The former village hidden in the Clouds was just about as unpleasant a posting as a Konoha ninja could get. However, not all of the people assigned to it were there as punishment, as it was still an economically and strategically important area. Kakashi Hatake, jounin commander of the refounded village, was widely recognized as the genius protégé of the forth Hokage. And although there were those in Konoha who didn't fully trust Anko Mitarashi, no one called her incompetent and she was well regarded enough to be first pick for Kakashi's second in command. Likewise, there were plenty of good, competent ninja who had been reassigned there, hard men and women who filled in the gap left by the slaughter of almost the entire Cloud population. Men and women who, despite being ultimately loyal to Konoha, ran missions and guarded for the nobles and samurai of Lightning.
True, the place was unpleasant. Sulfurous fumes and occasional, just on the edge of hearing, screams of agony from the crater would unnerve anyone, but Cloud had originally been founded in a fairly nice spot and the heavy fog that tended to blanket the area in the morning did a good job of suppressing the fumes, at least until the bright sun burned it away.
No, oddly enough, it had been Kakashi's best friend, Gai, who had inadvertently started the place's reputation as a place to send fuck ups.
Not that Gai had made any sort of mistake, oh no. Gai was legendary in his own right. No, Konoha started sending problem ninja there after Gai started a training program for the satellite village. Originally Gai had actually been considered for Jounin Commander's spot, but people had rapidly realized that shuttling him back and forth between the two villages was a great way to give everyone the occasional break from the antics of the Blue Beast. So instead he spent nine months out of the year running difficult ops for the village and training the stationed ninja into the ground, and three months running missions for Konoha and pursuing his own pastimes. Which mostly involved running Konoha ninja into the ground with training. Of course, his one and only genin team followed him pretty much everywhere, especially Lee, though both Neji and Tenten were often called away to lead their own teams, and even Lee was being assigned more and more duties involving training the next generation in taijutsu.
Hanabi was only vaguely aware of all this. Crater village, the popular Konoha name for it, was just this place Neji went to a lot.
She supposed she should have known that, immediately after her exile, her father would have set up someone to keep an eye on her.
However, she certainly could have hoped for someone other than her older cousin.
Hanabi stared back at the young man, jounin and subordinate to Anko, as she stood in the hall outside his office, unblinking and unbowed, her face completely neutral, only the faintest of indications in the lean of her posture that she expected hate and scorn and was resigned to not being able to do anything about it.
Neji looked down at her, his face impassive. "So… this is defiance."
A thousand thoughts ran through her head. She had never treated Neji with much kindness. Neji took his duties as guardian of the main clan seriously, something impressed upon him by his father, whom Hanabi understood to have had quite a bit of resentment towards his twin brother when he was younger before committing himself to his position. No one is quite as fanatical as the ones who convert the hard way.
Neji had always been slightly scornful of how long Hanabi had managed to go without being sealed. It was, obviously, her place to support her sister as Neji did. But as long as Hanabi enjoyed the perks of being main family, she wasn't going to tolerate insubordination from a mere branch member.
She didn't expect someone who'd just blindly accepted his role in life to understand the need she had to break the destiny assigned to her.
But instead of saying so, she said nothing. Neji was a jounin, a field commander, and of a respected noble clan. Hanabi was now a clanless genin, and a new assignment. There was nothing for her to say.
"Tenten will be your team leader. Report to her at the armory, the green building on the west edge." He paused. "And don't look into the crater."
"Yes," she replied, bowing, then walked away.
So she would report to Tenten, who reported to Neji, who mostly reported to Anko and Kakashi but would no doubt be sending a few extra reports home. This had been planned extensively.
Hanabi paused briefly at the thought.
Home. No, not home anymore.
About a week later, Hanabi reported in late for her duties one morning, the first time she'd been anything less than perfect. When she did finally, belatedly, catch up to Tenten and her other teammates, she was pale and distracted, apologizing for her lateness with a kind of barely there acknowledgement of wrongdoing that would have infuriated any other team leader.
Tenten, however, merely sighed and ignored it, limiting herself to a few curt orders to wake up and pay attention.
Neji smirked in a self satisfied sort of way when she reported the incident that evening.
"I told her not to look," he said simply.
Hanabi made no friends in her new posting. She could work with her teammates, but she was a replacement for a member who'd been reassigned as a student of advanced metal crafting back in Konoha, and the other two already had a relationship built on rivalry and attraction that she had no interest in becoming a part of. Huei and Ryoko were both first generation ninjas and fairly talented at ninjutsu, and both aspired to be known for their creative invention of new techniques.
Hanabi could see how Tenten manipulated them into competing with each other, spotting the tells with almost contemptuous ease, which had her questioning both her squad leader's taste in jokes and her teammate's sanity, since they seemed completely oblivious to it all. Tenten's occasional wink in her direction after a blatantly loaded comment had the two squabbling over ephemeral ego points clearly showed she expected Hanabi to find it all amusing. Hanabi, for her part, found it irritating more than anything else. It was obvious they liked each other, but they spent more time hurting each other's feelings and being frustrated than enjoying each other's company. Hanabi just wanted to paralyze both of them with a few nerve strikes and lock them in a closet until they kissed and got it out of their system.
Informing Tenten of her opinion on the matters, in clinical detail, didn't give the result she'd hoped for. After she'd stopped laughing, big, heartfelt chuckles and utterly unashamed at her display of emotion, Tenten picked her right off the ground in a hug and told her she was just the cutest thing ever.
Hanabi stopped being mortified after about a week, unless she remembered it again, which would cause an angry blush to light up her cheeks despite her best efforts.
What was, in some ways, even worse, was how both Huei and Ryoko both cornered her in private and vehemently denied liking the other. Hanabi had to listen to a long list of personality faults so self evident as to be criminal. Apparently, being a pootyhead was a valid reason to die alone and unloved.
There was some consolidation to those incidents, though. Hanabi had the raised incredulous eyebrow and deadpan Hyuga stare down to an art. She didn't even have to say the words 'self delusion' to make them stammer into embarrassed self doubt and run away. The look said it all.
Missions varied but usually involved patrolling. Konoha had split off a fairly large portion of its strength to make up for the gaping military void the loss of Cloud caused, and had to make a number of concessions in other territory to prevent the other villages from banding together to take out the new tyrant.
Fortunately for Konoha, both Stone and Sand had recently been defeated and Mist had a couple of bloody revolutions and purges, eventually splitting a significant portion of its ninja into a new village much as Konoha did. The new Village Hidden in the Surf in the Land of Waves was a fairly small village, even smaller than Waterfall, but quickly gained a reputation for violently protecting its newly created sphere of influence.
Unlike Crater, Surf was actively hostile to its originating village, but it also enjoyed more local support than the Konoha ninja did. The Lightning nobles and associated samurai publically bemoaned their sudden reliance on Konoha and the loss of their loyal Cloud ninja, and made many backroom deals with ninja from the other villages, especially the new Surf ninja. Far from losing prestige and influence, they actually solidified their position with a web of favors and promises.
Konoha responded with patrols, 'for the safety of Lightning's rulers', capturing any trespassing ninja not fast or sneaky enough to get away.
Hanabi, naturally, excelled at her job. With her byakugan and a style as suited to paralysis as it was to injury, she had four captures to her credit within the first three months, and received a commendation from Kakashi himself.
It was a little chibi version of himself giving the thumbs up, and drawn on a bar napkin, but it was a commendation and was filed as such.
One morning not long after that happened, Hanabi woke up in her one room apartment to find the Kyubi sitting in the room's sole chair, staring at her with unblinking eyes that flickered red in the predawn light. He was in the guise of a rank and file chunin, with a green armored vest and dark pants, but his forehead was bare and his blond hair combed neatly.
"Kyubi," she acknowledged quietly, sitting up in her bed. She wore plain yellow pajamas a few sizes too big for her, though she'd added a few stitches here and there to make them wearable. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there weren't a lot of shops that carried things sized for someone of her age in the village known as Hell.
He cocked his head at her. They stared silently at each other for several minutes.
"Huh. I thought you might be trying to capture them instead of kill them to keep from drawing my attention."
Hanabi's head tilted slightly, puzzled.
Kyubi laughed and shook his head. "Never mind. How are you liking my village?"
Hanabi wrinkled her nose. "I don't like the smell of sulfur."
He smiled in response. "It's traditional, you see, and quite necessary. Would you like a tour? I could show you the bottom of the crater."
Hanabi paled. "I've… seen it."
Kyubi grinned proudly. "Hyuga always look," he said smugly.
Hanabi just stared at him.
He cocked his head slightly, then stood in one swift motion. "Well, even if you don't want a tour, I still have something to show you. Follow me."
Pausing only long enough to slip her bare feet into her shoes, Hanabi did so, as he was clearly in no mood to suffer an argument. As she started to follow him out the door of her little apartment, he shifted almost instantly to the form of a nine tailed fox the size of a large dog, and flicked three of his tails at her, each one brushing lightly across her stomach.
And then he was off, running through the streets. Hanabi had to work hard to catch up with him after she closed the door behind her, but he was running at a speed she could match without strain once she did.
Hanabi noticed without surprise that they seemed to slip invisibly among the people moving in the early morning darkness, and even the guards at the gate didn't notice as they ran by no more than a dozen meters away. The Kyubi came and went as he pleased, after all.
They soon left the village and entered the wilds around it. Cloud had been founded in a high mountain valley, where the actual clouds had been forced into the channel between the mountains and often blanketed everything in fog. It was a rocky and often steep climb, but the main road was in excellent repair and not overly difficult to climb even by civilians. Below, the valley turned into foothills and wet forests full of ferns and slugs, with tall coniferous trees ill suited to tree hopping.
Instead, Kyubi and Hanabi ran along the cool forest floor, darting around immense craggy barked trees and hopping over clusters of ferns and bushes. Hanabi found she enjoyed the run, the freedom of movement, but quickly lost the feeling as she remembered she was following at Kyubi's orders. The sun came up as they ran, though the forest still remained shrouded in gloom, but that was no hindrance at all to the pair.
About an hour later Kyubi paused suddenly, with Hanabi landing right beside him, looking around curiously. They were at the tilted base of a splintered off tree, presumably the result of a doton jutsu many years previously, since the earth had been torn up all around it and partially covered the upper side of the tree. There must have been an incredible force behind the jutsu, as the tree was more than twenty feet thick, and the top had been torn off and tossed to the side a hundred yards away.
Kyubi raised one eye at her.
Quickly activating her byakugan, Hanabi looked around, wondering what she'd missed, and found three people, presumably ninja, trapped in some kind of tiny chakra cage hidden in the hollow under the great tree's roots. All three were male, two with beards and one without, and were dressed in clothes that left no clue as to their origin. They were still armed with various weapons, most notably a kusarigama in the case of the clean shaven one, but they were wedged in so tightly they could barely move.
"Ah," she said quietly.
"You need to be quicker on the uptake," Kyubi chided her, even as he dissolved the web of solid chakra keeping the three ninja captive. One of the bearded ones was in a position to immediately leap at him, a desperate plan to distract him long enough for the others to escape, but he literally vaporized in an instant as Kyubi casually reached through the lingering cloud of human vapor to grab each of the others by an ankle. Turning and bringing his arms over his head as he did so, Kyubi spun and slammed them with bone breaking force into the earth outside the hollow.
"STAY," he ordered, and the two were unable to move. Casually, he fell into a cross legged seat on the chest of the younger, clean shaven ninja, and waved Hanabi towards the upturned back of the other.
Hanabi sat, staring back at the Kyubi with an impassive expression.
After a brief moment, he laughed and shook his head. "Be careful when fighting fools, lest ye become a fool as well." In a more normal voice, he continued. "Too much time with you humans has corrupted me. I assumed, when I first heard of your activities here, that you were hoping to postpone payment on your debt to me." He snorted. "Well, since I've already got this prepared, shall we take a meal together?" His hand plunged into the chest of the ninja he sat on with a wet, gristly crack of bone and cartilage shattering. Hands capable of powers beyond anything human casually pulled out the still beating heart, tearing the vessels in two as they stretched beyond their length.
Without pomp or ceremony, Kyubi cleaned off the gore from the outside of the still strongly pulsing heart. One finger lengthened and transformed into a claw as wicked as any knife, and carved a thin, spiraling strip of muscle tissue away, much like peeling an apple, being careful to include the node that generated the signals that kept the heart beating. The resulting strip of heart twitched and contracted, momentarily going limp only to draw itself back into a tight spiral, the seat of life and final chakra center of the dying ninja.
"Eat," Kyubi said, handing it to Hanabi.
Hanabi didn't cringe, but hesitated to reach for the morsel. Although far from squeamish, she had no desire to actually eat human flesh, as the Kyubi did so enthusiastically. However, at the Kyubi's look, she realized that this was no casual breakfast. There was the significance of ritual here, powered by life and blood, and she knew that Kyubi was well within his oath to demand this of her.
Her own heart thudding hard and her breath coming shallow and quick, Hanabi took the thin, small strip of heart and quickly popped it in her mouth, swallowing without chewing.
Kyubi nodded, satisfied, and took a large bite of the remaining heart as if it was an apple. Blood smeared onto the sides of his mouth and cheeks. Blood like the stain on Hanabi's fingertips.
Perversely, she was almost disappointed that there didn't seem to be any noticeable change. A feeling, chakra, anything. Though the act of cannibalism did sit heavy in her stomach, there didn't seem to be anything else happening. There should have been the sound of angels crying at least.
"These three humans were sent here to kill or kidnap you," Kyubi said bluntly.
Hanabi glanced at her erstwhile seat, startled.
"Yes, our contract has been noticed. My enemy moves against me, though he knows not what game I play, so he attempts to discover your nature, to use you against me." The blond man smiled, showing teeth too sharp to be human.
Hanabi got a sense of great personal satisfaction emanating from her host and benefactor.
"Now his plan has failed, and the only question remaining is… what are you going to do with that ninja?"
Hanabi thought about that for a moment. "I suppose the logical thing to do would be to turn him over to torture and interrogation to find out all he knows."
"Ah, but I have already discovered all of his secrets. Will you kill him to spare yourself the trouble of taking him back to your village?"
The young girl gave him a flat, disapproving look. "Are you going to tell me everything you found out about him?"
The blond laughed, the whisker marks on his cheek crinkling with a wide smile. "Always doing what you're supposed to." He quickly ate the rest of the heart he still clutched in his hand, jaw stretching wide and his throat distending to accommodate it. "Well, I suppose that's enough breakfast for today, I'll save the rest of this one for lunch."
Hanabi stood as Kyubi fell forward onto all fours, quickly growing, expanding away from her until he was a nine tailed fox fifteen feet high. Scooping up the now cooling corpse of the other ninja in his mouth, he paused, his red, slitted eyes boring into hers.
"I'll be watching." And then he was gone.
With a gasp of sudden effort and surprise, the man Hanabi had been sitting on found himself free of the Kyubi's demonic will, able to move again.
The ex-Hyuga was faster, however, and was able to paralyze him and seal all his chakra with a few swift blows to the back of his neck and body, then methodically set to securing him for transport.
The Kyubi might already know all he wanted about the plots she found herself caught up in, but Hanabi needed answers.
Madara was moving against the Kyubi, and by extension, her. Soon, her debt would be called due.
AN: Not much to say. Working and suchlike leaves little time for writing, so my production is slow, but I still put a few paragraphs on this or that now and then. Either Ask Me or Ignorance is going to be next to see a whole new chapter. Unless it's People Lie. One of the three. This is my most experiemental peice where I deliberately change the way I write and the tone of the piece, and it usually leaves me kind of weird in the head for a few days. Reviews, as always, requested.