Chapter 11

Kakashi stood in front of the battle memorial, lost in thought. The sun had set hours ago. It was a warm night, one that he would have liked spending inside, reading Icha Icha under his swiftly rotating ceiling fan. But still he stood there.

Once again, he was failing his students. He had promised Sai that they would find a way around his curse seal, which was blocking his ability to talk about his old master, Danzo. He had promised, he had thought he could do this one thing. But it seemed Danzo was mocking him. Sai's curse seal was unbreakable, no matter what they tried on it. He could tell, even though the boy didn't show much emotion, that Sai had been feeling depressed and useless lately and it was all his fault. So as a last ditch effort, Kakashi had turned the responsibility to someone else, just as he had passed Naruto to Jiraiya. He had asked the Hokage, and she had given the job to Konoha's code-breaking squad, so they could infiltrate Danzo's secret files and find the solution, the key, to Sai's knowledge.

"You would have found a way on your own, wouldn't you, Obito?" Kakashi said sadly. He turned and walked away. The woods were thick and the sky was moonless, but Kakashi had come this way so many times, he could have done it blindfolded. Somehow he wished it wasn't like that. If he had to concentrate on his walking, he wouldn't have time for these gloomy thoughts and for the memories.

A dark figure suddenly flitted in the trees on Kakashi's right. He stopped walking and turned, a sudden chill creeping up the back of his neck. In all his years of visiting the memorial this late at night, he had never met anyone else in the woods. And it wasn't as if they had been heading to the battle memorial either. That was in the other direction.

Why do I think this is so weird? It's probably just a chunin out for some late night training. Maybe it was Naruto being kidnapped. Maybe it was because he didn't feel like letting himself dream tonight. But something made Kakashi turn around, and follow after the dark figure in the woods.

He caught up quickly, and came to a clearing. In the middle, his quarry knelt on the ground, appearing to consult something there, a dark cloak and hood obscuring all features. Kakashi could see his arms moving, and could catch a soft murmur of conversation but he was too far away. Mustering up all his ANBU stealth skills, Kakashi scaled a tree, climbing higher and higher, his belly nearly touching the wood. He reached as high as he could go before the branches began to get dangerously thin. From his high vantage point, he could see what the ninja was talking to.

Two emerald green flecks of eyes in a black snake. As Kakashi watched, the cloaked figure finished tying a scroll onto the snake. Before he could move to stop it, the snake disappeared into a cloud of smoke. Kakashi couldn't believe what he was seeing. A spy! A spy for Sasuke! Who in Konoha would do such a thing? Was it Danzo again? But no, Danzo would not want to support the man who was trying to bring down Konoha. Would he? The boy that Kiba and Shino had brought back, Suigetsu, had mentioned nothing about a spy for Sasuke. Was it possible that this snake was being sent slithering to a different ear?

Slowly, he lifted up his headband, revealing his Sharingan. Kakashi put his hands together in a hand sign, determined to stop the traitor and turn him in to the Hokage. But as soon as he drew on his chakra, the figure's head snapped up and he turned to look at Kakashi. His face was in shadow, and all Kakashi could see were long dark strands of hair moving in the wind. Was it a girl? How had she been able to sense his chakra like that? Something was wrong…

Deciding it would be better to ask all these questions once the girl was in chains, Kakashi sent a fireball burning towards her, just as she sent a kunai flying back at him. The kunai hit the wood at his feet, and he realized that it was wrapped in a smoke tag. It exploded in his face, filling the air with thick smoke. He coughed, eyes streaming, and leaped blindly out of the tree and the surrounding smoke cloud.

There was no one there but him and the now slightly charred trees. He straightened himself, and began to head towards the Hokage tower, a new fear beginning to coil in his gut. Waking the Hokage up was scary enough, waking her up with bad news was downright terrifying.

Neji flew through the trees as quickly as possible, his heart beating loudly. He had been seen, he had been seen, he had been seen. He cursed himself for being so careless and not checking around with his Byakugan first. He had only seen Kakashi when the jounin had drawn on his chakra. If he had been a second later, he would have been taken, branded as a traitor. And then Hinata would die, and Sasuke would destroy Konoha and…

He breathed in deeply, stopping the stream of self-despair. He had gotten away. He would be more careful next time. The information he had been able to steal from Danzo's private files had been astounding, and just what he needed to turn Sasuke against Danzo.

He had been found by Shiho, who had been working with others to find information on the curse seal Danzo used on his Root members, to make sure that they couldn't give away his secrets. She had thought that he was working against Danzo as well, and had shown him to the hidden file storage room where Danzo kept all his classified information.

Shiho had never asked who he was giving the file to, the file he had plucked victoriously from one of the dusty cabinets in the corner of the room, after hours of searching. He supposed his reputation as Konoha's most loyal shinobi came in handy now and again. He wondered if after this all blew over, he would have even a shred of that reputation left to him.

Neji stopped at the edge of the Hyūga compound, and stripped out of his black cloak, stuffing it out of sight into the front of his shirt, which made his appearance look phenomenally less suspicious. He made his way to his rooms as silently as possible. But when he turned a corner, Neji was stopped in his tracks by none other than Hyūga Hiashi.

Neji bowed quickly to hide his surprise. When he raised his head, he saw that Hiashi was wearing a troubled, clouded expression. Was it possible that he feared for the life his daughter?

"Neji. What have you been doing?" Hiashi asked, his deep voice reverberating through the empty compound.

"Training, Hyūga-sama," lied Neji easily. He realized that this was the first time he was talking to him since before leaving for the mission. The mission he had failed to bring Hinata back from. Shame gripped him. Neji bowed again, lower this time.

"I'm sorry for not bringing Hinata-sama back to you," he said softly. Privately he added, I am doing everything within my power to bring her back safely. Neji's eyes were fixed on the ground, and he saw Hiashi's feet pass through his peripheral vision as the clan headsman walked past him.

"If the powers of the Byakugan fall into the hands of our enemy, it will be on your head, Neji." He walked away and Neji was left to clench his fists in silence.

Hinata made sure to let go of Sasuke's arm before entering the hotel room. She didn't want another reason for Karin to hate her and make her life more miserable than it already was. She didn't even know why she had done it, came closer to him like that. Maybe it was because, just for a moment, Sasuke had seemed to realize what his life was becoming, what he was doing to it, what he was preparing to do to it. For a moment, then the arm beneath her hand had stiffened and become impassive once more.

But maybe there was still hope.

Sasuke reached in front of her and opened the door to her and Karin's room. They could hear the murmur of voices behind the door, so Jūgo must have been in there as well.

"Sasuke! We have news about Kabuto!" Karin practically bounced up to Sasuke. It was probably no accident that Hinata got pushed into the doorframe uncomfortably.

"Let them come in, Karin," Jūgo said, seeming to notice Hinata's predicament. Absently, Hinata wondered if he was being nice to her in apology of almost ripping her to shreds two days ago.

Karin subsided, letting Sasuke and Hinata come in and shut the door behind them. Hinata noticed that the red-haired kunoichi still remained very close to Sasuke, although he seemed to bear it like one might bear a very nosy aunt breathing down one's neck. Hinata took a seat at the edge of the bed, away from the center of the room where they were gathered.

"We've been asking the crime syndicates, the ones that have known affiliation with Amegakure. One of them had a field spy who had been in close contact with Kabuto only yesterday," Karin blurted.

"He said Kabuto's been going to Konoha's great libraries. He's researching something," Jūgo continued, when Karin paused for breath.

"But he'll be here in a few days!" Karin cut off, indignant at Jūgo for stealing Sasuke's attention from her.

Hinata sighed to herself in relief. A couple more days. There was still time before Kabuto showed up, and she would have to do something. She was not going willingly into Kabuto's hands, for her eyes to be plucked out, or whatever he planned to do. Hinata still was in denial about it even being possible but with Kabuto, she was taking no chances. She had heard the rumors, just like everyone else, about the human experiments he had done. One hand went up to clutch at her lavender jacket, where she could feel her heart beating strongly. It beat because of Kabuto's doing, there was no denying it. That his chakra had penetrated into her heart, into its very tissues, disturbed her. She would not let him touch her eyes.

"Then we'll have to wait for him," she heard Sasuke say, irritation apparent in his voice. He paused, as if for thought, then said, "While we're here, I want to make sure that one of us is with Hinata at all times."

A strange cold fury pulsated through Hinata. So she would be tailed and followed, accompanied and stripped of privacy. She stood up, and suddenly, all eyes were on her. She froze up, her anger diminishing slightly, but she made herself go on.

"I-it's too c-crowded in here. I'm g-going down to the lobby. So who's g-going to be my chaperone?" Hinata tried to put as much scorn and disdain as possible into her voice, but it just ended up sounding thin and whiny. She turned and strode away quickly to the door, to hide her embarrassed red flush. Behind her, Sasuke started to follow her, but he seemed to rethink his decision.

"Jūgo," he said quietly. Karin looked positively delighted at being left alone with Sasuke in a hotel room. The orange-haired man looked confused at first, but he nodded and followed after Hinata. Together they left the hotel room and walked down to the lobby. Hinata tried to ignore the huge man walking beside her. All her defiance had left her, leaving her feeling weak and unsure. She wrapped her arms around herself and stared at the floor sullenly.

Meanwhile, the silence stretched and became awkward.

Jūgo scratched the back of his head. "Sasuke… has been acting differently lately," he said.

Hinata didn't reply. What was that supposed to mean? Was he saying that she had changed Sasuke somehow? What was it, was she making Sasuke more cruel? More violent? It certainly seemed that way.

"He doesn't make bonds very easily," Jūgo went on. "I was wondering… if you knew him very well before he left Konoha?"

Hinata shook her head, wondering if he was implying that Sasuke had made some sort of "bond" with her. She had been with Sasuke two days and she knew she didn't want any sort of "bond" with him. She had seen what had happened to the bonds Sasuke had made. With Sakura. And with Naruto. "He never talked to me," Hinata told Jūgo. "I doubt he knew I even existed." Like pretty much everyone else in my class. Hinata had made it a point not to stand out, and she had succeeded very well in that.

Then, because she felt genuinely curious, she asked, "Why did you join Sasuke?"

Jūgo smiled. It was a sad smile. "As you've probably noticed, I have a bit of a problem. I get these… urges. To hurt and to kill. Sasuke is the only one who can control it. Sasuke's going to change the world, I know it. I want to see where he goes."

Where he goes? He's going to destroy my village, Hinata wanted to retort. "But how did you meet Sasuke?" she asked instead.

"Orochimaru had me." Hinata saw Jūgo absentmindedly rub his wrists, as if remembering manacles. "He took my power and copied it, put it into others. Like Sasuke."

The Curse Seal, of course. Hinata realized that Jūgo had faced pretty much the same thing she was going to face, when Sasuke took her eyes to extract his revenge on Konoha. He too, had been exploited for his power. Hinata sighed. I can't let that happen to me. "I'm sorry, Jūgo," she said softly. Jūgo's eyes widened slightly, and he shrugged.

They reached the lobby, which was nothing more than two couches, a coffee table with newspapers on it, and the reception desk, where the night clerk was napping. Hinata sat on one couch, and Jūgo settled on the one opposite her, the coffee table between them. She flipped idly through one half of the newspaper and he riffled through the other half, the one with the comics in it. And sometimes Jūgo would slide over one of the comics, and she would read it and end up smiling at it. And halfway through, Hinata decided that maybe her life wasn't as miserable as it could have been. And once they had read through five issues of newspaper and Hinata felt like she knew enough about Saishe's gossip to last her four lifetimes, Jūgo told her it was very late. They went back upstairs and separated in the hallway. Hinata was relieved to find Karin asleep. Through the paper thin walls, she heard the murmurings of voices in the room over. Sasuke was still awake.

Hinata lay down as close to the edge of the bed she could get without falling off. As soon as she shut her eyes, she was asleep, dreaming of Konohagakure.

Sasuke sat up in bed, leaning against the hard and uncomfortable headboard, gazing out at the city at night. Unlike the girls' room, theirs had a sofa bed, which Jūgo was snoring softly on. But Sasuke did not want to sleep. He was still waiting for an update from Jatai. He loathed the prospect of being stuck in the city for so long. He knew that Madara was waiting for him, to strike Konoha first so that he could swoop in with his army.

Naruto was imprisoned, he knew that. Somehow it was hard for Sasuke to believe that bars would hold the Uzumaki, but if Neji was to be believed, Danzo had found a way to do it. Sasuke knew that if he wanted revenge on Konoha, he would eventually find himself on the battlefield against Naruto. And he would come prepared. With the Byakugan.

Hinata loves Naruto, he remembered. He had seen her devotion to him in her eyes that very first day, when she had mentioned his name. But Sasuke was sure Naruto would never have noticed Hinata. She was too quiet, and soft-spoken. Subtle. Naruto was obvious, and loud, but Hinata wore her strength inside her. Sasuke was only beginning to understand how much strength she had.

Forget it, forget it.

He tried to stop thinking about her, but in the process he just stopped thinking and ended up dozing off. When he opened his eyes next, he could feel the chakra of the snake. Getting up from the bed, not caring that he did not have his shirt or his shoes or his weapons, he swung open the room's window, and used his chakra to scale the wall up to the hotel's roof, where he had met Jatai earlier. The snake was waiting for him with a scroll tied around his scaly neck.

"Did the Hyūga say anything else?" Sasuke asked, after he had taken the scroll.

"No, he didn't," Jatai said. "He only told me that he had gotten the contents of that scroll from the private files of Danzo. It seems our spy is proving himself useful."

"Seems so," Sasuke agreed absentmindedly. Yet more information about Danzo. He supposed it would be useful to know what that old fool was up to, but when he attacked the village it wouldn't just be Danzo as his enemy, it would be all the shinobi in the village.

"Then if that's all..." Jatai disappeared. Sasuke unfurled the small scroll, only to find it blank except for a seal. Upon close examination of the seal, Sasuke scowled. The seal required the blood of a Hyūga, still fresh. And yet the seal was so tiny, that only a few drops of blood could be applied. It seemed that Hinata was not the only one of her kin to be subtle. Sasuke could read the hidden message. Neji was reminding him of the importance of keeping Hinata alive and well. As if I don't know already. He roughly rolled the scroll back up and retreated back down the hotel's wall. He stopped at the window to Hinata and Karin's room. As he was beginning to wonder how he would open their window without even a kunai to pick the lock with, the window swung open, having been open all along. He slipped inside.

At that point, he nearly turned around and went back to his own room when faced with the sight of Hinata sleeping in front of him. He drew closer without thinking and kneeled next to her. Her cheek was pressed to the back of her hand, and she looked happier and more content than he had ever seen her while awake. When he reached out tentatively to move stray strands of hair from her face, his fingers felt ungainly and gruesomely callused when met with her soft locks. What am I doing, a small voice asked. It did not stop him from pressing the back of his hand to her cheek lightly.

Her eyes opened suddenly, and immediately Sasuke moved his hand to her mouth to stifle her scream of surprise. He drew his hand back when the initial shock faded from her eyes. He wasn't sure why, but he did not want Karin to wake up. Hinata sat up and stared at him suspiciously, and Sasuke became painfully aware that he was not wearing a shirt.

Determined to explain to her why he had dropped into her room like this, he whispered, "I need your blood, Hinata." This did not help. In fact, Hinata had turned as white as the sheets she clutched. He tried again.

"I mean, I need it for this. Your cousin sent it," he said as loud as he dared, and unrolled the scroll to show it to her. The suspicion in her eyes turned to curiosity. She must want to know what's happening in Konohagakure even more than I do. She got out of bed to kneel on the floor as well, and spread the scroll out between them. Then, closing her eyes, she bit down on her thumb until her tongue tasted the salt of her blood. Hinata leaned forward, her long dark hair falling in sheets around her face, and pressed a red thumbprint in the small center of the seal.

A manila folder popped into existence. The label tag on it said: Uchiha Itachi.

And all of a sudden Sasuke wasn't sure he wanted to open it after all.

The eleventh update at a count of 77 reviews. It's fate. Thanks for all the support, guys! As always, I'd love to hear what you guys have to say.