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Walk on the Moon (Naruto SI)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by SixPerfections, Apr 6, 2018.

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  1. Threadmarks: Chapter 1
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    000


    Chapter 1
    000


    It wasn't until Rei was four months old that she figured out her bizarre new life as a baby had landed her in the Naruto world. That was also when she realized she was a Yamanaka from the Yamanaka clan.

    Needless to say her mind was blown. Or overwhelmed. In either case her mind stopped working for half a day in complete and utter disbelief before her tired baby body dragged her under for another nap.

    When next she woke up she had soiled her diapers again. It was an unpleasant feeling, both the human waste and the utter helplessness of being a baby once again. She couldn't speak. She couldn't take care of even the most basic of necessities on her own. In fact she couldn't even get from one end of her crib to the other without extreme difficulty. Rei was forced to take the only recourse open to her.

    She cried. While her body might be weak her lungs seemed to be the singular exception.

    It was only a minute or two before her mother showed up. It was the middle of the night and she looked a bit worn around the edges but she still managed to smile adoringly down at baby Rei. Rei found herself beset by feelings and instincts she had not expected to possess. Safe. Warm. Touch. Love. Smiles good.Even though she had the memories and awareness of an adult her body seemed geared to instinctually form an emotional connection with her new mom. After careful consideration Rei decided to just go along with it and enjoy it.

    It really worked out the best for everyone. Besides she could break the attachment later should it prove to be necessary. People broke away and had falling outs with their parents all the time after all.

    After being cleaned and breast fed (it was criminal how comforting that was) her mother Emiko put her back in her crib and Rei pretended to fall asleep. When her mother left and the door shut behind her tiny Rei opened her eyes and set about contemplating her situation.

    In her previous life she had read some of Naruto which is how she recognized the setting. In the distance she had seen the Hokage monument and that along with the Konoha headbands and everyone calling her parents 'Yamanaka-san' had finally broken through her denial. Somehow she had been born into the Yamanaka clan… and not just to any Yamanaka. While she couldn't remember if Ino's mom's name had been Emiko she knew her dad's name had been Inoichi. Rei's dad's name was Inoichi. It wasn't hard to do the math.

    So Rei had to wonder; did she end up being born in place of Ino? Rei wasn't entirely comfortable with the thought. There really wasn't any way to know for sure one way or the other though. Not until she knew a lot more information that she didn't currently have.

    Dread settled in her stomach as it all began to sink in. There was a good chance she was the Yamanaka clan heir. Not really what she wanted to be at all. Ideally she would have been part of a clan but some relatively unimportant member who would still receive all the benefits of being a 'clan kid'. Being the clan heir meant expectations. A lot of expectations. Expectations she had no inclination or desire to meet.

    It also meant… a lifetime of war. A lifetime of fighting and killing. Quite possibly a very short lifetime. While lots of people thought the Naruto world would be a great place to be reborn (all the SI fanfictions point to that) the truth is that the price for being a ninja was too high in Rei's opinion. Ninja didn't retire. Ninja fought for the village until they died or were crippled enough to be forced into less active roles. There was no 401k and retirement to Arizona or Florida. No reprieve. No end in sight.

    Being born into a ninja clan meant she was expected to die serving and fighting for Konohagakure. She had no choice. Fighting and dying for something she didn't know or care about was to be her lot in life.

    Fuck. That. Noise.

    It didn't take long for tiny Rei to decide the course her life would take. To her it seemed the only sensible option open to her if she didn't want to spend the rest of her life under the thumb and expectations of Konoha. She had to become strong enough to leave the village and make it on her own. Strong enough that no one would be willing to come after her. Strong enough that she could carve out a life for herself somewhere that didn't involve a lifetime of servitude to a totalitarian military dictatorship.

    "Strong enough" was vague and Rei had always liked to quantify things in concrete terms. So she decided she would need to become S-Rank. While everyone else always lived in fear of Hunter-nin and the ninja villages S-Rank nin could do pretty much whatever they wanted.

    Rei thought of the most prominent examples. Tsunade. Orochimaru. Every member of Akatsuki. They all gave the finger to their respective villages and could travel the world with relatively few worries knowing they could handle pretty much everything that was thrown at them. They didn't have to fight, kill and die because the Kage told them to. No one else but those stupidly strong S-Rank ninja could get away with living like that. Maybe Kakashi or Might Gai could but anyone weaker than that would most likely fall prey to teams of Hunter-nin or live in constant fear. It was then that Rei realized her own truth about the ninja world.

    Power was freedom. Freedom was everything. Rei had no intention of being just another tool for Konohagakure.

    And the canon story? The Madara and Infinite Tsukuyomi stuff? She wasn't sure how it ended but she did know that Naruto and crew took care of everything. Maybe Rei would help. However everyone had gotten along fine without her the first time. If she could help she would. But she wasn't setting out to save the world. Rei just wanted the option to choose her own path in life.

    Now she just had to figure out how to become an S-Rank kunoichi as fast as possible. How the hell was she going to pull that off?
     
  2. Threadmarks: Chapter 2
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 2

    There was very little for Rei to do as a baby other than think. She thought she slept less than other babies though she couldn't be sure. It left a lot of free time… time that Rei wished she could spend doing something productive. Something to make her feel like she was moving closer to her goals.

    Habits are hard to break and she was afraid lying around in a crib all day for years would make her lazy.

    Thinking of the answer it wasn't long before it came to her; Chakra was a mix of spiritual and physical energy. Spiritual energy comes from studying, meditation and experience. In short the stronger and more disciplined the mind the stronger your spiritual energy should be. With little else to do Rei began to meditate for almost every single hour she was awake. It would lead to an imbalance to physical and spiritual energy in the short term but she hoped it would pay dividends by increasing her chakra capacity when she was older.

    With nothing but long hours of meditation each day Rei's mind became very strong indeed.

    000

    Rei was somewhere around one year old when it happened.

    The Kyuuby. The Nine Tailed Fox. Kurama.

    Try as she might Rei had always been fuzzy about feeling chakra up to that point. She thought she could feel her chakra when she meditated but she wasn't completely sure. The Kyuuby was helpful enough to hammer into Rei's mind what chakra felt like. When it was thick and cloying in the air all over Konoha like an oily fog chakra quickly became something very concrete for the girl. Rei felt like the noxious malevolent chakra was choking her and she could believe the stories of how infants died just from the evil chakra of the beast alone.

    It terrified Rei. It was panic inducing. The chakra was overwhelming for adults and for children it was many times worse. Some part of Rei's strengthening mind told her that she could either cry out in reaction to the feeling or curl up and – literally – die. Rei screamed and cried louder than she ever had before.

    The Fox was death. Humans were not meant to confront such a thing.

    Her mother Emiko burst into the room, breathing hard and panicked as her eyes sought Rei. Her mother's stomach was heavy with a very visible pregnancy as she quickly moved to the crib. Dressed in a robe that was barely decent Emiko scooped Rei up and ran out of the house.

    Emiko pressed her daughter tight against her chest so much that Rei was having a hard time breathing. The baby girl could feel her mom's panic through her shaky breath and hard limbs and this in turn increased Rei's own fear. Her mother ran and it was disorienting being pressed against her chest and not being able to see anything around her. All around her Rei could her all kinds of sounds, panicked yelling, people running, what sounded like fires and explosions in the distance. It was chaos and Rei was helpless to do anything but pray that her mother could get them to safety.

    In the end they made it. It was ill lit and utilitarian in the emergency shelters but Rei hardly noticed. Emiko cried as she held her daughter and Rei wrapped her pudgy arms around her mom's neck while her own tears fell. They held each other, mother and daughter, both looking for comfort and wanting to give it at the same time. The chakra of the Fox alone would have been bad enough but with everything else going on it was too much.

    Deep in the back of her mind the melody of her goal sung to Rei. The monsters in this world could take on a thing like that and win. She didn't want to feel this afraid ever again.

    Never having to fear a thing like that was a good enough reason to become S-Rank all by itself.

    000

    Two Years Old

    "What does this one mean?" Rei asked, pointing with a chubby finger at a character she had never seen before.

    They were sitting on a couch in the living room, Rei pressed up against the side of her mom as the woman held a children's book in her hands.

    "That one means waterfall," said Emiko.

    "Ohh I see. So then with this character and this one, this says the 'the boy runs to the yellow waterfall' right?"

    "The boy ran to the yellow waterfall. Very good Rei," said her mom with a strained smile. It was enough to fool a regular child but Rei could see the tightness around her eyes.

    Yamanaka was the worst clan she could have been born in except for possibly the Nara if she wanted to hide that there was something unusual about her. After careful consideration Rei decided not to hide how smart she truly was. Rei had no patience for spending years pretending she had the mind of a toddler and she doubted she could truly hide everything from a people as observant as the Yamanakas. Better to break all the bell curves and let them draw their own conclusions. What was the worst they could do? She was the Yamanaka heir. She wasn't afraid of disappearing into Root – if Danzo could get away with kidnapping clan heirs he would already rule Konoha – and she wasn't afraid of becoming a ninja early on. It would only help in her mission to become more powerful as quickly as she could.

    However she could see it truly troubled Emiko. Her first child was abnormal, someone who picked up and understood social cues no child so young should be able to grasp. She could sit and study written characters for hours and remember most of them perfectly after seeing them only once. Rei made some allowances for the sake of her mother – she acted childishly because it was fun, she smiled a lot and was just a bit clingy, making sure to give plenty of hugs to dull the edge of having a child who picked up things at a rate no child should. Rei loved Yamanaka Emiko because Emiko loved her. No matter what, however, Rei couldn't and wouldn't be the normal child Emiko wished she would be.

    Emiko looked outside the window to the position of the sun and the length of the shadows. "It's about time to go. We'll read more later. Put on your shoes we're taking a little trip," she said running her hand through Rei's hair affectionately.

    "Ok," said Rei with a sunny smile, hopping off the couch and running to do as she was told.

    They left the house hand in hand with Rei sticking close to her mother. Though she had what she considered an adult mind there was still something intimidating about being not even waist high compared to most people on the streets. As they progressed Rei relaxed and took the time to look around in wonder. The village of Konoha was always a sight to see.

    The first time she had been taken outside of the Yamanaka compound Rei had realized something that was both disturbing and in a way liberating. All throughout the village of Konoha were interspersed the huge looming figures of Hashirama trees. They existed between buildings, in the middle of roads forcing them to go around, in the middle of the parks. Everywhere inside Konoha the huge trees stood, their branches reaching high into the sky and blocking the worst of the oppressive summer sun. Rope bridges linked them all in a criss crossing network overhead and one could regularly catch glimpses of ninjas using the trees as a quick means of travel. Detritus from the trees seemed to constantly fill the streets but it was much more charming than it was an annoyance. In a lot of ways Konoha was indistinguishable from the forest that surrounded it. The village was very much aptly named 'The Village Hidden in the Leaves'.

    However the trees had not been there in that story she had half-read, half-known from hearsay in her past life. It meant that what she had read had not been perfect. What she had read about how Konoha looked had been wrong.

    It had been wrong.

    What else had the story been wrong about? What else was it right about? Rei no longer had the advantage of assuming she knew how everything was going to play out. Everything was thrown into doubt. Was there even a Madara? Was there going to be a Sand-Sound war? Was there even a Naruto in this world?

    She didn't know. It was at the same time both frightening and liberating.

    You don't have to feel responsible if you don't know.

    They walked for about twenty minutes until they came upon a set of ornate but functional wooden gates. Rei looked up to read the plaque above the door. It read "Nara Clan".

    A young dark haired man greeted them at the gate and bowed deeply. "Yamanaka-san, a pleasure to see you. Would you like to come in?" he asked politely but you could tell his sincerity was not faked. As a general rule the Yamanaka and Nara considered each other close friends and Emiko was well known and liked. Warm greetings between the two came almost on reflex.

    "Hello Uryo-kun. I would love to but I'm afraid I can't today. I only came by to pick up some medicine. Toshoka-san said it would be ready around this time. Do you think you could do me the favor of going to see if she has it ready?" said her mom with a warm smile.

    "Of course Yamanaka-san. I'll find out right away," said the young Nara before running off.

    Half an hour later they were back home entering Rei's room on the second floor of their two story house. Inside Rei instantly saw Yua, an elderly aunt who helped Emiko look after the kids when she needed the help. Yua was sitting on a chair holding a tiny bundle in her arms.

    "Hello Yua. I got the medicine," said her mother moving to the side of the old woman.

    "Oh good," she said in a voice that was scratchy from age, "Ino-chan's cough hasn't gotten any better. It was starting to worry me."

    Rei felt an uncomfortable twist in her stomach when she heard that. She stayed quiet and stood in a corner as she watched her mother unwrap Ino from the bundle she had been wrapped up on. Coughs from a too-tiny body broke the silence. Emiko made soft soothing and cooing sounds as she began to rub the salve she had gotten from the Naras on Ino's chest. Ino squirmed and coughed but thankfully didn't cry. The squirming baby tended to do a lot more of than Rei would have liked.

    "Nara-san said the medicine should make her sleepy. I'll put her to bed now. You can go if you want Yua I'll be staying home for the rest of the day," said her mom.

    "Yes, I think I'll have a bit of a nap myself. I'll get out of your hair," the old woman said.

    "Nonsense, you're always welcome here," said Emiko with a smile. Rei concurred. Yua was nice to have around.

    The old woman got to her feet and went over to say hi to Rei before leaving to return to her own home. Her mom was already putting Ino in her crib and Rei could see the little girl was already asleep. Thankfully the coughs seemed to have stopped.

    "Come on Rei," Emiko whispered after tucking the baby in "let's go downstairs and you can help me with dinner."

    Rei shook her head. "I'll be down in a little bit. I just want to stay with Ino for a while."

    Her mother had that crinkling look of worry around her eyes. "Are you sure?"

    Rei nodded.

    Emiko let out a little sigh. "Well I suppose that's all right. Don't take too long and don't wake up your sister."

    "I won't," Rei promised with a big impish smile.

    Emiko made an exasperated noise, smiled warmly at Rei, mussed her hair and headed downstairs.

    When she was gone Rei let out a tired sigh that sounded much too old for a child her size. Rei loved her mother. She loved her dad too. They were adults though and she had the mind of an adult. It somehow made it easier. They weren't that dangerous to her plans on an emotional level. While she cared for them she didn't feel responsible for them.

    Rei turned to look at the little bundle sleeping peacefully and smelling faintly of medicine. Almost on their own her feet took her to the side of the crib.

    There she was. Yamanaka Ino. One of the 'Rookie 9'. Not critical to the story as far as she could remember but certainly part of the main cast. Pretty, confident, bossy Ino. Someone Rei couldn't remember if she had become a strong ninja or not which probably meant she hadn't really stood out.

    That girl was dangerous. Because from the moment she had seen her the day her parents brought her home Rei had fallen completely in love. Ino was only seven months old and Rei already knew would take a bullet for her with hardly a second thought. She had known that for a long time now.

    "What am I going to do? Are you going to hate me Ino?" Rei whispered as she reached through the bars and held Ino's tiny hand. In her sleep Ino's hand tightened around her fingers in reflex.

    Ino would grow up in Konoha and she would be helpless against their indoctrination. Will of Fire. Fight and die for Konoha, it is your duty and anyone who shrinks that duty is trash. Not even worthy of life. Despised by everyone. Follow the Hokage, follow your orders, that is the only way you will be worth anything.

    Rei hated it. It clashed horribly with her sensibilities. And she hated that Ino would grow up being fed that propaganda.

    Could Rei do something to stop it, mitigate it? She had considered that and knew the answer was mostly no. Rei could try to instill some independent thought in Ino but anything that went directly against Konoha doctrine would be a terrible idea. That kind of thing brought scrutiny. In the end anything that overt would be a failure.

    She could try to help but in the end there was nothing she could do but watch this helpless little bundle she loved be brainwashed like all the others. The thought burned.

    Even if it would hurt Rei would still leave when she was strong enough. This life was fascinating. There were so many things she could do that no one would have even dreamed of in her past life. She wasn't going to waste it all by dying in some war for some dictator she didn't know or care about.

    Rei would do everything she could for Ino until the time came. Then she would leave and never look back.
     
  3. Threadmarks: Chapter 3
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 3

    000

    Two Years Old


    Rei stood on a step stool in front of the sink brushing her teeth while being careful not to stab herself in the mouth. After a few minutes of diligently cleaning her teeth in the fashion she remembered (which was different than how they did it in Konoha) Rei spit out the 'tooth paste' and rinsed her mouth. Tooth paste in Konoha was a stubby jar filled with a thick oily substance made of herbs that was supposed to be good for oral health. It smelled and tasted like rosemary.

    She looked at her toothbrush. It was made of waterproofed wood with stiff bristles and a triangular head. The tips were pointy almost as if it were a weapon. It seemed stupid to stick something with any kind of point in your mouth even if it wouldn't do any serious damage. So why do it? Rei theorized it was to increase awareness so you couldn't just brush your teeth absentmindedly. Lose focus while brushing and you might poke your gums by accident.

    Everything was training. Even personal grooming appliances, it seemed, had an eye towards the ninja life. Sometimes she still forgot she was in a new and alien world. Other times it couldn't be more obvious.

    Her looks were very different from her last life too. Rei looked at herself in the mirror examining her features. In some ways she looked every inch the Yamanaka and in other ways she did not. Her features seemed to be pure Yamanaka, high cheekbones and small nose along with their blonde hair in a shade of honey. However her hair was unusual in that it fell in thick natural ringlets and her eyes were a piercing shade of lilac. According to her dad only his great grandmother had had eyes like hers and no one in the clan had ever had ringlets like she did.

    Maybe they came from her mother who had married into the clan. It was hard to know since genetics in this world seemed to work somewhat differently than they had in hers. Rei however liked to think of her ringlets as a holdover from her last world, some kind of physical proof that said it wasn't all in her head. No one in this world that she had met thus far had ringlets like she did.

    In her weaker moments it was easy to wonder if her memories had all been some kind of dream. They weren't but a touchstone with reality was nice to have. The curls in her hair would do just as well as anything else.

    000

    It was chilly that night in their back porch from a breeze that came all the way from the sea. It was autumn and though trees in the Land of Fire never lost all their leaves at a certain time of year they tended to shed their older ones to make room for the new. The whole of Konoha was covered in a thin layer of leaves at those times of the year, falling from the giant sentinels that were the Harashima trees spread throughout the village. Rei wondered if there was any truth to the claim that the spirit of the First Hokage lived on in those trees and that he watched over the children of Konohagakure even from beyond the grave.

    Their two story house was at the very back of the Yamanaka compound pressed up against the giant walls of Konoha that stood an impressive fifteen meters tall. Their back porch was what in her last world she would have called a curious mix of Easten and Western design painted in shades of bright red and warm sunflower yellow. Paper lanterns provided illumination and the overall effect was very peaceful. The backyard was large and empty save for a few training posts and one of the iconic Harashima trees near the wall.

    Rei sat at the edge of the porch and listened to the wind rustle the fallen leaves and jingle the wind chimes. The girl could see why some people claimed to fall in love with Konoha. Under the trees it was almost like living in a magical forest, cocooned and protected from the world outside the walls. There was definitely something special about the Village Hidden in the Leaves.

    The girl thought she might miss it when she was gone but probably not too much. She was a creature of wanderlust first and foremost and the promise of new places was home in her heart. Still there was no reason not to enjoy Konoha while she remained. It would probably be a good many years before she had the opportunity to leave.

    With that in her mind Rei jumped down into the grass and picked up a fresh fallen leaf. She had yet to try the leaf sticking exercise and for a few weeks she had been putting it off. In a way chakra control exercises like she had read about in her past life would be a milestone. In Rei's own head it would mean she was committed to the way of the ninja and to coming out the other end strong enough to choose her own path. It also meant a lot of pain, a lot of suffering, and more likely than not a lot of killing on her part before she made it to the other end.

    Did killing people to achieve her goal make her a terrible person? Wasn't she destined to be a killer anyway unless she chose the other way out and took her own life?

    Rei knew she had already decided a long time ago but was only stalling now. She couldn't indulge in that kind of thing often if she was going to become an S-Rank nin.

    With deliberate care Rei placed the leaf on her forehead and concentrated her chakra to a point. By now the feeling of chakra was instinctual and came easily. Part of Rei fully expected to be able to do the exercise right away.

    The leaf fell off her forehead without the slightest bit of resistance. Rei frowned. This was going to take some doing.

    Rei caught the leaf before it hit the floor and put it back on her forehead, this time channeling as much chakra as she could manage onto the leaf. She could feel the leaf trying to jump out of her fingers as she concentrated too much chakra on it. Over the next thirty minutes Rei played with the amount of chakra channeled into the leaf trying to find the perfect chakra 'intensity' to get it to stick.

    My chakra control is terrible. I guess there's a difference between being able to feel your chakra really well and controlling it.

    It took a while but eventually Rei had success. She cautiously pulled her hand away and the leaf stuck to her head. As an experiment she bent over to see if the leaf would fall off. It didn't.

    This set Rei off. It was like magic. She'd found a magic trick and could make leaves stick to her forehead. The girl started giggling and then laughing out loud. It was wonderful. It was great! The first silly little thing she'd been able to do with chakra and she felt as if she'd just learned the Chidori and not some extremely basic chakra control exercise.

    It was amazing and she couldn't help but laugh and laugh.

    It was around that time that her mom came out onto the porch drawn by all the noise. Rei spun to face her with the leaf stuck on her forehead and acted every bit the two year old that she was.

    "Look mommy look! Look what I can do," she said with a huge grin on her face.

    Emiko's reaction surprised her and if Rei had really been a kid or not paying attention she would have missed it. Her eyes widened before narrowing slightly. Her gaze flickered quickly across the backyard doing a cursory perimeter check. Rei was confused until Emiko turned to her and spoke with her serious "I am the grown-up" voice.

    "Where did you learn that?" she asked.

    Rei's eyes widened in surprise and the leaf fell from her forehead as the shock caused her to lose her concentration. Her mother was serious. Her mother was… suspicious. Wary. Looking for the piece that didn't fit and looking like she wanted to do something about it.

    Thinking quickly Rei thought, who was she suspicious of? Was she suspicious of her? Was she suspicious of a hypothetical someone else who might be teaching her behind her parent's back? Her mother's face didn't give very much away.

    "I uh, everyone knows about it. I think. It's a really common chakra control exercise isn't it? I've heard people talking about it."

    "What people?"

    Rei shrugged, "I don't know, I don't remember. Just around. Am I in trouble?" she asked, putting just enough whine and pout into her voice.

    Thankfully her mother's face softened at that. "No you're not in trouble. You're just so young and you shouldn't have people telling you about that yet," she said. Emiko moved to pick her up and Rei let her raising her arms as the older woman bent down.

    That was scary and too close. What if I had been caught doing something I couldn't easily explain away? Being a little kid worked for me in this case. Ninja are suspicious and observant by nature even when it comes to their children. I've got to be more careful. If what I have in my head and what I'm planning gets out… a jail cell would be the best case scenario.

    Rei buried her face in her mom's neck as the woman carried her inside. It was funny that her mom had been the one that scared her and at the same time she was the one she was taking comfort in. Rei couldn't find it in herself to hold it against her. What else would her mother do? She was a trained kunoichi. They would react as they were taught and nothing she did was going to change that.

    When they were passing the living room Rei asked, "Mommy? Can you show me how to be a ninja?"

    Emiko hugged her daughter tight and Rei thought something about the question had caused her pain. Then she pulled back enough to look at Rei in the face. "You're too young Rei. Even the brightest prodigies don't start any kind of training until they're three."

    "Please mom? You don't have to show me anything big. Just a few things."

    "I don't know…" she said, "you're already growing up so fast Rei-chan. You should spend some more time enjoying being a kid. It is a good time that only comes around once in a lifetime," said Emiko but there was a pain and vulnerability in her eyes that told Rei her mom thought she was just holding off the inevitable. From what Rei understood it was unheard of for ninja families not to provide training to their children especially when they asked for it. It simply wasn't done. Her mother was putting aside what was expected of her to do what she thought was best Rei. That action caused Rei's respect and fondness for the woman to grow even more.

    Still Rei wouldn't be deterred. The sooner she started the better. She would make it up to her mom later but it was time to show her mother how mature 'Rei-chan' could be.

    "Mother," she began, "I know I'm too young to be able to do everything. I'm not asking for that. I just want you to teach me some chakra control exercises and maybe some preliminary taijutsu exercises. Like stretches and stuff. That isn't asking too much is it?" asked Rei trying to strike the perfect balance between intelligence well beyond her years and child-like vulnerability.

    By the way her mother stopped moving and looked at Rei she could tell her mature response and large vocabulary had surprised her. Emiko looked at her and Rei looked at her right back letting her mother see the determination in her face and eyes. After locking gazes for a few seconds Emiko sighed in defeat.

    "Some chakra control exercises and stretches only. And you'll do them in front of me until I'm convinced you can do them without hurting yourself. Is that clear?" Emiko said seriously but with a hint of a smile on her lips.

    A grin spread across Rei's face and her lilac eyes sparkled. "Yes mommy. I promise."
     
  4. Threadmarks: Chapter 4
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 4

    000

    Three Years Old

    Rei didn't sleep anymore.

    She still needed rest. Her body would lay in bed at night motionless and breathing deep like a regular person. However her mind remained aware. Aware of her surroundings and most of all aware of her chakra.

    It was probably a side effect of so much meditation and chakra control exercises at such an early age… or so Rei theorized. In her 'sleep' her mind would travel with her chakra riding the eddies and flows of it as it cycled through her chakra network. She could direct it after a fashion as she slept but more importantly she could feel it. The more time passed the more intimate and familiar Rei became with her chakra.

    Perhaps the idea was a holdover from her previous life but Rei thought that the more she felt and observed her chakra every night the more she would come to understand it. The more she understood she theorized the more she would be able to do. It didn't seem to have any immediate benefits in the short term but in the long term Rei was willing to bet her deepening understanding of chakra would pay dividends.

    It was logical to her really and it seemed a shame that most ninja were primarily concerned with forcing their chakra into destructive and useful techniques. Chakra was the very essence of life and it was much more wonderful and vast than a simple tool for war. It was both mind and body and the interface between the two. From her memories she knew chakra could even be used to affect and interact with your very soul. The potential for personal growth and understanding seemed limitless. An entire spiritual tradition could be founded on the study of chakra alone.

    All that potential and these people could only think about using it for war? Barbarians. Every last one of them barbarians.

    As she 'slept' Rei could hear muffled voices from downstairs. Gently she nudged her chakra towards her inner ear. Briefly curious about what was going on she enhanced her hearing enough to make out what the voices downstairs were saying.

    "-ys about Shogi? There are other games out there. Go for instance. I think there's something very elegant and peaceful about a game of Go."

    "Shogi is the most useful game for refining strategic thinking. Go on the other hand is simplistic by comparison. Very little useful strategy to be found there."

    Ah, her dad and Shikaku-san. Now she knew what was going on and why they were being so loud… loud for shinobi anyway.

    "Honestly the two of you have been arguing about the merits of Go and Shogi for fifteen years now," said a playful voice in a long suffering tone, "and we always end up playing cards at the end of it. Why don't you just break them out already Inoichi?"

    Choza. It was just the three of them getting the old team together for drinks and a few games like they did from time to time. The three of them would always get rowdier around each other than you would expect from veteran ninja.

    Rei only listened with half an ear from then on as she focused on resting and on what her chakra was naturally doing in her body. Throughout the night they never talked about anything exciting or interesting. Even though they let their guard down around each other they were still professionals and would never talk about anything sensitive in that volume where others might hear them. Walls in Konoha were not very thick and everyone had tricks for snooping on private conversations.

    Rei had completely tuned them out until hearing her own name caught her attention.

    "How are Rei-chan and Ino-chan?" she heard Shikaku ask.

    "Good good. Healthy. We just started showing Ino the basics of holding a brush so she's at that stage where she gets ink all over everything while learning the basic strokes," Inoichi replied and Rei could hear the fondness in his voice.

    "That's messy. She'll grow out of it," Shikaku replied with a grunt.

    "What about Rei-chan? Is she as smart as your wife says she is? Emiko told my Chiharu all about it but she wasn't convinced that she wasn't exaggerating," said Choza.

    There was a pause. "Yeah she is. It's scary sometimes how quickly she picks things up. Sometimes I even get the impression she tries to dumb down how smart she is so she doesn't make me or Emiko uncomfortable. She never has the patience to stick with it for very long though."

    Choza let out a low whistle. "So she's one of those kids then?"

    Another pause. "Yeah I think so. In my mind there is no doubt that she's a natural born genius. My little Rei-chan is like Hatake Kakashi and Uchiha Itachi," said her dad his voice an odd mix of pride and weariness.

    "And Orochimaru," said Shikaku.

    "Don't even joke about that!" said Choza sharply.

    The conversation drifted to different topics after that and Rei was left to ponder what she had just heard. She had, intellectually, known that she would very soon be labeled with the moniker 'genius'. It was still surprising to hear it all the same and even more surprising to be spoken of in the same breath as Kakashi, Itachi and Orochimaru.

    Labels had a lot more power in Konoha than they did in her previous world. Instead of being thought of as a bad things labels in the ninja world were treated as a decree from Heaven – there was an almost unconscious assumption that you knew everything about a person by the label they were given. It probably stemmed from the general culture of not questioning things unless there was a damned good reason to do so. It now made a lot more sense how an entire populace could turn their collective backs on a little boy if he was known to carry the label "demon."

    The label "genius" carried a lot of assumptions and expectations. She would be expected to outperform all her peers in every single area, be they ninja arts, shogi or calligraphy. Somehow in the ninja world being a "genius" meant that you were better than everyone else at everything. It was amusing thinking of world famous scientists back in her old world also being expected to be the best at boxing, track and field, ikebana and everything else under the sun.

    People with a brain knew it was unrealistic but that didn't totally curve their collective cultural expectation of what a "genius" should be. If Rei fell behind in some area it would be assumed that it was because she "wasn't trying hard enough" or "she doesn't like it so she was being contrary". The pressure on a genius was massive and Rei suddenly had a lot more sympathy for Kakashi and especially Itachi. Perhaps even a bit for Orochimaru. Living with that sort of pressure would warp anyone.

    Luckily for Rei she gave crap all about meeting people's expectations. She didn't crave the approval of her parents, her peers or her teachers. She didn't care for people's accolades. In the end she only cared about one thing: her goal. Become an S-Rank ninja. Leave the military dictatorship of Konohogakure no Sato behind and choose how to live her own life. That was her singular goal and everything else was only baggage.

    In fact being labeled as a 'genius' would probably help her. In a lot of ways it could be argued that reputation was just as important as skill for her goals. If everyone knew her as a 'genius' people would think twice before coming after her.

    Rei tried hard not to think about if she could really match up to the likes of Itachi and Orochimaru. Instead she let her thoughts be carried away by the blue river of chakra flowing through her body and mind. Those kinds of thoughts wouldn't help. Deepening her understanding of chakra would.

    000

    Punch, punch, kick. Punch, punch, kick.

    Rei was in the back yard doggedly drilling the very, very basic taijutsu combinations she had been taught. At three years old she wouldn't be beating anyone up but this kind of exercise began to train a dizzying myriad of things that were important for a ninja. Most important among them was the ability to be self-disciplined and self-motivated.

    Punch, punch, kick. Punch, punch, kick.

    She'd had some martial arts training in her past life but she didn't dare try any of those moves even in private. People would inevitably ask where did you learn that? and she might not be able to deflect them with an evasive answer. No the best thing to do was to forget everything she knew and start fresh. Right now that meant drilling the same short tedious combo over and over again.

    Punch, punch, kick. Punch, punch, kick.

    Was it all a matter of effort? Did she have any real talent? She didn't know and it was too soon to tell. However even if she didn't have talent she could be like Rock Lee. He was completely talentless but once he found a good teacher he made something of himself. Then again she doubted she would be quite that bad. She remembered a quote from her old world. If you focus you will succeed. By focus they had meant complete focus, devoting everything you are and everything you have to a single goal. That is what she would have to do.

    Punch, punch, kick. Punch, punch, k-

    "Nee-chan! What you doing?" came a loud childish voice behind her.

    Rei faltered mid kick, stumbled and almost fell. She barely got her feet under her in time and shuffled around a bit before she found her balance. Taking a deep breath Rei did her best to reign in her irritation at being interrupted.

    "Ino," she began as she turned around "I'm training to become a ninja. What are you doing out here?"

    Two year old Ino was adorable. With large bright blue eyes and platinum blonde hair she would have easily made the cover of some Scandinavian baby magazine back in her old world. She was dragging her favorite stuffed tanuki by the foot and was looking down at the ground while pointing her feet together.

    "Nothin'" she said shyly. Then she stuck her thumb in her mouth.

    Rei sighed. She'd never had a sibling in her past life and wasn't a hundred percent sure how to deal with Ino. Recently the toddler had taken to following her big sister everywhere she went. It was really cute and part of Rei really enjoyed being Ino's 'favorite person'. Still having a clingy two year old could make it awkward to practice. Rei needed to train and she couldn't afford to get distracted.

    She walked up to Ino and ran a hand through her platinum locks. "Well your Nee-sama needs to practice Ino-chan. If you want you can sit in the shade and watch me. I'll be right here practicing like dad told me to, all right?"

    Ino looked up at her big sister and nodded before going to sit on the porch. Rei made sure to stand as close as she could without risk of hitting her little sister.

    She had told Ino a little white lie. Their father hadn't told Rei to practice. She was doing that all on her own but she thought Ino was less likely to interrupt if she though Rei was doing something her parents wanted her to do. In reality her parents rarely encouraged her to train. Rei found it odd but she didn't need people nagging her in order to make good use of her time.

    She took her stance as she had been shown and began the drill over again. Punch, punch, kick. Punch, punch, kick.

    Rei supposed she should count herself lucky that Ino stayed silent for a whole ten minutes before speaking up.

    "Nee-chan, I'm thirsty. Can you gwet me some juice?"

    Rei didn't stop but kept right on punching. "Why don't you ask mom?" she asked while huffing for breath.

    "I want you to do it," she whined.

    Rei made an annoyed sound in her throat and stopped. Maybe it wouldn't be bad to take a break. She was already sweaty, breathing hard and her side hurt. Even with chakra doing more than ten minutes of hard non-stop physical activity as a three year old was pushing it. Besides she had only recently begun doing the taijutsu. She would need time to build up her stamina.

    "Fine. But then it's time for your nap. Deal?"

    Ino stuck her thumb in her mouth and simply nodded.

    Rei led the way back into the house with Ino following behind like a lost puppy. She was halfway to the kitchen when Ino slipped her smaller hand into hers.

    I'm so screwed thought Rei dramatically.

    Rei loved her new mother and father but because of her adult mind she built some emotional walls between them. She had no such protection against Ino and the little girl had slipped past every one of her defenses. Rei would not abandon her plan for anyone but it would tear her up inside to leave her little sister behind.

    Maybe I can take her with me? It seemed an unlikely plan. Too many things that were out of her control would have to go right for that to happen. However that didn't mean she wouldn't be on the lookout for the possibility.

    It would all depend on what Ino wanted really.

    They reached the kitchen and Ino let go of her hand. Opening the refrigerator and pulling out the jug of juice was the easy part. The hard part for a three year old was getting up on the counter so she could reach the cabinets and pull out Ino's spill proof cup.

    At least they talked about this sort of thing in front of me so I have a legit excuse ready if they catch me thought Rei as she reached up and placed her hands over the lip of the counter.

    Using her chakra she stuck her hands to the counter and enhancing her muscles she jumped and pulled herself up on the counter fairly easily. Ino watched her with wide eyes amazed that her sister could get all the way up there on her own so easily. It was simply amazing to her two year old mind.

    Rei quickly and efficiently pulled out cups for Ino and herself and filled them up with juice. She jumped down off the counter with a little flourish and presented the spill proof cup to Ino like fancy waiter showing off an expensive bottle of wine.

    "Your drink as requested miss," said Rei in a faux noble accent.

    Ino giggled and took the sippy-cup from her sister. "You're silly," she said.

    "Well I try," replied Rei with a wink.

    As Ino drank her juice Rei put everything back in place and drank from her own regular cup. They stood in the kitchen as Ino started babbling about her stuffed tanuki called Tanuki-chan and all the different things they'd done together the day before. Rei listened with an indulgent smile while adding her own commentary here and there to make Ino laugh. It was simple memories like those with Ino that would stick out the most when she thought back to this point in her life years later.

    When they finished Rei put their cups in the sink before saying, "All right you got your juice. It's time for your nap."

    Thankfully Ino didn't protest – it was about fifty/fifty if she would – and Rei led her by the hand upstairs to their shared room. As they entered Rei eyed the two twin sized beds pushed to either side of the room. In reality there were enough rooms in the house for each of them to have their own but Konoha culture said it was better for young children to share a room. Sometimes it was annoying but usually Rei didn't mind.

    Especially when Ino would slip into her bed and curl up with her at night. It was a guilty pleasure of hers.

    Quickly and efficiently Rei put her to bed as the two of them were used to the ritual by now. Their mother was the one to do it most of the time but it wasn't that unusual for Rei to be the one taking care of her sister. In Konoha it was less 'how old are you' and more 'what can we reasonably trust you with'.

    Rei bent down and quickly kissed her sister on the forehead. "Sleep well little one."

    The older girl could tell her sister was tempted to ask her to stay but instead she just hugged Tanuki-chan. "M'kay g'night."

    Rei thought about correcting her that it wasn't really night time but instead she just slipped out of the room and quietly headed back downstairs.

    As she was walking it occurred to her that she didn't remember what became of Ino in the story. Rei never quite got to the end and Ino was such a minor character later on she simply couldn't remember what happened to her after the fight with Hidan. It bothered her. It bothered her a lot. For all she knew Ino could have died along with Neji, Shikaku and so many others.

    There were too many unknowns. The sad truth was that eventually her sister would probably end up dying fighting for Konohagakure even if she survived the war. It was practically how every ninja was destined to go. Used hard and dead before thirty.

    This world is so fucked up.

    It was an endless spiral of death and more death. In an economy entirely dependent on violence how could there ever be any real peace? A 'Darwinian Society' at its finest. There was nothing Rei could do about it though. So she went out back and continued doing the only thing she really could do.

    Punch, punch, kick. Punch, punch, kick.
     
  5. Threadmarks: Chapter 5
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 5

    000

    Five Years Old

    Three targets stood at long rage on the other side of the yard some twenty meters distant. Shuriken hung in between her fingers as she contemplated the targets downrange. It was much further than what she was used to practicing. However a few days before one of her aunts had mentioned that a good Chunin was expected to be able to hit targets at twenty meters. Rei had taken it as a personal challenge to be able to do so as soon as possible.

    It was proving to be somewhat harder than she had expected.

    Slowly and deliberately Rei started feeding chakra into her muscles. In her experimentations she found that she could get a little extra boost to her enhanced strength if she fed her muscles chakra gradually and naturally rather than all at once.

    When Rei felt all her muscles filled to the brim she exploded into motion. She let loose the six shuriken in between her fingers and before they were half way to their targets Rei dashed left while reaching into her pouch for another weapon. The warm handle of a kunai met her palm as she gripped her feet to the ground with chakra coming to an otherwise impossible stop. In the same motion she let loose the kunai at the left most target with disciplined skill. Rei changed directions and sprinted, throwing a kunai on the run and then another one as she came to a sudden stop and changed directions yet again.

    The young girl with the honey-blonde hair sprinted back and forth in front of her targets several more times letting lose a barrage of kunai until her pouch ran empty. Then she stopped, her breathing only slightly hard from the sudden flurry of activity. After stretching her back and letting her chakra return to normal Rei walked downrange to retrieve her weapons and see how she did.

    The results were mixed. On the one hand she was very happy that for the first time all her weapons had hit the targets. She had missed almost half of them the first time she had attempted the same exercise. On the other hand the groupings of her weapons were all over the place and she almost never hit the exact spot she was aiming for.

    "Mada mada dane," she murmured echoing a show she had enjoyed in her last world.

    As she pulled out the weapons and replaced them in her pouch Rei pondered her weapons training. Proficiency with kunai and shuriken were fundamental to a ninja and she could hardly become a high level nin if she couldn't use them expertly. However she very much doubted she would become another Tenten. Thrown weapons were all well and good but they didn't quite feel right. They didn't 'sing' in her hand. She kinda wished they would.

    Well whatever. She had plenty of necessary things to work on and she could worry about finding her own style once she got the fundamentals down. It had been drilled in her over and over again that it was ultimately the fundamentals that made the ninja.

    It made sense. There were Jounin out there who reached their rank using only the fundamentals but there were exactly zero Jounin who were shitty at weapons and taijutsu. While not as exciting as learning ninjutsu Rei knew it would pay off in the long run.

    Rei ran the drill six more times, each time her weapon groupings hitting just a little bit tighter. She eventually had to stop when she heard her mother calling her name.

    "Rei! Come here," her mother called out to her.

    Rei obediently stopped and walked over to her mother hiding her irritation at being interrupted with the ease of practice. Instead of sulking she offered her mother a mostly sincere smile.

    "Yes mom? What is it? It's too early to stop my training you know," she said with mock seriousness.

    "I know honey but you'll have to make an exception today. We're receiving a very important guest in the clan hall tonight and you need to be there to greet him. You'll need to get cleaned up and dress up for the occasion," said her mother. She seemed happy and a little nervous about the prospect.

    Rei tilted her head questioningly. She hadn't heard about this. "Who are we receiving?"

    "The Hokage," she said with a smile like a celebrity was coming to grace her front porch. Rei supposed that in a way that was exactly what was happening from her mother's perspective.

    "Huh," said Rei thoughtfully. She had heard some months before that every three years it was tradition that the Hokage would visit and dine with every major clan in Konoha and his visits happened to be scheduled for this year. Apparently there was a great deal of political tea-leaf reading that went into what order the Hokage chose to visit the clans, who he spoke to and exactly what was said. Personal visits from the Hokage were rare and everyone treated these dinners like they were a Really Big Deal. It all sounded extremely – if she might steal a word – troublesome to her but she guessed that was all part of how the political sausage was made in Konoha.

    Rei had known the much expected visit from the Hokage was coming sometime this year. She just hadn't expected it to arrive so suddenly. Then again who would go out of their way to keep a five year old abreast of such things?

    "When do we have to leave?" she asked.

    "In about two hours. I already put out a kimono for you to wear. Hurry up and take a shower then I'll help you do your hair."

    Rei winced at that. Her thick ringlets never wanted to settle into the traditional elaborate hair styles. It was always a painful experience and the result never looked quite right. Those traditional hairstyles were meant for people with straight hair, not those that had natural sausage fat curls like she did.

    Still Rei wasn't inclined to make a fuss. Rei managed to get her way in a surprising number of things but she didn't want to push her luck. Being anything less than "perfect" for the Hokage was not something her mother would tolerate from her. Everyone was eager to make a good impression.

    "Ok mom, I'll go get dolled up for the shindig," said in a resigned voice.

    Her mom looked at her oddly because of her odd turn of phrase.

    Rei just smiled brightly and walked past her into the house. By now everyone was resigned to the fact she was a little strange. She didn't care. What use was life if she didn't have a little fun with it?

    It was the prerogative of being a genius wasn't it? You get to be a weirdo.

    She went into the upstairs bathroom, disrobed and turned on the shower. The shower was tiled blue very much like the bathrooms in her last life. As she washed her hair with a mix of herbs and oils Rei wondered at meeting with the Hokage. Even though Rei was irreverent when it came to figures of authority in this world she couldn't help but feel somewhat nervous. The Hokage was a bigger than life figure and she could admit even she hadn't been completely unaffected by the seemingly endless tales of accomplishments attributed to the Third Hokage. The man was a legend and if what she remembered from the story was accurate he was impressive enough to live up to the hype even at his advanced age.

    There was a saying in the ninja world. Fear old ninja. They are alive for a reason.

    Suddenly Rei was worried. She had briefly met other Jounin but no one as accomplished as the Hokage. Decade after decade of leading Konoha from behind a desk where his main opponents were politics and bureaucracy the man could probably spot a person selling him bullshit a mile away. Would he be able to tell there was something truly unusual about her? Would he somehow be able to piece together that she had no intention of adopting his precious "Will of Fire"? That she was planning on becoming a "traitor" by abandoning the village?

    Rei knew she was being unreasonably paranoid but the stories always made it sound like the Hokage could do anything short of making the sun rise at midnight. He was also the man who held the power of life and death over her and everyone in the village. How could someone not be at least a little bit on edge when meeting him? Though it was unlikely one couldn't help but wonder if the man would order your execution if you offended him badly enough. It didn't matter that the odds of that happening were slim to none. The threat that he could was enough to give a person pause.

    Finishing her shower Rei dried herself with a towel and headed to the room she shared with Ino. On her bed neatly laid out was an expensive pink formal kimono with flower patterns in light green and white. It was brand new and Rei had to wonder if her mother had bought it for just this occasion.

    I don't even like pink Rei thought. It seemed that in both worlds it was just assumed young girls would like things in that color. While it wasn't her favorite color the kimono was still beautiful and the shade of pink was thankfully tastefully muted.

    She quickly dressed and put on the matching obi before going to look for her mother. Rei found her sitting on the vanity in her room putting the last touches on her hair.

    Emiko looked over and smiled. "It looks wonderful on you. Though you didn't tie the obi quite right again."

    Over the next thirty minutes Rei had to sit and tolerate her mother fussing over her and trying to wrestle her curls into submission so they would conform more or less to the expected traditional style. The result was something that looked more or less like it was supposed to even if it felt like half her head was covered in pins and clips.

    Seeing her blonde hair and lilac eyes in what was almost indistinguishable from traditional Japanese garb made her feel like she was a Western girl playing dress up. However in the elemental nations there was nothing unusual about blondes and redheads in formal kimonos. Rei found it a bit surprising that even after five years little things like that could still be jarring.

    "Come on. It's time," said her mother leading her out of the room.

    Night had already fallen as Emiko led Rei out of the house. They turned down a well maintained street with traditional houses on both sides. Paper lanterns with the Yamanaka clan symbol were hung on posts at regular intervals providing lighting for the first half of the night. There were rather more paper lanterns out that night and the streets were more well lit than usual. This she suspected the extra effort had been made on behalf of the Hokage.

    Emiko led them into a large building where clan meetings and other important events held in the Yamanaka compound took place. It strangely reminded Rei of a mead hall. A large sunken foyer greeted them at the entrance and this led to a spacious raised dining area capable of holding over a hundred people. Lanterns were everywhere and here they were made of glass instead of paper as was more common. Everything else was made of polished wood and Rei wondered if the First Hokage's Mokuton had been responsible for creating the building in the first place.

    Clan members already gathered were standing and speaking quietly in small groups. Rei spotted her father who was engaged in a serious looking conversation with a couple of veteran Chunin. Her mother left him alone and instead steered them towards a small group of women quietly speaking to each other. The group of them in their colorful kimonos brought to mind an especially pretty flock of birds.

    "Good evening ladies. Hokako-san, that kimono looks wonderful on you," said her mother quickly inserting herself into the group gracefully but without much subtlety.

    "Thank you Emiko-san. You and Rei-chan look divine," the other woman replied with an easy smile.

    Rei replied gracefully to the compliments she received but otherwise tuned the women out. It seemed that in any world women loved to gossip and Rei wasn't the least bit interested in the latest bit of drama going on in the clan. She passed the time people watching as more and more ninja of the clan slowly trickled in. The hall wasn't big enough to accommodate every clansman and only the most prominent ones would be in attendance. Though she knew she was the heir Rei still found it odd to think of herself as one of the most prominent people in the Yamanaka clan. In a lot of ways Rei suspected she would always feel like something of an outsider.

    Eventually the doors opened and in walked Yamanaka Toshiaki who was the current head of the Yamanaka clan. He was a tall and reed thin with greying blonde hair who was somewhere in between middle aged and elderly. Still the man stood straight and strong and carried himself with an air of dignity that forced you to take him seriously and treat him with respect. Toshiaki was her father's elder cousin and both his children had been killed in action during the last war. As Inoichi was the closest family member to the clan head and Toshiaki would never have another child Rei had become the new heir to the Yamanaka clan when she was born.

    Why can't they just hold an election or something?

    "Clansmen," began Toshiaki without preamble, "the spotters have informed me the Hokage will be arriving in less than five minutes. Please take your positions and be prepared to greet him."

    Not exactly sure what was going on Rei let Emiko take her by the hand and lead her. Clansmen arranged themselves in two lines on either side of the foyer, each of them shuffling around in such a way that made it obvious their positions had been decided beforehand. In less than a minute they had all efficiently positioned themselves and Rei found herself standing next to her mother nearly at the head of one of the lines. All chatter stopped and the air took a sudden serious military mien.

    Toshiaki stood by the door flanked on one side by her father and on the other one of the clan elders. Rei could see what was going to happen. When the Hokage came close enough Toshiaki and the two flanking him would go and greet the Hokage outside. Afterwards they would escort him in and the Hokage would see the finely dressed Yamanaka clansmen lined up on either side of the hall to greet him. Rei had never experienced this kind of pomp and ceremony in her past life and she felt it was all a bit too stuffy. The girl was very much not a fan of formality. She supposed she should count herself lucky she hadn't been born into the Hyuuga clan.

    "When the Hokage enters all of the clan members will bow low in unison. Make sure to follow along," her mother whispered to her.

    "I will," she assured her mother for once reigning in her desire to say something smart.

    It was just a bit eerie how every person in the room stood quietly at attention while they waited those last few minutes for the Hokage to arrive. It was like they were all in uniform waiting for inspection instead of dressed for a fancy dinner in their finest attire. The last few minutes ticked by slowly as Rei struggled not to fidget.

    After what seemed like an eternity but must have been less than five minutes the clan head with her father and the elder at his shoulders stepped out of the hall. It seemed the Hokage had arrived. The room held its collective breath while they waited for polite greetings to be exchanged and for the guest of honor to be showed inside.

    Of course the Hokage was the first person to reenter the room since traditionally the highest ranking person entered first. Rei barely got a glimpse of his robes before she was bowing along with everyone else bending at the waist low and keeping her eyes on the floor as was "proper". The Hokage strolled across the room with such casual ease Rei knew it must have been for show. Two plain faced men in Jounin uniforms flanked him as an honor guard and Rei was willing to bet they were part of the Hokage's personal ANBU when they weren't acting as ceremonial bodyguards. She bet ANBU accompanying the Hokage thought all the pomp was rather silly too.

    In unison as if by some unseen signal all the Yamanaka straightened from their bows and stood at stiff attention. The Hokage didn't visibly react but instead just walked to the head of the two lines. Toshaki and his entourage were close behind and Rei watched curiously out of the corner of her eye as the Hokage conferred briefly with the Yamanaka clan head.

    What is going on? Wish someone had clued me in to the script beforehand.

    What was going on became apparent as the Hokage started to speak to a Yamanaka clan member almost directly across from her with Toshaki following closely at his shoulder. They spoke in quiet tones for a few moments before the Hokage moved down the line and spoke briefly to another Yamanaka clan member. Rei realized that the Hokage was very deliberately choosing to speak to a handful of clan members in front of all the others and that it undoubtedly was intended to send some kind of message.

    I bet there'll be hours of speculation as to why the Hokage chose to speak to the people he did and what it all means. You also have to wonder if anyone will feel snubbed if the Hokage doesn't stop to speak to them personally. Ugh I don't have the patience for politics.

    When the Hokage finished going down the line and then crossed over to speak to the people in Rei's own line it finally occurred to her that the Hokage might stop to speak with her.

    I really, really hope he doesn't she thought with dread bubbling in her stomach.

    Rei knew she was far, far too inexperienced to try to match wits or pull one over on the Hokage. She knew she was being paranoid but she couldn't help but feel afraid that the Hokage would be able to instantly see right through her. It wasn't rational but Rei had heard too many stories about the Hokage being a man who could do anything and despite herself she had been sucked in by some of the hype. Especially since she knew a great deal of it wasn't hype at all.

    Deep breath. You're just a little girl known to be a bit of an odd snowflake duck. If there's anything odd to be seen it will probably just get chalked up to that.

    Minutes passed and the tension in Rei's five year old body increased as the Hokage drifted ever closer to her place near the head of the line. Rei forced herself to physically relax but didn't think it did a lot of good. At least if she looked like a nervous wreck it could be chalked up to nerves from being in the presence of the Hokage. Rei took a deep breath as unbidden words from her old world came to mind.

    There is no emotion, there is peace.

    There is no ignorance, there is knowledge.

    There is no passion, there is serenity.

    There is no chaos, there is harmony.

    There is no death, there is only chakra.

    Finally the Third Hokage came to a stop right in front of her.

    It was almost a shock that the Hokage looked like a normal man and not a three meter tall glowing demigod. This was the first time in her life that Rei had gotten a close look at the man who had lead the Village Hidden in the Leaves for over forty years. He was somewhat shorter than the average man but not an inch less imposing for it. His face was lined with age and was covered with a few liver spots. His features were remarkably unremarkable. He had a pointed neatly trimmed grey goatee that somehow managed to make him look more approachable and dignified. He looked down at Rei with a friendly warm smile and it was easy to see how Naruto would latch on to him as a semi-paternal grandfatherly figure.

    His eyes though gave lie to his outer appearance as simple old man. They were sharp and focused and while not exactly calculating there was a… weight to them, as if he was seeing what she would make of herself and how useful she would be. It wasn't completely heartless though. Rei thought that while she was being weighed for her utility that didn't mean he was heartless. His eyes said he also cared.

    At least that's what he wanted her to see at any rate. She wouldn't kid herself; whatever she saw in Sarutobi Hiruzen would be exactly what he wanted her to see. Someone like her didn't stand a chance of seeing past his walls.

    "Rei-chan was it?" the Hokage spoke in a friendly baritone, "I don't think we've met before. It's a pleasure to meet you."

    Her reply was an ingrained response that didn't require any thought. "It's a pleasure to meet you too Hokage-sama," she said sounding a little nervous and not having to fake it in the least bit.

    "I've heard good things about you. They tell me you train hard every day," he said.

    Rei had a momentary moment of panic. Open ended questions were a classic way to gather information. How should she respond? Was this some kind of test? Was he looking for something?

    Looking up at his face she realized she had no idea. Frankly she was getting annoyed with herself and tired of being unsettled by his presence. She could try to stutter though some clichéd pre-made response. Or she could just be herself.

    Oh fuck it.

    She grinned at him with a hint of mischievousness. It was a look her parents knew usually meant trouble.

    "How else would I become a strong ninja? That's my goal you know; to become a powerful ninja and be able to see the world," she said, laughing inside and hoping she didn't somehow get herself killed.

    He seemed please by her response. "Oh? So you want to be a ninja?" he asked rhetorically.

    "Yep! All the people I want to emulate are ninja after all," she said, putting her hands behind her back and turning up the cuteness factor to eleven.

    Tsunade, Orochimaru, Deidara, Sasori. All the people I want to emulate are most definitely ninja.

    The Hokage nodded indulgently like she had just pronounced some great wisdom.

    "That's very good to hear. There are a lot of great role models for you in your clan. You know the way of the ninja is very hard. Do you think you're ready for it?"

    "As long as I can chase after my dreams I'll put up with anything you can throw at me Hokage-sama," she said with all the haughtiness and seriousness her little five year old body could muster. The girl wondered how many people could tell she was grinning like a mad fool on the inside.

    The Hokage chuckled at that. "Is that so? My, it looks like the Will of Fire burns brightly in the next generation. You begin the academy next year don't you?"

    "Yes Hokage-sama," she replied with an exaggerated nod.

    "See that you do well. I'll be expecting great things from you."

    Rei's smile turned sly. "Don't worry Hokage-sama. I promise I'll be like no one you've ever seen before."

    That earned her a long look and suddenly the smile on his face didn't look quite so genuine.

    "Take care of yourself Rei-chan," he said before turning and walking away.

    The smile on Rei's face fell as soon as he was gone.

    Damn it damn it damn it. I definitely went too far. Shit!

    While she was lost in her own thoughts the group started to break up. Rei realized she had been the last person the Hokage had talked to and he had proceeded further into the hall to the large formal dining area. Her mother appeared in front of her and drew her attention.

    "That went relatively well though I expected you to behave yourself with a little more decorum and a little less cheek," her mother said sternly.

    Rei had the decency to look a little sheepish. "Yeah, sorry about that mom. I was just a little nervous."

    "And you get a smart mouth when you're nervous, is that what you're trying to tell me?" her mother asked with a raised eyebrow.

    "I get a smart mouth for everything. I thought you and dad had figured that out by now," she said, putting a hand on her hip and imitating her mother's raised eyebrow.

    Emiko looked like she wanted to give her daughter a serious scolding but held herself back. "You head on back home. I have to stay for the dinner."

    "I don't have to stay?" asked Rei in surprise.

    Emiko shook her head. "You're too young and we'll be discussing important clan business. You'll get to join us once you become Genin."

    Joy. I can't wait. Rei thought sardonically.

    "We won't be home until late. There's dinner in the fridge. Your aunt should bring Ino back soon so make sure she goes to bed on time."

    "Sure. I can handle it."

    "Good," said Emiko before looking towards the dining room. "I've got to go. See you tomorrow."

    Emiko gave Rei a quick peck on the forehead before hurrying off to join the rest of the clan.

    Rei left the meeting hall and walked home with a sullen air. Her eyes were firmly planted on the ground in front of her the whole way. When she got home she decided she wasn't hungry and chose to forgo dinner. Instead she went up to her room, changed her clothes, and threw herself on her bed.

    What the hell was I thinking needling the Hokage like that? I wanted to fly under the radar and I might have ended up doing the exact opposite. With that last comment I probably ruined whatever good impression I had made on him. Ugh, being a smartass little shit is not a good defense mechanism in the ninja world.

    Rei lay there for what felt like a long time going over everything that had happened and the ways in which it might hurt her. In the end she decided strict professionalism whenever she met the Hokage in the future was the way to go. She only hoped she could actually stick to that.

    Eventually Rei felt someone coming up the stairs and when the door opened she sat up. Ino stood there looking freshly showered after playing at their aunt Yua's house all day.

    "Hey Ino," said Rei with a halfhearted smile.

    Ino gave her a long look and a little frown marred her features. "What's wrong Nee-chan?" she asked.

    Rei blinked. "What makes you think something's wrong?"

    "Your face. You look sad or something. I don't know but I can tell something's wrong," Ino insisted.

    Rei sighed and rubbed her face. She must have really looked a mess if a four year old could so easily tell something was wrong with her.

    "Nothing Ino just," she paused, "a bad dream and I think I made mom mad earlier. I've had a bit of a rotten evening."

    Ino looked at her thoughtfully before walking up to her sister and throwing her arms around her neck. Rei hesitated before wrapping her arms around the younger girl. Typical Ino. Always thinking she could make things better with a hug.

    Sometimes she was right.

    "We'll sleep together so you don't have any more bad dreams ok?" said Ino.

    Rei smiled. "Sure. I'd like that."
     
  6. Threadmarks: Chapter 6
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 6

    000

    Six Years Old

    A week before school started Rei's mom took her clothes shopping. The older woman seemed to think it was a big deal. When Rei asked why she got a longer explanation than she had expected.

    When Rei had watched the show she'd thought everyone wearing the same outfit everyday had just been the artist's convention to help keep things simple. It turned out this wasn't the case at all and there were historical reasons why this practice was adopted.

    During the warring states period when armies fought the commanders started wearing clothing that was easily recognizable. This was so the ninja on their side could easily find them in the field of battle to look for orders and to try to draw enemy aggression. The commanders were the strongest ninja and the pervading philosophy was that if they were targeted they would have the best chance to survive. It also made it very easy to get enemies to overcommit to attacking the commanders and lead them into an ambush. Eventually the commanders started wearing their distinct battle garb at all times both in order to be ready to fight at any time and for the prestige and status associated with their uniforms.

    Over time all ninjas began to emulate their commanders and wore distinct clothing that easily identified them. This changed somewhat when the Hidden Village system was founded and there was an effort to introduce a standard uniform especially among the higher ranks. However there is still a strong holdover of the practice especially among the Genin and younger ninja. Clans in particular viewed wearing your own signature clothes as a point of pride. Like many traditions the original purpose of it no longer applied but the actual practice refused to die.

    It also meant that at a young age perspective ninja had to choose an outfit they would wear for years to come. That explained some of the odd and painful fashion choices of Genin during the show.

    So that was why she found herself in a children's military supply store with her mother looking for a signature "look" that she would probably carry into her Genin career.

    "What about this?" asked her mother holding out a battle dress that looked suspiciously like the one Sakura wore on the show but in more muted colors. Rei had serious doubts about the practicality of the "battle dress" and wondered if its main purpose was to attract the whims of young girls.

    Rei wrinkled her nose. "Pass. Way too girly. I don't think I could take myself seriously if I wore something like that."

    Her mother frowned. "I think it's lovely but maybe you're right. Something more functional then?"

    "Functional and practical. And pockets. Definitely want pockets."

    Emiko smiled. "Well at least you have your priories straight."

    The store was very large by Konoha standards where the average business tended to be relatively small. There was a dizzying selection of clothes, weapons and equipment made with smaller hands and bodies in mind. She was pretty sure she found versions of what some of the Rookie 9 had worn on the show on the shelves as she browsed.

    At first Rei had been rather neutral about finding something to wear but now that she was there she wanted to find an outfit that meant something. Maybe something that had a deeper meaning even if only to her. Something that symbolized her rebellion against the situation she had been put in against her will and without her consent.

    Unbidden a memory came to her… that of a young Orochimaru with his Genin team wearing an off white battle kimono. A nasty little smile came to her lips. She couldn't wear exactly what he wore, that would be too suspicious, but emulating the style of a younger Orochimaru was exactly the type of silent rebellion and personal meaning she was looking for.

    It also helped that the rest of the Sannin had also worn battle kimonos too though in slightly different styles. She didn't know if dressing like the young Sannin would help but psychologically it definitely wouldn't hurt.

    Quickly she flittered over to the section that held a moderate selection of battle kimonos. As she started going through them her mom came and stood over her shoulder.

    "I think I found the general style of what I want to wear," she told her mom as she pulled out and replaced different selections.

    "The kimonos?" asked her mother sounding surprised. "Those are somewhat old fashioned you know. None of the young kids wear them anymore."

    "Don't care. I like them. Besides I think they look dignified."

    Her mother made a humming sound. "I suppose they do have a nice classic look to them. But I thought you wanted something with pockets?"

    "The insides of the robes have pockets."

    "Hmm well it's a more mature choice than I would have expected but I don't know why I'm surprised. Here let me help you find something nice in your size."

    In the end and after some back and forth Rei found an outfit she was happy with. It was a pale lilac kimono that matched her eyes with an aggressive black collar and sash. It was a little longer than knee length and had long billowing sleeves she found herself liking a great deal. Black shorts and undershirt completed the outfit along with black ninja sandals.

    Other than the kimono being lilac instead of off white Rei looked exactly like a young Orochimaru.

    Looking at herself in the store mirror Rei found herself both sad an excited. Despite the questionable circumstances she was going to learn what in her last world would only have existed in the realms of fiction. Controlling the elements, moving too fast for the eye to see, walking on water… she was going to learn all of that and she was going to do it wearing that outfit. On the other hand there was always the specter of what she would be expected to do with those skills after she graduated hanging over her head.

    "I wouldn't have gone with black for the accents but other than that I think it's a good choice. It suits you," her mother said.

    "Yeah," she said distractedly "I guess it does."

    000

    Rei was caught off guard when her dad declared he would walk her to the Academy on her very first day. She was surprised at how touched she was by the gesture. It wasn't often he could take the time to do something even as simple as that. Her dad was a very busy man with lots of responsibilities and she had learned to treasure the limited time she got to spend with him.

    While he had just recently stepped down as the head of Konoha's T&I department he still consulted extensively with them in addition to his new responsibilities. As much as Rei disliked the Hidden Village system for its lack of basic human rights and authoritarian regimes she had to admit that there were occasional spots of light in this new society. Her father had been tasked with developing standards and protocols for a new initiative known as the "mental maintenance department" which was probably going to end up getting folded up into Konoha's hospital system.

    Setting aside the implication that the mind – or the ninja in question – were weapons to be maintained it seemed like a small bit of progress in the right direction to the girl. It's never been a secret that ninja tend to develop deep and debilitating mental traumas over the course of their careers. Something that was never shown in the story she had read – or perhaps had never existed there – were the fairly disturbing statistics on suicide rates for veteran ninja. It also wasn't just those that were suicidal that could benefit from some professional help. If Konoha was hellbent on using prepubescent child soldiers then it was high time they had something official in place to help treat the resulting mental trauma. At least it was now officially recognized as a problem and something was being done about it.

    While Rei was generally pessimistic about her situation and the system she found herself living in she was at least hopeful for the future for the sake of the people living there. As bad as things currently were things had slowly – so slowly – been getting better since the warring states period. With any luck in three or four hundred years something similar to All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights might have a chance to take root.

    However it sure as hell wasn't going to happen in her lifetime. As Rei was increasingly convinced power was the only true freedom to be found in the ninja world and the only rights you had were those you could take for yourself.

    She would become an S-Rank ninja and escape or die trying.

    Live free or die trying… wasn't that a saying in her world? Certainly fit.

    Baby steps first though. Today was her first day at the academy.

    "So are you excited?" her father asked as they walked down Konoha's streets under the shade of the Harashima trees.

    Rei knew that was shorthand for her father asking what she thought about the whole 'going to the Academy' situation. "Meh. I hope to learn a lot. As long as I get the training I need I can handle the sitch," she said with a shrug.

    "But?" her father prompted knowing there was more to it.

    "But what? You know what. I'm going to be stuck all day with a bunch of six year old kids," she said distastefully.

    "But you're a six year old kid too aren't you?" her dad asked in his 'therapist voice'.

    Rei gave her dad an incredulous look. "I'm smarter than half the people that work for you," she deadpanned.

    "Now that's an exaggeration," he protested seeming a bit affronted.

    "Oh? So Katsuro-san is some kind of brain trust down at T&I then?" she asked with a crooked little smile. She smelled blood on the water now.

    "That's- well he's just occasionally absent minded," Inoichi protested.

    "So do all your occasionally absent minded subordinates practice fire jutsu in a sealed interrogation room? What do they call him now, barbeque boy was it?"

    Inoichi sighed. "I never should have let you meet some of the people I work with," he said "and you're dodging the question."

    "Hey if you're admitting I'm smarter than half the people you work with then I don't see what else we have to talk about."

    Inoichi gave his daughter a look. She sighed.

    "Fine. What do you want me to say? That I find kids my age annoying and can't relate to them one bit? That no one my age can keep up with me? That I'm too mature? You already know all that. Not seeing what going over it again is going to accomplish."

    Inoichi made a thoughtful noise. "It's a burden for you isn't it? Being so smart?"

    Rei shrugged looking a little sullen. "I'm my own snowflake duck. It's not anyone's fault. Adults are good enough company and Ino keeps me from getting lonely."

    Rei had no idea what brought on the impromptu therapy session on the way to school. Thankfully she didn't have to wait long to find out what was on his mind.

    "Knowing how to relate to your peers is important. You should make an effort."

    Rei replied with a grunt that might have generously been taken as agreement.

    "Thankfully there is someone in your class in a similar situation to yours. You should consider befriending him. It would be good for you."

    This caught Rei's attention. She looked up at him curiously. "What do you mean similar situation? Too smart or too good looking?"

    Inoichi's lips twitched up at that. "You're cute and adorable not good looking. And yes too smart by half just like you. Too smart, too talented and too good for his age. He also has the same problems as you relating to his peers. Definitely a genius like you," he said leaning in slightly, "maybe even better."

    Rei knew her dad was deliberately trying to push her buttons now… but damn him it still worked. He knew she would be interested now. She suspected she knew who he was talking about.

    "We'll have to see I suppose," she said airily, "what's his name?"

    "Hyuuga Neji."

    Bingo. She'd guessed right.

    She'd thought that in the story Team Gai had been just a year older than the Rookie 9 but she hadn't been a hundred percent certain of that detail. Rei had known for a while that she might end up in the same class as Neji, Tenten and Lee but since it had not been certain she hadn't given it much thought. Now her father had confirmed that she would be in their same class. Now that was interesting.

    Especially Neji. Neji was very interesting.

    Geniuses were a rare thing and from her memories of the Chunin exam Neji had most definitely qualified. Supposedly he'd been the strongest Genin in Konoha at the time of the Chunin exams. He'd been the first one to make Jounin too even if his powers seemed to plateau a bit later in the series compared to Sasuke and Naruto… but that might have just been from his stubborn Hyuuga insistence of practicing only the Gentle Fist. Impossible to say. Either way if things were more or less as she remembered he could make an invaluable ally.

    He wasn't without problems though. Like many in the Naruto world he'd had a tragic past and it had scarred him. He'd also come across as something of a prick too at least until Naruto had "fixed" him. But… he couldn't be that bad as a six year old.

    Other than that as much as she hated to admit it Rei was a little… lonely. As much as she loved Ino and as many interaction as she had with her parents and many other adults in the clan the truth was there was no one really like her. It was odd thinking that because how many adult minds in children's bodies were there in the world? Not many if she had to guess. Another genius child was probably the closest thing she'd ever have to a peer.

    It was worth looking into at least. The thought lit a fire inside her.

    Her father must have seen something in her because he chuckled and rubbed her head affectionately. "Just be friendly. Remember Hyuuga can be a little stuffy and slow to thaw but they are good loyal ninja just the same. Keep at it and I'm sure you'll win him over."

    "Who says I'm going to try to befriend him?" she protested but neither of them were fooled by her denial. The small grin on her lips gave her away.
     
  7. Threadmarks: Chapter 7
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 7

    000

    So this is it. This is where I'm going to learn to be a good little soldier of Konoha. Where I learn to kill and die for something I don't even believe in. On the bright side I'll also be learning how to break the laws of physics.

    After a ceremony at the front of the school filled with speeches about hard work and the "Will of Fire" the new Academy students were left to find their assigned classrooms on their own. Thankfully the ceremony had been brief as the Hokage himself had made an appearance and Rei had suddenly found herself feeling nervous about her impulsive choice of wardrobe. After they had been dismissed from the ceremony Rei had taken her time, wandering the halls to familiarize herself with the Academy before making her way to her new classroom.

    The classroom was surprisingly mundane and looked very similar to what she remembered. It was larger than depicted in the story though and Rei estimated it would hold about sixty students. A blackboard, desk and podium stood at the front of the class and the student's seats were lined up and tiered upwards in a stadium style. She noticed with some amusement that the chairs and desks were closer to adult sized than child sized. The kids that were already sitting down looked a little ridiculous in the too-big furniture. It made sense since each class used the same classroom for the whole six years of their education.

    Looking around the room Rei searched for the only three people she knew would be in her class. Sitting all the way in the back row was a brown haired girl with her hair in two buns and a Chinese style shirt. If it wasn't for those two things Rei might have not recognized her. As much as she had like Tenten in the show she really didn't have any outstanding physical characteristics. Her face was that of a young kid, adorably chubby and cute in that way only young children could be. She wasn't talking to anyone when most other kids were gathered in small groups. Well wasn't that peculiar. Was it possible she had been an introvert as a young kid? Sakura had changed a great deal over her Academy years after all. Maybe something similar had happened with Tenten.

    Next she saw the boy who could only be Rock Lee. He looked just like the young Lee that she had read about with a grey Chinese shirt and a long pony tail. His hair was charcoal black and his eyebrows were a lot thicker than normal… but not as bad as in the show. Sure they were thick and bushy especially for a six year old but they didn't look abnormal either. Chalk that up to another minor difference between worlds. He was talking to a group of boys and they seemed to be getting along. The kids were still at that age where awkwardness between strangers was something that was quickly overcome. Rei wondered how long it would be before his malformed coils were revealed and he began to be shunned and picked on by his classmates. It was hard not to feel sympathy for the kid.

    Finally standing off by himself with seemingly a bubble of empty space around him was the student she was most interested in. Neji wore a chibi version of the outfit he'd worn as a Genin though he was missing the bandages on his arms and his forehead was covered with a white sash. His long dark hair was worn loose and the way he stood put Rei in mind of a child trying to imitate the aloof stance and seriousness of the adults in his clan but still managing to look like he was playacting. His head moved as he scanned the crowd with a faintly contemptuous turn of his lips – an impressive accomplishment of general disdain for a six year old. His gaze turned in her direction and briefly their gazes met. She gave him a bright smile with a shade of arrogance and held his eyes. He looked momentarily surprised by her boldness as he studied her momentarily before turning his gaze away and continuing to scan the crowd, dismissing her.

    Well if I were him I'd dismiss me too. He seems a prickly one. Better pick a seat and observe for now, see what I can learn about him. I've made enough of an impression that at least he'll remember what I look like.

    There were still about ten minutes before the class started and the seats were slowly filling up. Of the three people she knew of in the class there was only one that she considered sitting next too. Neji struck her as the type who needed his space and she didn't want to crowd him and Lee was just acting and speaking like a regular boy his age… not something she was eager to subject herself to. With confident steps she walked up the isle and took an empty seat next to Tenten.

    Tenten looked at her curiously but didn't say anything. Rei gave her a friendly smile.

    "Yamanaka Rei," she said introducing herself.

    After hesitating the girl spoke quietly but clearly. "Hayashi Tenten."

    Those were the only words they said to each other for the next two weeks.

    Hayashi, so that's her last name… I'm pretty sure they didn't say it in the story for whatever reason. Or maybe that's another difference between the story and this world.

    They were at the very back on the last row so Rei could see the whole classroom. Neji had chosen a seat on the very front row and she watched as he rebuffed attempts at small talk with glares and occasionally a few words. The boys on the receiving end seemed to pale and scurry off rather quickly.

    Scary eyes for a chibi Rei thought in amusement.

    A few minutes later a kunoichi walked into the room with purposeful elegant strides. If this was their teacher she wasn't at all what Rei had been expecting. First of all she was a woman and part of her had just assumed they would have a man as a teacher since the only ones ever seen teaching in the story had been male. Secondly it was how young she looked – Rei would have pegged her age at roughly sixteen. She wore the standard Chunin outfit except the colors were all wrong. Her pants and shirt were black and her Chunin vest was dark blue. How she'd gotten permission to alter the outfit so much Rei had no idea. Her hair was a strange color though that wasn't unheard of in Konoha – it was colored aqua and done up in a tight severe bun. Her eyes were green and she wore a pair of delicate looking eyeglasses. The new kunoichi's face was set in a tight no-nonsense expression that made Rei think of the headmistress of some strict boarding school. In her hand she was holding – of all things – what looked like a black riding crop. What is she planning on doing with that thing?

    The answer became apparent as she strode behind the desk at the front of the classroom, turned deliberately to the front, and when the class hadn't quieted down to her satisfaction she smacked the riding crop on the desk. Suddenly all conversation ceased.

    "Welcome prospective Genin," she began, "My name is Himura Nao and I will be your instructor for the duration of your education here at the Academy. I will tolerate no goofing off, no chatter during class, and absolutely no disruptive behavior. You are to arrive promptly on time every day and raise your hand in case you have any questions. Consequences for rulebreakers will be… severe. Do your best and I'm sure we'll all get along fabulously. Any questions?"

    000

    Nao-sensei was nothing like the Iruka-sensei from her memories. She was fastidious, cooly in command and had a sixth sense for when students weren't paying attention. Also it turned out corporal punishment was still a thing in Konoha schools. The class found this out the first time some kid started speaking to his neighbor too loudly for Nao-sensei's taste. Everyone was shocked when her riding crop extended in the blink of an eye and smacked the offender loudly on the arm all the way up on the fourth row.

    "Inuzuka-kun, no chatter during class," she said sternly while the wide eyed boy rubbed his arm and nodded enthusiastically.

    Rei might have laughed out loud if she wasn't afraid of getting smacked with that riding crop herself. Plus when Nao-sensei turned her glare your way… well her green eyes and furrowed brow had a special power for making students break out in sweat and behave themselves. Rei thought it must have been some kind of kekkei gankai.

    It's probably a good thing for the integrity of the school that Nao-sensei wasn't Naruto's teacher. Not sure who would come ahead in that battle of wills. I can't imagine anyone other than him having the guts to mouth off to Nao-sensei. Thinking about that scenario was really entertaining if a bit frightening.

    As a teacher Nao-sensei was precise, methodical and matter-of-fact. She was also very good at what she did. Despite her general dislike for authoritarian figures Rei found herself liking Nao-sensei a great deal. Her logical and methodical approach appealed to her as well as her unwillingness to put up with any kind of nonsense. It was an ideal environment to learn and while many students griped out of class when they thought she couldn't hear Rei was nothing but pleased.

    I wonder if she was in the story but just never got any screen time? If so that would have been criminal. Who wouldn't want to include a sixteen-year-old aqua haired McGonagall with a riding crop?

    However that was about the only bright spot that morning as she sat through class. Rei realized very quickly that the first year was going to have very little to do with the ninja arts and everything to do with giving the students a necessary basic education. Mathematics, language, history and geography were the topics that would be covered in the classroom the first year.

    Rei had to swallow a loud groan when she realized what a colossal waste of time the current school year would be if she couldn't somehow skip ahead and go to another year. Her mathematics skills were intact from her past life and she could already speak and write at an adult level of proficiency. She was familiar with all the big events that had happened in the Elemental Nations since people had started keeping track and she could probably draw a map of the Elemental Nations from memory.

    In other words except for possibly a few bits of history and some very specific geographic details Rei already knew everything they were going to be taught in class that year.

    Well… this can't be as bad as it seems. Konoha is not the type of place to coddle and hold people back when they're ready to move on. I'll have to talk to Nao-sensei after class and see about moving up to another year. Shame I'm going to miss out the opportunity to befriend Neji and I would have liked to keep Nao as my teacher… but this was always a possibility. I'm a 'genius' and those usually graduate years early after all.

    Rei spent her first class period looking alert all while playing with her chakra and getting pencils and pens to stick to her fingers. Privately she hoped this would be the first and last day she would have to sit through a class so below her level.

    000

    "As this is the first day we will have a physical assessment of all students followed by taijutsu instruction. In order we will test your speed, upper body strength, flexibility and endurance. This will give us an idea of your level," said Nao-sensei, casually pushing up her glasses with a finger. "Be sure to give it your full effort. As your instructors it is important that we have an accurate idea of your current level. Now all of you get behind the white line. On my signal you will run one lap around the track as fast as you are able."

    Nao-sensei stood on the side of the track with two other Chunin Rei didn't recognize helping her herd the sixty plus children. There was whispering and muttering as students slowly made their way to the line. Rei herself stepped decisively to the very front not wanting to be stuck in the middle of the pack from the get go. There was excitement bubbling in her stomach. All her life thus far she had spent her time in the Yamanaka compound being tutored by her mother and various Chunin and Genin of the clan. They had been the only people she had been able to compare herself with. Seeing how she stacked up against others her age felt like she would finally be able to see how far ahead of the curve (or not) she truly was.

    Looking to the side she caught a glimpse of Neji who had the same idea as she did to get to the front of the line. He must have sensed her looking because he turned his head to face her. Rei gave him a small conspiratory smile. His eyebrows drew together in confusion before he turned his gaze away. She was pretty sure he didn't know what to make of her. Well he would definitely be more interested after this run. Rei crouched low and began to saturate her muscles with chakra.

    "Students, prepare to go on my mark. Three. Two. One. Mark!"

    At the signal her body launched forward like a coiled spring, arms pumping as she struggled to get out every last ounce of speed that she could. Running was something that she enjoyed. In her new body running almost felt like flying, her feet barely feeling like they touched the ground before forcefully propelling her forward with every step. She would have laughed at the sheer joy of it if she didn't need to keep her breathing steady to make the best time.

    Out of the corner of her eye she could make out Neji a step or two behind her and keeping up rather well. Rei was simultaneously pleased and annoyed at that. Annoyed that she wasn't better than everyone else by leaps and bounds and pleased that yes, Hyuuga Neji might indeed be someone who could keep up with her. As they approached the half-way point Rei put all her attention forward and focused on getting just a little bit more speed.

    The two of them stayed at pace until they crossed the finish line with Rei being just two steps ahead of the young Hyuuga. Both of them were breathing hard but not exactly tired. One of the benefits of chakra was superhuman endurance and one run around the track wouldn't be enough to wear the two of them out.

    Rei wasn't really surprised that they were the first ones to the finish line. When she looked back however she was surprised to see that the next fastest student was just crossing the midpoint of the track. He was a clan kid too. That was good. That was very good. She couldn't keep a joyous grin from splitting her face.

    Turning back to look at a still hard breathing Neji she saw him looking at her like with slightly widened eyes. His youthful face had momentarily lost its stoic Hyuuga demeanor and he was looking at her with open surprise. She was willing to bet no one his age had ever kept up with him let alone beat him at anything.

    Rei took the opportunity to step up to him with a smile. He seemed a little wary but she just brightened her smile more and held out her hand to him in the seal of reconciliation.

    "Yamanaka Rei," she said, "six years old. Child prodigy. The only one who will truly be your equal in this class. How do you do?"

    Neji looked at her and her hand dubiously for a few moments before slowly reaching out and completing the seal.

    "Hyuuga Neji," he said hesitantly, "also a prodigy. It's a pleasure to meet you." Rei could tell he didn't really mean it so much as he was falling back into ingrained politeness. She didn't mind. It was a step forward and that was all that mattered.

    000
     
  8. Threadmarks: Chapter 8
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 8

    000

    AN: It's been brought to my attention that I may have rushed through some pertinent things earlier in Rei's childhood. This chapter will be a flashback chapter fleshing out some relevant things. Hopefully this won't break the flow of the story too much. Enjoy.

    000

    Three Years Old

    Rei had assumed from the very beginning that as a clan heir and member of a prominent ninja family she would not be given a choice in becoming a ninja. This idea was only reinforced when she was given rubber shuriken as an infant and her family members would on a regular basis croon about "what a wonderful little kunoichi" she was going to make. Still it occurred to Rei that she didn't know what the actual official policy was. To that end she made her way to the unrestricted section of her clan library located just down the street from her home.

    Children in Konoha and especially in the clan compounds were given free reign of the streets. Streets in Konoha were much safer than in her last world for children. Then again perverts or kidnappers in her last world did not have to worry about flocks of angry mystical warriors coming down on their heads should they try something untoward with Konoha's most valuable resource. Anyone who engaged in that kind of crime would meet a slow and grisly death in the bowels of Konoha's T&I department.

    There were some advantages to a military autocracy. Not many but safer streets were certainly good for the droves of children who roamed the streets unsupervised with impunity.

    Reaching her destination she entered the double doors of a wooden two story building. Through the doors was a reception desk and behind it rows of bookshelves like you would expect to find in any library. Behind the desk was a middle aged blonde haired woman who was missing most of the fingers on her right hand. Rei did her best not to stare and approached the desk with a friendly smile.

    "Hello Kagama-san," said Rei to the woman who was in charge of maintaining the clan's library.

    The older woman smiled warmly down at the girl. "Back again Rei-chan? Did you finish the last books you borrowed?" she asked.

    "Almost. Still got a bit to go," replied the girl.

    "My but you read fast for your age. I wish more children of the clan showed your interest in books."

    Rei shrugged. "I like history," she said.

    Kagama chuckled. "So I've noticed. Is there anything I can help you with today?"

    "Well…" she began, wondering how best to word what she wanted, "I want to read about the laws, but I'm not sure where to start."

    "Laws?" she asked sounding surprised, "You sure you're interested in that? It's quite boring and dry even if it is important."

    "I'm sure," she said with a firm nod.

    Kagama regarded her skeptically. "Well I suppose there's nothing wrong if you want to look at that. What kinds of laws? Anything in particular?"

    "I was thinking I wanted to know the laws of who gets to be a ninja. You know what is required, who has to sign up, who gets discharged from active duty, that kind of stuff," she said trying to sound and look as innocent as possible.

    "Hmmm, well your best bet is probably the Clan Charter. It has all the relevant laws and rules regarding ninja of the clan, among other things."

    "That sounds perfect!" said Rei with a charmingly cute smile. The pint sized blonde had learned early on that being an adorable little girl had benefits. Kagama melted and didn't ask any further questions. Sometimes being a super cute kid was more of an advantage than being labeled a 'genius'.

    Ten minutes later Rei was sitting at a table in the library with an absolutely massive tome in front of her. It was a copy of the Clan Charter and was one of the few things big enough to require leather binding which was much more expensive than paper books or scrolls. The Charter covered everything from the laws they were expected to follow, to land rights, how to settle disputes, zoning issues, etc. It was the agreement that the Yamanakas had negotiated with Senju Harashima when the clan joined Konoha.

    Most importantly for Rei at the moment it went into very explicit detail into what the Yamanaka clan was expected to contribute in terms of manpower to the village.

    It is recognized that the Clan is comprised of civilian members and members who are ninja. All children of civilian members of the Clan shall be given the option of joining Konoha's military force. All children born of Konoha ninja within the Clan shall be required to join Konoha's military forces.

    Rei frowned at that. While I don't think I would have chosen to become a powerless civilian in the Elemental Countries of all places just knowing I don't have the choice to do so really pisses me off. Given everything she had picked up over the years that passage was more or less what Rei had suspected. However seeing it written in black and white just made it seem all the more real.

    Maybe that shouldn't bother me, she thought to herself, it's not like I would have consented to being a civilian under the thumb of Konoha in any case. Even if I was just a baker I'd still be subject to and in a way contributing to a system that views killing innocent people for money as just another routine business transaction. Unfortunately there was never a chance that I would be anything other than a ninja.

    For better or for worse her fate was sealed both by circumstance and by her own choice. She was going to be a ninja. Thankfully she had started viewing it as less of a bad thing. Becoming a ninja meant primarily one thing as far as Rei was concerned; gaining power. Power in and of itself was neutral. It was what you did with it that mattered. Rei was going to get enough power to get free and then put it towards doing something good and worthwhile in the world. Hopefully.

    Doing something good was a secondary objective though. Nothing was more important to her than gaining complete control over her fate and her life.

    Getting free is step one, she thought to herself, everything else can come afterwards.

    000

    Four Years Old

    "Well doctor," said Emiko, and Rei could tell she was a bit excited even if she was very good at hiding it, "what's the verdict?"

    "Rei-chan is an… interesting case," said the white coated doctor, "while we have seen results like these in the past it has never been to this same degree."

    "What results?" asked her mother a little sharply. Rei tried not to roll her eyes. The doctor beating around the bush wasn't doing himself any favors.

    "Ermm right. Well her tests came back as such; her physical energy is within range of what would be considered normal for a prodigy her age. However her spiritual energy is another matter entirely. It is frankly speaking incredibly disproportionate to her physical energy. In fact looking at these numbers I'd say it falls firmly in the high-Chunin, low-Jounin range and is only expected to grow larger as she ages," said the doctor, his voice interested and clinically detached at the same time.

    Emiko's eyes flickered towards Rei worriedly. The girl didn't react to the news from her seat. She'd known her spiritual energy was much higher than her physical. Years of intense focus on her chakra and meditation not to mention her adult psyche had seen to that. She also felt it every night as her mind rode the energies of her body, physical energies, spiritual energies, and the mix of the two. Rei was sure she had a much better idea of the state of her own energies than the doctor did.

    "Is that… dangerous? Or some kind of problem? An imbalance that big sounds…" Emiko trailed off. She was worried. Rei reached over and held her mother's hand.

    "No, no," said the doctor waving her off, "it's nothing to worry about. Generally speaking for most things those higher levels will be inconsequential. Her chakra will probably be limited for the rest of her life to what her physical side can produce. While there will likely always be an overabundance of spiritual energy the same cannot be said for the physical. This surplus is a good thing especially if she learns to use techniques that use a higher proportion of spiritual energy rather than physical."

    Rei… wasn't sure about all of that. She was starting to understand that physical and spiritual energies were not as cut and dry as the academy level text books made them seem. Still it was just a feeling, nothing concrete. For all intents and purposes the doctor was still absolutely correct.

    Her mother nodded, seemingly satisfied and relieved by the explanation. "What else?" she asked.

    The doctor looked back at his notes. "Well her control is top notch for her age and will probably only continue to get better. If the trend continues I don't think she'll have any trouble learning just about any type of technique in the future at least from a control standpoint. Overall her chakra reserves are projected to be about thirty percent larger than the average potential. This is boosted a bit because of her high amount of spiritual energy."

    That was… good she supposed. And simultaneously disappointing. The chakra control she had expected but she had not been sure about her chakra potential. "Average chakra potential" was just that, what the average Konoha ninja was expected to have in terms of chakra. Ninja from civilian backgrounds tended to be either at the average or below it. Those from clans tended to be above average. Yamanaka was a clan with relatively low chakra reserves averaging about fifteen to twenty percent above average reserves. From that perspective Rei was lucky to be projected at thirty percent above average. In contrast however the Akimichi and Uchiha clans who were known for their strong chakra tended to be about fifty percent above average. She would have large reserves for a Yamanaka but be somewhat average compared to other clan children.

    It kind of burned her. She didn't want to be second best at anything.

    "You know…" began the doctor, "one of the primary techniques that utilize a larger proportion of spiritual energy are medical jutsu. As I'm sure you know becoming a med nin also requires a very high degree of chakra control which I'm sure Rei-chan here will be able to acquire in time. If you want my advice she should begin training to become a med nin from an early age. From what you tell me of her mental maturity she would be a prime candidate to being early training. I suspect she could become quite good."

    Her mother made a thoughtful noise. "Well that is something to consider. It's good if it plays to her strengths," she turned to Rei, "what do you think honey? Do you think you would be interested in becoming a medical ninja?"

    Up to that point Rei had been distracted, thinking about her own chakra potential and not really paying close attention to the conversation. When her mother turned to her and spoke Rei was a little irritated from having her train of thought interrupted and snapped without thinking.

    "Absolutely not," she said.

    The smiling faces of the two adults fell, her mother turning to one of surprise and the doctor looked mortally offended.

    "There's nothing wrong with being a medical ninja. It is a highly respected and rewarding specialty," said the doctor trying to sound calm but it was easy to tell he was irritated by her response.

    Rei's eyes narrowed at his tone of voice. "No offense doctor but I'm not going to fill the stereotype of the support/medic kunoichi who is only good for getting kidnapped and patching up her male teammates after they do all the fighting. I realize that sort of thing is almost expected but it's not for me. My specialty is going to be taking down the enemy not cleaning up the mess afterwards."

    "Rei! Don't be rude," her mother said firmly. Rei set her lip stubbornly but didn't say anything else.

    Even though she might technically be suited for it Rei had no interest in going the route of medical ninjutsu. She was focused on becoming powerful and feared and training to become a medic would actually be a hindrance to that. Fairly or unfairly 'medic' was almost synonymous with 'weak ninja' in the shinobi world. There would already be an automatic assumption that she would be somewhat weaker simply because she was a girl, there was no need to add yet another 'weak' stereotype to the mix. It would also involve years of studying things such as anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, drug interactions, medical seals… months and years where she could be studying something dangerous and hopefully terrifying. No, medical ninjutsu was not the route for her.

    "You know that is not necessarily the case at all. Haven't you heard of Tsunade of the Sannin? She is not only a world famous medical ninja and she is also feared all over the world for her incredible fighting prowess as well. So Rei-chan I think your fears are misplaced after all," said the doctor, for some reason trying to get her to see things his way. Or maybe he just felt the need to defend his chosen profession.

    Rei smiled and she tried to keep it genuine and less condescending, "Yes I have heard of Tsunade of the Sannin. Every little girl at some point dreams of being the next Tsunade-sama. I'm pretty sure none of them have succeeded though especially with the rules Tsunade-sama herself put in place. Aren't the rules that medical ninja are to avoid engaging in combat themselves at all costs? It seems kind of hard to become a legendary combatant when you aren't allowed to enter combat in the first place."

    The doctor didn't have any immediate answers to that.

    "You want to become a legendary combatant?" asked Emiko with disbelief.

    000

    Five Years Old

    The breath was forcefully expelled from Rei's lungs when a large foot connected with her stomach. She flew back and tumbled a few times before coming to her feet in a skid. The girl tried to breathe but her body wasn't cooperating only allowing her to take tiny pained breaths.

    "You're doing it again," said the broad shouldered blonde man in front of her, "you're letting your center of gravity get too high. You need to keep it low even when you're kicking high. Come at me again."

    She was still struggling for breath but Rei knew better than to delay. The girl came at him with a punch that he easily blocked. He didn't bother to attack and just defended as the five year old unleashed a fierce offensive. The man didn't seem at all bothered by the strikes hitting his arms and legs and Rei was quickly growing exhausted from her lack of proper breathing.

    Rei knew she needed an opening. This time she set it up by increasing the intensity of her attacks until they became just a bit sloppy. She could tell by the slight frown that appeared on his features that he'd noticed and wasn't happy about it. Rei went on for another few seconds before she aimed another high kick with her center of balance deliberately too high, the same kick that had earned her a foot to the stomach just moments before.

    Like she suspected he went to punish her in the exact same way with a powerful side kick. This time Rei was expecting it though.

    Her arm came down to block the leg to the side. However knowing that actually moving the limb would be impossible she instead let the arm move her body out of the way of the kick. She suddenly found herself inside his guard and with a grin stepped forward and put everything she could into a punch to his liver.

    She was completely blindsided when while standing on one leg he somehow vaulted straight over her head, her fist only touching a bit of fabric as his body rose and arched above her. Rei had moment of frozen panic before a backfist caught her on the side of the head. She went tumbling and retained enough presence of mind to try to roll to her feet but ended up falling on her butt instead. Her head was ringing and the world refused to come back into focus.

    "That's enough," said the man in a gruff voice which Rei could have sworn was almost a bit apologetic. Then again it could have been her imagination. "I wanted you to learn to fight through the discomfort of being winded, not try to get clever to avoid doing so. Still that feint was well done. It would have caught most opponents you are likely to face unprepared and it might have caught me if you hadn't tried to wind up that punch so much. The opening you created was smaller than you thought. Quick decisive strikes. Something to keep in mind."

    Rei huffed and puffed and held her spinning head in her hands. "Yes Toshiro-sensei," she mumbled dutifully.

    Yamanaka Toshiro had been her primary tutor for the past year though there had been many others who helped fill in the gap when Toshiro wasn't available - her own mother not least among them. Toshiro was one of the rising stars of the Yamanaka clan, a twenty year old veteran Chunin who was expected to take his Jounin exams at any time now. He was known as an especially vicious and efficient front line fighter which was something of a rarity among the Yamanaka who were best known for their support-type abilities.

    When Rei had asked why she didn't have a Jounin as an instructor she been told in no uncertain terms that Jounin were too busy to be bothered with snot nosed brats and that someone else could easily teach her the fundamentals. While being the heir gave her some privileges apparently wasting the time of a valuable Jounin wasn't one of them. Still she couldn't really say she complained. Toshiro-sensei still gave her all the instruction she could handle and then some.

    "When you can stand up again I want you to walk up that tree," he said gesturing to the huge Harashima tree in the back corner of her back yard, "and place traps among the branches. In ten minutes I'm going to come across the rope bridge," he said nodding his head towards the long rope and wood bridge that connected the tree to all the other Harashima trees in Konoha, "and try to catch you. Your objective is to stop me using traps only. Your ten minutes begin now."

    Her head was still ringing but her vision had cleared and the world had stopped spinning so Rei thought that was probably as good as it was going to get. She dragged herself to her feet and ran to the tree. This is going to suck with a rattled skull she thought with a grimace.

    Channeling the chakra to her feet she placed one on the huge trunk of the tree until she felt it catch with sufficient strength. Then she put her other foot and was treated to the uniquely alien sensation of walking up something vertical when gravity was trying to tug you back down. She took it slowly one step at a time as her control was not yet good enough to simply run up the side of the tree like more experienced ninja could. Twice she felt a momentary panic as her control slipped and her feet slid a little bit but she managed to recover each time before she fell. Her head was not appreciating the vertical inclination and her skull started pounding much worse than before. It took her nearly five minutes to reach the high branches and by that time she was in a bad mood.

    I swear I'll nail Toshiro this time she promised herself.

    Rei was no Naruto and her trapping skills were average at best. Still she was determined to make something happen and pushed herself to move quickly and set things up in a more creative fashion. Rei set some traps in the obvious places and some in some awkward off places where her sensei was unlikely to pass. She hoped to lead him into one of those traps in a moment he wouldn't expect.

    In the end it was for naught. She thought she surprised him a time or two but Toshiro managed to deftly avoid the launched kunai and snare traps with infuriating ease. Rei tried to remind herself that everyone thought Toshiro was already Jounin level and his promotion a foregone conclusion but it did little good. The lilac eyed girl was competitive and she absolutely hated to lose even if her opponent wasn't someone she had a prayer of defeating in the first place. It was a flaw she'd had plenty of opportunity to work on with limited success. Not once had she managed to beat Toshiro at anything after all.

    "You've shown some minor improvements, maybe," he told her afterwards in a disinterested voice, "traps however are clearly not your forte."

    It was all she could do to plaster a fake pleasant smile on her face. "Yes sensei."

    "Hey you two! Come down for lunch," yelled her mother from the back porch. Rei and Toshiro easily heard her even high up in the branches of the huge tree.

    "Of course Emiko-san. We will be down momentarily," called down Toshiro. He turned to Rei, "walk down the tree and then we'll break for an hour."

    Rei held back a groan and steeled her resolve. Walking down was always harder to control than walking up and she was already feeling tired. Risking a fall from that height was what Toshiro called special motivation to get something right.

    In the end she lost control about fifteen feet from the ground and managed to roll and come to her feet in a textbook perfect maneuver. While she was quite proud of that Toshiro looked decidedly unimpressed. Undaunted Rei held her chin high and strode ahead of him into the house.

    Rei, her mother and Toshiro-sensei sat around the table and ate a filling traditional lunch. The adults made small talk for a while before Rei found an opening to bring up something she had been wondering about for weeks now.

    "When are you going to teach me ninjutsu Toshiro-sensei?" she asked politely.

    "Never," he replied bluntly drinking his tea.

    "What?!" demanded Rei, "What do you mean never? Of course you have to teach me ninjutsu."

    Toshiro continued to drink his tea slowly completely undaunted by her outburst. "That's ridiculous," he began after putting down his tea, "I've been asked to teach you taijutsu, weapons, traps, stealth, tracking and so on, all the basic skills ninja need to survive. However I was specifically told not to teach you ninjustu."

    Rei looked flabbergasted at that. She looked back and forth between her sensei and her mother who was looking a little guilty. "Why?" she asked.

    Her mother chose to answer that. "Traditionally our clan doesn't teach any ninjutsu until at least age eleven. It was decided it would be best if you waited until the academy."

    Rei looked at her mother without comprehension. "But that's crazy. I know for a fact the Uchiha teach their fire techniques as soon as possible. Why can't I learn even the basic academy jutsu?"

    Toshiro made a distasteful face at that. "Don't go by what the Uchiha do. It's irresponsible to teach a five year old how to char a man alive and it reinforces the flawed notion that fancy techniques make the ninja. It is the mind and the physical ability to carry out your strategies that make the ninja not the number of different ways you can spit fire or slice things with air."

    Emiko was nodding at that. "Yes Rei listen to Toshiro-san. Whenever a Jounin gets a batch of new students almost without fail one or two of them will immediately start pestering them for new techniques. To the Jounin that is a clear sign that the Genin has a very poor understanding of what it takes to be a ninja. Without a solid framework all the fancy abilities in the world become nothing more than paper tigers."

    "Paper tigers?" asked Rei not familiar with the term.

    "Look terrifying but ultimately empty and not nearly as dangerous as they seem," added Toshiro.

    Rei nodded. She mostly understood where they were coming from and even agreed with them. Learning jutsu early and using them as a crutch would be a mistake. But still…

    "Not even the academy three?" she whined.

    "Sorry but your father has forbidden it. You'll just have to wait until you learn them at the academy," said her mother patting her hand in a comforting gesture but with a small amused smile on her lips.

    "If you want to make the best use of them then you should work on your chakra control," said Toshiro standing up, "since you're so eager you can spend the rest of the afternoon walking up and down the tree. I won't be satisfied until you can run up and down any vertical surface without effort. Now come on we've dallied long enough and we've got work to do."

    000

    Even as dedicated as she was Rei could only physically train so many hours in a day. Her body was still young and couldn't handle the stresses of training all day long. Rei spent the balance of her time buried in scrolls and books. Books on strategy, books on history, books about tactics, books about geography, scrolls about survival in the wilderness, tracking, stealth, anything that might be relevant Rei devoured when she was forced to let her body rest. It was still a productive use of her time and Rei forced herself to do it even when her eyes burned from exhaustion and all she wanted to do was lie down and rest.

    The more she learned about the Elemental Nations the more convinced she was that her path of escaping the system was the only one that she would accept. The Hidden Villages lived in a mutually dependent relationship with the nobility in their home countries, with the Daimyo gifting a large percentage of their economy directly to the Hidden Villages in order to keep them loyal and to help maintain standing armies. The nobility themselves were a corrupt and cruel bunch who in many ways behaved almost like caricatures of an oppressive ruling class towards their subjects. And why wouldn't they? Any peasant uprising would be quickly quelled by the ninja and the nobility's own private guards would keep them safe from any retaliation.

    Even with all this though Rei knew there were always cracks in the world, places that for whatever reason would be outside the reach of the ninja and the ruling class. Perhaps she would leave the continent of the Elemental Nations all together. She would find one such place and work to make a life for herself.

    By night Rei's body 'slept' while her mind remained conscious and sunk into her chakra. From an early age she realized that all the energies in her body were not two or three separate things. In fact they all connected into a seamless whole that would pulsate and grow, affected by her thoughts, her moods and her environment. Realizations like these had small benefits such as marginally increasing her chakra control as she began to feel and relate to her chakra in new ways. It would be some years still however until some truly large benefits from her growing understanding of chakra began to emerge.
     
  9. Threadmarks: Chapter 9
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 9

    000

    AN: I've changed my writing style to a closer POV style I'm more familiar with. It will be this way from now on. Thanks to people for their constructive criticism and advice. I was attempting to write in a more panoramic and reflective style as a writing experiment but I don't think it was working too well. Hopefully people will enjoy the stylistic change in writing. I think this will be a more enjoyable read overall.

    Since I'm changing my style I figure I might as well go all the way. Because why the hell not? I've switched the name orders (First name -Last name) because while I think the reverse is more 'authentic' this way is more 'personable'.

    Eventually (but maybe not until this story is finished) I'll go back and edit the earlier chapters to be more like they will be from this point forward.

    000

    Six Years Old, First Day of the Academy (continued)

    Present Day

    The rest of the physical assessment went more or less how Rei expected it to go. Rei inched out Neji in the categories of speed and flexibility. Neji was just a bit ahead in endurance and upper body strength. While she didn't like the idea of losing at anything she was mollified by the fact that both of them were leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else in the class. People took notice if the awed looks by the students and the calculating ones by the teachers were anything to go by. That was good. Reputation was almost as important as actual skill.

    "All right, students!" said Nao-sensei loudly, "the physical assessments are now complete. Now we will have your taijutsu lesson. Each of us Chunin instructors will show five of you at a time. After we have shown you practice on you own until told to stop. In the meantime all of you wait on the field until your name is called."

    With a lot of mutter and dragging of their heels eventually the students were more or less corralled on the field as they waited their turn. To Rei this way seemed more efficient for learning in the long run than having sixty children trying to imitate the instructor like some of the martial arts schools did in her last world. Still this system led to long periods of waiting around which she knew kids were not particularly good at.

    To her pleasant surprise Neji seemed to gravitate towards her. Oh he didn't do something quite as bold as standing next to her. Still he came to stand close by but just far enough away that they couldn't actually be said to be standing 'together'. Rei didn't know if it was deliberate or subconscious but she was pretty thrilled that he already seemed to prefer her presence to that of the other students. She did really want to befriend him.

    As Rei looked around herself she noticed something interesting. Both she and Neji had developed a spontaneous area of empty space around them. As Rei watched the students around them she got the impression most of them were too intimidated to get close to them or talk to them. It bothered her a little but it was also something of a good sign. She – and Neji – were already establishing a reputation on their very first day.

    This is kind of weird. I almost feel like a celebrity.

    Oh she didn't expect people keeping their distance to last. Rei was sure that before long they would get over whatever hangup was bothering them and get up the courage to get close to them and talk. Rei almost rolled her eyes at the thought. Well it probably wouldn't be too long before everyone got the idea that she wasn't like other kids.

    Rei looked on with a neutral expression as the first three groups of five kids were called up. She noticed Lee was in one of those groups and wondered how the supposed 'talentless' boy would do on his first day of taijutsu instruction. Casually she took a half step closer to Neji. Close enough to speak, maybe, but not close enough to intrude on his personal space. He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye but otherwise didn't react.

    The children around them sat down or congregated in small groups while Rei and Neji stood and watched the taijutsu instruction begin with a sharp critical eye. The girl paid close attention to the stances Nao-sensei and the two other Chunin were putting the students. Rei held back a groan but couldn't contain a facepalm when she realized what they were doing.

    Of course they're going to be teaching this. Why the hell am I even surprised? The class is made up mostly of civilians who have never taken a day of taijutsu in their lives. This is how they have to start.

    Rei watched with mounting dread as the instructors put the students in the very first stance of Konoha Standard. Konoha Standard was, as the name implies, the standard style of taijutsu that was taught to every single ninja in the village. It was designed by Tobirama Senju who synthesized a wide number of different styles into one style that would work well for the widest number of ninjas and in the widest number of possible situations. It was a style that was famed for not having any particular weaknesses but at the same time not really having any outstanding strengths. There was nothing wrong with it but it wasn't particularly exciting either.

    Kind of like Hufflepuff Rei thought with private amusement.

    Many, many ninja only used Konoha Standard their whole careers so it couldn't really be called a bad style by any stretch of the imagination. It balanced offence and defense in a way people of any body type could use effectively. In fact it was the style that Rei had begun learning when she was three years old. That was why she was currently feeling frustrated and so incredibly disappointed. It seemed that everything they were going to be teaching in taijutsu class for the foreseeable future she's already learned years ago.

    "I can't believe this is what we're doing," she muttered out loud.

    There were long moments of silence before she heard a quiet cultured voice speak. "So you've done all this too?"

    Rei had to fight to contain the surge of excitement and the wide grin that threatened to spread across her face. Neji is speaking to me of his own accord! She made sure to keep her face neutral and her voice just a touch disinterested.

    "Been doing it for years. What about you?" she asked.

    "Same," he replied with a put upon sigh.

    Those were the last words they spoke to each other that day but to Rei it felt like a huge victory. Sure Neji was a surly little chibi but he probably wasn't as jaded as he had been in the anime at thirteen, right? Even with his tragic past he might not be all that difficult for her to befriend.

    It occurred to Rei that Neji must have been training both Konoha Standard and the Gentle Fist since the time he could walk. She couldn't help but wonder how the training he had undergone compared to her own. Rei felt a little competitive rush at the thought but pushed the feeling down and tried to stay interested in what was going on around her.

    None of it was very exciting. To the blonde girl Lee didn't seem any better or worse than the other kids. After twenty minutes or so the first group was dismissed with instructions to practice what they had been shown when the second batch was called up, Rei included. She gave Nao-sensei a cocky grin which the stern woman looked singularly unimpressed by.

    "Line up and assume this posture as best you can," she said demonstrating the first stance, still holding that riding crop like she knew how to use it, "then I will come around and correct your mistakes."

    Rei did not want to be stuck re-learning the basic stances of Konoha Standard. Knowing people were watching she moved a little ways from the group with a little grin on her face.

    I never used to be a showoff but I think a little showmanship is in order if I really want to solidify that reputation early on.

    The honey-blonde slipped into the first stance along with the other four students in her little group. Then she began to move beginning the fifth form of the Konoha Standard style, the most acrobatic and physically demanding form of them all. She could feel people watching as she punched and kicked, bringing her body low and then jumping into a backflip. It was her favorite form and she ran through it faster than she ever had before. Toshiro had made her drill all the forms until he deemed they were absolutely perfect and Rei flew through the form trusting that her muscle memory would keep everything crisp and to textbook perfection even as she pushed her speed to new heights. A smile tugged her at her lips as she flew through a mid-air split kick, followed by a roll, a side kick and a one legged twisting forward flip. She finished the form in a low stance with a little extra unnecessary flourish with her hands she knew as sure to look good.

    After standing up she took only the quickest of glances at the crowd not wanting to be caught looking for a reaction (even if she totally was). Most of the students were looking at her a little wide eyed and a few had their jaws wide open. Rei had to hide her smirk and turn to keep the aloof image a genius was supposed to portray. Neji was looking at her with a cocked eyebrow and a neutral expression on his face. Well she hadn't really expected him to be surprised.

    Unexpectedly Rei yelped when she felt something smack her hard on the back of her head. The girl spun quickly, angry eyes flashing, when she noticed it had been Nao-sensei and her extendable riding crop that had hit her from behind. The teacher was completely unruffled by her enraged expression.

    "No disruptions. No showing off. Now get in line and assume the posture," the teenage instructor said stiffly.

    000

    After physical training outside they had returned to class for a lesson on history before the students were dismissed for the day. Rei stayed behind as she watched all the students shuffle out of the classroom with more enthusiasm than was really merited. When she and Nao-sensei were the last people left in the classroom Rei approached her desk.

    Nao Himura was a bit of an enigma as far as Rei was concerned. Usually at her age ninja would be starting to reach the peak of their careers not going into teaching. Something about the aqua haired young woman made Rei think that she would be extremely competent in the field… maybe it was the confidence she seemed to carry about her like a shroud just like many veteran ninja she had met did. She turned her cool green eyes on Rei and adjusted her glasses as the girl approached.

    "Is there something I can help you with Rei-san?" she asked politely.

    There was also that. She spoke and acted like someone who was quite a bit older than sixteen years old. Rei supposed a Hyuuga might act the same way at that age but that was because they were trained and bred that way. As far as Rei was aware there was no Himura clan anywhere.

    Setting those thoughts aside Rei refocused on why she had wanted to speak to the teacher. "Yes Nao-sensei. I was wondering if it would be possible for me to skip forward a number of years. I'm knowledgeable and talented enough to be in another class," Rei said bluntly. She thought it would be a shame to leave Neji behind but Rei had a few ideas as to how she might keep in touch with him. Besides who's to say he wouldn't be moved up either?

    Nao sat back slowly and looked at her with vaguely feline eyes that seemed to be trying to dissect her. Rei felt maybe a bituncomfortable under the scrutiny but straightened her spine and refused to let it show. It seemed like an eternity before Neo broke the tense silence.

    "Well I suppose I should quiz you and see if you do have the knowledge. Your little taijutsu… display earlier tells me you are ready to advance on that front at the very least," she said evenly.

    Rei didn't bother to hide the self-satisfied smile that crept onto her face. If Nao was at all bothered by it Rei thought the teenager did an incredible job of hiding it. The blonde girl leaned casually against the teacher's desk as Nao began to ask her a barrage of questions on all topics. History. Traps. Taijutsu. Geography. Grammar. Basically things on every subject that would be covered in the first few years at the academy. They were there for over two hours and Rei was proud to say there were only two questions she had not been sure about. Sure she suspected she was being tested on a curriculum for children younger than ten but why shouldn't she feel good about it? Except for math she'd had to learn everything from scratch in her new life.

    When they were finished Nao eyed her with the first tiny spark on interest in her eyes that Rei had seen on the woman. Her face was placid as ever but at least she was more than just another brat to the teacher for now.

    "Impressive for your age. You are more than qualified to skip ahead a minimum of two years though that is a very conservative estimate. A more thorough assessment will have to be made to determine exactly where we should place you," Nao said.

    Rei smiled happily at that. She wasn't going to be stuck learning nothing for years. Thank goodness! "Great! When do we get started?" she asked.

    Nao shook her head. "The final decision if you go up in grades is not up to me. I'll have to consult with other parties to get approval for this. If they agree a dedicated afternoon of testing should be enough to determine your placement. Do you know the basic three?"

    Rei's smile disappeared. "No," she said, feeling embarrassed at her deficiency. Not that it was her fault exactly.

    Nao's brow scrunched into a small frown. "Curious. You've had difficulty mastering them?"

    Rei ground her teeth at the insinuation. "I'm sure I'd have no difficulty mastering them Nao-sensei. My parents just thought it would be better to hold off and learn them at the academy." She didn't want anyone thinking she was anything less than capable.

    "Odd. Well every clan chooses to conduct their business differently, it is not for me to pass judgment. That might hold you back a bit but not as much as you might imagine. Students work on the basic three for their final three years of training here." Even though Nao-sensei said that her tone clearly indicated that she had a very different idea than her family on what she should have been taught. Rei couldn't agree more especially right at that moment.

    "It won't be a problem," Rei found herself saying confidently. Even though she had never tried ninjutsu before she felt sure that she could learn those three techniques quickly.

    "Well then I'll try to get in touch with the relevant parties today. I'll let you know what comes of it if unless someone else informs you first," said Nao-sensei.

    There wasn't much to say after that. Despite feeling annoyed at the basic three issue Rei headed home with a bounce in her step. The sooner she became a Genin the sooner she would begin to get the one valuable thing that all the training in the world couldn't give her – experience. There were also many other advantages in Rei's mind such as learning from an experienced Jounin. Even though the thought of being an actual ninja still made her nervous Rei was absolutely convinced graduating early was the best thing for her.

    000

    That evening Rei went to her aunt Yua's house for dinner since her parents were expected to be out until late that day. As Rei walked in the front door she had the breath knocked out of her when she was blindsided by a platinum blonde haired missile.

    "Nee-chan!" squealed Ino at near dog whistle levels latching onto her sister.

    Rei cringed. "Not so loud Ino please. Happy to see you too though," she said wrapping an arm around her sister. The other girl was only a couple of inches shorter than her so it was an easy fit.

    "How was your first day?" asked Yua coming out of the kitchen with an affectionate smile at the scene.

    "Yeah Nee-chan how was your first day at the academy? Make any new friends?" asked Ino as Rei started trying to pry her loose from her side.

    "Yeah well… I dunno maybe," Rei replied thinking of Neji. She really hadn't even talked to anyone else. Or talked at all really. Huh. Oh well she thought.

    "How was your teacher?" asked Yua. Rei found herself smiling a little at that. Just as she knew she could occasionally take an irrational dislike for people the opposite was also true. Even if she couldn't think of many good reasons for it and even if the woman had (unfairly) smacked her on the head with that extendable riding crop of hers Rei still found herself liking Nao-sensei a great deal. It really was too bad she wouldn't have her as a teacher for very long.

    "She's a strict one for sure but I don't think that's a bad thing," she said just as Ino finally relented in letting her go and skipped her way back to the kitchen.

    Normally Rei would be looking for the first opportunity to duck out and do more training but just for that day she let herself join Ino and her aunt Yua in more domestic tasks. She helped prepare dinner for the three of them though she wasn't really a great cook. It made Rei happy in a way she couldn't explain when she saw her little sister walking around, doing her best to prepare food and babbling nonstop about anything and everything.

    Later on as they sat down for dinner the topic of her first day at school came up again.

    "Rei-chan, how do you think your school year is going to go with the subjects and everything involved?" her elderly aunt asked as they started to tuck in.

    "Well I talked to Nao-sensei after class today," she said as she shoveled food into her mouth, "and it looks like I'm going to be skipped ahead at least a couple of years."

    Ino looked at her sister wide eyed. "Really?" she said in an awed voice. Rei thought it was just adorable.

    Rei sat up a little straighter and lifted her chin proudly. "Absolutely. You think your Nee-sama could do any less? You wound me little sister," she said in a mock haughty tone that caused Ino to giggle.

    Yua looked a little worried. "Well congratulations if that happens. But don't push too fast ahead too fast now. Active duty is no good when you're still so young," said her aunt.

    Rei rolled her eyes but was inwardly touched at the concern – however misplaced it might be. "Don't worry auntie. I can handle it. They don't call me a genius for nothing you know," she said with a coy smile.

    "Yeah, there's nothing my Nee-chan can't do," said Ino turning to their aunt like she was scolding her for some grave slight.

    Her little sister's faith in her made Rei feel warm inside. "I wouldn't go that far but I am pretty awesome," she said, crossing her arms and nodding with a perfectly serious tone.

    Yua just chuckled and shook her head resignedly. "Kids," she said with affection and exasperation.

    000

    That night after helping clean up Rei led Ino back to their house. After making sure both of them were clean and ready for the night Rei made her sister get into bed on her side of the room first. Feeling like a half-mother, half-older sister Rei tucked Ino into bed with a smile and kissed her on the forehead.

    "G'night Nee-chan," said Ino sleepily.

    "Good night Ino," replied Rei as she watched her sister curl up. She stayed watching for a few long moments before going to her side of the room and crawling into bed.

    Next morning Rei got up with her alarm. Their mother didn't bother to get them out of bed in time, instead trusting that Rei would and delegating dragging Ino out of bed to the older sibling. Rei didn't mind and thought it was just another quirk of this new culture that older siblings were expected to act almost as third parents to the younger children.

    After taking doing her morning rituals, getting ready to go to the academy and making sure Ino was in the bathroom getting ready for her day Rei made her way downstairs with a bounce in her step. Sure she thought the ninja system should die in a ditch but that didn't mean she couldn't have good days, especially when she hoped to hear back from Nao-sensei that day. Rei hummed to herself as she wondered which year she would get sorted into.

    "Good morning honey," said Emiko from the table where she was just setting breakfast.

    "Mornin' mom," she said sitting down with a flourish and aplomb.

    "What's got you in such a good mood this morning?" asked her mother.

    Rei grinned as she picked up her chopsticks, "Well, you see-". However she stopped when she saw her father stepping out of their parents' bedroom.

    "Otou-san!" Rei exclaimed. She was surprised; her father was always gone by the time they woke up in the morning. "What are you doing here?" she asked.

    "Good morning Rei," he said as he sat down, his outfit clearly indicating he was ready for work, "just needed to take care of a few things at home this morning so I'm going in a little later."

    "Oh yeah?" she asked, happy to spend a bit of time with her father even if it was just over breakfast. She dug in and ate her food fast as was her habit, "no big deal I hope?"

    Ino finally came down the stairs and was surprised to see her father there as well. She was much warmer than Rei herself was and the girl wondered what her parents made of it when Ino went to hug them both and Rei rarely did the same. She had never seen any indication that it bothered them but occasionally she couldn't help but wonder about it.

    "Sit down Ino, your father and sister need to finish quickly," said Emiko as she herself sat down at the table.

    It was extremely rare for all four of them to be sitting down for a meal together. Rei didn't mind but it was a bit curious just the same. Someone was always out late or at someone else's house and meals were rarely formal in their household. Rei cooked for herself and sometimes for Ino as often as not. Rei let herself relax and enjoy the unusual occasion.

    There was small talk which Rei only listened to with half an ear as her mind wandered to where her training would go moving forward and the situation at the academy. That lasted until the meal was almost finished and Inoichi called her name.

    "Rei-chan? I need to speak to you for a minute after we finish here," he said.

    Rei slowed her eating and frowned a little. That's not ominous at all. That line never sounds like something good.

    "Sure Otou-san," she said.

    After eating Rei followed Inoichi into the living room. It wasn't exactly private as the kitchen and living room were an open concept and the two other members of their family were cleaning up in the kitchen. Her father sat down on a comfortable chair and Rei sat down on the couch across from him.

    "What's up Otou-san?" asked Rei feeling impatient and not at all nervous.

    "Your teacher Himura-san came and spoke with me yesterday afternoon," said Inoichi, his voice and expression neutral.

    Rei was confused for a second before realization hit her. A happy grin spread across her lips. "Ah, so you're one of the people she had to talk to about moving me up in years? I'm glad she found you. Did she tell you about all the questions I got right when she quizzed me? Or how far ahead she thought I was?" she chattered excitedly.

    "Rei…"

    "You're ok with it right? What year do you think I'll make it to?"

    "Rei…"

    "Do you think I'll still be able to talk to Nao-sensei?"

    "Rei, you're not moving ahead in years," he said loudly enough to cut through her enthusiastic ramble.

    Rei immediately stopped talking and her eyes widened. Why? No, no there had to be some sort of mistake.

    "What do you mean? I'm over qualified. The first few years would be a waste of time. Of course I have to move up in years. Every other genius out there graduated early right?" she said, trying to sound calm and rational about it.

    Inoichi shook his head. "It's not a good idea Rei. Early graduation is a bad idea outside of times of war. The mental strains of ninja work on a mind so young can be extremely damaging. You also need to learn to interact with you peers. In a way it's our fault since we never pushed you to interact with anyone else your age."

    Rei couldn't believe it. He was worried about her mental health? That was ridiculous! She was more than mature enough. And who cared about drooling snot nosed six year olds? She could befriend them when they grew the hell up.

    Anger started to burn in her chest, bleeding out into her eyes. Rei took deep breaths forcing herself to stay calm. Blowing up at her father would not help her cause.

    "You know I'm at least eight years ahead developmentally, you've said it yourself. Forcing me to stay in an environment that stifles my growth won't help anyone long term. As to my peers, wouldn't you say my mental peers are more qualified to be my actual peers? Those closer to me in developmental age? Actual physical age is just a meaningless number anyway," she said, enunciating each word carefully as not to show her emotion.

    Again her father shook his head. "In a lot of ways you are much older mentally but in other ways your mind is still that of a child. See the way you are right now? You're not getting your way and you're getting angry, ready to explode. You still need time to let other parts of your mentality mature. You're not ready." She guessed her father had not been fooled by her attempts at keeping her anger in check.

    Rei would have expected that being called out on her anger would pour cold water on it but it did just the opposite. How could he say she wasn't ready? She had more knowledge and skill than childish children years older than her! It was extremely unfair. Her anger increased until her skin felt hot and her father regarded her with a slightly wary look in his eye.

    "You're being unreasonable. I'll literally be sitting in a class learning nothing," she hissed. Her mother and Ino looked over with concern but Rei barely noticed.

    "That's not true," he said, "you'll be learning a lot of important things. Just none of them ninja arts."

    Rei shot to her feet, no longer able to remain sitting down. Four eyes from the kitchen looked at her worriedly while her father regarded her with calm eyes completely unfazed by her reaction. She held her fists at her sides, squeezing them so tightly they shook slightly. Distantly she could feel her nails cutting into her palms.

    "At least consider moving me forward one or two years. That would be a reasonable compromise," said Rei slowly, carefully, but unable to keep the cold anger from her voice.

    "There is no reason for Genin to graduate younger than twelve in these times," said her father calmly, "long term it is what will be best for you. It is decided. We'll have no more arguments on this topic."

    For a second Rei actually considered attacking her father before reason took control. It would achieve nothing and just prove his point that she wasn't emotionally mature. Which she was.

    "I see," she spat with all the venom she could muster. Rei completely missed the frightened look Ino sent her way and the deeply worried one from her mother from where they stood watching in the kitchen. Her father simply looked at her calmly but firmly.

    The ugly snake of anger and indignation in her chest grew so bad Rei felt like she was going to explode. Not trusting herself not to do something she would regret later she shot out the door, enhancing her legs with a furious flush of chakra and running away as fast as she could.

    Fine. If he wants to get in my way I'll just work around him. I'm not about to let that man stand in my way.

    She would find a way to make this atrocity work in her favor. But that was later. Right now she had to find something she could hit and preferably destroy.
     
  10. Threadmarks: Chapter 10
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 10

    000

    Two Weeks Later

    Tenten sat in class diligently taking notes as Nao-sensei explained how to write down and work through the process of subtraction. Still the brown haired girl didn't strictly need to do so as she already knew how to subtract. Her parents had shown her when she was younger as part of teaching her how to run their business. Sure they had always known she wanted to be a kunoichi but in case that didn't work out they wanted her to have an idea of how they ran things at the shop. She was glad she already knew the lesson because while she made sure to look diligent she could afford to let her mind wander for at least a little while. It was hard to stay focused on classes all day long when part of her just wanted to go outside and play.

    However instead of focusing on class her mind automatically came to focus on her current object of frustration. Rei Yamanaka was sitting next to her like she did in every single class. The girl was looking at the back of her hands as a few pebbles moved in circles on top of her skin. There were three on each hand, spinning in circles and periodically coming closer together before moving further apart again. Tenten had no idea how the girl was doing that and the brown haired girl had not managed to get up the courage to ask.

    Rei Yamanaka was intimidating. There was something just a little bit off about her and most of the students could feel it. That she was the best at (nearly) everything while looking absolutely bored with the world and never paying attention in class didn't help matters either.

    Tenten bit her lip and shifted nervously as she tried to examine the girl next to her without being obvious about it. She was a strange one for sure and it wasn't all in her attitude. Her honey-blonde hair was like no other hair she had ever seen before. It strangely curled in on itself and at times strands of her hair would curl into a corkscrew-like shape. No one else had hair like that. She would have probably been picked on for it if she had been anyone else.

    Then there were her unusually colored lilac eyes. They were wildly expressive and easily the one thing that drew your eyes when you looked at her once you got past her unusual hair. Whatever she was feeling, bored, excited or angry it always showed up first in her eyes. Tenten couldn't explain it but there was just something in her eyes when she looked out at the world that wasn't like other kids.

    Rei Yamanaka was a mystery and one that Tenten Hayashi was feeling increasingly frustrated by. If she had been any other girl in the class Tenten thought she could just ignore the oddness of Rei Yamanaka and focus on what was being taught and in making new friends. But she couldn't.

    That was because in every single class Rei Yamanaka always sat next to her. Every. Single. Time. If the girl wanted to be friends that was one thing but the blonde heiress hadn't spoken a single word to Tenten since the first day of class. Still for some unknown reason the girl always sought her out only to turn around and act like she didn't exist.

    Tenten was really growing to resent it and it was driving her crazy. Especially when some of the other kids seemed to be avoiding her because she was 'hanging out' with Rei or when others would come and ask her questions about the blonde that Tenten had no idea how to answer.

    She also didn't like how Rei kept getting special treatment from Nao-sensei. Whenever anyone wasn't paying attention or goofing off Nao-sensei would quickly smack them with that leather switch of hers and she wasn't shy about using it. Not with Rei Yamanaka though. When Rei spend the whole class moving rocks or coins along her hands (Tenten still had no idea how she was doing that!) or with her head buried in a scroll that had nothing to do with class Nao-sensei just ignored it. Tenten didn't understand it. How was that in any way fair? Was it just because she was the Yamanaka heir? All the students were supposed to be treated equally at the academy!

    Still Tenten knew that unlike other people she wasn't someone who could stay angry for very long. When she wasn't feeling irritated at the situation she was mostly curious. Rei was a puzzle box and she wanted to find out what was on the inside.

    If only the girl spoke to her. Or if Tenten could muster up her own courage to start a conversation.

    000

    The hours they spent outside for fitness and taijutsu training were better for Tenten. She didn't have the cloud of the Yamanaka heiress hanging over her so she got to spend time with some other kids. There were a couple of groups of girls who would speak to her and tolerate her presence but she wouldn't exactly call them friends or anything. At least they always seemed to be a lot more friendly with each other than they were with her.

    It didn't help that she was shy. Tenten knew that she was and wished she could be more outgoing but she couldn't help it. She wasn't very good at speaking up or making friends with people.

    Instead she watched people a lot of the time while they were outside and, inevitably, her eyes would eventually wonder back to the heiress with the strange hair. There was just something different about her, like a cat sitting among a group of puppies and she always drew attention without even trying. Annoyance and curiosity tugged at her as she observed the other girl and tried to understand what she was all about.

    She dressed in an old style battle kimono the color of her eyes with black highlights that Tenten thought would be more at home in a period drama about ninjas. People just didn't wear stuff like that anymore though she had to grudgingly admit Rei managed to pull it off. Knee length and with long voluminous sleeves she managed to look every inch the dignified ninja princess. At least she wasn't tacky enough to rub her status in people's faces. But how could she? The girl never talked to anyone.

    Well that wasn't strictly true. The only one she spoke to was the other super smart, talented, aloof weirdo in the class. If Rei was an indifferent cat sitting among puppies then Neji was an angry badger, sneering and bearing his teeth at anyone who dared to come too close. Anyone except Rei that is. Rei Yamanaka was the only person Neji Hyuuga would tolerate anywhere near him.

    They never stood too close and as far as Tenten could tell they didn't exchange more than a handful of words every day. However it was clear to everyone that they did stand together which was both weird and not seeing how much they were alike.

    Tenten scrunched her face as she studied the two. How did those two get so good at everything anyway? It wasn't like they were the only clan kids in their class. Far from it in fact. She had heard the words "prodigy" and "genius" thrown about but what did that really mean? Is that how they knew all the stuff everyone else was just learning?

    Out of the corner of her eye she saw a two girls walking towards Rei seemingly intent on talking to her. The two girls were from minor clans and they at leastlooked confident as they made their way towards the Yamanaka girl though Tenten wasn't so sure. In a way the girl with buns in her hair was already feeling sorry for them. She had seen more than one of her classmates try to get close to the… if not popular then eye catching blonde.

    I don't think this is going to end well thought Tenten as she watched the girls approach with all the attention of someone who knew they were about to see a horrible accident happen.

    Tenten couldn't hear the words, she was too far away for that. She could however see everyone's faces. One of the girls started speaking to Rei who didn't seem to hear her for a few long seconds before slowly turning her head to look at the girl who spoke. The same girl said something else and the other one spoke up right afterwards, gesturing emphatically, probably about the three of them hanging out together.

    Tenten couldn't hear her but she clearly saw Rei mouth the word "no" and turn her head away from the girls and back towards other people practicing taijutsu. Instead of taking the hint like most would it seemed to make the two girls angry instead. Tenten watched in fascination as the first girl started speaking again, clearly unhappy and her friend folded her arms like she was annoyed. After a few more seconds of their chatter Rei turned her head to look at the girls again.

    Maybe she had been watching too closely but there were a few things Tenten had noticed about Rei Yamanaka. One, she had a scary, scary glare. Two, whenever something got her mad her lilac eyes seemed to darken a few shades until they looked like twin hard chips of amethyst.

    They never stood a chance.

    The blonde turned her glare and hard eyes on the two girls and Tenten could see them visibly stiffen and immediately stop talking. The Yamanaka looked at them for a few seconds before speaking a few words too low for Tenten to hear. One girl seemed to pale and other's eyes seemed to widen. The blonde said something else that might have been "leave" and the girls did so, turning and walking off a little faster than was strictly necessary.

    Tenten watched the scene and let out a frustrated sigh. Rei Yamanaka scared off everyone, was antisocial to everyone, and seemed to only care for the company of the one person that was ruder to others than she was. She drew attention without even trying but most of the time just seemed horribly bored with the world. She was a genuine ninja princess and could be the most popular girl in class if she put even an ounce of effort into it.

    So why, why did that girl insist on sitting next to her in class every day?

    000

    The next day Tenten arrived to class a little earlier than usual. The girl had decided that today she wasn't going to sit next to Rei so she wouldn't be constantly associated with the girl. Tenten wasn't great at making friends already and this situation just made it harder. With one last longing look at her favorite seat in the back row Tenten looked around for a good alternative.

    There. More or less in the middle of all the rows were two girls sitting one seat away from each other. With a breath for courage Tenten made her way towards that row and squeezed past one redheaded girl – Tenten thought her name was Muika – who gave her a faint smile before going back to working on her homework that was due at the start of class. Tenten sat down with a happy sigh even if the girl on the other side of her just gave her a glance and went back to sleeping on the desk.

    The two other times she had tried to sit away from the Yamanaka the girl had always taken an empty seat next to her. Now there were no empty seats next to her so the girl would have to go somewhere else. Simple. Easy. With a nod Tenten congratulated herself on having a good idea.

    Tenten decided to crack open a textbook and review for class. She had been at it for less than five minutes before the curly haired blonde walked into the classroom. Tenten hid behind her book but kept her eyes on the girl wondering what she was going to do. She watched as Rei looked around the classroom and finally spotted her. Tenten ducked behind her book to avoid meeting her gaze, feeling silly about it the whole time.

    The brown haired watched with suspicion as Rei eyed the row Tenten was sitting in and started moving towards the steps purposefully. Her suspicion turned to dread as she turned into the row Tenten was sitting in. The brown haired girl was openly staring when Rei stopped right in front of Muika.

    Muika noticed too. Turning and looking up her eyes widened in surprise when she realized just who was standing next to her desk looking down at her.

    "Thanks for saving me my seat. As promised I'll give you the answers to all of next week's homework. I'm here now though so I'd like to have it back," said Rei with a perfectly straight face.

    Tenten and Muika stared at Rei with equal looks of surprise and disbelief. It was ridiculous. Rei Yamanaka never spoke to anyone, much less asked them to save her a seat in exchange for homework!

    "I didn't save you-" began Muika only to be cut off.

    "Yes you did. I'd like you to give it back now please."

    "But-"

    "Emphasis on the now part. I don't want to have to tell you again," said Rei pleasantly with the ghost of a smile, but Tenten saw that her eyes were starting to do that darkening thing again.

    Muika – the traitor – decided that it wasn't worth facing down Rei Yamanaka over a seat. She quickly gathered up her books and squeezed past Rei like touching the blonde would set her on fire. Tenten watched the redheaded girl leave like a woman at sea might watch a life preserver drifting away out of reach.

    They Rei sat down, pulled out a scroll, and began reading like she hadn't just chased a girl away just to sit next to Tenten. The brown haired girl stared at Rei with disbelief. She couldn't believe it. Why would she go through all that trouble and not even look at her or say a single word to her?!

    Tenten was at her limit. She knew she wasn't one to get overly angry or upset but the few times she did it was explosive. Tenten slammed her hands down on her desk, hard, making half the people in the look at her. Rei finally deigned to look at her with a faint look of curiosity on her face.

    "WHY do you always sit next to me and never say anything?!" said Tenten loudly huffing with anger, "you don't even talk to me and it's weird. It's not like you want to be my friend or anything and you scare everyone else away. It doesn't make any sense and you just make it harder for me to make friends. I don't like you or your weirdness! I wish you would just – just go sit somewhere else and never bother me again!"

    Rei looked at her with wide surprised eyes and a look of hurt crossed her features before the blonde schooled her face into something more neutral. At seeing that hurt look Tenten instantly felt guilty. She didn't mean to make the girl feel bad, heck she hadn't even thought the girl could feel hurt by anything. Tenten didn't even really want to chase her away but she was fed up and wanted, no needed some explanation.

    Rei looked at her, scrutinizing, and Tenten couldn't help but wiggle in her seat a little under her gaze. Still there was something different in how the blonde was looking at her, like the girl was actually looking at her now instead of passing over her with a look of disinterest. Tenten felt increasingly uncomfortable as the girl seemed to be deliberating something. The brown hair girl was also aware more than a few students were watching their interaction.

    In the end Rei finally spoke, the first words she had directed at her since she had introduced herself two weeks before.

    "I guess it must have seemed a little odd to you, huh?" she said thoughtfully and Tenten thought she could spot a touch of sheepishness in her.

    Tenten didn't say anything but just nodded. She was too tense to speak and the fact that Rei Yamanaka was actually speaking to her left her feeling tongue tied.

    "Well…" said Rei, before crossing her arms and furrowing her brow like she was coming to some deep decision. Tenten held her breath and waited feeling one hundred percent sure the other girl was going to somehow do something horrible to her for blowing up at her like she did. The next words that came out of her mouth couldn't have left Tenten feeling more surprised.

    "How about we have lunch together?"

    000

    Tenten sat nervously on a long picnic table outside where the students always had their lunch. It was a nice table to have lunch in since it was under a tree that had a decent shade in the warm afternoons. Rei sat across from her munching quickly from her bento box as Tenten followed suit and ate her own lunch at a slower pace. They were the only ones sitting at the table. Tenten was pretty sure the only reason for that had strange hair and was sitting right across from her.

    Rei finished eating first and then sat watching Tenten while she ate. It made Tenten uncomfortable and so far while they had been sitting together they hadn't spoken a word to each other. The brown haired girl wondered what she had been thinking agreeing to have lunch with Rei. Come to think of it she had never seen the other girl have lunch before. During that time the girl tended to just disappear and go off to do who-knows-what.

    Not enjoying the scrutiny Tenten spoke up. "You can talk while I eat you know. Or, you know we can talk I mean. You don't need to wait until I'm finished."

    Rei made a humming noise at that and thankfully took the hint and spoke up. "You're from a civilian family right Tenten-chan?" asked Rei actually sounding interested for once if somewhat subdued. Tenten's cheeks flushed both from the nickname and from her more humble upbringing when compared to Rei.

    "That's right," she said "but I've always wanted to be a kunoichi for as long as I can remember. It's kind of my dream you know?"

    Rei made a thoughtful noise at that as she looked at her placidly. "Are there any other ninja in your family?"

    Tenten shook her head. "No, I would be the first ninja ever in my whole family. They're proud of me," she said and couldn't contain her smile, "a little worried you know? But proud of me. They say it will be good for us and that it's an honor to serve the Lord Hokage." Tenten couldn't hold back her happy grin. She wasn't sure how being a ninja would be good for the family but fighting for honor and glory like all the ninja from the stories just seemed so incredibly amazing and she would get to fight for the Lord Hokage and for Konoha just like all the other heroes of the village. It all seemed so much larger than life and amazing and Tenten wouldn't want to do anything else.

    Something unhappy flickered across Rei's face so fast Tenten thought it might have been her imagination. Then her face went back to neutral with a pleasant – if bland – little smile.

    "So is your dream just to be a kunoichi?" asked Rei knowingly.

    Tenten flushed for a second time. It was a little embarrassing but under Rei's intense light purple eyes she couldn't bring herself to lie. She mumbled the answer under her breath.

    "What was that?" asked Rei leaning in a little.

    "I said I want to be like Tsunade-sama!" Tenten blurted out. She felt her cheeks glowing red. Why did that seem to keep happening when she was talking to this girl?

    Rei chuckled at that but it wasn't in a mean way. She seemed amused. "Well you and I have something in common at least," she said with a small genuinelooking smile. She looked so much less intimidating when she smiled for real. Until that point Tenten had never realized all her other little smiles had been… not fake exactly but not completely honest either.

    The brown haired girl somehow felt happy knowing that there was something in common between them. "You want to be like Tsunade-sama too?" asked Tenten a little excitedly.

    "Well not exactly like Tsunade. But respected and feared all over the world? Yeah I could definitely go for that," said Rei, smile still on her face but her eyes suddenly got this far away look to them.

    Tenten frowned a little at that. That wasn't why she wanted to be like Tsunade-sama. Tsunade-sama was super strong kunoichi who could stand up to anyone. She was famous for helping people and was considered a hero by everyone in Konoha. The goals of being "respected and feared" were too abstract for Tenten to understand.

    The girl was snapped out of her musing when Rei spoke up again. "So what does your family do?" asked the blonde casually while scratching at something on the table.

    Tenten perked up a little at that. Her family might not be a clan of strong and famous ninja but she was proud of what they did. "My family are weapon makers," she said with enthusiasm.

    Rei's whole demeanor changed. Her body which had previously been turned a little to the side moved to completely face the other girl. She leaned forward with her elbows on the table and she cradled her chin in her hands. Her eyes glittered with interest and just a hint of excitement.

    "Really?" she asked in a voice that was noticeably perkier than before.

    Tenten nodded feeling happy that the other girl looked like she was really interested in what her family did. "Yup! My family has been in Konoha almost since it was founded. We were making weapons for generations even before that. Our shop is known for making the best weapons in the whole village," she said excitedly. "Sure other places are cheaper but if you want quality or a weapon more exotic than simple shuriken or kunai then Hayashi's is the place to go."

    To Tenten's gratification the other girl looked suitably impressed. "That's really awesome. I don't know if I'll actually ever use anything other than kunai or shuriken but I think the idea of using a weapon is really neat. The only problem with weapons is that they don't leave your hands free to use jutsu but there have to be ways to work around that."

    Tenten just nodded. She'd heard her parents and some of their ninja customers discussing that same thing but the girl only had a sketchy idea of what they were talking about so she didn't say anything more for fear of sounding silly.

    "Hey Tenten?" said Rei suddenly.

    "Yeah?" asked the girl a little apprehensively.

    "How do you feel about getting out of here and doing some weapons practice?"

    000

    "I don't have any weapons," Tenten muttered after Rei had led her to a deserted academy training ground with plenty of scattered target posts.

    Rei looked surprised. "You don't?" she asked.

    Tenten shook her head.

    Rei looked at her for a long moment before she shrugged. "You can have half of mine then. It just means we'll have to go pick them off the targets more often."

    "Errr.. right," said Tenten nervously.

    Rei reached into the pack discreetly tried at her hip and smoothly pulled out a half dozen kunai. She practically shoved them in Tenten's hands and the girl had to scramble not to drop them. By the time Tenten had a good hold on them the other girl had already turned away and was making her way towards another nearby target.

    Tenten examined the weapons in her hands. They weren't from her store so they were somewhat lower quality. Then again kunai were considered mostly disposable so she had to admit it wasn't that big a deal. Then she noticed something surprising. They were…

    "Rei!" Tenten called out a little hysterically, "these aren't training kunai. These are real!"

    Rei turned to face her and looked at her like she had just stated that the sky was blue. "So?"

    "So? So? It's dangerous to practice with these!" she said nervously.

    For some reason Rei looked truly perplexed by what she said. "With your family and all, aren't you supposed to be good with weapons?"

    Tenten felt a spark of irritation at that. "We make weapons, not use them! Sure we know the theory behind how they're used but not enough to actually use them ourselves. And I-I haven't learned all of that yet."

    Rei blinked, and then her eyes widened. "Are you… are you saying you don't know how to throw kunai?"

    "Of course!" she said in irritation, "How am I supposed to know? They don't teach us weapons until next year," she said and would have stomped her foot if she hadn't been worried about the weapons she was holding in her hands.

    Tenten didn't understand why saying she didn't know how to use kunai left Rei looking like someone had slapped her with a wet fish. Then she shook her head like she was trying to shake bad thoughts out of her skull and muttered something to herself that Tenten didn't catch. When she looked up there was a look of determination in Rei's eyes of someone who had made a decision.

    Rei gave her a cocky grin, something the other girl had never seen from her before.

    "I'll teach you if you want."

    000

    A few days later Tenten was sitting by herself outside. They always did the teaching of physical activities in small groups so that left a lot of downtime for a lot of the kids. Some spent some of the time practicing taijutsu or something else but most took it as free social time. Rei was standing next to Neji some distance away just like she always did when they were outside occasionally exchanging a few words with him. Over the last few days Tenten had been forced to change how she thought about the blonde Yamanaka heiress.

    She could occasionally be… somewhat nice in a way. The girl had followed through on what she'd said she'd do and the next day had given Miuka a week's worth of homework for "saving" her seat for her. The redhead had almost fainted when Rei sought her out to give her the papers. She had also been eating lunch with Tenten and actually being kind of fun to be around. Rei had loosened up some seeming to swing wildly between complete boredom and an unexpected streak of mischievousness and teasing humor. She liked to embarrass Tenten but never went so far as to make it mean or mean spirited. The Yamanaka girl was also teaching Tenten how to throw shuriken and kunai after they finished their lunches early. All in all it was something she would not have expected to happen in a million years just a handful of days before.

    Yet Rei was still very much the same Rei in other ways. She still sat next to Tenten in class but completely ignored her, instead either devoting herself to what she had learned were called 'chakra control exercises' or reading scrolls on things Tenten didn't even understand. A Treatise on the Theory of Reducing the Number of Handseals Needed for the Execution of Jutsu? What in the world did that even mean? She also ignored Tenten in favor of Neji when they were out on the practice field.

    She also still acted like a rich lady's cat towards anyone who wasn't Tenten or Neji. While the situation with Rei was undoubtedly better Tenten still thought she was going to have a hard time making friends. She could still make friends and talk to Rei right? She shouldn't have to pick one over the other.

    Sighing Tenten looked down and picked at the grass between her legs. Who would have thought going to school would be so hard in these other weird ways? It wasn't something she had been prepared to deal with at all.

    Tenten was interrupted from her thoughts when a large shadow was cast over her. When she looked up she gulped when she saw just who was looming over her. Masao Inuzuka was the biggest boy in class built more like an Akimichi than someone from the Inuzuka clan. His hair was short and brown and he had the clan markings on his cheeks done in orange. On either side of him were two smaller boys she didn't know they names of yet. They looked like civilians. That would make sense.

    "So I've seen that you've been getting cozy with that stuck up princess with the stupid weird hair. Bet you think that means you're all that now don't you?" he sneered at her with a grating obnoxious superiority.

    Masao was one of the few people in class, mostly boys, who had quickly gathered a small clique around themselves and started bullying people around. Tenten didn't understand why they felt the need to act so mean to people. Masao was so big and was from a clan known for being so ferocious that no one wanted to mess with him, Tenten included.

    Why did he have to come after me? thought the brown haired girl with anguish.

    "Look, Masao…" began Tenten moving to stand up. Before she could however Masao shoved her back down on the ground, hard. Tenten looked up at him with shocked eyes suddenly feeling a little afraid.

    "I didn't say you could stand up, brownnoser. You like sucking up to people huh? You think being friendly with that girlsomehow makes you better than other people? You're really dumb, you know that?" he sneered at her.

    "But… I, it-it's not like that at all!" she protested feeling tears gathering in her eyes as the bigger boy loomed over her. His two friends moved to crowd in around her boxing her in. Tenten kept looking up at all of them with their superior smirks and felt afraid.

    "It doesn't matter how much of a suck up you are, you're still going to be a nobody. In fact I bet she just feels sorry for you. After all you're so ugly even Ifeel kind of bad for you," he said and smiled like he was self-satisfied with his own cleverness. His followers laughed at that.

    "That was a good one Masao," one of them said between giggles.

    "Oh yeah?" said Masao looking pleased, "you haven't seen anything yet." He turned back to Tenten. "I think I can make her cry. Yeah I bet I can, an ugly girl like her is totally going to be a weakling too. Aw, look she already has tears in her eyes," he said cruelly.

    She did have tears in her eyes. The girl didn't want anyone to see them so she rubbed her eyes furiously. Masao seemed undeterred and went right back on the attack again.

    "Why do you wear your hair like that anyway? Trying to have weird freaky hair just like your precious new buddy? Well it makes you look like a freak. Not that it makes a lot of difference with how ugly you already a-"

    "What do you think you're doing, trash?" came a girl's voice from behind Masao.

    The boy froze and spun around angrily when he realized the voice had been speaking to him. Tenten saw him stiffen up when he realized just who was standing behind him. Rei stood there with an unreadable look on her face and her hands folded into her sleeves. The other two boys took an unconscious step back. There were a few seconds of absolute silence before the girl spoke again.

    "I said what do you think you're doing mongrel? Trash like you should know better than to dick around with your betters," she said pleasantly. You'd think they were having a nice polite conversation if not for her words. Her eyes flickered briefly to Tenten taking in the state she was in and seeing the fresh tear tracks on her face. Rei then turned her attention back to Masao, her eyes narrowing and doing that thing where darkened and looked like hard chips of crystal.

    Masao finally got over his surprise, and to Tenten it looked like his pride and anger momentarily overrode his fear of the girl. "Who do you think you're calling trash?" he growled, "and what is a m-"

    "Mongrel?" she interrupted, "A filthy dog with no lineage who hasn't been housebroken. Which is precisely what you are which is why I called you that. Trash." The girl said all of that in perfectly polite tones and with an infuriatingly superior smile on her face that almost made Tenten want to slap her.

    "You- Why- I'm gonna -!" Masao sputtered, his face turning red with anger, his fists clenched and shaking.

    Rei's smile turned sharp. "What's wrong cur? The truth hurts doesn't it? It's not your fault, a filthy mongrel will always be a filthy mongrel. A good dog's place is to serve their betters, not to try and bite them. Why don't you come at me and I'll properly train you to sit at you master's side, naughty little dog."

    Tenten was pretty sure Masao didn't know what a cur was but the message seemed to get across well enough. As she watched Rei's relaxed posture and that infuriating smirk on her face Tenten almost gasped as she realized something; Rei was baiting Masao on purpose. She wanted him to attack her! By Masao's sputtering wordless anger it seemed that he was close to it too. His buddies backed up a couple of more steps. The girl was sure the only thing stopping Masao at this point was some lingering fear of what Rei could do. That was when the blonde decided to push him over the edge.

    The girl nodded to herself as if she had just realized something self-evident in an exaggerated mocking way. "I see. So you are terrified of me. As you should be, since you have as much a chance of laying a hand on me as you would on Kami himself. It's good when filthy little doggies like you know who their betters are. But that doesn't change the fact that you're a coward and your entire clan would shit on you for taking it like a bitch," then she paused and tapped her chin as if in thought, "or maybe it's that your whole clan is like you? Tell me Inuzuka are all you filthy mongrels cowards or is it just you?"

    Masao was vibrating with so much anger Tenten thought it was a wonder he hadn't spontaneously exploded. She was shocked that he hadn't attacked Rei yet or walked away. Inuzuka were famous for their quick tempers and for never backing down from a fight. How scared was Masao of Rei if he still hadn't attacked after everything she'd said to him?

    "Come on Inuzuka I'm waiting for my answer. Trash."

    That was the final straw that broke the oxen's back.

    With a snarl and a roar the Inuzuka charged the smaller girl with his fist cocked back for a punch. Tenten didn't quite see what happened next. There was a blur of movement and suddenly Masao stopped, choking and clutching his throat. Rei kicked him viciously between the legs, causing Masao to bend over almost completely in half from the pain, choking and moaning at the same time. In a flowing movement Rei crouched low, sweeping Masao's legs out from under him and making him crash hard on his face and stomach.

    In a blink Rei had her knee digging into his lower back and one of his arms in a painful looking joint lock. The look on the girl's face made Tenten shudder. She was enjoying this and the look she gave Masao made Tenten think of the look a fox would give a chicken it had cornered in the henhouse.

    I hope I never get on her bad side.

    The pain and sudden brutality of his takedown seemed to have taken all the fight out of Masao not to mention the painful position he suddenly found himself in. His face was turned so Tenten could see it and it mostly registered pain and shock. Rei bent her head low and whispered something in his ear Tenten couldn't hear. The boy's eyes widened in fear at whatever the girl had told him. She stopped speaking for a few moments before saying something else to him which had the boy nodding furiously. Rei said a few more words to him and then finally got off him but not before digging her knee painfully into his back one more time as she got up.

    Masao's 'friends' didn't dare approach and one look from Rei was enough to send them running. Masao scrambled to his feet and went after his friends, hobbling along and studiously avoiding looking at Rei. He need not have bothered since she was no longer paying any attention to him. Instead she walked over to Tenten and stopped right in front of her, holding out her hand to the brown haired girl.

    "Are you ok?" she asked and for the first time that Tenten could remember the Yamanaka girl sounded genuinely concerned.

    Tenten hesitated for a second before taking her hand. "Yeah, I'm ok I think. They didn't hit me or anything," she said as she allowed Rei to pull her up.

    "They made you cry," said Rei with a frown.

    Tenten wiped her face furiously. "No they didn't," she said roughly.

    Rei smiled faintly at that. "No. Of course they didn't."

    The blonde started walking and Tenten found herself following her without thinking about it.

    They walked around the field in silence for a few minutes. Tenten could see and feel everyone staring at them. They must have seen the whole thing. At the moment Tenten didn't know how to feel about that… if she was honest she was just glad Rei had stepped in when she did. She had never been bullied before and it had been really scary.

    Still there was something that was bothering her. "Did you have to be so… mean to Masao?" asked Tenten uncomfortably.

    "What do you mean?" asked Rei.

    "Just that… don't be mad or anything but… you know weren't you bullying him too? You didn't have to say all those things just to help me out did you? Not to say I'm not thankful, because I am! I mean… I don't know…" said Tenten trailing off. It sounded silly when she said it out loud. Maybe she shouldn't have said anything. She didn't want Rei to think she was mad at her or that she was ungrateful or anything.

    Instead of getting mad Rei surprised Tenten by giving her a wide grin. "Ah, but what I did was totally okay. See what he was doing was being a bully. I was being a counterbully. Conterbullying the bullies is fine. Good even. It's almost like a public service."

    That… made sense. Kind of. Didn't it?

    "I can see how that makes a difference," she said honestly. It was very different to, er, 'conterbully' someone rather than just being a plain regular bully.

    They walked in silence for a few more seconds before Rei suddenly turned to her, eyes bright and another smile on her face. Tenten was instantly wary when she looked at her. There was something in Rei's face that was mischievous and just seemed to spell all kinds of trouble.

    "You know what we should do?" said Rei excitedly, "we should do some preemptive conterbullying."

    Tenten frowned. She didn't know that word. "What does that mean?" she asked.

    "Weeelll" she said drawing out the word, "a preemptive strike is when you go after someone who you know is about to come after you anyway. So preemptive counterbullying is where we would go after the bullies before they had the chance to strike. Conterbullying would be a public service. We should totally start a campaign of preemptive counterbullying. Aggressivepreemptive counterbullying even" she said with flourish, like she had just had the most wonderful of ideas.

    Tenten wasn't so sure. "So that means we go after them before they actually do anything?" she asked dubiously.

    Rei nodded. "You want to be a ninja right? Preemptive strikes and preemptive wars have been accepted doctrines for centuries. What could be wrong with that?" she said, irony filling her voice.

    Tenten ignored the irony since she wasn't sure what it meant. Instead she focused on what was being said. "I don't know Rei," she said, "that sounds kind of like just plain regular bullying."

    Rei seemed to deflate a little at that. "Maybe. But it would still be fun. We could plan ambushes. Herd bullies into kill zones. Practice our taijutsu. Plus keep in mind we'd only be going after known bullies. It's not like they wouldn't have it coming."

    "Well, I'm not as good as you Rei so I don't think I'd be a lot of help with all of that," she said, silently vowing to get better, "plus I would feel like a bully doing that."

    Rei examined her for along moment before sighing in defeat. "Yeah you're probably right," she said sounding down.

    "Still," said Tenten thinking quickly, "we can still help if you see other people getting bullied, you know like you did today. I don't think I could help a lot right now but maybe I'll get better you know?"

    It was then when Tenten realized she had somehow gotten roped into some kind of possible anti-bullying campaign. How and when did that happen?!

    Rei smiled faintly at Tenten. "Well I guess that's better than nothing."

    000

    Were they friends? When she first asked herself that question Tenten found that it was harder to answer than it really should have been. Rei still ignored her during class when she focused on her "self-study" and out on the field when she spent time "making friends" with Neji. If Tenten really wanted to get her attention she could but it had better be for a good reason if she didn't want to deal with a moody, grumpy Rei for the rest of the day.

    They spent all their lunches and free periods outside together though. After that first bullying incident Rei never failed to stand up for her. Everyone knew that Tenten was now officially off limits unless you wanted an angry Yamanaka cutting away all your self-esteem and self-worth with just a few words. If she goaded you into trying to take a swing at her it ended even worse. Rei always tried to teach her something new or help her out with school work, helping her to think about problems in different ways.

    Tenten felt indebted and grateful to the other girl despite all the drawbacks of associating with her. She still hadn't made any friends other than Rei but she found she didn't mind so much anymore. Tenten wasn't much of a fighter but she knew if Rei was ever in trouble she would jump in and try to help her without the slightest hesitation. She felt she owed her that much and what's more… she would want to.

    Did that mean they were friends? After thinking about it for a while Tenten concluded that the answer had to be yes. She guessed they were friends after all.

    Tenten smiled. If she was going to have one friend she figured she could do worse than Rei Yamanaka.
     
  11. Threadmarks: Chapter 11
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 11

    000

    AN: This chapter came in at over 11k words long. It is by far the longest yet. I thought about breaking it up into two parts but decided that wouldn't work very well. Enjoy.

    000

    "That's just painful to look at," said Neji, his face actually contorted in a pained grimace as they watched the flailing display in front of them which could onlyvery generously be described as taijutsu.

    Rei's eyes were distant, hard and cold as they watched some of their classmates attempt to work through the first part of the first form of Konoha Standard. She didn't feel anything as she watched them with indifferent detachment. In the language of her old world it was almost like they were nothing more than nameless NPC's. Uninteresting. Background decoration. Completely inconsequential.

    "The whole batch of them look talentless. Maybe they're destined to suck," said Rei. Neji just made a humming nose in agreement.

    Weeks ago during the first day of class she never would have said that to Neji. She would have tried to steer him from his self-hating and destructive ideas about "fate" which had already taken root instead of feeding them with casual indifference. Part of her knew it was wrong. Right now most of her didn't care.

    Since her father had prohibited her from advancing weeks before Rei had been nursing her anger and resentment like a particularly expensive and potent drink. She felt trapped like somehow the walls were closing in all around her even as she stood outside on a cool sunny day. For years she had not allowed herself to think of anything but her singular goal and now it felt like she had run into a wall she didn't know how to overcome.

    It was affecting her badly she knew. As her resentment grew everything around her appeared to matter less and less. Rei knew that should worry her but couldn't immediately remember why.

    "That kid with the ponytail. He really is the worst isn't he?" she said in a bored tone. She was of course talking about Rock Lee. While he could throw a punch or take a stance with the best of them when it came to linking different moves together it was like he had two left feet and a severe case of palsy. He did give it his all though there was no denying that.

    "He should have just quit the first day," Neji said, disapproval coloring his voice "he's never going to make the cut even with the extremely low academy standards."

    Part of her wanted to defend Lee but mostly she couldn't muster up the interest to do so. She felt like an angry, gnarled old lady raging at the world at the ripe age of six and just as tired. With no outlet for her frustrated emotions something was going to give soon. It kind of scared her thinking what she might be capable of.

    "Hey Neji," she said "are you sure we can't spar? You'd be doing me a huge favor," she said in an even monotone.

    "No," he said sounding frustrated, "I already told you. I've been forbidden from sparring or fighting at all outside the clan compound without permission. Don't bother me about it because there's nothing I can do to change it."

    "Well, sorry," she said flippantly. The conversation died after that.

    It's not like she hadn't been keeping busy. Rei had filled nearly every second of every day, inside and outside of school, with doing something productive. She would push and push herself every day until she collapsed from utter exhaustion. Her body had actually started to force her to sleep like a regular person again the last few nights. That had only further increased her anxiety as she feared losing one of the things that made her unique and would hopefully give her an edge in years to come.

    She cast her eyes around the field looking for a specific figure. Her eyes soon found the girl she was looking for diligently practicing her taijutsu today even when it wasn't her turn with the teachers. Rei's eyes softened a bit as she eyed the brown haired girl. On a whim Rei had talked to her over a week ago and against her own better judgment invited the girl to lunch. The results had been unexpected. The girl had quickly wormed her way past a lot of her emotional walls before Rei had even realized it. In a way that scared her and in a way it had also helped keep her sane.

    There were times recently when she felt something that felt like insanity clawing up from the darker depths of her mind. The pressure she felt was immense. Without advancing quickly she felt like she wasn't advancing at all and desperation had started coloring nearly every aspect of her life. She despised Konoha. She despised child soldiers. She despised a culture that made skill at dealing out violence the highest good. She despised the power the Hokage represented and how she could have everything taken away from her with just a word.

    She also despised herself. Rei wasn't always the most introspective person but even she could see what was happening. As much as she bemoaned violence and killing as a way of life she was well on her way to becoming the perfect ninja Konoha's shinobi rules wanted her to be. Beating up other children had come to her with such ease it would have horrified the person she had been in her past life just six short years ago. The frustration and anger had even made some of it enjoyable.

    Rei just couldn't see a lot of other options for herself. She was committed to her path of the ninja. All the while the ugly things inside her grew.

    Tenten had helped her keep her balance and feel human during school. Rei had found simple pleasure in teaching her to throw weapons, a kind gesture untainted by thoughts of treason and her growing feeling of helplessness. Hearing her chatter excitedly about becoming a ninja was somewhat uncomfortable but there was something about her childlike exuberance that made everything seem simple, like maybe this world wasn't completely the medieval version of Warhammer 40k she imagined it to be. It was a nice fantasy and a grateful relief from the pressures of her own mind. She owed Tenten more than the girl could currently understand.

    Her eyes lost focus and something in her cold chest warmed slightly as she thought about the only other ray of sunshine in her life; Ino. She would have probably self-destructed by now if it wasn't for her sister. Somehow Ino had figured out something had been bothering her recently. Whereas before they had only slept together on occasion now Rei was crawling into her sister's bed every night or vice-versa. Rei was spotting a trend of who was helping her keep it together and it seemed like something straight out of a Walt Disney movie. It didn't make it any less true though. Ino let Rei hold her at night and the older blonde didn't think she could love anything more in the world than she did that little girl. She loved her for just being herself, for her silent support even if she didn't know what was wrong and for loving her big sister with the unrestrained purity only young children ever managed to pull off.

    Those two helped but… it was only help, not a solution. She could only use the young girls as an emotional crutch for so long. Already Rei felt like she was very near her breaking point.

    Almost lazily she glanced over at Neji studying his perpetually tight features. Their relationship was strange and she couldn't with all honesty call them "friends" at this point. In some ways they were very alike. Neji was trapped by the conditions of his birth and it was clear to Rei that he felt the whole of the universe was arrayed against him. Rei could relate to that very well though sadly there was no way to share that with him without some awkward explanations.

    From Rei's point of view it seemed that Neji's response to his situation was to harden himself against everything and everyone. Unfortunately that meant Rei as well who so far he had only allowed inside inch by agonizing inch. As Rei saw it he meant to hold himself as a bastion of strength and anger that stood all alone against the ravages of a cruel world. In a twisted way she found that kind of defiance admirable.

    Maybe Neji was simply stronger than her. After all he didn't look like she felt, cold and hot and quietly desperate on the inside. Then again she was sure she didn't look that way either to most people. Boredom was what showed on her features and it was easy to pull off since she actually was bored. However that was only a small portion of what had been happening inside her day in and day out.

    She felt like she was losing herself. She didn't know what she should do about it. She wasn't even sure anymore that she should care.

    000

    "Rei stay behind for a few minutes," Nao-sensei called out to her right after the final bell rang.

    Tenten gave the blonde girl a concerned look which Rei casually waved off. "I'll be fine. I doubt I'm in trouble or anything," she said trying to give the other girl a reassuring smile.

    By the look on Tenten's face she must not have been very successful. "Do you… you know, want me to wait for you?" she asked biting her lip.

    Rei's smile turned a tad more genuine. "I'll be fine. Go home I'm sure this won't take long," she said feeling a little odd at her six year old classmate showing concern for her.

    "Well if you're sure," said Tenten a little hesitantly casting a worried glance towards Nao-sensei. "See you," she said shyly picking up her books and heading out the door with the rest of the departing students.

    Rei observed the students from her perch on the back row as they trickled out of the class. Eventually the classroom emptied leaving just her and Nao-sensei behind. Seeing the woman's expectant look Rei picked up her things and walked towards Nao-sensei feeling a spark of curiosity despite her generally apathetic mood.

    "You wanted to see me sensei?" she asked stopping in front of the teacher's desk.

    "Yes. Please bring that over and take a seat," she said gesturing at a small stool sitting in the corner of the classroom. Rei realized this was going to be something of a long talk. For some reason that lifted her spirits just a little bit. The girl quickly retrieved the stool and sat herself across from Nao-sensei in front of the desk.

    "So what can I do for you sensei?" she asked leaning forward on the desk and cradling her cheek with one hand.

    Rei watched as Nao-sensei reached behind her desk and produced three scrolls. The girl watched in confusion as the teenager set them down in front of her.

    "What's this?" asked Rei feeling puzzled.

    "The basic 3 taught here at the academy. These are for you," she said in that perfectly serious and professional voice that was all Nao-sensei.

    Rei perked up, the surge of excitement momentarily cutting through the dark despair she had been feeling for the past few weeks.

    "You're giving these to me?" she said eyeing the scrolls hungrily but her wary eyes flickered back to her teacher, "why?"

    "I asked your father for permission to give these to you," she said sidestepping the question, "and he agreed."

    Rei frowned at that, a bit irritated at the mention of her father. "Why would he do that?

    "He told me he had always planned to wait until you entered the academy. As it turns out you're an academy student now."

    Rei paused at that, her mind trying to run through the logic. It didn't add up for her. "I don't get it. He's been skittish as hell about letting me have any techniques or work on anything more than taijutsu and bukijutsu. Why now?"

    Again Nao-sensei sidestepped her question and posed one of her own. "Do you know why your father has been so concerned about you learning jutsu?"she asked, her voice softening a touch from her typical serious and professional tone.

    Rei paused, a pained look flickering across her face. "Not really," she admitted.

    Nao-sensei leaned back on her chair and crossed her legs, her voice changing into her 'lecturing voice'. "The Yamanaka are probably the most hesitant clan when it comes to handing out techniques to their younger members. You need to understand that because of the nature of your clan's techniques students are required to prove their patience, maturity and restraint before the techniques are taught."

    Rei bit her lip thoughtfully, brow furrowing. "I've never heard of that," said Rei.

    Neo-sensei smiled thinly at her. "You think they would just outright tell you? No, the best tests are those the student isn't even aware she is participating in. Otherwise an element of unreliability is inevitably inserted into the equation when the student doesn't act or react as they normally would."

    "What does that have to do with me getting these techniques now?" asked Rei, genuinely curious and now fully engaged in the conversation.

    "As I said the potential for abuse for your clan's techniques is high and thus they are extremely leery of handing them out before the student is ready. Unfortunately that tendency to hold techniques back until the student shows a certain desired mentality has also bled into the teaching of all other techniques within the clan. It is in a way understandable how that tendency would spread in such a way as to encompass all techniques. I merely helped to remind your father there is a huge distinction between learning academy techniques and learning to manipulate the minds of others," she said, sitting ram rod straight and perfectly dignified in her teacher's chair.

    Rei's mind was whirling with all this new information, previous conversations and interactions with her father suddenly being cast in a new light. Would shehave trusted herself with something like mind altering techniques after so quickly losing her temper? Of course she wouldn't have. She wondered if her father would have let her skip in years if she had shown more patience, maturity and restraint when he told he she couldn't advance in years. Rei honestly didn't know. However now she was thinking her poorly concealed anger might have been what made him hold back the academy techniques in just the way Nao-sensei was suggesting.

    The blonde looked at her teacher now seeing her in a new light. It felt like a hundred questions were bubbling in her head. Neo-sensei watcher her impassively, feline green eyes waiting patiently behind her glasses as she waited for Rei to finish processing. There were so many other things she wanted to ask but one kept jumping straight to the front of her mind. There was something she felt she just had to know above all else.

    "Why are you helping me?" asked Rei, mortified when she heard her voice crack with emotion.

    Nao-sensei's eyes softened a fraction. "Isn't it every teacher's job to help their students?"

    "No," insisted Rei, shaking her head "it's more than that."

    Nao-sensei stared at her for a long time and Rei could see her teacher was debating just what and how much she should say to her. In the end when she spoke Rei got the impression she was at least partly lost in remembrance. Her voice was steady but there was a certain distant quality to it.

    "I know when someone is close to the edge, close to snapping and doing something many people would regret. You're smart enough to understand this I think. I'm not sure why you feel that things have gotten too much but I know the signs. Let's just say you're not the first prodigy to have these kinds of issues."

    It was something of an unsatisfactory non-answer yet at the same time very revealing. Rei realized she had been hoping Nao-sensei would say she had some kind of personal affection for her and felt silly at being disappointed when that hadn't been what the mature teenager said. It was also disturbing on a whole nother level that Nao had so easily seen through her mask and deduced what had been going on with her. Rei now felt self-conscious and worried wondering how many people had been able to see just what was going on inside.

    Instead of dwelling on that Rei chose to ask another question. "Is it really that bad? What someone can do with Yamanaka techniques I mean?" It felt profoundly strange to her to be asking a non-Yamanaka about the techniques of her clan.

    "Yes it can be that bad," said Nao-sensei her demeanor once again firmly back to normal.

    "How so?"

    Nao-sensei hesitated a moment before answering. "Some years ago there was a young Yamanaka boy at the academy whose father was rather lax and taught him some of the clan techniques very young. He had a very bad crush on another student, a young merchant's daughter who was a year below him training to be a kunoichi. However the girl made it very clear she was not interested much to his frustration and humiliation. One day he managed to get her alone and knock her out. Using one of your family's techniques he altered her memories to make her remember that while she had been rejecting his advances it had been because she was too shy and had secretly been in love with him the whole time. They dated for a few months before the side effects started to become obvious. Needless to say the clan and the Hokage were not amused."

    Rei's mouth opened in shock at that. Other than the Mind-Body Switch young Yamanaka were not given much information about their clan's techniques until they were old enough to begin learning them. Beyond knowing that they were 'mind techniques' and a few hints picked up here and there Rei had not known anything about what her family's techniques actually did. To be able to alter someone's memories to such an extent was… frightening.

    "Does that work on any ninja?" she asked with an awed voice.

    Nao-sensei raised a critical eyebrow at that and there was a slight upward tug at the corner of her lips. "Is that the first question that comes to mind after hearing that story? And you wonder why your father is leery of you learning any techniques."

    Rei flushed bright scarlet and she dipped her head hiding her face behind her hair. "I – uh, I didn't mean it like… you know like that" she protested quickly.

    "It never crossed my mind," said Nao-sensei with amusement shining in her eyes.

    Rei sputtered, eager to change the subject. "Why – ugh how, how do you know so much? About Yamanaka techniques I mean? And about my clan?"

    Nao-sensei's face sobered up. "I had a very frank conversation with your father and I've worked with a few Yamanaka in my time," she said simply, her rigid tone making it clear the subject wasn't up for further discussion.

    Silence stretched out for a few seconds as Rei thought furiously about what else she was going to ask. When nothing was immediately forthcoming Nao-sensei spoke up on her own.

    "So you've been frustrated with not being skipped ahead in grades. Understandable. What have you been doing for the past three weeks?"

    It was almost a painful relief to be able to talk about these things. The truth of it was she had no one else to talk about them with. Rei perked up, sounding like an excited six year old no matter the memories she had in her head. "Well I haven't been sitting around doing nothing you know. I figured out how to do waterwalking all on my own and have been practicing more and more complex chakra control exercises. My parents also at least gave me access to all the unclassified documents of the clan and that has been a real wealth of knowledge. I've also made sure not to slack off on my taijutsu and bukijutsu," she babbled.

    "Um-hmm," said Nao-sensei sounding half-bored and half-indulgent though Rei didn't let that perturb her.

    "Unfortunately my long time tutor Toshiro-sensei recently made Jounin so he doesn't have time to teach me anymore which really sucks because having a personal instructor who knows you in and out is really helpful. I haven't talked to anyone about getting a new one since things have kind of weird at home because of the whole 'held-back' scenario but if they refused to teach me any jutsu I would just be frustrated. Honestly I've been getting so restless I even thought about learning a weapon just to give me something new to do but I don't really think that would have been a good solution. Weapons are too specialized you know and right now I don't have any idea if that would fit me. Honestly if they just let me move forward everything would be ok but progressing this slowly is driving me crazy I am so not living up to my potential and everything I could do and everything I could be and it pisses me off so much I just want to break something or kill it because it's so damn frustrating and I just don't know what to do about it," she finished, half-speaking and half-shouting, feeling out of breath as she had not stopped for a breather during that whole time.

    Belatedly she realized she may have said too much but she couldn't really bring herself to care. Rei felt just a little better as she tried to get her breath back. She's needed that. She'd really really needed someone to talk to and listen.

    Nao-sensei simply looked at her for a while, her look attentive but kept neutral. In a way it was a relief. While she didn't know her teacher very well at least she didn't feel like Nao-sensei was judging her or thinking ill of her for her outburst. Instead she was looking at her like she was trying to figure her out. She couldn't be sure but at least Nao-sensei didn't seem like the type of person who would run off and tell figures of authority how mentally unstable her student was at the first chance.

    What she asked next was completely logical yet it still left Rei feeling surprised and off balance.

    "May I ask what has you so driven?"

    Rei chewed on her lip. She couldn't tell the whole truth obviously but talking to Nao-sensei was helping and she didn't want to stop. Not now. Instead she settled for telling her a partial truth.

    "The strong control their destinies. Everyone else just has to fall in line and take orders without complaint."

    Nao-sensei chuckled, she actually chuckled at that. It made her look much closer to sixteen years old even with her hair done up in a severe style and the knowing eyes of a much older person.

    "And what orders are you rebelling against right now exactly Rei-chan?"

    Rei flushed at that, her brow drawing into a displeased frown. "You know what I mean."

    "I'm not sure I do. Why don't you explain it to me?

    She did. "The world of ninja is all about strength. All three of the Sanin were able to leave the village because they were so strong, anyone else would have been killed instantly. The Fourth…" was allowed to marry and impregnate a Jinchuriki despite the risks involved, "…ended a war almost single handedly and got to achieve his dream of being Hokage. The First Hokage wrestled a village into existence out of the chaos of the Warring States period mostly on the merits of his strength alone. If they had been any less strong they never would have been able to do any of those things. Their power allowed them to literally rewrite the rules. Everyone else is practically just a soldier with their marching orders and no real say in anything."

    Nao's feline eyes bored into her intensely. "Well you're not wrong. The strongest do indeed have more options open to them."

    "So how can you mock what I was saying?" she asked crossly.

    "I was not mocking you. I was trying to make a point," she said, her flat tone suddenly reminding Rei who was the teacher and who was the student and how Nao-sensei didn't suffer any nonsense. The girl's attitude died at hearing that, "the point is that you are so worried about the future you're completely neglecting life in the here and now. Normally that wouldn't be such a large concern except you are destroying yourself and you don't even realize it. You are grinding yourself into dust and the only one responsible for it is yourself."

    Rei felt a chill at the words. That wasn't true. Was it?

    "I'm not sure what you mean," she said a little defensively.

    Nao-sensei continued but her tone softened a fraction. "We both know that you do. You are far too intelligent not to."

    Rei shook her head in denial but couldn't form any words. She thought she knew where this was going and something inside her was panicking. She didn't want to hear it.

    "You're not as subtle as you think you are and it's hard to hide something like that from someone who sees you for long hours every day. Do you even realize how you look at your classmates? Yes of course you do. Would you like me to tell you?" she said, her tone not unkind but not allowing the young girl any wiggle room either.

    Rei shook her head, putting her arms on the teacher's desk and burying her head in them.

    "I've seen how you've started looking at people. It's like they don't even exist. Like you weigh and measure their worth like sacks of rice and find most of them don't hold enough to be worth your trouble. Like they're not even human. I'm not going to tell you that this is good or bad but you are mature enough to be aware of a few things. How you treat your comrades will determine the type of person you will be in the future. You need to ask yourself if that is the type of person you want to be. You happen to be one of the few individuals intelligent enough at a crucial stage of your development to able to pick and choose the type of person you are likely to be for the rest of your life," she said, no judgment in her voice but a kind of pragmatic practicality that Rei clung to in the wake of all the emotions her little speech had stirred up inside her.

    You need to ask yourself if that is the type of person you want to be. Something had gone terribly, terribly wrong. It took Nao-sensei calling her out to realize, to really think about what she had been doing. Part of her had been fighting it because she was too stubborn to want to change. Now that some of these ugly truths were being brought out into the open Rei felt like an ugly wound was being brought out into the open.

    "Now having that kind of attitude and outlook will not make you a bad ninja even in a place like Konoha which emphasizes comrades and teamwork," said Nao-sensei continuing on as she observed her student, "in fact even in Konoha some sectors and many individuals would consider that kind of mindset ideal and an asset to the village. The truth is some will think poorly of you for it and others will praise you for being able to separate sympathy and emotions from your missions. In the ninja world there is a place for both approaches. However if you continue to regard others as you have been there are some realities that I think you should be made aware of. Do you need a moment to compose yourself?" Nao-sensei asked.

    Rei still had her head buried in her arms and she realized her body was heaving with soft sobs. Her whole world suddenly felt like it had been tilted on its head. Have I really been that bad? Yes, yes she had been. This wasn't something that had just recently started either. It seemed that the floodgates had opened and now she was starting to reexamine her whole life in a different light. Some of what immediately come to mind had left her feeling sick.

    She didn't want to be a bad person.

    Rei felt something being placed next to her. Turning her head and opening a tear filled eye Rei saw that it was a box of tissues. She risked a glance at Nao-sensei who was looking at her patiently and without a drop of sympathy. Somehow this made Rei straighten her back and helped give her the composure to stop crying. While other people might want sympathy Rei didn't right then and Nao-sensei's attitude helped give her an anchor to latch on to and calm down. She sat straight on the stool and grabbed a few tissues to clean up her face as best she could.

    Nao-sensei gave her a few moments before adjusting her glasses by pushing them up with a finger. Then she continued speaking as if she had not just been interrupted by a crying six year old. "Yes well as I was saying there are a few things you should be aware of with regards to your career. People with that sort of outlook are well known to be successful at certain types of work. If you choose to continue as you have been you will almost certainly be recruited into ANBU as soon as you make Chunin. You would spend most of your career doing… unpleasant, stomach churning work. Prestigious and well paid but unpleasant just the same. It takes a certain kind of person to survive or even thrive in that environment."

    You mean a sociopath Rei thought to herself. Did Nao-sensei really think she had been heading in that direction? Had she really?

    "Many people aspire to that career path. It would be my advice to anyone not to even consider joining ANBU until they make Jounin. We are not always given a choice, that is entirely up to the discretion of the Hokage of course, but oftentimes we are. Something to consider. For some reason I get the feeling you are not the type of person who would… enjoy their time in ANBU. Just some free advice. Do with it what you will."

    000

    Rei put her head back down on the desk, hear swirling in a haze. She wasn't even thinking actual thoughts she just needed time for the churning thoughts and insanity of her emotions to calm down enough for her to start dealing with her new revelations. What kind of person did she want to be? What kind of person was she becoming? It was too much to think about at the moment and she couldn't deal with it there and then.

    Nao-sensei seemed to sense the girl didn't want to move so without missing a beat got out a stack of papers and started grading homework for the class. It might have seemed cold with an emotionally distressed girl sitting just a few feet away but Rei didn't see it that way. She was allowed to stay and Rei knew if she wanted to talk more Nao-sensei would listen or even offer advice. Rei had a fleeting thought that Nao was becoming her Iruka-sensei, a teacher she could talk to and trust to a certain extent. It was odd having a mentor who was technically younger than her but it was working and Rei wasn't about to question it too much.

    Not that she felt completely great around her teacher right now. Rei was mortified at essentially having broken down in front of her teacher over what was at the end of the day just a conversation. Some supremely overpowered ninja she was gearing up to be. In the end though Nao-sensei had just for the most part pretended her tears didn't exist and (thankfully) allowed her to retain just a bit of pride. If her teacher had called attention to her fragile emotional state Rei might have just walked out the door.

    She still wanted to talk to her teacher. Rei felt almost instinctively that their conversation hadn't run its course yet for that day. However she wasn't sure how to start or what it was she wanted to talk about. Instead when she was ready she decided to open with something she had noticed and was intensely curious about.

    "Nao-sensei?" Rei ventured. A low sharp hum invited her to continue as her teacher continued to grade papers.

    Rei licked her lips. "How do you know so much about ANBU? Were you… in it yourself maybe?" she asked tentatively.

    "Next question," came her bland, almost bored reply as she didn't even bother to look up from what she was doing. Rei narrowed her eyes in thought. It wasn't exactly a confirmation but it wasn't a denial either. Her whole attitude and demeanor were so competent and professional Rei might have easily believed she's been in ANBU if not for her age. She wasn't sure but she bet most operatives didn't retire at sixteen and then went on to teach at the academy. It would be a colossal waste of resources. Still Rei wished Nao-sensei's arms was bare so she could look for the iconic ANBU tattoo just to be sure.

    Rei's thoughts went back to her situation choosing to tackle it one bit at a time. In a way she felt much better after having talked but it still didn't solve her problem. She still had to get stronger because everything hinged on that. Rei refused to compromise on that point.

    you are destroying yourself and you don't even realize it. You are grinding yourself into dust and the only one responsible for it is yourself.

    Rei sighed as she felt a headache coming on. She wasn't nearly as prepared to deal with all these issues as she'd thought. After Nao-sensei had pointed it out to her she realized it was true; she was destroying herself. She probably had been doing it for a long time in every sense of the word.

    What should she do about it though? How could she continue on to her goal right now without completely losing herself to resentment and anger and numb indifference?

    "What should I do?" she muttered miserably in a low quiet voice. Rei wasn't sure if the question was rhetorical or if she was hoping Nao-sensei would give her an answer.

    In the end the teacher did give her an answer. "Stop fighting and enjoy your time here at the academy."

    Rei's eyes narrowed at the suggestion and a snarl came to her lips. She'd thought Nao-sensei understood! She opened her mouth to let Nao-sensei know what she thought of that suggestion when the other woman held up her hand causing her to stop.

    "Hear me out," said the aqua haired woman as she put aside what she was doing and focused her attention on Rei once again.

    "Today to determine the strength of a ninja the administration rates eight categories on a scale from zero to five points. Do you know what I'm talking about?" asked her teacher.

    Rei was a little thrown by the sudden change in topic but slowly nodded that she did. She'd seen them in her previous world.

    "There is an older model that is not as heavy on the specific numbers but is a much better guide conceptually when trying to understand what influences the strength of a ninja. I doubt you've heard of it since it has been phased out of official use but many ninja still swear by it. It goes like this," she said. Nao-sensei proceeded to pull out a blank sheet of paper and write something on it. Then she turned the sheet towards Rei so the girl could see what she had written.

    Basic Physical Condition x Skill in Application x Ninja Techniques = Total Combat Power

    "Base physical condition," Nao-sensei began once again using her 'lecturing voice' "is just what it implies. It is how strong you are physically. How long you can run, how fast you can move, how flexible you are, your physical strength. It also includes the strength of your chakra and how much the individual in question possesses."

    "This," she continued pointing at the characters for 'ninja techniques' "includes all areas of ninja techniques. That means taijutsu, genjutsu, ninjutsu, bukijutsu. It also includes any of the more esoteric arts used in combat such a puppetry and seals. Basically anything ninja learn for direct application in combat. Kekkei Genkai also fall into this category."

    "Finally," said Nao-sensei pointing at the last item "skill in application is in some ways the most difficult to understand. It means your ability to take ninja techniques and base physical condition and apply them effectively in a combat scenario. You can know a dozen S-Rank kinjutsu but if you have poor Skill in Application the benefits they provide would be less than a shadow of their true potential. This is also the area that most 'prodigies' excel at and what earns them their distinction early on. Instinctively they know how to best apply what they learn to maximum effect while avoiding retaliation."

    Rei thought about it. It was a very interesting model. Fascinating even. But… "What does this have to do with my situation and with staying at the academy?" she asked genuinely curious.

    Nao-sensei gave her a look that questioned her intelligence. "Which of these three do you imagine will be crippled by you staying at the academy?"

    "Uhm…" said Rei looking back at the list, "… just, ninja techniques I suppose," she mumbled. The other two she could continue to improve even without Genin rank. Actually she could also continue to improve things such as her taijutsu.

    Nao-sensei nodded at her response. "Yes. However I do not think that should worry you. In the long term holding off on improving your category of 'ninja techniques' will not be detrimental to your growth as a ninja."

    Rei looked at Nao-sensei a little dubiously. "How do you figure?"

    "Ninja techniques are by far the quickest and easiest things to learn and thus the easiest way to increase your total combat score. Learning any new ninja technique will typically only take between a few days to a few months which in terms of ninja training is but the blink of an eye relatively speaking. Skill on the other hand takes consistent practice over years to significantly improve. You base physical condition is even more time and effort intensive. It can take over a decade of hard work for a ninja to come anywhere near their theoretical physical peak. In your case it will be impossible to even approach your physical potential until you reach full physical maturity."

    Rei leaned on the desk looking at the paper as she digested that. "So you're saying… what? To focus on my skill and physical condition because ninja techniques are easy to pick up?"

    "Relatively easy. But the answer to your question is yes," she paused "do you begin to understand now why ninjutsu and other related skills are so jealously guarded? Because it takes very little effort comparatively to get a large spike in combat power. The prospect of quick power is extremely tempting and seductive. It is also so very romantic," she said sounding a touch annoyed "everyone knows ninja spit fire and call down lightning to strike down their foes. Everyone knows the First Hokage could create a small forest during a battle. However everyone forgets that this formula is multiplicative. The end number isalways the important thing. A ninja with a weak body and poor skill will never beat one who has put in the proper effort into those categories even if he could use both the Sharingan and the Mokuton. I don't want to see my students falling into the trap of obsessing over jutsu."

    Her mind immediately went to thinking of a hypothetical Chunin exam Sakura having both the Mokuton and the Sharingan… and how that fight would turn out if she went up against Rock Lee. It almost made Rei want to wince. She would still be hopelessly crushed. Even early Chunin exam Naruto with his massive chakra reserves would still probably lose to Lee even with the Sharingan and Mokuton… and that is without Lee even opening any of the eight gates. Rei was starting to see things in a new light. Maybe graduating early… wasn't as important as she had first thought.

    Maybe.

    "What do you think your classmate Rock Lee lacks?" Nao-sensei asked in her teacher voice, mentioning the boy almost as if she had been reading her thoughts.

    Rei thought about it with a scrunched brow. "He's actually in great physical condition for the class and he can execute the individual taijutsu moves just fine. Putting them together is where he struggles. So… he lacks skill? He has poor skill in putting together his body and his taijutsu doesn't he?" she said starting to apply the new model to real life situations.

    "That would be correct. His Skill in Application score if very poor dragging down his total combat score considerably," she said without inflection, "what about the Hokage? He's lived a largely sedentary lifestyle behind a desk for decades and is now an old man. How is it possible that he is still most likely the strongest ninja in the village?"

    "That is because," she said as she thought it over. It didn't take her very long, "his physical score has most likely deteriorated to some degree but the other two categories haven't. His skill and ninja techniques must be extremely high and together they help to offset deficiencies in the third category."

    "Yes," Nao-sensei said looking pleased, "thus you can see how some of this is interchangeable. A person could become one of the strongest in the village with just a high physical and skill score and a relatively limited ninja technique score," the teacher said.

    Rei's mind went to Might Gai who in most situations just utilized taijutsu. His extremely high base physical scores and high skill scores were enough to defeat most Jounin even without his eight gates technique. This really was a fascinating new model and she was already thinking about how she could use it to help plan her own development.

    She also thought of a young Kakashi. From what she remembered when he was a Genin and Chunin his physical scores must have been poor compared to older more experienced ninja. His ninja techniques were probably good but nothing overly powerful or unusual. It made sense that he made a name for himself as a young kid on an incredibly skewed Skill in Application score.

    Something however kept nagging Rei about the whole thing. "I feel like something is missing though. I think this formula is incomplete," she said with a frown.

    Nao-sensei smiled slightly at that. "Oh? What exactly do you think is missing?" she asked.

    "Knowledge," said Rei decisively, "ninjas acquire a lot of knowledge that can be useful in battle. Knowledge of the most likely jutsu of your enemies and how to counter them, of strategies and tactics, knowledge of the terrain and the battle conditions, etc etc. Those are important and count for something."

    Nao-sensei's eyes sparkled and the woman managed to look very pleased despite her expression never changing. "Quite perceptive of you. I suppose they don't call you a genius for nothing," the woman said.

    Rei felt her face getting hot and she looked away. She'd never gotten embarrassed when called her that before. Why was it happening now?

    "Of course you are right. However in straight combat scenarios it was generally agreed that while knowledge was important it could not be weighed equally with the other three. Thus the most widely accepted revised formula is this," she said reaching over and writing another line on the sheet of paper.

    Basic Physical Condition x Skill in Application x Ninja Techniques x (Knowledge/2) = Total Combat Power

    "Going back to the example of the Hokage," Nao-sensei continued, "he is a man well known for his incredible wealth of knowledge. So you see his deterioration in the physical would be even further mitigated by a disproportionately high knowledge score. Knowledge can be very useful but it is not as critical as the other three categories."

    Rei examined the papers looking for any holes that she could see in the logic. "What about intelligence?" she asked, "that has to play some kind of role doesn't it?"

    "Yes it does," said Nao-sensei, "high intelligence aids in the categories of Knowledge and Skill in Application. Skill in Application also includes applying your skills through the use of plans and strategies which are both heavily affected by intelligence. Acquiring knowledge and applying it correctly also rely on intelligence. It aids in two of the four categories but would not work as a stand-alone variable in this model."

    Rei nodded at that. It made sense. This discussion was fascinating and it was also making her happy in other ways. It had been a while since she had used her brain in such a critical way and she almost felt like spiderwebs were clearing out of her head as they discussed the issue.

    "So why isn't this used anymore?" asked Rei.

    "The problem with this model," Nao-sensei began "comes when people try to measure and assign numerical values to each category. That was never figured out to anyone's satisfaction and that is why the model fell out of official favor. The administration wanted a number they could look at quickly and feel some degree of confidence in what they were seeing. I myself am not a fan of the new system since I think it mostly fail in its intended purpose. However thissystem is a great conceptual model and it also makes for a great teaching tool. I plan on introducing it to your class on their fifth year when they might have a better chance of understanding the implications."

    The conversation died a natural death after that. Rei closed her eyes and took a deep shuddering breath. She didn't feel like everything was resolved but this conversation had done a lot of calm her down. It had started to give her something she had desperately needed – perspective. This discussion had shown her that a blind rush progressing through the ranks would not necessarily be better for achieving her goals than a more traditional approach. In fact now that she thought about it there was a good chance it would personally be worse for her. Rei was still nervous about what living life as a ninja would entail.

    In a rush of gratitude Rei wanted to hug or kiss Nao-sensei but held back instinctively knowing her teacher wouldn't appreciate any of that. Instead she settled for smiling at her, a sincere grateful smile Rei let very few people see. She didn't really know why Nao-sensei had gone out of her way to talk to her but Rei felt very glad just the same. "I think I understand sensei," she said, meaning more than just the last point they had discussed.

    Nao didn't reply instead acknowledging her unspoken thank you with a small nod. Her attitude didn't indicate anything unusual at all had happened and Rei was glad Nao-sensei wasn't the type to make a big deal out of things. Then the teacher looked at the clock mounted on the wall before she spoke.

    "I've got somewhere to be," she said gathering up her things. She efficiently put everything away and without another word stood up and headed to the door.

    Rei watched a little surprised as the woman walked away without so much as a 'goodbye' or a 'get out of the classroom'. It was more than a bit rude and Rei didn't really want Nao-sensei leaving just yet. Without really thinking of what to say she called out her name.

    "Nao-sensei, wait" she called out and regretted it the instant it was out of her mouth. She didn't really have anything to say she just wasn't ready for her teacher to leave.

    Nao-sensei stopped and turned around. She must have seen something in her face because she left Rei with a few parting words.

    "The problem with being smart is that your mind can be your own worst enemy. Think about what we've talked about."

    With that she was gone and Rei was left to think about her advice.

    000

    After Nao-sensei left Rei picked up her three scrolls and headed out the door. She was feeling emotionally drained and her head was filled with too many thoughts. Rei knew she needed to sit down and really think but at the same time she wanted to stop thinking even if just for a little while. With that in mind she went out to one of the academy training grounds.

    The two of them had spoken for a good while and now the academy and the grounds around it were nearly deserted. Rei saw no one as she made her way through one training field after the other until she reached one at the very back of the property that had been allocated for use by the academy. As Rei looked over the field she was reminded why she liked that one the best. It was small and surrounded snugly by trees in such a way that made it feel sheltered. Just past the tree line at the far end there was shallow pool of slow moving water. For weeks Rei had been sneaking off to these training grounds whenever she had the chance. Not only did she find it peaceful but the pool was an ideal place to practice waterwalking.

    Rei set her things down a safe distance away before walking up to the water's edge. It was cooler under the shade of the trees and the silt in the water made it look dark and foreboding. Rei had never been comfortable jumping into any body of water in which she couldn't see the bottom which was why she had chosen this particular pool as extra motivation to learn the exercise quickly. Rei closed her eyes and tried to will her mind to empty as she gathered chakra to the bottom of her feet. With a steadying breath she took her first step out onto the water.

    It held. A minor thrill ran through her, the same thrill she felt every time she walked on water when in her last world only the literal son of God was said to have such an ability. Did being children of the Sage of the Six Paths make them children of a god? It was nice to think so in a way though ultimately Rei doubted the reality was anything quite so pleasant. She took another step onto the water easily, the regulation of chakra at the bottom of her sandals almost having become second nature by that point. Soon she was standing in the middle of an inky pool, water still while the shadows of the trees and an overcast sky lent the scene an intimate dark feel.

    Rei was feeling restless and if she stopped too long it felt like thoughts would begin to overwhelm her again. Thinking that what she needed was to keep herself busy Rei began to move, slowly going through the first taijutsu form of Konoha Standard. Movements flowed one after the other with the added difficulty of staying on top of the water forcing Rei to move slowly and deliberately. She moved smoothly like a dancer letting her complete concentration on what she was doing anchor her. Gradually her mind cleared somewhat as she lost herself in graceful movement.

    It was pleasant. It was repetitive. Rei knew she had probably done the same form a thousand times since she was three and that familiarity made it comforting. Konoha Standard had become almost like an old friend. For a time Rei tried to lose herself in the well-worn movements.

    Things in her mind did not clear enough however and Rei was beginning to think she was just avoiding the inevitable. With a sigh she stepped off the water a little annoyed than even in this place she couldn't fully escape her troubles for even a few minutes. She picked up her things and made sure to store her new scrolls safely in her robe just in case. After thinking about it for a minute Rei decided she knew just the spot she wanted to go to and finally work on sorting out all her thoughts. With determined steps Rei started walking back home.

    When she walked through the front door she saw her mother sitting on the couch in the living room reading a book. Too preoccupied to pay her any mind Rei moved to walk past her to the back yard.

    "Hey honey," called out her mother "how was your day?"

    "Fine," said Rei automatically before briefly pausing "and yours?"

    "Good. Busy at the shop as always. Are you hungry?" Emiko asked with a smile.

    "No," said Rei bluntly "I'll be in the backyard if you need me mom. I've got something to do."

    "Oh," said Emiko sounding a little disappointed "you're always so dedicated. Well don't be out there too late and make sure to eat something before bed."

    Rei didn't reply and just gave her mother a curt nod before heading out back.

    The sky was overcast and the sun was beginning to set leaving the whole back yard in a half-light that seemed to fit Rei's current mood almost perfectly. She didn't hesitate before walking to the gigantic Harashima tree at the corner of her back yard. Rei almost absent mindedly began to walk up the trunk of the tree having mastered the technique some time ago. It wasn't long before she made it to the large branches at the top of the canopy where she often came when she wanted to be alone.

    Finding a good spot to learn against the trunk and sit Rei finally let everything that had been bothering her come to the forefront of her mind. The conversations she'd had earlier had left her deeply disturbed and probably not in the ways her teacher had intended. For six years Rei had been so focused on a single goal she had lost sight of what felt like just about everything else. She couldn't believe she had forgotten there were other things that mattered just the same if not more than her eventual escape from Konoha.

    Everything had also gotten her to start thinking… what had she been doing to herself?

    Your mind can be your own worst enemy. You are grinding yourself into dust and the only one responsible for it is yourself.

    It was true wasn't it? Rei really thought about it and it was clear that all the misery she had been living with the last three weeks had been completely self-inflicted. In her desire to push forward and never compromise even with herself Rei realized she had been making herself completely miserable and that in turn had been turning her into something… ugly. Something that saw casual violence as stress relief and saw no worth in others beyond what they could do for her.

    Where had she gone so wrong?

    You need to ask yourself if that is the type of person you want to be.

    What kind of person had she been so far?

    Rei had been dead set almost from the moment she opened her eyes in this new world on rejecting Konoha and the ninja system she had been born into in its entirety. The Chunin exams, the caged bird seal, the dirty missions the village took, the propaganda, the torture, on and on Rei had decided to harden herself and work for the day when she could be free of such things. In the process though Rei had started to think she had missed something important. Something fundamental.

    What kind of person was she turning into?

    Rei rubbed her face and forced herself to look at her situation from a different angle. What orders are you rebelling against right now Rei-chan? What was she turning herself inside out fighting right now?

    Grudgingly, very grudgingly Rei had to admit things were not bad for her personally. They were not bad at all. In fact they were very, very good when you took everything into account. Rei was not one of the victims in this world. In fact she was one of the elite. Though she heard the phrase at school directed at her occasionally it really was an apt description; she was a ninja princess. She had all the resources she would ever need and then some. She was jealously protected by the clan and the village and was almost untouchable. Even the Hokage himself couldn't get rid of her without massive political fallout. Her situation in Konoha was almost as good as it could possibly be. So why was she fighting so hard against it?

    Because I'm afraid that accepting my place in Konoha will mean selling out on my principles. Because I'm afraid if I embrace my life here I'll slowly come to accept things as they are and never want to leave.

    But what else could she do? Her only other option was to do what she had been doing for the past six years. Her only other option would be to live in resentment, rejecting the world around her and slowly turning into something twisted and ugly. Another decade of doing that and there would be nothing left but a hard emotionless shell that was just as bad if not worse than the system she was rebelling against. If she did that in the end she would only succeed in hurting herself. Konoha itself would not be harmed or perturbed in the least.

    I want to be a good person. In my last life I made a conscious effort to be good to people and do the right thing. I don't want to be the type of person who views other children as less than human.

    What about letting people in? It was a question she had struggled with right from the very beginning. In her whole six years in Konoha she's only really let two people even a bit past her walls. Ino was the first and more recently Tenten. Though she cared about her parents, especially Emiko who Rei spent the most amount of time with, the truth was she had deliberately kept an emotional distance from them especially once she got old enough to become more independent. No wonder she had broken down in front of Nao-sensei. When was the last time she had opened up to anyone? Had she ever done so even once in this life? She was fairly sure the answer was no.

    Accepting her place in Konoha meant making actual, genuine, real connections with people. Could she really do that? Could she start looking at people like people and not like meaningless backdrops or simply extensions of Konohagakure?

    I'm afraid if I start doing that I'll suddenly decide that Konoha isn't really that bad and dying before thirty for a barbaric system will start looking acceptable because all the people I care about live here. Is that really true though? Will I really become fully assimilated into Konoha if I accept my place here for the time being and start letting people in?

    After thinking about it for a while she realized with no small measure of relief that the answer was no. Rei knew she would never think preteens fighting a bloodsport in a coliseum as entertainment and diplomacy was an acceptable thing and a good idea. She would never be ok with twelve year olds killing bandits as "just the way the world works". She would never be truly comfortable living under an authoritarian regime and she would never in a million years accept that a violence based economy was how the hidden villages should be run. In short even if she accepted her place in the Village Hidden in the Leaves she would never truly be part of the system as she feared as long as she stuck by her principles.

    Is this what we're going to do? Accept our place in the village? What then?

    Rei knew, knew that this course of action might end up changing her plans for the future. She knew if she grew to care more about the people around her she might decide when the time came that she did not want to leave. She might end up trying to stay and change the system however futile an effort that would be. Rei knew even a Kage would only be able to change so much. Still the possibility did exist that she would decide to stay.

    Still a part of Rei that had existed in her past life and had carried on to this one was her sense of wanderlust and the sense that she was a free spirit. Rei was not the type of person to entrench herself in bureaucracy to try to make the world better. Instead she traveled from place to place seeking greener pastures and never content to stay in one place for long. Once she had become an adult she had never lived in any one city for more than three years. It was simply part of who she was and she had absolutely no desire to change.

    Knowing she couldn't leave the walls of Konoha always made her feel trapped and she'd always had a burning desire to wander and explore the Elemental Nations and see all the wonders of a brand new continent. She could see herself wandering the world, perhaps as a hermit, until she was old and grey and was finally called onwards toward the next life. It was a calling deep in her soul and one she knew she wouldn't be able to ignore forever.

    Would she leave? Or would she stay? In the end she decided that she would most likely leave though she knew in her heart that wasn't set in stone. Not anymore. Still regardless of what she eventually chose to do her plan forward had not changed; she would become an S-Rank ninja or she would kill herself trying. All her other plans would inevitably stem from that.

    In the end it came down to something simple; she wanted to do the right thing. She wanted to be a good person. If her choices were hating her place in Konoha and turning into something ugly because of it or accepting it and running some risks because of it the choice became abundantly simple. Rei knew she didn't have to be a bad person simply because she lived in Konoha. Naruto had managed it hadn't he? There was no reason she couldn't do the same.

    Rei stood up, feeling oddly naked yet more calm than she had in many years. The perpetual mental pain and anguish of the last few weeks was already leaving making her feel like she could finally take a full deep breath of air. This was the right decision. There were no perfect solutions but Rei already felt more confident that maybe, just maybe, she could grow up to be someone her past self would not have been horrified at.

    She decided she would start right away. There were some amends she needed to make.

    Rei threw herself off the branch she was standing on and ran down the trunk of the tree with as much effort as it would take her to run on a flat stretch of land. With some nervousness she thumbed the kunai in her sleeves for comfort as she entered through the back porch of her house. In seconds she found who she was looking for; her mother, still sitting on the couch reading the book as she had before.

    "Mot – mom," she said. Her voice hitched a little. Emiko must have heard it because she quickly turned to face Rei, concern clear in her blue eyes.

    "What is it Rei?" she asked gently putting the book down.

    "I-," she didn't know where to begin. Emiko was her mother and Rei had distanced herself from her more and more since she had first learned to walk. The last several weeks had been much worse. Even if she had memories of two mothers she felt Emiko had earned her place nearly as much as her first mother had. She wanted to apologize but she didn't even know how to start.

    Rei knew she must have looked distressed because her mother stood up and walked over to her. The older woman crouched down until she was eye level with Rei and eyed her daughter with tender concern. "What is it honey? Is everything all right?"

    Rei felt her eyes water. She didn't know what to say so she simply threw her arms around her mother squeezing her in the tightest hug she could. By her surprised grunt and slight stiffening Rei could tell she had surprised the woman. How could she not have? She had stopped seeking out her mother for affection when she was about three years old. Right around the time she started training to be a ninja.

    Emiko hesitated for another second before gingerly wrapping her arms around Rei. The blonde six year old melted into the hug. Why did I fight this for so long?

    "Rei? You're starting to worry me honey. What's wrong?" Emiko asked.

    "Just-I, I'm sorry for being such a bitch the last few weeks. You didn't deserve that and neither did dad." I'm sorry for how I've treated you for years. I don't want to be that kind of person.

    "Rei," Emiko said her voice reproachful, "I really don't want you using that kind of language. It's not proper."

    Rei couldn't help it, she let out a strangled laugh at that. "Right… sure mom. You know me, always about being proper," she said through choked giggles. Then she sobered up. "I really am sorry though."

    "It's ok," her mom assured her as she stated running her fingers through her hair, "in all honesty I've mostly just been worried about you. I haven't seen you looking happy even once since you found out you wouldn't be advancing."

    "Yeah well," said Rei a little sulkily "maybe I just realized I was being just a little bit melodramatic about the whole thing."

    Emiko laughed at that. "Maybe," she said then pulled away from Rei far enough to look at her. "How about we make dinner together just for tonight? You sister should be back from your aunt's house before too long."

    Rei wiped her eyes with her sleeves and managed to offer her mother a small genuine smile. "Sure. I'd like that."

    000

    AN: This chapter marks the end of the first story arc. Did anyone see a resolution like this coming? The second arc is going to revolve around Rei getting her own unique style. Hope you've enjoyed the story so far and thanks for reading.
     
  12. Threadmarks: Chapter 12
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 12

    000

    One Year Later

    Chakra is ever changing. Physical energy, spiritual energy, chakra, all of those things are like the seasons. They wax and wane in intensity, in flavor, in how they vibrate and mix together. Calling what ninja use "chakra" is like reducing all the oceans, rivers and lakes of the world with their ever changing movement and transformations to merely the word "water". It is not wrong but at the same time missed so much.

    Chakra was like water… always seeping into the cracks and finding low places. It could take on any number of flavors and colors but at the end of the day chakra never changed, just like water was always water no matter what it was mixed with. Chakra nourished all things without trying to just like water did. It was simply its nature.

    The alarm went off and Rei opened her eyes. A tiny smile graced her lips. Seven nights. She'd been able to ride the waves of chakra in her 'sleep' for seven nights in a row now. The blonde girl began to hope that meant the nightly practice had stabilized again. Finally.

    After she had lost the ability to feel her chakra and be at least marginally aware of the world around her as she slept it had taken six months of diligent meditation to achieve that state again. Even when she did it would only happen intermittently on occasional nights. This was the first time she had managed it this many nights in a row in over a year.

    Had it stabilized again? Only time would tell. She was thrilled she could achieve that state somewhat easily now though. It was something that was uniquely 'her' and something she still hoped would pay off somehow down the line.

    Rei turned off her alarm and glanced at the small bed on the other side of the room from her. To her surprise she found that it was empty. That was odd because Rei couldn't remember the last time she hadn't been the one to wake up first and drag her sister out of bed in the morning.

    I can't believe I didn't notice her leaving… she probably couldn't sleep. Too excited about today.

    Rei made a note to work on being more aware as she 'slept' at night. With that in mind she crawled out of bed and went about setting out her things for the day before going to the bathroom. Inside she noticed the shower had been used already.

    Ino must already be downstairs. I guess she is excited about today Rei thought having mixed feelings about the issue.

    Rei took care of her morning necessities and took a shower quickly before going back to her room. After donning her normal lilac and black battle kimono with black sandals she made sure all her weapons were in her pouch at her hip along with all the other weapons she had concealed in her robe. Satisfied Rei took a quick look at herself in the mirror.

    Her honey-blonde hair had lightened a shade from the sun and it hung just past her shoulders. Even a year later she still very much liked her choice of wardrobe, the black on lilac giving the outfit a somewhat bold and aggressive flavor. Her posture automatically went straight but relaxed and she folded her arms inside her voluminous sleeves. It was a casual posture that nobles and highly ranked people tended to adopt when wearing traditional kimonos and Rei had gotten used to the practice. It looked and felt dignified. Besides it also gave her easy access to the weapons she kept hidden in her sleeves.

    Satisfied Rei nodded to her reflection once before turning and heading out the door. She was halfway down the stairs when she heard her sister and her mom taking in the kitchen. The honey-blonde reached the bottom of the stairs and turned to greet her family when the words died in her throat.

    What is she…? Oh by Kami and all the spirits what have I done?

    Her little sister wasn't wearing the outfit she had chosen to wear in the story. Instead she was wearing a deep purple battle kimono with a white collar and accents. The sash around her waist was a lighter shade of purple and her sandals were standard shinobi blue. The white arm warmers had been replaced with an older more traditional skin tight material (also white) which covered her arms from wrist to elbow.

    Ino had chosen her outfit to look like her big sister. Rei didn't know if she wanted to slap herself on the head or hug her little sister until she was blue in the face. The honey-blonde girl knew she was probably overreacting but this was the first big noticeable deviation from 'canon' that she was sure she had been responsible for. It was silly but she felt like looking outside to make sure no meteors were crashing down to earth.

    Then again this world had never been exactly like the one she remembered from the story. Still she couldn't help but worry now that she had irrefutable proof her presence had changed things.

    Hell screw it. I'm not about to start tip-toeing around because I 'might change something'. Besides she looks way better than she did with her 'canon' outfit. That thing was kind of ugly, especially those arm warmers.

    Ino's battle kimono wasn't exactly like Rei's and that also made the older girl breathe a little easier. Aside from the differing color schemes it was also less conservative and traditional looking than Rei's. The sleeves were short stopping at mid bicep and the length stopped an inch short of mid-thigh as opposed to Rei's longer knee-length cut. It fit her personality which was more open and outgoing than that of her more severe older sister.

    Except for the colors she's dressed almost exactly like a young Tsunade now that I think about it. A young Tsunade and a young Orochimaru, what are the odds? I wonder if that paranoid old man is going to twist this into me doing something suspicious. Though they hadn't met since she was five due to certain recent events her regard for the Hokage had… deteriorated considerably. Even more so than the usual.

    "Hey, Nee-chan!" Ino said when she spotted her, "what do you think? We got this last week but I wanted to surprise you." The platinum blonde stepped forward and did a little twirl to show off her new outfit. Rei couldn't help but smirk a little and let bit of teasing slide into her voice.

    "Looking good Ino. Though I can't help but notice there's something… familiar about the way you're dressed though," she said, cupping her chin in a mock thinking pose. The smile on her face gave the game away though.

    "You think so?" asked Ino innocently.

    Rei pretended to think about it then nodded deceivably. "Yes. Looks a little bit like my style. Not that I can blame you really, it's only natural for you to want to dress like your esteemed Nee-sama after all."

    Ino wrinkled her nose at that and then gave her sister a mischievous grin. "It's about the only good wardrobe decision you ever made Nee-chan. Everything else you wear looks like you picked it out when you were blindfolded."

    Rei blinked at that and then blinked again. Did… did my little sister just sass me? That had never, ever happened before. Ino had always been too in awe of her big sister and too young for any kind of banter like that. Granted teasing her about her wardrobe (which was fine if a little utilitarian) was pretty mild but still.

    My little sister is growing up. I think I will hug the crap out of her after all.

    "Come 'ere!" Rei yelled before dashing across to the kitchen. Before Ino could so much as squeak she wrapped her arms around the smaller girl and crushed her to her chest. The Elemental Nations were more reserved when it came to physical contact than her old world but she'd gotten Ino used to constant hugs and other forms of physical affection. However that was in private. In front of other people the girl had limits and being hugged and snuggled like an oversized plushy was one of them.

    "Let go!"

    "Nope."

    "You're squeezing me too hard! Let go."

    "Nope."

    "Mooom! Tell her to let go."

    "Rei honey let your sister go," Emiko said as she watched the scene with amusement in her eyes, "you two have to eat quickly and get going. We don't want Ino to be late for her first day at the academy."

    "Oh fine," Rei said with pretend grumpiness, giving her sister one final squeeze before letting her go. Maybe if she compressed her enough she would stop growing. Ino shot her a disgruntled look before going over to sit for breakfast. Rei followed suit and the three of them proceeded to eat quickly.

    Luckily Ino could never stay mad at her and in less than a minute all seemed forgiven as Ino chatted excitedly about her first day at the academy. Rei listened as she ate while privately feeling more than a little worried. If she'd had the power she might have tried to keep Ino out of the life of a ninja… but there was no guarantee that would actually help her survive and thrive in the world especially with all the dangerous events that were scheduled to take place. What Rei really wanted was to be able to protect her little sister's innocence. It was an impossible wish but she couldn't help but feel that way. The best she could do was support her sister and make sure she didn't slack off on her training.

    This was also Rei's first day of her second year. She couldn't help but wonder what the new year would bring. Hopefully something to shake up the routine. Recently Rei had started to worry that her progress might be getting a bit stagnant even with her very wonderful new tutor helping her out.

    There would be time to think about it later. Right now they had to get going to make it to class.

    000

    Walking to the academy felt a bit like a procession and decidedly off since Rei was used to walking the distance to the academy alone. Dead leaves crunched underfoot as Rei walked with Emiko and Ino. Their mom had wanted to walk Ino to school the first day which was nice of her. Still Rei couldn't help but feel a bit twitchy at the lackadaisical pace they were taking.

    As always Ino for the life of her couldn't stop talking when something caught her interest. Especially when she was nervous or excited on top of that. She never seemed to run out of things to talk about. Was she ever that much of a chatterbox in the story?

    "… and then he was like, why don't we play shogi instead? That's all he ever wants to do sit around and play shogi shogi shogi. Plus Chouji doesn't even help me when he gets like that! I practically had to push them out the door to get them to do something fun. Shika will have to start thinking of something other than shogi and clouds now that we're starting the academy though because otherwise his mom is totally going to let him have it, and…"

    If Rei had to guess the members of the original Ino-Shika-Cho team had gotten together and cooked something up because for the last three months or so Ino had found herself taken to frequent playdates with Shikamaru and Chouji. Rei was always invited but she rarely went. The curly haired girl went enough to get to know Shikamaru and Chouji reasonably well though. While she wasn't big on the social networking aspect of ninja life getting to know the two heirs of their closest allied clans seemed like a smart thing to do and something that could come in handy in the future. Plus it had just been neat to meet two of the main cast of the story even if they were just little awkward kids. They were even more likable than the average brats what with being generally quiet and less annoying.

    It seemed that even before they officially started the academy their parents were already angling for a second incarnation of the famed Ino-Shika-Cho trio. Rei wasn't sure how she felt about that. On the one hand the three families were known for having great synergy in their abilities. On the other hand it seemed like an incredibly narrow criteria for selecting a team. Shouldn't other things factor in like compatibility of the people in question? Actually on second thought that was probably more than half the reason for pushing them to become friends early on. That kind of deliberate early planning seemed… forced to Rei who preferred to let things develop organically. But hey if it worked it would help keep her sister safe so Rei wasn't about to complain.

    At least she hadn't been the one slotted for the Ino-Shika-Cho team. Rei shuddered at the thought. Except for Ino everyone on that team had seemed like a lazy bum including their sensei.

    It wasn't long before they made it to the academy gates with only a few minutes to spare before the ceremony for first year students began. The place was already filled with six year old children and their parents standing around near the raised stage used for presentations. Rei looked around to see if she recognized anyone when a kid standing seemingly apart from all the rest of the group caught her eye.

    Rei almost didn't recognize him at first because he looked subtly different than in the story. His outfit wasn't an obnoxiously loud orange but rather a muted shade of orange that you actually might find in the natural world. It was a color stuck somewhere between brown and orange and at a glance not nearly as bad for stealth as his iconic track suit from the show. From what she could see the whisker marks on his face looked more like thin faded scars than the simple lines they were drawn as. He was leaning against a tree looking at all the other kids standing around with their families with a look of longing on his face.

    Rei debated doing something about it. She was making an effort to be a better person now though it was occasionally a bit disturbing how much effort that actually took. Before she could decide anything one way or the other he pushed away from the tree and walked off purposefully around the corner of the building. Something on his face made the honey-blonde think the kid was about to go pull off some prank and get into trouble.

    So that was Naruto she mused. Just as she remembered with perhaps the sharp edges of his ridiculous clothing taken off. She wondered if anything else about him had been exaggerated in the story.

    "Come on the ceremony's going to start soon Nee-chan," said Ino drawing back Rei's attention. She grabbed her sister by the hand and tried to pull her along.

    "Actually I can't Ino," Rei said, "the opening ceremony is only for first years. My class starts at the same time as the ceremony so I can't stay to watch."

    Ino looked disappointed and let go of her hand. "Oh I didn't know that. Would you um… would it be ok if you met with me after school so we can walk home together? Not that I'll make you do that every day or anything, just it's the first day and, you know…" she said trailing off and sounding a bit embarrassed for asking.

    Rei mussed her hair with a fond smile on her face. "Of course I don't mind little sis. I'll meet your by the front gates after classes end."

    Ino batted Rei's hand away and looked around to make sure no one had seen her sister messing up her hair like she was a little kid. She gave Rei a half-hearted glare that only lasted for a second before she broke into a smile. "Thanks Nee-chan. I'll see you after school!"

    Rei said goodbye to Ino and her mother before setting off at a slow pace towards her classroom, arms folded in her sleeves as had become her habit. As she did she looked around looking for any familiar faces. She spotted Chouji and Shikamaru standing together with their respective mothers. Shika gave Rei a nod which the girl returned thinking how nice it was to have another hyper intelligent child running around. Shikamaru wasn't a great conversationalist but at least the things she said very rarely went over his head. She spotted everyone else from the 'Rookie 9' and for the most part they seemed like what she remembered. Shino looked the same in his long coat and glasses which looked adorable on a six year old. Kiba didn't seem to have Akamaru yet and was looking calmer than his story portrayal would have suggested him capable of being. Hinata was with an older lady and at least stood straight with her head raised as she watched everything. Maybe she didn't have as bad a self-esteem and shyness issue here as she did on the show.

    Sakura was also there with an older woman who had to be her mother. Her hair really was pink, though it was more a darker shade of strawberry pink rather than the blinding shade of bubblegum pink portrayed in the show. She seemed happy enough and Rei hoped she wouldn't have to experience getting picked on as she had in the show, though admittedly she was curious if things would play out as they had in her memories.

    Finally there was Sasuke standing off a little separate from everyone else with a man who could only his father Fugaku Uchiha. Rei dimly remembered something about Itachi having to twist the man's arm to come with Sasuke on his first day at the academy. He looked like a serious humorless man every bit like he had been portrayed in the story. Still you would never guess from just looking at him that the man plotted rebellion.

    Then there was Sasuke. Maybe it was unfair but she couldn't quite bring herself to see the kid in front of her as just an innocent little boy. Just as Rei had taken an almost instant liking to Nao-sensei the exact opposite could be said of Sasuke. Rei mused that maybe that was because of her memories which did not paint Sasuke in a favorable light to put it mildly. In the later parts of the series he had legitimately tried to kill his former teammates and wanted to burn Konoha to the ground with all the innocent civilians and people still in it for revenge. He'd almost killed his new teammate Karin Uzumaki without an ounce of remorse to get at what was then the current object of his hatred. Rei knew he hadn't done any of those things yet and many others besides but the curly haired girl just couldn't help her gut reaction towards him.

    At best she really didn't like Sasuke Uchiha. At worst she utterly despised him and thought everyone would have been better off if he had died on the mission to Wave.

    I really hope my sister doesn't start acting like an idiot fangirl around him like in the story Rei thought with an internal groan and an emerging headache at the thought.

    Given how the series was going before she stopped paying attention she was pretty sure the author intended for him to be redeemed eventually… but how likely was that really? Thinking back on the series there were parts of it that seemed little more than wishful thinking. Hell sometimes it seemed that even the most depraved of villains could become a good guy if Naruto just yelled at them enough. Rei wasn't that quite that optimistic or that forgiving.

    While Sasuke remained oblivious to her she noticed Fugaku looked over in her direction and gave her a long evaluating look. Rei nodded her head politely when she was spotted, a gesture the head of the Uchiha clan did not return. Asshole. The girl moved on and wondered if the head of Konoha's Police Force knew about her. He probably did. But was it just as a clan heir and prodigy or had the Third started discreetly spreading around his suspicions to important people?

    Rei shook her head. You're starting to get paranoid. That would be a dumb thing to do and at the end of the day you're just a kid right now. You're not that important in the grand scheme of things.

    Satisfied with having spotted all the major children from the story and not wanting to dally Rei hurried to her classroom. Spotting them all together made the story she remembered seem all the more real. She couldn't help but wonder how much of what she remembered would still come to pass. Chances were a great deal of it would. Once again Rei resolved not to let up on her training for even a minute. In six and a half years or so things would start to get very… interesting.

    May you live in interesting times.

    000

    Lunch time found Rei in doing the same thing she had done during lunch for most of the previous year. She was sitting with Tenten on a picnic-style table under a tree eating her lunch at a much faster pace than her brown haired friend (Rei used 'friend' for convenience but really saw herself as more of a big sister figure). Like last year most of the kids were still giving Rei – and by extension Tenten – a wide berth and left them alone during lunch.

    Rei had become somewhat less prickly and more polite in her effort to not be a total monster and for the most part she succeeded. Looking around though she could see it still hadn't done that much to change the reputation she had earned early during her first year as someone you should stay far away from if you knew what was good for you. All in all Rei decided she was glad things seemed to have stayed the same coming into the new year. She might not beat up bullies or scare people away on purpose anymore but she still didn't want anything to do with most of the six (now seven) year olds in her class.

    "So how was your break?" asked Tenten as she munched on her bento.

    Rei shrugged. "Same-old same-old. Broke all my previous fitness scores twice more so that's progressing at least. Chakra control got better through I'm getting the point where I'm going to have to go looking for more difficult exercises or make up some of my own. Hmm of yeah and I beat up a couple of Genin," she said causally.

    Tenten's eyes almost bulged out of her head at that, just like Rei had been hoping. It was all she could do to suppress a smile.

    "You beat up full Genin? How? Why?" she asked rapid-fire, sounding impressed and slightly horrified.

    Rei grinned a little, feeling smug. "Well beat up might be an exaggeration. More like beat in taijutsu matches. I've been sparring with some of the better trained Genin in the clan since I was four but the best I could usually do was force a draw. Now though I've finally started winning some of those matches. Not going to lie, I'm pretty damn happy about that," she said, finally letting a grin spread wide across her face like she'd been wanting to do since the beginning.

    Sure it wasn't that impressive compared to Kakashi who had beat more than a few Genin by the time he made Chunin at six but Rei knew even her pride and desire to be the best had to have some limits. Beating clansmen who had been Genin for years after she had just turned seven had been a huge validation for her years of hard work. Sure if all techniques and abilities had been allowed she might have lost those spars but then again she might still have won. Beating up Genin did wonders for her ego and her confidence that staying at the slower pace of the academy had been for the best.

    She expected Tenten to look at her in awe but instead the brown haired girl just stared at her seeming uncomprehending. "So you can beat full Genin now? As in real ninjas who are out doing missions and stuff?"

    "Yeah. Exactly like that," replied Rei watching Tenten carefully.

    Instead of what Rei expected Tenten buried her head in her hands and groaned despondently instead. "Oh man, I'm never going to be as good as you am I? I've been training harder than ever and I don't think I've caught up with you even a little bit," she complained pitifully.

    That… was not what Rei had been expecting. Without thinking about it Rei stood up and pushed herself over the table to sit next to Tenten. She wrapped one arm around her friend and pulled her in close in a side-hug. Tenten didn't fight it and took comfort from Rei even if the blonde girl was part of the reason for her distress.

    "Hey don't let what's happening now at the academy discourage you. Me being the best right now doesn't really help that much unless I can stay on top which is really hard to do. It helps but it doesn't always end up being that big a deal you know?" she paused and thought of something that might cheer the other girl up.

    "Tenten you know Jiraiya of the Sanin right?" she coaxed. Reluctantly the girl nodded, the despondent look on her face becoming laced with curiosity.

    "Well you'd never guess it but Jiraiya was actually a really terrible student during the academy. Right at the bottom of the class actually so he was way worse off than you," she said passionately trying to cheer the girl up, "then he went on to become a legendary S-Rank ninja feared all over the Elemental Nations. There are plenty of ninja who don't get to be good until later. Me… I'm just kind of a freak you know? You shouldn't compare yourself to me."

    Tenten pulled away and punched Rei on the shoulder. "You're not a freak," she muttered. Still a tiny smile appeared on her face. Thank goodness and Kami and everything else for that. If there was one thing Rei couldn't handle it was sad little sisters.

    Rei rubbed her shoulder in mock pain. "Yeah well if you're going to punch me every time I say it I might have to stop. You hit hard Tenten-chan," she said jokingly.

    The other girl rolled her eyes. "Sure, sure. Can I tell you what I did during the break?" she asked.

    "Sure. Go ahead," said Rei before straddling the bench and turning to face Tenten completely.

    "Well, my parents started-" began Tenten before she noticed something out of the corner of her eye and stopped cold as she turned to stare.

    Wondering what had her friend's mouth hanging open Rei turned to look. Standing close – but not too close – to their table looking at them with an uncomfortable expression on his face was Neji Hyuuga.

    Rei couldn't help it; her own mouth opened in a befuddled expression. That she and Neji were on friendly terms was the best she could say but they never interacted outside of physical training time out in the field and he never, ever approached or talked to anyone during lunch. Yet here he was looking twitchy as hell as he stood looking at them trying for neutral expression on his face.

    "Neji," Rei said and her own voice came out sounding surprised, "what ya doing there? Nice to see you by the way. Is there anything we can do for you?"

    When she spoke to him he visibly twitched again like she had just poked him in the ribs instead of just speaking to him. Rei raised her eyebrows at him but no answer seemed to be forthcoming. She watched him closely as his eyes flickered to Tenten and then settled back on her. Neji was silent for a long uncomfortable minute before he cleared his throat.

    "If I may speak with you in private Rei-san I very would much appreciate it," he said in painfully formal tone of voice.

    Rei's eyebrows went up to her hairline yet again. She had no idea what was going on with him but she wanted to find out. Glancing over at Tenten she realized he would never speak with the other girl around. Biting her lip Rei made a decision.

    "Hey Tenten could you give us a few minutes? I brought some yokan to give you, kind of like a small back to school present. Could you go get it from my bag? I'll try not to keep you waiting for too long I promise," Rei said to Tenten a little apologetically.

    Tenten looked back and forth between the tense Neji and an earnest Rei and decided to just go along with it. She'd find out what it was all about later. "You don't mind if I eat some now do you?" Tenten asked her friend.

    Rei smiled in relief that Tenten wasn't upset by her sending her away. "Not at all. They're mostly for you so have as much as you want, just don't make yourself sick or anything."

    "Yeah yeah I won't eat too much," said Tenten with a good natured roll of her eyes. Rei watched as she shot Neji one last wary look and the girl could have sworn Tenten was going to say something about not being mean to her friend. Then she seemed to think better of it (good decision in Rei's book) and mouthed 'I'll be back' to her friend before standing up and walking back towards the classrooms.

    Then they were left alone, Neji looking more tense than Rei had ever seen him. Biting the inside of her lip she resolved to find out what was going on. Part of her mind already had a few ideas on what this might be about.

    "Do you want to have a seat?" Rei offered gesturing for him to take a seat across from her. Neji did so with seeming reluctance. The feeling was ridiculously serious for one student wanting to talk to another.

    Rei sat ram rod straight and placed her hands on the table looking at Neji with slightly narrowed evaluating eyes. Neji sat straight in a similar way but with his arms crossed across his chest. The two of them stared off across the table at each other until Rei's eyes started to burn from not blinking. It almost seemed like a contest of wills to see who was going to crack first.

    This is so stupid.

    "So what can I help you with Neji?" said Rei in her friendliest voice, which she hoped didn't sound forced. She still wanted to get closer to him but this was radically out of character behavior. Rei couldn't help but be a bit wary about it.

    Neji hesitated before speaking.

    "I believe it would be mutually beneficial for us to become… friendlier acquaintances," he said. Rei couldn't help but notice he sounded like he was chewing glass when he did.

    What the hell are you playing at?

    "So let me get this straight… you came over because you… want to be friends?" Rei asked cautiously. Yeah it was what she had hoped for for a while now but it was obvious something was seriously off.

    Neji looked like he was going to reply but instead settled for a terse nod. His normally controlled and neutral face was sporting a slight winkling on his forehead. There was a contained energy about him like he was fighting not to fidget.

    Rei didn't reply and instead drummed the fingers of one hand on the table as she thought. So, facts: Neji doesn't want to be doing this, clearly. Yet he was doing it anyway. Swallowing his pride to genuinely make friends? No that didn't feel right. Neji wouldn't go up to somebody and ask for their friendship, not on his own anyway. Then what was…?

    The light bulb came on as Rei realized what was going on. Or at least what she thought most likely was going on. Making an educated guess Rei took a stab in the dark.

    "Someone blabbed didn't they? Someone told Hiashi-sama you were 'friendly' with me. That's what this is all about isn't it?" she said making it more of a statement than a question with a confidence in what she was saying that she didn't completely feel. Neji's facial twitch told her she was right on the money. Keeping her face placid Rei decided to finish her thought out loud.

    "Let me guess: somebody regularly asks about how things are going at the academy and you just happened to forget to mention that I was the only person you spoke to in the whole school on a regular basis. Eventually someone found out through some other means. Maybe someone keeping an eye on you? Or it was random chance? At any rate Hiashi-sama or someone else high ranking within the clan 'suggested' that it would be in the best interests of the Hyuuga if you cultivated a personal relationship with me. The genius Yamanaka heiress would be a good friend for the Hyuuga to have in the future. How close am I?" asked Rei, her voice a touch more familiar and humorous than usual between them.

    During her whole speech Rei could see the subtle changes in Neji, getting more and more tense as she continued to speak. However after she finished he seemed to hold himself rigid for a few seconds before suddenly relaxing, like an uncomfortable weight had been lifted off his shoulders. Rei thought she saw apprehension mixed with relief.

    "I apologize for this charade," began Neji, sounding serious but genuine for the first time since he began speaking to her that day, "it wasn't my idea. It wasn't my intent to make things uncomfortable between us."

    Rei wished she had a cup or something to fiddle with. Instead she settled for scratching the surface of the table with one nail. "So I was right then?" she asked careful not to sound too eager.

    Neji hesitated before nodding. "More or less. I was instructed to befriend you. I did tell them it was a bad idea but they didn't listen to me," he said, an old bitterness in his voice that made Rei think people in Hyuuga tended to listen to Neji very rarely.

    "Well it's not surprising in retrospect. Interesting… but not surprising," said Rei thoughtfully as she pondered what it all meant.

    Unexpectedly Neji suddenly stood up surprising Rei. He gave the blonde a polite bow, "Again I apologize. I'll inform Hiashi-sama that I failed in my task. I'll leave you to finish your lunch in peace."

    Rei had barely registered what he had said when he was already walking past her. Impulsively she reached out and grabbed his hand. Neji stopped and turned to look at her, a confused wariness in his eyes, but at least he didn't immediately pull away.

    "Wait," Rei spoke, "I didn't say no."

    Neji's eyebrows rose in question and surprise. When he tried to pull his hand away Rei let him but he didn't immediately run off.

    "What do you mean?" he asked, sounding surprisingly young and innocent.

    "I didn't say no to being friends," she replied, letting her emotions and sincerity into her eyes.

    "Why would you still want to… be friends," he spoke, saying the word 'friends' like he was speaking a foreign language, "I was being insincere with my intentions. Disingenuous. Why would that make you want to befriend me anyways?"

    "I know how the game is played. You didn't have a choice, you had to do what you were ordered to right? You wouldn't have done it on your own, you just told me that yourself. That doesn't mean I don't want to be friends. To be honest I've wanted to become friends with you since last year, it just never seemed to quite materialize between us," she said. You were too prickly and at the rate we were going it would have been another year or two before you opened up enough to consider any kind of genuine friendship. Not that I'm going to say any of that out loud.

    Neji frowned and this time looked at her with outright suspicion. Not the reaction she was looking for. "Why would you want that?"

    Rei decided to just lay it all honestly on the table. She thought Neji would at least respect her reasons if nothing else.

    "To be honest it's for a few different reasons. You're the only one on my level in this class, we're both called 'geniuses' and 'prodigies' and in some ways you're probably the only one who can understand me. I also want to get stronger and you can help if we train together on a regular basis. I think we can help each other on that front actually. Finally as I understand it the top boy and girl of each graduating class usually end up on the same team so that means there is a good chance we'll be teammates in the future. That means being familiar and comfortable with each other will only help in the long run," she said laying it all out.

    Neji seemed to chew that over and Rei felt that she had made the right choice giving it to him straight. If she had gone with some tripe about her feelings she thought there was a good chance he would have scoffed and walked away without another word. At least getting stronger and being possible teammates was something he could understand.

    "So this 'being friends' thing," he said a little awkwardly "how would that work? In theory."

    Rei felt a surge of excitement run through her as she smiled up at him. "Well for starters we should meet maybe two or three times per week for now to practice, spar, train, that sort of thing. Also we should engage in social activities together but that should be relatively rare and completely optional. I'm sure we both have better things to do than waste our time but it issomething friends are supposed to do together from time to time."

    Neji seemed to grimace at the mention of 'social activities' but other than that she could only tell he was considering what she said. Rei had to remind herself to keep breathing as she waited for his response.

    In the end he just nodded once. "I'll get permission to meet with you on some days after school. It shouldn't be a problem since they were the ones encouraging me to befriend you in the first place."

    Rei beamed at him feeling the giddy glow of victory positively radiating from her. "I'm your only equal in this class Neji. Trust me you won't regret it," she said, some of her confident cockiness slipping into her voice.

    Neji just nodded again seeming at a loss on how to reply. Apparently deciding business was done he turned around and walked away without another word. Rei was left sitting alone with what was left of her lunch.

    Guess someone should tell him that friends have lunch together too. That probably would have been too much to push on him in one day though.

    000

    Less than a minute after Neji left Tenten arrived back at their table. Rei looked at her quizzically. The girl had a slightly guilty expression on her face.

    "Were you watching?" Rei asked amused at the face Tenten was making.

    "It's not like I could overhear. Just wanted to see when it was safe to come back is all," Tenten protested. "Here," she said handing over the bag of yokan that Rei had brought to school that day. The blonde noticed it was substantially lighter than before. Rei shook the bag and looked meaningfully at Tenten. The other girl giggled and rubbed the back of her head a little abashedly.

    "It was really good," she protested with a smile.

    "Yeah yeah, well as long as you don't get sick I don't care," Rei said fishing out a piece for herself.

    "Sooo… what was that all about?" asked Tenten.

    Tenten was maybe a little young to understand all the details but Rei gave her the basic rundown: Neji had wanted to be friends, it had been a little awkward, but the two of them agreed to get together to train and spar on a regular basis. She left out any mention of Neji's clan pushing him to befriend her.

    "Oh," said Tenten, trying to smile but it was more than a little brittle looking.

    "What's the matter?" asked Rei as she put a second piece of the sweet snack in her mouth.

    "Nothing," she said waving it off, "it's nothing." She did seem down all of a sudden though. Rei frowned.

    I can't handle sad little sisters. I swear it's like my kryptonite.

    "I'm not going to be spending any less time with you," Rei assured the other girl.

    Tenten shook her head. "It's not that it's just…" she said before trailing off, biting her lip.

    Rei had to suppress the urge to sigh. "Just tell me Tenten. I promise I won't get mad," she said patiently.

    "Just… you know you two are the best in the class. It's just… we've never trained together after school that's all," she said fiddling with the hem of her shirt.

    Rei saw where she was coming from and had to suppress a wince. The two of them only ever trained together when they could find some time after finishing lunch early. Occasionally they would train during other times but it was always during school hours. Now she was going to be spending time with Neji after school at the first opportunity. No wonder Tenten felt… insecure maybe, or like she was being replaced. She already spent a lot of time trying to socialize Neji even before the two of them became official 'friends'.

    "Tenten," she said "would you like to get together after school sometimes to train?" she asked.

    Tenten's head shot up and her eyes sparkled with surprise and happiness. "Really?" she asked trying and failing to suppress her excitement.

    Bingo. Well I guess doing this won't be so bad. Could be much worse.

    In a way Rei didn't want to "train" with Tenten after school because it would be a few hours a week she would no longer have to train herself or perfect some other skill. On the other hand there were only so many hours in a week even she could train and finding an extra hour here and there wouldn't be a big deal even with whatever her new schedule with Neji turned out to be. Time with Tenten was always enjoyable even if she always ended up teaching the other girl instead of making any progress herself.

    "Sure. We'll set some time aside a couple of days a week after school. You'll be hitting bull's-eyes left and right before long," Rei said with a light teasing to her tone. Tenten blushed a little and muttered something about how she was getting much better at throwing weapons.

    After that they finished off the yokan and lunch passed relatively normally. However Rei's thoughts kept going back to what had happened with Neji. Just thinking about what was coming was enough to push Rei into that state of hyper awareness that came over her every time she was in a fight.

    There was something… exciting and heady about the thought of going up against someone in her own age group that could match her. While she had never seen Neji fight the two of them were extremely close in physical ability and his taijutsu forms in Konoha Standard were absolutely beautiful with some foreign flavoring that she could only guess came from the Gentle Fist. He had probably started training around the same time she had and likely had been pushed harder than anyone had ever pushed her. Plus he was an actual genius… despite everything Rei still wasn't sure how naturally talented she actually was and how much of it was hard work and an unfair advantage in the mental capacity department.

    Before she realized it Rei found herself grinning for no reason anyone on the outside could tell. Tenten gave her weird looks but she just grinned wider. She couldn't wait to throw everything she had at Neji and see who came out on top.
     
  13. Threadmarks: Chapter 13
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 13

    000

    Rei found the whole concept of chakra control to be simpler than people made it out to be. In the end it was simply a matter of pushing yourself to do more and more refined and difficult tasks with your chakra. As far as Rei was concerned whatever that “something” was didn’t matter as long as she kept pushing herself to do more difficult work or more simultaneous things at once.

    She sat cross legged in her room starting intently at the upturned palms of her hands. In each hand was a fine dusting of sand. The girl concentrated as she aimed to wrap her chakra around each individual grain of sand. It was her first time attempting this exercise she had read in an advanced chakra control scroll and she was determined to get it right.

    After a few minutes of this she huffed in frustration. She had very optimistically thought she could wrap each grain of sand with her chakra individually from the get go but it was proving to be impossible. Clicking her tongue she singled out just three individual grains of sand in each hand while ignoring the rest. Rei allowed herself to feel a bit of satisfaction when she found this to be well within her abilities. Wrapping her chakra around something so tiny was extremely advanced control for someone her age. She knew there were plenty of Chunin who didn’t have control as good as she did.

    Concentrating she focused on just her right hand aiming to move a single grain of sand to the middle of her palm. In seconds she succeeded with relatively little effort. While that was simple enough next came the hard part. With her will she moved a second grain of sand to the center of her palm and carefully stacked it on top of the first. Grains of sand were not naturally inclined to stack neatly on top of each other – the only thing holding one on top of the other was the extremely thin coat of her chakra.

    Holding those two in place Rei dragged a third grain of sand and very slowly had it crawl up the first two to sit on top of her little growing tower. Her mind completely focused on the task Rei continued to stack grain of sand on top grain of sand in the palm of her hand. Ten minutes later she looked at her hand to find she had a stack of single grains of sand roughly half an inch in height. That was currently her limit. Now came the hard part: building another half-inch high stack in her other hand while making sure the first one didn't collapse.

    Twenty minutes later Rei was pleased with herself if more than a bit mentally strained. On each of her palms were half-inch high perfectly vertical stacks of sand one grain thick. It didn't sound very impressive but it was quite an advanced feat of chakra control. Manipulating grains of sand in such a way was delicate work and there were plenty of ninja who went their whole careers without coming even close to having this level of control.

    The girl wondered if her unstable tutor could do the same. Reluctantly Rei conceded that the answer was probably yes. Still if things kept going as they were in a year or two she would likely surpass her tutor in chakra control. In a way Rei knew she had to. Her chakra potential wasn't rated all high so she would have to make up the deficit with control. Having insane amounts of spiritual energy for her age sounded like a good thing but in reality didn't currently give her any advantage whatsoever. Learning to use her chakra like a surgical scalpel seemed absolutely necessary.

    Speaking of her tutor the woman was due to arrive soon for their weekly training session. Rei glanced at the clock and saw that she only had a few minutes before she needed to be downstairs. Using her chakra Rei gathered the sand in her hands into little balls and deposited them in a tiny lacquered box she kept for just that purpose. Standing up she gathered and checked all her gear twice before taking a deep breath. These training sessions were always a trial and not just because her tutor had a sadistic streak a mile long. At least the woman knew what she was doing and the blonde girl had definitely been improving.

    “Rei, come downstairs your tutor is here!” her mom called from downstairs. Rei felt a momentary flash of panic thinking she was late and had kept the woman waiting. She didn't need any more excuses to indulge her sadistic tendencies. Glancing at her clock Rei was relieved that she still had a few minutes before their allotted time.

    Chances are she’ll try to make an issue of it anyway, psycho bitch.

    Rei went downstairs to find her mom in the kitchen with her tutor. The woman sat in a chair with her legs crossed, an empty dango skewer hanging from her lips.

    “You’re late,” she said, looking entirely too pleased by that ‘fact’.

    Anko Mitarashi was nineteen years old and had been a Special Jounin for about ten months… which coincidentally was the same amount of time she had been tutoring Rei once or twice a week. Rei wondered what her first reaction had been when she found out one of her first assignments would be babysitting some kid and imagined it hadn't been pretty. While Rei had liked her personality in the story having to deal with her in real life made the woman a lot less charming.

    The woman looked just like she remembered from the story except about six years younger. She wore a miniskirt and a fishnet bodysuit that were much more indecent in real life than the artistic rendition of the story had suggested. The iconic tan duster style coat hung lazily off her frame and Rei always wondered why she chose to wear such an impractical thing. At least the metal shin guards and shinobi sandals made her look a little bit like the professional ninja she claimed to be.

    “You’re early Anko-sensei which a Special Jounin like you should know. Or is it getting harder to keep track of time in your advancing age?” asked Rei innocently, tilting her head to the side like she was genuinely curious. She knew no one bought her act for a second but it seemed to have the highest rate of success in either amusing or pissing off her part-time sensei.

    Anko grinned at her, “I’ll have you know I haven’t even hit my physical and sexual prime yet. But a mouthy little chibi like you wouldn't know anything about that now would she?”

    Rei just stared at her unsure how to respond. Like many of their conversations Rei felt like what Anko said could possibly be another probe, another conversational gambit. Even trading insults with the woman felt dangerous in more ways than one.

    “Mitarashi-san, please refrain from speaking about such things in front of my daughter,” said Emiko, scowling at Anko. Emiko had disliked Anko almost from the beginning. It amused Rei somewhat since she was pretty sure her mother thought Anko was a general bad influence on her daughter and somewhat of a delinquent. Which Anko most definitely was on both counts.

    “Sure sure Yamanaka-san, we’ll save all the sex talk for when she starts bleeding and growing boobs. Then she can get some use out of it,” she said with an unrepentant smile as her mother’s frown deepened. Despite Rei’s problems with the woman the two of them did have a lot in common. They both had a bit of a thing for a certain snake for example. They also liked to poke the bear and didn’t know when to leave well enough alone.

    “Please stop being so crass Mitarashi-san. I’d appreciate it if you would begin your training so you can finish as quickly as possible,” said her mom primly. She wouldn’t be asking her to stay for tea… not that she ever did.

    “Hai Hai, no problem,” said Anko irreverently, standing up from her seat in one smooth motion, “come on kid. Let’s see how lazy you’ve been for the past week,” the woman said heading for the door to their backyard.

    Despite her being a sadistic, uncultured, rude and all around obnoxious person Rei could appreciate Anko’s blunt personality and admire her skills. She could even admire her complete ‘give no fucks’ attitude about life and basically everything. However liking the woman was dangerous because Rei knew she absolutely, positively, one hundred percent could not trust her.

    Anko was only really there to watch her and nail her to the wall if she slipped up after all.

    000

    Ten Months Before

    Rei was having tea with her mother one evening after Ino had gone to bed early when her father came home. They both greeted him and Rei was glad to see him. He was so busy recently that three or four days could go by without her seeing hide or hair of him around the house.

    As he sat down with them to have a bit of tea before going to bed Rei could tell there was something on his mind by the way he sent the occasional glance in her direction. They talked about trivial things and about their day and Rei waited patiently for her father to say whatever he was thinking about. After about ten minutes of small talk he came to the point.

    “Hokage-sama stopped to talk to me while I was doing my rounds at T&I today,” he said, and by his tone of voice Rei could tell he was telling them this for a reason. By the look on her mother’s face Emiko had also caught on.

    “What was Hokage-sama doing at T&I?” her mother wondered out loud. What indeed.

    “I’m sure he was just doing an inspection,” said Inoichi in a voice that said he also had no idea what the Hokage had been doing there, “but in any case he inquired about Rei’s training.”

    That caused the girl to sit up straight. Getting personal attention from the Hokage was something that made her nervous. By the looks from her parents they were puzzled but not the least bit concerned.

    “Did he say why?” asked her mother sipping her tea.

    Inoichi shrugged, “Something about impressive reports from the academy. He was quite pleased with how Rei is doing,” said her dad with a touch of pride in his voice, “and given how she isn’t going to graduate until she is twelve he offered… help to ensure that she would reach her full potential,” he finished sounding like he was quoting he Hokage. Inoichi didn't look entirely comfortable with the situation and alarm bells started to go off in her head.

    “What sort of help?” asked Rei sipping her tea.

    “He insisted in setting you up with a special tutor when it came up that you currently didn’t have one,” he said, “a new Special Jounin recently promoted. Anko Mitarashi.”

    Rei would not have noticed if she had not been looking closely but her mother paled slightly and fidgeted at the name. “Isn’t she the apprentice of-“

    “She is,” said her father cutting her off.

    Rei didn’t have to wonder what her mother was going to say. Isn’t she the apprentice of Orochimaru?

    “Isn’t that unusual?” asked Rei.

    Her father nodded. “Yes… very unusual. But I didn’t have any good reason to decline so there really was no choice but to accept,” he said.

    Rei nodded at that. Refusing without a good reason would have been seen as an insult to the Hokage and no one wanted to give offence unnecessarily. No doubt the old man had been counting on that.

    “What sort of Special Jounin is she?” asked her mother sounding uncomfortable with the situation.

    “That’s the odd thing… I’m not sure why she was chosen of all people. She was promoted as a counter intelligence agent, hardly teacher material.”

    Rei choked on her tea and started coughing furiously.

    “Rei honey, are you all right?”

    000

    Present Day

    Counter intelligence. Rei thought about her situation yet again as she followed Anko outside. A counter intelligence agent was basically a spy who specialized in catching other spies and infiltrators. Any doubts that she had about worry and suspicion on the part of the Hokage were washed away when she found out the kind of person the Hokage had assigned to ‘tutor’ her on a regular basis.

    In hindsight Rei probably had no one to blame but herself though she hated to admit it. There was the poor impression she had made during their first meeting when her nervousness had made her mouth run more than it should have. Then there was her choice of outfits – though now she couldn't imagine herself wearing anything different it was certainly something the Hokage would have noticed. Then there was that period of time during her first year of the academy that she spent acting like a chibi-sized violent sociopath followed by an almost overnight change in behavior to something more socially acceptable. All that taken with the fact she was the genius heir of a prominent clan… well. It should have been no surprise at all that the Hokage would want to keep an eye on her and make sure she wasn’t compromised, an infiltrator, a traitor or Orochimaru 2.0.

    However that didn’t make it any less nerve wracking or annoying. It also didn’t stop her from resenting the Hokage for the whole damn thing. Even if she was holding treasonous thoughts the whole thing felt unjustifiably paranoid and invasive.

    Rei was pretty sure she should be feeling more scared. It wasn’t that the situation didn’t frighten her – it did – but she was far more irritated and angry about the whole thing. Rei knew she was good at nursing grudges and she tended to dwell on this one more than was strictly healthy. If she thought she had the skill or that she could get away with it she would totally go and kick the Hokage’s ass. Having that woman around all the time looking for signs of instability or seditious thinking had been playing havoc on her levels of stress for nearly a year.

    Then again it hadn’t been all bad. The pain (literal and metaphorical) of being around the snake woman was offset by her competence. Anko was a sadist who liked to hit her with kunai that had sharp tips but blunted edges. The kunai broke the skin and made her bleed without doing too much damage but it hurt like hell and that was only one of the ways Anko had introduced a lot of seemingly gratuitous pain into her training. Rei had resented it at first until she realized Anko was training her the only way she knew how – the same way Orochimaru had trained her. Apparently he was of the school of thought that pain was the best motivator and while Rei didn’t enjoy it she quickly saw that it was a very good way of improving quickly if you could take it. Plus the fact that it was a training methodology developed by Orochimaru made Rei all the more eager to tackle the training with enthusiasm.

    It was kind of funny that while Anko and the Hokage were watching her for signs of a budding psychopath/traitor she had been developing a bit of a private Orochimaru fetish in part because of their actions. He gave Konoha the finger with both hands which was something that Rei could definitely admire. He also was known and feared in every corner of the Elemental Nations, someone even a Kage would hesitate to take on. Plus in the story he always came across as a complete badass and Rei had always rooted for the bad guys in fiction. It was entirely unhealthy she knew, sort of like idolizing Vader or Palpatine or Sauron. In real life Orochimaru was an amoral psychopath but as an idea he was someone she wanted to emulate. If she could achieve anywhere near his level of power and reputation then she would consider her fundamental goals a success.

    “So are you still beating those loser Genin or was it all a fluke?” asked Anko when they reached outside.

    Rei tucked her hands in her sleeves and tilted her chin up. “Still beating them of course. Much better than half the time now,” she said.

    Anko clucked her tongue and shook her head in mock sadness. “If it was that much better than half the time I know you would be bragging about the exact numbers. What did I ever do to get such an untalented student? Sounds like you haven’t improved very much at all and it’s been weeks. Why do I get the feeling that maybe you’ve just been lazy?”

    Even though Rei knew the game Anko was playing she still bristled at that. “That’s probably just a draft from the indecent clothes you insist on wearing addling your brain sensei,” she replied seriously.

    “Meh, so uncute,” said Anko, stretching her arms upwards and putting on a show showing off her body in her fishnet bodysuit. Why she bothered doing that with a seven year old Rei would never know, “of course you know you’re going to pay for that. We’ll do some special training today, how does that sound?” said Anko with a wide grin that promised pain, “unless you don’t think you can take it?”

    Rei knew Anko blatantly manipulated her pride to push her to go further, hell the woman didn’t even bother to be subtle about it. The girl’s competitive streak was also something the Special Jounin liked to go after. Rei allowed it to an extent as it did help motivate her and in her mind it was better to go along with the manipulations she could see than buck them entirely.

    Inside Rei flinched and was suddenly nervous about Anko’s ‘special’ training but on the outside she kept herself composed. She slid on an arrogant cocky smile she knew people found extremely irritating. “You don’t even have to ask sensei. We all know I’ll be better than you in a few years anyway,” she said. It was total bullshit but by the way Anko snorted derisively she felt she’d scored a point anyway.

    “Only in your sad and pathetic dreams kid. Now go grab some logs and set them up in a circle thirty feet across. And doubletime it my time is already way too valuable to be wasting on your scrawny ass.”

    While Rei wanted to retort and snark back some of her more sensible parts won out and she ran to do as Anko had commanded. There were issues at play no doubt but that didn’t change the fact that she looked forward to these training sessions if only for the fact that so far they had proved to be very effective. Around the side of their house in a shed were kept several training aids including the aforementioned logs. With Anko watching on with an impatient tapping of her foot Rei set a half dozen logs in a circle around the serpent woman.

    The Special Jounin looked around at her work and Rei knew by now that the fact that she didn’t comment on it meant that she approved. “So kid, have you been keeping up your training?” she asked, her tone suddenly more business-like.

    “Yes of course. I’m not the type to slack off,” she said seriously in a matter of fact tone. Down to business then.

    “Good because I’ll know if you haven’t. I’m not here to babysit you every day so remember most of your progress actually gets done on your own,” Anko said echoing a sentiment she often espoused.

    Rei nodded having heard the same thing many times before but it didn’t hurt having it repeated. Perhaps predictably Anko had only been training her in fitness, weapons and Konoha Standard taijutsu. Still it was thanks to her tutelage she had pushed her game to the next level and was now able to beat full Genin in her clan in taijutsu spars on a regular basis. Even if Rei doubted Sarutobi’s little informant would ever teach her more than the basics she couldn’t deny that she had still been benefiting a great deal from the arrangement.

    “We’ll work on the speed of your replacement technique. Did you manage to drop any more of the hand seals since last time?” asked Anko.

    “Yup. I’m down to two now,” said Rei unable to keep the touch of smugness out of her tone.

    “Well hurray for you,” said Anko in a dry tone, “what about Henge and Bunshin?”

    “Err, not so much progress there. Still stuck at one seal, I haven’t been able to figure out how to get the chakra moving in the first place without the last hand seal yet,” Rei said this time feeling a bit embarrassed by her lack of progress. It had been about two weeks and she had not been able to break through that barrier. She had even gone and re-read A Treatise on the Theory of Reducing the Number of Handseals Needed for the Execution of Jutsu but all in all the scroll had been singularly unhelpful.

    “Learning to drop the last seal is the hardest even for an arrogant brat like you,” said Anko sounding overwhelmingly unsympathetic. She produced several kunai in between her fingers, “let’s see if we can speed things along, yeah? We’ll start with something easy. Let’s see how fast you can Kawarimi.”

    Before she even finished speaking Rei was already running through the first hand seal of Kawarimi as she was more than familiar with Anko’s teaching habits by this point. Without any kind of warning she launched the kunai at Rei the instant she finished speaking. While the kunai were in flight Rei completed the second seal and felt her chakra attach to the log directly behind the older woman. With one final mental tug Rei felt her body displace with an inaudible ‘pop’ as the time/space jutsu switched her with her target.

    At first having her point of view changed instantly had been disorienting but by now it had become second nature. The smoke had not even cleared when Anko spun and threw another spread of kunai at Rei. The blonde girl knew it was coming and was already speeding though the hand seals of Kawarimi yet again, this time popping up to the left of Anko while the log was impaled by kunai.

    “This is a speed exercise so don’t even think about dodging!” Anko yelled.

    Gradually Anko’s throws started to become faster and faster and Rei found herself struggling to stay ahead and complete her Kawarimi before she was tagged. There was a wicked smile and Anko’s face that didn’t bode well for Rei but for the moment she was managing to keep ahead of the kunai if only by a hair. Whenever the snake woman smiled like that it only meant pain was coming for the girl and she knew it. Rei didn’t have time to worry about it though as she had to concentrate everything she had on executing the jutsu faster and faster just to stay ahead of the onslaught.

    What felt like both an incredibly long and short time later Anko stopped her assault. Rei was panting heavily with exertion but refused to give in to the urge to bend over and put her hands on her knees. The older woman looked amused by Rei’s efforts to stand tall and look nonplussed. The girl for her part was getting a little worried. Anko could have thrown the kunai hard enough to hit her but she hadn’t and had instead pushed her to her limits and forced her to go further – almost like a sane non-crazy teacher would. For most people that would be a relief but Rei knew from the experience that if Anko didn’t inflict some pain the obvious way it only meant she was going to get a little more creative.

    Luckily while Rei didn’t enjoy pain she wasn’t exactly horribly adverse to it anymore either. It was amazing how many things you could get used to once you accepted them.

    “Could have been worse,” Anko commented with that worrying smile, “now that you’re warmed up we’re going to try for a realchallenge. I want you to change the color of your outfit and then Kawarimi over to that log,” she said motioning at one to her side with her head.

    Rei looked at Anko warily but did as she was instructed. Using the Ram seal activated a basic Henge, changing her kimono from lavender to a vibrant red. Seeing that Anko didn’t immediately attack her she went through Dog and Snake and switched herself with the log the woman had indicated. Seeing that the technique was completed and no attack was forthcoming Rei warily drew herself up straight.

    “So, you got the basic idea?” asked Anko with that same disturbing smile on her face.

    Rei was confused for a few seconds before the only obvious conclusion came to mind. “You want to do the same exercise except you want me to use a Henge before I Kawarimi?” asked Rei cautiously hoping she was wrong.

    “Yup!” said Anko gleefully, twirling a kunai around one finger “and don’t think I’m suddenly going to start throwing slower either brat.”

    Rei bit her lip. “How is this even training? When in the world am I ever going to have to pull a Henge before a Kawarimi? Are you sure this isn’t just you trying to find an outlet for your sadism?” she asked with a reproachful tone as if she were scolding someone younger than her.

    Anko’s eyebrow twitched in irritation. “Keep running that mouth of yours and your training is going to get even more ‘special’. Is that what you want?” asked Anko dangerously.

    Rei held her gaze for a few seconds before she broke eye contact first and looked off to the side. “No sensei,” she said.

    “Good. There are lots of reasons why we’re doing this, the only one you need to worry about right now is that people often have a hard time casting jutsu in quick succession. The flow of chakra is too different and getting it to flow quickly one way and then the other can be hard without practice. Now get ready, and I expect you to change your outfit to a different color each time you jump. Don’t let me catch you in the same outfit twice.”

    With that Anko threw a kunai at Rei before the girl was ready. She had barely completed the Henge when the kunai struck her in the shoulder punching through the thick cloth and cutting into the skin below disrupting the technique. Rei hissed in pain both from the strength of the blow and from the new puncture wound on her shoulder. She knew from experience it wasn’t very deep or debilitating but it was painful. Rei clutched her shoulder and glared balefully at Anko.

    “What are you waiting for?” she said already twirling another kunai in her hand with a saucy grin on her face, “hurry up and Kawarimi already.”

    Unfortunately Anko seemed to be resistant to being set on fire by her glare alone. Putting her hands together she went through the two seals of Kawarimi and switched herself with another log. As soon as she appeared she Henged into a blue outfit and was halfway through the Dog seal when a kunai hit her on her thigh right above her knee. It must have hit a nerve because her whole leg went numb and unresponsive for a few long painful seconds.

    “Shit!” she yelled clutching her leg. Fucking bitch! She hissed in her head.

    Anko was already flipping another kunai with absentminded carelessness. “No time for that. The longer you take the faster the kunai are going to come Rei-chan,” said Anko with a mocking lilt in her voice, “I’d hurry it up if I were you.”

    Rei grit her teeth, her anger starting to burn and bubble in her chest. She was going to get this right. She wouldn’t let this woman get the better of her.

    Readying herself Rei ran through the hand seals of Kawarimi and switched. Before her feet even hit the ground she was already halfway through the Henge, this time her outfit done in all black. Ignoring Anko she put everything she had into executing Kawarimi even faster than before, her fingers blurring into the familiar Dog seal. Rei knew she was already going much faster than she had the last jump.

    It didn’t matter. This time the kunai hit her on the forehead with considerable force, snapping her head back and almost knocking her off her feet. Rei yelped in pain and surprise stumbling back and clutching her head where she had been struck. Already she could feel a thin stream of blood dribbling down her face in between her eyes.

    I was definitely moving faster yet the kunai still hit me at the same time. That means she must have thrown it faster. Getting hit while doing the Dog seal both times… had it been on purpose? Rei thought, forcing her mind for the moment to become analytical to both figure out what was going on and to try to control the hot emotions that started churning violently inside her. Either there was some aspect of the training she hadn’t figured out or Anko was just screwing with her. She couldn’t think of any other explanation as to why she’d gotten tagged three times in a row despite her best efforts.

    She looked over at Anko. The woman was already twirling another kunai by the ring and looking at Rei with a smug self-satisfied smirk on her face. At seeing Rei’s look her smirk widened into what could only be called a sadistic grin.

    “Come on Rei-chan, I’ve still got quite a lot of kunai left and quite a bit of frustration to work off. I want to see if I can carve a Konoha leaf right on your forehead,” she said, her tone mocking and condescending.

    Rei had never completely lost her patience with Anko in the ten months they had been meeting. Come close to it, pretended to, yes, but never had she completely lost control because of her fear. However Anko was being especially cruel and provocative that day and time had deadened the worst of that fear. Rei wasn’t about to be Anko’s pin cushion. No damn way, no fucking how.

    Anko noticed the brat’s lip curl in anger – it made her think of an upset puppy – and how her eyes got cold and hard and so very angry. Weak unfocused killing intent began to come off her in waves without the would-be baby ninja even realizing it. Her light purple eyes darkened to dark violet gems, a quirk Anko had noticed was a tell for when the girl became truly angry.

    “Haven’t got all day sweetie,” said Anko in a faux saccharine tone, lifting her kunai in a threatening fashion, “hurry up and take your spanking.”

    Rei poured all that churning emotion into concentrating on her goal and suddenly the world seemed to come into a crystal-clear kind of focus. With her darkened eyes never leaving Anko’s face the young girl brought her hands together for another Kawarimi.

    As soon as she landed her hands were up changing her outfit to brown. Even as she was finishing the transformation she was already moving, sliding to the side with a smooth movement and beginning the first hand seal for Kawarimi. The kunai Anko had thrown sailed past to her left even faster than the one before. The serpent teacher threw another kunai at her but Rei was already in the middle of the second hand seal of Kawarimi. Rei switched and the kunai embedded itself in the log she had replaced herself with.

    “When did I say you could dodge?” said Anko somehow managing to sound both pissed and amused, “this is supposed to be a speed exercise remember!”

    Rei didn’t reply instead sending her instructor a scathing look that let her know just what she thought of that comment. Things degenerated from there. Anko began to throw kunai faster and at a higher volume while Rei struggled to dodge and complete the two jutsu. The blonde realized that if she timed it just right she could use the thick sleeves of her robe to tangle and stop kunai mid-flight while her hands were together forming hand seals. Rei entered ‘the zone’ where no thoughts or worries existed, instead it was just her pushing her body and skills to the limit in the most efficient way she could manage while the rest of the world fell away. Focusing her anger into action Rei was moving smoother and faster than she would normally be able to achieve.

    Still it was not enough. Gradually the speed and accuracy of the incoming kunai increased making it progressively more and more difficult for Rei to continue to dodge and weave and deflect while casting the two jutsu. First she got tagged over her liver and the next rotation a kunai glanced off her shoulder. While she was still dodging most of the barrage she started to get tagged almost every jump. It hurt like hell and the pain was starting to threaten her concentration and drain her stamina.

    I’m not going to lose here.

    Rei knew she was beginning to tire and she knew Anko wasn’t about to let up. She had to do something to prove she was the winner in this, but what? Using a sliver of her attention Rei turned to her chakra network. She could feel how the chakra flowed for each jutsu, shunting along different channels and reaching and twisting in certain ways that would eventually produce the effect she wanted. Did they really have to happen one and then the other though? Could she cut out that step?

    Another kunai hit her forehead above her eyebrow deflecting off to the side. Very quickly Rei could feel a dribble of blood trickling into her eye. For some reason getting hit anywhere close to her face like that really pissed her off.

    I’m not going to lose. I refuse. I have to go faster, faster, faster!

    Rei began deliberately pushing her chakra in different directions on the next jump. Skipping the hand seal for Henge she went straight to the first one for Kawarimi and forced her chakra to move in two different directions at once. The Dog seal easily moved the chakra inside her into the familiar pattern of Kawarimi but her chakra only sluggishly and very stubbornly began to move along the pathway to Henge, the hand seal not inherently compatible with the flow she was attempting. A kunai hit her foot and another her leg but she ignored the pain as she brute forced her chakra to move in what felt like strange and unnatural ways.

    Come on!

    She tried to activate both jutsu at once with the second seal. Kawarimi triggered and she switched with the log she was aiming for but a glance downwards told her the Henge had failed. Even though it was a failure though Rei was convinced she had been close. She had felt it. It was just right there. She could do it.

    “You didn’t Henge that time! I think someone needs a little punishment for so blatantly going against the instructions of her beautiful and patient sensei,” Rei heard the crazy sadist say in a sing-song voice.

    The blonde said nothing instead dodging one kunai and throwing herself behind one of the downed logs they had been using for practice. She was small enough that she was able to hide her whole body behind it. It was a decent makeshift cover from Anko but Rei didn’t think it would buy her more than a few seconds.

    “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?! I hate pussies, come out and take your punishment!”

    Rei just needed a few seconds to concentrate and she was sure she could do this. Laying on her back Rei brought her hands together and once again began moving her chakra in two differing ways at the same time. If it had not been for Rei closely observing and sinking into her chakra every night there was no way she would have the awareness or sensitivity to even begin attempting this… but as it was she intimately knew what her chakra was supposed to do to activate those techniques.

    Come on, come on.

    One flow happened smoothly while the other was stubborn and difficult. Rei directed most of her attention to the slow stream which would produce the Henge while trusting the hand seals to take care of the Kawarimi. She let instinct take over as to when to move to the second hand seal. White kimono, Kawarimi, same time. Tie the triggers simultaneously in your mind. Push them both at the same time.

    Her danger sense spiked and Rei opened her eyes only to see a barrage of kunai raining down on her from above. Flat on her back the only way she would escape in time was if she executed the technique. With an unnatural shove that felt like trying to walk in two different directions at once she made both streams of chakra trigger simultaneously. The feel of being transported via Kawarimi was subtly different this time, like she was being cocooned in chakra while she did so. A split second later when she reappeared Rei was panting from exertion. Almost fearfully she looked down but whatever fears she had were for naught. White kimono. A victorious smile curled on her lips. She’d done it. She’d executed both techniques at once.

    Rei was so excited it took her a moment to realize she was no longer being pelted with kunai. Anko was looking at her with a serious evaluating expression. All signs of the sadist and goofball were gone for the moment. She tilted her head to the side a little and it reminded Rei of a dog trying to work through a problem.

    “Think you can do that again kid?” she asked.

    “Of course,” said Rei automatically, her voice a little indignant at the suggestion it might have merely been a fluke. Even though she was bleeding from small wounds all over and was nearing exhaustion Rei drew herself up tall and folded her arms in her sleeves. “Like I’ve already said it will only be a few years until I surpass you. Doing this much is simple for someone like me,” she said, putting all the infuriating arrogance she could into her face and voice. It helped that her arrogant nature was not all that much of an act.

    Anko snorted at that. “You can talk shit when you’ve actually gone and done something impressive. Now switch with the log next to you and let me see what you did.”

    Being unwilling to fail and embarrass herself Rei took her time and recreated what she had done previously. Ironically it seemed harder to do now that she wasn’t in fear of getting pin-cushioned but after a few moments of wrestling with her chakra she got it to behave and trigger like she wanted. The blonde disappeared and reappeared in a puff of smoke, this time looking immaculate in a girly and formal pink-and-white kimono with a parasol.

    Anko looked a little surprised before she quickly covered it up. “Well. That’s not something just anyone can pull off. I guess you’re not completely untalented,” she said in a dismissive tone.

    That was as close to a compliment as she was likely to get from Anko. Despite the pain and blood she could feel underneath the Henge Rei grinned, happy and victorious. This was her win.

    I didn’t even know it was possible to pull off two jutsu at once. I wonder how I can make this work for me?

    “Now let’s see if you can do the same thing with Bunshin instead,” said Anko drawing another kunai with a look of slightly-unhinged glee on her face.

    Oh shi-

    000

    Sometime later a completely spent Rei was sitting on her porch panting hard while Anko used the Mystic Palm technique on her to close up all the small punctures and lacerations from their training. The technique did nothing for her torn up clothes and the blood on her however. It was all Rei could do to sit up and not collapse on the porch – an effort that much to her annoyance Anko seemed to find endlessly amusing.

    “You’re such a proud brat. You know that just makes it easy to pick on you don’t you?” commented Anko as she finished up her superficial healing.

    “I’m fine the way I am,” Rei said, moving her arms experimentally and trying not to wince at the soreness she found.

    “I won’t think any less of you if you want to lay down. I know I rode you hard today, probably more than you can handle,” said Anko in a needling tone.

    Rei shot her a flat unimpressed look that for some reason seemed to amuse the Special Jounin even more.

    “See? Now you’d probably get yourself killed before you laid down on this comfortable wooden porch. Proud brats like you are so easy to manipulate Rei-chan,” she said plopping herself down next to Rei.

    “I think you’re overstating things,” said Rei with a slight frown, folding her legs to get more comfortable.

    “Sure tell yourself that if you want. However we need to discuss what happened in training today.”

    “Oh?”

    “It was well done kid. That kind of thing, pulling two jutsu at once, even basic ones? That’s a Jounin level skill. Granted it’s often not that useful and it gets exponentially harder to do with higher level skills but still. Not bad for a seven year old chibi full of herself,” said Anko.

    Rei looked at her sensei warily. That was entirely too nice of Anko. “Thanks,” she said after a pause.

    Anko produced a canteen and a flask from somewhere, opening the canteen and holding it out to her. Rei eyed the offered item suspiciously. Anko rolled her eyes, “If I wanted to kill you I’d just shove a kunai in your eye. Don’t spit on my good mood and generosity now it’s not like I ever try to hurt you… much.”

    That’s not what I’m worried about Rei thought warily. Who knew what was in that canteen? Maybe just water. Or maybe it also had the ninja equivalent of veritaserum if there was such a thing. Gingerly she took the canteen while looking at Anko for anything suspicious but she failed to find anything. Even though she was thirsty as heck Rei tossed the canteen back and only pretended to drink.

    Paranoid? Well, yes. But she really didn’t want to find out what would happen if what was in her head came to light. She could deal with a little bit of thirst.

    Anko opened her flask and by the way she drank it Rei was sure it held something quite a bit stronger than water. Did Anko have a drinking problem? Hard to tell. While carrying a flask of booze around was odd it wasn’t the oddest thing about her instructor by any stretch of the imagination.

    “All bullshit and sniping aside,” began Anko suddenly, “while I’ve seen people much more naturally talented than you at taijutsu your progress in ninjutsu has been surprising. Doing a sealess Henge and Bunshin after three weeks of training? It’s almost unheard of. It usually takes at least four times as long,” she said, pausing to take a deep pull from her flask.

    Rei for her part was getting uncomfortable. While she liked compliments as much as the next girl – more so probably – what Anko was doing was downright gushy by her standards. Whenever something deviated from the norm it was always prudent to be wary.

    The blonde went over what the Special Jounin had said. “I didn’t do sealess Henge or Bunshin, what I did was do them in conjunction with Kawarimi,” she said. It was true, she had somehow managed to force simultaneous casting though it would take some work for it to become second nature. She could definitely see some useful utility out of the skill though nothing exactly game changing.

    Anko gave her a look that said she was a particularly dim student. “I think you missed the part where you did those two jutsu without using their corresponding seals. I’m pretty sure you could do them sealess now that you have the idea.”

    “If you say so,” said Rei, not entirely convinced.

    Anko didn’t seem to like that. “Stand up and do a sealess Henge,” she ordered.

    Groaning perhaps a little more than was necessary Rei forced her aching body to its feet. It took about ten minutes and a lot of frowning and snide remarks from Anko before she managed to do a sealess Henge – sort of. She meant to change the color of her clothes and she did change them about ninety percent. An imperfect Henge but a Henge non the less. Getting the chakra flowing in the first place was still difficult and controlling it without a hand seal was challenging even for something as basic as Henge.

    “Hmm well I suppose that will do for now,” commented Anko while she held her chin looking thoughtful. “I think you’re one of those people who performs best under pressure. Pretty sure if I'd been chucking kunai at you you would have done that much better and faster.”

    “Please don’t,” said Rei trying not to sound like she was whining. With a heavy plop she let herself collapse onto the floor. She was so very very tempted to drink from that canteen.

    “It’s a good thing. Some ninja only really do their best work while in combat. Much better than the alternative, the guys who are great in training but somehow always manage to underperform in the field. Now those guys are… disappointing,” she said with a suggestive grin and wag of her eyebrows.

    Seriously, she was seven. Why did Anko keep doing that? The blonde just looked at her instructor impassively.

    “Anyway,” said Anko, looking away and taking another deep pull from her flask, “you’re talented kid. You’ve got an aptitude for ninjutsu.”

    “Thanks,” muttered Rei while pretending to drink.

    “You could go very far,” Anko said.

    “I guess.”

    “Ever think about what you’ll do once you actually get some skill to back up all that bragging you like to do?”

    Here we go thought Rei. Sometimes Anko could be incredibly subtle trying to get her to reveal something that might be incriminating. Fairly often Rei wasn’t even sure if she was being prodded for information or not. Other times… not so much on the subtlety department. Apparently this was going to be one of those times.

    “I guess I haven’t really thought about it,” replied Rei with a shrug.

    “Oh come on,” said Anko turning to face her fully with a playful look on her face, “you can’t tell me you haven’t thought about it at all. Every kid dreams about becoming a big bad ninja after all.”

    “Of course I’ve thought about it some,” replied Rei, “I guess I’m mostly just focused on doing things one day at a time you know? Get as strong as I can, make Jounin. Then I’ll have to worry about inheriting the clan I suppose.”

    “Funny,” said Anko, “you don’t strike me as the kind of person who would have such low ambitions. Or the kind who was eager to dive into clan politics. I was expecting you to tell me you wanted to be like one of the Sannin.”

    Careful. “Sure I guess. I mean what little girl doesn’t dream about being like Tsunade-sama right?” she said, looking out into the darkening twilight and not meeting Anko’s gaze. She knew it was a sign of insincerity but she didn’t know just how good she was at lying with her eyes, especially when she was so exhausted.

    “Tsunade-sama is a medic. I thought you said you didn’t want to be a medic?” Anko prodded further.

    “Well then maybe I’ll idolize the Nidaime Hokage. Does it really matter?” she said, rolling her eyes and sounding every bit the kid annoyed at an adult’s incessant questions.

    “I guess not,” said Anko with a chuckle. Thankfully she let the subject drop.

    They were quiet for a few moments as they watched the sun setting over the wall. Sometimes Anko stayed behind for a bit after their training. Practically Rei knew it was to give her an excuse to subtly interrogate her but part of her wondered if Anko didn’t genuinely enjoy the company at least a little bit. From what Rei had gathered Anko was poorly thought of and generally not trusted among the ninja population given her past. However much the woman annoyed her and drove her crazy Rei didn’t… dislike her per se. Not really. Maybe the other woman picked up on that.

    Or maybe it was all in her head and those thoughts were nothing but wishful thinking. It was sad but in other circumstances it would have been nice to have befriended Anko. As it was any kind of genuine relationship was impossible.

    After a few minutes Anko broke the silence, a teasing note in her voice. “So is it true you’re going to be sparring with Neji Hyuuga the day after tomorrow?”

    Rei’s head whipped around to face her, surprise clearly written across her face. “How did you know about that?” she asked with trepidation. Just how close tabs were the Hokage’s people keeping on her?

    Anko chuckled at her reaction. “For people who make a career out of keeping secrets ninja are horrible gossips when it comes to things that aren't actually classified. The once-in-a-generation Hyuuga genius and the arrogant bratty heiress of the Yamanaka clan becoming training partners? You can bet that quickly made it through the grapevine.”

    “Really?” asked Rei, unable to keep the incredulity from her voice.

    The older woman nodded. “Sad isn’t it? People love gossiping about the younger generation especially those who are seen as up-and-comers… though why they would include you in that group is beyond me,” said Anko, grinning at a Rei who snorted in response, “seriously thought it gets pretty wild. There’s even a betting pool as to which of you is going to win your first spar.”

    This time Rei gaped at her teacher. “You’re kidding right? You’re totally pulling my leg.”

    Anko shook her head and her grin threatening to split her face. “Not kidding at all. Older ninja all have bad habits and gambling over even stupid shit seems to be a common one. Hell I already got in on that action,” Anko said with a wink.

    Rei licked her lips. She knew she was going to regret asking this. “Who did you bet on?” she asked with trepidation.

    “The Hyuuga of course.”

    Rei threw the woman’s canteen at her head which Anko caught without even looking. The older woman out right laughed at the girl’s angry and betrayed face.

    “You know he’s going to kick your ass don’t you?” Anko taunted.

    “I can beat him,” Rei said fiercely.

    Anko rolled her eyes dismissively. “Right. I’ll believe it when I see it.”

    “I’m your student. Shouldn’t you take some pride in that?” Rei demanded, red from anger and mortification.

    “If you succeed because of me I’ll take a little pride in that I suppose but I’m also not an idiot. I don’t play the long odds,” she said, enjoying the distress she was causing her student.

    Long odds?” Rei half shouted at her teacher.

    Anko nodded gleefully. “Yup the odds of you winning at the betting pool are really abysmal. No one who knows anything about anything actually thinks you can win.”

    Anko’s declaration caused Rei to jump to her feet. “And why is that?” she asked accusingly, anger pouring off her in waves.

    Anko shrugged. “Figure it out yourself. I’m not going to hurt my odds of winning by giving you any hints,” she said.

    Seeing that her student looked like she was about to explode Anko had a rare moment of empathy. “Look kid don’t get me wrong, you’re good but there’s no way you’re going to beat him. Don’t take it as an insult. They’ll be plenty of people in your life you won’t be able to beat.”

    “Well we’ll just have to see about that, now won’t we? You can see yourself out,” Rei hissed caustically. With as much dignity as she could muster Rei stood tall and marched back into the house.

    Anko shook her head, eyeing the full canteen of lightly drugged water that was in her hands. “Kids,” she muttered, taking another long pull of alcohol from her flask.

    000

    Jutsu profile: Replacement Technique (Kawarimi) – E-Rank

    One of the so-called “basic 3” it is the one jutsu taught in academies that is widely believed to be useful in combat throughout the careers of most ninja. The jutsu switches the body of the user with an object of similar mass within a certain range. This jutsu becomes more difficult and chakra intensive the larger the difference between the mass of the user and the object in question becomes. If the difference is too great the jutsu may fail altogether.

    Even for advanced users Kawarimi has a small wind up time and this makes it unsuitable for dodging surprise attacks. Rather it is best used to dodge an attack the user can predict is coming, ideally creating a small window to counterattack while the opponent is paying attention to the replaced object. Various minor genjutsu and even the Transformation Technique (Henge) can be modified to make the replaced object appear as the user for a few seconds making the deception even more effective.

    Unfortunately Kawarimi loses much of its effectiveness against sensors and high level ninja. These ninja can often sense where the user will reappear while the jutsu is being performed creating an opening for a dangerous counterattack. It is also more difficult to take advantage of the small windows of opportunity Kawarimi provides against such opponents. Nevertheless skillful use of Kawarimi can be an invaluable tool in low-to-mid level ninja combat.
     
  14. Threadmarks: Chapter 14
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 14

    000

    A/N: Sorry for the long delay. This chapter is almost 11k words long so enjoy. My advice is this: Listen to the music! Listen to it on repeat! In my opinion it greatly enhances the enjoyment of the chapter.

    000

    Rei stood in front of the dresser in her room looking at herself in the mirror as she got dressed. She had a severe look, her face an unsmiling mask as she wrapped one of her battle kimonos around herself with slow deliberate attention to detail. The deliberate ritualized task was close to a meditation and she used it to focus her all her energies on what lay ahead.

    The day had arrived; she would soon be leaving to meet Neji for their first ever joint training session. It turned out that Anko hadn’t been exaggerating when she told her everyone had heard about her and Neji through Konoha’s gossip grapevine. For the last two days whenever she had stepped outside the house some Yamanaka clan member or other had called out to her what amounted to the same thing every time.

    “Good luck on your match Rei-sama!”

    They were well intentioned she knew but she couldn’t help but feel annoyed by the situation. Not quite kick-everyone-who-tried-to-talk-to-her-about-it-in-the-balls annoyed but she had been tempted more than once over the last two days.

    Sorely tempted.

    “What’s wrong Nee-chan?” asked Ino who was sitting on her bed watching her older sister with a little frown on her face.

    “What makes you think something’s wrong?” asked Rei as she finished tying the belt around her waist.

    “You’re looking all serious and … grim? Is that the right word?” she asked, squinting cutely as she tried to answer her own question. Rei felt the familiar urge to tackle-hug (not glomp – Rei did not glomp) her sister when she did something cute but this time the usual feeling was much subdued. She had too much on her mind.

    Rei looked at herself in the mirror. Did she look grim? And serious? Her jaw was set in a tight line and she looked like she was going to a deathmatch instead of a training session. Maybe she was taking this too seriously.

    “I’m just focused Ino. I’ve got to take this seriously. This is my… game face I guess you could call it,” Rei said with a shrug. Weapons. She needed to switch to her set of blunted training kunai and shuriken.

    “Why? Aren’t spars supposed to be friendly?” asked Ino, her eyes going a little wide as her sister began to divest herself of the sharpened weapons she kept hidden on her person. Ino herself wasn’t allowed to handle live weapons yet and was still a little in awe that her sister was not only allowed to use them but had been doing so for years.

    “Well yeah but this isn’t like the spars I normally have with Genin from the clan.”

    “Aren’t all spars supposed to be the same? How is this any different?” asked Ino a bit dubiously.

    “They can get a wee bit more competitive when it’s with a member from another clan,” said Rei. Something I’ve had the absolute pleasure of finding out first hand.

    “So that’s why it’s a big deal,” said Ino tilting her head quizzically, “because Neji-san is a Hyuuga?”

    “More or less, yeah,” replied Rei not going into the whole ridiculous betting situation. The older blonde opened the trunk at the foot of her small bed and rummaged around as she continued, “it’s also going to be different in other ways though. If I lose to someone ten years older than me no one bats an eye. However things are different when I’m going up against someone my age.”

    “There’s no way you can lose Nee-chan. You’re totally going to win!” said Ino with absolute conviction and certainty in her young voice. She even sounded a little indignant than anyone – even Rei herself – would dare to suggest otherwise. Her heart always did funny things when Ino showed that much faith in her.

    “Of course I’m not going to lose,” said Rei turning to her sister with a smile that was only the tiniest bit wooden around the edges, “don’t be silly. It’s just that this match is going to be different from all the other ones I’ve had.”

    Ino at least seemed mollified that her personal hero was indeed going to win just like she knew she would. “Well, how else is it going to be different?” she asked quizzically.

    Rei took a moment to think as she withdrew her set of practice weapons from her trunk and stowed away her live ones. Ino might not understand the intricacies of what had been bothering her but that had never stopped her little sister from being a good listener in the past. Besides hearing all this ninja talk might just benefit her in the future the more she was exposed to it early on.

    “I guess it’s just that I don’t know what to expect. All my matches have been against older and bigger people so that’s what I trained to beat. While I can’t match them in sheer power I beat them by having better speed, skill and flexibility. Speed is my biggest advantage actually. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to leverage that against Neji though,” she said.

    One of the things Anko had done was teach her how to leverage her inherent speed, agility and flexibility against larger and more physically powerful opponents. Then when they found out she had a knack (not to mention a love) for speed they had focused on that quite a bit. Her Chakra control helped with that a lot and Rei was fast for a kid her age over short distances. It also helped motivate her training that speed had often been a huge factor in combat in the story she remembered. There were any number of ninja who had leveraged fast movement speed into extremely dangerous styles of fighting.

    However that speed was unlikely to be all that effective against a Hyuuga. Surprise strikes from unexpected angles did not exactly work well against the Byakugan. If simple speed could overcome the White Eyes then Lee should have been the one who consistently beat Neji instead of the other way around in the story she remembered.

    Ino looked like she was thinking hard. “Why not?” she asked.

    Rei shrugged as she finished re-arming herself with training weapons. “It’s just his family’s fighting style and Kekkei Genkai. They don’t lend themselves to being overwhelmed by fast opponents.”

    “But you’re still gonna to win right? So why are you stressing out?”

    Rei thought about it. Did she think she was going to win? Yes. Maybe. I don’t know. Rei wasn’t un-confident but she knew she was at a disadvantage. She also hadn’t been able to come up with any decent plans. However that didn’t mean she was completely without ideas.

    Was she stressed out? Meh, she had a few jitters but normally it wouldn’t have been a big deal. It was the whole circus that had sprung up around their first sparring match that was making her tense.

    “Neji’s like me Ino. A prodigy. If I don’t take him seriously then I deserve to lose,” said Rei seriously as she took one last inventory of herself.

    Ino didn’t look particularly satisfied by that answer, going so far as to cross her arms and act a little huffy. She would probably be offended if Rei told her how adorable that made her look.

    “I don’t get why this is such a big deal. You’re going to win. He’s nothing like you Nee-chan,” said Ino looking displeased and pouty.

    Rei wasn’t sure what had suddenly bothered Ino but she didn’t have time to stay and find out. She’d most likely be fine anyway, Ino was quick to get upset but usually just as quick to get over it and forget about it. Rei walked over and wrapped her arms around her little sister giving her a quick peck on her forehead. Ino leaned into her bigger sister and sighed happily.

    “I haven’t gotten a chance to really talk to you about how your first week at school went,” said Rei pulling away after a few seconds, “tell me all about it when I get back ok?”

    “Ok,” said Ino nodding and with a big dopey smile on her face.

    “Make sure to train or study or something,” said Rei, a little smile tugging at her own face, “I’ll see you later.”

    000

    Downstairs Rei was in for a surprise: in the middle of the day she found her father sitting alone at the dining room table eating something her mother has obviously just cooked. Normally she would be happy to see her dad but him just happening to be at home now of all times was just a wee bit too convenient. She couldn’t remember the last time Inoichi had been home during the middle of the day.

    “What are you doing here?” she asked, sounding more snappish than she intended.

    If he was perturbed by her tone he didn’t show it. Instead he stopped eating and regarded her with a bland look. “Is there something wrong with a man coming home for his lunch?”

    Rei crossed her arms and leveled him an unimpressed look. “This is about the spar isn’t it?”

    Her dad kept his face serious for a few seconds before it broke into a bit of a self-conscious smile. “I was just worried about you Rei-chan. I thought I should have a few words with you before you left for your training session. I was worried about how the pressure from all this hype was affecting you. How are you holding up?”

    Rei resisted the urge to sigh and pinch her nose. This was supposed to be simple, just me and Neji becoming friends and getting together to help improve our skills. Two simple academy students training together. How did it get so out of hand?

    “I’m fine dad. Really,” she said shifting her weight.

    Inoichi regarded her silently for a long moment before nodding. “Do you have a plan? Make any preparations beforehand?” he asked.

    Rei blinked. He’s dropping the subject just like that? These talks when he’s all concerned and parental are never that simple.The blonde switched mental gears and after a moment’s consideration honestly answered his question.

    “I thought about prepping the field beforehand to give me an advantage but I doubt I could hide anything from the Byakugan. Besides it’s supposed to be a simple spar, skill against skill. Setting traps or something like that beforehand just isn’t what you do in a spar you know? I’ve got one or two tricks up my sleeve that might or might not work,” she said with a nonchalant shrug, “and if they do work they’re liable to only work once. It’s not much but it’s all I got. The rest I’ll just have to make up as I go along.”

    Inoichi nodded at that seemingly satisfied with her answer. Rei could tell he had something else he wanted to say so she waited patiently for him to speak. After a few moments he began, “I want you to keep in mind that if you lose-“

    Why does everyone keep thinking I’m going to lose?!

    “-it doesn’t mean anything. Not about you personally, not about your ninja career, not about anything,” he said.

    Rei frowned, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot. “Why are you telling me this?” she asked.

    “I know you Rei. If you lose you are liable to take it hard especially with so many people paying attention to the outcome of what should be a simple spar between academy students. However no matter who is or isn’t interested remember this is still your fight. Winning or losing or even what anyone else thinks don’t matter in a spar Rei. In the end as long as you give it everything you’ve got you’ll be able to walk away without regrets,” he said, stopping there and reaching for his cup.

    Rei didn’t know what to think or make of her father’s little speech. In the end she had a match to get to soon so she didn’t want to think about it too much and get distracted. Her father seemed to have finished speaking and so it was her move so to speak. She bit her lip before she blurted out what had been bothering her.

    “You don’t think I can win?” she asked hating the slight note of vulnerability in her voice.

    “I think you can win,” her father said seriously, “no matter what though you will be at a disadvantage. I’m sorry for all the pressure a simple sparring session has brought but there’s nothing to be done about it.”

    Rei nodded, feeling somehow relieved and accepting her father’s commiseration for what it was. She gave him a slight smile. “Any advice?”

    Inoichi made a thoughtful noise. “If you can somehow surprise him that is your best bet. The element of surprise can allow one to overcome even vastly superior opponents.”

    000

    Training grounds in Konoha all shared the same common features without fail as far as Rei was able to tell. They were always in a clearing surrounded by trees – not the massive Hashirama trees but naturally growing trees that, while smaller, were certainly large and impressive enough in their own right. The clearing was often a mosaic of green grass and patchwork areas devoid of life where some jutsu or explosion had torn up the earth at some point in the recent past. All the trees around the edge of the clearing bore the scars of generations of overly enthusiastic ninja leaving wounds either by accident or on purpose. Rei thought overall the appearance of the training fields was incredibly congruent with the type of people who used them.

    The blonde arrived on one such field near the academy a few minutes before she was due to arrive. The training field was somewhat smaller than average but it sported numerous training logs and a variety of targets set up around the edges, perfect for a pair of students looking to train. Right away Rei spotted Neji’s distinctive profile as he stood in the shade near the edge of the clearing. He was standing underneath a tree with his arms crossed and his eyes closed. The blonde noted that he chose to stand tall and straight when there was a perfectly good tree literally three feet away that he could lean on. Was it because he was expecting her and it would be unseemly for a Hyuuga to be seen reclining on a tree? Or was he aware that they were almost certainly being watched? With a mental shrug and a deep breath Rei stepped out onto the clearing and approached her fellow student.

    Neji became aware of her while she was still a good ways off since she did not bother trying to hide her presence. There was a slight wariness in his eyes and Rei got the impression he still didn’t quite know what to make of her or their fledgling agreed upon friendship. Not yet at least. In some ways it was a relief to see him a bit off balance even if he hid it well for a seven year old. She would be feeling kind of silly if she was the only one with some jitters.

    Inappropriately the situation reminded her of a very awkward first date. Except there was going to be less flirting and more stabbity-punchiness. It really said something about her life that she preferred it that way.

    She came to a stop at a polite social distance from him. They eyed each other for a few long moments in silence. Rei had to reassess her earlier impression. It was less like a date and more like two cats trying to decide how much they liked each other.

    “Neji,” greeted Rei politely but deliberately dropping the honorific. If he thought she was being too familiar he would just have to live with it.

    “Rei-san,” replied Neji in his own polite tones while dipping his head in greeting respectfully. It puzzled Rei for a few seconds before it registered; she was a clan heiress while Neji was little more than a servant or a vassal to the main house of the Hyuuga. He probably considered himself to be lower in station than her. That or he had been coached as to how he should talk to her and behave around her since he was being more respectful with her now than he ever had at school.

    The situation felt somewhat awkward and tense and when she was uncomfortable Rei had a tendency to run her mouth. She gave Neji a challenging and teasing lopsided smile. “Just Rei-san? Come on if we’re going to be formal why don’t we go all the way. How about you start calling me Rei-sama?”

    “I don’t think that would be appropriate,” replied Neji with a frown. Ugh, right, socially awkward. He probably didn’t realize she was teasing him. You know, mostly. She wouldn’t object to being called Rei-sama or anything.

    Rei rolled her eyes somewhat dramatically. “Don’t worry about it Neji I’m just joking with you. What I’m trying to say is that we don’t have to be so formal. You can just call me Rei or Rei-chan,” she said with what she hoped was a disarming smile.

    Neji’s frown eased and he seemed to relax a bit. “I see,” he said. He regarded her curiously before adding, “I’ll think about it.”

    Cold! Though I don’t think he meant it that way. I guess that’s the best I’m going to get.

    “So how do we do this?” asked Neji, briefly looking down at the ground as if ashamed for having to ask. He was clearly feeling somewhat out of his element. Didn’t his clan ever try to socialize this kid?

    “Wellll we can’t get anywhere without knowing where we stand first right? So we’ll beat the crap out of each other until one of us calls uncle,” Rei shrugged and gave him sharp little smile, “or gives up or passes out. We do need to get a sense for what the other can do after all.”

    “So we should begin with a spar then,” stated Neji sounding more confident. He instantly seemed more at ease now that he was apparently on more familiar territory.

    “That’s the idea,” said Rei a little distractedly. The mention of the word ‘spar’ reminded her that they were unlikely to be the only ones around.

    Rei stretched her senses and casually looked around but she couldn’t sense anyone else nearby. Not that the fact she couldn’t really meant anything. In fact she was sure there had to be at least a few people with eyes on them. Certainly she thought that at least the Hyuuga would have somebody monitoring Neji and reporting back how their first training session went.

    She saw Neji looking at her with a somewhat puzzled expression and Rei started to have a sudden sinking suspicion. Rei licked her lips and said, “Neji, do you happen to know about the… unusual circumstances surrounding our first spar?”

    His look turned even more puzzled and a touch wary. “What unusual circumstances?”

    Great. For some reason I had just assumed he knew about the insane ninjas with nothing better to do with their time and money. Then again if Anko hadn’t told me there is a good chance I never would have found out about it either… then again there is a good chance someone in the clan would have let something slip. I get the feeling such a thing wouldn’t happen in the Hyuuga.

    “You can use the Byakugan right?” Rei asked, feeling pretty confident she already knew the answer.

    Neji gave her a questioning look but didn’t seem too nonplussed at her change of topic. “Yes,” he answered succinctly and Rei could detect a note of pride in that simple statement.

    “Would you mind looking around? I have reason to suspect we’re being watched but I can’t sense anyone. I’m guessing you’ll have better luck,” Rei said.

    “Why do you think we’re being watched?” asked Neji curiously though he didn’t seem particularly troubled by the idea of them being observed.

    “I promise I’ll explain. Just humor me and see if you can see anyone around will you?” said Rei.

    Rei remembered form the story that Neji could activate his Byakugan instantly and without seals. It was apparent that his level of mastery with the White Eyes wasn’t anywhere near that point yet. He brought his hands together into a modified Snake seal with only one index finger pointing up. Neji closed his eyes and concentrated, snapping them open after about five seconds.

    “Byakugan!”

    Rei’s eyes widened a little at seeing the effects of the Byakugan up close and in real life for the first time. What looked like veins from the side of his head bulged and pulsed, coming across his cheeks and the side of his head to converge on the side of his eyes. It was clear to Rei that massive amounts of Chakra were shunted towards the eyes along superficial and delicate Chakra pathways. There was a lot more to Chakra in the body than just the Chakra circulatory network though that was where the largest concentrations resided. Chakra also had a tendency to travel in the blood. Even so the visible raised veins should not have existed… Chakra did not normally cause blood vessels to swell under any circumstances.

    The straining vessels gave Neji a somewhat alien, very vaguely reptilian look especially coupled with eyes that appeared to be white and pupiless with only a darker ring around the iris setting the pupil apart from the rest of the sclera. It was a bit intimidating and also fascinating to Rei. What must it be like to see in any direction, or in all directions at once? To see Chakra and see through any object for possibly miles in every direction?

    After a few seconds Neji spoke up. “There are three ninja watching nearby, two males and one female. One of them is wearing a porcelain animal mask,” he said sounding puzzled by the fact.

    The Byakugan really was amazing. Apparently even ANBU couldn’t hide from it, at least not unless they took some special precautions. Rei sighed. “Only three? Well my guess is there are at least a few more monitoring us by some other means. You’d really think they would find something better to do with their time.”

    “You expected them to be there,” Neji said with a frown, “why?”

    “Because higher ranked ninja are idiots with nothing better to do with their time,” Rei explained. “Apparently there is some interest in our first spar since we are both considered prodigies. People have been making bets all week on who is going to win our match.”

    Neji took all that in with a slight frown. “I see,” was all he said but Rei could tell he disapproved. Well at least they were of the same mind on that point.

    “You didn’t know about it? Not even any hints?” asked Rei curiously.

    Neji thought about it and shook his head. “Nothing about the betting though it would make sense that a lot of people are paying attention to our training session.”

    “How so?” Rei asked.

    Suddenly Neji looked a little bit like a deer caught in the headlights for a moment before schooling his features to something more neutral. Rei smiled a little as she realized Neji must have let something slip that he didn’t mean to. At her expectant look Neji looked away before he finally cracked and answered her question.

    “Hiashi-sama told me the first match was important and to make sure not to lose,” he said reluctantly “though I don’t think he would have said something like that over something as lowly as gambling.”

    “So it’s about Hyuuga pride then?”

    “I don’t know,” said Neji with an artful shrug. “It’s possible.”

    Interesting. It hadn’t occurred to Rei that the Hyuuga would have anything invested in Rei and Neji training together other than possible improved relations with the Yamanaka. In hindsight a clan like that would see Neji losing as some kind of embarrassment. It was funny because they were probably the only ones who would see it that way with perhaps the possible exception of the Uchiha.

    Rei found she just couldn’t help herself. “So Hiashi-sama thinks you might lose?” she asked in a needling tone.

    Neji frowned at that. Her implication seemed to anger him for some reason. “He really shouldn’t have bothered,” Neji said, his Byakugan gaze boring into her. It was pretty unsettling but Rei didn’t let it affect her.

    “Why is that?” Rei asked, her tone still teasing.

    “There is no way I can lose. The result of our match is already a foregone conclusion,” he said. His still sounded upset by Rei’s jab but he said it with all the certainty that someone else might have when saying the sun rises in the East.

    Rei’s face instantly lost all humor. “I see. You don’t think I can beat you?” she asked in deceptively calm tones. Those who knew her best would have realized they were treading dangerous ground.

    Neji shook his head. “We are the closest in ability in our class but we are not on the same level combat wise. You are not my equal,” he said to her and Rei realized Neji really did have a vindictive streak in him. He threw the words she had used more than once right back in her face.

    Rei’s eyes narrowed at that. No that wouldn’t do. That wouldn’t do at all.

    She unconsciously clenched and unclenched her fists inside her robes. Rei was tired of people acting like she’d been fated to lose before the first punch was even thrown. More than that though the stakes were suddenly even higher. For her plans to work she needed Neji to respect her as an equal. That meant she had to win now; losing would probably just reinforce his crazy ideas about fate and she didn’t want him thinking she was ‘fated’ to be a lesser fighter than him. Rei had an inkling that if such an idea got entrenched in his head it would be very difficult to remove. Working and dealing with Neji then would probably become an exercise in frustration.

    Besides all of that... Rei had poured everything into her training and she was quite frankly phenomenal for her age. She refused to lose. Her pride wouldn’t allow it.

    He didn’t want to take her seriously? She would make him take her seriously.

    Rei gave him a smile that was all teeth and no humor, eyes bright with anticipation as adrenaline began to surge through her body. “Well well well. I guess we’ll just have to see now won’t we?”

    Rei was gratified to see him falter slightly before answering. “I guess so.”

    “Terms for the spar?”

    Neji made a derisive sound. “Most spars on this level are taijutsu only but you wouldn’t stand a chance like that. You can use whatever you want.”

    Internally Rei bristled at his dismissive tone but outwardly she showed no reaction. Something she said must have really irritated him because Neji seemed to be going the extra mile to be an ass. She didn’t even know why she was surprised.

    “Taijutsu only sounds good to me,” said Rei before she could think better of it. To do otherwise would be admitting some kind of weakness. However after the words were out of her mouth Rei felt a pang of uneasiness. She had just let her pride write a check she wasn’t sure her body could cash. She’d just made things even more difficult for herself. Not good. Shit.

    “Well then let’s get this started,” said Neji in a tone that reminded Rei she wasn’t the only one who could act like an arrogant ass.

    000

    Music - The Maid and the Pocket Watch of Love by Demetori



    For your convenience listen on repeat.

    They had set themselves up next to the tree line, the angle of the sun casting long shadows over the both of them. Rei and Neji stood five paces away while eyeing each other, looking for any exploitable weakness or distraction. The blonde girl couldn’t help but notice that Neji was in the Konoha Standard stance as opposed to Juuken and had his Byakugan off.

    Rei smirked at him, a smug and cocky look on her face. “Please do fight me seriously Neji. When I kick your ass I don’t want you coming up with some lame excuse as to why you lost.”

    Neji’s brow crinkled in displeasure. “Believe me I’ll take you just as seriously as I need to.”

    “Oh?” she needled, “then why don’t you use your Byakugan to fight me? I know how much you Hyuuga’s rely on it. You’re going to need it if you want to have a chance at winning.”

    Rei could see Neji bristle. “I don’t need to use the Byakugan against the likes of you,” he said shortly, sounding angry. Good she thought with an internal grin. She was getting to him.

    “Hmm,” said Rei making a thoughtful sound, “you know what I think?” she said with an infuriating smirk on her face, “I think you’re too inexperienced to use the Byakugan in combat. You probably trip over your own two feet when you try to use it in a spar. Am I right? Or am I right?”

    Neji’s glare could have peeled paint off a wall. “If you insist on being crushed by the power of my bloodline then so be it. You’ll come to understand why the Hyuuga are the most powerful clan in Konoha.”

    His hands came together in the same modified Snake seal from before. After concentrating for a few seconds his eyes snapped open.

    “Byakugan!”

    Rei watched as the veins swelled with Chakra moving towards his eyes. Good. Even though it made the fight harder for her it would be meaningless if she couldn’t beat him at the fullness of his power. Getting him angry also wouldn’t hurt.

    “Most powerful?” asked Rei in a faux-innocent saccharine tone, “I thought that title belonged to the Uchiha. What did they all suddenly abandon Konoha while I wasn’t looking?”

    Rei could see Neji’s jaw muscles clench but the boy didn’t say anything in reply, instead taking up the Konoha Standard stance yet again. Suddenly their eyes locked and the tension went through the roof. The time for banter was over. Any further talking would now have to be done through their fists.

    They stood perfectly still facing each other as long seconds dragged out, each one looking for any weakness, any opening, any sign they could exploit. After locking eyes for a small eternity Neji moved his leading arm to the side a fraction of an inch. To any other academy student the small change would have been meaningless but Rei saw it for what it was. A small opening. An invitation to attack.

    Rei took it.

    With an almost violent flush of Chakra to her legs and feet shot across the space between them as fast as she could, pushing her speed to the limits. She could tell her speed had caught him off guard. He blocked her leading punch a little awkwardly and Rei saw her chance to put him on the defensive. Her superior speed and flexibility had always been her greatest assets and she pushed them for all they were worth constantly trying to circle around him or bend around his blocks.

    Neji gave ground to Rei but quickly regained his equilibrium. Rei could see her speed was pressing him but still he somehow managed to block or deflect all her blows. Inside Rei growled and attacked with all the skills that had defeated Genin many years older than her. Still Neji managed to have an answer to every one of her strikes. It was with an uneasy feeling that Rei could see him rapidly adjusting to her superior speed.

    Feeling that the momentum was moments from turning against her Rei tried a risky jumping snap kick to his head. Neji ducked underneath it smoothly like it was something he did every day and surged forward burying his fist in her stomach. Rei was knocked to the ground from her jump with a grunt of pain, turning the fall into a backwards roll that brought her to her feet. Rei barely had time to get her hands up before Neji was right on top of her.

    He came in with a fast punch aimed at her ribs. Instead of blocking Rei turned her body turning the blow into a glancing strike as she launched her fist at his face. Rei wasn’t about to let herself be put purely on the defensive. With a tilt of his head and a nudge from his free hand Neji easily deflected the blow. Then the two of them really started trading blows in earnest.

    Rei had faster foot speed, being able to cover ground and change her angle of attack much faster than Neji. Neji had vastly superior hand speed, his strikes and blocks always seeming to be there a split second before hers. Her flexibility helped her make some hair raising dodges and get around some of his guard but it still wasn't enough. Rei frowned slightly as her arms began to sting from her blocks and she kept in constant motion trying to find a hole in Neji’s defenses. Though neither of them had landed a decisive hit since Rei got punched the first time the flow of the battle slowly turning against her. Her eyes briefly met Neji’s. If the sharp little smirk he gave her was anything to go by he could feel it too.

    Shit. It was time to do something drastic if she wanted to win this. She didn’t have much time before Neji had her at a clear disadvantage.

    In taijutsu like most things there is the ‘right’ way of doing things and the ‘wrong’ way of doing things though occasionally the ‘wrong’ way can be just what you need if you’re getting desperate. Striking the enemy while preventing him from landing a solid hit on you was the basic tenet of all taijutsu. However even though it was generally ill advised and considered something of a vulgar strategy it was entirely possible to take a hit on purpose in order to create an opening. Rei grinned to herself despite how she was starting to flag. She doubted the Hyuuga trained very much in ‘uncultured’ and ‘dirty’ fighting while it was one of Anko’s favorite things. Rei just had to make her blow count. She doubted she would get more than one clean opening.

    Rei redoubled her efforts in striking and moving around Neji while he pivoted to keep pace with her. It would make it more believable when she finally made a ‘mistake’. She moved and attacked until she saw Neji take a guard stance she had seen him use before, one with one hand forward and another far back guarding his lower ribs. Rei lunged high purposefully overextending as she aimed her gambit punch at his face. Neji reacted as predicted and ducked, stepping forward and punching at her wide open body with his leading arm.

    Rei was expecting it and grabbed his arm even as she took a punishing blow to her ribs. With his wrist firmly in one hand and trapped against her body she took a large step back forcing him to come with her. She raised her free in the air as if she was going to come down with a knife hand on his neck. As he had been trained Neji brought his free arm up to block a blow that never came. Instead Rei brought her elbow down on the forearm she was holding with all of her strength.

    It was the Byakugan that saved his arm from possibly being broken. Neji managed to rotate his forearm just enough to avoid a direct hit. Still Rei felt a thrill of victory when she heard him hiss in pain as her elbow connected with the long bones in his arm. Instinctively Neji tried to pull his arm back which wasn’t the most efficient of moves. Sloppy. She managed to hold on to his arm with little problem. Seizing the opportunity and with a wild grin on her face Rei brought her arm up to drive her elbow into his forearm again. Neji’s free hand shot out towards her chest, much faster than before but without any power behind it. Instinctively Rei brought her free arm down to block the strike.

    Then her arm exploded in a nova of pain.

    Rei let go of Neji and clutched her arm in a pain that was worse than anything that immediately came to mind. She was so distracted she didn’t even see the foot that slammed into her stomach, knocking the breath out of her and sending her falling on her behind. More out of muscle memory than anything else Rei rolled backwards to her feet and jumped back to put some distance between them.

    Rei gripped her forearm as she looked at Neji, suddenly feeling a newfound wariness and respect for her opponent. That must have been a strike from the infamous Juuken school of taijutsu. Thankfully the pain was quickly fading and the Chakra flow to her arm didn’t feel diminished in the least. Neji was holding and rubbing out his own forearm, keeping his distance for the moment and giving Rei a look one might give a dog that had unexpectedly gone from seeming harmless to biting you in the ass. Rei did her best to stand tall despite the pain in her body, giving him an infuriating smirk and winking at him playfully. Neji’s eyes narrowed and for a moment his lip curled in distaste. Clearly he was not amused.

    Despite her bravado Rei knew she was in trouble. Neji had already landed four solid hits on her to her solitary one hit on him and the toll it was taking on her body was starting to add up. What’s more Rei realized much to her chagrin that Neji had been holding back by not using the Juuken. While she didn’t know if he was skilled enough to close her Tenketsu yet he could still insert spikes of Chakra into her nerves and muscles causing crippling pain in the short term. Now that he seemed willing to use his family style outright blocking his hits was out of the question. If he could get is hands on any part of her he could cripple her with temporary pain giving him all the openings he could possibly need to take her down.

    “Is that the famous Gentle Fist?” asked Rei tilting her head curiously, “I was starting to wonder if you could even use it.”

    Neji stopped rubbing his forearm and smoothly slid into a stance that was different from the one before. Rei recognized it from the story. It was the iconic stance of the Gentle Fist.

    “If you’re going to resort to such boorish and ill-bred tactics I see no reason to hold out against you,” he said.

    Despite the trouble she was in Rei couldn’t help tilting her head quizzically the other way as a startlingly appropriate response came to mind. “You mad bro?” she asked with a vicious provocative grin. It lost a little bit in translation from English but it worked well enough.

    Even though he didn’t say anything she could tell that yes, she had indeed made him upset. If she wanted him on her side she really shouldn’t be taunting him so much but she just couldn’t bring herself to not do it in the heat of the moment. Rei slid into her own taijutsu stance praying that upsetting Neji would somehow give her an opening she could exploit.

    “Well? I’m waiting pretty boy,” she said while making a come hither motion with her hand, everything about her oozing confidence and smug superiority.

    Despite what she said they charged each other at the exact same time, the girl suddenly wishing she hadn’t foolishly agreed to a taijutsu only bout. Rei dove low, supporting her body weight with her arms and doing a double leg sweep of the likes she had only seen professional gymnasts do on a pommel horse back home. Neji jumped over the knee high strike effortlessly, doing a forward flip and tagging her shoulder with a slightly off center heel strike. Rei winced as she threw herself forward and rolled to her feet. Only three hundred and sixty degree vision would allow him to pull off a move like that.

    They rushed at each other again and this time Rei decided to wait for his strike and deflect it by hitting his wrist. Neji’s hand shot out snake-fast and Rei tried to hit his wrist but Neji was too fast and nimble. With a slight adjustment to his hand his fingertips struck the back of her wrist. Her hand and half her forearm flared in pain and Rei instinctively yanked her arm back with a grimace. Neji came at her again and Rei tried to dodge using her speed. One, two, three hits she avoided as sweat started to roll into her eyes. She couldn’t keep this up for long. Any hit now he would catch her.

    With some clever footwork Neji maneuvered her to where she was forced to block or take the hit. She brought one arm up to block and his fingers jammed into her elbow causing her whole arm to explode in white hot pain. Rei barely saw his other hand coming and she raised her other arm to block this time getting a jab in the shoulder for her troubles. With Rei distracted and both her arms locked up in pain Neji landed a hard punch to her face, causing the blonde to lose her balance and sending her crashing inelegantly to the ground.

    The pain started to quickly fade from her arms. Unfortunately the same could not be said of her face. She could taste blood from a split lip. Rising to a low crouch much slower than she would have liked she looked over at Neji standing just a few steps away. He’d had plenty of opportunity to press his advantage but he chose not to. In her old world someone may have thought he was being nice but Rei knew that was not the case.

    In the ninja world ignoring such clear openings was a clear statement. It said you were so far above your opponent that you didn’t need to take openings that presented themselves. It was a clear statement that you considered the person in front of you to not be a danger because your own skills were leagues above their own.

    Basically Neji was saying she was a non-threat and that he didn’t need to take her seriously.

    Rei’s eyes narrowed dangerously. Her eyes started to darken and for the first time in the fight she began to feel the stirrings of genuine anger begin to swirl in her belly. She clenched her fists and rose to her feet in a low stance.

    “You’re going to pay for that,” she said to him.

    Neji’s only answer was to resume his Juuken stance.

    Rei rushed him weaving side to side as she approached. Gripping the earth with her Chakra Rei stopped less than an inch outside Neji’s range trying to bait out an attack that would overextend him. Instead of falling for it he took the time to step forward and aim a blow at her center of mass. With a spike of Chakra to her legs she jumped forward over his strike as she had been expecting a straightforward attack like that since he made it clear he wasn't taking her seriously. Her robes billowed in front of his face and would have blinded any other opponent. Unfortunately that didn’t work with Neji.

    Rei twisted in mid air as she flipped over him and tried to grab Neji’s head in between her legs. He was faster though and couched underneath her attempted grab. Rei had a split moment hanging in mid air to curse mentally as she saw his hands rising up to grab her thighs.

    The pain was excruciating. He held on to her legs as she fell hard on the ground, the pain being driven into legs making her see white spots in her vision. More out of reflex than any plan she twisted her whole body like a break dancer forcing Neji to back up away from her flailing legs. Neji stood back and watched as the pain slowly faded and Rei stood back up on shaky legs.

    “You should simply give up,” said Neji as he stood there watching her with cold impassive eyes. “All your little tricks that might work on others are useless before the Byakugan. You have already lost.”

    Something ugly was starting to twist in Rei’s chest, something that was becoming disturbingly familiar. Her hair was a mess and partly covering her face, her breathing hard and labored. In contrast Neji stood with his arms crossed looking no more mussed than he would from a light workout.

    This is too important, thought Rei, I can’t lose here. Not like this. I’m stronger than this. Stronger than him!

    Rei’s only answer was to sneer at him. For the first time she thought she understood why Naruto always kept getting up in the stories even after getting knocked down a hundred times. Like something inside her wouldn’t just let her lay down and admit defeat. At that moment she would have sooner let her body be broken in a thousand pieces than let that smug bastard Neji win so easily.

    This time driven by emotion and not much of a plan Rei blindly charged him. She threw a wild punch that was easily parried, then another, and another, every one of them batted aside by Neji with infuriating ease. She went for a leg sweep that Neji jumped over with less than an inch of clearance and he made it look completely effortless. When she stood up and threw another punch he ran the tips of his fingers over the back of her hand as he blocked. The whole appendage lit aflame with pain and made her hand go into spasm. Rei gave out a strangled scream before he hit her in the shoulder, chest, stomach, liver and other shoulder with Chakra infused Juuken strikes before kicking her high in the chest sending her tumbling away to land in a heap on the ground.

    Rei would have screamed if she’d had the breath for it. One Juuken strike felt horrible enough but multiple ones in quick succession seemed to amplify the pain. The agony receded more slowly than before as Rei slowly forced herself to her hands and knees. It was all she could do as she took deep gulping breaths and tried to keep her arms from shaking. Rei tried to focus on her breathing instead of the pain as she waited for the crippling feelings of pain to recede.

    Neji stood some distance away, arms crossed and looking impassively at what he thought of as his defeated foe. “Stay down or the pain will only increase more every time you get back up. Destiny has decreed that I am the stronger one between the two of us. You’re the best I’ve ever fought in our age group but you’re still nowhere near my level. The sooner you accept your place the easier things will be when we train together,” he said without an ounce of sympathy in his voice.

    As Rei heard his words her emotions continued to rise until her whole body felt hot and flushed. She was losing. Neji wanted to shackle her, her, with his destiny bullshit. He wanted her to accept a place subservient to him and accept his bullshit philosophy. Rei felt something in her mind snap. No. No way. She would prove to him she was as good as him. Better than him. Rage flooded her whole being along with something inside that wanted her to start cackling and laughing like a madwoman. The world seemed to snap into crystal clear focus as the pain in her body faded.

    She felt it. Sometimes the psycho inside needed to be unchained and let out to play. She was going to win even if she had to burn the whole world to do it.

    Rei took internal stock of herself. Other than being somewhat bruised and battered from regular hits there was nothing wrong with her. The pain strikes form the Juuken were temporary and faded quickly. Her Chakra was still well over half. Good.

    Neji frowned as the girl stayed there on all fours without saying anything. After a few moments he spoke up. “So are you going to give up or w-”

    Die.

    Suddenly a kunai was flying at his face at surprising speeds. Caught off guard by sudden and unexpected attack Neji could only gracelessly get his head out of the way while losing his balance. When he looked back Rei was running straight at him even faster than she had been moving before.

    Rei ran at the Hyuuga pouring so much Chakra into her legs it was actually painful. When she was almost at Neji she drew another kunai and threw it at his face at almost point blank range. The boy awkwardly batted the projectile aside with his hands still off balance from the sudden charge. Rei came in low and threw a punch at his face.

    Neji moved his arms to block when suddenly there were seven fists coming at his face from different angles. Rei used a sealess Bunshin no Jutsu to create six attacking copies of herself mid punch. Given a fraction of a second longer Neji would easily have been able to distinguish the reals from the fake but in that split second timing all he could do was block the fist he thought was the real one.

    He guessed wrong. Rei’s calloused fist crunched into his nose sending him stumbling back. The blonde closed in while Neji was still reeling and threw two punches in quick succession at his face. Even disoriented Neji’s reflexes took over and her managed to block both of her blows. Rei’s eyes narrowed. No. She couldn’t give him time to regain the initiative.

    Keep him on the back foot. Off balance.

    Rei sent Chakra to the bottom of her foot. She kicked a roundhouse kick at his face taking a clump of earth on the bottom of her sandal. When Neji instinctively leaned back to avoid the blow Rei cut the Chakra to the bottom of her foot letting clump of earth fly straight into Neji’s eyes. It wouldn’t blind him but dirt flying hard into his eyeballs distracted him for a few precious seconds.

    Rei reached into her sleeves and with a flourish came out wielding a kunai in each hand. All her Bunshin did the same and they all fell on Neji like a pack of wolves.

    However now the Hyuuga knew which were Bunshin and which was the real Rei. Still blinking dirt from his eyes he was forced on the defensive as Rei came at him like a mini tornado of steel, kunai flashing in a flurry as she tried to connect with a cut somewhere, anywhere on his body. He was forced to continually dodge and back off as the additional reach the kunai gave her made things more difficult.

    Keep him running. Don’t let him get his equilibrium back.

    Rei pressed forward, feeling wild elation in her chest as she forced Neji to continually give ground and she came closer and closer to bloodying him with steel. The boy seemed to realize that constantly backing off would only result in his eventual defeat so after a short hop back he stood his ground and committed to fight.

    Let’s see how you like this. You’re not the only one with a few tricks.

    Conventional ninja strategy emphasized using kunai to strike vital points but Anko had taught Rei how to fight dirty. The kunai gave Rei an additional eight inches of range and she exploited them ruthlessly. Neji came in for a strike and she darted back just out of his range, a slash at his hands forcing him to snap them back before she moved forward and went on the offensive once again. This time her superior movement speed came in handy as she darted in and out of the maximum range of his strikes and continually targeted his hands, the parts of his body that were conveniently the closest to her. It didn’t look like Neji had a lot of experience against that particular strategy and Rei kept the pressure high while trying to create an opening.

    While Neji was physically back in the fight mentally he was still off balance from the fury of Rei’s unexpected armed attack. He made a small mistake in overreaching to try and strike at one of the hands holding a kunai. The blade came down and scored a hit across the back of his hand as he pulled it back. Neji winced. The kunai were blunted so there was no injury but in a real situation that could have been anything from a deep scratch to a crippling blow. By Rei’s sudden predatory grin she knew it too.

    Slice him. Dice him! I’m taking you down.

    To Rei scoring a hit on the back of his hand was like a shark smelling blood in the water. She pushed herself even further to a level she didn’t know she had, using her superior speed to attack from different angles, each strike aimed to be as difficult and awkward as possible for Neji to evade. Her blades kissed his forearm and his wrists with what she knew would have been shallow cuts with live kunai. Still it showed that Neji was flagging, making mistakes, leaving himself open to hits.

    However Neji wasn’t known as a genius for nothing. His skill let him stay one step ahead of the blades – if just barely – and even though he couldn’t mount any significant offence at that moment this worked in his favor. If he stalled the fight long enough the momentum of her surprise attack would eventually run its course on its own. Neji was also confident he had superior stamina and he was learning. If he could stay ahead of the flurry of blades he was confident he would be able to outlast the blonde Yamanaka.

    Rei was having thoughts along the same vein and her lips curled in displeasure. The longer this went on the more things would swing back in Neji’s favor. Already he was starting to adapt to her bladed style. She needed to do something unexpected. Something that would end this fight once and for all.

    Let’s see how you deal with some more boorish and ill-bred tactics.

    The girl came in with a furious combination of slashes that forced Neji to back off hastily. Rei increased her aggression to the absolute top levels of speed and viciousness. The pace would quickly exhaust her but that was fine. She was going to bet it all on one final gambit. If this didn’t work she knew she was going to lose.

    Neji’s face showed the strain of dodging her attacks and Rei smiled at seeing beads of sweat running down his face. She moved straight into him low in an unexpected move, almost ramming him, causing Neji to scramble back just out of range slightly off balance. That was exactly what she had been waiting for.

    You’re mine Neji!

    From where she was crouching low Rei threw one of the kunai in her hands at his face in an upward angle as fast as she could muster. The girl caught a slight widening in Neji’s eyes as he realized he couldn’t dodge. Using more instinct than plan he brought his hands upward, knocking the projectile higher up and away. That left him just a step and a half away with his hands in the air and his mid section exposed.

    Rei forced so much Chakra into her lower body it burned. She crossed the distance between them in a blink and rammed her shoulder straight into his solar plexus. The breath left his lungs explosively as she wrapped her arms around him, hooked one of her legs around his and used their combined momentum to tackle him to the ground.

    They rolled and grappled, all pretentions at finesse and refinement gone. It was nails and elbows and flashing teeth but Rei wasn’t badly winded and Neji was. She ended up on straddling his waist and somehow still holding the kunai in her hand. Quick as a snake she brought it down and stabbed at his throat. Neji’s hands shot up and gripped the kunai less than a foot from his neck. Rei put her other hand on the pommel of the weapon and began to push down. The blonde had leverage and could put her whole body weight behind it. Neji’s eyes widened in alarm as the kunai started inching down towards his throat. Rei gave him a smile that the boy could only describe as ‘evil’.

    “You’re going to die,” she practically cooed at him with that same disturbing smile on her face.

    It sent a thrill through her to see a look of panic flicker through his face.

    000

    Neji’s breathing quickened in fear as he gazed up at the demon sitting on top of him. He thought that because that is what she reminded him of right then, grinning and with a disturbing light behind her eyes.

    “You’re going to die,” she practically cooed at him with that evil looking smile on her face.

    Intellectually Neji knew he wasn’t actually going to die. Rei would be caught immediately if he did. The girl wanted him for a ‘friend’ for some reason. The kunai poised to plunge into his throat was even blunted meaning it would stab into his neck about as well as the hilt would. However none of that diminished the terror he was inexplicably feeling when looking at the girl sitting on top of him.

    It was almost like he could see his own death. He could get flashes of the Rei pushing the blade down all the way and plunging into his throat, holding the blade there until he drowned in his own blood. In his life Neji had known hatred and anger and resentment but never true fear. Feeling his own impending doom at the hands of the small blonde on top of him was making him break out in sweat as he struggled not to let the blade inch any closer to his throat. It was a contest he was losing.

    His impressive mind ran through his options many times faster than any regular child his age could have done. Unfortunately his greatest weapon, the Juuken, was out. Even though his fingers were touching hers it didn’t do any good without the calm concentration and smooth flow of Chakra required for the technique. Both those things were out of the question in his current predicament.

    As the blade inched closer there was nothing he could think to do. There had to be a way. He always thought of something. Something of his desperation must have shown in his face since the look on Rei’s face suddenly turned both wicked and victorious. The feeling of impending doom redoubled and Neji swore he could almost feel the kunai already buried in his throat. His hands started to shake and not just from the strain of keeping the blade at bay. What kind of demon was she?!

    Desperately Neji sought for something, anything that would save him from this predicament. The words from one of his many teachers sprang to mind.

    When you are overmatched you only have four possible options. Hide, flee, attack unexpectedly or wait for an opportunity.

    The first three were definitely out. The best he could do was pray for an opportunity then. The blade was maybe five inches from his throat now and his arms were tiring fast. Neji had to draw from all his years of discipline to maintain some semblance of calm. He did his best to ignore the image of his own death that sporadically kept appearing for a split second in his mind.

    Looking up at Rei it looked like she was getting impatient. She pushed harder and leaned her body into it more. Neji sputtered and cursed internally as the blade drew a few inches closer. Her eyes were determined but also sparkling with excitement. She shifted her weight forward even more, lifting her hips slightly off his body to put more weight on the kunai.

    Neji’s eyes widened. There! Lifting her weight off his body had upset her balance and it didn’t even look like she even realized it. Never had he been more grateful for the occasional classes in grappling the Clan subjected him to.

    In one solid movement he bucked his hips to the left as hard as he could, pulled the kunai to the left and moved his head to the right. The kunai buried itself in the soft earth not even an inch from his neck. Rei overbalanced and fell rolling off him to the side. Neji struggled to his feet quickly and got vertical a split second after Rei did. He looked at her face and wished he hadn’t. She was furious and right then it terrified him.

    His mind raced as she produced two more kunai from within her robes. I’m at my limit. I don’t think I can last much longer. I have to end this now!

    Rei came at him and the only reason he was able to react in time was that she was moving much slower than before. Neji dove in cutting the angle of the attack. In desperation he purposefully allowed the kunai to slice into his arm which would have been a deep debilitating wound if it had been a real weapon. He saw her eyes widen in surprise as he struck her chest with the power of the Juuken. As before she froze up, stunned by the pain and her mouth open in a silent scream. This time Neji couldn’t take any chances.

    He struck her body again and again not really aiming for anything other than sending spikes of Chakra into the closest bundles of muscles and nerves that he could see. Rei dropped her kunai but Neji ignored that and kept going. He struck her body again and again, over a dozen times until it looked like her body was barely holding itself upright more out of habit than any conscious will on Rei’s part. Using the last very last of his strength to make sure he finished her off he sent a vicious side kick straight at her head.

    The blow struck her forehead, snapping her head back and sending her flying backwards through the air. There was a tree some six feet behind her that Neji hadn’t really registered until now. He winced as the back of her head struck the tree. Her body crumpled, seemingly boneless, and came to a rest unmoving at the base of the tree. Neji stared at her body for a few seconds to make doubly sure she wasn’t going to be getting up again. When he was sure she wasn’t going to get up let his body collapse and sat down heavily on the ground.

    He was exhausted. Neji never dreamed the girl would push him this far. He knew there were a lot of things he needed to think through but his brain was more interested in greedily sucking in oxygen at the moment.

    It was then when he was sure of his victory that he saw Rei moving struggling to get to her knees.

    How are you still conscious?! His mind cried out in disbelief.

    000

    She had blacked out for a few seconds at least. At least that was the explanation her spinning mind spat out at her as to why there was suddenly a hole in her memory. Rei came to with agonizing pain all over her body but most distressingly in her head. Black spots swam in her vision and she thought she was going to throw up.

    Rei tried to move but her limbs weren’t cooperating and her mind was all foggy. They sort-of obeyed and she tried to get to her knees without much success. She turned her head and saw a blur sitting not too far away that might have been looking in her direction. It kind of looked like Neji.

    I… I lost?

    Suddenly the black spots seem to swim and expand in her vision. She made one last effort to get up before her limbs gave out and she crumpled to the floor. As her vision continued to darken only a few thoughts came through in her discombobulated mind.

    I lost.

    There might have been tears stinging her eyes but she couldn’t be sure.

    I failed.

    Then darkness claimed her and she knew no more.
     
  15. Threadmarks: Chapter 15
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 15

    000

    High up in the trees Anko watched from some distance away as her part-time student struggled to get up before finally collapsing and succumbing to unconsciousness. Unexpectedly the Special Jounin had some kind of strange feeling in her chest after the sparring match she had just seen. It took her a few moments to realize that what she was feeling was the soft glow of pride. The girl was an idiot to be sure, loud mouthed, mouthy and also a pain in the ass. Still she was also clever, smart (when she bothered to use her brain), undoubtedly talented and worked as hard as anyone she had ever seen. Anko could reluctantly admit she didn’t exactly hate teaching the girl anymore.

    It was unsettling but Anko was self-aware enough to realize she had become at least a little bit fond of the kid. The Special Jounin wasn’t really comfortable with that. The only person she had ever truly cared about had been him and look how well that turned out. Since then Anko had enjoyed having many acquaintances and lots of casual sex but she had always made sure never to get so close that she wouldn’t slash their throats without a second’s hesitation. It was probably because the girl was a kid. Anko had read somewhere that adults were biologically predisposed to care about pre-pubescent brats, not that she’d ever had the problem before.

    After thinking about it for a few long moments Anko decided that yes, if the order should ever come down she would still be able to cut Rei’s throat without a second’s hesitation. The only difference was that she would probably need to drown herself in alcohol that night. Anko let out a much relieved breath. Even if her ovaries or whatever made her like the kid she could still be professional and do her job. She hadn’t suddenly developed a glaring weakness… not like the one she’d had when he was involved.

    Unsettled by thinking about her old mentor Anko decided to move. She remembered she had spotted an ANBU not trying especially hard to hide watching the little brats spar in the trees near the other side of the clearing. The woman quickly made her way in that direction as her mind played over the spar she had just witnessed.

    Rei was an idiot and as usual her pride led her to do something stupid. She should have never agreed to fight the Hyuuga kid in taijutsu only, that had simply been a retarded move beyond all reason. Anko decided she was going to have to think of something to beat that ridiculous pride out of her. Then again the other kid an arrogant idiot too. He never should have offered to let Rei use all her skills and weapons at the start of the fight and he’d had about a dozen chances to finish the fight before the blonde girl cut loose and came at him seriously.

    Now that she thought about it she couldn’t decide which of the two brats had been more idiotic. The both deserved to have some sense slapped into them for the stunts they pulled.

    However when her little spitfire had cut loose… well that had been something to see. Anko couldn’t deny the little thrill she had felt every time she saw Rei using a strategy, skill or technique that she had taught the girl or helped her refine. The little brat was starting to grow up. She doubted many Genin in Konoha could have survived enraged little Rei’s final assault. It made Anko feel good somehow to be a part of that and to see the kid slowly getting better week after week.

    That must have been her ovaries speaking. She’d need to look into having them removed.

    As she approached she spotted the ANBU who only seemed concerned with hiding from the brats below. He turned his head in her direction a bit revealing that he was wearing a fish mask. She landed on the same branch as him but a good distance away. The ANBU had turned away from her and went back to watching the kids… not that there was much to see with one unconscious and the other on the ground breathing hard and looking like a shell shocked war survivor.

    “So Fish-san,” she opened up, “were you sent to watch over the littlest Hyuuga prodigy?”

    His head kind of half turned in her direction. “Why would you think that?” he asked blandly.

    She turned to look at him and grinned. “Because you’re a Hyuuga of course.”

    It was slight but Anko was gratified by seeing him stiffen. “I’m not-“

    “You must be new,” said Anko, “so just for your information; for some reason when wearing a mask you Hyuuga tend to do this weird thing where you never look at anything straight on. No one else does that. Ergo you’re a Hyuuga and you’re here to watch the kid.”

    The ANBU tensed for a second before letting out a sigh. “I suppose there’s no harm in admitting that much. Thanks for the tip.”

    “No problem,” said Anko brightly, “so who do you think won the fight Fish-san?”

    There was a long pause before he answered. “Yamanaka-san lost consciousness first and that is one of the conditions for losing a spar. Neji-san was the victor.”

    “Hmm but is that really the case I wonder? Rei was forced to use blunted weapons. I know you didn’t miss that she landed what could have easily been a crippling cut to his hand. Also at the very end your brat took a vicious cut to the arm. If this was real life he would probably be bleeding out right now,” Anko said.

    The ANBU hesitated before answering. “That doesn’t matter. The match ended the moment she decided to draw weapons. The terms were taijutsu only.”

    “Heh, nice try. If you remember at the start of the fight though your kid said to her ‘you can use whatever you want’. Then she said ‘taijutsu sounds good to me’. At no point did she actually say she agreed to not use anything else. Weapons and ninjutsu were completely within the rules of the match,” Anko said with a grin.

    “The agreement to stick to taijutsu only was implied,” replied the ANBU sounding a hint miffed.

    “The answer was vague on purpose. Trying to draw him into a false sense of security I’m sure,” Anko argued even though she was fairly sure Rei hadactually just been acting like a stupid arrogant prideful brat, “then he just assumed she agreed to limit herself. And you know what they say about assumptions… they make an ass out of you when you make them,” she said gleefully.

    The ANBU sighed. “Why do you care who lost and who won?”

    Anko pouted and stretched her body, arching her back and putting her generous figure on the best display possible. Even though he didn’t move his head she was sure the Hyuuga was watching. It never hurt to get people thinking about her body rather than anything else. “I put a few hundred ryo on the girl winning. Don’t want that to go to waste especially when anyone with eyes would have seen the result was inconclusive.”

    The ANBU shook his head. “All the bookies are going to care about is that one of them was conscious and the other one was knocked out at the end of their spar. Though I will grant that there is merit to your argument I don’t think it will do you any good as far as your gambling is concerned.”

    Anko suppressed a wince at that. He was probably right. Even though it wasn’t very much money she still hated to lose. Oh well. It had been 50/50 as who would win in her mind in the first place. Not a huge loss though it was a disappointment.

    “So how do you think your kid did?” asked the ANBU.

    Anko found herself disturbed by the question. She hissed at him, “She’s not my kid.”

    The ANBU turned his head towards her in a way that Anko interpreted as quizzical.

    “You were here to watch her right? And I was given to understand that you’ve been training her?” he asked politely.

    “Well yeah,” said Anko suddenly feeling like she was being attacked, “but she’s just another part of the job, nothing more.”

    “I see,” said the ANBU in a tone that said he didn’t fully believe her.

    “Besides I wanted to see if I would get my money’s worth,” she added, not sure why she was still defending herself.

    “Why did you bet on her then?” asked the ANBU in the same polite tones, “when last I heard the odds of her winning were pretty horrible.”

    “I like playing the long odds,” she said, even though that was the exact opposite of how she normally preferred to operate. With that the two of them felt into silence.

    Moments later the ANBU spoke up again. “Yamanaka-san has been unconscious for several minutes now. I should get down there and check on her if she doesn’t wake up soon.”

    “You’re a medic?” Anko asked glad they had changed topics.

    “Yes,” he said simply.

    Anko smiled at him and teased. “Did they send you here to make sure that Yamanaka didn’t cripple your golden boy too badly?”

    “That,” he acknowledged, “and also to make sure she wasn’t too badly injured.”

    “Yes,” Anko drawled, “I suppose it would look bad if a Hyuuga killed or crippled the Yamanaka heiress everyone seems to think will be the next Kakashi Hatake or Tsunade Senju.”

    The ANBU nodded absently. “Neji-san, Rei-san, and then we have Itachi Uchiha-san. When I was younger having a ‘genius’ appear was a rare thing. Now they seem to be all over the place.” With that the Fish-ANBU stood up. “I’ll go check on Yamanaka-san now. Good day Mitarashi-san.” With that the Hyuuga used a body flicker and appeared next to the unconscious girl.

    “Well he was chatty for an ANBU,” Anko muttered to herself.

    As she watched Fish start to work on the girl Anko ralized that she no longer had any reason to stay there. She had seen the fight and was satisfied that Rei was still making progress and could fight under pressure. Anko had also gotten to see another piece of her personality, another piece of the puzzle that was Rei Yamanaka. All in all she had accomplished her goals and was done here. So why did she want to stay?

    In the end she told herself that she stayed to watch while Fish healed Rei because the girl was valuable. If anything was to happen to her because some clumsy Hyuuga medic had screwed things up it would be a political shitstorm and if they found out she had been around she might be implicated. In the end she was only staying to cover her own ass. Satisfied with her logic Anko sat down to watch as the medic worked. It was best to make sure the brat was fine before she left.

    000

    He Hokage sat back in his chair as he allowed the jutsu powering his crystal ball to wink out. Though somewhat more limited than he would like the object and its corresponding jutsu did allow him to observe what was happening nearly anywhere in the village.

    As he lit his pipe Hiruzen pondered what he had just seen. Even the Hokage was not completely spared the rumor mill of Konoha and he had heard about the young Yamanaka and Hyuuga training together. Normally he would have ignored such things but in this case the Hokage had found himself curious. Part of that curiosity stemmed from the fact that one of the children participating made him uneasy.

    The fight had been impressive enough for their age but that wasn’t what Hiruzen had focused on. Instead he tried to get a feel for the character of the two young people participating. What he had seen did not fill him with overwhelming confidence.

    He knew Neji’s story and it was clear from his actions and the things he said that all was not well with him. There was a lot of anger there and a sense of entitled superiority that Hiruzen associated with the very worst of the clan indulgences. If Neji had been anyone else Hiruzen might have been worried about his future loyalties. Of course the Caged Bird Seal meant that no matter what Neji would quite literally be an extension of the Hyuuga clan until the day of his death. He quite simply did not have any other choice. Though the Caged Bird Seal was a tragedy it meant that within reason Neji Hyuuga could always be counted on to promote Hyuuga interests. That was predictable and something the Hokage could work with.

    Rei on the other hand… the girl reminded him too much of his students. Two of them to be precise. To him her personality seemed like an unholy union of Tsunade and Orochimaru. His ambition, hunger for power and capacity for cruelty coupled with Tsunade’s early brashness, anger, recklessness and forceful personality.

    Over the years Hiruzen had come to rely heavily on his instincts and they told him there was something wrong with the girl. Too smooth. Too adult in some ways. Little things that didn’t quite add up even accounting for her genius. That outfit that could have been simple coincidence or it could have been a taunt. Then there were also Anko’s reports.

    The woman was positive Rei had something to hide but as of yet hadn’t come up with anything concrete. Anko had become convinced that the girl has a deep thirst for power and that she wasn’t particularly fond of Konoha or the Hokage. If that wasn’t enough the girl was clearly aware of Anko’s purpose and the Special Jounin had reported over and over that the girl was deliberately concealing something she was afraid Anko would discover. However the girl had never appealed to her parents to have Anko removed as her teacher. Why? What was she playing at?

    It made Hiruzen feel a little ridiculous having to play these sorts of subtle games with a seven year old but there was nothing for it. Orochimaru somehow controlling her immediately came to mind. It was no secret he would love to get his hooks into someone like Rei Yamanaka. Repeated searches of her belongings had turned up nothing which was no big surprise. Or was something else going on? Was there perhaps something obvious he was overlooking?

    The fight he had just witnessed might have the answer to that. Young Rei had shown a vicious and dangerous side to her when she began to attack Neji in earnest, even going so far as to leak subconscious killing intent towards the end. Perhaps Rei’s “big secret” was that she had a bloodthirsty side to her personality that she was embarrassed or afraid to make known. Perhaps a well-adjusted sociopath? It seemed unlikely given that she lived with the Yamanaka but it wasn’t entirely out of the question. In some ways if that was the case it would be a relief.

    There was nothing for it. He would just need to make sure to keep an eye on the girl. Maybe eventually he could find some pretext to have her properly interrogated if only to put his mind at ease. The girl did not sit well with him. His instincts honed over long decades kept telling him the same thing over and over again.

    That girl was going to be trouble.

    000

    Neji sat on the grass and looked at his fallen opponent as he slowly got his breathing under control. He wasn’t sure what to think. Neji had been sure it would be an easy win. That his superiority in this case was fate, written in the stars and just as unchangeable and unavoidable as the rest of the circumstances in his life.

    He had the Byakugan and the Juuken, the greatest taijutsu style in the Land of Fire and possibly the whole of the Elemental Nations. Rei-san for all her talent didn’t have his eyes or the superiority of the Juuken. It had seemed like fate had made clear what the outcome would be. A preordained victory for the fighter with the superior blood and skill. In his mind the inevitable result had become simple and somewhat self-evident.

    Obviously he had made some erroneous assumptions somewhere.

    One of the advantages of knowing about fate as the way of things was that it was easier to accept facts about the way things were, even unpalatable ones. He had technically won given that he was the last one standing. However how much of a victory was it really? During their fight he’d been cut by her kunai numerous times including one cut that could easily have been debilitating. In their last clash he had taken an incredibly dangerous strike to his arm in order to ensure a victory. Only it didn’t feel like a victory. Neji was proud but he also wasn’t one to delude himself about the reality of things. If she had been using real blades would he still have won? He couldn’t be sure. The fact was he could have very easily lost. It was hard to feel good about his victory when his opponent had been fighting with useless weapons. Maybe he should have insisted she use real weapons? Or perhaps they should have set it up so it would be his loss after he was ‘cut’ so many times?

    Her aggressiveness, speed and unconventional focus on attacking his hands and arms had thrown him off balance. Now that he had more of a feel for her style he thought he could counter it the next time they clashed. She had probably only won because of the element of surprise. Or had she won? Neji didn’t know. He just knew he didn’t particularly feel like he had won.

    Neji tensed as he saw a figure suddenly appear next to the downed Rei. He half moved to get up before the man in the Fish mask held up his hands with his palms out.

    “Peace Hyuuga-san. I’m a medic with Ansatsu Senjutsu Tokushu Butai. I’m just here to check that Yamanaka-san hasn’t sustained any serious injuries,” the man said.

    Neji scowled at him before using the last dregs of his Chakra to activate his Byakugan again. When he looked at the man’s face it was nothing but a blur. Neji knew legitimate ANBU personnel had a special seal on their masks that hid their faces even from the Byakugan. That was as close to confirmation that this person was legitimate as Neji was likely to get. Besides it wasn’t like he was in a position to do anything about it.

    Seeing that Neji finished his inspection the man bent down and gently lifted the girl’s head. His hands started glowing green in the distinctive color of medical Chakra as he slowly ran them over her skull. Satisfied that the man was doing as he claimed Neji allowed his mind to drift back to working out the problem before him.

    Then there was that bit near the end. The fear. It had been unnatural. Now that Neji had time to think what he had experienced it sounded like something he’d read about once. If he remembered correctly it was a technique called Killing Intent that filled your opponent with fear. Only it hadn’t felt like a focused technique. Was she using a technique she hadn’t mastered? Or had she been using it unconsciously somehow? He did remember that Killing Intent was considered a high level skill. No regular person should have been able to utilize it.

    That thought made a light bulb go on in his head as realization began to set in. Of course. Of course that is what he had been missing. It was so obvious now that Neji berated himself for having missed it earlier. His only excuse was that the experiences in his own clan deviated from the norm.

    Rei Yamanaka wasn’t normal. She was the Clan Heir of the Yamanaka. A clan that while not as large or as powerful as the Hyuuga was still very old and very well regarded. They were respected and venerated for their unique contributions to the village. Rei had been chosen by fate to be the next leader of an entire clan of ninja. Suddenly everything started to make sense.

    It was only natural that in ninja clans that the leaders and heirs were the best and strongest ninja the clans had to offer. Shikaku Nara was widely thought of as the most brilliant strategist in the village, something even an academy student like him knew about. Shikaku Nara-san was the head of the Nara Clan. Choza Akimichi was the head of the Akimichi Clan and was regarded as their finest warrior. The same went for the Hyuuga, Uchiha and Inuzuka clan heads. Neji knew this wasn’t just a coincidence. In most cases fate only chose the strongest and most suitable to rise to positions of power and influence in the village. In most cases anyway.

    He’d somehow completely forgotten about that when it came to Rei, what with her frequent smiles and strange humor. Over the last year that they had… interacted she had become just ‘Rei’ in his mind and not ‘The Yamanaka Heir’. Clearly that had been a mistake and he had paid for it. He knew she was regarded as a genius but he had never stopped to think about what that meant.

    Suddenly Neji felt a little embarrassed. He had reacted poorly and said some uncharitable things after Rei had insinuated that Hiashi-sama didn’t have faith in his skills. At the time he had meant what he said but looking back… perhaps he should have chosen something different to say. She was a Clan Heir and based on that fact alone he was obliged to show her respect. However now Neji thought that her skills deserved his respect as well. He was sure that he could win next time they sparred of course… but now there was a sliver of doubt because he also knew that he could lose. Maybe it wouldn’t be all that likely. But he knew it would be possible. That she had pushed him so far using only basic skills said volumes about her ability.

    A small smile tugged at his lips. Of course she did. Fate had decided that she would be the next head of the Yamanaka Clan. Her skill should have come as absolutely no surprise. Perhaps fate had also decreed that he should lose to remind him of this fact. It was made all the more amazing when you took into account the fact that the Hyuuga was a combat focused clan while the Yamanaka primarily focused on support and intelligence gathering. While Neji was confident he could win their next match that didn’t at all detract from her achievement.

    He heard a pained groan and looked over at Rei who seemed to be slowly regaining consciousness as the medic continued to work on her. That suddenly made Neji think about what he would say to her when she woke up. The boy frowned. He wasn’t used to these types of situations and didn’t consider himself to be very good at them.

    He tried to think. What were the things that Rei had said to him? ‘We are equals’ ‘I think we can help each other get stronger’ ‘We’ll probably be teammates’ ‘You’re probably the only one who can understand me’ ‘I want us to be friends’.

    Neji turned all those things over in his mind. He thought he could now begin to understand what she had been trying to say. Neji had never… respected anyone his age. They had all been clearly inferior to him by any metric imaginable. He had often felt like a completely alien creature compared to his age mates. Perhaps Rei felt the same. Perhaps… it would be nice to be friendly with someone who understood. Who wasn’t going to be dead weight. Neji felt that maybe that’s what Rei had been getting at. He simply hadn’t seen it because he had still been convinced that he was superior to her.

    That idea of ‘friendship’ or whatever was something very different from anything he was used to. But maybe… maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.

    000

    When she began to come to her first thought was that her head felt about three times bigger than it should have been. The pain she was experiencing was slowly receding though and she felt a calloused pair of hands gently cradling her head. Slowly she forced her eyes open, squinting into the light of the afternoon sun that seemed burn her eyes.

    There was a strange man in a mask holding her head and standing over her. Rei’s reaction was automatic; it didn’t even require thought. Her fist shot out to punch the strange masked man in the face. One of his hands snapped up and caught her fist mid-air with an easy, almost gentle motion.

    “Peace Yamanaka-san,” said the man wearing… was that a fish mask? “I’m just a simple medic with Ansatsu Senjutsu Tokushu Butai. I saw the hit you took and am merely repairing what damage I can.”

    Rei blinked up blearily at him, her mind still foggy. “You’re what?”

    “I’m a medic with ANBU,” he repeated, “I’m here to help you.”

    “Oh,” she said a tiny bit slurred, “why didn’t you say so in the first place?”

    Even though it felt awkward for her Rei tried her best to relax and let the man work. The pain in her head began to fade and after a minute or two it had mostly disappeared except for a stubborn ache that didn’t seem to want to leave.

    “Can you sit up?” the ANBU asked.

    “Yeah… I think so.”

    To her surprise her head only swam a little as she sat up. She looked over at the man and gave him a small grateful smile.

    “Thanks. That feels a lot better. Also… sorry for the trying to punch you thing. You just surprised me is all.”

    He waved off her concern. “As a medic you quickly learn that many ninja try to attack if woken unexpectedly. It’s perfectly normal. How are you feeling?”

    “Ermm surprisingly good,” she said with some surprise in her voice as she realized that was the truth. Most of the aches and pains from getting hit were gone and her head only had a dull persistent ache as opposed to the agony she could remember.

    The ANBU nodded as if he had been expecting that. “Make sure to take it easy and not take any hits to the head for the next few days. You don’t need to worry about a concussion but any additional trauma would be doubly dangerous right now. I’d suggest a follow up at the hospital in a few days just to make sure there aren’t any complications.”

    Yeah that’s not likely to happen. “Sure ANBU-san,” she said.

    Even though she couldn’t see his face somehow she got the impression that he didn’t believe her. “Well I’ll be off then,” the man said standing up.

    “Yeah. Thanks,” Rei said but the man had already disappeared in a swirl of leaves and a gust of displaced air.

    As she looked around a little blearily she finally saw Neji sitting some distance away looking at her with a look of intense concentration on his face. That’s when it all came back to Rei. The spar. The fight. She was losing horribly and then… kind of lost her shit and attacked Neji with everything she had. Rei had given it her all, thrown absolutely everything that she could at Neji. In the end it wasn’t enough. She had still lost.

    She had failed.

    Rei let herself flop back down on the ground so Neji wouldn’t see her face. It twisted in a look on anguish and despair. This wasn’t how things were supposed to go. She was supposed to beat Neji and make him acknowledge her. She was supposed to prove everyone who thought she was going to lose wrong and rub it in their faces. She was even supposed to look just a little bit badass doing it. The stories had lied to her. Naruto and Sasuke and Sakura and everyone in the story always seemed to pull out an impossible victory with enough grit and determination. That though made her chuckle darkly. This is real life not some story for children, she chided herself, what did you expect, that some deus ex machina would somehow ensure your victory? That if you ‘believe in your friends’ or some bullshit you can do anything? That you would magically be able to pull off a great snake escape because you’re the protagonist of your own story? Kami Rei grow up.

    She was still very much aware that Neji was watching her from not too far away. She couldn’t break down into self-pity and recrimination now (yet). If she hoped to salvage anything from this she couldn’t look as shook up as she felt. Rei forced herself to sit up and school her face into something resembling neutrality.

    Her eyes locked with Neji’s as they sat on the grass some distance away from each other. He looked disheveled and rumpled and there was a little blood on his nose from where she had punched it. At least she had made him work for it. Then again she had probably technically lost the spar the moment she had pulled out the kunai. She had agreed to a taijutsu only spar after all. Very foolishly agreed, she chided herself, I… I need stop doing things like that. Ninja are supposed to be smart. Anko is right. My pride does get me into trouble.

    Eventually Neji was the first to break their stare-off. He looked off to the side before speaking. “I think I should apologize,” he said, sounding stiff but somehow younger than usual, “before and during our spar I might have said some… uncharitable things. Things that were uncalled for.”

    Whaaat? That had not been what Rei had been expecting. She had been waiting for him to rub his victory in her face. To tell her that he had clearly been right and fate had decided that he was better than her. Anything along those lines. She certainly hadn’t expected him to apologize for their somewhat nasty banter.

    Suddenly Rei felt rather awkward. She swallowed nervously. “Yeah I’m sorry too. I… tend to run my mouth when I’m in a fight or in an uncomfortable situation,” she took a deep breath, “I was also trying to get under your skin. I knew you were better than me at taijutsu and was hoping that if I upset you enough you would make a mistake. I didn’t really mean everything I said.”

    Neji just nodded slightly at that. “That is a valid strategy,” he said.

    They were silent for a few long moments before Rei forced an uncomfortable smile on her face. “So uh, congratulations on your win. You’re even better at taijutsu than I had expected.”

    There was a tense uncomfortable moment of silence before Neji shook his head. “If you had been using live weapons the outcome would have been very different. I think I would have lost. I think… that you were the victor of this match Rei-san,” he said.

    Rei’s eyes widened in surprise at that. “No way. How can you think I won? You weren’t the one who was knocked unconscious like a sack of rice.”

    Neji gave her a puzzled look. “How do you knock a sack of rice unconscious?”

    “That’s not the point! Besides… it was supposed to be taijutsu only. I lost the moment I… lost my temper and came at you with kunai,” she said, dipping her head in part shame and part embarrassment. Rei really had kind of lost control there at the end.

    Neji just shrugged at that. “I wanted you to use all your skills and weapons in the first place. The Byakugan and Juuken are too much of an advantage to make it a fair fight otherwise. I wasn’t the one who suggested a taijutsu only spar.”

    Rei mentally winced at that. Definitely not her brightest moment. “I still think that you won,” she insisted stubbornly.

    Neji gave her a strange look. “Why are you arguing with me about this?” he asked.

    Rei opened her mouth to reply before clicking it shut. Why was she arguing about this? Her most important goal had been earning Neji’s respect. Now it seemed that against all reason he was giving it to her even though she lost. Heck he was saying he thought he lost somehow even though she was the one who was knocked unconscious. Why? She wanted to ask but she didn’t want to risk jinxing the situation. Neji seemed sincere. Maybe she should just accept it.

    She gave him a smile, this time genuine and honest – something most people very rarely got to see. “Well how about we just call it a draw then?”

    Neji’s eyes squinted seeming to think about it for a minute before giving her a single terse nod. “Acceptable.”

    Going with an impulse Rei gingerly pushed herself to her feet and walked over to Neji. He watched her curiously and a bit warily as she moved and sat next to him – close but not too close.

    “I don’t think the Juuken should even be considered taijutsu,” Rei said with a small smile and her tone said she didn’t mean anything by it, “it’s too strong. I never want to fight you taijutsu only seriously ever again.”

    Neji smirked a bit shyly, seemingly pleased by her praise. “What would you classify it as then?”

    “I don’t know. It needs a class of its own. It’s like taijutsu mixed with shape manipulation or something. It’s impressive you can use it so well,” Rei said slightly gushing. Neji and the Juuken had impressed her even if they hurt like hell. Besides a little well earned praise never hurt anything.

    Neji caught on to what she was doing and decided to reciprocate. He was glad he had Rei there to give him clues as to what to do next. “You were also very good. Your tactics and strategies were… clever. You improvised well and made good use of the element of surprise. Your skill with blades is also not-insignificant,” he then paused, seeming to hesitate before adding, “I’m frankly surprised you did so well against me.”

    Rei’s first impulse was to take offence at the last comment but by Neji’s face she could tell he was feeling somewhat out of his element but making an effort. Her indignation softened. He probably didn’t realize or think that what he had just said was especially offensive. “What do you mean?”

    “I mean my clan techniques are superior to yours. The truth is I expected an easy victory,” he said easily.

    Rei’s eyebrow twitched in irritation but she somehow managed to keep calm. “You know a comment like that might be taken as an insult. Just so you know,” she said in sweet tones that were entirely too deliberate.

    He seemed to think about it while being completely oblivious to her reaction. “I suppose I can see that,” he conceded sounding just a touch apologetic, “what I meant is that the nature of our clans should mean that I would win in most circumstances.”

    “How so?”

    “Well,” said Neji, sounding just a touch exasperated as if he was being forced to explain something obvious, “the techniques of the Hyuuga clan focus almost exclusively on direct combat. The techniques of the Yamanaka are instead focused almost exclusively on intelligence gathering. Naturally when a Hyuuga and Yamanaka of similar skill and experience clash I would expect the Hyuuga to win.”

    That… actually made a lot of sense and was a lot less asshole-ish than Neji had originally made it sound. He was of course completely correct. When put in those terms it made sense that he thought he would win their fight rather handily. If he hadn’t been lording his superiority over her he would have won that easily.

    “So how did I win then?” she asked, genuinely curious as to his answer. The truth was she didn’t think she had won but he seemed to think so.

    “Because you’re a Clan Heir. In hindsight it’s not surprising that you would win even if I am from a combat clan and you are form a support oriented clan,” he said without hesitation and with conviction in his voice.

    Rei’s brow furrowed and she raised a skeptical eyebrow. “What does that have to do with anything?”

    “Fate has decreed that you will lead an entire clan of ninja one day. I don’t know how large the Yamanka is but that is at least several hundred warriors. Since that is the fate you were born with it is only natural that you will be a powerful and talented ninja.”

    That… there was so much wrong with that in Rei’s opinion. She wasn’t strong because she was Clan Heir. She was strong because she worked her ass off every day.

    And also because you were born with an unfair advantage, a traitorous little voice said in the back of her head.

    “Is that really true?” Rei asked “What about Hinata? She’s the Clan Heir in your clan and from everything I’ve heard you’re much better than she is.”

    A dark cloud passed over Neji’s face and suddenly Rei wished she hadn’t brought Hinata up. “Hinata-sama is a rare exception. Her birth has decreed that she will be a failure. However in most other cases only the strongest ever achieve positions of power and influence.”

    Then he went on to list many contemporary figures in Konoha and many more in the village’s history. Viewed in a certain way his argument was compelling. From the beginning when Hashirama was the strongest Senju and Madara the strongest Uchiha it seemed that the strongest ninja happened to be the leaders in their clan or otherwise rose to position of prominence quickly. It was that way throughout history and even to today. He even cited Itachi and Rei as examples of this continuing pattern and tradition. Superficially it seemed like what he was saying had merit.

    Of course that didn’t change the fact that Rei thought his ideas about fate were a complete crock of bullshit.

    Still now wasn’t the time for Rei to challenge Neji about his views. Their… relationship was still tenuous and new and rocking the boat too much at this point could damage it. Rei wasn’t willing to risk that. The best she could do right now was hint but not push. It was both clear and kind of sad that Neji had latched on to this philosophy as a way to rationalize his shitty lot in life. Being seen as attacking that idea would only provoke a negative response.

    “So,” she said feeling butterflies in her stomach, “do you still want to be friends? Do you think you can see me as an equal? And don’t worry about your clan. We can still train together and just pretend if not cozying up to me would cause problems for you.” She looked him straight in the eyes, “I just want to know if I can put my trust in you.”

    Neji swallowed thickly and his whole face flashed through a whole montage of emotions before he got himself back under control. “Yes… after today I can see that we are equals. I apologize for assuming otherwise. I’ve… never had any experience with friends. But I’m willing to give it a try. If you’ll still have me.”

    Rei looked at his nervous face for a few seconds before breaking out in a grin and letting out a squeal very much like those of her kid sister. She lunged in his direction and wrapped her arms tightly around his shoulders eliciting an un-manly squeak from the boy. Almost instantly he began trying to push her off. Unable to resist she gave him a quick peck on the cheek before letting go and sitting back with a smile on her face.

    “What was that?” he asked, looking and sounding somehow horrified.

    “It’s called a hug,” she said with a huge grin that refused to fade, “friends give them to each other sometimes. Don’t worry I won’t do it too often.”

    “Good. That was… distressing,” he said while trying to straighten out his clothes.

    “You won’t be singing that tune forever!” she sing-songed.

    “What is that supposed to mean?” he asked with a puzzled frown.

    “Someday you’ll love having a pretty girl’s arms around you,” she said with a playful wink.

    Neji snorted. “Yeah,” he said, “I don’t think so.”

    “Love!”

    “Please stop.”

    “Love! Love! Love!”

    “… how long do I have to stay here again?”
     
  16. Threadmarks: Chapter 16
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    000

    Chapter 16

    000

    After Rei and Neji went their separate ways the girl began to walk home taking the long way to give herself time to think. When the initial glow of having finally gotten Neji firmly on her side as a friend faded a little Rei’s mind inevitably went back to the match. The match that Rei knew had ended in her complete and utter defeat no matter what Neji said.

    The truth was she had gotten lucky to do as well as she had. As much as she hated to admit it the biggest reason she even did as well as she had was because she had surprised Neji with her unexpected attack and her unexpected tactics. Next time they clashed it would get much harder for her to make it such a close fight.

    What could she do? Rei suddenly had an urge to learn something new but didn’t know what. It would have to be something she was allowed to learn which drastically limited what she could do. Rei growled in frustration. Neji could totally kick her ass because he had learned the special jutsu of his clan, the Gentle Fist. Why was she being limited to only the basics until she graduated or until her dad decided she was mentally mature enough? Rei fumed as she thought about it.

    Then again how much good would it do exactly if she was learning Yamanaka techniques? Neji had been right, the value of her clan techniques was mostly in their utility, not in their combat potential. The first jutsu that was the basis for many others, the Mind-Body switch, was actually rather useless in combat as she remembered from the story. How would that help her beat Neji?

    Actually Rei paused and chided herself for thinking like that. Neji wasn’t her goal. Her goal was to become an S-Rank warrior as soon as possible. How much would Yamanaka jutsu help her achieve that? A bout of irrational resentment bubbled up in Rei. Why are our clan techniques so specialized? Because we are just a cog in the war machinery of Konoha, content to fall into our narrow support and intelligence niche. We can have glaring holes in our combat capabilities because we expect other combat focused clans to make up the difference.

    Rei knew she was being a bit unfair but didn’t particularly feel like being charitable. Then again on further reflection clan techniques, while powerful, did not seem to lead to S-Rank levels of power from what she remembered. There were no strictly Inuzuka, Yamanaka, Akimichi, Hyuuga etc ninja powerful enough to be considered S-Rank. Powerful Jounin? You bet. But they never seemed to break through that barrier and become the type of ninja where their names were spoken of in hushed tones and mentioned in the same breath as the Kages of the ninja villages.

    The only possible exception were the Uchiha but then again not really. Most of the ones who became truly terrifying branched out from their clan techniques and relied heavily on the disgustingly unfair and powerful Mangekyo Sharingan. Clan techniques would help her towards her goal but the ninja who achieved S-Rank had a much more comprehensive and diverse skillset than just that.

    Rei sighed. All of that was well and good but she didn’t know how to start learning new and more powerful skills than just the basics. Yes basic techniques were critically important but if her match with Neji had shown her anything was that it was incredibly difficult to counter more advanced techniques with just basic ones when your skill levels were roughly the same.

    Rei grimaced. She had become entirely too lackadaisical in her progress over the last year. It had been a combination of things really. Her parents, mostly her father, had decided that she couldn’t learn anything more advanced probably until she graduated. Then Anko came into the picture and that had scared her away from trying something crazy like trying to steal techniques or recreate the Rasengan… not that she probably could with her current Chakra stores anyway. After that Rei had seen her skills improving by leaps and bounds while training with Anko and she had been satisfied with that. Going up against Neji was making her think that had been a mistake.

    Now that she thought about it Rei wanted to slap herself for losing sight of her goals. The eventual long term goal was to become an S-Rank ninja obviously. However she had a few other goals that were just as important. The first big one was that she needed to be ready for the absolute shitstorm that was coming in about six and a half years. The invasion. Sasuke defecting. Akatsuki. She wasn’t the protagonist in some manga. There was no such thing as plot armor. She could easily die in a war.

    So could Ino. That thought terrified her much more than the thought of her own death.

    Besides all that… well. She knew an integral part of her long terms goals would be to earn herself a fearsome reputation. What better place to do that than the Chunnin exams when people from all over the Elemental Nations would be watching? A sharp smile tugged at her lips. That would be her time to make a big splash. If she could she was totally going to steal the spotlight from that emo-tard Sasuke.

    Still. She was getting ahead of herself. The basic problem still remained. How was she going to learn more advanced skills? Waiting another five years until she graduated was now completely out of the question in her mind. The smile fell from her face. How was she going to pull this off?

    There had to be a way. A way that didn’t end up with her in an interrogation cell in some basement somewhere. She just needed to put her thinking hat on and figure out how she was going to pull this off.

    000

    Rei went home, ate, showered and crawled into bed early. No one was home but that wasn’t so unusual. In fact Rei was glad to be alone. She didn’t really feel like talking to her parents about the match she lost and she needed to think. About what she was going to do in the short term. In the long term. Rei had concluded that her time spent going with the flow had to end. She needed to make a big play. Rei just needed to figure out what that play was going to be.

    Some half hour after she had been laying in the bed in semi-darkness the door to the bedroom opened and closed. Rei opened her eyes to see Ino standing next to her bed. She was freshly showered and looked ready for bed.

    “Hey Nee-chan,” Ino said, thankfully keeping her voice down, “I didn’t wake you up did I?”

    Rei shook her head, a fond smile on her face.

    “Good,” Ino said with a little grin as she sat down on the bed, “so, did you win?”

    “What?” said Rei for some reason feeling gobsmacked by the question.

    “Your spar silly. Did you win?” asked Ino with a big expectant smile.

    Suddenly Rei found herself anxious and a little bit afraid. Ino had been so sure that her big sister was going to win. Instead she had gotten her ass kicked. Rei felt a kernel of worry in her stomach. Ino had always thought that Rei was the best, that her sister could do no wrong. Would her little sister still look up to her even though she had lost? Would she still look at Rei in the same adoring and reverent way? Rei didn’t want to lose that. For the first time she could remember the older sister felt insecure around the younger one.

    Rei looked straight up at the ceiling instead of at her sister. “I lost,” she said in a quiet voice.

    The older girl heard her sister gasp. “What? How?!” Ino demanded sounding positively shocked.

    Rei wouldn’t look at her sister, shame suddenly springing up and eating at her insides. She was supposed to be Ino’s Hero. She never wanted to disappoint her.

    “I don’t know Ino,” the girl said despondently, “it was close at some points but Neji is just amazingly good. He beat me even though I tried my best.” She finally turned and looked at Ino in the face, “I’m sorry.”

    Ino looked down at Rei with a pinched brow and for a moment the older girl feared the worst, that her sister is disappointed and disillusioned in her. Then Ino surprised her by bending down and wrapping Rei in a tight hug. The older girl stiffened and hesitated for a moment before wrapping her arms around her sister and returning the hug fully.

    “I don’t care if you lost Nee-chan,” Ino said, “I still love you.”

    Rei had to swallow a lump in her throat as she pulled her sister closer. “Why do you say that?”

    “You look like you thought I’d be unhappy that you lost. I don’t care. You’ll just beat him next time right?”

    Rei let out a choked little laugh. A single tear slid down her face. “When did you get so perceptive Ino-chan?” she asked, love and relief in her voice.

    “What does perceptive mean?”

    “It means you notice a lot of stuff.”

    “I dunno. Can I sleep with you tonight?”

    They don’t sleep together as much as they used to but Rei still loved it when they did. She disentangled herself from Ino and silently pulled back the sheets in invitation. The girl took the hint and crawled into bed quickly snuggling into the chest of her sister.

    They lay like that in silence, Rei with her arms around her little sister, until the older girl was close to drifting off. Then Ino spoke up.

    “So does that mean that Neji-san is your boyfriend now?

    “Whaaat?!” Rei asked, shocked and once again very much awake.

    “Is he your boyfriend now?” she asked again. Rei turned to look at her face and the younger girl had a mischievous little grin on her face.

    “No he is not my boyfriend,” said Rei, “how do you even know about boyfriends anyway? You’re six.”

    “Everyone knows about boyfriends,” Ino said with a little huff at her sister’s obliviousness, “and Neji-san is supposed to be your boyfriend now since he beat you,” she said with perfect seriousness.

    Rei’s shock and horror was slowly turning into amusement. “What does him winning a spar have to do with him becoming my boyfriend?”

    Ino gesticulated wildly with her arms – well as much as she could while lying down in bed anyway. “That’s how it works in all the stories. There is always a beautiful ninja princess who is a mighty warrior that no man in the land can beat. Then she says that she won’t marry anyone who can’t defeat her in combat. So when the hero shows up who finally beats her they agree to marry and fall in love. That’s how it always works,” said Ino sounding so certain of her own logic.

    Now that she thought about it… there were a lot of stories like that in the Elemental Nations. Rei grinned and ruffled her sister’s hair. “Well luckily for me I never said I’d marry whoever beat me in combat so your Nee-sama is still blissfully single. Besides relationships don’t really work like that in the real world.”

    “Oh,” said Ino looking disappointed, “I didn’t know that.”

    Suddenly a terrible and horrifying thought occurred to Rei. “Ino… you don’t want to have a boyfriend do you?” Please say no please say no please say no. She’s too young to be a fangirl!

    Ino’s face scrunched up in disgust. “Ew, no. Boys are gross,” she said.

    Oh thank Kami!

    “Yes they are,” Rei said looking at her sister seriously, “and don’t you ever, ever forget it.”

    “I won’t!” Ino said with a bright smile.

    Make that another thing on my list with an even higher priority – figure out how to make sure Ino never, ever becomes a fangirl. Rei couldn’t quite control her involuntary shudder at the thought.

    000

    The next day at school nothing changed much. Neji still sat at the front of the class and Tenten sat next to Rei on the very back row. However she and Neji exchanged subtle nods on the way in. It was small but it was a clear reminder that their relationship had changed. Rei had bounded up the steps to her seat with a spring on her step at that little reminder. They would be getting together again soon to train. Despite her loss Rei was excited. She simply couldn’t wait to see if she could come up with a way to beat him, his fancy eyes and his Juuken. Rei already had a few ideas floating around in her head.

    Rei plopped down on her seat next to Tenten who was already in her chair reviewing for a test they had that day. They two girls exchanges smiles as a greeting before Tenten went back to reading her book. Rei didn’t bother her since she knew her sort-of adoptive little sister always freaked out a little bit about exams. Instead she reached into the weapons pouch at her side and pulled out the next basic ninja tool she had decided to master.

    Rei carefully examined the thin but surprisingly strong coil of ninja wire in her hand. After her match with Neji the blonde had felt an itch to learn something new and figuring out how to get access to some higher level skills might take some time. In the meantime she decided to learn (and hopefully master) the use of ninja wire.

    The problem was she didn’t know a great deal about using wire. Oh she knew some of the basics which is why she had chosen to learn it next. Truly advanced usage of ninja wire involved manipulating the metal with Chakra to get it to behave the way you wanted. You couldn’t exactly make it dance like a snake no matter how good your control was but if you were skilled enough you could do some neat things. If your control was good enough you could throw it attached to a weight (a shuriken or kunai for example) and have the wire wrap around something… say a tree branch, a light post or someone’s arm or neck. If used correctly it could give her some more long range and mobility options. Plus it was just kind of cool. The only problem was that even though she knew it was possible she had no idea how to actually pull it off.

    Not many people that she knew of used ninja wire. Either she would have to find someone who did or figure it out on her own.

    Class passed slowly while Rei focused on making the wire move with her Chakra. It was frustrating since just pouring Chakra into the wire didn’t seem to work so well and Rei wasn’t sure what else to try. She took the test in under five minutes and then went right back to fiddling with the wire. Before long the bell rang for lunch.

    During lunch Neji disappeared like he always did. Rei was going to have to mention to him that friends tended to have lunch together. The blonde had lunch with Tenten as usual who was excited about their first training session together after school that day.

    After lunch they went back to class and Rei spent the rest of the time experimenting with the ninja wire. The day ended and she still hadn’t made much progress. With a huff she got her things together and made to leave alongside Tenten.

    “Rei-chan, would you mind staying for a few minutes?” came the voice of their no-nonsense teacher Nao Himura as Rei walked past her desk.

    Rei turned and gave her teacher a questioning glance. The older teenager kept her face perfectly impassive. Tenten was looking at her with a conflicted expression. This was supposed to be their first day training together and the other girl had been talking about it all day long.

    “Why don’t you go along to the training field first Tenten? I’m sure I won’t be too long,” she said to her friend.

    “Oh ok. I’ll just get started with target practice or something then. See you in a bit,” the girl said before giving Nao-sensei a nervous look and heading out. Nao-sensei tended to unnerve most of the students when she focused on them exclusively.

    Rei turned and sat in a chair next to Nao-sensei's desk while all the students filed out wondering what her teacher wanted to talk to her about. The blonde Yamanaka still really liked her teacher but they had not interacted all that much in the past year after the teenaged teacher had helped sort out some of the craziness in her life. What could she want to talk about now?

    When they were alone Nao-sensei turned to her with her green cat-like eyes of hers and spoke. “Tell me, how did your match go?” the woman asked.

    Rei’s eyebrows rose at that. That was not the direction she had pictured this going. “Err, good,” she said vaguely as she tried to figure out what this was about, “Neji is very skilled at taijutsu.”

    Neo-sensei had always had an impassive and serious look on her face every time Rei had seen her. That is why she was shocked when the woman gave her a tiny smirk that somehow made her look even more feline. “You lost me some money you know,” she said.

    The sting of her loss came back three times worse at those words. Nao had impressed her since the first day of class and Rei in a way had always looked up to her and respected her. To have her defeat brought up like this on the day after hurt and made her feel ashamed. It also made her a little angry. Why was she bringing it up? She also didn’t think Nao-sensei would have been the type of person who gambled. It wasn’t her fault the woman had decided to risk her money.

    “I didn’t ask you stay to scold you or make you feel any worse,” Nao-sensei said as if reading her mind, her mien once again turning serious, “in fact I wanted to offer you my expertise. Just in case you could use a bit of help in any of your future fights.”

    Rei looked at her teacher a little skeptically. “Why offer to help me? I’m pretty sure you haven’t made anyone else an offer like that.”

    “You maturity,” she said without hesitation, “you and Hyuuga-kun are the only ones mature and skilled enough to really benefit from a little bit extra help. However I have very little to offer Hyuuga-kun at this point. You on the other hand I can help. Besides,” she said tilting her head down and looking at Rei over her glasses. That almost-imperceptible smirk came back, this time sly and playful, “next time I bet on you I want to win.”

    Rei looked at her for a long second before breaking down into snickers. A playful Nao-sensei was weird but also kind of a trip. “All right sensei,” she said, eyes still sparkling with amusement. It soothed her ego and filled her with determination that her teacher would bet on her again in some hypothetical future betting pool. “But what exactly can you teach me?”

    Her smirk widened by a tiny fraction before her hand shot out in a blur. Rei actually missed most of what happened. When next she looked the girl saw Nao-sensei’s arm extended with a strand of ninja wire hanging from her hand. Following the metal chord with her eyes she saw it had flown all the way to the top row of the classroom and wrapped itself at least a half dozen times around the leg of one of the tables. The woman hadn’t even weighted the end of the wire. It was all the more impressive since Rei had spent the afternoon fiddling with ninja wire and had no idea how to pull something like that off.

    “Whoa,” she found herself saying softly.

    “I may know a thing or two about working with wire,” said Nao-sensei, looking amused at her reaction and sounding just a little bit smug, “would you be interested in a few tips?”

    Rei nodded enthusiastically with a big grin on her face. “Hell yes! Ugh, and by that I mean ‘yes please Nao-sensei that would be absolutely wonderful’.”

    “All right,” she said, her face sliding back into her cool and composed professional mask, “let’s start with what you were doing wrong and go from there…”

    000

    “Slow down Tenten,” Rei said to her current training partner/student, “this isn’t a contest of who can finish the form fastest. Remember try to get the feeling of your whole body being one unit moving with one united purpose. When you punch it’s more than using your arm and turning your waist. Every inch of your body needs to commit and contribute in perfect harmony. Good, that’s looking better.”

    Rei stood side by side with Tenten, running through one of the early forms of Konoha Standard that she had learned when she had been three or four years old. Tenten was just learning it now for the first time and it showed. Her movements were jerky and awkward and running through them for a measly half hour had the girl covered in sweat and breathing so hard she was almost panting. Still there had definitely been a bit of improvement. It was nice to be able to help the younger girl.

    “Good, that was good,” said Rei with an encouraging smile, “ok once more from the beginning-“

    “Please Rei enough!” Tenten said bending over and putting her hands on her thighs while gulping for breath, “not that I’m not grateful but I thought training together was going to be fun. This is torture.”

    Rei shrugged nonchalantly. It had been years since she had been truly bothered by hard work and training. In fact she liked it now even when it totally kicked her ass. “You just have to get used to it. Trust me this isn’t so bad. You should have a training session with Anko. With her pain is more like the goal instead of a side-effect.”

    Tenten groaned. “Can we move on to throwing weapons for now? I like doing that better.”

    “Are you sure? It would be better long term to push through the pain and-“

    “Please?”

    Tenten’s voice was so pleading and she looked so much like a begging puppy that Rei caved like a cardboard house. “Sure ok. We can work on throwing weapons,” Rei conceded.

    “Yay!” said Tenten, smiling and suddenly having energy again. She bounced over to the target logs while Rei followed behind, shaking her head with a fond smile.

    “Hey Rei,” Tenten asked as she set herself up in front of one of the target posts, “do you ever train with you sister?”

    “Not really,” she replied, “why do you ask?”

    Tenten shrugged as she pulled out a handful of training shuriken. “No reason. It just seemed like something you would do you know? Do you not like training with her or something?”

    Rei thought about it. She wasn’t sure how to answer that. Why didn’t she train with Ino? Well the most obvious response was that Ino didn’t really train. Sure their parents forced her to do some fitness and learn the basic Konoha Standard forms but they never pushed her beyond that and Ino never seemed to take the initiative to go further. Why didn’t Rei push her to train then? Even knowing what they were both going to be facing down the road?

    Maybe it was because Rei still saw her as a kid. Not just any kid, Ino was her kid sister. Ino was six. At that age the girl shouldn’t have any business handling weapons and learning how to kill. She should be playing with dolls not blunted kunai. There would be plenty of time for her to learn all the ninja business later. Besides she had done well enough in the story even without Rei being there right? There was no need to start stripping away her innocence sooner than was absolutely necessary.

    “She’s a bit too young,” Rei said finally ignoring some of the hypocrisy in her words, “when she gets older we’ll probably spend some time training together.”

    Tenten just made a humming sound of assent and didn’t question her any further. After that the girl started to throw shuriken at the training post while Rei watched her closely for a few minutes.

    Unfortunately there wasn’t much teaching that Rei could do when it came to thrown weapons anymore. She had already shown Tenten the basics of properly holding the weapons and how to throw them for maximum efficiency. Beyond that getting better was just a matter of endless repetition while making sure not to let your form get sloppy. Frankly Rei found it a bit boring but Tenten seemed to really enjoy it. It was still too early to have her practice on moving targets or having her throw weapons while moving. Maybe soon they could start practicing some of that.

    While Tenten started chucking weapons at a log with enthusiasm and a look of concentration on her face Rei produced a spool of ninja wire. Her conversation with Nao-sensei flashed through her mind. Working with wire was both more versatile and more of a pain than she had imagined.

    In short to use ninja wire to its fullest potential required absurd levels of Chakra control. Because of this most ninja rarely used it and those that did used it mostly for traps or silent take downs. The only prominent group that used wire in combat regularly were the Uchiha and that was because the Sharingan let them cut a lot of corners and cheat when it came to controlling it.

    Rei let a strand of ninja wire hang from her hand all the way to the floor. This part was where she had been going wrong in the first place. Instead of just feeding Chakra into the wire Rei created a Chakra string from the tip of her index finger. Slowly she made the Chakra string wrap around the strand of ninja wire. Nao-sensei had said controlling the wire by just feeding Chakra into it was impossible past a certain length. Instead you had to create Chakra strings and wrap them around the wire, that way when you pulled on the Chakra strings you could manipulate the wire in different ways.

    Rei quickly realized wrapping ninja wire in Chakra string doubled as a Chakra control exercise because it was definitely more challenging than she thought it would be. The sounds of Tenten throwing kunai and shuriken were kind of soothing while she worked. It took her about ten minutes to wrap ten feet of wire in Chakra string. With enough practice that step should become almost instantaneous.

    Now came the tricky part.

    Carefully Rei tied one end of the ninja wire around a shuriken. Having a weight on one end was supposed to make the next part easier. She moved close to one of the training logs and threw the shuriken at it, tugging on the Chakra strings to get the shuriken and wire to twist and wrap around the log. If she did it right it was supposed to look like one of those grappling-hook superheroes from her last world who by some physics defying method could get a straight moving projectile to wrap several times around any metal bar or appendage they wanted.

    The first time she threw the shuriken and tugged on the Chakra string it ended up buried in the ground three feet from her intended target.

    Right. This was going to take some work.

    Even though Rei had only meant to spend a couple of hours with Tenten they stayed there most of the afternoon, Rei trying to get her ninja wire trick to work and Tenten chucking weapons at training posts. At the end of the day Rei had made some progress – at least she had figured out how to stop sending the shuriken into the ground when she pulled on the Chakra string – but she wasn’t going to be swinging from rooftops any time soon. It wasn’t until it started getting dark that they both realized how much time had passed.

    “Oh no,” said Tenten sounding and looking genuinely terrified, “I was supposed to be home hours ago. My mom is going to kill me!”

    Since Rei was trying to be a better person she tried very hard not to laugh at her distress. She even succeeded. Mostly anyway. “Want me to help you gather up your weapons?” she asked the panicking girl.

    “Please!”

    It was only the work of a minute to pick up all her discarded training weaponry before the brown-haired girl said a hasty goodbye and ran off like her rear end was on fire. Rei had a good chuckle at that after she was gone. It was nice to see that even though she was training to be a ninja Tenten was still a kid at heart.

    000

    Instead of going home Rei found herself doing something she wasn’t technically supposed to do. The towering Hashirama trees that dotted the village were all connected by rope bridges that were theoretically the fastest way to move across the village. Thus the Hashirama trees and the rope bridges that connected them were technically restricted to active duty ninja. Still people never made a big deal about it if she decided to climb one of the enormous trees and sit on one of the high branches overlooking the village.

    Rei’s mind worked as she watched the sun set over the horizon. It was relaxing up there, peaceful and a little chilly. Rei tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear as her mind went back to working on the problem that had been plaguing her since yesterday. No that wasn’t right… in fact this problem had been plaguing her for years. The problem was always more or less the same. How was she going to move forward from here?

    Rei sat in a meditative pose and took a few minutes to clear her mind. Slowly she began to pull together everything she had been thinking about for years and coalesce it into something that she could work with. She started by examining what she knew about S-Rank ninja.

    There was one thing that she could think of that virtually all S-Rank nin had; techniques or abilities that were power or force multipliers. In her mind those kinds of jutsu and techniques worked like a pulley system. They were something that allowed you to use the same amount of power (Chakra) and achieve dramatically stronger effects. Powerful shinobi almost exclusively relied on this. Part of becoming S-Rank was having sufficiently impressive force multipliers.

    The most obvious use of this principle of force multipliers were Kekkei Genkai.

    Deidara and his creepy mouth and explosions Kekkei Genkai.

    Every single Uchiha who abused the hell out of the Sharingan.

    Nagato and the Rinnegan… and everyone who used the Rinnegan after him.

    Then there were those who weren't born with a Kekkei Genkai but through some forbidden jutsu or experiment or somethingchanged their bodies in ways that functionally became a new Kekkei Genkai.

    Sasori turning himself into a human puppet and all the advantages that brought.

    Kakuzu and his hearts… a bit gross but undoubtedly powerful.

    Hidan becoming immortal through some mysterious cult and ritual.

    Orochimaru to a lesser extent, being able to make his body do all sorts of really cool snake-like things. Plus the body snatching pseudo-immortality.

    Unfortunately the path of the Kekkei Genkai was not an option open to Rei especially in the short term. Unless she was willing to hunt down and kill someone for their Kekkei Genkai, somehow have it surgically attached to her and then somehow hide that she had it… yeah that was impossible even if she were willing to kill someone for it. Which she wasn’t. Kekkei Genkai as a path to power was definitely not going to work as her next step.

    As to the second option of somehow modifying her body… well it was certainly somewhat distasteful not to mention incredibly risky. That’s without even getting into the issue of how in the world she would pull something like that off in the first place. For the time being that option was definitely out for practical reasons.

    Who else had become S-Rank? Well there were of course what Rei thought of as the Chakra monsters. That option was clearly out for Rei… she wasn't a Jinchuriki and she didn't have abnormally insane Chakra reserves like Kisame did. Plus a good chunk of his strength had come from the badassery of Samehada. Another kind of force multiplier.

    Then there were the those S-Rank ninja that Rei felt might have set out a more realistic path for her to emulate.

    The Third Hokage, aka God of Shinobi.

    The Fourth Hokage, aka The Yellow Flash.

    The Fifth Hokage, aka the Slug Princess.

    Jiraiya the Toad Sage

    Konan of Akatsuki

    Maybe, possibly Kakashi… though it was hard to tell how strong he would have been without the Sharingan. His father had been S-Rank at least though Rei didn’t really know much about what had made Sakumo Hatake so formidable. Maito Gai would also qualify once he opened the Gates… which she noted was yet another form of force multiplier.

    Rei decided to start off with analyzing Konan.

    Right off the bat Rei felt there was some promise there. Konan had undoubtedly been an S-Rank kunoichi, arguably the strongest kunoichi in raw combat ability in the entire story. While she didn't get a lot of time front and center in the story what she had been shown doing had been impressive. She managed to seriously injure Tobi without the aid of any special Kekkei Genkai or body modification or having her teacher spoon feed her her signature techniques.

    How had Konan managed it? The same way it seemed many ninja managed to make themselves truly amazing. She had designed her own original type of jutsu. It had all started from a love of origami that turned into making deadly paper shuriken and then it just escalated from there… until she could fly and turn her entire body into paper. It was never really explained how that technique worked but it was implied that it was just a technique, a jutsu,and not that she had used a laboratory to turn herself into some kind of paper-based Frankenstein monster.

    There was something to that. All the best ninja designed their own styles and techniques. The Fourth was all about the Rasengan and the Hirashin for the most part, one technique of his own making and another that he perfected. Konan made her own paper based jutsu that eventually earned her an S-Ranking and allowed her to fight one of the most dangerous people in the story evenly with some preparation. Sasori and Deidara more or less created their own styles of fighting. There was definitely something to that.

    Still there were also problems with that approach. Creating your own jutsu was not easy. There was also no guarantee that whatever she worked on would really pay off in the long run. What if she decided to, for example, try to imitate one of Jiraiya’s jutsu and create a whole fighting style based on manipulating her hair? There was no guarantee that approach could be pushed far enough on its own to become S-Rank level. There would also be endless trial and error that would be horrendously time consuming with no guarantee of ending up with something truly amazing. She could try to recreate Konan’s jutsu but that would leave her with similar problems that trying to recreate the Rasengan would give her. Creating her own original jutsu was a possible option but Rei wasn’t quite ready to commit to that path just yet.

    Feeling a bit frustrated Rei came back to her one of her original questions; what did it take to become an S-Rank ninja? Her first point was still valid; to be a truly S-Rank ninja you needed some kind of badass force multiplier. The only one who seemed to somewhat break that mold was the Third Hokage… maybe. Though the sheer versatility that he had was in a way it’s own force multiplier.

    You also needed to have basic physical ability of the highest level. Like her family had always preached the basics were crucial and indispensable. Endurance, running, speed, taijutsu, weapons etc. All the powerful jutsu in the world wouldn't save her if a Jounin could get behind her and knock her out faster than she could react. As much as she occasionally felt frustrated working on only the basics they were necessary. It would take years andyears of working on her basic abilities before they were even in the same ballpark as someone like Maito Gai. Rei firmed up her resolve. She wouldn’t slack off on the basics. Rei was starting to see more and more that they truly were the backbone of any good ninja.

    But that left her with the same basic problem; how was she going to get powerful techniques that would act as force multipliers? What she really wanted was someone willing to teach her without reservation. Someone who was squarely on her side and wanted to help her achieve her goals. Someone who could teach her all sorts of amazing and powerful techniques.

    Something about that clicked in her mind. Rei suddenly felt like she was getting close to something. Getting close to a solution.

    Next Rei moved on to analyze another ninja; Jiraiya the Toad Sage. Jiraiya of the Sannin. Jiraiya was a seal master but his powers in higher level combat did not come from his proficiency in sealing. Instead they came from his cooperation and techniques with the Toads.

    Jiraiya’s force multiplier was different from most when Rei thought about it. That multiplier was the number of diverse and powerful techniques he learned and could use while fighting alongside the Toads. In a way it could almost be considered a replacement Kekkei Genkai. While a Sharingan user might have Amaterasu, Tsukuyomi, Susanoo, etc Jiraiya had a lot of powerful combination elemental attacks, the support of powerful ninja Toads as big as buildings, an unbreakable Genjutsu, not to mention the trump card that was Sage Mode and Natural Chakra.

    What had been tickling in the back of her mind finally began to coalesce into something solid.

    A memory surfaced from the story that Rei had forgotten, a small detail that she had somehow overlooked. How had Jiraiya acquired the toad summoning contract in the first place? If memory served he had watched his teacher use the summoning technique to summon the Monkeys. Jiraiya had then – very foolishly – attempted to use the jutsu himself with no idea as to what would happen. He had been transported to Mount Myoboku and the rest, as they say, is history.

    If she remembered correctly using the summoning technique while you didn’t have a contract with an animal summons would reverse-summon you to the home of the summons that were most suited for you personally. Orochimaru might have acquired his summoning contract the same way since the snakes seemed to be such a perfect match for him. Excitement began to bubble up in Rei. This could be what she had been looking for.

    If she could get a summoning contract that was the perfect fit for her she would have allies that were clearly on her side. Until that moment Rei didn’t realize how badly she wanted to have someone she didn’t have to pretend with, who she didn’t have to double talk to or omit things with or lie to. If her summons were loyal to her maybe she could even tell them her whole story. Rei thought that it would probably be a big relief to be able to do so.

    Also, becoming S-Rank… well the summons would have techniques that were best suited for her right? Rei had no idea what form those techniques would take but thinking about it learning whatever their fighting style was would probably be for the best. Even if she could convince some powerful Jounin to train her there was no guarantee his fighting style would be a good fit for her… she doubted someone like Kurenai could maximize Naruto’s fighting potential for example simply because her techniques wouldn’t be a good fit. This way she might be able to learn a fighting style as close to perfect for her as she could hope for.

    If she had a summoning contract there was also the possibility of eventually learning Sage Mode. Rei’s heart beat fast in excitement at the thought. She didn’t think every summoning contract had access to Sage Mode but she didn’t know for sure. Rei was willing to bet that hers would though. Even if they didn’t they would still be an incalculably valuable resource.

    She was also positive there was no way for anyone to stop her from learning techniques from her summons. How would they even do that? And what would they do, punish her for learning new techniques from her own summoned creatures? At that point they would just have to let her do whatever she wanted on that front. And maybe then her dad would relent and start teaching her Yamanaka techniques.

    Rei grinned even as she sat with her eyes closed in the meditation posture. She had a plan. It was a good plan. It felt good. All that was left now was to execute it.

    The only problem was she had no idea how to do the summoning technique. Well she knew you needed to use a bit of blood but that was about it. The technique wasn’t in any of the literature she was allowed to read, she knew that much.

    Rei was going to have to steal, beg, barter or figure out how to do the technique on her own. This was something that could seriously land her in hot water. She was going to have to be careful. No one left that kind of information just lying around.

    How was she going to do it? Rei didn’t know. But that was ok. She would figure it out. All she needed was to come up with a plan.
     
  17. Threadmarks: Chapter 17
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 17

    000

    One Year Later

    Three children stood in a deserted training ground facing each other in a loose triangle. A few times in the past Tenten had gone to train with Neji and Rei on the blonde Yamanaka’s invitation. Those times she had gone had always been awkward for Tenten. It had been clear that Neji didn’t particularly care for her presence and comparing herself to the two geniuses hadn’t been good for her self-esteem. So why had she accepted again this time?

    Well for one Rei was her friend and Tenten didn’t want to disappoint her. But the biggest reason may have been that she really wanted an opportunity to watch the blonde girl (and to a lesser extent Neji) go all out. Throwing weapons and running through drills together was one thing but that only hinted at what they would be capable of in a match. Tenten knew the two resident geniuses were head and shoulders above everyone else in their class but the brown haired girl wanted to see for herself just how far ahead of her skill level they actually were.

    Tenten almost hadn't come since at first Rei had suggested Tenten have a three way spar with them. The girl had actually paled at the thought. Spar with Neji and Rei? Maybe in another ten years she’d stand a chance. How in the world had Rei thought she was going to be able to keep up with them? Occasionally Tenten had to wonder what the heck her friend was thinking.

    The way the blonde girl was currently acting was also failing to inspire any confidence in Tenten whatsoever.

    Rei's chest was heaving like she was fighting not to break out into full out maniacal cackles. It looked like quite a struggle. From experience Tenten knew that a Rei struggling not to laugh and with that particular look of glee on her face was never a good thing. Last time it had ended with them being chased half way across Konoha by angry shopkeepers.

    Tenten looked over at Neji hoping for some kind of support in reigning in whatever crazy thing Rei had planned. The boy had his arms folded and his eyes closed looking perfectly at ease. Why wasn’t he paying attention? Didn’t her realize the danger they were in?!

    It was an odd sight, Rei struggling to physically contain her glee, Neji perfectly relaxed and Tenten anxiously fretting over what was coming next. Thankfully the blonde didn’t keep them in suspense for long.

    “Guys,” Rei said positively gushing, “I’ve got a surprise!”

    She reached into her robes and pulled out a big stack of rectangular shaped paper wrapped in plastic. There must have been at least fifty strips in there. Rei held the package in front of her like a proud mother showing off her newborn.

    “What are those?” asked Tenten with trepidation.

    “Explosive tags!” Rei said in almost manic excitement.

    Neji finally deemed to half-open his eyes and look over at Rei with some curious interest. “Huh,” he said, “well that should make things a bit more interesting.”

    Rei half-laughed, half-chucked at that. “I’m sooo going to blow you up Neji,” she said to him with a wicked and playful grin. Neji’s lips might have twitched upwards for a second but it was hard to tell.

    Tenten for her part was staring at them in wide eyed horrified panic. “Are you guys nuts? Those are explosive tags! We could be killed!” she said gesticulating wildly.

    Rei made a dismissive sound at that. “Don’t worry these are training explosive tags,” the blonde explained, “the worst they’ll do is give you first degree burns. Or maybe second degree burns if you’re too close or get unlucky. The point is they’re perfectly safe.”

    Neji looked at her curiously. “Where did you get those anyway? Those are supposed to be restricted until the last year of the academy.”

    Rei grinned like the cat who caught the canary. “I may or may not have broken into my family’s weapons stores.”

    Neji’s eyebrow rose at that. He seemed a little impressed despite himself. “How did you manage that?” he asked sardonically.

    “I don’t know Neji. Maybe I’m just that good,” she said with a casual shrug and a faux humble tone that fooled absolutely no one.

    “So what exactly were you planning on doing with those?” Tenten asked, eyes darting nervously between the tags and the two people in front of her. She had a bad feeling about where this was going.

    “Wellll,” began Rei turning to face her, “you said you wanted to watch us spar right? So I was thinking this. We divide the tags between the three of us and me and Neji spar while experimenting with trying to blow each other up. You Tenten can follow on the periphery and surprise attack us with regular thrown weapons and explosive tags when you think you see an opening. That way you can help us work on our situational awareness and reacting to the unexpected.”

    Tenten’s jaw dropped open and she just stared at her friend. That was probably the most insane idea the girl had ever had in the whole time Tenten had known her… and since this was Rei that was really saying something. For a split second Tenten hoped that Rei was joking before a quick look at her face squashed that hope.

    “You can’t be serious,” she couldn’t help but say anyway.

    Rei had already started dividing up the tags, “Of course I am,” she said cheerily, “don’t worry it’s not like you’ll be in any danger Tenten-chan,” she said with what Tenten knew was supposed to be a reassuring smile.

    Tenten turned to Neji hoping for some support. She didn’t know him that well but surely he couldn’t be as bad as Rei? When she looked at him her heart sunk. He was nodding to himself thoughtfully as he walked over to Rei to get his own stack of explosive tags. Rei she could understand, but didn’t Neji have some kind of sense?

    “What do you think Neji-kun? Isn’t this too dangerous?” she asked nervously.

    For a moment he looked surprised that she had even spoken to him. “No,” was all he said before turning away from her and picking up his explosive tags.

    Tenten swallowed nervously. Maybe being a genius meant a complete lack of common sense?

    Rei walked up to her and practically shoved a third of the explosive tags into her hands. When Rei saw the anxiety in her face her expression softened and her voice took on a more soothing tone. “Look me and Neji, we can handle it ok? A couple of firecrackers aren’t about to take us down. We wantyou to throw weapons and explosive tags at us,” she said as she scrutinized Tenten’s face, “if you don’t want to use the explosive tags or even hurl kunai at us that’s fine. Just follow along and watch as best you can. But if you get an opportunity please try to tag us when we’re not paying attention. All right?”

    Tenten hesitated before nodding reluctantly. “All right. I’ll try,” she said, though she vowed she wasn’t going to be throwing explosives at them. She held up the tags in her hands, “how do you use these anyway?”

    Rei stepped back from her with a cheery smile that suddenly had Tenten feeling nervous again. “It’s easy,” she said putting away her tags and producing a single one in between her fingers, “you just need to pour enough Chakra into them,” she said as the tag she was holding up caught on fire and began to burn, “and that starts the three second timer.”

    Tenten’s eyes widened to the size of dinner plates. “REI! What are you doi-“ she screamed before Rei burst into motion.

    With movements almost too fast for Tenten to follow Rei speared the burning tag on a kunai and threw it… right in between Neji’s feet. The boy jumped back with startling reflexes as the explosive tag went off. The explosion was loud and Tenten could feel a wall of heat and air pressure hit her from where she was standing some distance away. It generated smoke everywhere making it hard for Tenten to see.

    “Catch me if you can!” shouted Rei gleefully before taking off at a dead sprint towards the woods. A few moments later Neji gathered his wits about him and began chasing the blonde girl. Tenten could have sworn she saw a passing smile on his face.

    Tenten just stood there watching them numbly as Rei kick climbed between two adjacent trees to reach the top branches and Neji followed by using Kawarimi to get onto the canopy. All the while Tenten could hear Rei’s wild raucous laughter echoing across the clearing. It was like casually trying to blow each other up was a game to her and Neji was playing right along.

    Tenten shook herself out of her daze. She had better keep up with them. Who knew what would happen without someone sensible around?

    000

    Music – Sirius by Eir Aoi

    For your convenience listen on repeat.

    Neji ran, chasing a laughing Rei as she sped through the tree canopy. The girl made sure to keep a safe distance ahead of him as they dashed through the high branches of the forest. Neji smirked now that no one could see his face. When Rei had first suggested they could combine ‘fun’ and ‘training’ sometimes Neji had been skeptical. He was glad he’d been wrong. Though he would never admit it their chases through the forest had become one of his favorite things to do.

    “Bet you can’t catch me fancy eyes!” she called at him over her shoulder, a rakish smile on her face as her lilac eyes briefly met his. The look on her face was pure playful challenge and mischievousness. Then she turned and put on a burst of speed increasing the distance between them.

    Rei had always been faster than him but that was ok with Neji. It pushed him to improve his own speed and it made catching her an interesting challenge. Putting on a burst of speed of his own Neji did his best to keep pace with her, his mind working on a strategy to cut the distance between them.

    Catching her could be tricky but hardly impossible. Looking ahead with his Byakugan Neji looked for a predictable path Rei would take while drawing a handful of shuriken. There, if she kept on course she would have to step on that branch in between two crooked trees. Neji threw his shuriken at where he predicted she would jump thankful that the girl was still barely within his range. The shuriken cut through the air and for a second Neji thought they would actually strike her and end their game early.

    At the last moment Rei threw herself forward into a handstand and forward flip narrowly avoiding the shuriken that impacted into the trunk. Rei’s danger sense and awareness had always been good but the forward flip threw off the timing of her jumps. The girl jumped the precipice between trees to another branch but fell short of landing on her feet. Instead she hit the branch with her chest, grunting and hanging on as she scrambled to pull herself up.

    Looks like I’ve got you now Neji thought with a smirk.

    He closed the distance between them in seconds and jumped the gap between the trees just as Rei pulled herself up on the branch. It was the knowing look she gave him that clued him in that something was wrong. On a gut feeling her did a quick scan of his surroundings with his Byakugan.

    Why you little-!

    While he was still mid-air Rei disappeared in a puff of smoke only to be replaced with a log with three burning explosive tags attached to it. His Byakugan had given him a second of warning though. Neji’s hands blurred through the five seals of the Replacement Technique.

    “Kawarimi no Jutsu!”

    His Chakra latched on to a loose branch higher up in the trees. With a mental tug and a displacement of Chakra the branch and Neji switched places just as Rei’s log detonated with a loud and smoke filled explosion. The piece of wood ended up black and burned but still in one piece. Neji frowned a little as he took stock from his new perch. That little cheat was cheating.

    “You’re not supposed to prep the field beforehand,” he yelled into the woods.

    “I knew you would see it anyway!” came the echoing reply from… somewhere on his left.

    After a second’s consideration Neji decided he didn’t care if Rei had set up a few things ahead of time. If he couldn’t spot them with his Byakugan it was his own damn fault if he got caught. Neji looked around with his bloodline until he spotted Rei out of his line of sight heading towards the river.

    The boy allowed himself a small smile. His best chance of catching her was always when she didn’t know where he was. Neji took off after Rei making sure to stay out of her line of sight.

    000

    Tenten was feeling kind of annoyed as she ran through the floor of the forest. She’d thought a spar between Rei and Neji was going to be nice, normal match in a clearing. Tenten had definitely not been expecting to be running through the woods while trying to catch a glimpse of the two of them up above. In hindsight, why was she even surprised? Rei had never done the normal thing on anything as far as she could tell and Neji was starting to seem like much the same.

    Still Tenten ran her heart out so she could be close enough to watch once they stopped and really started having it out. While Tsunade-sama would always be her first idol Rei had sort of become her second. If any kunoichi from Konoha was going to be the next Tsunade it was going to be her blonde friend, Tenten was sure. Still the brown haired girl had never seen Rei go all out. Though it was maybe a bit intimidating Tenten thought it would show her how far she still had to go if she wanted to be a great kunoichi.

    Tenten skidded to a stop as a loud explosion detonated high in the trees some ways to the right. The girl hesitated, momentarily worried before heading off in that direction. Looking up as she ran she caught a glimpse of someone dashing away through the smoke of the explosion.

    Whoever that had been they were headed towards the river. Mouth set in a resolute line Tenten set off in that direction determined to catch up with the two geniuses.

    000

    Neji circled as he neared Rei making sure to always keep a good number of trees and branches thick with leaves between the two of them. The boy observed with his Byakugan as the Rei slowed to a more relaxed pace, opting to sacrifice speed for increased awareness. This part was typical of their chases. Neji would track her while keeping out of sight and Rei would be ready for when he inevitably showed himself and ambushed her.

    Except this time is different thought Neji as he tied two of his new explosive tags to the hilt of a kunai. This time his ambush was going to be much louder and much more explosive.

    He kept pace with her getting as close as he dared without being detected. Carefully picking his moment Neji ignited the tags with a flare of Chakra. A second later he hurled the kunai on an intercept course with the running girl.

    The blade flew through a brush of leaves and through a narrow opening between two trunks as two burning tags fluttered in the wind behind it. It slammed into the tree trunk right next to Rei with perfect timing just a split second before they detonated.

    Her eyes widened in almost comic surprise. “Oh cra-“

    The tags detonated knocking her clean off the branch she was standing on.

    000

    Tenten watched from a distance as an explosion went off overhead and the limp figure of Rei came falling out of the upper branches.

    Oh no, thought Tenten in horror as she watched her friend plunge towards the ground with nothing nearby to grab on to, she’ll be killed!

    As Tenten watched however Rei twisted in mid-air and reached into her weapon’s pouch. The girl grabbed a pair of shuriken with ninja wire attached and threw them towards a tree perpendicular to the arc she was falling on. With a tug the shuriken and wire wrapped tightly around a heavy branch turning her momentum into a sideways swing. Rei held on with both hands as her body flew through the air in a wide arc, swinging her legs to increase her speed even further. Tenten watched openmouthed as the girl reached the apex of her swing and let go, body turning into a natural backflip before touching down in a three point landing back on one of the high branches.

    I’ve got to learn how to do that, Tenten thought to herself.

    000

    Rei landed on a tree right next to the river, heart pounding with adrenaline and a huge grin on her face. She didn’t have time to congratulate herself as she felt the distortion of a Kawarimi being completed almost directly above her. In a blind move Rei instantly reached into her pouch and threw another wire-tied shuriken where she thought the disturbance was in the leaves above her.

    Neji jumped down through the foliage to land on the same large branch as her, a length of wire wrapped tightly around his forearm. When Rei tried to pull on it with her Chakra Neji ran his fingers along the metal severing the Chakra strings that allowed her to control the wire.

    The boy moved to charge her but stopped when she held up a kunai threateningly with five explosive tags attached to it.

    “You wouldn’t,” he said looking at the tags. They weren’t too dangerous but having five go off this close would not be any fun.

    Rei grinned, just a touch manic with excitement dancing in her eyes. “I thought you knew me better than that by now Neji.”

    He charged her and his Byakugan eye caught with perfect clarity the instant she ignited the tags.

    Reckless as always, he thought as he grit his teeth. He backed off his charge and came to a stop some six feet away from her. This could get tricky.

    They stared each other down as the three second timer burned down. At the last second Rei hurled the kunai at his feet with all her strength. Neji was ready for it though and his own kunai intercepted hers in mid-air sending it flying off to the side. A heartbeat later the tags exploded, the blast momentarily deafening them and forcing them to close their eyes.

    While this was an impediment for Rei the boy’s vision wasn’t affected in the least. Feeling a bit annoyed he exploited the opening, charging her while she was still blinded. She wasn’t able to defend herself as he kicked her in the chest, knocking her off the branch and onto the river below.

    000

    Tenten reached the edge of the riverbank panting hard from her run. The two in the trees had been heading in this direction so she hoped she would be able to see something from here. The river stretched out before her, slow moving and at least twenty feet across. Tenten looked around and upwards for any sign of a fight but so far she hadn't seen anything.

    Then came another loud explosion from above. Tenten looked up and a moment later saw an uncontrolled Rei flying through the air towards the river. The girl’s throat tightened with worry. It was a very long fall that the brown haired girl didn’t think she would be able to make without getting hurt.

    Rei righted herself in mid-air so she was falling towards the river feet first. However to Tenten’s shock when she hit the surface the girl didn’t sink below the water. Instead she threw her momentum forward, going into an uncontrolled skip and tumble across the surface of the water. Eventually the girl managed to regain control of her momentum and stop herself in a skid across the top of the slow moving river. Rei came to a stop almost directly in front of her out near the middle of the river.

    Tenten’s mouth hung open. In the stories about ninja she’d heard that they could often walk on water but she hadn’t thought it was actually possible.How is she doing that?

    It turned out Rei wasn’t the only academy student who could somehow walk on water. A moment later Neji broke through the tree line and ran out onto the water until he came to a stop some ten feet in front of Rei. Tenten wrung her hands as she watched the two of them seize each other up whilestanding on top of the water in the middle of the river.

    This is it, she thought to herself, this is the fight I wanted to see.

    “You’re being kind of mean today Neji,” the blonde girl called out, “I could have gotten hurt.”

    The other boy smirked slightly at that. “I knew you would be fine.”

    Rei snorted at that but it seemed to be in good humor.

    “Ready to get your ass kicked pretty boy?”

    “Hm, in your dreams.”

    They stared at each other in silence for a few more seconds until at some unseen signal they charged each other, Neji barehanded and Rei producing a kunai in each hand. Their fight was amazing. Rei seemed to favor acrobatics in her fighting style, leaping for flying kicks and slashing from every angle, the speed with which she moved across the surface of the river almost dizzying for Tenten to follow. She seemed to be everywhere all at once, water splashing where she changed directions and blades glinting in the sun. Neji for his part was like a bastion, hardly moving other than to pivot or dodge with maximum economy of motion, sometimes moving just enough to avoid a blow by a fraction of an inch. Everything he did looked natural and nearly effortless. It was like a hurricane fighting a mountain or an ocean and for the better part of a minute they looked evenly matched.

    Then Neji started pushing Rei back, forcing her to give ground. They kept up their blinding pace but Tenten could see that Rei was starting to struggle. Seeing an opening the girl hopped back and threw a spread of shuriken at Neji forcing him to stop his assault and dodge.

    Rei took the opportunity to jump back, creating some distance between them and pulling out two new kunai. It took Tenten a moment to realize that they both had ninja wire tied to the rings on the hilts. The brown hair girl watched in fascination as Rei began to spin one of the kunai overhead by swinging it from the wire.

    Tenten recognized the weapon; Rei had used ninja wire and a kunai to create a makeshift rope dart. A few seconds later and the blade was nothing but a spinning blur overhead. Rei swung the weapon at Neji in a wide sweep forcing him to back off. Looking at his face Tenten could tell that he was surprised. Maybe this was new? Rei’s grin was positively smug.

    She spun the weapon over her head, faster and faster as she fed the makeshift weapon more length of wire increasing its arc and range. Neji watched with a wary expression as he kept his distance. Once it was good ten feet across Rei began to advance angling the fast spinning weapon to slash at Neji. The boy backed off and Rei began to follow him mercilessly.

    Tenten could tell Rei wasn’t a master of the improvised weapon – not even close – but the blonde could handle it more than well enough to be dangerous. She began to jump, spin and twirl artfully as she moved forward, playing with the length of the wire and making the kunai swing at varying angles and with varying strengths as it spun in a dizzying blur. Neji produced a kunai of his own and began to use it to parry any slashes that came to close, for once looking like he didn’t know quite how to handle the new weapon.

    Still as Tenten watched Neji seemed to be getting more and more comfortable as the seconds ticked by and Rei seemed to start getting impatient. Tenten could almost feel the moment when Rei decided to step up her offensive. She pressed forward with a vicious spinning assault that left Neji scrambling to defend. Neji was forced to awkwardly backpedal to avoid the worst of it. Then, in a move that caught Tenten completely by surprise, Rei twisted with both her arms and turned the spinning kunai into an incredibly fast forward moving projectile.

    Neji impressed her by somehow deflecting the blistering projectile with his own kunai while still being off balance. Tenten didn’t think she could have managed the same move in a hundred years. Rei wasn’t experienced enough to immediately go on the offensive again with her new weapon and Neji took the opportunity, charging and rapidly closing the distance between them. Rei dropped the wire-tied kunai and drew two new ones just as Neji crashed into her in a storm of taijutsu and steel.

    This time Neji is the one with the clear upper hand as Rei is forced on the defensive, continually giving ground with a look of fierce concentration on her face. This time Neji was the one who increased the intensity of his assault, kunai in one hand and empty fist in the other, until it looked like Rei was seconds from being overwhelmed. Tenten would have been more worried for her friend if not for the tiny smile on her face.

    When Neji came in with a wide strike at her head Rei simply cut off the Chakra to her feet. She sank into the water, dodging his blow and leaving a very surprised Neji directly above her.

    Tenten watched with an impressed and excited eye as her friend sank into the river. It was such a simple thing yet it seemed to have caught Neji completely off guard. Reacting to something she couldn’t see Neji jumped high into the air. The reason became obvious a fraction of a second later when strands of ninja wire broke the surface of the river and tried to wrap themselves around Neji’s legs. He escaped getting caught by the metal threads by mere inches.

    When Rei didn’t immediately surface Tenten’s brain finally had a chance to catch up with her. She had been supposed to be throwing kunai at them! Oh well Tenten didn’t think she could have really brought herself to do that. Besides the fight was too engrossing to think of anything else.

    Long seconds passed as Neji stood on the river and there was no Rei to be seen. Where was she? Was she setting up some kind of trap underwater? Was she trying to get away?

    Tenten froze as she felt a cold length of steel press against her neck.

    “You know,” a voice drawled behind her, “just because you weren’t part of our spar is no excuse to so completely let your guard down.”

    “R-Rei!” Tenten said in shock.

    “In the flesh,” the girl behind her said before withdrawing the kunai from her neck.

    Tenten spun around in a flash. There was Rei, soaked from head to toe and with one of her signature smirks on her face.

    “How…?” Tenten asked.

    “Kawarimi of course,” the blonde said answering her unfinished question.

    “Are you done yet?” came an annoyed voice from the river. Tenten turned only to see Neji leveling a narrow eyed glare in her direction. The girl swallowed. She really didn’t want to get on his bad side.

    “I’m coming,” called out Rei, “she’s my guest so be nice. Now come on,” the girl said stepping past Tenten and brandishing two kunai with a challenging smirk, “let’s finish this.”

    Neji assumed his own unique taijutsu stance and Rei dashed out to meet him on the river. The ensuing fight looked brutal but Tenten could tell that in a way they were almost being nice or considerate with each other. Rei at least seemed to be having fun.

    They clashed over and over again, Rei with two kunai and Neji with only a single one in his hand. Their fight took them around the river and eventually back onto dry land forcing Tenten to get out of the way. The brown haired girl was in awe. These two classmates were her age yet they could fight at a level higher than Tenten had ever seen before. Is that what she would look like when she got older? That same speed, that same kind of skill?

    The fight ended when one of them went for a feint and the other went for a surprise strike at the exact same time. Rei ended on one knee, her kunai pressing into Neji’s inner thigh a split second before his kunai found her throat. Everything was silent for a long pregnant moment before Rei let out a loud laugh.

    “Ha! I win!” she said, still poised with her kunai in his thigh.

    Neji looked incredulous. “I cut your throat and you slashed my thigh, how is that your win?”

    “Because I cut your femoral artery genius. You’d be dead in two minutes.”

    He raised an eyebrow at that. “I cut your throat. You’d be dead instantly.”

    “Technically that’s not true. Besides I struck before you. If I’d had my kunai buried in your thigh you would have missed,” Rei insisted.

    Neji snorted at that. “As if.”

    Rei made a noise of frustration before turning her lilac eyes on Tenten.

    Oh no, the brown haired girl thought seeing where this was going.

    “What do you think Tenten? Who won?” asked Rei.

    Suddenly the two geniuses in her school were looking at her, asking her to decide the outcome of the match between them. She looked back and forth between the two of them and saw that she wasn’t getting out of this.

    Ok, ok. No big deal. I can be impartial. Rei is my friend but I don’t think she’d thank me if I sided with her simply because of that.

    “I think,” Tenten said quietly after deliberating, “that because Neji’s strike was immediately deadly he should be the winner.”

    Rei groaned dramatically and threw herself on the ground face-up. Neji got a pleased little smirk on his face.

    “You know a cut femoral artery is like, super deadly right?” Rei asked her friend from where she lay.

    “Yeah but he could put on a tourniquet before he bled out and survive if he got help fast enough. With a cut throat you would just be dead,” said Tenten with an apologetic shrug.

    Rei groaned again, sounding genuinely pained. “Fine, fine. You win Neji. Again.”

    Neji nodded, trying to keep his smirk to appropriately small Hyuuga levels. “Of course.”

    “Wait, so does Neji-san usually win?” asked Tenten curiously.

    Rei shook her head. “Go ahead and tell her our record since I know you like to brag,” Rei said to Neji a little sulkily.

    Neji nodded before looking at Tenten. “With this our record stands at 38-11. Thirty eight wins for me and eleven for her.”

    “Wow. That’s impressive,” said Tenten without really thinking about it.

    “Enough of that!” said Rei jumping to her feet, “let’s just go get those bentos, yeah? All this running around made me hungry.

    [Music End]

    000

    Tenten was surprised when it turned out Neji had been the one to bring lunch for the three of them. He brought out a large basket he had hidden away somewhere complete with a large blanket. It was like having a picnic.

    The boy spread out the blanket and Tenten saw with some amusement that it had his clan symbol monogrammed in the middle of it. A circle made up of two black and white teardrops with a dot of the opposite color on the fat end of each teardrop. It was a symbol she had seen before but wasn’t familiar with.

    The three of them sat down on the blanket and Tenten muttered a thanks when he handed her a bento. Soon the three of them quietly enjoying the food. As expected Rei was the one who eventually broke the silence.

    “This is good,” Rei said between bites, “I don’t really like the idea of having servants running around my house but if they all cook this well it might just be worth it.”

    “You get used to them,” said Neji noncommittally.

    Right. Sometimes it was easy to forget in the academy that Rei and Neji came from rich powerful families. Tenten’s family was pretty well off for civilians but nothing like one of the major ninja clans. Uncomfortable with the topic Tenten decided to try to steer the conversation somewhere else.

    “So, uh this is the symbol of your clan right? I know I’ve seen it around before. What is it?” she asked.

    Rei and Neji shared a look Tenten couldn’t quite decipher before the girl spoke up.

    “It’s called a Yin-Yang symbol. It’s a philosophical thing. Basically it says you can break down anything in the universe into two opposite but complementary forces,” said Rei before taking a big bite of some fancy egg dish.

    “It’s not just philosophical,” said Neji in a tone that made Tenten think the two of them had had this conversation before, “it’s an energetic reality. You can see it in everything. In nature, in martial arts, even in Chakra. Especially in Chakra.”

    “Can’t argue with that last part,” said Rei as she swallowed a mouthful of food. “If anyone asks you just say it’s about balance. It’s true and it makes you look smart.”

    Tenten nodded at that looking at the symbol again. She could see how it would be about balance, it kind of looked that way, but…

    “What does the white dot in the black and the black dot in the white mean?” she asked genuinely curious.

    Surprisingly it was Neji who answered. “It describes the nature of balance and energy,” he said as if reciting from a text, “the dots show that the seed of Yin exists in extreme Yang and that the seed of Yang exists in extreme Yin. When Yang energy becomes too overwhelming and out of balance it will eventually transform into Yin energy naturally, and vice versa. This is a fundamental law in the universe.”

    Rei snorted at that. “Not with Chakra it isn’t. When was the last time too much physical energy transformed into spiritual?”

    “Perhaps the imbalance in ninja just isn’t great enough,” said Neji seriously, but it was clear by his tone that he didn’t know.

    As interested as Tenten had been most of it was flying over her head now. She decided to steer the conversation somewhere else. “So how did you guys walk on water? That isn’t some kind of clan secret or anything is it?”

    They talked mostly ninja stuff, for the most part Rei but also occasionally Neji answering Tenten’s questions about all the things she had seen them do that day. She seemed excited to experiment with Chakra strings and tree walking. Eventually Tenten had to head home leaving Rei and Neji by themselves. After she was gone they sat quietly on the blanket for a few minutes. They had gotten most of their training done before Tenten had showed up and they were done for the day. It was soon time for them to head their separate ways but lately the two of them had found themselves lingering together longer than was strictly necessary.

    Rei knew they had gotten closer. Hopefully close enough to ask a very personal question without getting her head bitten off. The girl was willing to risk it though especially since she wanted to get a better idea of his views.

    “Hey Neji,” she began feeling uncharacteristically shy, “can I ask you something?”

    Neji made a sound of assent while staring off at something in the distance. Rei licked her lips and gathered her courage.

    “If you could get rid of the Caged Bird Seal, would you?”

    She saw him visibly stiffen at that. His jaw tightened and he refused to meet her gaze.

    “How do you know about that?” he asked, his voice brimming with a hundred different emotions even though he tried to control it.

    “It’s something of an open secret among the clans,” Rei said gently, and it was. “I’ve always known about it. I don’t think any less of you for it in case you’re worried about that,” she said, picking at the grass over the side of the blanket in nervous habit.

    Neji closed his eyes and took a deep shuddering breath. With visible effort he reigned in his emotions. Rei felt terrible that he even had to do that. Someone like Neji who could be such an amazing friend once you got past all his damaged layers didn’t deserve to be cursed with something like the Caged Bird Seal.

    Eventually when he got himself under control he opened his eyes. “Does it matter?” he asked in a flat, dead voice.

    “Maybe, maybe not,” said Rei, “but I still want to know.”

    Neji shot her a dirty, angry look but Rei just looked at him patiently, impassively. Eventually he broke their staring contest by looking away first, his lips trembling.

    “Of course I would,” he said, his voice hoarse, “what kind of question is that?’

    Rei swallowed. She had already known that, in a way. Next came the important part.

    “You know if you did get it off you’d have to run away,” she said carefully, “run away from the clan, run away from Konoha. That’s the only way you could ever be free. I don’t know what others would say, but I wouldn’t blame you in the least if you did.”

    Of course in Konoha you couldn’t talk about wanting to desert, not even in jest. Even what she had just said was borderline treasonous. She wasn’t looking for him to agree. Just his silence would have been enough to tell her it was something he might someday consider. It would have given her hope that maybe, one day, Neji would be willing to come with her.

    What came out of his mouth next shot that hope out of the water.

    “I would never do that,” he said sounding scandalized and angry with her for even suggesting it, “deserters are the lowest of scum. Loyalty is everything. Become a missing nin? No loyalty, no village, no purpose? No,” he said shaking his head, “nothing is worth becoming honorless trash like that. I would never just throw away all my vows to my clan and the village. Nothing is worth that kind of disgrace, not even getting rid of the seal.”

    Rei’s heart broke a little at that and a wave of sadness overcame her. Neji had become her best friend and there was no way he would ever agree to leave with her. Hell if he knew of her plans he might stop being her friend altogether in disgust. It was a heavy blow even if not a completely unexpected one. She had come to know him quite well over the past year.

    If she’d gotten even a hint that he might possibly want to come with her someday Rei would have started putting some serious thought into getting rid of his seal. Maybe even start learning Fuinjutsu herself even though the materials on the subject she had come across had been extremely limited. Still as long as Neji insisted that he would never abandon the clan and the village seeking a solution for the seal would simply be a waste of time. Even if by some miracle she found a way to remove it the Hyuuga would simply reapply the thing as soon as they found out. It felt cold to think that way but if he wouldn’t come with her then Rei simply had no incentive to try to do something about the Caged Bird Seal.


    Rei shrugged for his benefit. “I don’t know. I’d just been thinking that if I’d been in your position I would have probably been tempted to do some really drastic and stupid things. I’m just talking bullshit. Sorry for bringing up a touchy subject,” she said with an apologetic smile.

    Neji still looked uncomfortable but after a few moments he graciously accepted her apology with a nod.

    Rei wished she could do something for Neji but as long as he chose to remain in the village nothing short of drastically changing how the Hyuuga worked would help him. As much as she thought the practice was atrocious she was powerless to do anything about it. The only way she might be able to affect some change was if she was Hokage and that seemed extremely unlikely to happen.

    “Well I’ve gotta go,” said Rei standing up and brushing off her hands, “got somewhere to be and I really shouldn’t be late. Thanks for bringing lunch.”

    Neji just nodded at that. “See you in two days?” he asked.

    Rei smiled a little sadly at him. “Wouldn’t miss it.”

    000

    Rei hadn’t just made up an excuse to get away from an uncomfortable situation. She really did have somewhere important she needed to be and she really couldn’t afford to be late.

    The blonde had started off very excited a year ago when she decided her next big step was to acquire a summoning contract of her own. At first Rei had assumed it would be the work of a few weeks or months to find out or figure out how to do the summoning technique. It turned out that had been a ludicrously optimistic estimate. That type of information simply didn’t exist anywhere where someone of her skill level could break into or access.

    For a while Rei had despaired until she realized a few things, one of them being this; even though they generally didn’t go advertising it most ninja didn’t care that much if someone saw the hand seals for their jutsu… unless the observer happened to be an Uchiha of course. The reason was that hand seals simply weren’t enough to execute a jutsu all by themselves. If that was the case the Sharingan wouldn’t be necessary to copy jutsu, just someone with good enough memory to remember the hand seals they saw an enemy use.

    Jutsu generally had two parts: the hand seals and the intent behind them. Hand seals for a Katon jutsu for example were useless unless you knew the proper way to mold fire Chakra, how to bring it into your lungs the right way and how to spit it out of your mouth without doing yourself injury. In theory showing an enemy your hand seals was generally perfectly safe.

    Rei just needed to get someone to use the summoning technique in front of her without drawing any suspicion in her direction and she would have half of what she needed. She just needed to provide a ninja with the right incentive. Rei had devised a plan when an opportunity had presented itself. The blonde smiled to herself. After a year she would be getting half of what she needed today as long as everything went as planned. That was why Rei was on her way home to get changed.

    She had a party to get to.
     
  18. Threadmarks: Chapter 18
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 18

    000

    Rei thought that it was no real surprise that the Nara compound always seemed to have a laid back, peaceful air about it. The people tended to be more quiet than normal in a meditative sort of way that never came across as off-putting, though it did tend to make many Nara seem socially awkward. All in all Rei rather liked the Nara in general. They valued practicality and efficiency while still managing to look like they were taking their sweet time going about everything.

    Rei squared her shoulders as she reached the door of her destination. The truth was she wasn’t a hundred percent sure her plan would work but she had to try. Taking a final deep breath Rei knocked firmly on the door.

    Moments later Yoshino Nara, wife of Shikaku Nara and mother of Shikamaru, opened the door with that almost-permanent furrowed brow of disapproval on her face. When Yoshino looked down and saw who it was her frown eased up and a smile spread across her face.

    “Rei-chan,” she greeted warmly, “your sister said you were coming but I was starting to wonder.” Then her smile turned disapproving and her eyes narrowed slightly. “You’re late.”

    Rei smiled a bit sheepishly. “Sorry aunt Yoshino. Apparently I’m not as good at keeping track of time by looking at the sun as I thought I was. Got held up a bit in training and had to go home and change.”

    Yoshino made a tutting sound of disapproval. “You and your training. You should be spending more time playing with kids your age and less mucking around in the practice fields. They’ll be plenty of time for that once you become a ninja.”

    Rei just smiled and said nothing. She knew better than to argue with Yoshino Nara. The woman was almost legendary among those who knew her for her forceful personality and the way she ruled over her home with an iron fist. While Rei was extremely glad she didn’t live with the woman full time she still liked Yoshino a great deal. For all her bluster there was a surprisingly caring and maternal side to Yoshino. For some reason the woman had also taken a liking to Rei early on.

    When she saw that Rei wasn’t going to argue or say anything her gaze softened. “Well don’t just stand there come on inside. Nice yukata by the way. It suits you,” she said moving out of the way to let Rei pass.

    “Thanks,” said Rei as she quickly glanced at her clothes. She wore a casual purple yukata adorned with yellow and white flowers. It had gotten to the point where Rei felt a little awkward out of her ninja gear but she managed to pull of casual dress well enough when she needed to. The few weapons concealed on her person also helped to make her feel more comfortable.

    Rei let Yoshino lead her inside with a hand on her shoulder. “Why don’t you go on back Rei, you know where everything is. Help yourself to anything you want there’s plenty of food. In fact I insist. You’re much too thin Rei-chan,” she said leveling a reproachful glare at the girl.

    Rei smiled and nodded at that. “I’ll be sure to eat something aunt Yoshino. Promise.”

    “All right then get going. I’m sure everyone’s waiting for you.”

    Rei doubted that since she was pretty sure she didn’t know the majority of the people there that day. After a muttered thank you Rei stepped away from Yoshino and navigated through the home she had become familiar with from her occasional visits. Finally walking through a large doorway Rei found herself in a living area full of people.

    By ‘people’ she meant children. Lots and lots of them, nearly twenty that she could see off the bat. They were talking, running around, playing games and generally making a mess of things in a sort of controlled chaos. Rei took a deep breath and told herself it was all for the greater good.

    All the children where there for the same reason; to celebrate the Clan Heir’s, Shikamaru’s, seventh birthday. Knowing Shikamaru like she did Rei knew he would have rather avoided a party altogether and enjoyed a quiet day on his birthday. Unfortunately for him his mother would have none of that and every year organized a party for him. The woman had really gone all out, with trays of snack foods and colorful decorations hanging everywhere.

    Rei scanned over the crowd looking for any faces she recognized. Most of them were Nara children, some of them as young as three years old and a few older ones that might have been five or six. By coincidence Shikamaru just happened to be the oldest Nara child of his generation… making the parties even more torturous for the hyper intelligent child. There were also some non-Nara faces that Rei didn’t recognize which she assumed were classmates of Shikamaru. The boy of the hour was standing in a corner looking a little sour with his ever present shadow and best friend Chouji at his side. Shikamaru noticed Rei standing by the doorway and the two of them shared respectful – almost friendly – nods in greeting.

    What Rei didn’t see were any clan children that didn’t belong to the Nara, Akimichi or Yamanaka clans. That wasn’t surprising. The fact was that the closeness shared by Yamanaka, Nara and Akimichi pre-dated the founding of Konoha and was an entirely unique situation within Konoha. As far as Rei knew there were no other clans closely allied in the same fashion. The clans were much more likely to become competitive with each other than to establish close personal bonds. Sure many times different clans would ally politically but that didn’t mean they would encourage their children to play together. Some clans would even actively discourage that kind of cross-clan mingling like the Uchiha and to a lesser extent the Hyuuga did. Not that her clan or their allies minded that sort of thing since it made them a uniquely powerful political block.

    Put in that light it was even more interesting that the Hyuuga would encourage Neji to befriend the Yamanaka Heir. Did Hiashi have some notion of establishing closer ties with her clan? Or had it just been a connection of opportunity? Rei didn’t know. She supposed only time would tell.

    Rei suddenly spotted a familiar head of platinum blonde hair come into the living area from a doorway on the other side of the room. When Ino spotted Rei her face lit up in a bright excited smile. Rei smiled back a little more reservedly but just as warmly as Ino started to cut across the crowded room towards her. It was only when Ino was halfway across the room that Rei noticed she was dragging a familiar looking girl behind her by the hand.

    “Nee-chan!” Ino bubbled when she finally reached her older sister, “you made it!”

    Rei smiled teasingly. “I told you I would.”

    “Yeah you said that last year and you never showed up,” said Ino dramatically rolling her eyes. Then she brightened again and dragged forward the girl who was almost hiding behind her. “Sis this is my friend Sakura-chan. I told you about her right? Sakura this is Rei, my big sister that I was telling you about,” Ino said brightly.

    Sakura looked at Rei with wide eyes until she noticed she had been caught staring. She then ducked her head shyly and looked at the floor. “I-It’s nice to meet you Rei-san,” Sakura said nervously.

    Sakura’s hair was longish, reaching maybe to her shoulder blades and her hair was still a dark strawberry pink as opposed to the blinding shade from the story. It looked natural on her somehow. With her big green eyes Sakura was a cute kid. Rei honestly didn’t see what the big deal was about her forehead.

    “Nice to meet you Sakura-chan,” Rei said giving the girl a friendly smile, “is it true you get the best grades in your whole class?”

    “You know about that?” Sakura said looking startled. Then she blushed bright crimson and ducked behind her hair, “err i-it’s no big deal really.”

    “Don’t be embarrassed,” Rei told her gently, “you should be proud. I’ve been pretty much tied for first place in grades in my class since my first year. You should feel good about it. It’s nothing to feel bad about, promise.”

    Rei’s mini-speech seemed to help put Sakura a little more at ease. Sakura looked at Rei and smiled shyly, eyes big and somehow shining. Rei recognized the look Sakura was giving her having seen it before in Tenten, Ino and quite a few other people. It looks like I might have picked myself up another admirer, Rei thought with amusement, I wonder what tall tales you’ve been telling her about me Ino?

    “Come on,” said Ino grabbing both their hands, “let’s go sit over there.”

    Ino had really started to blossom over the past year becoming much more outspoken and confident. Now at seven years old Rei had started to see more and more hints of her personality from the story, especially how she liked to boss people around and in that she was becoming quite the talented social butterfly. Frankly Ino was just plain better than Rei at walking into a room and charming everyone inside even if Rei wasn’t exactly a slouch at that herself when she put her mind to it. Her little sister was growing up. It was a bittersweet thing to watch.

    Ino dragged them through the room, greeting a few people by name before bringing them to a small empty couch. Sakura and Ino sat on it while Rei pulled up a nearby chair. Soon they were all seated and as had become typical Ino took control of the conversation.

    “Mom took me to the clan’s flower shop today,” Ino said obviously excited about it, “she wants me to start learning about the store and to help out there sometimes. She think I’ll be really good at taking care of flowers.”

    Sakura made the appropriate noises to help keep the conversation going while Rei sat back and thought about that. The clan owned several business in Konoha including two different flower shops. Their mother kept herself busy by taking care of one of them. Rei was glad she had never been drafted to work there but it looked like Ino wouldn’t escape such a fate. At least the girl seemed excited to help out.

    “So how much time did mom say you would spend there each week?” asked Rei suddenly feeling worried that this would cut into Ino’s training time in the future. Though Rei was still uncomfortable with her seven year old sister learning how to kill… it would happen eventually. Thankfully it didn’t sound like Ino was expected to spend a great deal of time at the shop.

    Rei followed along as the conversation drifted to other topics, occasionally adding a commentary or opinion of her own. It made her amused and a twinge uncomfortable that both girls seemed to defer to her opinions.

    Potentially useful, a voice in the back of her head analyzed.

    Still she had something to accomplish today and she needed to lay the groundwork for it. Rei deliberately caught Ino’s eyes and after a moment of surprise the younger girl gave her a subtle nod. Ino and Rei might not be twins but they could communicate without words to a sometimes shocking degree. The younger Yamanaka turned to Sakura with a bright cheery smile.

    “Hey Sakura, I want to take my sister around and introduce her to some of the kids here she doesn’t know. Would you mind making a plate of something for us to eat real quick while we do that? I’m starting to get really hungry,” Ino said turning on the charm. Sakura seemed a little bedazzled by it.

    “S-sure Ino. I don’t mind,” said Sakura almost as if by reflex.

    “Great! We’ll be quick I promise,” Ino said standing up and grabbing Rei by the hand, “see you in a bit!”

    Instead of introducing Rei to anyone though Ino took them through a screen door into the back porch. There were a couple of kids running around out there but for the most part it was a private place to talk.

    “What’s up?” asked Ino, her eyes burning with curiosity as she stood with her hands on her hips – a new habit she had picked up.

    “I need a favor,” said Rei.

    Ino’s eyes widened a little bit at that. The girl was surprised. Rei never asked her for help with anything. This was a chance to do something for her big sis. Ino smiled up excitedly at Rei. “Sure Nee-chan. Anything you want just name it,” she said.

    Rei raised an eyebrow at that. “You’re not even going to ask what I want?”

    Ino shook her head. “You need my help, I’m giving it to you. It’s as simple as that,” the girl said with a surprising amount of determination in her voice. Then her expression softened. “It’s not every day I get to help you out with something.”

    Rei swallowed, felling touched and a little awkward. “Thanks sis,” she said with a grateful smile.

    Ino’s smile was radiant. “Anything for you. Now what do you need?”

    “Well,” Rei began giving her sister a conspiratory smile, “seeing as you’re the one with all the social brains between the two of us I could really use your help and expertise. This is what we’re going to try to do and how I think we can get it to happen…”

    Rei told her sister what she was after and the plan she had come up with to get it. The only white lie that Rei told Ino was that she’d heard about the summoning technique and really wanted to see it, not that she was hoping to steal the hand seals in order to recreate it later. If they were ever questioned “I wanted to see a jutsu” was an innocent enough justification for kids. Ino listened attentively, nodding where appropriate and even making a few surprisingly good suggestions of her own. When they were done the younger girl was smiling brightly.

    “This is going to be fun,” she said.

    Rei was glad to see her sister excited about the plan… what was now their plan. “I certainly hope so,” she replied with a lopsided little smile.

    Ino seemed to hesitate before speaking carefully. “You know this would be a lot easier to pull off if I brought Sakura into it,” she said, watching her sister for a reaction.

    Rei frowned. “Are you sure?” she asked a little dubiously. Sure there was nothing incriminating about what they had discussed but further sharing the plan made Rei a bit uncomfortable.

    Ino nodded. “It would be way easier to get everyone on the same page if I had someone helping me.”

    “Do you think she can handle it?” Rei asked a bit skeptically.

    Ino nodded vigorously. “She seems really shy but she’s really smart and she’s always come through for me. Trust me Nee-chan she can help,” Ino said impassionedly.

    Reluctantly Rei nodded. “All right Ino. I trust you. Go ahead and fill her in.”

    Ino squealed – actually squealed – before turning back to Rei with a wicked grin on her face. “This is going to be fun.”

    000

    There is one game that is far and away the most popular amongst the children of Konoha; playing ninja. It was almost inevitable that eventually all the children would find themselves in the back of the Nara house running around and pretending to be famous ninja from history. A few suggestions from Ino might have helped to move things along.

    Rei had never played ninja, not when she had always avoided kids her age and had started sparring with real ninja at five years old. She also happened to be the oldest kid at the party. Needless to say playing ninja didn’t exactly tax Rei’s hard won skills.

    Still it was fun. She laughed as kids half her age tried to peg her with wooden shuriken that went wide and she dodged a clumsy seven year old who tried to tackle her. Rei had of course been appointed to play Tsunade while the other side was full of dastardly Rock ninja. Children screamed, jumped and rolled around in the ground and it was the most like a child that Rei had ever acted since being reborn into her new life.

    Of course there was a reason for her playing a game she was so hilariously over equipped to win; she needed to make sure all the kids at the party would be willing to listen to her when the time came. The best way to do that was rather simple as children naturally seemed to have a sort of pack mentality. Rei just needed to establish herself as the most ‘Alpha’ of the group by being the undisputed best at playing ninja and within reason the kids would be naturally inclined to listen to her. As long as she could do that while keeping it fun and not outright humiliating anyone they should all be much more willing to pay attention and follow her lead. It also helped that she was the oldest one there.

    They played for the better part of two hours before things started to wind down and only a few kids were still halfheartedly trying to chase each other around. Rei made sure to casually sit herself across from Shikamaru some distance away. Shikamaru looked like he would have rather have gone inside a while ago… and he would have too if his mother hadn’t threatened to do horrible things to him if he abandoned his guests. Chouji had gone in a while ago with a bad case of indigestion. Everything looked good to go. She exchanged a look with Ino who was sitting almost in the middle of the group of kids with Sakura sitting about six feet away from her. Ino gave Rei a subtle nod. Good. They seemed to be ready to begin.

    “Hey Shikamaru,” she called out, loud enough where everyone could hear her, “your family have deer in this forest right? Can you call one of them so we can see them?”

    Behind the Nara home stretched a small forest that housed the deer the clan raised along with many wild growing medicinal herbs. The clan was well known for raising deer and their extensive specialized medical knowledge. Asking a Nara to produce a deer would not have seemed odd to a kid.

    Shikamaru gave her a strange look before he replied. “It doesn’t work like that. The deer are shy and don’t like to come out when there’s people around.”

    “Really?” said Rei making sure everyone could hear her, “that’s too bad. I like deer. Deer are cute. Especially those adorablebaby deer,” she said wistfully.

    Shikamaru was about to reply when Ino’s loud excited voice cut him off, drawing everyone’s attention. “Oh my gosh, baby deer? They are so adorable. I want to see a baby deer too!” she said.

    There was just something about Ino. The girl had charisma in spades. Now everyone was paying attention to her and Rei could tell that most of the kids had gotten caught up in her excitement. They just needed an extra little push.

    “Me too!” came another voice, shaky but loud, “I want to see a baby deer too!” Rei didn’t have to turn to know that was Sakura doing her part.

    It seemed to do the trick. Now a good many of the kids, especially the younger ones got caught up in the excitement and started speaking loudly, ‘baby deer!’ ‘I want to see a baby one!’ ‘Yeah, can we?’.

    Shikamaru turned his head and looked on with something akin to horror as all the children he was surrounded by seemed to suddenly start demanding he produce a baby deer out of thin air.

    “Yeah Shika, get off your lazy butt and get a baby deer out here already!” demanded Ino, standing up and pointing a finger accusingly at him. There was an excited chorus of agreement all around at that.

    Shikamaru looked at Ino with a look of utter betrayal on his face. He cleared his throat and spoke up a little desperately, “Look the deer won’t come out of the forest with all these people around. It just won’t happen,” he insisted, looking around nervously as if suddenly realizing he was surrounded by a mob.

    “Why don’t you get your dad to summon one?” said Rei out loud.

    There was a loud over the top gasp behind her before Sakura’s voice rang out, sounding nervous and excited. “He can summon deer?!”

    Rei nodded sagely. “Yeah, really strong ninja can summon animals out of thin air. It’s totally awesome.”

    “Oh my gosh. Can he summon a baby deer?” Ino asked out loud with that same charisma that seemed to get everyone caught up in her excitement.

    “Oh yeah. He can totally summon a baby deer,” said Rei who was grinning now.

    “Shika!” Ino said once more pointing a Shikamaru dramatically, “go get your dad so he can make a baby deer appear out of thin air,” she practically demanded of him.

    Rei discreetly looked around. They had snagged the interest of every single kid at the party now and they all seemed invested in seeing a baby deer appear out of thin air. They were all talking amongst themselves excitedly or looking at Shikamaru expectantly. Excellent. Shikamaru for his part was alternating between looking overwhelmed and shooting dirty looks at Ino and Rei.

    “I don’t think my dad will want to come out here,” Shikamaru said wincing a little. The excuse sounded lame even to him.

    “That’s ok,” said Rei standing up with a grin still on her face, “we’ll just go to him. Come on everyone! Let’s go find Shikaku-san!”

    000

    With some prompting from Rei and Ino and just a touch of help from Sakura it wasn’t hard to get all the children moving back towards the house. All the while Ino did everything she could to rile them up so by the time they got to the house they were more like an excited mob than a group of children. By coincidence Shikaku had the great misfortune to be currently in the room adjacent to the backyard when all the children come back into the house bursting at the seams with excitement.

    Shikaku and the two teenaged Nara he had been talking with looked on with wide and slightly alarmed eyes as two dozen children honed in on him and practically swarmed him, most of them chattering excitedly at the same time.

    “Whoa, whoa settle down,” Shikaku said loudly while making ‘settle down’ motions with his hands. Even though they were excited all the children knew to respect his authority. Within a few seconds the loud chatter was down to almost nothing even if the feeling of excitement still permeated the air.

    This part was something they were going to make up as they went along so Rei was still surprised when Ino took the lead and strode purposefully up the Nara clan head and put her hands on her hips.

    “We heard that you can summon baby deer uncle Shikaku. We want to see one,” said Ino, so forcefully it would have been downright rude if her charm didn’t let her get away with it.

    To his credit Shikaku recovered from his shock rather quickly. “You want me to summon a baby deer?” he said dubiously looking over at the group of children like something that might try to bite him, “I don’t think that’s a good idea…”

    “Why not?” Ino demanded, “it’s easy. And we’re so excited.”

    “I want to see a baby deer!” called out a voice from the back. Sakura. That was all it took to set the mob of children off, practically chanting and demanding that Shikaku summon one. It took well over a minute for Shikaku to get them to settle down again. Rei noticed the two teenaged Nara had discreetly moved to the far side of the room and were watching on with amusement.

    “Who told you that summoning deer was easy?” asked Shikaku, trying to make it sound like summoning a baby deer would be a very hard thing for him to do. Rei almost snorted at that.

    “My sister told me, so don’t try to act like it’s a big deal uncle Shikaku. Please? We’re just so excited and it would mean so much to us,” Ino gushed. Rei honestly didn’t know how Shikaku was still holding strong in front of the unleashed horror that was Ino begging for something, not to mention over twenty children begging him with their eyes to give in.

    Shikaku turned his gaze in Rei’s direction and the girl could tell that he was wondering just how much she had to do with the mess he currently found himself in. Rei gave him her best version of the begging puppy eyes look. She even mouthed a sort-of pathetic ‘please’ to him while she rubbed her hands together in nervous anticipation. By his look Rei didn’t think he completely bought her act.

    For a long moment Rei thought Shikaku was going to say no. That all of this would have been for nothing and she would be back at square one with nothing to show for it. His gaze hardened a fraction and he turned back to Ino, in Rei’s mind ready to lay down the law and tell her that the baby deer summoning wasn’t going to happen.

    And then Yoshino walked in the room.

    What is going on here?!” she demanded at seeing the mass of children. The two teens chose that moment to make themselves scarce.

    Ino jumped on the opportunity with all the mercilessness of a veteran ninja. “Auntie Yoshino! Uncle Shikaku is being mean to us. He won’t show us a baby deer,” she said, stomping her foot and looking for all the world like she was about to burst into tears.

    Rei never though she would see a man like Shikaku Nara flinch and grimace at the words of a little girl.

    Yoshino looked at Ino and her big eyes and trembling lips, then at the crowd of hopeful children, then finally at her husband. “Is this true?” she demanded.

    “Now honey… it really isn’t like that…” he protested.

    Yoshino’s eyes narrowed and her countenance turned stormy. “For your sake I hope you have a very good reason for trying to disappoint all these children Shikaku Nara!”

    000

    Five minutes later a ring of children was gathered around Shikaku outside as he got ready to demonstrate the summoning technique. Yoshino stood behind her husband with her arms crossed and her lips pursed just in case he tried to worm his way out of it somehow. With a heavy sigh Shikaku resigned himself to the inevitable and turned to the gathered crowd of children.

    “One day if you sign a summoning contract you will be able to use the summoning technique,” Shikaku said to the gathered children just a tad sulkily, “this is what it looks like.”

    Rei stood off a little to the side. A sly and victorious smile played on her lips as her eyes greedily drank in every movement that Shikaku made. Without any additional flair the Jounin began to execute the technique.

    Boar.

    Dog.

    Bird.

    Monkey.

    Ram.

    “Kuchiyose no Jutsu!”

    He slammed his hand into the ground and symbols quickly spread out in a circular pattern. There was a brief explosion of smoke and when it cleared a tiny deer with white spots stood in front of Shikaku. The children oohed and aahed as they swarmed forward and Shikaku had to struggle to keep them from frightening and overwhelming the small animal.

    Rei had to give the man credit. She had been watching him very closely and if she hadn’t known ahead of time that blood was required for the technique she would have never figured it out by just looking at him. Rei honestly had no idea when and how he had gotten the necessary blood when both his hands had been visible and accounted for the whole time.

    That’s the skill of a Jounin I guess.

    Still her plan had worked. She had the hand seals for the technique. It was all she could do not to break out into highly inappropriate laughter. That would have probably given the game away.

    000

    It was evening by the time they left the Nara compound. Rei left with Ino and Sakura, the three of them still riding high from what they had pulled off that afternoon. Going with an impulse Rei put herself in between the girls and threw her arms around both their shoulders as they walked.

    Ino was used to her sister’s more-than-normal touchy feelingness but Sakura noticeably stiffened. Casual physical contact was a lot more rare in the Elemental Nations than it had been in her last world. However as minutes passed Sakura gradually relaxed and even ended up leaning into Rei a little bit.

    “You girls did amazing,” said Rei after they had walked for a little while in relative silence, “for a second there I thought the whole thing was going to fall apart.”

    “Please,” said Ino, “getting what I want from uncle Shikaku and aunt Yoshino is an old hat for me. It was easy,” she said but she still glowed happily at her sister’s praise.

    “And you Sakura,” Rei said turning to look at the girl with a soft smile on her face. Their faces were only inches apart, “when I first met you I thought you would be too shy to pull off something like that. I’m glad you proved me wrong. You were a big help back there.”

    Sakura blushed prettily and looked away, a shy but pleased smile on her lips. “It was nothing Rei-san. It was a little scary but I was happy to help. Besides it was sort of fun too you know?”

    Rei found herself looking at the pink haired girl under arm. She was extremely smart. She was an only child and didn't have a large family. Sakura was just at that age where she could be influenced and molded by someone older and more experienced taking an interest in her, offering her a kind hand in a world where aspiring ninja from civilian backgrounds were left to make it on their own. It wouldn’t take very much to make her extremely grateful and eager to please. The girl could be valuable. Useful. That she didn’t have a clan to protect her made her even more attractive.

    Rei shook her head. When the hell did I start thinking like that? Her thoughts left her feeling slightly disturbed. Rei pulled away from the girls and walked in front of them so they couldn’t see that anything was wrong.

    Rei walked ahead of them for a few seconds before turning around, a big smile now on her face as she walked backwards. “So since you guys helped me out as far as I’m concerned I owe you one. Is there anything you would want?”

    Ino bit her lip. “I didn’t help you to get something out of you Nee-chan.”

    Rei waved dismissively. “I know Ino. I don’t think that. I just wanted to do something nice for you anyway,” she said.

    “Well in that case,” said Ino brightening, “what could you give us?”

    Rei shrugged. “I don’t know. What do you want? Anything within reason.”

    Ino had definatelly shown her today that she had matured. Truth be told Rei had been impressed with how the girl handled herself. Rei was starting to think that maybe Ino was old enough for training… if her younger sister took the initiative and asked for it.

    “I don’t know…” said Ino thoughtfully before she snapped her fingers. “Oh, I know! A new store opened up last week on the other side of the market that sells sweets. If you really wanted to show your gratitude a bag of yokan or candy would work pretty well.”

    Rei wasn’t sure whether she was relieved or disappointed.

    “What about you Sakura?” she asked turning to the other girl, “do you want the same thing or something else?”

    Rei had been almost positive the girl wouldn’t ask for training but it was still a little disappointing when she didn’t. The girl looked over at Ino for reassurance before turning to Rei. “Sweets sounds good,” she said shyly.

    “Sweets it is,” said Rei with an indulgent smile for the girls.

    000

    Three components. Blood. Hand seals. Method.

    Two down.

    One to go.
     
  19. Threadmarks: Chapter 19
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 19

    000

    One Year Later

    “Hey Anko,” said Rei as she panted, trying to get her breathing back under control, “can you do the summoning technique?”

    Anko raised an eyebrow at the seemingly random question. They sat on the back porch of the Yamanaka home after their weekly training session. Truth be told Anko had uncharacteristically ended their training early that day. Rei had been distracted the whole time and no matter how much pain or baiting the snake woman dished out Rei just hadn’t been able to get her head in the game. Something had obviously been distracting the insufferable brat. Could this have been it?

    “Why do you ask?” said Anko as she reclined casually against one of the beams.

    “We heard about it in class recently,” Rei said, “and I’d read about it before. I found out you need to have some sort of contract.” Rei paused before turning to look at her teacher, “Do you have one sensei?”

    Rei’s look bored into Anko while carefully not giving anything away. A little too carefully thought the older woman. If the girl was trying to hide her emotions then this was probably important to her. But why would she be asking about summoning contracts of all things?

    “Why do you ask?” Anko repeated, a little more forcefully this time.

    “I uh-“ with that Rei looked away, suddenly looking for all the world like she was shy. Rei was a lot of things but Anko didn’t think she’d ever seen hershy before. “I was wondering if you would let me sign it. If you had one.” Then Rei turned back to Anko, her eyes filled with an odd sort of determination. “You’ve been my teacher for three years. Isn’t it normal for teachers to pass on that sort of thing to their students?”

    Anko looked at her, really looked at Rei as she produced a flask of something hard and alcoholic while she thought. Yes she had been teaching the brat for three years since the kid had been six years old, at least once a week every week unless she was away on missions. Originally Anko had thought it was just a shit assignment for a newly promoted Special Jounin and that it would be over in a few months. In fact three months had been her original estimate. Three years later and she was still teaching the kid.

    For reasons Anko never quite understood the Hokage suspected Rei of something generally nefarious and unspecified. It didn’t take long to realize that even at six Rei knew perfectly well Anko was there to watch her and before long the girl made it painfully obvious to someone of Anko’s experience that she had something to hide. Still Anko had been ordered to use only the softest of information gathering methods so to a large extent her hands had been tied.

    Three years later and the girl still clammed up around certain topics, especially those having to do with her ambitions and plans for the future. Still after the first year Anko had been convinced that whatever Rei was hiding wasn’t a threat to Konoha. Call it an instinct after having spent so much time around a girl who wasn’t quite as good at hiding her thoughts as she imagined herself to be. The Hokage however had wanted Anko to keep an eye on Rei as an open ended mission. Three years later and the Hokage still hadn’t rescinded his order to keep a watchful eye on the young Yamanaka heiress.

    Anko wasn’t sure exactly where that left her… especially since she half-considered her mission a joke by this point. She had also taken a grudging liking to Rei and even took a certain amount of pride in teaching her. The girl was just damn good and in her private moments Anko could admit the brat would almost certainly surpass her one day. Surprisingly that didn’t even bother her. Much. If it wasn’t for the mission Anko would even have been tempted to ask about making the girl her apprentice in a more official fashion. If it wasn’t for the mission Anko might have even felt indulgent and asked the Snakes if they would be willing to let the brat sign the contract.

    … of course there was still the mission. No matter how much Anko had come to think it was bogus she was still a professional. Her orders included not teaching Rei anything beyond basic skills. As much as she might want to do otherwise orders were still orders.

    “You’re not really my apprentice you know,” said Anko, sounding surprisingly cold and aloof in a way that was uncharacteristic of her. She paused to take a drink from her flask. “Besides you’d be out of luck either way. I don’t even have a summoning contract,” Anko lied. She was glad she’d never decided to reveal that she could summon snakes. Better to just lie than deal with a begging or outraged Rei. While that could be cute Anko really wasn’t in the mood for it then.

    Rei’s eyes hardened and she seemed to get angry for an instant before getting the emotion under control. The girl looked away concealing her face. “Oh,” she said sounding disappointed but not surprised, “I guess I just assumed you did.”

    “Well you guessed wrong kid,” Anko replied.

    They didn’t say much to each other after that until Anko left.

    000

    As Rei ‘slept’ she explored the energies inside her body as she had been doing nightly for years ever since she had been a toddler. Because of this quirk of hers Rei thought she might have a better understanding of the flow of energy inside her own body than anyone else in the Elemental Nations. Who else could devote years of work to simply becoming more aware and sensitive to their own Chakra? Rei would have been rather proud of herself if not for one glaring detail. The practice has thus far failed to produce the types of dramatic results she had been hoping for.

    Sure it had made it possible to learn the basic three without hand seals much faster than normal but that had been two years ago. It had also helped improve her Chakra control to the point where most of the things she did on a regular basis were as close to one hundred percent Chakra efficient as they were likely to get. All of that was huge and would probably make learning new jutsu dramatically easier for her than anyone else. However even with all of that Rei had somehow still been expecting… more.

    She had especially been hoping for ‘more’ recently. Some kind of edge. Some kind of trump card. Sadly her practice had failed to produce what she had been looking for.

    Oh well. Hoping for such a thing to spontaneously appear in time for the big night had been a long shot anyway.

    Rei’s preparations for attempting the summoning technique were complete. She was going to do it tomorrow night. Rei finally thought she had everything she needed to make the jutsu work. After two years she would finally be able to jump out of the box people around her had conspired to keep her in. Her father. Anko. The Hokage. She would finally be able to get around everyone who had in one way or the other put roadblocks on her road to becoming S-Rank as soon as possible. Finally she would be able to do something about everyone who wanted to keep her growth constrained to something they felt comfortable with.

    Fine. They probably thought they had good reasons. That wasn’t going to stop her though. Rei had found her way around them and that way was the summoning technique. Tomorrow night she was going to be stepping off the map and making her own way for the first time.

    You're off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be monsters.

    It had dawned on her over the past year how incredibly risky her undertaking was likely to be.

    Too agitated to properly rest Rei got out of bed and left the room while being careful not to disturb a sleeping Ino. She made her way down the hall quietly and carefully opened the window at the end of the hallway. In seconds Rei was outside heading towards the clan library.

    000

    The Yamanaka clan library was arranged much like every other ninja library that Rei knew about. There were four sections with increasing levels of security that held scrolls and books cleared for the people who were allowed access. There was the general section that was open to everyone, then the section restricted to Genin, then the section restricted to Chunnin and finally the small section that held texts restricted to those of Jounin rank or above.

    The Genin restricted section only had security that was good enough to keep out individuals with academy level skills and perhaps those with some Genin level talents. Thankfully Rei was more skilled than all but the most elite Genin and eight months ago she had cracked how to get in and out of the Genin section of the library undetected. Truthfully the security for that section hadn’t been much better than the ninja equivalent of a bicycle lock though the security for the higher levels went up exponentially. Rei had tried for a few weeks to gain access to the Chunnin level archives undetected before giving it up as a lost cause with her current knowledge and skills.

    Rei walked into the Genin section like she owned the place confident that no one would be there at that time of night after the library had officially closed. After lighting a few candles she brought with her to give her just enough light to read by Rei went to pick up a notebook hidden in between some scrolls that didn’t look to have been touched for years.

    Rei looked with a strange sort of dread and fondness at the innocuous looking blue notebook in her hand. In it was the culmination of her last year of hard work. Unlike her clever plot with Shikaku to learn the hand seals figuring out what else was required for the jutsu to function had been much more difficult and a lot less clear cut. In the end she’d had no choice but to become a sort of detective, piecing together how the jutsu was likely to work from hints and clues found across a wide range of different sources.

    There had been a short work in the Genin section dealing with the theory of how space-time jutsu functioned. It was very basic but it provided some clues. For example all space-time jutsu must have a target for it to function. In some cases you feel out your target like with Kawarimi but supposedly for other jutsu you had to visualize. That was all it said, no more detail, but it was more than Rei had had previously.

    Next came a number of historical journals kept by Yamanaka ninja of old that were kept in the Genin section of the library. They’d had anything sensitive stripped and redacted at some point but whoever the censor had been had occasionally not been as thorough as the truly paranoid would have been. One of the authors of those journals, a Jounin who had lived during the first war by the name of Koji Yamanaka, had been a prolific writer who had been allowed by is Jounin sensei to sign the carp summoning contract. Across eight journals worth of introspective and wordy memoirs Rei had found a few useful hints.

    Koji had more than once mentioned how the carps enjoyed “the sacrifice” when he summoned them. At first Rei had thought he meant the blood but on further thought that couldn’t be what he was referring to. The summons never touched the blood. In the end Rei concluded that he must have been talking about the Chakra necessary to bring the summons to the summoner from wherever it was they resided. It was a bit of a stretch but Rei postulated that this meant her Chakra had to somehow “tag” the summons in order for the technique to work much like when you “tagged” an object for Kawarimi. It wasn’t definitive proof but at least to Rei it made logical sense.

    Finally there had been a cryptic as hell work written by the Second Hokage on the theory of utilizing jutsu. In fact part of the reason Rei thought it had been included in the Genin section was because no one could make very useful sense out of it. It reminded Rei of the Tao Te Ching which had supposedly had layers and layers of meaning that the uninitiated would have been utterly unable to grasp without the instruction of an experienced master. The only reason Rei was able to get anything even remotely useful out of the Second Hokage's work was her own unique experience with Chakra.

    Time parts when brothers touch across an endless ocean in a single instant. This reminded Rei of one of the funny things she had realized about Chakra; things like ‘distance’ didn’t always apply to it in the way you would imagine. When she thought about it she realized that Chakra, at least in some circumstances, had to be able to travel between two distant points instantaneously. How else would the Hirashin have worked otherwise? In a single instant made Rei think that the connection forged between two distant things had to be sudden and powerful, not tentative or hesitant. Time parts to Rei said that Tobirama had probably been specifically talking about time-space jutsu. When brothers touch across an endless ocean was probably talking about your Chakra being somewhere distant while still being connected to you in some way.

    Rei sat down at a small table and began to review all her notes all over again. Was there anything she had missed? Was these some small scrap of information she could look at from a different angle? Was there anything that hinted at the pieces fitting together differently than the way she thought they did?

    Rei knew that what she had come up with involved a lot of assumptions and guesswork. At least she was almost positive there was no way to kill herself if she did the jutsu wrong. What happened after it worked though was a different story.

    Rei wasn’t a complete fool. There had to be a reason why every half-assed Chunnin didn’t have his own summoning contract. Was it simply the ninja tendency to hoard powerful techniques and never share them with anyone? That actually wasn’t a bad explanation. No one shared powerful techniques in the ninja world except with their very closest and most trusted students or with their family. Even though it might increase Konoha’s strength by a great margin if every Chunnin could summon his own helpers she wouldn’t put it past the powerful Jounin in the village to hoard the technique anyway. It was simply the way ninja thought and operated.

    Still, what if there was more to it than that? Summon creatures as she remembered from the story were strong, intelligent and proud. She doubted they would simply agree to help anyone who just happened to appear in their realm without good reason. Rei would probably have to prove herself somehow. How though? And what would happen if she failed? If the creatures in the summon realm she ended up in were anything like the Toads they would probably just send her home. If they were anything like the Snakes they would probably kill her.

    Would the creatures she was summoned to even give her a chance in the first place?

    “Get a grip Rei,” the girl said into the empty library, “you’ve come too far to get cold feet now.”

    The truth was she didn’t need to be in the library. She had already picked everything apart on a nightly basis for weeks. Rei was as prepared as she could be. No more putting it off.

    Tomorrow night was the night.

    Rei sighed and put out the candles before leaving and taking the notebook with her. She didn’t need it anymore but it would become part of her alibi if necessary. Funnily enough the only rule she had really broken in researching the summoning technique was breaking into the clan’s Genin level records. That was much better than any number of other things people might imagine she had been up to if – when – all of this came to light.

    000

    The next day Rei went to the academy as usual but declined to do any training with Neji afterwards. Needless to say the boy was surprised since that was a first time she had ever canceled one of their training sessions. Still she couldn’t go out and train with him even if it would have helped with her stress levels. Rei needed to be in absolute top form and being worn out from training would have been a terrible idea.

    When she got home she said hello to her mother before going up to her room. There she spent a couple of hours cleaning and sharpening all her weapons even if realistically they didn’t really need it. She just needed something to keep her hands and mind busy until that night.

    I wonder what animal summon I’m going to get? Rei had been so busy with her regular life and training plus the research on the side that she’d never really sat and thought about that before. This was the first afternoon free of training or obligations or something that she could remember in what seemed like forever. Now that she had time her mind began to wander.

    Some kind of bird? That seems like a good bet. The whole reason Rei was taking such a huge risk was because she wanted to be strong enough to be free of Konoha as soon as possible. It was the thought of that freedom that had been driving her since before she could even crawl. Free from the demands that she live and die for the village, free from the expectation that she dutifully kill on the orders of the Hokage. Free from the probable fate of dying young and violently on some stupid mission she honestly couldn't care less about. To be free from being constrained in one place and to gain the ability to see what the world had to offer on her own terms. Free to not have her fate decided by those stronger than her. Birds were the symbol of freedom and that’s what she was after. It made sense didn’t it?

    Or maybe it won’t be something like that at all. Ironically despite not wanting to spend her life doing violence Rei found that she was just damn good at it. Disturbingly so at times. Rei had even come to enjoy the ninja arts and now took to them with enthusiasm. At first none of it had come naturally but in the end it had become natural through all her hard work and perseverance. It was like she had forged herself into something that could be incredibly dangerous. Still that was simply a necessary step to achieve her goal. Wasn’t it?

    Rei was also aware that deep down there was another facet to her personality. She was aware that there was something… dark in her. Something uncompromising and violent resting beneath the surface. Something that could come out if she was provoked enough. It wasn’t something she liked to dwell on but it was a reality none the less. Now she wondered how that would affect what summons would be ‘most suitable’ for her. Maybe a badger? A tiger? A rampaging elephant? Were there even elephants in the pseudo far-East world of the Elemental Nations?

    Or maybe she would be like a legendary ninja princesses in one of the stories and come back to Konoha riding on the head of a dragon. Rei had a good chuckle at that. Dragon summons? Ridiculous. Still it was a neat thing to fantasize about.

    There was a knock on the door before it opened a moment later. “Rei honey? I’m about to head out. We’ll be back late tonight,” said her mother.

    Rei stopped what she was doing and looked up at Emiko. She was dressed in a fine ivory and red kimono with her hair and makeup done in an elegant fashion. “You look very nice mom,” said Rei with a small smile and a tone that was just the tiniest bit teasing, “got a hot date tonight?”

    “Just your father I’m afraid,” Emiko said with an amused smile, “make sure to eat something. See you tomorrow.”

    Before Emiko could leave Rei spontaneously stood up and walked over to the woman, giving her a hug. Emiko made a sound of surprise before wrapping her arms around her daughter a moment later.

    “What was that for?” Emiko asked after Rei pulled away a few moments later.

    “Nothing, it's nothing,” said Rei with a shrug, “just… make sure you and dad have a good time,” she said.

    Emiko looked at her daughter a little oddly before letting it go. “All right Rei-chan. I will. Have a good night you hear?”

    “Sure mom,” Rei said. At least I hope I will.

    Emiko gave her hand a squeeze. “All right then. Good night.”

    “Good night,” echoed Rei.

    With that Emiko turned and headed down the stairs and out of the house. Rei sighed. Her parents were going to be gone all night at a big get together thrown by the civilian economic council that would have anyone with even a shred of influence in Konoha attending. It was a big yearly thing to help smooth out relations between ninja and the civilians that lived in the village. Ino was spending the night at a friend’s house. Rei had the house all to herself and a huge block of time in which she would be left undisturbed. If everything went exceedingly well she might even be back before her parents came home.

    She figured the odds of things working out that neatly were pretty slim. Especially since she had no idea how to get back on her own.

    With careful and deliberate movements Rei began to pick up all her weapons. It was now or never.

    000

    Rei walked out onto the backyard and made her way towards the huge Hashirama tree near the back next to the imposing walls of Konoha. She couldn’t help but look at the tree and think of the First Hokage as she walked.

    Did you ever do this Hokage-sama? She thought, If so what were you feeling when you did?

    Rei set herself up next to the iconic tree. It seemed appropriate somehow. With a practiced flick of her wrist a kunai flew out of her sleeve and into her hand.

    She held up the kunai, ready to pierce her palm when she stopped. Suddenly Rei had an irrational urge to call the whole thing off. For all her training she had never truly been in a life or death situation. Was she really ready to do this? There was a real chance all of this could end with her dead. The thought chilled her. Did she really have to do this? Was this even really necessary?

    Rei took a deep breath and let the kunai hang at her side. Standing there Rei began to understand a bit more about what it meant to be a ninja. It meant walking into conflicts you didn’t know if you would walk away from. It meant accepting grisly death as a possibility and walking forward anyway. Did she have that in her? Did she have it in her to put her life on the line to achieve what she wanted?

    Rei’s fist tightened around the hilt of the kunai. If not then what was the alternative? It wouldn’t be a life to her. It would be a half-life ruled by fear and profound unhappiness. For the first time Rei had to really consider if she was willing to die to achieve her goals of becoming S-Rank and being free of the ninja system.

    Rei’s eyes hardened. Yes, she was willing to risk her life and possibly die for her ambition. It might scare the shit out of her but she would still throw everything she had, everything she was at the problem. She would not die. And if she did she would do so without regret.

    As long as she could go down fighting with everything she had she would be able to die without regrets.

    “All right tigers or bears or eagles or whatever,” she muttered holding the kunai over her palm, “here I come.”

    Rei made a shallow slash across her palm, just barely enough to draw a few drops of blood. She thought back to her research. Visualize your target, this time an indistinct figure that was the most appropriate summon for her. Rei did this for a few moments until she felt something subtle click in her mind and felt a tiny portion of her Chakra leave her body. It had disappeared and gone… somewhere but Rei felt it was still connected to her somehow. Excitement bubbled up inside her. It was working.

    In a single instant. Rei poured Chakra into that faint connection like opening up a faucet, pouring it hard and fast until she felt the connection widen and stretch between the two. She concentrated hard, the connection made harder by the unclear image she had in her head. But it was working.

    Offer up the Chakra. She gifted her Chakra to the image in her mind like a bloody offering and Rei felt something take hold. This was it. This is what she had been waiting for. The connection. The sense of satisfaction she could faintly feel coming from the other side. This was it!

    Do it now!

    Boar.

    Dog.

    Bird.

    Monkey.

    Ram.

    “Kuchiyose no Jutsu!”

    Rei slammed her palm into the ground, spirals and lines of ink bursting forth from her hand. She could feel the technique pulling deeply from her Chakra stores as it widened the circles of ink around her whole body. The other presence suddenly vanished from her mind and for horrifying second Rei thought the technique had failed.

    Then she felt a force take hold of her body not too dissimilar from the Body Replacement Technique. She felt a tugging sensation below her belly button before there was a puff of smoke and her vision went completely black.

    000

    At first Rei couldn't see anything, nothing at all. It was like she had fallen in a deep pit that had never seen the sun. Rei tightened her fists until the feeling of her nails cutting into her palms helped her to remain calm. Panicking over a little darkness would solve nothing. Remain calm and assess the situation.

    Rei had to assume the jutsu had been successful but she had no idea where she was. She patted herself all over and was relieved to discover all her equipment was still on her person. Good. Checking her internal stores she found that the jutsu had taken about half her total Chakra. Rei frowned at that. The justu had taken more than she had expected. Not good. As she shifted her weight she noticed something strange about the ground underfoot. Rei moved her sandaled foot over it to feel the texture. Was that… metal grating on the floor?

    Gradually her eyes began to adjust to the darkness. Looking up she could see it wasn’t pitch black like she had originally feared. Hundreds of feet up in the air there was a ceiling of some kind with collapsed and jagged holes letting in faint moonlight. The light diffused over the cavernous room and it was just barely enough to make out the general shape of her surroundings.

    It was completely unlike what she had expected. To her surprise all around her were pieces of what looked like old machinery. Up overhead she could make out the outlines of what looked like half-collapsed catwalks with metal railings. What looked like I-Beams ran up the walls hundreds of feet into the air and disappeared out of sight near the ceiling. Rei was shocked to find herself on what looked like the ground floor of a colossal factory.

    However absolutely everything she could see was in shambles. Every piece of metal she could see with any sort of clarity showed clear signs of heavy rust and decades, possibly centuries of abandonment. The room smelled musty and there was the definite taste of metal in the air. There were signs of dirt, filth and decay everywhere. The place almost felt like a tomb. This was the place where her summons lived? What sorts of creatures lived here?

    “Well well well,” an androgynous, scratchy voice called out from the darkness causing Rei to jump, “What. Do. We. Have. Here?”

    Rei was getting a bad feeling about this. The voice spoke with a sort of predatory amusement, like a lioness who had unexpectedly stumbled on a baby fawn to play with. Rei kept her hands at her sides resisting the urge to go for her weapons.

    “The summoning technique brought me here,” Rei spoke, loud enough to be heard but not too loudly as the heavy darkness seemed to encourage silence. “I-“ began Rei, then she stopped as she heard something behind her. She spun quickly but saw absolutely nothing. Rei though should have at least caught a glimpse of something even in the semi darkness. What in the world...?

    Then the sound came again, first behind her, then to her left, then high and to her right. All around her Rei began to hear the same sound. It sounded like nails or claws on metal like a dog or a similar animal might make. It sounded like they were all around her, some definitely close enough to see but when she whirled around Rei saw nothing. She was surrounded by at least a half dozen creatures in the dark and she couldn’t catch a glimpse of even one of them.

    It was then that Rei began to feel afraid.

    “I-,” Rei began again calling blindly into the darkness and working hard not to let her fear show in her voice, “I have no contract and the jutsu brought me here. I’m here to be your summoner.”

    The claws seemed to stop all at once and for long seconds there was silence. Then the first voice called out again from somewhere behind her.

    “You think we’ll make you our summoner?” the voice chuckled in dark, cruel amusement, “the arrogance of the young ones these days. She must be mad.”

    This time Rei didn’t turn around. She couldn’t find them with her eyes anyway. Rei did her best to swallow her nervousness and her fear and spoke again. “Allow me to prove myself. I am worthy of being your summoner.”

    Without warning what felt like a hand wrapped around Rei’s calf and pulled using it’s claws or nails to rip away long strips of Rei’s skin. The girl screamed in pain and surprise, jumping forward and away from her attacker, pulling out a kunai and turning around in one flowing motion. When she looked at where her assailant should have been there was nothing. Just an empty patch of darkness.

    “She tastes good!” called out a different voice a little ways off, throaty and male, “her skin is so young. Soft and tender,” there is a wet sound like someone licking their chops. “Better for eating than summoning, me thinks.”

    The first androgynous voice laughed and cackled at that. “Fresh meat it is! You would have never survived us anyway girl. You can’t even hide yourself properly. Be sure to give us a good meal when you die, yes?”

    “Meat!” called out a third voice.

    A fourth voice laughed and purred. “I call dibs on the eyeballs. Such preeety eyes.”

    “Entrails for me,” came a silky feminine voice much too close on Rei’s left.

    “Personally I just want some more of that skin,” said the second male voice again, this time coming from much closer than before. “It’s too bad she’s so little. There won’t be very much at all.”

    The first voice laughed again, a loud cackle that sent shivers up Rei’s spine and froze her blood. The voice was close, right in front of Rei and she still couldn’t see whatever the hell it was. “Don’t try to run. But do try to hide. It’ll be much more fun when we catch you that way,” said the voice.

    Out of a patch of darkness in front of her Rei finally saw something. A weapon came out of the blackness, rising high into the air and coming down onto Rei with blinding speed. Rei jumped back and the weapon struck in between her legs, the metal of the weapon and the metal of the grate flooring striking and sending up a small shower of sparks.

    For a split second Rei could see in the oppressive gloom. The weapon that had almost impaled her was a kusarigama with the chain leading back into the darkness. For a split second Rei got a glimpse of whatever the hell it was.

    It was a figure roughly her height but it was almost invisible since the damn thing was see through. It would be almost impossible to spot in the darkness. Eyes flashed red for a second, taunting her, before disappearing again. Then the darkness returned and her night vision was even worse than before.

    It’s a stealth jutsu, Rei thought frantically, whatever the hell they are they’re using some kind of stealth jutsu to hide in the dark. That fucker let me see him. He’s playing with me.

    The sound of claws on metal started up again all around her and Rei started to panic. Her heart began to pound frantically in her chest and mind began to blank with fear. This wasn’t at all what she had been expecting. There should have been a test, something! Her summons weren’t supposed to just decide to eat her! In her fear Rei began looking around frantically for some way out, for some way to escape.

    Rei looked up and saw the holes in the roof hundreds of feet up letting in what little faint light existed in the factory. If she could get up there she could escape. If she could get up there then she wouldn’t get eaten and hunted in the dark by animals she couldn’t even see.

    Rei took off running at a dead sprint towards the nearest wall of the factory she could see. Even though it was the closest the wall it was still over a hundred feet away. Rei pushed Chakra into her legs and pushed herself to go as fast as she could, praying and hoping that she could outrun the creatures in the dark.

    “Haha! Look at her run!” a male voice cried out.

    “Poor poor little thing. You’d almost be thinking she didn’t want to die,” came a mocking female voice from the darkness to her left.

    “Don’t think you’ll be getting far girly. I’ll have your eyeballs yet,” came a voice from the right. Close. So close. Rei ducked her head down and just ran, tears of fear and panic starting to sting at her eyes.

    Her foot hit something she couldn’t see in the darkness. Rei went sprawling, falling gracelessly as she crashed and rolled into clutter and debris. She scrambled to her feet and kept running, all thinking having seized in a mad rush for freedom.

    There! She'd made it to the wall. Without losing a step Rei jumped and planted her feet on the rusted metal wall and began running, running upwards with everything she had. Her eyes were trained on the openings on the roof high off in the distance above, the route of her escape, her freedom. When she had gone forty feet without anything trying to stop her a small part of Rei started to feel hopeful.

    Then without warning the entire wall she was running on began to glow green. As she watched a giant seal appeared on the wall from the floor nearly all the way to the roof. Her feet lost traction and suddenly her Chakra would no longer stick to the wall. Rei felt her heart leap to her throat as she began to fall.

    Reflexes took over and Rei righted herself as she fell towards the floor. Looking down she could barely see the floor of the factory even with the glow of the seal. It was high, maybe a bit higher than she was entirely comfortable with but Rei knew she could make that landing safely. She bent her legs and poured Chakra into her lower body to prepare for the impact.

    Then something hit her from the side when she was fifteen feet from the floor, hard and unexpected. Whatever it was had fur but it was there one second and gone the next. However the hit made Rei completely lose control of her fall. She was only a few feet from the floor and she was poised to slam into it face first without enough time to right herself.

    Rei managed to turn her body just enough to take the fall on her left shoulder. Something tore in her shoulder when she hit and Rei screamed in shock and pain. All around her a chorus of laughter erupted from the darkness.

    “I told you,” that first androgynous voice called out from the darkness, “I told you not to run!”

    Rei didn’t even consciously register an attack. Suddenly she found herself rolling to the side as the blade of the kusarigama impacted where her head had been a split second before. Rei couldn’t even find it in herself to feel surprised, the new and blinding pain in her shoulder taking too much of her attention.

    “Good reflexes,” the same voice called out from the darkness, drawing out the words and practically purring them. “But those will not save you. Oh my, look at you shivering. You’re still afraid aren’t you? I hope so. The meat from an animal who dies in fear is by far the sweetest. I think I’ll take your heart for myself.”

    Rei sobbed, both in pain and in helplessness. Struggling she came up to her knees, hand still clutched to her shoulder. The sound seemed to provoke the creatures in the darkness as they giggled and laughed and taunted, their voices drawing closer with each second.

    “Don’t feel too bad young one,” came the same voice from before, “you never would have made it to the end of The Factory. You’ve shown absolutely zero skill. Your fate was sealed the second you decided to show your face here.”

    Fate? Is it my fate to die here?

    No. No. It can’t be. I refuse to let it.

    Hearing Neji’s favorite phrase somehow cleared some of the panic from Rei's mind. The pain in her shoulder had receded just enough to where she could at least think for the time being. She couldn’t just die here. She wouldn’t accept that! There had to be a way out. But how?

    “So you don’t want a summoner?” she yelled out into the darkness, loud, a challenge. Somehow it helped shore up her courage. “You’ll just kill anyone who shows up, is that it?!”

    There were chuckles from all around. The voices were so close now. She almost felt like she could reach out and touch them.

    “We don’t want any stupid summoners girly,” that same voice called out again, laced with disgust.

    Rei’s eyes narrowed at that as her mind worked furiously. They didn’t want a stupid summoner? The voice was implying she was stupid somehow. Coming here in the first place? No that didn’t feel right. Then what?

    Suddenly pieces of what the voice in the darkness had been saying started to come back to her.

    You would have never survived us anyway girl. You can’t even hide yourself properly.

    Don’t try to run. But do try to hide. It’ll be much more fun when we catch you that way.

    Good reflexes, but those will not save you.

    Don’t feel too bad young one, you never would have made it to the end of The Factory. You’ve shown absolutely zero skill.

    Rei’s eyes widened. Could it be that simple?

    Whatever these things were they seemed to value stealth. They want her to sneak by them. To make it to the end of The Factory as they called it. Could that be the test she had to pass?

    Calling on her Chakra Rei used it to rise easily to her feet despite the pain in her shoulder. Her lingering fear wouldn’t help her here. Instead she reached inside and did her best to transform her fear into anger. “You want me to make it to the end of this place? Fine. I’ll do it. And then you’ll have to acknowledge that I’m worthy to be your summoner.”

    The voice in the dark chuckled. “So you’re not completely retarded after all. But you’re not there yet. And we really do want to eat you.”

    Rei thought she registered a slight ripple in the air to her right. She didn’t double guess herself, she just jumped in the opposite direction. A gigantic metal mace smashed into the ground where she had been standing a moment before seeming to appear out of thin air. The spiked head dented the metal floor and let out a loud clang that seemed to echo for miles in the quiet darkness.

    “I’ll get to the other end,” Rei growled, reaching into her weapon’s pouch with her good arm, “and I’ll earn your loyalty.”

    With a yell she threw down a handful of smoke pellets onto the floor creating a huge cloud of thick black smoke. Hoping it would slow the creatures down for a few seconds Rei took off running, mind whirling and desperately trying to think how she would pull this off.

    “Interesting!” that voice yelled into the smoke and darkness, laughing and cackling like the insane. “Let the games begin!”

    Rei ran with the sounds of claws on metal seeming to echo all around her.
     
  20. Threadmarks: Chapter 20
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    A/N: The song goes well with the whole chapter. In my opinion it enhances the experience. Highly recommended.

    000
    Chapter 20


    000


    Music - Mix from Kara no Kyoukai

    Listen on repeat for your convenience.

    It was hard to tell time in the bowels a lightless, dank and rotting factory. Rei wasn’t sure if twenty minutes or two hours had passed since she had started running and hiding for her life. The sharp and shooting pain in her shoulder wasn’t doing her any favors in that regard either. Rei was only thinking about time because she was quickly growing tired and her Chakra reserves were beginning to get low. At least the whatever they were creatures in the dark that were hunting her had lost her for now. Or at least she assumed they had since nothing was trying to murder her at the moment.

    The Factory had so far been one impossibly wide corridor headed in one direction. Parts of it made Rei think of a city… a modern metal city lost to time and neglect. In other ways the colossal structure made her think, ironically enough, of a natural landscape. It seemed to have its own geography with hulking machinery hundreds of feet tall acting as mountains and deep pits acting as cliffs or valleys. Other parts of The Factory reminded her of rolling plains with its uneven landscape of debris and assembly lines long forgotten acting as small hills. Yet in other parts it reminded her of a city with corridors in a rough grid shape acting as streets and ten foot high piles of trash and rotting filth acting as buildings. The only constants to be found in the bleak landscape were rusting metal, dank decay and the oppressive absence of light.

    Then there were the creatures out in the darkness. Rei did her best to push down her instinctive fear at the thought of them. They kept trying to panic her and panic would only get her killed.

    “Where are you little pup?” a voice echoed out of the darkness seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere at once, “I’m rather nice. I’ll kill you quick. Some of my brothers will start eating you while you’re still alive. You don’t want that to happen, do you little one?”

    “Despair, despair, despair,” another voice sing-songed in the darkness, cruel and slightly mad, “taste, taste, taste. Bones, bones, bones.” A bark of wild laughter made Rei flinch. “Taste of shadows, taste of death. Tasty treat, you will relent. Liver, liver on the wall, who will catch you when you fall?”

    “You’ve done well so far, but how much do you have left in you?” called out the androgynous voice that Rei had come to think of as the leader of the group hunting her, “you must be near exhaustion by now. Your Chakra low. Your wounds draining what little stamina you have left. Running out of tricks. Out of time. Why continue to struggle? Maybe you should end it all with a kunai. A few pounds of pressure on the side of your neck and this horrible nightmare will end. Maybe you’ll even wake up back in your bed when it’s all over. Doesn’t that sound tempting little girl?”

    Rei closed her eyes and forced herself to push the voices away. Their words would start getting to her if she paid them any more attention. She couldn’t afford to get sucked into their pace, into their mind games. It was a challenge though. The lead hunter wasn’t wrong. Her Chakra had already been low because of the reverse summoning jutsu. Her injured shoulder was hampering her. Rei could only pray the end of The Factory wasn’t too far away or she didn’t know how she was going to make it.

    Rei clung to the bottom of a somewhat-intact scaffold using her Chakra to flatten herself against the surface as much as possible. She had used Henge to change her clothes into a pattern of dark colors that covered every inch of her body, her face done in dark camouflage paint and her hair was now black streaked with grey. Unlike what most would think wearing solid black wasn’t the best way to camouflage in the darkness. Instead patterns of different dark colors were best to break up her shape in the gloom. Funny that something she'd read in one of the very basic academy books might end up saving her life.

    Rei knew she needed to keep moving but she had stopped because she had a problem: it looked like there was a wide open space for her to cross with very little cover. If she went out there there she would most likely be instantly spotted out in the open. Dangerous. Too dangerous.

    Closing her eyes and concentrating Rei carefully began moving her Chakra in a familiar pattern while being careful not to disturb her Henge or the Chakra that was keeping her attached to the scaffolding. Even though she no longer had a need to say the name of the jutsu out loud sometimes it helped to say it to herself in her head.

    “Bunshin no Jutsu!”

    She created a single clone as far away from herself as she could behind an old machine on the ground floor. Mentally she directed the Bunshin to creep from cover to cover and approach the no man’s land that was the hundred plus foot patch of open ground. When it arrived at the edge Rei gave it the mental command to run across the empty space. The Bunshin did, breaking into a run that was every bit as fast as hers.

    The clone made it half way before Rei saw what she thought were two flashes of reflected light in the darkness. Two blades struck the Bunshin simultaneously seeming to materialize out of thin air, one decapitating it and another stabbing upwards in between its ribs. In a flash the Bunshin winked out of existence and any sign of the blades or their wielders disappeared from view just as fast.

    Well, thought Rei a little darkly, it’s not like I thought that was going to work anyway.

    “What a tease. All you’re doing is helping us work up an appetite little pup. The longer you make us wait the longer we’ll make you scream before the end,” a voice echoed in the darkness, taunting and knowing and far too intimate. Rei had to use every bit of her discipline to ignore it and bring her mind back to the problem at hand.

    An idea struck Rei. She had to gamble that the creatures in the dark had just as much trouble seeing in the gloom as she did. If they didn’t they would have found her by now right? It made sense to her anyway. Her shoulder throbbed and Rei fed a bit more Chakra into it to help deal with the pain. She just needed to get them looking in another direction and take a route they wouldn’t expect. Rei mulled her idea over in her head. It wasn’t perfect… but in this situation it was unlikely that any plan would be. She wasn’t coming up with any better ideas and she couldn’t stay there forever. Rei clenched her fists and tightened her resolve. There was no room for hesitation or half measures. She had already wasted enough time.

    The scaffolding she was under was near the left wall and the right wall was a hundred feet from her position. Careful and using every last ounce of her training Rei dropped from the bottom of the scaffold landing in a silent crouch. She stayed still and behind cover for ten breaths to assure herself she hadn’t been spotted. With her good arm Rei reached into her equipment pouch and grabbed her last three smoke bombs. Either this would work or she would get cut down to confetti. Rolling the small capsules in her good hand Rei enhanced her arm with Chakra and threw the smoke bombs to the right side of the room.

    The bombs hit, completely covering the right sided approach to crossing the open space. Almost immediately Rei thought she heard claws on metal moving in that direction. The obvious assumption was that Rei would try to use the cover of the smoke to cross the stretch of no-man’s land. Rei had no intention of doing that.

    Rei moved quickly but silently to the far left side of the room. With a grimace she began to walk up the wall. She hoped if she didn’t get up too high the green seal wouldn’t activate again letting everyone know exactly where she was. It was a gamble. Even with the creatures hopefully distracted on the other side of the room running across the ground would have been too conspicuous. She could only hope none of them would get close enough to spot her.

    Rei climbed up twenty feet on the wall and began running across the span of clearing as fast as she could while keeping her footsteps silent. The girl began to breathe a little easier when she passed the halfway point without incident. As she ran she began to make out another scaffold on the other side and the resumption of the seemingly endless fields of machine and debris. It was hope. Only the blighted landscape had allowed her to stay ahead of her pursuers, somehow. Rei moved as she stretched her senses, still alert for any potential attack.

    Rei had almost reached the other side when the surprise strike came from below. Out of the darkness materialized a kusarigama arching at high speeds aiming to cut her legs out from under her. With a flick of her wrist a kunai slipped into Rei’s good hand barely blocking the kusarigama in time. The clash of blades shook through her frame making the pain in her injured shoulder flare up and the impact between the two metal weapons threw up a small shower of sparks.

    Shit shit shit! In the darkness every one of those things would have seen the sudden light. She needed to move. Now.

    Rei threw a spread of shuriken at where she thought the blade had come from and made a break for the scaffolding platform. She leapt and landed in the middle of the platform, only to feel two thumps as two other weights landed on the same platform a split second later. Pushing down a flash of fear Rei resisted the urge to look around knowing that she wouldn’t be able to see the creatures. Spotting a possible escape Rei sprinted to the edge of the scaffold and jumped off into the pitch blackness.

    Reaching into her robe Rei pulled out a shuriken with ninja wire attached. Looking at the vague outline of what was probably a metal walkway cutting across diagonally overhead Rei threw the shuriken blind trusting in her instincts and training. The shuriken flew in a high arc and when she guessed it was barely past the walkway she twisted the Chakra strings wrapped around the wire causing the shuriken to plunge downwards violently. Rei’s insides unclenched marginally when she felt the shuriken and wire twist and hook around the narrow walkway. With a tug at the wire and by swinging her legs forward Rei built up momentum as she swung underneath the walkway. Pulling with her whole body and utilizing her Chakra Rei swung upwards and around, changing her angles to land in a neat three point landing on top of the rickety metal structure.

    Quickly looking around Rei spotted one of the creatures to the left of her on the walkway maybe a dozen steps away. It just stood there looking at her as if it had been waiting for her. Instead of being completely stealthed this one looked like it was dressed in a cloak of living shadows, roiling and churning and making it impossible to see what was underneath. To its side it held a naked sword at least three feet long and ominous red eyes glowed out from where Rei assumed it’s face would be. Rei stared at its eyes and forced down the fear that threatened to bubble up at the sight of the unsettling figure in front of her.

    The blonde knew she needed to get away from that thing before it started to move after her. A quick flick of her eyes gave her a possible way out. Putting her fright in a box Rei did the last thing the shadow creature would have expected her to do; she charged right for it.

    If it was at all surprised by her move Rei couldn’t tell through the mass of shadows. As the girl approached it raised its katana high in the air to cut her down. Rei eyed the blade as she put on another burst of speed. Just a little closer thought the girl as she began to move her Chakra.

    Brazenly Rei ran into the shadow creature’s striking range. Instantly its blade began to come down just as Rei finished moving her Chakra through practiced channels. There was a flare of Chakra just as the blade sliced into Rei’s collar bone nearly cutting the girl in two.

    The creature watched its sword bury itself all the way to the girl’s chest before there was a puff of smoke and the girl was replaced with an ancient, rusted metal barrel. The mass of shadows kicked the barrel off its sword before vanishing from sight in a shimmer of Chakra.

    Rei found herself on a small raised platform full of old rusted gears and barrels. Knowing she needed to put some distance between her and her pursuers who most likely knew where she was Rei withdrew her very last flashbang tag. Wishing she had brought more than three Rei speared it on one of her dwindling supply of kunai and threw it high in the air. She covered her eyes with her arm but even then the explosion of light was incandescent enough to be seen as bright red light through her closed eyelids. Rei thought she heard one of the creatures shriek as the over ten million candela of light momentarily turned the factory into a small sun. Betting that anything nearby was temporarily blinded Rei took off at run on an erratic path changing her Henge on the fly to better match her new surroundings.

    Rei thought she had somehow done well so far but now she was out of flashbangs, smoke bombs and her Chakra was beginning to get alarmingly low. It was hard not to begin to despair. Rei knew the end of that place had better come soon or else… or else she wasn’t going to make it.

    000

    Time passed as Rei made her way deeper and deeper into The Factory. She had always done well in her stealth training but it was never something she focused on a great deal especially after she started training with Neji. Now she was having to dredge up every trick, every scrap of training she possessed and every bit of information she had read by reading scrolls in her spare time. It was barely enough. She was still alive but it felt like a situation that could change at any moment. A single misstep or a bit of bad luck was all it would take to get her killed. It was a little bit exhilarating but mostly just outright terrifying. Rei found herself focusing on her breathing a great deal as she weaved her way through the endless sea of black.

    The voices were the worst. The voices and the oppressive darkness that never seemed to end. Rei knew the constant taunting and gruesome threats were a psychological weapon but that knowledge only did so much to blunt their impact. It didn’t help that the voices seemed to echo and come from everywhere at once. Sometimes they sounded like they came from only a few feet away. Not panicking was every bit as much of a challenge as doing her best to move undetected. Her long experience with meditation helped her a great deal but that wasn’t to say her nerves weren’t frayed and she didn’t feel close to the edge. Even discounting her injuries this was by far the most taxing trial Rei had ever endured.

    Rei kept her injured arm close to her body as she moved quickly but silently among a maze of stacked and broken machinery. She had been lucky over the last good chunk of time that nothing had found her and she hadn’t had to go through the hair raising experience of defending herself and losing her pursuers again. Before long Rei noticed the landscape began changing in a new way; the impossibly wide corridor was narrowing. Rei frowned and bit her lip thoughtfully and a little viciously. This could be good or bad. Bad because a narrower corridor would make it more likely that she would be found. Good because it might mean she was finally coming to her destination, the so-called end of The Factory.

    Straining her senses Rei moved like a shadow from cover to cover, silent as she could with her Henge making her almost invisible in the darkness. It took her a few moments for her to realize the voices had all suddenly stopped. Not sure if that was a good or bad sign Rei swallowed thickly and continued on. There was nothing else for her to do but move forward.

    After the seemingly endless taunting the cavernous silence of The Factory was disconcerting and somehow even more frightening. Even the sound of claws on metal had completely disappeared, something that had been ever present since the summoning technique had first brought her to this place. Feeling nervous Rei drew a kunai. It was better to have her hand free but the changes were making her anxious enough to want a weapon in her hand.

    As she progressed the absence of any resistance or sound at all continued to make her more and more nervous. The creatures were still out there only now they were being truly stealthy leaving Rei completely without information. For all she knew one of them could be watching from only a few feet away and she would never know it. The thought sent a cold chill through her spine.

    Eventually the width of the corridor narrowed until it was only thirty feet or so across. Something was different about the lighting here, what little light there was to be had in the first place. Looking up Rei realized she could no longer see holes in the roof letting in the faint moonlight. Where was the slight illumination coming from then? In a completely absence of light she would be truly unable to even see even her hand in front of her. After looking for a few moments Rei realized a lot of the walls and pieces of metal were giving off an almost imperceptible glow. Passing by one of these patches Rei ran a finger over it, the pad coming away wet and the slight glow disappearing. Interesting. Some kind of bioluminescent moss then? Or bacteria? Well it didn’t matter much. Whatever it was wasn’t giving off nearly enough light to fend off the oppressive gloom.

    Her shoulder gave a sharp twang of pain causing her to grimace. She increased the flow of Chakra to the wound to help numb the pain as she moved on. Up ahead there were twin catwalks on either side of the wide corridor hanging about ten feet in the air moving forward. After some consideration Rei decided to climb onto one of them. The catwalks seemed to be strewn with all kinds of large debris. Hopefully provide adequate cover while giving her the high ground.

    As quietly as she could Rei made her way up to the catwalk on the right side. The girl flinched at the squeaking sound the rusting structure made when her weight settled on it. Rei stayed still and silent for a full minute certain that something must have heard that noise. However even after waiting and straining her senses there was nothing. No attacks, no taunts, no sound at all. It was almost as if she were truly alone in the gloom. In a way the silence and lack of attacks was even more terrifying.

    Slowly Rei began to creep forward mindful of the rusting catwalk making any more noise. As she progressed the wide open area of The Factory narrowed into a tunnel that arched barely ten feet overhead. Hope sprung in her chest. A tunnel most likely meant she was nearing the end of this cursed place. Briefly she contemplated walking on the ceiling before dismissing the idea. She had precious little Chakra left and had to preserve every last bit she could.

    Kunai in hand she moved forward as the tunnel started to narrow even further. Despite herself Rei started to think maybe the creatures had backed off, satisfied with what they had seen in her. Then again unless it had all been an act they were a sick sadistic bunch of critters. Still it was with a little bit of budding hope that Rei continued to creep slowly on the catwalk.

    That’s when it all went to hell.

    The ancient catwalk she was on gave her no warning as it abruptly collapsed underneath her. The section in front of her fell downwards violently throwing Rei forward against her will. She rolled as best she could, tumbling down the length of the sharply sloped catwalk before coming to a crouched stop on the ground floor. That was when her pursuers once again made themselves known.

    A flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye caused Rei to instinctively jerk her head away. It only partly helped her. A clawed hand appeared out of the gloom to gouge her eyes and instead ended up giving Rei a trio of shallow claw marks on the side of her face. The wound dispelled Rei’s Henge leaving her back with her blonde hair and lilac robes. Rei jumped away with a snarl of fear and anger as she instinctively turned to look where the attack had come from. Figures, at least a half dozen, stood there like see through silhouettes with that vaguely distorted look of flawed clear glass. A shadow flew towards her and Rei deflected it without thinking, her kunai sending a shuriken tumbling off into the darkness.

    Fighting down panic Rei realized her only hope now was to make a run for the end, there was no way she could hope to hide herself again in this narrow tunnel. As the almost-invisible in the darkness figures began to creep towards her Rei turned and ran, ran for all she was worth towards the end of the tunnel.

    She got a half a dozen steps before something wrapped around her neck and yanked violently up. Rei chocked and sputtered, the horrible pressure around her neck instantly painful and panic inducing. Trying to wrap her fingers around it on reflex Rei realized she was being hauled up by her neck and strangled by rope. It stopped hauling her up ten feet in the air leaving her dangling and kicking like a hooked fish.

    “End of the line girl. It was fun but our patience has run out,” a male voice called out of the darkness.

    “It be time to make good on all those promises we’ve been making you dearie,” a female voice called out of the darkness before descending into excited laughter. More voices, five, ten, maybe fifteen or more joined hers from all around the blonde Yamanaka. Rei realized she was trapped and surrounded on all sides.

    Fuck… not going to die strangled like this Rei thought, reigning in her panic just enough to figure out how to get free.

    With the kunai still in her hand Rei slashed up and behind her where the rope had to be coming from. The was a loud clang as metal hit metal. Rei momentarily panicked as she realized what it was that was holding her. It was a pole like dogcatchers used threading a rope through a hollow metal tube.

    Fuck… you thought Rei, suddenly irrationally angry at the thought of being treated like a dog. Without thinking about it Rei slipped the tip of the kunai in between the side of her neck and the rope heedless of the damage she would do to her own skin. Rei made a number of ugly cuts on her neck as she tried to saw her way through the rope that was strangulating her.

    “Are you sure you want to do that little one? The second you drop we’ll tear you to pieces,” sing-songed a voice from below.

    “We’ll make it nice and slow, make it hurt real good.”

    “Your meat will bring us joy girly. It’s something to feel good about really. Let that thought comfort you while I gnaw on your entrails, yes?”

    Rei ignored their voices, desperate to relieve the pressure around her neck. After a few more seconds of attacking the rope indiscriminately Rei could finally feel it thinning out. With one last effort of will the rope broke, causing the girl to free down to the waiting arms of over a dozen creatures.

    Her neck and throat felt brutalized, she was exhausted and wounded and beyond fucking terrified. However Rei Yamanaka was not going to go down without a fight. The creatures had apparently all dropped their completely invisible camouflage. Some looked like distorted glass, some looked wrapped in shadows, some looked like shimmering heat waves. Whatever their reasons Rei could see them now even if only poorly. As soon as her feet touched the ground she threw herself forward slashing at the closest figures in front of her. It was hard to see where they went but they all moved out of range before her blade struck.

    A clawed hand ripped at her back, tearing through the thick cloth of her robe and leaving shallow wounds on her shoulder blade. Fear and adrenaline caused her to spin and slash at her attacker without thinking. As she watched a mass of shadows floated out of range as it laughed at her. Then another clawed hand struck her from behind, this one tearing through the cloth of her hip and leaving another shallow wound.

    “Are you familiar with the term ‘death by a thousand cuts’ girl?” asked that androgynous voice she had come to recognize as the leader of the group, “they say it’s a horrible way to die. The pain oh so slowly builds on itself as you bleed to death over the course of many long excruciating hours. Let’s test that theory shall we?”

    Rei sliced at the creature in front of her but it seemed to dissolve into the darkness. Every time she lashed out with her kunai they always seemed to melt or dance out of range. Every time they did another one would claw at her from behind, leaving a very shallow but painful gash somewhere in her body. The taunting continued, relentless, letting her know exactly what part of her they wanted to eat and how excruciating her pain would be before the end. They made sure to tell her how much of a failure she was and how futile it had all been. All of this was meant to fill Rei with fear and despair and while it began to do that it also began to feed something else. It began to feed Rei’s rage.

    I’m going to win or I’m going to kill you all. There is no other alternative she snarled in her mind. The only reason she didn’t scream it out loud was because she didn’t want to give the sadistic creatures around her even a hint of what she was about to try. Rei knew that this trip might kill her when she set out and now it was looking extremely likely that it would do just that. If she was going die though she was going to do it fighting and take as many of them with her as she could. They had been trying to kill her the whole time. It was time to return the favor.

    Rei danced, blade whirling as she tried to minimize the number of shallow cuts she was receiving. Leg, shoulder, thigh, it began to sting but the arrogant creatures weren’t going for any deadly or even crippling blows. Rei moved, slowly moving to position herself in the center of the twenty foot wide corridor as shallow gashes continued to be carved all over her body. She didn’t let it distract her. She didn’t let it concern her. Rei was in the zone and she would win even if it killed her.

    Now, thought Rei as she grinned, now you’ll see who you’re fucking with.

    Rei had come to this trial loaded for bear. In the front pocked inside her robes were twenty fully powered explosive tags she had brought along for this trip. Going against all standards of safety and good sense Rei injected a powerful surge of Chakra into all of them while they were still in her robes, setting them on fire and starting the three second timer. Instantly Rei could feel them burning against her chest.

    3….

    Using what little Chakra she had left Rei injected it into her whole body and exploded into motion unexpectedly, using her flexibility to bend at angels that would have been impossible for most human beings. Her kunai swept in quick and deadly arcs all around her causing her assailants back off for a split second. That was all she needed.

    2…

    Rei stopped her assault having expended her burst of energy. Knowing the claws were coming Rei once again used her impressive flexibility to drop into a low crouch, one that was so low she was almost flat against the ground. The hands reaching for her only found empty air above her as Rei dropped the kunai and reached into her robes with her one good arm.

    1…

    With a snake-quick movement Rei grabbed the burning tags and bent backwards as she twirled her arm overhead throwing the paper explosives in a wide circle around her. The creatures instantly realized the danger and began trying to scramble over each other to get out of the way. It gave her the instant she needed. Slapping her hands together Rei shaped them into the tiger seal.

    “Kawarimi no Jutsu!”

    …0

    Rei replaced herself with the furthest object further into the tunnel she could detect just as the twenty full powered explosive tags went off. Even though they weren’t as strong as a military grenade in her last world twenty of them detonating in a tunnel would have enough energy to kill any living thing nearby many times over. The sound of the explosion was absolutely deafening and the shockwave painful even though she was a good distance away lying flat on the ground.

    She stayed on the ground for a few seconds, recovering from the effects of the explosion and from the effort required to execute her plan. Slowly she dragged herself to her knees and after considerable effort she managed to push herself to her feet. Her whole body hurt and she was beyond exhausted. Rei’s breath came out in thick ragged gasps. Her limbs felt like lead. She wanted nothing more than to collapse right then and there.

    Still there was no way she could do that. Rei had maybe bought herself some time but she still needed to reach the end of the tunnel. Steeling herself Rei prepared to move further into the darkness.

    YOU BITCH!” a male voice screamed out of the darkness.

    Some instinct told her to dash away but her body was too heavy, too exhausted to do it properly. She managed to sort of stumble forwards and cover her face with her injured arm. That’s when her world exploded into pain.

    Something liquid hit her arm splashing her from the crook of her neck all the way to the back of her left hand. It burned and it hurt like nothing Rei had ever felt before. She screamed as she felt her skin cooking and melting away. Rei hardly noticed in comparison when a foot kicked her in the chest and sent her sprawling into a pile of horrid smelling garbage. On instinct Rei tried to clutch the burn with her good arm which only sent a spike of white hot pain through her that very nearly made her lose consciousness.

    “You hurt me with that little trick of yours,” said the same male voice that had screamed at her moments before. Through her tearing eyes Rei could see a mass of erratic black shadows with burning red eyes stalking towards her. It produced a straight ninjato that seemed to shine in the darkness. “No more games. No more tricks,” the voice said, dripping with venom and hate, “you die now.”

    Rei could do nothing, paralyzed with shock and pain as the angry mass of shadows approached. She grit her teeth and watched it as it came closer. Rei was out of tricks and in too much pain to even begin thinking up of a plan. This was it. Despite her best efforts it looked like she would die anyway.

    At least I managed to make them kill me quick. At least I hurt this bastard she thought as a strange sort of calm began to come over her. I gave it everything I had. It wasn’t nothing.

    Rei watched as the mass of shadows reached her and raised its ninjato for a downwards strike.

    I can live with that.

    “Hold!” a voice called out of the darkness further down the tunnel.

    Instantly the blade froze where it had been moments away from cutting her down and ending her life. The pain was still overwhelming her senses but Rei was aware enough to recognize someone had saved her life… for now. In an almost dissociative state Rei turned her head from where she was lying in a pile of garbage to look in the direction the voice had come from.

    The bioluminescent surfaces and sporadic places on the walls seemed to brighten marginally as the new figure approached. For once this figure wasn’t using a stealth jutsu of any kind. It walked upright on two legs though something about its posture told Rei it would be just as comfortable walking on four. Jet black fur covered its entire body with bits of grey at the tips which made Rei think this particular creature was rather old. It wore a rather tattered long coat in dark grey with all sorts of small little trinkets and charms hanging off of it. In one of its clawed hands it held a simple dark wood walking stick at least six inches taller than it was. A long hairless tail swished around in a manner that somehow made Rei think of the word ‘curiosity’. Black eyes regarded Rei with a calculating gleam.

    “Elder Black,” said the figure that had stood ready to slay her, for all the world sounding a bit petulant, “she hasn’t made it to the gate. You can’t be meaning to let her live.”

    The new creature – Elder Black apparently – turned and gave the figure in front of Rei a steady look. “She made it this far as an injured pup. There is at least a drop of potential in this one. I’ll use my discretion to see her through the last bit of the way,” then he shrugged. “Besides its unlikely she’ll survive what comes next. She’ll be dead and you’ll get to eat her all the same.”

    “But then we’ll have to fight over her body with all the others if you take her before Him,” said another voice sounding annoyed. It was Androgynous, the leader of the group that had been hunting her. Apparently that one hadn’t been caught in the explosion.

    Elder Black shrugged. “You’ll just have to make do. In my judgment He should be the one to judge her worth. That is if she can convince me she’s actually worth all the trouble. If she can’t then you have my permission to devour her right here.” Then the creature then turned to face Rei with what the girl thought might have been a challenging and condescending smile, “Are you feeling up to it pup? Or are you going to lie in that pile of garbage all day hoping the stench will keep my family from tearing into you like the hunk of meat you are?”

    Rats. Her summons were sadistic motherfucking goddamned rats.
     
  21. Threadmarks: Chapter 21
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 21

    000

    …the creature then turned to face Rei with what the girl thought might have been a challenging and condescending smile, “Are you feeling up to it pup? Or are you going to lie in that pile of garbage all day hoping the stench will keep my family from tearing into you like the hunk of meat you are?”

    Rats. Her summons were sadistic motherfucking goddamned rats.

    They say that adrenaline, focus and the stress of being in life or death situation can allow ninja to ignore painful or otherwise debilitating injuries for short periods of time. Rei certainly hoped that was true because she needed something to deal with the crippling and overwhelming pain in her left arm. It wasn’t just her arm, it was everything from the crook of her neck all the way to the back of her knuckles that felt literally on fire. Rei was afraid to even look at her injuries somehow fearing that looking at the damage would somehow make the pain even worse. However Rei had no choice but to fight through the pain if she wanted to make it out of this alive. Her mind was one of her best weapons and the one she was going to need against this new opponent.

    Drawing on her distressingly low Chakra reserves Rei used the only technique every ninja knew to help manage pain: she poured as much Chakra as she could directly into her injuries. It didn’t numb injuries or make them less sensitive but somehow more Chakra at the site of an injury always eased the intensity of the pain by at least some degree. In this case the pain didn’t go away but it eased enough to where Rei thought she would be able to think clearly, she hoped. The pain was still indescribably intense but maybe she could push it aside for a short time while she did what she had to do to try to get out of this situation alive and in one piece.

    Holding her injured arm close to her side Rei shot a dirty look at the shadowed creature that had been about to cut her down seconds before. It stood close to her almost invading her personal space and preventing her from getting up. If she was going to die in this place she wasn’t going to go out cowing to these rats.

    The camouflaged rat apparently didn’t like her defiant glare since it started shaking slightly with what Rei interpreted as rage. Instead of moving away it raised its sword and pointed it right at her, the tip stopping inches from her nose. “You think you’re saved?” the rat chuckled darkly, anger tinting its voice, “You couldn’t be more wrong girly. You slap me, I pull out all your teeth. You break my finger and I chop off your hands and feet. Your time is still coming you disgusting piss-furred pup. Mark my words girl, I’ll be the one to end your insignificant existence, you weak monkey whor-“

    “Virulent!” snapped Elder Black, “that’s enough of your posturing. Why don’t you take your leave and go see to that little injury she gave you?” He said in a firm but reasonable voice, “And do try to keep control of yourself until judgement has been rendered, yes?” While it was all phrased as a friendly suggestion it was also quite clearly an order.

    The figure hesitated before slowly withdrawing its sword. It gave Rei one last hostile look with its glowing red eyes before it turned and disappeared into the gloom without another word. Her body relaxed marginally once he was gone.

    “Asshole,” she muttered under her breath.

    “So you’re going to talk to me while on your ass or were you actually planning on standing up?” Elder Black said to Rei in a patronizing tone while his eyes scrutinized her crumpled figure.

    Rei’s mind helpfully supplied that she must look quite a pathetic sight still lying in a big pile of foul smelling garbage. Giving the only visible figure a wary look Rei grit her teeth and struggled to her feet. It was by no means smooth and probably not totally dignified but she managed to keep from aggravating her injuries any further so she counted that as a win. Rei closed her eyes and counted to three before opening them and letting her gaze settle on the rat in front of her.

    There were a few details she had missed at first glance. One of his ears was half missing and there was considerably more grey around his snout than anywhere else she could see. Elder Black stood tall compared to her at five and a half feet whereas she had not even broken the five foot mark yet. Like regular rats his eyes were all black without a hint of sclera showing but that didn’t at all detract from the sharpness and intelligence in them. Though he was most certainly old and carried a tall walking stick Rei got the impression that he could still be incredibly dangerous if pressed.

    Not that how dangerous he was in a fight mattered much at this point. As she was a trained civilian would have stood a decent chance of beating her.

    Rei licked her lips. The silence was starting to drag on as they looked at each other and the pain of her injuries was beginning to get more distracting. Even though she should have been picking her words carefully Rei went with the first thing that came to mind. “So… they call you Elder Black?” she asked in as steady a voice as she could manage.

    It was hard to make out rat expressions but by his answering tone Rei thought he was amused. “Indeed.”

    “Because your fur is black?”

    His mouth seemed to stretch and it took Rei a moment to realize it was a smile. “Something like that,” Elder Black replied. He started walking towards her and it took all of Rei’s nerve to stand her ground and raise her chin in a proud gesture. She wasn’t beaten yet. Elder Black stopped a few feet from her, black eyes boring into hers, searching and looking for something.

    “So tell me young pup,” Elder Black began as he unerringly held eye contact, “why are you here? What is it you want?” he said in a low dangerous voice. It was a not-so subtle reminder of what was a stake.

    Rei swallowed and redoubled her efforts in pouring Chakra into her burned arm. She needed her mind as clear as possible for this mental match. Still at least the opening volley was different from what she had expected. Rising up to her full height as much as her battered body would allow Rei said in a (mostly) steady voice, “I want to be your summoner.”

    Elder Black tilted his head to the side, a gesture of exaggerated thoughtfulness. “We’ve never had a summoner before. What’s in it for us?” he asked.

    Rei swallowed as she thought, holding Elder Black’s gaze. She had assumed all summons would want a contract. Had she been wrong somehow? No, she didn’t think so. At least she hoped not. It seemed reasonable to assume that all summon clans had some reason for having a summoner otherwise so many of them wouldn’t make contracts. If she was wrong and the Rats just weren’t interested in a contract she was dead anyway. Better to assume that Elder Black was just playing coy.

    Her quick mind went through the possibilities. What did she have to offer the rats? She wished she wasn’t distracted by pain, scared that it would somehow make her miss an important clue. After a few moments of thinking her mind only came up with one plausible response.

    “You said you’ve never had a summoner. So you’ve never been to the Elemental Nations have you?” she asked for once trying to reign in her belligerence in a hostile situation.

    Elder Black shrugged casually. “I don’t think we have,” he said in a tone that was almost bored.

    Rei didn’t buy it. Some instinct, or maybe it was just simple hope but something was telling her that his nonchalance was all an act. Rei licked her lips. “I can… give you access,” she said, “the Elemental Nations are expansive and fertile. Through me your people can go there and settle or you can simply take whatever you want or need. I mean,” she said eyes flicking around the dark and filthy tunnel, “this place can’t have everything. Not everything you want or everything you need.”

    “What exactly are you saying girl?” the rat said dropping his voice to a dangerous pitch, leaning in and looming over her, “are you insinuating we can’t provide for ourselves? Or maybe you be trying to say something disparaging about my home. Not too smart either way.”

    What the hell? “Neither. I’m not doing either,” she said quickly, looking up at Elder Black, “and no offence was intended. I’m just saying you could use my help.”

    “Use your help?” Elder Black said in a low steely voice. He lowered his head until it was less than a foot from Rei’s. She could smell that rat’s breath, like old meat. “I’m quickly growing tired of this. Do you think we need your charity? You better say something I like quickly. My patience with you is very nearly done.”

    Rei frowned at that, feeling intimidated but she didn’t back down. “Look I… apologize. No offence was intended-“

    “None intended but given non the less. Do you really think a simple apology is going to save you? You yapping is quickly becoming extremely offensive pup,” Elder Black said. His staff switched hands and he bared his teeth in a parody of a smile. “I think your time is nearly up for I tire of your pathetic mewling. It’s about time I allow my family to come back and devour you. What do you think?”

    What. The. Hell? Rei clamped down on the fear his words sprung forth and forced her mind to look at what was going on. Elder Black wasn’t listening to her. In fact he seemed to be deliberately taking offense at everything she said. Why? She wished her arm wasn’t hurting so much so she could think more clearly. If there was one thing she could feel though it was that another apology wasn’t likely to save her. Elder Black really would let his ‘family’ eat her.

    Was this really it? Was she going to get killed because of an overly touchy rat that looked older than dirt?

    Screw it. And screw him. She was tired and hurting and filthy and her patience was thin. Yes he held her life in his hands but so what? What difference did it make? Rei had already made her case. She couldn’t think of anything more to add. If that wasn’t enough for the old rat in front of her then so be it. She wasn’t going to sputter and blubber for him or anybody.

    Rei raised her chin a fraction and looked him in the eyes defiantly. She was tired of this farce, of this ‘Factory’, of these tests, of these sadistic rats. Looking into his eyes Rei doubted anything she said would have been able to sway him. Her thoughts were muddled. Instead of trying to think of something clever to say Rei opened her mouth and let her let out what came naturally.

    “Don’t you get all outraged with me,” she hissed at Elder Black, “I was more than willing to risk my life for this contract. In fact I would probably even do the whole damn thing all over again. However I am not going to be toyed with by you filthy rats anymore.” Somewhere in Rei’s mind told her to shut her mouth but now that she started she couldn’t seem to stop. Instead she took a half step closer to the rat until they were almost nose to nose. “So either let me be your summoner or kill me already because frankly your threats are getting old. I’d offer you something like my friendship and my loyalty but I don’t think that’s something that would sway the likes of you,” she said injecting as much cold disdain as she could into the last word. “So what is it going to be? Do we have a deal or am I going to have to fight my way out of this filthy shithole you call a home?”

    Inside Rei was scared, terrified even, but she held his gaze evenly trying her hardest not to show fear. Part of her knew she was being stupid but she didn’t care. They would either take her or they wouldn’t, that was all there was to it.

    There was silence for long tense moments as the rat and the girl stared each other down. Rei clenched her jaw, already thinking if she could somehow strike down the rat in front of her or take Elder Black hostage. However what the rat did next surprised her.

    It took half a step back, threw its head back, and laughed.

    “Mwahahaha!”

    It was a good and proper mad scientist or supervillain laugh, deep from the belly, slightly unhinged and echoing everywhere in the tunnel. It was starting to be a pattern that all rats sounded demented when they laughed. Rei went from being prepared to do violence to bewildered in a fraction of a second. She watched as the old rat guffawed and clutched its belly for a good half minute before it got enough breath to speak.

    “Oh… Oh I like you girl,” it said between spurts of laughter and wearing a disturbing smile, “You have… what’s the word? Moxie. Yes you be having… hehehe lots of moxie. You didn’t let me cow you, that’s good. Real good girl. If you had there is no way I could have taken you seriously.”

    Elder Black stood up straight and gestured grandly with his walking staff. “Looks like we might be getting a new member of the family boys and girls,” he said in a loud voice, “Why don’t you come out and show yourselves to our potential new summoner, eh?” His voice was mocking but for the first time didn’t sound malicious.

    Suddenly the patches of bioluminescent moss brightened by several degrees, enough to where Rei could more or less see everything in the darkness of the tunnel. Looking around her jaw dropped open for a moment before she snapped it shut. There were rats everywhere. Clinging to the ceiling, on the walls, less than six feet from her. She had thought Elder Black and her had been alone in the tunnel but nothing could have been further from the truth. They all wore some kind of tattered looking clothing and most had visible weapons that she could see somewhere on their person. The rats ranged from being about four feet long to one closer to the mouth of the tunnel that looked about the size of a small car. Some were a solid color, mostly blacks and browns and greys, but there were a few with spots of white fur and some that seemed to be made up of as many as three colors. All of them had their eyes firmly fixed on her. Some looked hostile, others calculating and yet others looked curious if reserved. Rei had to struggle not to show her discomfort at being the center of attention.

    “This,” Elder Black said pleasantly with nary a hint of condescension, “could be your new family pup. As long as you don’t betray us I think we might get along splendidly together.”

    Rei was a little taken aback. Hostile confrontations she had been geared for. This sudden turn to something more pleasant and civil was throwing her off her game. “Oh good,” she said a little lamely.

    “Of course,” continued Elder Black sounding a hint apologetic, “I don’t have the final say in these things. That honor goes to the eldest among us.”

    Rei swallowed. That didn’t sound especially good to her. “I thought I just had to get to the end of The Factory?”

    “No, no, no. That was just the first test. The most important test is still to come,” Elder Black said, “we really should get going, it doesn’t do to delay these things or keep Him waiting. Are you ready?”

    Was she ready? She was so low on Chakra she didn’t think she could create a single Bunshin. She was in so much pain it was making thinking difficult. One of her arms was completely useless. If she failed to impress the rat’s leader she was dead meat. Rei gave Elder Black a humorless smile.

    “As ready as I’ll ever be.”

    000

    Soon they were making their way deeper into the tunnel with Elder Black leading the way, Rei walking next to him half a step behind. As they walked the tunnel continued to narrow and the ceiling continued to get lower. If this kept up they would soon have to bend over to keep going. How in the world had she been supposed to sneak past this?

    The adrenaline of the moment had worn off and gradually the pain in her arm from the burn was beginning to get worse and worse. Rei bit her lip even as her eyes watered from the pain. Damn acid jutsu. Still there was nothing she could do but grit her teeth and soldier on.

    In an effort to distract herself Rei braved the oppressive silence of the tunnel and spoke to Elder Black. “So… Rat clan huh? I guess it goes without saying you specialty is stealth?”

    “Among other things,” said Elder Black easily, “it is however a core part of our war doctrine. Our battle philosophy if you will.”

    “What else is there?”

    Elder Black chuckled. “You’ll find that out for yourself if you survive what is to come,” he said in a tone that didn’t invite any more questioning on the subject.

    The pain on her shoulder seemed to be getting worse moment by moment, a scorching inescapable thing. Searching for another topic of conversation Rei said the first thing that came to mind. “Aren’t you mad that I blew up a bunch of your friends?”

    Elder Black laughed. “That trick was bold. Reminded me of the kinds of things we used to do when I was still out there fighting the other Clans. But no I’m not mad. There were only a few minor injuries and it was well worth the entertainment. And every Rat here is my family pup, not my friend.”

    Rei was somehow… disappointed at that. Her last desperate attack had only inconvenienced her attackers at best. “I find it kind of hard to believe every single one of them managed to get clear so fast. How did they all manage to escape the blast radius?”

    “Rats are slippery. And be grateful you only managed to cause relatively little damage. If any had been seriously injured or killed you would no longer be among the living.”

    Rei digested that, suddenly glad her attack hadn’t been as effective as she had hoped. Still wanting to keep her mind off her steadily worsening arm she asked another question. “So what is your leader called? The Great Rat Sage?”

    Elder Black scoffed at that, sounding slightly offended. “We are not like other Clans who love to give their leaders flowery pretentious titles. No, we prefer to simply call things what they are.”

    Somehow Rei found that she agreed with that kind of attitude. “So what do you call him?”

    “Eldest Rat of course.”

    Well, no points for originality but it does get the point across.

    The pain in her arm had been getting worse and worse the entire time. Suddenly Rei found that she couldn’t continue as she had been anymore, it was too much. She stumbled a few feet and leaned against one of the tunnel walls, the smallest of whimpers escaping her lips. Rei clenched her jaw so no more sounds like that would come out. She was sweating and feeling weak from the pain.

    Rei felt more than saw Elder Rat stop and turn to look at her. “It finally caught up to you huh? That jutsu is designed to be painful,” he said without an ounce of sympathy. He turned and spoke loudly into the tunnel. “Dagger! Come over here for a minute.”

    Rei was dimly aware of Elder Black speaking to another rat but she completely missed what was being said. The acid burn from the crook of her neck to the back of her hand had reached the point where the pain was incapacitating. Rei slid down to the floor and leaned against the wall, her opposite arm cradling her injured one as best as she could without aggravating it. It was misery and suddenly Rei wished she were home in spite of knowing how useless and distracting such wishes could be.

    After an indeterminate amount of time Rei felt a shadow fall over her and looked up to see Elder Black. In one of his clawed hands he held a large needle. He stuck it high on her injured shoulder and injected her with something. Then he produced two more needles and repeated the procedure twice more, once near her elbow and once near her wrist. The next few moments were like bliss as the pain of her injuries began to fade.

    “Local painkillers,” Elder Black said, “you won’t feel anything on that arm for hours. One way or the other things will be over by then. Come on, we can’t keep Eldest Rat waiting.” With that he turned and began walking off expecting her to follow.

    Rei stayed sitting a few more seconds, marveling at the pain slowly fading until it was completely gone. I’m never going to say anything bad about any kind of drug ever again. Finally Rei braved a look at her arm. It was… awful, to say the least. She could see that her skin and the layer of fat beneath it had cooked away. Exposed to the open air was raw looking pink muscle. At least the muscle itself didn’t look like it had suffered a lot of damage.

    Using her good arm Rei pushed herself to her feet and began to trot after Elder Black who had gotten a little ways ahead of her. Experimentally Rei tried to move her injured and numb arm. She was pleased that she could move it, albeit somewhat chunkily and inefficiently. When she tried to raise her arm she found she couldn’t raise her hand above the level of her face. That had to be due to injuring he shoulder early on. Rei frowned a bit at that. She was a total mess.

    Well at least she couldn’t feel the worst of her injuries anymore. That had to count for something.

    “No medics?” Rei asked from behind him.

    “Not something we prioritize. Our expertise focuses… elsewhere.”

    Moments later they came to a double set of steel doors. They weren’t flashy but something about them made Rei think they were far from ordinary. With a start she realized this is where she was supposed to have gotten on her own. She had been so close yet so far. She never would have made it this far if Elder Black hadn’t intervened.

    The doors opened inwards as they approached and Rei caught a glimpse of a pair of rats opening them from the other side. Elder Black strode in and Rei followed on his heels. The doors closed behind them and suddenly Rei realized that on this side of the door there was no bioluminescent moss. They were thrust into pitch blackness, true black. For all the darkness of The Factory this was the first time that she truly could not see her hand half an inch away from her face. The Yamanaka felt a swell of panic born from an instinctive human fear of the dark.

    Suddenly there was light again and her fear quickly receded. Looking for the source she saw that the top of Elder Black’s walking staff now had a small flame resting on top of it. It provided at least some illumination to their surroundings.

    Rei saw that they were on a narrow catwalk made of metal with no railings. Looking down she only saw blackness, the light from the flame too dim to see the bottom. It looked like a bottomless pit. Looking up she thought she might have caught a glimpse of a ceiling but she wasn’t sure. Slick looking walls with huge drainage pipes flanked them on either side about twenty feet away. In the dim light Rei could make out the figures of a few Rats clinging to the walls and looking at the two of them.

    Elder Black began to move and Rei followed behind, the catwalk too narrow to attempt to walk side by side. Idly Rei wondered if this was all a security measure against invaders. It made sense anyway even if it was a little over the top. She could hear the claws of Rats scurrying along the walls but only caught a glimpse of a few of them. The girl got the impression they would attack if she wasn’t with Elder Black. Rei’s steps felt heavy and lacked a bit of her usual grace. She was tired and besides her badly damaged arm she also had what was probably an alarming number of shallow wounds on her body.

    Hang in there, she thought to herself it won’t be long now.

    “I’ve got a good feeling about you,” Elder Black suddenly said without preamble, “and I think we've been without a summoner for too long. I’m going to give you some advice. If you’re smart you’ll pay attention and follow it without hesitation.”

    So, he wanted the Rats to have a summoner? That could explain why he had saved her life. Rei swallowed and nodded before realizing he couldn’t see her. “Yeah,” she said a little warily, “I wouldn’t mind some idea of what I’ll be facing.”

    “Good. That’s good. There’s not much I can tell you except for one thing. It is most important that you answer truthfully from your heart,” Elder Black said sounding perfectly serious.

    “Huh?” Rei said, taken aback. What kind of bullshit fairy tale advice was that?

    “Speak from the heart. No matter what. It is your only chance to survive,” he said with finality.

    Well. That was… odd. Morbid curiosity suddenly came to life within her. “Have many others made it this far?”

    Eldest Black shook his head. “In my lifetime only two have come here in an attempt to become our summoner. The first died before he made it to the gate. The second made it before Eldest Rat. He was found… lacking,” the Rat said with a chuckle.

    Rei swallowed thickly at that. “Since you said you liked me, you must think I stand a better chance,” said Rei in a half-question, half-statement.

    Elder Black made a humming sound. “You want to know what I think?” he said.

    “What?”

    “I think you don’t want to know my opinion.”

    His words sent a chill down Rei’s spine.

    Well, she thought at least that wasn’t at all ominous.

    000

    Eventually Elder Black led Rei through one final door and into the area beyond. What she saw left the Yamanaka speechless.

    The best way she could describe it was that she had walked onto the ground floor of a stadium. As she walked out onto the ‘field’ made up mostly of red dirt Rei looked around in wonder while also feeling more than a bit intimidated. All around her rose bleachers or stadium seats that seemed to have been cobbled together with whatever could be found all over The Factory. The rows of seats reached hundreds of feet in the air with enough seating for what must have been thousands – maybe even tens of thousands. It reminded Rei of being on the field of a professional football stadium. Arranged sporadically throughout the bleachers were torches of different intensities, giving just enough light to make everything else melt into inky blackness.

    The intimidating thing were the Rats. The torches allowed her to see them, all of them. The whole stadium was full of them, thousands and thousands of Rats of all different shapes and sizes sitting or standing with seemingly no organization. The vast majority of them were looking right at Rei since she entered this new chamber and the weight of their collective gazes felt like a real weight settling on her shoulders. Had all of these Rats gathered just for her?

    It was like a gigantic cathedral of rust and metal, so tall that she could not see the roof. Looking up she noticed that the structure they were in had no visible ceiling. The walls just stretched upwards into an impenetrable black void up above. Rei found it a little disconcerting but couldn’t help staring at the blackness for a few long seconds. The way in which the walls rose up and disappeared from sight oddly made Rei think of a church. She was in a cathedral of rust and decay that somehow still managed to be incredibly vast and incredibly grand as well. Rei couldn’t help but think this structure had its own very unique type of charm.

    As she walked forward she caught her first glimpse of Eldest Rat. He was elevated on a large dais that was at least ten feet off the ground, the dais adorned in red fabric that was more than a little worn around the edges. The Eldest Rat was by far the largest Rat she had seen so far, his size somewhat comparable to that of a large semi-truck from her last world. It was painfully obvious that this Rat was very old. His brown fur looked thin and lifeless with the occasional bit missing here or there. His eyes were milky with cataracts and he had a series of large growths on his eyelids. The nose and face were scarred and Rei couldn’t be sure but she thought Eldest Rat might be ill. He gave the impression of age, experience and a lifetime filled with trials and adversity. Twin torches stood on either side of the dais bathing the Eldest Rat in flickering light.

    Elder Black came to a stop some ten feet from the dais and Rei came to a stop with him, looking up at the gigantic Rat before her and making a point to focus on her breathing.

    “Eldest Rat,” Elder Black said with deference and a sweep of his hand, “this is the girl.”

    He stepped aside leaving Rei standing by herself in front of the leader of the Rat Clan. The Yamanaka could practically feel the burn of thousands of eyes on her all at once.

    “So,” began Eldest Rat slowly in a sonorous, deep rumbling voice that seemed to reverberate throughout the chamber, “you are the one who would be our summoner.”

    Her throat was dry. It took her two tried before she could speak. “Yes,” she said, proud that her voice only squeaked the tiniest bit.

    Eldest Rat didn’t say anything for what seemed a long time, taking deep breaths from lungs that might has well have been bellows. After what seemed like forever he finally spoke slowly.

    “Small pup.”

    Rei didn’t know how to reply to that so she kept quiet, looking hopefully for some kind of cue. Thankfully moments later Eldest Rat began to speak.

    “Pay attention because I’m going to tell you about the history of my Clan, and then I will ask you some questions. If I like your answers then you will have my approval to be our summoner. If not then you will not survive. Now, let us begin,”

    That didn’t sound so good.

    “Originally, we of the Rat Clan were a clan of thieves,” Eldest Rat began, “and it was so for many generations until the First Eldest Rat, She who took the name Vicious, taught us the arts of assassination and death,”

    “You see we Rats are natural prey items. This is an indisputable fact. We are not big, as we do not grow to be hundreds of feet tall like many of the other Clans do. We are not fast. Our claws are almost useless for fighting. We have no fangs. No natural poison. No inborn defense. The only thing we could do to try and survive was hide with the stealth that made us such good thieves,”

    “However was never enough. Eventually stronger Clans would find our home. They would butcher us. Eat our young, our adults, our elderly, it didn’t matter. Badgers, Foxes, Snakes, Tigers, Toads, all of them when they wanted some fresh meat or someone to kick around everyone knew the Rats were always the weakest. Always the smallest. Always the ones you could savage without repercussions. This went on for many generations until we were driven to the very edge of collapse. What was left of our civilization in peril.”

    “However,” Eldest Rat continued, “then Vicious came and She showed us the Way. As a race we devoted ourselves to the Art completely. Within a few short years we went from a weak Clan whose only known skill was to be good at hiding to the most feared Clan of assassins in the summon realms. Within a decade of beginning operations every single Clan learned to fear crossing the Rats. This holds true even today,” he said sounding smug.

    “Now small pup, I want you to tell us how we managed to achieve this.” Eldest Rat said with an air of finality.

    Well, thought Rei worriedly they don’t ask for much.

    Luckily Rei was confident in her ability to think things through. She just had to figure out what was really being asked. Rei thought back to the history she had just heard. Was Eldest Rat asking for specifics, who they attacked, how they went about it specifically? Quickly Rei discarded that idea. This wasn’t a question of trivia or deduction. This was about something else. Something more… elementary. She was sure of it. She was betting her life on it in fact.

    Biting her lip thought deeper. How they did it? What does that mean? The philosophy they employed? That felt close. Closer to the answer. Still it wasn’t quite right. Also how was she supposed to know what they did? Was she supposed to guess? Rei held back a noise of frustration. That was a gamble she wasn’t willing to take.

    She was running out of time she knew. They wouldn’t wait for her answer forever. But then what? What could she say?

    Then Rei recalled the words of Elder Black. That stuff about talking from her heart or what have you. Suddenly things started clicking into place. This wasn’t about what she knew or could figure out. This was about what her own approach would be and how much it would match up with the how this Vicious taught the Rats how to do things. Despite the dire situation Rei felt a small smile curl onto her lips.

    Suddenly she understood. She knew what would have been necessary to save and uplift the Rat Clan in that situation. It is the same thing she would have done in those dire circumstances. Suddenly she understood why she had been reverse summoned here. She carried the viciousness of the Rats deep in her heart.

    “Single minded devotion to your Art,” Rei began, and she became more animated the more she spoke, “You throw everything else away. Nothing else matters. There’s no rule you won’t break. No taboo you won’t cross. You need to be absolutely ruthless. If you had played by everyone else’s rules you would have remained prey so instead you had to break those arbitrary limitations and leave them all behind,”

    “Break into their homes!” Rei said getting even more animated, “Poison their wells. Raze their crops and salt their land. Burn down their forests. Eliminate anyone and everyone you can. Single minded devotion to your goals. Single minded devotion to power. Everything else is just so much useless distraction. That is how you gained back all that you had lost.”

    “Yesss…” said Eldest Rat closing his eyes, “Yesss… you have some understanding of our ways it seems,” the giant Rat said sounding pleased. “You are correct in what you said. That is certainly how we went on the attack. Going after soft targets. Target their elderly, their eggs, their young. Kill them in their sleep, poison their food. Put on a good spirits-dammed show too. Vicious showed us how to use fear to bring our opponents low. It is part of the essence of our Art,”

    “What about you child?” Eldest Rat said, suddenly opening his eyes and pinning the much smaller Rei with his gaze, “Can you do what we do? Learn to fight the way we fight? Without honor? Without conscience? Can you walk the Way of the Rat?”

    “Yes,” Rei said firmly, finding she meant every word as she looked Eldest Rat straight in the eye, “yes I can. For the sake of my goals I can do anything. I will do anything.”

    There was some uneasy shuffling from the Rats in the stands and Eldest Rat gave her a dark, cruel chuckle.

    “As a summoner you must prove you have the same mettle as we do. You must prove you have the same conviction. Are you ready to show us that?”

    “Yes,” said Rei, her eyes hard, “I’m ready. I’m ready for anything.”

    “Good, that’s good. Very good. Tell me little one… do you have any family?”

    The question jolted Rei, taking her aback. That was not where she had expected this conversation to go and she wasn’t very comfortable with the direction it had suddenly taken.

    “I do. I have a large extended family,” she said warily.

    “Really? And what members of that family are you closest to?” asked Eldest Rat in a tone she didn’t like, his extremely long hairless tail suddenly swishing behind him in anticipation.

    “My father, mother and… sister I suppose,” replied Rei with a great deal of reluctance.

    “I see,” said Eldest Rat in a near excited tone that was making Rei very uneasy, “well then what comes next is simple. If you wish to survive and prove yourself worthy of being our summoner you have but one simple task,”

    “Kill them.”

    000

    “Kill them.”

    Rei stared at Eldest Rat in wide eyed horror. Kill her father, her mother and her sister? Kill Ino? Her mind almost couldn’t believe that this is what Eldest Rat was asking of her. There was… there was no way.

    “No,” she muttered almost without conscious will, still shocked by the revelation.

    Eldest Rat didn’t seem inclined to take that for an answer. For the first time he pushed himself up and stood on all fours on his dais, his huge body suddenly taller and much more intimidating as he leaned forward closer to the girl. Eldest Rat bared his yellow teeth in a sneer.

    “You must have the capacity for ruthlessness, the capacity to throw away all restraints to achieve what others would balk at trying to achieve. When others would laugh and say ‘that’s impossible’ or cringe back in horror and say ‘that’s too barbaric’ weare the ones who make miracles happen through our sheer will. Didn’t you say you had to throw everything else away? That nothing else mattered? That you would do anything to achieve your dreams? Fool! Even your family is a mere obstacle to be swept aside in pursuit of your goals!”

    Rei backed away, shaking her head. She tried to imagine it and even the mental images of her doing the deed made her physically ill. No… she couldn’t do it. There was no way she could do something like that.

    “I won’t,” she said, voice fearful, shaky, but stubborn.

    “Then you are weak!” Eldest Rat bellowed as he moved to the very edge of the dais, “we cannot have a weakling as a summoner. If you do not agree we will tear the flesh from your body and eat you while you still live. I will never accept someone with such weak resolve!”

    Something broke in Rei and she exploded. “Fuck you! I don’t want your shitty help! You’re all just a bunch of sick psychos.”

    “You are a stubburn idiot but maybe that can be partially excused because you are young,” said Eldest Rat, sounding angry but thoughtful, “and we are pretty desperate for a summoner. I’ll make a compromise with you pup. Instead of killing your whole family how about… just your sister instead?” he finished in a conciliatory tone.

    Rei just bared her teeth at him, too overcome with emotion to say proper words.

    “This is your last chance,” Eldest Rat in an ominous definitive tone, “Power and your life for the life of your sister. If you’re too much of a coward to do it yourself we can even do it for you. What do you say little one? Do we have a deal?”

    There was no other possible answer for Rei. The words came tumbling out of her mouth and she meant them with every fiber of her being. “I’ll die before I let anyone touch a hair on her head. The summoning obviously made a mistake bringing me here. I’ll die before I take help from the likes of you!”

    “You…” said Eldest Rat suddenly growling ominously. The sound shook through her bones and made her grit her teeth.

    “YOU…” he said again, deep anger clear in his voice. The shadows seemed to congeal around him like phantoms coming to his aid.

    YOU…” he said one more time, and to Rei’s eyes he seemed to grow larger as his fur stood on end. The feeling became thick and oppressive and almost dropped Rei to her knees.

    So this is it? thought Rei, I guess my fate was to die from the start.

    “…pass.”

    Everything stopped and it took Rei’s brain a few painful long moments to register what he said. When it finally began working again the first thing to fire was her mouth.

    “Whaaat?!” she shrieked.

    The stadium which seemed to have been holding its collective breath erupted in laughter. Thousands of Rats laughing, each one of them sounding like a bad Saturday cartoon villain, the sound of their collective mirth echoing and amplifying off the rusted metal walls of the cathedral. Looking around there didn’t seem to be a single one who wasn’t bursting a gut in amusement but it felt… somewhat good natured. Not something she was used to from this lot. Looking at Eldest Rat he was once again laying down on his dais, looking normal again except for the wheezing breaths she took as laughter. Looking to the side where Elder Black had been standing nearby she saw him with a wide grin joining in the laughter in a much more dignified manner. Rei was just breathing hard, confused and overwhelmed by everything that had occurred in the last few minutes.

    “Girl!” began Eldest Rat in a loud booming voice as the noise in the stadium continued, “when you answered when asked how we became feared you were right but the answer was incomplete. The complete answer must also include loyalty to each other. No one of us could ever have achieved anything quite so grand by ourselves. We are family. All of us are family! We are THE FAMILY! Only by working together were we able to overcome larger and more powerful Clans. We Rats have strong family ties, by nature and by necessity. The enemy of one is the enemy of all. The Family is the most important thing!”

    “Really?” asked Rei in disbelief.

    “Yes really!” Eldest Rat shouted over the din of thousands of Rats laughing, roaring and even cheering, “if you had agreed to kill your family or even pretended to agree we would have torn you to shreds without a moment’s hesitation.”

    “Indeed,” said Elder Black, “I told you I had a good feeling about this one.”

    “So… did I pass?” Rei asked.

    “Indeed,” said Eldest Rat with a chuckle, “I think I can agree to make you our summoner.”

    “Oh… well good,” she said lamely. Rei had expected to be overjoyed, jumping up and down, something. As it was she was just numb and emotionally overwhelmed. It was going to take a little time for her to sort this all out.

    Still she allowed herself a ghost of a smile. It’s over. I did it.

    In hindsight she should have known better than to tempt fate.

    “If anyone,” bellowed Eldest Rat into the noise of Rats, “objects to this pup joining The Family now is the time to speak, or else forever hold your peace!”

    “I OBJECT!” roared a voice from low in the stands.

    The din of the Rats quieted down considerably at this proclamation and all eyes turned towards the individual who had uttered it. A Rat pushed his way past a few rows of spectators and jumped down onto the red dirt pitch Rei and Elder Black had been standing on. He was dark grey with streaks of brown fur on his face. One of his legs was bandaged and the Rat walked on two legs with a slight limp. He wore what looked like a tattered leather mockery of a Chunnin vest and stood maybe an inch taller than Rei. The girl eyed the Rat warily as he came to a stop not twenty feet from her, a sadistic-looking smirk on his murinae face directed straight at her.

    “I told you I would be the one to kill you, you piss-haired pup,” he said with an unsettling amount of confidence.

    The clues were all there. Rei’s mind quickly put it all together. Lightly injured. The use of that phrase. Recent death threat. Holding a grudge. Rei’s eyes narrowed.

    This was the Rat that had used a jutsu that burned her arm so badly it currently looked like a piece of raw meat. The one who had nearly killed her before Elder Black intervened. What was his name again?

    “…Virulent,” Rei hissed.
     
  22. Threadmarks: Chapter 22
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    000

    Chapter 22

    000

    “…Virulent,” Rei hissed.

    “I don’t want this yellow pup in The Family,” said Virulent pointing a clawed hand at Rei. “She burned my leg. I want her to die.”

    Come on, don’t be shy. Tell me how you really feel, jackass Rei snarked in her mind.

    His words cast a pall of silence in the huge stadium-like structure. The only sound Rei heard was a rumble of angry displeasure from Elder Black who was standing next to her. Rei for her part started to feel a bit scared after processing Virulent’s words. That however didn’t stop her from glaring daggers at the arrogant grey and brown Rat.

    After a long pause Eldest Rat finally spoke. “So you object to this little one joining our Family?” he asked in a deep voice and with a neutral tone.

    “I do,” declared Virulent, “and since none who have been to The Factory who are not Family are allowed to live she must now die. I demand that I be the one to carry out the execution in retaliation for the injury she gave me.”

    Rei was now feeling confused and increasingly alarmed. What the hell was going on? Hadn’t Eldest Rat declared that she was now their summoner? Did this spiteful asshole actually get a say? If so, why?

    Eldest Rat was silent for a long time before he spoke. His words made her heart sink. “Very well. I acknowledge you right to object to this addition to The Family.” Despite saying this Elder Rat’s next words gave her hope. All of a sudden it felt like her emotions were being yanked around all over the place.

    “However I cannot allow you to simply kill her. This young pup has proven herself worthy. It seems that we have a conflict between two legitimate claims. This conflict… must be resolved somehow.”

    Virulent turned his head from looking at Eldest Rat to looking at Rei and he smirked. Rei suddenly had a very bad feeling about this. It seemed to her that whatever was going on was being artfully manipulated by the odious Rat in front of her. The Yamanaka squeezed her right hand until her nails began to cut into her palm. It seemed even in the Rat Clan someone who knew what they were doing could manipulate the rules to get something they wanted. All of this was leading up to something and Rei was a hundred percent sure that whatever it was was going to be bad for her.

    “Then Honored Eldest Rat,” said Virulent, turning back to face Eldest Rat and bowing his head in submission, “I would ask for the right to test her in combat.”

    There was another long pause before Eldest Rat replied. “That is acceptable in accordance with our laws,” he said, voice carefully neutral. “What terms?”

    Virulent’s mouth spread in a parody of a smile showing all his teeth. “To the death. It is also my wish that the fight take place… immediately.”

    Though he didn’t say anything something about Eldest Rat’s body language made Rei think he wasn’t fully on board with Virulent’s transparent attempt to take advantage of her current weakened state. However any hope she might have had shattered when he spoke. “It is within your rights to ask of this. Combat to the death to resolve these conflicting claims will begin immediately.”

    000

    Virulent’s mouth spread in a parody of a smile showing all his teeth. “To the death. It is also my wish that the fight take place… immediately.”

    Though he didn’t say anything something about Eldest Rat’s body language made Rei think he wasn’t fully on board with Virulent's transparent attempt to take advantage of her current weakened state. However any hope she might have had shattered when he spoke. “It is within your rights to ask of this. Combat to the death to resolve these conflicting claims will begin immediately.”

    Rei couldn’t believe this was happening. Just a few minutes ago she had been accepted as the summoner, essentially told that she had passed all the tests the Rats had given her. Now it felt like she was getting the rug yanked out from under her. Eldest Rat had seemed pleased with her, happy to have her as their summoner. Now she was supposed to get into a fight to the death? Immediately? How? Why? Why was this happening?

    Rei clenched her jaw as her mind quickly went over her options. She knew she was in no shape to fight. She was severely wounded with only one fully functioning arm and she was almost entirely out of Chakra. Virulent on the other hand looked to be fresh with undiminished Chakra stores. On top of that he knew at least a few very advanced stealth jutsu and at least one offensive jutsu – her badly burned arm was a testament to that. The bandaged burn wound on his leg caused him to limp slightly but Rei seriously doubted that was enough to give her the edge she would need to win. In short if she was forced to fight right now she was dead. Rei licked her lips in a nervous gesture. She needed to find a way to delay this somehow. Otherwise the fight would be over before it even began.

    “Whoa hold on there slick,” Rei said to Virulent flippantly while making a stopping gesture with her good hand. When the eyes of the three Rats on the pitch turned to her she moved to face Eldest Rat. “Now I’m not exactly sure what’s going on but I do know that settling conflicts between two parties needs to happen on a level playing field. I’ve had to fight off who knows how many Rats to even get here. I’m exhausted, and wounded, and not in any shape to fight. If you want this to be a good show and a legitimate way of resolving a conflict of interest you’re going to have to give me time to rest and heal up before giving this opportunistic coward,” she said pointing at Virulent, “the fight that he wants.”

    No one said anything for a long time and the silence and the looks began to give Rei a terrible feeling. The silence was interrupted by Virulent starting a slow clap. “Inspirational speech. Very persuasive. Moving even. But you know what, it means absolutely shit you ugly pink and yellow piss-haired pup. The only facts that matter are these,” he said with an irritating and evil smirk, “whatever I say goes. It’s just that simple. And I say we be having our little death match right away. But hey no hard feelings, yeah?”

    Rei looked at him with something akin to horror before whipping her head around and looking at Eldest Rat and Elder Black. She could tell by looking at them that Virulent had been telling the truth.

    “Why?!” she demanded, voice shrill with a very real undercurrent of fear.

    “He is one of The Family. You are not. As you are still an outsider your word holds no weight against his,” said Eldest Rat in a matter of fact tone that was not unkind. For some reason that he spoke to her that way made her rising panic even worse.

    “What, so that’s it? You know I’m in no position to fight,” she pleaded with Eldest Rat, “you might as well be ordering my execution. In fact why don’t you do just that? It would save all of us some goddamned time,” Rei said, voice rising at the end.

    “I’m sorry pup but our rules exist for a reason. Even I can’t break them. You’ll just have to do the best that you are able,” said Eldest Rat.

    Rei heard Virulent chuckle, smug and self-satisfied, while her mind whirled. It all seemed so stupid. Did the Rats even want a summoner? In spite of herself Rei felt her eyes begin to burn with unshed tears. It was like they kept thinking up ways to get her killed, like they wanted her to die. What was she going to do? What chance did she realistically have? Wasn’t anybody on her side in this?

    “If I may Eldest Rat,” said Elder Black speaking up for the first time, “there is some merit to the argument that this sort of dispute is better settled on a more level playing field.”

    Rei’s head snapped to look at him. She had completely forgotten Elder Black was there.

    “You know I cannot postpone the fight Black-chan,” said Eldest Rat reproaching though there was a hint of curiosity in his voice.

    “Of course not,” agreed Eldest Rat easily, “but this young one is just an injured pup and I think some accommodations could be made to even the playing field.”

    “What is this?” asked Virulent, somehow coming across as both malicious and deferential to his elders. Both the older Rats ignored him.

    Eldest Rat was silent for a few long moments before he spoke. “That may be acceptable. What do you recommend?”

    “A single clean bladed weapon for each. No jutsu and no other equipment or weapons permitted. Let it be a contest of blade against blade, skill against skill,” said Elder Black while gesturing at the two opponents with his staff.

    “Oh is that what you meant by leveling the playing field?” said Virulent sounding amused. “That’s fine by me.”

    “Those terms are acceptable,” said Eldest Rat ignoring Virulent, “single clean blade. No other equipment. No jutsu. Black-chan you get the young female ready yes? The others can all set up the stage.”

    Rei suddenly caught sight of seemingly hundreds of Rats jumping off the stands onto the red dirt pitch. Any further inspection of what was going on was halted when Elder Black grabbed her by her good shoulder and spun her around to face him. Rei looked up at his taller frame, her heart beating fast and a bit wild around the eyes.

    “Mind telling me what’s going on?” she asked, her voice trembling.

    Elder Black gave her a long look before he replied. “Divest yourself of all your weapons and equipment. I’ll need to check you after you’re done. If you’re caught with anything more than a single blade you will automatically forfeit and I don’t need to tell you how that will turn out for you,” he said, “as to everything else, well it should be fairly self-explanatory. When an outsider is made a member of The Family every member of The Family must approve, or at the very least not voice an objection. Obviously some rotted Monkey’s cock objected. Luckily for you in your case, instead of just outright dying you get to fight for your acceptance. That is a rare thing believe me.”

    Strangely enough Rei wasn’t feeling particularly lucky in that moment. This was all just moving so quick. Slowly and deliberately she began to remove all her equipment, the remaining kunai, shuriken, ninja wire, the whole nine yards. If she took her time maybe she could buy a few minutes. Rei knew that to have a prayer at winning she would desperately need even the smallest advantage she could get. “What about Virulent? What can you tell me about him?” she asked Elder Black. Out of the corners of her eyes she could see Rats filling up the large pitch all around them.

    “He’s young and skilled enough I suppose,” said Elder Black, “but a huge pain in everyone’s ass. You know how every family has a few shit stains in the family tree? Well Virulent is one of ours. He’s excessively sadistic and vindictive even by Rat standards and that be hard to accomplish. He’s also a selfish self-involved prick,” Elder Black said with a surprising amount of heat. “By this stunt he’s proving he’s more concerned about his petty personal vendetta than the good of the Clan. Mark my words no matter the outcome of this little fiasco I’m going to be finding plenty of ways to make that imbecile regret this.”

    Well… while it was nice to hear Virulent would be feeling the pain for this one way or the other it wouldn’t matter much to Rei if she was dead at the end of this. “Any advice?” she asked as she continued to divest herself of equipment.

    “He’s cocky as hell,” muttered Elder Black, “he’ll probably drag it out. Capitalizing on that probably be your best and only chance.”

    Well. That wasn’t exactly much to go on. Better than nothing though. Probably.

    She finished dropping all her equipment on the floor minus one kunai she kept in her good hand. Rei looked at it, saw its dull grey blade and ran her calloused fingers along the wrapped handle. Elder Black moved and began thoroughly patting her down as she focused on the blade in her hand. It seemed surreal. She had never been in a situation like this before and maybe it was messing with her head. What were her chances? Did she regret coming here? Strangely she couldn’t tell what the answer to that question was.

    Still… no bookie in their right mind would bet on her in this upcoming fight. Rei could admit it, she was scared. Maybe if she was a hundred percent or even fifty percent she would have some of her usual confidence. As it was she knew how bad the situation was. Rei bit her lip, hard enough to draw blood. She knew it looked bad. Real bad. However that didn’t mean she could fall apart. She had to keep it together. Even if her chances were terrible she wasn’t about to just roll over and give up.

    “One more thing, and this is very important,” said Elder Black as he was finishing patting down her legs, “you’re not allowed to kill Virulent.”

    Her head snapped to him, jerked from her private thoughts. “What?” she asked in confusion, “but I thought this was supposed to be a death match? You know, to the death?”

    “A death match in this instance means he’ll try to kill you but you can’t kill him. If you do the rest of The Family will be obligated to kill you.”

    Rei just stared, mouth open in incredulity. Son of a-

    “You’ve got to be kidding me,” Rei hissed at him, “why would there even be a rule like that?”

    Elder Black shrugged as he finished patting her down and stood back up. “He’s one of The Family. You’re not. However if it makes you feel any better in this situation you’re free to main him. Anything short of death as long as it’s in battle. I’d strongly advise you not to go easy on him.”

    “Oh don’t worry,” she said darkly, “I don’t think ‘going easy on him’ is going to be one of my problems.”

    Elder Black gave her a long evaluating look. “I suppose not,” he said with a grunt. “Looks like they are about ready for you,” he said looking over her shoulder. Elder Black turned and looked her in the eye. “Good luck young one. For whatever it be worth I’m rooting for ya.”

    No appropriate response came to mind so Rei just nodded. She took a deep breath and turned around to face the music.

    All around her crowding the pitch of the ‘stadium’ were Rats, Rats of all shapes and sizes. They had arranged themselves in such a way as to leave an empty space in the middle and right in front of Eldest Rat’s dais. The space was roughly in the shape of a circle about thirty feet across. Four tall six foot braziers with a large flame burning at the top had been set up around the circle giving the fighting ring a flickering glow. Near the center of the empty space and directly in front of Eldest Rat stood Virulent. He had removed his vest leaving him naked except for the bandage on his leg. Held casually in his clawed hand was his weapon; a simple but functional well maintained tanto with a blade about six inches in length.

    “Warriors step forward,” said Eldest Rat in a formal tone from his dais.

    I can’t believe this is happening. This isn’t fair. This isn’t fair! With her single kunai clutched in her right hand Rei slowly stepped forward until she was about six feet across from Virulent. With some trepidation Rei raised her kunai in a defensive position and bent her legs lowering her center of gravity. Virulent chuckled and brought his tanto up, pointing it aggressively at her throat from six feet away.

    Virulent took the opportunity to talk before the fight started. He sneered at her smugly and said, “I’m going to make sure you die screaming for what you dared to do to me you piss-haired pup.”

    Rei’s eyes narrowed but she didn’t say anything. For the first time she could remember she wasn’t really in the mood to taunt or trash talk during a fight. Knowing she probably only had a moment or two Rei took a quick internal stock.

    Her wounded arm was held closely to her side, still looking like so much raw meat. It’s mobility was extremely limited so it was unlikely to be any help. Her battle kimono was stained, tattered and covered in blood and filth though the thick material should still provide at least some small bit of protection. Rei was divested of all her equipment except for the single kunai in her hand. She felt exhausted and she knew it was partly from all the physical effort, partly from the stress and partly from having bled from so many small wounds all over her body. That in and of itself wouldn’t be an insurmountable obstacle except for the worst part of her condition: her Chakra was at critically low levels.

    It was a grim realization that she didn’t even have enough Chakra to continually enhance her body. One of the side effects of her unique nightly meditation was her extremely accurate assessment of her own Chakra stores. She only had maybe two or three bursts of Chakra enhanced activity left in her before succumbing to Chakra exhaustion. All in all things didn’t look good against a fresh opponent who might already be better than her on her best day.

    Still… in some ways, what did it matter how badly off she was? This was the same as any other fight. She had to use the resources she had at her disposal to win. Rei’s hand tightened around the hilt of her blade. She could do this. Rei didn’t know how but she had to believe she could win. She had to believe she could win. She would believe she would win. It was her only chance.

    Rei was going to win and the smug bastard in front of her wasn’t going to stop her.

    “This fight is a death match to determine which of two conflicting interests will be upheld. On the one hand a summoner has proven herself worthy. On the other a member of The Family wishes to exercise his right to deny entry to outsiders. The fight will end when one party surrenders, is unconscious, or dead. When I say ‘begin’ the fight will commence,” said Eldest Rat.

    “Warriors,” Eldest Rat’s voice boomed, “Begin!”

    000

    [Music – Kara no Kyoukai OST M24]

    The song is very short and the scene is very long. For your convenience listen on repeat.


    “Warriors,” Eldest Rat’s voice boomed, “Begin!”

    Neither fighter moved at first as they sized each other up, one with smug self-satisfied confidence and the other with a wary and slightly anxious expression. There was silence all around them as the Rats seemed to hold their collective breath. The atmosphere felt heavy and charged with energy. Virulent was enjoying every second of it.

    “What will you do? Not that it really matters,” he asked in a taunting tone, “you don’t have a prayer. Everyone here knows it. If you throw your blade away and beg for mercy I might give it to you.”

    “Sorry,” replied Rei sarcastically, “but you don’t strike me as the trustworthy type.”

    Virulent chuckled darkly, holding his tanto in front of him. “I’m not am I? And I did promise to make you scream before the end.”

    Rei didn’t reply. Normally she would try to goad him to attack but she wasn’t in any shape for that. No if she wanted to win she was going to have to bet on the Rat being overconfident and making a mistake. Her eyes narrowed. He would probably make a big show of playing with her before finishing her off. Rei had to count on that and either wait for an opening or make one herself.

    Holding her injured arm closer to her side Rei knew she was in no shape to hold off a full blown attack. She needed to set the pace. There was only one sure way of doing that.

    Rei went on the attack.

    She ran at her opponent, painfully aware of how much slower she was moving while not actively enhancing her body with Chakra. Rei slashed at his wrist, a probing strike. Virulent defended without any visible effort, his tanto smoothly moving to deflect her blade. Her attack was knocked downwards with surprising force and she very nearly lost her balance.

    Undeterred Rei stepped forward and slashed upwards only for Virulent to casually lean back out of range. Eyes narrowing, Rei pressed her offensive, slashing again and again as Virulent gave ground with a superior and cruel smirk on his murinae face. Growing frustrated Rei struck again, hard and reckless, only this time Virulent blocked with his own blade. Unenhanced Rei’s muscles screamed with effort as she tried to push her weapon forward. She felt like she was trying to cut into a mountain. With a powerful push of his blade the Rat forced Rei to take two hasty steps back against her will.

    This is not good, Rei thought as a nervous sweat began to gather on her brow, really not good.

    “That was pathetic,” Virulent taunted with glee, “Truly a shameful display. And to think they wanted someone like you to be our summoner. I didn’t think we were desperate enough to consider taking a talentless useless babe like you.”

    “Better than someone who puts his petty wounded pride before the good of his Clan,” she countered in a low voice.

    Rei still wasn’t the best at reading Rat expressions but by the way his face twitched she thought she might have struck a nerve. The crowd seemed to think so. Hisses and jeers of disapproval echoed through the crowd most of them aimed at Virulent. The grey Rat with brown streaks on his face weathered the negativity from his Clanmates with a sour look.

    “Stick and stone,” he said in an oily voice, “now I’ll start paying you back for the pain you caused me.”

    Quick as greased lightning Virulent charged her, blade slicing. Surprised Rei barely got her kunai up in time, blocking awkwardly, knocking her arm wide and leaving her wide open for a second strike. Instead of taking the opening Virulent used his free hand and grabbed her injured arm, squeezing hard enough for her to feel the pressure.

    He must have been expecting her to crumble in pain. She didn’t even feel it. Chance!

    He expected that grabbing her savaged arm would impair her. Instead she allowed her dwindling Chakra to flood her muscles. In an instant she brought her other arm around with blaring speed, slashing at his eyes. Virulent let go of her arm and jumped back with surprising quickness, the kunai missing her target by an inch. She had been in a slightly awkward position from his previous strike making her just a hair slower. Inside she cursed. She’d missed a golden opportunity and now she had even less Chakra than before.

    Virulent backed away enough to put some distance between them. By the cocky turn of his murinae face he either didn’t realize how close he’d come to being blinded or he just didn’t care. “It seems they gave you the goodpainkillers then. That stuff is hard to make, a real shame for Elder Black to waste it on a dead monkey walking like you.”

    There was hissing and chirping and loud voices and it took Rei a moment to realize that was the Rat equivalent of making noise from the sidelines. A quick flick of her eyes let her see the Rats forming their ring with their bodies were getting agitated, seemingly growing lively and animated after the near miss of her strike. Rei was startled when she realized what was going on. They want me to win. They didn’t think I stood a chance. Now maybe, maybe they’re hoping that I do.

    “Pity too. The real selling point of that jutsu is the agony it causes.”

    While Rei was glad most of the Rats wanted her to win that still didn’t help her, except for maybe a slight confidence boost. Things were, ultimately, still just as rotten as before. Why Virulent was willing to piss off everyone he lived with was beyond her. Looking into his murderous beady black eyes Rei decided it didn’t really matter.

    She had to win.

    “Quit flapping your gums toilet bug,” she said to him as she raised her kunai, “no one wants to hear what you have to say.”

    “Then come over here and make me!” he yelled, spreading his arms wide and laughing maniacally.

    Right. You get your wish you psycho. He wasn't taking her seriously. He was just playing with her. Rei’s eyes darkened with anger and displeasure at the thought, slowly turning into chips of dark purple amethyst. Once again her tired body began to pump adrenaline through her system. How dare he not take her seriously? I’ll crush him.He’ll beg before it’s over.

    Not having a better plan Rei went with the same one as before.

    She attacked, struggling not to do what came naturally and flood her whole body with Chakra. An all out assault that burned through the last of her reserves were not what she needed. What she needed was an opening. An opportunity.

    Their blades clashed, a small shower of sparks flying where metal ground against metal. Rei went on the offensive, knowing she was too slow but hoping to learn something about his technique, some kind of weakness, anything. His defense was thorough and solid even as he smirked mockingly at her attempts. Virulent’s blade batted hers aside and he slashed with a flick, opening a shallow gash in her forearm. Undeterred she struck hard, forcing him to block before contorting herself low to the ground and kicking out at his wounded leg. Virulent hopped back out of range. Not fast enough.

    Still…

    Rei sees it. She sees the opening she needs.

    Holding the tanto in his right hand Rei noticed he had the bad habit of moving his blade just an inch or two too far to the side. Only occasionally, and only for a split second, but the opening it left on his flank was undeniable. She had seen it twice. Would she see it a third time?

    I have to.

    “What’s the matter you piss haired pup? It’s not near as much fun if you don’t even make me work for it,” Virulent taunted.

    They clashed again and Virulent got the better of the exchange easily, cutting a shallow line just above her knee. He was playing, his form lazy, chuckling as he fed his ego, showing the Family just how much better he was than their would-be summoner. The girl was nothing. Too slow. Too young. Already weakened and ready for the kill.

    Rei advanced, Virulent giving ground more out of choice than any form of necessity. The girl took one, two, three more shallow cuts as she pressed forward, completely focused and waiting for that one opening, that one chance. The chance that came when Virulent began to show off with a fancy twirling of his knife. What an idiot.

    It wasn’t that he dropped it or screwed up. His arm just moved slightly out of position. Just a little. Just enough. Just enough to get past his impenetrable defense.

    Easier than breathing Chakra flooded her nerves and muscles in less than an instant. Her speed increasing several times over she attacked, knowing this might be her last chance to end this. Rei’s blade battered his aside, such a move only made possible by Virulent’s tiny mistake. There. He’s wide open! She wouldn’t get another opportunity. Forcing as much Chakra as she could into the movement she lunged at him and slid inside his guard, kunai poised, ready to stab deep into the treacherous Rat’s belly.

    Only her strike never connected. Not even close.

    Something wrapped around one of her ankles and yanked, hard. Taken completely by surprise Rei fell to the ground gracelessly, getting the wind half-knocked out of her lungs as she landed hard on the red dirt floor. Acting solely on instincts bred from training Rei rolled aside, came awkwardly to her feet and jumped away putting some distance between her and her opponent.

    What was that? Rei thought as she struggled to catch her breath. Her mind moved quickly as she looked for an explanation, trying to push down her suddenly overwhelming feelings and trying to keep a clear head.

    It didn’t take her long to realize the answer. Virulent was practically rubbing it in her face. His long hairless tail danced like a snake in front of him, seeming to goad and ridicule her with its agile movements. A fully prehensile tail. Damn it. How could she have missed that?!

    Virulent laughed at her. Outright fucking laughed! “You thought you were so clever didn’t you? That you’d found a gap in my armor big enough to slip in a blade?” he said, “As if I would ever make a mistake that someone of yourskill level could exploit. I let you see that opening. So how does it feel? To think you had a prayer of winning and suddenly find it had all been a lie?” he asked. For once Rei said nothing.

    “Despair!” he yelled, loud and demanding and seemingly upset he didn’t get a reaction out of her. “Now you will learn the true futility of you efforts. How hopeless it all was from the very start. Now you will learn how you will die.”

    Virulent leapt back until there was a good fifteen feet between them. With deliberate movements the tip of his tail took the tanto from his hand and wrapped tightly around its hilt. Virulent let himself fall to all fours, the quadrupedal stance somehow looking more natural and dangerous than his bipedal one. The tail holding the blade spun over his head a few times in lazy arcs like a man swinging a weighted bola overhead.

    Then without warning there was a blur of movement and it took Rei a second to register pain. Her eyes shot wide in alarm as her hand instinctively went to her collar bone. There was a horizontal cut across her collar bones a scant inch below her throat. Virulent’s tail was back to swinging overhead but now it looked a little longer. It didn’t take long to figure out what happened. The tail had stretched out and struck like a whip faster than her eyes could follow. Virulent’s face was smug, arrogant and cruel. Blood began to drip from between her fingertips. Rei felt fear shoot up her spine. The message was clear. I could have cut your throat right then and there’s nothing you could have done about it.

    Then he began to move. One second he was fifteen feet in front of her, and the next he blurred and disappeared ten feet to the left, then he blurred against and was standing ten feet to the right of where he had started. His short distance bursts of speed were unreal. She’d heard the expression ‘too fast for the eyes to follow’ but she’d never had it shoved in her face like this before. Even if she had Chakra to spare she wouldn’t have a prayer of keeping up with that kind of speed.

    “Are you scared yet?” asked Virulent as his tanto swung overhead, playing with her as a predator would its prey.

    She was, a little. Maybe she should be more. She didn’t have time for it though. I ain’t got time to bleed. Rei was mostly just angry, calculating. Maybe there was something wrong with her.

    “Go to hell,” she said, bringing her kunai up into a guard position.

    The tail swung again, the tanto held tight in its grip. There was only a blur and then there was pain. Rei doubled over clutching her side. She grit her teeth and a half strangled scream escaped her mouth.

    “Are you scared yet?” Virulent hissed again, anger coloring his voice.

    Rei didn’t reply instead clutching her side. This was bad. Up to this point the Rats had been playing with her. Every cut she had received that day, and there had been a lot, had been shallow - aimed more to hurt and scare than do real damage. Rei could feel right away this cut was different. The wound was deep, deep enough to cut through muscle. Maybe even below the muscle and that scared her. Eviscerated would not be one of her top ten ways to go.

    “Well?” Virulent demanded. Rei said nothing and just glared venomously at him. His tail lashed out again, once again cutting down to the muscle. This time the tanto cut her high on her right thigh. Rei cried out and stumbled as that leg suddenly protested at carrying her weight.

    The Rat looked at her expectantly. But Rei was just too proud. Even facing death she was too proud. She just glared at Virulent refusing to give him anything he wanted.

    To her surprise instead of getting more angry he just laughed, high and cruel. “Maybe you would have made a worthy summoner one day,” he said begrudgingly, “it was your profound misfortune to anger the great Virulent-sama. Don’t think that will get you any mercy from me though. I think… we should finish the game we started playing earlier,” he said with a terrifying grin, “death by a thousand cuts.”

    With effort Rei swallowed her rising despair. She can’t think about how bad this is. How hopeless it looks. Keep it together. Keep your head. It was all she could do. It was the only thing she could do no matter how badly things were suddenly going for her.

    His tail started to spin like a whip, stretching and lashing out at her. Rei tried to see, tried to block the tanto but she was just too slow. Quickly she accumulated three, four, six, a dozen cuts that she’s completely unable to counter even as she desperately tries. In the back of her mind a small part of her can’t help but be impressed by his skill. Each cut he was delivering now was hardly worse than a paper cut and that kind of control wasn’t easy to achieve. Still this couldn’t go on. The pain of those tiny cuts was already starting to build. This would be a an extremely slow, extremely agonizing death if she couldn’t think of something.

    Her mind worked furiously as she tried in vain to block his whipping tail. What could she do? She couldn’t see the attack well at all and without using Chakra she was much too slow. Rei was going to have to use what felt like the very last of her Chakra if she wanted this to stop. But how would that even help if she couldn’t even see the attacks coming?

    He’s cocky her mind told her. He’s an arrogant shit and he’s having fun. If she couldn’t see it maybe she could predict it. More cuts opened up on her arms and legs and face, each hardly deep enough to draw a single drop of ruby red blood. Predict it. But how? A pattern she thought as the tail whipped around her and left a shallow gash on her back. If he’s complacent he might fall into a pattern.

    It was the best she was going to get. And she didn’t have to wait long.

    He’d started striking her like clockwork, one slash every two seconds. Two spins of his tail, on the third revolution he struck. It was still too fast to counter however, it wasn’t enough for her to stop him. However Virulent got a bittoo cavalier about his attacks.

    Rei paid attention to where he struck as she continued her futile attempts to block. Right arm.

    Next strike. Left arm.

    Next strike. Left leg.

    It didn’t take a genius to figure out where the tanto was headed next.

    Rei knew the timing and she would be striking blind. Even if I lose I’m cutting his fucking tail off. The girl flooded her body with the last of her Chakra.

    Two.

    One.

    Now!

    With great speed and a yell of rage Rei cut blindly, body and blade enhanced with her Chakra. She struck true though the angle of her blade was slightly off. Her kunai bit deep, sinking two thirds of the way into his tail. Virulent screamed in pain and surprise, tail snapping back on reflex. He lost the grip on his tanto sending it flying through the air to land somewhere on the other side of the arena. The Rats watching yelled, chirped and hissed in excitement and approval. They didn’t think she could win but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t cheer her on until the end.

    Rei stood shakily, her vision beginning to blur. Some dark part inside of her smiled in satisfaction as she saw Virulent cradle his brutalized and bleeding tail, his posture and expression making it clear he was in a great deal of pain. She could only hope tails were extra sensitive places for the Rats.

    I hope it hurts forever she thought at him spitefully.

    She hoped it would since she was barely managing to stay on her feet. That was it. She didn’t have any more Chakra to give. Even moving normally would be impossible now.

    Rei saw the moment Virulent switched his attention from his pain to her. His black eyes radiated hatred directed squarely at her, like a physical pressure hitting her straight on. He dropped back down to all fours before disappearing in a blur of movement.

    He hit her like a freight train. Only the fact that she was too weak to offer any resistance and was practically limp saved her from any broken bones. She was thrown back and tumbled and rolled on the ground. As she came to a stop she drew herself into a fetal position in a gasp of pain, the deep wound on her side flaring up at the abuse.

    “You fucking little cunt,” Virulent hissed, rising and walking up to her on two legs. Rei could do nothing but watch, barely hanging on to consciousness. He reached her and gave her a vicious kick right on her chest. Rei thought she felt something crack as the force made her roll twice before coming to a stop. She wheezed breathing hard. It hurt. Everything just hurt so much. Suddenly every little hurt in her body seemed to flare up and demand her attention.

    “I’m going to finish you off right now,” Virulent sneered. Then he turned and started slowly limping towards the edge of the ring. For a moment Rei was confused until she realized what he was doing. He was going to go pick up his discarded tanto. To finish her off.

    His back was turned to her giving her the perfect opportunity to attack. But she couldn’t. She was having a hard time even staying conscious. Is this is? She though. Is this how I’m going to die?

    Panic started to build quickly inside of her. She talked about being willing to risk her life but suddenly being faced with the prospect of death – real immediate death – and watching it walk away, it scared her. Rei didn’t want to die.What can I do? Nobody is going to help me.

    Not knowing what else to do Rei fell back onto something intimately comfortable and familiar to her. Something she had been doing since before she could walk. Rei turned her mind inside and dove into her body, into the energies that gave her life.

    With very little effort she dived into her Chakra coils. The news were not good. She barely had enough Chakra left to keep her vital functions going and remain conscious. Even that was iffy as her vision continued to blur in and out and simply staying awake was a struggle. Rei had never experienced Chakra exhaustion before but she knew the symptoms.

    I’m out of Chakra she thought in despair, as if she hadn’t known that already. Still she wouldn’t just take death lying down. There had to be something. Anything! Virulent was already nearing his discarded weapon.

    Rei looked inside, going deeper. First she looked for what she knew she lacked, Physical Energy. She was the first ninja she had ever heard of who could feel it but at the moment it wasn’t doing her any favors. Rei knew what Physical Energy felt like and there was none to be found. There was nothing. It was gone. All of it.

    Again not exactly a surprise. That didn’t make it any less disheartening. Through her blurry vision she could make out Virulent picking up his weapon.

    Rei turned to the only thing she had left. Spiritual Energy. To her frustration she found she still had a disgustingly huge amount of Spiritual Energy left. Her limitation was always Physical Energy, not her incredibly disproportionate amounts of Spiritual Energy. The problem was that by itself Spiritual Energy was useless. Without Physical Energy to mix it with it was good for absolutely nothing.

    Seeing Virulent start to limp back in her direction Rei did the only crazy thing she could think of. She grabbed a hold of her Spiritual Energy and using her considerable control and willpower began to shove it all into her Chakra Circulatory System.

    It was unnatural. No one else could do what she was doing. As far as Rei knew no one could even feel their Physical and Spiritual Energies independently, much less grab one of them and force it in where it didn’t belong. If her coils had been filled with Chakra doing this would have been impossible. Since they were empty but for a whisper the resistance she met from Chakra was minimal - though it did feel like she was doing something that was wholly and totally wrong.

    Usually when Chakra filled her coils it felt like they grew and stretched out to accommodate the energy. Rei poured and poured her Spiritual Energy into her coils but they remained completely the same and unresponsive as if they weren’t being flooded with a Jounin’s equivalent of Spiritual Energy. Rei began to panic thinking her desperate experiment was a failure. Even after filling her coils with almost every scrap of Spiritual Energy she could find there was still nothing. They still felt empty and useless.

    Virulent was halfway back.

    Unbidden a conversation she’d had with Neji and Tenten in the past sprang into her mind. Tenten had asked what the dots on the Yin-Yang symbol were all about.

    "It describes the nature of balance and energy," he said as if reciting from a text, "the dots show that the seed of Yin exists in extreme Yang and that the seed of Yang exists in extreme Yin. When Yang energy becomes too overwhelming and out of balance it will eventually transform into Yin energy naturally, and vice versa. This is a fundamental law in the universe."

    Well, thought Rei with grim humor, if I kill myself with Chakra exhaustion then I won’t have to suffer whatever Virulent plans to do to me. What do I have to lose?

    In very… theoretical terms she might be able to pull off something crazy here. Or kill herself. Either way her situation will have improved.

    Here goes everything.

    Rei ran on instinct. She grabbed her tiny remaining amount of Chakra and interlaced it with some of the Spiritual Energy in her coils. Just a bit. Then with her mind she pushed trying to bring balance to the isolated Chakra-Spiritual Energy mixture inside her coils. If it didn’t work she would probably use the last bit of her Chakra and die. If it did work…

    Rei gasped as what should have been impossible happened. The Chakra-Spiritual Energy mixture she was holding with her mind transformed and equalized until it became one hundred percent pure Chakra inside her coils. The overwhelming imbalance in the energies had self-corrected.

    Rei was shocked, positively shocked but she couldn’t think about the implications now. Virulent was nearly on top of her. She only had a small amount of Chakra in her system now. Rei knew she could transform her whole store of Spiritual Energy into Chakra now, itched to do it, but her tactical mind held back. No. Even if she was suddenly flooded with Chakra she would still lose.

    The new influx of Chakra made it easier to think however. Her quick mind quickly formed a plan.

    A plan to win.

    With her new understanding on how she could create more Chakra in her coils Rei began to create just a trickle. Just enough to allow her to move but not enough that anyone short of a highly skilled sensor could feel anything unusual was going on. A few feet away Rei spotted her discarded kunai. Slowly she began to drag herself to her feet, slow and pained, letting Chakra slowly trickle into her wounds to numb the pain and stop the worst of the bleeding. Her head swam. Even with Chakra mitigating blood loss was still a problem.

    Virulent should have attacked her then. Instead he stopped moving towards her when she dragged herself to her feet. He could have sworn she was finished. He knew Chakra exhaustion when he saw it. How did she get a second wind? Despite his anger his curiosity and arrogance made him hang back while she got to her feet and picked her kunai off of the floor. She turned to face him, weapon up in a defensive stance. Really, she still thought to stand against him? The ugly pup was persistent, he’d give her that much.

    “I’m shocked that you can still move,” he said in a voice full of confidence and dripping false praise, “don’t think that you’ll get lucky a second time. The fact that you managed it even once was practically an act of the Kami.”

    “If you think you’re so tough,” said the bleeding girl who by all rights shouldn’t be standing. Her voice was rough, her eyes exhausted but filled with fire, her very posture still stubborn and defiant. “Then come and get me.”

    Yes, Virulent thought as he raised his tanto she will be a worthy kill.

    Virulent charged and Rei began to use her new found skill to give herself barely enough Chakra to enhance her body. She deflected his first strike and she read the surprise on his face. His second came across and bit faster and she deflected it just enough that it only gave her a light cut on her numb arm. Seeming to have taken her measure Virulent smirked before he attacked again.

    Rei knew that even if she were at full health she would probably still lose in a straight up fight. Mangled as she was she had no chance even with the potential of fully recovering her Chakra in an instant. She only had one chance.

    She had to bet it all on one surprise strike. One last desperate gamble to put this bastard down.

    Rei’s hard eyes, purple like chips of amethyst, settled on Virulent and she smirked at him even through all the blood and pain. “You’re an embarrassment Virulent. You know it, I know it and more importantly every single Rat here knows it.”

    Virulent’s face twisted with anger. It didn’t help that her words sparked a chorus of cheers, of voices from the crowd mocking him and taunting him, calling him all sorts of despicable names. He attacked her more ferociously but he was still aiming to wound, not kill. That made it possible for her to realistically defend even while still feigning weakness.

    “Going against the will of Eldest Rat? Even I know that’s not what a good Rat would do. If you kill me and win everyone here will know you’re the kind of trash who would screw his own Family over to protect his fragile pride,” she said, talking fast while being pushed to her limits just to avoid losing a finger or being crippled in any other way.

    With a scream of impotent rage Virulent threw himself at her. “What the fuck do you know?! You’re just an outsider. You know nothing!”

    The voices of the crowd heckled him and cheered for her, steadily growing louder and louder as the human girl was still somehow, impossibly, still alive and fighting. Even Eldest Rat roared his approval, deep like an elephant and easily heard above the voices of all his kin. Virulent visibly flinched at the vocal disapproval of his leader. It only made him angrier.

    Yes, she though, get mad. Completely loose your shit Virulent. Do it! Try to kill me!

    Despite how confident she wanted to be it was all a lie. Her body was broken and she had lost too much blood. Her right leg had a deep cut that was making it extremely questionable and the cut to her side was limiting her movement. Even while creating what Chakra she needed on-demand her body would only be able to keep this pace up for moments longer.

    Come on, thought Rei desperately, take your shot.

    Her plan was tricky. She had to feign weakness while still defending herself. The only reason her sloppy defense was believable was because she kept leaving a hole in her defense every few seconds even as she scrambled to stay ahead of Virulent’s blade. It was a rookie mistake and one that she needed Virulent to believe. There was only one problem.

    The hole in her defense was right over her heart. A killing blow.

    Virulent was a sadistic son of a bitch who wanted to torture her to death.

    She needed to get him mad enough to go for the kill and soon. Like right the fuck now. Or else none of it would matter.

    Rei’s wasn’t going to hold up under this barrage. She was at her limit. This had to work. Now.

    One more push.

    “They want me to win,” she said, gasping and short of breath, “can’t you hear it? How does that feel?”

    “Shut up,” he growled and swung wildly at her.

    “How does it feel when your own Family turns their back on you for an outsider?” she taunted.

    “I said shut up! You know nothing!” he screamed. At this point Rei had to give up all pretense of weakness just to stay in one piece. Virulent was too upset to realize something was seriously wrong.

    “Face it, you’re a failure as a Rat,” block, clang, sparks, “a failure to your Family,” dodge, weave, another cut on her body, “a failure as a warrior. How does it feel to be completely unwanted by everything you love?”

    The crowd was a roar now, positively deafening. Their approval and cheering at her words cut him deep and Rei took glee in the pain she saw in his eyes. Then, like a flipped switch, they went positively wild with mindless rage. Rei bared her teeth at him, blocked and left the opening in her defense one last time.

    Do it!

    “DIE!” Virulent yelled and stabbed at her wide open heart.

    Not today.

    With a mental push all the Spiritual Energy in her coils transformed into Chakra in a single instant. Everyone nearby was focused on her and all of them flinched as a sudden mass of Chakra appeared out of nowhere on their senses. Her coils instantly filled to their maximum capacity and beyond. The excess Chakra that couldn't be contained in her system was pushed out from every pore in her body. Suddenly Rei was glowing with a blue aura of Chakra.

    Then she brought to play the one weapon she had not used and everyone had discarded during the fight: her melted and injured left arm.

    Aided and powered by all the Chakra she could possibly want Rei brought her left arm in front of the incoming blade. She let the tanto stab into her forearm, piercing all the way through and trapping the blade between her radius and ulna. The shots Elder Black had given her still numbed her arm completely so Rei didn’t even flinch.

    The sudden feel of the explosion of Chakra, Rei’s impossible blue glow and the unexpected speed of the arm that blocked his blade made Virulent freeze for a critical split second. Rei twisted her impaled arm down, blade trapped between the bones of her arm. She turned with her body, wrenching and pulling Virulent who foolishly held on to the blade out of balance. At the same time she cut upwards with her blade with everything she was worth, powered by her anger, her Chakra and her desperation. Her kunai found its mark, striking true and splitting Virulent’s snout in two.

    Virulent screamed. He fell backwards on the floor, yelling at the top of his lungs, clutching his face with both hands. Rei looked on and couldn’t help feeling a sudden rush of dark pleasure and satisfaction at seeing him like that. But it wasn’t over for her. No. Not by a long shot.

    Gripping her bloody kunai Rei moved forward towards the downed Rat, murder clear in her eyes. Virulent saw and in a surprising flash of good judgement knew enough to be scared. He held his face with one hand and scooted backwards with the other to get away from her.

    Gurgling blood he said, “I surrender! I surrender. You win.”

    Rei however was undeterred. She stalked towards him, enjoying his fear, blood dripping from her kunai and from the many wounds on her body and mixing with the red dirt floor. Her blue glow and the tanto still piercing her arm only made her an even more terrifying sight.

    “You think that’s going to save you from me?” she demanded. Fury flooded her veins anew and the blue glow seemed to briefly intensify. After everything he did he’s not getting away. Raising her kunai high, she moved forward to end that disgusting creature’s life…

    … when a firm but gentle hand on her good shoulder stopped her. High strung and running on instinct she whirled around and tried to stab whoever was behind her. A hand grabbed her wrist and stopped her attack cold. It took her a few seconds to realize who it was.

    “E-Elder Black?” she asked, some of her anger suddenly replaced by confusion.

    “Easy there pup,” he said, “You can’t kill him, remember? Besides he already surrendered.”

    Rei didn’t like those words. She glared at Elder Black, her eyes angry and defiant.

    “You won. You got what you wanted. It’s over. You won,” he said in soothing tones, not at all disturbed by her murderous glare.

    Rei blinked at that as the words began to register. Slowly she started to come back from her murderous haze. At about the same time the excess Chakra in her system finished bleeding off and the blue glow surrounding her slowly died down to nothing.

    Turning her head she looked at Virulent. As she watched two Rats came out of the crowd and grabbed him under the shoulders while he was still clutching his bleeding face. The two of them dragged him off and they disappeared into the crowd.

    “I won?” she asked in a small voice, sounding surprisingly vulnerable and young.

    Elder Black smiled at her showing off his large yellow teeth. “You did. I honestly thought it was all over when Virulent decided to challenge you. It seems you be full of surprises pup.”

    Rei smiled weakly at that. She took a moment to look around. The previously raucous Rats were all silent and every one of them was looking at her. Before she could think on it further the deep booming voice of Eldest Rat spoke up.

    “The winner is the would-be summoner,” Eldest Rat declared, “Virulent has utilized his challenge and was found wanting. The claim of the would-be summoner stands. Now does any other member of The Family object to this young female becoming our first human summoner?”

    Silence. Rei stood tall and looked challengeingly out at the crowd. Even though she was no longer glowing she flared her Chakra. All the Rats could tell that somehow, inexplicably, this girl went from being nearly dead to brimming with Chakra in an instant. Rei saw looks of interest, greed and admiration turned her way. But no challenges.

    When Eldest Rat was satisfied that all his children were in agreement he spoke. “What is your name young summoner?” he asked Rei in a gentle tone.

    Adrenaline and emotion were still riding though her and it took her a moment to make sense of Eldest Rat’s question. Then she realized that this was the first time any of the Rats had bothered to ask her name.

    “Rei…,” she said turning slowly to face him, “Rei Yamanaka.”

    “Then I,” began Eldest Rat as he addressed every Rat in the stadium, “as the Ninth Eldest Rat of the Rat Clan, hereby proclaim that we have a new summoner! Rei Yamanaka is her name. She is one of The Family! For now and forever, as long as trust holds, she is an honored member of our Clan! Rise! Raise your voices! Rend the sky! Let them hear us a thousand leagues below this very earth! Today we welcome a new sister! Today our Clan grows stronger! Today we finally have A SUMMONER!”

    Eldest Rat then threw his head back and let out a deafening sound like the cross between an elephant and a tyrannosaurus. Then, almost as one, every single Rat, thousands, maybe tens of thousands, threw their heads back and began to scream. Looking over at Elder Black even his head was thrown back in a primal roar joining in creating the unfathomable noise. Looking all around her, on the pitch, on the stands illuminated by torchlight, every single Rat, untold thousands threw their heads back and sounded as one.

    The sound was indescribably loud. There was something powerful, primal about it that reached into the deepest and most elemental aspects of her being. It was less noise and more vibration that shook her to her very bones, to her very soul. The roars of the Rat Clan seemed to vibrate off the walls of the rusted cathedral, amplifying the collective emotions and building, compounding the power being created even more. The sound vibrated in her skull, in her teeth, in her heart and to her very marrow. Though she knew it was impossible it felt like all of creation, like the very fabric of the universe shook and distorted as thousands of voices cried out in unified emotion, in unified purpose altering reality as an exercise of will. Those voices were for her but also for so much more. What it was Rei couldn’t describe but it penetrated to her very core. They screamed for life. They screamed for death. They screamed for them. Them now including Rei as a member of this terrible and wonderful Clan.

    She did the only thing she could do. Rei threw her head back and screamed, adding her voice to the countless scores of others. It was deep and primal, coming from a place inside that still knew what it meant to be an animal hunting and hunted in the dark. Rei joined her Clan and she screamed. She screamed her fury. She screamed her pain. She screamed her victory.

    The building shook like it would come apart and still they let their voices be heard. She had almost been killed more times than she could count but she didn’t care. Right then nothing could ruin her moment. The trial had been fire and she had won. She had won. She had won.

    As her new family roared her welcome Rei knew only one thing for certain: that she would never be the same again.
     
  23. Threadmarks: Chapter 23
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 23

    000

    Thirteen Days Later

    Ino sat at the base of the gigantic Hashirama tree in her backyard out of sight from her house. She was curled up into a ball, her arms wrapped around her legs and her forehead pressed against her knees. Ino’s shoulders shook as sobs wracked her whole frame. She had managed to get through yesterday without crying the whole day for the first time since she had been told. Then today she’d walked into her (their) bedroom and seen her mom putting Rei’s things into boxes. Ino had burst into tears and run out of the house with her mom calling her name.

    Nee-chan… why did you have to go? Ino thought as sobs shook through her thin body.

    Rei had gone missing over the night almost two weeks ago when Ino had been spending the night at some girl’s house she didn’t even like that much. At first Ino wasn’t too concerned even as her parents fretted – this was Rei, she could handle anything, of course she was fine – but as the days went by and the expressions on the adults went from worried and determined to mournful and resigned a horrible feeling began to grow like a rock in Ino’s belly.

    Then six days ago her parents, each looking twenty years older to her, had sat her down and told her everything. They’d found a notebook hidden in Rei's things that showed she had been experimenting with a jutsu called the Summoning Technique in secret. There was evidence that she had used it. Since Rei had been gone for so long her parents had told her gently but in no uncertain terms that the jutsu was incredibly dangerous and if Rei wasn’t back yet it was most likely because she was dead. Rei. Her big sister. Dead.

    Ino’s reaction hadn’t been pretty. She told them they were lying and when they insisted they weren’t she’d started throwing things from the kitchen at them. It had taken hours to get her to calm down.

    It’s not fair… Rei why? How could you just leave? Why did you leave me?

    That wasn’t even the worst of it though. The worst came the next day when she remembered Shikamaru’s last birthday party and the con they had pulled to get uncle Shikaku to show them the Summoning Technique. It was then that Ino realized where Rei had learned to do that jutsu. And Ino had helped her do it. It was then that Ino realized the most horrible thing of all.

    It was my fault. If I hadn’t helped her see that jutsu Nee-chan would still be alive. I killed my own sister. It was all my fault.

    Now they were already talking about making her the next clan heir. What a joke. As if she could compare to Rei. As if she deserved something like that after what she was responsible for.

    It also made her feel like they were already forgetting Rei. It made her so mad she wanted to scream. Instead Ino just hugged her legs and cried harder.

    This had been the spot. She had overheard some of the adults in the clan talking. Right by this tree had been where Rei had used the jutsu that had taken her away. That's why Ino was there and why she had gone there a few times before when she needed to get away and be alone. It made her feel closer to her sister. Some part of her even hoped that if she was near the place where she left somehow her sister would know and she would come back. It was a stupid idea though. After nearly two weeks Ino had come to accept the truth.

    Rei was never coming back.

    My fault why wasn’t I here why did I help her my fault she would still be here myfaultmyfaultmyfault-

    Ino was so distracted she almost completely missed it when something extremely loud pinged on her senses just six feet from where she was sitting. Red tear-streaked eyes looked up to where a sudden pressure of Chakra materialized in front of her from out of nowhere. As Ino watched the air seemed to crackle with electricity and unspent potential. The girl watched numbly as the energy seemed to be rising to a crescendo.

    Finally the buildup discharged in an instant, a powerful gust of displaced air and smoke forcing her to close her eyes. Ino opened her eyes feeling strangely numb yet vulnerable as the smoke began to clear. Gradually a figure emerged, its body facing away from her. Blonde hair fell in fat curls just past her shoulders looking a tangled, matted and filthy mess. The figure was barefoot and wore a set of tattered rags that might at some point have been a lilac kimono. The figure had one bandaged arm held tightly to her side and looked unsteady on her feet.

    Even though she was looking at her from behind this was a figure that Ino knew probably better than any other. But it should have been impossible. Suddenly Ino was afraid that she was sleeping and having a dream. Dreaming of her sister like this would just be too cruel.

    “Nee… Nee-chan?” Ino managed to squeak out, her voice barely a whisper.

    The figure standing in front of her heard her though. It shifted its body gingerly and turned its head to look at Ino. Tired and feverish eyes beheld her, a look of surprise and confusion briefly crossing the impossible being’s features. Those eyes were a soft shade of lilac. A shade of lilac that Ino knew very well.

    “I-Ino?” the figure managed to stutter out, stumbling over its words.

    As Ino watched those lilac eyes seemed to glaze over with exhaustion before the figure’s legs gave out. She collapsed falling heavily and gracelessly on the floor. Suddenly the figure wasn’t moving and was lying much too still. It was this thought that finally pulled the young girl from the dream-like haze she was in.

    “NEE-CHAN!” Ino screamed in a shrill, panicked voice. In a flash was kneeling next to her sister, wanting to touch her but afraid that she would somehow hurt her even worse. Even Ino with her limited knowledge could tell that the prone figure’s breathing was too fast and too strained.

    “Oh Gods, of Kami, Of Gods,” said a panicking Ino finally settling on shaking her sister’s shoulders, “Rei. Rei. Oh Gods Rei. Rei. It’s going to be fine. Just don’t leave. Don’t leave me you hear? Oh the Kami. Rei. REI!”

    000

    Four Days Later

    Coming awake felt like a slow and gradual process, like she had to laboriously crawl her way out of the depths of unconsciousness. Her memories were fuzzy but Rei was pretty sure she had been drifting in and out of consciousness for… well she wasn’t really sure how long really. Finally though it seemed like her body was allowing her, or forcing her, to wake. Her incredibly dry throat may have had something to do with that.

    Rei opened her eyes slowly blinking rapidly at the lights. Looking around she noticed that she is in a hospital room. Rei sagged a little in relief. It looked like she had managed to make it back to Konoha in one piece after all and that she had managed to survive. The situation had been really touch and go for a while.

    Looking around she noticed she had an IV and was hooked up to a beeping heart monitor. Taking internal stock it felt like hereverything hurt. Just… everything from head to toe, on the inside and the outside. Everything was one big painful uncomfortable ache. Her left arm was bandaged six ways to next week and was currently in a sling. Worst of all she still felt deathly sick. Finally if she had to guess she probably looked like death barely warmed over.

    But she was alive. Rei was pretty sure that was the important point to focus on here.

    Turning her head a little more she noticed something she had missed at first. Her father was seated next to her bed, his arms crossed and his eyes closed as if he was deep in thought or meditation. His expression worried her though. He looked exhausted, more pale than she ever remembered having seen him and there were lines of tension and stress etched deeply on his face. Rei felt an unexpected flush of guilt as she realized what had probably driven Inoichi to such a state.

    With her dry and disused throat Rei had to swallow and try a couple of times before she could speak. “Dad?” she managed to croak out in a weak voice.

    The reaction was instantaneous. Inoichi’s eyes flew open and his head snapped to look at her face. The relief and tenderness in his eyes were so overwhelming it was difficult to look at. With a bit of hesitation he reached over and grabbed her good hand. Rei gave his hand a little squeeze of reassurance.

    “Rei…” said her dad, trailing off like he didn’t know exactly what to say. The emotions he was giving off said a great deal though. There was mostly relief and worry swirled with a myriad of other things Rei couldn’t quite identify. She gave small smile that probably didn’t come out as reassuring as she intended.

    “Hey dad,” she said in a small voice. Even though she wasn’t sleepy she still felt extremely tired. “You look awful.”

    Her voice seemed to snap him out of whatever heightened emotional state he was in. He let out a huff of incredulous laughter that made Rei’s parched lips quirk up in a smile. His countenance then suddenly got a great deal more collected and calm, far more like how Rei knew him to be on a day to day basis.

    “You really are in no position to be saying that. If you can try to stay awake,” he said to her in a calm voice that was just a touch more gentle that normal, “I need to call a nurse now that you’ve woken up.”

    Rei just nodded at that without speaking. She didn’t think she could go back to sleep for a long while even if she wanted to. With some clear hesitation Inoichi stood up and swiftly left the room.

    Two minutes later he was back with a nurse. The nurse spent a good while checking up on her and asking questions about how she was feeling. Blood pressure, pulse, respirations, temperature, pretty much everything was measured and Rei just did her best to just tolerate it as best she could. She truly did feel awful. The best part though was being given water to drink through a straw. Her throat had been so parched it had almost been painful.

    After all of that was done the nurse turned to Inoichi. “As far as I can tell she’s recovering as well as can be expected. Doctor Yamada if finishing up another case. He’ll come as soon as he is able, it shouldn’t be too long.”

    “I see,” Inoichi said to her, politely if a bit stiffly. “Thank you.”

    Then the nurse left and suddenly Rei was alone in the room with her father. In truth it felt rather ominous. Walking very deliberately Inoichi went to the chair he had been sitting on earlier, positioned it to where Rei could more easily see him and sat down with a hard look on his face. Rei had never been overly intimidated by her father but in that moment she had to fight the urge to fidget.

    “So. Where did you go?” he asked her. Even though his voice was mostly calm Rei could detect a thread of something behind it. It really shouldn’t have been surprising. Now that he’d had a bit of time to get over the shock of her waking up other emotions were coming to the forefront. He was pissed and was holding himself back from tearing into her.

    Well. It’s not like she could exactly blame him for that reaction.

    Rei knew there was no hiding what she had done. She’d never planned to be gone so long and she hadn’t tried very hard to hide the notebook detailing her research into the Summoning Technique. Hell she’d hid the damn thing in her mattress before she left, pretty much the first place anyone would think to look. Rei briefly considered spinning one of her previously constructed lies before deciding not to.

    Maybe it was the Rats droning on about Family but she suddenly didn’t want to lie. She also wasn’t a hundred percent sure she was in the right mental state to keep her lies straight in the first place. Besides despite how shitty it all went Rei couldn’t deny that she had a good deal of pride in what she had managed to accomplish. To her surprise she found that she actually wanted to tell Inoichi what she had gone through even if she decided to keep one or two details to herself.

    Haltingly at first but then with more ease Rei began to speak. She began by saying she had suspected what the Summoning Technique would do but not knowing for sure (white lie). Then about how she had been pulled into the Summon Realm and the domain of the Rat Clan. How she’d been injured early on and had to fight her way through The Factory while leaving out some of the more alarming details… though she kind of had to include the fact she had been hit by an acid jutsu. Then being taken before Eldest Rat, passing his test before having to ‘prove herself’ by fighting a Rat even though she was exhausted and injured (she left out the bit about it being a death match). Success. Rei smiled with pride as she related becoming the first ever Rat summoner.

    Then came the unexpected complications. The Rats had treated her injuries as best they could and Rei had crashed and slept for eighteen hours straight. When she woke up it was only to find she had a high fever and was nearly delirious. Whatever bugs existed in The Factor were apparently not ones that Rei had any kind of immunity to. Despite the best effort of the Rats she quickly became very ill and many of her wounds became infected.

    The next week and a half had been probably the most miserable in Rei’s young life. The Rats while very talented in some areas were really quite primitive (awful) when it came to medicine. While they had poultices and creams that eventually managed to clear out the infections from her wounds it never did anything much for her fever. When she gradually started to get worse the Rats decreed that she had blood poisoning and there wasn’t anything they could do to help her.

    Blood poisoning or as she knew it in more scientific terms a systemic infection. It was bacteria carried in high numbers in her blood stream and an extremely dangerous condition. If they wanted to save her life the Rats knew they would need to get her back to Konoha. The problem was she was too delirious to learn a new jutsu and whatever Chakra she was recovering her body was greedily using up just to try and fight the infection. The technique wasn’t something the Rats could do for her. If she wanted to get back to her world she would have to do the jutsu herself.

    Even in her terrible mental state she knew the solution the Rats came up with was a terrible idea but it wasn’t like she had come up with anything better. It basically involved giving her a heavy dose of stimulants to focus her mind and the Rat equivalent of soldier pills to artificially boost her Chakra. Not the best things to give someone who was already deathly ill. Still the drugs made her coherent long enough to learn the jutsu from the Rats and gave her enough Chakra to pull it off.

    She told Inoichi all that and in her current state didn’t edit it very much at all.

    “… now I’m here in Konoha’s hospital. So while it might have been touch and go there for a while, really, it all worked out in the end,” she said with a casual shrug of her good shoulder.

    Inoichi just looked at her, his jaw clenching as his mind was clearly working on overdrive. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. When he opened them he looked straight at Rei, his eyes leaking emotion even as his face remained calm and composed.

    “That was one of the most reckless and stupid things I’ve ever, ever heard anyone do.”

    “Hey!” protested Rei, “So it got a little a complicated. So what? I made it back in one piece and it was totally worth it.”

    Inoichi closed his eyes and Rei could almost hear him counting backwards slowly from ten. When he opened them and looked at Rei the girl flinched a little. She’d never seen her father look so mad in her entire life. “Three significant stab wounds,” he began, his voice low and furious, “one on your arm, one that cut a lot of muscles on your thigh and one on your side that the doctor said nearly eviscerated you. Your left arm is – is a total mess. Extensive acid burns, badly damaged shoulder that healed improperly and they’re going to have to do surgery to correct it. Except they haven’t been able to do the surgery yet because you were hours away dying because of the blood infection and all the other crap in your system!” His voice was raised now, not quite screaming but close to it.

    “Did you even know what you were getting into?” Inoichi demanded, “Did you even consider why knowledge of the Summoning Technique was so hard to come across? Did you ever wonder why no one would even consider showing it to anyone below Chunnin rank?”

    “I don’t know, because its kinda-sorta maybe a little bit dangerous? Because ninja are paranoid and hoard every single technique they can?” said Rei defensively with a hint of sarcasm. Maybe it wasn’t the best response but it was the first thing that came to her tongue. She didn’t like feeling like she was under attack and her first instinct was to try to bite back.

    Inoichi rubbed his face with one hand and made a visible effort to reign himself in. “Rei believe it or not things are often restricted for a reason,” he said suddenly sounding tired, “of those of Chunnin and Jounin rank who utilize the Summoning Technique without a contract only fifty percent ever make it back. Of those that do only half ever win the right to become a summoner. Rei, when we found out what you did and you hadn't returned after a few days… all of us thought you were dead.”

    That took the wind out of Rei’s sails of righteous indignation. That figure was… well she’d never thought they’d had actual hard numbers for that sort of thing. The odds were... very sobering. Fifty percent casualty rate? Rei felt an involuntary shiver pass through her. If she’d known those were the odds for Chunnin and Jounin before going in there was a decent chance she would have reconsidered.

    Also… they thought she had been dead? Now that she thought about it that assumption completely made sense, it just hadn’t occurred to her. She had been too sick to think about what kind of reaction her disappearance would have prompted at home. Even though Rei wasn’t generally one for guilt she experienced it yet again that day as she thought about the people she cared about. Her parents, Tenten, Neji, Ino. Maybe Anko. They had all thought she was dead? The idea made her uncomfortable in a way she couldn’t properly identify.

    “I guess… I didn’t know what I was getting into,” said Rei contritely, hanging her head. “It was just supposed to take a couple of hours or a day or two at most. I didn’t mean to worry you guys,” inexplicably she found her eyes tearing up. “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. I’m sorry.”

    Inoichi sighed and his body seemed to sag a little in his seat. “First your disappearance, then what happened after you left… it’s been a rough couple of weeks. Especially for Ino. I think you’re going to have to work hard to get her to forgive you.”

    Pain pierced her heart at hearing those words. The last person in the universe she would ever want to hurt was her sister. Goddamn it. She fisted the sheets in her good hand. Why did that have to happen?

    It wasn’t supposed to be this way. She was supposed to be the only one in danger. She was the only one who had a chance of getting hurt. That she’d hardly spared a thought to how everyone else would feel should she never come back suddenly made her feel like an awful human being. Had she really been that self-involved in the time leading up to her Reverse Summoning?

    The adults could probably handle it just fine, eventually but… how would Ino handle it if she never came back? Damn it why didn’t she think of that?!

    “I’m sorry,” she murmured again, a few tears trailing down her cheeks. “I should have planned everything better.”

    “No Rei,” said Inoichi, “that’s not it at all. You shouldn’t have done it in the first place.”

    Despite her guilt and tears Rei’s shoulders tightened and without conscious thought sent a defiant look in her dad’s direction. Rei hadn’t… done things as well or as thought out as she should have but she wasn’t willing to go as far as calling her crowning victory in winning the Rat contract a mistake. For what seemed the tenth time that day Inoichi sighed tiredly.

    “Since you disappeared and with events that happened shortly afterwards the last few weeks have been… hard. For all of us. I’m glad, everyone is glad that you made it back alive and in relatively one piece. Me, your mother, we all love you Rei. I want you to know that.”

    Rei had to swallow something thick and heavy in her throat. “Thanks,” she murmured even though it felt like the least appropriate response possible.

    “Can you explain to me why you would do this Rei?” asked her father, his tone that of a man who was desperate to understand. “I know you were unhappy with having to wait until you graduated to learn more advanced techniques. It was something you hadn’t brought up seriously in years so I thought you had made your peace with that. However you were researching and planning for the Summoning Technique for two years before you did anything. You’re not dumb Rei you knewthere would be a lot of risk involved even if you didn’t know the specifics. Why would you even consider doing this in the first place?”

    Rei sat in the hospital bed clutching the sheets with her one good hand as she thought about what to tell her father. Right then she was feeling guilty and just tired of having to lie and keep everything bottled up inside. Rei decided then and there to at least tell part of the truth.

    “For as long as I can remember I’ve dreamed of becoming a powerful ninja. And I don’t just mean as a Jounin. I mean it is my dream – actually I should say it is my ambition to become a ninja of legendary strength and renown. I want to be like the Sannin and the Hokages, known and feared in every corner of the Elemental Nations for their abilities as ninja. I want to be a kunoichi not even a team of ANBU would want to fight because it would just go that badly for them. I want to be listed as an S-Rank ninja in every bingo book of every village,” Rei shrugged with her good shoulder, “that’s the long and short of why I did it basically.”

    Rei looked at her hand and played with a loose thread on the sheets while she waited for her father to answer. Inoichi was quiet for a long time before he spoke. “What does that have to do with the Summoning Technique?”

    Rei shrugged again and tried not to roll her eyes. She turned and looked at her father straight in the eye. “The Sannin are all renown for using their summons in combat right? The stories about them even imply that they learned a lot of their techniques from their summons. The Third is famous for fighting with the Monkey King Enma. I could name a half dozen other ninja of that caliber who were known for using their summons. Obviously having your own summons is a powerful thing and a huge advantage for a ninja. It was a risk I was willing to take to bring me closer to my goal.”

    When he didn’t answer right away Rei felt just the tiniest bit smug. Looking at her father the girl thought the man looked stunned. She got the impression that wasn’t at all what he had been expecting and he didn’t quite know how to respond. The word that came to mind was ‘flabbergasted’. In the end he just shook his head in disbelief.

    “We can come back to that later,” he said as he leaned forward in his chair, “but that’s not important right now. Rei look at me. I need you to promise me something.”

    Rei looked at her father with a little apprehension. “What?”

    “I need you to promise never, ever to do something that reckless again. Please Rei,” he said earnestly, “don’t you ever do something like that again.”

    Rei held his gaze for a few moments before she nodded slowly. “All right. I promise.”

    Examining her face her father seemed to believe her. “All right then. Well,” he said before standing up, “your mother’s been beside herself, I’ll let her know you’re awake and that she can come see you. She’s hardly left your side since you were brought in. Me, I… I need to get back to work,” he said, looking a little guilty as he said it.

    Rei waved him off and gave him her best reassuring smile. “Go. I’ll be fine. I understand. And… thanks for being here when I woke up,” she said with a sincerity that surprised even herself.

    Inoichi nodded and gave her a small smile. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Then he turned and walked out of the room.

    When he was gone Rei sunk back down on the bed with a heavy sigh. That had been… emotional. Unexpected. She’d just sort of assumed she’d slide back into her life with maybe a small stop at T&I on the way home if she was unlucky. That had been incredibly naïve of her she now realized. In her defense she had spent a lot of her thinking time delirious with fever.

    Rei wasn’t used to feeling guilt but it seemed to be hitting her from all directions that day. She’d never meant to hurt her… family. Inoichi, Emiko and Ino. Especially Ino. Unbidden Rei began to feel guilty about a couple of other things.

    One, while she meant what she had said to Inoichi that she had no intention of doing something that reckless ever again… deep in her heart she knew she couldn’t discount the possibility. Rei was committed to her path and nothing was going to stop her. If the path forward involved risking her life yet again… well, as far as she was concerned settling for anything less than S-Rank was completely unacceptable. I’ll succeed or I’ll break myself, kill myself trying. Of course pulling stunts with insanely high mortality rates wasn’t going to be her first choice either.

    Two, she had just gotten a glimpse of how much pain the things she did could cause her family and the people that loved her. Konoha wasn’t a place she felt she could live happily and tolerate long-term. The system simply chaffed too badly against everything she stood for and believed. Eventually she was still planning to leave, on abandoning her family. How hurt would her dad be then? Her mom? Ino? Anyone else who cared about her?

    Rei sighed and covered her eyes with her good arm. No easy answers to be had, no good answers in sight. In the end all she could do was move forward day by day and see how things played out. She still had many years of hard work ahead of her before she could come even close to considering herself S-Class.

    As she let herself lightly doze Rei wondered if finding her own happiness meant she would have to hurt everyone who loved her.

    000

    Emiko came storming into the room like a hurricane half an hour later. Before Rei even got her bearings from her light doze her mother had her wrapped in a bone crunching hug. A little squeak of surprise and forcibly expelled oxygen might have escaped her lips.

    “Rei, Rei my little girl you’re all right, oh thank you, thank the Kami I thought I’d lost you…”

    Overall Emiko appeared to be considerably less angry than Inoichi. In fact as far as Rei could tell she wasn’t angry at all right then, just relieved and very overjoyed. Rei hugged her mom back as well as she could with one arm, enjoying the feelings of warmth and closeness. She was a very tactile person and in that moment she honestly couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a hug. Wasn’t much of that while she had been sick and feverish with the Rats.

    “I’m ok mom,” Rei found herself saying, soothing as much as being soothed by the contact, “I’m ok.”

    They stayed like that for a few minutes until Emiko reluctantly broke away, looking at Rei like she was afraid her daughter would disappear if she blinked for too long. More guilt. Hadn’t she had enough of that for one day? With trained grace Emiko sat in the chair next to the bed. Rei gave her mother what she hoped was a reassuring smile.

    “So what did I miss while I was away?” Rei asked, trying for lighthearted conversation.

    Emiko seemed grateful for the segue. “Well I suppose I should fill you in on a few things,” Emiko said with a small smile though the slightly wild look in her eyes as she looked at her daughter didn’t quite fade.

    There was some gossip from the clan that Rei half-heartedly paid attention to. However there were a few things that Rei had been very interested to hear. Neji had come by twice looking for her. Tenten too. The Akimichi and Nara had apparently been very concerned and had repeatedly offered to help in any way they could. It was a bit disconcerting that all these people had gone nearly a week thinking she was dead after it had been decided there was no hope left for her return. In all the cases anyone had been aware of if the person who Reverse Summoned themselves didn’t return within a few days they didn’t return at all. Rei had become the first exception to the rule.

    After talking for a while Rei finally came to the topic she was most interested in but had been sort-of dreading about asking. “What about Ino? How is she?” asked Rei, not quite hiding the concern in her voice.

    Emiko gave Rei a sad smile. “She’s… coping. She was hit harder than anyone when you disappeared and your sudden reappearance has… shaken her. She just needs some time to adjust. Right now she’s staying with your aunt Yua.”

    “Ino’s at home?” asked Rei feeling a bit hurt, “Why didn’t she come?”

    Emiko picked her words carefully. “You’ll see her soon. You’re still recovering and an emotional reunion is not what you need right now.”

    Dread crawled in Rei’s stomach. “She doesn’t hate me or anything does she?” Rei asked, dreading what the answer might be.

    Emiko didn’t quite grimace but it was close. “You should know better than anyone that your sister couldn’t hate you. But she’s… upset. She just needs a bit of time.”

    Rei just nodded solemnly at that letting the issue drop. I really screwed up, she though berating herself. I should have left a note or… or something. I don’t know.

    Rei didn’t want to think about the issue. There wasn’t anything she could do about it right now. What she needed to do was get home as soon as possible. She needed to make things right with her little sister.

    Knowing she wouldn’t be leaving for the time being Rei decided to change the subject. Something her father had said had sparked her curiosity but she hadn’t been able to follow it up with him at the time. “Dad hinted that something happened shortly after I… uh used the Summoning Technique. It sounded like something heavy. What was he talking about?” she asked curiously.

    Emiko’s countenance darkened and her lips pulled in a thin line. “Nothing you need to worry about honey. Everything’s fine,” she said.

    Rei rolled her eyes. “I’m recovering from an infection, not made of glass. Upsetting news isn’t going to make me any worse. Come on mom just tell me or I won’t stop bugging you about it.” She really wouldn’t.

    Emiko looked at her daughter for a minute before sighing in defeat. “Well if you don’t get it from me you’ll get it from someone else soon enough, it’s not exactly a secret,” she said, “the truth is there was an… incident the night after you disappeared. There was some fighting on the grounds of the Uchiha Clan. Apparently a large number of clan members were killed.”

    Rei felt a chill go up her spine. The Uchiha Massacre. Itachi. Tobi. Unless things were radically different from what she remembered in the story her mother was seriously downplaying what had transpired. It wasn’t ‘a large number’ of Uchiha who had died but ‘all the Uchiha except for one’.

    That event was chilling in a way it couldn’t have been when she had first read it in the story. Rei herself was now part of a Clan, a large extended family of ninja who, while not always close with every member, would nevertheless always have each other’s backs. To imagine her entire Clan massacred in one night like the Uchiha had been was… hard. It seemed almost unimaginable that such a thing could happen especially right under the noses of the rest of the village.

    It was barbaric, is what it was. Even if the leaders of the Uchiha plotted rebellion that was no reason to exterminate the children, the non-combatants and those too low on the food chain to be trusted with knowing about the rebellion. No one in their right mind would advocate that. Yet elements in Konoha felt perfectly justified in ordering such an action. I fucking hate this place. Fuck this barbaric ninja system where wiping out entire Clans isn’t even that strange.

    Her mother’s voice dragged her from her dark thoughts. “So was it worth it?” she asked as she leaned back in her chair.

    Rei blinked at that, momentarily confused by the sudden change in topic. “What do you mean?”

    “I mean did you get to sign the contract?” her mother asked with a small smile and a hint of annoyance.

    Rei gave her mother a sharp smile. “Yes. Yes I did. And it was totally worth it.”

    000

    A few minutes later Doctor Yamada finally came into the room. That it had taken him so long reassured Rei that she wasn’t in any immediate danger of dying. After that he proceeded to run a diagnostic jutsu on her and ask her a hundred different questions about how she felt. Eventually he finished his inspection and turned to speak to both of them.

    “Rei here seems to be recovering at about the rate I was expecting,” began Doctor Yamada, “and you’ll be happy to know that as long as she continues to rest and diligently takes the prescribed dose of antibiotics the last of the infection should clear up in about a week. Its important to keep taking it even if you feel well or you risk a relapse. Now your shoulder is another matter. The best option is to operate and re-set the joint. Unfortunately simply using medical Chakra in this type of situation is difficult if not outright impossible. Fortunately the surgery is relatively simple and should heal quickly. However we cannot risk operating until the danger of a relapse of your infection has passed.”

    The doctor stayed for a few minutes longer before he turned to leave. Emiko was speaking to him and thanking him but Rei’s mind was already whirling on something else. The antibiotics she had to take were pills taken orally and not by IV. Basically to finish recovering from her blood borne infection she just needed to take it easy, eat well and take her medicine three times per day. There was nothing saying she had to be in the hospital to do all that. She could recover just as well at home. Rei didn’t like hospitals all that much anyway. There was also another reason she wanted to go home right away.

    Rei had a burning need to talk to Ino and make things right between them. She had a feeling Ino wouldn’t be by to see her anytime soon. If she was home then they could talk and she could… apologize, or something. There was no way in hell she was going to stay stuck in the hospital for a week when all she was going to be doing was laying around and popping pills three times per day.

    After Doctor Yamada left Rei turned to her mother with a serious expression on her face.

    “Mom, I want to go home today.”

    “What?” Emiko said sounding perplexed, “honey you can’t. You have to rest and then the surgery-“

    “Mom just hear me out ok,” Rei interrupted holding up her hand, “look it’s not as crazy as it sounds…”

    Over the next few minutes laid out her argument, Emiko’s face going from skeptical to more and more thoughtful.

    “… and we have plenty of qualified medics in the clan. They can check on me regularly on the off chance that something goes wrong or I relapse. If anything goes in any way different from what Doctor Yamada predicted then they can take care of it and bring me back to the hospital if needed. Then I’d only have to come back for the surgery.”

    Emiko bit the inside of her cheek as she though. “Well I don’t like the idea of you walking all the way back to the compound but I’d much rather have you at home where I can keep an eye on you than all the way here at the hospital. If you need rest we can also make you much more comfortable at home,” she said thoughtfully tapping her lips with a finger. After a few moments she stood up, “I’ll go talk to Doctor Yamada and see what he thinks of all this. If he thinks we can do it without any significant danger then I’ll get you discharged today.”

    Rei smiled at Emiko, pleased that her ploy had worked. “Thanks mom. I’ll be right here.”

    An hour later Emiko came back in with Doctor Yamada. He seemed reluctant to agree to release Rei but when pressed he admitted that if there were medics checking on her at home then there wasn’t any real danger as long as she took the antibiotics and got proper rest. Half an hour after that Emiko had signed all the discharge papers and was helping Rei into some flimsy hospital clothes made of cheap light blue fabric.

    “I swear these things can barely be called clothes. They’re so thin,” fretted Emiko as she finished helping Rei get dressed even with her arm in a sling. Rei was glad for the help. Her injured arm wasn’t cooperating all that well and because of the infection every movement she made seemed to hurt.

    “It’ll be fine. It isn’t that long a walk back home,” argued Rei.

    “Hmm once we get outside I’ll try to Shunshin us at least part of the way together. I think I probably still remember how to do that,” her mother told Rei with a smile.

    With some cheap hospital slippers on Rei's feet Emiko helped her daughter to her feet and out the door of the room. Rei had underestimated how much her whole body would still hurt by walking and how much her breathing was still affected. She ended up putting her good arm around Emiko’s shoulders and Emiko held her daughter around the waist. Even with the help Rei felt like her every muscle was on fire as she tried to move and she felt weak. Systemic infections were no joke.

    “Come on honey,” said Emiko as they hobbled along together, “we just need to get to the elevator and out the front door. Once we get there I can Shunshin us home or get someone who can.”

    “Yeah… I think that’s a good idea,” said Rei with a pained grunt, the idea of walking all the way home suddenly seeming like an impossible task.

    They were almost to the elevator when a figure suddenly appeared in front of them. Rei looked up and her eyes narrowed as she took in what the figure was wearing. A black hooded cloak concealing them from head to toe. A white mask with red stripes that looked like some kind of bird. It wasn’t hard to figure out what this person was. ANBU.

    “Rei Yamanaka,” the figure said in a muffled voice that could have been either masculine or feminine, “I’ll need you to come with me.”

    Rei’s mouth opened but truthfully she had no idea what to say. She had considered that there was a chance might be pulled in for questioning after her stunt with the Summoning Technique. However now that it was happening and as sick as she was feeling she wasn’t sure what to do or say.

    Her mother however didn’t have such qualms. She whirled on the masked figure, her face incredulous and upset. “What? Why questioning? And you can’t take her for questioning ANBU-san. My daughter needs food and rest not… whatever the hell you plan on doing.”

    The ANBU’s head turned slightly to look at her. “My orders are to take Rei Yamanaka into custody as soon as she is released from the hospital,” he said as if that resolved everything. In his mind it probably did. However Emiko Yamanaka had other ideas.

    “Now look here ANBU-san,” said, protective maternal anger filling her every word and posture, “you’re planning on taking the sick and injured Heir to a powerful clan to some cold and damp cell in T&I? Then you better be damn sure about what you’re doing or you’re going to be making a lot of powerful enemies today ANBU-san. Try to take my daughter today and I will ruinyou,” Emiko spat fiercely. Rei just looked at her mother with a stunned look on her face. She had never seen Emiko acting anything remotely like this before.

    Their little confrontation was now drawing a small crowd of onlookers. Rei clenched her jaw. Now this little incident would be making its way through the rumor mill before they made it out onto the street. Rei wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or pissed off by that.

    The ANBU seemed taken aback by Emiko's unexpected resistance. He (probably a he) hesitated briefly before answering. “My orders are still to take her into custody Yamanaka-san. However you can be sure I’ll have one of the medics look in on her,” the ANBU said in a conciliatory tone.

    “That’s not good enough!” Emiko snapped, “you can save your damn interrogation for when after my daughter gets better. Not a second before.”

    This was bad. Looking at her mother Rei wasn’t sure the woman was being a hundred percent rational. ANBU didn’t disobey orders and Emiko looked ready to attack the Bird-ANBU if he tried to take her away. That wouldn’t end well for anyone. Rei had to intervene.

    “Mom,” Rei said squeezing her shoulder, “mom it’s ok. I’ll go with him.”

    Emiko turned from glaring hell at the ANBU to looking at her daughter, shock clear on her face. “What? Rei, no!”

    “I’ll be fine mom,” Rei said putting on a brave smile, “we both know I don’t have a choice. Go find dad. Get him to sort this out. Ok?”

    For a moment Emiko looked like she was about to cry as she looked at her daughter. Then she took a deep breath and Rei could almost physically see her tackling her emotions and getting them under control. “You’re right of course. I’m sorry. I’ll find your father,” she said before tenderly cupping her daughter’s cheek, “this is all some stupid mistake. We’ll get you out before you know it.”

    Rei gave her mother a wan smile. “I know mom. It’ll be fine.”

    Taking a deep shuddering breath Emiko reached into her robe and produced the bottle of her antibiotics. “Here. You still need to take these.”

    “You’ll have to give those to me,” the ANBU cut in holding his hand out to them. “No unauthorized substances.”

    Though she rarely showed it Emiko had once been a well-regarded Chunnin. With a growl she threw the bottle at the ANBU with surprising speed hitting the unprepared man in the face. The bottle bounced off his white mask and the ANBU had to fumble a little before finally catching it.

    “Make sure she gets her medicine,” Emiko said in a exceedingly spiteful tone that involuntarily made Rei shudder.

    The ANBU didn’t say anything as he disappeared the medicine bottle somewhere on his person. “Time to go,” said the ANBU, impatience now coloring his tone as he held his hand out to Rei.

    Very reluctantly Rei disentangled herself from her mom. “I’ll see you soon I guess,” she said weakly.

    “Very soon. You can count on it,” her mom told her. It sounded like a promise.

    Painfully, with all her muscles complaining Rei walked over to the ANBU. His fingers touched her back and he took position behind her as he guided her towards the elevator. The metal doors opened and the two of them got inside.

    Rei turned and got one last look at her mom before the elevator doors closed. Despair, pain and protective fury were etched deep in Emiko’s face. In that moment Rei was a little worried for whoever was going to be dumb enough to stand in her mom’s way.

    Then the elevator doors closed and Rei was on her way to the cells of T&I.
     
  24. Threadmarks: Chapter 24
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 24

    000

    The Yamanaka Clan like most ninja clans tended to be somewhat reserved in nature. One could even go as far as to say that revelry and general public displays of emotions were somewhat frowned upon. That is why the scene in front of him came as such a surprise.

    Toshiaki Yamanaka had been the Clan Head of the Yamanaka Clan for twenty six years. At fifty two years old that was half his lifetime. He honestly could not remember the last time a clan-wide celebration had been organized outside of official dates and holidays. When his wife Hinako had suggested throwing this party Toshiaki had been skeptical. However she and a few of other senior ladies of the Clan had convinced him when they explained that there was a palpable air of excitement and unity in the air and that this should be used to bring the Clan closer together. Eventually Toshiaki had agreed. The results were outstanding.

    As the Clan Head it was only natural that his home be the largest and the one with the most land so it was not unusual that his home on occasion be used for festivities. It was good that his home was so large since it seemed to Toshiaki that half the clan had decided to grace his home with their presence… something completely unprecedented. Children ran around in the backyard laughing and screaming. Adults stood around outside and inside smiling and drinking and mingling. Music was playing in the background and what looked suspiciously like a couple of Akimichi grills were cooking up a storm in the backyard. Many of the older adults had found places to sit inside his home enjoying a more relaxed atmosphere than the more festive going on outside.

    The party was to celebrate the safe return of their Heiress, the precocious little genius known as Rei Yamanaka. It was a shame the girl couldn’t be there to see the party in her honor herself but Hanako had insisted that they needed to strike while the iron was still hot. Well, Rei-chan was not really the type to enjoy parties anyway.

    There were even a few Nara and Akimichi who had shown up, presumably when they got wind of the words ‘free food and alcohol’. Some of the women of the clan were running around working furiously in the kitchen while gossiping and being directed by his wife. Truly his home had been turned into chaos but Toshiaki didn’t mind. It was hard to stay upset when so many of his clan members wore smiles on their faces and when they had so much to celebrate. Even a man as serious and reserved as Toshiaki felt the pull to drink a few cups of sake and reminiscing with a few old friends. The whole clan had good reason to celebrate and smile after all.

    Toshiaki was not a very warm man and his responsibilities kept him from interacting very much with his cousin’s children but in his own way he cared very much. In truth the whole clan cared about Inoichi’s children but their Heiress most especially. While Rei had never been very social the whole clan knew her and knew of her. More than that the whole clan had always been so very proud of the little girl with the crazy ringlets in her hair. It wasn’t every day someone like her came along.

    Everyone knew that the girl was a genius of the likes the clan had not seen in centuries. It raised morale and pride within the clan that little Rei was so talented, often being compared to some of the legendary ninja the village had produced – whether the comparison was merited or not. And merited or not the clan loved her. She was their little genius ninja princess with a big personality who would one day lead them. Rei probably didn’t even realize it but there was no one more popular or universally well liked within the clan than her.

    So it had been devastating for the whole of the clan when Rei was formally announced missing and almost certainly dead from a jutsu experiment gone wrong. It wasn’t the first time the clan had lost an heir, far from it in fact, but it was the first time Toshiaki could remember where one had captured the imagination of the entire clan simply on the basis of being a ‘prodigy’ and ‘genius’. Not even a ninja and gone before her time. It was a tragedy unlike any the clan had seen in recent memory. For better or worse important figures like the Clan Head and the Clan Heir represented the entire clan in the minds of it's members. To lose such a beloved member of the clan, and to lose out on so much potential… well the mood in the compound had been decidedly somber and melancholy while everyone mourned in their own way.

    Then nearly a week later Rei reappeared, somehow miraculously alive when she should have by all rights been dead and gone. Yes she had been close to death at the time but it was still a shocking and unbelievable thing for her to pull off. Word spread like wildfire and Toshiaki was half-sure every single clan member had learned of her return before her unconscious body hit the ground. No sooner had she been rushed off to the hospital that rumors started spreading about how their little Rei-sama had miraculously returned from the dead after having won a summoning contract. Truth be told they still hadn’t confirmed or denied any such thing but that didn’t stop the gossip from spreading… he wasn’t even sure how the word got out that she had used the Summoning Contract jutsu in the first place. Still Toshiaki couldn’t remember the last time he had seen so many smiling Yamanakas in the compound. Ninja always lost people they cared about and never expected to get them back. Having one return from the dead had sent shocks through the Yamanaka and, dare he say it, throughout much of Konoha’s ninja community as well.

    Now… now things were getting a little bit crazy if he was honest. Having ‘come back from the dead’ and in the mind of the average clan ninja having ‘won a contract’ (which he still wasn’t sure about) Rei-chan… well, she was becoming something of a legendary figure in her own clan. This was especially noticeable in the younger generations who now seemed to be speaking her name with reverence and awe. Even a number of their Genin had taken to speaking and acting in such a fashion. It was all rather foolish but well… Toshiaki couldn’t say he didn’t understand. It was in Konoha’s culture to elevate their leaders to near deity-like status. She was an inspiration to those near her age and hope for the future for those older than her. Toshiaki mused that Rei would have a much easier time reigning in the clan than he’d had when he had first inherited the position.

    Damn. The girl had survived. Somehow four days later that fact still hadn’t fully sunk in yet. The whole thing felt like something out of an old fairy tale story.

    Not really wanting to venture into the craziness of the younger people outside Toshiaki made his way to his living room and found a seat. Already present were a few of the elders and senior Jounin of the clan. Seeing as bottles and cups of sake were already out Toshiaki helped himself to one and started chatting with many of his old friends and clan mates.

    It was sometime later after he’d had a few drinks that Inoichi walked into Toshiaki’s house, the celebration still going strong. Spotting his cousin and Clan Head Inoichi made his way towards him. With a subtle motion from Toshiaki the elderly Yamanaka who was seated next to him vacated the seat allowing the younger Inoichi to take his place. Normally Inoichi wouldn’t be rude enough to take an older man’s seat but in this case he knew Toshiaki would want to speak with him.

    After Inoichi was seated Toshiaki got right to the point. “Any change yet?”

    Inoichi smiled a little as he reached over to pour himself a cup of sake. “She woke up. She seemed as well as you might expect. Looking ill but lucid and feeling well enough to chat.”

    Toshiaki nodded, pleased to hear that as he brought his own cup to his lips. The people at their little celebration would certainly be glad to hear that. “That’s good. She’s strong, it was only a matter of time. What of the other business? Did you have an opportunity to get answers?”

    Inoichi’s smile turned more serious. “For the most part. The basics at least. And before you ask, she was indeed successful in acquiring the contract.”

    Toshiaki raised an eyebrow. He’d honestly given it poor odds despite her coming back alive. “Indeed?”

    Inoichi nodded, the turn of his mouth denoting pride despite his reservations. “Indeed. She actually won the contract on the very first day. The rest of the time she was away was because she became ill and delirious. Her summons eventually had to give her a cocktail of drugs to get her in good enough shape to be able to learn and perform the jutsu that brought her back. Apparently medicine is not their strong point.”

    Toshiaki said nothing for a moment as he drank his sake. It had been a dream of his as a young man to acquire his own personal summoning contract, as was the case with many who learned the secret of the Summoning Technique. However in the end a fifty percent mortality rate and a twenty five percent chance of success had dissuaded him. It was a fool’s gamble really and very few ninja ever attempted it. That a nine year academy student had succeeded… well. It might have just been luck. Either way her success was beyond impressive.

    “Interesting. What animal did she contract?”

    “Rats,” said Inoichi as he drank deep from his own cup.

    “Rats huh?” said Toshiaki thoughtfully, “traditionally thought of as symbols of fertility, wealth and good fortune.”

    “They’re also known for being rather sneaky and destructive. Not to mention they’re household pests,” said Inoichi, though his tone wasn’t near as critical as his words.

    Toshiaki smiled faintly at that. “None of those things are necessarily bad for a ninja. Plus I’m sure they would be rather well behaved. You know I don’t believe there has ever been a Rat summoner in Konoha before,” he said thoughtfully. A never before seen contract? That would certainly add some prestige and mystique to the narrative about his niece.

    While the two of them were being mostly quiet they weren’t going to great lengths to keep their conversation a secret. Still it was somewhat rude when one of the clan members sitting around drinking sake decided to cut in. “Excuse me but I couldn’t help but overhear. Did you say that Rei-sama woke up?”

    The person who interrupted them was Arata Yamanaka, a very old and wickedly intelligent man who served as one of Toshiaki’s chief advisers. He was also known to be extremely nosy and an absolutely horrible gossip – thankfully the man knew discretion on topics that mattered or Toshiaki would have been worried. Still no living ninja enjoyed having uninvited people listening in on their conversations.

    The Clan Head sent Arata an annoyed glare that rolled off the old man like water off a duck’s back. Inoichi for his part decided to answer. “Yes she’s awake now. The staff assured me it’s only a matter of time before she makes a full recovery.”

    “Oh my, that is wonderful news,” said Arata, his eyes lighting up in a way that said he genuinely meant what he said. “Rei-sama gave us all quite a scare. And… did I hear correctly that she did indeed win a contract? Rats, you said?”

    He overheard all of that? Nosy old coot had probably been using some kind of jutsu to eavesdrop. Toshiaki might have punched him in the nose for that if the man wasn’t pushing eighty years old. “That kind of rudeness is beneath you Arata-san,” said Toshiaki, making it clear the little invasion of privacy had annoyed him.

    “Forgive me Toshiaki-sama, it’s just that I knew Inoichi-san had gone to the hospital and I was anxious to know about Rei-sama’s condition. Please forgive the momentary lapse in judgement of a foolish old man,” Arata said in a conciliatory tone.

    Foolish old man my ass.

    “To answer your question,” spoke up Inoichi, “yes, a Rat contract. I’d tell you not to spread it around but Rei-chan is quite proud of her accomplishment. I don’t think the fact she has a previously unknown contract is going to stay secret for very long no matter what we do.”

    “Rats? Fascinating. Very stealthy creatures. Survivors. Surprisingly vicious in the right conditions,” said Arata thoughtfully as he stroked his wispy white beard.

    The three of them spoke for a short while before Arata excused himself and left to mingle with the rest of the clan. Toshiaki watched him go with amused disgust. Since he hadn’t been instructed to keep his mouth shut he was sure the whole clan would know Rei was awake and was now the Rat summoner before the end of the hour.

    “You know Inoichi,” Toshiaki said idly with a hint of humor, “Rats are associated with fertility. Perhaps that means Rei-chan will be giving you lots of grandchildren in the future don’t you think?”

    Inoichi snorted derisively at that. “I have a hard time imagining Rei going down that route no matter how nice I think that would be,” he said. After a few moments of consideration he spoke quietly, “do you know what she told me when I asked her why she did it? She said it was all to become a powerful and famous ninja. Apparently what has been driving her to train so hard is a strong desire to have strength comparable to that of a Kage.”

    Toshiaki’s eyebrows rose in shock at that bit of information. “Truly?”

    Inoichi nodded solemnly. “It scares me cousin. It also scares me that I never knew that that ambition is what has been driving her. Granted she never much speaks about that sort of thing but… as her father I feel I should have known. Obviously she’s felt this way for years.”

    Toshiaki made a commiserating sound but his mind was working on this new piece of information. The village had thousands of ninja and perhaps only two or three could be said to be Kage level ninja – or as the more modern terminology called them ‘S-Class’ – so it didn’t take a genius to realize that for most people such an ambition was likely to end in failure. Still Rei was one of only two or three young ‘geniuses’ currently in the village. If anyone had a chance of achieving such a lofty goal then perhaps she would be it.

    “If she succeeded that would certainly be quite the boon to the clan. The prestige alone would increase the standing and influence of the Yamanaka considerably,” Toshiaki mentioned casually as he sipped more sake.

    “What you should be concerned about is her getting herself killed pursuing this… lofty ambition of hers,” Inoichi said a bit testily, “she’s already almost died once in pursuit of power. For all her good qualities I fear self-preservation and prudence might not be among them.”

    “Perhaps,” said Toshiaki as he let the subject drop. Privately though his mind was working. Perhaps he had not given his niece enough credit. Opening up certain avenues for her to study ahead of schedule might not be such a bad thing in this case. A Kage level ninja in the Yamanka, thought Toshiaki warming up to the idea. I never realistically thought it was a possibility. Perhaps I may yet see it in my lifetime.

    The conversation between them moved to other topics while they continued to consume sake. As the evening progressed everyone seemed to relax and become more festive – as much as ninja would allow themselves to be relaxed and festive at any rate. Toshiaki suspected it had something to do with Arata spreading the news about young Rei’s improved condition and success. His suspicions were proven true when he and Inoichi were approached by one of the clan’s most competent Jounin.

    After brief greetings the man, Toshiro Yamanaka, sat down close to them and poured himself a drink. “So I’ve heard my old student did something incredibly foolish but came out of it smelling like roses. Perhaps we should be including luck as one of her skills,” the normally stern man said in good humor.

    Before he made Jounin Toshiro had been Rei’s primary teacher. Though he hadn’t taught her in years it seemed the man still took pride in the hand he had in shaping their Heir. “All the best ninja are lucky,” said Toshiaki, quoting a common ninja saying.

    “I’d rather my daughter not rely on luck to see her through foolishly dangerous situations,” said Inoichi with a hint of annoyance. He really is feeling rather touchy about Rei-chan tonight Toshiaki mused.

    “To hear the people out there tell it,” Toshiro said gesturing at the people gathered in the backyard, “Rei has the very Kami looking out for her. That or she might be a Kami herself. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the more enthusiastic young ones decided to build a shrine dedicated to her,” he said jokingly.

    “That really is in poor humor,” said Toshiaki with a bit of reproach.

    “I might be exaggerating Toshiaki-sama but not by much. Did you know that as far as our own records are able to tell she is the youngest person to ever win a summoning contract? Someone went to look almost as soon as we heard. The next youngest was an eleven year old during the Warring States era. That little fact has gotten around. There is a lot of excitement and speculation out there about her future now. Rei has made herself quite the celebrity within the clan,” Toshiro said.

    “Well I suppose that is to be expected to some degree,” said Inoichi though he didn’t sound thrilled about it, “putting leaders and the strong on pedestals as examples to emulate and follow is a natural enough tendency.”

    “Oh, I doubt it will be as bad as all that Inoichi. It’s simply something she’ll have to get used to,” said Toshiaki to his cousin. Privately Toshiaki thought the problem was that Rei-chan might like the attention a little too much.

    “So Inoichi-san, have you decided how you’re going to punish her yet?” Toshiro asked in a teasing tone.

    Inoichi took a deep long-suffering breath. “I know technically she’s not too old to spank but I don’t think that will work in this case. It’s still tempting though,” he said with wry humor. Toshiaki chuckled at that and Toshiro laughed out loud.

    “I don’t know,” continued Inoichi, “I’ll think of something.” Toshiaki was relieved to see that at least now the man had a smile on his face.

    Toshiaki was about to reply when a sudden commotion distracted him. The Clan Head turned to look at the source of the agitation coming from the front of his home. Toshiaki was surprised to see Emiko, Inoichi’s wife, pushing her way through the crowds of clan members who were too slow to get out of her way. Toshiaki frowned as he saw the look she had on her face, seemingly equal parts determination and desperation. The Clan Head suddenly got a very bad feeling about this. Emiko was generally a very composed woman. For her to suddenly burst in this distressed meant something serious must have gone wrong.

    Toshiaki saw her scan the crowd until she spotted him and her husband sitting together with Toshiro. She strode towards them purposefully drawing even more curious and concerned looks from the clan members gathered in his home. Emiko was barely in front of them when she spoke, half hysterical, loud enough for every clan member present to hear.

    “ANBU came to the hospital and dragged Rei off to T&I. She’s still sick and injured and the doctor says she’s still in danger of a relapse. You need to get her out of there now,” she said to them in a voice that was three parts demand and one part pleading.

    There was stunned silence in the room for about five seconds. Then Inoichi jumped to his feet. “What?!” he exclaimed, shock and disbelief written clearly all over him.

    Emiko rushed to her husband seemingly overcome by high emotions. She looked desperate as she gripped him by the collar. “She needs rest Inoichi. She’s waiting for surgery! And ANBU just dragged her off to some dank and filthy T&I cell!”

    Bottling up any emotional reaction Toshiaki took stock of the mood in the room and what Emiko’s unexpected declaration had caused. As he looked on he saw the faces of his clansmen filled with disbelief and confusion. Then as the shock passed he could see the majority of their expressions slowly turning to various shades of outrage and anger.

    Looking at Emiko and Inoichi the Clan Head already knew where this is going to end. It must have been on orders of the Hokage. But why? What possible reason would he have for ordering the detention of a sick kid? The situation makes no sense.

    Questioning the Hokage on matters relating to the ANBU – and by extension village security – was something that unofficially was considered taboo. Still Toshiaki quickly realized he wouldn’t have any choice in this. The clan would never stand for it. What was more… even though he was often a cold calculating political animal he found himself feeling outraged at the news now that it was sinking in.

    “Don’t worry darling,” said Inoichi looking grim and stricken. “We’ll get her out. Don’t you worry about that.”

    Toshiaki found himself in complete agreement with his cousin. There had better be a damn good explanation for this. His eyes hardened. It looked like it was time to find out just how much political influence the Yamanaka really had.

    000

    Out of all the things that ninja valued it could be argued that their most precious resource by far was information. A good ninja knew that any information could be valuable under the right circumstances. Thus as a whole more experienced ninja tended to be nosy and horrible gossips when they thought they could get away with it. Nothing said ‘let’s be friends’ in the ninja world quite like sharing information after all.

    Thus newly promoted Special Jounin Kurenai Yuhi, armed with the latest and hottest gossip, was prowling some of her friend’s usual haunts with intent to share some rumors she was sure she would be interested in. Tagging along with her was her old teammate Aoba Yamashiro. Why he’d decided to accompany her when she’d told him what she was up to was beyond Kurenai. Maybe he just wanted a drink since they would almost certainly end up at a bar.

    “Not here either,” muttered Kurenai as she briefly stepped into a run down but generally well maintained bar. A few of the men who noticed her entrance gave her appreciative looks.

    “Is this really worth all this trouble? She’ll find out on her own eventually. Probably tomorrow,” said Aoba as he stepped up next to Kurenai while looking painfully bored.

    Kurenai rolled her eyes. “I didn’t ask you to come along Aoba. Besides I think it will cheer her up. This whole thing with the kid has really had her down in the dumps.”

    Aoba shrugged. “Whatever you say. You do know the only places left to check are the real seedy shitholes right? The stuff that they serve there all tastes like fermented piss.”

    “Thanks for that lovely image,” Kurenai said dryly as she stepped back out onto the street, “come on. I think I know what dive she might have holed herself up in.”

    Kurenai found who she was looking for in the second disreputable bar barely fit for human habitation she visited. Anko was sitting in a rickety table in a darkened corner of the foul smelling dive, a half empty bottle of some kind of hard and cheap liquor in front of her. Kurenai sighed. Conventional wisdom said that as long as Anko could perform her duties it didn’t matter how much or how often she drank. Still Kurenai couldn’t help but worry about how much her friend had been hitting the bottle recently.

    “Give us a couple of minutes before you come over?” Kurenai asked her ex-teammate. Aoba just shrugged.

    “Sure thing Kurei-chan. I need to hit the head anyway.”

    With a grateful nod Kurenai turned and walked to Anko’s table. Without asking permission she pulled up a battered chair and sat down next to her friend. Anko looked up at her sluggishly and by her eyes Kurenai could tell her friend had been at it for quite a while already.

    “Kurenai,” said Anko with a slight slur, “what cha doing here? Never pictured you willingly coming to a dump like this. Want a drink?” she asked pushing the bottle in her direction.

    “I was actually looking for you,” Kurenai said ignoring the bottle, “I heard some rumors just a little while ago that might interest you.” And hopefully get you off this bender you’ve been on for a week and a half.

    “Oh?” asked Anko, giving her friend a sleazy drunken smile, “is it sensei? Did they finally kill him? Because if they did we might have to go someplace nicer and actually buy some of the good stuff.”

    “Your protégé woke up today,” said Kurenai casually all the while carefully watching her friend.

    Kurenai wasn’t sure why she had befriended the often unpleasant Anko Mitarashi. Maybe it was her tendency to want to ‘rescue’ people who obviously needed some kind of help. Maybe it was the fact that the woman could be genuinely entertaining while at the same time invoking in Kurenai a certain amount of pity. Anko was a person scarred by her past who kept everyone at a distance and spent much more time than was healthy with the bottle. The woman was hardly the most stable ninja out there and sometimes Kurenai thought it was only a matter of time until she would completely self-destruct.

    Thus when Kurenai had heard that Anko had been assigned something as sensitive as being the tutor of the supposedly ‘genius’ Yamanaka Heiress she had been disbelieving and then positively shocked. As time went on it became even moresurprising to red-eyed Special Jounin that it seemed Anko had developed a soft spot for the kid. It wasn’t something someone unfamiliar with Anko would have spotted but the way she complained about the kid – loudly but not biting, occasionally complimenting as well as insulting – it was clear that somehow the kid had gotten to her friend.

    When the young Yamanaka had disappeared Anko had quietly gone about finding out all the details. Kurenai knew because she’d heard all about it from her friend afterwards. Since then Anko had become morose and had spent much of every day drunk when she wasn’t on a mission. Maybe this bit of news would finally snap her out of her funk.

    Anko squinted at Kurenai after her pronouncement, a look of skepticism crossing her face. “How do you know that?” she asked before reaching for the bottle and pouring herself another drink. Kami that stuff smells awful though Kurenai wrinkling her nose.

    “The Yamanaka have practically been shouting it from the rooftops all night to anyone who will listen. According to them she’s going to pull through just fine,” said Kurenai.

    “Oh yeah?” said Anko, her drunken eyes actually sparkling with interest. She seemed to momentarily perk up before frowning and downing her drink in one shot. “Well good. Then I guess that means I didn’t screw nothin’ up for good.”

    Kurenai frowned a little at that. “Why have you been taking this so hard Anko?” she asked softly. “It’s not your fault the kid tried to Reverse Summon herself and almost got herself killed.”

    Anko seemed to hesitate. Even sloshing drunk she still didn’t like to trust and kept things close to the vest. However after a few long moments the woman finally relented. She poured herself another glass and drank half of it before speaking. “The day before she tried it she asked me if I had a contract and if she could sign it. I lied and said I didn’t. It was a shit move of me.”

    Realization finally dawned on Kurenai. “You’ve been feeling guilty,” she said, surprised. As long as she’d known the woman she’d never seen her feel guilt or regret about anything not having to do with her teacher.

    Anko gave her what was supposed to be a scathing glare but the influence of alcohol took much of the edge off. Then she frowned and downed the rest of her glass before setting it down hard enough to almost break it. “I shoulda seen it coming. I know that stupid kid and I know how dumb and stupid she can be. Suicidal midget is what she is. Probably deserved everything she got. Still…” she said trailing off, “still she probably deserved to sign my contract you know? And I just… blew her off. I was supposed to be better than him.”

    Kurenai knew who him was and she’d learned long ago that alcohol and talking about Orochimaru should never mix. Instead she lead the conversation in another direction. “Well it sounds like something good came out of it for the kid,” Kurenai said with a small smile and sounding more lighthearted. “The rumor mill says she actually won herself a contract. Supposedly it’s one no one has ever seen before.” Even though the Yamanaka Heiress was just a kid Kurenai couldn’t help but feel a healthy amount of respect for having pulled that off before even becoming a Genin... if the rumors were true.

    “She did?” said Anko with clear surprise. Then she laughed and poured herself another drink. “Of course she did. Fuck. Fucking brat… will never shut up about it now. That smug little shit,” she said though Kurenai could detect a hint of fondness in her voice. “So what animal did she get?”

    Kurenai shrugged. “That was one thing I couldn’t get out of the Yamanaka. Still I don’t think that whatever it is will stay a secret for very long.”

    Before Anko could reply they were interrupted by Aoba walking up and sitting down with them, putting a fresh bottle on the table with three fresh glasses. “Something a little better than that industrial cleaner masquerading as alcohol that you’re drinking Mitarashi. Not all of us enjoy drinking the cheapest nastiest stuff you can get your hands on.”

    Anko glared at Aoba, looking like she wanted to chase him off. Still her drunken state and the offering of better booze seemed to make her reconsider. “Keep me topped off Aoba and I guess you can sit with the big girls,” Anko said.

    “So gracious of you Anko-san,” Aoba said with only the tiniest hint of mocking, “so what are we talking about?” he said as he opened up the new bottle and proceeded to pour them all drinks.

    “’Bout my stupid kid… I mean my stupid student being stupid and lucky and somehow winning herself a summoning contract,” slurred Anko.

    “And we care why exactly? Also I didn’t know you had a student,” said Aoba looking a little impressed despite himself.

    “Anko here’s been teaching the Yamanka Heiress regularly for the past three years,” said Kurenai to Aoba who she realized might not be up on all the details. “I was just telling her the kid woke up today at the hospital.”

    Aoba sighed. “Ah her. Honestly that’s all anyone’s been talking about for the last couple of days. Why is everyone so interested? I mean yeah she’s supposed to be the next big genius but she’s still just a kid.” He finished pouring all the drinks and Anko immediately reached for hers. Kurenai was getting more than a little concerned about how fast her friend was putting the booze away.

    “I have a theory about that actually,” said Kurenai picking up her own drink, “everyone’s tired of talking about the Uchiha Massacre. It’s depressing and frankly more than a little terrifying. This is a much more upbeat story: the genius heiress to a famous clan disappears, is presumed dead only to miraculously return amid rumors that she won a summoning contract. Now the rumors if her getting that contract are confirmed according to the Yamanaka. I think people were just ready for an uplifting narrative after what happened to the Uchiha.”

    “Uplifting?” said Aoba pensively, “I guess I can see that. Almost like a children’s story. Of course I think the kid getting dragged off to T&I might rub some of the glitter off that narrative.”

    “Wait, what?!” said Anko loudly with her glass halfway to her mouth.

    “What, you didn’t know?” Aoba said looking a little smug as he glanced back and forth between the surprised faces of the two women. “I swung by the hospital before meeting up with you Kurenai-chan. One of the medics interning there is a friend of mine and he told me that a few hours ago an ANBU whisked Rei Yamanaka off as soon as she was released. Took her right from her mother too, apparently the woman threw a tantrum in front of half the staff on that floor,” said Aoba, for once enjoying being the person with the latest juicy gossip.

    “Really?” said Kurenai sounding skeptical, “she just regained consciousness today. They wouldn’t have released her so soon.”

    Aoba held his hands up in defense. “I don’t know what to tell you. My buddy is reliable and I believe him. You know how it is with clan politics, there’s probably some back room shenanigans going on that we don’t know anything about.”

    Kurenai was about to reply when Anko abruptly stood up, knocking down the chair she was sitting on. “Anko,” said Kurenai with a warning in her tone, “what do you think you’re doing?”

    “Rei is a good kid, she shouldn’t have gotten hurt in the first place,” she said drunkenly as she took a lurching step around the table, “stupid kid. Always such a pain in the ass. Imma gonna go over to T&I and get her out is what I’m doin’.”

    Sighing Kureni stuck her foot out as Anko tried to walk past. Predictably the thoroughly plastered woman tripped and almost fell to the floor. With quick grace Kurenai slid out of her seat and caught her friend before she could crash to the dirty floor.

    “You’re not thinking straight Anko and you’re a mess,” Kurenai said reproaching but not unkindly. “You know you can’t go down to T&I like this.”

    “Fuck you Kurei-chan,” Anko slurred as her friend held her, “what am I supposed to do?”

    “Just let the Yamanaka Clan handle this,” said Kurenai, “it’s most likely a misunderstanding and someone is probably already working on getting her out. No one lets a clan heir rot in a cell without a good reason. Come on you’ve had enough to drink tonight I think. Let me get you home.”

    000

    It was well after dark when Hiruzen Sarutobi was still hunched over a stack of field reports. In his many years as Hokage working from before sunrise to after sunset had become the norm. It was exhausting and demanding work and the Hokage longed for the time when he would be able to pass on the hat once again. Taking a deep breath his hands went through the automatic motions of preparing and lighting his pipe while he scanned the report in front of him.

    Despite knowing the truth the Hokage had been forced to dispatch teams to track down Itachi Uchiha in order to keep up appearances. The latest reports indicated that they had completely lost his trail. Hiruzen wasn’t sure what to think about that. After the incident at the Uchiha compound Hiruzen had thought that Itachi was innocent of any wrongdoing, a victim of circumstance who had been used by Danzo. However subsequent investigation into the incident raised some disturbing questions.

    His people assured him that there was at least one other person who helped Itachi carry out the massacre. Hiruzen knew that Itachi must have cooperated with this individual – it was preposterous to think they had not collaborated to destroy the Uchiha Clan. Yet not once had Itachi mentioned this individual in his debriefing. Why not? It made the Hokage seriously wonder about the reliability and loyalty of one of the last living Uchiha. Just what game had Itachi been playing? Was this another scheme of Danzo's? There were simply too many questions left unanswered. Without being able to speak directly to Itachi it was unlikely he would ever get a clear picture of what happened on that night.

    The Hokage was pulled from his thoughts when one of his ANBU used a jutsu to enter his office. The cloaked ANBU in the monkey mask said, “Hokage-sama three Yamanaka have entered the building, including the Clan Head and Inoichi-san. It appears they are headed this way.”

    Hiruzen held back a sigh. He had predicted some kind of response when he ordered young Rei taken into custody of course but he had thought Inoichi would confront him about it directly instead of bringing Toshiaki into it. In fact he had hoped any conversation could have been put off until tomorrow. Well there was no helping it now.

    “I’ll see them,” said the Hokage, dismissal clear on his tone.

    “Yes Hokage-sama,” said the monkey ANBU before using a jutsu to disappear from the office.

    Two minutes later the door to his office opened and in walked three members of the Yamanaka Clan. First there was Toshiaki Yamanaka, a serious and shrewd man who in general tried to avoid making waves… however underestimating him on the political arena would be a serious mistake. Then there was Inoichi, a man who commanded incredible respect in his clan and in the village and who was nearly a living legend in the T&I department for his leadership and his many innovations and contributions over the years. Finally the last person was Arata Yamanaka, the wizened and eccentric adviser to the Yamanakas. The Hokage was among those who thought the man was half-mad but that did not detract from his brilliance. This gathering in his office was a show of force and it was meant to convey how serious their clan as a whole was taking this situation.

    The Hokage tried to get a feel for the mood of the men walking into his office. He was surprised by the tenseness and displeasure they radiated, especially Inoichi. Sure he would never have expected them to be happy about the situation but something about this seemed off. These were not the type of men to easily become emotional. The Hokage brought his pipe to his lips and decided to take the lead in the conversation.

    “Gentlemen. It’s a bit late in the day is it not? To what do I owe the pleasure?”

    The men came to a stop in front of his desk, Toshiaki in the middle with Inoichi on his right and Arata on his left. Inoichi looked like he had to bite his tongue to keep from speaking. As was only proper Toshiaki began to speak on behalf of the group.

    “Hokage-sama,” Toshiaki began, “we demand to know your justification for taking Rei Yamanaka into T&I custody especially considering the condition she is in.”

    Hiruzen pulled on his pipe for a moment while he thought. This was very unlike the Yamanaka. Other clans such as the Hyuuga would posture and ‘demand’ things when they felt strongly about something but the Yamanaka were always far more polite and reserved. They were very upset and the Hokage was irritated that he wasn’t entirely sure as to why. This seemed a disproportionate response. Also what ‘condition’ were they talking about?

    “I’m afraid I handle many things every day Toshiaki-san,” began Hiruzen, “you’ll have to elaborate on what ‘condition’ you are talking about.”

    Inoichi’s jaw tensed at the Hokage’s response and now Hiruzen knew he was missing something. Toshiaki's response provided him with the answer. “Our Heir is still injured and gravely ill. The hospital released her upon our request so she could heal and recover at home. The girl and her mother did not even make it to the elevator before she was whisked away by ANBU to a T&I holding cell. While there may be legitimate reasons for questioning her there is no reason that cannot wait until she is recovered. We demand that she be released at once and be allowed to recover before any interrogation as is both proper and decent.”

    While the Hokage schooled his features to show no reaction inwardly he cursed. This was one of the occasional problems that occurred because his orders were regarded as absolute. He was only human after all and he could not foresee every eventuality. Sometimes his orders had unintended consequences because it simply wasn’t possible to know all the facts beforehand. Hiruzen had given the command that Rei be taken into custody as soon as she was released from the hospital. It had never been his intention to take a sick child into the inhospitable cells of T&I.

    Now Hiruzen found himself in a quandary. The father and sometimes kind hearted man inside him urged him to order the immediate release of Rei back into the custody of her clan. However as a Hokage he could not.

    Politics were as much about appearances as anything else. The Hokage at all times had to appear infallible and unassailable – his teachers the First and Second Hokages had taught him that. Apologizing and admitting a mistake had been made would make him look weak. Perhaps if that was all there was to it he might have sucked it up and ordered her release right away. However the situation was more complex than that.

    Hiruzen had no doubt that many people had spotted the three Yamanaka walking into the tower and that members of the Yamanaka clan were perfectly aware of what the three in front of him had set out to do. How would it look if the Yamanaka could seemingly demand he release someone from custody on the same day they were taken in, before interrogation had even taken place? It would suggest to some that the Yamanka had something over him. That simply would not do.

    And if he released her and the truth of the situation became widely known? The Hokage would look somewhat incompetent, having made a serious mistake and having to backtrack on the same day. That was not what he needed, especially not now. In the wake of the Uchiha Incident things in the village had been tense and difficult and the last thing he needed was to admit the mishandling of someone as prominent as the ‘genius’ heiress Rei Yamanaka. It would only make his continued dealing with the fallout and power vacuum left by the death of the Uchiha Clan that much more difficult. That was not something the village could afford.

    Unfortunately the girl’s health would just have to take a backseat. In the current political climate it was better for him to appear ruthless than a fool.

    “The medics will make sure she is fine,” said Hiruzen dismissively, as if he had been aware of the situation all along. “I hardly think she’s in any danger of dying while in our custody.”

    Toshiaki opened his mouth to speak but Inoichi beat him to it. It was strange for the Hokage to see the normally unflappable man struggle to contain his emotions. “She’s still recovering from blood poisoning! Her condition could easily worsen again and it almost certainly will under these conditions. A jail cell is no place for her.”

    Hiruzen took another long pull of his pipe. The Hokage didn’t doubt that Inoichi was correct in his assessment. Sometimes Hiruzen Sarutobi hated his job. “Like I said,” he began in a voice that brooked no argument, “there are medics checking in on her regularly. If she cooperates fully I don’t expect that she will be there for very long.” Unless the interrogation turns up something untoward was left unsaid.

    Looking at the faces of the Yamanaka present the Hokage could see they were not about to simply accept that. Before they could speak Hiruzen tried another track. “You must understand that there are some outstanding security concerns,” the Hokage said in a more reasonable tone, “Things are tense in the wake of the… Uchiha Incident.” The Yamanaka’s faces darkened at the mention of that.

    “The timing of Rei’s disappearance is suspicious,” the Hokage continued, “and she was in possession of a jutsu she should not have had access to. We also need to have answers about where she was and what she was doing there. The girl was gone for nearly two weeks. That is far, far longer than one would reasonably expect the acquisition of a summoning contract to take.”

    “She was in the summon realm! Where else could she have been?” Inoichi exclaimed, “We found all her research notes on how she put the Summoning Technique together. She spent the better part of two weeks fighting blood poisoning, which she is still suffering from!”

    Toshiaki put a hand on Inoichi’s arm, urging the man to calm down. With some effort and reluctance Rei’s father did just that. The Head of the Yamanaka Clan was silent for a few moments before he spoke.

    “Hokage-sama, it is most… irregular that a sick citizen of Konoha be kept in the T&I cells is it not?” he asked rhetorically. They all knew it was. “Whatever questions you feel the interrogators need to ask Rei can hardly be time sensitive. If you are afraid she might be a… flight risk we can keep her confined to our compound until she is recovered and in a more fit state for questioning. The clan would see it as a personal favor if you would release Rei into our custody while she recovered.”

    Hiruzen chewed on his pipe as he thought it over. It was a good, reasoned argument. Having the Yamanaka Clan owe him a favor was also unexpectedly generous especially given that they saw themselves as the aggrieved party in this situation. However the Hokage was reluctant to accept.

    His concerns from earlier did not suddenly go away. However perhaps he could dictate the narrative since the Yamanaka seemed to be in an accommodating mood. Still the Hokage found himself very reluctant to let Rei go. He could almost see how things would play out. The Yamanaka would line up their staunch allies the Akimichi and Nara clans and fight any attempt to bring Rei back into T&I. Perhaps even other clans who were friendly with them or owed them a favor… for years Hiruzen had wondered what would come of the Hyuuga/Yamanaka connection through Rei. At that point things would get… messy and simply ordering her brought in anyway would cost him more political capital than he was willing to spend. They would most likely push for any questioning to be done in a non-interrogation environment. Whatever intelligence could be gained from such a debriefing would be questionable at best.

    The truth was Hiruzen had always been suspicious when it came to Rei Yamanaka. It wasn’t something he could concretely put into words. There were certainly worrying signs that he could point to in the young prodigy but nothing conclusive. The problem was always his instincts and Hiruzen had learned to rely on them heavily over the years. Something was different – off – about Rei Yamanaka. It was a thousand little things about her that said to him not normal. In a ninja village unexpected and unusual things were usually bad news.

    Rei was driven and undoubtedly a genius. She was poised to take a politically powerful position simply because of her birth. In that sense she could potentially do more damage than a traitor such as his old student, Orochimaru. Her potential influence in the coming years was enormous. For the sake of the village it was critically important for him to determine if she was actually a threat, to determine what it was about her that set off his finely honed instincts. It was unlikely that he would ever find a better excuse or a better opportunity to have her thoroughly interrogated. No, for the sake of the future stability of Konoha this interrogation needed to proceed despite the less than ideal circumstances.

    “I’m afraid that simply will not be possible,” the Hokage said to Toshiaki, “Rei will remain where she is until the interrogators are satisfied. The situation is simply too delicate for any kind of special allowances to be made.”

    The Hokage could tell that Toshiaki was surprised by his outright refusal. The next thirty minutes were an exercise in frustration for both parties. The Yamanaka’s kept insisting and trying to get the Hokage to bend while Hiruzen staunchly refused to give an inch. While the situation was unfortunate at the end of the day Hiruzen did not believe Rei’s life was in any danger. Inoichi clearly disagreed with him. Tempers were getting very hot and it was clear to Hiruzen that the conversation would be going nowhere at that point. He decided it was time to put an end to their discussion.

    “Gentlemen my decision is final and it will not be changed. Now it is getting late so I am afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” he said, the last half-hour’s discussion and his exhaustion from a long day robbing him of a good deal of his tact.

    The three men were hard faced and the Hokage could feel their collective displeasure radiating off them in waves. He sympathized with them, especially with Inoichi, but there were much more important things at stake here. Before they left however Toshiaki had one last thing to say.

    “Very well,” he said stiffly and formally, “we will take our leave. However while we are here I feel I should inform you of a decision the clan has come to after much deliberation. Special Jounin Anko Mitarashi’s instruction of Rei will no longer be necessary. The clan has decided to find Rei a more adequate tutor moving forward.”

    Hiruzen took a long pull of his pipe, surprised by this development even though he probably shouldn’t have been. The Hokage had been the one to offer Anko as a tutor for Rei. Rebuffing her instruction could only be taken as rebuffing the Hokage himself. It was a slap in the face. An insult. It was a way for Toshiaki to show how thoroughly pissed off he was about the situation.

    “I see,” said the Hokage stiffly, “thank you for bringing this to my attention. I’ll be sure to let her know her services will no longer be required.”

    With that the three dour faced men turned and left his office. Toshiaki was the last one out. Before he closed the door behind him the Clan Head had one last parting shot.

    “We won’t forget this Hokage-sama.”
     
  25. Threadmarks: Chapter 25
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    000

    Chapter 25

    000

    There were a lot of ways to break someone that didn’t involve the use of thumbscrews or some sanity destroying genjutsu. Sometimes it was the simple things that began to chip away at a person’s resolve. However no matter the method employed the thing they all had in common was that they were all extremely unpleasant to live through.

    Since being escorted into her T&I cell Rei had completely lost track of time. The room had no windows and the only light came from a slit high on the singular steel door. There was nothing in the room but a bucket and a metal slab bolted to the wall that was supposed to act as a cot or a bed. However it was hard to think of it as a proper place to sleep when there was no pillow, no blanket, no mattress, nothing. Her choices were to lay on the roughly cut stone floor or on the cold and unyielding metal. For dignity’s sake if nothing else she chose the cot even though Rei didn’t think it ultimately made much difference for her level of comfort.

    Other than it being nearly impossible to find a comfortable position to rest in there was another measure in place that for Rei was far, far worse: the cell was bitterly cold. Rei suspected the room was designed to be as cold as possible without inducing hypothermia. It was misery, the cold an inescapable feeling that sunk into her bones and that she could not escape. The thin and cheap hospital clothes she wore did very little to help even in the least bit. Even though she was tried the combination of the cold and the uncomfortable surface made sleep or even a half-decent rest completely impossible.

    Her left arm was completely bandaged and on a sling. It at least offered a minimal amount of comfort when she hugged it to her body. Rei lay in the cot wrapped up in a ball in the fetal position, arms wrapped tightly around herself in an effort to keep in at least some semblance of warmth. The chilly metallic surface she was on seemed to leech any heat right out of her body. She would have moved to the floor but she honestly did not think it would have been any better.

    Rei lamented that she could have alleviated a lot of those problems by using her Chakra – if only she had been allowed to keep her access to it. Metal bands encircled her wrists inscribed with what she could only guess were seals designed to prevent her from accessing her Chakra. Having those ‘Chakra inhibitors’ on was disconcerting… especially since she could feelwhat they were doing to her probably better than any other ninja. It was like the seals on the bands placed a thick heavy film in between her mind and her Chakra preventing her from directing it in any way. The feeling was unnatural and it annoyed her and drew her attention like a sharp rock caught in her shoe. For Rei it just added another layer to the not-so-subtle torture that were the wonderful cells of T&I.

    All this coupled with the systemic illness Rei was still suffering from made her feel like she was in some level of hell. It was suffering in her mind plain and simple if only for the fact that there was absolutely no escape. Rei was no expert on interrogation but she knew some of the basics. Keeping prisoners in cells such as these would ensure that they never had any time to rest and recover even when they were left alone.

    The only way Rei had to tell time was from the periodic visits of a medic wearing a plain mask. He’d come by three times already and force fed her the medicine she was supposed to take along with giving her a little water. She’d gotten no food though and though she had no idea of the time her body let her know she was hungry in spite of her illness. Trying to stay warm used up a lot of calories and her body was working overtime in order to keep hypothermia at bay. The air was cold and Rei was surprised she could not see her breath in front of her. Periodically her body went through strong full body shivers that seemed to come and go in waves in addition to all the regular shivering she was already doing. It was abject misery.

    With a great deal of effort she forced her mind to think. Occasionally if she got lost in her thoughts she could forget about her miserable condition at least for a few moments. It was the only method of relief she could come up with and besides, she needed to have her story straight for when they finally came to get her.

    The problem was that she had already gone over her story, her alibi, a hundred times before she had even been taken into custody by ANBU. Going over it yet again would sadly serve no purpose at this point and she knew it so well it didn’t even make a decent distraction. Instead she turned her mind to the situation surrounding her current predicament.

    Rei had always known the Hokage had absolute power of life and death over her but she had never been a victim of that power until today. The girl couldn’t help but long for the days when she would have gotten a phone call and a court appointed lawyer in her previous life. However here she was completely at the mercy of the whims of others who were far stronger than her. The funny thing about it all? She was supposed to be one of the social and political elite in the village. Fat lot of good that’s doing me she thought nastily as violent shivers wracked through her body.

    If there was anything warm in that cell it was the resentment and anger Rei had begun to nurse in her chest as if it were a small flame. She brooded and thought dark thoughts, trying to use them to block out the world around her. Rei hated her situation, hated her weakness and in that moment shehated the Hokage. True Biblical hatred that led to the razing of cities and the murder of men.

    Before she had been wary, scared and annoyed at the Hokage. She was still all those things but she had never loathed the man before. Somehow she knew he wouldn’t view it as personal she sure as hell did. Briefly, from time to time, Rei had toyed with the idea of one day doing something that might save him and Konoha during the Chunnin exams. You know what? Fuck him. I can’t wait for Orochimaru to kill him. The rest of the village? The stupid place could burn for all she cared. It wasn’t any of her business. Fucking evil awful place, you can reap what you sow. As long as she kept Ino safe the rest of the world could sort itself out without her.

    I’ve been too soft. The stupid village had lulled her into a false sense of security after years without incident. She’d stopped seeing it as an enemy ready to attack her at any time. That had been a mistake right? Yes.Look at where you are. She’s come to see it as a collection of people content to propagate a shit system. Rei had forgotten that the system was built from the ground up on blood and violence and exploitation and shit. It was something to be actively reviled and hated.

    Fuck the village. I can see why so many people want to burn it to the ground. And fuck you Hiruzen. Fuck you straight to hell. I hope I can watch you die.

    He never would have thrown Naruto into one of these cells, or one of his precious students (even the ones that deserved it), or even his good buddy Danzo. No matter what they did. Naruto? Tsunade? Orochiamru? Danzo? All of them should have been thrown in a cell like this at some point if Hiruzen cared about enforcing the rules evenly. Favoritism. Bias. Not impartial. What had she done? She had been meticulous about not breaking any laws.Unfair. Arbitrary detention. Schutzstaffel. Power. No power. Powerless to stop. Not strong enough. Kami damned primitives. Burn in the pit. Fuckers.

    As time went on it became harder and harder to keep her thoughts coherent. Still there was one important thing her mind kept returning to. They can do this to me any time. The only way to stop them is to be strong enough. Strong enough. Strong enough. Hate them. No one will dare do this to me. I’ll be too strong. Too wonderful. Like a Goddess. Cold. So cold.

    Eventually even disjointed thoughts stopped as the cold and sickness conspired to sink her mind into a fugue-like state. She was only aware of her body and what it was subjecting her to. Time passed, was it hours? Days? Rei’s mind was not coherent enough to even wonder these things properly. It was simply a miserable private hell that appeared never ending.

    Eventually, finally, the same masked medic opened the door. After giving her a brief check he picked her up professionally. With her mind in a stupor and her cold body not responding the ANBU carried her out of the cell.

    It was time for Rei’s interrogation to begin.

    000

    Ibiki Morino was unhappy with the interrogation in front of him.

    The current head of Konoha’s Torture and Interrogation Department stood in a low lit room as he examined his latest prisoner. Through a large one way mirror Ibiki watched as the medic ANBU Fish finished handcuffing the girl to the table. Ibiki had to suppress an irritated sigh as he observed the kid who would barely reach his diaphragm standing up.

    The imposing man had few scruples as an interrogator but unfortunately this happened to be one of them. He could bring down hell on an adult civilian without a problem and he did so on a regular basis. He also didn’t have any problem putting the screws to a kid if he was a ninja and had earned his headband. However those rare individuals who had yet to hit puberty and were not even ninja? Those he didn’t like. It wasn’t even about the age per se. It was the principle of the matter. Having to use his skills on civilian children simply left a bad taste in his mouth.

    Now Rei Yamanaka could hardly be called simply a ‘civilian’. Then again she was most definitely not a ninja. He could understand why someone in her position might need to be interrogated. If it was necessary it was necessary. Still interrogating a kid who had not taken on the responsibilities of a ninja felt like an affront to his professional sensibilities… even if by all reports she could probably beat the majority of the Genin in the village.

    Like he said, it was the principle of the thing. On top of that he also had a more personal reason for disliking this interrogation. That however did not mean that he would not do his job.

    Ibiki looked at the girl seated in a metal chair and slumped forward almost bonelessly on the steel table, still half-unconscious from her time spent in one of the cold rooms. After spending eighteen hours in a cold room it was not unusual for prisoners with weaker constitutions to need some time before regaining enough of their faculties for questioning. Usually their confused mental state as they recovered provided an ideal window to attempt extracting information.

    ANBU Fish spent about ten minutes doing medical scans on the Yamanaka Heiress, his hands glowing a faint green as he utilized medical Chakra. The girl still didn’t show any signs of coming around. Ibiki frowned in displeasure. The girl being slow in rousing was probably due to the additional complication of her already being ill before she was brought in. An additional complication he did not need since this was already high profile prisoner and not some trash they would end up executing anyway once they were finished with her. Like it or not while she was in T&I custody her well being was ultimately his responsibility.

    When Fish finished he left the well-lit interrogation room though the single heavy metal door. Moments later he entered the room Ibiki was monitoring the prisoner from. Ibiki barely acknowledged the man with a glance before going back to scrutinizing the insensate Yamanaka.

    “Well?” asked Ibiki in a deep booming voice, “What’s the condition of the prisoner?”

    ANBU Fish shook his head. “Not great. Stable, but not great. The cold room was a shock to her system and her condition has deteriorated since she was brought in.”

    Ibiki frowned. “You gave her the medicine she was prescribed?”

    “I did,” said Fish, “but you know as well as I do that medicine is only one of the things required for recovery. Food. Proper rest. Without these things her condition will almost certainly continue to deteriorate.”

    That was not what Ibiki wanted to hear. “If she proves uncooperative is the cold room still an option?” he asked.

    Fish shook his head. “I wouldn’t risk it. Chances are if we put her back in she will deteriorate to the point of needing hospitalization or at the very least we’ll need to lay off for a considerable amount of time in order to allow her to recover. If the infection in her blood manages to get a solid foothold again it could be weeks before she’s well enough for the usual methods.”

    No that wasn’t what he wanted to hear at all. Ibiki was rapidly becoming truly unhappy with this interrogation. Though in theory he had as long with the prisoner as he needed Ibiki knew enough about politics to realize there was going to be a lot of pressure to get this wrapped up as quickly as possible. If there was one thing the head of T&I hated it was politics interfering with his work.

    “What methods can we utilize safely?” asked Ibiki not bothering to hide the annoyance in his voice.

    “Well I wouldn’t recommend any more deprivation. I think allowances will have to be made on that front,” said Fish.

    “I did make allowances already didn’t I?” Ibiki said with blunt sarcasm, “the kid got to keep her clothes in the cold room.”

    “I’m not sure what protocols you’re following with this one Ibiki-san,” said Fish ignoring Ibiki’s remark, “but obviously you also want to avoid the use of drugs. Beyond that by its very nature interrogation will stress her system. I recommend having a medic check in on her frequently moving forward.”

    “How frequently?”

    “Every two hours is adequate. Every hour is ideal. Every four would be pushing it.”

    “Right,” said Ibiki thoughtfully, stroking his chin. “Come back in an hour then. Best not to take any chances.”

    “Of course Ibiki-san,” said Fish, “I’ll be taking my leave then.”

    With that ANBU Fish turned and walked out the door leaving Ibiki alone in the room to contemplate the prisoner.

    The head of T&I crossed his arms and pondered the situation before him. His orders regarding Rei Yamanaka were twofold. First was to find out everything about the circumstances surrounding her two week disappearance and to determine if anything untoward had happened while she was away. He was also to determine if her disappearance had anything to do with the Uchiha incident. Simple and straightforward enough. He had enough information that he was sure he could make that part of the interrogation go relatively smoothly.

    The second part of his orders however were much more vague, almost to startling degree. They simply said ‘Possible plans, actions or thoughts to the detriment of Konoha. Determine if a likely future threat to the village’. Something like that wasn’t entirely without precedent per se. If a person was caught doing something suspicious but ambiguous interrogators would often have to cast a wide net to root out whatever it was they might be hiding. Still in cases like that there was at least a starting point to go from.

    Obviously the Hokage suspected Rei Yamanaka of something but for whatever reason the man had chosen to keep to himself the reasons for his suspicions. This left Ibiki with literally nothing to go on. Could he root out sedition even in a case such as this? The man had no doubt that he could. He had been trained by the best and was justifiably proud of his skills. However could he do it with the restrictions placed on him and in the time frame he was likely to have? He wasn’t sure. Actually he wasn’t sure about a number of things regarding this interrogation and that made him uneasy.

    Having to work with politically important persons was always a pain for interrogators. In this case for example he was restricted from using many of his typical tools of the trade. Pain (either real of genjutsu based), artificially inducing powerful expressions of fear or anger, fear of permanent mutilation or disfigurement, techniques that were deemed ‘humiliating’… all these and more were off the table when it came to prisoners of political import. Still any interrogator who knew his business could get results without having to resort to those more heavy handed techniques.

    Apart from the art of getting information through conversation drugs and deprivation were the primary techniques used on these types of sensitive prisoners. The cold rooms for example were a popular and effective type of deprivation technique. Prisoners could never truly rest or find any sort of comfort and every hour they spent there further eroded their mind. It took a relatively short time for prisoners to develop a fear of the cold rooms. Fear of course could be leveraged in many ways to move an interrogation along. A person like Rei Yamanaka, untrained in the art of resisting interrogation, would almost certainly crack and begin to spill everything she knew after enough cycles of interrogation/cold room in which you never sleep and are kept deliberately weak with lack of food.

    Now, however, that option was off the table. In fact it seemed all deprivation techniques and drugs were off the table given the prisoner’s poor state of health. What a mess.

    I’m probably getting ahead of myself. If the prisoner was cooperative it was possible to complete the first part of his orders without too much unpleasantness. Just as long as she didn’t decide to lie to him.

    The second part of his orders though? With the methods available to him being so limited and without having weeks on end to work on the prisoner carrying out those orders thoroughly and to Ibiki’s satisfaction was bound to be… difficult.

    Give me some traitors or some foreign scum over this kind of headache any day.

    Suddenly the intercom on the wall crackled to life. “Sir? Are you there? This is Yuichi. Come in please.”

    With a scowl Ibiki stalked over to the intercom and pressed the button. “What is it Yuichi? And where are you? You were supposed to be down here two minutes ago to observe this interrogation.”

    “Well that’s just it sir,” came the nervous reply from the intercom, “I was uh… ordered to stand down. So I thought it would be best to get in touch with you.”

    “What in the hell are you talking about Yuichi?” Ibiki snapped at his subordinate, irritated, “I’m the highest ranked person in this building. You take your orders from me, you bloody imbecile.”

    “Uh, well sir in this case the chain of command wasn’t entirely clear. Which is why I called you.”

    Ibiki’s eyes narrowed at that. “Who ordered you to stand down Yuichi?” he barked.

    It was a little known fact that Ibiki was a weak sensor. Just in that moment the top man in T&I sensed two Chakra signatures that he knew approaching the room he was in. When he recognized them the man’s eyes widened in surprise before loudly cursing his luck out loud.

    “Never mind Yuichi I know who it is. Go about your duties until I call for you.”

    “Yes sir.”