldn't succeed in defending himself again.

And I realized in that moment a new power I suddenly held, as I ran – the power to let Hyuuga Neji die.

–"How would you like a lesson in subjugation, Uzumaki?"–

My eyes widened.

Taunting me, groping her breast– "Is this yours?"–

–"Scream for him to save you!"–

Tormenting the one I hold dearest–

In a monstrous form, crushing her bones to make her scream–

I nearly stopped.

Then, lunging to within my range, I substituted with the guy.

He was too weak to block the forced kawarimi swap. He was deposited twenty meters behind me as I lunged, thrusting forward with the power entrusted to me. The fantastic Rasengan cradled in my hands met Orochimaru's knife, and the Rasengan won. The kunai was violently disintegrated, torn sparking from his hand and whipped rapidly about the Spiraling Sphere before it was expelled as hot iron dust.

Orochimaru's eyes grew in the moment they could. It was disorienting, I could imagine, to go from launching a killing strike to receiving one in the blink of an eye; if nothing else, Neji's rebellious fit had done a fine job of making the normally poised sannin lose his cool.

The hit was direct, driven into his gut with a crash. It tore at his robe, bored and shredded at his flesh, as whirling, resonant power churned in the air about us, deafening. My teeth clenched.

The man gawked at me, appalled, as his slit golden eyes lost focus. He scowled in outrage, teeth parting in horror as the Rasengan continued to blast at his torso.

"Damn you… Minatooooo–!"

"Hyaaaaaaaaaaaah!" I cried, and with a final shove the white-hot Rasengan burst from my hands, launching him back. Orochimaru's body was draped around the shooting sphere, spinning through the air, as a vortex of wind trailed in its wake. It gleamed, shrank, and faded – and then exploded, drowning the area in light.

My arms trembled, and fell. I panted for breath.

"It's… o-over."

The scourge who had taken root in our home, who had driven the Leaf to the brink… that Rasengan's power, our power, had reduced him to a bloody smear on the ground. The decision I had made, in that one moment, was not a decision to save Neji, but to either kill Orochimaru or to take an opportunity to effectively kill Neji through inaction, and potentially escape blameless; the choice I had made, in any case, was one kill I might never regret.

Hiryuu was flickering in beside the remains, checking, but I already knew. In a moment his Byakugan eyes turned to me.

"W-well done, lad…!"

Orochimaru was dead. I killed him…

"That chakra… U-Uzumaki?"

I looked back at Neji's dull mutter; he was on his backside, facing this way and looking confused. Studying him, I sighed. It had been the right choice. I'd done enough killing today, and besides…

"Maybe you're more trouble than you're worth…" I swapped to his side without looking at him, but felt that I'd caused him to start. My hands slipped into my pockets as I continued past him, walking on by. "But Hinata cares about you." I paused. "If you died… she would cry, y'know?"

His parted lips pressed together. His head fell to the slightest degree, and turned away. "So I should live, huh…?"

I looked back toward the others; the fighting around us had ceased. As I met their eyes, the remaining Oto-nin began to back away – and turned tail, fleeing.

"Hold it!" Lee cried.

"No," Sakon cautioned, his voice stopping the younger man before he pursued. "I doubt they intend to fight anyone else. They've witnessed Orochimaru's death; let them bring word to their comrades. Given such a situation, all they can do is surrender…"

I sighed, and fell onto my rear. "It really is over… The battle's over. The village is ours again!"

Lee smiled, refreshed. Hanabi, supported by Hitaka, and Harumi were beginning to approach the lot of us. Hinata knelt at my side, grasping my hand; her tired eyes were warm, loving.

"Thank you, Naruto-kun," she said, tenderly, and I wondered whether she had seen me waver. I was suddenly ashamed. After all the effort she'd put out for him, that I had honestly considered letting that happen, intentionally… I made the right choice. Definitely.

"A…yeah," I said nonetheless, scratching my head and cracking a smile under the appreciation on her face. Before I could think about claiming her lips, though, she was rising again.

I watched her go to check on Neji. Her older cousin sat on his knees, his head back so that his sightless eyes were turned toward the heavens. He was in his own world.

"I should live…?"

Hinata stopped next to him, stern but patient. "Yes."

He turned his head a bit toward her, slowly, and gave a small laugh. "You never could let go of the past, and the way things once were, even after all this time… but I'm a monster now, Hinata. My purpose was a lie; as he said, I have no place anymore. The only surety is that my existence will plague this world, and poison the fates of those around me. My life has degenerated into a curse, some cruel being's great joke to play on the world. It's gone more than far enough. The only thing clear to me, now… is that I screwed up. There's no going back, for people like me."

"No," she said adamantly, surprising him. "No matter how many wrong turns you take, I'll light the way back home again. So long as you're feeling that remorse, and suffering for every wrong, there's still hope. I thought it might be so, when I saw there were things you weren't willing to forsake, and with the chance that even the smallest part of you sought your demise, whether out of shame for your wretchedness or for the good of the clan."

"So you wouldn't have killed me, even if I'd wanted you to?"

"Because you might have wanted me to. We're connected; we both must live, or we both must die. I would have died with you, if there turned out to be no hope at all; but if your desire for death meant you hadn't fully embraced your vileness, I was willing to pray it was a sign that you hadn't completely lost your past self. That's what I had to confirm as we fought, and it's why I was able to keep going. Maybe it's selfish, but I…" Her gaze swept to her sister, to Lee – to me. She blushed. "I do have things I'd like to live for, as well; I would prefer to live. So I fought to confirm it before I decided whether to fight for our lives or to see that we died. And I'd do it again. So long as there's still one ounce of hope, so long as you don't become a threat to the people around you and blow the chance you and I both are living on, I'll use everything in me to bring you back."

His lip wrinkled. "Just by willing it…? Heh. I guess… when you channel all your effort into a goal, your determination is not to be trifled with. Not even by the hands of Fate… So your determination for me was stronger even than his, in the end…"

"Maybe…" she said. "But it's time you stopped letting yourself be carried along all the time, like a Leaf in the wind. My choice for you was there as an alternative to Orochimaru's, and I'm glad you picked it. Now you need to make your own will for yourself, and follow it. I'll help you along if you stumble, and I might just need to smack you into line if you trip, but you have the power to write out your own path this time… that's what I'd like now, Neji-nii-san.

"Hinata…"

She touched his arm, near his wrist. Understanding, he took her hand willingly, and let her help him to his feet. Overhead, more clouds were breaking. With their hands clasped between them, Neji managed the faintest smile toward his younger cousin.

Understanding… In seeking justification and hatred, all this time, had he wanted not to be apologized to, but to be understood? And you saw it, before anyone

"How about that…" I said to myself, and I couldn't help a smile of pride. With her own power, salvaging the damned…

"Never again suppose that something cannot be done," Lee mused, smiling.

Hanabi and the others had joined Hiryuu nearby; the girl's face was softly awed, her eyes alight with precocious insight.

"Remember this moment," she said. "The Sun has returned, to cast its light again upon the Hyuuga Clan."

The Hyuuga around her listened to the child, as if it were the most natural thing; Hiryuu, eyes still on the two cousins, shook his head in disbelief. "He was meant to be damned," he wondered, troubled. "Hikaru-sama said it – 'He has chosen Destruction, whether at the hands of the Savior or the Snake.' That he could live…?"

"We missed the truth. The destruction chosen by his actions…" Hanabi paused, squinting briefly in thought as it fell into place. "It was the clan's, not his own. His victory or his death, under those circumstances he created, would have heralded just that, but Nee-chan…" Her eyes warmed. "She did her part after all, the part only she could play. My fool big sister saved us all."

Calm at last found its way to her faithful guardians' features, in relief. With their lady's words they seemed reassured, somehow, that things might truly be okay.

If only it were so simple. Alas, the new arrivals now crossing the field toward us had something else in mind entirely.


Hinata ヒナタ

I heard Lee give a murmur of question a ways off; I saw Neji's ear give the slightest quirk before his head rose.

I turned around to see the new group of Hyuuga approaching, their sandaled feet splashing through the saturated, muddied field with their purposeful pace. In the lead, his head held high and long gray hair flaring in the bitter breeze, a wakizashi sheathed at his hip, was the oldest of them all.

Neji grasped my arm, his low voice soft. "What is it?"

"It's… our grandfather," I said, brow furrowed. The Hyuuga head preceding my father. "He's got a dozen more clansmen with him…" From those I could recognize, the group consisted of remaining Hyuuga of the Main House's council, and a few of the Branch with whom I'd known them to be closely affiliated.

Why would such a faction be here now? Had some among them been observing from afar, and known when the battle had ceased? I had a bad feeling about this.

I stepped in front of Neji, and bowed my head uncertainly. "Ojii-sama," I greeted, wary but clear, as they came into easy hearing range. Without question, they were heading straight for Neji and I, and still with those disconcertingly purposeful strides.

Grandfathers' weathered visage was grim, but stern. They were still walking when he gruffly spoke, eyes narrowed. "Step away from your cousin, Hinata."

There was nothing I could quite do but obey, even baffled by his demeanor. I took a step aside as they were reaching us, and at his nod one of the Hyuuga striding at his side swept forward and unceremoniously kicked Neji in the gut.

I gave a shout of protest as he dropped, but it all happened so quickly. Before I could get back to him, two more had lunged to overtake me, grabbing me by the arms and around the waist and pulling me back again. I saw hands grabbing Neji's arms roughly, hoisting him up and twisting one behind him; it was savagely methodical. Someone took hold of his hair to tilt his head harshly far back.

And Ojii-sama's ceremonial wakizashi came unsheathed with a hissing sigh, and was brought to Neji's exposed throat.

"NO!" I bellowed.

CLOK!

I didn't even look at the man my elbow had sent sprawling to the ground behind me. Partially freed, I tried to move toward them again, dragging my captor forward with mad and flailing strength, but two more of the Hyuuga hurriedly caught me, taking extra heed to secure my arms. My eyes were wild.

"What is the meaning of this?! Ojii-sama!"

He eyed me with distaste, startled at my behavior; his blade's edge still rested dangerously against the pale, almost translucent skin of Neji's throat, just beneath his jaw. Even in my exhaustion I thrashed against the ones restraining me, momentarily lifting one of the men off the ground. Ojii-sama's scowl grew, and I fought to suppress the snarl beneath my wrinkled nose. My heart was hammering. He had no right!

"Be calm, Hinata! You did well enough in defeating him," the old antique said, "but it is surely out of a misguided sense of mercy that you did not finish the job. This boy nearly plunged our clan into chaos. He is a traitorous wretch who has consorted with and served the Leaf's enemies, and brought down shame upon the name Hyuuga! Reparations are at hand."

"He isn't a threat to our way of life anymore!" I argued. "No more so than I! You can't do this!" My eyes cast about for help as I struggled in vain. Hiryuu and the others would not interfere with Ojii-sama's will; Hanabi didn't know what to do in this sudden situation, any more than Lee or Naruto or the Four would know to what extent it was safe to meddle in clan politics. Neji's witnesses were slightly on edge – glaring stoically toward the ones who held me, while there was a goddamned sword at their leader's throat. "Why are you so calm?!" I cried.

"You've bested him in combat, Hinata-sama. We no longer possess any desire or inclination to protect that one."

Their loyalty… just like that, it's transferred over? No, it's worse. They're against him now. In that case… I bit my lip, shaking. If I ordered them to protect Neji, would they do it? Even grudgingly…

"Enough," Neji croaked. "Can I not speak? If m-my death is required to assuage your anger and ensure peace, I'll accept it. Do you hear me? Let it be known by my followers that I accept it!"

"Don't accept it!" I cried, but he was resigned. "Neji–!"

"Hold your tongue, lass!" Ojii-sama barked. "Even your word will not shield a high traitor! Besides, would you truly lower yourself to defending the wretch who has murdered you own father, and my first-born son?!"

I flinched. Neji's brow was furrowed in grief above his blind eyes, his expression pitiful, teeth clenched. Ojii-sama returned his gaze to him.

"This child forgot his station, betrayed the village we're sworn to protect, and dared to overthrow order and fancy himself a proper leader. In doing so, Hyuuga Neji nearly drove the Hyuuga to destruction!"

"Aye!" a councilman snarled in agreement. "Let us not forget that the venerable All-Seeing One lies dead from this degenerate's filthy hand as well!"

"Finish the beast who slew Hiashi-sama!"

"Contemptible wretch!"

"Kill him already!"

"Kill the last trace of Orochimaru's scourge!"

There was too much noise, too much shouting; there was nothing I could do.

'Beast'…? No… we're all beasts here, thirsting for blood…

Grandfather drew back his blade, prepared to execute him on the spot.

They're afraid… we're always afraid, aren't we? All of us… it's who we are…

Neji's blinded eyes were shut in his smooth, blood-caked face as he awaited the blade, resolved to die. My arms were moving, fighting with all my worthless strength.

But I'm afraid… of losing anyone else.

Nearly every wrung-out drop of chakra I had was shoved out at once with a roar, knocking the ones who held me away with the sheer brunt of it. A stray bolt of power glanced smartly off of the shortsword, deflecting it from its course. I saw the traces of refocusing fear in the depths of Grandfather's old eyes as he slowly turned his head to look toward me, and at the people around me who were flying off their feet as my own met the earth.

I stood tall as I could, barely blinking, panting breath rolling quick past bared fangs. I gritted my teeth, shaking in fatigue, but my voice was firm. "Stop this at once!" I demanded.

I don't know why or how I made to choice. It was all I could think of, the one thing I could do, the only chance to save him. My eyes found Naruto, very briefly; I gave an apologetic look, and hoped that even if he could not understand, he could see how badly I wanted not to do this.

Then I returned my commanding gaze to my and Neji's grandfather. My heart clenched, and I said the words that had to be said – words that I would never know whether to regret.

"You say that even my word cannot shield a high traitor, but dare you execute the betrothed of your leader?"

Floored shock was palpable in widening eyes, in withdrawn breaths, slow with bewilderment but finally jarring the crystallized air. Neji's jaw fell.

"H-Hinata… what're you…?"

I turned toward him, and my lips parted to speak.

Naruto ナルト

Bdmp…

My head shook very, very slowly.

Bdmp…

I made the… wrong choice…

Bdmp…

I should've… let him…

Bdmp.

Hinata ヒナタ

It was possibly the hardest thing I had ever done, to say it all and say it sincerely.

But at this point I was desperate, so I said it all the same.

"Hyuuga Neji, will you marry me?"

Neji ネジ

"I…?"

–"Live!"–

"…I…

"Yes, I will."


ナルト / リー / ヒナタ \ ハナビ \ ネジ

End Chapter Thirty

Random Hyuuga 1: Quick! Everyone gasp in rapid succession!

Random Hyuuga 2: Gasp!

Grandpa Hyuuga: Gasp!

Lee: Gasp!

Naruto: *dies*

Hanabi: Gasp!

Sakon: Gasp!

Hiryuu: Gasp!

Neji: S-seriously–!

Hinata: This is so not funny!

(–static–)

Ojii-sama: There are rules to this type of thing...

Hinata: They're not specific-

Ojii-sama: Your nearest common ancestor is alive, you dolt!

Lee: In the end, the Hyuuga Clan will decide Neji's fate. Has Hinata-san protected him, or only delayed the inevitable?

Kiba: The village is free... but in the aftermath of the battle, there's sure a lot left to be done...

Tsunade: I guess they need us here, until some sense of normalcy is able to return... Well, what else can we do?

Hanabi: I still can't trust you, you know.

Sasuke: Understandable...

Gaara: This is goodbye for now, friends...

Hinata: W-we'll figure something out. We'll clear his name! So... N-Naruto-kun...!

Naruto: You chose him over me.

Hinata: I just...

...wanted everyone to live...

Lee: Sometimes, we must grin and move into tomorrow, whatever we may feel, whatever lies behind us... and whatever comes our way.

Next, Chapter Thirty-One: Toward the Sun.

*Pleasedon'tcomeafterme* How was the chapter?

Oh yes - this is that fic where Hinata defeats Neji with a body slam. Because when it's gotten to the point that anime Maka and videogame Naruto are using the same move to tie the bow on an improvised ending, the heroic punch starts losing validity as a decent final blow :P

The originally planned hit was actually a punch, but I think it worked better this way... Of course, among things that were changed and things that were planned from the start... That curveball on the last scene? I've been waiting to throw that one for years. As with many scenes, snippets of it started dotting the margins of my notebooks; I found a rough draft end of that scene jotted in margins as early as the continuation notebook housing chapter 5. Sorry if that was a bit cruel... ^^;

Please, though, don't scream at me that they're cousins. Say it was an awful twist if you must, but I'm perfectly aware that they're cousins whose fathers are identical twins. Hinata's been calling Neji 'Brother' throughout the fight; trust me, I know, and if it wasn't clear, neither Neji nor Hinata are happy about this.

But we couldn't have things work out too neatly, now could we?

Jutsu, powers- I'm getting lazier on these, I think XD Just the major ones:

Youkai Hou: Weight of Spirit: Activates the user's spiritual energy in a way that infuses it with apparent weight. Usually used in conjunction with Weight of Gut, which reabsorbs the activated energy, allowing it to be channeled for other purposes (in this case, a super-high intensity chakra concussion blast).

Sundering Flare: Stores and concentrates dark power in the wings of Apocalypse form, imbuing the energy with the cutting aspect of the wings before slinging off a pair of slicing blast waves; highly lethal, in being capable of stripping flesh from bone.

Water Flowing Uphill: Ryuujin: High level Suiton said to command the wrath of the ocean deity Ryuujin (龍神, 'dragon god') to create a tidal wave of great intensity.

Tenrou (天狼): Invokes a great lupine aura of white flame, its power said to be drawn from the stars. Channeling this power allows one use of Tenrou's Fang, firing a powerful blast of unusual energy (Tenrou, literally 'sky wolf' or 'heaven wolf,' can be used to refer to the "Dog Star" Sirius, the brightest in the night sky and a prominent star of the Canis Major constellation.)

Kageken Zen Stance: Requires a huge amount of chakra to saturate the air, and uses it and mentally created kage bunshin to guide manipulated Nature Energy in attacks.

End-battle song/Theme for Part II: Stand and the Song of the Savior: "Becoming a Legend" by John Dreamer.

How was the battle? Thoughts on Neji's behavior, even in the face of getting an eye gouged, and the 'euphoria in justification' explanation of it? Ryuujin, Tenrou, and Hinata's eventual use of the New Moon blade? The brief chat, the reason Hinata's able to stand, the shootout, and Neji's recalling Hikaru's 'Song of the Savior' during Hinata's final charge? I'd really love to know what you thought of that scene as the fight conclusion. Was it satisfying, or not so much?

Any thoughts on Hinata's handful of interactions with Neji? Orochimaru's two attempts to reincarnate? What did you think of the last bit of the 'future' visions, and Neji's 'snapping' and attacking Orochimaru? Their conversation? Does Orochimaru's overall plan seem to 'fit' - his original goal of using Neji as an intermediate step to claiming his ultimate Uchiha vessel, at which point he would already have wiped out the Hyuuga clan that might have countered him?

Guess I'm not crazy about the team Rasengan they came up with - maybe for the same reason I changed the planned finishing punch to a finishing body slam, that being, a special Rasengan is the end of basically every Naruto movie. It just felt dull to me DX Well, of course, after that Hinata has one more chat with Neji, and Hanabi reinterprets the meaning of a prophecy. Then, of course, there's the Main House faction's confrontation, and their intention to execute Neji on the spot, but Hinata's far from okay with that...

Well, I'll leave you with that! Comments, questions - please review, and tell me your thoughts on the chapter!

Happy new year!

-Hinata0321