The Life and Times

"Nothing to lose. That was my modus operandi for a long time—too long, really. In my hubris, I took for granted that I was untouchable—beyond the reach of mortal man—until someone showed me just how wrong I was. I had everything to lose, and so much more and I did not realize it until I was forced to... Holding on to what I so longed for was like trying to grasp water—the harder I tried, the more seemed to slip through my fingers. I am ashamed to say that I did not react well to that revelation, nor did I take from it the lesson I should have the first time—it was only right at the end that a very dear friend showed me the error of my ways. Whether it was too late or not, I suppose time will tell."

Kankuro flinched as a now-familiar form materialized into being just inside his periphery vision with no warning whatsoever. "Hello, kabuki-boy."

"I have a name, you know," he deadpanned as she circled his cot, grinning. "It's—"

"Prisoner-373," Hinata interrupted, drawing a glare from the redhead. "So, anything new to tell me today, before Ibiki finishes his morning coffee?"

The formerly-kabuki painted boy shuddered briefly at the mention of the man's name. "I've told you everything I know!"

"Really?" the girl asked, doubt clear in her voice.

"Yes," the Suna prisoner sighed.

Surprisingly, Hinata nodded. "I suppose you have, then. It's too bad, really..."

Blinking, Kankuro shot her a flat look. "Let me guess, are we on to prisoner execution now?"

"Nope," she denied. "I was beginning to enjoy these visits."

"Enjoy?" the puppeteer twitched, recalling that he had been made a live test subject for more than one demonstration on soft interrogation techniques by Ibiki for the benefit of this very chuunin. Some of those 'soft' techniques were soft only in that they did no lasting damage—they still hurt like hell. Or worse, triggered uncontrollable reflexes and terror—such as waterboarding. After a moment to brush aside his anger, he asked, "If we aren't being executed, why wouldn't you come here? Aside from realizing I don't know anything."

"Operational security is a bitch," Hinata shrugged. "We had to be sure. Don't think you were the only one we questioned. Your sister didn't know anything either." Seeing his eyes narrow and feeling a momentary rise in killing intent at the mention of Temari, she smiled—this was how a brother was supposed to act, nothing like Neji. In the few weeks they had been in the care of Torture and Interrogation, Hinata had come to find that the Suna siblings—minus Gaara—had what passed for a relatively normal relationship. They bitched, fought, and sniped at each other on occasion, but if either of them needed help the other would be there—and Kankuro was about ready to cut her lungs out at this point, for Hinata's little stunt with placing an exploding seal on his sister. Putting aside her brief flash of jealousy for what might have been with her own sister and cousin and reminding herself for the hundredth time that things would turn out differently next time, she continued. "Gaara didn't know anything either, but oddly enough, after he woke up the second time he was perfectly willing to talk."

"Woke.. second time?" Kankuro choked. "Why aren't we all dead?"

"ANBU replaced the temporary seal I slapped on your brother with a more permanent solution. He can sleep without fear of Shukaku eating his brain and going on a rampage now. So, congratulations, your little brother's no longer quite so dangerous."

"If I didn't think you'd break my arms, I'd hug you just for that," Kankuro murmured, a small smile crossing his face as years of tension seemed to just evaporate off him. "Still going to kill you for what you did to my sister," he amended cheerfully. Turning his mind back to that short, entirely one-sided battle, he asked, "So, how did you do that anyway?"

"Hm?" she asked before realization set in and she grinned. "I should thank you, you know." Seeing his curious look, she grinned wider as she allowed the first part of the Sakura Grove to expand—tiny motes of light just visible to Kankuro's naked eye, but he was familiar enough with chakra manipulation and chakra strings in particular to get a good idea of what she was doing.

"Those aren't chakra strings," he murmured, sitting up on his cot to study one of the closer motes of light. Around the chakra point, he could just make out a ghostly-transparent shell that faded into invisibility immediately around it. "What the hell did you do?"

"Reverse engineered chakra strings to create a delivery system for a technique designed specifically to shut down kage bunshin with minimal effort and little-to-no wasted energy. As it turns out, chakra strings weren't quite good enough and were actually more visible than what I've got now. So I made what I guess you could call chakra tubes."

"They won't carry much weight unless you overpower them, and since it's a larger construct, it's going to eat a ridiculous amount of chakra if you do," he pointed out, getting a nod. "They don't have to, do they?"

"Nope!" she chirped. "What's more amusing is apparently my clan was so desperate to have this technique, they killed three generations of women in my immediate line to get it—and it was just something I made to counter Naruto-kun. And now, I get to rub it in their faces that they'll never have it and the best part is, it took a foreign ninja to even give me the idea in the first place. So, by proxy, you've managed to piss off the entire Hyuuga clan minus one. Nifty, huh?"

"Yeah, I'm real proud," he deadpanned. "You didn't answer my question."

"Oh! Right, that," she remembered. Motes of light blurred forward and tapped several points across the former-prisoner's body. "Removed the chakra-supression seals," she explained. A moment later, the technique disappeared and the door to his cell opened, a clone stepping in bearing a bundle of clothes—and not just any clothes, but his clothes. "Get dressed. You're going home."

"What?" he asked, though wasted no time grabbing his own clothes. He hesitated only a moment to glance between the girl's clones. 'Well, it's not like she hasn't seen it all already,' he mused, giving a mental shrug before pulling off his open-backed gown and beginning to dress. There was no room for modesty in an interrogation, on either side. Luckily, Konoha's own T&I division hadn't tried any of the truly grisly techniques he'd heard of. Rape in and of itself was a common enough interrogation technique—one of the oldest, after all—but given ninja ingenuity, it could be taken to entirely new levels by incorporating jutsu. Setting one's own mind against them with a particularly nasty genjutsu was not only possible but pretty much standard operating procedure for breaking a reluctant prisoner, and no matter how much one tried to convince oneself that it wasn't real and it had all been an illusion it was still almost impossible to believe. Unlike civilians, ninja knew without a doubt that the ability to rape one was not dependent on the rapist's gender—women could do it just as easily, sometimes moreso, as men. Then, of course, there were tales told from before the formation of the villages—of things summoned specifically for the task of weaponizing sex...

As he pulled on his sandals, Hinata sighed quietly before beginning the part she hadn't wanted to talk about. "There is one more thing." Seeing she had his attention, she murmured, "They found your father. Suna sent out several patrols to secure their borders after their retreat and one of them stumbled on your father's body—he'd been dead at least a month, by the look of it. Video of the stadium before the camera feed went dead showed who we assumed to be the Kazekage attack our Hokage. Outside, he must have removed his disguise."

Kankuro frowned, slipping on his gloves but deciding to leave his hood down. "Who?"


"So the invasion, this, the whole thing—it was all for nothing. Just so some bastard from Konoha could try and raze this place to the ground, and we got suckered into it."

Hinata nodded. "Looks that way. Your village has even opened negotiations to make amends." After a moment, she pointed out, "You know our history pretty well."

"Everyone knows about the Sannin," he shrugged, taking note of the path they were taking out of the building. Down the hall from his room, right, down another hall, left, up the stairs two floors, down another hall, through a guard checkpoint which he noted they simply waved Hinata through, up two more flights of stairs. He sighed quietly as he caught sight of the outside world for the first time in what felt like ages. Movement drew his eye to where Temari and Gaara both stood waiting, his sister fretting but standing closer to Gaara than she ever had and Gaara looking less surly than usual. Then he noticed a tiny detail he'd almost overlooked—Temari's hand around Gaara's shoulder, and still attached to her own body. Stranger still, his little brother didn't seem to mind the contact—if anything, Kankuro would almost say he enjoyed it.

"There you are," Temari breathed a sigh of relief as the pair came into range to talk quietly without having the whole floor overhear. "Took you long enough."

Kankuro snorted. "Yeah, well I bet you weren't kept in the high-security wing. I'd have escaped sooner, but this one told me she'd sealed the door to explode if it opened by any method other than the key to discourage me from just picking the lock from the inside." He frowned, turning his eyes on the Hyuuga girl. "Speaking of explosives..."

"I suppose I should remove that, since we're letting you go," Hinata mused, looking over the slightly taller kunoichi. She nearly laughed when Temari went pale at her sudden mischievous smile. Taking the Suna kunoichi's hand, she dragged the blonde off to a nearby supply closet.

Kankuro frowned at the closet before shaking his head. "No, there's no way she would—"

"She would," Gaara interrupted with a certainty Kankuro couldn't explain. Turning to regard his little brother, he saw the boy using his remote spying technique—that is, until he flinched as though stabbed through the eye and sand quickly withdrew from under the door.

Ten minutes later, the door opened and the pair stepped out, Temari straightening her shirt and settling her pants. Kankuro did not fail to notice that one of his sister's four short ponytails had come loose, and that she had a quickly developing bruise that looked suspiciously like a hickie peeking over her collar. Shaking his head, he heaved a disgruntled sigh before asking, "Was that really necessary?"

Surprisingly, Temari nodded. "Yes." Seeing his annoyed gaze fixed on her, she shrugged. "What? She's a good kisser," she defended herself.

"Whatever," Kankuro grumbled. "Can we go home now?"

"Ah, about that," Temari murmured, drawing the eyes of both her brothers. "I'm staying." Seeing they were about to protest, she held up a hand to forestall them. "Orders. I'm to stay and 'help repair diplomatic relations between Suna and Konoha.' Good news is, I'll be getting paid for a long-term A-ranked mission twice over since both Suna and Konoha are paying."

"In other words, you're still a prisoner, just without the little freak's bomb."

"Not a freak," Hinata denied. "And not so much a prisoner as a hostage. Hostages are treated better than prisoners."

"You're okay with this?" Kankuro asked, getting a shrug from Temari.

"I'd like to think that, since word has gotten around about Orochimaru impersonating our father and orchestrating the whole thing by now, my being turned could be overlooked and we would be left alone. Except it's also equally likely that since our family is pretty much responsible for both the war and its failure, things are not going to look good for us in Suna. Gaara's safe, no one's stupid enough to attack him, but us? Not so much."

Gaara's softly-spoken voice at her elbow nearly caused Temari to jump. "Then I will have to convince them that attacking you would be... unwise."

"You do that," she murmured, trying and failing to resist the urge to run her hand through his hair now that she knew she could get away with it without losing the hand in question and the arm attached to it. Surprisingly, the boy didn't seem to mind the contact—though, she supposed she shouldn't really be surprised. As cut off as she and Kankuro had been, Gaara had it so much worse. Even they had been afraid to so much as touch him, for fear of losing limbs if the boy's control or attention slipped. "Who knows, things may ease up and I might be able to visit in a few months to a year. Failing that, you could always come back to Konoha," she suggested, though turned her eyes to Hinata for confirmation, who simply shrugged to let her know that it was obviously not her decision to make.

"We'll come back in a month or so and let you know if it's safe to visit," Kankuro nodded. Unspoken was the promise that they would be coming back to check to make sure she was still unharmed, if not unmolested given the recent display.

Sighing, Temari pushed Gaara's shoulder gently and began to steer him towards the door. "Come on, I'll walk you to the gates."

Kankuro waited until his brother and sister were out of ear-shot before turning his eyes on Hinata. "If she gets hurt," he warned, the threat hanging unspoken between them. He was surprised when she simply smiled—soft and genuine, as opposed to those he'd usually seen that had begun to inspire fear like a conditioned response.

"She'll be fine."

Anko was amused—a little irritated, but mostly amused. Sometimes, her pseudo-apprentice could ask the dumbest questions—this was one of those times. "Repeat that," she instructed, just to make sure she'd heard right the first time.

"What should I do?" Hinata asked, now suspecting she was being made fun of.

"I thought you had more common sense than that," Anko sighed. "For all your smarts, you're still surprisingly dim." Hinata, it seemed, was not amused—which only made Anko that much more amused. "So, a beautiful woman—she was hot, right?" Hinata nodded. "A beautiful, mysterious, masked woman strolls into your life and invites you to a school for better killers—higher education for ninja, as it were. And you want to know what you should do?" Another nod. "You say yes, you little idiot!" Anko yelled, drawing a flinch from the girl.

"But—but what about medic training, and T&I, and Kurenai-sensei, and... you?"

Anko rolled her eyes. "You really are missing the point," she sighed. "How is this going to be any more different than what you're doing now?" Seeing Hinata about to speak, she held up her hand. "Look, here's how it works. You'll be given to a captain and put in a group of about four others plus the captain and yourself. If Neko recruited you, you're likely hers for the duration, though she may pass you around if you want training she or those in your group can't provide—it happens. You'll stick mostly with your group for the next three-to-six years, service is mostly voluntary pending psych evaluation—which Ibiki's already done for T&I, so those are on file. If you hadn't passed, you wouldn't have been allowed past the first checkpoint. Once you feel like you've done all you want to in ANBU, put in your notice and quit—it's mostly that simple."

"But isn't ANBU mostly for jonin—?" Hinata asked, only to be cut off by a snort.

"Hardly," Anko denied. "At the upper levels, yeah, but that's because at the lower levels it's like I said—higher education for ninja. The lower levels are a training program for chuunin willing to join, to prepare them for jonin service or special deployment. Most of what you'll be doing will be training, with a few extra-village missions once we've got a new Kage and ANBU are pulled back off village overwatch." Seeing the girl didn't look entirely convinced, she poked the shorter kunoichi in the forehead. "Where are you now? The real you, that is."

"Ano," Hinata hummed for a moment, thinking that over. 'This would be easier if I had a way to communicate between my selves,' she mused, resolving to pass the thought along. A moment later, she created and dispersed a clone. A moment after that, she said, "Training field eight, pestering Kurenai."

Anko chuckled briefly at that mental image before she continued. "Right, then just write out a schedule for Neko and give it to her. You've got enough chakra now to put clones where you aren't needed physically—T&I, the hospital, with the combined rookie unit, and if you're bugging Kurenai-chan I'm guessing you've taken an interest in genjutsu?"

"To complete the Sakura Grove," Hinata confirmed, drawing a nod. Both Anko and Kurenai had been alternately amused and worried at Hinata's explanation of her meeting with her family. Anko had been slightly more worried, as she got the unedited version, complete with the original meeting that Neko wasn't aware of.

"Running into any walls, retention-wise?" Anko asked, drawing a slow nod from Hinata. "How's the seal coming?"

"Not fast enough," the girl admitted. "I could possibly begin working on the base parts of the seal now, but I need to bring my medical knowledge up to par with my fuuinjutsu knowledge before I can begin using it to retain memories pulled from my brain. I could, theoretically, just take notes at the moment—audio recordings of myself dictating important things or something if I get desperate. I'm thinking I can just snag a copy of everything as it goes into short-term memory and save that as the detailed version, then have another copy of my long-term memories. That way, if someone somehow tampers with anything in my brain, I've got backups and if I ever need to remember something in minute detail, it'll be there."

Nodding, the special-jonin pointed out, "I'm surprised you're already hitting the limits of basic memory retention techniques."

Hinata blinked, mouth going suddenly dry. "Retention... techniques?" she asked, daring to hope the woman meant what she thought she meant.

Taking one look at her sometimes-pupil, Anko rolled her eyes. "You're an infiltration specialist at heart and you haven't learned those yet? I figured you already had them and were running into the upper limits of what they could do, which is why you were so desperate for that seal. You really are an idiot."

"Please O great and wise sensei, teach this humble idiot!" Hinata begged, her lips twitching into a smile at the corners.

"You forgot 'beautiful,'" Anko sniffed.

"Beautiful, sexy, a living testament to human sexuality—teach me!"

Laughing, Anko ruffled the girl's hair, idly noting that she had either begun to let it grow out or was in need of a haircut if she wanted to keep the shorter style. "Okay, okay, fine. Get up already. If I wanted you on your knees, I'd find a bedroom—or a supply closet." Pulling the girl to her feet, she lead her out of her office and towards the small library Torture and Interrogation kept on hand. It contained nothing vital, obviously—nothing more than diagrams and charts that could be found just as easily in the hospital and a small collection of personal reading material collected over the years, for those on night duty with nothing better to do than read while a prisoner stewed. However, it was the perfect place to impart those techniques—with material readily at hand to test the girl on for demonstration purposes.

"Choose one and it will be yours."

Two cabinets stood before the Hyuuga girl, one labeled 'Reserve' and the other 'Decommissioned.' Set on a pedestal to the side of them were a pair of scrolls, one labeled 'Available' and the other 'Active.' Picking up the 'Available' scroll, Hinata rolled it partially open and began to read. Smiling, she skimmed its contents, unrolling the scroll as she went. Before long, she had reached the end of the printed area and her smile had slipped. Rolling the scroll back up, she took up the one labeled 'Active' and began to read over its own contents. Partway down, she found 'Neko - Captain, ANBU 9, Jonin,' followed by a labeled identification number that Hinata assumed corresponded to the masked woman's name on another list somewhere. 'Captain of ANBU Squad Nine and a jonin, then,' Hinata mused. 'So, where's the one I want?'

With a glance towards the cabinet labeled 'Decommissioned,' she pointed out her problem. "I don't see what I want on either list."

"Then it was never commissioned or has been decommissioned," Neko pointed out.

Biting her lip for a moment and glancing at the list of available call signs and corresponding masks, Hinata pushed aside her hesitation and asked, "Can one be recommissioned?"

There was a long pause as Neko considered the question before finally, the woman nodded. "Yes."

"May I?" Hinata asked, gesturing towards the cabinet she wanted to peruse. Instead of nodding, the masked woman removed her left glove and drew a kunai. Drawing a thin cut down her hand deep enough to draw blood, she smeared it on the cabinet in question and circulated chakra. The cabinet clicked into the unlocked position and Neko pulled it open, before reaching to put her glove back on. "You're just going to leave that?" Hinata asked, pointing towards the woman's still bleeding palm.

The pause this time was shorter. "Yes."

Rolling her eyes, the Hyuuga girl took the masked woman's hand in her own before healing the cut with a minor application of medical jutsu. "Let me guess. Like Torture and Interrogation, the offices of ANBU are lacking in willing medics?"

"Conflict of oaths."

"Lucky me, I refuse to take those oaths," Hinata deadpanned.

Beneath her mask, Yuugao blinked. "And yet, they still allow you to train?"

Hinata shrugged. "We're short on medics to begin with, I'm a Hyuuga with an active byakugan and the only one willing, and I've got near-perfect chakra control and a boyfriend willing to donate more chakra in a day to my personal storage seal than the entire hospital can gather in a week. Besides, Ibiki likes me and he scares people, and most medics don't have the backbone to tell him 'no' for fear of a surprise vacation in a comfortable room under T&I. Now, where's my mask?"

Neko took up the scroll listing active-duty ANBU and a pen and waited as Hinata perused the cabinet's contents. An 'Ah ha!' from the girl in question announced she'd found what she was looking for—a scroll near the top of the small pile containing the mask in question. 'Kitsune - ANBU 9, Chuunin,' found its way onto the scroll, along with a newly created identification number corresponding to the girl's name in a list somewhere Neko didn't have clearance to access—likely the Hokage's vault. "You realize that mask was retired for a reason?"

Hinata's smile had gone wide and slipped into what Neko knew firsthand to be dangerous territory. "Oh yes," she murmured, unsealing the mask in question. ANBU masks typically came in one of two types—painted into what they were to resemble, but otherwise round and flat or painted and shaped. Neko's mask, for instance, was of the painted-but-flat variety. Wolf's mask, she believed, was shaped—complete with muzzle, ears, and textured fur. Kitsune's mask, however, seemed to be something different—more pointed towards the bottom where the chin would be, with a pair of physical triangular ears at the top, painted grooves coinciding with the fox's whiskers, and a small triangular raise coinciding with the nose, but otherwise smooth; Hinata supposed she could call it a partially-shaped mask. "I've only seen this mask once," Hinata admitted, "when I was little. About seven, eight years ago now."

Neko nodded. "Uchiha Itachi," she confirmed. It was not exactly a secret that the legendary missing ninja had been the kitsune mask's previous bearer.

Turning the mask over, Hinata frowned as she took in the back of it—flat and smooth where her face would go, and there were no bands to hold it in place. Surreptitiously glancing over at Neko, she noted a distinct lack of bands on hers as well. Giving a mental shrug, the picked it up and brought it to her face. As soon as the mask made proper contact with her face, Hinata felt it immediately begin to draw on her chakra before snapping and locking into place. A moment after that, where before she had seen only black as she had yet to activate her byakugan, the world cleared and she could see again—somewhat sharper than she had before, actually and given her natural advantage in that area as a member of the Hyuuga clan, that was an impressive feat. When she breathed in through her nose, she found that this mask did not have the typical feeling of wearing a mask that others brought with them—no warmth of her own breath against her face, no difficulty breathing at all. Taking note of the chakra draw, she realized it was so tiny as to be unnoticeable if she weren't actively looking for it—something on the lines of one percent of what she assumed went into a standard illusory bunshin. She could literally wear the mask all day and never lose more than that one percent of chakra, seeing as ninja regenerated more idling than the mask drew. "Very nifty," the girl breathed quietly, getting an answering nod from Neko. "So, taicho," Kitsune began, voice all sweet and nonchalant, setting off warning bells for Neko. "Can you teach me how to make the seals on these things?"

"Gladly," Neko confirmed, surprised and more than a little happy the girl was willing to learn. The records said ANBU hadn't had a proper seal master since Toad was decommissioned. Every mask currently in service and storage had been available at the time of Toad's service, though they were actual plain masks back then. When he reached a proper level of mastery, ANBU had this set of masks commissioned and Toad had done all the sealwork for them, setting them apart from other villages, at least for a while. When Toad retired from active duty, ANBU had been left with no proper seal master—and while Toad's work was meticulously documented and kept safe so those masks could be reproduced, no one really had the proficiency to try. Unfortunately, most ANBU chose to focus more on storage seals for weaponry, permanent summoning seals, and explosive seals to make tags—perhaps delving as far into it as to figure out how to create basic conditional triggers for traps, but nothing like the masterworks Toad had produced. In all honesty, they were afraid to touch the damn things for fear of breaking something. About as far as they were willing to go was to paint a blank, already sealed mask if someone wanted something that wasn't on the list—and painting it wouldn't damage the seals.

So it was that when a ninja retired from ANBU, they were not allowed to keep their mask—it was temporarily decommissioned for a year or three and then put back into circulation so there was no confusion about who was under the mask in question. Toad, Slug, and Snake had been decommissioned years ago in honor of the Sannin and had been the only masks pulled from the normal rotation for just as long. Snake had been recommissioned shortly before Neko joined, and then decommissioned when Anko left the ranks of ANBU shortly after finding out the hard way that she would never rise above special-jonin in rank and even being in ANBU did not grant her much leeway in learning new techniques, by order of the council—there was simply too much distrust on that front. If rumors were true, Toad would likely be recommissioned should Uzumaki Naruto ever join their ranks. Well, either Toad or the fourth semi-permanently decommissioned mask—oddly enough, the one that had belonged to Yondaime Hokage during his stint in ANBU. That mask had no face—it was smooth and glazed white, with a thin red border circling it the only marking on it, and had started life as one of a dozen or so spares set aside to replace those broken or lost. The thing was even more unnerving to look at than normal ANBU masks. Yuugao wasn't sure, but given Yondaime had been Toad's student and apprentice, it stood to reason that the sealwork on that mask had been modified to the point of being unrecognizable to the others. They were, quite honestly, afraid to touch it—afraid of how it would react to foreign chakra or attempts to use or service it. Those few that could see the similarities and chose, wisely, to keep their mouths shut had little doubt that the mask would allow the boisterous blond to wear it.

Kitsune would have been permanently retired fourteen years ago after the Kyuubi attack, except Itachi got to it first and refused to part with it—not that anyone could order him to, once it had been commissioned in his name. The villagers had not been amused, but one does not argue lightly with ANBU—most certainly, one does not throw canned goods or rotten fruit at an ANBU operative but once, unless they wished to be publicly shamed before the whole village. As it stood, the mask had become something of an ill omen and was allowed to be decommissioned when Itachi had eliminated his clan and fled the village. Hinata had stated repeatedly that Konoha's own demon vessel containing the damned fox itself, Uzumaki Naruto, was her boyfriend—the boy whom most of Konoha had all but shit on for years. She knew exactly what she was doing, choosing that mask. The natives were going to be restless for years to come. Too bad for them, ANBU looked after their own and Neko was still not a happy woman—assaults on her subordinates by the villagers were strictly prohibited, under threat of excessive violence.

"So, what now?" Kitsune hummed, eagerness apparent in her voice.

"Team meeting."

Shaking her head, the masked girl followed her leader out of the storage room, shutting the cabinet as she left. "Wow taicho, are you always this verbose?"

Neko twitched at the teasing lilt to her subordinate's voice. It seemed she'd adopted yet another smartass. Well, at least she'd probably get along with Gecko. "Yes," she deadpanned.

Kitsune frowned momentarily before, just as quickly, a smile flitted across her face and she giggled quietly, causing the smile to widen when Neko visibly twitched. 'Somebody's getting infiltrated,' the girl decided, her smile going wider. "We'll see about that," she murmured, figuring that giving the woman a running start wouldn't hurt. She could run, but she couldn't hide, after all.

A whistle drew their attention to a lounge just coming into sight—one of many in the underground complex that housed ANBU headquarters. "Haven't seen that mask in a while," a man's voice called, drawing Kitsune's eyes to its owner—a tall, thin man wearing a mask painted to look like a gecko. "And she's cute, too."

"Mind your tongue," Neko reprimanded, drawing a whine. "Kitsune. Medic. Infiltration, interrogation, and close combat focus. Expert level kage bunshin. Chuunin," she introduced the younger girl, getting nods and hidden eye-rolls at their captain's usual verbosity. "The mouthy one is Gecko. Water and earth elementalist, defensive jutsu specialist. Jonin." The masked man perked up, obviously opening his mouth to brag before Neko cut in with, "Bear is better."

"Ooh," Kitsune grinned. "I need one of those."

"Which one, cutie?" Gecko asked, earning a swat from the woman at his side—wearing a bird mask of some kind that looked like a crow, but Kitsune wasn't entirely sure.

"Please ignore any and all attempts at flirting by Gecko—we're pretty sure it's untreatable and if he keeps it up, terminal," the crow-masked young woman sighed, earning a whine from the taller man at her side.

"Training schedule," Neko confirmed around the back-chat, digging into her pouch and producing a folded sheet of paper, which she unfolded and stuck on a nearby cork board before returning to Kitsune's side. The list contained an assessment of Kitsune's current skill level, technique arsenal, and elemental affinity—along with a listing of fields she would be interested in studying. "The mousey little one with the crush on the mouth and the jealous streak is Rook."

"Taicho," Rook whined, shooting her captain a betrayed look—or as much as someone wearing a mask could manage—and confirming that she was somewhere between Kitsune and Neko in age, putting her at her late teens, very early twenties. That, or she was one of those with a young-sounding voice.

Neko ignored the younger woman's protestations. "Sniper, ranged fire support, trap specialist. Fire element, proficient but not an expert. Chuunin." After a moment, she added, "Evaluation for promotion, soon," earning a happy 'Oh!' from the girl in question.

"Need that too," Kitsune murmured, eying the older girl momentarily before turning her attention to the last member of this team.

Sensing the girl's attention shift, Neko continued. "The quiet tsundere with the crush on Rook is Falcon." There was much spluttering from the last member of Neko's little team and the woman grinned beneath her mask. It was good to be the boss, sometimes—and there was endless opportunity for teasing those under her command. And it was simplicity itself to get away with it—all she had to do was pretend obliviousness, as though everything she was saying was common knowledge, and maintain her usual almost-monotone and shortly-worded replies. "Weapon and tool specialist, prefers pole-arms and wire. Stealth expert with a focus on information theft and object acquisition. Lightning element, expert proficiency but no mastery. Special-jonin."

Kitsune was beginning to suspect that beneath her mask, Neko was an entirely different person than she let on—not a difficult tactic to understand. The woman had a sense of humor and was fond of her team, that much was obvious. Equally obvious was that, when on duty, she was all business and deadly serious. She had suspected as much when Neko picked her up from the Hyuuga compound the previous day to invite her to ANBU—part of it was in the way she moved. Even among ninja, Neko did not walk so much as stalk or slink—this was no tame little house cat, Neko was a genuine jungle cat and likely dangerous on a level Hinata had rarely seen since first coming aware in the Forest of Death. Brushing the thought aside, she pointed out something that had been bothering her since entering the lounge. "Aren't we missing one?" Three flinches met her question and she immediately knew she'd asked the wrong thing.

Pushing aside her pain at the thought of her lover's death, Yuugao resisted the urge to sigh. Instead, she focused on the pride she'd felt for the man who had recently left her life. "Tiger. Kenjutsu master. Master of kage bunshin. Water element, proficient. Wind element, expert. Fire element, novice. Jonin. Killed in action."

Blinking under her mask, Kitsune hummed quietly as she added all that up. If Tora hadn't died, that would leave her on a team with two, perhaps three close-range specialists in addition to herself, a mid-range defensive jutsu specialist, and ranged fire support. Frowning, she asked, "Just what sort of team is this?"

Kitsune could hear the smile behind Gecko's mask. "The sort of team you wouldn't want to run into in a dark alley—or even a well-lighted one."

"So, what does our captain specialize in?"

Neko shrugged. "Neko. Captain, ANBU Squad Nine. Kenjutsu specialist. Expert with tool use, traps, stealth and silent killing. Master of terrain manipulation. Earth, water, and fire elements—expert to master proficiency. Jonin."

Kitsune blinked. "'Terrain manipulation?'" she echoed.

"Using the terrain to one's advantage. Turning the terrain to one's advantage when it is not and turning it against the enemy's advantage," Neko explained. "It is a combination of techniques. Earth and water manipulation, to shape the earth beneath my feet to provide more or less traction as needed. Chakra shape manipulation for proper gripping of trees and other uneven surfaces not easily changed."

"Combined with a sword, you have someone who can't be pushed off their feet and who always strikes with more force and moves with more surety," Kitsune surmised, getting a nod. "You use a lot of running, charging attacks huh?" she asked, getting a slower nod this time. "And you really mean you're creating chakra claws," she grinned. It would explain her choice of mask, if she could grip things like a cat.

"She's good," Rook murmured, getting a nod from Falcon and Gecko.

Shrugging, Kitsune asked, "I realize it's a sensitive subject, but how does that last place get filled? Will someone rotate in?"

Neko shook her head. "Recruiting."

Humming, Kitsune grinned. "So... got someone in mind?"

Neko's head shake came slower this time. "Do you?"

Nodding, the girl began a summary much as Neko had done. "Small weapon specialist, prefers senbon. Water, wind elements. Advanced kekkai genkai, ice element. Master of disguise, silent killing, non-lethal disablement, stealth. Proficient field-medic training. Potentially a kenjutsu expert as well, or at least very proficient with a zanbatou. Former apprentice to one of the Seven Swordsmen. Genin, chuunin-to-jonin level skill."

"Shit, you had me sold at 'advanced kekkai genkai,'" Gecko whistled again. "But apprentice to one of those guys? That's like saying you're apprentice to a sannin." Slowly, Kitsune raised her hand, drawing the man's gaze. "Really?"

Kitsune shrugged. "Apprentice to an apprentice, if Anko would ever make it official."

"Hyuuga Hinata," Falcon spoke up, drawing a slow nod from Kitsune. "I see." Whatever it was she saw, however, she kept to herself.

"So... two bloodlines?" Gecko asked, getting a nod from Neko.

Blinking, Kitsune asked, "So, I can recruit her?"

"Yes," Neko confirmed. She knew enough of who Hinata was referring to to know that her rank was circumstantial and subject to change—there was some leeway she could use to recruit what was technically a genin on record, but had skills to easily pass on to chuunin. "Report tomorrow, oh eight hundred. Dismissed."

With a nod, the girl turned and left as Neko began handing out assignments. Apparently, her team had drawn village patrol for the mid-day shift, but Hinata was being excused to collect Haku. She did not mind at all, that she could get out of running back and forth across the village for eight hours. Of course, now that her team knew she was a Hyuuga, she would likely be called upon to use her byakugan full time. It wasn't something she minded—she suspected such advantages were to be disclosed to one's team anyway.

Watching her cousin squirm in pain and clench his fists and jaw in an effort not to scream as she—rather needlessly painfully—mended his various breaks and fractures, Hinata smiled beatifically. It was the simple pleasures in life, really—good food, good friends, good sex, painful revenge against those who had wronged you. Maybe it wasn't quite healthy, focusing as she was on paying her cousin back for all the anguish he'd caused her over the years and she'd just dismissed—then again, maybe it was better she got it out of her system in a non-destructive way as opposed to simply slitting his throat. By the time he was healed, he may even be close to even in her books. Then again, maybe not—he did kill her once a week, every week, for so long she had lost count and there was no real way for him to repay that.

A particularly nasty break twisted back into place, bone grinding harshly against bone momentarily and the boy whimpered. It was like music to her ears, really. Sighing quietly, she turned her mind away from thoughts of tormenting her cousin and onto something more productive—namely, seals. Progress was being made on reverse engineering Orochimaru's and Hinata was sure they were nearing a turning point—very, very soon she would be able to completely remove the damnable thing. They just needed live test subjects. Anko had already volunteered, but Hinata had declined—even if she could fix it, she couldn't bring herself to kill the woman repeatedly to cure her. There were release points within the seal, points at which one could apply chakra and force the seal to dissolve—there had to be, since they were in every seal—the problem was in getting to them. At least, that's if they went after those as opposed to the brute-force method—unfortunately, they didn't have a brute-force method at the moment.

Even without progress into removing it, they were learning much about fuuinjutsu as a whole simply by studying it. Mad though he may be, Orochimaru was still a genius and second only to Jiraiya at fuuinjutsu with Yondaime dead. Before, it would have been humiliating to admit that Sakura was actually coming to grips with the madman's work faster than she was—now though, it was simple acknowledgment of fact, and a bit of pride in choosing well. The first time she'd had to ask for help on something had hurt, but Sakura had been surprisingly good about it—apparently, that little bonding session had been enough to bring them to a mutual understanding and clear the air of any animosity between the pair. It was Sakura, after all, who had pointed out the massive medical-style regenerative seal buried in amongst all the other stuff—something Hinata really should have spotted first, having been exposed to such things much longer with her work at the hospital. The connected storage seal and its contents had been... disturbing. And worrying. Hinata had sworn Haku and Sakura to secrecy, though Ibiki had needed no such warning, knowing full well what such information would do to the woman he'd called a friend for years now—let alone what the village council would do, once they caught wind of it. It would be all the excuse they needed to dispose of Orochimaru's last living student as they'd wanted to for years. Needless to say, that particular section of the seal had been labeled 'Do Not Open' and left alone from then on.

Orochimaru aspired not just for power, but for immortality. The man had actually found a way to clone himself. Not illusions, not even shadows and chakra like kage bunshin—but actual, biological clones. The cursed seals, attached physically as they were to the host, leeched both chakra and nutrients in order to fuel the cloning process—developing new copies of the man from nothing but a cell culture; a cellular culture which had come from his original body but they had no way of knowing that at the moment. Not only that, having some idea what she was looking for, Hinata was able to spot what must be a seal similar to the one she was looking to build—one to contain, transfer, and/or implant memories—nested nearby to the regenerative seal. That had brightened her day and she had immediately set a clone to tearing the thing apart and figuring out how it worked. Even if it wasn't ideal, it would put her that much closer to what she wanted—all she'd need would be to figure out how it interacted with the brain, then figure out how to create and connect the interface she wanted. It would be useful by itself, but without the ability to do things automatically—keeping track of her own personal time-lines, for instance—it wasn't good enough.

Of course, even if she finished the seal she wanted, it wouldn't be much help if it were as visible as Anko's own—something Jiraiya had pointed out when he'd first learned what she intended. One could hide seals by folding them, but even then there were limits—Tsunade's seal for instance. Hinata had some idea of what it did, and to do that would require hundreds of meters of sealwork if it were printed at anything close to readable size. Tsunade's seal was folded in upon itself and set on her forehead in a diamond shape, according to Jiraiya, but it was still plainly visible for all to see. Even Hinata's own current set of seals—chakra storage, triggers, and explosive—was plainly visible when she removed her shirt. So far, her best idea was to make them tiny and hidden in plain sight, but there were only so many ways to disguise—

Neji twitched, breaking her from her thoughts and drawing her eyes down to her work. The break beneath her hands had been one of the few compound fractures, almost as nasty as Lee's own injuries. It had initially broken the skin, but medics on-site had repaired at least that much when they had initially taken him in and ascertained his condition. She couldn't do anything about the scar, but then again, it's not like anyone would notice.

Hinata blinked, parsing that thought again before glancing down further, catching sight of another scar, then another near that—the tell-tale signs of a shinobi lifestyle, before one was quick enough to dodge blades. She had mostly tuned them out, because they were just small scars—decoration that only the truly vain cared about unless they were truly unsightly, such as in the case of burn scars. But these weren't from burns—being straight, shallow, and thin they were most likely from kunai and shuriken. And she had ignored them.

Neji frowned as his cousin's smile returned, delving into territory he had been exposed to often in the recent past. It could only mean bad things for someone, and seeing as he was still within easy reach of her hands, he was a prime target. When her gaze turned upwards to focus on his plainly visible seal, he had to force himself not to flinch. "What?"

"I'm thinking," she murmured, weighing her options. Scars would work, yes, but they were still too visible. She needed something smaller, even less visible... but the human body was a canvas with many of its own natural imperfections and blemishes already. Freckles, moles, birthmarks, even tan lines... "Don't move."

Neji's eyes went a little wide as he caught first sight of the Sakura Grove—at least, what she knew of it. They narrowed as tendrils of chakra probed his seal for a moment before he felt the odd sensation of an active seal matrix unfolding across one's skin. Several more tendrils appeared, motes of light he knew to be chakra dancing among them before he felt a mild electrical charge against his skin, and then what could only be compared to pressure that had been pressing in against his body for the last ten years simply vanish—as though his entire body had been bound in ropes and she had just taken to a blade to them all at once. "My seal...?" he began, not quite willing to believe it himself, but he had felt it.

"Removed," Hinata confirmed, her tone all business. "Don't get all excited yet. I'm going to put it back on you."


Sighing, the girl shook her head and raised her hands to his head to begin the process of re-inscribing the seal. "I want to test a theory. After I'm finished, I'll remove it completely. If the clan re-seals you, I may even remove it again if you shut your mouth and let me work." On the boy's quick nod, she began.

"Well?" Neji asked, several minutes later. The pressure had returned, letting him know the seal was back in place. After having lived with it for a decade and suddenly being freed of it, feeling it again was almost unbearable.

"Almost finished," Hinata nodded. "Just have to test it." On the boy's narrowed eyes, she shrugged. "Sorry," she apologized, forming the hand-seals necessary and channeling chakra. Neji's reaction was instant, in the form of a howl of pain. She only left it active for a second, but even that long was enough to leave her feeling somehow dirtied just by association with that damnable seal. A quick diagnostic scan proved the boy wasn't faking it, given his elevated heart rate and other obvious signs that were impossible to reliably fake in so short a time and on such short notice. Pushing him back onto the bed, she observed her handiwork momentarily before beginning to dissolve the seal she same way she had the first time. The new seal was tiny in comparison to his original Caged Bird seal—no larger than her fingernail, really—and visible only as a slightly darker area of skin in the middle of his forehead that could easily be mistaken for a particularly large freckle. The only way she could actually remove it was using the Sakura Grove—manual removal would be physically impossible at this size, and she had just learned that physical size had no bearing whatsoever on a seal's strength or ability to do whatever it was meant to do. Theoretically, one could be microscopic and still be as effective as a seal that covered the entire body—everything important was not so much in the physical properties as the wording. It was a bit like a simple math statement—writing it in red ink as opposed to blue, or writing it a foot across as opposed to an inch wouldn't change the fact that two plus two always equaled four. Of course, she could immediately think of ways size would matter—namely, any seal that used part of the seal itself to describe an area as opposed to complex math. Still, this changed things a bit—maybe more than just 'a bit.' She would have to ask the old pervert just to be sure, but she had a hunch. He had always used brush and ink, after all, so either there was a reason for it, or it was simple habit...

The entire thing was composed of skin pigmentation—that's it. No ink, no brush, just very precise application of medical jutsu to convince melanin to gather in a set pattern. Of course, being a biological medium and subject to change, she would need some way of propagating the seal and ensuring it remained intact over time. A second seal to refresh the first set could do it easily, and there were already plenty of medical seals she could look over to find or make what she needed. 'What happens when the set designed to keep it intact breaks?' Hinata wondered briefly, before her answer became apparent in an old ninja credo: two is one, one is none. Redundancy was key. Create multiple copies of the same seal—hell, of all the seals—and link them together in a latticework that used the entire body as its canvas. Given how small she could make seals now, that could be literally thousands of copies of the same seal with no real compound effects. Some could only be placed in specific areas—such as the connecting point to her chakra storage seals—but the rest could go anywhere. Now that she thought about it, even Orochimaru's seal had some self-perpetuation work built into it somewhere, to keep someone from trying to outright destroy all or part of his work in an attempted brute-force attack.

Of course, there were going to be differences in the work she'd done with Neji and what she would do to herself. For instance, Hinata's skin was much lighter than Neji's. Unlike most people with pale skin, Hinata's was clear and did not turn red easily—not without either sunburn or a blush—and was mostly unblemished, again not counting the evidence of a life as a ninja. She could always simply flood her skin with melanin for an instant tan, but Hinata liked her perfect, pale skin—and more importantly, she knew Naruto liked it. Little trace-work lines of seals crafted with skin pigmentation would show up more on Hinata than they would on many others. But a lack of pigmentation, however, would hardly be noticed—like tiny scars, most people would tune it out at anything but close range. Removing pigmentation was easy enough, keeping it removed could be just as easy with the proper seals...

So it was that Hyuuga Hinata found herself once more accosted in the middle of a training field at dusk by a clone wearing hospital garb. "Down you go!" the clone grinned, knocking the original off her feet and straddling her creator's waist. A few quick tugs had Hinata's jacket off and shirt pulled up, exposing her breasts—and the sealwork between, under and now around them. "Let's get rid of that, shall we? Never was one for tattoos," the clone murmured, lines of ghostly light connecting with the downed Hinata as points of light came into contact with the seal, which promptly dissolved.

Hinata blinked. "Do we have to have this discussion again?"

Above her, Hinata smiled. "I'll just win again. Trust me, I wouldn't undo all our work if I didn't think I could re-do it."

"What are you doing?" Hinata asked, as above her, the clone had begun actively using medical chakra using her byakugan to guide her work.

"Well, knowing how vain we are about our skin," the clone began, pausing to laugh at the original's poked out tongue at the jibe. "This time, I took the time to do proper research before coming. I did some experimenting with Neji, and I figured out how to create seals out of skin pigmentation."

"It would stand out from a kilometer away," Hinata argued, getting a nod from her clone.

"Three steps ahead of you. Just lay back and hush while I work," she admonished, before a smirk crossed her face. "Well, unless you'd rather do something else."

The Hyuuga girl blinked, then blinked again, even as her clone grabbed her pants and yanked them and the panties beneath them down around her ankles. "I can't believe I had that thought," she denied, shaking her head. "Kage Bunshin and their variants are dangerous," she murmured, feeling suddenly more exposed.

"Yes, we are," the girl atop her admitted. "Nothing to lose, after all."

"I would not not seduce myself," Hinata reiterated flatly.

Above her, Hinata snorted. "Remember, I'm you separated by only a few hours. You would. We are damn sexy, after all. The question is, would it be sex or masturbation?"

"Awkward. Are you done molesting me yet? You're taking an awfully long time up there."

The clone shrugged. "Redundancy. One copy of the seal may be destroyed, but a few hundred self-perpetuating copies across our entire body? Not likely. Now, roll over."

Rolling over, the original sighed as her clone settled back down. "I didn't realize I was that paranoid," she murmured, resting her head on her arms and closing her eyes. "While you're back there, would you—?"

"Massage?" the clone asked, rolling her eyes as her originator nodded. "Sure. May as well do that too while I'm feeling me up."

Hinata had very nearly fallen asleep by the time the sound of footsteps reached her ears. Above her, the clone shifted slightly and slowed briefly in working out a kink in her creator's back, before picking her work back up. "Are you sure you should leave yourself so vulnerable, Kitsune?"

"Neko-chan," Hinata chirped in stereo, one set of eyes turning to regard Uzuki Yuugao while the other closed again in contented bliss. "Aren't we supposed to keep our ANBU identities secret?"

"We're alone. Kurenai and Anko stopped watching an hour ago and there is no one else around within a kilometer."

Hinata hummed. "Didn't realize I'd had an audience—going to have to work on expanding my byakugan range. Were they sitting just outside of my usual range with field glasses or something?"

"Yes. They are very interested in your welfare. They did not leave until your clone arrived from the hospital."

Chuckling, the girl nodded. "And you came to check up on me yourself?" she asked, receiving a slow nod in answer. "I was never alone, you know." Hearing the woman's curious humm, Hinata smiled. "You didn't notice the thirty clones around you, armed to the teeth?"

"No," Neko admitted, to which the girl smirked. With the last rays of sunlight gone and the stars just beginning to provide proper illumination, the elder ANBU could make out ghostly lines of light twist into place around them lightning fast. A moment later, they glowed faintly brighter before exactly thirty clones of the girl formed, every last one of them with some form of weapon drawn and pointed her way. They were there just long enough for the demonstration to be effective before they disappeared the same way they had come and the girl's tendrils faded from view. "Impressive."

Hinata sighed. "Taicho, you aren't wearing your mask—you don't have to act like it," she pointed out.

Nodding slowly, the woman dropped to kneel in the grass at the younger girl's side. "Uzuki Yuugao," she murmured, by way of introduction.

"Anko's mentioned you a time or two," the clone smiled.

Answering the girl's acknowledgment with a nod, she gestured towards the clone. "What are you doing?"

"Destroyed and rebuilt my seal array into a more useful seal network," Hinata breathed out in a sigh as the copy above her found a particularly tender spot.

Yuugao twitched, unsure whether to be embarrassed or envious—it was quite obvious the younger girl was enjoying herself, after all. "Would you mind stopping that while we talk?"

"Yes," both of the dark-haired girl deadpanned.

Rolling her eyes, the elder ANBU palmed a kunai and absently flipped it into the clone, where the girl dispersed, hospital scrubs dropping to lie flat against the original's lower back. When that failed to elicit so much as a twitch from Hinata, save for the creation of another clone—which was also swiftly dispersed—Yuugao shrugged and scooted closer before beginning to straighten her subordinate's clothes. "If you're going to disperse my clones, at least pick up where she left off," Hinata mewled.

"You are spoiled," Yuugao accused, getting a nod from the girl below her even as she struggled to replace the panties and the pants that had gone over them. It did nothing to speed the process that Hinata was an unwilling participant and entirely uncooperative with her efforts. "You're worse than Anko. She at least has the decency to wear clothes when we meet." After a moment, she tacked on a quiet amendment of, "Most of the time."

"If you can call them that," Hinata giggled. Finally, she brushed the jonin's hands off and straightened her own clothes before rolling over onto her back to regard the other woman. "So, you've got a good reason for interrupting?"

"I do," Yuugao admitted, and Hinata realized that even without her mask the woman was still all business. It didn't entirely fit with what Anko had told her about Yuugao, however little it may have been. The woman was typically serious, yes, but this was worrying. "Have you ever heard of Message in a Bottle Protocol?"

Slowly, Hinata's eyes tracked up to meet the much darker purple of Yuugao's own. "I have not," she admitted, but she had a very good idea where this was going. She prepared to create and disperse a yuurei bunshin on short notice—with any luck, the clone's dispersal could pass along the message to the rest of her even with the original unconscious. Then, it was just a matter of activating her remote-detonation seal and going back to kill Uzuki Yuugao... or refuse her request to join ANBU, at any rate.

"You don't want to do that," Yuugao murmured, reading the girl like a book. "I am not your enemy." Seeing Hinata looked willing to listen, she continued. "A little over two months before the chuunin exams, a high-profile genin suddenly breaks routine and begins training at a furious pace, while displaying expert-level skill with a jutsu most jonin can't perform—even going so far as to seek out a new instructor. A month passes and that genin suddenly takes an interest in Konoha's demon vessel, even going as far as to become his lover. This genin then proceeds to share techniques and training with the demon vessel—"

"Stop calling him that."

Yuugao nearly smiled at the ill-concealed threat in the girl's words. Nodding in reply, she continued. "This genin then breezes through the second phase of the exam in record time, but leaves clones behind to observe Uzumaki's team. One of those clones then dispels a seal placed on Uzumaki by Orochimaru himself while managing to avoid that Sannin's attention, somehow. During the preliminary elimination match, this genin then demonstrates a never-before-seen level of skill, using a variety of techniques and tactics to trap the Hyuuga prodigy within his own technique and then disable him in what looked to everyone present like some kind of personal grudge match."

"I'm pretty sure I know where this story goes from there," Hinata deadpanned, interrupting her superior. "What's your point, taicho?"

"Typically, such an upswing in skill would be looked upon with suspicion and the genin in question would either be placed under observation or in quarantine—suspected of being an enemy agent attempting to infiltrate our ranks, a recently-activated sleeper agent, or compromised and brainwashed."

"Except an enemy infiltrator wouldn't draw as much attention as I did," Hinata countered, earning a nod.

"That, and you've passed every single test that has been run on you. As far as medicine and science can determine, you are Hyuuga Hinata—or at least her body. Techniques like the Yamanaka's could be in play and it does not rule out the possibility of either a sleeper agent or brainwashing techniques. The Kumo incident, eight years ago," the woman suggested, only for Hinata to interrupt by shaking her head.

"Except for the fact that I very obviously bear a personal grudge against Neji and have done everything I can to help Naruto-kun—two things even a washout from the academy could tell you confirm that I am who I say I am, in mind."

"Yes," Yuugao admitted. "Ibiki checked. Against all possibilities."

Hinata chucked. "I am not surprised."

"Ruling out the usual methods, all that was left was the unusual. An individual grows and changes over time. If that person leaves for a year and comes back, he or she could have changed in small ways that may seem strange to an outsider but would be every day life to the individual in question. You act like someone who has been gone a very long time, only to return to settle old scores. Message in a Bottle Protocol is an intellectual exercise—something someone thought up on a whim and put on a list of potential worst-case scenarios for space-time jutsu gone wrong. Suppose you learn of a new bloodline or technique that could allow the wielder to traverse time itself, what would be the best way to utilize such a person? Would you lock them away beneath a tower for the rest of their natural lifespan, treating them well and keeping them updated on current events in the hope that if something goes wrong, that message can be cast into the ocean of time to return to friendlier shores? Do you let them go free, filling your bottle with as much as you possibly can before waiting until the time is right and hope the eventual tsunami created washes away all the bad before it? Or do you eliminate the possible threat to all of us that such a technique represents, to prevent us all from being swept away in the currents of time?"

"It's an interesting argument," Hinata agreed slowly. "What's your take on it?"

Yuugao sat silent several long minutes, studying the girl lying below her regarding her in return with a sort of unworried, untouchable patience. Finally, she allowed a small smile to creep onto her face before turning her eyes upwards to regard the starry sky above them. "I believe the second is the more useful of the three options."

"Ibiki told you?"

"No," Yuugao answered, getting a frown. "Like Ibiki, I am one of the few capable of recognizing the changes in Anko's behavior—Kurenai being the next most likely. Unlike Kurenai, I had no reason to blindly trust you and no previous knowledge of you to pass off most of your own changes as simple desperation and then later as determination. Anko spoke highly of you, several times—enough to pique my interest. I simply gathered evidence and worked outward from there and came to the conclusion on my own, then approached Ibiki, who confirmed my theory. Like myself, he sees the utility in allowing you semi-autonomous reign over how you handle your self-appointed mission—within reason."

Nodding, Hinata asked, "Aren't you worried I'll become the next Orochimaru, or Itachi?"

Shaking her head, the jonin smiled. "No. You value Uzumaki too much for the first and the second was likely acting under orders on a truly black operation—in which case such loyalty should be rewarded as opposed to disavowed."

"I could always just spirit Naruto-kun away," Hinata suggested.

"I don't believe you would," Yuugao denied. "How does it work?"

Shooting the woman a look to see if she was serious, Hinata smiled. "I don't think I should tell you—I wouldn't want you trying to prevent me from using it. You know from observation that attempts at cutting me off from my power will be met with explosive failure. I am not bragging when I say that at this point, it would take either Jiraiya or Orochimaru to truly lock me away—the first has no reason to yet and the second is unaware. I will say that it only goes back, never forward."

"How far?"

The woman was almost an emotional void at times, but this she apparently cared about, Hinata realized. Humming, she asked, "Who was Tiger? When did he—"

"No," Yuugao interrupted. "If you go back, you must be prepared to face what waits for you there. If you did succeed, I would have no reason to induct you into ANBU unless it was clear that it was you who saved his life, which would only bring about more questions—namely, how a genin at the time could defeat a jonin. Even whatever this Sakura Grove is wouldn't explain such a disparity satisfactorily—such a technique typically takes years to master, even when passed down through a family willing to teach one how to perform it. It would be a glaring irregularity that would draw even more attention to your situation. You are needed more in the present than the past at the moment and by saving the life of one man, you would ham-string your ability to learn and develop the techniques and skills you need most along with missing out on valuable experience that ANBU can provide."

Hinata blinked. "You would turn down an offer to save your... what, husband? Boyfriend? Lover?"

"The last two," Yuugao murmured. "And yes. In a heartbeat, if it meant making sure none of it ever happened. My focus is on the long-term goal, now that you have confirmed your capability."

"You're like me," Hinata hummed quietly, sending the woman a soft smile. After a moment of consideration, she sighed quietly and nodded—decision made. "Okay. Fine. I'll stay. As for how far back I can go... well, let's just say 'far enough.'"

"What are your intentions? Your plans?"

Finding Yuugao's eyes had again sought out her own, Hinata thought the question over. On the one hand, she should not trust these people with her secret—they very obviously wanted to use her to their own ends, or at the very least to the betterment of Konoha. On the other hand, they were willing to trust her not to simply abandon them and to safeguard their future and were offering to give her a massive boost in skill that wouldn't be easily obtained elsewhere. Finally, she nodded slowly before beginning. "I think... emulating Itachi may not be so bad an idea. At the very least, there are certain elements within the Hyuuga clan that must be purged before there can be any sort of peace or happiness for the rest." When Yuugao offered neither judgment nor protestation, she continued. "I think I can save my mother, as well."

"Thus the medical training."

"Partly, yeah," Hinata admitted. "After that... well, Hanabi and I grew up with a clan head instead of a father, and no mother. I think it may turn out better if that were reversed."

Yuugao blinked. "You... intend to kill your own father?"

"Something like that," Hinata murmured. "I will give him one chance to become the father he should have been, with mother alive. If he fails, then he will likely wind up doing more harm than good to Hanabi—that I will not abide. Mother tasked me with looking after Hanabi, before her death. I... I was too much of a coward to perform that duty, too afraid to stand up to father, to the council, to Neji, to Hanabi herself—it's unsurprising that she lost all respect for me years ago. It's just one more thing on my list of things needing to be set right."

Nodding, the ANBU hummed a moment before making a decision. "I've found kenjutsu to be particularly useful against hand-to-hand specialists."

Hinata smiled at the offer, but shook her head. "No. Well, I won't turn down an offer for training, but I have something special in mind for them."

"The Sakura Grove."

"When I finish it," the younger girl nodded. "I'm thinking the best bet may be to attempt to use it and my byakugan to bring about death by natural causes using medical techniques—hemorrhages, heart attacks, and the like. All of them are old, so it may just work. Of course, I'd have to get them away from the Hyuuga compound, when their byakugan isn't active or be very, very careful about using it within the Hyuuga compound. Failing that, I now know of a nearly untraceable poison that would do the job well..."

Accepting the girl's plan with a nod as she could see no better way to do it, Yuugao asked, "How long do you plan to stay in the present?"

"As long as there is some benefit to be had," Hinata admitted after a moment of thought. "I'd like to let Naruto-kun learn as much as he can under Jiraiya, so I can return it to him when I go back."

Yuugao blinked, realizing the implications. He was her entire reason for going back, now. Her mother, her clan, her friends and family, the village itself—while they were nice thoughts, they were exactly that, afterthoughts. Everything was second to Uzumaki Naruto, in her mind. For him, Hinata would gladly watch them all burn with a smile on her face. The only thing convincing the girl to aid any of them and not simply cut a bloody swath through the middle of Konoha to avenge every wrong ever done that boy was the fact that he genuinely wanted to help the village and didn't care for petty revenge. How the hell did Ibiki miss this? Then again, he may very well be aware—Uzumaki's loyalty to Konoha was beyond question at this point, after all and so long as the boy remained loyal Hinata would do nothing to upset or disappoint him. "You do not play around."

"I do not." After a moment, she amended, "Well, not where it counts." Glancing at her watch, she stretched before rolling to her feet. Beside her, Yuugao did the same. "I should be getting home—Haku-chan will get worried and I don't want her accidentally getting twitchy with my seal if I don't show up on time."

Surprised, the jonin's eyes widened somewhat in realization. "You created a remote detonation seal and gave someone else access to it?"

Hinata smirked. "Yup—her and Naruto-kun. And, of course, there's a copy written in amongst the rest of this mess I call a seal network," she admitted, gesturing. "Which means every single clone is capable of setting it off."

"So, you obviously go back by default when you die," Yuugao inferred, getting a shrug in answer. "You don't trust anyone, do you?"

"You're wrong. I trust you plenty. I just don't like the idea of being trapped. I've spent enough of my life in one cage or another—my clan, the threat of the Caged Bird seal, my own inability to act on my feelings... Never again."

Observing the girl's resolve, Yuugao nodded minutely. 'So, this is why Ibiki hasn't bothered focusing on anti-interrogation techniques. He already suspected as much. She has no real fear of physical pain or death any more—it is as commonplace to her as her period; inconvenient and uncomfortable, but a fact of life. No cage, shackles, or seals can truly hold her while she's wearing her own seal; if I were a betting woman, I would wager she has already set up triggers to self-terminate should she be cut off from her chakra, forcibly rendered unconscious, or drugged. I would also wager, given her display of immodesty and lack of body consciousness, she has crafted some sort of anti-rape trigger as well. Useful. Of course, being unafraid of death and pain can be just as much of a liability, if she has no reason to push herself beyond her normal capabilities. Perhaps I can find a way to remedy that.'

Life as an ANBU operative, Hinata had quickly learned, was not what everyone made it out to be. It was a lot like being on any other team, really—occasional bitching between teammates as they became more familiar with each other, lots of training, long periods of boredom spent doing necessary but otherwise dull things, and the occasional brief moment of pants-pissing terror. The only real difference was that on Team Eight, those few moments of terror had only ever come outside of Konoha. With Neko's ANBU Nine, terror and training went hand in hand and missions in the outside world where they were merely under threat of death from enemy ninja as opposed to training with Neko were seen almost as a reprieve.

It did not take long for Hinata to realize two things: firstly, Anko had always been going easy on her, not wanting to damage a potential asset. Secondly, Anko had apparently been Yuugao's captain before the woman quit ANBU—and Yuugao had inherited Anko's vicious streak. Unlike Anko, Yuugao had no qualms drawing blood—Hinata was a medic and if she couldn't fix it herself, then they had a hospital. Barring that, the girl could reset. The tactic forced a very quick progression in the girl's taijutsu skill—namely, learning to not be there when Yuugao struck. It was more difficult in reality than it sounded in theory. Hinata had quickly learned that clones and kawarimi were the only sure method of preventing grievous bodily harm—and even that didn't work all the time, mostly because the tactic ran counter to Yuugao's own plan to force Hinata to gain skill and/or suffer for it.

A large part of being part of one of the great clans meant learning things others wouldn't from a very young age. Her lessons had varied from etiquette to politics, from martial arts to history, from dancing to the best methods of killing someone with only a dessert spoon, and so much more. One of those lessons in particular pertained to the various well-known styles of unarmed combat native to Konoha. Eight well-known, if not widely used, styles of unarmed or chakra-aided techniques had originated or settled within Konoha to date. Some of them had been lost over the years, but were far from forgotten.

Dancing Leaf was Konoha's own standardized taijutsu style, taught to academy students and typically sharpened by jonin-sensei and later, ANBU if one were inducted. It relied heavily on acrobatics, with an emphasis on dodging and parrying blows and an even mix of offense, defense, and redirection. As one would expect from Konoha, given their environment, it heavily favored having obstacles—namely trees—to maneuver through and around, slowing the enemy and potentially leading them into traps while using trees as springboards to provide momentum and sudden direction changes. Naruto's own taijutsu style was predominantly a much flashier Dancing Leaf—what little he had been taught or managed to recreate by observation, and the rest heavy improvisation. Oddly, the orange worked well to distract the eye and hide a good quarter of the boy's attacks—as Hinata knew from firsthand experience. She would be experimenting with a similar tactic in the near future.

Gentle Fist had been created by the Hyuuga some years ago, shortly after settling in Konoha—when someone apparently took it upon themselves to shift their clan focus from medical techniques to hand-to-hand specialists during the First War. The style was mostly offensive, relying on the Byakugan to deliver fast, instantly crippling or lethal blows or wear down an enemy by cutting them off from their own chakra. High-nineties percent accuracy and a focus on speed training allowed them to act either alone or with a group as a supporting force, and the sixty-four palms and heavenly spin techniques allowed them to take on multiple foes at close range that others would have issue with. It was, as Anko had called it, mostly offense-as-defense—disable the enemy before the enemy can do the same to the user.

Intercepting Fist was older than Gentle Fist by far, but turned out to be the Uchiha's perfect answer to counter the Hyuuga's own style. Or, perhaps, Gentle Fist was meant as a counter to Intercepting Fist—the only ones who could say were long dead. As the name implied, the technique relied primarily on intercepting an opponent's attacks and then counter-attacking in the brief moment where their foe was left open, or likewise predicting and then dodging blows and forcing the opponent to over-extend and then taking advantage of the opening. Supposedly, it depended as much on the Sharingan as Gentle Fist relied on the Byakugan. To Hinata's knowledge, there was only one true practitioner left—Uchiha Itachi. While she could see bits and pieces of a foreign style in Sasuke's taijutsu, the boy's own style was predominantly Dancing Leaf. Well, it had been, until he had copied parts of Lee's Strong Fist during the exam.

Strong Fist had very few practitioners, as far as Hinata knew—Rock Lee and his sensei Maito Gai, and now Uchiha Sasuke given that he had stolen parts of the style. Despite that, it was well known—Gai was infamous as the greatest taijutsu master to come out of Konoha in decades, much as Kurenai was Konoha's own genjutsu mistress. From what she knew of it, both through her lessons and observation, the style relied mostly on greater speed and power to overwhelm an opponent with unrelenting, brute force and then simply not being there when the opponent made to retaliate. It could be defeated, but anyone willing to try would pay dearly for the effort—and that wasn't even counting two of its users' ability to open the Eight Celestial Gates. That had been surprising the first time she'd seen it—and amazing, that Lee had managed to use the technique at his age.

Heavy Fist, similarly to Strong Fist, relied on overwhelming force—the primary difference being, the Akimichi didn't rely on speed so much as greater size and mass. It helped that with their family techniques, a single strike could literally smash ninja like bugs and come down on a crowd of enemies like a ton of bricks dropped from the roof of a building. It was slow compared to any of the other techniques within Konoha, but then it didn't have to be fast when the sheer potential size of an attack left little room to dodge and almost guaranteed one-hit kills. It was also one of the very few taijutsu styles Hinata knew of that would put the user on a level to potentially take out a summon in hand-to-hand combat, without ranged ninjutsu bombardment—Strong Fist and Meteoric Fist being the only others still in use to date.

Raking Claw had been introduced to what would eventually become Konoha by the Inuzuka clan well before its formation, aligned as they were with the Senju and was likely as old as Intercepting Fist. It focused primarily on speed and precision to deliver clawed swipes, jabs, and raking attacks taking advantage of the Inuzuka's claws, with a bit of misdirection mixed in for fun. Its biggest threat came in the two-fold attacks from master and familiar, forcing the opponent to fight both a human with an unpredictable style and a dog working in synchronization or two bestial hybrids created with the Inuzuka's own family techniques. It was strongly suspected that those transformation techniques were actually a bloodline limit and not simply an advanced transformation—similarly to the Akimichi's own not-so-obvious bloodline. Standard henge was a localized bunshin, after all—nothing but an illusion and completely incapable of altering size, mass, or other things that both Raking Claw and Heavy Fist could do. The only, only way to perform those techniques to that scale would be to create an utterly massive chakra shell and direct that—impossible due to several reasons, namely chakra reserve requirements and chakra control requirements. Anyone who could create a chakra shell on that scale would be far more terrifying in combat than any solid transformation technique. Hinata strongly suspected that Naruto could do both—she had seen the transformation herself and if anyone had the chakra to pull off a full-body chakra shell, it would be him. She hadn't forgotten the scattered descriptions of his first trip to Wave, either—mostly coaxed out of a very reluctant Sakura by Ino at the time.

Hidden Fist, otherwise known as Hebi or Snake Fist, had originated as a direct challenge to every clan and bloodline-fueled technique within Konoha. That it had succeeded in more than one open challenge only managed to irritate the clans. In the present day, the style was looked upon with more scorn than simple dislike due to its creator—Orochimaru. There were only two practitioners left in Konoha to date—Anko, and now Hinata. A better name for the style would be Unexpected Fist, really, given its nature. Hebi used little-to-no chakra for its attacks beyond basic body reinforcement, instead relying on raw physical speed and strength to deliver precise disabling or outright lethal blows to pressure points and other weak points on the human body—similar to Gentle Fist, except there was nothing gentle about it and it used no real expressed chakra. The biggest threat of the style was that it was intentionally unpredictable—the user struck with little to no warning, using the focus of their own gaze and other blows as misdirection to hide a fast strike to an area of the body not in the user's immediate focus. If one wanted to attack the throat, for instance, then the eyes would shift to the chest area and the user would perhaps begin mixing more kicks into their attacks before attacking the more lethal target. It could outright ignore the Hyuuga's ability to shut down external chakra expression—it used no external chakra, after all. The Uchiha could not intercept their attacks when those attacks came with no warning and immediately disabled arms and legs. Like all the others, it could be beaten—but the price for failure was typically death.

Instant Fist had come and gone in a flash over a ten-or-so year period, showing up shortly before the Second Great War and disappearing the night of the Kyuubi's attack. It had only ever had one practitioner, but the man had painted a legend for himself with the blood of countless foes. Namikaze Minato, Konoha's very own Yondaime Hokage, had created a style that was still feared to this day even years after his death, with no sign of it ever returning. The style had relied on a combination of three techniques—Hiraishin, Rasengan, and a style of taijutsu Yondaime had created specifically to take advantage of Hiraishin. Since no one quite knew what Hiraishin did, they were equally unsure exactly how the taijutsu part of it worked—though Anko suspected that it was similar to Hebi, in focusing on instantly-lethal attacks. Perhaps, if she were very, very lucky Hinata may just be able to uncover the man's secrets—either through Jiraiya or some other source—and return them to Naruto some day, where they belonged. Until then, Instant Fist would remain only a legend.

There were, of course, more styles—Tsunade's Meteoric Fist and Jiraiya's Toad Fist, for instance were both well known and feared but were typically overshadowed by their other feats and accomplishments. Hinata was, at the moment, willing to add another style to the list: the Cat Fist. Neko had invented her own godsdamned taijutsu style specifically to take advantage of her ability to manipulate terrain—and what Hinata had come to call the Nekoken was the most terrifying style she had ever laid eyes on. Given that she had seen every style on that list but Instant Fist and Intercepting Fist in action, that was saying something. Neko's attacks were all Hebi-level unpredictable—except, unlike Hebi, Neko had taken her cat fetish to ridiculous heights and incorporated a variant of what looked like chakra scalpels into all of her unarmed strikes, be they from hands, feet, knees, or elbows.

Every single strike came with anywhere from three to five nearly-invisible razors of pure chakra that could phase through armor and flesh to rend the muscle and organs beneath it, extending her reach two to three inches from the point of contact—more if she pushed it. Thankfully for Hinata, Neko had yet to pull that trick and had stuck to striking only her exposed flesh. Similarly to Raking Claw, the Cat Fist used swipes, jabs, and raking attacks—but it did not focus on them, incorporating pretty much whatever the situation called for. Like many of the techniques on that list, it relied on superior speed to utilize offense as defense. Unlike others on the list, Neko always had the high ground, more force to her blows, and if she ever lost her footing it was intentionally in an effort to open up new avenues of attack. Put a sword in the woman's hands though, and it was something else entirely.

Needless to say, Hinata had not won a single spar against her captain since being inducted into ANBU—not that she expected to, but it would have been nice to at least land a blow. Many of those, she had barely managed to survive without a reset. According to the rest of ANBU Nine, this was nothing out of the ordinary—no one had been able to even so much as match her aside from Tora, and that was only when he had a sword in his hand. Gai may have been Konoha's taijutsu master, but Yuugao was a damn close second. Unlike Gai, Yuugao never advertised—everyone not of Konoha who had the misfortune to see the Nekoken in action died and Neko had no desire whatsoever to spread awareness of her own skills; surprise was more useful to the woman than fear by reputation. Apparently, the two of them had only ever had one sparring session—it was still whispered about, even years later. They had destroyed an entire training field with nothing but taijutsu and both of them had wound up in the hospital for a solid month. There had been no more matches between them since—they had been outright forbidden by Sandaime. Rumor had it, Gai won by knockout—but just barely, succumbing to blood-loss shortly thereafter. Kitsune had of course figured out exactly when the match in question took place and would do everything in her power to be there to see it, if she remembered.

It had taken only one practice session with Neko before Kitsune had begun blatantly using the Sakura Grove to dissuade Neko from getting close. It did absolutely no good whatsoever, regardless of how much chakra she put between them. Anything she managed to land—and she had yet to so much as graze Neko in anything approaching a vital area that would induce a knockout or otherwise hamper her movement—had simply been adjusted for and shrugged off, to be ignored. Using the Sakura Grove to spawn clones outside the older ANBU's immediate range and then switch places with them at the last minute was the only thing saving Kitsune from having to constantly use medical techniques to stay on her feet. Even that defense was becoming harder to use—Neko was apparently chakra-sensitive on a level that put most jonin to shame and could immediately detect the switch and which way she'd gone, regardless of the number of transfers and since Hinata used yuurei bunshin, Neko could easily tell the difference between clone and creator. Ranged fire with everything from shuriken to kunai to bows with cloned arrows were all dodged, deflected, or danced through as the woman simply closed range again and forced Kitsune into brief but intense bouts of hand-to-hand combat.

Today, though, Kitsune had had a plan. Like all plans, it fell apart the moment it met the enemy—or in this case, Neko. Her plan had been simple—lure Neko to water and see if kitty could swim. She remembered, too late, Neko's claim to fame—terrain manipulation, and the apparent godly trifecta that was her chakra affinity of Earth, Water, and Fire. Of the three, Kitsune was beginning to suspect that Neko favored Water—if only for the results of the absolute beating she had received. When Neko stepped on water—when she chose to simply step on water—it was with the same surety she had on land, if not more so. Water flattened, hardened, and shaped around her feet to provide traction whichever way the woman wanted even more than on land. Worse, when she didn't step, she skated. Kitsune had thought Neko was fastest on land—she had been mistaken. On water, Neko could accelerate herself to seemingly-unmatchable speed and go anywhere from there. If the woman stuck with a head-on attack, blows came in at bone-rattling intensity—Kitsune was sure Neko was holding back to keep from shattering her limbs outright and learning a new level of bodily-reinforcement with chakra became priority one from that point on.

Unfortunately for Kitsune, Neko rarely attacked head-on. The elder ANBU would, on occasion, lower herself to nearly skimming the water's surface and then come in from beneath Kitsune's meager defenses, tossing the girl around like a rag doll and leaving her clothes shredded and soaked through. When Neko decided to come in from the top and launched herself from the water's surface to attack from above, she stayed airborne longer than seemed possible to send blows raining down from unexpected angles that knocked Kitsune off her footing and threatened to send her under. The fact that she got off the water's surface at all was simply due to Neko deciding practice was over, and swatting the girl halfway across the pond in the center of their training field to land in a tumble of limbs and a spray of mud on the shore.

So it was that Hinata—or Kitsune, rather—found herself rolling off her stomach to breathe something other than mud but too tired and sore to move beyond that. Regarding her newest sensei strolling up from the pond's surface through half-open eyes, she fought to regain her breath enough to speak. By the time she could, Neko had taken a seat further up the bank so as to avoid the mud. "Do you have a special place in your heart reserved for the joy you take, toying with me like a mouse?"

"Pain is weakness leaving the body," Neko shrugged, smiling beneath her mask—Kitsune had lasted a whole thirty seconds longer today, and that atop Neko's favorite playground. Anko was right, she absorbed new things like a sponge.

"You're wrong," Kitsune denied, even as a clone phased into being above her and began going over her with medical chakra. "Pain is the body screaming 'stop doing this, you idiot.'" A moment later, she snorted. "Maybe I should just disable or tone-down my pain receptors."

"Bad idea," Neko denied. "I've heard of such dead-body techniques used before. They work well in the short term, but long-term consequences are dire."

Kitsune nodded. "I figured as much. Probably wind up tearing my body apart from the inside out. At least it's good for pain relief, after." That didn't mean she wouldn't use the technique, it just meant she'd have to experiment and find the right balance—numbing her body without deadening it could prove beneficial.

"You are left with only one option," Neko mused quietly, drawing the girl's attention. "Adapt and overcome."

Snorting, Kitsune rolled her eyes beneath her mask. "Right. If I started practicing at the age of three with what I know now, focusing on nothing but trying to reverse engineer your technique or finishing the Sakura Grove, I might, maybe be able to match you. For all of two minutes. You're bigger, have more mass, more stamina, and a longer reach with an adult body while I do not. And you would still have more experience than me."

Neko shook her head. "You are missing the obvious answer." When Kitsune hummed in question, she pointed out, "You could always stay in the present and learn the technique firsthand."

Kitsune was so surprised, she sat up and removed her mask to regard the woman with an incredulous look. "That's got to be a family technique," she began, only for Neko to shake her head in denial.

"It is—would have been. May be again. That is the point. If passing on my technique to a worthy successor—even if you are outside my line—ensures the survival and prosperity of Konoha, then that is what I will do. If it helps keep you alive and safeguards our future in you, then I am happy to do so." Left unsaid was that if it would ensure Tora's return to her, Neko would give the girl whatever she thought would help in achieving that goal.

Hinata blinked, unsure what to say. Finally, she murmured, "You realize this means I owe you a debt I can't repay."

"You can," Neko denied. On Hinata's curious look, she smiled beneath her mask but shook her head. "One day, before you leave, remember to ask. Until then, don't worry about it."

Chuckling, Hinata replaced her mask and stood with the assistance of her clone, before joining Neko further up the bank where it was dry. "So, where do we begin?"

Happy to see the younger girl seemed ready to begin immediately, Neko hummed. "Baby steps. Learn to walk first, then learn to run, then learn to fight."

"In other words," Kitsune interpreted, "get my elemental manipulation up to something usable for terrain manipulation."

Neko nodded. "You're naturally inclined towards water, like me, so this should be easy. Luckily for you, we have a readily-available source of water on hand."

Heaving a sigh, Kitsune made for the water. "Teach me, O wise and magnificent Neko-chan."

Rolling her eyes, Neko stood to join her student. "I will retitle you as the mouthy one," she threatened halfheartedly.

"Please," Kitsune snorted. "Gecko's mouthier by far."

There was a saying as old as any ninja code or credo that was particularly popular among the older members of the village, likely due to long years of experience proving it to be true: 'speak of the devil and he shall appear.' Whether by fate or karma, bored deities, random chance, or Murphy taking an unhealthy interest in someone it basically boiled down to the fact that if it would be in some way inconvenient for a person one disliked, hated, or feared to show up, then speaking their name would surely summon them. So it was that Hinata found herself standing across a field looking at a pair of figures dressed in black robes patterned with red clouds, large straw kasa hats hiding their facial features from view—or they would have, had her eyes not seen right through them.

Luckily, she was not alone—nor was this her operation. Upon learning that someone had infiltrated Konoha and disabled two of their best jonin, Neko had immediately tasked her with finding out the who and how. The fact that Kurenai and Gai had both been disabled was somewhat worrying, seeing as they were working together at the time and both were highly skilled jonin in their individual fields. 'Who' turned out to be two S-ranked missing-ninja so high up on the priority list that they rated two ANBU squads—each. 'How' was a bit trickier to work out. Apparently, they had just walked right in past a chuunin guard who, after taking one look at them and tensing for a moment, ignored them and went back to minding his own business—everyone in-the-know suspected genjutsu, and being that Itachi was something of a prodigy, it wasn't exactly unexpected.

"Well, well—looks like we rated our own welcoming committee, Itachi," a deep voice rumbled from the taller of the pair and a large, blue-skinned hand reached up to push back a kasa hat to reveal a man who looked to be less man, more shark.

"We are surrounded," Itachi confirmed quietly, studying the group gathered directly before them. A few of those gathered he actually recognized, if not from his time in ANBU then by reputation. It was a bit disconcerting, seeing his own mask staring back at him from one of the three positioned to engage him at close range—along with Neko, whom he knew by reputation, and Falcon who he did not know but was shaping up to be a weapon-user of some sort given her pole-arm. Deciding that searching for their target within Konoha was now impossible as their cover was thoroughly blown, Itachi chose to cut their losses—unfortunately, the clones they were using were far too useful to simply give up so to justify it, they would need to at least disable half the numbers opposing them to ensure their escape and continued use of the cloned bodies.

The problem with dispatching multiple ninja to take out a single target, as Itachi well knew, lie in the fact that there was only so much room to maneuver within and that those working against their one target had to have exceptional teamwork in order not to step on each other's toes. From their makeup, the Uchiha knew that there were at least two teams dispatched to both himself and Kisame—meaning a total of somewhere between ten and twelve ninja between chuunin and jonin level, each. If the captains had any sense at all, the lower-ranked ninja would be the ones hanging back in reserve positions or providing ranged fire support—potentially six ninja each, lobbing weapons into any opening they saw. Closer in would be three providing mid-range support, either defensive or offensive—in Itachi's case, someone wearing a lizard-type mask, a boar, and a rabbit. Within hand-to-hand range would be elite jonin, or very, very skilled special-jonin. Neko was very obviously a jonin of the elite variety and the largest threat by far. Falcon would be a good counter to Kisame's sword, but not much good against Itachi himself based on his limited observation of her. Which left his own past staring him in the face—a particularly short girl who stood out only in that she did not stand out to the naked eye—his sharingan knew the truth, however, and could see chakra floating around the girl in a technique he'd seen described in scrolls within the Uchiha library, on a list of things to be on the lookout for and kill anyone using them if possible.

"So Itachi, can we kill 'em?" Kisame grunted, hefting his massive sword off his back and pointing it idly at one of his own set of ANBU—one wearing a bear mask.

"Or you could leave—" Bear began, only for Itachi's own answer to cut him off.


Neko ignored the sudden screaming, instead focusing on weaving her blade into a pattern she, Tiger, and Falcon had practiced time and again—Kitsune would either be okay, or would reset herself and they would do things differently. Until then, her focus was on the rogue Uchiha. She tuned out the sudden outgrowth of plant-life from Kisame's position, where Bear and his own were moving to engage and cut the two missing-nin off from each other, beyond taking note of its position for potential use.

Kitsune was quickly finding out just why Ameterasu was considered one of the most deadly conceptual weapons known to ninja, as neither Gecko nor Usagi could extinguish the flames with any combination of earth, water, or ice. She was lucky, really, in that it had only been her chakra that caught fire, as opposed to flesh and bone—except that was wrong. It hadn't just caught chakra—she could feel it, all over and deep inside. It was burning her—her very self being unmade. It was not pleasant. Unfortunately for Itachi, she was nothing if not determined.

Itachi frowned as the ANBU he'd left for dead stood and chakra surged at the release of some sort of storage seal. A moment later, sharingan eyes narrowed as chakra strands painted black in Ameterasu's flames wove together and blurred around himself, Neko, and Falcon—any potential escape cut off by a wall of death of his own making. The pair before him took immediate advantage and, for the first time in years, Itachi was forced to deploy his own blade to deflect strikes coming in almost fast enough to be invisible to his own advanced eyes. Now he knew why Neko and Falcon were paired to take him on, as opposed to Kisame—both were ridiculously fast and the combined attacks were almost enough to confuse his eyes, and their teamwork was exceptional as they had obviously drilled together for some time to be able to cover and create openings for each other as they did. It felt, however, as though it were missing something—a space here or there would open and several times, the rogue Uchiha expected to be met with a third blade, only for it to never come. Given the fact that he hadn't heard anything from his contacts about any ANBU using his old mask until only recently, he could only surmise that Kitsune was a new recruit meant to fill the hole left by whoever had been the third prong of Neko's little attack pattern.

Taking stock of the situation and his rapidly dwindling odds of escaping a trap of his own unintentional making with his clone-body intact, Itachi resolved himself to investing more into this little fishing expedition than he had initially thought would be needed and so settled on a course of action. At the moment, the only things keeping him from breaking off from the assault and fleeing with Kisame were Kitsune's wall of fire and Neko and Falcon hemming him into a corner. If he could disable one of those, he could likely get free. However, if both were disabled, his chances of escaping with the clone intact increased exponentially. Allowing himself to be herded into position, Itachi suddenly stopped and held his ground as he lined Neko up with the still-visible Kitsune.


The world had seemed to invert, like a photo negative, momentarily before going dark. Now, Hinata found the world washed out in the silver-gray light of dusk, interrupted on occasion by flashes of bright, white light. Beneath her feet—bare feet, she noted absently—wet sand squished up between her toes and waves lapped cold at her legs just below her knees. The air smelled heavily of ozone and brine and the foreboding potential that hangs in the air just before the worst sort of storms. Of course, there was another smell, too—one more immediate in both presence and urgency: smoke. With the smoke came the realization that she was on fire. Finally, pain registered like nothing she'd ever felt before and she collapsed with a splash and hiss of steam and more smoke into the waves—unable to even scream.

It could have been days, years, she drifted half-in, half-out of consciousness before she was finally able to force her eyes open—well, one eye. The right one didn't seem to want to respond—it didn't hurt exactly, but it seemed to be ignoring her brain's commands to move. Which was more and less than she could say for various other areas—her entire right side felt raw and stiff, but experimentation showed it was capable of movement. Slowly, tentatively, her right hand came up and felt around the unresponsive eye—tender, burned flesh on more of the same. Finding it whole, at least from the outside, she forced the eye open and found the world tinted in red. A few blinks showed the lids worked—they had simply been glued together with blood. That done, she hauled herself out of the water as gently as she could, idly noting the way it had tinged red around her body and the distinctly pink color of the runoff.

'Not in Konoha any more,' she mused, eyes flitting across her surroundings in confusion. Spaced unevenly to either side of her, jutting out from the shallow water like oversized grave markers, stood colossal structures all in some state of decay—a crumbling bell-tower here, a burned out clock tower there, a steeple missing half its roof yonder. Where ever she looked, every structure held a common element—bells, uncountable bells of size ranging from tiny hand-bells to gigantic clock bells and shapes ranging from ordinary to what had once been fine masterworks of art before the ravages of time set in, all of them tied, lashed, or chained to anything that would bear them. Something about them seemed vaguely ominous, but she couldn't for the life of her place why. 'I know I didn't reset and we're a few days or a few weeks of travel away from anywhere vaguely resembling... here. I think I've been here before, but I can't have...'

The thought froze in her mind and shattered as she laid eyes on the largest visible structure, half-submerged as it was and looking ready to fall down at the least provocation. The sea she had found herself knee deep in, the island in the distance, even the huge storm front rolling in quickly and the smaller structures surrounding it were inconsequential compared to the tower. It was familiar—of course, it should be. She had seen it at least once a day every day of her life as it stood proudly over everything else in Konoha. It was time-worn and had obviously been beaten by the elements—even more so than she had ever seen it before—and there was a great, gaping hole in its side but there was no mistaking it for any other building. In the middle of the sea stood the Hokage's tower, Konoha's administration building. It didn't make sense.

Further study of the imitation Tower—it couldn't really be the Tower, could it?—was cut short by a sound. It was not a particularly loud sound, but then in the dead silence surrounding her it stood out—despite the lightning in the distance and the feel of wind and waves against her skin, there had been no sound yet. Slowly turning her head towards the sound, Hinata's eyes went wide as she took in what had stood at her back the whole time. Waves lapped against sandy shore nearby. Further away, the ground was cracked and baked—looking more like a wasteland than any desert. The moon hung high—full, bloody red and terrible—casting its light across the surroundings. Odd structures—racks, crosses, torture devices her mind whispered absently—stretched as far as the eye could see over and into the wasteland.

The sound came again and pale eyes finally locked on its source—a woman with a familiar face and long, purple hair, strung up on one of the X-shaped racks. She gurgled, quietly—urgently—as the black-and-red cloaked individual beside her slowly pushed his short-sword deeper into her side. She locked eyes with him—red eyes spinning, boring into her own with a cool indifference that seemed so much worse than hate, as though he were god of this land and she something unexpected and unwelcome underfoot—and she knew, knew where she was now. She stood safe in her own little world, ready to run away from reality at a moment's notice and reshape things as she saw fit. She could feel it, now, itching at the back of her mind—the impulse to run, let herself be swept out to sea and wash up elsewhere. She almost did—would have, had her eyes not been drawn back to Yuugao, whose lips were moving. She didn't need to hear the older woman's words to understand her plea: go, leave me. A flick of the wrist and the blade twisted horizontal to vertical, and Yuugao screamed.

The sea around her legs stilled for a moment before rushing out and away, leaving her standing on nothing but wet sand for a moment before returning faster than it had left and rushing towards the shore. Sound returned all at once—crack of thunder, howl of wind, roar of onrushing sea, boom and chime of a thousand, thousand bells. She ran.

Author's Notes: There's no way this can turn out bad, right? I mean, Itachi will probably just do what he did in canon—liquor Jiraiya up and try to kidnap Naruto... Yeah, no. Remember, this is the guy who tortured his own kid brother—the one person from his family he wouldn't bear to see killed—and basically told Sasuke to become strong enough to kill him one day, in order to make sure Sasuke would be strong enough to survive Danzou and whatever else Konoha threw at him. I'll (have Itachi) explain it later, but (my thinking on) his reasoning is that at the time, the Uchiha clan wasn't exactly well-liked—had been planning a rebellion, in fact, which is why they were put down—so he assumed Sasuke would have a childhood more akin to Naruto's (likely feels the way they grew up being treated should have been reversed, in a fair world, as I'll have him point out later). Konoha, however, wants the Sharingan bad enough to spoil the hell out of Sasuke to attempt to keep him loyal and in a few years, make lots of little Uchiha babies. Itachi willingly made himself the biggest villain of Sasuke's world to drive him to greatness. It didn't exactly take well at first, but in the end (I think) he felt he was justified and proven right. Imagine what he will do to someone he has no love for—no reason not to simply break. Actually, all the more reason to try and break her to either destroy a potential threat to Konoha or use her for his own goals.

On Hinata vs Itachi: There is no way, no way, Hinata can possibly beat Itachi. Not with a hundred years worth of repeats. Sometimes, insurmountable obstacles truly are insurmountable.

On ANBU: actually, I think I had Yuugao explain that sufficiently. She owed Anko a favor and considered it, then looked into it and when things didn't add up, figured it out for herself before going to Ibiki and asking—if she was wrong, then all she'd done is step on a few toes and maybe make herself look a little over-paranoid.

On Kankuro: his thinking is pretty simple—no lasting damage was done and he'd known the risks going in, and they had been at war at the time. The torture, he can brush off as a job hazard. His sister, on the other hand, not so much. Given the opportunity, he would likely at least attempt to beat Hinata senseless. As it stood, being in not-quite-enemy territory, it was best to simply leave before he did anything that would get him thrown back in one of Ibiki's uncomfortable rooms.

On memory techniques: bear in mind, Hinata has had no formal training as anything at the moment. Everything she has is either in response to the threat that was Neji or to impress Naruto. She saw a problem in that she could not possibly retain everything she learned and so sought the most permanent solution she could think of—seals. Anko never mentioned them before now because she assumed, wrongly, that Hinata had been repeating longer than she had and already knew those techniques and was running into their upper limits.

On Yuugao: unlike Ibiki, Yuugao has a personal, vested interest in seeing Hinata succeed—much like Anko, actually. And yes, this Yuugao is more badass, less broken bird, and absolutely none of what canon future!Hinata could have become as I thought to do with TMH. As for passing on her techniques, I think I explained that sufficiently. She would rather those techniques be used to achieve her goals while keeping her hope for that to happen (Hinata) alive than hold onto them and have them not do a damn bit of good. Every advantage she can give at this point, she will. Again, bear in mind, I don't think Yuugao has ever been properly characterized in canon, outside of filler episodes (which I treat as canon on a case-by-case basis, and I tend to disregard the anime almost entirely for the manga unless something in the anime is more useful or otherwise better). She is a blank slate, beyond a name, a pretty face, and her relationship with Hayate and I'm not sure but I think most of that may be fanon. In this little corner of the universe, she is about as badass as it is possible for a 'normal' ninja to get—no bloodlines, no clan, not exactly a child prodigy, everything she has is the result of hard work.

On the Nekoken: yes, it's a nod to Ranma 1/2. I tried to do the source material justice, but there are some things I couldn't do without overpowering it (the shredding of things with ki claws, for instance, was substituted for a realistic [within canon] alternative capable of doing internal damage) and I didn't want to give it the same origins, obviously.

On a dissertation on taijutsu styles within Konoha: I got bored. I figured there must be at least six or more distinctive styles, not counting anything random individuals are practicing. Intercepting Fist and Hebi are both fanon as far as I am aware, though I have no idea who to attribute them to. Instant Fist I made up on the spot as I was writing it (bearing in mind, it's not actually shown or stated anywhere [to my knowledge] exactly how Yondaime fights), but if it exists elsewhere I wouldn't be surprised. The rest, I just gave names to canon styles where I couldn't find one specifically named. While most of the nekoken is lifted straight from Ranma, I'm not sure but I think I may be the first to come up with Neko's brand of terrain manipulation. If I am, awesome. If not, no big loss. The skating-on-water thing is lifted from... uh.. Never Cut Twice, I think. It's a good Naruto-abandons-Konoha story, check it out if you haven't. As I said, I give credit where it's due if I can remember where it's due.

On Reality Marbles: time-travel, mist from corpses, and now a reality marble. I believe I had Jiraiya explicitly state that they could only be created by inhuman beings or those touched by them somehow. As for it defeating Tsukiyomi, it didn't. Can't, theoretically.

On delays: I was stuck on the last few scenes for months. It still didn't turn out entirely how I'd hoped, but I can live with it.