Naruto struggles to maintain his belief in himself, and Hinata is finally able to tap into her hidden strength. But just when the blonde shinobi thinks he knows what has to be done his perception ...
Chapter 4: A Renewed Resolve
He sat crouched in the darkness, fists pressed to his temples haplessly. His hands shook with tumultuous emotions he could not explain and sweat beaded off his skin despite the cool night air. Gutteral grunts and groans tore from his throat as he struggled for control. Yet he could feel it slipping away...
He had tried again, but like before his efforts had been thwarted; a melted hunk of metal that had once been a kunai sizzled before his toes.
Why, his mind sobbed, why can't I just die?
'We still have work to do, my boy,' the voice within him chimed in a sing-song way that made Sasuke want to tear it from his skull.
"You promised," his voice came out broken and halting; his body trembled so hard, "you promised Itachi first. You lied to me."
'That was before your friends became a problem.' Orochimaru's voice dipped dangerously. 'Now we have to alter our plans accordingly. Don't worry, you'll still get your revenge.'
Sasuke shook his head wildly. "No, I won't kill them. I /won't!/" Harsh laughter echoed in his thoughts.
'But you already did; three of them, in fact.' Sasuke groaned low, fresh tears coursing down his cheeks.
Shino, Kiba and Hinata. The last time he had seen them they were lying in the rubble that had once been the southwest training grounds, Sasuke's Katon Ryuuka no Jutsu having just wiped them out. Orochimaru had turned him from the scene mercifully quick, but not before Sasuke had seen the bodies; lying there on the ground, Kiba atop Hinata... Shino lying only a few feet away.
'It felt good, didn't it, Sasuke? It felt right to take their lives, like it was what you were born to do.'
'You swore an oath of service to me, Sasuke Uchiha. You will have your brother's life, as I promised. Yet until that time you will honor your oath of service by killing those who would hinder our plans!'
A sob tore from Sasuke's throat, tears flowed freely, and he prayed that his friends would be able to kill him when the time came.
"It itches!" Naruto squirmed as Jiraiya applied more salve to the healing wound on the blonde's side.
"Stop being such a baby," the sennin scolded and smeared on a generous dose of the pungent cream. Anko reached over and dipped her fingers into the jar, spreading the medication onto her throat, a slight grimace her only complaint about the effects.
Sakura and Ino sat across the fire, rewrapping the pink haired kunoichi's legs. Naruto had not been able to help but stare. Legs he had once found almost irresistible were now spider-webbed with raised pink and white scars, most still covered in scabs. Yet Sakura's stoic face betrayed no hint of remorse for lost beauty. Capable hands dressed the burns with speed and precision, while Ino moved at a much slower pace on the other leg.
"I cannot believe we fell for such an obvious ploy." Lee sulked close by, his elbows on his knees. "We all knew the battle was far too easy."
"Yeah well, chalk one up to experience," Iruka chimed as he stretched out on the ground and tried in vain to fall asleep. "Guess next time we'll know better."
"But Iruka, how-"
"The young are not born knowing everything, Lee." Gai spoke up in the tone he affected when he thought he was saying something profound. "A wise shinobi sees a failure as a chance to learn. It is through failures that we learn and are able to grow as shinobi."
"Yes, Gai-sensei." Lee replied, as if the gospel had just been sung. Shikamaru quirked a sardonic grin, his eyes closed as he sprawl on the ground.
"Just don't be stupid enough to make the same mistake twice." He piped. "Or then you end up like Naruto." The blonde shinobi growled and threw the medicine jar's lid at his companion, who yelped when it struck his ear.
And as they had done when they were genin, the Rookie Nine adopted wry humor and playful teasing to alleviate the stress of their world. During quiet moments when the events of the day were in danger of suffocating them it was predictable that at least one of them would start in on another; before long dragging the entire group in and temporarily forgetting the trials of a difficult day.
"Alright kids," Kakashi's laid back voice carried a hint of amusement, "time to hit the sack. We've got our watch dogs out so get some rest." Neji and Tenten had volunteered for first watch and though they had been teased about going off into the woods together for something scandalous both had headed out in opposite directions.
The team settled in as comfortably around the fire as possible, yet Kakashi stood.
"Naruto," he said simply and walked off into the woods; knowing the teen would understand that he was to follow.
"What is it?" Naruto scuffed a hand through his hair and trailed his mentor until the fire was a glimmer in the distance. Kakashi seated himself on a branch of a nearby tree and Naruto followed, settling in against the trunk.
"I thought you might like to talk." The silver haired jounin said in his matter-of-fact way.
"About Sasuke," his mentor replied just as mildly, "and anything else you might have on your mind." The team leader bristled somewhat.
"I've got nothing to say about Sasuke." He said. Kakashi's eyebrow arched; the only indication Naruto ever got - other than crinkled eyes - that the man could express emotion under that mask.
"You don't have any feelings about what's happened with him?"
"Look," Naruto huffed, "if you're trying to get me to say that I'm sad about this, or that I'm pissed or whatever, just say so."
"That's pretty much it." Kakashi replied.
"Fine, I'm pissed!" Naruto's hands flailed out dramatically. "I'm pissed and I don't get it and the only thing I know about Sasuke anymore is that someone's gotta stop him or he'll do it again! Are you happy?"
"What else is on your mind?" Kakashi asked and Naruto growled.
"What? What's your deal? Really? I mean, what are you, my shrink?"
"I was thinking more like your friend." Naruto stilled. "Friends listen to each other," Kakashi explained. "Friends try to help when they see that someone they care about is in pain."
"I'm not in pain."
"Then tell me about Hinata." Naruto jolted. "Tell me what's going on with her."
"Why?" The blonde was quieter now, and it was clear his old sensei had struck his mark.
"Because somewhere in the angry teen before me is my old Naruto, and if it's all the same to you I'd like him back." It was quiet again. Naruto took a deep breath, which Kakashi knew meant the teen was not going to blow this off.
"She's special." Naruto shrugged. "She's not loud or rude or stuck up. She's different from all that; like she's above it or something."
"That sounds like a pretty nice girl to me."
"Yeah, but she gets hurt easy, too. Not physically, but inside. She's strong, and she's got spunk, but when she hurts..." Her tears and those terrible sobs echoed in his memory and Naruto shut his eyes, trying to block it out.
"And is she hurt now?"
"Yeah." The teen slumped in his spot. "And I don't know what to do about it."
"What about this?"
"This. Talk." Kakashi suggested. "Why don't you let her talk to you and get it out? You don't have to say a thing as long as she knows what is bothering her. Just be there to listen."
"Will it work?"
"Are you feeling better?" Naruto tilted his head thoughtfully.
"I don't know." He said. "Maybe. Kinda, I guess. I'm still upset... but I don't think I'm as mad."
"Sounds like progress." Naruto shrugged.
"Listen, Naruto," Kakashi leaned in seriously, "things happen in life, good and bad; you can't help that. But you can't let the negative experiences change you for the worse. People used to tease you; call you loud and hyper and obnoxious, and you were fine with that. You didn't let those people change you. This may not seem like it, but it's the same thing. Something is trying to change you now; make you less than who you are. You've never been one to give up on yourself. Don't start now." Naruto watched Kakashi with wide eyes for a moment.
"Where did you get all that?" He asked a little awed. Kakashi's eye crinkled up into a smile.
"Well, there's this great part in Icha Icha Par-" Kakashi began to say quite happily, reaching into the pocket where he kept his precious book when Naruto made a sour face and stuck a hand out in front of himself, warding the Copy Ninja away.
"Oh, geeze, Kakashi-" he stammered and the white-haired man smiled though his mask again.
"Just kidding." Naruto shook his head, though he couldn't hide the little grin.
"You're a pervert, you know that?" He said and leapt to the ground below, leaving a very satisfied jounin to silently congratulate himself on a job well done.
Hinata pulled the bandages from her fingers gingerly. The skin beneath was still quite red and tender, but did not look too bad; at least not as bad as she had thought it would. As the wrappings unraveled she found that her arms and shoulders were in similar condition; red but no serious scarring.
Thanks, Kiba. She thought with a sad smile, hoping that somewhere he could hear her. She took the fresh role of cloth bandages and began wrapping her arms, hands and fingers, making certain each finger was separate and able to function. She flexed her fingers, rolling the digits independently and testing the range of movement the fabric allowed her.
Good enough, she thought after a few adjustments. She climbed out of bed, finding her strength had greatly improved since yesterday and the day before. Pulling her clothes out of the cabinet against the wall, Hinata changed out of her hospital gown and into the outfit Ino had brought her before leaving.
I know you're probably right, Kurenai, Hyuga thought remorsefully, but I can't just sit here and wait while they are out there risking their lives. I have to go.
Though there was no telling if she would even be able to track the team of elite ninjas, let alone catch up, Hinata had resolved herself to trying. Even if she couldn't fight, she had to go; if only to make certain that they were safe. Sitting there in that bed for so long was driving her insane and there was no way she could take it for one more day. So, she took a page out of Naruto's book and decided to escape the hospital, though she was not quite so brazen about it.
Her window opened soundlessly, a pleasant breeze wafting into the room. Her room was only on the second floor and so she didn't bother with any curtains or linked-up sheets to climb down.
Time to test my legs, she thought a bit nervously and jumped to the ground below, only needing to brace herself with one hand upon landing. The skin on her palm stung terribly, but her legs were fine.
With a nervous backward glance Hinata sprinted off into the village and then the forest beyond. She would start her search on the practice fields where she and her team had been ambushed, knowing that Naruto would have started there as well.
It was only hours later, when Kurenai entered the room to visit her friend, that it was discovered: Hyuga Hinata had escaped from the hospital, and the red eyed woman cursed the name of the girl's love furiously for his influence on the sweet natured kunoichi.
Jiraiya squatted on the ground, examining something curious before him.
"It looks like it was a kunai," he said, testing the melted lump gingerly with his fingers before determining it was safe to pick up and show the group, "from the look of the metal and it's temperature I say it was destroyed around nightfall, though don't ask me how."
"It was his," Naruto was adamant, "it has to be." He felt edgy uneasy. Something was very wrong.
"I don't think any of us doubt that for a minute," Gai rumbled, "though I admit that I don't like this one bit. He's leaving a trail for us."
"So it would seem," Kakashi leaned against a tree indolently, "but do we really have any choice but to follow?"
"This is getting way out of hand, you guys." Shikamaru moaned. "I had no idea we were going to have to travel halfway around the Fire Country to find him."
"What did you think was going to happen?" Ino asked. "Did you think we were going to take ten steps into the woods and - BLAM - there he'd be?"
"Quiet." Kakashi's voice was unusually commanding. "Naruto, what is it?"
Naruto had frozen in his place, his eyes apparently staring straight through Jiraiya. He could feel it; though he had no idea how or why. The Sharingan was there, drilling into the back of his head, it seemed; watching them. It wasn't like before, with the substitution; this was real and very, very dangerous.
"Naruto?" Kakashi seemed to understand; his voice was low nearly a whisper. The others had tensed and were watching him, nervous eyes flicking to the trees surrounding them.
"My five o'clock," The blonde whispered, not daring to move.
This isn't even like that day on patrol, he shuddered. What IS this?
Sakura leaned forward slightly, trying not to attract attention. "How do you-"
A rush in his veins.
"SCATTER!" And Naruto threw himself aside, multiple fireballs splashing into the center of the group. His friends had obeyed and were skidding to a halt in multiple locations.
There was a rustling sound just where Naruto had said and Sasuke appeared looking ragged, haunted; his steps lurching as though he were fighting his legs for control.
"Naruto..." it was Sasuke's own voice, something none of them had heard in years, "please..."
What's happened to you, Sasuke?
Sasuke's eyes were yellow. Naruto knew the Sharingan was on him, but Sasuke's eyes were yellow, like a snake's.
"Please..." Sasuke's voice croaked, that strange sing-song tone blending in, becoming louder, grating down Naruto's spine like fingernails as the Uchiha staggered closer and closer. "...kill me."
Chapter 4 complete. So.... Whaddya think? I thought it was time for a spice-up. I don't know if it's true, but it seems like I'm getting the hang of this writing thing. :) Anyway: Comments. Suggestions. Praise. (The web's equivalent to throwing rotting vegetables!) Anything you guys want to throw at me (no pun intended) please do. I want to hear it.
Don't know what I'm gonna do in the next chapter, but I know I'm going to try and top this one. (I think this is my best chapter yet!) Thanks!