The Life and Times
"Most people believe death to be some sort of release or reprieve from pain. They are wrong. It hurts—worse than anything you can possibly imagine. Or it doesn't, and you simply lose consciousness and are unaware as you slip off into nothing. Or it happens so quickly that you are left with only a vague notion of what happened, only sure that it's over—I've gotten particularly good at that one, out of necessity. There are as many deaths as there are living beings—more, probably, and while I have lived so very many of them, I couldn't tell you what happens after. I don't know and it terrifies me."
With a shuddering intake of breath, she rejoined the waking world. Phantom pain clenched vice-like around her heart and she rolled over and out of a sleeping bag as she began to cough, suppressing the urge to heave. Movement from nearby drew her attention to the other three inhabitants of the wooded area she'd woken to.
"You okay there, Hinata?" a voice—male, and somewhat loud even despite the obvious attempt at quiet on his part—asked as its owner stepped into her field of view.
"Fine," she rasped, searching for and finding the canteen tucked into her sleeping bag. Sitting up, she opened it and took a small swallow, sighing through her nose as the cool water eased her pained throat. Pale eyes took in their surroundings and she frowned, suddenly paying much more attention to the taste of the water on her tongue. 'Nothing but water,' she surmised after a moment of study. Teeth bit the inside of her cheek hard enough to break the skin, and her surroundings remained unwavering. She wanted to ask where they were—well, no, that isn't quite right. She knewwhere they were—after getting their scroll in the first few hours of the second stage of the chuunin exam, they had pushed towards the tower until twilight before she'd found a relatively safe area to set camp in the forest amongst the roots of just one of many of the gigantic trees that towered over the training field. What she wanted to know was why they were here and not in the tower at the center of the forest of death where she last remembered being. She had fought her cousin and lost, and had lost consciousness as the medics loaded her onto a stretcher and carted her off towards the tower's infirmary.
"Good. We don't need you getting sick out here. We're still a few hours out from the tower and I've got no idea what's waiting for us there," Kiba continued, drawing a small nod from the girl as she put away her canteen and began the process of breaking camp. "I mean, isn't the third part of this s'posed to be a tournament-style fight?"
"Typically," their third teammate confirmed quietly, dropping from his perch in the tree above them, gathering his own field pack and shouldering it. "Nothing to report."
"I think we'd know about it by now if there was," Kiba grumbled. "Just to be sure though, Hinata?" He blinked as the girl ignored him, shooting a questioning look towards Shino who, in turn, shook his head in the negative to the unasked question of whether or not their teammate had somehow been replaced under their noses during the night. "Oi, Hinata," he tried again, snapping his fingers near her head and causing the girl to flinch. "You mind?"
She sent the taller boy a questioning look for a moment before what he wanted dawned on her. They had done this the first time, minus her lapse in attention things were playing out about as she remembered them—then again, not even ninja remember every detail of every day, so she could not be entirely sure. With a mental shrug, she sealed and activated her dojutsu, sweeping the area once before dropping the chakra flow to her eyes. "We're clear." She did not fail to notice her two male teammates exchange another look, followed by a whine from the dog perched atop the loudest of the group's head.
"Uh, Hinata, are you alright?" Kiba tried again, this time genuinely wondering if she hadn't been somehow compromised in some way—either through illness or more nefarious means.
"I am fine, Kiba-kun," she answered quietly. "I just had... a bad dream." It was not a dream, though—she knew that. It couldn'thave been. It had been far too real for that. Too real for genjutsu, even—no one that would spend the time and effort to mimic biological processes in an illusion would use that technique for anything short of subversion and/or recruitment and a lone genin, even a Hyuuga such as herself, was a poor choice of targets in the target-rich environment that was a ninja village. So if it had not been a dream, an illusion, and it had certainly been too coherent and painful for an hallucination, then what was it?
Failing to come to a logical conclusion that didn't involve either losing her sanity or something equally insane in real life that belonged only in a fantasy novel, she decided to adopt a wait-and-see approach. With that thought in mind, she took to the trees following her teammates, her body running through the motions of leaping from tree to tree and occasionally activating her dojutsu to sweep their immediate surroundings with little conscious effort on her part. Instead, she focused on something else she had seen in the... dream/illusion/vision. Neji had beaten her—soundly. She had made a good show of it and had refused to back down when he'd tried to intimidate her—largely thanks to a certain sun-haired inspiration—but he had still proven himself the better of the two of them at their family art.
Going over the fight again, she could clearly see how outmatched she was. Neji had superior height and reach, but that mattered little to a Hyuuga. He was stronger, possibly even faster too, but that was almost expected with him being a year older and male. No, the biggest difference between the two was the obvious gap in skill—somehow, Neji had learned techniques he should have little knowledge of, let alone have reverse-engineered into something usable. She couldn't fault him for it though, as he had obviously put the effort into learning them and it wasn't as though it was outright forbidden for those of the branch house to learn those techniques. It was worrying, and a little depressing, that the person she'd looked up to like an older brother for the longest time now saw her only as one of 'them' when she could remember being nothing but kind to him.
Shaking her head and pushing away that thought, she refocused on the potential fight to come. Neji's largest advantage, by far, had not been the gap in skill or strength between them but rather had been complete and total surprise. He had put her off balance psychologically right from the outset but seeing that technique turned against her by someone she loved, who was only a year older than herself and should not even know it let alone have mastered it to that level of skill... it had been shocking. Now she knew, though, and would not be caught flat-footed. The problem was, there were very few counters to that technique and most of them boiled down to 'don't be there when someone uses it,' which wasn't very helpful. Well, all of this thought was assuming what she had seen was even accurate. There was no point worrying over-much about it until she knew for sure. 'Wait and see.'
The tower was just as silent and empty as she remembered it—they were even bunking in the same quarters they had used the 'first' time. Four days they spent in the tower, Hinata alternating between light practice when she could stand it and watching with growing dread as more and more familiar faces came in. Dawn of the final day allotted to the exams came, and she found herself watching the entrance to the tower with growing apprehension. It was with an odd mixture of relief and dread that she watched Team Seven stumble in—all three of them looking disheveled. She hadn't gotten a chance to find out what had happened to them seeing as the Hokage had called a start to the next part of the exam almost as soon as they were through the doors, but whatever it was had to have been bad.
Hinata, like most everyone else, had heard the stories after Team Seven's return from Wave—how they had faced down the Demon of the Mist and his apprentice, along with some corrupt shipping mogul and a small army of mercenaries. She knew Naruto and Sasuke had taken on the apprentice, who supposedly sported some sort of advanced bloodline, and had barely come out of it alive—word had it, Sasuke had actually been defeated and it was Narutowho had finally beaten Zabuza's apprentice. No one seemed willing to say how that could have happened, but none of the elder ninja she knew were willing to discount the notion either. She had a pretty good idea of what would explain both their certainty and silence, but it didn't particularly matter. What did matter was that Team Seven had run across something in the Forest of Death that was even more dangerous than the apprentice of one of the most notorious missing-nin of the century, similarly to Uchiha Itachi—arguably more infamous, really, as Zabuza had made a name for himself as a child with no bloodline or special advantages. She would have to ask, when she got the chance—if she got the chance, seeing as they were being called into the arena and they were even standing vaguely where she remembered.
Everything was happening roughly as she remembered—Naruto's team was the last to enter, the chuunin proctors, jonin-sensei, and the Hokage had called them together to explain the preliminary matches, and then they were being called in the same order and every fight came out to the same outcome. The Uchiha, obviously wounded somehow in the forest, was called first to fight someone with a nasty chakra draining technique but who beyond that was otherwise unremarkable. It could not be coincidence that immediately after he'd won—barely, at that—that Team Seven's instructor had taken the Uchiha's arm and dragged him off into a side-corridor. It was with that thought that she began to pay more attention to the fights—not the actual fighting, but the choices for who would fight who next. Choices, for that is what they must be—someone was controlling the 'random' selection board and stacking the fights in such a way as to eliminate certain individuals. Or try to eliminate them, as the case was with Naruto and Kiba.
Now that the thought had occurred, she could even see why it was done—not for the comfort of some nobles and civilians being forced to spend too much time sitting in one place watching matches. Honestly, she felt they would gladly pay for the final round of the chuunin exams to be a three-day festival/bloodbath, if it meant getting to watch more matches where competitors died or were injured in some way. No, what they were doing was culling undesirable elements before they made it to a larger audience. Every single fight was calculated to bring the most benefit to Konoha, it seemed. The first match, between the Uchiha and some clanless no-name—clearly picked to ensure the Uchiha, even in his obviously weakened state, made it into the finals where he would hopefully make a better showing. Pitting Ino and Sakura against each other was another instance of that favoritism towards one of Konoha's great clans—either Ino would win and bring fame to Konoha and her clan by participating in the finals before an audience, or Sakura would win and do the same, except she would be sending a different message. 'Even our genin from non-ninja clans are skilled enough to have made it to this point.' Even if they both knocked each other out—which made twice now they had done just that—then it was still a winning scenario for Konoha, in that neither of them made it into the finals to cause Konoha to lose face. The outcome of the match-up between Naruto and Kiba was surprising, but she could see even thatwas accounted for. Another major clan pitted against a veritable unknown—only the subtext was a bit different, this time. Kiba lost, and Naruto would be in the finals—he may not have realized it, but Naruto had just made himself a message from the Hokage to the rest of the world, but most especially to the rest of Konoha. To the outside world, indomitable. To those who had despised him for so very long, incorruptible. It made her smile.
Then, there was her own fight with her cousin. There could not be two Hyuuga in the finals—to allow it would be seen as showing blatant favoritism to their clan. In turning the cousins against each other, the Hokage could send yet another message—this one, to her own clan. If Neji defeated her, then it clearly showed that those of the branch house could surpass those of the main house, thus elevating their worth in the eyes of the Hyuuga. In the unlikely event she defeated Neji—for the Hokage and whoever was hand-picking the fights had to have some idea what he was capable of—then it would prove her own worth. She felt, from the flat, resigned look the old man had taken on the moment the match was called, that he was expecting more the former than the latter. He did not expect her to win this battle—and now she knew. Their Hokage, despite the kindly grandfather appearance he wore for the younger generations under his command, was completely ruthless. There was a reason he was known to this day as the God of Shinobi.
And it was in that realization that Neji won, again. He seemed surprised when, instead of looking on in shock and fear as she had the first time he'd used one of their family's secret techniques against her, she had simply faded back and sacrificed one arm and much of the other to block what he'd done. He truly was surprised when she'd proceeded to draw kunai and return the attack as best she could. Surprise wore off after the first cut, and he had torn through her defenses and struck her heart with a lethal jyuuken attack before anyone could stop him. Her last sight as the world swam in pain and went dark around her was Neji's judging gaze finding her own, and apparently finding her lacking.
Kurenai hummed in thought as her favorite student found her taking a meal, the evening of the second day of the exam. It looked as though she had come straight here from entering the tower, as the girl dropped her field pack and dropped into the seat across from her... and promptly retrieved a set of chopsticks from her pack and began to dig in to Kurenai's own meal. "Hey, get your own," the woman grumbled, but there was no real heat behind her words.
When her student made no response but to keep eating, Kurenai gave a mental shrug and took another sip of her tea—whatever was on her mind, Hinata would tell her in her own time. So it was, she almost drowned on her tea when she registered the first words the girl had spoken to her since arriving. "The preliminary matches are not random." It was not a question.
Clearing her throat and setting her cup down before she lost any more of the liquid therein, Kurenai regarded her student carefully. It was certainly Hinata and not some impostor, but she looked... tired, world-weary almost. Then again, given the girl's opening statement, she could guess where this was likely to go. "I'm sorry."
It was not the answer she was expecting—she didn't know whether the apology as an admission of the truth was better or worse than a denial. Instead, she forged ahead. "Neji's team is very good—there is little doubt they will fail to make it through, and unless four or less teams pass this part of the exam, there will likely be a preliminary elimination round." She made sure to phrase this all as speculatively as possible, but she doubted it would matter. When looked at from the outside, it made sense—more sense that she figured it out on her own, rather than she had lived through the event several times now. On her sensei's nod, she continued. "There can not be two Hyuuga in the final stage."
Kurenai worried her bottom lip for a moment before nodding agreement. "There can not," she admitted quietly, despite the fact that they were alone in the commissary and her team was the only team here aside from the Suna team. "It's sort of an open secret. Everyone chuunin and above knows, or suspects, but no one really talks about it. And it isn't just Konoha—to my knowledge, every village does it. The purpose—"
"Is to make sure our village makes a good showing, isn't showing blatant favoritism, and to spare us losing face should someone along the lines of Haruno or Yamanaka or... myself make it into the finals only to disappoint."
And there was the point. Of the two of them, Neji was clearly the better candidate for showcasing Konoha's strength. The Hokage knew it, Kurenai knew it, and it seemed Hinata now knew it. There was nothing she could say that would make up for the fact that she would choose Hinata's own cousin—even with all of his obvious issues—over her own student in this instance. It hurt, knowing she had essentially betrayed the girl she'd loved like a little sister—at times, like her own daughter—since the girl's own mother had passed away. Worse than that though, was the knowledge that Hinata knewof her betrayal.
"How would you beat him?"
Kurenai blinked, dragged back out of her depressing thoughts by that simple question. "You... there are only four days left," she pointed out, to which the girl nodded. "Genjutsu won't work, you don't have the chakra capacity for high-level ninjutsu, and there isn't enough time to practice taijutsu enough to put you on par with him."
To Kurenai's surprise, the girl nodded again, accepting all of those limitations. "What about low-level ninjutsu? Elemental, area effect, poison—anything?"
'She's serious,' Kurenai realized. 'She knows what she's up against—or if she doesn't she has a damn good idea—and she's looking for exploitable weaknesses.' Kurenai would have smiled, if the situation weren't so bleak. "I'm a genjutsu specialist, Hinata-chan. I don't actually know more than half a dozen D-ranked elemental jutsu, and most of those are non-combat techniques—and honestly, poison is too risky to use on an ally. Even the non-lethal stuff is deadly in high concentrations and difficult to direct. Really, I've only ever seen medic-nin use those types of jutsu."
"I see," the girl acknowledged.
The jonin frowned as the girl stood and gathered her bag. "What are you going to do?" The pit that had been slowly forming in her stomach since her student had sat down suddenly stretched wide as Hinata regarded her with a small smile—as though the girl knew something she herself did not.
"Hm?" the girl hummed, studying the small, brightly colored frog she'd managed to find more closely.
"What're you doing?" Kiba asked, somewhat concerned. "You know that's probably poisonous, right?"
"Yes," the girl answered shortly, pulling out a kunai and pinning the frog to the tree where it clung by the head. More kunai were removed from various pouches and all of them given more than one pass over the back of the amphibian in question.
"I believe Kiba means to ask, to what purpose are you poisoning your blades?" Shino interpreted, gaining a nod from their louder teammate. Both of them flinched a step back when the girl turned a smile on them—one they'd never seen before and did not care to see again.
"How many teams made it into the forest?" she asked, beginning to pocket her straight blades before pulling out the shuriken and preparing to coat those as well. Being that these were multi-bladed stars, she would have to be careful and selective about how she coated them, so as to not accidentally poison herself.
Kiba shrugged while Shino answered, "Twenty."
"So, this phase is to eliminate half of those. That leaves ten teams, at most, to pass into the tower. Thirty genin."
"Right," Kiba nodded. "...What's this got to do with you and the frog?"
"Of those thirty," Hinata continued, "how many would you pay to watch fight it out amongst themselves?"
Blinking, the Inuzuka scratched his head. "Well, off the top of my head, at least half of them."
"Uchiha, Hyuuga, Inuzuka, Aburame, Yamanaka, Nara, Akimichi, Sabaku... perhaps Lee," Shino listed, getting a nod from Kiba.
"Yeah, pretty much all the big-name clans and some foreigners, so it doesn't look like we're playing favorites. Why?"
Hinata's smile dropped. "Of those you've named, how many are siblings?"
"Five," came Shino's flat answer, now seeing exactly where this was heading.
Kiba frowned. Something about this wasn't adding up. "You and your cousin, and the Suna team?" On the nods from his teammates, he scratched his head and gave it a minute of thought. Finally, he growled as obvious tension began to radiate off him. "Spares, you mean?"
"Correct," Shino confirmed, getting a nod from Hinata. "Which would suggest an elimination round, prior to the actual finals to remove any potential for repeat performances."
"Specifically, that means me," Hinata smiled again, pocketing the last of her weapons. "So, one of us has to step out or be forced out before the finals. It's either me or Neji, and it isn't going to be me."
Kiba shook his head as he followed the pair up into the trees and towards the tower. "That... that is cold." There were nods from his teammates. "And you, Hinata—are you really planning to kill your cousin? I thought the guy was like a brother to you."
"Was," the girl deadpanned, almost causing the Inuzuka to stumble. The Hinata they knew was shy, gentle, and kind to a fault. For her to not simply contemplate premeditated murder, but actually prepare for it... "Neji has issues with the main branch of our family. I probably stopped being family to him shortly after his father died." She shook her head and continued. "He plans to kill me, given the chance. Well, not me, but rather the Hyuuga heiress, perhaps to force my father to face a loss similar to his own—I am not entirely sure of his reasons, only his means of seeing it through."
There was silence between them for a long time, broken only by the sound of even breathing and their feet and hands moving against the bark of tree limbs. Finally, Kiba asked, "How do you know all of this?"
"I've had a lot of time to think about it." Hinata shrugged.
Accepting the answer as the deflection it obviously was, Shino asked, "Can you go through with it?"
There was another pause, this one shorter than the last though as Hinata answered quietly, "If he forces the issue, I will certainly try."
She was dead. Again. It was... not unpleasant, in between one moment of life and the next, if one didn't mind the constant sensation of falling backwards or the backwards replay of the last several days interrupted only by long periods of darkness, which she assumed was sleep. It was in one of these flashes of black that she thought on her latest failure. Mutually Assured Destruction—she thought it would be the end-game and break her out of this... she hesitated to call it what it was, but what else could it be? She was stuck in a loop, of sorts. Faced with her own death time and time again, it was hard not to acknowledge it as the truth. Well, some shade of the truth, at any rate. She had thought that so long as she stayed alive until Neji died, she could break the cycle. A sound theory, certainly, except for one small problem: Neji didn't like to lose, and he certainly didn't lose gracefully. Once he'd realized what she had done, he had gone after her with a speed and determination she had yet to see from him. She hadn't been able to keep away from him long enough for the toxin to have enough of an effect to slow him down, and this time there were no warnings to surrender. The referee had no idea what brought on the sudden change in tempo, but he had let it go—and it had cost her, again.
She opened her eyes again as daylight streamed by around her. This was the first time she'd actually been conscious for the trip, apparently. Three days back, and she was falling faster, the day blurring by in reverse as she watched herself watch the others—memorizing routines, looking for potential weaknesses, anything that could help. Nothing that she could see would. Dark, and four days back—running through the trees towards the tower. 'Isn't this the day I always wake up?' she wondered, as the world went dark again and she kept falling. Light, and she watched herself and her team make camp in a clearing, run through the forest towards the tower, lure a team into a nest of giant leeches, enter the starting gates, waking up that morning. Dark. Light again, six days back, and she was coming home from a meal out with her team.
Hinata's eyes widened as she watched the first day of the exam play out in reverse. As the version of herself she was viewing cheated on the written portion of the test, a thought occurred. "How do I stop?" Darkness. Hinata panicked, flailing, grasping, reaching for anything to get a handhold on.
She gasped, sitting up in bed as her heart attempted to escape her chest. Her eyes flickered around, taking in her surroundings as dim blue pre-dawn light filtered in through her curtains. Four walls, painted a soothing blue-purple gradient. Hardwood floor. Rice-paper door. Covers around her and bed under her. A bed. 'My bed!' she collapsed backwards, wrapping her hands around her pillow and dragging it under the sheets and comforters with her before rolling and making a thorough mess of the bed in question. After over two months of reliving the same four-and-a-half days over and over, sleeping on nothing but a lumpy mattress in a rarely used bunk of a tower in the middle of the most dangerous training ground in Konoha, even this small joy was enough to send her into tears.
"I'm not in a loop," she murmured, squeezing the pillow tighter and closed her eyes, shuddering as the thought penetrated. She was not damned to repeat the same few days for the rest of eternity, only to die at her cousin's hands at the end of it regardless of what she did. The sudden release of the tension and dread that had built was... liberating. 'It's not a loop, and I'm not going crazy. ...I just time travel when I die. Right,'she rolled her eyes at the sarcasm pretty much oozing off that thought before slowly pulling herself out of bed and wiping at her now puffy eyes and runny nose to try and clean her face up before going out. A proper shower and soak later and she found herself back in her room, dressing for the day. If she remembered correctly, today was the day of the written exam—which meant several things. She wouldn't have to relive a day she'd lived at least ten times now counting the original run through, she wasn't confined to either the tower or the forest, and she now had access to outside resources. Glancing at the clock, she grinned—ear-to-ear and what would have been entirely too much like a certain blond troublemaker for comfort to those who knew her. Packing light, as she didn't have to actually prepare for the forest exam until tonight, she left her home and made her way into the business district of Konoha.
'Okay, what do we know? Firstly, somehow, I get the option to go back in time when I die. There's no point trying to figure that out, since a technique like this would have to involve some ridiculously advanced fuuinjutsu work or an undiscovered bloodline, neither of which I have access to. Secondly, I guess unless I'm conscious and aware when I die, then I fall back a random number of days—except that doesn't make sense, since every time I've died before this last time it's been four days, or nights rather. It isn't worth speculating unless I have some way of testing it, and I don't want to die a few dozen times just to test that theory. What I do know is that this time, I was awake for it and somehow dropped back six days—and there didn't seem to be an end to that tunnel that I could see. I could probably go further, the question is, why would I want to? ...Well, to kick Neji's ass on even ground, for one.'
People passing by on the street gave the girl a wide berth as she made her way from her favorite breakfast eatery to a certain noodle shop deeper in the district. Something about the look in her eyes and that odd little smile were... unsettling, and considering Konoha was a ninja village full of unsettling individuals, that was saying something. Three to-go bowls later, Hinata hummed to herself as she made her way into a rundown apartment complex—empty save for one occupant. Four flights of stairs later found the girl standing in front of a familiar door—one she'd never had the courage to knock on before. Smile still in place, the kicked the door thrice and waited.
Several clicks of bolts being unbolted and chains being unchained later, a head of blond hair peeked around the door. "Huhwhazza?" he muzzled out, six in the morning apparently being far too early for her favorite blond to be awake.
"Good morning, Naruto-kun. May I come in? I brought you Ichiraku's," she offered, causing the blond's eyes to fly open as he suddenly came fully awake. Blue eyes jerked between the three stacked bowls of ramen and the familiar girl's face and back again several times before he finally nodded dumbly and opened the door wide enough for her to pass inside. Bolts were bolted and chains chained as Hinata made her way into the boy's mostly-bare kitchen, placing the bowls down in front of one chair and her own box of cinnamon goodness before the only other available one and taking a seat. A small thermos of tea came off the top of the pile of bowls and box, to be poured into the two cups Ichiraku Teuchi had been kind enough to provide.
"Not that I'm complaining about free food, especially Ichiraku's, but uh..." the blond started, taking the only other unoccupied chair and picking up the pair of disposable chopsticks provided.
"Why am I here?" Hinata asked, sending the boy a smile, and blushing slightly at the fact that he had yet to pull on anything over his boxers. Luckily—or perhaps not, actually, now that she thought about it—he had apparently worn a tee-shirt to bed. On the boy's nod, she shrugged. "I—even now, it is difficult to discuss. I've always... admired you, I suppose you could say."
"Me?" the boy asked, incredulous, as be began to dig into the breakfast the girl had brought for him. "What for?"
"Don't talk and chew at the same time, Naruto-kun," she chided gently before smiling. "I guess it's because you've always been everything I am not. Confident, strong, outgoing, and every time others wanted you to quit you refused to stay beaten." By now, the boy across from her had all but stopped eating, instead sending her a look that bordered on stunned, but she continued. "I've wanted to tell you this for... oh, years now. I was going to one day, after the first year I saw you in the academy. I bought you a birthday present and I was all set to knock on your door and deliver it and ask to be your friend... but I was afraid, and I couldn't go through with it. And I have regretted that cowardice for a very long time now."
"What..." he tried, only to find his voice failing him. All this time, she had wanted to be his friend, him of all people? And had been too afraid? The concept was alien, almost—unbelievable, for sure. At least, until she answered.
The blond blinked. "That... those were from you?!" On her nod, he shot around the table and threw his arms around her in a hug. "That was like the best birthday present ever!" the boy all but shouted. And then blinked, five seconds later, as he realized what he was doing. "Oh crap, sorry Hinata-chan," he apologized, jumping away and trying—and failing—to will himself not to blush as he retook his seat.
"You... you don't have to apologize," she murmured, causing the boy to blink again. "I liked it." Seeing his mouth opening and closing several times as he apparently tried to wrap his head around the notion, she giggled. "Would you like to be friends?"
"Would I...? YES!" this time, he did shout.
"I'm... relieved," she whispered, smiling across at the seemingly-glowing blond. Her smile slipped as she remembered what it was she'd come here to do this morning—other than enjoy herself, that is. "There is something you should know. Several things, really, but those can wait." Seeing his questioning look, she decided to go for broke. "I think I can.. kind of time travel."
Naruto was silent for several moments before he bit his lip and asked, "You're not joking? Because it'd be a pretty good prank if you were and had set up some sort of demonstration..."
"No, but that's a good idea," the girl allowed. "Actually, I do have a demonstration, but not like you're thinking. I just spent the last month or so reliving what—for me—was the last four days."
"For you?" the boy asked, scratching his head.
"Mm," the girl nodded, pulling out a pen and a sheet of paper—she had come prepared—and beginning to detail her time-line as she remembered it. "Today is the first day of the chuunin exam." Seeing the boy's widening eyes and sudden panic, she held up a hand. "Calm down, we've still got two hours before we have to report to the exam room." When the boy nodded, she continued. "The first test consists of a series of four tests, technically. Let me explain. As you enter the building, a static genjutsu laid over the area pushes you towards the second floor hallway. There, a pair of chuunin disguised as genin stand guard before a doorway numbered for the third floor."
"But it's on the second?" the boy asked, getting a nod. "So, it's a trap."
Hinata smiled. "Correct. If you actually manage to get past them and into the room, you will find a team of chuunin waiting and will be disqualified—consider this phase one: infiltration. Ignore the disguised guards and the trap room and proceed up the second stairwell to the third floor as the door leading out into the third floor corridor from the first stairwell is locked and sealed shut somehow, in case you manage to throw off the suggestive nature of the second-floor genjutsu. There, your sensei will be waiting to disqualify you if your whole team isn't with you—which is phase two, which I do not yet have a name for. Phase three is the actual written portion of the exam. Chuunin hopefuls are seated semi-randomly and given a written test—the catch here is that the questions on the exam are things only a chuunin would know. Hidden amongst the examinees are three chuunin with all the correct answers to the test. Phase three is a test of our information gathering skills. Remember how Iruka-sensei would automatically fail anyone caught cheating?" On the boy's nod, she shook her head. "Not here. Everyone starts off with ten points. Lose all ten and you, and your team, all fail."
"Ouch," the blond winced, getting a nod.
"Yes. It is an intentionally high-pressure situation, all engineered by the proctors—specifically Morino Ibiki, the person administering the test and head of Konoha's Torture and Interrogation unit. He's actually a jonin."
Naruto blinked. "How do you know...? I mean, aside from, you know..."
Hinata grinned. "I'm from a large, important family. We learn the names and identifying characteristics of everyone of note pretty much as soon as we enter the academy. Department heads are among those, along with clan heads and council members."
"That seems kind of unfair," the blond pouted, to which the girl giggled and nodded.
"It is. But getting back on track—the purpose of the test is to weed out those without the ability to gather intelligence."
"Well, I'm screwed," the blond huffed. "I suck at spying."
Hinata's grin and shake of the head caught his attention. "Actually, I think you did the best." On his questioning look, she elaborated. "You didn't realize the purpose of the test and the first time, I almost got us both disqualified trying to help—but you refused, because you figured out that the examiners were paying particularly close attention to you. You failed phase three, but it didn't matter because phase four made up for it—the do-or-die scenario. The whole hour we sat there, the chuunin were constantly increasing the pressure on us—it was barely noticeable, at first, but once you know what to look for it was easy to spot."
"What, like killing intent?" It was something the boy was now intimately familiar with, thanks to Zabuza and Haku.
"Mhmm," the girl confirmed. "Basically, the point of the fourth question is to make you realize you've got teammates for a reason. If you can't spy well, then someone else on your team may be able to—but none of that matters, if you wouldn't even show up for the mission to begin with or gave up halfway through when you ran into problems. Phase four, the tenth question, forces you to choose between the possibility of failure and never being promoted or walking away—which means certain failure, in this case."
The blond nodded. "Right, so, show up, do your job, keep your mouth shut, and support your team?"
"Pretty much," Hinata allowed. Then she grinned. "You apparently didn't agree with what Ibiki had to say."
"Damn right I don't," he grunted, crossing his arms over his chest and glaring down at his ramen. When he looked back up, he found a smile facing him that mirrored one of his own.
"So, beat him at his own game."
Blinking, Naruto asked, "How do—did—I do that?"
Hinata smiled a little wider. "You'll figure it out." Seeing the blond roll his eyes, she continued. "The second part of the exam is, as far as I can tell, broken into two phases. The first is search-and-retrieve-and-survive. Except this SAR mission is in the forest of death." Seeing he didn't know what she was talking about, she elaborated. "It's a large, overgrown chuunin-and-up training field. The largest in Konoha, actually. Everything there is either toxic, predatory, or food for something that is—including the genin. Think leeches the size of dogs, spiders the size of cats, tigers the size of carts, and vines that move on their own. It was not fun—and my team only spent two days there. At the center of the forest is a tower. We have five days to make it from the starting gate to the tower—except it's an elimination round poorly disguised as a SAR mission. You'll be given either a heaven or earth scroll and you'll have to hunt down the other half of the pair. Do not open the scrolls until you reach the tower. I cannot stress this enough. They're two halves to a summoning scroll that summons a chuunin—and if you do it outside the tower, you lose."
"Right, don't open the scrolls," the boy nodded—long since having accepted what she was saying at face value, as it seemed far too detailed to have been made up and Hinata—even before today—didn't seem like the type to do something like that.
"Take the scrolls to the tower and open them, where you will be escorted inside by a chuunin. There, if you make it early enough, you'll have a couple of days to rest before the preliminary matches. Somehow, your team always manages to make it in last, on the sixth day just before the Hokage calls an end to the scroll phase of the second stage." On the boy's curious look, she shrugged. "I'm still not sure why, but you always come in beaten and covered in dirt. The Uchiha is injured somehow, Haruno's hair has been cut and her face looks to have made contact with a fist or two, and you... you look like something the cat dragged in."
Scrunching his nose, the blond asked, "If it's not too big a deal, could you...?"
"Find out what happens? I can try," the girl allowed, smiling. "Unfortunately, Kiba and Shino will want to head to the tower as soon as possible, and I'm not sure how I will convince them to follow."
The boy shrugged. "Eh, you could always send a clone." Seeing the girl's confused look, the blond grinned ear to ear and sealed, creating a perfect copy of himself, who waved before popping out of existence."
Hinata double-blinked. "You made a few of those in your fight with Kiba... So, they are solid?"
The blond nodded. "Better than that. I remember whatever they see when they pop."
Taking a moment to roll that thought around in her head, Hinata asked, "And you haven't been using it for training?"
"Well, at the very least they could remember whatever they've read, right?" she asked, earning a shrug.
"It doesn't help as much as you'd think," the blond answered before elaborating. "Sure, they remember what they see or read, but it's not like there are jutsu scrolls just laying around all over the place—not even in the library. Believe me, I've looked." He had, repeatedly, under henge and using clones to comb every inch of the building that was publicly available and some sections that weren't—and while he had found plenty of things that had caught his interest, none of it had been deemed useful enough to bother with since it didn't pertain to training or jutsu.
With a nod and a hum, she asked, "What about for chakra control exercises? Tree climbing, water walking, that sort of thing?"
Scratching the back of his head, the blond grinned. "Never tried it. Maybe I'll ask Kakashi-sensei when I get a chance. No idea how to walk on water, though."
With a glance at her watch, Hinata nodded and stood. "We've got an hour before the test. Go get dressed and we'll find somewhere to practice."
"Wait, you mean you'll teach me!?" the blond asked, going wide-eyed.
"Why wouldn't I?" the girl asked, sending him a smile. "Besides, you'll teach me kage bunshin, right?"
"You bet!" he grinned, making a mad dash for his bedroom and the clothes therein.
'Today was a good day,' Hinata mused, laying awake on her bed and thinking the day over. The exam had made a believer of her Naruto-kun—though she suspected he'd believed her halfway into her explanation. After the exam, they had gone to Ichiraku's for a meal before heading out to a training field to practice—him, the water walking exercise she had shown him that morning and herself the clone technique he had been perfectly willing to part with. While he initially had a hard time with it, the blond had been fighting copies of himself atop the water by the time the sun set—with fewer and fewer slips between them as they progressed. This had seemed odd to the girl because, during his fight with Kiba, he had barely managed a handful of clones and hadn't displayed nearly the level of chakra control he was at at the moment—which was pathetic, worse even than most academy students, but it had been somehow worse during his fight with her teammate. That fact worried her, as whatever they had encountered in the forest had either taxed the seemingly-inexhaustible blond to the point of exhaustion or had damaged him in some way that was not visible to the naked eye. As for herself—well, one clone was still a success. It would cut her reserves in half, but then her team wouldn't be doing anything too strenuous anyway—and besides, Kiba had a couple of soldier pills squirreled away if worse came to worst.
They had shared their third meal of the day together that night—thankfully, something other than ramen. Hinata liked it well enough, but it could get boring if eaten every meal. Finding somewhere to eat was surprisingly easy—at least, so Naruto said. She had simply lead them into a nice stand and taken a seat. No one had dared object to the 'Hyuuga princess' sharing a meal with the 'demon brat,' at least not aloud. Her family name had its uses, on occasion. Hinata almost, but not quite, considered it a date—as, for it to be a date, the other party had to be aware of that fact.
Tomorrow, she would make sure to place her team near Naruto's gate before dropping a clone once inside the training field. From there, her team would go about their routine while the clone did her best to follow Team Seven without drawing too much attention. After that, it was back to the same old routine unless she could somehow convince Kiba and Shino to aid Team Seven, which was unlikely at best. And then, she would get to face Neji again. She had no doubt that a single physical clone would be all but useless in that fight, but that didn't really matter because she could go back further now. She had all the time in the world to close the gap between them, and she planned to use it.
Author's Notes: There have been a few good groundhog-day type fanfics floating around for a couple of years now, Chunin Exam Day and Time Braid come to mind. I thought I'd try my own hand at it. If you see something familiar and/or recognizable, I would not be surprised. I would like to give credit where it's due, but it would likely be due so many sources I could never track them all down.
Why Hinata? I've been on a Hinata-as-a-main-character kick lately. I'm either going to write or will issue a challenge for ninja dropped into a real-world setting, using her as a focus. Basically, I got tired of seeing 'ninja highschool' stories and asked myself "Okay, they're ninja. How would this really happen?" and that idea grew from there. There would have to be rules, obviously: no obvious shenanigans in view of the public ala Harry Potter's Statute of Secrecy, no kaiju-class summons used where they could be observed, they would obviously make use of modern technology and military hardware (guns, vehicles, computers, and so on), they would likely become more insular and not open ninja academies/schools nor would they congregate in villages but would tend to settle vaguely in one area geographically (parts of Japan, specifically districts in Tokyo, would be home to various aligned forces [Konoha] and families, most of the Sahara would belong to what passes for Suna, and so forth), techniques would be passed down more within families with a few exceptions (the Sannin, for instance, and in Hinata's case Anko, and there's a whole backstory there to explain their situation), and so on. My only real hang-up was whether or not to set it in some sort of universe where worlds collide (a world full of magical girls, martial artists, giant mecha, wizards, ninja, and suchlike) or something closer to reality. If you're reading this and you're interested, it's up for grabs, just PM me for details. I don't exactly have everything written down, but I could get something together.
Formatting note: if you see issues where an italicized word is crammed up against a normalword, or the same for a thought or other phrase in italics or bold (had to fix the author's notes tag too), it's because this interface somehow ate my spaces. It doesn't see span tags properly, apparently, and disregards the space immediately following a close-span sometimes, for whatever reason. I've gone back over it to correct this mistake, but don't be surprised or upset if I missed a few.
"But Jonque," you say, "there already IS a character in the Naruto-verse that does something similar to what you're doing with Hinata." And you would be correct.
Exam time-line: Day one, written exam. Day two, survival exam start, T-5 days until exam end. Day three, loop start. Day seven, five day time limit ends at noon, loop 'resets' shortly thereafter. Total time elapsed in-loop: four and a half days.
I blame this story on Final Fantasy 13-2, and one too many time-travel/loop stories. There was an overarching concept of the game that I thought could apply, so I ran with it. It's also why I refuse to speak further about the (semi)canon character I'm blatantly lifting this from. I didn't see why it couldn't be done, so I did it.
TMH Status: on the back burner, but still simmering. Three-quarters of the way through the next chapter, but it's sat like that for a year. I've only just gotten time and interest again. Update likely by Christmas, 2012.