The Spaces In Between
The man on the other side of the desk flicks through her file slowly.
"Says here you studied under Ibiki. How's your genjutsu?"
"Average. Sensei said I didn't have the right mindset for the more complicated stuff."
He nods, turning the page.
"Ninjutsu good, taijutsu above average. Three dogs, speciality in veterinary jutsu... You do humans as well?"
"I qualified as a field medic three months ago."
She tenses instinctively as he sets the papers down.
"People join the corps for all sorts of reasons. Some do it simply out of duty, others because they think it's the right thing to do. Most of the time, I don't care what their reason is. But I will make two exceptions: revenge has no place here and neither does misguided loyalty. Missing-nin are all treated the same way, that is, without mercy. Do I make myself clear, Inuzuka?"
She nods stiffly.
"I'm glad we understand each other. Report here tomorrow at eight."
He watches her leave thoughtfully. A chat with Ibiki might be useful sometime but for now...
There are several other Inuzuka hunter-nin. None of them she knows particularly well except for Ayame, one of her older cousins who used to babysit Kiba as a baby. That was over ten years ago, before there was a familiar face and name in the Bingo Book, and she shoves the memories back down.
Being a hunter-nin... She pauses. She's heard that it's more difficult than being in the regular ANBU, but since she's never been regular ANBU, she wouldn't know. The hunter-nin corps jumps at any Inuzuka willing to join and don't require them to have done a stint in the regular ANBU first. This exemption probably applies to the Aburame and Hyuuga as well but neither clan is known for its tendency to socialise so she doesn't know for certain.
It's definitely not as exciting as people think though. A lot of time is spent chasing leads that don't go anywhere and you can go weeks without a glimpse of the person you're hunting.
She glances at the wall opposite her. It's covered in Bingo Book pages and serves as Konoha's official most wanted list. After a month, she can name most of the high-ranked shinobi there. Suddenly a woman bursts into the room and rips a sheet off the wall. She's covered in scratches and bruises but her expression is triumphant.
The page is waved aloft.
"We got Kenji!"
The room comes alive as people swarm around her, congratulating her.
Yagami Kenji, Hana remembers, a chuunin who'd thought that he could sell information to Iwa and get away with it. The ANBU had found out but he'd escaped them and gone rogue. The case had then been turned over to the hunter-nin. He'd led them on a long and difficult chase but now it was finished.
Ayame plops down beside her. Her dark eyes gleam and Hana recalls that she was the tracker for Squad Six, the one that had taken him down.
"Another one bites the dust," she declares happily. "You got anyone yet?"
"Still chasing leads."
Ayame pats her on the shoulder.
"Don't worry, you'll see action soon enough."
She lowers her voice.
"You shouldn't mourn him though. He got what he deserved."
Hana gives her a confused look.
"...Never mind. Just remember that all missing-nin are the same."
What was Ayame implying by that? She glances at her only to find that she's joined her teammate in the centre of the room. She hadn't meant what she thought she had, had she?
She spends the rest of the day thinking about her cousin's words.
Every squad has a story about somebody who 'got stupid'. It's hunter-nin slang for a person who decided that their personal issues (i.e. revenge) were worth more than the mission and was forcibly retired because of it. No one talks about the really stupid people though; the ones who go rogue themselves and have to be hunted down by their former teammates. It's an unspoken rule that a squad takes care of its own though, no matter what that may involve, and anyone who spends any length of time in the corps will serve on a squad who's forced to do this.
Hana knows all this and she doesn't plan on being the slightest bit stupid any time soon.
It's a month and a half before her squad take to the field. Most of the time is spent integrating her into the team as all the other members have been a part of the group for over a year. She doesn't ask what happened to her predecessor, it's none of her business (and they wouldn't tell her anyway). She has her suspicions though.
Their first assignment goes by the book and she thinks perhaps this was the right choice after all and this is where she'll stay. Her certainty is such that she moves into the barracks set aside for the hunter-nin, a choice that results in a raised eyebrow from her mother and a difficult parting with her brother.
Her squad leader, Sanosuke, is crouched on the ground, inspecting something. He notices her arrival and waves her over.
"What do you make of this?"
Her tone is uncertain.
"Can you use it?"
She takes it and sniffs it gently. There's a faint smell of blood, fire and... Another sniff. Lightning, she decides. There's a horrible thought in her head as she glances down at the necklace, taking note of its design this time. Beside her, her dogs whine, picking up on her mood.
How different are the hunter-nin codes from the ANBU ones, she wonders? No time to think about that though as the wind shifts a bit and the scent is stronger now. She taps her fingers against her thigh. We're being watched.
Target? That's Miyako, the second-in-command and close-combat specialist. She's leaning against a tree idly.
No. They don't look at each other but Hana knows what the next query will be anyway.
The last member of the squad, Tamaki, a long-range fighter, fidgets absently where he's standing near Sanosuke. Hostile?
There's a string of special codes every hunter-nin has to learn for the S-rank missing-nin, the ones that will never be assigned to a single squad or even specifically hunted at all. It's with very mixed emotions that she uses one of them now. Yes. Uchiha Itachi.
She can't see their expressions behind their masks but she imagines them to be grim. This is one of a hunter-nin's worst nightmares. Their instructions are very specific when it comes to Uchiha Itachi. Despite being the second most wanted man in Konoha, it is considered too dangerous to send hunter-nin after him and thus any of them who have the misfortune to encounter him are told to avoid engaging him at all costs.
Unfortunately the same doesn't apply to him and he's nearly wiped four squads out over the years.
A burst of tapping from Sanosuke. It's a workable plan, she thinks hopefully.
Itachi watches the squad of hunter-nin below him blankly. He'd left Kisame in the village a hour away, saying he wanted to take a walk.
The one crouched on the ground is probably the leader, he thinks. The tracker is the one called over to inspect his necklace. She's an Inuzuka, judging by the three dogs by her side. Wait... three dogs? Oh. Well, that's certainly unexpected.
He can tell the moment she realises it's his necklace because she stiffens and taps her fingers against her leg. The hunter-nin codes are different from the ANBU ones but knowing what they're saying is obvious for someone with his experience.
The leader uses a long string of code abruptly. Presumably it's a plan of some sort but he has no intention of letting them use it.
There's a sound behind her and a kunai's laid against her throat. A low voice whispers in her ear.
And suddenly she's a genin again, watching that bright fan disappear into the distance. All these years later, and he still has this kind of influence on her... She hates herself for being so weak.
Her dogs snarl, breaking her chain of thought. Her teammates aren't looking at her as they plan a new strategy quickly.
Miyako's head snaps up abruptly and she signals to Hana quickly. Seals. Shunshin. We'll follow.
The clearing vanishes.
He lets go of her and she faces him for the first time in five years. There's a huge invisible gulf between them, this masked girl-woman and this impassive boy-man.
He doesn't try to remove her mask which makes her irrationally angry. Can't even look at her properly, huh? She doesn't take it off though and a knowing look flashes through his eyes. The chasm gapes in front of her. There are faces in there, unspoken (hurtful) words and above all, a river of blood.
Once, she wondered if the murderer had claimed more lives than the ANBU captain. Other people might ask that question, she knows, in a mocking way and many others besides but she cannot.
The slash marring his headband is ugly, probably the result of a quick slash of a kunai. Had he taken it off to make it? She dismisses the thought as quickly as it had come. No, of course not, this was Itachi, he could probably do it blindfolded in the dark.
One hand is held out towards her and she stares at it uncomprehendingly. He glances at her hand. She follows his gaze. His necklace is still clutched in it, forgotten in the confusion of his appearance.
She throws it to him and as the glittering metal arcs through the air, something of her goes with it.
As she watches that back disappear again, even though there's no bright fan any more... She thinks she might have cried.
Her teammates find her a minute or so later.
"You all right?" Sanosuke says gruffly.
She sinks to her knees and runs her hands through her dogs' fur.
"I think I got stupid."
Her voice is small and lost.
They trade glances over her head and then Miyako crouches in front of her.
"Look, kid, there's a world of difference between getting stupid but not recognising it and getting stupid but realising it quickly. You're the second type and that makes you smart."
"...You think so?"
She sounds like a child seeking reassurance from its mother and she hates it.
"I know so. Now come on."
She takes the hand held out to her as she stands up.
They leave the clearing and she doesn't look back.
Thanks to Nymbis for betaing this for me.
This was my first proper attempt at writing my OTP and I have no idea how it turned into an essay on hunter-nin. Oh well, it was an interesting exercise all the same.
I really like Hana's squad and might write more of them.
Originally, Hana would have got over Itachi and left the hunter-nin but she decided that she couldn't and wanted to stay.