Fragmented, Team Naruto's remaining members must find a way to save the friends that can be saved. But sometimes even the greatest shinobi has a hard time admitting when some things are simply bey...
Chapter Five: Inevitable Crossroads
It was difficult to look at even for one who had already seen such devastation before; for one who had taken the lives of others without hesitation. He wouldn't cry, of course. He never cried; not for anyone. In the entire world there were a select few he could ever imagine shedding tears for. It didn't mean that he did not care. Death was something he had become numbed to over the years.
Neji's throat convulsed once more as he tried to swallow around the dry lump that threatened to choke him. He had arranged the bodies at his knees into something more respectable, but that did nothing to help. The torn and burned flesh, the lack of chakra flowing through their systems, and the finality of their stillness all tore at the Hyuuga's soul.
Jiraiya was dead.
Iruka had followed the sannin only moments after Neji had arrived; his efforts to sustain the broken man had been for naught.
And Kakashi was so close to passing from this world that Neji held no hope the Copy-nin would live to see the sun set.
No one was coming to save him. Ino was turned. Sakura had been dragged off by Lee, and too late had Neji realized that Lee would never bodily drag his lover away from any fight. If Shikamaru was still in possession of his wits he'd make certain that no one could summon Gondaime; the Hyuuga knew his friend well enough to be positive of that.
Neji was no medic. He knew basic first aid, but Kakashi was beyond the need of bandages and antiseptic. He needed intensive healing; possibly surgery; neither of which Neji was capable of supplying.
"Is there..." Neji had watched friends die before, but never so slowly. Deaths before had come quickly and mercifully. This slow kind of death was so much worse that he would have ever imagined. He knelt beside the survivor, careful not to allow his attention to fully slip from the forest around him. "Is there anything I can do for you?"
Are you in pain? Should I end your suffering? I will if you ask it, though I pray that you won't.
"Tadashi..." Kakashi's voice was characteristically steady but hollow, as though he were leaking air through a hole in his chest. Neji saw no heavy blood flow, but that did not erase the truth that Kakashi's chakra flow was slowing dangerously, impeded by a multitude of blunt force traumas, small punctures and burns. "Tadashi's body..."
"He was here?" Neji's chest tightened. Not the boy, too. Not him...
"Jiraiya..." Kakashi wheezed weakly but determined, "found his crate. Then the bomb... crate was trapped. Tadashi and Jiraiya...."
Neji turned his Byakugan to the place where he had first found the sannin. Eyes that could see almost everything scanned the debris critically. The slightest trace - a bone fragment, a strip of cloth - and Neji would find it.
Yet the Hyuuga's kekkei genkai revealed no evidence.
"Are you sure he was there?" Neji asked. "Did you see Tadashi pers-"
The Byakugan caught a flash of movement in the distance. Two flashes. One dark, one light; both moving towards him quickly.
He recognized the approaching figures.
The back of her head struck a rock as she was pulled along. The sting was enough to wake her completely.
Hinata wanted desperately to fall back into unconsciousness. But something within her forbade the sleep of the defeated. She couldn't stop that little voice which invaded her mind.
What are you thinking?
Hinata opened her eyes reluctantly. Fat raindrops were falling from beyond the forest canopy, occasionally finding their way to her face; her arms. She remembered this voice. This was herself. This was the determination that Hinata carried within her heart. This was her inner strength goading her into action.
At her feet Lee's body continued to drag her through the trees as though she were a sleigh. The ground had pulled the shirt beneath her back up to her underarms and now bits of twigs and forest litter dug at her skin uncomfortably. She tried to ignore that inner resilience.
You're going to believe HIM? You're going to give up because HE told you something so vicious? Since when are you so easy to fool?
That little voice in her head wouldn't be quiet, but now Hinata listened in earnest.
Get up. Get up and fight. Fight and win. And don't give up. Not until you see it with your own eyes. Not until you KNOW. Not until Naruto is free. You can't give up on HIM, no matter what has happened!
She moved slowly, twisting her wrists against one another until they were crossed beneath the ropes. Lee's captor didn't notice. If this had really been Lee the tai-jutsu master would have been turning on her at the first twitch of her muscles. But this man was no Rock Lee. He may possess the body and the skills, but he had not one whit of Lee's keen observance or intuition. This man was no longer paying attention to the woman who had moments ago been out cold behind him. He was taking Hinata for granted.
And Hinata had a habit of making those who took her for granted pay dearly for that mistake.
With a careful precision and the slightest of movements Hinata summoned a small blade of chakra and severed the bindings on her wrists. Fingers flexed in preparation. She studied the man before her briefly.
And with a quick thrust of her arms and a lunge forward her chakra blades cut through the tendons behind Lee's ankles. Her legs were dropped and she freed herself of their bindings before Lee's form hit the ground.
"I'm sorry, Lee," she whispered as the man dropped to his knees, howling and clawing at his legs. Hinata stood over him, watching carefully until he met her pale glare.
"Don't worry," she said to the man hidden within, "Sakura and Tsunade will make you as good as new just as soon as we get that parasite out of you. But for now you should use your hand wrappings to dress those wounds. I'm sure neither of you will want to bleed to death while you wait." She turned her back to the fallen man, intent on finding the blast zone and her son.
"You bitch!" The Akatsuki seethed; the face beneath those large eyes already pale. "You scheming bitch!"
Hinata paused and retrieved the fallen stuffed toy.
"And when we get back to Konoha you may also want to use a bottle of mouthwash to rinse away the filth that parasite is coating your tongue with." She added for her friend's benefit and disappeared into the trees.
He watched the approaching duo cautiously. Neji knew that he could no longer know a person's identity simply by looking at them. Chouji's inhabitant had taught him that only a short time ago. Neji had fought against a man he'd never have dreamed of fighting. Thankfully the criminal within hadn't had the strength of character to eat the red pill. That cowardice had probably saved Neji's life and given the Hyuuga the advantage he needed.
The vigilant man did not move. He crouched low over his fallen friend. Kakashi may be dying, but Neji would not allow his final breath to come at the hands of an attacker. And he refused to allow Kakashi's final sight to be the face of a friend, twisted in anger or hatred.
Too many of his friends had already suffered that fate.
Sakura's voice drifted to him from upwind; an unwise move on their part. She was chanting something; it seemed - something very uncharacteristic of the kunoichi. Neji pulled two kunai from his pack, bracing the blades between his fingers.
"Sakura..." Kakashi clearly didn't know what was going on. He wasn't aware of what fate had befallen his young comrades. One weakened hand reached up in an attempt to still Neji's waiting attack.
"No, Kakashi," Neji whispered low, "Akatsuki has brought Fushi Tensei into play again. We've lost some already."
One black eye managed to open wide enough to appear alert. Pale fingers flexed beneath armor plating and clutched at Neji's sleeve insistently. "Who?"
"Kakashi, I need you to feign death for a moment. Just until I can make certain that they are truly Sakura and Shikamaru, and not imposters."
Neji could see that familiar sarcastic smile beneath the charred black fabric. "Who says... I need... to pretend?"
The Hyuuga flinched at the remark and straightened on his knees, laden hand drawn up before his chest in an offensive stance.
The pair burst from the dark into the clearing just as two kunai whistled passed their ears, thudding solidly into the trees behind them. The approaching teammates stopped in their tracks and stared at the man who had two more weapons readied in his fingers.
That had been Neji's characteristic warning shot; something he had picked up from his wife. And like Tenten he never gave a second.
Sakura's chanting ceased, but not before Neji had heard a few of the words. A prayer.
She had been praying for her friends.
Though the Hyuuga had never heard the cherry blossom pray once in all the years he had known her, something in her voice made him lower his weapons. The look in her eyes when they fell upon the men at his feet solidified his belief. Without so much as a spoken word of confirmation, Sakura had just proved to Neji that she was still herself. He was amazed at how easily she had won back his trust.
Then again, Sakura always had been an open book.
"Oh gods..." The woman swore softly. She rushed to the closest of the bodies, Iruka, without even pausing to consider that Neji never gave a second warning.
"Iruka and Jiraiya are already gone." The Hyuuga reported mechanically. "Help Kakashi."
Sakura nodded, tears sliding down her cheeks already, and she shimmied over to her former sensei's side. Gentle fingers flittered over black fabric and burned skin. She was whispering to him, asking him questions of pain levels and informing him that she'd be removing a good deal of clothing.
"Tadashi..." Kakashi insisted once more, that forlorn black eye trained on Neji.
"What does he mean?" Shikamaru asked as he approached cautiously, watching the Hyuuga as well.
"He thinks that Tadashi was here as well; that he died with Jiraiya," Neji reported, "but I've found no sign of the boy anywhere. Kakashi, did you see him personally?"
"No..." the Copy-nin shook his head, "only crate... sealed heavily... Tsunade said... inside sealed crate. Neji... who?"
"What's he talking about?" Shikamaru asked, finally drawing up beside the small gathering.
"I told him about Fushi Tensei. He wants to know who we lost."
"Not now, Kakashi-sensei," Sakura said softly, pulling the black mask from his face and neck to reveal blistered skin beneath. Features that were so beautiful they could have been sculpted from alabaster were marred by fiery red blotches.
"Who?" Kakashi never had been the kind of man who could be placated, she realized sadly.
"Naruto first," Neji relented, "then Chouji, Ino and Lee. Hinata fled - I don't know what happened to her; and it seems Sakura and Shikamaru escaped possession as did I."
"You did?" Shikamaru watched his friend thoughtfully.
"Yes, I did."
"Neji," Kakashi breathed as blue fingers gently cupped his throat, "is Neji."
"That's proof enough for me." Sakura said obediently. "Now please, sensei, be quiet and let me work."
"So Tadashi wasn't here?" Shikamaru pressed.
"I don't believe so." The Hyuuga replied.
"Well, at least that's one thing in our favor." Shikamaru huffed in a manner that bespoke a cynical persona buried beneath a cool exterior.
He couldn't imagine Akatsuki being able to pull off such a flawless Shikamaru impression.
Neji was finally confident that the Nara was still himself.
She was torn. It was terribly hard for her at that moment to move forward. Just seconds before she had been completely confident in her plan. Rescue Tadashi first, then her husband.
But now Naruto's frame stood in the distance, her Byakugan had found, and Hinata could not force herself to walk away. He needed her help, too, she thought as she watched him standing there idly, contemplating the sky that was still streaked with smoke. If she left him now there was no knowing if she'd ever find him again. The man within could flee. He could retreat; having acquired what he had wanted. Akatsuki's hideaway was still unknown, despite years of searching from multiple countries. What if that man returned to his hiding place?
How could she choose between the two people who mattered most to her?
The question bleated in her mind at her until a single thought broke through like an air bubble under water.
The secondary team...
She knew where she belonged at that second.
Wait for me just a little longer...
She was silent as she slipped through the trees unseen. Her speed broke only when she spun and dipped, catching the surprisingly unprepared blonde man squarely in the back with one heel; sending him crashing into the forest floor. Forest litter plumed in the man's wake until, finally, he skidded to a stop a short distance away. His eyes bored up into hers yet Hinata did not shrink under that glare.
"To your feet." She commanded coolly. "Stand and face me."
In a graceful spin that was uncharacteristic of her husband, the man before her did just that, watching her through whirling crimson eyes the entire time. "Certainly, My Lady. But tell me, do you really think you're a match for this body?" The man within grinned wickedly; spitting out a mouthful of dirt as he smiled. Hinata's fists opened, her chakra reacted to movements ingrained into her instincts.
"Against Naruto's strength and abilities?" She asked. "No. Not for a second. But then again I won't have to be." Her feet slid apart in the dirt; ready.
"Why? Because 'Your Naruto' would never hurt you?" The tone was mocking, but she wasn't disturbed by the knowledge that this beast plundered her husband's memories.
"That," she replied, "and because he has more than me to fight for now. He has our son."
"Your boy is dead, Lady Uzumaki." That perfect mouth sneered, matching her stance in what she knew was the Juuken's first position. His body was aimed squarely at hers; she at his. And still Hinata returned the expression with her gentlest smile.
"The last time I checked Hatake Kakashi leads the secondary team, and he has yet to fail a mission. He's come out bloodied and broken at times, but never has he failed. Tadashi is alive and well. And because of my faith in our friends I can stand before you now and help my husband crush you." The man within chuckled.
"Your husband gave up." He revealed. Hinata's smile did not wan.
"So did I," she replied undaunted, "but that's the beauty of having a will of your own - no how many times you quit you can always get up and fight again. Now / get up, Naruto /!" And that perfect face twisted into something hateful.
Her Juuken was upon her in an instant; hands that still remembered those movements turned on her, the Sharingan watching her as she moved to defend herself. Naruto's body spun away, his hand following over the back of his shoulder to block her with an attack of his own. Hinata flipped out of range, a foot and knee scraping through the dirt and brush; tanned fingers brushing through strands of black hair as she narrowly avoided the first blows.
The Sharingan had always been difficult to spar against, but she had always insisted that he used it during their training sessions. She needed to go up against the best to improve. Now not even her father could best her.
Hinata had become a force unto herself.
"What's the matter?" She taunted her aggressor as her husband would have under similar circumstances, dancing around him upon legs only slightly more agile than his, "you have the body that contains the Kyuubi. Why not unleash that power and be done with it?" Come on, Naruto. Join the fight!
"You're not worth the effort." A long leg swept out, barely missing her head as she flattened herself to the ground. She pushed off of her belly and legs-first into the air once more, avoiding as the other leg swept along the ground. Dodging had to be split second against Naruto, and completely random, if she had any hope of surviving. She had to move without thought. Only her speed would save her, though it would not last long. She had not lied. She knew she'd never be any match against Naruto. Not when he was truly trying.
"Really?" She gasped, spinning up around a tree branch with one hand and using her body's momentum to speed out of range of his attack once more. "Or is it that Naruto has not given up? Is he still controlling the Kyuubi, even while you control his body?" Hurry, Naruto!
"Ridiculous." He scoffed but the smile dissipated when white chakra blades reached out from arcing hands and came close to slicing into Naruto's oncoming arm. Hinata cringed at the near miss. She had to be careful with her jutsu. Too many hints and clues as to their inner workings and he'd be turning the techniques against her. He already possessed her Juuken, costing her the advantage there. The back of a rough hand met her cheek, yet Hinata managed to follow the blow with her body, twirling away and absorbing most of the impact's shock into that movement.
"Then prove me wrong." Hinata flipped through the air several times, avoiding the multitude of blows that would have been enough to crush her skull. "Summon the beast."
"/ I / choose to not use the Kyuubi for now. No one else."
"You make that choice because you know that you can't; because Naruto is preventing it. Just as Naruto won't let you kill me." She bound against a tree trunk and flipped over his head, feeling shredded wood spray her back and legs. Naruto's inhabitant was making good use of his natural power. Chakra gripped the trunk of a tree through her feet, holding her to it in a spider's stance - readily pushing her to the ground when the Rasengan came for her.
Is he holding back? Or is Naruto fighting him?
"Stand still and let me prove you wrong." She heard her husband's voice grate from behind.
Hinata turned; long black hair would have blinded her had she not possessed the Byakugan.
The red aura began to swirl around her husband's feet. That familiar growl filled her ears, whiskered cheeks and clawed fingers answering a silent call. Feral eyes turned on her and against every instinct within her, Hinata did not move - could no t move.
He could see them! They were playing, just like they did in the back yard. Training. Mommy and Daddy called it training. They promised Tadashi that someday they'd let him play their training game, too. Tadashi couldn't wait to play that game. It looked fun. Daddy laughed a lot after, and Mommy's smile was always really big.
He had been walking for a long, long time. The rain was getting bigger and there had been a big noise behind him that had made him cry a little bit. Tadashi ran away from that noise at first but now he just walked again. He was tired and his feet hurt from all of the pokey sticks on the ground. He wanted to go home, but he couldn't find it. He scared away to dark again so he could see through the trees and look for home.
That was how he found Mommy and Daddy playing in the woods. They always looked mad when they played their training game, but Tadashi knew it was just a part of the game. He never worried that Mommy and Daddy were not having fun. Training was always fun, they said.
Tadashi giggled loudly and hopped over the pokey sticks as he ran through the trees. Mommy and Daddy would be so happy to see him!
He moved faster than her Byakugan could see. Panic filled her ears with the sound of her own heartbeat and drained the blood from her limbs. Hinata dodged without knowing where she was moving to. Better to move anywhere than stand still and become an easy target. The ground vibrated from behind, Naruto's fist was buried up to his forearm in the soft dirt where she had just stood.
"I don't hear you boasting anymore, Lady Uzumaki." Her husband's voice growled with the Kyuubi. She had no choice. Shugohakke Rokujuyon Sho answered her call effortlessly; white blades of Chakra moving and whirling as Hinata spun and dipped and danced her dance of death. Yet now it was all an effort at sheer self preservation. Hinata knew she'd never land a hit against the Kyuubi - not even with her greatest technique.
"Where are you, Naruto?" She said softly. "What are you waiting for? Sasuke fought off Orochimaru once before. I know you can fight this man off as well. It doesn't matter who he is - I know who you are!"
"You knew who he / was /," the deep voice purred as he stalked to her like a hunting carnivore, "before he failed his son. Now he is an empty husk. He knows he is unworthy of your trust. That is why he won't fight."
"Lies!" Hinata cried and then gasped when one of Naruto's fists found a single hole in her defenses; claws raking at the skin on her shoulder and collarbone as she stepped back a fraction of a second too late. Hinata stumbled back but recovered quickly, her spinning arms moving to cover the discovered flaw in her efforts. "Naruto wake up! I'm not going to stop fighting! This ends when you wake up or I am dead!"
Those red eyes flickered briefly, but it was enough to convince Hinata that her husband was still in there.
"I'm not leaving you." She dropped her tai-jutsu. She had to play on Naruto's fear for his family. It was cruel, but it seemed to have the greatest effect. Hinata stood motionless, her hands at her sides, watching as her husband clawed through the ground towards her like some wild beast.
Kami, please don't let this be a mistake!
Naruto's eyes widened, and Hinata couldn't understand why. Not until she heard a noise at her back; a stick breaking and the tiny sound of someone out of breath.
"Mommeeeeee!" That little squeal of delight she knew so well called, and Hinata turned to find Tadashi stumbling through the brush towards the pair. "Daddeeeee!"
And from behind, her Byakugan watched the sickest smile she'd ever witnessed as it crawled across her beloved's face.
"NO!!!" She screamed and lunged at her husband, her palms sailing out in a hopeless attempt to immobilize him. One large fist pushed out to meet her palm and Hinata heard the crack of bones snapping in her right hand and forearm. But her left hand found a mark and smashed against Naruto's stomach, earning a grunt and sending him crashing to the ground. One quick somersault and Naruto was upright again, hurtling towards his son with a sing minded thirst.
Hinata stepped into his path once more - she had never moved so quickly in all of her life - a scream tearing from her throat as her Chakra sliced deeply into his side. Naruto's cry echoed hers, mingled with the Kyuubi and something - someone - else.
She took her opportunity and scrambled away, scooping her son up into her arms and leaping into the treetops as quickly as her feet would carry her. Naruto's body would recover rapidly from such a weak attack and she needed to gain as much distance as possible.
Hinata did her best to hold onto the sob inside of her chest and pressed the tiny head to her shoulder with her good hand.
"Wait, Mommy, wait for Daddy!" Little hands reached out to the man bellow and Hinata continued on, that sob becoming dangerously close to the surface. "Mommy! I want Daddy!" He was crying now. Though he may not understand what was happening Tadashi always had been a very observant child. He was aware that something was wrong, she knew.
"Daddy will catch up to us after he rests, sweetheart." She replied as calmly as she could.
She had no idea where she was running to, but one thing was clear. Hinata could not allow her son to fall into his father's hands.
He stood and watched as Lady Uzumaki moved through the trees, the red aura dissipating, claws retracting and calm returning as he analyzed his prey. Despite the injuries she had sustained and the squirming child in her arms, the woman moved with unrivaled grace.
'She knows now.' He spoke within his mind. 'She knows that you will never be able to stop me. She knows that if I want I can use this body to kill her and everyone she loves. She knows and now she will never let you close to her or the boy again.'
There was no response. Wherever the sixth hokage was within his consciousness he was keeping quietly to himself. He'd been completely silent since that first moment when the trap had detonated, something that had nearly convinced the man within that he had won. The Akatsuki would have crowed at his completion of victory had one though not invaded his thoughts: a tiny little fact pulled from his captive's memories.
When his fist had struck her palm and bone had shattered under his blow, one thing had been missing from the equation.
The Kyuubi's aura still had not burned the woman.
Perhaps it would be best to finish her and the boy quickly, and assure his dominance over Rokudaime once and for all.
Before the blonde man tried something truly stupid.
Kakashi was no longer oozing chakra and blood, but the effort had taken a serious toll on Sakura. Kakashi would live, but his former pupil was now too weak to defend herself if they fell under attack. She knelt beside him, shaking under the strain of holding up her own weight. Though his skin was still burned in places the serious ones had been healed, as had his face. Once she was certain she had double and triple checked her patient for any life threatening injuries, Sakura allowed herself to collapse beside her sensei, green eyes rolling closed as she succumbed to exhaustion.
For the duration of Sakura's work Shikamaru had been lost in thought, leaving Neji to watch duty. It wasn't long before he was breaking the silence, announcing that they were no longer alone. Shikamaru was the first to ask who it could be.
"I can't tell just yet. They are moving in and out of the edge of the Byakugan's range. Almost as if..." Neji paused and squinted, "It is Hinata. It has to be. She's spotted us as well and she's trying to see us without letting me see her."
"Is it Hinata or an imposter?" Shikamaru pressed. Neji harrumphed.
"If I could tell that just by looking I wouldn't have wasted kunai on you and Sakura when you first appeared."
"Well, we might as well let whoever it is know they've been spotted." Shikamaru sighed and pulled a shuriken from his pack.
"Are you certain that's wise?" Neji asked.
"To be honest, no. But we don't have time to play hide-and-go-seek with anyone. Kakashi and Sakura need to get out of here and we need to know what our advantages and disadvantages are. This will clear up at least one of the unknowns." And with that Shikamaru passed the weapon to Neji, who let it fly into the forest and in Hinata's general direction. It struck a tree a good distance from her, but the woman paused in her movements, clearly aware of the warning. Seconds later she was rushing at top speed through the forest to the team, one arm tucked behind her possessively.
"She's carrying something..." Neji murmured, trying to get a clearer view.
Two arms, wrapped around her neck. Tiny arms; their fingers twined in her long strands of hair.
"Tadashi!" Neji nearly shouted with relief. "She has Tadashi!" That name was enough to wake Sakura and Kakashi, the later of which rolled over and peered at Neji expectantly.
"Tadashi?" He tried to push himself up onto one arm only to find Sakura holding him in place, shaking her head in warning.
"Hinata has him. He's alive." Neji replied.
Minutes later and the dark haired woman burst into view. Soundless steps came to an abrupt halt at the sight of the people before her and she pulled her laden arm around to her chest. Tadashi buried his face into her neck, unwilling to see or hear anything around him.
"Hinata, Tadashi, thank goodness you're both safe!"
Relief gave way to shock. Hinata was bloodied, broken, trembling and tearful. Her son appeared stricken, mewling for his father pitifully.
"Oh Neji," Hinata breathed, not bothering to stop and wonder if these people were still her allies, "I think Naruto... I couldn't... he tried..."
That inner strength finally failed her. Burying her face in Tadashi's hair, Hinata began to cry.
And as he watched his cousin weep and her child's wide haunted gaze, Neji's eyes burned with something other than the Byakugan.
Naruto would understand.
He only hoped the others would forgive him, as well.
I know, I know, that one took forever to get out. Sorry about that. But my book started screaming for my attention and I couldn't ignore it. Sometimes when inspiration hits it really wallops you! So I had to put my fan fics on hold for a moment. Multi-tasking can be a bitch, you know?
This story is obviously going to be longer than the others. Closer to ten chapters, I think. Hope that no one minds, but for some reason this story just can't be packaged neatly into six or seven chapters. Too much going on.
Anyway, reviews are welcomed. I love to hear from my readers, but then you all know that already. Just keep it to reviews, no emails. That way I can go back and look at them again and again. :D
Thanks for sticking with my story, everyone!