Chapter 9 – Shadows of the Mind Part 1
I opened my eyes to a dream scape of blue, drifting slowly down a tunnel of shifting and glittering light. I was aimless, my body brushing harmlessly against moss-covered rocks with algae that teased and encircled my weightless limbs. It wasn't until I felt the pressure that I started to flounder in a desperate, oxygen-deprived attempt to orient myself. Then it came to me—I was under water. How I got there, I didn't know. My arms and legs wheeled in a motion similar to swimming, but my brain was too addled and confused to really put anything in order. All I knew was that I was drifting somewhere with a low amount of air in my lungs, slowly reaching my limit. I relented to my need for air just moments before my mouth and nose broke the surface. I coughed up the little water I'd swallowed and craned my neck upwards, trying to see through stinging eyes. The sky was dark. The surface of the water was the color of ink, and the only thing I could hear was the loud ringing chirps of the cicadas singing through the bushes and tree tops and the gentle, lapping movement of the water.
The cold air pricked my skin like a hundred acupuncture needles and made my bottom lip tremble. Then a thought immediately clicked in my head as I drifted. How long had I been floating down this river unconscious? And where was everyone else? I gathered the small amount of chakra needed to stand on the water and walked to shore, clambering over the slippery rocks to dry ground.
Ignoring the way my arms and legs felt heavy as lead weights, I stood and noticed the intrusive darkness draped over the surroundings even more when I slipped into the trees. Night had fallen, and everything was covered in a thick, choking fog that swirled around my body, not letting go even after I ran deeper into the forest. My Byakugan had no trouble seeing through the fog, but what bothered me was the emptiness. No Kurenai, Kiba, Shino, or Aakamaru. And I was several miles away from the trail we'd been traveling earlier.
We'd trained just outside of the village before dawn for several hours. Nothing came easy with our sensei, and her window of forgiveness was about as wide as a thimble when it came to her duty with us. I had heard around the village that even though she was one of the youngest jounin to become a teacher, she was also one of the sternest, and I knew that firsthand. Yet she also had a nearly endless well of patience with her students, especially when we were still genin, lacking all coordination and discipline. Even so, she whipped us into shape, and we became acceptable ninja with many missions under our collective belt. She had the proud knowledge of bringing about the first Jounin from our class, second of our generation following my cousin.
That day Kurenai was taking us to the bath house that sat a few miles outside of the village as a treat for our hard work, a rare and greatly appreciated gesture, but no path outside of Konoha is ever one hundred percent safe. We were attacked by bandits and forced to separate. After that my memory hazed. Was I pursuing or being chased? How many attacked us? Five? Seven? The numbers fluctuated as I tried to think back to the beginning. Everything was a blur, a flash, and then darkness. I lost consciousness in the midst of that confrontation and had no clue of my team's whereabouts when I woke up.
I reached the trail, still empty and felt strangely unfamiliar. Then suddenly I felt fully awake, and I looked up again. The sky had changed. It was still dark but not from night. The air billowed and spilled across the expanse in long, snakelike trails that I finally understood to be smoke, which spread across the sky like the robe tassels of a god. All of the trails lead down to earth. My stomach dropped when what I saw where they landed—in Konoha about ten miles from my current position. Through Byakugan I could see many things happening at once and practically feel the fire licking the nape of my neck and the claustrophobic panic of being hemmed in by ninja who were determined to take your life. People were running through the streets as shinobi fought along the streets and roof tops to push back the vicious attackers or to gain precious ground. Bodies were falling to the ground covered in knives or swallowed by explosions and not seen again. Hundreds of wounded were fleeing to the Konoha Hospital only to be cut off and cut down. And in a blinding flash, the hospital was decimated. Konaha, my village, was under attack. I could see more foreign shinobi climbing the walls, breaking the walls, even sailing over the walls like the invasion from two years ago that I'd periodically run through in dreams. Even without knowing the fate of my team, I needed to return. The silence and fog of the forest hung over me and made me shiver with the realization that I was exposed. I retreated to the shadows to avoid being seen and followed along the trail, keeping my bloodline activated to pick up any sign of my friends or attackers. I realized there were hundreds, swarming from every direction toward the village walls, though my little, seldom-used path was strangely empty. I was lucky to reach the gates and not be seen. Once I entered I was not more than another body twisting in conflict.
I was near my family's compound when I saw Ko in a desperate struggle against two enemy ninja. By then I had realized the attackers were from Cloud. One had Ko pinned at the shoulders, giving the other a chance to strike Ko's exposed chest. I was too far away to help and could only watch.
Then suddenly the Cloud who was pinning him suddenly shuddered with a groan, falling forward into the dirt. Ko rolled out of the way of the partner's blade just in time. He retaliated faster than she could, shutting off everything that wouldn't kill her in several blows. She collapsed with barely a sound. Then Ko looked up in my direction. He knew I was coming toward him, but the blood smeared across his face, his creased eye brows and tired grimace made it look like he was contemplating attacking me as well. I fell in step with him and we quickly ran through the collapsed roads toward the Hyuuga compound. With foreign ninja picking through the destruction for more victims and routing them into the open, standing still was definitely a bad idea.
"I thought you weren't in the village, Hinata. You shouldn't have returned."
"Ko, what's happening?" At the back of my mind I knew it was a stupid question when the answer seemed obvious, but my mind and body were working furiously on instinct.
"That doesn't matter right now." Ko leaped over a large section of roofing that had fallen into the middle of the road. "We need to regroup at the Hyuuga compound. Before anything else happens, we need to make sure your sister is safe."
Fire was eating away at the west side of the Hyuuga mansion by the time we arrived. The Branch quarters had already been fully consumed. My eyes scanned the grounds and something inside me screamed in agony at the sight of bodies laying on the lawn. I stayed close to Ko, ready to run head on into whatever lay ahead.
Ko's hands clutched my shoulder forcibly bringing me to a stop. When I turned his face was a picture of trepidation. "No you musn't go further, Hinata." I couldn't believe I'd heard him. Hanabi was just on the other side. Backed into a corner and surrounded by the enemy. Even in all the chaos I felt my blood boiling hotter than the fire that threatened to consume us as it consumed our home. Where was Neji? I knew he was somewhere fighting for the village but according to my brain in that hazed moment, he was supposed to be stapled to my sister. I ignored the rising smoke, a hazard I could use to my advantage if I was quick enough. They wouldn't be able to see me and I would have the upper hand. Ko was behind me shouting for me to stop but I didn't listen. Hanabi was there and I had to protect her. With my very next step, when my heel touched the ground, everything shattered beneath me like fragile pottery hitting the ground. I fell fast, my brain hadn't registered what just happened, my hands grasped at nothing, leaving the smoke and fire behind as I plummeted into a dark void.
The fall might have been shorter than it felt. I barely had enough time to register the impossible situation before I hit something hard that splintered and bent on contact. A large empty space was below me and could tell by the breeze that I was outside in a high place. When my eyes opened I realized that I was in a tree. Moments later my eyes focused on the ground below me. I was in a forest, Forest Country to be exact. At that point I wasn't even sure how I knew this, or even begin to wrap my mind around how this could be at all possible. Everything about the area just felt familiar. Maybe this was the same stretch I had visited on my last mission with Mikio to rescue his village. The branch lurched again, its seperation from the tree was iminent. I lept to another just before it snapped in two. I watched it fall and noticed figures standing in the shadows of the tall trees. Alerted by the sound of the broken branch, they vanished into the forest.
They have Hanabi. The sudden thought came from no logical source and gave me a slight pause that I didn't try to reason away or analyze. Without hesitating I merely accepted the thought as a sudden revelation. It didn't make sense but then what was by this point? My pursuit didn't take me far. The figures lead me to a clearing where they stood around the perimeter, all of them faced the center. I stayed low waiting for signs of movement, but the men standing in the clearing remained motionless. I focused again on the center and upon further inspection noticed the call of many birds. Ravens winged their way toward some unseen carcass, cawing as they went, and as they got closer my heart was clawed by ice.
I ran toward the body laying in the middle of the clearing, scattering the dozen birds that had started to peck at it with interest. I knelt down in front of Hanabi, reaching out to pull her close to me. My sister's hair was matted with twigs and dirt, her fingernails and arms smeared with blood.
I hoisted Hanabi's body up in my arms as gently as possible and reached to brush her hair away from her face, only to find two hollow spaces where her eyes used to be. Somone I didn't recognize eased in slowly from behind. I didn't remember feeling his hand on my shoulder as he knelt to speak to me, to comfort me it seemed but I was too numb with shock to understand him. Then suddenly he smiled at me and my dead sister, his lips spreading into a bleak satisfied grin I turned to strike him with my free hand but realized dully that I hadn't the strength to do any harm. Then I felt all of his power forced into my shoulder as he pushed me down to the ground and dragged me several feet away from Hanabi. While I struggled someone appeared out of the shadows to collect her. If these people wanted to study our bloodline they would make sure to be thurough. With an enraged shriek I twisted and tried to regain an advantage over the one who dragged me away, desperatately I wanted to kill him. But something else coiled in my chest with the rage and despair. It was terror when I realized I couldn't manipulate my chakra or find the strength to grapple with my enemy. Suddenly more hands grabbed onto me to help the first pair hold me in place. I was vicious even as they pinned me down on my stomach, preventing me from seeing their faces. I could feel sweat pricking my brow and angry tears stinging the corner of my eyes, knowing that eventhough they couldn't take my eyes due to the caged seal, they'd already taken Hanabi's eyes and killed us both.
I felt no pain as my senses began to recede, taking my consciousness with it. For a short time I drifted in blackness thinking I had died. I couldn't see anything but felt instinctively that I was floating upward, the longer I rose the less bouyant my body became. I started to hear noises which turned into voices. Specific voices, calling my name, and I started to feel and smell again. Soon the floating sensation was over taken by an urgent pulling. I was literally falling upwards, like a helpless minnow being reeled out of a river by strong fishing wire. Then nothingness exploded into light, color, sounds and touch.
"Hinata! Can you hear me? Open your eyes." I felt something cold pressed against my forehead triggering a sudden realization that my body felt enflamed. I opened my mouth , relieved that I had enough strength to talk.
"K-Kurenai-sensei." I croacked out my teacher's name as Kurenai's blurry figure eased into focus,her strong arms surrounding me.
"Kiba get water." she ordered and seconds later I was swallowing blessedly cold water from a canteen. Memories reshuffled and arranged themselves to a point of fragile coherency and finally I was able to sit up on my own.
"Kurenai-I-we were- the path! Our village!" She knelt next to me and gripped my shoulder as if to keep me from collapsing under my own delusional panic. Then I moaned as the last dregs of emotion shuddered through me. "Hanabi..." Had it all been a nightmare? No, I recalled the training Kurenai had told us about. She had caustioned that she draw us into genjutsu without warning to prepare us for the experience in battle. She explained the basics but confided to us that she would fore go the training if we didn't feel ready to tackle it.
Shino as always, prepared for anything, accepted the challenge. Kiba, was always eager to learn something new and wasn't about to be outpaced by Shino. I was hesitant at first but understood the advantage to knowing the ins and outs of genjutsu. Kurenai explained the kind we'd be facing. It was complex but required little manipulation after it had been set in motion.
It was a technique that turned your worst fears into a very tangible feeling reality. A genjutsu of nightmares. It wouldn't be fair to myself to say that I hadn't wrestled with genjutsu before. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of times the wave would hit without warning and my world would ripple and shift, reshape itself to the will of my superior. To put me off guard and think twice before believing what my eyes told me. Even with Byakugan I was careful, I remember several times where Kiba would leap straight into a trap because of a decieved nose or I'd turn on a friend or a tree or even empty space. What a powerful grip genjutsu had on Kiba and I! Kurenai would have us running in circles, and afterwards feeling nautious. Shino seemed to be the only one who had a fair shake against our sensei. His insects weren't effected by the mirage. They effectly became his second mind, seperating truth from lies. At that moment all three were looking down on me with what I was sure were pitying stares. With a defeated sigh I fixed my eyes on the ground so that I wasn't looking at theirs. "I could't break through it."
"It's okay, Hinata. That's expected on the first try." With her grip still firm on my shoulder Kurenai encouraged me to stand. "This jutsu is a stronger kind then what you're used to, I wasn't expecting immediate success. For a first try you did better than I could have hoped." She sounded confident but I couldn't help but feel that I heard something wavering in her tone. What it was, I wasn't sure. Just behind Kurenai I noticed Kiba shift a little uncomfortably with a somewhat sheepish look on Kiba's face.
"If it makes you feel any better, I didn't have too good of a time with it either." he said with a shrug. "She wasn't kidding when she told us it wasn't going to be like the usual stuff she throws at us."
"That's correct, and now that I know where your limits lie I can develope a more effective way of training you to resist the effects."
I nodded with a hint of subdued confidence restored to me, the haunting effects the genjutsu had on my mind were begining to waste away like a bad dream and for a time I was willing to treat them as such.
"Tch, so you tricked us with the promise of a free night at the Kura." He looked up at the sun that was now slowly descending to the west. "I don't suppose you're gonna keep your promise are ya?" Kurenai smiled with the air of a business woman, shrewed yet honest and lifted her hand waving an imaginary object between her middle and index finger. "Rain check." she flicked her wrist in his direction, with an amused smirk Kiba clutched the invisible paper, bringing it to himself as he crossed his arms in a huff. He'd make sure our sensei kept her word. We returned to Konoha and I found myself breathing an internal sigh of relief knowing the trial had ended at least for now. What I had experienced wasn't real, it hadn't actually happened, the notion stuck in my mind, it was a very real possibility.
It bore me down to think back on my earlier years as a genin, the year of the annual chuunin exam, and the ruthless calculated attack on our village. When would another malicious event of that kind come again? It was never a matter of 'if' , I was always hearing news about attacks on villages large and small alike. I admit before, these things always felt impersonal and distant to me until the day it hit home. After Orochimaru, I took every bit of news about the surrounding conflict in a different light. It almost made me weary waiting for the day when a new conflict would surge towards us and render the village to a state simular to the illusions I experienced. Sometimes I wondered if my friends felt the same way I did. When the time came, would we be strong enough?
We waved back to Shino as we parted ways. Per our routine, Kiba , as he teasingly put it, escorted the Hyuuga princess back to her castle. Technically he was walking a longer distance than needed just to escort me back, yet he always insisted that it was on the way to his place, making the excuse that he wanted to buy jerky from a corner store that was closer to my house than his thus justifying the detour. Really, he wanted jerky every time? It took me a while to figure there may have been more to it than that. That maybe it was for my sake. Or that he might have just liked to walk me home, instead of over thinking the matter I deciced simply enjoying the walk would be a better idea.
"It was a harder than usual, wasn't it?" he asked suddenly out of the silence of our pleasent walk, bringing me back to a few thoughts I wasn't sure I wanted to revisit so soon.
"Yes it was." I said, "But like sensei said it was going to be more difficult than usual. Though now that I think about it. I don't think Shino had too much trouble at all actually." I said thoughtfully.
Kiba scowled. "Damn that Shino, he's always been the first one to get his way out of Kurenai's mind screws." Then he chuckled. "I guess bug brains aren't effected by that kind of thing. Makes perfect sense when you think about it."
"I don't think Shino relies on his insects as much as you tend to think, Kiba. And besides he still has to control them even when Kurenai-sensei is using her genjutsu and I think thats very impressive."
"You just can't critisize the guy can you?" His irritation caused me to smile.
"What is there to critisize?" I teased putting the most incredulous look on Kiba's face I had ever seen. "Are you kidding me? So that means I'm perfect too right?"
I stifled a giggle long enough to speak. "Well I... didn't actually say that." Kiba nearly tripped on a stone laying on the path but managed to keep himself from falling flat in the dirt. The look on his face was that of betrayal. I began to think maybe I had overstepped some kind of male ego boundary and tried to retract, not wanting him to actually be mad at me. "I-i don't actually think Shino is perfect, of course not! N-nobody is its just that..."
"Hmph! Theres nothing his bugs can do that Akamaru or my nose can't out perform or out manuver! In fact tomorrow I'm gonna challenge Shino to a match with you as the judge, then you'll see which of us is better." Kiba wasn't the kind of person to throw around empty challenges and knowing Shino, he would't back down from one. So I was quite sure that I would see a fight tomorrow when I met my team mates in the training field. A spike of anxiety made me stutter. "I-i-i don't think that's ...nessisary. I really don't think think a-any less of you, Kiba. In fact I think you're pretty cool." Out of habit I held my head down so that my bangs twiddidling my fingers close to my face I couldn't see that Kiba had stopped a few paces behind me. When I finally noticed I panicked and turned around. Had I sounded insensere? I pushed out the last few words of that sentence a little hastily I know, but my flustering did not mean I was lying.
"I-I mean it!" I shouted back at him much louder than needed, opening my eyes I saw Kiba staring back at me looking confused. Abashed I could have turned to stone if it were within my ability. Slowly a grin inched across his face until I saw his teeth glinting. Kiba took his time to catch up with me, his expression not quite smug but definately pleased. I relaxed a little, maybe I hadn't offended him. " I really don't want Shino and you to have a fight over something like this." As they had several times in the past, sometimes over simpler things.
" Pretty cool, huh?" Kiba examined my words, I wasn't sure if he'd even listened to the part about not fighting Shino. " I'll take your compliment as compensation. Hows that?"
I was somewhat stunned. Kiba relented that fast? I nodded quietly and we continued walking in silence. Eventually though not far from my home, I decided to ask him something else.
"Um...when we were in Kurenai's genjutsu, what did you see?" Kiba didn't respond immediately, he shrugged his shoulders with a heave, grimacing up at the sky. Noting his reluctance I told him he didn't have to talk about it.
"Nah its fine." he said. "It was...it was pretty rough." When Kiba remained silent I resigned, feeling guilty for asking. An uncomfortable silence followed us the rest of the way to the Hyuuga clan grounds. As I passed through the front gate leading to my home, I felt Kiba's prescence lingering by the entrance longer than what was usual, but when I t urned around at the front door, he was gone.
The days persisted and so did the training with furthering intensity. Between my sparring sessions with Neji to sharpen my chakra focus and Juuken abilities and the unrelenting training under my teacher Kurenai, pushing me to my physical and mental limits, it sometimes felt overwhelming though I would never admit that to anyone but myself.
But they were never going to relent, neither was I. I remembered the promise I made to myself, to Naruto, and my sister. That in the future I would be a stronger shinobi for both of them. They would see a different Hinata by the time Hanabi was old enough to take headship and when Naruto returned to Konoha.
AN: And so Hinata's training continues. I don't think this update took me as long as the last one. Anyway I've always wanted to write about Kurenai actually training her students in the area of ninja combat she is considered strong in. Actual Genjutsu. Something I think we were denied in the manga unfairly. Kishimoto gave us absolutely nothing of Team 8 training together, let alone handling genjutsu, one thing I'd think a supposed genjutsu expert would prioritize into her regimen.