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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 31
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 31

    000

    ‘Resistance training’ with the Rats wasn’t what you might expect. In Rei's old world that term was just a fancy way of saying lifting weights and other exercises that were meant to build up your muscles. What she was doing now was much, much different.

    Rei set her jaw as she looked at the three innocuous looking ink bottles in front of her. In front of the bottles arranged in a neat line were three small glass syringes. Mentally Rei prepared herself for what she knew was coming. The blonde could with all confidence say this was the least favorite part of her training.

    As she reached for the small bottle on the far left the girl tried not to think too hard about what was coming. Reading the label she made sure three times over it was the correct one she wanted. Mentally she went over what she knew about its contents.

    Substance three, otherwise known as “Gut Wrench”

    Route: Dermal breach.


    Medium: Oil-based emulsion.

    Expiration: Six to eight months.

    Effects: Vomiting, incapacitating abdominal contractions, occasional loss of bowel control.

    Duration: Two to ten minutes depending on factors such as dose and general constitution.

    Action: Almost immediate (typically less than one second).

    With her features set Rei removed the wax-coated stopper from the small bottle and set the two items down right in front of her. She then reached over and picked up the first syringe. With a careful and experienced hand she withdrew the appropriate dosage for that day. 1.1 milliliters. With the ease of practice Rei recapped the bottle and held up the needle in front of her face, slowly putting pressure on the plunger to push out all the excess air.

    Reaching down she pinched the skin of her thigh and in a practiced movement pushed the needle underneath her skin. This is going to suck… I just upped the dosage again today. Here goes. With a determined expression someone might wear when they were getting ready to go to war Rei pushed down on the plunger sending the poison straight into her body.

    Almost immediately Rei felt like her abdominal muscles and stomach suddenly decided they wanted to tear themselves out of her body. The abdominal pain the strength of the muscular contractions were immense and doubled her over almost immediately. Rei focused on breathing as she hunched forward and cradled her stomach, unable to stop herself from curling inwards even if she’d wanted to. Thankfully there was none of the uncontrolled vomiting associated with this particular poison (those first few times had made her want to punt a Rat into a wall) but every time her training called for her to increase her dosage it made her violently, violently ill.

    Rei kept stealing glances at the clock as she grit her teeth and rode out the effects of the poison. As always it seemed like a small eternity before it began to pass and as always the time was a lot shorter than she would have guessed. She noted the time it took before the effects eventually died down to what she considered to be a tolerable level. Nine minutes. Recapping the needle and putting it aside Rei pulled out a small notebook she kept for just this. Meticulously she recorder the date, dosage and time it took her recover from the poison. Once the effects persisted for less than thirty seconds it would time to up her dosage again.

    The things I do for power. When she had learned that she was going to be learning poisons Rei had been excited. That was before she learned that the Rats insisted she build up a powerful resistance (there really was no such thing as true immunity) to a wide variety of poisons, especially the ones she was likely to use on a regular basis. Unfortunately there was no way to do that other than poisoning yourself over and over again in increasing dosages.

    It was just awful. It was in some ways mentally scarring. The Rats had been impressed by her determination. Frankly Rei was just stubborn and, she could admit, just a little bit obsessed with her goals. All this pain would be worth it one day. She had to believe that.

    She did believe that. She did. Rei wasn’t about to start doubting that. Not after she had already come so far.

    Rei looked down and examined the three poisons in front of her. “Gut Wrench” was one of the more reliable fast acting non-lethal poisons available to her and the one she tended to coat all her weapons with. One application could last for months making it incredibly convenient and by now accidentally cutting herself with her own weapons wouldn’t incapacitate her. Hell at this point she could cut herself a half dozen times with her own poisoned blades and she wouldn’t even feel the least bit nauseous. Such was the power of building up your own resistances.

    However Gut Wrench wasn’t the only poison she used and she couldn’t count on it to work in all situations. With a sigh Rei looked at the two remaining untouched bottles and their corresponding syringes still laid out neatly on her desk. The effects of substance three faded quickly. These other two would last just a little bit longer.

    Closing her eyes Rei gathered her will and her determination around her like a worn but unbreakable cloak. Other people wouldn’t have the willpower to keep up the stringent resistance regiment she put herself on. Other people would coast by on doing the minimum but Rei constantly pushed the dosages to the absolute limit that she could without risk of serious injury. So what if it made her feel like death? Her mind could overcome the complaints of her body. The body was weak, forever whining and protesting about the things she did to make it stronger. The mind was strong. In her private moments Rei acknowledged that in some ways she was deeply flawed but if there was one thing that was beyond reproach it was the strength of her mind.

    Opening her eyes she looked at the two remaining bottles with a kind of serene will. Reaching for the she began to prepare her next dose.

    It would take her a bit longer to recover from these two. It should leave her just enough time to leave the house and go meet up with her kouhai.

    000

    Facing off in a shaded training field near the academy stood two girls. One was relaxed and observant, wondering what her opponent was about to show her and how much she was going to have to hold back. The other stood in her family’s traditional on-guard position, the tension on her face and shoulders giving away how apprehensive she was about the whole thing.

    “Come on Hina-chan,” said Rei patiently as she stood in a deceptively open-looking stance, “I can’t gauge where you are until I see you in action. I won’t hurt you and you won’t be able to hurt me. Now come on, stop hesitating and attack me already.”

    The younger girl swallowed nervously (there’s that nervous habit again) before tensing up and rushing at Rei. Sloppy. She has to know tensing up telegraphs your moves.

    Hinata extended her fingers as users of the Gentle Fist almost invariably did and aimed a quick strike at her shoulder. Rei sidestepped almost lazily and redirected the attack to the side with two fingers. The Hyuuga didn't stumble like Rei thought she would but she did momentarily hesitate for a split second before flowing into her next attack. More than enough time for a skilled opponent to exploit.

    Hinata came at her swiftly with a combination that Rei had seen many times before, the younger girl’s face set in an expression of concentration and determination. Rei dodged and deflected all of it with ease, her quick footwork and years of familiarity with the Gentle Fist making the task almost trivial. Deciding to test something Rei patiently waited for the strike to her stomach she knew was coming. Hinata came forward with the predicted palm strike and Rei snatched her wrist out of mid-air with a vice-like grip. In a complex maneuver Rei went low, swept Hinata’s legs out from under her and threw the Hyuuga Heiress over her shoulder.

    It was an almost gentle throw by ninja standards and Rei watched carefully to see how Hinata reacted. Her body tucked in on itself, the girl rolling in the direction of the throw and using the momentum to rise to her feet in one smooth fluid motion. That was a textbook roll-and-recovery maneuver and Hinata just pulled it off perfectly. That was all muscle memory... which I suppose isn’t surprising given how much training she’s had.

    Hinata didn’t immediately resume her attack, the concentration and determination that had previously been on her face now suddenly tinged with doubt and apprehension. Rei said nothing and just watched with a bland expression waiting to see what her kouhai would do. After pausing for a few moments the girl briefly bit her bottom lip nervously (another one of her tells) before once again going on the attack.

    Rei dodged and evaded, staying just out of reach as her impressive mind began analyzing the girl in front of her. Hinata was clearly no Neji. She was slower, stiffer, could not adapt almost instantaneously to new unexpected situations and perhaps most significantly did not display the amazing creativity and on the fly improvisations that her older cousin could pull out of thin air almost effortlessly. However what Rei was seeing wasn’t all bad. For one Hinata’s form was textbook perfect. Every movement, every transition from stance to stance, every flow from attack to attack was done with the correct angle of the fingers, with her toes pointed in the exact direction that they should be, with her knees bent exactly as much as they were supposed to be.. no more and no less. Rei could find very little to critique on that front. It was obvious that her tutors had drilled her over and over endlessly until her body knew exactly what to do every time perfectly and without fail. Rei felt a smidge of respect grow for the girl who was currently trying desperately to land a hit in on her. She knew from experience just how many hundreds and thousands of hours Hinata must have spent training in order to be able to maintain such a crisp form during a spar.

    However there was a lot more to fighting than just form. Rei frowned a little. Hinata was definitely missing something.

    “Come on Hinata-chan,” Rei said with a hint of demand in her voice, “Neji’s been hitting me with Juken strikes since I was seven. Don’t hold back. Trust me I can take whatever you can dish out.”

    Hinata’s face showed distress for a fraction of a second before she suddenly began to attack even faster than before. However it almost instantly became clear to Rei that just attacking faster wasn’t fixing the problem. Hinata’s strikes, her moves, her offensive… they lacked Spirit. They lacked Intent. They lacked any desire or willingness to inflict injury. A punch without a strong intent behind it was just like a blunted kunai. It looked right but it was ultimately pretty much useless in doing what it was supposed to do.

    As an added complication Hinata seemed to be losing confidence now that they had been sparring for a short time and the girl hadn’t come even close to landing any kind of hit. Rei had to hold back a disapproving frown when she noticed that. Really? A few minutes of failure is all it takes to shake your resolve?

    “Come on,” she said to the girl with half a growl, “stop trying to hit me and hit me.”

    Okay so Hinata might not have understood what she meant by that but there was no reason her to start doing even worseafter a comment like that. Except she did. Her strikes became more choppy and hesitant and by the look on her face Rei could tell her words had hurt the girl’s mental poise. Hinata struck again and again, her from still there but with failing flow, the smooth organic movements of the Juuken suddenly disappearing from her aggressive barrage.

    What to do? Rei was tempted to start beating on the girl, thoroughly crushing her into the ground, something to get a more martial reaction out of her than this hesitant meek showing… but somehow Rei instinctively knew that wouldn’t work at all. Not with Hinata. What to do then?

    Instead of just dodging and deflecting Rei changed to an offensive, pushing one of Hinata’s strikes aside and attacking her with an overhand chop. Not expecting the sudden reversal Hinata scrambled to get out of the way, stumbling as she backpedaled away from Rei’s blow. The older girl didn’t take the obvious opening and waited until Hinata had recovered just enough. Rei then let loose a rather restrained roundhouse kick at Hinata’s hip. This time the girl responded appropriately, blocking the Rei’s leg with a textbook perfect maneuver and by reflex moving her fingers in position to cripple her leg with a Juuken strike. Rei pulled her leg back fast enough to avoid the (theoretical) blow but slow enough to encourage a follow up offensive. Thankfully Hinata took the opportunity to press the attack even if it was more out of in-drilled reflexes rather than any personal desire to emerge the victor.

    They fought like that for a while, Rei pressing Hinata just hard enough and giving her enough openings to encourage the younger girl to keep attacking. To Rei the young Hyuuga heiress was an odd mix of textbook perfection and deep flaws in execution and application. Rei began to see why the Hyuuga clan had experienced so many problems trying to improve Hinata’s fighting prowess. Both confidence and lack of fighting spirit, that tenacity to win no matter the odds seemed to be the problem. A few times Rei deliberately left herself open and Hinata had hesitated before trying to take advantage of the chink in her armor. Why did she do that? Was she afraid of hurting people? If so… maybe you should have been born in my old world Hinata-chan.

    Before long it became more than clear that Hinata was fighting with no expectation to win. Rei had to reign in her instinctive disdain… that wasn’t really fair to Hinata. If anything she deserves my sympathy. They say a skilled fighter can learn a great deal about an opponent by crossing fists with them. To Rei it seemed obvious that Hinata didn’t like fighting. People can enjoy fighting for any number of reasons, as an outlet for their feelings, as a challenge or a game to overcome an opponent, as a means to feel powerful, as a means to an end. Taijutsu was not something Hinata wanted to be doing. It was a chore to her.

    That was three big problems Rei had identified in just their first spar. Maybe this “getting Hinata up to snuff” business was going to be harder and more involved than she’d first thought.

    Doing something about these issues was going to take some doing. She was going to have to take some time and give this some serious thought.

    Distractedly Rei caught a half-hearted fist aimed at her face. “Enough,” Rei said in a thoughtful and soft voice, “I’ve seen enough for now. Come on, let’s sit down and we’ll talk about it.”

    000

    Moments later they were seated with their backs against a very large tree. Rei had sat herself about a foot away from Hinata, closer than what was a normal social distance but not too invasive. She didn’t think Hinata had noticed yet though. The younger girl was too busy breathing hard and trying to force her breath under control, her forehead covered in a sheen of fine sweat. By contrast Rei was completely unruffled and indeed what they had just gone through could barely be called a warmup for her nowadays. The blonde sat patiently with her legs crossed at the ankles and her hands behind her head as she leaned back against the tree. In contrast Hinata was curling forward and hugging her knees as her breathing finally began to slow. What an odd pair we make.

    “Feeling better?” Rei asked a short while later.

    Hinata looked at her with a bit of uncertainty and vulnerability on her face before nodding shyly. “Yes Rei-senpai. I’m fine,” she said in a small voice.

    Rei frowned a little at that. What is it now? As far as she could see there was no real reason for Hinata to be acting so meek at the moment. Unless…

    What normally happened after her training sessions? If Rei had to guess this would be the time when Hinata’s instructors would rake her over the coals for all her deficiencies. And yes, there were some very glaring deficiencies to be corrected. Still Hinata looked like she was waiting to get hit, looking apprehensive and almost cringing away as if anticipating the sharp sting of the rebuke that she expected to come.

    It was then and there that Rei decided she was going to be different. They had to talk about her problems but she was going to find a way to do it that didn’t make the girl feel like crap. It wasn’t productive anyway since it had never worked for the Hyuuga. That could wait for some other time though. No need to talk about her faults today, especially when Rei still didn’t know what she was going to do to address them.

    “How do you think you did?” Rei asked as an open ended question, her tone soft as if she were speaking to an easily spooked animal.

    Hinata seemed a little surprised by her question before looking away and fidgeting nervously with the hem of her clothes. Rei wasn’t sure if it was a good or a bad thing that the straight posture and poise of a Clan Heiress from their last meeting seemed to be absent today.

    “I think… maybe not so good. I’m not very good at taijutsu,” Hinata said sounding down. Her tone of voice said she really believed it.

    “Why do you think that?” asked Rei, genuinely curious.

    Hinata shrugged. “It’s what everyone always tells me. I never do as well as people want me to. It’s not exactly advanced sealing. It’s kind of hard to miss.”

    “Well…” began Rei and she saw Hinata physically tense up, “I think you’ve got some definite bright spots in your taijutsu.”

    Hinata’s head turned quickly to look at her, disbelief clear on her features. “Really?” she asked, sounding mostly skeptical and just the smallest tiniest bit hopeful.

    That reaction convinced Rei she was taking the right approach. “Really,” said Rei, nodding and treating it like it was not anything unusual, “your forms are executed extremely well. Better than all the kids in my class that’s for sure.” Except for Neji went without saying.

    Glancing over at Hinata Rei noticed that she was stunned speechless. She looked like wasn’t sure or just didn’t know how to react to what she had just heard. When was the last time anyone complimented her on the skills she’s obviously spent huge amounts of time and effort acquiring?

    In the end Hinata looked away, her cheeks coloring a pretty shade of pink. “T-thank you Rei-san… senpai… but I-I’m sure that isn’t true. You don’t have bend the truth on my account.”

    Wow. This girl really is screwed up isn’t she? The Hyuuga shouldn’t be allowed to raise a cabbage let alone a young girl. “Hinata look at me,” Rei said kindly but with a note of command behind her words.

    Hesitantly the girl turned to look at Rei until their eyes met. The blonde held Hinata’s gaze in place with willpower and intensity alone. She needed the girl to see how serious she was. “I don’t like the suggestion that I’m lying. I’m here to help you and I can’t do that if I make things up and lie to you about your ability. Now there are good points to your taijutsu. Good solid foundations we can build on. Maybe you don’t see it yourself but trust me, it’s there. Now I need you to trust that I’m telling you the truth. Can you do that Hina-chan?”

    Hinata looked like she wanted to look away but found herself unable to do so. “Y-yes I can do that,” stammered Hinata, sounding both awed and intimidated by the girl sitting barely a foot away from her.

    “Good,” said Rei before finally breaking eye contact. Hinata sagged a little in relief as Rei leaned her head back against the tree and closed her eyes. “I’ll probably need a bit of time, a few days at least, to come up with a good plan for training now that I’ve seen what you can do. Do you have any questions you want to ask? Really, anything at all that you want to know about or are curious about Hina-chan?”

    Hinata was silent for a few minutes, so long that Rei thought the girl wouldn’t ask her anything. When she spoke up her voice came as something of a surprise. “Um… the taijutsu style that you used. It was a bit… unusual.”

    Rei opened one eye to look at Hinata. “How so?”

    The girl bit her lip again in a nervous gesture. “Well, your offense looked like a slightly modified version of Konoha Standard. Your defense however looks completely different. It’s like you’re using two different styles but only using one to defend and one to attack.”

    Rei was a little surprised Hinata would even ask about that since she didn’t seem to like taijutsu in general. However it wasn’t really a surprise that she had noticed. “Well you’re not wrong,” Rei said casually.

    There was another long pause before Hinata gathered up the courage to speak again. “Why do you do that? If you don’t mind me asking that is.”

    Rei pursed her lips as she thought about how to answer that. The fact that she held the Rat contract was pretty much common knowledge among the upper echelon and senior ninja of the village. It probably wouldn’t hurt to let Hinata in on what she considered to be her crowning achievement up to this point.

    “I’ve been taught Rat Style taijutsu by my personal summons,” Rei began, “that’s the style you didn’t recognize. The reason you saw me only use it defensively is because that’s pretty much what it does. Rat Style is pretty much all defense and has almost no offensive capabilities to speak of.”

    For a few moments Hinata looked absolutely dumbfounded, her mind trying to process what she’d heard. “You have your own- how-… what-… how, how is a taijutsu style purely defensive? How would that even work?”

    Rei thought she might be most curious about that since she suspected Hinata had some latent ‘pacifist-ish’ tendencies. She could understand Hinata’s confusion. This wasn’t like her last world where many people advocated the use or martial arts exclusively for defense and self-protection and many martial arts reflected this philosophy. ‘Self-defense’ was not a concept Rei had even heard of in the Elemental Nations. Taijutsu was simply put a tool for war. It was meant to neutralize your enemies as quickly as possible before they could do the same thing to you. To anyone in the Elemental Nations having a taijutsu style without offense would be akin to having a knife without a blade. That is, completely nonsensical and absurd.

    Still she was being more than a little misleading by implying Rat Style was somehow not stupidly dangerous. As Rei thought of what she was going to say to Hinata her mind wandered back to when she had first been introduced to the style and what her reaction to hearing about it had been. The blonde couldn’t help but smile a little at the memory.

    “Well…”

    000

    Two Years Ago

    Rei stood high in the branches of the enormous Hashirama tree in her back yard, her back against the trunk and her arms folded in front of her, a scowl set clear on her face. Elder Black sat in a nearby branch somehow managing to appear dignified whilst relaxing in the natural leafy environment. While he wasn’t going to be one of her primary teachers he was still taking the time to give Rei the rundown of some of the basics of the Rat Arts. Still Rei couldn’t help but feel that right now Elder Black was pulling her leg.

    “Why would I want to learn a style of taijutsu that is purely defensive?” she asked skeptically. After a pause she added, “why would anyone want to learn a form of taijutsu that was purely defensive?”

    “You be criticizing pup but it be obvious that you not be understanding. Not one whit,” said Elder Black as he moved and sprawled himself out across a thick branch like he was getting ready to sunbathe. “There always be a reason for the things that we do. Defensive also does not mean Rat Style is not dangerous. It simply means it lacks ways to initiate a confrontation, though it does excel at quickly ending them.”

    Rei considered what Elder Black had just said and then shook her head. “I still can’t imagine why you would come up with a style like that. Why sacrifice offense? It makes no sense. You limit yourself unnecessarily.”

    “Do we?” Elder Black said with a chuckle, “I think you be a bit young to be educating us on the nuances of taijutsu. Especially when you don’t understand why our style developed the way it did in the first place.”

    “Ok, I’ll bite. Explain it to me,” said Rei with a dismissive gesture, “what makes a defensive style like this so great?”

    “Thank you,” said Elder Black with humor and a hint of mockery, “for your kind regard little one. It not be that complex really. By necessity a form of taijutsu cannot be equally good at everything. A form that focuses on aggressive attack will sacrifice some of the nuances of defense. A form that seeks to maximize defense will suffer in offensive capacity. A form that seeks to balance both will always be merely ‘good’ at both as opposed to ‘great’. Strong strikes sacrifice some subtlety. Subtlety sacrifices some power. Do you see what I’m getting at?”

    Rei made a thoughtful humming sound as she thought about it. “So a style that focuses solely on defense will theoretically have the strongest defense of all. Any taijutsu style can only become truly good at a limited number of things.”

    “Correct.”

    “But… the problem still remains,” Rei said shaking her head, “if you can’t go on the offensive that is a gigantic hole in your skillset. How are you supposed to win a fight like that?”

    “And that,” said Elder Black suddenly sitting up pointing the end of his walking stick at her chest, “be showing that you have a piss poor understanding of the Way of the Rat and how it be that we do battle.”

    Rei hesitated for a few moments before reluctantly speaking. “Okay, there’s obviously something I’m missing here. I don’t really understand how Rats do battle since I haven’t been taught yet. Could you please explain it to me Elder?”

    “Certainly,” Elder Black said sounding pleased. “In order to understand our choice of taijutsu you must understand how a typical encounter goes for a Rat. What do you think is our first order of business in any confrontation?” At seeing Rei’s puzzled look Elder Black answered his own question. “The first order of business in any confrontation is always to go into stealth. To hide. To completely vanish from the senses of our enemies. To fight like a Rat means to always seek to hide your true location from your opponents.”

    “Okay…” said Rei, not sure how this tied in to taijutsu yet but extremely interested in what she was hearing just the same.

    “Once a Rat is concealed he will always seek to end the confrontation in a single strike,” continued Elder Black in lecturing tones, “once they cannot detect you their ability to defend from any attack will be severely crippled. Always strike from stealth, always aim for the kill. This is where the most obvious use of our poisons comes in… one scratch from any of our blades usually means death. A sleeping opponent, a distracted opponent on guard duty, an alert opponent actively looking for you and expecting an attack… it doesn’t matter. The principle always remains the same. Become unseen. Strike from the shadows. End their miserable life in one attack. Simple in theory, not always so easy in execution.”

    Rei felt a thrill of excitement… and just a hint of fear at those words. The principle appealed to her. Two ninja crashing into each other like rams in heat had some appeal but overall it lacked… artistry. Elegance. It certainly didn’t seem like the smartest way to fight. Different methods all had their place but Rei felt this was probably a lot more in her wheelhouse.

    The Rats were also very much about learning how to kill which scared her a little. Her other ninja training wasn’t nearly so blatant about it even if was ultimately teaching her to do the same thing. It just made it that much clearer that killing wasn’t something she would get out of doing forever.

    Rei was brought out of her musing when Elder Black asked her a question.

    “Of course that is what happens when everything goes right. Tell me pup what do you suppose happens when things go wrong?”

    Rei blinked at that, not expecting the question. “You mean when they detect you?”

    “I mean more when your attack fails. It is certainly possible especially against high level opponents. What then?”

    “Well,” began Rei raking her brain for an answer, “going by what you said before I suppose you should disengage and re-enter stealth to try again.”

    “That is ideally what you would do yes,” said Elder Black with a firm nod, “but think about the situation you find yourself in: you jumped out of the shadows to slash at your opponent with a poisoned blade. He dodges at the last second and you hit nothing but air. Suddenly you find yourself facing an opponent that’s larger, stronger, more skilled and more experienced than you face-to-face. He isn’t going to simply let you hide from him again without a fight. What happens then?”

    Rei frowned at that. “Why would you assume that your opponent would will be so much better than you?”

    “Rats always assume they’ll be fighting someone bigger, stronger, better than them,” Elder Black said passionately and emphatically, “remember our history. Remember who we are. Rats physically are among the very weakest of the summon clans. We have no claws usable for violence and no fangs, we do not grow to be very large, we are not especially fast or strong or agile. The other clans often had centuries of battle experience over us. In order to survive we needed a method of fighting that would minimize or eliminate our disadvantages. Thus a situation such as this, immediately after a failed assassination attack, is when we would be the most vulnerable,” Elder Black fixed Rei with a look, “that is where our style of taijutsu comes in.”

    “Ah,” said Rei as she started to get it, “I see… so. You didn’t really want a form of taijutsu that would outright let you beat your opponents. You wanted something that would allow you to survive and disengage so you could hide yourselves and strike from stealth once again.”

    “Close, but not entirely accurate,” said Elder Black with something that might have been a hint of pride in his voice, “it’s not that Rat Style does not allow us to beat out opponents. Quite the contrary actually. Though it is called a ‘defensive’ style this is a bit misleading. Rat Style thrives in turning the aggression of an attacker against them. The more intense and violent their attack the more violent our potential counter attack and in some ways, the more powerful our defense becomes. Rat Style could also be called a ‘counter attack’ art. We throw away all offense in favor of an unbreakable defense and turning their aggression against them with vicious and very final results. Our opponents have the option of either attacking us and running into a taijutsu style that solely exists to crush enemy aggression… or letting us disengage and once again vanish from their senses.”

    “It can’t really work that neatly all the time,” Rei said a bit skeptically though she was beginning to understand why a group of assassins would design a purely ‘defensive’ martial art. When it was explained it made sense. It was a bit counter intuitive to Rei but she could make it work.

    If she wanted to crush someone hand-to-hand she’d just have to goad them into attacking her extremely aggressively. Not a problem. That was certainly something she would be able to pull off. Hell she’d probably even enjoy it.

    Besides she was already really fucking good at Konoha Standard. It left her with some offensive taijutsu options if she felt like going that route. Good thing too. While Rei could see value of Rat Style within the framework of The Way of the Rat she would have felt like something was missing if she couldn’t simply walk up to someone and punch them in the face.

    “Of course not pup. This is a theoretical ‘ideal encounter’ we are talking about. Things always tend to go a bit wonky in the field. Still things do work out that neatly as often as not,” Elder Black said with a shrug, “if our methods were not effective our clan would never have been able to claw it’s way back from the edge of extinction. Once things devolve into a chaotic brawl however it is usually the most skilled individual at using their respective tools who is the victor. Solid tactics will never fully be able to replace raw skill.”

    000

    Present Day

    “… I’m not sure what to tell you. Basically it just works really well with my style of fighting. Don’t worry about it too much. We’ll probably be sparring pretty often and you’ll get to see more of what Rat Style can do.”

    Hinata looked a bit curious and skeptical but just nodded. No one really expected ninja to go very in depth about their techniques at any rate and Hinata was a nice enough girl that she wasn’t going to press the issue. If their association continued for some time (still a bit up in the air) then she would learn all about Rei's fighting style eventually… Neji certainly had.

    “So I want to ask you something,” began Rei in easy, soothing tones, “there is no right or wrong answer. I just want to figure out if it’s a problem or just something I imagined.”

    It took Hinata a minute to realize Rei actually expected an answer. “Ah.. yeah I guess that’s ok,” she said shyly. Rei could tell Hinata was starting to feel a little more comfortable around her but it was still a work in progress.

    Rei nodded and watched Hinata closely out of the corner of her eye. “Hinata-chan… are you afraid of hurting people?”

    Hinata’s face contorted into a pained grimace for a split second before she quickly covered it up and looked away. “I-I’ve just never had any talent at the Juuken or the ninja arts in general. That’s really all there is to it.”

    Bullshit. Again Rei was seized with the impulse to begin battering Hinata until she cracked and all her carefully kept reasons and secrets came pouring out. With a not inconsiderable effort of will Rei restrained herself. She’s not your enemy. Not really. She probably likes the idea of being forced into this life about as much as you do. Well that probably wasn’t entirely accurate but some parallels were clearly there. Instead of calling out Hinata on her poorly concealed lie Rei just nodded her acceptance without another word causing the younger girl to visibly relax. At least now I know the answer to my question. That’s all that really matters.

    At that point in her estimation the two of them were pretty much done for the day. They had sparred and the blonde thought she had seen and heard everything she needed to for now. Rei would need a bit of time to plan how to attack the ‘Hinata problem’ and how her difficult to tackle issues could be overcome… perhaps Worm would have some insights when she finally caught up to him again.

    Still… Rei didn’t feel like letting Hinata go just yet. Her eyes slid to the side to observe the younger girl, her analytical mind spinning. She had observed something when they had met for the first time the day before. An… unusually strong reaction when Rei had casually touched her in a friendly manner. The curly haired blonde had her suspicions as to why that was… perhaps now would be a good time to confirm or deny her theory.

    Thinking fast Rei pulled out one of her kunai and held it casually in front of her. “Hina-chan, if we’re going to be working together there are a few things you should probably know for your own safety.”

    Without waiting for a reply Rei picked herself up and scooted closer to Hinata until their shoulders and hips were touching. Hinata inhaled sharply and froze like some kind of small forest animal that had just spotted a predator. Rei ignored the reaction (she had been expecting something like it after all) and held up the kunai close to their faces so they could both see it.

    “Do you see this oily looking sheen on the blade?” Rei asked casually while pointing at the aforementioned blade with her free hand. “It should be easier to see when it catches the light but even then it can be hard to spot.”

    Hinata’s whole body seemed to tense and relax over and over again, like she was debating about whether or not to move away. However it was very telling that even with her obvious discomfort Hinata chose to stay put and not move. Interesting.Very interesting.

    “Y-yes, I… ah, I see it,” Hinata stuttered, fumbling over her words. Her gaze kept flitting nervously between Rei’s face and the blade. Rei for her part continued to act as if nothing was wrong.

    “That’s poison,” said Rei and she felt the girl next to her start a little at her declaration, “if you’re going to be around my tools you should be aware of it. I don’t always carry poisoned weapons around but it happens pretty often. It’s nonlethal however so don’t worry about it if you cut yourself. You’ll just be violently ill for a few minutes but an hour later you won’t even feel any of the aftereffects.”

    “Ah…” Hinata seemed at a loss of how to respond to that. “T-thank you for showing me Rei-senpai,” she said looking at the kunai with a cautious air.

    With a flick of her wrist Rei vanished the kunai into her long sleeves. “No problem. Just something to be aware of.”

    They sat there for a few moments in silence, the contact between them no more intimate than something a person might experience on a crowded bus. Slowly, ever so slowly Hinata began to relax. She never got to ‘relaxed’, the girl still held a lot of tension in her body, but at least Rei didn’t feel like she was a split second from jumping to get away. Rei looked at her out of the corner of her eye, noticing her uncertain eyes and the confused, troubled and slightly guilty look on her face.

    “Is something wrong Hina-chan?” Rei asked softly, turning her head to look at the girl sitting next to her.

    “N-no. Not really,” she said, but her tone of voice was far from convincing. Her looking away and refusing to look at Rei was also a big clue that she wasn’t being entirely truthful.

    “Does this make you uncomfortable?” Rei asked in a soft intimate voice, pushing Hinata with her shoulder a little bit to emphasize what she meant.

    Hinata was quiet for a long time before she drew a long shuddering breath. “It’s not that Rei-san… Rei-senpai… it’s just…”

    “Yes?” prompted Rei, leaning a little more into Hinata as a show of support.

    “Just… it’s unusual… it’s been a long time since…”

    “Your mother?”

    Hinata gasped, turning to look at Rei with wide amazement in her eyes. “H-How did you know?”

    Exactly as I had suspected. Excellent. Rei gave Hinata a slightly humorous smile. “Lucky guess going from what I know about the Hyuuga. It wasn’t hard to figure out.” Rei’s eyes suddenly turned sharp and calculating. “You don’t dislike it do you Hina-chan?” she asked in a soft tone that was deliberately made to sound just a hint vulnerable.

    If Hinata noticed anything unusual she didn’t show it. Instead she blushed prettily and looked away. “It… it’s not so bad,” she said in a whisper, sounding embarrassed.

    Looking at the sweet emotionally vulnerable girl sitting next to her Rei felt a powerful impulse come over her. Making the snap decision to go with it Rei bumped Hinata’s shoulder in a friendly fashion with a wide honest smile on her face. “Would you like to come to my house? It would be nice if we could spend the rest of the afternoon together.”

    Hinata suddenly looked nervous, once again looking away as she seemed to do whenever she felt uncomfortable about something. “I-I really shouldn’t. I should get home-“

    “Actually you have at least four more hours set aside for training with me should you need it. I know exactly how long I’m allowed to keep you. You don’t have to be home for a long while yet,” said Rei, cutting her off with a hint of bite to her words.

    If anything hearing this made Hinata’s anxiety worse. Her hands started shaking and her breathing got a little ragged. “I… I don’t think I should-“

    Screw this. Rei stood up suddenly and without warning. Hinata was left looking surprised and, unless Rei misinterpreted her look, suddenly missing the warmth of the contact the two of them were having. Rei whirled on Hinata, her eyes suddenly hard and unyielding. At seeing her look Hinata couldn’t help but instinctively shrink back and swallow nervously.

    “Hinata,” Rei said in a no nonsense tone, “you’re coming with me to my house.”

    Hinata just stared at Rei for a second and the older girl could actually see the moment when Hinata’s resolve folded like a deck of cards. The younger girl hung her head in submission and hugged her knees, curling in a little bit on herself subconsciously. “Yes Rei-senpai,” she whispered.

    Knowing it wasn’t a good idea to leave it at that Rei approached Hinata and held out her hand. When the younger girl looked up Rei gave her an encouraging and half-apologetic smile. “Come on, let’s go. I promise it won’t be bad. If you relax a little you might even enjoy it.”

    Hesitantly and with a small tentative smile of her own Hinata reached out and grasped Rei’s hand. The older girl pulled her to her feet with little effort.

    “Follow me,” said Rei encouragingly, “my house isn’t too far.”

    Let’s see what we can do with this need you have for human touch Hina-chan. Rei turned and looked at Hinata with hungry eyes when the younger girl wasn’t looking. How can I turn this to my advantage?

    000

    They didn’t say much on the way to the Yamanaka compound, each girl preoccupied with their own thoughts. Rei did however did find a few instances to ‘accidentally’ or ‘innocently’ touch Hinata. A brush of shoulders here, a few fingers on her back to guide her through a crowd, a touch to her elbow to get her attention. It was both amusing and kind of fascinating to watch Hinata jump and fumble over her words with each instance.

    The gates of the Yamanaka compound weren’t as impressive as those of the Hyuuga but they were extremely large and imposing just the same. Rei led them past the guards as several of them greeted her with a friendly and respectful ‘Rei-sama’ which for some reason seemed to surprise Hinata. What about all that is surprising I wonder? As they entered the Yamanaka compound Hinata unashamedly looked around curiously taking it all in... unlike Neji who had acted like such a display would be below his dignity. It was all very different from the Hyuuga compound and Rei found herself wondering how often Hinata had visited other clans before.

    It didn’t take long for them to reach her house. Hinata paused a little and stared at the place as Rei turned off the street towards her front porch.

    “You live here?” asked Hinata with an odd note in her voice.

    Rei looked at her house. It was a two story single family home that was rather modern by Elemental Nations standards. It was… kind of cozy. Her mother even kept flowers planted in the front yard. It looked like a family home rather than a statement of power and wealth like the sprawling estate Hinata lived in.

    “Yep,” said Rei popping her P, “my whole life.”

    “Must be nice,” Hinata muttered.

    Rei walked up to the front door and let herself inside with Hinata following close behind. As they took off their shoes the young Hyuuga looked around. She could see the living room from the entrance and like the outside it was cozy, made up of stained woods, warm colors, throw rugs and furniture that looked like it was designed for comfort rather than show. Rei pretended to ignore Hinata’s fascination with the place as she tugged on the girl’s sleeve.

    “My room is upstairs,” Rei said with a smile motioning for her to follow.

    Hinata smiled back shyly and nodded following Rei up the stairs.

    At the top of the stairs however there was an unexpected complication.

    Just as Rei and Hinata reached the top of the stairs Ino came out of the bathroom at the end of the hall. The oldest girl’s eyes widened in surprise. I thought she would be out for the rest of the day. Remembering their fight earlier that day made Rei inexplicably feel like she had just been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. Like her sister Ino could definitely have a temper. Rei waited for her sister to notice them and mentally prepared herself for anything that might follow.

    When Ino did notice them her expression turned surprised as her eyes first landed on Rei and then on Hinata before quickly flicking back and forth between the two of them a few times. Her expression then quickly morphed from surprise to hurt to anger. Sending Rei and Hinata both a withering glare Ino squared her shoulders and lifted her chin with as much dignity as she could. Without a word she marched into her room and slammed the door behind her so hard it was wonder she didn’t crack the door frame.

    Rei rubbed the bridge of her nose in frustration. Lovely. That was the worst timing ever. It had only been hours since their last fight and bringing Hinata to the house had probably just made things exponentially more difficult for her to fix. Rei felt the strong impulse to go knock on Ino’s door and sort this out right in that very moment. She didn’t like having her little sister’s displeasure hanging over her head.

    “Rei-senpai?” Hinata asked uncertainly, looking a little confused and uncomfortable after seeing how Ino reacted to their presence.

    Rei glanced over at her younger charge. That’s right I can’t deal with Ino right now. I have Hinata here now – and Hinata is business. Pretty damn important business. I can’t ditch her at the first sign of family drama.

    “Me and Ino just had a bit of a fight earlier today,” Rei said casually with a small reassuring smile for the girl, “don’t worry about. Once she cools down a bit we’ll work it out, that’s usually how it works.”

    Without giving Hinata time to think about it Rei walked up to her room and opened the door. “This is my room. Come in.”

    Looking a bit nervous Hinata swallowed and followed Rei inside.

    000

    As she walked into her room Rei tried to look at it from the point of view of a first time visitor.

    Rei was extremely neat and organized stopping just shy of being anal about it and her room reflected that. Except for a stray pen on her small desk everything was neat and in order. Her room was simple but cozy. The comforter on her small bed was thick and fluffy, the colors in her room warm and inviting. The place looked lived in and it was probably the only place in the whole of Konoha that Rei felt more or less safe in letting her guard down.

    “I like your room,” Hinata said shyly, standing a little awkwardly near the entrance.

    “Make yourself comfortable,” said Rei before moving to close the door behind them. Suddenly the two of them were alone in her room and Rei could practically feel Hinata’s uncertainty.

    Rei crossed the room and sat down on her bed with a sigh. “Why don’t you take off your jacket?” Rei suggested, thinking she would be more comfortable. Spirits knew why she wore something so hot in the heat of the Land of Fire. It would also be, symbolically, stripping off a piece of the armor that Hinata used to protect herself.

    Hinata hesitated and fiddled with the hem of her coat. She glanced at Rei with a slightly pleading expression before looking away. It was obvious to Rei that for some reason Hinata didn’t feel comfortable taking off her jacket. Had she been a less forceful person who was only thinking of Hinata’s comfort Rei would have let the issue drop. However they were still establishing boundaries, figuring out what their relationship would look like in the future. Rei also wanted Hinata feeling exposed and vulnerable as much as possible.

    “Hinata.” Rei said firmly, pinning the girl with her gaze, “Take off your jacket.”

    The girl twitched as if fighting with herself about what to do. When her uncertain eyes finally met Rei’s piercing commanding ones the last of her resistance broke. Hinata reached for her zipper and began to take off her jacket. Thankfully once the girl committed herself to a course of action there relatively little hesitation. The girl slipped off her coat and folded it efficiently before giving a Rei a questioning look as to where she should put it.

    That’s twice now, once when I asked her to come to my house and once now. When I asked she seemed to waffle and hesitate but when I told her to do something she did it right away. It seems that she’s the type who responds better to orders than suggestions.

    If that was really the case… that wasn’t really a good trait for a leader to have. But… but it might not be such a bad thing altogether.

    Looking at Hinata standing in front of her holding her jacket, looking uncertain and waiting for direction from her, Rei was struck by how utterly vulnerable this young girl in front of her was. Rei felt a powerful feeling spread through her, warm and growling like a beast. Hinata was vulnerable, she was valuable and powerful and the temptation to do something about it was strong. Very strong. So strong Rei didn’t think she was going to even try to resist it. The feeling was heady and it made her feel strong.

    “Just put it down on the bed,” Rei said, motioning with a tilt of her head. Hinata quickly moved to comply and Rei saw that the girl had been wearing a dark blue short sleeved shirt underneath the jacket. It actually matched her hair.

    So far Rei had been playing it by ear but that thought gave her an idea of what to do next. She smiled a smile that was mostly reassuring but also a tad predatory.

    “I was wondering Hina-chan… does anyone ever brush your hair?”

    Hinata seemed surprised by her question before a shadow of pain crossed her eyes. “No,” she said shaking her head lightly, her tone sad and her eyes seemingly far away. “Not for a long time.”

    Rei couldn’t help but feel a moment of sympathy before she put it aside and pushed forward. “Well I figured I could brush your hair while we talk,” Rei said gently while at the same time making certain to make it sound more like a command and less of a suggestion.

    Hinata jerked, her eyes for a moment going somewhere far away before coming back to the present. The girl gave Rei a pleading look that said she wasn’t really certain if she wanted to do this. Rei ignored it. The honey-blonde just gave Hinata a meaningful look until - once again - her resistance crumbled. Hesitantly the girl gave Rei a small nod of assent.

    “Great,” said Rei with a reassuring smile, “sit in the chair and face the mirror.”

    Hinata did as she was told, sitting down in the chair in front of the dresser. Rei felt an unexpected thrill at seeing Hinata being so obedient.

    Rei stood up and walked up behind Hinata reaching around her to pick up a hair brush that had sitting on top of the dresser. Hinata’s hair was really too short to do this properly but Rei was going to make a go of it anyway. Gently Rei brought the brush to the crown of Hinata’s head and began running it slowly through her hair.

    The young girl squirmed in her seat at first like she had ants biting her bottom but Rei was pretty certain it wasn’t really that she disliked what she was feeling. It was all just rather overwhelming for the girl. After a couple of minutes of running the brush through her thick too-short hair however Hinata began to relax, calm down and actually enjoy Rei’s ministrations. She stopped squirming, her breathing evened out and her eyes naturally half-closed at the feel of the brush lightly pulling on her hair. It wasn’t long before it Hinata seemed to fall into a nearly trance like state, her body occasionally giving a little shudder of pleasure at the simple feel of someone running a brush through her hair gently and confidently.

    Good, Rei thought as she carefully watched and analyzed every expression, every reaction of Hinata's in the mirror. Very good.

    “You know,” began Rei in a soothing, almost hypnotic voice, never stopping the rhythmic movement of her hands, “originally I was doing this because your father asked me to and because he was able to help me with something. After I met you though Hina-chan it made me genuinely want to help you.”

    There was no response as Hinata really did seem to almost be in a trance as someone brushed her hair for the first time in who knew how many years. Rei however was positive that the girl was very much listening to every word she said.

    Still it didn’t hurt to have a little insurance. Rei took her free hand and slid her fingers into the girl’s hair at the nape of her neck. Hinata gasped when she felt Rei running her nails lightly across her scalp.

    “I want you to know you can trust me,” Rei said intimately into Hinata’s ear. Her eyes closed completely at the sound of Rei’s voice, at the feeling of her hand in her hair and her fingernails against her scalp. Hinata’s breathing came deeper and faster and Rei couldn’t help but smile a little. “I know you’ve been holding back on me and that’s okay. We all have our secrets and we haven’t known each very long. Unfortunately we can’t keep doing that forever. I want to help you Hinata-chan but I’m going to need your cooperation in order to do that. If there is no trust between us then all our efforts will be in vain. I really need you to trust me Hinata-chan. Can you do that for me?”

    Hinata’s eyes half opened and it looked like it took some real effort for her to speak. “Y-Yes…” she said in a breathless voice. Rei believed her but she wanted to make sure.

    “That means no more secrets, no more holding things back from me. I promised you anything you tell me will be kept a secret from your father and from anyone else. Anything you tell me will be just between you and me. You don’t have anything to be afraid of. You can trust me. Can you do that for me Hina-chan?”

    In lieu of replying with her words Hinata just nodded emphatically with small jerky movements as her eyes slid shut again. Rei’s grin was triumphant and just a little terrifying. The blonde was beginning to feel like she had real power over this girl and it was new, and it was thrilling, and it was exciting.

    She was also enjoying brushing her hair a great deal, surprisingly.

    A more prudent person would have probably left things there but Rei was always one for pushing boundaries. Rei causally threw her brush onto her bed, deciding to give up the pretense that Hinata’s short hair needed any more brushing. The blonde wanted to see just how far she could push. With gentle flowing movements Rei buried both her hands in Hinata’s hair, using a bit more pressure now as she scraped her fingernails across Hinata’s scalp. The girl shuddered and subconsciously pressed her head harder into Rei’s attentive hands, tiny mewls of pleasure escaping from her lips.

    “I like your hair color,” said Rei in an intimate hypnotic tone. There was no response form Hinata. Her eyes were closed, little sounds escaping from her lips and she appeared to be in bliss. “It’s a very unique shade. I’ve never seen anyone else in the village with such beautiful midnight blue hair. You should really be proud of it. Too bad you keep it short.”

    Hinata frowned a little and Rei could tell she was affected by that remark. Rei couldn’t help but feel pleased by that. She wants my approval. Good.

    “It’s really much too pretty to keep it so short,” said Rei as she continued massaging Hinata’s scalp, “Why don’t you grow it out?”

    “W-What?” said Hinata, opening her eyes part of the way and looking puzzled and hesitant, like she wasn’t completely aware of what was going on or that she had heard right.

    Rei chided herself silently. That’s right she does better with direct commands than suggestions doesn’t she? Rei had to hold back a smile as she realized she would fully get to indulge her domineering side when dealing with Hinata.

    “Your hair,” said Rei a little bit more forcefully than before. Then she stopped her hands running though Hinata’s hair. “I want you to grow it out.”

    She looked at Hinata in the mirror and at herself standing behind the seated girl. Rei gave the girl her full dom stare, willful and unshaking with a small smile playing on her lips. Hinata looked torn and some part of Rei suspected that perhaps her mother had had long hair and that had something to do with why she kept hers so short. It was just a theory but that wasn’t going to stop her. When Hinata took too long to answer for her liking Rei slowly pulled her hands out of Hinata’s hair. As she did so Rei could physically see the girl’s disappointed sense of loss and her desire to have that contact again. Rei just lifted and expectant eyebrow and settled her hands on her hips, her small smug smile never falling from her lips.

    Just like she knew it would eventually Hinata’s resolve to hold out against her broke and she lowered her head in submission. Acceptance came over her features and she nodded slightly. “Okay. If you really think it will look better…”

    “It will,” Rei said confidently, a triumphant smile playing on her lips

    Again Hinata just nodded her acceptance. “I-I’ll let my hair grow out for you then Rei-senpai.”

    Rei had to keep herself form laughing joyfully, an energized and thrilled feeling spreading throughout all her body. This is going even better than I imagined. I think this deserves a reward little Hina-chan.

    Rei noticed that once she had accepted what she was going to do Hinata seemed more at peace with her decision, not conflicted about it like she been before. Perhaps she felt more secure when other people took charge? Was she actually happier with someone else telling her what to do? Something to think about later. Maybe I’m getting a little too much into this.

    Rei rewarded Hinata by once again slipping her hands into the girl’s hair. The contact elicited an involuntary moan of pleasure from the girl. It might have embarrassed her but Rei didn’t think she even noticed. She dug her fingernails even harder into Hinata’s scalp this time and the girl seemed to really enjoy it. Feeling experimental Rei branched out and began lightly ghosting her fingers over Hinata’s ears, neck and jawline. The young girl shuddered and with her eyes closed seemed to completely lose herself in the pleasurable sensations.

    “You’re such a good girl Hinata,” Rei whispered, “I think you and I will be very close. Just follow my lead and everything will be fine.”

    Hinata made a pleased humming sound. “Okay,” she whispered in a soft happy voice.

    Something dark and wicked laughed in the back of Rei’s mind. You’re mine Hinata. You just haven’t realize it yet.
     
  2. Threadmarks: Chapter 32
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 32

    000

    Rei stood on a raised platform facing the opponent standing directly across from her. He was a head taller than her and had to weigh at least half again as much as she did. Puberty had come early for him and with it a serious growth spurt along with a generous increase in muscle mass. Rei felt a flicker of annoyance as that thought crossed her mind. The benefits of a maturing body were utterly lost on someone like the mentally deficient meathead in front of her.

    Rei didn’t always remember the names of her classmates but when she did it was usually because they had caught her attention. More often than not this was something most sane students wanted to avoid. Catching Rei Yamanaka’s attention usually meant you had annoyed her… and everyone knew Rei Yamanaka had a vicious streak and a long, long memory.

    “Masao,” said Rei, her smile vulpine and just a shade malicious. Masao Inuzuka looked down at the smaller Rei, his eyes just a little wider than normal and his posture rigid and uncomfortable. Rei’s smile widened a little and she was gratified to see him lean back as if to put a little bit more distance between them. His eyes flickered nervously to where his friends were standing off to the side of the stage before settling back on the girl in front of him.

    The blonde Yamanaka didn’t always enjoy intimidating her classmates during their mandatory spars but Masao was one of those few special exceptions. Five years ago she had caught him and a couple of his sycophantic flunkies bullying Tenten to the point where they had made her cry. Rei had put them all in their place with impunity that day, him especially, and on that day they had all gained the dubious distinction of earning a place of honor on her shit list. Especially Masao Inuzuka. As the ring leader he had earned a very permanent place on her list, and on that list he would remain… well, forever really. That’s what permanent meant after all.

    Holding a grudge wasn’t an art form, but if it was Rei would have probably been declared a Grand Master in no time at all.

    “The fifth match of this month’s ranking spars, Masao Inuzuka versus Rei Yamanaka,” Nao-sensei said in that cool, dispassionate no-nonsense voice that Rei thought of as her trademark. The teal haired woman flicked her feline green eyes to Masao and then to Rei to gauge their readiness. For some reason Rei always half-expected some silent admonition from Nao-sensei to go easy on her opponents. However when her impassive green eyes met Rei’s there was no hidden meaning in them, just an icy professional detachment. Just like always it seemed that Nao-sensei would let her be exactly as gentle or as brutal as she wanted to be.

    Works for me.

    “Begin!”

    Masao dropped into a ready stance, his eyes nervous but filling with determination now that the match had officially started. Rei kept her hands folded in her sleeves as she was wont to do and stood in place looking completely unconcerned, her posture giving every indication that she wasn’t taking this the least bit seriously. You might have mistaken her for being completely bored with the situation if it wasn’t for her smile. It was gleeful in a way that made Masao very uneasy.

    “Come on tubby,” Rei said to him, eyes shining with anticipation, “I always enjoy it when you utterly fail to even land a finger on me. Bet your dad would have a good laugh too if he saw what an embarrassment you make of yourself every single time. I know I do.”

    Masao flinched a little before his nervousness at fighting her again began to be replaced with anger. Rei’s smile widened. Too easy. It hadn’t taken her long to figure out Masao’s father was always a button you could push to get a reaction. It was a daddy doesn’t give me enough attention thing or something, not that Rei really cared. Being able to goad the unrepentant bully in front of her whenever she wanted was the important part.

    Still… she wasn’t really feeling it today like most days when she faced off against someone who deserved it. Rei’s smile slipped a little. Usually she was rather enthused to utterly crush and humiliate budding assholes like Masao during their official matches. It was rather invigorating really and good for her reputation. However today the thought giving him a thorough pounding that he’d feel for days and putting him in his place didn’t hold quite the same appeal it’d held for a long time. Rei frowned a little. She wasn’t going soft was she? She couldn’t afford to do that.

    Maybe she was just mellowing out. Rei’s frown deepened at that. She hoped not. Her intensity is what helped her keep her absurd daily regimen. If she suddenly started to slack off drastic steps would need to be taken.

    Her attention was brought back to the match when she saw that Masao had started to cautiously close the distance between them, apprehension clear on his face. Rei had to suppress a sigh. She really didn’t feel like beating him up today, even if she did still very much find his unrepentant bullying and his very presence before her offensive. Maybe there was just too much on her mind.

    Better to wrap this up quickly… along with a display of her hard-won skills. She had a reputation to cultivate and maintain after all. Giving Masao a little bit of humiliation in the process was just an inconsequential free bonus.

    “Come on Tubby,” Rei said, her previous enthusiasm for the match melting away into almost complete indifference. “We both know how this is going to end. Don’t pretend like you know how to fight.”

    “Screw you!” the Inuzuka yelled eloquently, apparently finally finding his courage. Angry courage however didn’t compensate for his mediocre skills or for his non-existent tactical acumen. Masao rushed at her, arms held out and his weight balanced forward precariously, clearly intending to grapple with her and tackle her to the ground.

    Idiot.

    Masao was built like an Akimichi and was by far the biggest student in class. As a result Rei had noticed he’d come to rely heavily on simply using his larger size to overpower his opponents. The corner of Rei’s lips twitched upwards slightly. He thinks he can beat me like that? How cute.

    Moving like flowing silk Rei snapped into action. Her hands shot out like snakes, firmly catching Masao’s by the wrists. His expression flickered surprise as she completely halted his considerable forward momentum in an instant. Rei’s bored expression became a little more animated at seeing the flash of panic in his eyes. I guess I am still enjoying seeing them squirm.

    Rei wasn’t a hundred percent sure (she never paid that much attention) but she was pretty certain Masao had a reputation as physically the strongest kid in their class. It was time to disabuse anyone watching of that notion.

    The larger boy struggled to free his hands from her grip to no avail. Rei saw it in his eyes when he decided to go from escapeto offense. Suddenly Masao surged forward, using all of his considerable mass (for an eleven year old) to try to uproot Rei and push her back. The blonde was forced to move one of her feet back half a step to get into a better stance.

    However that was the complete extent of the Inuzuka’s victory. His muscles strained, face going red from effort as he grunted and put everything he had into just forcing the Yamanaka backwards. The blonde stood unmoved, holding him in place by his wrists with deceptive looking ease. A small amused smile played on her lips as she watched the ignorant fool before her struggle uselessly to move her even an inch from where she stood.

    Muscles and Chakra had a complex and nuanced relationship but in broad terms it was rather simple. The more muscle you had the higher your potential strength. However the better your Chakra control and the more Chakra you had the higher the effective strength you could get out of the muscles you did have. That is why it would be impossible for a civilian bodybuilder to out muscle a skinny old man like the thrice damned Third Hokage. Size and muscles alone did not a stronger ninja make.

    She wondered how Masao would take that if she told him. “You know,” she said to the struggling red-faced Inuzuka in a half-bored, half-amused voice, “being a big tubby bastard will never make you a stronger ninja.”

    The Inuzuka’s face became even redder and he growled at her like a dog. In a sudden burst of strength he pushed into her even harder, redoubling his efforts to bowl her over with his weight and size alone. Rei only had to make minor adjustments to keep him at bay like he was a struggling puppy. Useless.

    Rei’s base Chakra capacity was among the very highest in her age group and she was a goddamn queen when it came to Chakra control. She also knew all the standard – and a few not so standard – tricks to get as much strength as possible out of her modest muscles… tricks that would have been impossible had her Chakra control not been pretty much “perfect”. The Inuzuka before her by contrast most likely had less Chakra than she did and had the Chakra control of a drunken baboon… he was barely stronger than an adult civilian male, if that. Completely useless. And that was before you took into account all the techniques Rat Style taijutsu had taught her about fighting larger and stronger opponents. How this windbag could get away with intimidating and bullying so many of the kids in her class was beyond her.

    Seriously, why didn’t he change tactics? Why didn’t he try to kick her? Why didn’t he alternate pushing and pulling to make it harder for her to hold on to his wrists and stay rooted in one spot? Hell he could have even tried to headbutt her. Instead he continued to insist on pitting his brute strength against hers when she had already proven that she was much stronger than him. Rei’s lip curled up in disgust as she felt him continue to struggle in her grip. Time to end this.

    Masao was throwing all his weight forward into her, all concerns for balance forgotten in his angry efforts to overpower her. His face was red as a tomato and grunts of effort escaped his lips as he pushed forward. With a mischievous smirk Rei did what this situation practically screamed for; without warning she stepped back and let go of his hands.

    His face was almost comically surprised as he stumbled forward awkwardly, being caught completely unprepared by the maneuver. Rei spun and pivoted until she suddenly found herself staring at his unprotected back. Before he could begin to recover Rei fisted one hand around the back of his collar and the other around his waistband. Rei crouched down, shifted her footing and heaved. Without too much difficulty she picked up Masao and held him straight up over her head.

    “H-Hey!” he protested loudly, embarrassment and indignation in his voice. “Let me go!”

    Rei ignored him as she held him overhead as if he weighed little more than a heavy textbook. Masao flailed and struggled like a crab on it’s back, spouting a litany of protests and obscenities, but Rei managed to hold on to him without too much trouble. Looking around briefly she spotted where the Inuzuka’s friends were watching from the side of the stage. As casual as if she had been taking a stroll down the street Rei walked to the edge of the platform directly in front of them.

    “I think you might be missing something,” she said as she looked down on them from where she stood. They were three civilian boys who were essentially Masao’s minions and accomplices and followed him around like dogs. Her eyes became cold and cruel as she looked down on them, and she let a smile fueled by the darker parts of her psyche spread across her lips. Almost as if choreographed three sets of eyes widened one after the other before they all took a nervous step back under her stare. Satisfied, Rei hefted the struggling boy she was holding overhead.

    “Catch!”

    Being just gentle enough to make sure she didn’t break anything she threw the protesting and embarrassed Masao straight at his friends. Rei watched with amusement as two of them were knocked to the ground trying to catch him. She’d really hoped to get a perfect strike by knocking all three of them over but she supposed flattening just two of them would do just as well.

    “Winner, Rei Yamanaka by ring out,” said Nao-sensei in a tone that gave no hint as to what she thought of the result, “please proceed off the stage. Nobuchika Hasekura and Keiji Mori, step up for the next match.”

    Rei turned her back to the pile of boys and walked away, already dismissing them from her mind. Furious whispering had sprouted from the class standing all around the stage, some of it excited and positive, some of it more quiet and reserved. Rei briefly noted their reactions before promptly ignoring them altogether. As long as these kids remembered how strong she was that was the important part. At the end of the day she didn’t care one iota what else they thought about her.

    Rei hopped off the stage and went over to where her two friends were waiting for her. Neji and Tenten stood together with a little bit of space between them. Over the years the two of them had become… sort of friends. They were ‘friends’ with each other through their association with her basically. While Rei didn’t think they would hang out if she wasn’t involved they were polite and mostly friendly to each other which was really the best that she could ask for. Especially from Neji. He was the only person she knew who was even more antisocial than she was.

    “Don’t you think that was a little rough?” asked Tenten sounding a bit concerned but for the most part just amused.

    “Rough?” asked Rei with faux-incredulousness as she settled herself between Neji and Tenten. “I didn’t even hit the tub of lard this time.”

    Tenten gave her friend a small smirk. “I meant a little rough on his ego.”

    “Well,” said Rei as she stretched her arms overhead, “it wouldn’t do to let a toilet bug like that get any ideas. There isn’t any room at the top for someone like that. It’s just the three of us.”

    “I’m actually fifth in the class in case you’ve forgotten,” said Tenten.

    “Completely irrelevant,” Rei said confidently, “you’re with me and Neji, that automatically puts you above everyone else here. Socially speaking at least.”

    Tenten just shook her head a little, something like a fond smile on her face. “If you say so, though I don’t really care about stuff like that.”

    “Says the girl who wants to be the next Tsunade,” Rei teased.

    “Err, let’s be honest that will probably be you. When you make Hokage you can stick me in ANBU or something,” Tenten said a little sheepishly.

    “Hokage?!” exclaimed Rei, whirling on Tenten with genuine shock on her face, “what in the eight hells would make you say something that crazy?”

    “It… was just a passing comment. No big deal,” said Tenten looking a bit put off by Rei’s outburst.

    Fuck that. I’m more likely to join Akatsuki than become Hokage. Not that I would ever consider doing that either.

    “You never know,” said Neji speaking up for the first time, “you’re one of the few people who could conceivably be qualified in the future. Fate may call on you to take up the mantle of Hokage one day.”

    Rei whirled around to look at him, her expression incredulous. “I’m telling you right now Neji, there is exactly a zero percent chance of that ever happening.”

    Neji turned his head to look at her, the smallest upward turn visible on his lips. “Well you know what they say… even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

    Rei scowled at that which only seemed to amuse Neji all the more. Turn my own Lord of the Rings reference against me? I underestimated you Neji-kun.

    Her response was interrupted by Nao-sensei’s voice. “Winner, Keiji Mori on my authority. Please proceed off the stage. Neji Hyuuga and Sakai Shimura, step up for the next match.”

    Neji firmly put his haughty and aristocratic ‘Hyuuga’ mask back on before walking to the stage at a leisurely and dignified pace. Idly Rei wondered if there was going to be anything different about this match. Probably not. Neji was usually of the “let them attack until they realize how hopeless it is, then crush them utterly” philosophy, sprinkled in with some occasional disparaging remarks when he could work up the interest. Definitely not a showman like Rei tended to be.

    Rei only watched with half an eye and not much interest, long familiarity telling her exactly what the outcome of the match was going to be. Tenten surprised her by speaking up.

    “Sooo… do you have any plans for the Stoking of the Flames?” the girl asked curiously.

    Rei shrugged. “Hadn’t really thought about it,” she replied neutrally.

    The Stoking of the Flames was the one time of the year when they got any significant time off from the academy. It was basically two weeks commemorating the founding of Konoha. Many people took time off where they could, there were numerous highly anticipated festivals and spontaneous celebrations tended to spring up at night all over town. There were also a lot of long winded patriotic speeches about the Will of Fire, working hard and sacrificing for the good of Konoha, honoring those killed in action in the last year and all the years before and going on and on about how fighting and dying for Konoha were the greatest things anyone could ever hope to do with their lives… basically it was one giant orgy of indoctrination and propaganda.

    Rei didn’t care for any of it, though she doubted that would surprise anyone who had even an inkling of what her plans were for the future. She had stopped getting riled up over it years ago and now tended to look at the whole thing with a sort of detached distaste. Normally she would just put in token appearances when required and ignored all the rest.

    “Hadn’t thought about it?” asked Tenten with disbelief in her voice. “It’s less than a week away. You must have thought of something you’d like to do with all that free time.”

    “Does more training count?” Rei asked half-jokingly, but at seeing Tenten’s unamused look she decided to turn the tables. “What about you? Made any plans yet?”

    Tenten sighed heavily. “My parents are still making me learn the family business ‘just in case’ being a ninja doesn’t work out. These two weeks are going to be a crash course on how to blend different kinds of steel together and how to treat the metal in different ways. Lots of sweaty hard work basically.”

    Rei wasn’t sure if she’d be more comfortable with Tenten being a civilian weapons maker, where she could avoid the violent life of the ninja, or with her being a kunoichi, where she wouldn’t be just another helpless victim when Konoha’s enemies tried to flatten the city. Not great choices either way.

    “Do you like it?” Rei asked.

    “Meh, it’s kind of fun but not very useful when I’m going to be a ninja you know? It’s neat to learn but I’d rather be doing other stuff,” Tenten said with a resigned smile and a shrug.

    The two girls were silent for a few moments as they both watch Neji methodically take apart and dominate his opponent. Then out of the blue Rei snapped her fingers when she remembered something. “That’s right Tenten I was meaning to ask you something,” she said turning to face her friend.

    “What is it?” she asked curiously and with just a bit of apprehension.

    “I’m err…” began Rei, for once her confidence momentarily failing her, “kind of having a delayed birthday party… dinner… thing in a couple of days at my house. Some people around our age are coming. Neji too probably. So… uh, do you want to come?” Why was she being so awkward?

    Tenten looked at her, slightly wide eyed in surprise. “Wow… that’s just… wow…”

    “What?” said Rei a bit gruffly, not really all that amused by Tenten’s shocked expression.

    “It’s just… you? A birthday party? With people our age?” Tenten said with rising incredulousness, “That’s just… I never thought that you would…” then she trailed off before a lightbulb went off in her head. “Someone forced you into it didn’t they?”

    Rei rolled her eyes. Is it really that obvious? “My mom,” Rei admitted reluctantly.

    “Ah,” said Tenten, looking amused before her expression turned serious, “Hey… I know you probably hate this. Do you not want me to come? I don’t want to be a bother or make this any worse for you..”

    “No, no,” Rei was quick to reassure her dismissing her concern with a wave of her hand, “actually having you there might make the whole thing more tolerable. It’d be nice having you there.” Rei turned and looked Tenten right in the eye with a small smile. “I want you to come… if you’re interested.”

    Tenten’s answering smile was happy and honest and it made Rei glad she had remembered to ask. “I’d love to! I’ve never been to your house before or inside a clan compound.”

    “If you wanted to see the inside of a clan compound you should have just asked,” said Rei a little chidingly but with good humor. Anything they might have said further was interrupted by Nao-sensei’s voice.

    “Winner, Neji Hyuuga by way of concession. Please step off the stage.”

    “Was that kid crying?” Rei asked a little incredulously as Neji rejoined them and the next pair were called up.

    “He was,” said Neji, for some reason sounding profoundly irritated by that fact.

    Rei just shook her head. “The Shimura kid right? I’m consistently shocked by the inadequacy of even the clan kids in this class.” His loving relative Danzo would probably beat him bloody with a cane if he saw that.

    Tenten lightly slapped her arm. “Don’t be so mean.”

    “It is not that they are too inadequate. We are simply too exceptional,” said Neji completely seriously. There was not even an ounce of self-consciousness in his voice, it merely an absolute statement of fact.

    Rei huffed in laughter at that. “I think maybe your ego is getting a little too big if you can say that with a completely straight face. After all academy students aren’t who we should really be comparing ourselves against.”

    Neji made a humming sound of agreement, seemingly not at all offended by her words. “True.”

    “I notice that you didn’t say that he was wrong,” Tenten said looking at her with a raised eyebrow and a teasing quirk to her lips.

    Rei snickered a bit at that. “No, I suppose I didn’t.”

    The conversation trailed off a bit after that and Rei took the opportunity to examine her classmates as they all stood around the large platform that was used for their ranking matches. None of them had ever really stood out to her… not in a good way in any case. It was probably for the best. She already had enough demands on her time as it was.

    Looking around she noted the physical development of her classmates. Masao had been one of the earliest ones to enter puberty but he was hardly the only one. About half the girls and one third of the boys were already showing signs, some much more prominently than others. It was annoying as all hell for Rei to be honest. She had gotten used to her child’s body but she was more than looking forward to all the benefits that came with growing up. Like her last life Rei suspected she was going to be a late bloomer and among the last of her class to start maturing. Joy of joys.

    Rei snuck a glance at Tenten. There was already a very modest swelling of her chest and her thighs and hips had begun to subtly change their shape. No growth spurt yet but that couldn’t be too far off into the future. Funny how the little girl she had been mentoring for years was ‘becoming a woman’ before she did. Rei was a little jealous of Tenten she could admit but she wasn’t going to hold it against her.

    Rei mentally snickered as she thought of another side effect of half the girls in their class going through puberty. All those newly hormonal eleven year old girls had suddenly started paying a lot more attention to her pre-pubescent perpetually antisocial training partner. She usually wasn’t one to let herself get distracted by frivolities but… Rei so wanted to see his face when he read his very first love letter. She just knew it would be absolute comedy gold.

    Find little pleasures where you can find them, I guess.

    Rei was brought back from her musings when she heard Nao-sensei call her name.

    “Rei Yamanaka and Rock Lee, step up for the next match.”

    000

    Rei slowly made her way up to the stage, taking time to contemplate her opponent who had hopped up onto the stage with much more enthusiasm, a look of both nervousness and determination on his face. The blonde examined him more closely. White gi top with black accents, blue pants, short shaggy hair, there was nothing really outstanding about him unless you wanted to get petty and point out the thickness of his eyebrows. His eyes were maybe a bit rounder than normal, but more in the sense of having “Western” vs “Asian” eyes rather than the deformed comedic depiction she remembered from the story.

    Silently Rei went to stand some distance away from him and assumed the Konoha Standard basic stance. Rock Lee was quick to mirror her, though he looked considerably less comfortable in doing so. Rei had to hold back a sigh. Of all the people in her class Rei wanted to fight Lee the least.

    “Let’s have a good match Rei-san,” Lee said politely.

    Rei just gave him a small nod of acknowledgement.

    Idly she wondered why they were being made to fight now. Rei had never been able to figure out how in the hell the matches for their ranking bouts were determined, other than knowing that she usually only fought people at the top half of the class. In fact it had been something like two years since she had been in a taijutsu match against Lee. The logic of making her, who had consistently held one of the top two spots in the class since day one, fight Lee, who had been at the very bottom of the class for almost as long, completely escaped her. There was only one way this was ever going to end. Was the stern and always proper Nao-sensei a closet sadist perhaps?

    “Begin!”

    Rock Lee took the initiative, closing the distance between them and aiming a kick at her stomach. Rei danced out of the way, letting the attack miss by inches. Lee was determined to go on the offensive, raining punches and kicks down on Rei as fast as he could make them.

    It was… really bad. His movements looked almost disjointed when he moved, like he couldn’t string two movements together smoothly for the life of him. His form was sort-of okay but he telegraphed horribly and had a tendency to overcommit to his blows. He was also rather slow, which was really strange to think about since she knew that Lee had the potential to one day be one hell of a speedy fighter.

    He fucking sucks Rei thought, feeling more disappointment and vague unhappiness in this case rather than disdain.

    The next time one of his punches overextended Rei yanked him forward violently and threw him over her shoulder in an mostly-gentle manner. Instead of twisting and rolling into a recovery Lee landed flat on his back, the wind clearly getting knocked out of him. Rei had to hold back a sigh. I feel like a bully for some reason.

    Surreptitiously Rei looked around the area as she always did whenever Lee fought, wondering if Maito Gai was hidden somewhere watching his future protégé. As always Rei didn’t see anything but if the man had taken enough interest in the story to bend the rules just to pass Lee and get him on his team the blonde didn’t doubt the Jounin must have spied on his future student at least some of the time. He must have or he would have never become interested in a kid who had “academy failure” written all over him in so many different ways.

    A bit shakily Lee got to his feet, but that look of determination in his eyes hadn’t dimmed. Rei raised a curious eyebrow at that. Interesting. Arguably stupid… but certainly commendable.

    “Not going to give up?” Rei asked while bringing her hands to her hips, genuinely curious.

    Lee shook his head. “If I don’t give it my all every time I’ll never be able to graduate.”

    There were snickers from a few of the students around the stage. Some of them might have heckled him if it wasn’t for her standing on the stage. Everyone knew Rock Lee was incapable of using jutsu and thus would never pass the graduating exam. It was commonly accepted that he would never become a ninja.

    Little do they know.

    Rei gave Lee a small genuine smile. “Well come on then,” she said sliding into a loose stance, “don’t keep me waiting.”

    The next couple of minutes involved Rei more or less taking it easy on Lee, letting him show off what he could do just in case Gai was hidden away watching somewhere. Rei didn’t want to get personally involved with Lee, at least not now. She didn’t have the time, Lee was an ordinary kid and those annoyed her to no end. Also such an endeavor was unlikely to benefit her a great deal. She had also always been afraid that if she were to befriend Lee and improved his skills that might mean Maito Gai wouldn’t take an interest in him… which would pretty much ruin Lee's dreams for the future, however misguided they might be.

    However none of that meant she couldn’t give him the opportunity to show his stuff when the opportunity presented itself. For all his quirks Lee had ultimately been a really nice guy from what she remembered. That and there was a pretty good chance they would end up on the same team together.

    After a few minutes of dragging things out with Lee the blonde decided that she had done enough. For the first time in the match she went on the offensive, her speed easily forcing Lee to furiously give ground. In seconds she had him at the very edge of the stage. Slipping under his guard Rei punched him in the chest, more of a push than a punch really, until the boy lost his balance and fell off the stage.

    “Winner, Rei Yamanaka by ring out.”

    On impulse Rei hopped off the stage and went to stand next to Lee who had fallen on his behind. His was clenching one of his hands, looking equal parts downtrodden and resolute. Maybe that ‘never give up’ thing is what Gai found so interesting. Lee was so focused on his thoughts he didn’t notice her standing right next to him until she spoke up.

    “Good match Lee-san,” she said to him in a polite but friendly voice.

    His gaze snapped to her, his big eyes blinking in surprise. “Uh,… thanks? You too Rei-san,” he said, looking surprised and confused as to why she was even talking to him.

    Rei offered him her hand and after hesitating and looking at it warily he cautiously took it. The blonde pulled him to his feet and gave him a small smile.

    “Well… see ya,” she said before turning and walking off. Rei could almost feel the incredulous stares burning into her back. She had probably confused the hell out of Lee by being friendly to him.

    When she got back to her friends Tenten was giving her a curious and questioning look while Neji… wow, he did not look happy.

    “What was that all about?” he asked almost as soon as she was back standing next to him, “you usually don’t talk to trash like that.”

    “True,” Rei conceded, “but I thought it was a good idea to be on friendly terms with and to make a good impression on Lee-san.”

    Neji gave her an incredulous look. “And why would you think that?”

    “Because,” she said turning to look at him with a devilish grin, “It’s a good idea to make a positive impression on your future teammates.”

    Rei’s grin widened even further as she saw Neji realize what she was suggesting. His face went from scandalized, to horrified, to disgusted in the span of about two seconds. It was all Rei could do not to snicker at his distress.

    “That’s impossible,” said Neji after having a moment to recover. The Hyuuga genius shook his head. “That individual can’t meet the minimum requirements to become a ninja. In fact someone useless like that should have been kicked out of the academy a long time ago. There is no way he’ll ever graduate and even if he did they would never put someone like… that in a team with the two of us.”

    Rei couldn’t help but snicker at that. “I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.”

    000

    After school Rei went to find Worm who spent the rest of the afternoon keeping her company and giving her occasional tips and criticism while she trained. Once the sun had begun to set Rei decided it was time to head home and do some work that would require a fair bit of peace and privacy. That is she had some serious thinking she wanted to get done that night; namely to start to figure out what she was going to do about the Hinata situation.

    When she got home it looked like she had the whole house to herself. After taking a shower and slipping into a t-shirt and a pair of shorts she liked to wear around the house Rei locked herself in her room. Worm was there waiting for her, curled up on top of her bed, and even though she knew he was an adult she couldn’t help but think of him as a pet for a moment. It didn’t help that when she sat next to him and began to stroke his fur he leaned rather forcefully into her touch.

    “So,” began Rei as she explored all the places she knew the Rat liked to be scratched, “Hinata. What did you make of her?”

    “Well,” said Worm in a lazy voice as he enjoyed her ministrations, “I’d say her nature is not naturally suited to be a ninja.”

    Rei frowned a little at that, crossing her legs into the lotus position and sitting up with a rigidly straight back. “Explain.”

    “What is there to say?” Worm began while lazily whipping his tail about, “I mean I personally thought it was fairly self-evident. I would call her indecisive, conflicted. Unfocused. Soft. The Hyuuga are incompetent, The Family would have done a much better job purging her of such weakness.”

    Rei had been hoping for something more elaborate but Worm didn’t seem like he was going to add anything more without further prodding. Before she could think of another suitable question to ask him he spoke up first.

    The Rat turned his head to look at her. “Why are you even bothering with this? You’re all about getting stronger. I fail to see how this girl could possibly help your goals.”

    Rei thought about that for a solid minute before answering. “When I… go through with my plans,” Rei began. It wasn’t a good idea to openly talk about treason even in her own room. “If I play things right I might have a very highly placed ally in Konoha’s power structure. That kind of contact might be invaluable. Having eyes and ears in the village could be important.”

    Worm gave Rei what she knew to be the equivalent of a Rat’s skeptical look. “From all the time I’ve been here it’s always been ‘Konoha this’ and ‘Konoha first’ with these humans. She’s been bred into that and into loyalty to her clan. When the time comes won’t she turn on you?”

    That question seemed to give Rei pause, but after a few moments she replied with a dismissive shrug. “I guess I’ll just have to make her more loyal to me than she is to Konoha.”

    “Oh?” replied Worm with an agitated flick of his tail, “Just like that?”

    Rei shrugged again. “She’s lonely. Desperate for any kind of supportive attention. Unless I miss my guess completely lacking in any sort of positive human affection since her mother died,” a sharp little smile crept onto her lips, “she also seems rather willing to take direction from me and fall in line. Making her that devoted to me should be well within my capabilities. I’ll give her what she wants… and she’ll give me everything that I want. Seems like a fair trade to me.”

    The Rat gave her a puzzled look. “Why would you even care about trading fair?”

    Rei rolled her eyes. “That’s the takeaway from what I just said?”

    “Well I suppose if you think it will work I won’t try to stop you. Seems like it could work. Worth a shot at least.”

    “Thank you for your support,” Rei said dryly and with a hint of humor.

    “Don’t mention it,” Worm said pulling away from her scratching hands to sit a little further away. Rei guessed his dignity had tolerated all the petting it could handle. “Of course none of that solves your more immediate issues with that young female.”

    “No it doesn’t,” Rei acknowledged thoughtfully. “You said that The Family would have done a much better job with Hinata. What did you mean exactly? Are there actually any Rats who have the problem of being too… well, soft and nice for the whole assassin business?” Rei asked skeptically.

    “Actually that does happen. It’s not common but it’s certainly not extremely rare either.”

    “Really?” asked Rei with a healthy amount of disbelief in her voice. All the Rats she had met had been uniformly been nasty pieces of work, all their other positive qualities aside. Even Worm, possibly the nicest of the lot, had his moments of utter ruthlessness and casual disregard for anyone not part of The Family.

    “Oh yes,” Worm said nodding enthusiastically, “Rats are not hardwired to be killers you know. Predators like cats or snakes have built in instincts for killing and murder. Rats… considerably less so. So we do have a small percentage of pups born who are simply too gentle, too soft for the world we live in. Since The Family was not willing to leave them to their fate we found a way to... help them in a way that works a very high percentage of the time.”

    Well, this was interesting. If the Rats really had a method that worked for them perhaps it would also work with Hinata? “How do you ‘help them’ exactly? Do you think it’s something I could use?”

    Worm hesitated in answering, his tail flicking in agitation. “If I’m going to tell you…” began Worm carefully, “I’m going to need your word that you will not talk about this to anyone who does not already know. That includes some members of The Family who might be too young to be aware of this.”

    Rei looked at Worm warily. “Why would you need a promise like that?” she asked in deliberate tones.

    “Simply put this method works best when those undergoing it are completely unaware of what is happening to them,” said Worm, his tone as serious as she had ever heard it. “Knowing about it before hand makes it much, much less effective. If it gets spread around and this method loses its effectiveness… a lot of our pups that might have otherwise been saved will be in much greater danger of losing their lives. So if you want to hear about it you have to agree to not tell a soul. Otherwise I will not tell you.”

    Rei sat up a little straighter at his tone. Her voice was solemn and serious when she looked Worm in the eye. “The last thing I want to do is put the lives of any of our pups in danger. I won’t tell anyone, you have my word.”

    “Well… okay then,” Worm said a good deal more cheerfully. “Just as long as you understand that going back on that carries some serious punishments.”

    Rei had to resist the urge to roll her eyes. “Sure, I understand. Now get to it. What is this miracle method for turning lambs into li- ... well, ruthless assassin-warriors?”

    “This was created in the early days when we were transitioning from a clan of thieves to a clan of assassins,” Worm began in a serious tone, “She who showed us the Way, Vicious, saw that for their own good and for the good of The Family those who were weak in spirit needed to experience first hand the dangers that we faced. In order to overcome their kind natures and realize what was at stake… the horrors that awaited our people should we fail to hold the line needed to be lived,”

    “Thus under Her supervision a new method was devised, one that She ultimately named ‘The Awakening’. Using a combination of drugs and what you would call Genjutsu the Rat in question is plunged into an illusory world that, to them, is utterly indistinguishable from reality. In fact this is done in secret so the Rat is not even aware they are under these effects and believe everything they are experiencing is real,”

    “Then comes a reenactment of what would happen should our defensed be breached and our home invaded. The controller will guide the illusion, forcing the subject to experience an enemy animal clan laying siege to our home. The subject then gets to live a realistic battle of attrition as we Rats fight for our lives. They get to experience seeing their homes being invaded, they are forced to fight for their lives and for the lives of those care about, they get to see our people being slaughtered, their loved ones falling before them one by one as our people are slowly overrun. Horrors abound and death is literally everywhere. If they do not fight they get to see their brothers and sisters dying to save them. Either way they still get to experience the horrors of our extinction as our nests are destroyed and our pups are killed. This illusion lasts for days, and at the very end the Rat in question is one of the very last defenders left alive. Then they get to experience being killed as they watch the last embers of everything they ever knew being smothered and wiped out forever.”

    Rei was silent for a long time. She swallowed thickly before she spoke, feeling a lump in her throat. “And these Rats... they are convinced this is all real while they are experiencing it?”

    “It wouldn’t be nearly as effective otherwise,” came the careless reply. “The rate of positive outcomes is really quite good when done this way.”

    “Positive outcomes?” said Rei incredulously, feeling both horrified and appalled by what she had just heard. “How do you figure that? There should be… no, there has to be a lot of mental damage from living through something like that.”

    “Of course there’s mental damage,” replied Worm in a tone that said she was being rather slow for stating the obvious.

    Rei just stared at Worm incredulously, suddenly feeling like she didn’t know the Rats nearly as well as she thought she had. “How do you justify it?”

    Worm flicked his tail… kind of angrily. Rei realized she must have offended him somehow.

    “We don’t do this to our own lightly you know,” Worm began, voice displeased. “Sure they may experience some problems in their personal life but their life expectancy tends to skyrocket. Better alive and dealing with a few issues than dead and no longer having to worry. We do it because we care, and because if we allow any weakness to grow in our midst then the scene played out in the illusion may well come to pass. Meek Rats never live very long. This process forever rids them of such a liability. It might not be nice, but the world has never been nice to us, and that isn’t likely to change any time soon.”

    Rei chewed that over, feeling conflicted. Part of her was uncomfortable and sickened by the practice on principle while another part of her could understand where Worm was coming from. If exposing your child to a deeply traumatic event greatly improved their chances of living to adulthood and old age, was it the right thing to do? In Rat society everyone fought. Even Konoha’s armed forces had more ‘peaceful’ options than the Rats did, such as being a medic. In that moment Rei couldn't see any clear cut ‘right or wrong’ answer when it came to that question. That she could see a kind of twisted almost concern in the practice probably didn’t say anything good about the world the Rats lived in.

    “I get why it’s done. It’s not my place to judge I guess, I can see the reasons for it,” said Rei. She was glad to see that her declaration caused Worm to relax slightly. The blonde made an effort to push aside thoughts of right and wrong for the moment. “So basically, the idea is that living through this illusion hardens Rats to the realities of war?”

    “Yes, exactly so. That and the catastrophic personal loss should we ever fail,” replied Worm.

    “What happens to the ones who… well, you did say this works a high percentage of the time,” said Rei, taking care to make her question sound curious as opposed to accusatory.

    “A small percentage can’t handle it,” acknowledged Worm, “depending how badly off they are we still take care of them. We never abandon a member of The Family. Never.”

    Well that wasn’t the least bit vague and ominous. Still Rei decided to drop the subject. Though she was still curious she didn’t really want to learn the details of what happened to mentally traumatized Rats right then and there.

    “Still the rate of success really is extremely high,” continued Worm. Then he paused and stared off at the wall, making a thoughtful clicking sound. “You know we’ve never had a summoner before so there really is no precedent for this. If you want I can most likely get permission to use this method on that little human pawn of yours. It would solve all your problems nicely… in fact The Awakening was designed with Rats just like her in mind. Once you get that pesky issue out of the way you can focus all your energies on making her loyal and devoted to you and only you.”

    “You’re serious?” Rei asked him, slightly disbelieving.

    Worm rolled his shoulders in the Rat equivalent of a shrug. “I don’t see why not. Unless you’ve got any better ideas?”

    Did she? Rei laid back on her pillow, her arms behind her head as her brow furrowed in through. Subject Hinata to ‘The Awakening’? There were certainly pros and cons to it every which way. On the one hand it was... a cruel if arguably necessary practice. Certainly it was something painful and traumatic to live through. But if she didn’t do something on that scale how the hell was she going to get Hinata over her issues? At least here she had a method that she knew would have a ‘very high percentage’ chance of succeeding. This was a method carefully constructed for this kind of thing. What were the chances that anything else she came up with on her own would work as well with the same kind of reliability? Then again, could she bring herself to subject Hinata to something like that?

    Rei bit her lip, indecision tugging at her every which way. No path that she was entirely comfortable with was coming to her at the moment. Eventually she turned her head just enough to look Worm in the eye.

    “I’ll think about it.”

    000

    Over the last few years Rei had gotten more or less used to Rats randomly sneaking into her room at odd hours. Still, used to it or not it could still get annoying. And it could still scare the crap out of her when one of them would melt out of thin air right next to her.

    “Hello summoner,” a deep voice said right next to her head.

    It was very late at night and Rei had been ‘sleeping’ while exploring and mapping her Chakra coils. The voice startled her, causing her to jolt to full awareness and take a wild swing at where the voice had come from. She hit nothing but air as the individual who had ‘woken’ her easily stepped out of range of her clumsy punch.

    “I know I must have mentioned this at some point but Rats do demand some measure of respect from their students, summoner,” said the same voice in an amused and patronizing tone.

    Rei blinked the tiredness out of her eyes as she came to full awareness. Even in the near darkness of the room she easily recognized the figure standing a few feet from her bed. “Ofuda?” Rei asked sounding a bit groggy, “What are you doing here? At…” she looked over at the small clock on the table next to her bed, “three fifty eight in the morning? That’s too damn late. Early. Whatever.”

    “I was hanging around this quaint little village, thinking about what to do about your… creative attempt at the test I gave you the other day. You’ll be happy to know I came to a decision,” the Rat said before slowly moving to stand next to the nearest wall and leaning lazily against it.

    Rei let out an irritated breath and let herself plop back down onto her bed. “Couldn’t this have waited until later? Even on my earliest days I don’t tend to get up for at least another hour.”

    “Oh? So this would be an inconvenient time to teach you a new technique then?” Ofuda asked as he casually picked dirt out of his claws.

    “Wait,” Rei said, her head snapping to him, “you’re passing me then?” Though I think I deserve it I more than half expected you to fail me instead.

    He chose not to respond and instead changed the topic. “So this technique that you claim will help you bypass your pitiful inadequacies in the area of scent tracking; why don’t you tell me about it again?”

    Resigning herself to not getting back to rest anytime soon Rei sat up with an irritated sigh and leaned her back against the wall her bed was pushed up against. “What else is there to say Ofuda-sensei? Pretty much all Yamanaka have the potential to become sensors. When I learn that skill I’ll be able to track people reliably in zero visibility. It will probably be even better than scent tracking in some ways.”

    “And worse in others,” said Ofuda pointedly.

    Rei closed her eyes and leaned her head against the wall behind her. “Yeah, that’s true. But I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to match you guys in that particular department. I’ve got to work with what I’ve got.”

    They were both silent for a long time after that, so long that Rei was considering just laying back down and enjoying some more personal time with her pillow. Eventually though Ofuda spoke up. “I suppose you being a human and not a Rat does create some… special circumstances. Adjustments will need to be made every now and then.”

    “Okay…” said Rei, trying not to get her hopes up as she thought she knew where this was going.

    “You said you’ll be able to learn this technique next year?”

    Rei nodded. “As soon as I graduate from the academy, yeah.”

    “Well then,” Ofuda said, “I’ll expect you to make learning that technique your highest priority the second it becomes possible to do so. I’ll not have any trainees of mine with such a sad and glaring hole in their skillset.”

    “So,” Rei said, an excited smile slowly creeping on to her lips, “does that mean you’ll teach me that stealth jutsu after all?”

    Ofuda snorted. “Just like any other pup. It’s always about the jutsus with you young ones.”

    “Is that a yes?”

    “Yes, that’s a yes,” said Ofuda, sounding annoyed and amused. “Congratulations. This means that you’re officially not completely incompetent at sneaking around unaided. In only took you two long grueling years.”

    Rei wasn’t about to let Ofuda’s unique brand of cheerfulness ruin her sudden good mood. “So what does this jutsu do exactly?” she asked ignoring his acerbic comments, “Can you start teaching it to me now?” It’s not like I’m likely to get any more rest tonight anyway.

    Ofuda chuckled at her eagerness. “It’s not as flashy as what you’re probably imagining. In fact you might even find it a bit of a letdown. You wouldn’t be the first pup to think so.”

    “Don’t care,” said Rei, starting to get a little irritated. “Are you going to teach me or not?”

    Ofuda made a sound of consideration before pushing himself off the wall. “No, I think I’ll make you wait. Tomorrow – or would that be later today? – anyway I’ll find you two hours before sunset. Make sure you aren’t busy with anything then.”

    Rei wanted to protest but she knew she didn’t really have any other choice. “All right,” she conceded, making an effort not to mouth off more than she already had lest Ofuda decide to punish her by pushing his instruction back even further.

    “See you then,” Ofuda said with a toothy murine grin before scurrying to her open window on all fours and disappearing into the night in the blink of an eye.

    Rei sighed and looked at the clock next to her bed. She didn’t think she would get any rest for what was left of the night now that she was up and her mind was spinning with all this new information. That might have been Ofuda’s plan in the first place come to think of it.

    “Bastard,” she muttered to herself, picturing some creative ways to inflict pain on the most irritating Rat that she knew.

    Well at least she would still be learning her very first jutsu from the Way of the Rat tomorrow. Rei smiled in the darkness. Even though Ofuda had played it down to her this felt like a gigantic milestone. She supposed she could forgive him for being a giant dick just this once.

    000

    The next day was fairly routine and passed rather quickly. It was two days before their break for the Stoking of the Flames and nearly everyone seemed distracted at the academy. It was also the day before the ‘party’ she was hosting, which Rei tried not to think about. After the academy Rei spent most of the rest of her afternoon refining her skills with Neji before heading home, making sure she had left a sufficiently large window of time before she was scheduled to meet up with Ofuda.

    However when she got home she was greeted by a sight she had most certainly not been expecting. Waiting just inside the entrance in the living room were Ino and her best friend Sakura. Both of them were standing facing the door as if they had been expecting her. Sakura for her part looked uncomfortable and kept alternating between shooting Rei pleading and apologetic looks and looking concerned whenever she glanced over at her best friend. Ino on the other hand stood with her hands on her hips, an almost angry frown of determination on her face. Rei glanced back and forth between the two of them, feeling blindsided and confused by the sudden ambush.

    “What’s going on?” Rei asked slowly, eyes flicking back and forth between the two girls before settling on Ino.

    “Nee-c… - no, Rei,” Ino said in as dead serious a tone as Rei had ever heard from her. “I challenge you to a spar. Right here. Right now.”

    Though she would normally consider herself far too smooth for something so plebian, Rei’s mouth dropped open in utter disbelief. Of all the intelligent things she might have said in that moment not a single one came to mind. Instead she managed to infuse all the incredulousness and confusion she was feeling in that moment into one single word:

    “What?”

    If Ino’s deepening frown was any indication her witty response was not appreciated.

    Great. This is somehow going to go horribly wrong and somehow it’s all going to be my fault.
     
    meri, Perspicacious, Marduk and 46 others like this.
  3. Threadmarks: Chapter 33
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    000

    Chapter 33

    000

    Sakura was in her room studying when the door was suddenly thrown open without any warning. The pink haired girl jumped, startled, and nearly knocked what she was working on off her desk in the process. Looking up her eyes widened as she saw who had barged into her room so dramatically.

    “Ino?!” exclaimed Sakura, “How… - What, what’s with just barging in here? How did you even get in here?” she asked, surprised and annoyed by the unannounced interruption.

    Ino walked over to Sakura’s bed and threw herself on top of it, letting out a loud unhappy sigh as she did so. “Your mom let me in,” said Ino, answering Sakura’s last question.

    Of course that wasn’t really the most relevant thing Sakura wanted to know but it at least solved that little mystery. Now starting to get over her surprise Sakura looked over at the prone figure of her best friend on her bed. It was pretty obvious that something was bothering Ino even if the girl was being a little overdramatic about it by barging into her room and throwing herself on her bed like that. If that didn’t clue her in then her despondent face and melancholic sighs made it soobvious it wasn't even funny.

    “Want to talk about it?” asked Sakura. Now that she was over the shock of Ino barging in she was not able to fully conceal her amusement at how overly dramatic her best friend as being.

    The blonde sighed despondently and Sakura started to get a little worried. This wasn’t at all like Ino. Even when she was upset she would be all energy and hot indignation. Now that energy seemed to be lacking, replaced instead with a feeling of melancholy and sadness. No, this definitely wasn’t like her best friend at all.

    “Ino?” asked Sakura cautiously when Ino failed to respond.

    The girl hugged Sakura’s pillow like a stuffed animal and was silent for so long the pink haired girl began to think her friend wasn’t going to answer her. However eventually Ino flopped onto her back to stare at the ceiling and hesitantly started talking.

    “It’s my sister,” she said quietly.

    “Rei?” Sakura asked, surprise coloring her voice.

    “Yeah.”

    Usually getting Ino to start talking took no effort at all, so Sakura was surprised when her friend suddenly lapsed into a silence again. Turning her chair to fully face her friend Sakura bit her lip thoughtfully. It looked like she was going to have to drag whatever was bothering Ino out of her.

    “Is… she okay?” Sakura asked hesitantly. It was hard for her to imagine anything bad happening to Rei. The older girl was like a living force of nature in human clothing, someone who Sakura saw as the ideal of what a kunoichi (or a kunoichi in training) should be. The idea that anything could even inconvenience Rei for very long was hard to wrap her head around. But for Ino to be this upset…

    “What?” exclaimed Ino in loud surprise, snapping out of her reverie and turning to face Sakura. “No! Well, yes she’s fine. Of course she is. What would make you say something like that?”

    Sakura felt something tight in her chest release at hearing that. Now that it looked like she had Ino’s full attention the pinkette crossed her arms and gave her friend a chiding look. “What was I supposed to think? You haven’t told me anything about why you barged into my room all upset except that it has to do with your sister.”

    Ino had the decency to look a bit sheepish. “Yeah you’re right. Sorry.”

    “It’s okay,” Sakura said, her voice turning a bit more gentle. “So what’s going on?”

    Ino turned her face towards the ceiling, put the pillow over her head and mumbled something. Sakura sighed and rolled her eyes. “What was that? I don’t understand pillow speak.”

    Ino ripped the pillow from her face and took a deep breath. It was obvious that she was having a hard time talking about this for some reason.

    “Rei…” began Ino hesitantly, “she’s always busy.”

    “Okay…” said Sakura leadingly, not quite seeing what the problem was yet.

    “Always training. Like, always training. And it’s not like anyone’s forcing her to, it’s just what she does. She never has time for anything else,” said Ino.

    Sakura made a sound of agreement where appropriate but she didn’t think Ino even noticed. Instead the blonde continued on, gaining more steam as it all began to come out.

    “I mean, of course it’s good that she’s so focused. It’s what our teachers would want us all to be like in a perfect world, right? But she’s like, obsessed or something,” said Ino, suddenly sitting up so fast it startled Sakura a little. Ino hugged the pillow to her chest, a frown marring her small features. “She’s always been like that but it feels so much worse now. Recently it’s like she doesn’t even have time for me anymore. I’ve asked her, you know? ‘Hey Rei, why don’t we have dinner tonight?’ or ‘Do you want to come with me to visit the Nara?’ and it’s always ‘Sorry I’m busy training with Neji’ or ‘The Rats are teaching me something’ or ‘I’ve got to work on my fitness’ or whatever. Something, it’s always something. It’s like she doesn’t even see me anymore.”

    Sakura felt surprised at hearing all of this. She didn’t have any siblings so maybe she was missing something but on the rare occasions she’d gotten to see the two of them interacting she’d gotten the impression that Rei absolutely adored Ino. The older girl’s forceful personality never seemed to leave much of what she was feeling up to the imagination. In Sakura’s mind it just didn’t make a lot of sense that Ino’s older sister would suddenly start ignoring her.

    “How long as this been going on?” Sakura asked tactfully. After a moment’s consideration she added, “And what brought this on all of a sudden?”

    Ino surprised Sakura yet again as her expression went from earnest and distraught to angry in a blink. “Oh it’s been going on for a while now. I’ve kept quiet about it because I know Rei’s been doing what we’re supposed to do: do everything we can to become the best Konoha ninja we can possibly be. How can I ask her to slow down? But she never knows when to stop. Have you seen the scars on her left hand and her neck?”

    Sakura blinked at the unexpected segue. “Uh,.. I’ve seen the scars on the back of her hand,” she said tentatively.

    “Well those scars cover her entire left arm, from the back of her hand aaalllll the way up to her neck,” Ino said emphatically while motioning up and down her own arm. “Did you know she almost died trying to make friends with those stupid Rats of hers? That’s where those scars came from. And those aren’t the only injuries she got on her stupid little trip, or the only ones she’s gotten since. And do you know how she got the dumb contract of hers? By doing a jutsu that even most Jounin are scared to use. It’s, like, a small miracle that she’s even still alive.”

    “Really?” Sakura said, eyes wide, a small tone of wonder slipping unconsciously into her voice. Rei was barely a year older than she was. Sakura had heard all the rumors that Rei was a prodigy light years ahead of everyone her age but she had never really heard any specifics. Ino’s nice, touchy-feely and utterly intimidating older sister had used a jutsu that even Jouninwere reluctant to use? And walked away with only a few scars? This had to have been some time ago to. Now that she thought about it, Rei had gone missing for a few weeks a couple of years ago hadn’t she? That had probably been when it happened. Wow. Just wow. Is that what being a genius meant? If so then Rei had to be beyond amazing. Just… wow.

    “Don’t make that face,” Ino said to her, her voice both demanding and pleading. “Everyone scolds her for doing something that crazy and stupid before turning right around and telling her how amazing she is for having pulled it off. It’s dumb. How is that attitude going to stop her from doing something like that again? I thought she’d died. We all thought she’d died. Why does everyone forget that? That’s more important than her making friends with a bunch of stupid animals that almost killed her in the first place.”

    “Oh,” Sakura said in a surprised voice at Ino’s unexpected vehemence, “Uh, I’m sorry?”

    Truth be told Sakura wasn’t exactly sure what she was apologizing for. Obviously Ino was worried that her sister… was working too hard? And that she took too many risks. Still it was hard to see things from her point of view. They had been taught from day one to praise and look up to that kind of initiative. How could being so dedicated that you would risk your life to become the best ninja you could be for the sake of your family and for the village possibly be a bad thing? But… Sakura supposed if it had been her own mother or father in that situation she wouldn’t have been all that happy about it either.

    Still… was that really what was bothering her best friend? “Ino,” began Sakura cautiously after a few moments of silence between them, “are you mad because Rei isn’t spending any time with you, or because of how dangerous her training is?”

    Ino studied Sakura for a few seconds before seeming to deflate and falling back onto the bed with a puff of air. “It’s more the first one,” admitted Ino reluctantly, “though it does worry me that I never know if she’s going to pull another crazy stunt. Or how dangerous the training she’s doing is. I never want to feel like I did when I thought… she was dead, you know? But… yeah it’s mostly that we haven’t had any time for just the two of us for a long while now. Not like we used to.”

    Sakura nodded, relieved that they were going back to territory she was more comfortable with and maybe thought she could actually give some good best-friend advice on. “So you never told me what brought this on. Did you simply get fed up with it?”

    Ino’s expression once again turned sour as she clutched the pillow to her chest. “It’s Hinata.”

    Okay, now Sakura was truly puzzled. “Hinata?” she asked with confusion.

    “Yes, Hinata,” Ino said sounding very unhappy, “apparently my sister is going to be training her so she won’t be such a huge disappointment to her clan. Why is Rei going to be wasting time with her anyway? She’s like a mouse, there’s no way she’ll ever be Clan Head material. It just.. it just pisses me off!”

    Jealous. Sakura could see that Ino was horribly jealous and hurt that her sister was going to be spending time with and training Hinata when from the sound of things she had repeatedly turned Ino down when the younger sister had wanted to spend time with her. However Sakura was pretty sure pointing that out wouldn’t really help in this situation. Still there had to be a reason. Sakura knew Rei wasn’t the most social person so she wouldn’t just randomly decide to train someone who as far as Sakura knew she had never had much to do with before.

    Why Hinata then? Other than being a Clan Heiress there wasn’t really anything all that special about Hinata that Sakura had seen. She was somewhere in the top third of the class when it came to their sparring ranks and a bit higher than that in their academic test scores. The girl was perpetually shy and quiet and Sakura wasn’t even sure if she had any friends. Hinata was a good student but well… she was a perfectly average good student if Sakura was going to be blunt about it.

    “There must be a reason,” said Sakura gently, attempting to be the voice of moderation. “I mean, you said it yourself that she’s all about her training right? She wouldn’t take the time to train someone unless she had a really good reason.”

    Ino just scowled, crossed her arms and looked away petulantly with a huff. Sakura resisted the urge to sigh. Her friend was probably too emotional to listen to a calm, reasoned argument right now.

    Sakura decided to try another track. “Well, your sister is all about training right? Why don’t you train with her sometimes?” The pinkette paused as she thought of something. “Have you asked her to train with you before Ino-chan?”

    The blonde quickly went from looking petulant to looking fidgety and uncomfortable. “I don’t know,” said Ino, “She’s so intense. She takes her training so seriously. I’d just be getting in the way.”

    “That’s not true,” said Sakura almost reflexively.

    “Yes it is,” said Ino with a sigh before looking up at her friend with a morose expression. “You know me. I like to have a good time at the academy, always joking around, socializing, whatever. I don’t work nearly as hard as I could. And I usually don’t make that much of an effort outside of the academy, I do just enough to keep my spot near the top of the class you know?”

    “Well, I guess you can be a little bit lazy,” Sakura teased lightly before sobering up. “Maybe you should take being a ninja a little more seriously Ino.”

    Okay, so Sakura knew she was being a little bit of a hypocrite. She wasn’t exactly one for working herself down to the bone outside the academy after all. Her natural smarts kept her at the top of the class academically but on the more practical applications she knew she was fairly abysmal. Sakura bit the inside of her lip as she thought about it. Ideas were popping into her head and maybe she needed to take her own advice, at least a little bit.

    Thankfully Ino didn’t call her out on it. “That doesn’t change the fact that Rei… you know would probably wipe the floor with me.”

    “It’s important,” Sakura said thoughtfully as chewed on her thumb nail, an old habit when contemplating something important that refused to die. “Maybe we shouldn’t play around quite as much anymore. Besides, if you buckle down I’m sure your sister will notice you more.”

    Ino gave a disdainful snort. “If she even notices I’m doing something different in the first place.”

    Sakura was about to reply when she noticed that Ino had gotten a certain look on her face. Even though going by what she said the blonde hadn’t sounded very receptive now Sakura could practically see the gears turning in her head. As the seconds ticked by Sakura saw Ino’s expression slowly morph from morose and thoughtful to determined and maybe just a little bit pissed off.

    “You’re right,” said Ino, suddenly slapping her hand down on the mattress. “If she doesn’t notice me, I’ll make her notice me.”

    I’m pretty sure that’s not what I said. “Uh, Ino…?”

    “Sure she’s better than me, but I’m no slouch either!” said Ino passionately, picking up steam. “I’m easily one of the best girls in our class. I can even beat Hinata in our spars most of the time! Rei can’t be that much better than me.”

    Sakura just stared at her friend incredulously, her mouth opening and closing as if she was going to say something but her mind was drawing a blank as to how to respond. The pink haired girl could feel where this was going and it felt like watching a slow motion wreck that she was unable to stop.

    “I’ll show her what I can do and then she’ll have to take me seriously,” said Ino, pumping her fist with a determined look on her face. “I’m training to be a kunoichi too!”

    Sakura for her part was a lot more skeptical… and more than a bit worried for Ino. She wasn’t sure her friend was really thinking this through. Sakura obviously didn’t know Rei as well as Ino but she did know her. The older sister could be described in a lot of ways. Intense. Proud. Intimidating. She even gave the air of being… more than just a tiny bit dangerous. Rei just looking at Sakura in the eye was enough to make the younger girl nervous and make her doubt herself. Sakura didn’t think Rei would react well to anyone challenging her superiority. Not even her sister.

    “Maybe picking a fight isn’t the best way to go about this…?” ventured Sakura, trying to be tactful.

    “Come on,” said Ino, completely ignoring what her best friend had just said. The blonde jumped off the bed and grabbed Sakura by the hand, yanking her to her feet and dragging her towards the door. “I’m going to challenge her as soon as she gets home. You can be our referee.”

    “Wait, Ino!” protested Sakura as she suddenly found herself being pulled towards the door. “At least let me put on something decent first!”

    000

    “I said I challenge you to a spar. Right here. Right now.”

    Rei just looked at her sister incredulously, almost as if she were speaking another language. Ino? Challenging her? Challenging her? What the hell?

    “You can’t be serious,” said Rei, uttering the first thing that came to mind.

    “Oh I’m completely serious,” said Ino with that angry little frown on her face before crossing her arms. “Or are you scared?”

    Rei chose to ignore that utterly ridiculous taunt as her brain began to process the fact that this was actually happening. It was oddly bizarre. For years everyone her age (minus Neji) had avoided sparring with her like the plague. No one wanted to get thoroughly trounced unless they absolutely had to. To have someone her age, in this case her sister, trying to pick a fight came as a strange and novel experience.

    “What brought this on?” asked Rei, still feeling blindsided... but at least now she felt back in control of her faculties.

    “I’m going to show you what I’m made of,” said Ino sounding resolute and confident. “You’re probably technically better than me but I’m no slouch either. You won’t take me down that easy.”

    Rei raised an eyebrow and gave her sister an incredulous look. Dear Kami… I didn’t realize she had such an inflated sense of her own abilities. I’d trounce her even with both hands tied behind my back. Literally. That she actually thinks she has a chance of beating me is… really fucking scary.

    Normally Rei would just tell her opponent exactly what she thought of their respective skill levels but this was her sister. The last thing she wanted to do was hurt her, including hurting her feelings. Still she didn’t feel right letting Ino run around with the fantasy that she was much stronger than she actually was. If she was ever in a dangerous situation with that kind of… misconception things could get real ugly, real fast. Or maybe she just doesn’t realize how good I’ve gotten over the years? It’s not like we really do a whole lot of ninja stuff together.

    Rei snuck a quick glance at Sakura who was standing unobtrusively a little off to the side. The look on her face was conflicted and more than a little worried. The pink haired girl briefly met her gaze and her eyes seemed to implore Rei to take it easy on her sister. It seems that one of them at least understands what a horrendously terrible idea this is.

    “Ino-chan, I’m not trying to put you down but we’re simply not on the same level,” said Rei gently as she turned back to her sister. “A spar between us wouldn’t serve much purpose. There’s no real benefit to it.”

    Ino’s eyes narrowed on Rei. “It does serve a purpose. I told you, I’m going to show you what I’m made of. Don’t underestimate me.”

    You don’t train! What the hell do you think you’re going to show me?

    Despite her best intentions Rei was starting to get annoyed. “There are plenty of Genin that I can chew up and spit out for breakfast Ino. This is ridiculous.” Rei really didn’t want to fight her sister. Something about it just felt wrong.

    “See? This is why we need to spar,” said Ino, gesturing with her hand. “You don’t take me seriously. You don’t take my skills as a ninja seriously, do you?”

    You’re right. I don’t take your skills seriously. “You’re not a ninja Ino,” Rei said instead of voicing her thoughts.

    The younger blonde made a tsk-ing sound. “You know what I mean. I’m going to get you to look at me and take me seriously. Whether you want to or not.”

    I’m going to get you to look at me. Was that was this was all about?

    “I don’t want to fight with you,” Rei said softly.

    “Too bad,” said Ino in a decisive – and bratty – kind of way. “I’m going to the backyard,” she said before turning and stomping off in that direction. Sakura gave Rei a wide eyed pleading look and mouthed ‘please go easy on her’ before hurrying after her best friend.

    Rei simply stood in place for a few moments feeling decidedly uncomfortable. Her only choices were to either follow her sister outback or just ignore her altogether. Rei wrinkled her nose unhappily. Unfortunately there was only one choice for her to make if she didn’t want to somehow make things even worse with her sister.

    With a sigh Rei reluctantly followed Ino and Sakura. She could only cross her fingers and hope this didn’t turn into a disaster.

    000

    As she headed out the back Rei took a quick look at the clock hanging on the kitchen wall. It was getting late and she was supposed to meet Ofuda in a bit less than half an hour. Today was the day when he was going to start teaching Rei her first stealth jutsu. She was briefly tempted to just ditch this awkward situation with Ino and go learn the jutsu before swiftly discarding the idea. Priorities. Whatever’s going on with Ino is more important right now.

    It was late afternoon outside, the sun hidden behind the tall village walls that formed the back of the border of their property. The backyard was cast in a cool shadow that had always made training in their backyard more pleasant after the sun began to pass its zenith. Ino and Sakura were standing close to the huge Hashirama tree in their backyard, watching her and waiting for her to come to them.

    Rei approached slowly, her mind working furiously the whole time. What should I do? The more she thought about it the more diffusing this situation so they could walk away without a fight seemed like an unlikely outcome… at least if she wanted to do it in a way that wouldn’t make things worse. Rei was also starting to think maybe she shouldn’t walk away, as much as she might want to. She didn’t like Ino’s attitude, bold to the point of being belligerent when she didn’t have the skills to back it up. The girl actually seemed to think she had some sort of chance. Rei shook her head in disgust. She didn’t want to hurt Ino, but she was worried about allowing Ino to simply walk away while the girl was still grossly overestimating her own skills. Confidence was one thing, but this was simply crossing the line into outright stupidity. In the field something like this could easily get her killed.

    Rei stopped some five paces from the other girls, her face settling into a cold mask of neutrality while she folded her arms into her sleeves. Her dispassionately assessing look seemed to disquiet Sakura while Ino just seemed to get more riled up under her scrutiny.

    “Why are you doing this?”

    Ino huffed at the question. “I already told you, twice if I remember correctly. I’m going to show you that you have to take me seriously.”

    Rei shook her head. “I’m out here aren’t I? That means you’re getting your wish. I’m going to spar with you.” Her declaration seemed to worry Sakura and Ino tried to hide a sudden bout of nerves under a glare. “I agreed even though I don’t think this is a good idea. The least you can do is tell me what this is really all about Ino-chan.” Rei had a pretty good idea at this point. She just wanted to get confirmation from Ino’s own mouth.

    Ino hesitated, her determined look momentarily melting into a much more vulnerable one. “All you seem to care about is training these days Nee-chan. It’s like the only thing that ever matters to you anymore is the ninja arts.” Her face sobered and became more serious once again. “That’s why I’m doing this. I won’t just let you ignore me anymore.”

    Rei opened her mouth to protest before she paused and thought about what Ino had just said, reading between the lines. Have I really been ignoring her so much she felt like I didn’t care about her anymore? Suddenly Rei felt terrible. That was the furthest thing from the truth. She loved Ino. Ino was her most precious person. When had things gotten so bad that she felt she had to pick a fight with her older sister in order to get her to notice her? Have I really been neglecting her that much?

    Rei looked stricken as she sighed. Glancing at Sakura the older girl realized this wasn’t the time for a heart to heart. That kind of thing needed to be done in private. Rei needed to apologize. She needed to start to make up for this… somehow. However right in that moment it wasn’t the time or the place.

    Looking at Ino the elder sister also got the impression that the younger girl wouldn’t back out of this fight no matter what Rei said. In an odd kind of way it kind of made her proud of her little sister.

    “Okay. We’ll do this,” said Rei. Suddenly her throat felt dry. “Then afterwards we talk. Okay?”

    Ino nodded, expression serious, and then surprised Rei by taking the initiative and dropping into the basic Konoha Standard stance they taught at the academy. Eager are we?



    Rei mirrored her sister, sliding into the stance in a much more solid and confident fashion. “Sakura,” Rei called out without even looking at the pinkette.

    “Y-yes?” she answered nervously.

    “You get to be the referee. Standard academy sparring rules. If we get too far out of bounds call it. If the match looks like it’s over to you call it. Do it right and don’t hesitate. Got it?”

    Sakura looked uncertain but after a moment she gave one shaky nod. “Got it.”

    Satisfied, Rei turned the fullness of her attention back to her sister. The girl looked determined but Rei could detect some nervousness radiating off of her. Ino was forcing herself to go through this despite her reservations. Have I really been that bad?

    Rei didn’t want to hurt Ino. Furrowing her brow Rei tried to think how to best approach this. She knew she couldn’t be too easy on Ino… the girl needed to start learning the differences in power that existed. She needed to respect that. Lowballing the fight too much wouldn’t do anyone any favors long term.

    Sakura raised her hand up in the air. “Standard academy rules. Ready…” Sakura said before bringing her hand down in a cutting motion. “Begin!”

    The instant Sakura said the last word Rei was already moving, crossing the distance between her and Ino in a flash. Rei swung her fist at her sister, not terribly fast but brimming with power. Ino started in surprise and frantically crossed her arms in front of her face for a sloppy block. Rei’s fist collided with her guard with the strength of a mule kick, partially lifting Ino off her feet and sending the girl sprawling to the floor.

    “Ino!” Sakura cried out in concern.

    “This isn’t a game Ino-chan,” Rei said as she stood with her fist held up in the air. “I love you sis, but you have no business challenging me. That was only a small sample of what I can bring to bear. Quit this foolishness before you really get hurt.”

    “N-no way!” declared Ino as she shakily scrambled to her feet. “I’m not going to give up that easily!”

    Despite saying that Rei could tell Ino was shaken, her arms held in a way that made Rei think they were still hurt or numb from her blow. “Tsk, as you wish,” said Rei as she slid into a much more aggressive Konoha Standard stance. “Remember you asked for this!”

    Ino leapt backwards, unleashing a flurry of shuriken and kunai at her older sister. Rei dodged the entire assault with graceful, lazy steps before effortlessly catching Ino’s last thrown kunai between two fingers.

    “Your accuracy needs work!” Rei yelled before throwing Ino’s own kunai back at her at three times the speed.

    The projectile was too fast for Ino to dodge. Instead she brought her own kunai up, awkwardly blocking the thrown one with a loud clang as metal collided against metal. That action momentarily blocked Ino’s line of sight. Big mistake.

    “Down here!” called out Rei, suddenly appearing crouched inside her sister’s guard. Without warning Rei buried her fist in Ino’s stomach hard, completely knocking the wind out of her. Furiously Ino tried to slash at Rei on reflex to no avail. The girl simply leaned back out of range before jumping back to put some distance between them.

    “Situational awareness. Reaction time,” said Rei with a hint of a smirk. “You’re not bad. Better than half the kids in my class, and they’re all a year older than you. However I am on a whole ‘nother level. Ready to call it quits so we can talk this out?”

    “NO!” declared Ino as she stood there shakily with one arm cradling her stomach. “I’m not going to quit until I show you what I’m made of.”

    One the one hand Rei wanted to groan and facepalm at her sister’s stupid Naruto-like stubbornness. What does she actually think she can accomplish? On the other hand Rei found herself impressed and just a little bit proud. Ino might not be the best fighter in the world but she was tough. Rei could respect that.

    “I’m not going to go easy on you,” Rei said to her, half-serious.

    Ino smirked even though she was still clearly hurting. “I wouldn’t expect you to.”

    Well, thought Rei as she pulled out two kunai, if she’s going to insist then I might as well show her some real skill.

    The next five minutes were unpleasant for both girls, but anyone watching the fight would agree that Ino by far got the worst end of the deal.

    000

    Later

    “Ow! That stings.”

    “Sorry. Just need to make sure it doesn’t get infected lil’ sis. I’m almost done.”

    Rei had Ino sitting on the bathroom sink while she gently took care of all her little injuries. A first aid kit was all laid out as Rei did what she could. Currently she was using a piece of gauze dipped in rubbing alcohol to clean Ino’s split lip. It probably didn’t feel great but it was the best antibacterial they had available at their home.

    “I’m sorry,” said Rei softly, feeling a fresh wave of guilt as she examined Ino’s broken and swollen lip. “I should have gone easier on you. At the very least I shouldn’t have hit you hard enough to make you bleed.”

    Ino sighed and rolled her eyes tiredly. “Don’t worry about it. I was asking for it. Like, literally. It’s not so bad.” Ino seemed uncharacteristically subdued, a far cry from how she had been out in the back yard just a short while ago.

    There was an uncomfortable silence between them with Ino apparently finding something very interesting in her lap to keep her focus on. Not exactly sure where to begin Rei cleared her throat awkwardly. They needed to talk and as the older, more mature one she needed to be the one taking the lead.

    “Look,” Rei began softly, “I’m not very good at this heart to heart stuff so I’ll just come out and say what I’m thinking.” The lavender eyed girl paused and took a deep breath. “I screwed up. Somewhere I screwed up if you felt you had to get this far just to get me to notice you. I’m sorry.” Rei paused and gently lifted Ino’s chin until their eyes met. “I love you. I’ll do anything it takes to fix this. So please don’t stay mad at me, okay? I’ll get on my hands and knees and beg if I have to.”

    That earned a small smile from Ino before her expression turned somber and she adverted her eyes again. “What about Hinata?”

    Rei blinked. “What about Hinata?”

    Ino turned and gave her sister a light glare, one that said ‘you’re not really this stupid’. “Why are you spending time with her now? Training her? You never seem to have any time for me.”

    Oh. Somehow it hadn’t really occurred to Rei that Ino might see it that way, especially when she had already more-or-less told her that the deal with Hinata was business rather than personal. Apparently however that hadn’t been reassurance enough. After a brief internal debate Rei decided she would come clean. It was worth the risk.

    “I’ll tell you why I’m spending time with Hinata but I need you to promise me you won’t tell anyone.”

    Ino looked at her skeptically. “Why?”

    “Because Hiashi Hyuuga asked me to keep the reason to myself and I agreed. If you go around telling people it will get back to him before too long and that would be bad. It would hurt my credibility and make me look untrustworthy in his eyes. It could really, really hurt me. So I need you to keep it to yourself and not tell anyone. Okay?”

    At the mention of it possibly hurting Rei the younger girl sat up straight, an uncharacteristic look of seriousness coming over her young face. “You can trust me Nee-chan. I won’t tell a soul. I swear.”

    Rei looked her sister in the eye for a few moments before giving her a small smile. “Okay. I believe you.”

    Then Rei proceeded to tell Ino everything about that had happened and about her arrangement with Hiashi Hyuuga. How he had summoned her and asked her to act as Hinata’s senpai in hopes that Rei might be able to help turn her into a worthy heiress. How Rei had been reluctant until she saw the opportunity to secure having Neji on her team when they became Genin. How for better or for worse Rei now had a commitment to make sure Hinata became the best heiress she could make her because that was the deal she made.

    “I like Hinata,” Rei said with a shrug. “She’s a nice girl, but I wouldn’t have given her the time of day if it wasn’t for this little arrangement. It’s something I have to see through to the end now. Otherwise I would be seriously dropping the kunai on my own foot.”

    “No I get that,” said Ino with a thoughtful nod. “You have to keep your word. It’s okay. I completely understand.”

    Rei felt something ease up a bit in her chest at her sister’s sincere words. The girl had been raised in a clan too. She had a pretty good grasp on how these things were supposed to work.

    “I want to fix whatever is going on between us,” Rei blurted suddenly. “You’re my sister and I love you. Anything you want, name it, and I’ll do my best to give it to you.”

    Ino just looked at her and suddenly bit her lip, looking painfully shy. The girl ducked her head, hiding her face behind her bangs. “Do you think… maybe… we could spend more time together? Just the two of us?”

    Rei just grinned and pulled her sister into a bone crushing hug. Ino made a squeaking sound of surprise before she wrapped her arms around Rei and began to squeeze her back.

    “I’d like that. I'd like that a lot.”

    000
     
    meri, Perspicacious, Marduk and 44 others like this.
  4. Threadmarks: Chapter 34
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 34

    000

    In the end Rei decided not to subject Hinata to The Awakening. She was self-aware enough to realize she could be a… less than pleasant human being when she had a goal to achieve. Or if she thought someone was a hindrance. Or if you wasted her time. Or if she simply didn’t like you. The point, however, was that there were limits to how far she was willing to go and it turned out that subjecting a vulnerable little thing like Hinata to what amounted to psychological torture was one of those limits. The Rat’s method got shelved into the ‘do not use except under extreme circumstance’ basket and left at that for the time being.

    Of course that still left the problem about what to do about Hinata’s issues. Thankfully sometime after her heart to heart with Ino the day before Rei had been struck by inspiration. After a great deal of frantic scrambling she had gotten the agreement from her family and from everyone else she needed to in surprisingly short order. There had been some reluctance – from her mom and dad in particular – but it was very seldom these days that anyone in the Yamanaka Clan would say ‘no’ to Rei Yamanaka.

    Now there was only one person left who needed to buy into her idea if this was going to happen. That is why she was currently standing in a magnificently manicured garden inside the Hyuuga estate with the Clan Head himself. While she had been given a lot of leeway to do as she pleased with Hinata… Rei was definitely going to need Hiashi Hyuuga’s approval for this one.

    The gardens inside the compound were surprisingly large, large enough to provide a definite sense of peace and privacy from the world at large. Rei was currently observing Hiashi Hyuuga as the man digested her proposal. They were currently standing on a pathway with nearly a dozen bonsai trees set on tables on either side, each of them somewhere between two and four feet tall. Hiashi was taking his time, using a ridiculously tiny pair of scissors to trim a single leaf or one tiny branch at a time from the gorgeous miniature trees on display. While the finer details of the art were lost on Rei she could at least appreciate the years of patience and care that had gone into turning the tiny trees into living works of art.

    “Where would this training take place exactly Rei-san?” asked Hiashi without looking at her, his face a neutrally pleasant as he focused his attention on the bonsai trees.

    There was only one place that would serve as far as Rei was concerned. “Training ground forty-four,” she replied politely and to the point.

    Hiashi glanced at her, quirking one perfectly manicured eyebrow upwards in what might have been surprise. “Indeed? There are other places to practice survival Rei-san. Those training grounds are considered dangerous even for teams of Genin. They are restricted for a reason.”

    His concerns, while unwelcome, weren’t exactly unexpected. “Hiashi-dono, after meeting with Hinata I’ve come to believe that subjecting her to a high-pressure, high-danger environment may be the best way to precipitate the changes that we wish to see in short order.” She didn’t need to add that it was a ninja truism that experience with real danger and adversity changed people in a way that no amount of safe training ever could. “It is a risk, yes. But I’m convinced that with me at her side the odds of anything truly unfortunate happening would be very low.”

    Hiashi didn’t reply right away. In fact he was silent for so long after resuming the trimming of the bonsai trees that it started to make Rei nervous, which might have been the whole point. Eventually though he turned away from his horticulture long enough to ask her another question. “What makes you think this endeavor will be successful? And why this particular length of time?”

    Rei had prepared ahead of time to field these types of questions so she was able to answer swiftly and with confidence. “It seems to me that for whatever reason Hinata has been resistant to change up to this point. I’m not sure why yet but in the end it may not be important. The point of this exercise would be to put Hinata in a situation where she will need to adapt in order to survive. While I’m not so optimistic as to say this will solve all her problems it will at the very least teach her about doing what is necessary and help desensitize her to violence. The general toughening up this experience would have on her would not go remiss either,”

    “As to the length of time… yes I realize that taking the whole two weeks during the Stoking of the Flames to do this might be… socially inconvenient in some ways. I know that Hinata is expected to make certain social appearances during the celebrations. However to be honest Hiashi-dono if it was entirely up to me I would propose that his training exercise last for at least a month. There is little point in doing something if we’re not willing to do it all the way after all. Given the academy and other commitments the two weeks we have off during the Stoking of the Flames is the only time of year where something like this would be possible. If we wait it will be another year before we can revisit the idea… and I really feel this would be an important first step in molding Hinata into what you want her to be Hiashi-dono.”

    Hiashi was silent for a few long, thoughtful moments before he spoke. “You do realize the Stoking of the Flames celebration officially begins tomorrow. You have given me awfully short notice for this proposal.”

    “I apologize for that, but it was only a few days ago that I fist agreed to become Hinata’s senpai. I saw this as an opportunity and decided to seize it, without hesitation. In my view there is little reason to delay. Better to strike now early on while we can still set the tone of my relationship with your daughter. I believe that setting the tone in this way could be critically important in the future. However the final decision as to whether or not to allow Hinata to participate in this training is of course up to you.” Rei didn’t particularly like playing these types of games but damned if she wasn’t going to be good at them when it counted.

    Truth be told Rei gave it about a fifty percent chance that Hiashi would agree to her proposal. It was very sudden, yes, and it would be an inconvenience to have to make excuses for his daughter. The Clans were expected to make appearances during the celebrations and the Heir being absent would inevitably raise some questions. However… Rei was hoping that Hiashi’s eagerness to see his daughter change ‘for the better’ would tip the scales in her direction. After all him approaching her in the first place already hinted at a certain amount of desperation when it came to purging Hinata of her ‘less desirable qualities’.

    Again there was a long silence between them, though surprisingly not an uncomfortable one. Despite what she knew of his failings as a father Hiashi had never been less than a perfectly polite gentleman in his dealings with her and that made it hard to really dislike him. Truth be told she had at some point expected him to condescend to her because of her age or something along those lines but so far that had not even come even close to happening. She didn’t know how much of that was an attempt to manipulate her and how much of it was sincere but she appreciated it none the less.

    With deliberate carefulness Hiashi put down the pruning scissors and turned to face her, folding his arms in his sleeves much like she did. When he spoke his tone was guarded but it still gave Rei hope that things might be going her way. “I have concerns,” he said.

    “Of course,” said Rei with a polite nod of her head.

    “The so-called ‘Forest of Death’ is primarily a training ground for Genin aspiring to become Chunin. While I don’t doubt that you would manage well enough someone like Hinata would not be able to survive in that environment. In fact with her level of skill I would not be surprised if she were dead within hours. You are talented Rei-san, but I do not believe that you are skilled enough to keep both yourself and my daughter alive for that period of time,” Hiashi said. However despite his words his tone told Rei he wasn’t dismissing the idea out of hand.

    “Did you have something in mind, Hiashi-dono?” Rei asked with a small tilt of her head.

    “I’m willing to allow this… training exercise as long as there is someone present to ensure nothing goes wrong. In order to reasonably guarantee the safety of my daughter – and yourself as well should anything go wrong – I believe it would be prudent to have someone above Chunin rank come along and supervise,” said Hiashi.

    Rei had to stop herself from grinning. She had predicted something like this. From the way Hiashi was talking it sounded like he was angling for one of the Hyuuga under his command to come and play babysitter. Fortunately Rei had managed to make arrangements beforehand. The last thing she wanted was to be stuck with a Hyuuga babysitter while she tried to… persuadeHinata to her way of thinking.

    “I suspected something like this,” Rei said while nodding agreeably, “you’ll be happy to know I already went through the trouble of finding someone who fits the criteria you outlined, and that they already agreed to shadow us and keep us safe should it prove necessary. All that is required is pay for an extended C-Rank mission, something that the Yamanaka Clan has already agreed to cover the cost of.”

    Not really the Yamanaka Clan per se, but over the years Rei had saved enough money to pay for a couple of missions like this. It was quite a stroke of genius if Rei said so herself. By implying that the Yamanaka had already hired a babysitter he couldn’t insist on sending one of his own people without giving insult. It wasn’t even a lie, technically. Now Rei could pick whoever she wanted and she was going to pick someone who wasn’t likely to get in the way and wouldn’t run off to tattle to Hiashi Hyuuga if they happened to observe things the patriarch might possibly object to.

    Not that she thought his people wouldn’t check up on them anyway. Only this way it was more likely to be a sporadic checking in rather than constant surveillance.

    The tiniest of frowns marred his features. “That was very… proactive of you Rei-san. If I may ask, who is this person who you have in mind?”

    Rei told him, and even though the Hyuuga patriarch seemed reluctant even he couldn’t deny that the person she had tapped for this was more than qualified. They talked back and forth for about ten minutes, ironing out the details, before Hiashi tentatively gave the go ahead for her plan. It was all Rei could do not to grin victoriously. He was handing Hinata to her on a silver platter and he didn’t even realize it.

    In fact, if one extrapolated further down the line, he was quite possibly handing her indirect control of the Hyuuga Clan in the future. Or at the very least a great deal of influence, almost certainly more than Hiashi or the Hyuuga elders would have been comfortable with. It would be power she planned to use mercilessly for her own benefit once she was finally ready to leave the village.

    If everything actually went according to plan, that is.

    “Don’t worry Hiashi-dono,” she said to him with her best sincere smile, “I’ll do everything in my power to look out for Hinata. You can count on me.”

    000

    After leaving the Hyuuga compound it was more or less a regular afternoon for Rei all things considered which was just fine with her. It felt good to indulge in some normalcy while there were so many unusual things swirling about in her life recently. The very next day Rei’s last minute insane plan of camping out for two weeks in the Forest of Death with a girl who might or might not be able to carry her own weight was going to come to fruition… something that Rei found herself more worried about than she would admit out loud. Her plans for and her new relationship with Hinata were something she spent a fair bit of time dwelling on. She also needed to touch base with Ofuda and find a time to learn her first stealth jutsu, something that might add a whole ‘nother dimension to her fighting style. Just the day before she’d had a very emotional… thing with her sister that while it turned out well, Rei now needed to reevaluate her time and schedule in order to make some time for her little sister. Would they train? Did Ino want to do something else? Rei wasn’t exactly clear on that.

    On top of all that tonight was the night that she was supposed to host that accursed dinner/birthday party she had practically been bullied and blackmailed into by her own mother. Why did I let her do that to me again? Ugh. Needless to say Rei was feeling just a tad overwhelmed by all the novel things going on in such a short time frame when most of her life over the last few years had been a fairly predictable routine. One afternoon of normalcy was just what she needed to de-stress and get her head back in the game.

    No thinking. Just sparring. Just pushing her body and skills and wits to the limit. That’s just what she needed and thankfully Neji would be more than happy to oblige. He’d never failed to deliver on that front before.

    As Rei walked onto the well-worn training grounds near the academy where they were supposed to meet she couldn’t help but feel disappointed: Neji had not arrived yet it seemed. She was a bit early though so it was perfectly understandable. He tended to arrive precisely on time, never early and never late… it was just a quirk he’d picked up over the years.

    Instead Rei spotted Tenten who’d for a long time had an open invitation to join her and Neji whenever they trained. Rei was surprised to see her slowly going through a form with a sword, a Jian to be precise. She’d never seen Tenten using anything other than standard shuriken and kunai before. To Rei’s critical eye she could tell Tenten was still new at the form but she wasn’t terrible at it at least. I do remember you using a wide variety of weapons in the story. Is this the start of that I wonder?Her curiosity piqued Rei began to make her way over to her friend. She had a few minutes to kill anyway.

    “That’s new,” said Rei after having come within a handful of feet of Tenten undetected. Moving without giving herself away had become more or less second nature and Tenten jumped and squeaked in surprise at the unexpected sound of her voice. The girl whirled on Rei, a small frown marring her features.

    “I wish you would stop doing that,” said Tenten in a low voice that was half annoyed and half resigned.

    Rei just grinned at her until Tenten reluctantly cracked a small smile. They’d known each other for so long Rei didn’t even need to dignify that with a response. They both knew there was no way that Rei would suddenly stop sneaking up on people whenever she could. You either got used to it or dove yourself crazy.

    “What have you got there?” asked Rei, tilting her head towards the Jian in Tenten’s hand. Tenten’s small smile shifted and turned into a broad happy one.

    “My parents have a good friend who’s an ex-ninja and a former weapon’s specialist. He agreed to tutor me for a discount at our store. He taught me the first basic sword form last night,” said Tenten excitedly as she held up her weapon which the blonde noted was – unsurprisingly – functional and extremely well made. Rei bit her lip thoughtfully. This was certainly the first she’d ever heard of this personal instruction.

    “Specialist in what weapons exactly?” asked Rei.

    “All of them as far as I can tell,” said Tenten, enthusiasm practically bubbling off her. “’Proficient in many, master of none’. The idea is to have enough tools to be able to handle any situation or opponent.”

    They talked for a short while, mostly Tenten babbling about the man she called ‘Jiro-Sensei’. Rei did her best to squash the jealousy and possessiveness that rose up unbidden within her as the conversation went on. She had been the only one to give Tenten any special attention outside of the normal academy courses since their first year. She was the one Tenten leaned on, learned from and looked up to. However Rei forced herself all of that down because she realized it was a stupid sentiment. This development could only be good for Tenten, in the long term. She deserved more personalized instruction. Plus she’d had to get her weapon’s proficiency in the story from somewhere. Apparently this ‘Jiro-sensei’ would be the one who would teach it to her.

    “Well,” said Rei at length, with a mostly genuine encouraging smile on her face, “I always said close range fighting was where you were weakest. Learning how to use a crap ton of melee weapons should certainly help you out on that front.”

    Tenten nodded her head enthusiastically. “Yeah, I think I’ll be a lot more comfortable fighting with something more substantial than just my bare hands and kunai. Maybe it’s the family business but holding a weapon just makes me feel confident and safe you know? Next week he said he would start showing me how to use the spear.” Tenten paused, her excited babble suddenly giving way to a more cautious, vulnerable look. “You’re not mad are you?”

    “Mad?” asked Rei as if she didn’t know what Tenten was talking about. Which was a bit of a lie, because she very much did.

    “Yeah I thought… I mean it’s stupid but you…,” began Tenten haltingly, biting her lip nervously.

    Rei decided to take pity on her. She walked next to her and threw an arm around her shoulders. With an appreciative smile she said, “I know what you’re trying to say. It’s fine. I want you to survive being a ninja and it’s not like I ever did more than help shore up your basics anyway. I’m glad you got this opportunity and that you’re taking it.”

    Tenten smiled gratefully, relief obvious in her features. “Good. That’s good. And… don’t sell yourself short. I wouldn’t be anywhere near as good as I am today without your help, and I did pick up a couple of things more than the basics here and there from you.”

    Rei rolled her eyes but was inwardly pleased by the praise. “I’m not selling myself short. I know just how awesome I am,” she said teasingly. “Though I have to wonder…” Rei said thoughtfully, “Jian, spear, and who knowns what else? How are you even planning on carrying all that stuff around with you?”

    With a grin Tenten produced a small scroll from her weapon’s pouch. “Storage seals. My family uses them a lot, otherwise there is no way we would be able to keep all our inventory in our store.”

    Excitedly Tenten opened up the scroll and showed Rei how it worked. Rei had seen storage scrolls before, of course, but she had never given them a great deal of thought and had not sought out to get some for herself. It wasn’t really necessary for her at this point.

    “Do your parents make these?” asked Rei as she crouched down and examined the intricate but strangely simple seal that seemed to only have a few components.

    “No,” Tenten replied shaking her head, “my parents are civilians remember? They have plenty of ninja friends and contacts though because of their business. If we need more storage seals we can get them for a decent price.”

    Rei made a sound of agreement as she examined the storage seals on the scroll closely. Seals really could be very useful couldn’t they? She had never really looked into what it would take to learn sealing herself. It might be worth checking out. Though Rei had always been far more interested winning fights and combat there was no doubt that sealing could do some really incredible things.

    They chatted back and forth for a few minutes before Rei encouraged Tenten to go back to training. Neji was due to arrive at any moment anyway and Rei was pumped and eager to get into a fight as soon as possible.

    Except… Neji didn’t arrive on time like he was supposed to.

    Rei could be patient if she had to but it wasn’t something she particularly enjoyed, especially in a situation such as this when she had so much restless energy that it seemed to want to crawl out of her skin. She frowned and tapped her foot, crossing her arms trying not to grind her teeth. Okay so it had only been a few minutes, but who the hell did Neji think he was to keep her waiting?

    It was more than ten minutes after their scheduled meet up time that Rei finally spotted someone headed in their direction. Except it wasn’t Neji. Instead it was an older man that she recognized, a servant of the Hyuuga dressed in grey and white. Rei’s eye’s narrowed. Why did they send you here, servant?

    “Yamanaka-san,” the man said with a respectful bow as he reached her, “Neji-san sends his apologies for not being able to make it. There were some last minute clan responsibilities that came up that he was unable to avoid.”

    “I see,” said Rei curtly, not at all pleased. “What responsibilities were these?”

    “I do not know Yamanaka-san,” the servant said with an apologetic bow.

    Rei didn’t really believe him. It was more likely that he just wasn’t willing to share clan business with an outsider. “Fine. Will he still make it tonight?”

    “I do not know. Neji-san did not give me any further messages.”

    Figures. It was a bit unfair and irrational but Rei was suddenly very pissed off at Neji. She had really been looking forward to working some of her frustrations off in a spar with him. “Tell him he had better show up early tonight if he knows what’s good for him.”

    The look in her eye made the taller servant pale and back up half a step. “O-of course Yamanaka-san. I’ll convey the message as quickly as possible,” he said with a deep bow.

    Tsk-ing in disgust Rei dismissed him and the servant quickly went on his way. Great. Now what am I going to do? Rei briefly glanced at Tenten practicing off by herself and quickly decided asking her to spar was a terrible idea. I’m too keyed up and she isn’t good enough. I’ll just end up hurting her.

    Still, Rei had to do something or she was going to go mad. Drills and other exercises like that just weren’t going to cut it. Not today.

    “Tenten,” Rei said suddenly, “I’m going to take off. Good luck with your sword.”

    The girl look briefly disappointed before she brightened again. “Okay… but I’ll see you tonight right?”

    Rei managed to give Tenten a small smile. “Definitely.”

    After that Rei took off, first at a jog and then gradually to an all-out breakneck sprint. She didn’t have much of a plan, she just wanted to get moving. The blonde briefly debated jumping into the trees but decided to stay on the ground, pushing herself and pumping her legs and filling herself to the breaking point with Chakra to eke out every last drop of speed she possibly could.

    After a few minutes of just running in a random direction Rei began to slow as she realized she had wandered into another training ground. Slinking from tree to tree she made it a game to hide herself from whoever might already be occupying the grounds she suddenly found herself in. As quickly and quietly as she could Rei made her way towards the large clearing that was always at the center of almost every single training ground in the village.

    To her disappointment when she came to the edge of the clearing all she found were three academy students practicing with training posts. They look to be in the year ahead of me. And they’re still not worth even a second of my time. Really, their absolute mediocrity made Rei want to punch something. Not that she would need much encouragement to punch something right about then and there.

    The students training were none the wiser as Rei slipped by past them and moved on. She realized she was in the training grounds near the academy, and thus she was unlikely to find anything but academy students in the training fields nearby. Maybe I can find someone to fight somewhere else? With that in mind Rei began to move through the woods in the direction of the training grounds set up far away from the academy.

    Rei ran and pushed herself for a while, passing three different training grounds that were deserted. Eventually she came across an occupied one that looked promising. There was a Genin team there, two boys and a girl maybe fifteen years old. They were sitting on the ground listening to a person who Rei assumed was their Jounin-sensei, a very tall and broad brown haired man with a very slow and methodical method of speech.

    Rei hid herself near the edge of the tree line, pulling her Chakra in tightly to help conceal her presence. She observed the team which looked to have been training for some time now. The blonde ignored the students and turned her eyes towards examining their teacher. Had he detected her at all? He was a Jounin after all. Then again he had shown no signs of being aware of her and she was a pretty good distance from him. I am, after all, pretty damn good at stealth.

    Rei debated going in to pick a fight with the team before deciding it was a bad idea. If it had just been the three Genin she would have probably gone out there and goaded them into fighting her. With the Jounin there however… it wasn’t a good idea to go stirring up trouble. Even if she was dying for some action. For some excitement. For some kind of damn challenge.

    Those bastards don’t know how lucky they are, she thought, glaring balefully at the three teenagers completely unaware of her prescence.

    Rei skirted the edge of the field, moving swiftly but careful to remain undetected. Ideally she would find a few Genin training alone. Or maybe even a Chunin. She already knew she could beat your average Genin but Chunin were more of a challenge. Wouldn’t that be a thrill? It had been a while since she had gone all out against someone of Chunin rank or above.

    With one last long look at the training team she left them behind, not really all that sure of exactly where she was headed. She came across a fair sized river and knowing it cut across the majority of the training grounds Rei decided to follow it. The girl passed one, two, three training grounds as she stalked but to her frustration didn’t see another living soul. What was the use of so many training grounds if they weren’t in use all the time?

    Rei’s frustration at the failure of her hasty plan was reaching an absolute peak when she finally came upon a training ground that was not completely deserted. The blonde froze, standing next to the river and hidden from view by large trees, as she stared disbelievingly at the person she had just spotted. This was one of the very last people she would have thought she would just inadvertently run into.

    The Jounin stood, his hands in his pockets with his back turned to her but even from behind it wasn’t very much of a challenge to recognize him. He wore perfectly standard regulation gear without even an ounce of personalization that she could see, something that in her mind was almost frightfully conformist. Messy gray hair seemed to shoot wildly up and to the side like it had a mind of its own. He was taller than average, standing with his hands in his pockets and a slouch to his posture that wouldn’t have looked entirely out of place in a Nara. Even though he didn’t look like much from a distance Rei knew he was one of the most famous and powerful ninjas in the whole village.

    Hatake… Kakashi.

    Her eyes locked on to him like a hawk. The fingers of her hand twitched, eager to go for a kunai seemingly against her will. Her breathing quickened as large quantities of adrenaline were dumped into her system.

    Well… I was looking for some kind of challenge wasn’t I?

    Looking around Rei realized where she had ended up: Training ground three, the training grounds where Kakashi had famously tested Team Seven to see if they were worthy of becoming his Genin. Though now that I know more I’m not so sure that failing that team was ever really an option. Even though it was currently blocked from her view by Kakashi’s body Rei knew that he was standing in front of the memorial stone. Why else would someone like Kakashi Hatake be standing around in the middle of a training field? Seems like he really does waste a lot of his time standing in front of that rock after all. That’s kinda… pathetic in a depressing sad sort of way.

    Even though his back was turned to her Rei sank further into the shadows of the trees without making a single sound or doing anything else that might give away her presence. Though she had lived in Konoha for eleven years she had never actually seen Kakashi in person before. Is he really as good as all the hype says he is, I wonder?

    At any other time Rei might have done the sensible thing and not bothered the person many considered to be the best Jounin in the village. Being reckless did not mean she was stupid. However today she was stressed, frustrated by recent events, and in dire need of some kind of outlet. Her skin itched, her mind was filled with the lust for conflict and her muscles literally ached to be used in hard and strenuous activity. Her eyes stayed focused intensely on the Hatake, attempting to dissect him with her gaze alone. Just how good are you really?

    Before a more sensible part of her brain could talk her out of it Rei dropped to one knee, a small nervous-but-eager smile on her face as she began to plan her approach. A straight up fight is out. My chances of coming out on top then would be practically nonexistent.

    While she worked hard at being able to take anyone in a straight up fight it wasn’t specifically her specialty. It wasn’t what she was best at. If she was going to take out Kakashi Hatake only one approach stood any kind of chance.

    Though Kakashi had not shown any sign of being aware of her presence Rei knew better than to assume that meant anything. In fact she had not been that diligent in concealing her presence as she approached the training ground… so she had to assume that her target was already aware of her.

    This is where all my training finally comes in handy in a fight.

    Rei brought her hands together in the Ram seal and closed her eyes as she concentrated. Slowly she began to still her Chakra and bring it further and further into her body. She could have done it all at once but she had been trained in a special method of reducing her presence that she could use to fool anyone who was already aware of her. To anyone who had their senses attuned to her it would feel as if she was steadily moving away as her signature faded. It was one of the hundred little tricks and techniques the Rats had taught in order to always go unseen and undetected if she so chose.

    Most ninja were familiar with the technique of clamping down on their Chakra to hide their presence but the Rats had taken that a couple of steps further. Their techniques allowed her to become one hundred percent invisible to the Chakra senses of others as long as she was careful… only a powerful natural born sensor would have a chance of spotting her through her specialized Chakra suppression. The Rats had assured her this technique would hide her from the Chakra senses of anyone, up to and including Kage and other S-Rank ninja.

    It was time to see if their training lived up to the hype.

    After maybe sixty seconds Rei finished, feeling confident that she had done everything perfectly. If Kakashi had been aware of her Chakra presence before he should now believe she had left the area. Now it was time to take the other necessary factors into account.

    Luckily for her there was a brisk breeze that had her downwind from the Hatake. The sense of smell of a tracker, while powerful, did have some inherent weaknesses… such as which direction the wind just happened to be blowing. Knowing that him using his nose to detect her was not an immediate concern Rei silently took to the trees.

    She was some distance away from him and thus she began to make her way in his direction, slowly and painstakingly across the trees. As she did so Rei contemplated some of her first lessons with the Rats. The basic tenant of stealth is completely hiding yourself from the seven senses. In this world she had learned early on that ninja were thought of as having seven senses. First and most obvious were the five senses every human shared: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. For those who were highly trained there were two others: their ability to sense Chakra (which in the elemental nations was the ‘sixth sense’) and the ability to instinctively sense danger.

    Hide yourself from the seven senses and you will always have victory. Which, of course, tended to be easier said than done. But not impossible by any means.

    As Rei slowly made her way towards Hatake she knew that Chakra and smell were covered. She was too far for taste and touch to be of much use to her target. That only left two senses but Rei did not need to worry about Kakashi’s danger sense too much until she was ready to strike. That only left one thing to be concerned about as she made her approach.

    Sound.

    Moving silently was another thing that took a hundred skills and techniques to execute properly, skills both Chakra based and mundane. Using Chakra on her feet to keep them from making sound as she moved from branch to branch was a very basic technique most ninja learned sooner or later… but that was really only the tip of the iceberg. More concerning, if she stepped on a branch would it shake the leaves at the end of it? Of course it would, if only minutely. That was something that needed to be factored in. Clothes were noisy because friction was the enemy of silence. When any two things rub together they produce noise… so a lot of time had gone into using Chakra to make everything she wore as devoid of friction as possible. You’re standing in the wind? That also makes noise as the air is forced to move around you and rubs against you everywhere. Breathing can also give you away to those with exceptional hearing (more friction, more noise)… unless your breaths are so slow that you only breathe once every thirty seconds or so that is.

    With all these things and more drilled into her over the last couple of years Rei moved like a ghost, slow but completely undetectable unless Kakashi just happened to turn around and look up at the worst possible moment. In instances where it was impossible to make zero noise, such as jumping from one tree to another, Rei waited for a gust of wind. The rustling of leaves as the wind blew masked what minimal noise she had to make when jumping twenty foot gaps high up in the trees.

    It was slow, agonizing going when Rei was keyed up for some action but discipline drilled into her over years and her own hunger for excellence and victory kept her impulses firmly in line. It took what felt like an eternity, but was in reality the better part of fifteen minutes, before Rei was in the tree whose thicker branches were closest to Kakashi out of his line of sight. In fact one of those branches looks perfect.

    Rei couldn’t help but allow a smug little smirk to play across her features. So far the Hatake hadn’t given any hint of having detected her, looking for all the world like he was lost in his thoughts and memories while he looked down at the memorial stone. If he wanted to be left alone and he had detected her he would have most likely called her out so she would stop stalking him and leave him alone… probably. Rei wasn’t sure but she thought the odds were most definitely in her favor. Using a slow movement reminiscent of living sticks Rei slowly walked out onto the branch that ended almost directly on top of Kakashi. It was beyond tricky to walk out on a gradually thinning branch without making any noise, even for her… but Rei managed it until she was almost directly above Kakashi some fifteen feet up in the air.

    This is really good. How many people can claim to have come this far in sneaking up to a former ANBU-captain? A sliver of doubt sprung up in Rei as she looked down at Kakashi who had not moved an inch or had given any indication that had noticed anything out of the ordinary. Maybe I should just quit now. That would be the smart thing to do wouldn’t it?

    Still even as she tried to talk herself out of doing what she had planned next part of Rei knew it was in vain. She just wasn’t the kind of person who could leave well enough alone. She always had to push, just a little more, just a little more, bulldozing over any lines that may or may not have been there. When an idea lodged in her head it was nearly impossible for anyone to get it out.

    I need to see how far I can go. Silently, stealthily Rei reached into her kimono and pulled out a kunai. She held it loosely in one hand, heartrate skyrocketing and pupils dilating in excitement and anticipation as she looked down at her prey. This is the tricky part.

    According to what she had been taught the most difficult sense to overcome was the danger sense of highly trained Chakra users. How that sense worked was poorly understood and seemed almost supernatural in nature. However there were ways to work around it. Indirect methods such as poisoning tended to be the best bets. When striking directly however other methods needed to be employed.

    The best way to do it was almost Zen like in its philosophy: learn to strike without striking. Or rather, learn how to strike without any intent to harm that can be detected. To do so required a very specifically trained mind so your intent will not match up to your actions. Subtle, but as Rei was beginning to learn many of the most powerful things tended to be. Doing so successfully was difficult but if done right… even a highly trained ninja’s danger sense could be fooled.

    Well, you know. Most of the time. Unfortunately when overcoming the last hurdle of a highly skilled ninja’s danger sense there didn’t seem to be any guarantees.

    No time to perfect a skill like the present, Rei thought as she perched herself precariously off the end of the branch.

    This needs to be perfect. When she jumped down she needed to ensure her body cutting through the air did not make any noise. The sun was in a place where her shadow wouldn’t give her away. She looked down at Kakashi, whose head was bent forwards slightly as he looked down at the memorial stone. The back of his neck was exposed. Rei gripped her kunai tighter. The space between the third and fourth cervical vertebra was the ideal place to strike. A blow there would lead to instant paralysis followed shortly by death from asphyxiation.

    Rei waited on her perch, completely immobile for almost a full minute as she awaited the absolute perfect time to strike. Then the opportunity came. A particularly brisk gust of wind swept through the small forest, shaking every leaf and moving every tree branch, creating much more ambient noise than one would expect.

    With that opening Rei cut off the Chakra holding her to the tree, letting herself freefall towards her target, kunai held up for the vital strike. She was completely silent as she fell, emotions running high as Kakashi still made no move to defend himself. I actually got the drop on you didn’t I, you son of a bitch. Her victory was right there, so close she could practically taste it. It's mine. Fifteen feet, ten feet, seven feet. I've got you. Five feet, three feet, one foot…

    It happened so fast Rei didn’t actually see anything except for a blur of movement. One second she less than a foot away from burying her kunai in the back of Kakashi Hatake’s neck. The next there was what felt like an impossibly powerful hand gripping her neck and another gripping the wrist that held the blade. Rei was spun around and slammed into the ground, hard, completely knocking the wind from her lungs.

    “I wouldn’t struggle if I were you,” said a voice above her. The voice was calm, almost conversational but with the distinct edge of warning to his tone. The voice was somewhat deeper than she had expected.

    Rei looked up at the man who was holding her down, his grip on her neck and wrist hard enough to bruise but not hard enough to actually stop her from breathing. He looked just as she remembered, hitai-ate tilted to cover his left eye, blue mask covering his face until the only thing that was exposed was a single eye so dark it was very nearly black. He was looking down at her with an expression she couldn’t particularly read (how could she when the only thing exposed was one eye?) but something about it told her he was at the very least a little bit annoyed.

    Not that his warning not to struggle was really needed. She was on her back and had somehow ended up with her free arm twisted and trapped underneath her body. Kakashi had her other arm that still held the kunai pinned against the ground and his other hand had a firm grip around her neck. Rei glared up defiantly Copy-ninja and briefly debated struggling anyway. It was simply in her nature. But no… there was no way she could win like that. She had taken her best shot and had obviously failed. That stung. However that didn’t mean that the confrontation between them was over.

    After another long moment of tension where the two of them tried to stare each other down Rei relaxed and allowed herself to go slack in his grip. To her surprise she was breathing hard, panting even, even though there had been no real physical exertion to speak of. Tension and adrenaline, must be. Kakashi’s grip eased fractionally now that Rei was signaling that she didn’t intend to fight. However words could be the tool of a ninja just as much as anything else.

    “Hatake… Kakashi,” Rei began, something like a self-satisfied smile spreading across her lips. “Tell me the truth… How close did I get before you actually sensed that I was there?”

    Kakashi ignored her question, his one visible eye narrowing as he scrutinized the girl he was pinning to the ground. “You’re Rei Yamanaka,” he said, tone almost accusatory.

    Though the Jounin that currently had her at his mercy didn’t seem particularly worried Rei somehow got the impression that he didn’t quite know what to do with her. He was definitely still tense. Maybe all that will work to my advantage.

    “In the flesh,” said Rei, eyes dancing with pleasure and excitement at being recognized by someone like Kakashi Hatake.“Does my reputation precede me?”

    “It didn’t say you were psychotic.”

    “Oh please,” Rei said, rolling her eyes as best she could without being able to move her head. “I know better than to attack a Konoha shinobi with a real weapon. That thing there,” she said, pointing at the kunai in her hand as much as she could with her chin, “is just a blunt training prop.”

    Kakashi’s one eye almost lazily slid away from her and over the weapon still gripped in her hand. “It’s coated with poison,” he said in a dry deadpan tone, “and the tip is sharp enough to break the skin.” Though he didn’t raise his voice there was something decidedly dangerous in his accusation.

    Rei tried her best not to be intimidated… which was actually much more difficult than she would have expected, even though the Jounin wasn’t even giving off any killing intent. Instead Rei forced herself to scoff disdainfully. “Please, all that would do is make you toss up your last bento for about ten minutes. If you’d actually let yourself get injured by an eleven year old academy student you would have deserved every last bit of it anyway.”

    He scrutinized her, maybe trying to decide if she was telling the truth or not, before sighing and removing his hand from around her neck. However something about his posture told her it would be a bad idea to try to get up yet.

    “Why did you attack me?” he asked as hovered over her, calm but with a tone that nevertheless demanded answers. Rei wasn’t quite sure how to answer that… and besides, who said she had to be completely open and honest with this guy? By this point trying to gain the upper hand in conversations had become very much second nature to Rei.

    “What, you don’t want your own little Konohamaru running around?” Rei said, her tone teasing and her body relaxed. “I heard he recently started trying to assassinate the Hokage and forcibly take his hat in a bloodstained coup. Maybe I’m just trying to take the title of most famous ninja in Konoha from your mangled corpse.”

    Kakashi for his part managed to look both annoyed and amused. “Mangled corpse,” he said, tone mocking as he gestured at the blunt training weapon still in her hand, “using that?”

    For some reason his mocking edge to his voice rubbed Rei the wrong way. She didn’t like that. “Careful with that challenging tone former ANBU-san,” said Rei threateningly, “you wouldn’t want to earn yourself another eternal rival would you? I think Maito-san would be gracious enough to allow another person to hound you in your free time. At Jounin bars. At the memorial stone. Even at your tiny apartment in housing district three,” that last one was a guess but she thought there was a decent chance that he lived there since that was supposedly where many single higher ranked ninja made their home, “I could show up constantly to annoy you. I’m sure your peers would all think it hilarious, don’t you think so mister Sharigan Kakashi of the One Thousand Jutsus?”

    Kakashi just raised an eyebrow at that, and to her disappointment it didn’t seem that she had made him as uneasy as she had hoped she would. “You seem remarkably well informed,” he said.

    Rei shrugged as best she could from her position flat on the ground. “I specialize in stealth. Rather useful for information gathering, wouldn’t you say?”

    Kakashi gave her a long assessing look before leaning back and standing up. Rei took her cue from that and after hesitating for a moment slowly got to her feet herself.

    “You know,” began Kakashi conversationally as he put his hands back in his pockets while seeming to stare off distractedly at something in the distance, “If I was a rather naïve Chunin I might have been a little bit impressed by your act. It might have even been half way decent… except for the fact that I live in a spacious two bedroom in a completely different district so your bluff failed from the start. Still not a bad attempt at the assassination… for an academy student. Your skills are almost as good as those of an average Genin.” There was a momentary, thoughtful pause. “Hmmm. Maybe.”

    Rei didn’t let his less than glowing assessment rattle her. It was completely obvious that he was full of shit. She knew just how damn good she was and she was way better than any off-the-rack Genin.

    “I really just stumbled onto you and wanted to meet you,” Rei said with an honest and sincere voice as she did her best to brush the grass off the back of her kimono… and it wasn’t even a complete lie. “Since we both are – or are going to be – prominent figures in the village I thought I should introduce myself. There’s a good chance we might be working together at some point in the future after all.”

    For the first time in their conversation she thought she might have actually surprised Kakashi, as his head slowly turned back to look at her and his voice came out a little bit incredulous. “This is how you thought to introduce yourself?”

    It occurred to her then that if even a social cripple like Kakashi was appalled by how she had ‘introduced herself’… well that was probably a pretty harsh condemnation now wasn’t it?

    Oh well, she thought, nothing to do but play it off.

    “You’re a shinobi,” she said, lifting her chin up defiantly and folding her arms in her sleeves. “Suck it up.”

    The gobsmacked look on Kakashi’s face was priceless and Rei couldn’t help but let a taunting little grin spread across her features. The much taller Jounin shook his head, muttering something to himself before turning back to her.

    “I wonder what your father would have to say about all this. I know him quite well you know. Him and Toshiaki-dono both.”

    Rei rolled her eyes, sensing that it was probably time to go. When things devolved into ‘I’m going to tell on you’ it could only go downhill from there. She’d probably done as much as she could to advance her own interests and salvage the situation at this point anyway.

    “If you feel you need their help to deal with an academy student, sure,” Rei said with a careless shrug. Abruptly she turned on her heel and began walking off. “It was a pleasure to meet you Hatake-san,” she called, waving at him with one hand without bothering to turn around. “Your skills don’t seem too shabby. I hope we get to work together in the future.”

    After that she just walked away. Thankfully Kakashi didn’t try to stop her.

    000
     
    meri, Perspicacious, Marduk and 48 others like this.
  5. Threadmarks: Chapter 35
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 35

    000

    It was just after dark when Neji arrived at the front steps of the Yamanaka home where Rei lived. The Yamanaka Heir had “requested” that he show up early for this particular social obligation and thus Neji had come long before the event was scheduled to begin. Though he was under no obligation to do so as Rei said, and indeed in this case he may have preferred to stall for as long as possible before showing up, it was often a better idea to just go along with whatever she wanted. Most of the time it simply wasn’t worth the headache to fight her when she made up her mind about something. Neji respected and appreciated Rei but “stubborn as a mule” did not even begin to describe her.

    After briefly making sure his formal robes were still perfectly in place Neji knocked on the front door in precisely the prescribed way for a guest visiting the home of a social superior – which thanks to his status in the Hyuuga clan technically meant just about anyone from the shinobi clans of Konoha. He was not even surprised when the door was thrown open literally two seconds later. Rei was suddenly there in front of him, dressed in her own formal kimono and glaring at him from across the threshold. She looked unhappy and on edge and looking at her Neji suspected most of that had nothing to do with him.

    “So, are you going to explain yourself?” she demanded imperiously.

    Of course he knew what she was talking about. However contrary to popular belief Neji did have a sense of humor. Sometimes. One which he very rarely exercised. And only ever with Rei… so in that light it probably wasn’t surprising that no one else knew about it.

    Keeping his face perfectly blank Neji raised an eyebrow in a manner he had subconsciously copied from Hiashi Hyuuga. “Explain myself?” he asked politely.

    “Yes,” she hissed at him, eyes narrowing. “Don’t play dumb. You ditched me. Sent some spineless servant, who arrived late by the way, to tell me at the last minute you weren’t going to bother showing up. I had to run around everywhere just to find some perverted scarecrow to help me blow off some steam.”

    How was that…? Wait, no. He wasn’t going to let her distract him. He was also going to have to reprimand that servant and remind him of the importance of punctuality and how his actions reflected upon the Hyuuga name.

    “Rei, please,” Neji said seriously in a long suffering way as he closed his eyes and shook his head. His voice practically dripped faux-pleasant condescension. “You are not some possessive housewife. Do try to control your unrealistic expectations on my time.”

    Neji thought she was going to burn a hole right through him with her glare. “And you’re not some absentminded fool who can’t even keep track of his commitments. I’ve met the children of people who shovel shit for a living that have better breeding than that.”

    “The clan sprung something on me at the very last minute that they refused to excuse me from,” said Neji with a bit of forced calmness. “Hysteria does not suit the Heiress of one of the Great and Noble Ninja Clans of Konoha. Perhaps you would benefit from a mild sedative to alleviate any undue stress you might be feeling?”

    “Perhaps a fist to the face would cure you of your uppity attitude.”

    “How gauche,” Neji drawled as he lifted his nose in the air in an arrogant manner. “When did your manner become so crass?”

    “Around the time you became an uptight prick.”

    “Childish insults.”

    “Takes one to know one Mr. passive-aggressive.”

    “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about. You should speak to someone. As I understand it Yamanaka shouldn’t have memory problems.”

    You’re my memory problem.”

    “That… doesn’t even make sense.”

    “I…” she began before trailing off. Rei looked a little irritated with herself before letting out a sigh. “You’re right that didn’t make any sense. Would you like to come in?”

    Neji nodded graciously. “I am in your care.”

    Rei moved out of the doorway and a moment later Neji was inside removing his shoes. She just watched him silently with her arms crossed. It was easy enough to tell there was something still on her mind.

    “Seriously though Neji,” she said in a far less confrontational tone than before. “What the hell? You’ve never just bailed like that before. I really needed to blow off some steam too.”

    “I apologize,” said Neji as he finished taking off his shoes and putting on the house shoes. “It really was beyond my control. The Elders called a last minute clan-wide meeting about budget issues. It was completely pointless and asinine. It’s not like I had anything to contribute and even if I did they wouldn’t have listened to me anyway.” Despite his best efforts he couldn’t stop a trace of bitterness from infecting his tone.

    “Well… as long as it wasn’t your fault,” said Rei glumly, accepting the apology with less than complete grace. But that was more or less par for the course with Rei. When she saw he was ready she began to walk deeper into the house and Neji followed. “If it had been your fault I would have been forced to break your nose or something equally unpleasant in our next sparring match. It would have had to have been painful too. Definitely painful.”

    Neji made a sound of amusement low in his throat. “So you say. However I believe our head to head record clearly shows it wouldn’t have been nearly as easy as you make it sound.”

    Rei sent him an annoyed glare but didn’t argue the point. They both knew that it was an indisputable fact that Neji won about three quarters of their matches together. Usually he privately enjoyed that fact while making sure not to bring it up too often. Even though Neji occasionally engaged in light hearted humor like he had just done today he knew there were certain lines he shouldn’t cross if he didn’t want a truly upset Rei. No one in their right mind would want to deal with that as far as he was concerned. Neji had unfortunately had to discover that the hard way over the years.

    Still Neji would easily admit that the reason the victories were skewed so dramatically in his favor was probably because their respective styles meant he naturally had an overwhelming advantage. For the last couple of years Rei had been specializing heavily in stealth. It was a worthy pursuit for a ninja and from what Neji had observed she had a natural flair for it and had managed to cultivate a great deal of skill. However all of Rei’s hard won stealth skills were useless before the might of the Byakugan. No matter what she did it was impossible to hide from the White Eyes of the Hyuuga. It was fortunate that there were no Byakugan users outside of Konoha. If there were Neji would have probably been more concerned about the drawbacks inherent in her specialization.

    Not that those universally unpleasant Rats of hers had only been teaching her how to sneak around. The strangely defensive and exotic taijutsu they taught her had given him some nasty surprises before he had learned to adjust and the poisons she now used made even the smallest nick from one of her weapons potentially match-ending. Still most fights between them eventually came down to a melee within taijutsu range and in those conditions his talent and his skill with the Juken won out almost every single time. The majority of her victories actually came from finding some way to disable him at range or somehow maneuvering him into a trap. Rei had become extremely good at a close distance scrap. Neji was simply better.

    It was, however, a good thing that she couldn’t hide from his eyes in his mind. Neji respected her skills and wouldn’t relish the prospect of fighting her if she could actually hide from him. Not that he wouldn’t figure out a way to win of course. But still. Like he’d heard Rei say on occasion the whole prospect would have been incredibly troublesome.

    Rei led him into a room in her house that he’d never seen before. The centerpiece was a fairly large formal dining room table already set up for receiving guests. The room was done in dark woods and had a distinctly more serious feel than the rest of Rei’s home which generally tended towards more comfort-focused trappings. Though the formal room was perfectly respectable for a home this size little details let Neji know that it didn’t see much regular use… which was odd to him considering formal dining was how Hyuuga most often took their meals.

    Rei walked over to the head of the table and leaned against the expensive high-backed chair. “I’ll be sitting here since I’m supposed to be the host, obviously,” said Rei sounding resigned. “My sister will be seated to my right,” she said gesturing at the seat in question, “and you’ll be seated on my left. Hopefully having the two of you by my side will keep me from going too crazy.”

    Neji suddenly felt a powerful surge of emotion that took him completely by surprise. It took him a few moments to identify what he was feeling. Was that… jealousy? Disappointment? Being seated at the right hand of the host was considered the most favored position. He didn’t know why but he wanted to be the one Rei chose to sit at her right side. No one else was like them. The two of them were special, he knew, in a way that no one else was. That meant something. He wasn’t sure exactly how to put it into words… but it meant something.

    His face showed nothing as these thoughts ran through his mind. He blinked slowly using the deliberate movement as an anchor to reign in his emotions. Neji was aware enough to realize that his fanciful thinking was simply trying to wish away reality. Rei’s younger sibling was close family and more than that she was the sister of the future Clan Head of the Yamanaka. It would be unthinkable and positively scandalous that she wouldn’t be placed on Rei’s right hand. In fact, part of him reflected bitterly, he should be grateful to even be given the second most prominent spot at her left side. Within the Hyuuga clan as a Branch family member in some ways – in a lot of ways – his social status was little more than that of a servant. In fact in his whole life he had never even come close to sitting at the top half of the table during those times when the Main and Branch houses dined together.

    “Thank you,” said Neji with stiff formality to hide anything he might be feeling. “I’m honored that you would place me in such a prominent position.”

    Rei appeared to have been distracted and his voice snapped her attention back to him. She gave him a confused look before offering a half-hearted smile. “Of course sitting next to me is an honor. Just do me a favor and glare anyone who starts getting too annoying into submission, yeah?”

    Hyuuga were known for many having many talents, one of their strongest being their powers of observation. Neji's fine honed observational skills were telling him that something was… off about Rei today. She was distracted. Both on edge and subdued at the same time somehow. She was trying to hide it but it was there. He could see it in the tightness around her eyes, the way she carried herself, the way she had just lost herself in thought and stared off at the distance with her eyes slightly closed. The signs were clear. Something was troubling Rei who Neji had come to think of as immune to melancholy.

    Now that he thought about it he knew this wasn’t exactly something new. For months he had observed it slowly building in her. The restlessness. The increased risk taking during their training which had begun to occasionally cross the line into outright foolishness. The uncharacteristic anger… Rei had always been prone to anger but he could tell when it was “normal” anger for her and when it when it would sometimes become something that disturbed her, something far more wild and out of control. Slowly it had been getting worse and worse and seeing it now Neji for the first time began to feel somewhat… concerned.

    He wasn’t the type to ask someone about their feelings. As far as he was concerned if you didn’t volunteer the information then you didn’t want to share it and he wasn’t about to waste his time badgering anyone that way unnecessarily. Still seeing something slowly eat away at Rei was somehow… unpleasant. He couldn’t really explain it to himself. It just made him uncomfortable. Before Neji could really think it through he found himself speaking.

    “I’ve noticed you’ve become increasingly erratic and not yourself,” he said. Pause. “What is wrong with you?”

    Rei turned to face him, her eyes widening and her mouth opening in shock… though shock at what he couldn’t be sure. He leveled her a steady look and waited for her answer. Her mouth opened and closed a few times like a fish before she suddenly turned away, her long curly hair concealing her face. Something about her posture and the tenseness of her shoulders told him she wasn’t going to answer him.

    That wasn’t acceptable.

    “You have been showing signs of deteriorating efficiency over the last couple of months. Taking unnecessary risks. Out of control emotions cropping up more and more regularly. A general troubled and tense air around you.” Pause. “That isn’t like you Rei.”

    Rei kept her face turned away from him. She was silent for so long he began to think she wasn’t going to answer. The thought didn’t sit well with him. However after what felt like a small eternity she finally began to speak.

    “I think… maybe more than anyone you will be able to understand what’s been going on,” she began slowly, her voice uncharacteristically flat.

    Neji raised an eyebrow at that. “Oh?”

    Rei pulled herself up to stand straight and finally turned to face him. Her face was serious in a way he had rarely – if ever – seen from her. “Because of your… situation,” she said motioning vaguely at his forehead with her scarred left hand, “you know what it’s like to feel like you’re not in control of your own life.”

    It was technically a statement but it also sounded like a question. Keeping his emotions locked tightly under control he gave her a small nod. “Yes.”

    As Rei continued to speak her voice became more and more animated. “I always thought getting more powerful would improve things. Except recently I’ve started to feel like I haven’t made any progress at all in all this time. Despite all my hard work, despite all my successes… in some ways I’ve made no forward progress. No forward progress at all.”

    Neji frowned slightly at that. He wasn’t completely following what she was talking about. “You’ve gotten much stronger. You’re improved by leaps and bounds since I first met you.”

    “So have you,” she pointed out. “Doesn’t seem to have done us much good though has it?”

    He wasn’t sure what to say to that. Neji wasn’t sure why she felt that way about her situation but now wasn’t the time to ask. However he thought she was being sincere with her feelings. Neji resisted the urge to fidget. The whole situation and conversation was making him uncomfortable. He didn’t know how but he wanted to help her, somehow.

    “Being stronger will not gain me more freedoms,” he began. And wasn’t that a bitter pill to swallow? “but you are different. As you get stronger people will inevitably respect and revere you more. Your political power will always be tied to a large degree to your personal combat prowess. Getting stronger will only give someone like you more influence and… freedom.”

    Rei gripped the back of the chair she was standing behind as her eyes become half lidded, and Neji was pleased that at least she seemed to be considering his words seriously. After a short time she shook her head.

    “You’re right… and wrong. Getting closer to what I want will only happen at certain break points. Incremental strength will not help me until I reach those levels.” Her tone was tense with a strong thread of bitterness to it.

    “Break points?”

    Rei shrugged as if it was something that should be self-evident. “Genin. Chunin. Jounin.” She paused and looked at him, seeming to weigh her words in her mind before speaking. “Kage.”

    “Kage?” blurted out Neji incredulously, genuinely shocked by her unexpected revelation. “You want to be Hokage? But I thought-”

    “No,” she said cutting him off. “I don’t want to be Hokage. But I will be a Kage-level ninja.” Her voice took on a hard fervent edge and her hands balled into fists. Her eyes positively dared him to challenge her declaration. Neji had no doubt that she was one hundred percent serious.

    Neji hesitated, weighing what to say in his mind. “What do you imagine you have to be a Kage-level ninja in order to achieve if not becoming Hokage?”

    Rei grinned at him, her smile just a little too wide. In that moment there was something disturbing in her eyes that made him very uneasy. She held up an index finger and tapped her nose with it twice.

    “That’s my secret,” she said. “Now come on. My mom and my sister are finishing up the food in the kitchen. Let’s see if we can give them any help. The sooner we wrap all this up the better.”

    Without another word she turned and walked out of the room. With no other real choice Neji did as she asked and followed her out of the room.

    He didn’t quite understand. While Rei’s words had answered many of his questions at the same time they raised many others. He would have felt insulted that she compared her own situation to his – she was a Clan Heiress after all – if it wasn’t for how much he knew this was affecting her… and also because of the look in her eyes in that unguarded moment. Like she was drowning. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say it was like she was drowning but refused to stop fighting. It bothered him. It bothered him more than he was comfortable with. Which was unusual enough to leave him feeling confused.

    It was clear to Neji that for the time being Rei wasn’t going to be in the mood to tell him anything more and he wasn’t the type to pry. He simply had not been raised that way. Maybe she would tell him more in her own time. Maybe she wouldn’t. Either way he resolved to be there for her should she need it. Rei was the only person whose unhappiness somehow bothered him. While he couldn’t do anything about his own prison maybe, just maybe he could help her in some small way with hers.

    000

    Some time later Neji was seated at the table along with Rei and all those other people that had shown up. Her sister sat on Rei’s right and he sat on her left but as far as he could tell everyone else at the table was arranged in a haphazard manner… which seemed rather wild and improper if he was perfectly honest.

    Briefly he had been introduced to those he did not know and Neji had made an effort to remember their names if only because he would look foolish if he forgot them. There was the pink haired girl Sakura seated next to the sister. Tenten was seated next to him for which he was grateful since he knew the girl at least knew how to behave herself. Then there were Shikamaru and Chouji who he understood were the presumptive next heads of their respective clans… which looking at them he honestly found somewhat hard to believe. A small gathering to be sure all things considered.

    Arranged before them was an impressive spread of different dishes that varied significantly from the traditional fare he was accustomed to. There was a great deal of bread and things made of heavier sauces than he was used to. Looking around the table it seemed most of the guests were eager to get started… especially the Akimichi heir which came as absolutely no surprise to anyone. Everything had just been laid out and there was only one thing missing. As was traditional the host would say a few words before dinner would officially begin.

    Neji made sure to do as he always did in these situations. He kept his face blank, his spine perfectly straight, his eyes forward and he made a special point to keep himself still and rigid as a statue. Of course he also made sure to keep an eye on everyone using his peripheral vision. Proper formal dinner posture was no excuse to be unaware of his surroundings.

    Rei was having a brief and hushed conversation with her sister before she began to officiate. The two other males at the table were talking among themselves and Tenten was quiet and looking somewhat nervous. Rei’s mother had taken a chair away from the table and sat herself down in an unobtrusive darker corner of the room… presumably there to evaluate and later critique Rei on her performance.

    The last member of the gathering was turning out to be a bit of an… irritation. The pink haired girl was blatantly staring at him presumably because she thought he wouldn’t notice since he wasn’t looking in her direction. Neji knew that look. He’d begun to get a few last year and they had started in earnest this year at the academy. The pink haired girl Sakura (and what a ridiculous name that was) had some kind of “romantic” designs on him. He honestly could not fathom the sheer absurdity that went through the minds of those girls when they decided to set their sights on him.

    Unfortunately he was becoming increasingly familiar with female interest. He had received a half dozen love notes from completely useless girls in the academy in the last month alone. Neji had made sure to hide the existence of such notes from Rei. Knowing her as he did he knew she would never let him live it down. Unfortunately it was probably only a matter of time until she caught on in spite of how disinterested she was in anything that happened at the academy. For the time being however he would continue to keep his secret as long as possible.

    Turning his attention back to his training partner he could tell that whatever she had been whispering about with her sister was wrapping up. Neji knew that Rei wasn’t happy about this belated birthday “celebration.” While he knew she was educated in how to be the perfect host he very much doubted that was going to happen. Rei would make her displeasure known. The only thing left was to see how she would do so. He strangely found himself looking forward to it.

    Finally Rei turned her attention away from her sister and brought it to bear on her assembled guests. Picking up a spoon she tapped it against the side of a tea cup loud enough to get everyone’s attention. Instantly all the conversations died as everyone in the room turned their attention towards her. Clearing her throat Rei stood up looking somehow both elegant and haughty at the same time.

    “Thank you all for coming here this evening,” she began in a melodic and aurally pleasing aristocratic voice that was very different from her normal method of speech. “Even though I didn’t want this celebration and would have preferred it was never held in the first place.”

    The sister – Ino – made an odd gesture by slapping her hand to her forehead and muttering something uncharitable. A quick glance showed Neji that Rei’s mother looked displeased from where she was sitting. Undeterred Rei continued on.

    “All of you have better things you could be doing – Heaven knows I do – but since we’re stuck here for the time being let us all enjoy this this fine feast courtesy of the hard work of both my sister and my mother. Without their diligent effort and incessant nagging this gathering would never have happened so make sure to thank them properly before you leave.”

    The sister for some reason looked visibly pained as she hung her head and pinched the bridge of her nose. Rei’s mother had her eyes closed in seeming resignation as she shook her head slightly. Neji saw her mouth two words to herself.

    Oh Rei.

    “I will say,” Rei continued, “that all of you here are in some way or other at least tangentially significant in my life. It is not… entirely unpleasant to see you gathered in one place for my sake. Even if you were forced here by your parents or some such.”

    “Hear, hear,” said Shikamaru while nodding to himself. Ino reacted with impressive speed by grabbing a bread roll and throwing it at him, hitting him in the head. Neji sniffed. How undignified.

    “In conclusion I will say that most of you have at least some qualities that I admire so I am not completely mortified at being associated with you. You might even say that it is my belief that all of you will grow up to be strong ninja that your families can be proud of. However that will never happen until you stop being lazy, get off your asses and do some goddamn training.”

    The room was so silent you could have heard an ant walking across the carpet. Neji noted that Ino and Rei’s mother each looked absolutely mortified in their own way. The rest of the gathering looked to be experiencing some combination of confusion, amusement and incredulous disbelief. Rei rather predictably looked quite pleased with herself.

    “Now with those formalities out of the way,” she said returning to her normal way of speaking, “there is only one thing left to say.”

    Rei let the silence hang for a long moment as everyone waited to hear what she had to say. Then she broke into a smile and with a flourish picked up a pair of chopsticks from the table and twirled them expertly around her fingers.

    “Itadakimasu!”

    And with that everyone began to eat. A few moments later soft music started playing. Despite the… unusual speech everyone seemed to be in a good mood. Even the sister got over whatever she was hung up on, eventually. The food was also very good.

    Later he would reflect that in spite of it's unusual nature that had been far and away the most enjoyable formal dinner he had ever experienced.

    000

    Thirty minutes after dinner all the guests were still at the Yamanaka home in order to… socialize he supposed. He’d just assumed everyone would go home after the meal was complete but it turned out that was not the case. The guests had more or less spread out finding their own thing to do within the public spaces of the house they were currently guests in.

    At the moment Neji was sitting a short distance away watching an intense game of Shogi between Rei and Shikamaru. He was no expert at the game but Neji knew enough to understand basic strategy. However even if he didn’t know the first thing about Shogi the slight frown on Rei’s face would have told him how the match was currently going. Slowly but surely Rei was losing and she wasn’t the least bit happy about it. Shikamaru for his part tried to look nonchalant but wasn’t doing a good job of it. If anything he looked rather smug as he captured another one of her pieces.

    Rei’s frown deepened before her eyes flicked up as if spotting something in the distance behind Shikamaru… which was odd since there was nothing there at the moment but an empty doorway leading into the kitchen. Still her eyes suddenly widened and her face took on a genuine look of fear and panic. She tensed and leaned forward as if she were about to jump out of her seat. In a voice filled with alarm Rei spoke a single word. “Chouji!”

    Shikamaru instantly turned his whole body to look behind him, his expression suddenly filled with concern. It was mildly amusing to watch as his eyes flicked back and forth in confusion when he saw nothing. In that moment Rei struck. With viper-like quickness she passed her hand over the board like a magician doing a trick. When he looked back at the board Neji saw that one of Shikamaru’s Gold Generals was gone.

    Neji didn’t quite smile but he felt the corner of his lips threatening to move upwards. He knew Rei was a bad loser. He also knew she would often find the most unconventional ways to win.

    When the Nara turned back it was only to find Rei with her arms folded in her sleeves and a completely normal expression on her face. Shikamaru gave her a suspicious look to which she just shrugged.

    “I could have sworn I saw him walking back into the kitchen. I must have been mistaken.”

    It was a rather transparent lie but Rei’s innocent expression meant she was still going to stick to it. Shikamaru gave her a confused and annoyed look before his eyes fell back on the board. His whole body froze the moment he spotted the missing piece. Judging by his body language this made the Nara extremely unhappy.

    “You stole one of my pieces,” Shikamaru in a completely flat tone that somehow conveyed that he felt that something akin to a holy sacrilege had just occurred.

    Rei just looked at him, her eyes widening in an over exaggerated expression of innocence.

    “Why Shikamaru-kun, I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

    Shikamaru glared at her. Rei maintained her innocent look… which was somewhat ruined by the smirk slowly growing on the corner of her mouth. The Nara heir looked like the calm sort but in that moment Neji could see him visibly struggling to keep is irritation under control.

    “Stealing pieces is something a four year old would do Rei,” he said as he glared at her unforgivingly.

    “Like I said I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Rei as her smirk gradually grew. “You say a piece is missing but I say the board is exactly as it should be. In fact since you’re the one trying to change things I would say that you are the one who’s trying to cheat Shikamaru-kun.”

    Neji could almost see him grinding his teeth. “You’re the one who cheated. By stealing one of my pieces.

    “Your word against mine,” said Rei shrugging with a careless air. “Besides if you had lost some pieces it would have all been your own fault. Ninja are supposed to win by any means necessary, to be prepared for any eventuality. Failing to protect your valuable pieces from theft would have been a very obvious tactical error.”

    Even though he kept himself mostly under control the Nara still managed to convey that he was somehow scandalized. “Shogi is a noble game of strategy that works within certain confines and limited resources in order to hone one’s skills at tactics, foresight, critical thinking and a great many other skills. Suddenly throwing out the rules defeats the whole purpose.”

    “Really? Those are the goals of Shogi?” Rei asked, her tone slightly mocking. “I thought it the goal was to take the enemy King by any means necessary. In fact I’m fairly certain that’s what you’re supposed to do in order to win.”

    “Take the King while acting under the confines of the rules.”

    “Come on Shika,” Rei said with a cocky arrogant grin that had driven more than one person into a rage. “Are you training to be a ninja or are you training to be a whiner? Because let me tell you right now it looks a lot more like the latter and a lot less like the former. Is that what you do with all that time you spend lazing around looking at clouds? Polishing your skills at whining? If so I have to tell you your training is really starting to bear fruit.”

    The Nara made a few inarticulate choking noises and half-reached towards Rei like he thinking about strangling her. Not that trying would have done him any good. However Shikamaru managed to reign himself in and take a calming breath. Shooting Rei a truly scathing glare the Nara abruptly stood up and left while muttering something to himself. Now it was Rei who looked smug as she produced the missing Gold General piece and put it back on the board where it belonged.

    “Well that was bracing,” she said as she stood up and stretched out her spine. A moment later she walked over to the couch he was sitting on. With a satisfied sigh Rei plopped herself down next to Neji.

    “Congratulations on your victory,” Neji said. Only someone who had known him for a long time would have noted the trace of irony in his voice.

    “Yes, well, I’m the best. What else did you expect?” she said giving him a conspiratory smile. Neji found himself returning it with a slight smile of his own.

    “Where did you learn to play Shougi like that anyway?”

    “Oh that… I saw a fat lazy panda do it once. That gave me the idea.”

    Okay, he had gotten used to her occasional bouts of nonsensical rambling over the years but seriously… “What?”

    Rei grinned at him and was about to answer when her mother walked into the room looking upset about something.

    “Rei, I don’t know what you said to Shikamaru-kun but you’re going to apologize to him. Right now.”

    “What?” said Rei, her grin falling to an expression of surprise. “Is he still whining about that? Did he seriously go to you to complain that I cheated in a game?”

    “So that’s what happened,” said Rei’s mother in a somewhat less confrontational tone. “Well whatever you said to him it’s still something you’re going to help me smooth over. It would be silly to potentially let any bad blood fester between you over some childish game.”

    Rei rolled her eyes but made to stand anyway. “Fine I’ll make nice and soothe the princesses’ ruffled feathers.” She turned and gave Neji an apologetic look. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

    He just nodded and with that she was off with her mother in order to soothe the childish temper of an overly entitled waste of space. Then again even a childish pique needed to be taken seriously when it came from the next head of an allied ninja clan. It was simply how the world worked no matter how ridiculous it might be. Simply by the virtue of their birth some people just mattered more.

    Neji could hear some of the other guests in nearby rooms but he had no interest in going to interact with them. Instead he resolved to simply sit and wait until Rei was free to come back. Deciding to use the sudden downtime productively he began to practice filling his muscles up with Chakra and then draining them as fast as possible in quick succession. He had a theory that this skill was a necessary component of some of the more advanced Juken techniques that ordinarily would never be taught to a lowly Branch member like himself.

    To Neji’s irritation not even two minutes after he had started the exercise he was interrupted. Out of the corner of his eye he spotted two girls headed towards him, one blonde and one with a head of pink hair. The sister was practically dragging the pink girl behind her as she enthusiastically made her way in his direction.

    Unfortunately Neji had a fair idea of what was going on. The pink one with the romantic designs on him was too cowardly and insecure to approach him directly and thus the sister had most likely decided to “help” her friend. He had seen this kind of thing before and Neji had to wonder why any of them thought he would find this kind of behavior appealing. His already nonexistent respect only dropped further when one of these annoying girls couldn’t even manage a conversation without someone else there holding their hand.

    Before long they reached him, the sister waving at him and smiling enthusiastically. “Hello Neji-kun! It’s a pleasure to finally meet you properly, my sister only ever has good things to say about you.”

    Maybe if he just ignored them they would go away. That tended to work sometimes. Disdainfully Neji crossed his arms and deliberately looked away hoping the girls would take the hint.

    No such luck.

    “Yeah, uh I hope we can get along too. You’re an important friend to Rei so it would be nice to get to know you at least a little. Since she and I are going to start training together sometimes we might bump into each other a few times out in the training fields.”

    He didn’t think she was going to go away. Besides if what she said was true… perhaps a dollop of civility was merited. It was also true that Rei on occasion could act somewhat out of character where her sister was concerned. Perhaps it was better to at least acknowledge her existence.

    Neji turned his head to look at her, his face impassive and his tone serious. “I hope that things will remain harmonious between us.” He made it a point to keep ignoring the pink haired one on principle. Acknowledging them in any way only seemed to drive those types of girls into some bizarre type of frenzy.

    Seemingly encouraged by his response the sister smiled at him broadly. The pink one however was looking far more apprehensive from what he could see out of the corner of his eye. Seeming not to notice the sister grabbed her friend and literally shoved her in front of him. “Yeah, I hope we can get along too Neji-kun! By the way this is my friend Sakura. She’s the smartest student in our entire class. Why don’t you say hi to her too? Hey, maybe all of us can hang out together sometime!”

    Now that the sister had literally shoved the pink one in front of him he couldn’t continue to simply pretend she didn’t exist. Reluctantly he turned his eyes to look at her. She was biting her lip, her eyes flicking back and forth between the floor and his face. Her hands gripped and worried her kimono in a gesture of nervousness. Hesitantly and tentatively she offered him a small smile. The sister had a hand on her back and was grinning encouragingly.

    He didn’t have time for this. Honestly, what were they thinking interrupting his training? If this girl was the most intelligent person in their class then that only served to prove the inferiority of their group as a whole. Girls like this with their pointless and irrational desire for his attention only merited contempt. It was with every scrap of disdain that he could muster that Neji spoke his next words.

    “You’re an eyesore,” he told her bluntly. Neji then deliberately turned his head away no longer finding her worth even a scrap of his attention. “Be gone.”

    Out of the corner of his eye he saw the girl freeze with her mouth falling open in shock. Then her lips began to quiver and her eyes began tear. With a sound like a pained whine the pink one turned and practically ran from the room. Neji nodded to himself with satisfaction. Good. Sometimes it took more than that for them to finally get the hint.

    The sister turned and looked after her friend as she went for the door, calling out her name. “Sakura!” For a moment he thought she was going to immediately follow her. Instead the sister whirled on him with an unflattering curl on her lips, her eyes alight with indignation and feminine fury.

    “What- what the hell was that?!”

    Neji was presented with a quandary. On the one hand he wanted to chase this one off just like the other one. On the other hand she was Rei’s sister… and someone with enough social rank to demand at least some measure of respect. With reluctance he decided it might be best if he tried to explain his actions.

    “I don’t waste my time with useless nonsense,” he said bluntly as if that explained everything. In his mind it did.

    The sister placed her hands on her hips imperiously, his answer apparently not having mollified her at all. “And what exactly is that supposed to mean?”

    Why was everyone around him so slow? He disliked having to explain himself over and over. When he spoke it was slowly and deliberately hoping her clearly inferior mind would be able to keep up that way. Another fine example of good blood not being a guarantee of good breeding.

    “It was clear that girl had some sort of ulterior designs on me. None of those designs interest me in the least. Instead of bothering me she should go back to knitting or playing with dolls or whatever it is that girls like her do when they’re not training.”

    The sister for some reason seemed rather flabbergasted by his response. “She – I was – she… she was just being nice! There was no call for being so incredibly mean. And what do you mean ‘girls like her’? Do you treat all girls like that?” Suddenly she froze for a moment as a thought occurred to her. Her eyes narrowed dangerously on him in a way that vaguely reminded him of Rei and her voice came out in a dangerous growl. “You don’t treat my sister like that do you?”

    Neji almost scoffed. How could she have possibly gotten that from what he’d said? It was like they weren’t even speaking the same language.

    “Please,” he began, “Rei is the only girl I’ve met worthy of my time and attention. For me she might as well be the only girl in the world. As far as I’m concerned the rest of you female harpies don’t even exist.”

    The sister did a fine wide-eyed impression of a fish before rubbing her eyes with both hands and muttering something. When she finally looked back at him it was like she was trying to peer right through him with a suspicious expression on her face. Eventually she blinked, the corners of her lips turning up slightly in amusement.

    “Wow… you really have no idea how all that stuff you just said sounded do you?” she asked in a voice tinged with wonder.

    Neji frowned slightly at that. “I have no idea what you mean.”

    “Oh I don’t doubt it,” she said for some reason sounding smug. “It seems you ‘genius’ types aren’t perfect at everything after all.”

    Neji wasn’t quite sure what she was trying to get at but he was almost entirely certain it wouldn’t be anything important. Why was he even still talking to her in the first place? Before he could think of his next response she beat him to the punch by speaking again.

    “I’m going to go do some damage control with Sakura now,” she said, her angry frown returning when she mentioned her friend. “You try to grow some tact and work on that misanthropy of yours. I honestly don’t know what it is Rei sees in you. Just do right by her and I won’t have to socially grind you into matcha.”

    With that the sister turned on her heel and left presumably to go find the annoying pink one. Neji felt irritated with himself because he sensed he had missed something important in their conversation. He knew he thought differently from other people. Occasionally that led to situations where something was lost in translation. Well, ultimately it probably wasn’t too important anyway. He always “did right” by Rei as was proper and polite so there was no cause for concern. Beyond that it wasn’t worth trying to figure out what the sister had been getting at.

    Rei surprised him by suddenly appearing next to him, looking with a slight frown in the direction her sister had just taken when she left. She turned to look at him, a slight expression of worry on her face. “What was that all about?”

    Neji shrugged. He figured she would hear all about it sooner or later. “Your sister and the pink one tried to talk to me.”

    “Ah,” said Rei in perfect understanding. “I hope you weren’t too abrupt with them. Sakura is a sweet girl and Ino… well you should know better than to mess with her.”

    Neji nodded his understanding. “The one with the ridiculous name ran off in tears. I was perfectly civil with your sister though.”

    Rei frowned disapprovingly at him. “Damn it Neji. Was that really necessary? Don’t pretend you don’t know how to be polite since I know it’s been practically beaten into you your whole life. Try to have a little tact sometimes.”

    “Tact?” he said to her arching an eyebrow. “Like the speech you gave before dinner?”

    “Well…” said Rei looking a little sheepish. “That was a higher level of social interaction. Totally calculated. Far beyond your current levels of social proficiency I’m afraid.”

    “I’m sure,” said Neji dryly.

    “So you could try being nice to the people I care about at least a little bit about.”

    Neji closed his eyes and sighed. He wasn’t exactly thrilled but he supposed he could do that. However he still retained the right to defend himself from any females with any ridiculous romantic designs on him.

    “Fine.”

    000

    Eventually the evening came to an end and it was time to return to the compound. Neji was one of the last to leave as he wasn’t in any particular hurry to return. He said his goodbyes to his hosts as was proper and even thanked the sister for her contributions to that evening’s meal. When he finally found himself outside of the Yamanaka compound he couldn’t help but feel some disappointment that the evening was already over.

    Truth be told Neji did not want to return to the Hyuuga compound. While he had lived there his whole life it was hardly a comforting place or one where he felt he could truly relax. Not with all the poisonous personal politics and the resentment many held for him for his superior talent and skills. If it were possible for him he would move out of the compound as soon as he became Genin like some of the members of other clans were permitted to do. Alas he was a Hyuuga and a Branch one at that. The old men at the compound would never entertain having him anywhere but firmly under their thumb.

    Still due to a small oversight he had been given more freedom this evening than the old men had probably intended to allow. There had not been any specific time set for when he was expected to be back at the compound and they had been vague about when they expected him to return. That meant that he could potentially stay out until dawn if he chose to without technically breaking any of their rules. He knew that they would prefer it if he headed back to the compound immediately after leaving the Yamanaka home but precisely for that reason Neji resolved to stay out as long as possible.

    Still that left him with the dilemma of what to do now. It wasn’t like he had anywhere to go. There was nothing to see and he had already spent most of the evening with the one person he might bother seeking out. He couldn’t train in the formal robes he was wearing. Neji suddenly felt… desolate somehow. It was a difficult feeling for him to describe. All he knew for sure is that it really made him want to find something to keep him occupied. Paying too much attention to his feelings never tended to work out well for him in the end.

    He supposed he could find somewhere to meditate or work on Chakra control exercises. It seemed like the best way for him to pass the time. Feeling somewhat better now that he had a clear course of action in mind there was only one thing left to do. Neji just needed to find some quiet out of the place way where he could keep his clothes clean in order to train. With the ease of long practice Neji brought his hands together in a hand seal and activated his Byakugan.

    Looking around he noted with a frown that the skies looked like they were going to open and start pouring rain at any moment. He would have to find somewhere with a covered roof then. The prospect of getting wet did not particularly appeal to him.

    That’s when he saw one of the very last things he had been expecting.

    Almost clear on the other side of the Yamanaka compound from where he had exited he spotted Rei skulking about in the dark. She had changed out of her formal kimono and was once again wearing her training clothes and gear. As he watched Rei left the compound through a small unobtrusive side door and took off running at an easy lope in the direction of the training grounds.

    Where in the world are you off to? It was too late in the night for her to be going off to do any type of normal training. The weather was also not very conducive to it. A few bolts of lightning streaked across the sky and the cool wind and heavy moisture made it easy to tell that it was probably soon going to rain. In short there was no normal reason she would be sneaking off on her own on a night like this.

    It took Neji less than five seconds to make up his mind as to what he was going to do. He decided to follow her. It had to be more interesting than simply training somewhere by himself.

    One of the many advantages the Byakugan gave him was the ability to follow someone well outside the range of most ninja’s detection capabilities. It made stalking their targets trivial for most Hyuuga. Neji took off after Rei keeping his distance and easily keeping up with the relaxed pace she set.

    He ran as he followed her and before long he realized his mistake. The clothes he was wearing were not conducive to a run through the woods. If he wasn’t careful they would almost certainly get ruined and then there would be hell to pay. The situation compounded itself when the skies finally decided to open up and rain began to fall in thick heavy sheets all across Konoha. Frowning at his own stupid oversight Neji decided the best thing he could do was simply to continue on and do his best to minimize the damage.

    Rei ran deep into the training grounds, much further than they usually went to practice. Eventually she stopped at a medium sized clearing that didn’t look like it got much use. Neji made a face of distaste when he saw what was waiting for her.

    It was a Rat, one of her summons that she allowed to just loose run around Konoha. That had to be some kind of security concern but so far no one had called her out on it. This Rat was one he had only met once before. A nasty, rude and unpleasant creature all around had been his rather unfavorable impression of it. What had Rei called it? Ofuda. It was one of the Rats that trained her in her techniques.

    Neji hid himself behind some thick trees some fifty yards away. There was no direct line of sight between him and them and the falling rain would mask everything even further. He was confident that there was no possibility of him being discovered. With that in mind he found a large rock mostly protected from the rain by thick branches overhead and sat down to observe what his training partner was up to all the way out here in the middle of the night.

    The two figures in the clearing talked for a short while before the Rat brought his clawed hands together. It took him a moment to realize that it was showing her a set of hand seals. Neji’s eyes widened slightly at that. Was the Rat going to be teaching her a new jutsu? If so why was Rei sneaking off in the middle of the night in order to learn it?

    Neji was intent on watching what was happening in the clearing but that didn’t mean he let his guard down. He was far too well trained to make that sort of rookie mistake. So it came as a complete shock when he was suddenly attacked without warning.

    A vicious blow to the back of the neck caught him by complete surprise. He crumpled and collapsed onto the wet and muddied ground, momentarily stunned by the blunt force blow to his spinal cord. For a few eternally long moments he could do nothing but twitch ineffectively as his active Byakugan showed him exactly what was going on around him.

    Seemingly out of thin air a five and a half foot tall figure materialized out of the dark directly behind him. It glared at him with hateful eyes that made him involuntarily shudder. If it wanted to it could kill him and as he was now he would be completely at its mercy.

    With shock he realized the Rat in question looked exactly like Ofuda, the Rat that was currently still in the clearing with Rei. What was going on here? Was it some kind of Bunshin? Some other type of technique? To his eyes the Chakra pathways of the two identical Rats looked almost indistinguishable. He knew there were more advanced solid types of Bunshin out there but this was his first time seeing anything like this for himself.

    What was most eerie about the situation was that the Rat didn’t say a single word. Instead it produced a length of steel wire and began tying him up a great deal more roughly than was strictly necessary. By the time he began to regain full use of his body his arms and legs were tied so securely he didn’t have a prayer of escaping on his own.

    What his mind kept coming back to however was one outstanding mystery. How in the hell did my Byakugan not spot this creature sneaking up on me? It should have been impossible. He knew from what he had been taught that the Byakugan was the supreme dojutsu that could effortlessly pierce through nearly every visual genjutsu and camouflage jutsu in existence. The notion that it could so easily be deceived was unthinkable.

    Yet the fact remained that he had not seen anything until the creature revealed itself after it had already struck him down. It was a bitter pill to swallow but the facts pointed to only one conclusion. This creature possessed some ability or jutsu that allowed it to completely hide itself from the Byakugan. That revelation left him feeling even more shaken than the blow he had received to the back of the neck had.

    Wordlessly the creature gripped him by the back of the collar and began to drag him through the woods. Neji winced as he heard it's claws cut into and tear at his formal robes as it dragged him along. Distantly he found it odd that he would be concerned about that at a time like this.

    Neji felt some measure of relief when he noted the Rat had started dragging him in the direction of Rei and the other Ofuda. This was going to be… awkward to explain. But at least the creature wasn’t dragging him off to murder him in the woods.

    Neji couldn’t help but scrunch his face up in distaste as he was literally dragged through the rain and mud. The wet earth made its way inside his clothes and clung heavily to his long and thick hair. It was positively humiliating to be dragged along in such a fashion. Rei was going to be absolutely insufferable after this whole thing was over. Assuming she doesn't kill me first.

    When the Rat dragged him into the clearing Neji kept an eye on everything but kept most of his focus on Rei’s expression. When she first spotted him there was surprise and then confusion. Then the Ofuda standing next to her said something to her that Neji was too far away to catch. Rei’s face morphed to incredulousness... and then slowly to a dark form of anger he had rarely seen in her before. When she turned to face him and leveled her accusatory dark purple glare on him Neji couldn’t help but flinch.

    The Rat dragging him along brought him before the other two and dropped him unceremoniously at their feet. His hands and feet were bound in such a way that there wasn’t really any dignified position he could settle in. Instead he just lay on his side and looked up at Rei, his face as impassive as he could make it under the circumstnaces.

    “What the FUCK,” she practically yelled at him, “do you think you were doing?!” By the look on her face he didn’t think Rei was entirely in control of herself. At that point he started to wonder if he’d made a serious mistake.

    “Spying on us. Just like I said little summoner,” the Ofuda standing next to her said. In contrast to her very palpable fury the Rat was looking at him like an insect that needed to be scraped off it's sandal. There was no pity or emotion in those eyes, merely a calculation that very clearly left him on the losing side. It made him feel like some type of animal brought before the butcher.

    Rei however brought his attention back to her when she stepped up and harshly kicked him in the chest. Neji winced as the force forced him to roll over once in the mud. That hurt. She forced him onto his back and stood over him as she put one foot on his sternum pinning him roughly to the ground. For the first time in a very long time Neji felt genuinely afraid of his partner. The look on her face was positively murderous.

    “Is this the first time?” she demanded of him, her hands unconsciously clenching and unclenching. “How long have you been spying on me? Are you working on behalf of someone else?”

    Neji just looked at her, not quite understanding where this outburst was coming from. “Why would I spy on you?” he asked her in a calm tone. “Your techniques are not something I’m interested in learning. I have better things to do than following you around.” Then he paused a little awkwardly. “You know. Usually.”

    He wasn’t sure what but something that he said seem to give her pause. Neji could see her hesitate, her anger not disappearing but losing some of it’s out of control intensity, losing some of it's more terrifying edges. The Rat seemed to notice this too and spoke up.

    “He is a lousy spy and an attempted jutsu thief,” it said to her in entreating tones. “Each one of them an unforgivable crime. If you let this go, where will things escalate from here? Eliminate him now summoner. We can make sure none of this ever gets tied back to you.”

    Neji turned his head and looked at the Rat in alarm. The thing was dead serious. That creature was trying to talk his best friend into murdering him. He sent the Rat the most poisonous glare that he could muster under the circumstances.

    After what felt like a truly uncomfortably long silence Rei closed her eyes and sighed tiredly. “No we’re not going to do that. This is the first time any of you have detected anyone spying on us during one of our special training sessions.” Rei opened her eyes and looked over at Ofuda. When she opened her eyes again Neji was relieved to see that they were somewhat closer to her normal lilac shade instead of the flinty dark amethyst they became when the anger took her. “I know him. I… trust that he’s not out to hurt me. For now that’s good enough for me.”

    The Rat didn’t look particularly happy but nodded anyway. “We’ve agreed to let you handle your business in the Human Realm however you see fit. So be it. However if anyone ever manages to steal Rat secrets from you even you won’t be able to protect them.”

    “Fair enough,” she replied. It was then that she seemed to realize she was still standing on his chest. She removed her foot but didn’t move to untie him just yet.

    “Seriously though what the hell are you doing out here? And spying on someone else’s training? I know you know better than that.”

    Indeed he did. Now that it was being pointed out to him in this way he couldn’t help but feel very foolish. It was beyond rude to spy on someone the way he had been doing. The Rat wasn’t the only individual in Konoha who would consider killing him for spying on their training either. What he had been doing was a very taboo thing to do in a ninja village. It hindsight it seemed that for some reason he had momentarily decided to take leave of his caution and reason.

    “I… apologize,” he said sounding genuinely contrite. “I simply wasn’t ready to go home yet.”

    Rei raised an eyebrow at that. “Oh?”

    Slowly at first he began to tell her everything that had transpired since he had left the Yamanaka compound. There wasn’t much to tell and the story went by very quickly. When he was finished she looked at him with something like sympathy, her wet hair hanging heavy and dripping water onto him as rain continued to pour. Neji absolutely hated anything even remotely resembling pity but at the moment he wasn’t in any position to complain.

    Rei turned and addressed the Rat standing next to her. “Can you get your buddy over there to cut him loose?”

    At some unseen command the Ofuda that had captured him flipped him roughly onto his stomach in the wet mud and began to untie the length of steel cable wrapped around his limbs. Moments later the skillful clawed hands had him loose. Neji stood up cautiously, rubbing his arms in an attempt to get blood flowing into them again.

    As he watched the Ofuda that had captured him left on all fours and headed back to the tree line. As soon as it entered the woods and was out of sight there was an odd visual effect as shadows seem to appear from literally out of nowhere and wrap themselves around the Rat over and over again. Then the creature completely vanished from the sight of his Byakugan. Neji had been looking right at the creature with his bloodline too and it had simply dissapeared. He found it incredibly unnerving.

    Wet, filthy and with ruined clothes Neji sighed and turned to Rei. “Once again I must sincerely apologize,” he said to her before bowing formally. “I will not make such a grievous mistake again. With your permission I will return to the clan compound now.”

    Rei sighed and rubbed her face with both her hands. After a few moments she took them away and offered him a tiny smile. “Maybe you should stay. It’s not like I wasn’t going to show off this jutsu as soon as I mastered it anyway. As long as you sit by the tree line and promise to keep your Byakugan off you can stay and watch.”

    The Rat next to her made a rumbling sound of warning. “Summoner…”

    “Relax Ofuda,” she said, rolling her eyes at the creature. “As long as he can’t hear the oral instruction you give me all he’s going to learn is what the corresponding hand seals are. He would have learned those the first time I used the jutsu in front of him anyway. The techniques that Vicious gave Her children will be perfectly safe.”

    Ofuda didn’t look particularly happy but it didn’t argue the point either. Rei then turned to look at him questioningly and it only took Neji a moment to decide to take her up on her offer. With a nod in her direction he turned and walked back towards the tree line turning his Byakugan off in the process. He had already betrayed her trust once tonight and he didn’t intend to do so again.

    Neji found a mostly dry log under a large tree and sat down to watch. Even in the night and through the rain he could make out the two figures in the clearing rather clearly. If he had been expecting fireworks or explosions he would have been sorely disappointed. They seemed to spend the better part of half an hour just going through four different hand seals and speaking at length about something… presumably the internal method required to achieve whatever jutsu Rei was attempting to learn. Every so often the Rat’s long head would turn in his direction and he could almost imagine that it was glaring at him suspiciously. Neji tried not to think about how the other Ofuda was most likely waiting nearby looking for an excuse to take him down again.

    Then Rei spent roughly another hour and a half practicing the jutsu. No matter how much he tried Neji still couldn’t figure out what it was supposed to do. As far as he could tell from where he was sitting the jutsu did absolutely nothing when either of them executed it. However her reaction left absolutely no doubt in his mind as to when she finally achieved what she had been trying to do.

    Rei literally went – crazy. Or wild. He really wasn’t sure how to describe it. She began to run back and forth around the clearing, her face open and expressing laughter as she thew herself into the air with her arms opened wide. Rei danced in the rain, spinning and twirling, graceful in her movements even as she splashed water and mud everywhere. To most people she would have been the very picture of joy and childish exuberance.

    Except Neji wasn’t most people. Even with his Byakugan off his vision was exceptional and he made out little details that seemed to put a lie to what he was seeing. There was something slightly off about her movements, some hints of desperation in the performance she was putting on. Her smile seemed a little too manic. Her eyes a little too intense. It was almost like she was trying to embrace her success but instead she was trying rather madly to flee from something. The Rat just stood still and stared the whole time she danced, frozen in the rain like some kind of malevolent statue.

    Eventually her movements began to wind down and she seemed to slowly regain control of herself. It was then that she seemed to remember him as her head suddenly snapped in his direction. Giving him a slightly tired smile she began to walk over to where he was sitting.

    He’d say one thing for Rei, often she wasn’t one for subtlety or for beating around the bush. She just walked up to the tree he was sitting under and gave it a vicious side kick as hard as she could. Some of the superficial bark exploded from the force of the blow and she left a small dent on the side of the trunk. It took him a moment to realize what had been missing.

    There had been no sound. No sound whatsoever when she had kicked the tree. In fact now that he thought about it he heard absolutely no noise coming from her in a while. He’d thought it had been the sound of the rain drowning everything else out. Now it didn’t look like that had been the case at all.

    She grinned at him and brought her hands together into the Tiger seal. He felt a something like displaced air and suddenly he could hear Rei breathing again. Her chest was still heaving from exertion but she still looked extraordinarily pleased.

    “So,” she asked as she placed her hands on her hips, breathing still heavy and ragged. “What do you think?”

    Neji took a moment to formulate an appropriate response. “The jutsu… it cancels sound?” he asked cautiously.

    Rei nodded enthusiastically. “Stealth Art: Silent Hunt. It creates a bubble of Chakra around me that perfectly cancels outgoing waves of sound with an equal and opposite force. I can hear perfectly fine but it is literally impossible for sound to escape an area surrounding me for a few feet in every direction.” A pause. “It does feel really weird to use it though,” Rei conceded, “I’m going to have to practice to get used to it.”

    “I don’t know,” said Neji, “it seems a bit… underwhelming.”

    Rei gave him a dirty look before scoffing disdainfully. “That’s because you don’t really understand stealth. Stealth is all based around concealing yourself from the seven senses. This justu completely eliminates me having to worry about one of them provided I don’t do anything stupid. As long as I can use this one rather Chakra-inexpensive technique all of my opponents will be robbed of one of the limited set of tools they can use to find me. That is huge.”

    “I see,” said Neji skeptically. “I suppose I should defer to your superior expertise.”

    “Damn right you should,” said Rei decisively. He thought that she was a little bit peeved that he wasn’t more impressed with her jutsu. Well, tough. It’s not like being a hole of silence in the world would help her hide from his Byakugan.

    It was then that it hit Neji that something far more significant had happened that evening than simply Rei learning a jutsu of questionable utility. His eyes snapped to her and it took much of his considerable self-control not to gape at her incredulously. What had just happened should not have been possible.

    Even the simplest of jutsu a ninja learned, the basic three taught at the academy, took a minimum of several days of diligent effort before they could be used with any degree of proficiency. For many students it could take months or even years to get those basic jutsu working at an acceptable level. Even for a genius like himself it had taken two full days before he could create anything like a passable Bunshin with the Bunshin no Jutsu, probably the simplest technique of the basic three.

    Rei had learned a brand new jutsu at least that complicated in a bit under two hours.

    “What are you looking at?” she growled at him in annoyance when she caught him staring.

    She truly is worthy of the label “genius.” He had no idea how she had managed to pull something like that off. However Neji wasn’t about to say any of that out loud. Rei would be entirely too smug about it for far too long. Instead he decided to answer her question with one of his own.

    “If this jutsu was available from the beginning why spend so much time and energy over the last two years learning to move silently without it?” he asked genuinely puzzled by that apparent waste of time.

    “Because a technique is no substitute for skill, human. Surely even your tiny monkey mind can grasp something as simple as that.”

    Neji flinched when that damned Rat seemed to materialize next to them. It must have deliberately snuck up on him when he hadn’t been paying it any attention. He was starting to see where Rei got her tendency for sneaking up on people and startling them. Neji gave the summoned creature his best disdainful look. He hadn’t forgotten that the damn thing had just tried to have him killed.

    “That’s basically it,” Rei agreed with a careless shrug. “It would be like teaching someone a strength jutsu without teaching them how to throw a proper punch first. Sure it could still be useful but more likely than not it would simply become a crutch.”

    Deliberately ignoring the Rat he turned his attention back to Rei. Thinking about it he could see the reasoning behind it even if he wasn’t sure he one hundred percent agreed. What one person labeled a “crutch” could also be labeled as someone’s “staple technique.” He didn’t feel the need to start arguing the point however. Instead there was something else he was far more concerned about.

    “That jutsu that this creature of yours used to hide from my Byakugan,” Neji began a little hesitantly. “How does it work?”

    The Rat standing next to them made a sound that seemed to perfectly convey a sneer. “You’re crazy if you think we’re just going to give out that kind of information.”

    Neji bit his lip in annoyance but reluctantly nodded his acceptance. He hadn’t really been expecting a straight answer. That wasn’t the type of thing you just shared casually with whoever asked.

    Ignoring the Rat he addressed Rei once again. “That jutsu… is this Rat going to teach it to you?”

    “Yes he will,” she said sending Ofuda a challenging look, “eventually. If he doesn’t then I’m sure another Rat will.”

    Neji nodded. There were rumors out there of stealth jutsu that could completely fool the Byakugan to this degree but as far as Neji knew those rumors had never been confirmed. The fact that Rei potentially had the ability to learn that type of jutsu was… huge to say the least. If that technique somehow got disseminated it would have far reaching implications for the entirety of the clan. Neji didn’t know how the old men at the compound would react to this information. He decided for the time being it was better that they didn’t find out. Neji certainly wasn’t going to be the one to enlighten them.

    If Rei was really going to eventually to learn that technique to hide from his Byakugan… “You will be terrifying to fight then,” he said solemnly.

    Rei grinned at him then. It was a grin that looked a great deal more relaxed and happy than he had seen in the last several months, making her look a great deal more like her old self. Her eyes lit up with mischief in a way that made him shudder.

    “I know. I can’t wait!”

    Neji only partially shared in her enthusiasm.
     
    meri, Retric, Perspicacious and 49 others like this.
  6. Threadmarks: Chapter 36
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 36

    000


    Several hours before dawn when Rei was already sitting on her small desk reading by lamplight. In front of her was a scroll that was technically restricted to Chunin rank or above that she had managed to badger and guilt the old lady who ran the clan library into “misplacing” it so it ended up in her hands. While Rei had read the scroll a half a dozen times already her obsessive personality prompted her to read it one more time just in case she had missed some crucial detail.

    It was a scroll detailing everything that was known about training ground 44, the so-called and unnecessarily dramatically named Forest of Death. The scroll contained everything she could possibly need to know about the place. Geography. Diseases. Edible plants. Wildlife, especially the wide range of hostile wildlife that the training grounds were famous for. All of it information that Genin were never supposed to see since chances were high that their Chunin examinations would take place at least in part inside the forest. In a very real sense by reading the scroll in front of her she was gaining an unfair advantage when the Chunin exams came around in about two and a half years.

    I’ll try to somehow live with the guilt, Rei thought with a small upward quirk of her lips.

    The Forest of Death was, Rei had concluded, extremely bizarre as well as something of an interesting anomaly. Why would such a relatively small area have such a huge concentration of incredibly large or horribly mutated animals? The scroll delved a bit into speculating that maybe there was some sort of special Chakra in the area that affected the animals but there was nothing that was conclusive. It was also a fact that those same giant animals very rarely tended to leave the area designated as training ground 44. In the scroll the phenomenon was ultimately written off as a mystery, even as it tried half-heartedly to make some kind of sense out of it.

    Thinking about it further Rei had developed her own theory. From the story she remembered only one thing in this world that tended to produce severe mutations – Natural Energy. From the story she knew that uncontrolled usage of Sage Mode, Jugo’s clan and the Cursed Seal users all exhibited a similar phenomenon. Perhaps there was an unusually high concentration of Natural Energy to be found naturally in training ground 44, leading to widespread mutations of the local wildlife? It seemed plausible. However it was only an unsubstantiated theory. Not something she could feasibly test out since she had no idea how to go about detecting the existence of Natural Energy.

    Glancing at the clock on her desk Rei realized it was almost time for her to get going. Even though she had prepared her large backpack that she would be taking with her the day before Rei felt compelled to take everything out and repack it once again just to make extra sure it had everything she needed. Satisfied, Rei hefted her pack and made her way downstairs through her darkened house.

    As she neared the bottom of the stairs however she was surprised to see a soft glow that indicated that someone had turned the light on in the kitchen. Curious she made her way in that direction. Rei was somewhat taken aback to find her father sitting at the table with two cups of filled with tea and a steaming teapot. It seemed that he had been waiting for her.

    “Rei,” Inoichi said giving his daughter a welcoming smile. “I was hoping I could talk to you for a bit before you left. Join me for some tea?”

    Not seeing much choice – or reason to refuse really – Rei set her backpack down by the door and took a seat across from her father. Picking up the cup she took a small sip of the tea. It was still hot… the perfect temperature even. She looked up at her father a bit suspiciously. How had he known the exact time she would be coming down the stairs?

    Her dad took a sip from his own cup before he began. “I commend you for your dedication Rei. When I was your age the Stoking of the Flames was an excuse for me and my friends to goof off and have reduced responsibilities. Instead you decided you wanted to use the time for an extended training trip. While I’m not entirely comfortable with the way you push yourself I want you to know that you have my support… so long as you continue to be sensible in how you go about it.”

    Uncharacteristically Rei felt a little bit self-conscious at the praise. She resolutely ignored the feeling however and instead gave her father a cocky smile. “Well being the best is hard work. I’m hardly going to get there if I start taking time off. But… thank you. For your support.” Pause. “I definitely appreciate it.”

    Inoichi nodded his acceptance with a slight smile before his expression turned more serious. “Are you still perusing your goal of becoming an S-Rank ninja?”

    Rei rolled her eyes. Sometimes she wished she hadn’t told him about that. “Yes dad,” she said, drawing out the words and sounding very much like a put upon child.

    Inoichi looked for a moment like he might continue on that vein of thought before abruptly shifting tracks. “So Rei before you go I need to ask… what did Hiashi Hyuuga offer you in return for training his daughter?”

    Rei thought that this conversation might come up eventually but all the same she didn’t particularly like being interrogated. Or having her judgement called into question.

    “Why would it have to be something like that?” Rei replied neutrally as she sipped her tea. “Maybe I’m just taking the girl under my wing. She certainly could use the help.”

    Her father gave her a deadpan disbelieving look. It made Rei’s eyebrow twitch with irritation.

    "It's not like it's impossible. I'm not that mercenary," Rei declared imperiously.

    Inoichi just raised an eyebrow.

    "It could happen," Rei insisted, feeling increasingly uncomfortable under his scrutiny.

    Inoichi just stared at her. She fidgeted. After a minute of this she just looked away and threw her hands in the air.

    “Fine! I just wanted to make sure Neji was on my team. I figured if both Toshiaki and Hiashi-dono were pushing for it then the Hokage would have a hard time saying no.”

    “I… see,” said her father, somehow simultaneously looking relieved and vaguely unhappy. Rei was starting to feel irritated now and stared at him as if she could cut him in half with her gaze alone.

    “So there you have it,” she said curtly. “Was that all?”

    There was a long silence from Inoichi before he finally spoke. When he did it wasn’t in a direction Rei had been expecting at all.

    “You’re not… interested in this boy are you?” Inoichi asked with visible trepidation.

    Rei looked at his concerned face with wide eyes… before she started huffing with laughter.

    “It’s really not all that funny Rei,” Inoichi said, looking a little bit put out.

    Yes, yes it is,” Rei insisted when she could take a breath in between huffs and giggles. Was he serious? “No dad I am not interested in Neji in that way,” she said as she started to get some control of herself. Neji was so young… the thought would have been nauseating if it wasn’t so funny. “Maybe in a decade or two I’ll think about it,” she told her dad eventually, her eyes dancing with mirth and a mischievous smile on her face as she brought the cup of tea to her lips once again.

    Inoichi somehow managed to look both simultaneously relieved and suspicious at the same time. Is this what it felt like to have a concerned father trying to protect her virtue? She’d never had that in her past life. It was a novel feeling. Silently Rei wished him good luck with Ino. If the story was anything to go by that girl was going to become incredibly boy crazy.

    Wisely Inoichi decided to leave the subject at that before moving on to something else. His posture straightened subtly and his expression became uncharacteristically solemn. Subconsciously Rei found herself becoming very still as she looked at her father. He was signaling that whatever he would say next was serious and likely the real reason for intercepting her like this so early in the morning.

    “You should be careful making deals with powerful men Rei,” Inoichi began, his tone somber. “Even with something as seemingly innocent as this. Drawing the attention of those who are politically powerful and influential… isn’t always a good thing.”

    Rei narrowed her eyes at her father. She wasn’t sure why he was picking now of all times to bring something like this up. Also, the way he’d said that… it almost felt like he was trying to tell her something without saying it out loud. Unfortunately if that was the case in that moment Rei couldn’t quite figure out what it was.

    “Don’t worry,” Rei began cautiously. “I’m not dumb enough to commit to anything I can’t handle. Besides it’s not like I have the authority to involve the clan in anything. The damage I can do to the Yamanaka is minimal.”

    “That’s not what I’m concerned about,” he told her gruffly.

    “All right,” replied Rei dubiously after a moment, a question in her tone. She wasn’t quite sure how to react to his concern. She could handle herself just fine.

    Inoichi didn’t look entirely pleased with her responses but went ahead and subtly changed the subject.

    “So I see you hired ‘that person’ to oversee your training with the young Hyuuga heiress.”

    Rei winced. She’d sort of been hoping that particular tidbit would remain her little secret.

    “You found out about that huh?” she said sounding distinctly unenthused about the fact.

    Inoichi gave her a cool disappointed look that almost caused her to flinch. He took the time to pour himself some more tea before continuing.

    “The relationship between the Yamanaka and the Hokage is being… carefully managed of late. I think that you’re smart enough to realize that associating in this way with one of his favorite agents might send the wrong signals.”

    “Favorite agents?” she asked in surprise. Rei couldn’t completely hide her dislike. Her lip curled up in snarl without conscious thought, a loss of control that she would later berate and punish herself for. In that moment however she couldn’t help but get her hackles up at the mention of that man. The Yamanaka might have been the closest thing to mental health professionals in this world but they were not mental health professionals. They had never really talked to her about her short stint in the tender care of T&I and frankly Rei didn’t want to talk about it. The memory of the helplessness and injustice she had experienced in that time had never fully gone away. It had all just been swept under the rug and promptly forgotten about like most unpleasant things tended to be in the Village Hidden in the Leaves.

    “What did she ask you for?” her father asked her. If the person she’d gotten to chaperone really did have a reputation now as one of the Hokage’s favorite agents… Rei could see why Inoichi would be concerned.

    “I paid her for a C-Rank mission. Isn’t that enough?” she asked, her voice hard and unpleasant.

    “No,” said Inoichi flatly. “I’m asking out of concern for you and the clan both Rei. Don’t make me make it an order.”

    Rei held on to her anger for a few moments longer before letting out a tired sigh. Inoichi wasn’t her enemy... no matter how much she suddenly wished she had something or someone to hurt and fight in that moment. Until she was a Genin her father was also something like her paterfamilias under the law and it would be pointless to draw a line in the sand and fight him over this. Suddenly she wanted to go back to bed.

    “Something I want too,” she said finally, slumping down in her seat a little.

    “What?” asked her father patiently.

    “She wants to fight me.”

    Inoichi raised a slightly alarmed eyebrow at that. Rei waved his concern off and clarified.

    “I think she genuinely likes me and is invested in my growth since I’m supposedly the only person she’s ever taught. She wants to make sure I’m ‘up to her standards’, which probably means her plan is to eventually teach me something in between trying to beat the shit out of me,” Rei said with an unconcerned shrug. Though in light of recent revelations... she began to wonder if she was being entirely too naïve in believing those were her main motivations.

    One of Rei's fists tightened under the table. Extend and inch of trust, and what did she get for her troubles exactly? Maybe a better question was, why had she expected anything different? Rei had always known it was a possibility but... there was a big difference between being just a ninja working for the Hokage and being known as one of his personal dogs.

    Goddamnit. She would get to the bottom of this, one way or the other.

    Inoichi for his part didn’t look especially pleased or reassured by the responses he had gotten from her. However at least he didn’t voice any further objections. “Just keep in mind,” he began carefully, “that everything she sees… none of it is going to stay private.”

    Rei closed her eyes. “I know.”

    “You should stay away from that person in the future,” her father continued. “Just to be on the safe side.”

    Rei nodded absently at that. “I’ll think about it.”

    And she would.

    Inoichi gave a firm nod at that, apparently satisfied by whatever he had seen in her response. “Good luck then. See you in two weeks.” Pause. “And Rei?”

    “Yeah?”

    “Give that woman hell,” Inoichi said with a warm infectious smile.

    Rei returned his expression, her own smile taking on a decidedly vicious edge. “Don’t worry. I think she’ll find that I have a few very special tricks for her up my sleeve.”

    000

    Wearing her large field backpack Rei waited just outside of the Hyuuga estate in the twilight of dawn. The two Hyuuga guards flanking the gates stood firmly at attention, eyes forward with a straight and stiff backs as if the Clan Head himself were in front of them giving inspection. Then again this was the Hyuuga clan. For all those two Branch members knew their every move was being picked apart by their superiors at that very moment.

    Certainly something to keep in mind.

    It was only a few minutes later when the imposing gates of the Hyuuga compound opened enough to allow a small individual to exit. Hinata Hyuuga came out of the compound then, a heavy looking pack on her back and an expression on her face that made Rei wonder how much sleep she had actually gotten during the night. The clothes she was wearing was her standard ‘academy outfit’, including that peculiar hoodie that Rei had no idea how Hinata tolerated in the heat of Fire Country. When the girl spotted Rei she gave her a look that was somehow both guarded and conflicted.

    Rei gave the younger girl a small encouraging smile and held her ground, waiting for Hinata to come to her. After a small hesitation the younger girl did approach until the two of them were only a handful of feet away. It looked like Hinata wasn’t quite sure how to greet her if her slight fidgeting and awkward expression were anything to go by. Rei for her part kept her silence and just waited. She wanted to see what it was Hinata would do.

    In the end Hinata fell back on the type of greeting that she felt was safest… the type that she knew best. The young Hyuuga folded her hands in front of her and bowed in a very formal greeting to her senpai. When in doubt you could almost never go wrong with formality in any kind of social situation.

    Rei was pleasantly surprised by what she observed, her smile tugging upwards further just a bit as her eyes glittered in satisfaction. Hinata was bowing to her far lower than she needed to. Lower in fact than would normally be considered appropriate even with the nature of their senpai-kouhai relationship taken into account. Rei’s eyes flickered briefly to the guards by the gate. A slight tightening around the eyes of the guards told of their displeasure and disapproval at seeing Hinata humble herself in such a fashion.

    Rei realized she’d been looking forward to this. Something as simple as a low bow was suddenly stirring a violent maelstrom of emotions inside her chest. Was it a deliberate decision on her part I wonder? Or was it an unconscious act? It was perhaps a small thing but if on their third meeting Hinata already deferred to her this much… well. Then things might be proceeding in her favor faster than she had anticipated.

    “Hello Hinata-chan,” said Rei warmly, and not all of the sentiment was fake. “It’s good to see you again.”

    Hinata rose from her bow, her expression tinged with… nervousness? Apprehension? Hesitantly her lips twitched upwards slightly. “It’s good to see you again as well, Rei-senpai.”

    “I’m sorry you had all of this sprung on you so suddenly,” Rei said as she scrutinized Hinata, taking in every little clue she could detect about her disposition and mental state. “However the Stoking of the Flames is a window of opportunity that won’t come for another year.”

    “I understand,” said Hinata in a resigned tone that reminded Rei that the younger girl was used to having all of her decisions made for her.

    “Let’s get going shall we?” With one last smug look at the guards Rei turned and began walking, forcing Hinata to catch up and fall in step with her.

    They walked in silence for a short while, the tension Rei could feel coming from Hinata making the quiet between them a little bit uncomfortable. Rei waited until they were well out of conventional view range and had turned a corner before she began to speak. It wouldn’t protect her from any Hyuuga who wanted to look but it gave her the feeling that the two of them were finally alone walking down the street in the faint light of the early dawn.

    “What did your father tell you?” Rei asked. She could see Hinata twitch as the sound of her voice surprised her. Lost in your own thoughts were you? What are you thinking about Hinata-chan?

    “Um,” Hinata began hesitantly before settling into the cultured tones she had been trained in. “Otou-sama only said that I’ll be going on two weeks of survival training with you during the Stoking of the Flames.”

    Rei noticed Hinata tense when the younger girl talked about her father. “Did he give you any more details?”

    Hinata shook her head. “He only said that he expected me to… no, I mean, he didn’t give me any more details.”

    Rei could guess easily enough what sort of thing Hinata was going to say before she cut herself off. More expectations piled on her and stern warning not to be a disappointment again most likely. You would think that after years of this the Hyuuga would have tried a new strategy by now since this way of ‘motivating’ Hinata clearly wasn’t doing Hyuuga interests too many favors.

    I guess I should probably fill her in on where we’re going. Now how to best turn this to my advantage?

    “We’re going to training ground forty four,” Rei began in a grave and serious tone. “More popularly known as the ‘Forest of Death’ due to the dangerous wildlife and harsh conditions.”

    Out of the corner of her eye Rei saw Hinata miss half a step and pale considerably. “F-forest of Death…?”

    Rei nodded and continued speaking, pretending not to have noticed Hinata’s negative reaction. “It’s used primarily as a training ground for Genin aspiring to become Chunin. However all levels of ninja have been known to occasionally use the grounds for different training purposes.”

    Hinata was not a dummy and Rei could see she grasped the implication that even higher level ninja considered the grounds challenging enough to be useful for training. She tried to hide it but little tells gave away Hinata's increasing levels of apprehension. Normally most people would have missed it but Rei’s training from her family allowed her to spot all the subtle little signs without too much trouble.

    Rei then proceeded to give a basic rundown of training ground forty four with things such as it's size, geographic features, and some somewhat vague details about the dangers they could expect. Rei chose her words deliberately in such a way as to make Hinata increasingly worried and scared even as she spoke in a technical and almost disinterested way. It was also important at this stage to project to Hinata that she was completely at ease with any dangers they might come across. Which, truth be told, she by and large totally was. Mostly.

    When she finished speaking she eyed Hinata carefully out of the corner of her eye as the girl digested everything Rei had told her. Truthfully it was probably a lot for the girl to absorb all at once. Rei scrutinized Hinata closely while the girl looked down at the ground as she hunched her shoulders and nervously bit her lip. The Yamanaka girl waited until she was fairly sure Hinata had lost herself in dark and emotionally unpleasant thoughts before bumping her shoulder playfully.

    Hinata blinked up at Rei, startled by the sudden unexpected good natured contact. Rei gave Hinata a friendly and confident smile, her body language calculated to seem more trustworthy and dependable. “Don’t worry. Just focus on the training. I’m going to be right next to you the whole time." In momentary loss of control she would later berate herself for, Rei couldn’t help but let a trace of arrogant swagger slip into her voice… though it may have honestly enhanced her show of complete confidence. "I’ll be there to protect you no matter what.”

    Hinata seemed momentarily dazed by Rei before looking away and blushing lightly. The younger girl didn’t say anything. She just looked up at Rei through her bangs. There was a tiny very small smile on her face then, hesitant and grateful. Rei realized with a start this was the first real smile she had ever seen on the other girl. It seemed to make her face and eyes come alive. It looked good on her.

    There didn’t seem like there was anything more that needed to be said at that point so the two of them fell into a far more companionable silence as the continued to walk. Hinata still seemed nervous about what lay ahead but the nervousness was less now and there was a thread of confidence in her step to go with it. So far so good. Pleased that her plans were off to a good start Rei recalled the detailed map of the Forest of Death that she had memorized. She was busy refining a number of contingencies – not all of which had anything to do with the Hyuuga heiress herself – when she was almost startled when Hinata unexpectedly broke the silence between them.

    “How… how was your party? Last night,” the younger girl asked. Her voice was hesitant and unsure. For her part Rei was somewhat surprised the young heiress had spoken up at all. She’d figured Hinata would need a little longer to feel confident enough to initiate small talk.

    Rei was also surprised by her question. “You heard about that?” She didn’t think Hinata had even known about her birthday ‘party’.

    Hinata looked down at her feet and nodded. Rei hummed and took a moment to really think about the question. In the end she decided to simply answer truthfully.

    “It was a waste of time but it did feed my ego to have so many sort-of important people gathered in my honor.”

    Too much honesty? Maybe. But Hinata was going to eventually have to like her for her. Rei couldn’t see anything else working out long term.

    Hinata, unsurprisingly, seemed surprised by her response. “Oh,” she said, her voice slightly dejected and just a tiny bit wistful.

    Hearing her tone of voice Rei had a sudden instinct. “Did you want to go?” she asked Hinata gently.

    Hinata shook her head. Her expression smoothed into a fairly serviceable rendition of the impassive Hyuuga mask. “It’s okay. I understand why you wouldn’t invite me.” Her tone wasn’t the least passive aggressive either. If anything it sounded resigned and a little sad.

    “I’m not sure I do,” said Rei slowly. “Why wouldn’t I invite you?”

    Hinata shot Rei a vaguely irritated look. “You know,” said Hinata, half somber and half accusing. “Just…” she began, before trailing off and then looking away, refusing to meet Rei’s eyes.

    Rei sighed. She thought she knew what was going on. When did I sign up to deal with melodrama? Still a part of her genuinely wanted to help Hinata who seemed to already have several truckloads of issues at such a young age. As long as it didn’t get in the way of her plans... she might as well try to help where she could.

    Rei stopped walking, prompting Hinata to do the same with a questioning expression on her face. The Yamanaka looked at the younger girl seriously, weighing how to say what needed to be said. Turning fully to face her Rei began in a soft, matter-of-fact tone.

    “The first time I met you was literally just a couple of days before the ‘party’. That’s the only reason I didn’t ask you to come. However now that we’re getting to know each other a little better I can say with a hundred percent certainty that I want you there the next time. Which… probably won’t be for a long time. But the point still stands. I didn’t not-invite you for any reason other than that Hina-chan.”

    Hinata looked at Rei doubtfully which was a… curious reaction. Possible crushing self-esteem issues caused by her family? Check. Rei gave Hinata her best sincere look and smile, trying to put the girl and ease and to get her to at least partially accept her words. After a moment or two Hinata’s skeptical expression cracked a little, causing her to duck her head self-consciously and her eyes to dart off to the side.

    Seized by a sudden impulse Rei reached up and lightly ran her fingers through the hair on the side of Hinata’s head. Hinata jerked her head back in surprise but Rei didn’t let it disturb her, instead following the sudden movement like it was no effort at all. Rei grabbed a bit of Hinata’s hair between her fingers and thoughtfuly examined it. It was incredibly thick and beautiful, and such a unique shade of blue too. With a small smile Rei privately admitted that she was at least a little bit jealous. Except for her sometimes annoyingly thick curls she was just another blonde in an entire clan full of blondes.

    Her eyes slid from the hair she was holding in between her fingers back to it’s owner. Hinata stood there frozen, looking up at Rei wide-eyed, reminding Rei so much of a frightened rabbit. A slow self-satisfied smile spread across her lips. It was nice to see Hinata so off balance like that. It made her feel like she was once again completely in control.

    Sooner than Rei had been expecting Hinata began to relax as the elder girl continued to play with the bit of blue hair in between her fingers. A bit faster than before, Rei noted. There was a softness and vulnerability on Hinata’s face as she looked up at Rei, almost looking lost.

    We’re very much alike in some ways, aren’t we Hina-chan? Rei had always been a touchy-feely person in this life and the last because frankly… she needed it. If she was forced to go completely without she had no idea how she would handle it. Rei was almost completely certain by this point that Hinata was exactly the same way. She had in fact suspected that was the case from the very first day she met the Hyuuga heiress.

    As she very lightly ran the tips of her fingers through Hinata’s scalp Rei saw that tendency for what it was… another lever she could pull to get what she wanted. As if I didn’t have enough of those already, Rei thought, inwardly feeling a satisfied and pleased glow. She couldn’t help but wonder how much she would be able to get away with when all was said and done.

    “Are you still going to grow your hair out like I told you to?”

    It was a gentle question but her tone made it clear what the right answer was supposed to be. Hinata seemed to shudder and half close her eyes. “Yes.”

    Rei took that moment to pull her hand away from the young girl’s hair. Hinata opened her eyes and looked at the hand as it retracted, the look on her face vaguely one of disappointment.

    “Good. You have such beautiful hair. It will look much better, trust me,” Rei said with a smile that was intended to be both charming and disarming. Hinata gave Rei a small hesitant smile of her own, though she still looked horribly off balance. The girl fidgeted and touched her hair self-consciously.

    “Thank you Rei-senpai,” Hinata said in a small but heartfelt voice.

    Rei gave Hinata a roguish grin. “Come on. We have a busy day ahead of us.”

    Rei turned and led the way with Hinata following close behind. So far so good. Maybe even better than good. But Rei couldn’t let herself get too distracted by how well things seemed to be going. In fact she needed to begin to focus and get her head in the game. Despite her somewhat flippant attitude, the training grounds had been nicknamed the Forest of Death for a reason.

    She wouldn’t let Hinata get seriously hurt. Rei doubted their ‘babysitter’ would ever intervene unless it was life and death. Most likely everything would be entirely up to her.

    Rei could feel a smile creeping across her face at the prospect of a challenge. This was going to be fun.

    000

    The chain link fence around training ground 44 served the same purpose as the white picket fences that she remembered: more as a symbolic delineating of boundaries than any serious attempt to keep determined intruders out. They didn’t even bother to put barbed wire at the top of the chain link fence. Even an untrained civilian would be able to climb over it and enter the forest if they felt properly motivated. No, what was truly foreboding to anyone on the outside of the fence was what they could see immediately beyond it.

    The trees just on the other side of the fence were… huge did not even begin to describe them. They were covered in green moss and were so titanic with growing, sprawling roots reaching over the ground that it would take… fifty? One hundred? It was hard to estimate but one hell of a lot of people holding hands to wrap around even one of those behemoth trees. Sure there were probably some smaller ones further in but the trees that made up the outside barrier of the forest were almost indescribably large. Frankly… it was somewhat intimidating. And it also gave some idea of the scale that some of the creatures in the forest were likely to reach.

    “Wow,” Hinata said under her breath as she tilted her head all the way back to look at how high the trees went. They must have been at least three hundred feet tall.

    “Impressive isn’t it?” Rei muttered back. It was almost like speaking too loud would break a spell. “Like the huge trees that litter the village this forest was created by the First Hokage. How one human being alone could create things on such a colossal scale… it’s kind of hard to wrap your head around.” It was also frightening. And tantalizing, in a way.

    Hinata nodded absently before slowly bringing her hands together. She went through a series of twelve hand seals before ending in a modified version of the Snake seal.

    “Byakugan,” she intoned softly.

    Hinata’s family dojutsu activated giving her eyes and face that eerie, almost alien quality that Rei had long ago become used to. It always looked vaguely reptilian to her in a way. Rei watched Hinata as Hinata watched the forest, her eyes flickering back and forth by instinct more than by need.

    “What do you see?” Rei asked.

    “My range isn’t very good,” replied Hinata, sounding almost apologetic. “But the roots go incredibly deep. There are signs of large animals having passed through here. There’s nothing currently in my range though.”

    Rei nodded to that. The Byakugan really was very useful. “Most animals here will stay away from the edges of the forest since they don’t like to leave. We’ll have to be more careful the deeper we make our way in.” Rei paused before giving the younger girl a small smile. “Good work Hinata.”

    As expected the girl blushed and looked uncomfortable at the simple and sincere praise. If Rei had to guess such positive reinforcement was extremely rare in her life, to the point where she didn’t quite know how to react to it.

    “It’s nothing Rei-senpai,” Hinata replied quietly.

    Rei’s first instinct was to argue with her but she reigned the impulse in. Getting Hinata used to positive reinforcement was not going to happen in one shot. It was better to be patient. She already planned to push Hinata way out of her comfort zone before the first day was over as it was. No need to add even more stress on top of it all. Not for the moment anyway.

    “How long can you keep your Byakugan activated?”

    Hinata looked uncomfortable when she answered. “Maybe about twenty minutes before I need to rest.”

    Rei nodded at that. It was probably something else she’d been found ‘deficient’ at. Neji could keep his on six times longer than that. “Go ahead and turn it off then. We’ve got a long day ahead.”

    Hinata made a small unhappy sound before turning her Byakugan off without protest. Rei couldn’t deny that it gave her a little thrill when Hinata was so obedient. So far so good.

    “Come on,” Rei said, flexing her hands. A small spontaneous smirk spread across her face as she looked out over the forest. When was the last time she’d had any kind of real challenge that wasn’t just training, training and more training? In the forest there were actual things that could kill her. The thought sent her blood pumping with excitement. “Time to go. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover.”

    000

    Once in the forest Rei did what came naturally to anyone trained in Konoha: she took to the treetops, high up in the canopy where she would be able to move from a more advantageous position. Hinata was a bit slow to follow but at least she wasable to follow. Though the younger girl didn’t look all that comfortable using Chakra to climb so high at least she had clearly learned the tree climbing exercise, even if it didn’t look like she’d used it all that much.

    Works for me.

    “We’re going to be running for a while,” Rei said to the young Hyuuga. “Keep up.”

    Rei took off like a bolt, slowing only enough to make sure she could hear her new kouhai following. Satisfied the girl was trailing her as she ran Rei took a moment to study her surroundings. It was both as she remembered from the story and not at the same time. They were generally speaking running along the lower branches of the trees which meant that pretty much all sunlight was blocked from above. Even though it was early in the morning it was dark enough to where it could have easily been mistaken for twilight. The branches they ran on were much like the trees themselves… ridiculously oversized, so much so that in places a single thick ‘branch’ could be large enough to build a good sized house on. In some ways the forest had a way of making you feel small. It was a spooky place filled with long dark shadows and a thousand places for something dangerous and hungry to hide. While Rei didn't feel particularly intimidated per se it did kick her senses into high alert.

    Still after just a few minutes of running Rei decided that she quite liked the forest. It was like leaving Konoha behind for a whole different world. Rei quickly found that she could almost trick herself into believing that she was far out in the wilderness beyond the stifling walls and borders of Konoha. It was wild and untamed, and that in turn made her feel wild and untamed as well. The experience was bittersweet… a small taste of freedom perhaps, but at the same time she was inevitably haunted by the knowledge that it would still be years before she could have true freedom to do as she liked with her life. Konoha was claustrophobic. Living life as a prisoner was no life at all.

    “When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.”

    It very nearly sounded romantic didn’t it? Rei never thought she would be experiencing the sentiment first hand. Her lips curled up in a snarl and her fists tightened until her knuckles popped. She had been waiting for so long. (And what exactly did she have to show for it?). Rei had a feeling that soon something was going to break. But it wouldn’t be her. No, Rei would die before her resolve broke. But soon, probably… something was going to break.

    So long as it doesn’t interfere with my goals I could give two shits.

    Rei was pulled out of her dark thoughts by the sound of Hinata landing heavily on a branch behind her. The Yamanaka took a quick peek behind her as she continued to run. Hinata was breathing hard, her face flushed a bright red. While she was managing to keep up with the fast pace Rei was setting it was clear that it was a struggle for her. Good. One of the main reasons they were here was to train Hinata both physically and mentally. Pushing her physical limits so she would improve was only logical.

    However forcing Hinata to struggle to keep up with her also served another, more important goal. Rei needed to cement her superiority in Hinata’s mind in every conceivable way possible. She needed to be larger than life in her mind. Someone who could do anything, someone who was always right. Was it silly to think of anyone that way? Of course it was, objectively. But Konoha had a collective culture of putting certain gifted people on lofty pedestals where they could do no wrong. Rei needed to become more than just a mentor to Hinata. She needed to become a veritable force of nature that was impossible to deny.

    So when they finally stopped later on and Hinata was exhausted from their run and Rei appeared completely refreshed and unfazed? It would be another piece of evidence that Rei was simply Hinata’s better in all things. Her single minded determination to her craft over the course of her whole life was finally paying off for something. She would have no trouble establishing herself as Hinata’s superior in literally everything. Or at least in everything that matters at any rate.

    Time passed as their swift lope quickly ate the miles as they ventured further into the depths of forest. For all its reputation for fearsome and dangerous creatures Rei saw precious little in the way of wildlife as they ran. She was on high alert, cognizant that she was pushing Hinata too hard for the girl to pay much attention to their surroundings. It would be up to her to detect and move to defend them from any possible danger. Still, they encountered no threats even as they neared their destination. Rei was almost disappointed that they weren’t jumped by some slavering monster trying to eat them.

    After what felt like quite some time they arrived at their first destination: the banks of the large river that cut right through the middle of training ground 44. There should be some clearings nearby where we can establish camp. The clearing she chose would have to be close to the water but not right next to it. There were things that lived in the river that came out at night to hunt the banks... things they were really better off avoiding. Rei was glad she’d had the foresight to research the place otherwise she might have been tempted to camp as close to the water as possible.

    Rei came to a stop on a thick branch overlooking the river. The river was very wide, easily a hundred feet across, with a calm look that hid the deceptively fast currents near the center. She knew that somewhere beyond the river was the tower that resided in the center of the training grounds. However she had no plans to come even within sight of the tower. Maybe it was silly but Rei felt that even seeing a hint of civilization might disrupt the feelings of isolation and of a self-contained world that the forest seemed to invoke inside of her.

    A moment later Hinata landed next to her with a heavy and uncharacteristic thud. Rei turned to look at her and had to suppress a smirk. Hinata was covered in sweat and struggling to get her breath back, her lungs working like bellows. Her hands went to her knees and she looked like she was shaking a little from the exertion she’d just been through. Still not a word of complaint escaped her lips. That at least was something that Rei could respect and appreciate.

    “Are you okay there Hina-chan?” Rei asked, looking the girl up and down just in case she might have missed something.

    Hinata shook her head, pushing sweat covered hair off her brow as she struggled to regulate her breathing. “No… I’m uh… fine senpai. Please don’t stop… on my account.”

    Why do you say that I wonder? You obviously need a few minutes to recover. “You did fine Hinata. And don’t worry, this is our destination more or less. Now all we need to do is find a suitable place nearby to make camp. We’ll stay there for a few days before packing up and moving somewhere else.”

    Hinata nodded at that. “I can look with my Byakugan if you want… if you can just give me... a few minutes…”

    A small genuine smile tugged at the corners of Rei’s lips at how helpful Hinata was trying to be. “I’m sure we’ll get some good use out of your Byakugan later but for now let’s just look on foot. I want to get a good look at the area firsthand anyway since the plan is to spend a couple of days nearby.”

    “Oh… okay.” For some reason Hinata seemed disappointed that Rei didn’t take her up on her offer. Curious.

    “Well I hope you brushed up on your trap making Hina-chan,” Rei said with lighthearted humor in an attempt to brighten up her mood. “Because if we don’t catch anything then we’re both going to go hungry!”

    By the look on Hinata’s face her joke fell flat. Why though? It was beyond obvious that she could find enough food for them if she set her mind to it. Never mind that she’d never done it before. Rei Yamanaka could never fail at something so basic and elementary. Just who did this girl actually think she was?

    Honestly. So little faith. Well, that would change soon enough.

    “Come on Hina-chan,” Rei said a tad more harshly than she had intended before turning away from her kouhai and looking towards their next destination. “Let’s go.”

    000

    Survival training was a lot more work than Rei had anticipated. Nothing she couldn’t handle, of course, but it surprised her how quickly the daylight hours went by as the two of them worked. It took a surprisingly long time to find a camp site that she was satisfied with, one with few enough avenues of approach that it could be properly trapped and defended from wild animals. After finding a suitable spot they had gone to set the snares.

    The Forest of Death, despite being famous for it’s oversized denizens, still had a plethora of mostly normal sized wildlife of the kind you could find in just about any normal forest. The two of them spent a good portion of the day setting traps for animals hoping they would catch anything from a rabbit to a squirrel to some kind of badger she had caught a glimpse off scurrying off into the underbrush. Maybe even something bigger as ninja wire was strong enough to hold anything short of an elephant.

    Hinata had not been too thrilled at the idea of catching and killing an animal for food… at least that's the assumption Rei made if the slightly green look on her face as they talked about it was anything to go by.

    Afterwards they had to return to their chosen campsite and trap that so they could have at least some peace of mind as they slept at night. Not that those traps would be a completely fool proof defense but it was better than nothing. Then they spent an obnoxiously long period of time looking for wood dry enough to make a fire with… a fire burning all night, while inadvisable on a regular mission if enemy hostiles were expected, would go a long way towards scaring off a great deal of the wildlife that might come snooping around. Still dry wood proved harder to come by than she had expected in the dark and damp training ground 44.

    By the time they finished with that it was already late afternoon. If they wanted anything to eat that evening they had no choice but to go check the snares they had set. To Rei’s disappointment none of them had caught anything. They had no choice but to return to camp as darkness fast approached without any meat to fill their bellies.

    Now they were back at their chosen campsite and Rei was feeling just a wee bit aggravated. Hinata was sitting on the ground leaning against a giant fallen tree that was at least ten feet tall on its side. It made for a nice natural “wall” at their backs so they would not have to worry about danger from that direction. The young Hyuuga had her eyes half closed, physically exhausted from the long day and lightly dozing almost against her will. While Rei didn’t feel all that tired herself the day had been beyond exhausting for Hinata.

    Rei was crouching over the fire pit they had made working the flint she’d brought with her in order to get the fire started. In a lot of ways their first day had not gone the way she had hoped. For one Rei had hoped she would be able to start right away working with Hinata as not to waste time. Instead she had to spend the whole day doing things that, while necessary, also felt like pointless busywork. She had miscalculated how long setting up on the first day would take. Annoying.

    Rei was also starting to wonder if she should change the name of the “Forest of Death” to the “Forest of Disappointment.” Everything she’d heard and read about it had made it sound like something would be out to kill them around every corner. That the forest was teeming with all sorts of dangerous wildlife that would look at a lower level ninja and think ‘crunchy and good with ketchup’. Instead she had seen a great big fat load of nothing after an entire day. Except for some maybe bigger than average sharp thorny vines all over the place the most dangerous thing she had run across had been a few mosquitoes maybe ten times bigger than normal. Kind of freaky to be sure but hardly a threat to someone like her.

    It was a gigantic disappointment. A part of her… ached for a fight. A fight where she wouldn’t have to hold back. She could hardly do that with someone from Konoha now could she? At least not with someone she could realistically beat.

    A fight where her life was on the line. Where it was kill or be killed. Why did she ache for that? Not that she wanted to kill a person… any person. Not really. But some wild and dangerous animal? Well… that would certainly be fair game. It wasn’t really the killing she was after though.

    More like I want to throw myself into a fight where I don’t have to worry about hurting anyone, Rei thought as she continued to try to light the tinder. It was the struggle and the winning, and the possible danger of death that she realized she’d been hoping for. Kami I’m messed up, Rei thought with a wry grin.

    Still the day had not turned out to be a complete waste. Hinata had shown herself to be almost uniformly obedient and eager to please, as well as being surprisingly competent. Rei snuck a glance at the young Hyuuga. Yes, Rei had spent the day getting Hinata acclimated to following her commands to the point where she would hardly do anything without looking to her for direction. The Yamanaka had also made sure to showcase her far superior competency in all facets of the ninja arts without being too obvious about it. Rei had no doubt that she had already starting to cement herself in Hinata’s mind as someone worth admiring and as someone who always knew what they were doing.

    They tricky part of course would be making sure that once the two weeks here were up that same mindset would translate to the outside world… along with establishing herself as the only person Hinata could rely on. Achieving that goal however also hinged on earning her affection, not just her admiration. Luckily Rei had a plan for that too.

    She was distracted from her musings when the tinder she had been working on finally caught fire. Rei smiled to herself as she cradled the small flame and encouraged it to grow. While lighters in the Elemental Nations existed they tended to be expensive luxury items. Still she could have gotten one if she’d really wanted to. However she found an appeal in the act of nurturing a small spark out of nothing and helping it grow into a roaring bonfire.

    It wasn’t long before the fire pit had a nice fire crackling merrily away. Just in time too as the forest was quickly starting to darken. Rei sneaked another glance at the dozing Hinata. Poor thing was exhausted. And probably hungry too. Rei decided that she would let Hinata rest and see to their sleeping arrangements herself. She wasn’t feeling all that tired anyway.

    Rei rose to her feet when movement caught her attention out of the corner of her eye. It was quick, gone in a flash, but she caught a glimpse of a long naked tail and caramel fur. Rei’s brow furrowed. She knew perfectly well who the hell that had been.

    Worm.

    Naturally, because why wouldn’t she, Rei had brought some Rat backup with her. Together they had agreed that her Corgi-sized Rat liaison/companion/friend would stay hidden and not reveal himself. That is, stay hidden and not reveal himself unless he needed to warn her about something.

    Incoming danger.

    “Hinata,” Rei said sharply, already scanning her surroundings like a hawk. Damn fire. It was messing up her night vision. “Wake up.”

    000

    The intensity of Rei-senpai's tone was enough to fully rouse Hinata in moments. She looked at Rei who was very seriously scanning their surroundings with a tense posture and began to feel alarmed. “Rei-senpai? What’s going on?” she asked with a hint of trepidation in her voice.

    “Something’s out there,” Rei said in a voice so low Hinata almost missed it, the older girl never stopping her scanning of the dark forest all around them. “Trying to get the drop on us unless I miss my guess. Can you use you Byakugan to check?”

    Things were moving so fast it took Hinata a moment to register the request. The girl swallowed nervously. She should have enough Chakra for that.

    Hinata swallowed her trepidation as her fingers flew through the required hand seals with a speed borne of long practice and muscle memory. She brought her hands together in the final seal and allowed her Chakra to flood the special channels inside and all around her eyes.

    “Byakugan!”

    The world distorted, turning into what was a confusing overlay for the uninitiated. For Hinata it wasn’t quite second nature yet but it was getting there. Being able to discern hundreds or even thousands of layers of matter and Chakra within her range individually was as much an art as it was a simple interpretation of what her newly expanded sense of sight was telling her. Hinata forced herself to look away from Rei’s brightly glowing Chakra and to search the world around them for whatever it was Rei had sensed.

    “There is a cat… a leopard,” Hinata said swallowing nervously when she spotted it. “Black with spots. It’s… really, really big. It’s about ninety feet up in the trees. About fifty feet South-Southwest. It’s stalking toward us slowly. It looks like maybe the fire caught its attention.”

    Hinata saw Rei frown at the information. For a second Hinata thought maybe she had said something wrong.

    “How big is it?” Rei asked, now looking in the right direction without being too obvious about it.

    “It’s about… four feet at the shoulder. Maybe twice as long.” Are we going to run?

    To Hinata’s incredulous disbelief Rei-senpai actually seemed to relax at the information. “Oh is that all?” she said with a confident smile starting to tug at her lips. “And here I thought it was going to be one of the really big cats around here.”

    Hinata just looked at her senpai in astonishment and awe. How can she be so confident?

    “Uh, Rei-senpai,” Hinata ventured hesitantly. “What are we going to do?”

    000

    What indeed? Thought Rei as she began to consider her options.

    Her first impulse was perhaps predictable though the strength of it surprised her. The animal was large, a predator, and somehow Rei doubted it was simple curiosity that was prompting it to silently stalk in their direction. Her right hand slipped up her long sleeve gripped one of the kunai concealed there. She wanted to fight it. No, she wanted to stalk it. Could she get the drop on it? Who would be hunting who? Not that she would simply strike to kill from stealth. No, maybe just to hamstring. Just enough to where it couldn’t run but where it could still fight. Really, would that be so bad?

    Battle lust arose inside of her. She had almost made up her mind to pursue that before she remembered her current charge. Looking out of the corner of her eye she saw Hinata staring at her, her wide eyes swirling with a confusing mix of emotions. Why was she looking at her like that? well, Rei could sort out what it all meant later. For now she had a bit of a crisis that needed to be addressed.

    In the end Rei forcibly reminded herself that first and foremost she had a mission to complete. Hinata. For the sake of completing her mission her personal desires would have to be pushed away for the moment. Her goals and responsibilities came first.

    “Well…” Rei said, answering Hinata’s earlier question. “We didn’t catch any dinner today. How considerate then that dinner decided to come to us, wouldn’t you say?”

    Predictably Hinata paled and seemed positively scandalized by her implication. “You can’t mean…”

    “Why not?” said Rei with a shrug. “We need to eat. Does it matter all that much if it’s a deer or a leopard?”

    “I… I guess not…” said Hinata hesitantly.

    Rei nodded her approval and smiled brightly at the girl. “Exactly right. So here’s what’s going to happen…”

    Rei stopped looking up at the trees and locked eyes with Hinata. The younger girl froze at the sudden intensity that she saw there.

    “… you’re going to be the one to kill that leopard for us Hinata-chan.”

    000

    “… you’re going to be the one to kill that leopard for us Hinata-chan.”

    At first Hinata was sure she’d heard wrong.

    “… what?”

    “You heard me,” said Rei, her tone slightly challenging. “I know you probably think it’s too dangerous but don’t worry: I’m going to be nearby the whole time. If things start going too badly I’ll swoop in and pull you out of trouble. There’s no way I’d let some overgrown furball maul my one and only kouhai.”

    No… apparently she hadn’t heard wrong.

    Hearing Rei promising to protect her was reassuring… a lot more reassuring than she would have thought actually. But… at the same time…

    Using her Byakugan Hinata turned her attention back to the animal in question. It was now maybe thirty feet away and seventy feet up. By the way it was moving Hinata had no doubt it was slowly stalking them. The animal was huge, chorded with lean muscle and having claws that were longer than her fingers. It looked sleek and hungry. Dangerous. There was no way she of all people could fight something like that.

    “Rei-senpai…” Hinata began haltingly, almost physically pained at having to admit yet another one of her many deficiencies to Rei. “I… I can’t do it. I can’t… fight something like that.”

    “Yes you can,” Rei said, absolute certainty in her voice. And just a hint of exasperation. It almost made Hinata believe it.

    But it simply wasn’t true.

    “No…,” said Hinata, looking down as shame filled her. “I – I’m sorry Rei-senpai, but I can’t –“

    She was interrupted when her Byakugan saw Rei move. Her family’s doujutsu managed to capture it all but her reaction time was almost pitiful by comparison. Before she could even breathe Rei was already standing just inches in front of her, one of her calloused hands tilting Hinata’s chin up to look her in the eyes. Hinata froze, stuck like a butterfly with a needle through it's torso as those lavender eyes pinned her in place. Some distant part of her mind marveled at the startling intensity that Rei-senpai could bring to anything that she did.

    “I know you’re nervous about this but it’s going to be fine,” Rei began quietly, never breaking the eye contact between them. “I’m not going to stop helping you if you fail. In fact trying and failing to do something will never make me think less of you Hinata. However…” she said, tightening her grip on Hinata’s chin until it was almost painful. “If you refuse to even try… if you refuse to even give it your very best effort… then I’m going to be very, very disappointed.”

    Oh Kami. Hinata could see it in her eyes. Rei was completely serious. One hundred percent serious. Would never think less of her if she failed? What had she ever done to deserve something like that? It was almost too much. How could someone even think of being that lenient with her? She almost wanted to call out Rei for being too soft on her… except she really, really didn’t…

    How could she disappoint someone like that? Looking into Rei’s eyes she couldn’t help but feel something would be lost if she backed down. When she probably completely screwed it up… at least Rei had said she would step in to protect her hadn’t she?

    “I… I’ll do it… Rei-senpai,” Hinata managed to whisper out as she was still locked in Rei’s potent piercing stare.

    Her senpai’s answering smile seemed to take a weight off her chest. “Good girl. It’ll be fine. Attack it from range and only close in when you have an advantage. I’ll be looking out for you the whole time.”

    Hinata just stared for a long moment before she realized she was expected to answer. “Oh… okay Rei-senpai,” she said, her voice sounding distracted and far away.

    “Come on,” said Rei, releasing her chin and stepping away from her towards the tree line. “Check your gear. It’s either now or never.”

    Biting her lip nervously Hinata did just that as she followed Rei out of the circle of light their campfire provided.

    000

    Hinata followed Rei as she took the lead, the older girl climbing with an ease Hinata found she couldn’t match as the older girl occasionally asked for the position of the leopard using the sign language they had learned at the academy. Slowly, and taking some peculiar routes for reasons Hinata didn’t quite understand, the two of them gained altitude and circled around where the leopard was still inching its way towards their campsite. The black spotted leopard was moving with a patience and deliberateness that Hinata found unsettling. If Rei hadn’t somehow sensed something was wrong the leopard could have snuck right up on them before they knew anything was wrong. They had trapped all the approaches to their camp from ground level but covering all approaches vertically would have been impossible. From above their camp had been more or less totally undefended.

    Hinata had always thought animals had great senses so she was surprised when Rei managed to somehow get them twenty feet above and behind the giant cat completely undetected. Hinata swallowed anxiously and she could feel her hands starting to shake a little. They were now in a prime ambush spot. Hinata wouldn’t get a better angle and or a better shot than this.

    Rei touched her arm to get her attention. Hinata looked at her, even though the motion was mostly unnecessary due to her Byakugan, and gave the older girl what felt to her like a truly pitiful look… and she hated herself for it almost instantly. For better or for worse however Rei-senpai either didn’t see the look in the darkness or she decided to ignore.

    Long range. Engage. Rei signaled to her. Me. Conceal. Acknowledge.

    Hesitantly, and less fluidly, Hinata signaled back. Acknowledge. Me. Long range. Engage. You. Conceal.

    Rei smiled at her in the darkness before reaching over and giving Hinata’s hand a brief squeeze. Hinata instinctively tensed and felt her heart speed up at the touch. However before she could do more than be surprised Rei was suddenly gone, circling around and moving to position herself at a different angle.

    Hinata still wasn’t used to how… affectionate her senpai was. It was one of the things that… well, now really wasn’t the time to start thinking about that. Looking over with her Byakugan she could easily see where Rei-senpai had moved to position herself… and how she was now expectantly looking in her direction.

    I can’t back out of this, can I?

    Trying to steady her shaking fingers Hinata drew four shuriken, two in each hand. They felt so small and pitiful compared to the majestic creature below her. I really don’t want to do this. The alternative though… the alternative would be much worse.

    Hinata was so nervous that she was almost positive she wouldn’t be able to aim with any sort of precision. Instead she took aim at the center of mass. With one last steadying breath Hinata drew back her hands and let the shuriken fly.

    The leopard was caught completely by surprise, letting out a shockingly loud animal cry of both pain and anger. The sound made Hinata freeze, her hands already half way back to her pouch to let another volley fly. Her heart skipped at beat when the leopard turned around and locked its yellow eyes with hers.

    Suddenly it was moving in a burst of violent movement. The leopard ran, and it was fast. It shot straight towards a trunk that Hinata quickly saw would bring it up the oversized branch she was currently crouching on. That realization was enough to snap her out of her shock, and acting solely on muscle memory her hands dipped into her pouch and sent shuriken flying at the creature. Maybe a third of them found their mark as the leopard scrambled up the trunk with terrifying speed and agility. Before she knew it the huge animal was on the same branch as her and charging right for her, its bared white teeth seeming to gleam in the recently fallen darkness.

    Hinata let out one last panicked volley of shuriken, hoping one of them would hit something vital. The girl wasn’t even sure how many of them hit before the leopard that was nearly as tall as her was suddenly right in front of her. Hinata’s mind completely blanked out for a moment as all she saw were claws and teeth pouncing straight at her with terrifying speed.

    Thankfully her reflexes, painfully and painstakingly honed by her family over many years, kicked in in time to save her from a brutal mauling. Hinata channeled a violent surge of Chakra to her legs and propelled herself backwards, barely getting out of range of where the leopard had pounced. The animal roared at her again, it’s body language furious, as it crouched down to leap at her once again.

    Now however Hinata found herself nearly up against the trunk of a tree behind her… and there really wasn’t enough room on the trunk she was on for her to dodge to the side. With panicky breaths and running almost entirely on autopilot Hinata drew and readied a kunai. Her mind had gone completely blank, relying now entirely on her body’s honed instincts to see her through this.

    The leopard surged forward, and suddenly one gigantic paw was coming down on her as if to crush her into the ground. Hinata anchored her feet with Chakra and stabbed upwards with both hands. Her kunai impaled the leopard’s paw, weakening it’s blow considerably as it instinctively tried to draw back and causing it to roar so loudly that for a panicked moment Hinata thought her eardrums had burst.

    A crushing blow from a creature that weighed many hundreds of pounds, however, was not so easily stopped. The downward blow of the leopard still hit Hinata, albeit much weakened, but it was still enough to make her completely lose her balance for a moment. The leopard’s other paw swung at her in that vulnerable moment, lighting fast, in a wild and instinctual attack. It was all Hinata could do to turn her body enough to only catch a glancing blow on her shoulder.

    Hinata felt her skin tear as the blow knocked her off the branch she'd been standing on. The Hyuuga fell twenty feet, completely uncontrolled, and landed heavily and painfully on her back. Thanks to having reinforced her body with Chakra by reflex nothing had broken… but the fall had still well and truly knocked the wind out of her.

    Hinata was still flat on her back, struggling to get her breath back when she heard a loud thud land maybe ten feet from her. Looking up she realized the leopard, even injured as it was, had jumped down twenty feet like it was nothing. It’s too intelligent eyes promised murder as it limped towards her, the kunai that was still buried in its paw looking almost comically small when said paw was larger than her head. Now that she looked she could see that the leopard was bleeding from over a half dozen shuriken buried in it but it didn’t look like they were inconveniencing the creature one bit. It growled as it approached her, a vibrating sound that was both rage and predatory violence in its most primal form.

    There was only a fraction of a second telegraph of tensing muscles before it pounced. Hinata was still on her back, struggling to move, struggling to breathe. Her entire body tensed and her mind filled with panic as her perfect Byakugan eyes captured every possible angle of death leaping through the air to finish her off.

    Somehow, even with her eyes, she was still surprised when Rei was suddenly there. A vicious flying kick from a blind angle connected with the leopard’s head sending the vicious animal sprawling off to the side.

    “Enough with the appetizers,” Rei roared at the creature as she turned to face the predator, her body lowering into a battle ready stance. “Now you’re fighting me!”

    Hinata could do little more than watch as her body was still slow to recover. The leopard was almost instantly back on its feet, seemingly not troubled at all by a kick to the head that had just sent it flying. It bared its teeth at Rei and let out a low rumbling growl of challenge, almost like a dog, and began trying to circle the young Yamanaka in order to get a better angle. Rei matched it, moving around the leopard in order to gain some sort of advantage. Hinata quickly noticed that Rei was subtly leading the leopard away further from her.

    Normally Hinata would have felt concern, or worry, or maybe even fear if Rei – or anyone else – were suddenly fighting for their life against a huge predatory beast like what was happen right there and then. But something about the whole situation left her feeling shocky and numb. Her emotions felt distant and muted and her whole body felt weak. Hinata could do nothing but lay back and watch as the scene unfolded in front of her.

    When they were a good bit of distance away from Hinata the two started to circle each other as if by some unspoken agreement, the circle growing smaller with each revolution, both opponents looking for any sort of weakness or advantage. The cat was hissing in anger. Rei… Rei had wide dangerous-looking grin on her face that didn’t seem quite right for the situation.

    “Any time now,” Rei said to the animal in a taunting tone. “Before blood loss makes you too weak for this to be any fun.”

    While it clearly didn’t understand the words maybe it understood the tone. The leopard roared, loud enough to where Hinata thought she could feel her very teeth vibrating in her skull, before it pounced at Rei, paw and claws swiping at her face.

    Rei took a single graceful step back causing the attack aimed at her face to miss by mere inches. The leopard instantly changed tactics and bull rushed Rei, trying to use its superior mass and strength to bowl her over. When it got close enough Rei almost gently put her hand on top of its huge ferocious head and used it to vault over the charging creature. The leopard instantly tried to turn and claw at Rei overhead but it’s momentum was carrying forward too much for it to try anything more than a passing swipe. Rei twisted her body out of the way of the leopard's claws mid air and hit the ground in a perfect three point landing.

    Some part of Hinata’s mind that was still processing information was amazed. Rei-senpai was fighting that monstrous leopard unarmed and she was making it look easy.

    When Rei rose to her full height she folded her hands in her sleeves and smirked, looking very pleased with herself.

    “You really are nothing but a dumb beast, aren’t you?”

    000

    Rei couldn’t help but think about those documentaries she had seen about Masai warriors.

    In order to be truly considered a man a young Masai male had to go out into the wilderness, unarmed, track down a male lion, and kill it with his bare hands. A popular method of doing the deed was to reach into the mouth of the lion as it charged them and ripping its tongue out.

    The idea certainly had a primal, barbaric appeal to it as she faced the snarling leopard in front of her… even if she remembered being appalled by the practice when she had first heard about it. In a way finishing it off that way might even make her feel closer to her roots. But no, such a tactic was risky and she would almost certainly receive an injury or two in the process. It was hard to maintain an air of infallibility if you received even a small injury from a creature with no training and no great intelligence to speak of.

    Still the leopard had some small bit of cunning that was keeping things a little bit interesting. Blood and adrenaline pounded hard through her as Rei felt truly alive for the first time in what seemed like forever. Had she ever actually felt like this before?

    The leopard darted to the left, only marginally slowed down by it’s injured paw, before coming at her again from an angle. Rei danced, flirting with the line of being inside the range of those deadly claws and just outside of it, causing the animal to continually badly overreach as it became increasingly frustrated trying to get to her. If the cat got on her, maybe even if it snagged her clothes well enough, the stupid beast might actually be able to kill her. Why did that thought actually make this otherwise simple “fight” all the better?

    Not that this fight is all that great outside of the danger associated with it. As long as she had room to maneuver the dumb beast's simplistic attacks were almost pathetically easy to anticipate and evade.

    “Come on pussy. You’re nothing but a stepping stone to me,” Rei said to the cat, suddenly growing irritated at it’s inability to give her any kind of real challenge. “I’m going to gut you and eat you for dinner.”

    The cat roared again, the noise ear splitting, before it charged Rei more or less the same way it had the last half dozen times.

    Enough playing around.

    The giant leopard came in low, swiping at Rei’s legs. Rei leaped diagonally and forward while twisting in mid air. Using the spinning force of her twist she lashed out with a back fist, connecting solidly with one of the leopard’s eyes.

    It gave it’s best kitty impression of a howl as it backed off and covered it’s eye with one paw, stumbling and completely stunned by the blow. The eye is a nerve. Even a dumb animal filled only with rage and hormones is still going feel that one.Still the leopard's pained disorientation didn’t last long. Half blind, the creature once again opted for a straight forward charge.

    Useless.

    This time it swiped straight at her head, a blow that if it had connected might have straight up killed her. Rei simply gripped the trunk she was standing on with her Chakra and pulled herself down, flattening herself low to the ground in a feat of agility not many could match, causing the cat's attack to sail harmlessly overhead. Then, fueled more by Chakra than by muscles, she propelled herself up, shooting up like a cannon and putting everything she could into her next strike.

    The heel of her hand connected with the underside of the leopard’s jaw, forcing it closed with a loud snapping sound, breaking a few of it's teeth and forcing it to bite off the tip of it’s tongue. Rei dashed out of the way as the creature lost it's balance and crashed right where she had been standing just a split second before.

    Too easy.

    It was entirely too easy. Here she thought she would get a challenge, something she could fight all out that would push her to her limits. How utterly wrong she had been on that count. In hindsight it had been foolishness to think that an animal could fulfill such a role, no matter how big or strong it was. What possible challenge could such a creature pose to someone as skilled as she was?

    How disappointing. You are disappointing, my prey.

    Prey. Heh. Very Orochimaru-eske. Though it did have a nice ring to it.

    She was pulled from her thoughts when the leopard finally stopped whatever noises of pain it was making, rose a little shakily to it's feet and turned it’s attention back to her again. Frankly she was surprised it hadn’t tried to run yet, injured as it was. Not that she would have let it mind you. She did want to eat after all.

    Rei pulled a clean kunai out of her sleeve and let it fall into her hand. Time to end this.

    It seemed that the cat had finally gotten smart enough not to charge her recklessly again as it was now clearly hesitating. Rei decided to take the initiative this time. Trusting in her ability to outmaneuver the big cat Rei launched herself at it in a straight on charge.

    For once the leopard did something unpredictable, trying to bite her, even with broken teeth and bleeding tongue, even though it has always attacked paws-first before… well, it caught Rei a little bit by surprise. She had to quickly dart backwards away from the leopard's teeth inadvertently putting herself in perfect range of it’s claws. It swiped at her instinctively, forcing Rei to hastily jump over the strike. To her profound displeasure she could feel it when it’s claws tore at the hem of her kimono.

    Fuck!

    Suddenly enraged Rei twisted in mid air and brought the kunai down, empowered by her Chakra and her sudden hot anger. However she wasn’t in position to land a killing blow. Instead she was in the perfect position to stab her kunai deep into the leopard’s shoulder joint.

    The leopard screamed. This time it was purely, one hundred percent a scream of pain.

    Music to my ears.

    Rei landed and flipped gracefully away from the now-thrashing beast, putting a good bit of distance between them. When it looked up at her and their eyes met Rei knew in that split second that she had finally broken it’s spirit. That look from the beast gave her a vicious thrill of satisfaction of a kind she had never felt before. I beat you. I won. I own you. I’m in control. And now you’re going to be nothing but my dinner.

    000

    Hinata watched on, frozen, as the leopard and her senpai fought – if you could really a confrontation as lopsided as that fight. The young Hyuuga watched on numbly as Rei-senpai dominated the encounter with a grace, agility and strength Hinata couldn't hope to match on her best day. She knew that everyone called Rei-senpai a genius. However it was only in that moment that she first got to see it firsthand for herself. If Hinata wasn't still feeling somewhat numb from her fall and her near death experience the display would have probably left her feeling a mix of awe and intimidation.

    Hinata tensed slightly when Rei-senpai suddenly and unexpectedly charged the embattled beast, a kunai now gripped firmly in her hand. There was a brief lightning fast exchange before Rei suddenly jumped and drove her blade deep into the shoulder of the leopard. In spite of the fact it had tried to kill her just minutes before Hinata couldn’t help but flinch at the sound of pain the creature made couldn't help but feel a wave of sorrow and empathy for the animal.

    Even though it was severely injured now the leopard proved that it still had some strength left. Though it was now very much crippled it still managed to move with surprising speed as it suddenly dashed away from them, darting away in a direction that would take it deeper into the forest and pushing it’s way though some thick leafy branches in order to get itself out of sight. With her Byakugan Hinata saw the animal visibly struggle as it gave everything it had left in a mad sprint for it’s life.

    Hinata’s attention was also focused on Rei. As soon as the animal took off Rei seemed to freeze for a fraction of a second in surprise before quickly moving to lean slightly forward and lower her center of gravity. Hinata realized then that she had a split second before Rei took off in an all-out sprint in order to run down the leopard.

    She wasn’t quite sure why in that particular moment but realizing Rei was a split second away from dashing away, leaving her on the ground, all alone… Hinata’s slightly numb and shocky state gave way to a moment of pure panic. Hinata didn’t understand it but suddenly she didn’t want Rei-senpai to chase after that leopard, she didn’t want to be left alone… the powerful feeling was as sudden as it was unexpected. Instinctively she did the only thing she could to keep her curly haired senpai from leaving.

    “Rei!” Hinata cried out, her voice shamefully tinged with fear, pleading and desperation. It rang too-loud in her ears, especially when she had always been taught to speak softly and was very quiet by nature.

    Rei’s head snapped in her direction and Hinata could see that her sudden yell had surprised her. Her senpai’s eyes looked… wild, brimming with hot emotion from the battle, and desperately looking for a target. Hinata’s mouth went dry and her tongue suddenly felt much too big in her mouth. Those eyes locked on her and Hinata found that she didn’t have any words. She hadn’t even know what she was going to say when she called out. Now she found that she could do nothing but sit there and look up at her senpai like a simpleton while the older girl decided on what to do.

    Rei quickly scrutinized Hinata’s face and body, the Yamanaka’s expression hard and utterly dispassionate. Hinata could see in every line of her body that she was still aching for a fight. Aided by her Byakugan Hinata could see that Rei-senpai she wanted nothing more than to leave her behind and chase down the wounded leopard. Hinata felt her heart drop. There was no reason for Rei to remain no matter how stupidly needy she was suddenly feeling. She wasn’t in any particular danger. Her father would say that the correct decision would be to track down and eliminate the threat. No doubt Rei-senpai would reach the same conclusion.

    Rei scrutinized her for what felt like ten minutes but in reality could not have been any longer than a couple of seconds. Then, to Hinata’s utter surprise, Rei closed her eyes and balled up her fists. The young girl could see her senpai shudder slightly as she visibly fought to bring her emotions back under control. Hinata could see by her senpai’s body’s reactions that the effort was very nearly physically painful for her, enough so that Hinata almost called out for her to stop. Selfishly, however, she didn’t.

    When Rei at last opened her eyes again she looked like her normal self again, except for slight lingering wildness around her eyes. The older girl offered Hinata a very tiny wry smile before folding her hands in her sleeves. Rei began to walk towards Hinata and the young Hyuuga felt profound relief when she realized Rei-senpai wouldn’t be leaving her after all.

    “Hey,” said Rei in a slightly hoarse voice when she reached her. Hinata felt a little self-conscious when the older girl started looking her over with concern. “Let’s get you cleaned up. I think that’s probably enough excitement for you for one night.”

    000

    Back in camp both Rei and Hinata were now sitting in front of the campfire with the gigantic fallen tree behind them. Rei had made Hinata strip down to a sleeveless undershirt so that she could clean her wounds. Where the leopard had struck her shoulder Hinata had some bruising and three neat claw marks that were thankfully mostly superficial. Rei had been careful to disinfect and clean out the cuts thoroughly and was now in the process of wrapping them in a clean bandage.

    Neither girl had said very much since they had returned to camp. Rei looked at Hinata out of the corner of her eye in the firelight as she contemplated what to say. Hinata looked… well the first words that came to mind were ‘down’ and ‘depressed’. If Rei had to guess it was probably likely that Hinata was worried about some sort of reprimand. Most likely however was that she was beating herself up for her perceived ‘failure’.

    The analytical part of Rei's mind took in what she was seeing now and filtered it through all the training she had been recieving from her family. Right in that moment Rei was getting the impression that after that night's events Hinata’s psyche was currently raw, vulnerable, hurting – and malleable. It seemed that the confrontation with the leopard had turned out to be much more traumatic for the girl than Rei had anticipated, something she did kind of feel bad about. However… it would be absolutely unconscionable for her to waste the opportunity that had been suddenly thrust in front of her.

    Of course she would keep Hinata’s welfare in mind. She wasn’t some kind of monster. Rei was going to use this opportunity push for the changes that both Hiashi and Hinata had said they wanted to see in the young heiress. But there were also things that she wanted. Things she was starting to realize more and more she wanted very badly indeed.

    Just how far will I be able to go with you, Heiress of the Hyuuga Clan?

    “I’m sorry,” Hinata said suddenly, her gaze planted firmly in between her feet. Her tone was both contrite and pained. Rei halted only briefly before continuing to bandage Hinata’s shoulder.

    “For what?” Rei asked, curious as to what Hinata had taken away from this.

    “For messing up. For not k-killing… it like you wanted me to. And I… I’m sorry I didn’t let you chase after it when you obviously didn’t want to stay. That you didn’t chase it down because of me.”

    Rei barely suppressed a wince as her adrenaline briefly spiked from the memory. Yes. Letting the leopard go had been… hard.In that moment she’d known staying with Hinata was the smartest thing to do but a part of her hadn’t cared about that at all. She’d almost gone after the leopard anyway until she’d seen that Hinata’s shoulder had been bleeding. That had been enough to snap her out of it and it had helped her to regain control.

    “It’s fine,” Rei said in a gentle reassuring voice she had only ever used before with Ino and Tenten. “Next time you’re in a situation like that you’ll be more prepared now that you have some experience. You didn’t do anything you need to feel sorry about today Hinata-chan.”

    Curiously her words didn’t seem to reassure Hinata any. If anything they made Hinata turn her head away from her a little and made her even more tense. Rei frowned a little as she was finishing up wrapping Hinata’s shoulder. Her words had seemed to distress Hinata further. Why? What had she said exactly? Thinking it through, and correlating it with what she had already concluded about Hinata’s personality, Rei deduced what the most likely problem was.

    This was a conversation that would need to happen eventually. Better now than later, when Hinata was even more likely to take what she said to heart. Rei put the finishing touches on her bandages and sat down next to Hinata, shoulder to shoulder, both of them facing the fire.

    “You don’t like violence do you?” Rei asked gently, her eyes on the flame as she kept her peripheral vision squarely on the younger girl.

    Hinata seemed to hunch in on herself, almost as if trying to hide from her words. To Rei the young heiress looked ashamed.

    That struck a chord in Rei. It just seemed so... wrong.

    Rei turned her body until she was facing Hina-chan. “Hinata look at me,” Rei said, her voice pitched in that moment to be both kind and authoritative.

    Hinata hesitated for a moment before slowly, reluctantly moving to comply. When Rei saw her face she saw shame and pain and fear and a whole host of other things she couldn’t accurately identify. Rei found that she wanted to do something about what she was seeing. When she spoke it was impassioned and genuine and showed a part of herself she would almost neverconsider showing to anyone. To her own surprise she didn’t even have to fake it.

    “You don’t like violence,” Rei began, quietly earnest and intense. “You don’t like hurting people or even animals. And you know what? That’s nothing to be ashamed of.

    Hinata seemed shocked. Rei mostly ignored it, going on a roll as she enthusiastically went on.

    “I don’t think you can describe anything that we as ninja do as ‘good’. It runs the gamut from ‘necessary’ at the very best to ‘incredibly horrific’ at the very worst.”

    At this point Hinata is wearing an almost comical expression of shock, open mouthed and wide eyed, except that this conversation was anything but a joke. Rei knew that she was walking a thin line in espousing beliefs that could perhaps get her in a great deal of trouble. She’d be careful not to take it too far. Yet at the same time she couldn’t completely stop herself.

    “If it were up to me I’d let you become something that came more naturally to you like a medic. Or maybe I would let you not become a ninja at all.”

    The incredulous disbelief on Hinata’s face… made Rei think that maybe she had better stop before she let herself go too far. At least she had already said most of the important things.

    “Point is,” continued Rei, now sounding somewhat more subdued than she had just moments before, “that you don’t have to be ashamed of what you are. If anything… it makes you naturally a better person than the rest of us.”

    Hinata didn’t answer her right away and frankly Rei hadn’t really expected her to. At least Hinata or some other ninja didn’t immediately jump out of the woods and scream ‘Treason!’. In hindsight Rei thought that perhaps she had been too reckless with what she’d said. Still… if she had an opportunity to go back and change any of it she wasn’t sure that she would.

    They sat there for a while, Rei offering silent support by lightly touching shoulder to shoulder. Hinata stared into the fire for the longest time, the young girl lost in thought as Rei allowed her to absorb and process what she’d just heard. While Rei didn’t consider herself the greatest at it she could do patience well enough when the situation called for it. Here Hinata needed a bit of space to either accept or reject what she’d just heard. Rei however was willing to bet she knew which way the winds were blowing.

    Eventually Hinata broke the silence. “Even if you’re right Rei-senpai…,” she said in a small voice, “being a better person isn’t what my family needs me to be.”

    And wasn’t that just everything that was wrong with this world? Where a soft and kind heart was a weakness to be expunged.

    “You’re right,” Rei conceded quietly. “Unlike me they wouldn’t find any value in that. That’s just the way they are. But… I remember you telling me on the day we first met that you wanted to meet your family’s expectations. That you were committed to it in fact.” Pause. “Is that still true?”

    Hinata hesitated for a few moments before indicating the positive with a small but decisive nod.

    “Good,” said Rei with a strong hint of approval. She might have reservations about what Hinata wanted to work towards but she couldn’t stand people with weak resolve.

    “I believe in you Hinata,” Rei began. “And I’ll help you. You and me together will make those crotchety old men back in your compound eat their words.”

    Hinata cracked a smile at that. Still the young girl didn’t look completely convinced.

    “If you can’t believe in yourself believe in me,” Rei continued bumping her shoulder gently. Then she grinned as she paraphrased something from her old world. “You don’t have to believe in yourself. Instead believe in the me that believes in you. Have faith in me. If you can do that then everything will be fine, I promise.”

    Hinata looked at Rei then, scrutinizing her for a few long seconds. Then hesitantly she nodded, a small grateful and relieved smile blossoming on her face. A lot of the tension left her body and just like that Rei thought that Hinata suddenly seemed a lot better than she had just moments before. There wasn’t much need to say anything after that. The two just sat in companionable silence looking at the fire for a little bit longer.

    000

    It was only when Hinata started nodding off a little that Rei remembered something important.

    “I’ll be right back,” she muttered to Hinata who looked at her questioningly when the older girl got up.

    She went to her backpack and gathered a handful of items that she had stashed in there earlier that day. Then she walked back over to Hinata and threw one of them at her. The girl caught the item without a problem, her eyes widening slightly as she examined what was in her hand.

    “Is this…?”

    “Yes,” said Rei suddenly sounding smug again. “Finding flora to eat is precarious in this forest. A lot of things that look like they might be edible are poisonous and there aren’t that many of those to begin with. However I found a small batch of these while we were scouting today. I decided to save them in case we didn’t catch anything more substantial.”

    The fruits she had gathered looked like a cross between a pear and a tangerine with a black, waxy skin that smelled a little rancid. However she knew from all her research that it was one of the very few edible fruits that could sometimes be found in the Forest of Death. Supposedly it didn’t taste too bad either, despite its suspect outward smell and appearance.

    Hinata looked at the fruit suspiciously but in the end hunger won out over doubt. She took one small bite and chewed it thoroughly. After she tasted it and convinced herself that it was fine to eat Hinata tore into the piece of fruit with a ferociousness that was, frankly speaking, quite hilarious coming from the normally quiet and proper girl. Rei smiled in amusement as she gave Hinata over two thirds of the fruit she had gathered. The girl had worked her butt off and had not eaten anything since before leaving her compound early in the morning. Whatever her faults Hinata had turned out to be a trooper and tougher than Rei had expected.

    As for Rei herself? Well, Chakra could be used to keep the body running at tip top shape and to stave off hunger… and Rei had a lot more Chakra potentially available to her than Hinata did. She sat herself back down next to Hinata and ate one of her fruits at a more sedate pace than her rather ravenous kouhai. The taste was odd but not unpleasant. It reminded her of sweet and sour sauce if somehow the sauce had the texture of a plum.

    Eventually they each finished their respective dinners, enough to take the edge off if not exactly leave them feeling satisfied. With that it was probably starting to get late and both of them would be getting up with the dawn. Rei also had another important reason for wanting them to go to sleep early. It was time for them to turn in. Hinata was tired enough and deferred to her enough that Rei was sure she wouldn’t have any complaints.

    After throwing the pits of her fruit into the fire Rei rose and went to her backpack. From it she withdrew the small tent she had packed and began to set it up close to the fire. When Hinata saw this she got up and went to her own pack in order to set up her own tent. Good girl. It was nice to see that she could be proactive at times without being directed. However Rei had thought this over at length… and she had other plans about how their sleep arrangements were going to work.

    “Don’t bother setting up your own tent Hina-chan,” said Rei without looking up as she worked. “You’ll be sleeping with me in mine.”

    “I will?” asked Hinata with a slight squeak, seemingly startled and slightly alarmed by Rei’s sudden declaration.

    “Yes,” said Rei decisively. “This forest is dangerous. If something else decides to show up in camp while we’re sleeping I don’t want us to be separated. I’ll set up some things that will make that unlikely but better safe than sorry. I don’t want you out of my sight just in case.”

    It was a perfectly reasonable explanation. Hell, when she thought about it every word she’d just said was also completely true too. But that wasn’t her primary motivation for this arrangement.

    The truth was that sharing a tent would give them the opportunity to grow closer. It would also be the only time of the day she could be one hundred percent sure they would be out of sight from prying eyes. The tent wouldn’t do much against the White Eyes of a Hyuuga but the person ‘babysitting’ them for the next two weeks didn’t possess that particular dojutsu. If they kept their voices low she would have as much of a guarantee of privacy with Hinata as she could reasonably expect.

    Then there was… another reason.

    It had been years since she had slept with Ino, like they had all the time when they had been kids. Rei didn’t like to admit it - even to herself - since it felt like a weakness but she dearly missed sleeping next to someone. In her previous life she had made some questionable decisions with men (and the occasional woman) just so she wouldn’t have to sleep alone.

    Early on Rei had pegged Hinata to be like her in the touch department. Subsequent evidence had only cemented her suspicions. Rei knew how much she herself craved human contact, which is why she had conditioned Ino and Tenten to accept it without any complaints. She knew what Hinata’s home life was like. She knew from her reactions to simple friendly touch what had been missing in her life. This was a fantastic opportunity. Firmly establishing herself as the only person in the world Hinata was allowed to have safe and pleasurable human contact with would go a long way towards putting her firmly under her influence and control.

    Hinata would get to experience something that she had been desperately missing in her life. Rei would get what she was after. As an added bonus Rei would get something back that she had legitimately been missing for a long time. It was a win-win any way she saw it.

    The tent was a tight fit since it was meant for one. There was just enough room for them to lay their sleeping bags side by side and not much else. Rei stripped down to her shorts and black shirt before crawling into her bag. Hinata, looking a little twitchy, stripped down to similar attire and got into her own sleeping bag next to hers.

    In the end Rei didn’t bother to be subtle. It was an undeniable fact she could do subtle but she much preferred the direct approach if it was just as likely to work. Instead of being awkward about it Rei just slipped an arm out of her sleeping bag and dragged Hinata, bag and all, closer until the girl’s back was pressed against her chest.

    “R-Rei-senpai?!” Hinata squeaked, going totally stiff as a board in surprise.

    “Relax,” Rei mumbled sleepily into her ear. “Me and my sister used to do this all the time. It’s an affection thing. You’ll sleep better, I promise. Just go to sleep, okay?”

    Reluctantly Hinata gave a subtle nod of her head. Good. That much acceptance was all that was needed. Rei was fairly certain any lingering resistance wouldn't last that long. As she had predicted, not even five minutes later Hinata had already started to relax against her. Five minutes after that Rei heard a small sigh from Hinata that sounded like the whole world had suddenly been lifted from her shoulders. Not even ten minutes later the girl, already half asleep, was subconsciously pulling Rei’s arm tighter around herself.

    Rei could admit it to herself… Hinata wasn’t the only one who was enjoying the skinship. When Hinata hugged her arm Rei just pulled the girl closer to herself. Kami, I’d missed this.

    “Rei-senpai?” mumbled Hinata sleepily.

    “Yes?” Rei whispered.

    “Thank you.”

    “For what?”

    “I don’t know, just… thank you.”

    Rei could practically taste the sincerity and emotion in Hinata’s sleepy half incoherent words. The older girl allowed herself a Cheshire smile in the dark.

    “You’re welcome.”

    000

    Of course Rei didn’t sleep. She hadn’t needed to for years and wasn’t about to start now. The Yamanaka decided to wait for about an hour after she was certain that Hinata had fallen asleep. While her body relaxed and her body processes slowed down enough to properly recuperate her mind was still aware, going over the events of the day over and over again. Thinking it over Hinata might be more valuable to her than just what influence she might be able to give her politically… from a purely more… personal perspective. It wasn’t like she was all that likely to find another sort-of trustworthy and relatively safe person who liked to snuggle. Still… like always, she knew that she could never let her guard down completely.

    After she was sure an hour had passed Rei disentangled herself from Hinata… which was more challenging than expected because the girl refused to let go. First night as a snuggler and already a barnacle, eh Hinata? Pushing her amusement to the side Rei moved herself to the opening of the tent and stuck her head outside.

    “Worm?” she whispered loudly. “Are you there?”

    About a minute later the Rat materialized out of the darkness beyond the tree line. Deciding to be polite Rei moved aside and let him into the tent. With Hinata and Worm there it was a tight fit but since she was sitting up it gave them a good deal more free space.

    “Yo,” greeted Worm, aware enough to keep his voice low. He eyed the sleeping Hinata curiously.

    “Hey,” Rei greeted lazily back.

    “So a pup pile is it?” the Rat said motioning at where Rei had been lying next to Hinata. “Those are always nice. Unless…” he said, trailing off and scrutinizing Rei suspiciously.

    “A pup pile it is,” Rei said firmly, cutting off anything else he might had said.

    “Oh. Well, okay then. No need to get all defensive.”

    Rei just rolled her eyes and began to put her gear back on. The blonde girl motioned at Hinata with her head. “I need you to watch her, make sure nothing in the forest gets her while she’s asleep.”

    “I’m not a babysitter Rei,” said Worm, sounding less than enthused by his assignment.

    “There’ll be chocolate in it for you.”

    “Oh… well in that case, yeah I guess it’s no problem,” said Worm sounding much more chipper. “Where are you going anyway?”

    “I’m going to go look for our ‘babysitter’.” Rei wasn’t sure how the woman had managed to stay out of sight. Hinata had not caught a glimpse of her even once during the times she’d had her Byakugan activated. Then again Rei was fairly positive a great many people had come up with ways to work around the Byakugan… a student of that man would certainly had a trick or two up her sleeve.

    Worm made a face of distaste and scratched at his nose with one of his forelimbs. “I smelled Snake in the forest all day today,” he said with more venom than Rei had ever heard from the seemingly carefree Rat. Rei could clearly hear the capital ‘S’ in the word ‘Snake’.

    “I guess she got her summons to keep an eye on us all day,” Rei mused out loud. “Smart if they can pass for regular snakes. Lazy as hell too.” Not that I would have expected otherwise. “Any idea where I can find their summoner?”

    Worm made an irritated sound. “The smell of Snake has been coming more strongly from the North for a while now. Their summoner is most likely that way.”

    North? Perfect.

    “What are you going to do exactly?” asked Worm, looking at her curiously as she finished re-equipping all her gear.

    “I’m going to go find that woman,” whispered Rei as she slipped a final kunai into a holster hidden in her robes. “… and do my damnest to kill her.” After all she did like to spout that ‘come at me with intent to kill’ crap. While toying with her no less. Not this time. It had been over a year since that woman had truly seen everything she could do. Rei was leaps and bounds stronger than she had been back then. This time she was going to take that sadistic pervert down a peg or two.

    She was also going to be getting some answers.

    “Oh good,” said Worm sounding both surprised and cheerful, “best of luck with that!”

    Rei debated telling Worm that she wasn’t being literal before shaking her head and deciding it wasn’t worth the effort. With one last short but longing glance at the space she had just vacated next to Hinata she stepped out of the tent and into the night.

    No more distractions. It was time to put her game face on. Rei thought about the clashes the two of them had had in the past, of the bloody knuckles and flashing teeth, of the steel and insults and the glorious pain that she didn’t really mind all that much anymore. It was enough to get her heart racing, her blood heated, her pupils dilating. She was going to need every advantage she could get if she wanted this to go the way she’d planned.

    Silent as a shadow Rei took to the trees and began heading North. Despite her odds a grin that promised only pain spread across her face.

    She had some snake skin shoes to make.
     
    Last edited: Sep 14, 2019
    meri, Perspicacious, Marduk and 34 others like this.
  7. Extras: Omake - Born Fifteen Years Earlier Part 1
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    000

    Omake

    Born Fifteen Years Earlier
    Part I

    000

    Many years later Sakura would look back with mixed feelings and recognize that meeting Rei-sensei for the first time had been one of the watershed moments of her life. In fact from that first day forth all of the most important moments of her life will have in some way been touched by, influenced by or manipulated by her enigmatic Jounin-sensei. However the Sakura of that first day had no inkling that any of that would be in her future. Mostly she was just so overjoyed at being on the same team as Sasuke that she hardly had any attention left to spare for anything else.

    In fact she had been so completely focused on looking at Sasuke’s profile where he was seated next to her and dreaming about all the possibilities in the future (how much alone time would she be able to get with him!) that she didn’t even notice when their new sensei entered the classroom.

    “Hey, hey, are you Rei Yamanaka? Are you going to be our sensei?” came Naruto’s irritatingly hyperactive voice snapping her from her daydreaming. Sakura’s annoyance and uncharitable thoughts about not wanting him on her team at all were quickly squashed as she processed what he’d just said. Her head snapped towards the doorway, spotting the new person who was suddenly standing there. Sakura took stock of their sensei for the very first time.

    She was tall for a woman, though not exceptionally so, wearing a simple but elegant “battle kimono” patterned in blacks and dark purples. Her hair was odd, with a light off-honey coloration and riddled with ringlets and curls, held back in an elegant manner by a few simple pins and clips. Her aristocratic face was set in an expression of neutral boredom as lavender eyes examined each member of her new team in turn. When that heavy penetrating gaze fell on her Sakura couldn’t help but squirm uncomfortably and she quickly broke eye contact with the mysterious new woman.

    “Eh? Eh? Where did she go?!”

    Sakura looked up at hearing Naruto’s startled exclamation. Their new sensei was… gone.

    “What the hell? I just blinked and then she wasn’t there anymore!”

    Huh. Even though Sakura knew something like that shouldn’t come as a surprise from a high level ninja… having someone just disappear without seeing any hand seals, without any sound, without even a whisper of that funny feeling that comes with people using Chakra nearby… it was still more than a little unsettling. If she can do that then what else can she do?

    She was pulled from her thoughts when she heard Sasuke standing up from where he was seated next to her. “Let’s go,” he said gruffly, stalking toward the door without looking at either of his teammates. Sakura watched him in awe as he exited the classroom. He’d been totally unaffected by the woman’s little display wasn’t he? Sasuke was so cool! But where was he going…?

    Her unspoken question was answered when she caught sight of the blackboard out of the corner of her eye. Whatever Iruka-sensei had written there earlier had been erased and had been replaced with a set of instructions in looping, elegant script. Team Seven. Report to training ground three for additional evaluation. You have ten minutes.

    “Eh?!” came Naruto’s way too loud shriek moments later. The sound almost had her cringing in her seat. “Wha-? When did curly-sensei even write that on the board? HOW?!”

    Curly-sensei? Nevermind. Sakura wasn’t going to let herself get distracted by Naruto-baka’s idiocy and lack of respect for his betters. Shooting him a nasty look Sakura refrained from giving him a piece of her mind and raced out the door after Sasuke. It was going to be a close call to make it to training ground three in time and she wanted to make a good impression on their new sensei… even if she did happen to be related to the Ino-pig.

    000

    Thirty minutes. She had been waiting in training ground three with her new team for thirty minutes and there still was no sign of their new sensei. Sakura’s patience was starting to get stretched very thin. Sasuke had taken to ignoring her completely (not that unusual admittedly) and Naruto had started jabber more and more insistently the longer they had to wait. Where the heck was their sensei? Was she even coming? Why was she making them wait like this?

    The three of them had sought refuge from the blistering Fire Country sun underneath a large tree. It was impossible to ignore the tension running through the three of them. For so long they had all worked for this moment… some of them had worked harder than others, but still. They were ninja now weren’t they? Defenders of the Village. Bulwark of Konoha, along with being her sword of justice. It was all so exciting. They were even adults now! Her eyes slid over to where Sasuke was sitting some distance away. Being adult meant… they would soon start doing adult things… didn’t it?

    “You know,” drawled a female voice from above. “I’ve been ten feet from you for the last half hour and none of you noticed. I’m starting to question the wisdom of letting the three of you graduate.”

    Sakura’s head snapped up along with those of her teammates. Sitting on a branch almost directly above them with her back against the trunk of the of tree was their new sensei, looking at them with dispassionate… judging eyes. In her hand she held a kiseru, silver and grey, with smoke slowly billowing up from the lit pipe. Now that she was paying attention the smoke from the tobacco smelled strong and bitter. Had she really been smoking up there the whole time and none of them had noticed? How could she not have noticed?!

    “Hey! Have you been hiding from us this whole time?” Naruto shouted accusingly while pointing his finger at the Yamanaka. Sakura just decided to ignore him. If he wanted to disrespect a Jounin then he could deal with the consequences.

    Their new sensei seemed to have the same idea Sakura did. She ignored Naruto’s outburst and took her time inhaling from her kiseru and blowing out the smoke slowly. In fact she was so leisurely about it that a glance at Naruto told Sakura that the blonde idiot was going to have another outburst. Thankfully the Jounin spoke before the blonde moron could make them look even more bad.

    “Congratulations on graduating from the academy,” the woman said in a completely disinterested tone. Her voice wasn’t particularly deep but there was an aristocratic resonance to it that commanded attention. “Your lives now belong to the Hokage and to Konoha’s military establishment. Good job. Now all that’s left to determine is if you’re worthy of having a Jounin instructor or not.”

    Sakura’s insides seemed to freeze at her words. Every year about thirty or so graduates were chosen for specialized apprenticeships with a Jounin-sensei. Everyone else in their graduating class would have to make do with less prestigious training and frankly dramatically poorer prospects. Their new sensei couldn’t be insinuating what Sakura thought she was could she?

    “Yamanaka-sensei,” Sakura ventured formally, “w-what do you mean? We were already chosen to receive training by a Jounin-sensei.”

    Rei Yamanaka’s eyes focused on her and for a moment Sakura wished she hadn’t spoken. Even though her body posture was indolent and completely disinterested her eyes burned with an intensity the newly minted Genin couldn’t help but find intimidating.

    I get to make the determination if I will teach you or not,” said Yamanaka-sensei, pausing only long enough to take a lazy drag from her kiseru. “If I find you unworthy then you will be bumped down to the general Genin pool. There are no appeals and my decisions will be final. If you wish to avoid such a fate then I suggest you do everything in your power to impress me.”

    Sakura’s mouth fell open and she could feel her teammates tense and stiffen besides her. The newly minted kunoichi swallowed nervously. Naruto had begun yelling something again but she just ignored his antics. Even though she hated to admit it Sakura wasn’t the most… confident in her practical skills. Would she be able to pull this off?

    “Your mission is to force me off this tree,” their sensei said, lightly patting the branch she was sitting on. “Use any means at your disposal. You have twenty minutes.” The blonde who would be their teacher took the time to make eye contact with each of them before turning her head away and seemingly ignoring them, taking another slow drag from her kiseru.

    While Sakura furiously began trying to think of some sort of plan Naruto’s loud yell derailed her train of thought. “Don’t underestimate me! I’ll knock you off that stupid tree and force you to acknowledge me, dattebayo!”

    Sakura froze and blinked in surprise as Naruto brought his hands together and suddenly there were a dozen copies of him. Bunshin? Since when could Naruto actually use that technique?

    The Jounin continued to ignore Naruto even as the clones spread out in a rough circle around her. With a yell from a dozen different Naruto’s the figures brandished their weapons. As one they began to throw a practical hailstorm of steel up as the woman.

    Yamanaka-sensei only caught two of the projectiles with her free hand. The rest of Naruto’s weapons began to swerve off course long before they even reached the woman. It was subtle, but it was clear that somehow Naruto’s weapons were bending away from her. Naruto was a bad shot but no one was that bad. Sakura noticed with some shock that where the weaponry from Naruto’s clones hit they tore up the ground and made cuts on the trees before disappearing. The weapons of the clones were actually solid? How?!

    Naruto yelled in surprise at his attack being rendered ineffectual and Sakura decided to ignore him as per usual. No matter what technique he had picked up or swindled from somewhere there was no way such a frontal assault would work against a Jounin and Sakura very much doubted such tactics would impress her. Sakura knew she needed to act as a ninja would. Glancing at Sasuke she saw him rooted to the spot, observing Naruto’s attacks with a grim and serious expression on his face. Giving the raven haired boy one last longing look Sakura began to edge away. It would have been nice to work with him but she doubted he would have accepted and she needed to try to find a way to impress their new sensei on her own.

    Sakura ran behind an adjacent tree and began to climb while the sounds of battle continued. Her idea was basic and straightforward but it was miles better than what Naruto was doing. She was going to sneak above Yamanaka-san and drop down in a surprise ambush attack. It probably wouldn’t actually work but if she did a good enough job maybe she would impress the Jounin enough to keep her as a student. She really didn’t want to be separated from Sasuke after having come so far.

    As she climbed the adjacent tree she had chosen Sakura managed to catch glimpses of the battle going on. The many cloned Naruto’s were trying to climb the tree, but they kept getting caught in wire that seemed to leap up out of nowhere, from the trunk, from the ground, hidden in the branches and leaves. Sakura frowned. There was no way there were that many wire traps, something funny had to be going on. As she watched Sasuke slinked away behind the tree line, looking at the battle while trying to be as unobtrusive as possible.

    Sakura climbed, her heart pounding with adrenaline and nervousness. When she got high enough on the branches of the tree she had chosen she jumped over to the one Rei Yamanaka was on, furiously doing all she could to remain undetected and spot any hidden traps. Looking way down at their possible new sensei Sakura didn’t think the woman had noticed her. Then again, she seemed to be ignoring all of them as Naruto tried fruitlessly to climb the tree over and over to get to her, cursing and yelling the whole time while his clones all got tangled in wire that almost seemed to be alive. Idiot.

    Sakura was surprised when from somewhere high and in front of Yamanaka-sensei a bright source of light emerged and a roaring sound erupted… before she spotted a hidden Sasuke spitting a massive fireball down at where the blonde Jounin was lazily reclining on the tree branch. Sakura watched on with amazement and just a little fear. Sasuke could do that? She knew he was amazing but… wow.

    Sakura tracked the trajectory of the flaming projectile bearing down on the Jounin kunoichi. She’s going to have to move, surely. However to Sakura’s shock she didn’t. Yamanaka-san paused from smoking her pipe and took a deep breath. She pursed her lips and a fireball equal in size to that of Sasuke erupted from her mouth, flying upwards and colliding with the one headed in her direction in a giant explosion of heat and flame. Sakura momentarily had to advert her eyes from the bright light and backwash of heat that she could feel even from as far away as she was. Inside however her mind was reeling and working on overdrive. How?! She didn’t even use hand seals. That shouldn’t be possible. Iruka-sensei said so!

    Yamanaka-san opened her mouth again and a pillar of flame erupted from her throat, racing with terrifying speed towards where Sasuke had launched his attack. Sakura caught a glimpse of him escaping at the last moment but she didn’t think he’d gotten away completely unsinged. The tree he had been on went up in a furious, roaring inferno as if the whole top half of it had been soaked in gasoline. Sakura shivered, all of a sudden losing much of her confidence. If the Jounin could counter such a powerful technique from Sasuke and send him running with an even more powerful technique without ever moving an inch… what chance did she have to do anything at all?

    With slightly shaking limbs Sakura did her best to at least not think about her doubts. She was about fifty feet above the blonde Jounin, almost directly over her position now. Sakura did her best to stalk slowly forward while remaining unseen, putting to the test every stealth lesson she had ever learned at the academy. Looking down below she found herself grateful to see that Naruto had made an even larger number of clones and was yelling even louder now, pointing at Yamanaka-san angrily. She could only hope it would be enough to cover her approach.

    At last she was in position, about ten feet above the Yamanaka. The woman had not made any indication that she had spotted Sakura and the pink haired girl took it as a good sign. It was also promising that she hadn’t been caught by any wires or traps yet. Readying her kunai with shaky hands Sakura licked her lips nervously. She had to do this. If she didn’t then all of her hopes and dreams could very well come crashing down and burn to nothing. She wasn’t going to give up her chance to be on the same team as Sasuke-kun… and hopefully become an elite kunoichi somewhere along the way.

    Letting go Sakura fell, her kunai brandished in both hands as she aimed for the Yamanaka’s shoulder. As she neared her target Sakura felt a mixture of both excitement and terror at the thought of actually succeeding. Closer and the woman hadn’t reacted yet. Closer, five feet, four feet, two feet…

    Yamanaka-sensei lashed out with her kiseru, casually deflecting Sakura’s kunai by inches without ever turning to look at the girl. The blow was just enough to alter her trajectory, causing her to hit the branch the Jounin had been sitting on instead of landing on it, and then sending her spilling over to the side. Sakura yelled in surprise and fear as she suddenly found herself falling an additional ten feet completely out of control.

    One of Naruto’s clones caught her, breaking her fall before it popped out of existence. For some reason being “saved” by Naruto made her so embarrassed and horrified that she lashed out without thinking and punched another Naruto clone out existence as soon as she was back on her feet.

    “No one asked for your help, Baka!”

    In hindsight she felt bad but in that moment she was too upset to care. Naruto’s hurt puppy-eyed look only irritated her further. Sakura was about to lay into him when Rei Yamanaka’s cultured and apathetic voice interrupted her.

    “Fifteen minutes left.”

    Sakura paled as she was reminded of the task at hand. She looked up only to find the Jounin looking at her with evaluating, critical, judging eyes. Sakura shivered unconsciously and would have flinched if Yamanaka-san hadn’t looked away first, going back to puffing on her pipe and looking completely apathetic to everything going on around her. Sakura couldn’t help but feel somewhat irritated by this even if it was tempered by her respect for her elders and betters. This was their future that was on the line, the least she could do was take it more seriously!

    Sakura bit her lip. She had fifteen minutes left. Looking around she saw that Sasuke was nowhere in sight. Well. It looked like she would need to try something else on her own. However, things were not going very well right now. Inside Sakura tried not to despair.

    Nothing to do but try again. Maybe ranged attacks from a different angle would work?

    000

    “You pass,” said the Yamanaka after she had rounded them all up together once the twenty minutes had expired. The various angry and depressed moods of the young Genin in front of her perked right up at hearing those words from the blonde-haired Jounin.

    “What, really?” Sakura blurted before she could help herself. She’d thought they’d been abysmal. None of them had managed to get Yamanaka-san to move, much less forced her off the tree. While Sasuke had made a good showing she couldn’t help but think that she and Naruto had been beyond awful.

    Naruto for his part started cheering (loudly) after hearing that, starting up again on his sad and ridiculous delusion about becoming Hokage. Looking over she saw Sasuke almost imperceptibly relax and a small smirk spread slowly across his full lips. That look on his face made Sakura blush a bit and her heart beat a little faster even against her will.

    Sakura knew she should just be happy, never look a gift horse, all of that. But a part of her that was all about the rules and that had a certain love for order and the way things should be just couldn’t let it go. “But Yamanaka-san,” she began cautiously, “may I ask how we passed? I thought the mission was to get you off the tree. None of us were able to do that.”

    The blonde woman nodded to herself, almost as if she had been expecting for somebody to ask her that. “That is an excellent question. I suppose I’ll break it down case by case.”

    While looking right at the female Genin of the team Yamanaka-san… or was that Yamanaka-sensei now?... used her pipe to point at Sasuke. “Loverboy here is the last of his line. He is the only person in the village left with the possibility of passing on the Sharingan to future generations. While there was considerable debate about keeping him under lock and key strictly for breeding purposes, conventional wisdom among ninja states that not allowing him to become a ninja would weaken his blood and ultimately cripple all potential future generations of Sharingan users. The determination was made that we would take the higher-risk, higher-reward route and allow him to become a ninja for the sake of his progeny. So even if I wanted to fail him, I would have been prevented from doing so by the Hokage and the other village leadership.”

    Sakura’s mouth fell open, her mouth going dry. Naruto didn’t understand everything that had just been said but he understood enough to also be rendered speechless, a small miracle in itself. Sasuke’s pleased smirk transformed to a look of horror before morphing into a carefully guarded, angry scowl directed at their new teacher. Yamanaka-sensei ignored their reactions and pointed her kiseru at Naruto.

    “As for the Uzumaki… many things about his nature, his history and his origins are classified, you understand,” Sakura saw Naruto flinch at Yamanaka-sensei’s words. And no, Sakura did not understand. “But for now it is enough to say that the Third Hokage has had a soft spot for him since he was a baby. For all these reasons and more that I will not mention there was literally no possibility of him getting bumped down to the general Genin Pool either. Again, the Hokage and other village leadership would have prevented me from doing so, even with the abysmal performance that he put on today.”

    Naruto opened and closed his mouth a few times before he found his voice again. “Take that back! I’m a ninja because I earned it, and what do you mean –muph-!

    There was a tiny spike of Chakra and suddenly Naruto couldn’t speak. His mouth kept moving and he kept trying to make words but no noise came out. Sasuke and Sakura looked at him incredulously as he jumped to his feet and waved his arms around violently around trying to make noise. The pink haired girl realized with a start that suddenly Naruto wasn’t making anynoise, not just what was coming out of his mouth was being completely muted. Sakura shivered, the sight of a completely silent Naruto flailing around somewhat unsettling her.

    “As for you,” Yamanaka-sensei said, pointing her pipe at Sakura. The girl in question swallowed nervously. “It would probably piss a lot of influential civilians behind the scenes if the top civilian in the class this year got bumped down to the general Genin pool. But generally speaking most ninja don’t give a shit about that and I could have failed you if I wanted to anyway. However I saw some real potential in you… and it would have been a pain in the ass to find a third Genin to round out this team.”

    Sakura blinked at that, not having been prepared for the compliment she had just received. After she had a moment to let it sink in pride filled her chest and a broad smile spread across her face. “Thank you Yamanaka-sensei! I’ll do my best and work hard to live up to your expectations.”

    The Jounin waved at her dismissively. “Call me Rei-sensei. That goes for all of you.” Then she paused and took the time to look each of them in the eye in turn. Then a slow smile spread across her lips. Her eyes glittered with something unsettling and taken on the whole Rei-sensei’s expression in that very moment became one of the most terrifying things Sakura had ever seen.

    “Be here at four in the mourning tomorrow,” the Jounin suddenly said in a gleeful, menacing voice. “If any of you are late I’ll feed all of you to my summons. And I’m not using hyperbole either. Are we clear?”

    The air was so threatening that there was only one response they could give.

    “Yes Rei-sensei!”

    At least Sakura was pretty sure that’s what Naruto tried to say along with her and Sasuke.
     
  8. Threadmarks: Chapter 37
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 37

    000

    The First Hokage, Hashirama Senju, was often remembered as a humble yet charismatic man who put an end to an age and gave birth to a new era. When his personality was talked about the stories most often tended to highlight his practicality as well as his benevolence. There were however occasionally a few things that could be seen even today that seemed to hint at a different side of his personality. One of those things resided in a clearing near the northern borders of the Forest of Death.

    Anko sat atop of what could only be described as an extravagant ten foot throne made entirely of wood and gnarled roots. It was known as "The Seat of the First" and was created along with the Forest of Death by the First Hokage. No one knew if the giant, kingly seat had been a whim, a message, or if it had been intended to serve some other purpose. The only thing that was known for sure was that it had been made out of a single living tree, one that the First Hokage had made nearly indestructible. Even today the most powerful fire jutsu could barely blacken it and the strongest wind jutsu could scarcely leave a shallow gouge. For most Konoha-nin it was a mystery and a wonder from the near-mythical time of the founding of Konoha.

    The Special Jounin sat atop the Seat of the First, legs crossed and her chin resting on her fist. Her foot bounced up and down as her impatience continued to get the better of her. By her calculations the one she was expecting should have arrived hours ago. Anko knew the individual she was waiting for. There was no way that person would blow off a fight. She was far too proud and liked to test herself just a bit too much for that to happen. Plus there was the fact that if she chickened out Anko would never let her live it down.

    Still. Making her wait was terribly rude. Anko would just have to make her lessons a little more "vigorous" when she finally showed up.

    If she shows up.


    The Special Jounin needn’t have worried. Moments later there was movement from the tree line. Anko smiled to herself as a familiar figure dropped down from the branches at the very edge of the clearing.

    “Rei,” Anko began as she felt her anticipation for the upcoming confrontation start to burn anew inside of her chest. She looked down her nose at the much younger girl from where she lounged high up on her borrowed throne. “Very rude of you to make me wait. Especially after I’ve gone out of my way to do such a huge favor for you.”

    “A favor?” echoed Rei as her eyes narrowed and she drew herself up to her full height, folding her hands in her sleeves. “Maybe so. Then again… maybe not.”

    Anko raised a questioning eyebrow. Not exactly the direction she had expected this conversation to take. Insults and bravado were what she’d been anticipating, not some thinly veiled suspicion. In fact to Anko it seemed to come completely out of the blue.

    “What are you going on about brat?” Anko asked bluntly.

    “Just wondering if you’re reporting on my moves again, sadist,” said Rei with a challenging glare.

    Anko clucked her tongue in irritation. Seriously? She’d thought they’d buried the hatchet on this years ago. It’s not like she’d asked to be given a pointless mission to monitor her for suspicious activities for years.

    “You’re barking up the wrong tree squirt,” Anko said, resting her chin on her hand and giving the Yamanaka an annoyed glare. “What brought this up anyway? I thought you were done being all butthurt about the past years ago.”

    Rei didn’t answer, instead taking the time to deliberately look around the clearing. By the set of her jaw, the tight muscles of her neck, the look in her eye, one thing was clear to Anko: the kid was pissed at her for some reason. Great. What the hell was she being suspected of now?

    Then again it was really nothing new. She was always being suspected of something. By everyone except the Hokage it seemed some days. The stain of her old teacher was a rot that would never completely wash off.

    Anko grinned, and it was not a nice look. Whatever the kid’s problem was with her she was sure they could sort it out later. In the meantime Anko could utilize the anger the brat was feeling. The kid somewhat paradoxically seemed to perform at her best when… intense emotions were involved.

    Not that those same emotions couldn’t still cause the girl problems, mind you.

    Anko didn’t get to work with Rei that often these days. It was time to see how much she had grown in the last year or so. Including seeing how well she was able to keep that hot head of hers.

    That Anko was also going to be getting a little bit of revenge for the mistrust and for being late was just a side benefit, really.

    When she looked back down at her, it looked like the kid wanted to say something else but held her tongue. Probably smart of the kid if she wanted to accuse her of something like Anko suspected. The Special Jounin grinned at Rei, a look that was both challenging and condescending.

    “What? You finally learned a little self-control? How nice,” Anko said, fully aware of the holes the brat was now trying to burn through her with her glare alone. In one fluid movement Anko propelled herself off the Seat of the First and landed easily on the ground. “Because you’re going to need every single bit of an edge that you can scrape together.”

    “Will I?” the girl said. Her stance subtly dropped into a more combat ready one and Anko didn’t think it had even been a conscious decision. In fact if anything Rei’s demeanor, her aggressive gaze, the way one of her fists was clenching… the kid had come here spoiling for a fight. Everything else that had been said might have just been an excuse to that end if she didn’t miss her guess.

    “Funny,” said Rei, her body turning sideways and one foot sliding aggressively forward. “I always thought that wolves lost what made them special when they were broken down into dogs.”

    Anko clucked her tongue in irritation as she slowly began to walk towards the young upstart. She'd heard this bullshit before, been hearing it a lot more lately. "Dog of the Hokage". That kind of shit really pissed her off. “Shut your mouth kid. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

    “Don’t I?” Rei said as a predatory grin began to spread across her face. “I think I do.”

    “No,” Anko said to her with narrowed eyes. “You really don’t.”

    “Then why am I already getting under your skin? Come on admit it… a pat on the head from your boss is all it takes to give you a happy nowadays isn’t it?” Her predatory grin turned positively gleeful. “I bet you just can’t wait to do another trick to make your master happy. But maybe that’s all you ever were all along. After all, when you think about it, isn’t that exactly the sort of person you were with him? You’re still exactly the same no matter how much you want to pretend otherwise.”

    Anko came to a stop just a few feet from the kid, seething inside. Something wasn’t quite right. Yeah the kid had always been a prickly little piece of work but this… it was too raw. Too personal. Too much like an exposed nerve. As far as she knew Rei had never gone on the attack like this.

    And damn if the kid didn’t know how to hit you close to home. Yeah she’d more or less heard shit like that before but Rei seemed to know how to word it just right to really twist the knife. Fucking Yamanakas.

    “You done with the amateur hour attempted psych out kid?” Anko said, adopting an unconcerned tone and posture. “Real weak sauce brat. I hope the rest of what you have to show is a lot more impressive than that.”

    Her grin morphed into a suspicious glare. “Don’t you worry about that. This time won’t go like the last time we fought.” Pause. “Snake whore.”

    It was a struggle not to react to that insult she positively hated.

    That’s it. I don’t know who pissed in your sake recently you stupid brat but I’m not letting you get away with that shit. I’m going to beat a little common sense and respect right into your body.

    The kid had the audacity to smirk like she knew how much the insult had gotten under her skin.

    Yeah. Enough of this shit. Time to get this beat down started.

    Anko gave Rei a wide, carefree grin.

    Then she attacked without warning.

    She closed the distance between them in a flash, throwing a punch at the brat’s head. It was simply a bar setter, a probing strike. The kid turned her body easily, letting the blow miss her head by fractions of an inch.

    Anko almost grinned to herself. You have gotten better!

    The Special Jounin turned the punch in arching kick that the girl swiftly crouched under like she had joints made of rubber. Anko went on the attack, straight into a blistering offensive that Rei seemed content to just evade or deflect for the time being. Gradually Anko began to up the intensity of her barrage, her goal being to pin down the upper ceiling of what the girl could handle.

    Not bad, Anko smirked, but not as good as it could have been.

    The brat was slippery, always had been, but in the end that could only do so much. Anko found the point where the girl started struggling, her evasions becoming more frantic and many of her deflections becoming outright blocks of her strikes. Against someone bigger and stronger like Anko it was only a matter of time until she got worn down.

    On top of that the little shit had still shown no offence. No offence at all. What the hell was she waiting for?

    Getting annoyed Anko continued to batter the kid’s defenses, making every forced block an unpleasant bruising experience. The older woman began to feel a flicker of disappointment. Where had all of the kid's belligerent anger gone? Her aggression? The stupid brat wasn’t acting at all like herself.

    Determined to get a rise out of the kid Anko brought her hands down sharply, powerfully hitting Rei’s arms and opening up her guard with brute strength. Continuing the motion Anko circled her arm around and threw a punch at her head. This time she threw it harder, her fist flying a whole level faster than before, aiming to knock the kid right on her ass.

    That’s when Rei acted.

    Moving much faster than she had been just seconds before, Rei brought her arm up across her face. In one of the stupidest, riskiest moves Anko had ever seen the brat covered her eyes with the crook of her arm leaving the point of her elbow sticking out. It was a move that was surprisingly short distance wise and Rei completed it in a fraction of a second.

    Rei timed it just right so that it was too late for Anko to alter the trajectory of her blow.

    Fist collided with elbow.

    In a contest of fist versus elbow, fists loses. By a wide margin.

    “Raaagh!” Anko cried out, pulling her hand back and momentarily distracted as sharp pain shot down her fist and up her forearm.

    A moment was all that Rei needed.

    The girl moved, suddenly putting her previous ‘max speed’ to shame. She went low, sliding until she was on one knee right up inside Anko’s guard. Following the movement through Rei put all her weight behind her a vicious elbow aimed at the inside of the Special Jounin’s knee.

    Only reflexes and experience saved Anko from a dislocated or torn knee joint. She managed to move her leg just enough to take the blow on her thigh and not her knee. The strike still managed to hurt but it was nothing she couldn’t easily deal with.

    Now, however, Rei had left herself in an unfavorable position. Picking up her own speed to match what the girl had just displayed Anko shot a vicious roundhouse kick at her chest. With a grunt of pain Rei managed to block with her arms but the blow was still sent the pre-teen flying a half dozen feet away, sending her rolling awkwardly along the hard packed earth.

    “Sneaky cunt!” Anko swore at her, half pissed and half thrilled. That’s more what I’m talking about!

    Rei managed to recover from her impromptu tumble and came to her feet in a skidding stop. Her eyes were angry, because the brat was almost always angry when they fought, but they were also cold and calculating. Her hands twitched as if wanting to reach for a weapon but for some reason the kid refrained. Huh. Interesting.

    The kid pulled herself up to her full height and changed from Konoha Standard into a different stance. It was a stance that Anko had never seen before, turned fully to the side to minimize her profile with her elbows held tight to her body. The Special Jounin smirked. She’d known that the brat’s summons had been teaching her a new form of taijutsu and this was her first time seeing it.

    Maybe now things would start getting fun.

    Rei made a “come hither” motion with her lead hand. “Come on you neutered bitch. Show me what an old dog can do.”

    Anko grinned at her sometimes-student nastily. “You know the more you run your mouth, the more I’m going to make it hurt right?”

    “Talk, talk, talk,” the kid said with a slightly irritated look. “Hurry up and push me to my limit. I don’t have time to hear you prattle.”

    Anko tilted her head to the side with a sardonic twist to her lips. “Your wish is my command,” she said mockingly.

    Then she went on the offensive once again.

    Starting slightly above the speed the kid had just shown Anko began with a brutally offensive attack combination that she had effectively used to instantly crush many defenses in her day. To her utter surprise, though it wasn’t effortless by any means, the brat managed to avoid, deflect, and practically flow though her offensive. In the middle of that barrage the little midget even managed an attempted strike at a particularly sensitive nerve bundle underneath her arm. Anko managed to make the precision strike miss but it hadn’t been a bad attempt by any means.

    “Damn kid,” said Anko with a grin, breaking away momentarily before re-engaging. “What the hell have those bottom feeders been teaching ya?”

    Utterly unlike the Rei she was used to, the kid waited for her to attack instead of charging her head on. Anko began to probe with attacks, playing it safe as she attempted to figure out this new style of Rei’s. Dodge. Dodge. Weave. A dodge and deflection turned into an attempted kick at a particularly vulnerable place in the human ankle. Deflect. Dodge. Jump back. Sliding under a kick turned into an attempted throat strike.

    Anko grinned as she continued to feel out Rei’s new style. It was unconventional as hell to say the least, seemingly to put a very heavy focus on powerful defense and crippling counter attacks. Even better (or worse) Anko got the feeling the brat couldn’t bring the full potential of the style to bear against her. Then again that was completely to be expected.

    Unless you were a God-tier prodigy at taijutsu it was impossible for a pre-pubescent brat like Rei to really stand up in that kind of fight against a skilled and seasoned combat veteran. The disparity in size, reach and strength were simply overwhelming even taking into account Rei’s skillful use of Chakra. That made it extremely difficult for the brat to do something as simple as punching her in the face or executing a throw. It was a simple matter of body mechanics and physics.

    The kid was good, yeah, but not nearly good enough to beat Anko in taijutsu with all the advantages the older woman had over her… no matter what style she’d learned to use.

    At least it was good practice for Rei, because that’s all it was. The Special Jounin had been in complete control from the instant their little match had started.

    Time to start cranking up the pressure, Anko thought to herself with a grin.

    Gradually Anko began to go just a little faster, her hits landing just a little harder. The kid had a determined look of concentration on her face as keeping up with her sometimes-sensei started to become harder and harder. Rei really was amazing for her age but against someone who would have most likely been a Jounin if not for politics?

    Not a chance in hell.

    Anko picked up the pace. Her first clean hit landed, tagging the brat on the shoulder. Rei rolled with it as best she could but it was still enough to cause her to briefly stumble. When she turned back to face Anko her eyes were flashing with annoyance and rising anger.

    The older woman just grinned. She’d always enjoyed getting the kid riled up.

    Deciding she wanted to see what the squirt would do Anko kicked up her speed another notch or two.

    One second Anko was in front of Rei and the next thing the kid knew the Special Jounin was suddenly behind her. Rei turned, eyes wide and startled as she suddenly sensed her sensei appear behind her. The girl lashed out with a lightning fast back fist on instinct. Anko waited until the last possible second to then disappear in a Chakra powered burst of speed and reappear behind her student once again, causing Rei's blow to miss completely.

    “Looking kinda slow there pint-size,” Anko said, crossing her arms and putting on a taunting smile. “Need a little caffeine to perk you up maybe? You’re moving about as fast as a drunken snail.”

    With an angry snarl Rei turned and charged her, putting on an additional burst of speed even faster than anything she had ever shown before. It might have had a chance to catch Anko by surprise if she hadn’t been ready for it. Once again speeding up to near-Jounin combat levels Anko easy circled around the attacking academy student, coming at her from an undefended angle and planting her fist in the girl’s face.

    It knocked the girl to the ground but that hardly seemed to slow her down. She bounced right back up to her feet even as where Anko's fist had connected on her face was already turning an angry red. Instead of charging straight at Anko again Rei began to circle more cautiously, chest heaving as she tried to open her senses wider, anything to give her a chance to keep up with the new level of speed the Special Jounin was now displaying.

    Anko didn’t plan to give the girl a chance to defend herself. This time she charged at Rei head on with the same type of speed as before. The Special Jounin attacked with an axe kick, a powerful but telegraphed overhead move. This time Rei had barely enough time to put up a defense but it wasn’t nearly enough. The powerful blow crushed through her guard, hitting Rei on the shoulder and driving her straight into the ground so hard she bounced a few inches. Anko didn’t relent for one second, yanking her straight up by the collar before delivering a trio of punishing blows to her body. The Special Jounin finished the combo off with a jumping side kick, hitting Rei in the chest and sending her much smaller body flying.

    Rei’s momentum stopped when her back crashed against The Seat of the First. With a pained and strangled sound Rei dropped to the ground on her hands and knees. She stayed there and didn't rise right away, coughing violently from the blows to her stomach and chest. Anko noted with some amusement that the little shit wasn’t nearly as fast bouncing back to her feet this time.

    “Is this really all you can do?” Anko mocked as she leaned forward and practically leered at the girl. “Come on. Even I bought into all of that ‘genius’ talk about you for a while. But after seeing this I’m starting to think that you’re actually really nothing more than overhyped trash.”

    Rei started slowly getting to her feet, using the base of the Seat of the First to prop herself up. Even though her hair was concealing most of her face Anko could see enough. Her words were definitely having an effect. The Special Jounin grinned a little evilly.

    “I mean, have you actually made any progress in the last year?” Anko continued, her tone deliberately taunting and provocative. “Sure you’ve got a new taijutsu style and move a little faster, so what? I could still clean your clock with both hands tied behind my back. Literally.”

    The kid tried not to react but she didn’t do a very good job of hiding her body language. Anko saw her spine stiffen at hearing her words. Even though she couldn’t see the brat’s face she knew her words were hitting home. Enjoying herself maybe a little too much Anko continued.

    “Mediocre is as mediocre does after all. You thought you could take me in a contest of taijutsu? Don’t make me laugh. Though maybe it’s just as well you’re sticking to that. I doubt a little shrimp like you could manage anything even remotely dangerous to someone like me no matter how hard you tried.”

    Though the pain from her blows obviously hadn’t completely faded yet Rei rose completely to her feet under her own power. In a feat of agility Anko wasn’t expecting Rei jumped up and back towards the living structure behind her, back-tumbling twice vertically with the aid of Chakra until she ended up crouched on the "throne" that made up the Seat of the First. Rei looked down on her and the look on the girl’s face was scary for one so young. It held wary aggression, something like a cornered predator knowing this fight was going to hurt but unable – or unwilling – to just walk away even with that knowledge. Her eyes, Anko noted, had turned from their normal soft lilac to a jeweled dark amethyst just like they always did when she finally got serious. Or when she got truly pissed off. For Rei Yamanaka the two tended to be one and the same.

    Anko crossed her arms and smirked up at the girl who was glaring down at her from her perch like some vindictive bird of prey. “Did you run up there to give yourself the higher ground? If so bad call kid. You’ve got nowhere to run.”

    Rei's expression didn’t change and the look on her face made Anko think that maybe the comparison to a soulless, carnivorous bird wasn’t that far off the mark. Any further speculation stopped when the Special Jounin saw the kid pull something from her robes. The darkness made it hard to see what it was. Are those smoke bombs?

    Rei smashed the three orbs right by her own feet, creating a black cloud that quickly engulfed the wooden throne she was perched on. Anko jumped back to put a bit of distance between herself and the cloud, a smirk firmly planted on her face. She didn’t know what the kid was planning but impaired visibility worked both ways. Probably the shrimp would try to use cover to either run or launch a surprise attack. Any attack she could handle. Any attempt at running or using a jutsu to escape Anko was certain she’d be able to detect, either by hearing or by sensing the nearby tell-tale spike of Chakra that movement justu tended to create. Unless the kid seriously had some new tricks it was a complete wasted effort.

    Anko’s sensitive hearing picked up the tell tale sound of a spread of shuriken cutting through the air. The woman dodged the obvious attack in an effortless manner, the weapons not even thrown particularly accurately through the cloud of smoke. When there was no immediate follow up Anko began to feel a little bit cheated. Really? What had been the point of such an obvious attack?

    Anko stood at the ready with her senses on high alert, ready to move as soon as she detected some kind of action from the brat. Seconds ticked by, the large smoke cloud began to disperse and still nothing from Rei. Anko was beginning to wonder what the hell the kid was thinking when smoke finally cleared enough for her to see. The woman blinked in surprise when she saw that the Seat of the First was empty. Rei was gone.

    “Huh,” the woman said to herself as her eyes began to scan her surroundings. How did you escape without me detecting it? Very interesting…

    Sneaky sneaky. Then again it wasn’t completely unexpected, given what her summons were. Anko hadn’t really interrogated her summons for information about the Rat clan, especially given how they tended to descend into a verbal diarrhea of cussing and curses when they were brought up, but she’d gotten the gist that they were a bunch of "sneaky, honorless cowards who should have been exterminated long ago", which was a real laugh coming from the Snake clan of all things. In other words Rats were known for being sneaky. It looked like the little squirt had picked up a thing or two along the way.

    Of course the ten million ryo question was… how well would the kid be able to leverage that to her advantage?

    Anko stood near the center of the clearing, straining her senses to get any hint of where Rei might have concealed herself. The forest had gone from the loud flurry of their combat to almost complete silence, only the sounds being those of the insects echoing in the night. Minutes ticked by as Anko strained her senses from where she was and still, nothing. Where had the kid gon-

    Her train of thought was interrupted by a trio of kunai flying at her from high on the tree line. Dodging the attack was almost trivial and Anko readied to launch herself in the direction that the attack had come from before stopping herself. She had been a ninja for a long time and over the years she had picked up countless little pieces of knowledge. In this case she knew what blades thrown by some kind of mechanism or trap looked like, as opposed those thrown by somebody’s hand.

    The conclusion was obvious. The transparent attack had been pre-set and released from a distance in order to draw Anko into the tree line and to their source. So, the brat thought she would have an advantage fighting in the trees then? Maybe the kid really would. Probably she wouldn’t. But Anko wasn’t about to go in there blind just to find out.

    There were a lot of things Anko was good (very good) at, but if there was one area where she knew she wasn’t anything special it was tracking. She wasn’t a sensor, she had no special bloodline to aid her and her senses weren’t any more acute than what could naturally be enhanced with just Chakra. However just because she was garbage at it didn’t mean she couldn’t recruit a little help.

    In a swift move Anko tore the back of her thumb open with her teeth drawing a few drops of ruby red blood. Running through a set of hand seals the woman placed her hand on the ground and called out the name of the technique.

    Kuchiyose no Jutsu!

    Ink spread out in a circular pattern and there was a small explosion of smoke. A pit viper in subdued earth tones appeared on the ground. Without prompting the summoned animal wrapped itself around Anko’s arm and climber up until it was loosely wrapped around her neck.

    “What is it girl?” the Snake asked in a distinctly masculine, all-business tone of voice.

    “Hello to you too Suberu,” Anko said to her new summon. “Nice evening wouldn’t you say?”

    “If you called me to waste my time I’m leaving.”

    “Geez, someone slithered off the bed on the wrong side today. Fine Suberu. A wayward student of mine thinks she’s being cute by hiding in the trees. I don’t want to give her a chance to try anything sneaky. Help me find her.”

    “Student…?” the Snake said before tasting the air with his tongue. Suberu let out an angry hiss. “It’s her isn’t it? The Rat summoner. I can smell their filthy stench hanging all over the air.”

    “That would be the one,” Anko said, amused at the Snake’s antipathy.

    The Special Jounin could feel his coils tense around her neck in anger or just general displeasure. Then he relaxed and twisted his body so he was looking at Anko eye to eye, his reptilian face somehow managing to convey the seriousness of his words. “You know Manda has a particular hate for the Rat clan. If you kill their summoner while she’s still a hatchling… the King of Snakes will most certainly reward you. Becoming a primary contract holder might not even be out of the question.”

    Anko’s amusement quickly turned into a scowl. “Manda can take his ‘reward’ and shove it up his ass. I’m a Konoha ninja first and foremost which is why that’s even an issue in the first place. Now are you going to help me out or what?”

    Suberu hissed at her angrily. “I expect a sacrifice of a hundred mice for my aid, woman!”

    Anko rolled her eyes at him. “Fine fine, whatever. Just get on with it.”

    With one last displeased glare Suberu turned away and began scanning the trees. Suberu was a pit viper, a snake with special organs that could detect the body heat of warm blooded creatures. He could track people in almost any environment over respectably long distances. While she was no great tracker herself Snakes like Suberu helped to round out her skillset nicely.

    Even if he was a bit of a jerk.

    “There!” the Snake said, showing her the indicated position by pointing his head in that direction.

    Anko turned her head to look in the direction Suberu was pointing. It was high up, very high up in the trees. It might have been her imagination but Anko thought she saw a whisper of movement.

    “She’s making a run for it!”

    Maybe not my imagination then. “Hold on Suberu, this is going to get bumpy!”

    Anko took off like a shot towards the tree line, picking a spot where two trees grew close together and using them to parkour her way high up into the canopy. In that time however Rei had already gotten a decent head start. Though Anko couldn’t see the kid she knew by the direction Suberu was holding his head which way she was running. Without hesitation the older woman took off after her.

    Anko smirked. It was only a matter of a minute or two until she caught the kid. What was more while Rei wouldn’t be able to pinpoint her location Anko would have an idea of where exactly the kid was at all times thanks to Suberu. It had become an unfair game of cat and mouse… or should she say, snake and rat?

    The Special Jounin closed the distance between them unerringly, knowing she was going faster than Rei should ever be able to on a good day. Before long she caught sight of a whisper of clothing as it sped behind a tree. Finally. I’ve got you know you little shit.

    Suddenly Anko heard a familiar faint burning sound hidden in a brush right in front of her. It was a sound every ninja became intimately familiar with very quickly. It was the sound of an explosive’s trigger burning down to a detonation.

    Seeing an opening through the thick maze of branches to her left Anko took it. The explosive went off sooner than Anko had expected, meaning it had been set on a much shorter trigger than standard. Anko ducked her head down and trusted her coat to absorb any of the energy that caught her at the edge of the tag’s range. To her surprise she felt a number of small objects pelt her coat.

    What the hell?

    Anko burst out into what almost looked almost like a small clearing situated high up in the canopy, standing on a branch as she looked up at trees going higher in all directions. Briefly the woman turned and examined her coat. Embedded in the first layer of her trench coat were bits of… metal. They looked like bits of nails, razor blades, all manner of small sharp metal bits. Anko looked at the debris incredulously. What the hell? Shrapnel? Seriously?

    From where he had hidden around her neck Suberu poked out his head and flicked his tongue in the direction of the metal embedded in her coat. “You’re lucky woman,” the Snake said. “All of that metal is soaked in poison. It positively reeks of it. One scratch and that would have been the end of you.”

    “Explosives filled with poisoned shrapnel?” Anko muttered to herself before yelling out into the forest. “What the hell kid?!”

    That shit was vicious. Granted, she knew the kid was vicious but she hadn’t expected her to go that far. Especially not in a training match with an ally.

    All of a sudden smug and – slightly unhinged laughter echoed throughout the forest all around her. The kid’s voice cackled throughout the forest as she threw her voice everywhere, completely masking her location.

    “You thought you had me on the run didn’t you? But who led who into a trap?” the kid’s voice taunted. “It was I, Rei!”

    “I can smell it,” Suberu said as he looked around, his tongue continuously flicking in and out. “The taste of poison hangs thick in the air in all directions. If I had to guess she led us into an area completely trapped with those same explosives. You let her lead you right into a trap, dumbass.”

    Anko thought about it for a second and shrugged. She wasn’t exactly surprised that she ended up being led into something the kid had set up before hand, though the whole poisoned explosive shrapnel thing was something she would have expected those poison fetishists over in Grass to think up. Thankfully her coat was more than just an amazing fashion accessory. It was reinforced with seals and a wire mesh to stand up to a wide variety of attacks including something like poisoned shrapnel. That was really the only way she could justify wearing something so impractical to herself. In the end though that meant she could walk through a proverbial minefield of very deadly traps with more impunity than she would have otherwise dared.

    “Why didn’t you warn me about the poison earlier?” she asked the Snake dryly.

    “I’d like to see you using thermal sight and scenting the air at the same time,” Suberu said with wounded indignation.

    “Feh, whatever,” Anko said with a careless shrug before raising her voice to address the girl hiding in the forest. “That’s a nasty piece of work but it won’t save you from me. When I catch you I’m going to tan your ass bloody for all the shit you’ve been pulling today, brat!”

    “Then come and get me, snake whore!”

    Anko’s eyebrow twitched. I’m really, really going to enjoy beating her down today.

    000

    Twenty minutes later Anko was feeling irritated, impatient and reluctantly impressed.

    Anko was now about ninety-five percent certain the fucking kid had picked up some way to make herself completely silent no matter how fast she moved through the trees. Nighttime inside the high canopy was dark, she couldn’t trust her sense of hearing and she wasn’t any kind of sensor. That meant that finding the kid on her own without Suberu’s help would normally be a pain in the ass. Irritating but manageable.

    The problem was that the kid had booby-trapped the whole area. Well, that normally wouldn’t be much of an obstacle to a ninja of her caliber either. The problem was that the kid had come up with some kind of way to remote-detonate each of her individual shrapnel-poison bombs from seemingly anywhere. Normally the only way to do that would be to tie the trigger to a Chakra spike directed by a hand seal. However that method inevitably had the telltale sign of the Chakra spike itself. Anko hadn’t been able to figure out how the kid was doing it yet and that was limiting her options. Combined with Rei’s quite excellent skills at staying hidden and her ability to reposition at top speed in absolute silence… well, it was making nailing her down without getting blown to kingdom come one hell of an annoying little challenge.

    At least the brat had gone quiet. Anko was well aware of her tendency to relentlessly irritate and taunt her opponents when she fought. Then again when she fought silent that often meant the pipsqueak had decided to go all chibi-mankiller on you. Still she’d take an extra bloodthirsty kid over a Yamanaka crafted series of insults any day of the week.

    Of course to make up for that ray of sunshine her other companion seemed determined to make up the slack on what had apparently become “small things that I could kill with one hand insulting me” day.

    “Stupid woman,” groused Suberu in her ear. “You’re letting her make a mockery of you. She’s just a hatchling! And a Rat! This is intolerable.”

    “Shut the hell up,” she told the Snake distractedly. She was already planning her next move but… this wasn’t working. If she wanted to win in this way she was going to have to figure out how the kid was remotely detonating all of those explosives.

    “Why don’t you use my skills? We can track her down in minutes and you can then crush her beneath your coils. You are being a bloody fool.”

    Because it was more fun and more challenging to beat the kid’s trap without Suberu’s help. Otherwise it would probably just be too easy. Not that the Snake was likely to accept that type of reasoning mind you.

    “Shut up or I’m not giving you any mice.”

    Suberu hissed angrily right in her face. “The mice were part of our deal, betrayer!”

    Anko ignored him. If she wanted to beat the kid more "fairly" without Suberu making it completely boring she was going to have to step up her game.

    Luckily she had a plan.

    Visibility cut both ways. The only real good news was that the forest at night was just a dark for the chibi as it was for her. So far she knew the kid had to be hidden somewhere higher up to even attempt to keep track of her in the oppressive gloom.

    That meant if she wanted to drop out of sight there was only one sure way to go: down.

    And what do you know? She just happened to be standing on a branch that wasn’t all that thick all things considered.

    “Don’t get scared and choke me now Suberu,” Anko warned with a hint of humor.

    “What are you talking about, I don’t, -Gah!-

    Anko lifted her foot and brought it down, hard, with an overcharged Charka enhanced stomp. The wood underneath her feet practically exploded in a shower of splinters. Suberu’s coils gripped tighter around her neck as she began to freefall into darkness.

    Good. Now that she was falling she probably had a few guaranteed seconds of being unobserved. Anko brought her hands together and ran through a quick set of three seals before quietly casting the jutsu she had in mind.

    “Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!”

    The Chakra-constructed clone appeared next to her just as she landed on a branch below. It took off silently to do a little investigating while the real Anko took off in the opposite direction making sure to make a little noise. She wanted the brat to follow her and not be aware of the clone she had created after all.

    Anko just needed to buy a little time. It would be boring, but the easiest solution was obvious. Not particularly eager to risk getting blown up yet again Anko made her way to where one of those special poisoned explosives had blown up almost in her face. The kid obviously knew that she would never win in a straight up confrontation. Anko would just tight where a previous explosive had gone off in order to avoid any more traps. Boring, but effective.

    Anko sat down on a scorched and pockmarked branch making enough noise to make sure the kid knew where she was. Now just to keep the kid’s attention while her Kage Bunshin did its work. With that in mind Anko began to speak, not bothering to throw her voice to mask her position in the eerily quiet forest.

    “So what’s got your panties in a twist brat?” Anko called out into the forest as she got comfortable on the branch she was sitting on. “You seem even more unstable and prickly than usual, and that’s saying something.”

    Silence. About what she expected. Still she knew the kid was listening and the more she was focused on her at the moment the better.

    “You’re wound tighter than a Hyuuga at a mud wrestling competition. Normally I’d blame your ridiculous over-inflated pride but that doesn’t really ring quite right this time. Come on kid. What’s eating at you?”

    Silence. Either the kid had matured a bit or she was too hyper focused on whatever scheme she was undoubtedly trying to hatch at the moment. Or both. As long as she kept listening it really didn’t matter either way.

    “You know I never did figure out your obvious animosity toward the Hokage. That’s why you’re pissed at me now right? Geez. How the hell did a little kid like you even end up with that kind of mind set? Usually the only people who are that unhappy with him are cynical veteran ninja who are jaded as fuck.” Pause. “Granted you might have the cynical part down but you don’t really fit the rest of the typical profile.”

    That finally got a reaction out of Rei. Her voice was thrown, seeming to come from all directions at once. The kid’s tone was raw, with sarcasm scathing enough to burn.

    “Animosity? Don’t be ridiculous. My one unjust stay at T&I completely purified me of all negative feelings. That is ultimately the goal of torturing one of your own right? To ensure loyalty? Why wouldn’t it be successful?”

    A sudden feeling, or perhaps realization, fell over Anko at hearing those words. More than the words it was in the way in which they were said. Coupled with what she had seen thus far that night it started to paint a certain picture.

    Something wasn’t quite right with Rei. Something had changed, and not for the better. Anko frowned. What? Why? How long had this been going on? Something wasn’t right here. Was this a temporary or permanent thing? What in the hell had been going on with the kid? And most of all why hadn’t the Yamanaka caught it and done something about it yet?

    “Watch your mouth kid,” Anko said into the gloom, her tone suddenly deadly serious. “You know better than to say things like that out loud, even in jest. If I was just a loyal dog of the Hokage I might feel compelled to report it. Everyone has opinions, but that doesn’t mean they can just blurt them out without consequences.”

    “What the hell do you care?” came the kid’s biting reply from the gloom. “I should be able to say whatever the hell I want. Without consequences.”

    Anko frowned. The Special Jounin tried to find some patience within herself. She was a little bit… unhappy… with the implication that she didn’t care. Fucking ungrateful midget.

    “And I should have a harem of beautiful men who only live to satisfy my every need,” replied Anko mockingly. “I thought you were mature for a kid, but looks like I was wrong. Should be able to say what you want without consequence? Come on, you’re not that naïve. If everyone was allowed to constantly undermine our leaders then pretty soon there would be nothing but anarchy. You’re smart enough to realize this. Now be straight with me. These poisoned bombs, the throwing out of accusations, the vitriol, the saying of stupid things. What’s really eating at you kid?”

    Silence. Damn. Not the reply she had been hoping for but definitely one she’d known would be a strong possibility. She was just trying to help. That brat was really starting to piss her off.

    Just then a sudden influx of memories and information rushed into her head like sucking something ice cold through a straw. The Kage Bunshin had dispelled itself and… wow, it had been successful in discovering what was behind those bombs. Anko’s mind began to race as she starting picking apart Rei’s elaborate trap.

    In spite of herself Anko was extremely impressed by what the clone had discovered. Woven all around them for a hundred yards in all directions was an incredibly complex three dimensional cat’s cradle made up entirely of ninja wire. All of the ninja wire was secured flat against the trees making them essentially invisible at night. On nearly all of the places where the ninja wires crossed each other there was a small bag containing the shrapnel along with the shortened timer.

    While the set up was elaborate and skillfully done what really impressed Anko was the method by which Rei must have been activating the explosions. The kid would have to touch the wire anywhere along the complex cat's cradle and send her Chakra along the metal conductor to the area all around where Anko was at any given time, waiting for the right time to detonate the correct bomb. What Rei would need to do in order to pull that off was almost hideously complex. She would need to at all times keep an accurate mental map of her gigantic elaborate wire trap in three dimensions otherwise she would risk any number of things going wrong. No easy feat by any means. But in addition to that in order to not only detonate the intended bombs but to keep herself from detonating the wrong ones while at the same time keeping her Chakra usage low enough to go undetected… the level of Chakra control required for that was staggering. It went beyond typical Jounin levels of Chakra control into the realm of the absurd. Maybe ANBU level. Maybe even more. Anko seriously doubted that she herself could replicate the feat.

    How could anyone so young have developed such ridiculously high amount of Chakra control? WHY would she? It could be half this good and she would still be nearly one hundred percent Chakra efficient in any justsu she’s likely to learn anytime soon. Fucking overachieving prodigies.

    Anko grinned wolfishly. Well, for such an elaborate, horrendously difficult to execute trap it did have a number of glaring weaknesses. The most significant of which she was going to exploit to its fullest effect.

    Jumping to a tree a dozen yards to her left, Anko began to feel along a branch thickly covered with leaves until she found what she was looking for. There. Ninja wire. Connected to the elaborate network Rei had set up in this forest.

    “Don’t get blown up by your own bombs!” Anko called out cheerily into the night. That was the only warning the girl was going to get.

    Without any thought for Chakra control or efficiency Anko began to pour her own Chakra into the wire, sending it along its length in either direction. She could feel her Chakra spreading out into the forest at a rapid pace along the metal length. Seconds later the first explosions began. Then followed by a second set, and a third, and a fourth. The booms were absolutely deafening. Suddenly the whole forest seemed to be going up in a big blast, the acrid smell of exploded tags and poison hanging thick in the air. Just like that Anko compromised the whole trap network, detonating all of the bombs and rendering it completely useless.

    “Not bad!” called out Anko cheerily. “Though next time you might want to go with something simpler.”

    “She’s getting away,” said Suberu suddenly next to her ear.

    Anko shot him a glare. “I told you not to look for her.”

    “I wanted to see her get blown up. Sue me. Also, she’s running southeast. Probably unscathed unfortunately. Hurry up if you want to catch her.”

    Grumbling a few expletives at Suberu the Special Jounin none the less took off in that direction. The brat still needed a good beat down. If only so she would learn not to do something as stupid as using poisoned shrapnel against an ally in a simple training session.

    000

    Shit, shit, shit, shit!

    Rei’s heart was racing a mile a minute and she was absolutely, one hundred percent pissed off. Not only at Anko though. She was also mad at herself.

    How did she discover the wire network? Rei didn’t know. Anko hadn’t been out of her sight long enough to go poking around for something like that. All her hard work had gone up in smoke in mere moments once it had been discovered. Rei tightened her fists hard enough for her short nails to cut into her palms. Yes her trap being compromised in such a way had been a possibility but one that she had thought would be somewhat remote. Obviously she had misjudged the situation.

    Rei bit the inside of her lip until she tasted blood, forcing herself to calm down. The situation looked grim. As much as she hated to do it Rei knew she didn’t stand a chance in a face to face confrontation. Not yet, not for a while longer at least. The only way to win was to do so indirectly, hence the plan with the poisoned bombs. Despite all of the effort she had put into that it had turned out to be an unmitigated failure. Rei clenched her jaw until she thought her teeth might crack. Have I really progressed so little after all these years?

    It wasn’t over yet though. Rei had one more plan to try. It was incredibly risky, incredibly dangerous and it could go wrong so many different ways. Part of her didn’t want to do it this way.

    And part of her really, really did.

    It doesn’t matter what I want. I can’t lose. I won’t allow it.

    Rei didn’t bother to be quiet and dropped the jutsu that concealed any sound she made. She needed Anko to be able to follow her. Rei made what preparations she needed to draw out an extended chase. The girl climbed high into the canopy, so high up in the trees that the branches thinned out. Soon she was running on branches just barely strong enough to support her slight weight while being hundreds of feet up in the air… branches that would be too flimsy for the much heavier Anko to climb up on.

    Next she made sure that she had all the equipment she needed close at hand. She was starting to run low but hopefully it would be enough. Smoke bombs. Explosive tags. Everything, the works. She just needed to make it to her destination while having Anko right on her tail…

    “There you are!” Rei heard Anko’s voice coming from maybe fifty feet behind her and slightly below, he voice sounding both excited and promising pain.

    Speak of the devil.

    Rei kept an eye on Anko as the woman rapidly closed. Timing things just right she dropped the last of her little bags filled with the poisoned shrapnel. It was painted black and almost impossible to see in the dark upper canopy. Anko was almost on top of it before she finally noticed it and had to throw herself wildly out of the way.

    BOOM!

    Poor visibility hurt the both of them, but working in the near complete absence of light was almost exclusively how Rats trained and operated. After all this time training with them it didn’t hinder her as much as many would expect. Though Anko was far more experienced Rei didn’t think she would lose to anyone when it came to maneuvering in these types of conditions. While Anko was distracted Rei altered her trajectory and put on a burst of speed.

    “I’m so sick of those bombs you fucking brat. I swear I’m going to shove one of them straight up your ass!”

    Unlikely, since I just used my last one.

    Rei knew she wouldn’t be able to keep the woman at bay forever. She also suspected Anko wasn’t going full out. That was her mistake. Just a couple of more minutes. That was all that she needed.

    Anko instantly reoriented and was right back on her trail. Rei frowned. How was she doing that? Rei knew she should have been able to at least confuse the woman in her dark. Some kind of sensor ability?

    The next few minutes were incredibly hairy for Rei. Anko closed to where she was only a dozen feet away and below her. Rei kept her at bay by dropping the occasional explosive tag and sticking to branches that would not be able to support the woman’s weight. Things got more difficult by an order of magnitude when the Special Jounin finally wizened up and started throwing weapons to try to force Rei off the thinner branches up above.

    Still, at that point Rei looked up ahead and grinned as she recognized her destination. She was going to make Anko regret going easy on her. As she neared two peculiarly shaped trees at the edge of a clearing Rei enacted the first step of her plan.

    Using every last one that she had left, Rei cracked open a half dozen smoke bombs and threw them in between herself and Anko. Instantly the poor visibility was reduced to essentially zero and Rei dove for the forest floor like a chicken hawk, barely slowing her momentum on passing branches just enough not to splatter herself on the ground when she reached the bottom.

    By listening she knew that Anko almost instantly took after her but Rei already had enough of a lead. Being more powerful and more experienced didn’t exactly help you to fall faster after all. Rei landed on the forest floor a minute later and took off at a Chakra-enhanced dead sprint towards the clearing, knowing full well that Anko was only moments behind her.

    The scroll containing all the information about the Forest of Death had included some very interesting information. Specifically it included the territories for certain especially dangerous groups of animals. Rei had scouted this place out earlier in the night. Now the only thing left was to see if her insane plan would work out.

    Asleep in the clearing were an entire pride of monstrous white tigers, each one of them the size of a school bus. Bringing her hands together Rei activated Stealth Art: Silent Hunt which made her one hundred percent silent. The girl ran for the closest pair of tigers who were sleeping back to back, their heads facing in her direction, with maybe five feet of space between the two of them. Perfect.

    Rei felt more than heard Anko come to a skidding stop at the edge of the clearing behind her. The older woman called out to her in a hissed whisper, her voice tinged with incredulousness and a hint of panic. “What the fuck are you doing? Get back here!”

    Rei didn’t listen to her and brandished two clean kunai, one in each hand. The girl ran between the two sleeping tigers in complete silence while lashing out, leaving a painful but superficial wound on the hide of each tiger. Anko watched on in opened mouthed disbelief as the girl ran into the middle of a pack of sleeping tigers and deliberately cut into two of them.

    The reaction was predictable. The two animals woke up almost instantly, twin roars of surprise and pain hitting like a wave of pressure and waking up the rest of the pride only moments later. They had been attacked and the primal instincts of the two tigers quickly demanded that they find the threat and eliminate it. The first thing they identified was a heartbeat nearby that didn’t belong, along with a small creature that was standing in the direction their heads had been facing by the edge of the clearing. The small figure and the two tigers stared each other down for a long, pregnant moment before the two gigantic beasts stood up and growled menacingly at the obvious culprit who had hurt them.

    “Oh, fuck you,” said Anko with wide eyes as she backed up a step, her voice colored with what could have been both admiration and disbelief.

    Rei was already gone, running past the whole sleeping pride of ridiculously giant tigers like a hare and leaving Anko holding the bag. Before Anko could make up her mind to run one of the injured tigers pounced, covering way more distance in a flash than she would have thought was possible. The woman dodged, the gigantic paw missing her by more than a foot. However before she could think to do anything else the other tiger was already on her, forcing her to quickly dodge yet again. In seconds the whole pride of giant tigers were awake and moving to circle the commotion caused by the small monkey creature that had dared to disturb their rest.

    “I’m gonna kill that fucking kid,” Anko muttered to herself between clenched teeth as she dodged frantically while quickly becoming surrounded.

    000

    Meanwhile Rei was getting into position to initiate the last stage of her plan.

    She began climbing the trees again on the opposite end of the clearing, coming to stand on a sturdy branch overlooking the large open space. Surveying the area she saw Anko slowly being surrounded by the pride as she used her smaller size and her speed to avoid the claws and the teeth and the crushing bodies. Truth be told Rei was impressed by how she was handling herself, but dumb animals or not Anko was currently having to work to stay a step ahead of the animalistic fury that was now descending upon her.

    Time to finish this. Briefly Rei felt something telling her to stop but she put a hold on that voice and crushed it viciously. She had to get stronger. She had to win. That was all that her life came down to. She couldn’t allow herself to become distracted by anything else at all.

    Rei reached into her robes and drew out what she had acquired precisely for this moment: a dozen or so “flashbang” tags that had been altered to dump all their energy into the light portion of the seal.

    Use your opponent’s weaknesses against them.

    After hesitating for half a second Rei fed her Chakra into the tags in her hand, setting off the five second timer. The girl threw the tags high up over her head so they began to slowly flutter down as the countdown ticked down. Drawing in a deep breath Rei made sure to get the timing just right.

    “HELP!” screamed Rei, her voice shrill and full of fear and panic as she covered her eyes with one arm.

    Anko instinctively glanced upwards towards where she heard her student cry out for help. The moment she did all of the flashbang tags detonated at once. Millions of candela of intense light instantly filled the clearing, searing into Anko’s eyes painfully and immediately blinding her. She cried out in shock and pain and instinctively brought her hands up to her eyes. Some of the tigers had been blinded as well but a good number of them had had their backs turned to the blast. Besides, animals like tigers did not necessarily need their eyes in order to hunt.

    Rei removed her arm from her where she'd had it across her face, seeing spots from the brightness of the blast even though she’d covered her eyes, just in time to see a gigantic paw smash into Anko with bone crushing force. The blow sent her much smaller body crashing very fast and very painfully into a tree. Rei saw the instant Anko switched into full “survival” mode, bringing her hands together and in a flash she was spitting out a truly impressive crimson curtain of fire all around her so that she would not instantly get mauled to death.

    It was chaos and for a few seconds Rei lost sight of Anko in the mad melee as tigers tried to both avoid the worst of the flames and finish off the object of their rage. Finally Rei caught a glimpse of Anko, still half blinded, clothes torn and bloody, as she broke away from the ring of tigers in an undignified scramble. Then she watched as the Special Jounin ran away, stumbling and desperate, deeper into the forest as whole pride of tigers gave chase. In seconds Rei lost sight of them all from where she stood on a high branch.

    Rei just stood there, taking a few minutes to consider what had just happened. Then slowly a smile that would have caused quite a few people who knew her to break out into a cold sweat spread across her lips. There she stood, unbowed and unbroken. There Anko went, running like the whipped dog that she was with her tail in between her legs. Her smile turned into an outright grin. I did it. I won. I’m strong. I’m powerful. I’m powerful and I will only get more powerful. Unless they kill me nobody can ever take this from me. Nobody.

    Rei had taken on a Jounin-level or near Jounin-level opponent and come out on top. Whatever extenuating circumstances might have existed nobody could deny her magnificent achievement. Rei felt satisfaction and felt the long-forgotten sensation of relief course through her. For the moment, at least, the massive pressure on her shoulders had lifted just enough for her to be able to breathe again.

    At least for a little while.

    What next though? I probably don’t want to be around when Anko finally manages to lose the tigers. Rei felt a tinge of worry that Anko would be killed before pushing it away. She was a skilled high-ranked ninja. She would be fine. Probably.

    Hiding. Hiding was probably a really great idea right now. Sighing with a bit of exhaustion Rei turned and took off at an easy lope.

    000

    Rei had taken off for a good while in a random direction (West), had made sure to cover her tracks best as she could and had picked a random tree near a small, muddy clearing to conceal herself. She’d nestled herself in between the roots of a large tree and covered herself with some oversized leaves the size of car doors. Rei would have liked to go back to camp with Hinata but that did not feel particularly… safe at the moment. Anko would, no doubt, be out looking for her.

    Rei acknowledged that she had most likely pissed her one-time-sometimes sensei off with what she had pulled but the girl could not find it in herself to regret it. Not really. Rei had a few excuses ready, such as Anko having a more-or-less standing understanding with her that she could come at her with “intent to kill”, but in reality that wasn’t why she didn’t feel a great deal of regret.

    Proof that she had actually made some progress. Right now that was more valuable to her than anything in the world. Even if she could she would not for a second take it back.

    Of course that now left the problem of a probably… irate Anko looking for her. Ah well. Rei figured if she could hide out until dawn that would be sort of like winning an unspoken contest. If Anko couldn’t find her by then then Rei doubted any “retaliation” on her part would be anything for her to be worried about.

    Now, maybe she could see about getting a little bit of sleep before…-

    Suddenly a hand reached through the stack of leaves she was hiding under and grabbed her by the lapel of her kimono. Before Rei could react the hand hauled her up with almost frightening strength and harshly threw her into the small clearing. The girl didn’t manage to do a proper recovery in time and ended up crashing and rolling in the ankle-deep mud, getting her robes completely filthy.

    Sputtering and spitting some mud out of her mouth Rei looked up to see her attacker. Standing some six feet away from her was none other than Anko Mitarashi. The woman looked a mess. Her precious coat was ripped badly in various places along with the rest of her clothes. In the gloom Rei could barely make out dark splotches of what looked like dried blood on her coat. Anko's own blood. There was a nasty cut on her cheek that had bled freely at some point earlier that the woman had not bothered to wipe away. Her hair was in complete disarray, having come loose and sticking to her face as it fell down past her shoulders. Overall the woman looked like she had been through a war or been put through a blender.

    And she looked pissed.

    Before Rei could even begin to get to her feet Anko crossed the distance between them in a flash, punching Rei on the head, hard. The blonde saw stars as the force of the blow knocked her harshly backwards onto the cold, wet mud. Shit. That hurt really bad. She couldn't remember the last time someone had clocked her that hard. With a pained sound Rei managed to get onto her knees, attempting to clear the fuzziness in her head. The girl felt something warm running over one eye and realized that it was her own blood.

    A sharp kick caught her in the ribs, causing the girl to flip over onto her back with a cry of pain. Against her will she curled into the fetal position, a whimper escaping her throat as she cradled her screaming ribs. Anko came to loom over her, eyes hard and terrible and promising violence in the gloom.

    “If you don’t learn by common sense then I’m going to have to beat it into you,” Anko hissed at the girl, her voice tight and low and, for the first time that Rei had ever heard it, terrifying.

    “I don’t know what your problem is,” Anko continued as she picked up Rei by the collar and held her up in front of her like a misbehaving puppy. The woman got right in Rei’s face until the two were only inches apart. “But. You. Know. BETTER!

    The last word was punctuated with a truly vicious punch to Rei’s stomach, instantly causing the girl to start vomiting. Anko dropped her to the ground as Rei dry heaved on her empty stomach. The expression on the Special Jounin’s face was thunderous and utterly devoid of pity.

    “You don’t do that when you spar with allies, do you understand?!” Anko half yelled and half hissed, kicking the girl on her side hard enough to send her sprawling across the cold mud yet again.

    Anko wasn’t done yet. She stalked over to the girl who was currently in too much pain to even think straight and roughly grabbed one of her arms. The Special Jounin maneuvered that arm into a shoulder lock, applying pressure and hyperextending the joint until Rei gave out a loud, high pitched cry of pain.

    “You don’t use shrapnel on allies,” Anko said before adding a little more pressure until Rei gave out another whimpering, half-broken cry of pain. “You don’t poison them indiscriminately. You don’t lead them into an ambush of giant tigers.” She leaned down closer and hissed into the girl’s ear. “And you don’t fucking use the fact that they care about you against them.”

    The older woman added a little more pressure to the joint until Rei let out a fresh cry of pain through clenched teeth.

    “Do you understand?” Anko asked dangerously in the girl’s ear.

    After a few moment’s hesitation, the girl shakily nodded.

    “I want to hear you say it.”

    Anko saw the girl attempt to swallow twice before she spoke in a feeble, hoarse voice.

    “I understand.”

    Anko tightened the pressure on the joint until Rei gave a fresh hiss of pain.

    “You understand what?

    The girl had to pant a few times in pain before she could find her voice again.

    “I-I understand… Anko-sensei.”

    “You better,” replied Anko, her voice thick with warning. Then she let go of the girl’s arm and strode away. She was going to need a few moments to just calm the fuck down.

    She stopped some ten feet away and just rubbed her face, emotions going haywire. Fucking kid. This was the kind of shit that he would pull. Anko didn’t know what had gotten into the brat but that kind of behavior was simply not acceptable. Even with the most vigorous of training there were some things that you simply did not do.

    Anko was pulled from her thoughts by the sound of laughter. Low, chuckling laughter that seemed completely and utterly out of place. The Special Jounin turned her head to look at Rei, an incredulous and worried look on her face.

    The girl had risen to her hands and knees facing away from her so Anko couldn’t see her face. But that laughter, it was hollow, broken… and kinda unhinged. And was very quickly starting to creep Anko the fuck out.

    The woman debated saying something but found herself at a loss. What the hell? Before she could decide if she should intervene somehow the girl spoke first.

    “This is the world we live in isn’t it?”

    000

    “This is the world we live in isn’t it?”

    Rei continued to laugh, knowing it was not really appropriate but frankly not giving a shit. She didn’t even know why she was laughing, feeling all weird and detached and distant. She just couldn’t stop.

    “What?”

    For some reason Anko’s question just sent her into another fit of giggles. How could she explain? It was just too, tooridiculous. Rei had just started picturing how this would have looked in her last world. A woman beating the shit of an eleven year old girl. How would people have reacted? Horrified? Stepped in? Called the police? What a riot. That wasn’t at all how things worked here.

    Here people would probably agree that Rei had it coming for what she did. Would commiserate with Anko about those unruly students and how sometimes they needed to be disciplined. Her own parents wouldn’t stop it. The Hokage would probably derive a great deal of schadenfreude out of it before deciding to come up with another punishment for her.

    It wasn’t that funny. But for some reason she couldn’t stop laughing.

    With a sudden clarity and a sudden understanding in her heart Rei turned to look at Anko with a grin, her teeth stained red with blood.

    “It’s seductive, isn’t it?”

    Anko stared back at her blankly, her face giving nothing away.

    “What?”

    “The power this,” said Rei, referring to savage the beating she had just received, “gives you over me.”

    For a split second Anko looked vaguely disturbed. However it was gone so fast that Rei thought she might have imagined it.

    Rei laughed again. “Admit it. It’s a rush isn’t it? It’s what ninja really live for, in the end. Power over others. You’ve always been that way,” she stopped briefly as another fit of giggles escaped her. “It’s okay, you can own it. I’m not going to judge you for it Anko-sensei.”

    Anko went still in a way that made Rei instantly wary. They stared at each other for a long pregnant moment before Anko moved. Before Rei even realized what was happening Anko knocked her into the ground face first and straddled her back.

    One hand roughly sank into Rei’s hair, pushing her face right down into the mud. “It’s a rush isn’t it?” Anko said, parroting Rei mockingly. She leaned down until her lips are only a hair’s breadth from Rei’s ear. “Yes. Yes it is,” she hissed in Rei’s ear, harsh, angry, almost resentful.

    Distantly Rei noted that Anko’s anger doesn’t seem to be entirely directed at her before she began to struggle. With her face in the mud she couldn’t breathe. One of her arms was trapped beneath her while the other could do nothing but flail about ineffectively. Part of her began to panic, wondering if she was about to be killed.

    “Now, now,” began Anko, now leaning forward and pressing her whole body into Rei as she whispered almost gently into her ear. “You’ve done quite enough talking for one day. Don’t try to breathe. If you get any mud in your lungs I’ll have to take you to the hospital and cancel your little camping trip. You wouldn’t want that, would you?”

    Rei continued to struggle but it was useless. She had no leverage and Anko was much, much stronger than her. The girl could feel the burning already starting in her lungs from the lack of oxygen.

    “I’d tell you that struggling is useless but don’t stop on my account,” Anko whispered in her ear, the intimacy and amusement in her tone disturbing. “Just let big sister Anko take care of you.”

    Shit. Fuck! There was only one thing that Rei could think to do in this situation. Only one thing that maybe, maybe had a chance of working. Rei had taken to keeping a coil of wire wrapped around her upper arm, the same arm that was currently pinned beneath her body. Using her Chakra the girl began to uncoil that length of wire and to move it.

    “You’ve gotten so much stronger, I’m almost proud of you,” Anko purred into her ear. “However you’re still a hundred years too soon to catch up to the great and beautiful Anko-sama.”

    The burning in her lungs was by now getting much worse and it took all her hard won discipline not to begin panicking. At a speed that felt much too slow Rei began pushing the length of wire down her hand and through the mud using her Chakra. It was another sense to her, almost like an extra finger. Rei retained enough presence of mind to squirm and move her other arm while making muffled noises… all of it in order to camouflage what she was attempting to do with the length of wire.

    “Stop reminding me so much of myself though,” Anko husked in her ear, sounding both angry and playful. “You’re bringing up bad memories.”

    By now she was starting to see grey creeping in along the edges of her vision. The length of wire pushed out of the soft mud beneath her and Rei began to direct it into position to strike purely by touch. Since it would have to touch Anko’s coat to get into position behind her neck Rei made sure to keep struggling loudly. If the woman detected her trap it was all over.

    “One day, Rei-chan, maybe all your efforts will actually be worth som- Urk!”

    With a flex of Chakra that Rei had practiced hundreds of times the wire lashed out and wrapped itself around Anko’s throat, catching the older woman completely by surprise. Using the last of her waning strength Rei took the opportunity provided by the distraction and twisted her body to the side, creating enough room for her to move her arm and yank on the wire viciously. Anko was pulled off of her with a choking sound, giving Rei enough room to lift herself up from the mud and take a desperate, life giving breath.

    Anko’s reaction to unexpectedly being choked was more instinct that planning. She kicked out at full strength, clipping Rei on the side of her head. Rei only had time to feel vaguely nauseous before completely losing consciousness.
     
    meri, Perspicacious, TheEyes and 41 others like this.
  9. Threadmarks: Chapter 38
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 38

    000

    Rei woke up slowly, the light from the early morning sun rousing her from her slumber. One of the very first things she noticed was the sound of birds chirping. Unfortunately for her even that normally soothing sound felt like someone was twisting a wine bottle opener inside of her head.

    Slowly Rei opened her eyes only to find herself looking up at the roof of a tent. Blinking in confusion Rei’s sluggishly rousing mind took stock of her surroundings. She was inside a tent. Her tent, by the looks of it. Turning her head slightly to the side she spotted Hinata in her sleeping bag not even a foot away from her. The younger girl was fast asleep with her mouth hanging slightly open. Rei blinked owlishly a few times. How did she end up back here?

    Slowly her memories from what must have been the previous night started coming back to her... along with her body deciding to helpfully remind her of the vicious beating she’d taken when she tried to move. With a grimace she felt extremely sore and tended spots almost everywhere on her body. Her stomach, her ribs, her back, her face and even more. Though it was a bit cliché she almost felt like one gigantic, tender and painful to move bruise. Even the simple act of breathing was decidedly uncomfortable.

    She really did a number on me. Ow. I’m going to be surprised if nothing’s actually cracked or broken.

    Taking further stock of her situation it finally registered to Rei that she was inside her own sleeping bag. Slowly as to not aggravate her injuries any more than strictly necessary she opened the top of her sleeping bag a little bit before she stopped. Son of a bitch. Rei saw that she had been put in her sleeping bag with her clothes on while being covered from head to toe in mud. The girl grimaced at the sight of it. The inside of her sleeping bag was completely ruined. Even if she could manage to clean it in the river and salvage it somehow the heavy absorbent material would then still take days to dry. Wonderful.

    The soft morning light illuminating the tent and the sound of birds chirping outside gave Rei a slightly surreal feeling inside the tent that made her briefly wonder if she had dreamt the night before, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Looking over at Hinata, Rei couldn’t help but feel a flicker of annoyance at how peaceful and oblivious she looked. A bit of drool escaped out of the corner of her mouth. Closing her eyes and taking a slow, careful breath as to not aggravate her battered ribs further Rei was surprised that mostly she just felt kind of empty, like someone had taken an ice scream scoop and scraped out most of the emotions inside her chest. With slow, deliberate movements Rei peeled herself out of her sleeping bag and silently stepped outside.

    Rei had chosen their camping spot deliberately, so it was only a hundred yards or so from the banks of the river. With stiff, pained steps Rei began to make her way towards the water. She was caked from head to toe in dried, smelly mud. Before she did anything else she was going to get herself cleaned.

    Rei reached the bank of the river and examined it closely. Near the center the currents were highly dangerous but if you stayed near the banks the river was actually quite peaceful. Without hesitation Rei reached for her clothes and stripped naked. She had never been self-conscious about her body in her last life and as far as she was concerned she had even less reason to be so now as a hormoneless eleven year old girl. Slowly she stepped into the river, the waters cool against her skin but not uncomfortably so.

    The scroll had said that the in the river dangerous predators came out at night but that it was safe enough during the day. Keeping an eye out for crocodiles or any other assorted dangers anyway Rei began to clean herself as best she could. She had to scrub vigorously with a rough river stone to get rid of the mud and getting it out of her hair turned out to be a nightmare. Rei sighed tiredly as she realized she should have grabbed some soap before heading to the river. As she worked to get herself clean she woke up more fully and she reflected on the night before.

    Things had gone… well. Not great. It hadn’t really been a “worst case scenario” type of outcome but it really had not been a great one either. Rei had just really… lost it at the end.

    Rei was too numb to get riled up or even to get angry at herself over it at the moment thought. The girl closed her eyes. She hadn’t just been talking about Anko when she went on her little rant about power and the rush of wielding it over others. In the end strong ninja were, ultimately, all about using power to control. To control the actions of other individuals. To be able to influence the outcomes of decisions influencing many people. To control and rule an entire ninja village. Even to control the trajectory of their own lives by being stronger than those who would deny them their right to choose and would use them for their own ends… or by being valuable enough to those who were still above them. It had come to her as a sort of Zen-like epiphany the night before as she had been… helpless… as Anko beat her. The whole of the world revolved around the domination of others. Sometimes forceful, sometimes more subtle. However it was always there. That was the essence of what made the ninja world turn.

    And for what exactly? Everyone had a reason obviously, everyone had a goal. Upholding the “will of fire” like you were told from the day you were born. Become a Chunin or a Jounin. Become Hokage. Bring about world peace. Become immortal. Protect the village. Destroy the village. Protect my friends. Become free of the ninja system that sought to utterly control your life until the day you died. Every single goal in this existence shared one thing in common: Power was the required currency to achieve it.

    Was it any wonder then that achieving power could easily become an end in itself? It was almost like earning money for any future purchases you might want to make. Could she really fault anyone for such an attitude in a world like this one? … No, she really couldn’t. It made perfect sense to do so.

    Was it any wonder, then, how sinfully seductive it could be?

    Anything could be achieved if you had enough power.

    As Rei finished cleaning herself as best she could and began to step out of the water she found that she couldn’t get too angry at Anko for what had transpired the night before. If you had power over others, you utilized it. As long as you could get away with it. It was just how this world worked. The coin of the whole system. It was a reality of life that, while she maybe probably wouldn’t like it after thinking about it some more, was not something she would be able to change.

    At any other time Rei would be plotting her revenge. In this particular instance though… she thought maybe she would let it go. Just this once. She might have just… a tiny bit… deserved the beating she had gotten.

    Not that she would ever admit that out loud in a million billion years.

    What now though? If Anko hadn’t dragged her back to civilization yet then Rei could only assume she hadn’t decided to cancel the training trip. Rei felt a wave of relief at that… even if she was more than just a little apprehensive about meeting Anko again that night. Part of their agreement had been for Rei to train with her every night after all.

    Unconcerned about her state of dress Rei walked back to the camp wearing nothing but her sandals, soiled clothes in her hands. She reached into her tent to pull out her backpack noting along the way that Hinata was still sleeping away peacefully. Slowly and with deliberate care because of her injuries Rei pulled out a towel and dried herself before putting on an identical set of her regular outfit. Being clean didn’t really do much for the very distracting points of pain and discomfort on her body but it did manage to make her feel a good deal better.

    Rei went and sat heavily on a log they had laid down in front of the fire the night before. Methodically she went about the process of restarting the few embers left in fire pit into a proper roaring little bonfire. Satisfied, she set a few things out to dry while she did her best to take a comb to her unruly tangled locks.

    About fifteen minutes later Hinata exited the tent, clearly having just woken up and rubbing her eyes sleepily. Rei’s voice felt hoarse but she still spoke in a voice loud enough to carry. “Good morning Hinata-chan.”

    Hinata blinked, clearly still trying to wake up all the way. She glanced at Rei briefly before her gaze shot down to the ground. “Good morning Rei-senpai.”

    Politeness done with Rei put her hairbrush aside now that she had finished with it and tied her hair up in a ponytail while Hinata approached the campfire. When the girl got close enough she looked up at Rei’s face and froze. Rei instantly noticed, taking in Hinata’s shocked and somewhat horrified expression.

    “What?” asked Rei, suddenly feeling a little self-conscious and sounding more snappish than she had intended.

    Hinata had to try twice before managing to speak. “Rei-senpai, your face!”

    “What about my face?” Rei asked slowly, suddenly feeling defensive.

    Hinata bit her lip, seemingly struggling to come up with the words without being offensive. “Ano… it’s, it’s… umm…”

    Rei rolled her eyes and being careful not to move too fast, both because of her injuries and as to not startle the girl, she reached into her backpack and pulled out a small hand sized mirror. Using it to look at her face Rei had to suppress a wince. She had a large gash over one eye that had scabbed over. The right side of her face was basically one giant purple-black bruise, especially around her eye which looked swollen and puffy. The left side of her face around her jaw had the same ugly bruising. Her lip had split at some point (which she hadn’t even noticed) and looked raw and especially painful. In short it looked like someone had taken a baseball bat to her face. Rei couldn’t help but muse that it had probably been more dumb luck than anything that she hadn’t ended up with a broken nose.

    Rei definitely hoped there wasn’t going to be a repeat of this every night.

    Looking at Hinata’s concerned and anxious face Rei found she couldn’t entirely blame the girl. Rei had to keep a frown from appearing on her face. So much for the perfect air of infallibility that she had been trying to cultivate.

    Thankfully Rei wasn’t the type of girl to freak out over a few bruises. Putting the mirror down her lips curled up slightly in amusement at how adorably earnest and worried Hinata looked at seeing her condition. Rei shrugged nonchalantly, ignoring the twinges of pain the action caused (and the little warm feeling in her chest). “Last night I had to take care of some things. It’s no big deal. Trust me, it looks much worse than it is.”

    Far from looking reassured Hinata pursed her lips in consternation, seemingly not taking Rei at her word. With a long worried look the younger girl muttered something that sounded like “I’ll be right back” before heading back into the tent briefly. Rei watched with a questioning raised eyebrow as Hinata returned holding a small jar in her hands. The Hyuuga walked over and demurely knelt down in front of the log that Rei was sitting on, holding the item in her hands out to her.

    “Rei-senpai, please use this,” Hinata said, her voice hitching slightly in discomfort as she examined the older girl’s face. “It should help with the pain and the swelling.”

    Once again Hinata appeared to be extremely concerned and anxious. But why? It’s not like a few bruises were anything to be overly concerned about. Was Hinata always someone who was that concerned about people? Or… had she already made enough of an impression that Hinata was now prone to be overly concerned about her?

    Putting such thoughts aside for the moment Rei looked at the container that Hinata was holding in her hands. The jar was of the type commonly used to store medicinal ointments and it had the Hyuuga crest prominently displayed on the side. Rei turned her lavender eyes from the jar to Hinata who by now had managed to get herself together and appeared mostly calm, the blank and serene Hyuuga mask back firmly on her face.

    However if she looked closely Rei could still tell that seeing her in such a state had upset her.

    All that concern for her sake stirred feelings inside of Rei that she viciously suppressed and ignored.

    Swallowing a lump in her throat Rei turned her eyes from the container to Hinata. “I didn’t know the Hyuuga made medicine,” she said softly.

    Her comment made Hinata look embarrassed for some reason. “It’s not really well known. But a few in the clan dabble in such things.”

    Rei nodded, realizing there was some subtext that Hinata wasn’t spelling out. “Did you make this?”

    “No,” she said shaking her head. “I merely helped make it… a little.” For some reason talking about this subject seemed to make her uneasy.

    Rei grinned in an encouraging way, making sure to sound pleased and supportive. “Yeah?”

    Hinata nodded slightly, her countenance pinking a little. “I just occasionally help grind up some ingredients. In return the old man who makes them for the clan will occasionally teach me a thing or two about how they’re made.”

    “What does your father think about this?” asked Rei, already suspecting she knew the answer.

    It was apparently the wrong thing to say. Hinata’s tentative open and concerned demeanor closed off, the girl’s posture collapsing in on itself a little. “He doesn’t know,” she said in a low voice. After a small pause Hinata’s eyes widened and she looked at Rei with something approaching fear and alarm. “Please don’t tell him about it,” she said, her voice attempting to make it sound like a dignified request but coming out more than a little bit as a plea.

    It startled Rei a little bit when she saw that perfect opening. That’s right, she was supposed to be manipulating Hinata wasn’t she? For a little while there she had let her guard down. Rei had to suppress a frown. It wasn’t like her to lose sight of her objectives for even a moment. Maybe the beating she’d received had rattled her brains more than she’d thought.

    She had to refocus. Rei knew that she could never let her guard down like that against anybody, for any reason. It was simply a foolish error, a mistake borne of weakness. She could not allow herself any weakness. Rei clenched her fist until she could feel her nails cutting painfully into her palm. She would not allow herself to make the same mistake again.

    Rei felt a coldness settling inside of her, the feeling almost soothing in its ever-growing familiarity. The Yamanaka Heiress willed her features to morph into a reassuring and comforting smile, her face and body language radiating an honesty and closeness that she could no longer feel. Over time Rei knew that she had become truly magnificent at lying and deception. While she wasn’t sure she would be able to completely fool older, high level individuals someone like Hinata would not be able to see through her carefully tailored mask.

    “I told you the first day we met, remember?” Rei said with a meticulously crafted, artificial grin. “Anything that you say to me stays between us. I don’t work for your father. I’m here for you, and you only. Understand?”

    The reminder of that tid bit seemed to catch Hinata by surprise, leaving her momentarily at a loss for words. Eventually she just nodded, looking embarrassed but giving Rei a small, grateful smile. Good. Whatever weird funk the aftermath of her encounter with Anko had caused inside of her, she felt like she was shaking it off. She had to stay on mission. Two weeks was all she had to secure and cement Hinata’s absolute loyalty for the foreseeable future. It was, in her mind, absolutely the most critical objective of this trip.

    There would be no failure. She would not allow it.

    Silence settled between them for a moment before Hinata looked up at her and gestured with the jar that was still in her hands. “Senpai… would you… do you mind putting this on, please?”

    Seeing an opportunity to speed up the sense of intimacy between them… or, well, that Hinata felt towards her… Rei smiled at the younger girl just a tad mischievously.

    “Sure. Why don’t you go ahead apply the cream for me, Hinata-chan? You can see better than I where it would do the most good, after all. ”

    Hinata blinked, seemingly not quite comprehending what she was asking for a short moment. Then, as if a switch had been flipped, her eyes widened to the size of dinner plates and her face flushed a bright pinkish-red. Rei watched with some amusement and a small sense of satisfaction as she watched Hinata stumble over her words.

    “I-I… but, I couldn’t… I-I mean it w-wouldn’t be… that sort of thing y-you only do with…”

    Rei could almost understand it, really. She wasn’t really sure if this was something in Asian cultures back home or if it was a cultural peculiarity of the Elemental Nations but touching someone’s face was something of a big deal, intimate and typically reserved for family and lovers. Apparently the thought of taking such liberties had momentarily short-circuited Hinata’s brain.

    Rei debated between throwing the girl a lifeline or seeing just how flustered she could make her and how much redder she could cause her face to become. In the end it was an easy decision. It would surprise absolutely no one who knew her that she went with the latter choice.

    Rei blinked innocently, putting on a face that appeared to be genuinely concerned and confused. “What’s the matter Hina-chan? I didn’t think that something this small would be a problem for you. After all, with the way you were clinging to me so tightly after you fell asleep last night I thought you might even enjoy the opportunity.”

    Instantly Hinata’s stuttering words transformed into a choked sputtering sound and her face, ears and neck all flushed ruby red like the brightest of Rome apples. Her hands came up and they flailed about spastically, as if she were trying to deny or ward away Rei’s words… as if her action would somehow make her senpai's words any less true. For some reason Rei really enjoyed seeing Hinata like this. Rei smiled at Hinata in a supportive and understanding manner, unable to keep herself from fanning the flames just a little bit further.

    “Now, now, there’s absolutely no reason to feel embarrassed Hina-chan. In fact I think it’s rather endearing. I especially thought it was cute when I was trying to get up last night. You clung to me just like a baby monkey, grabbing on to me again and again whenever I pried one of your hands off. Why it took me almost ten minutes to extricate myself from you without waking you up.”

    Even though Rei would have thought it was impossible Hinata somehow got even redder, her breathing going erratic and the choking sounds she was making morphing into a little high-pitched mortified whine. Looking at her and remembering the Hinata from the story Rei bit her lip, suddenly worried the younger girl might legitimately pass out from embarrassment. Thankfully Hinata seemed to get enough of a hold of herself to at least stop flailing about. Instead she hung her head and clutched tightly at her thighs as she sat in seiza in front of Rei, almost every inch of visible skin glowing a bright red color.

    “Senpai is mean,” Hinata said, sounding a bit accusing but mostly mournfully whiny and resigned to her fate.

    The statement made Rei wince slightly. Yes. I suppose I am.

    She resolutely refused to explore why that thought suddenly made her uncomfortable. Instead she focused all that she was back on Hinata. Her attention belonged on the important things, not on irrelevant distractions.

    Examining the girl, Rei decided that she had teased her enough. Enough to make her feel insecure and self-conscious thus easier to influence with suggestions, but not enough for Hinata to start seeing her as any kind of enemy or to really trust her any less. Rei’s next words and her expression were tailored to ensure that Hinata’s trust and positive feeling towards her were not tainted in any fashion.

    “Hey, I’m just teasing you a bit. Don’t worry, you haven’t done anything wrong. You have nothing to feel self-conscious about,” she said with a reassuring smile that came very easily to her. “Besides I really think you would do a better job applying the cream than I would since you can actually see where it needs to go, so it’s only logical that you be the one to do it. Don’t worry about touching my face. I trust you. I don’t mind.”

    Rei’s voice had been warm, friendly and reassuring… but at the same time her voice didn’t leave any room for argument. It was neither a suggestion nor a request. Rei had gotten very good at letting even her very polite “requests” hang in the air like an open threat. It took a brave soul to go against her when all of her frightening intensity was focused on you, willing you to submit. Thankfully for the both of them Hinata was much more comfortable with following orders, both spoken and unspoken, than with going through with a politely worded request. After all, if there was no choice to be made then there was no doubt that she was making the wrong choice.

    Hinata’s still uncertain eyes flickered to Rei one last time for reassurance. With a small nod from the older girl Hinata moved to do as she was instructed. With slow, deliberate movements, almost as if she were conducting a tea ceremony, Hinata opened the small jar of medicine and dipped two fingers into the thick, cream like concoction. Rei smiled at her encouragingly and Hinata managed a shy smile back. With a nervous fingers and a shaking hand the girl reached up and began to apply the concoction to Rei’s face.

    Almost instantly the pain and discomfort on her face that Rei had been ignoring though sheer willpower began to melt away. Against her will a tiny sigh of relief escaped her lips and her habitually rigid posture relaxed marginally. The medicinal cream smelled unusual but not at all unpleasant, a combination of tea tree oil and wild cloudberries. Hinata went about her task, slowly and methodically, gaining confidence as she went on. It felt nice to have her small and nimble fingers ghosting across her swollen face and lips.

    Rei allowed herself to close her eyes and enjoy the sensation. She tried to remember, when was the last time she had been touched like this? Soft and gentle and soothing? When was the last time someone had made any effort to touch her face that didn’t involve a fist or a blade? Rei couldn’t remember. The thought sent an unexpected wave of loneliness though her so strong that it stole her breath away. For a split moment Rei felt like nothing more than a small, frightened girl and horrifyingly she could feel tears start to gather behind her eyelids.

    Hinata’s fingers stopped. “R-Rei-senpai?” The younger girl asked, her voice curious and uncertain.

    What the hell is wrong with me? Out of instinct borne from years of practice in this new world Rei pulled on the one emotion she found had always been the most useful: her rage. Her fury. Her hatred at everything that was wrong with this world. However instead of directing it outwards like she always tended to, instead she directed it inwards towards her own self.

    “It’s fine,” Rei said out loud, her voice flat and devoid of all inflection. “Go on. Don’t stop until you’re finished.”

    Rei hardly noticed when the girl started up again. Outside she was still and serene but on the inside she was a howling banshee, confused and angry. Angry at everything but furious at herself. Why? Why was she having all these lapses in discipline now? She’d been completely fine for years.

    Completely fine.

    None of this made sense.

    Was this a result of getting beaten so badly by Anko the night before?

    Did she have brain damage?

    Was there such a thing as brain damage making you overly emotional?

    Actually, there was… but she didn’t think she had any of that. Probably.

    Still, she wouldn’t let something stupid like that get in the way of her ambition.

    Because that’s exactly what this was. A threat to her life’s pursuit. One weakness accepted opened the door for ten thousand others. And where would that leave her?

    A servant of Konoha until the day she died.

    No. She would not have it. I will not have it!

    Slowly she opened her eyes. It was fortunate that Hinata was biting her lip and concentrating on applying the last bit of the cream on Rei’s face. Otherwise she would have seen how Rei’s eyes now resembled the darkest of amethyst crystals, beautiful, impossibly hard and cold… and lurking behind them, a raging firestorm that boded ill for absolutely anyone that came across this person’s path.

    Those hellish eyes moved and settled on Hinata as the girl wore a barely noticeable smile from having nearly completed a job well done.

    You, Rei thought, You'll be my first tool… Hinata Hyuuga.
     
    meri, Perspicacious, TheEyes and 32 others like this.
  10. Extras: Omake - Rei Visits 1.1
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Rei Visits 1.1

    000

    There was pain. Which was… not at all what she had been expecting. In fact she had concluded that the most likely scenario after the stunt she pulled would have been reincarnation yet again. Barring that, only oblivion. Instead she was still breathing somehow, the cold air rushing in and out of her lungs as her diaphragm rhythmically worked. Her heart still beat. The ground beneath her was cold and hard and felt filthy. Most of all, she could feel her depleted Chakra still flowing through her. That was what finally cinched it for her.

    Somehow she was still alive. Rei didn’t know whether she wanted to laugh or cry. Her sacrifice had been supposed to be just that. To fix what was broken while at the same time having it all… end. It was what she had been prepared for. Being denied that Rei couldn’t help but feel more than a little bit cheated.

    Rei opened her eyes and instantly realized something was wrong. Her eyes… she no longer had the eyes she had stolen. Feeling alarmed the woman dove deeper. What she found caused her to frown, caused fear to crawl up her throat like fire. The eyes she had taken, all of her surgical and genetic enhancements, the seals tattooed all across her body… all of it, gone.

    How?

    That was… extremely distressing to say the least. However a tactical assessment of her current situation needed to come first. Such mysteries (whywasshestillalive?) were going to have to wait.

    Slowly Rei rose to her feet, taking in her surroundings. What should have helped orient her did nothing of the sort. The architecture was like no place she had traveled to in the Elemental Nations, and she had pretty much been anywhere and everywhere of import in her twenty years as a Yamanaka. She was in a narrow alley, flanked on either side by two buildings made of red brick. That was a building material she hadn’t seen anywhere in the Elemental Nations. A little suspicion began to take hold in the back of her mind.

    Could it be...?

    Checking herself over she was relieved to see that she still had all of her ninja gear on her person. Sending out her senses she could spot no one in the immediate vicinity. In fact… she couldn’t feel any Chakra at all from her surroundings. Swallowing thickly, mind numb, Rei cautiously stepped out of the alley.

    There were… cars parked on a side walk. Rundown buildings four or five stories tall on either side of the street. Alien. Totally alien. There was nothing like this at all… nothing like this anywhere in her world. In fact… this looked… suspiciously like a typical street of her first wo-

    Rei was pulled from her thoughts by sound. Turning the corner a hundred feet away were a handful of individuals, the sound of their steps and the rustle of their clothes easy enough for her to hear. Rei frowned, her unease deepening. Her hand itched to reach for a weapon. Wherever she was… people here didn’t have Chakra. Her usual methods of detecting people were for the moment worthless then.

    Still reeling from her current circumstance and undecided as what to do Rei just stood there and stared at the men when they spotted her. They were young and… what they were wearing made her fear that she really had somehow ended up back in her first, real world. Tank tops, blue jeans, wrist watches. Sneakers. That logo that looked like a check mark… that had been a popular shoe company hadn’t it?

    Her features remained stoic, but inside she was reeling. Was this real? Was she under some sort of Genjutsu? No, she had checked. Even high-level Sharingan Genjutsu would not be able to fool her Chakra senses since that was a sense no one could replicate. Whatever this was… it wasn’t Genjutsu. Which most likely meant it was real.

    Rei got her second shock as the men swaggered over to her, leering and predatory looks on her faces. When they were a few dozen feet away one of them called to her.

    “Hey there darlin’. Kinda late at night for a pretty little thing like you to be out by yourself, don’t ya think?”

    Only many years of constant acting and deception kept her from reacting outwardly except for a slight stiffening of her posture. But inside she was a maelstrom of confusion and panic. It had been so long... it had taken her almost ten seconds to recognize and decipher what he was saying. English. This civilian punk was speaking English. She was so floored by the revelation she didn’t see or hear anything else until one of the young men cried out when the group was only a handful of feet away from her.

    “Aw shit, she’s a fucking chink! Trying to fool your betters by dying you chink hair blonde, huh?!”

    Rei blinked and turned again to look at the men, taking them in more closely. Swastika tattoos on most of them… and by the shaved heads and thuggish attitudes it wasn’t intended as a peace sign. Gold teeth on a few. Muscled. Scarred knuckles. One of them pulling out a switch knife. The atmosphere turning hostile and “dangerous” once they identified her as a chink.

    So… Neo-Nazi gang members?

    “Teach you not to be in Empire territory at night, bitch,” one of them sneered as he stepped forward to grab her.

    Rei almost rolled her eyes. Instead she just molded some Chakra, changing its nature on the fly. With a sharp gesture she unleased a silent Wind jutsu.

    Rei barely spared them a second glance when all five thugs were cut in half at the waist. She took a quick and graceful step backwards to avoid the blood splatter when the closest thug fell to the ground in twain. With an injury like that, the body instantly went into shock as the spine is severed and all internal visceral organs are spilled simultaneously. One of the thugs however managed a few weak motions with his hands for a few seconds before completely going still. Curious. She had never quite seen that before. Rei thought to ask one of her medics about it before remembering that currently doing that seemed to be… impossible, given her circumstances.

    Rei frowned as she began to walk away, wordlessly using Henge to turn herself into a Caucasian man wearing jeans and a fairly generic and somewhat battered canvas jacket. For so long growing up she wanted nothing more to be free of the Elemental Nations. Now that she might be… she wasn’t sure how she felt about it anymore.

    However first things first. Information was power and currently Rei felt very weak indeed. It was time to vanish, and then during the day… try to figure out where the hell she had ended up and what the hell was going on.

    000

    Three days later Rei was once again using Henge, this time to appear as a non-descript college aged woman. She was in the public library, using their computer and finally feeling like she remembered enough to at least competently use a web browser and basic search engine. This was her third day spent researching this new world. In that time had come to one of two conclusions:

    Either someone or something in the Universe hated her, or Karma was real and fate had decided to start collecting on her sins.

    Rei remembered, more than twenty subjective years ago now, reading a certain story named Worm. Once she suspected she knew where she was Rei meditated and used several Yamanaka techniques to recall everything that she could.

    Worm had been a grim and dark story about a doomed world that was slowly collapsing. Rei had only ever read maybe a third of the story before she had died the first time which was enough to paint a grim picture. The internet had pretty much confirmed what she had managed to recall. Parahumans. Endbringers. The “Protectorate”. The Golden Man. The colorfully named Slaughterhouse 9.

    And wouldn’t you know it? She had woken up in Brockton Bay, worst city in America for Parahuman crime. Another fictional world. One that, while less objectionable in a lot of ways than the Elemental Nations, was nevertheless infected with its own brand of shit to absolutely detest. It was a death world, and one where, from what she remembered, there was very little hope.

    Rei didn’t think she could kill an Endbringer. Not without her eyes, her alterations, or her summons. She was just… Rei now. S-Class vanilla as opposed to someone who could have been on the very, very short list for most powerful being in all of the Elemental Nations. If she did decide to accept that she was stuck here she didn’t think she would be able to do anything about those threats.

    Well… not by herself anyway.

    Even though she hated to admit it, part of her was already coming to accept her place in this new world. The Elemental Nations… she had done something good before the end, no matter how many people wanted to kill her for it. Also coming to this… Earth-Bet had most likely been ordained by Fate, the Kami or simple Hitsuzen. If she had come through intact? She could chuck that up to a freak accident. But somehow being altered to her original body, lavender eyes and all? That wasn’t an accident. It couldn’t be.

    Going back to the Elemental Nations… it was probably a lost cause, and something she wasn’t even sure that she really wanted. Even if she would miss… some people back there. Some people she loved.

    But after everything she had done, all the bridges she had burned, all of the destruction she had wrought... was there even a place for her in the Elemental Nations anymore?

    No… better to move forward here.

    In fact she already had an... inkling of what she wanted. Rei wasn't someone who did well without a grand goal in her life after all. But whatever she decided to do she wouldn't be able to do it alone however. She would need subordinates. People devoted to her, or to her cause. Minions. The more fanatically loyal, the more firmly under her absolute control… the better.

    Looking over “PHO”, Rei’s grin widened as she contemplated that even if she had ended up in a shit world, Fate at least had been kind in a few small ways.

    Apparently the teenage Parahuman gang known as the Undersiders had hit a casino with suspected ABB ties not even a week prior.

    Though she might not know even most of the story, she could place herself fairly accurately in the timeline she did know right now.

    That meant that one individual in particular on that team had a problem that Rei was very well suited to help fix.

    An individual that Rei very much wanted. One individual that her memories told her would be oh so very useful.

    Her memories even gave Rei her first lead. The only lead she would need.

    Redmond Welding.

    Parahuman powers huh? Interesting. Let us match wits, you and I. But make no mistake. In any game I play, I always come out on top. One way or the other.
     
  11. Extras: Omake - Rei Visits 1.2
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Rei Visits 1.2

    000

    Lisa knew, intellectually, that in some ways she relied too much on her powers. For example she had come to rely on her powers to warn her ahead of time if she was heading into any sort of danger or hostile situation. Ninety-five percent of the time her power did its job admirably in that regard and allowed her to neatly sidestep any trouble that might be headed her way.

    Of course, ninety-five percent still left that five percent that would occasionally bite her in the ass. That one time that Coil’s thugs had gotten the drop on her and she had been subsequently forced to work for him at gunpoint was the most glaring example, but unfortunately not the only one. Still even with those horrible experiences Lisa still for the most part relied one hundred percent on her power to keep her out of trouble.

    It was really hard not to, to be perfectly honest.

    However after her power completely failed to inform her of this latest unexpected surprise she might really need to start re-evaluating her approach to personal safety.

    Night had long fallen when Lisa arrived at the small apartment that she kept separate from her room at the Undersider’s lair. She’d opened the front door and had taken two steps into the apartment before she froze. Her power was suddenly blaring at her that something was wrong.

    Feeling her fear and adrenaline spike Lisa quickly scanned her dark living room but found nothing out of place. Someone has been here. Did not use doors. Windows? Windows not forced. Undisturbed. Someone entered by unknown means. Entered, but no sign of exit. Meaning…

    Whoever entered has not left.

    Her heart now racing Lisa did the sensible thing and turned around to run out the door since whoever had broken into her apartment almost certainly had to be a cape. Her heart jumped to her throat as the front door slammed shut before she could take more than a single step, seeming all by itself. The echoing sound of the door slamming shut had a distinct ominous feel to it. Telekinesis? Stranger effect? Some kind of specialized Shaker power? Maybe- Lisa shut down that unhelpful trail her power had chosen to follow. What mattered right now wasn’t how it had been done. What mattered was that she was now trapped in her apartment with a complete unknown.

    “Good evening Miss Wilbourn,” a lightly accented female voice said behind her. Lisa jumped. Just a second ago when she had looked there had been nobody there. Japanese accent? Very close but not quite. Native English speaker. Spent many years speaking an unknown language exclusively. The voice was cultured and there was a lazy, comfortable sort of arrogance to it that set Lisa’s nerves on edge.

    Slowly as to not seem threatening, and already trying to figure out how she was going to talk herself out of this mess, Lisa turned around. Sitting on her living room couch with one arm thrown lazily over the back of headrest and with her legs crossed was a woman. Looking her over the outfit she was wearing instantly made it obvious that she was a cape. It was a tight fitting and rather embellished leather outfit in black with dark purple highlights, done in a style that reminded Lisa vaguely of a D&D rogue. Not a real outfit. Energy construct. Molded and made solid. The woman looked to be in her late teens or early twenties, her features clearly Asian but her hair was tied back, blonde and wild with ringlets and curls. Not hair dye or a wig. Natural coloration. Result of powers? Genetic manipulation? No. Non-standard genetic profile.

    The woman’s face was sharply sculpted and aristocratic, her eyes a lavender color that couldn’t be natural but her powers kept telling her that it was. On her face she wore an indolent and rather indulgent small smile that only served to raise Lisa’s alarms even further. However perhaps what the Thinker found most disturbing was that the woman, who was clearly a cape, wasn’t wearing a mask. If showing up like this in her home didn’t already indicate that this woman didn’t give a rat’s ass about the unwritten rules then this certainly cinched it. It was surprising to see someone being so cavalier about revealing their face though. Her power was telling her that the woman on her couch wasn’t concealing or distorting her features in any way.

    Subject is amused and confident. Feels like she holds all the cards. Is not here to harm you. Most likely not here to coerce you. Is going to offer you a deal. Is confident that you will accept her deal. Is not terribly worried about it either way.

    With that information Lisa slowed the information her power was feeding her down to a trickle. The teenage villain relaxed fractionally as her mind raced. If this woman wasn’t here to hurt her, and in fact wanted to deal with her, then this would be about conversation and not violence. Conversation she could do. That was her strong suit. Despite the inappropriateness of it in her current situation, Lisa put her hands on her hips and gave her “house guest” a confident, cocky grin.

    “You’ve got a lot of nerve breaking the unwritten rules willy-nilly like this. You might not know this, but this kind of stunt could get both the gangs and the Protectorate out for your blood. No one wants to risk letting a Stranger that is willing to break into their civilian homes run around doing whatever they want after all.” Lisa shook her head in a mocking manner. “Bad move, breaking in here like this.”

    However instead of looking alarmed or even mildly concerned the woman on her couch just looked amused at her words and her not-so-subtle threat. One of her fingers trailed the upholstery on the back of the couch… and Lisa wasn’t sure what it was but there was something inherently threatening about that simple move, so innocuous but at the same time very much not. The woman raised one eyebrow at Lisa as if to say “you really think it’s a good idea to go there?”

    Subject is extremely dangerous. Not here to threaten because does not feel the need to. Wants you to agree to her deal. However has ability to make you comply with what she wants even if you prove intractable or recalcitrant. Subject has the ability to Master you completely.

    Suddenly Lisa’s confident grin was wiped off her face and replaced with a look of horror, causing the woman currently sitting on her couch to positively radiate smugness. Capes who could so completely Master humans were extremely rare and all of them extremely terrifying. The first thought that people had when they though of people Mastering Parahumans Canada's Heartbreaker immediately came to mind… that or the Simurgh. Having someone who could do that in her own apartment…

    Lisa swallowed fearfully, unable to help herself. Her legs suddenly felt weak. Even though her better sense told her it was a bad idea she sent a query to her power anyway. How dangerous is this woman?

    Has killed before. Has killed many people. Hundreds? No, thousands. Directly and indirectly. Directly probably has killed hundreds. Has used poisons, fire, expl-

    Lisa cut her power off then, now looking at the woman sitting on her couch with an expression of horror. The expression on the face of her “guest” turned positively wicked, taking in a slow deep breath as if she were savoring the scent of her fear.

    Not that far off. Can feel your emotions. Another part of her power? Subject pleased by your reactions. Subject enjoys feeling she has power over others. Subject has a mild sadistic streak.

    “I see that you understand your situation better now, Miss Wilbourn. Lisa. Or would you prefer Tattletale?” the woman asked. Even though her words could have been a taunt… her tone was softer now, more conciliatory. An olive branch, almost. For what felt like the tenth time now Lisa was surprised by this woman… something she really wasn’t used to.

    Subject wanted you to know not to take her lightly. Subject despises being talked down to, especially by people she has some reason to care about. That last part brought her short. Why would this woman care about her? She hopes to work together in the future. She finds you pleasant to look at. She likes you because of previous knowledge about you. She enjoys her games. The Undersiders, the city, a mutually beneficial partnership, money, subjects to follow her will-

    Lisa cut her power off as she sensed it had started going off into far too much speculation. The teenager now looked at the woman warily and with a healthy sense of fear and respect. This cape was so far above her league that it wasn’t even funny. Suddenly feeling numb Lisa stumbled to a battered love seat across from where the woman was sitting and flopped down gracelessly. If this cape wanted to talk, then they would talk. It was only her power telling her that this crazy cape in her apartment didn’t particularly want to hurt her or Master her that was keeping her relatively calm at this point.

    Still, even scared, Lisa simply couldn’t stop herself from fishing for information. “Lisa is fine,” the teenager answered cautiously. “Well, I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage… Miss…?”

    The woman seemed to give it some thought, eyes momentarily going distant. “A cape name huh? Too bad Nezumi no Hime would be too much of a mouthful. Not all that appropriate anymore anyway.”

    Her power translated that for her… and even though she really should be more afraid, it only made Lisa even more curious. “That’s an odd nickname,” she said tentatively.

    The woman’s attention snapped back to her, and Lisa momentarily wished that she had kept her mouth shut. The intensity that burned in those eyes… it was overwhelming, making even the usually supremely confident Tattletale feel somewhat small and insecure. Then the feeling eased a fraction as the woman shrugged one shoulder casually.

    “That’s the nicest of the nicknames they gave me. Maybe I’ll tell you the rest of them one day. Provided you don’t reject my offer of friendship, that is.”

    Lisa bit her lip to keep from giving away any reaction. She didn’t need her power to tell her that rejecting this woman’s offer of “friendship”… would not end well for her. But who did she think she was fooling anyway, trying to dress this up with such pretty, empty language?

    Not empty language. Subject is looking for companionship. Has concerns about own mental stability. Subject is all alone. Subject is seeking someone with intellect/abilities/powers she can trust/respect to give her perspective. Subject has concluded you are suitable candidate. Subject reaction to being rebuffed unpredictable.

    “Great,” thought Lisa to herself with something akin to despair, “an insanely powerful mass murdering Master – among other things I’m not sure about yet – cape that I’ve never heard of before picked me to be her BFF and to help keep her sane. Yay me.”

    The woman gave Lisa an amused look that somehow gave the impression that she knew exactly what was currently going through her head. “Relax. I really only hurt people that give me a reason to, so you don’t need to worry. As for my name… you can call me Rei. I’ll have to come up with something suitable for a cape name later.”

    There was a long awkward silence after that when the two of them just looked at each other, “Rei” seeming to get even more smug and amused by the second and Lisa even more unnerved. Subject content to wait in silence. Subject patient when it furthers her goals. Subject knows waiting for you to speak first will give her a conversational advantage.

    Realizing that trying to out-wait “Rei” to have a slightly better conversational position was probably a completely wasted effort, Lisa gave in. With a small huff she broke first. With a tone that was as long suffering and insolent as she dared she rolled her eyes and asked, “So what is this ‘offer of friendship’ you’ve so generously broken into my home and scared the crap out of me to deliver?”

    Rei’s lavender eyes glittered with amusement, seemingly not at all insulted by her tone. Subject likes feistiness. Subject does not expect complete submission and devotion in this instance. Subject glad you are not completely cowed. Subject will poke at and test you constantly.

    “I kill Coil for you,” Rei said causally, “and you become my close friend and come work with me. Simple.”

    Lisa’s eyes widened in shock at the revelation and she felt dread pooling in her stomach. Would it really be that much better trading one master for another?

    As it stood though… she didn’t really have a choice at the moment.

    Lisa gave Rei a weak, unconvincing smile. “Sure,” she said, her voice trembling a little. “Simple.”
     
  12. Extras: Omake - Rei Visits 1.3
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Rei Visits 1.3

    000

    Three nights later the supervillain known as Coil, civilian identity Thomas Calvert, entrepreneur, millionaire and part time PRT agent, came to a swift and ignoble end.

    Once upon a time Rei would have been sick and would have felt great emotional pain at the act of killing a man in cold blood. However time, the crushing weight of expectations, practicality and her personal nindo of wholeheartedly persuing her goals no matter the cost had worn away at her high regard for human life like a river wore a jagged rock smooth. During her time in the Elemental Nations Rei had learned down to her bones that life was cheap and that ultimately, blood was the only currency that could purchase true change in the world.

    Something – many things – inside of her had to break so that she could hold herself together in that world. Occasionally she still mourned it, in her private, more quiet moments. She was an unrepentant murderer now, a literal monster. A monster in every way except for her DNA. She didn’t take pride in it or pity herself for it. It had simply been the price she’d had to pay for survival while still holding on to the tattered remains of her principles.

    Monsters, however, could still occasionally do some good. Even a broken clock was right at least twice a day after all.

    000

    Coil only had moments to realize something was wrong before he was killed. In the end, all of his precautions and paranoia helped him for absolutely nothing. If he’d had the opportunity to contemplate that he might have pulled his hair out with a scream of frustration or broken down into hysterical and tear-filled laughter.

    He had left his job at the PRT and split the timeline. In one timeline he drove towards his base and in the other he drove home. It was his standard security procedure. He staggered his leaving in each timeline fifteen minutes apart. Each version of him drove different routes every day. It was not left to chance that the same event could possibly harm him in both timelines.

    His house was much closer to the PRT headquarters than his underground base was. Coil was already clicking away on his laptop at home when he was just arriving at his base in the other timeline. That’s when everything went wrong.

    In his car Coil felt something cold and hard stab him at the base of the neck, paralyzing him instantly. Then he felt it as the blade was removed from the base of his neck and unceremoniously stabbed into his temple. It happened so quick that Coil was dead in that timeline before he could even think to collapse it. The pain, and it had happened... so fast. Coil dropped his head into his hands. Though he hated to admit it, his swift and brutal death in the other timeline had left him shaken.

    “Hello Coil,” an accented female voice said behind him.

    Though he had not been in the field for a long time, Coil still had some of his old reflexes from his active duty days. Instantly his hand went for the gun he had hidden within easy reach of his desk. The attempt was in vain though. Before he even realized what was happening the woman was suddenly on him, brutally breaking one arm after the other with a violent cracksounds. Coil let out a scream as he suddenly felt a monstrously powerful hand grab the back of his head and slam it down on his desk. Hard.

    “None of that now,” the woman practically purred. “You’re already dead Coil. Your mind and body just haven’t caught up to that fact yet.”

    Inside Coil began to panic. No! This is exactly what he had contingencies for! In desperation he split the timelines, begging for his life in one and bluffing for all he was worth in the other. The woman in both timelines, however, didn’t seem to take notice of a word he said.

    “Let’s see what’s in that mind of yours shall we? While I’m sure my new minion could figure out everything I need from you better not to take any chances. Besides, who knows what else you have been up to that nobody knows about?”

    What Coil experienced next was something that was impossible to describe. It felt like… something was suddenly trying to forcefully wiggle its way into his brain, into his mind, into his very sense of self. It was unnatural, and invasive, and foul, and Coil suddenly knew what it was like to have something irreplaceably precious taken from you against your will.

    “By the way. Tattletale says hello.”

    Coil tried to scream. But he didn’t manage to make a single sound before his mind was completely destroyed. A blade finished off his now empty shell only moments after.

    000

    Stepping away from Coil’s now rapidly cooling body Rei took a few moments to sort through the memories she had stolen from him. Thomas Calvert has been trash, but also intelligent, ambitious and extremely paranoid. What she had seen in his mind was mostly along the lines of what she had been expecting. Other things that she had taken from him in there however… not so much.

    So that is where you got your powers? My, my. I knew about the conspiracy but not in quite so much detail. And hoping to blackmail the Triumvirate if it ever became necessary? I’m not sure if you were bold or just a damn fool. Still. I kind of really wish I had finished reading the story. I’m obviously missing a few things.

    Coil had been sick, but no more so than people like Orochimaru or Sasori or Hidan. Still wiping him from existence had been a public service and Rei couldn’t help but smile a small smile at the slowly pooling blood beneath his corpse. Kill an evil fucker, steal his stuff. It was almost becoming her modus operandi at this point.

    Rei’s smile spread further into something most people would be wise to be wary of. She had begun to strongly suspect this but mining Coil’s mind had conclusively cemented her theory. Yamanaka mind techniques had been highly prized in the Elemental Nations but there had always been some limitations to how they could affect an unwilling mind. A person’s Chakra network naturally and instinctively tried to reject foreign Chakra inserted into their system and this was something that the mind techniques of her family were always forced to push against. Against civilians and low level ninja a skilled Yamanaka could do nearly anything they wanted to someone’s mind. The reason the Yamanaka were not more powerful as a clan was that their techniques began to experience problems with Chunin level opponents or higher. Past a certain level of opponent most of their clan techniques were simply no longer useful.

    However, on Earth-Bet… Rei’s grin took on an almost maniacal gleam. People did not have Chakra here. That meant that there was no energy attempting to naturally fight her influence. Everyone here, even the most powerful capes alive, were even more susceptible to her mind altering techniques than an untrained civilian in the Elemental Nations would have ever been. Yes, it took some on the fly adjustment to compensate for suddenly working with a mind that seemed so much less since it lacked Chakra, but for an unrivaled prodigy in Chakra manipulation like she was the adjustment was simple enough to make.

    While she had lost the majority of her truly devastating techniques, having her clan abilities much further empowered was at least a nice consolation prize.

    It almost felt like cheating, really.

    Well. There would be time to figure out how to use this later.

    Pulling herself from those tantalizing thoughts Rei took out a burner phone she had recently acquired and dialed the only contact on her list. She’d held up her end of the bargain. Time to give her new friend (or minion, depending what she was in the mood for, though really she was both now) the wonderful news.

    Tattletale picked up on the third ring. “Yeah?” she said. The teenage blonde sounded short of breath and Rei could hear the wind blowing by at high speed, like she was on a motorcycle or something. She also sounded simultaneously a little wary and a little insolent, like she couldn’t quite stop herself from giving some sass even if she was afraid of what might happen. It was cute. Like a kitten hissing at a very large Doberman.

    “It’s done,” Rei said with no small amount of good humor. Really. It was nice seeing her recently hatched plans unfolding without so much as a hitch so far.

    There was a momentary silence on the other side. “Holy crap, you really got him didn’t you? I knew you were strong but Coil was known for being slippery. And really really paranoid. How did you do it? You knew his civilian identity? And can be in two places at once? How did you even-? Reall-? Wha-… oh that is such bullshit!”

    Rei couldn’t help it. She laughed. A real laugh, spontaneous, unscripted, loud and deep from the belly. It felt good. It felt like she hadn’t laughed in a long time. In fact she knew she hadn’t. There hadn’t been any room for that for a long time.

    Here, she didn’t have an image she needed to maintain. Here, she didn’t feel the crushing weight of being one of players fighting a shadow war for the fate of a continent. Here, even teenage supervillains felt safe enough to be open and transparent with their emotions… even with someone as blatantly dangerous and suspicious as she was.

    Yes, Earth-Bet was a death world. But so far it was starting to feel an awful lot like a vacation.

    “It’s not that funny,” Tattletale said, incredulousness, poutiness and just the tiniest hint of amusement in her tone.

    Yes. Yes it was.

    “Well, my new friend,” Rei said, a trace of laughter still in her voice. “You now officially work for me. I’ll promise to be much, much less of an asshole than your previous boss. How soon can you get to Oakland Heights? I need you to start working on stealing all of Coil’s assets for us as soon as possible. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you it would be a bad idea to sit on this. We need to get this done as soon as possible.”

    “Yeah, about that…” Tattletale said, suddenly sounding nervous.

    “What?” Rei asked pleasantly, but with a small tightness to her voice that Tattletale would have found impossible to miss.

    “We’re kind of, uh, busy right now.”

    “Oh?” Rei asked with a raised eyebrow, mental gears shifting. “How so?”

    “Yeah. We just got word a little while ago. Lung is out looking for us. We hit one of his casinos ten days ago and now he’s out for blood.” The teenager tried to sound casual, but Rei could detect the underlying nervousness in her tone.

    “And now you’re out looking for him?” Rei asked, finally piecing together what the sound of rushing wind must be. Tattletale was most likely riding one of Bitch’s dogs. The Undersiders out and about, looking for Lung... could it be?

    It looked like tonight would be the start of a certain bug-themed cape’s career then.

    “Yeah. Look. You want me to work for you right? Well, Lung is no joke. I can’t completely guarantee that I’ll survive without a little additional help,” Tattletale said, trying to sound very-much business like.

    Rei rolled her neck lazily. “I don’t know…” she drawled out. “Not sure I’d really go that far out of the way for some work acquaintance. I am pretty far from the Undersiders and ABB territory right now.”

    “I hear a but coming.”

    “But for a good and loyal friend I’d be willing to do almost anything,” Rei said, playful and serious at the same time. It was also true, what she had just said. She was counting on Tattletale’s power to pick up on that. “What say you, Lisa? It was part of our bargain after all.”

    Tattletale made a little sound of frustration on the other end of the line... which really just caused Rei to smile. The human mind was funny and had a lot of quirks. Saying something out loud, especially something you fervently wanted to lash out against or deny, was powerful. In a battle of wills it was a concession that gave the other side a psychological advantage. Tattletale was smart enough to pick up on that. However the beauty of it was, even if the subject was aware of the manipulation that did not really do a whole lot to lessen the impact.

    “Fine,” said Tattletale, sounding exasperated. Then she proceeded to speak with an overly saccharine and almost disturbingly good cutesy voice. “Oh great and mighty ninja, who broke into my home, now my very good and precious friend, will you please use your bullshit powers to make sure me and my team don’t get roasted alive by an angry Asian fire dragon?”

    Well, it didn’t have quite the same impact when she said it like that. But it was good enough for now. It would be real boring if Lisa wasn’t any good at this game after all.

    Also, something else she'd said piqued Rei’s attention. “Ninja?” she asked. Rei hadn’t thought that Tattletale had figured that much out yet.

    “Yeah, it seemed to fit what with all the powers you’ve shown and-… wait, you’re an actual ninja?! What the fuck?”

    For the second time in one conversation, Rei genuinely laughed. She was really starting to like Lisa. Sure she might be soft and weak and relied far too much on her powers, but she was amusing and quite clever in her own ways. It was nice not to feel completely alone.

    Rei really hoped she wasn’t stupid enough to try to run away. She really didn’t want to have to alter such an entertaining and emotionally open mind.

    “Sure Lisa, oh great friend of mine. Give me your address and I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

    “I’m in costume right now, so please use my cape name,” Lisa said, sounding exasperated but still wary of her.

    “Fine, fine,” Rei said dismissively. “The address?”

    Tattletale gave her the general area she would be able to find them in and they hung up. Rei put her phone away and took one last look at Coil’s cooling corpse before walking out of his house. As she cloaked herself in a concealing jutsu and began to run a thought occurred to Rei.

    Should she have warned Tattletale that they were probably about to get jumped by Oni Lee?

    … Naw. They would be just fine.
     
  13. Threadmarks: Chapter 39
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 39

    000

    As exciting as Rei’s early morning encounter with Hinata had been, and as much as she would have liked nothing more than to devote every last little ounce of her attention to furthering her own designs, the two of them still had basic biological needs that needed to be met. That is to say, the two of them needed to find food. They’d only had a bit of fruit the night before and though Rei had at some point figured out how she could use her Chakra to ameliorate the symptoms of hunger it wasn’t something she wanted to rely on any longer than necessary. Plus Hinata needed feeding. After all, who would follow a leader who is unable to meet even their basic needs?

    It was time to check the traps they had set the day before. With a brusqueness that startled her younger charge Rei got them up and moving almost as soon as Hinata had finished applying her medicine to the older girl's face. Rei took off marching towards the woods with determined strides as the younger Hyuuga quickly scurried to keep up.

    They had been walking for the better part of five minutes in silence before Hinata shyly spoke up. “Ano… Rei-senpai… what happened to your face?”

    Rei closed her eyes and forced herself to take a calming breath as her emotions still felt like they were bubbling violently just beneath the surface. Of course she would need to give Hinata some sort of explanation. Damn it. After contemplating her response for a few moments Rei settled on a version of the truth.

    “Given both our stations we have someone keeping an eye on us from a distance to essentially make sure that we don’t die out here. This person just happens to be an old teacher of mine. I agreed to meet up with her and spar during most night. It’s just that our first encounter was a lot more… spirited than I had anticipated. A Special Jounin’s skills are no joke.”

    Rei couldn’t see Hinata since she was walking in front of the girl, but she could still very clearly hear the frown in her voice. “This isn’t going to happen every night, is it senpai?”

    That sounded unusually confident coming from her. “Why? Worried about me?” Rei asked teasingly.

    Hinata cleared her throat awkwardly and responded in a much smaller voice. “I just… don’t like seeing you hurt senpai.”

    The soft and concerned note in Hinata’s voice made Rei feel momentarily weak and vulnerable… which in turn made her want to turn around and lash out. With an effort of will and another deep calming breath Rei managed to reign in that impulse. Instead she replied with a neutral and disinterested voice. “Relax. Last night was simply a one off thing. I don’t think there’ll be any reason for us to go at each other that hard from here on out.”

    Hinata made a noncommittal sound of acknowledgement and the two of them fell silent after that. For her part Rei was glad. She just needed a little bit more time to get herself fully under control. Then everything would be all right.

    000

    To Rei’s mounting frustration and disappointment all the traps they had set yesterday had thus far come up empty. Small game was elusive in the Forest of Death. She would have to resort to more drastic measures if none of her traps worked out. Thankfully the final trap they had set had snared them a very worthy prize.

    They heard the thrashing long before they saw the trap, and it was probably something of a small miracle the racket alone hadn’t attracted any of the larger predators yet. When the animal they had trapped came into view Rei heard a little sharp intake of breath behind her from Hinata. Even though on the outside Rei remained perfectly unmoved and in control on the inside she couldn’t help but feel a rock beginning to settle in her stomach.

    The two girls each took in the sight of the animal they had trapped in their own way. It was a wild boar about as big as a medium sized dog, the noose of the wire trap having clamped shut around her rear leg. Her, because looking at her swollen nipples and udders it was immediately clear that the pig was female. The wild boar was thrashing wildly and struggled to get away from them as soon as they came into view… which only dug the wire around it’s leg further into it's skin and muscle. By the looks of things the pig had been struggling for a while, the thin wire looking like it had cut through fur and flesh all the way down to the bone thanks to animal’s ineffectual struggles. Blood coated it's affected leg, and it had to be incredibly painful, but that didn’t stop the animal’s panicked thrashing in an effort to get away from the two of them.

    Movement in the underbrush caught Rei’s attention and her eyes snapped in that direction. After a few seconds she spotted something new that made the rock she had begun feeling in her stomach grow about five times bigger. Counting them she spotted one, two, three… four small piglets hiding a short distance away in the underbrush. They looked so very tiny to her, still having the white spots and stripes many hoofed baby mammals sported in their youth. Shit.

    Rei knew the moment that Hinata spotted the piglets when she heard the younger girl give out a startled little gasp. Since Hinata couldn’t currently see her face Rei gave herself the luxury of closing her eyes for a few seconds. For some reason it came as a surprise but… Rei found that she really didn’t want to do this. She really, really would rather not have to do this.

    Of course… that didn’t mean she didn’t have to do this.

    Rei took a deep breath and opened her eyes.

    The older girl turned her body just enough to be able to look at Hinata out of the corner of her eye. “We’ll kill and field dress the boar. It should last us two or three days, if not more.”

    Rei could easily see it when Hinata noticeably paled, the look on her face turning profoundly uncomfortable. Her eyes flickered from the mother boar to the piglets hiding agitatedly in the brush and back again. The girl swallowed, looked down and asked in a small voice.

    “Do we really have to?”

    Rei frowned a little and answered back with a question of her own, keeping her voice neutral and devoid of any judgement or inflection.

    “Do you want us to starve?”

    Hinata didn’t have any answer to that, except to fidget and look away from her senpai. Rei resisted the urge to sigh. She couldn’t just let the pig go, it would undermine… it would undermine a lot of things. Besides there was a good chance it would die of an infection anyway from the damage it had already done to it's leg.

    Probably.

    Not that it would really matter anyway. So now… how am I going to approach this?

    Rei contemplated making Hinata do the deed, get her used to it, toughen her up, except… except Rei had never done something like this herself either. The older girl turned back to look at the struggling beast and swallowed quietly. For all of her training to do great violence, for all of the mental preparation for the life of a ninja and for all of her own surprising discovery of her willingness to inflict pain and violence upon others… Rei had never in her life killed anything bigger than a frog. In either one of her lives, actually. Making the premeditated choice to deliberately and methodically end the life of a living, breathing, large creature with her own two hands… it left her feeling cold inside. Colder than she had expected she would feel.

    The relevant question then immediately became… could she allow this hesitation, this feeling to stop her?

    No. No she could not.

    This wasn’t any different than what hunters or butchers did. She ate meat. If she wasn’t willing to butcher an animal herself she was a damn hypocrite. Rei very deliberately avoided thinking about how killing animals became part of their desensitization process in their last year of the academy… in order to better prepare them for the time when they would be expected to kill humans.

    If she started thinking about how in just a bit over a year she would be expected to start killing people she wasn’t entirely certain she would be able to get through this now.

    Besides, all of that is irrelevant, she thought to herself, because I can’t in good conscience make Hinata do something I’m not even willing to do myself. I also… need to set an example. If I’m going to toughen Hinata up like I promised I would.

    With those thoughts in mind, Rei flicked her wrist and a kunai flew into her hand from her sleeve. She let that increasingly familiar coldness she could will herself to feel flow into her.

    “The piglets will die if we kill the mom!” Hinata blurted out. When Rei turned her head to look at the young Hyuuga the girl flinched, looking very conflicted and afraid of Rei’s reaction to her outburst.

    Instead of berating her or snapping at her like the younger girl had expected, however, Rei just calmly nodded once. “You’re right. They’ll starve. Or they’ll be picked off by predators. It might be kinder to kill them, too.”

    Hinata blanched at her suggestion, looking horrified.

    “We can make it painless,” Rei added helpfully, wisely holding in the comment that it would also mean more food for them.

    At Rei's comment Hinata shook her head vigorously, her voice for once coming out forceful if not entirely steady. “I don’t think so.”

    Truthfully, simply letting the piglets go was a real waste and ultimately probably more cruel… but Rei didn’t want to further trample on Hinata’s spirit by denying her one of the very first things she had shown any kind of backbone on since their trip had started the day before. Her family had done plenty enough trampling of her already. Besides… even though she felt that killing the piglets was the most logical and humane choice, it wasn’t something she particularly wanted to do.

    Rei nodded and gave Hinata a small smile, letting her know without words that she agreed to follow her wishes. Hinata looked somewhat relieved, but not by much. The younger girl tried to give Rei a smile in return but it didn’t quite make it to her lips, her attention being drawn back seemingly against her will to the mother boar and the piglets attempting to hide in the brush.

    As Rei turned away from Hinata and back to the mother boar, her lessons from old Arata and others in her clan about leadership came to mind. As a leader, showing doubt or uncertainty was the quickest way for people to begin to lose faith in you. Leaders needed to act decisively, and they needed to at least appear to be fully committed to their actions without even the smallest trace of hesitation or indecision. With these thoughts firmly in mind Rei made her move.

    Boars could be deceptively dangerous so the young genius Yamanaka took no chances. Using Chakra enhanced speed and strength Rei quickly closed the distance, striking the boar on the side of the head with the pommel of her kunai before the beast could even react. Stunned, it was simplicity itself for Rei to grip the fur on its head with one hand and to bury her kunai into the base of its skull with the other.

    The animal died quickly, with minimal struggle or mess. As Rei withdrew the blade from the boar’s head one thought made it's way to the front of her mind. It had been… easy. Ridiculously easy. Too easy. Taking a life… was a big deal. Shouldn’t it have been harder to do? Instead the blade had slipped in like she’d been stabbing rotting bamboo covered in putty. The mother pig had not even had a chance to put up a struggle. Something about the way things had played out left her with an empty feeling and a very unpleasant taste in her mouth.

    However instead of focusing on her own feelings that were, frankly, very quickly over that morning showing themselves to be a hindrance more than anything else, she turned her attention to Hinata. Rei had to resist the urge to frown when she saw that the girl looked like she might be sick. I’m the one doing the killing. The least you can do is at least try to fake being okay when I do what is necessary.

    “Be strong Hinata,” said Rei, her voice harsher than she had really intended for it to be. “You have to be able to do at least this much.”

    Hinata quailed a little under her tone but still nodded in the affirmative, eyes flicking back and forth rapidly from Rei to the animal the older girl had just killed.

    Pushing down her own unease with what she had just done Rei focused on what she knew needed to come next.

    “Do you remember the lessons on field dressing?” Rei asked from where she crouched down next to her kill.

    Hinata swallowed heavily and nodded.

    “Speak up,” Rei said calmly, the command in her voice unmistakable.

    Looking a little abashed, Hinata cleared her throat before speaking up. “Yes, Rei-senpai.”

    Rei nodded and gifted Hinata with an encouraging smile. “Then walk me through the steps. Next time, you’ll be the one doing this.”

    Hinata, very predictably, didn’t look particularly thrilled by that prospect. However she didn’t speak up against it either. After hesitating the girl began to speak. “The first priority is to remove the organs since those are the things that will spoil the fastest…”

    Rei worked mechanically as Hinata recited step-by-step the field dressing procedure that was taught at the academy, careful to show no outward discomfort. Inside however Rei couldn’t help but wonder with a sick feeling if this was her future. So much meat, alien and still in death… and her part in making it happen. How long until she was doing this to a human? Would it be a murderous bandit she killed or someone who had pissed off the wrong person with deep pockets? What Rei was doing, with her arms almost elbow deep in the rapidly cooling insides of a dead animal, disgusted her. It smelled terrible. She felt bile coming up her throat. If she’d had a say in the matter this really wasn’t the type of thing she would have chosen to be doing.

    As her blade worked steadily and with no apparent hesitation Rei had the grim realization that it would only get worse from here. But she would not stop. She had already invested and sacrificed too much. Stopping the path to becoming a ninja… it had become unthinkable. Even if she somehow could, it would feel too much like she would be giving up, like she would be giving in… and if there was one thing in the world that Rei Yamanaka wasn’t, it was a quitter.

    Besides, it’s not like there were any other options that she would accept.

    Rei made sure to project nothing but ease and confidence while at the same time saying and doing little things to offer Hinata the reassurance she looked like she needed. As they walked back to camp with their new prize, however, Rei couldn’t help but feel out of sorts, like the world had shifted a fraction of an inch without her noticing. Yet she had no choice but to keep moving forward. Always moving forward.

    Because if she ever dared to stop, she couldn’t help but feel like she would be swallowed whole.

    000

    The true meaning of stealth meant remaining hidden from the seven senses. One of the serious drawbacks of relying on stealth (and a reason why relatively few people specialized in the discipline) was that the seventh sense, the sense that skilled ninja eventually developed to alert them to impending life threatening danger, was often tricky to circumvent and difficult to completely fool even for skilled members of the Rat clan. The seventh sense was of deep annoyance and concern to Rei since it meant that even going completely undetected before launching an attack did not necessarily guarantee an instant victory or a kill. Sometimes Rei couldn’t help but wish such an irritating and nearly supernatural sense did not exist since overcoming it, while possible, was not always a guarantee.

    At other times however she found that having an extra “danger sense” was extremely useful. Recently she had begun to notice that she was developing her own seventh sense. Occasionally she had begun to notice a subtle feeling of something being amiss when there was danger nearby, a quiet itching on the edge of her awareness that would be all too easy to ignore and dismiss when it cropped up. As she and Hinata walked back into their camp that particular feeling stirred to life, catching Rei by surprise and almost causing her to miss half a step.

    Rei’s eyes sharpened as she surreptitiously scanned their camp and the area around it. A couple of steps behind her Hinata seemed oblivious to any potential danger. Looking around Rei couldn’t spot anything to be alarmed about but she definitely had the vague feeling that… something was amiss. Stepping cautiously Rei set down the kill she had been carrying by the fire pit.

    What to do about this? The fastest way would be for Hinata to use her Byakugan. For all Rei’s skills, her ability to perceive the world around her wasn’t anything out of the ordinary (yet). Would asking for help undermine the narrative she was trying to weave though? She risked a sideward glance at Hinata who was busy unburdening herself of her own share of the kill. Should she make up a pretext to scout around just to set her mind at ease? Looking at Hinata and how she looked uncomfortable with the dead boar Rei thought it might not be a good time to leave her by herself. How was Rei supposed to set herself up as superior if she had to ask for help? ... Then again, it might work best if Hinata felt like she had something meaningful to contribute. She did need to build the girl up in addition to securing her emotional dependence after all. It was a careful balance to strike but it was one that needed to be made.

    “Hinata,” she said suddenly, startling the younger girl out of her reverie. “Something is amiss I think. Look around with your Byakugan and tell me if you see anything.”

    The younger girl blinked, taking a moment to process what she’d essentially been ordered to do before nodding and biting her lip. “Hai, Rei-senpai.”

    Slowly but with the ease of long practice Hinata went through a familiar set of hand seals and softly intoned a word under her breath. As Rei watched as the veins around her eyes seemed to swell and bulge, a hallmark of the Hyuuga bloodline that she’d always thought made them look somewhat alien and predatory. Hinata blinked, seeming to take a moment to adjust to her newly expanded field of perception, before looking upwards and carefully scanning the trees high overhead with a slight frown on her features.

    “There are giant… leeches,” Hinata began, sounding slightly perplexed and a little worried. “Um, each is about the size of a cat. They’re moving very slowly. It looks like they’ve been slowly moving to position themselves above our camp. There are probably almost fifty of them.”

    Neji would have been able to tell her the exact number with barely a glance, but Rei wisely decided that wouldn’t be at all helpful to mention in this situation. “Ah,” said Rei, relaxing ever so slightly at that information. “They’re giant arboreal blood sucking leeches. They move overnight as a pack and drop down on animals that are sleeping, draining them dry. Make surprisingly good jumpers when they’re not slithering along.”

    While the information put Rei at ease and had her dismissing the threat almost out of hand Hinata for her part seemed to grow more and more alarmed at hearing her words. “Draining them dry…?”

    “They’re incredibly easy to deal with, once you know they’re coming,” said Rei with a casual shrug of one shoulder.

    Still for some reason Hinata seemed hung up on the draining you dry part. Also maybe the part where they tended to jump at animals that got close enough. But really, it’s not like it was a big deal.

    “Ano… so, do we have to move camps then?”

    Her comment drew a mild glare from Rei which had Hinata flinching a little despite herself. Then a slow little smile crept up on her senpai’s face that suddenly had Hinata feeling more than a little uneasy.

    “No Hinata,” Rei said with a slow shake of her head, never breaking eye contact with younger girl. “We’re not going to get run off our perfectly good camp by a bunch of slimy little worms. We’re going to kill them. We’re going to kill them all.”

    000

    It may be cultural, and it have been hypocritical, but killing giant leeches didn’t bother Rei anywhere near as much as killing the momma boar had.

    Mostly she just kept an eye on Hinata while making sure the two of them killed roughly equal numbers of the brown and red, slimy, disgusting invertebrates. While Hinata may have had a great many issues there was nothing wrong with her reflexes. Rei watched as the girl pivoted away from yet another leech that leapt at her in yet another predictable straight line, lashing out with a kunai and cutting deeply as the creature few by. Since coaxing, sweet talking and even using a bit of emotional blackmail to get Hinata to participate in the simple yet tedious task of exterminating these pests the girl had been gradually and reluctantly getting better at their task, bit by bit. Rei absentmindedly impaled another leech that jumped at her like a demented cricket and flicked it off her kunai as she continued to watch her kohai. Some of what she saw concerned her a little but at least the girl was actually putting on a good showing now. Rei watched with an approving eye as Hinata speared a couple of more leeches with some shuriken against the trunk of a giant tree. They might have been pathetic opponents, yes, but at least Hinata was acting and putting to use some of her true potential.

    There was a lot of work to be done but Rei felt confident in calling this exercise a victory based on what she had seen so far.

    It didn’t take them very long at all to wipe out all of the offending leeches, not with Hinata’s Byakugan making it trivial to track them all down even if they weren’t biologically programmed to jump at any warm blooded creature that got close enough. When they were done Rei signaled Hinata and began to make her way from the tree tops down to the forest floor, her younger kohai doing as she was told and following as best she could.

    Rei had made it back the forest floor and back to their camp and whole minute before Hinata landed heavily just a few feet away from her. The older Yamanaka took a moment to examine her young charge. Hinata’s eyes were a little too wide, her breathing a little too heavy for it to have been entirely from the effort. Her hands were shaking slightly, though if that was from the fading adrenaline or something else Rei couldn’t tell. As Rei watched Hinata the girl seemed to realize she wasn’t the most composed at the moment and began to put herself together, her spine straightening and an impassive mask falling over her face. It was a reminder that Rei hadn’t been the only one who had been trained by her family to hide her emotions when the occasion called for it. Unfortunately for Hinata, Rei tended to be better at reading emotions than the younger girl was at hiding them.

    Looking briefly around the clearing she saw some of the dead leeches had fallen around the periphery of their camp after they’d killed them. Unfortunately the slimy things had poisonous meat and thus were not edible. Turning back to Hinata she found the girl looking at her. Outwardly she was composed but… there was a wild look in her eyes. Rei had to suppress a smirk. Two days in the woods and the proper Hyuuga heiress was already starting to look like a wild woman.

    Deciding that Hinata was looking entirely too composed for her liking – and perhaps sensing that she could use a distraction – Rei crossed the distance between the two of them in two quick, assured steps. Without any hint of hesitation or awkwardness she reached out for Hinata’s hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. The younger girl’s sudden wide eyed and openly shocked look was precious.

    “You did good,” was all Rei said, meaning every word. With one last little squeeze of her hand she let go and turned to walk back to their campfire. It was good to reward Hinata when she did well, but she didn’t want to overdo it.

    It was mostly in companionable silence that the two of them got around to cooking some of the boar and finally getting to have the meal they had been waiting for. Hinata kept shooting her glances from time to time but the older girl mostly pretended not to notice. There was a great deal going on in Hinata’s head, Rei could tell, and for now she thought it was better just to give her a little space. They ate in a silence that was comfortable if not entirely tension-free, each of them busy with their own thoughts while at the same time each also being very keenly aware of the other.

    000

    Rei had them spend the day scouting the area, looking for more food. With luck they’d found some wild onions and Rei managed to catch a couple of fish using the original and very interesting method of tying some wire around a senbon and skewering with a perfect throw whatever fish she could find. When she was finally satisfied that they would have plenty of food for a couple of days Rei decided it was time to make Hinata spar.

    It was a delicate balancing act, pushing Hinata to her limit so she would improve while at the same time staving off her self-defeating and surprisingly fatalistic attitude. Gentle and positive reinforcement seemed to work best, along with the occasionally use of a sharp commanding word or tone. Rei was happy to note that, at least mentally, Hinata seemed to be doing a bit better than she had when they’d sparred back in Konoha. She couldn’t be certain but Rei strongly suspected that being physically away from the poisonous environment of her home life and the memories of her past failures freed her up a bit more to show what she was truly capable of.

    What was even more surprising to Rei was that as long as her head was on straight Hinata seemed largely unfazed by the physical discomforts that came with training. When she noticed that Rei decided to test it. What she found surprised her.

    Rei wasn’t very gentle with Hinata, at all. But never once did Hinata complain about the physical toll or about the pain. It struck Rei as odd. It took her an embarrassingly long time to puzzle out what was going on. In the end however it was the only explanation she could think of that made sense. Training sessions this rough must be normal for her. Which was… somewhat troubling in a way. Hinata seemed to take a punishing training session as the norm. Definitely nothing technically untoward about that by the standards of Konoha but it was still definitely somewhat… suggestive.

    Rei finally stopped them when the sun set and the forest was thrown into darkness. Once back at their camp Rei moved to get a large fire going when she noticed how gingerly Hinata was moving now that their spar was over and their muscles and adrenaline had cooled down. Probably shouldn’t leave things that way or she won’t be able to move very well tomorrow.Catching Hinata’s eye Rei motioned with a tilt of her head for the girl to come over.

    Hinata walked over a little awkwardly. Once she was close enough, Rei looked her charge over with critical eyes. “Where does it hurt?”

    Hinata looked momentarily uncomfortable. “It doesn’t hurt. I’m fine.”

    Rei rolled her eyes, her tone coming out pointed but at the same time just a touch playful. “You’re not fooling anyone Hina-chan. Come on now. You took some bad hits. Where does it hurt the worst?”

    Hinata looked down, shuffling her feet awkwardly. Eventually she managed to mumble out a reply. “My back.”

    Rei thought about that and suppressed a slight wince. She did remember throwing Hinata particularly hard, and her falling off the thick branch they had been on, only to land on her back on a wooden knot some ten feet further down. Rei scratched the back of her neck, wondering if it would be appropriate for someone in her position to apologize. That particular hit had been due to Rei’s own momentary carelessness after all.

    Instead she decided to do something about it. “Sit down,” Rei said, indicating one of the logs they had set up to sit on in front of the fire. Hinata gave her a questioning look but complied as Rei stood up and walked back to their tent. Inside she rummaged around Hinata’s pack until she found what she was looking for.

    When she returned to Hinata she was holding the jar of medicinal cream that the younger girl had used on Rei that morning, the one she had used to help with the bruises and swelling around her face. The girl’s face lit up with understanding as Rei moved to take a seat next to her. With one finger Rei made a spinning around motion. “Turn around and pull your top over your head. Let me see your back.”

    Hinata hesitated for a moment, looking slightly embarrassed before nodding and doing as she was told. She pulled her shirt and jacket over her head and clutched them to her chest, leaving her back exposed. Rei positioned herself so she could look at what she was working with, the bright bonfire just a few feet away giving her plenty enough light to work with. As expected there was some considerable and very painful looking bruising along the middle of Hinata’s spine. With more gentleness than she really cared to use (don’t get soft) Rei dipped her fingers in the medical ointment and began to slowly massage it into Hinata’s battered back. Only moments after she’d started the younger girl gave out a soft sigh of relief as the medicine began to reduce the swelling and take away the pain.

    Going with a spur of the moment impulse that would further her goals, Rei began to give Hinata’s still tense shoulders and back a massage. The girl almost seemed to want to shrug her off but a warning squeeze on an especially tight knot convinced her to just relax and accept it. Rei wasn’t exactly and expert at massages, but going by the way Hinata soon seemed to melt in her hands she decided that maybe she was something of a natural genius at that, too. Once she was certain that Hinata was a relaxed and as blissed out as she was likely to get Rei began to speak.

    “So, how do you think your training went today?”

    Rei could feel Hinata’s shoulders tense at her question. The older girl moved to soothe that tension, wordlessly encouraging Hinata to speak by doing so. After being silent for a few moments Hinata replied.

    “You’re a very good teacher, Rei-senpai.”

    Okay, that was nice and it flattered her ego. But it was also very much a carefully crafted non-answer. Not the reply she was looking for. Rei’s hands continued to work as she tried to think about how to approach this differently.

    “Do you think you did well today?”

    If her previous question had caused Hinata to stiffen up slightly, this one turned her into a tightly wound knot under Rei’s hands. The older girl continued her work, trying to keep the younger calm and relaxed. Kami, this girl is just a bundle of issues.

    “By your reaction, I can take a guess. You don’t think you did very well today. Am I right?” Rei asked, keeping her tone casual and non-judgmental.

    Hinata’s chin dipped, her head lowered in shame. At first Rei thought she would get no reply. However, ever so slight that she almost missed it, Hinata shook her head.

    “Why not?” Rei whispered. The atmosphere had suddenly become tense and strangely intimate. Like the two of them were suddenly sharing secrets they desperately did not want coming to light.

    Hinata sighed, her shoulders slumping forward as if defeated. “Please, don’t make me say it.”

    Rei licked her lips and took a deep breath. “I think you have to.”

    Hinata shuddered at the sound of Rei’s voice. She was quiet for what seemed a long time, and Rei let her. When she began to speak it was halting and slow but said with a surprising amount of conviction.

    “I don’t ‘do well’. I never have. I get through all the training sessions. All of them. I get through them. But I can never live up to what I’m supposed to do. I’ve tried. Believe me Rei-senpai, I’ve tried. But it just… it’s never going to work out.” The girl paused, and took a deep shuddering breath. Her next words sounded like something inside her was breaking and dying all over, but she said them anyway. “You shouldn’t waste your time with me senpai. I’m not… I’m, I’m never going to be what people want me to be. You’re too w-… umm. I mean. I-I’m sure there are other things you’d rather be doing. Someone like you shouldn’t have to waste your time with someone like me.”

    Rei paused, momentarily too surprised to know how to respond. That was… a lot more honesty than I was expecting so soon.She had suspected those feelings existed, of course, but it felt… uncomfortable to hear them come from someone like Hinata. Shaking the feeling loose Rei resumed her ministrations with her hands as she debated how to respond.

    In the end, she settled for an attitude she had been taught in her old world. Something she still believed was a universal truth that applied to everyone (except maybe herself).

    “During our training to day… did you do your best Hina-chan?” Rei asked softly.

    Hinata’s head half-turned as if to look at her, puzzlement coloring her voice in contrast to the unhappy pall hanging heavily around her. “What?”

    “Did you do your best?” Rei repeated a little more insistently. “Did you try your hardest to the best of your ability. Did you hold nothing back while we trained. Did you do everything that you physically and mentally could at the time. That is what I’m asking. Well Hinata-chan, did you?”

    Hinata seemed to flounder, as if she truly had no idea why Rei would consider that to be relevant in any way to the conversation they’d just been having. Hesitantly the younger girl nodded her head. “Yes, but what does that have to do with…?”

    “The only thing we can realistically expect of anyone is that they give all that they’re capable of,” Rei said firmly, squeezing Hinata’s shoulders for emphasis. “It’s the only realistic bar that can exist because it is literally impossible for us as humans to give anything more.”

    For some reason Rei’s words seemed to almost mildly panic Hinata. “But, but the clan! My… my f-father-“

    “Are wrong,” said Rei, cutting Hinata off. Those two words caused the younger girl to fall silent in shock. Sensing her opportunity Rei pressed on. “Sometimes, if you sharpen a blade too hard and for too long you only succeed in making it brittle and damaged. That is, in my opinion, a large part of what has been holding you back from the potential I know you can achieve. You can do this Hinata-chan. You can prove yourself a worthy Heiress and earn the respect of your father and you clan. But you’re going to have to change how you think. Starting with this. I will consider any training session a success as long as you can look me in the eye and tell me you genuinely did all you could to improve. In these training sessions, that is all it will ever take to earn my approval.” A short pause before Rei continued in a softer voice. “Hinata, do you trust me?”

    Hinata shuddered under her hands but didn’t answer right away. Rei just waited patiently, moving to rub slow, comforting circles around Hinata’s back. Rei knew what the answer would be long before it was uttered. She could almost feel Hinata placing a bit more of herself into the palm of her hand.

    “Yes,” Hinata finally breathed. The girl, the Hyuuga Heiress, had just made a conscious decision to trust her even more. Rei had to make considerable effort not to let the thrill she felt at that show in any way.

    Time to drive the point home.

    Being as soothing as she could with her hands and words Rei began to speak. “The only thing I expect you to do Hina-chan, and the only thing you need to do in order for this to succeed is to give it your all every single time while trying not to focus on progress or on results. That’s it. That's all there is to it. Now that doesn’t sound so bad, does it?”

    Hinata shook her head. “No.”

    Rei nodded at that. “Progress and results will come as long as you can keep yourself from agonizing and worrying over them. I promise you. That being said, if this is going to work I need you to give it your all. I need you to put everything you have, emotionally, mentally, physically, into our senpai-kohai relationship. I’ll accept nothing less than one hundred percent devotion and commitment. Can you do that, Hinata-chan? Can you trust me enough for that?”

    “Yes,” Hinata said, the word coming out of her mouth a little too quickly. Almost desperately, even. From behind Hinata where she couldn’t be seen Rei’s lips stretched into a pleased and eager smile.

    Almost too easy.

    “You did well today Hinata,” Rei said, giving the girl’s shoulders an affectionate squeeze. “You just need to keep following my lead and doing as you’re told. Continue to do that and I guarantee that everything will start to get better. You’re a very special girl Hinata-chan. I’m glad that I got to be your senpai.”

    000

    After they’d eaten and it was well after dark and Hinata was very clearly just about dead on her feet. Just when they were getting ready for bed did Rei remember that her own sleeping bag had been ruined the night before, courtesy of being put back in bed unconscious while covered in mud. Rei’s face twisted in displeasure before slowly a grin began to spread across her face as an idea blossomed and took hold.

    “Hey Hina-chan,” Rei said causally as the two of them crawled inside the small tent. “Our guard ruined my sleeping bag last night out of spite, so we have no choice but to share yours. I hope that won’t be a problem?”

    Hinata’s wide eyed, nearly panicked expression was one hundred percent expected but no less amusing for it. Not waiting for an answer Rei simply took the lead, brazenly grabbing Hinata’s sleeping bag and slipping herself inside wearing only a t-shirt and a stretchy pair of shorts. Hinata watched her while frozen, her face a confusing mix of conflicting emotions. Once she was comfortable and laying on her side Rei patted the open sleeping bag in invitation, silent except for an eyebrow raised in teasing challenge.

    Hinata swallowed nervously – gulped really – before dipping her head and acquiescing to Rei’s unspoken prompt. She stiffly settled herself on her side with barely an inch or two of space separating the two of them. Rolling her eyes (they hadn’t done something that different the night before with each of them in their own sleeping bag) Rei reached over with and arm and bodily dragged the younger girl against her chest. Hinata made a small ‘Eep!’ sound of surprise, tense and clearly out of her element with what was still a new and for the most part completely alien situation.

    However as seconds and minutes ticked by Hinata, much like she’d done the night before, very slowly began to relax into the other girl. It wasn’t long before her tired body betrayed her and Hinata’s eyes closed on their own accord, the exhaustion from the long day putting her out like a light in just a few short minutes. As she drifted off to sleep the younger girl didn’t even notice the small content sigh that escaped her lips.

    Her sleeping partner, however, didn’t miss a thing.

    When she was sure Hinata was deeply asleep Rei finally allowed herself to relax a bit, focusing on slowing down her mind and body so she could get a few hours of rejuvenating rest. With Worm on watch at night she could allow herself at least that much. Also, having a willing and appreciative cuddle buddy… Rei tried not to think about it too much, but the thought rejuvenated her spirit and her mood more than it had any right to.

    Best not get too used to the warmth and closeness however. She knew that she would be forced to mostly do without when they got back, no matter what either of them would want or have to say on the matter.

    Rei also tried not to think too hard about her upcoming meeting with Anko while she tried to rest, though in truth she was only partially successful in that endeavor. The uncertainty of it was by far the worst. Rei was still feeling the leftover pain from the night before, rapidly accelerated natural healing for strong Chakra users notwithstanding, and she really didn’t want to have a repeat performance. As much as it ate away at her she knew that she was still no match for Anko. However the woman wanted this to go down, it would go down. She, after all, held most of the power… and most of the cards. The only question was: how would Anko choose to exercise the unbalance in their relationship?

    Then the time came, and with a small pang of regret Rei left the small circle of warmth, got dressed and made her way out into the woods. This time it took almost no time to reach where Anko was waiting for her about a mile away. No elaborate traps or set ups or tricks this time. Rei just arrived and walked out into the clearing with a carefully neutral expression on her face.

    Anko for her part was once again well put together (for her standards anyway) and was leaning against a tree while somehow managing to read a small book in the near pitch darkness. When Rei got close enough the woman snapped the book shut, pushed off the tree and began walking towards the younger girl with a slow predatory gait. Looking at her face Rei thought the older woman had a type of “I’m-trying-to-look-neutral-but-you-can-definitely-tell-I’m-still-totally-pissed” expression that had her instantly on her guard. Rei had expected at least some anger, yes, but she hadn’t expected it to be so openly on display.

    Anko stopped a few feet away from her, examining the much shorter girl with slightly narrowed eyes. Rei, ever proud, just lifted her chin in defiance while keeping her expression carefully schooled and neutral. She might have felt anxious and uncertain about this meeting but she would be damned if she let Anko of all people see that from her.

    Rei had been expecting a berating, a dressing down, at least some scathing sarcastic remarks. Instead there was nothing, just cool eyes assessing her while Rei willed herself to meet her gaze and not let her body fidget. After some indeterminate amount of time Anko struck without warning. Her leg kicked out at Rei, powerful and quick as a snake. Endlessly drilled reflexes allowed Rei to get a sloppy defense up in time, sending her skidding back with minimal bruising to her arms as opposed to leaving her gasping for breath on the ground.

    No words were spoken as Anko began to circle her, looking for a weakness to attack. Seeing that Anko didn’t seem to want to chat Rei straightened up and settled into a fighting stance. Works for me. If Anko didn’t want to talk about what happened last night all the better: neither of them particularly liked dealing with uncomfortable emotions and Rei couldn’t deny that the night before there had been a lot of those involved. From the both of them.

    For hours the two of them ‘trained’ in silence… and by ‘train’ Rei meant that Anko kept her strength and speed at slightly more than the younger girl could really handle while mercilessly exploiting weaknesses and openings she didn’t even know she had. Being completely taken apart in a more calm, deliberate and methodical style somehow seemed to even further drive home how utterly helpless and outmatched she really was. Even worse, it was all that Rei could do to keep her emotions in check during the entire training session, since some instinct was telling her that if she lost her temper again Anko would make her regret it very badly indeed. So she kept her frustrations and resentment to herself, and tried to ignore the tiny nugget of despair in her chest at having driven home how utterly weak and helpless she still was against the kind of strength this world could throw at her.

    Is this really all I can do? Is this really all that I am?

    Anko’s training session was rough even by her standards. Punishing. Borderline abusive. But bearable. After a few hours, when Rei was reduced to a panting, exhausted, pain filled mess on the ground did Anko finally take her leave without ever uttering a single word to her. Once she was gone Rei finally allowed herself to relax on the cool ground for a few minutes before slowly picking herself up.

    It had gone well, she supposed. Anko was still mad at her but given how she had acted tonight Rei suspected that she would get over it eventually… possibly after she felt she had paid Rei back enough for her transgressions. Probably. It went not as badly as she had feared and just a little bit worse than she had hoped. All in all Rei should have been feeling at least a small measure of relief after the clusterfuck of the night before.

    However while some part of her was glad things had gone not-absolutely-terrible on that front a much larger part began seething with brooding resentment. Eleven years. Eleven years since she had decided to peruse power and freedom (and they were really the same thing, by now) and what did she have to show for it? Anko was a Special Jounin. Perhaps even strong enough to merit the title of full Jounin. However compared to others… to the likes of Kakashi Hatake for example… Anko was still a good deal weaker. And at this point in time Hatake was way weaker than say, Orochimaru, or Akatsuki, or even the Third Hokage and the Sannin.

    Hatake had been a Jounin by the time he had been eleven hadn’t he? Yes. Yes he had. Rei grit her teeth and slammed her fists hard enough into a nearby tree that the delicate bones in her hands threatened to break. That meant that he had been much stronger than her when he had been her age. How? How had some kid like Kakashi managed it when for her that kind of strength still seemed so impossibly far away? She had given everything, her whole life for this. Why wasn’t she stronger?

    As Rei began to make her way back to the camp she shared with Hinata, that question began to claw itself deep and fester inside her like poison. Like a curse. With that question came doubt, and with doubt came fear… and Rei didn’t like feeling afraid. So instead she turned that emotion into anger and resentment and just general hatred of the world. It was better to feel that than to contemplate the alternative. That maybe there was a chance she wouldn’t be able to pull this off. That maybe she just wasn’t good enough.

    Even contemplating the possibility… it burned. Which in turn made her more upset. Which in turn just made her even more angry and resentful, her deepest fears and insecurities being prodded at in a way that just made her want to lash out at anything that dared to come within a hundred miles of where she was feeling vulnerable. Why? Why aren’t I stronger? I’ve done everything right.

    It was with this black poison growing in her heart that Rei reached the camp she shared with Hinata. After mechanically changing for bed she crawled inside the tiny tent the two of them were sharing. At seeing Hinata sleeping away peacefully Rei was taken by a strong, sudden desire to hurt her. Not because Hinata had done anything in particular but simply because Rei was feeling terrible and the younger girl was the only person within many miles that she could take out her aggression on.

    Swallowing down those feelings Rei closed her eyes, took a few deep breaths and at the very least forced her body to relax. When she felt she was once again completely in control of her actions, if not particularly her emotions, Rei slipped into the sleeping bag with Hinata, for once not feeling really interested in cuddling up with another at least somewhat-trustworthy human being. Instead she lay on her back and stared at the ceiling, her insides bursting at the seam with barely contained emotion.

    Though nothing terrible happened to her outwardly, to Rei that particular night still felt like one of the worst ones of her young life to date. It was a long time before she found any kind of rest that night. Even then it was not a rejuvenating thing, with doubt and self-loathing eating away at the edges of her mind.

    000

    A few days passed, and in a surprisingly short amount of time things settled into a sort of routine. Rei decided to make mornings the time when they worked on fitness, and after a quick breakfast Rei has the two of them scout different sections of the Forest of Death while pushing Hinata to the limits of her speed and endurance. Then they would return to camp for lunch and Rei would allow Hinata a couple of hours to sit and just rest. Meanwhile the two of them would just talk, Rei using the time to get to know Hinata better and to further her own goals in her own ways. Then they would spend the rest of the afternoon alternatively sparring or focusing on some particular aspect of the Hinata's ninja skillset that Rei felt could benefit from some polish, be it weapons or Chakra control or the speed with which she could use the basic three. When night fell the two of the them would curl up in the same sleeping bag together, Hinata quickly getting over her reluctance after the first few nights. In fact the younger of the two began giving Rei shy, grateful looks like she was the one who was doing Hinata a favor by sharing the younger girl’s sleeping bag with her. Also in her sleep Hinata definitely turned out to be a clingy cuddler, much to Rei’s private amusement.

    In contrast however those nights were… hard for Rei. A few nights later the tension between Rei and Anko had eased somewhat, with the older woman now deigning to occasionally correct some mistake or point out something she was doing wrong. However the playful and aggressive bickering between them was gone, and Rei wasn’t a hundred percent sure it would ever come back. It bothered her more than she thought it would.

    There was also the issue that, since that second night, her head had been filled with treacherous thoughts that never quite seemed to completely leave her.

    Every night now once again served to further drive home Rei’s own powerlessness and how drastically inadequate she still was compared to someone of Anko’s level. It continued to eat away at her, the shameful feelings of failure and inadequacy that she tried too hard to hide under ever thicker layers of resentment and anger. After her sessions with Anko when she went back to the tent and tried to rest were the worst. There her loathing didn’t stay directed outwards (where it should be) but instead her own traitorous mind directed those feelings inward at herself. Self-loathing was not something that Rei was very familiar with. Unfortunately she was fast becoming more and more familiar with that feeling with each passing day.

    000

    On the fourth day after they had caught the first wild boar she and Hinata were finally almost out of food. They needed to secure more food and Rei did an admirable job performing the necessary tasks while not showing even a hint of how tired she felt from having rested so poorly the last few nights (in spite of her cuddling companion). Once again they set traps and once again they lucked out with catching another wild boar. Luckily this one didn’t have any piglets with it to further make things uncomfortable.

    This time Rei made Hinata be the one to kill and clean the animal. Though she didn’t say anything in protest Hinata’s eyes practically begged Rei not to make her do it. Rei at that moment, however, could manage to dredge up exactly zero sympathy for the girl. You want to be a ninja don’t you? This is the least of what you’ll have to do.

    Very reluctantly, and with a very pained look on her face, Hinata drew a blade and killed the animal by slashing it's throat. Then she proceeded to gut and clean the animal, a slightly larger male boar this time. To her credit she only threw up once during the whole procedure. In the end Hinata did manage to do everything by herself in a more-or-less perfect textbook fashion.

    Unexpectedly, Rei felt tiny flare of pride at that fact.

    They got back to camp just as the sun was setting. After Rei appropriately put away their kill she found Hinata sitting down and tending to the fire, gazing absently into the flames. Rei thought that she looked unhappy. Conflicted. Going with her gut she walked over and sat down close enough so that their hips were touching. Hinata’s eyes slid over to her, a grateful upward twitch on the corner of her lips appearing for a fraction of a second before disappearing again just as fast. Then she turned back to look at the flames, seemingly lost in thought.

    Rei waited, because she was fairly certain Hinata would breach the topic when she was good and ready. If she didn't, well, then Rei would just have to pry it out of her. However a few minutes later her prediction proved true when Hinata began to speak.

    “How do you do it?” Hinata asked in a quiet voice.

    “How do I do what?” Rei replied, doing her best to sound as non-judgmental and nonthreatening as possible.

    “How do you,” she began, pausing to make some vague gestures with one hand. “How do you do things that hurt… how do you do hard things without letting them get to you?”

    Right then, taking into account how she had been feeling lately, Rei wasn’t sure that she was the best person to ask. However this was what she was here for. For Rei the answer came surprisingly easy. It was something she’d had to deal with a great deal after all.

    “Well, there are a few ways,” began Rei, her voice coming out clinical and detached. “The most popular one is to convince yourself that what you are doing is right, or just, or that it is necessary to get you what you want, or that it makes you right with the greater order of the universe or what have you. Basically it means re-framing whatever you’re doing to mean something else. Or maybe it can just be called looking at the same act from a different point of view. A point of view that makes you feel energized and motivated. Do you get what I’m trying to say?”

    Reluctantly, Hinata nodded her head a little, a slight frown marring her features.

    “That’s what they try to do to us in the academy,” Rei said after a short pause. “Get us to believe that what we will be doing serves a greater, holier purpose than the gruesome acts themselves. It seems to work fairly well for most people. But…” she said, scrutinizing Hinata out of the corner of her eye. “That doesn’t work very well for you, does it?”

    Hinata ducked her head and shook it oh so very slightly.

    “Well, then, in that case. Personally I’ve found only two other ways to get through difficult things. Either you can be hard. Or you can be indifferent.”

    Hinata turned her head slightly to look at Rei, the look on her face both questioning and interested. There was an unspoken eagerness there for her to go on. Rei took a few moments to gather her thoughts before pressing ahead.

    “Given your personality and disposition I don’t think trying to be ‘hard’ would really work for you. That just isn’t the type of character that you have. However I believe that, if you really give it your all to try, that you can be indifferent.”

    Seeing Hinata’s puzzled and confused expression Rei smiled slightly and continued to elaborate, getting more animated as she warmed to the topic.

    “Now, I’m not suggesting that you ‘feel nothing’ because that is impossible. As human beings we will always feel something. Instead I am suggesting that you cultivate the feeling of indifference. You see, ‘indifference’ is an emotion, a feeling just like any other. And just like you can practice making yourself feel sad, or happy, you can practice feeling indifferent.”

    A laugh escaped Hinata then, loud and short and completely unexpected. What completely made Rei's mental gears grind to a halt in surprise was how it had sounded. That sudden laugh had been the first bitter, cynical sound that Rei had ever heard from Hinata for as long as she had known her.

    “You can make yourself feel happy?” Hinata asked, her voice implying that Rei might as well have just said that you can make mountains made of gold if only you wished for it hard enough.

    “Granted, I don’t think it’s a sustainable long-term solution to life’s problems,” Rei said just a touch defensively. “But yes, you can artificially make yourself happy if you put your mind to it. Happy or sad or angry or any other emotion you care to think about.”

    “I... see,” said Hinata after a minute, her head now turned away and looking positively embarrassed by her little outburst. “I’m sorry Rei-senpai. I… Um, um… How, how would that work… the whole… indifference thing…?”

    Again going with a sudden impulse Rei reached over and grabbed Hinata’s hand. Some days ago that act might have caused the younger girl to freeze and her brain to short circuit but now she just blinked in surprise a few times before easily allowing the contact. Then Rei began to explain different techniques to artificially generate a desired emotional state. How to identify things that naturally gave rise to those feelings and to try to apply them in many different situations. How to practice focusing on a particular feeling and causing it to multiply and expand through practice and will. How to work on shutting out other feelings so you can allow the one feeling that you desire to be the most prominent one in your mind. Hinata listened to it all with wide eyed and rapt attention, their fingers having become entwined at some point and the younger girl squeezing the life out of Rei’s hand without seeming to realize what she was doing.

    Then Rei came to the tail end of her explanation. “Of course, there is a catch to all of this,” she told the younger girl with utter seriousness. “Suppressing emotions and cultivating and focusing on just one for the sake of getting the job done is not something that can be done indefinitely. You might be able to pull it off for days, weeks or even months at a time. However eventually you’re going to have to let your walls down and let your natural emotions come to the surface if you don’t want to start developing some fairly severe psychological problems. The trick is that you will be emotionally vulnerable during this period, especially if you’ve just come back from doing something unsavory. During this time, if at all possible, you’ll want make sure you’re with somebody you emotionally trust.”

    Hinata’s hand holding hers tightened even further.

    Rei leaned in and Hinata almost instinctively did the same until their heads were touching.

    “The ninja world is scary. In this world often you can’t even trust your teammates, or even your own family, with the most intimate parts of yourself. Do you know what I mean?”

    Of course she did. The young girl had a spectacularly shitty family after all. Without replying out loud Hinata just nodded her head slightly.

    “I wouldn’t mind being your safe person Hina-chan. The one person in the world you can trust,” Rei said quietly, her voice hitching slightly. “After all… I could use a safe person like that too.”

    For a long time Hinata doesn’t say anything. Then, instead of replying verbally, the girl brought their joint hands up and nuzzled them against her cheek. She relaxed into Rei even more, and the older girl had her answer.

    Oh, magnificent. And so very soon, too. Basically Rei had just told Hinata to come to her when she was emotionally vulnerable, and to no one else. She had also planted the seeds of distrust making it much more unlikely that the young girl will choose to place that kind of trust in anyone else. Certainly not in her family, not even the younger sister that she still very much loved in spite of everything. Yes, Rei had been worried earlier that she was pushing for too much too soon… but it seemed like all her worries had been for naught.

    Feeling light of heart for the first time in days Rei turned her face and gave Hinata a kiss to the top of her head.

    “You won’t need anyone else, Hina-chan. So long as you have me.”

    000

    The days soon stretched into a week and more of their training trip. Rei’s primary objective, the one having to deal with Hinata, was already by her estimation an unabashed success. After that night Hinata had become even more eager to please and threw herself wholeheartedly into whatever Rei told her to do. On the one hand, it was wonderful. Everything Rei had hoped for, wanted and needed even. More progress had been made much faster than she had imagined. And yet…

    All of this was tempered by a bitter restlessness in her heart, spurred forth by her uncompromising nightly training sessions with Anko. The disparity of their respective levels made Rei feel weak and out of control and she hated it. Hated that feeling that slowly ate away at her with the passion of ten million burning suns. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, Rei turned to the one thing she more or less had absolute control over right now.

    Hinata.

    It had started simple enough. Gradually, bit by bit, Rei started pushing boundaries to see how much Hinata would let her get away with before the girl finally told her in one way or another to just stop. Rei justified it to herself by rationalizing that it was important to know what limits Hinata had. Surely at some point the girl would make it clear she was uncomfortable with Rei’s blatantly bossy, domineering and downright controlling parts of her personality.

    The problem was, no matter how much she pushed and pushed Hinata, Rei wasn’t finding any such limits. Which was very surprising to the older girl. Very surprising, since the very idea of putting up with so much shit from anybody else was pretty much completely anathema to her. Which presented a problem. A serious problem, and not just in how it was potentially unhealthy for Hinata.

    No. The problem was that, without Hinata telling her “no”, Rei just couldn’t bring herself to stop.

    It started simple enough, with Rei ordering Hinata to do more than her fair share of chores around the camp. Rei watched a little disbelievingly as Hinata went about the tasks without complaint, seeming nearly happy (maybe?) at being given the additional tasks even after a grueling day of physical conditioning and training. Maybe knowing what she did about Hinata’s personality it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise, but somehow it did. It was intoxicating in away, to be obeyed into doing something undesirable without complaint or even the smallest hint of bad feelings. It made her feel in charge, powerful. Something that a part of her had been almost wildly desperate to get back after Anko had started truly humbling her night after night, rubbing her many inadequacies in her face.

    So over the next few days, Rei began to make even more and more unreasonable demands around their camp… until Hinata was doing every single chore, cooking every single meal, washing both of their clothes like a good little servant… all of it without even a hint of complaint. Rei would know, because she was watching very carefully. But never once was there even a hint of protest or resentment, not in her voice, in her posture, in her attitude, nothing.

    It left Rei feeling confused… while at the same time some darker part of her desperately wanted to see how much she could get away with. How far Hinata would go to obey her. How much the younger girl was willing to do for her.

    It was beyond stupid, she knew. Pushing Hinata like this gravely risked damaging their still nascent bond of intimacy and trust. There was also the decent probability that Anko would get a wind of all this and through her, other people. Anko only sent her Snakes to watch them during the day while the woman herself went off to do who knows what, yes, but who knew just what the Snakes were telling their master about her activities? What she was doing now with Hinata was dangerous and potentially risked everything that she had been working for.

    Yet in her emotional turmoil, Rei couldn’t bring herself to stop.

    Her next step was to get Hinata to casually agree in conversation that she, Rei, was better than her in all things. The younger girl had agreed without hesitation or even a hint of self-consciousness.

    “Well,” Rei had then said to her with a cocky grin, “If I am so much better than you in all things, then I think you should start calling me Rei-sama.”

    There was an awkward pause as Hinata just looked at her, surprise clearly shining in her eyes. Of course she would hesitate about something like this. In the sometimes Byzantine rules of noble and clan etiquette such a thing was highly, wildly inappropriate. To start with both of them were junior members of different clans who held roughly equal positions in their respective families. If anything Hinata would technically be the socially higher ranked of the two, seeing as her clan was universally acknowledged to be the larger and more powerful one. Also the suffix –Sama, sometimes as in this case but not always, implied a certain amount of fealty or allegiance to someone of significantly higher rank than you. In short, Hinata calling her Rei-sama where they were overheard could well be grounds for a small scandal and some very awkward questions would almost certainly be asked. So when Hinata first hesitated Rei was fully expecting that the girl would finally push back. The only thing she was undecided about was if she would play it off as a joke or if she would double down and try to browbeat Hinata into compliance (stupid, stupid but oh so tempting).

    Instead of doing that however Hinata decided to surprise her yet again.

    After working through her confusion and indecision Hinata’s eyes once again focused. Giving Rei a small, almost knowing smile she dipped her head slightly in submission. “Hai, Rei-sama.”

    Rei couldn’t decide if she was more thrilled or terrified that Hinata started calling her “Rei-sama” without fail after that.

    She also knew that she should tell the girl to stop but she just… couldn’t fucking bring herself to do it.

    Just like she couldn’t seem to stop herself from pushing boundaries.

    Frankly, Rei started to suspect that Hinata would happily put up with nearly anything so long as Rei was kind to her at the end of the day and cuddled with her in their sleeping bag at night.

    It was a thrilling realization… if perhaps just a wee bit troubling as well. Troubling because, as mentioned before, Rei was currently finding self-control to be in short supply.

    The most troubling thing, however, started about half a week before they were due to return.

    As the date for returning to Konoha grew closer and closer so did Rei’s general levels of anxiety and apprehension begin to grow. Though she knew she did not have a choice she did not want to return to Konoha so soon. Despite the hardships and her own personal crisis, being outside the walls of Konoha for so long was the first taste of freedom she’d had in a long, longtime. Rei had not realized how loathe she was to give it up until the deadline was only a handful of days away.

    That, combined with everything else, caused Rei to being behaving somewhat erratically.

    Towards the end Rei began to take her stress relief outlet, her power over Hinata, to in some ways absurd levels. Oh she wasn’t completely stupid. She did it in ways that could not be easily observed. But towards the end there, well… she begun to obsessively micromanage how much Hinata ate and how she ate it. She'd set a time for exactly how long (30 seconds) Hinata was permitted to stay in bed after she woke up in the morning. She'd determined exactly how many times Hinata could wear what clothes before washing them. Rei even set strict rules for what exact times she was allowed to take bathroom breaks and for how long… and if she had to go at any other time, tough luck.

    It took Rei a surprisingly long time to realize the obvious. Despite her going along with everything without even a word of complaint, even meek, innocent Hinata had realized that something was off. That something was very wrong indeed.

    To be fair, though, Hinata would have to be stupid not to pick up on the fact that something was wrong by that point. The girl was a lot of things but stupid wasn’t one of them. Only the fact that Hinata still went along with all of Rei’s increasingly unreasonable demands kept the older girl from noticing for as long as she did.

    The first thing that clued her in were the worried glances the younger girl started sending her way when she thought Rei wasn’t looking.

    Not knowing what else to do, Rei did her very best to pretend they didn’t exist.

    Hinata continued to go along with all of her unreasonable demands almost happily and without complaint.

    What was worse, some part of Rei began to suspect that her latest spat of rash behavior had at least begun to clue Hinata in a bit as to what had been going on before. That Rei had been trying to secure her affections and loyalty for her own selfish reasons and ends. Rei wasn’t a hundred percent sure when or why she had begun to have this suspicion. It could be that she was completely wrong. It was just a feeling that Hinata had somewhat clued in to a bit… more than what she had wanted the girl to know.

    And yet…

    If Hinata suspected… if she actually suspected, then girl was now walking into all this with her eyes wide open.

    Rei had taken Hinata’s measure as a liar and an actor. She wasn’t fooling anyone. The way she was currently throwing everything she had at their senpai-kohai relationship, emotions, body and soul was entirely too real for it to be anything other than genuine.

    So, that meant that Rei had to be wrong about how much Hinata had figured out.

    Right?

    Nothing else would explain why she was still going along with all this.

    Yet still sometimes Rei looked at Hinata… and wondered.

    How much does she know?

    How far would she really let me go?

    Would I even stop anymore if she really wanted me to?

    Towards the end of their trip, Rei truly began to wonder if she was going mad.

    000

    In the end, perhaps counter-intuitively, Rei decided they were to return to Konoha a day early.

    Rei’s reasoning however was sound if entirely selfish. Her anxiety over returning to Konoha had become so oppressive that in the end she decided that she just fucking wanted to get it over with. She also knew that the trip had not left her in the… best psychological state. Coming back a day early was also a way for her to avoid her family for a little while so she could get her metaphorical mental feet back under her.

    Rei had looked at and memorized her family’s schedule before leaving. Inoichi would be away on a mission to Tea for some kind of “consulting” thing for at least another week, one of the rare times her father still took missions outside the village. That meant that that very night her mother Emiko would have to make an appearance at the Clan meeting in her father’s stead. An official meeting was scheduled a few times a year, one of those times coinciding with the end of the Stoking of the Flames, and would likely run until the wee hours of the morning. If the house was going to be empty then that meant that Ino would absolutely not want to spend the night there all alone by herself. No doubt she will have found a friend’s house to stay at overnight and enjoy a bit of a sleepover while she was at it. So all in all Rei should have at least one night all alone at their house to… change mental gears back to what they needed to be.

    Hinata had been strangely quiet when she had announced her decision, only giving Rei a questioning and concerned look that had only made her feel worse.

    The two of them left on that final day around noon after one last morning workout. As the gates of Konoha came into view Rei couldn’t help but feel a terrible painful dread violently explode at the bottom of her stomach. Movement made Rei’s eyes flicker to the side and she caught Hinata looking at her. At seeing the sudden understanding and sympathetic look Hinata was giving her, Rei cursed her own damn carelessness and used every last scrap of her considerable willpower to craft a perfect neutral mask for herself. Fuck! She was already on edge enough as it was. She didn’t need other people figuring out stuff about her in a moment of weakness. Not even someone like Hinata. Now controlling herself as tightly as someone strangling a snake Rei strode forward purposefully, forcing Hinata to pick up her pace to keep up with her.

    As they got closer and closer to the gate, Rei’s eyes widened as she remembered something important.

    “Hey Hinata-chan,” Rei said in a sudden serious voice.

    “H-Hai Rei-sama?” the other girl answered reflexively.

    Rei had to suppress a wince. Yeah, that’s what we need to talk about.

    “Hinata-chan… you can’t call me Rei-sama once we’re back in Konoha. You know that right?” Part of her wanted to add that the title was just a joke, that it didn’t mean anything and that it should never be repeated ever again. But she didn’t.

    Hinata for her part didn’t meet Rei’s gaze. “Of course I know that, Rei-sama.”

    Outwardly Rei narrowed her eyes on the girl but inwardly she was irrationally pleased that Hinata hadn’t immediately reverted to “Rei-senpai”. “Well,” Rei drawled out slowly, absently scratching her chin. “Just as long as you don’t mess it up when we actually get there. That’s the sort of trouble we don’t need.”

    “I understand,” Hinata answered diligently.

    And that was that. Neither of them said anything else until they reached the gates.

    000

    The gates of Konoha were impressive. Rei could grudgingly give them that much.

    Nearly as tall as the Hokage tower they, like many things around Konoha, might have been impossible to build if not for the help of the First Hokage. She knew that the walls were made of now petrified wood covered with a foot-thick layer of concrete and stone. The greatest walls in the continent, the academy books like to brag. Granted in height they were nothing compared to say Shangai Tower of the One World Trade Center but still, in their own right and due to the sheer thickness and horizontal scope of them… they certainly were impressive.

    The security, on the other hand, didn’t look all that impressive. The gates were kept open during the day with two extremely bored looking Chunin (who were not Kotetsu and Isumo) stopping people and briefly looking at their documents before waving them in. Rei knew there had to be additional hidden security measures. At least she hoped so. Even by her own not-an-official-Genin-yet standards the security was downright sloppy.

    When Rei and Hinata finally reached one of the Chunin guards his eyebrows rose slightly when he read their names on their documents. He put the papers down and eyed the two of them, taking in their worn clothing and generally disheveled appearance… along with that particular odor that seemed to indicate too much time spent out on the field.

    “You two are back a day early,” he commented in a seemingly disinterested voice.

    Rei shrugged, keeping her impassive mask blank. “I had my reasons for cutting our training trip a day short. Is that going to be a problem?”

    If she hadn’t been paying attention Rei wouldn’t have noticed a slight prickling sensation touching her Chakra at the very edge of her senses. Her eyes instantly began to dart around looking for a potential threat before she realized what must have happened. Someone must be scanning us, making sure we aren’t intruders. The Chunin was now giving her a very flat look, one that wasn’t exactly unfriendly but at the same time strongly suggested that she had better not get any ideas. Rei allowed her features to go slack and look mildly bored as she stared back at the man. The two of them had a short starting contest between them before the Chunin’s eyes suddenly flickered to the side.

    “You two are clear,” the Chunin said a moment later in a lazy voice, handing them back their papers. “Welcome back to Konoha.”

    With the absolute fakest smile she could muster Rei took back her papers and stalked through the gates, leaving Hinata to mutter a “thank you” to the guard before hurrying to catch up to her. Perhaps sensing her dark mood, or perhaps just because she didn’t have anything to say, Hinata fell in step quietly next to her and let the older girl decide their destination. Rei was glad for the silence, her mind seeming to want to go in a hundred directions all at once.

    Looking around now that she was back inside the walls of Konoha, Rei couldn’t help but feel like they represented a prison. Her prison, one meant to keep her forever caged in and subservient. It burned so much worse right then than it usually did. Maybe it was the scant taste of freedom she had just experienced, or maybe it was the fact that she had felt increasingly off balance and emotionally unsound for over a week now. Maybe it was a combination or something else altogether. Whatever the cause, her rage, helplessness, fury, self-loathing, frustrations and so much else seemed to swirl and grow inside of her to the point where it was hard to even breathe.

    By the Kami. Fuck. Rei closed her eyes. She wasn’t going to feel like this forever was she? She absolutely hated this.

    If only she was stronger.

    If only.

    Rei wasn’t sure how long she stewed in her dark thoughts but it couldn’t have been all that long in the grand scheme of things since before she knew it she found herself in front of the gates of the Yamanaka compound. Home, sweet home thought Rei with a strange mix of bitterness and relief. Even if the Yamanaka compound was a cage within a cage, at least she could say she had always been treated well here. Plus Ino lived there. And her room was here. And, she added grudgingly, my parents live here too and that’s nice (I guess).

    “Ano… I guess… I should be heading home now…?”

    Rei turned and looked at her charge, honestly having momentarily forgotten that Hinata was with her when she had been lost in her own head. Should I just send her home now? Going on a sudden impulse she decided that no, she would not be sending Hinata home now. Hinata had been… a comfort when she had been torturing herself about her own inadequacies back in the Forest. She wasn’t ready to give that up just yet.

    “Come in with me,” Rei said, tilting her head towards the doors of the compound and giving Hinata the best reassuring smile she could manage. The unconvinced look that Hinata gave her made her think that maybe she should not have even tried. Rei let her face go slack and turned away. Apparently she was such a mess that she couldn’t even smile convincingly anymore.

    If that didn’t drive home how messed up she currently was, nothing else would.

    Rei went for a small man-sized door set in the larger gate and let herself through, sure that Hinata would decide to follow. Sure enough she could sense the girl falling in step behind her almost without missing a beat. After two weeks together Rei had gotten very good sense of how the younger girl operated.

    The Yamanaka didn’t keep guards posted outside the gate like Hyuuga and other clans did. However they did keep a couple posted inside the gate at all times. The two young guards looked surprised at seeing the two of them step through before smiling when they recognized the little Heiress of their clan. Rei gave them both respectful nods before walking up to the one she knew slightly better.

    “Iwai-san, right?” Rei asked, dredging up the young Chunin’s name from memory.

    “Yes Rei-sama,” he said with a nod and a bright smile, his eyes momentarily flicking over to Hinata. “It’s good to have you back, if a day early. Was there something I could help you with?”

    “Yes there is in fact,” Rei said with a polite nod. “Could you send a runner over to the Hyuuga compound? Let them know that we have returned to Konoha a day early but that Hinata will be staying in my home as my honored guest for tonight. I will personally escort her back to her clan’s compound first thing in the morning.”

    Iwai nodded. “Of course. I will see it done at once, Rei-sama.”

    “B-but I think my father would expect me to go straight home now that I’m in Konoha!” Hinata stammered nervously. Rei turned and gave Hinata a look so scathing it practically had the girl shrinking in on herself.

    “You were given to me until tomorrow. Therefore I will not see you returned until then. Do you understand me?”

    Though the girl paused to swallow nervously, she didn’t have to contemplate her reply for very long before giving the correct answer. “H-hai Rei-sa-, ehh –senpai!”

    After giving Hinata one last hard look to make sure she was properly cowed Rei turned back to Iwai. The Chunin was now looking at them with a confused and bewildered expression at their exchange. “Riiight. Well. I’ll be sure to send that runner then. Will there be anything else, Rei-sama?”

    “Nothing else,” the girl said, shaking her head. “Thank you Iwai-san.”

    Rei turned on her heel and stalked away towards her family home, Hinata just a step behind her. The Yamanaka thought about her charge and very carefully did not look at her while very carefully keeping her walls up. This had been a concern from the beginning, of course. Her dominion over Hinata could be uncontested out in the field. Back in Konoha, however, Hinata would no doubt feel her loyalties split in several different direction. Her clan. The village. Probably even her team, once she graduated and got placed in one. One of her fists tightened and a muscle in her jaw jumped. No. She would be the one to secure absolute loyalty. Her and no one else. She couldn’t continue to suffer and accept all these defeats.

    “Ano,” began Hinata tentatively just a half a step behind her. “I’ve been meaning to ask. For a while now. But… are you… are you okay Rei-senpai?”

    Somehow it made her irrationally angry to hear Rei-senpai and not Rei-sama fall from Hinata’s lips. “I’m fine,” Rei bit out in a tone just bordering on bitter. “I’m perfectly fine. I’m always fine.”

    Hinata fell silent after that for which Rei was grateful. However she wasn’t grateful for the worried and pained looks Hinata began sending her way. Rei grit her teeth and did her best to ignore the looks she could now feel like a physical pressure on her side. She didn’t need anyone’s dammed pity. Not from Hinata and not from anyone.

    Rei was already starting to reassess if it had been a good idea to keep Hinata as she walked through her front door, the painfully obvious worry Hinata was giving off burning her skin like acid.

    000

    For all that Rei had insisted on Hinata coming home with her, the older girl did her very damn best to ignore her kohai.

    It was nearing four o’clock by the time they got to her home and Rei decided, quite spontaneously, that the best way to avoid conversation was to cook. After muttering to Hinata to put their things in her room Rei went into the kitchen and attacked it with a vengeance. Now, Rei wasn’t a particularly gifted cook but she could follow cooking recipes to the letter in order to produce some fairly decent stuff.

    Without any real rhyme or reason Rei decided bake a cake and to make a fish stew. Looking at the recipes she went around the kitchen and began to quickly gather up all the ingredients. This was how Hinata found her, brow furrowed in concentration as she flew around the kitchen with a manic energy about her, seemingly trying to do half a dozen things at once. The younger girl found the spectacle fascinating and more than a little alarming.

    Hinata seemed to pick up on the fact that Rei really wanted neither help nor conversation, and the older girl couldn’t help but feel grateful that Hinata just sat on the counter and watched her work in silence. However Rei could do nothing about the heavy concern and worried fidgeting that seemed to track her everywhere she went. While she was silent and out of the way Hinata was still not a presence she could easily ignore. She tried anyway, throwing herself into her work with abandon and timing things so that her hands would always be busy and so she wouldn’t have any real downtime just waiting around while things cooked.

    Feeling more exhausted – and perhaps just a tiny bit better for the time being – Rei finished everything at about eight in the evening. She served both herself and Hinata a bowl of stew and a thick slice of chocolate cake. Granted it wasn’t the best taste combination, but individually they tasted pretty good if Rei did say so herself. Especially after two weeks eating nothing but under seasoned meat and wild vegetables. The occasional small sounds of pleasure coming from her guest and the one time Hinata muttered “it’s good” did help to lift her spirits, just a little bit.

    After Rei cleaned everything up and put away the leftovers (Hinata seemed like she wanted to help but the girl looked completely lost in a kitchen) she headed upstairs, Hinata following close behind her. Rei entered her room and immediately went to her drawers. She knew that Hinata didn’t have any clean clothes left that hadn’t been washed in a river. Rei handed the girl a big T-shirt and a pair of shorts. At seeing Hinata's questioning look Rei once again tried her best at a reassuring smile. By Hinata’s raised eyebrow in response she wasn’t really buying the act right now. Sighing, and suddenly feeling exhausted, Rei leaned against the wall, closed her eyes, and just explained herself.

    “I know you don’t have any clean clothes. The last door at the end of the hall is the bathroom. There’s towels inside the closet. Go take a nice long shower. I’ll go second. I don’t want to have to worry about how long I’ll take.” Rei’s voice came out sounding flat, weak and tired. She kept her eyes closed and didn’t move, trying to pretend she couldn’t feel the look of worry and concern prickling across her skin. Eventually she heard a small, almost pained sigh and felt her bedroom door open and close. In another minute she could feel the shower turn on at the end of the hall.

    Rei shambled over to the corner where her bed met the wall and allowed herself to sink down to the floor. She hugged her knees and buried her head between her legs. She felt… hollow. The world felt a little floaty, just a little bit unreal. It was weird, and funny. That she could feel so strongly and suddenly it was as if she could feel nothing. Nothing but tired and like a heavy weight had settled over her mind and her body.

    For the first time in like… ever, Rei gave herself permission to simply feel sorry for herself.

    It was supposed to be cathartic. It wasn’t.

    She really, really wished that it had been.

    “Rei-senpai?”

    Rei looked up, only to see Hinata crouching at eye level with her. Had she finished her shower already? The girl almost looked scared as she looked at her mentor. Some distant part of her mind found that kind of funny. What did she have to be afraid of? Right now she was, like, the least frightening person that there had ever been.

    In one smooth motion Rei rose to her feet. “I’m going to take a shower now.” Quickly gathering some clothes Rei left the room and closed the door behind her.

    Rei stripped and stepped into the still moist shower, turning the water on as hot as she could stand it and then turning it up just a bit more for good measure. The hot water was painful against her skin, but Rei wanted that. This was pain, but it was a different kind of pain. It was possible to use one kind of pain to forget about another after all.

    Rei stayed in the shower long after the hot water ran out, letting the chill of the icy water prune her skin as she held her head in one hand. It was only when she started shivering uncontrollably and large parts of her body had gone numb that she finally turned off the water and stepped out of the shower. With shaking hands she dried herself and put on her sleeping clothes. Almost as an afterthought she took the time to brush her hair and tie it back in a neat ponytail.

    Looking at herself in the mirror… she looked like hell. And skinny. Had she always been that skinny? Letting out a breath and chiding herself for such useless thoughts Rei left the bathroom and headed back to her bedroom. She felt exhausted and even though she wasn’t sleepy sleep – actual sleep –sounded like a great idea right then.

    When she entered the room she found Hinata sitting on her bed with her legs crossed in the Indian style. The girl’s eyes snapped up to look at her as soon as she opened the door. Rei almost frowned at the look Hinata was giving her. It was etched deep with concern and above all it was a helpless look. Rei realized with a start that Hinata wanted to help her but had no idea what to do.

    Well, that made two of them. Rei didn’t know what to do to help herself, either.

    “Let’s just go to bed,” Rei said, and to her consternation it came out sounding almost like a plea.

    Hinata hesitated, but then caught the look on Rei’s face. With a look of defeat the younger girl reluctantly nodded. Rei let out a breath of relief and moved to crawl under her covers. Hinata joined her seconds later, both of them by now taking the fact that they would share a sleeping space for granted. If Hinata clung to her more tightly than usual Rei decided not to say anything about it.

    In less than ten minutes Hinata’s breaths deepened and she fell dead to the world.

    Rei, for her part, suddenly found that she couldn’t even close her eyes.

    Paradoxically she no longer felt her exhaustion from earlier now that she was laying in her own bed with a comforting warm body wrapped around her. Instead she was now wide awake, and against her will and better judgement her mind started racing. Instead of letting her sleep her personal demons decided to torture her even more.

    It was always the same. The powerlessness. The frustration. How weak she was. How everything she had ever done in this life somehow seemed to amount to nothing. How she was trapped, and helpless and powerless, and back in Konoha, where even the weakest of Jounins could kill her if she ever set more than a single toe out of line.

    Or more likely take her back to T&I. Rei shuddered at those memories. The all-encompassing feeling of her inability to escape. Being rendered utterly defenseless and vulnerable. Every illusion of protection stripped, all on the whim of one man. Rei knew enough to know that, even as much as she had suffered, she had gotten off relatively easily. What about next time? There was no guarantee they would be so gentle a second time. Would she end up maimed and broken for good, if she ever got to walk out of there at all?

    All these feelings choked her, almost literally as she suddenly found she had a hard time breathing. Panic attack some part of her mind registered distantly. She was shaking.

    No. This was wrong.

    She needed to get back in control.

    She needed power.

    She needed control, like a drowning woman needed air.

    Her thoughts turned to the person clinging to her as she slept.

    Almost as if she were having an out of body experience, Rei saw what happened next.

    Hinata. Hinata who had no problem giving over complete control to her. Hinata who seemed to possess a complete inability to say “no” to her. Hinata who had practically let her get away with murder and had never uttered even a single peep of complaint.

    Suddenly Rei didn’t feel quite as powerless anymore.

    I never did find out what your limits were Hinata-chan, Rei thought as a sick fascination seemed to take hold of her as she beheld the other girl in her bed. What would you let me do to you? When would you make me stop?

    Maybe I want you to try to stop me. And maybe then I want to do it anyway.

    Slow and purposeful, Rei slipped her way out of Hinata’s grasp. The girl muttered a protest in her sleep and settled onto her side. Rei threw back the covers and with one hand positioned Hinata onto her back. Then she threw one leg over and straddled the younger girl.

    With the devil in her eye and a sick fascination in her heart, Rei wrapped her hands around Hinata’s throat and began to squeeze.

    Hinata came awake with a start, her hands instinctively going to whatever was at her neck squeezing the life out of her. Her fingernails dug into Rei’s hands as her eyes looked wildly about, wide and uncomprehending. Then her confused eyes settled on Rei, and the older girl watched as confusion and fear flickered across Hinata’s face.

    Part of Rei was positively screaming at her to stop. But right then a much louder part of herself was screaming at her to squeeze harder.

    This is it. Fight me. Hurt me. Everyone has a breaking point. Fight me! And I will beat you into the ground!

    Hinata should be able to get out of this, she knew. Being strangled to death like this only happened to useless untrained people. The academy taijutsu curriculum taught them four different ways to break a hold like this. She was certain the Juuken had at least a half dozen more. When she tried to get out Rei would counter. I will be the one to come out on top. Fight me, you bitch.

    Things, however, did not play out quite in the way that Rei wanted or expected. Once Hinata fully registered what was happening and who was doing this to her she just… stopped fighting. Rei readied herself for some kind of trick, some ruse to get her to lower her guard, but none ever came. Sure, Hinata’s hands and nails kind of scratched at her arms ineffectively, but that was more an instinctive reaction she couldn’t help rather than some concerted effort to free herself from Rei’s grasp.

    Rei was so surprised when she realized that there would be no resistance that she almost let go. Almost.

    Rei watched in fascination as the light slowly left Hinata’s eyes and unconsciousness took hold, the scratching at her arms growing more feeble until it stopped altogether. This had… not been what she had been expecting. And yet. And yet. Rei bit her lip as a smile threatened to split her face. And yet in some ways this was even better.

    She’d heard old samurai stories wax poetic about it before, but Rei had never known once until this moment what it meant to literally hold another person’s life in your hands. The feeling of having the power of life and death over another human being… it was indescribable. Like the rush of cocaine that simultaneously made every single cell in your body feel so incredibly alive, adrenaline rushing through her system in a way she couldn’t remember happening since fighting for her life against Virulent in the Rat’s Cathedral. They said a certain type of people could get addicted to murder. Right in that moment, Rei believed them.

    Four minutes, Rei thought, biting her lip so hard that she could taste her own blood. Four minutes of asphyxiation after unconsciousness until brain damage begins to become permanent. Six to ten minutes to ensure complete brain death. With someone this small, it would certainly be closer to the six minute mark.

    Her hands tightened a bit more around the girl’s slender throat as Rei’s eyes flickered to the clock next to her bed. It had already been about thirty seconds since she had lost consciousness. Just another five and a half minutes to go.

    Her eyes went from the clock back to Hinata’s face. It was completely slack and discolored. Red or purple or some combination therein, it was impossible to tell in the dark. Unconscious like this she looked so very young. Well of course she looks young,Rei thought, scoffing to herself. After all she’s only…

    Suddenly, Rei’s breath was stolen from her lungs as if a lightning bolt had struck her spine.

    ... she’s only ten years old.

    All at once, it finally hit her what it was that she had just been doing. With a cry of fear Rei let go and leapt backwards, losing her balance and falling messily onto the floor. Suddenly wide-eyed and breathing like she had just run a marathon Rei pressed herself up against the wall. She held up her shaking hands in front of her face, looking at them like they had just betrayed her. W-w-what was I doing?! What the fuck is wrong with me?!

    Horror unlike anything she had ever felt before grabbed a hold of her. Oh Kami, she thought to herself in utter disbelief as she continued to look at her hands. I was just strangling a ten year old girl. I’d actually been contemplating strangling her to death. Wha-wha-what the hell has been going on with me?!

    How? When, how, how had doing something like that ever started to look like a bloody good idea?

    Oh Kami. Was she turning into one of those crazy ninja? Before today the idea would have been good for a laugh. Now it sent a spike of nausea and terror all through her guts.

    What-why-what-!

    Movement caught her attention. On the bed. A completely different type of fear shot through her now, but no less powerful for it.

    Hinata is waking up.

    Rei couldn’t bear to face her now. Or maybe ever.

    Before that thought was even finished Rei was already on her feet and out the door. She couldn’t be here. Hinata wouldn’t want to see her. She couldn’t be here when she woke up.

    Rei fled, and for the first time genuinely wondered if she was turning into a monster. Or if she already was one.

    000

    In the end she didn’t get very far. Some part of her couldn’t bring herself to leave Hinata all alone in a strange house, even if logically she knew the girl would prefer it if she were a million miles away after what had just transpired. Instead of fleeing the house as had been her first impulse Rei settled herself onto one of the couches in the living room.

    Rei had no idea what to think about her actions, other than being beyond horrified by them. She had no idea how to even begin making sense of them, or what had led to such an incredibly… evil and fucked up decision. She’d genuinely been contemplating murdering a ten year old girl. A ten year old girl that was so incredibly kind and sweet when she wasn’t trying to be a ninja. And for what? For, for… for some kind of sick, transient rush? That wasn’t her. That wasn’t the type of person that she was.

    Then why did you do it?

    Consequences though. Consequences were much easier to think about.

    Her life was essentially over. She’d strangled, tried to kill, a fellow Clan Heiress who had trusted her. That meant… well, maybe not death. She wasn’t even an adult. Maybe having her Chakra permanently sealed and being thrown out of the clan. Maybe exile… after her Chakra was permanently sealed, and her brain was screwed around with enough that she didn’t remember anything important. She didn’t know. But it wasn’t likely to be anything even remotely good.

    Even after all this, some dark part of her mind whispered that it didn’t have to be this way. That this could all be kept a secret. That the Rats could make someone disappear without a trace. They had offered to do it more than once after all. Hinata had been targeted more than once by foreign agents. Perhaps with the help of her summons, she could stage it to look like a battle had taken place…

    When she realized where her train of thought was headed Rei crushed it furiously and bit the meat of her hand as hard as she possibly could as punishment. Her eyes blurred from the pain. No. You will not even contemplate that she told herself viciously. You are scum. You deserve whatever punishment is coming to you.

    Maybe, some part of her thought with disgusted resignation. Maybe they really will execute me. That would neatly solve all my problems, now wouldn’t it?

    Rei pulled a blanket off the back of the couch and wrapped it around herself, mind going numb. She didn’t know what to do or even if she should do anything. She wasn’t one to ever give up… but she didn’t even know who or what she should be fighting in this situation. Or if she should even be fighting at all. So frozen with numb horror and indecision, Rei did nothing at all.

    That was how Hinata found her some time later when she came downstairs, with Rei having taken to simply staring off blindly into space. Even in her numb state however Rei had felt her coming down the stairs, had seen her hiding around a corner and peeking out at her. Rei felt a pit grow in her stomach but mostly just felt numb. She looked away, hoping that if she ignored Hinata long enough the girl would go away.

    Eventually, though, Hinata seemed to find the courage to approach her. Rei leaned away from the girl as if by instinct, almost flinching away, like a dog who was expecting to be struck. Very slowly and deliberately, leaving a good foot of space in between them, Hinata sat down on the couch next to her with her hands folded on her lap. Rei couldn't help turning her face and body away, moving as far away from Hinata as she physically could without actually jumping off the couch.

    Rei had always been by far the more talkative of the two. This proved to be the case yet again.

    “What are you doing Hinata?” Rei asked, her voice hoarse for some reason. “I thought you’d want to be as far away from me as humanly possible.”

    Hinata was quiet for a few long, pregnant moments before she spoke. “I-I wasn’t sure if you wanted me around or not. But then, well… but then I noticed you crying and I… well…” she said, shrugging a little helplessly.

    “Crying?” Rei asked in confusion. “I’m not crying.”

    As she said that, however, one hand instinctively went to her face as if to wipe away tears. Rei was genuinely surprised when her hand came away wet. Now that she was paying attention Rei realized that tears were streaming down her face. Inside, Rei was baffled. She… she genuinely couldn’t remember the last time this had actually happened. When she had actually cried.

    “Okay. Fine. So. You saw me crying,” Rei said, sniffling now that she realized she was actually crying. “So what? What does that have to do with anything?”

    Hinata shifted uncomfortably, but in the end she spoke with a much stronger voice than Rei had come to expect from her. “I don’t like seeing you in pain, Rei-senpai.”

    At that… bizarre and frankly incongruous statement for the situation Rei whirled around to face Hinata. “You don’t like seeing me in pain? Hinata, I just strangled you into unconsciousness. For no reason than maybe I’m going insane as far as I can tell.”

    Rei let that statement hang in the air, as if it would somehow make Hinata realize how utterly disconnected from reality her last statement was. It didn’t do that though. Instead Hinata’s expression turned somber and when she spoke it was with a quiet conviction that Rei had never heard form her before.

    “If you’re feeling bad, please don’t. There’s no need for that.”

    Rei opened and closed her mouth a couple of times, momentarily struck speechless. It almost felt like they were speaking different languages. “Hinata,” Rei said slowly and deliberately. “I hurt you.”

    Hinata looked uncomfortable at Rei’s declaration but didn't back down. “I’m sure you did it for a good reason.”

    “Oh yeah?” asked Rei, now thoroughly perplexed. “What reason would that be?”

    “To see what I would do,” Hinata replied as if it were self-evident.

    Rei just looked at her face, feeling more puzzled and out of her depth the longer this conversation went on. Just what was going on? Was Hinata… somehow in denial? Before Rei could decide on what to say however Hinata beat her to the punch.

    “People hurt me all the time,” Hinata began, sounding completely causal about it. “It happens. It’s no big deal. Being choked into unconsciousness? It’s not like it’s never happened before. The trainers of the clan do it to me occasionally. Mostly to see if I can get out of their holds, to help toughen me up and to train me not to panic even in situations where I’m being asphyxiated. It’s never been a big deal, Rei-senpai, and I don’t want to see you torture yourself over it.”

    Rei could do nothing but stare, utterly speechless. The quiet dignity with which Hinata was explaining all this flew in the face of what she had come to expect from the girl, flew in the face of what her own mind told her should be normal and acceptable. Before Rei could even begin to formulate any kind of response Hinata went on, becoming more earnest the more she spoke.

    “However, you, Rei-senpai,” Hinata began, her voice quickly becoming thick with impassioned emotion. “Are the first person to express any kind of regret after hurting me. Ever. I think, maybe my mother did once. But my memories of her are really fuzzy. More emotions and impressions than anything else. You’re the only one who’s ever shown they cared and the only one who has ever tried to do anything about the pain I’m in. So I beg of your Rei-senpai. Don’t you for one second feel bad on my account.”

    After her little impassioned speech Hinata’s sudden courage seemed to give out on her all at once. In fact to Rei’s eyes she almost appeared to deflate. Her cheeks colored and she turned her face away from Rei in embarrassment. “I’m sorry senpai. Just… don’t feel bad on my account. Please. I’m not worth it.”

    All of that. Wow. Rei’s mind had already been overwhelmed before this conversation started. She was going to need some… time, if she was going to digest everything that Hinata had just said. Out of her whole impassioned speech only one thing jumped out immediately to her mind.

    “So… you’re not afraid of me?” Rei asked tentatively, half-afraid and half-hopeful of what the answer may be… and somehow, equally afraid of both answers.

    Slowly but with quiet certainty Hinata shook her head.

    Hinata’s answer… made Rei happy. And almost immediately she felt guilty for feeling happy. Hinata should be afraid of her, right? She deserved to be punished for what she did. Even if the victim didn’t think she had done anything wrong or even particularly out of the ordinary.

    Didn’t she?

    Hinata’s next quietly spoken words horrified her and almost completely blew her mind.

    “If you want to hurt me again sometimes, you can. I won’t mind.”

    The words were out of Rei’s mouth before she’d even had a single coherent though. “Why on Earth would you offer something like that?!”

    Hinata fidgeted uncomfortably at Rei’s obviously displeased tone, but when she spoke she managed to sound perfectly articulate and reasonable. “You’ve done so much for me Rei-senpai, you are doing so much for me, and there is nothing I can do to repay you. However I’ve seen how much… how much pain you’ve been in. Lately. If letting you hurt me makes you feel even a little better then… then that’s something that I can do for you.”

    Rei closed her eyes, a shameful and horrible shiver going through her body. “You… you would let me do it again? Choke you until you pass out? Hit you? Other stuff?”

    Hinata adverted her eyes but nodded her head. “Yes.”

    Suddenly Rei found herself feeling incredibly angry. The suddenness of it shocked her. She half-roared, half-spat her next words at Hinata. “Don’t tempt me Hinata Hyuuga. I could end up hurting you all the time. Just to make myself feel a little better. Do you really want that?”

    Hinata turned her head and looked away. When she spoke it was under her breath, her voice so low that Rei had to struggle to hear her.

    “Don’t tempt me.”

    Rei really, truly has no idea how to reply to that. So she didn't say anything. It was just… wow. Instead of trying to figure out what to say Rei turned her mind to trying to figure out why Hinata would say something like that.

    It took a couple of minutes but after replaying their conversation in her mind Rei became almost a hundred percent convinced she had figured out what the root was of all this was.

    Hinata had an almost absurdly low sense of self-worth. She also didn’t feel like she had anything to offer in their relationship. Ergo, she was probably afraid that Rei would get tired of her and leave her, since she was obviously so worthless with nothing to offer. But if it turned out that Rei enjoyed hurting her? Then she finally had something to give. Something, in fact, that no one else besides Hinata would be able to give Rei.

    Fuckin A.

    There were probably some other reasons tied up in that, reasons that Rei didn’t really want to explore right now. However this…offer… most likely stemmed almost entirely from her lack of self-worth. Which meant there was very little Rei could do about it in the short term.

    Damn it. With her issues Hinata was almost begging to be exploited by the first unscrupulous person that came along.

    Like me, a treacherous voice whispered in the back of her head. For the first time Rei felt some guilt about her plan to manipulate Hinata to her own ends.

    Not that… that would cause her to back off. Exactly.

    Rei sighed, rubbing her face and running her hands through her hair. What a mess. The two of them… the two of them were just so messed up. In different ways, but the both of them, so thoroughly and completely messed up.

    I am the adult, Rei thought to herself chidingly. Shouldn’t I have the answers on how to fix the both of us?

    With a start, Rei realized that she didn’t feel like and adult. In fact she hadn’t felt anything like an adult in a long time. And instantly that realization brought up another question.

    Did not feeling like an adult mean that she wasn’t an adult?

    That unsettling train of thought was something she decided to hold off on for another time. She had enough on her mental plate right now as it was, thank you very much.

    Once again Rei sighed tiredly before speaking. There was one more thing she needed to get off her chest. “I thought about killing you you know. When I choked you. For a minute there I really, really wanted to do it.”

    Hinata for her part didn’t reply. Didn’t give a verbal absolution. But from the way she didn’t shy away, didn’t look particularly horrified… hell, from the way she seemed to turn into Rei and moved closer to her when she felt the other girl’s distress… well, it was pretty clear that Hinata wasn’t planning on holding that particular bit against her, either.

    When Hinata put a tentative hand on her shoulder, Rei lost it. She let out a choked sob and fresh tears started streaming down her face. Biting her lip and throwing all shyness and caution to the wind Hinata closed the distance between them and wrapped the older girl in a tight hug. Rei clung to her like a lifeline, trying to sob quietly to preserve her dignity and not having much success. In the end she let it all go, openly sobbing into Hinata’s shoulder.

    “Hinata, I think… I think… that maybe I’m really broken.”

    Hinata sighed sadly, and somehow that simple act felt like a deeply shared commiseration between them.

    Later, in the coming days and weeks, Rei would sit down, do some soul searching, and realize that a great deal of her misery was self-inflicted. Later, Rei would go back to enjoying her role as being the strong one that Hinata could rely on unconditionally. Later, Rei would realize that even though she had the memories of an adult, she still had a lot of growing up to do.

    For now, however, two young girls held and comforted each other, and an unbreakable lifelong bond was forged between them.
     
    meri, Tur, Perspicacious and 46 others like this.
  14. Threadmarks: Chapter 40
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 40
    000
    One Year Later. Three Months Before Graduation.

    Rei sat with her legs crossed, one arm tossed casually over the back of the chair she was sitting on, appearing for all the world like the very picture of relaxed and easy confidence. Her lips were upturned into a polite smile that couldn't quite hide the smugness and deep satisfaction she was feeling. Sure, the current situation she was in was supposed to be the definitive test. However as far as she was concerned the current meeting in a small conference room at the rear of the academy was nothing more than a formality to make "official" what she had discovered just a few short months before.

    Before her was a panel of four Chunin sitting behind a single long desk. Four men, each and every one of them an instructor at the academy, though Rei could only really muster up a miniscule bit of interest for two of them. Part of the panel that was evaluating her contained Iruka Umino and Mizuki whatever-his-last-name-was, both of them looking at her with a combination of skepticism and cautious wonder. Rei's eyes flickered to the side to catch a glimpse of her own academy teacher, Nao-sensei, leaning against the corner of the room with an almost bored look on her face. For reasons of impartiality and because she had been one of the first to kick what Rei had discovered up the chain of command she was not permitted to sit on the panel evaluating her. Not that it mattered. There was absolutely no doubt in Rei's mind that she was going to pass this little evaluation of theirs with flying colors. She had made sure to test it extensively before deciding to bring it up to anyone of import after all.

    A middle aged Chunin with a salt-and-pepper mustache, whatever his name was, took the lead of their official panel. Thankfully he didn't waste any time in getting down to business. "Rei Yamanaka-san, do you have anything to say for the record before we begin?"

    Rei tilted her head a little, her smile broadening a fraction of an inch. "Only that I know I will pass this test with ease. If you wanted to make it interesting you should have brought in a specialist."

    Mustache narrowed his eyes a little at her arrogant and borderline rude attitude but in the end decided not to call her out on it. He turned his head to the side and gave Iruka a barely imperceptible nod. Rei eyed his dark skin and the iconic scar across his face as the young Chunin stood. Giving Rei what she guessed was supposed to be a reassuring smile he waited for her to acknowledge him with a small nod before beginning. Iruka then began to go through a sequence of hand seals in a very slow and deliberate manner, presumably doing all he could so that no one could question if he performed the technique correctly.

    "Demonic Illusion: Hell Viewing Technique!"

    The one thing Rei had that no one else had, the one thing that she had almost begun to think of as her own little bastardized Kekkei Genkai, was her own unmatched awareness of the energies flowing inside her own system. So far that awareness had yielded a number of effects that were both strong and useful (though nowhere near Sharingan-hax levels), the most overtly noteworthy of the effects being the ability she had gained to refill her depleted Chakra stores by transforming her incredibly large amount of surplus Spiritual energy directly into Chakra. Rei had always had faith that as she continued to refine her awareness as she dove into her mind and energies at night more useful abilities would reveal themselves.

    Oh, how right she had been.

    Genjutsu, as every academy student who bothered to pay attention knows, operates by inserting foreign Chakra into the brain in a way that is completely unnoticeable by the intended victim. For most conventional Genjutsu the problem does not lie in breaking the technique, which can usually be done with a "Kai!" and a forceful expulsion of Chakra. No, the problem lies in the fact that most victims do not even realize they are in a Genjutsu to begin with.
    A problem that Rei recently discovered is no longer a problem for her at all.

    Rei felt it very clearly as Iruka completed his technique, felt how small amounts of his Chakra left him and sought to enter the tenketsu on her head like dust seeking to find its way into a locked house. She allowed the foreign Chakra into her body and felt it clear as day as it began to congeal and take shape in some of the smaller Chakra pathways in her brain. In the space of a breath the technique began to take hold and Rei could feel how the foreign Chakra began to activate and manipulate several different regions inside of her Chakra network.

    Just as Rei's vision began to waver slightly and new sensations began calling for her attention, she focused on that particular affected portion of her brain and pushed. Instead of the wasteful full-body expulsion of Chakra from a normal "Kai!" technique Rei simply flooded the affected Chakra pathways in her brain with a fast moving stream of Chakra. Like high water pressure cleaning out the inside of a dirty hose the delicate Genjutsu construct was completely obliterated, washed away and rendered completely ineffective in less than a second. The sensations that had begun calling for her attention ceased immediately. Rei just smiled smugly at Iruka's stupefied expression and the small, almost involuntary shifting of the other three Chunin across from her.

    With some effort Iruka tore his eyes away from her and looked to the mustachioed Chunin before slowly sitting down and giving the older man an almost imperceptible nod. The leader of the little panel gave a small grunt that could have meant anything before locking eyes with another of the Chunin instructors, this time the probably-will-become-a-traitor-next-year Mizuki (assuming he wasn't already a traitor that is). The silver-haired man stood up and gave Rei a handsome smile that was probably supposed to be reassuring. Rei smiled blandly back, having no particular feelings one way or the other towards the silver-haired man.

    Unlike Iruka, Mizuki sped through his hand seals confidently and quickly. He also did not vocalize the name of his technique as he cast it like Iruka had done, something that suggested a pretty high level of mastery of the jutsu. The sensations she felt were almost identical to what they had been when Iruka had attempted his own technique. The smallest slivers of Chakra flowed out from Mizuki and attempted to flow into the tenketsu of her head. This time Rei did not allow the technique a chance to take effect. With a bit of effort Rei was able to relatively easily grab hold of the Chakra attempting to enter her system and disrupt it by smothering it with her own Chakra. Unlike with Iruka she did not allow the technique to take hold before she disrupted it. Instead she completely countered it before the technique even had a chance to do anything at all.

    For a split second a look of irritation crossed Mizuki's face when he felt his technique fail before he quickly replaced it with a broad and friendly smile. It wasn't hard to see why an attention starved kid like Naruto would have so easily fallen for his bullshit.

    "Wow, Rei-san. I'm impressed. You somehow managed to completely counter my technique."

    Rei's smile turned sharp and patronizing. "Thank you, Mizuki-sensei."

    A small muscle on his face jumped at seeing her expression before quickly being completely smoothed away. The man really needed to work on such glaring tells if he wanted so badly to work as an infiltrator. "How are able to do that?" he asked, his tone making him sound genuinely interested. "I don't recall ever hearing of a technique like that. You're really amazing Rei-chan."

    Laying it on a little thick aren't we? Rei thought, not really thrilled with being called "Rei-chan" by presumptuous strangers even at the best of times. She opened her mouth to tell him to address her as "Rei-san" and to give some impressing sounding non-answer about how she was able to counter his Genjutsu when she suddenly felt several tell-tale tickles on her Chakra senses.

    Ah. Trying to be sneaky are you?

    Instead of one, she felt what she thought were three separate Genjutsu suddenly attempting to take hold of her all at once. Acting quickly Rei managed to near instantaneously counter two of the Genjutsu attempts before they even managed to enter her system. However the third Genjutsu was able to enter her tenketsu and began to quickly congeal in a few of the different Chakra pathways in her brain. Rei managed to flush out and purge that final Genjutsu a mere heartbeat after it managed to take hold.

    Looking around she noticed that the final two Chunin testing her happened to conspicuously have their hands out of view. Rei deduced that they must have been responsible for two of the Genjutsu and a third person hidden somewhere must have attempted the third. Her eyes flickered to the two nameless Chunin evaluating her, making quick eye contact so that they knew that she knew, before turning back to address Mizuki.

    "Trying to distract me so that it would be easier for other people to snare me in a Genjutsu? Tricky. Of course there is no way something so cheap and transparent would ever have worked on me."

    Rei caught a flash of irritation on his face before he smoothed it into a sheepish smile. He really is terrible at this whole infiltration business. "Sorry, just following orders Rei-chan. We needed to make sure you could do what you claimed even when you weren't expecting it. But hey, no hard feelings right?"

    "Of course," Rei replied easily. "Like I said, you were a complete non-issue."

    Her reply didn't get any overt reactions out of him this time though his smile did become noticeably strained. What a complete buffoon. Mizuki opened his mouth to reply but before he could speak mustache-Chunin cut him off.

    "Enough. The test has been administered. Let us confer so that we may make a decision."

    Mizuki looked a bit put off by the interruption but in the end complied without complaint. The four Chunin turned their chairs away from her and huddled in a small circle, their voices too low for her to hear what they were saying. Almost without conscious thought Rei found her eyes drifting towards Nao-sensei who had been silently standing in a corner this entire time. As always, her expression was icily neutral and showed nothing of her thoughts on what she had just seen. That was a bit of a disappointment. Nao-sensei was the only academy instructor that she genuinely liked and even somewhat respected. Rei raised an eyebrow at her when they made eye contact as if to ask what did you think? Nao for her part merely held Rei's gaze, her expression stone still and not changing in the slightest. When the intense eye contact started to get a little awkward Rei looked away first, nervously clearing her throat unnecessarily.

    Now that's how you do aloof and cool. Neji, Sasuke and others could take some tips from Nao-sensei.

    Luckily the meeting between the four Chunin broke up then, having lasted less than two minutes which led Rei to believe their "conference" among themselves was nothing more than a formality. The four Chunin returned to their previous seats lined up in front of her, all of them with serious and somewhat somber expressions on their faces. Captain mustache was, naturally, the one who spoke after a few seconds of silence.

    "Academy student Rei Yamanaka-san," the man began in a serious and formal tone. "In regards to the claim you have made that you are immune to Genjutsu, this panel finds that your claims are indeed substantiated. This technique you have developed is hereby recognized as legitimate and will be provisionally added to your official record, pending more intensive and thorough testing once you achieve the rank of Chunin or at such a time as your superiors decide further official testing is appropriate. I am to make it clear to you that under the Technique Exclusivity Decree set forth by the First Hoakge, you have the right to keep all details of this technique you have developed to yourself should you choose to do so. However in light of its… unprecedented usefulness, this panel hopes that one day you will be willing to pass on this technique for the sake of the strength and security of the Hidden Leaf." To Rei's eyes the man looked a little discomforted that an academy student like herself would even know such a technique, let alone develop it herself.

    Rei had to resist the urge to scoff. For the 'strength and security of the Hidden Leaf', pfft as if. Thanks, but no thanks Pornstache. Besides I don't think this is something I could teach even if I wanted to.
    Mustachio then continued, "This concludes the meeting and official function of this panel. Rei Yamanaka-san, you are free to leave."

    Rei graciously gifted the man a slow nod of acknowledgement before he returned a small one, stood up and without fanfare headed for the door. The other three Chunin rose more slowly and began to walk towards the door together, almost instantly falling into an intense conversation of excited hushed whispers, each of them sneaking at least one glance in her direction. This time they weren't as careful to keep their voices down and Rei managed to catch snippets of their conversation.

    "-genius-"

    "-ard to believe-"

    "-er seen anything like-"

    "-promoted right away-"

    The three men exited the room, closing the door behind them and leaving Rei alone in the room with Nao-sensei. Rei allowed herself a moment to close her eyes, take a deep breath, and bask in the satisfaction of complete victory. Of unambiguous and unequivocal success. Becoming immune to an entire branch of ninja techniques was not something she had planned for but in hindsight it was perhaps a development she should have seen coming. Now her file would have "immune and/or highly resistant to Genjutsu" right next to "youngest person to win a summoning contract in history" and "stealth and assassination specialist." It was good start, a fantastic start even, if she was to achieve her goal of becoming so formidable and well known that Konoha would be forced to think twice before they decided to send any teams of hunter-nin after her.

    It was a good step, yes. A great victory that she had managed to achieve. Yet… even though she knew this was a great step, somehow it still rang a bit hollow.

    Rei knew the reason for this feeling of course. She knew without a shadow of a doubt that even with this she wasn't even close to being good enough.

    It the end, it would only be a drop in the bucket.

    Never enough.

    And it was never enough, wasn't it? No matter how much she fought. No matter how much she sacrificed. It was never good enough.

    She should have been stronger by now. She knew she could have been. She could have been so much stronger by now.

    She was better than this.

    There was absolutely no excuse for still being so weak.

    She should have been stronger by now.

    She needed to be stronger.

    She needed to be stronger now.

    How much longer would she have to wait?

    Even now, after everything, a single Jounin would be able to take her down. Even the WEAKEST Jounin in Konoha would still be able to take her down in her current state.

    Pathetic.

    She needed… she nEEDED







    Shit.

    Suddenly Rei viciously bit her lip so hard that she tasted blood. She tightened her fists until her fingernails cut into her palms, the pain helping her to break her out of vicious thoughts, and forced herself to calm down while she began to recite a now-familiar mantra in her head.

    It's okay. You have time. It's okay. You have time. It's okay. You have time.

    As she breathed the sharp edges of desperation and the feelings of being trapped began to recede, her shoulders slowly relaxing almost imperceptibly as she fought back against that vicious cycle of circular thought. She couldn't allow herself to fall into that familiar trap again. Not again, not like she had last year. Down that road there was nothing except madness and pain.

    It's okay. You have time. It's okay. You have time.

    When she finally opened her eyes a minute or two later Rei all of a sudden remembered that she hadn't been alone in the conference room. Nao-sensei was watching her with those bright green, cat-like eyes of hers, and her scrutiny felt like a physical weight on Rei's skin. Suddenly feeling uncomfortably exposed Rei resisted the urge to growl and snap at her academy instructor on reflex. Instead she smoothly rose to her feet and used all of her training to project an image that there was nothing wrong and that she was completely at ease. Conveniently enough, faking an emotion tended to help Rei to actually start feeling it for real.

    The girl plastered a pleasant but entirely meaningless smile on her face and approached her teacher. Best to pretend that nothing unusual at all had happened, as that was a very good way to get people to dismiss something they had seen that they might have thought was unusual.

    With cheer in her voice that wasn't one hundred percent fake (she was pleased with her accomplishment, small mental hiccups aside) Rei asked, "So, what did you think?"

    Nao just scrutinized her without saying anything. In fact she did it long enough that Rei began to feel nervous and just a tad irritated. Rei was a moment away from saying something else when she finally noticed a change in her teacher's expression. Small, so small that at first Rei thought she might have been seeing things, Nao's lips turned up into what was little more than suggestion of a smile.

    "Fishing for compliments, are we?"

    Nao's voice was low, formal and tinged with a dry sardonic sarcasm Rei couldn't help but like. Nao's words brought a somewhat more genuine smile to her face. "Of course not. But I feel I should remind you, Nao-sensei, that it is the duty of every good teacher to give positive reinforcement to their students when they exceed expectations beyond what anybody imagined was possible."

    Nao's eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly. "My duty now, is it?"

    Fighting back the sudden urge to giggle Rei nodded solemnly. "I'm simply trying my best to be a responsible and conscientious student by reminding you of this, you see."

    "I see," replied Nao with a heavy undercurrent of dry mockery. Then she tilted down her glasses, looked at Rei over the top of them, and said in the absolutely most deadpan voice Rei had ever heard, "Good job."

    From literally anybody else that response would have probably irritated Rei. But Nao-sensei was just so… so Nao-sensei that Rei couldn't really picture wanting her to be anybody else. Granted a large portion of the fondness she felt for her teacher was most likely due to the fact that she had let Rei get away with absolute murder in her class for the past six years. It also probably had to do with the fact a on a few very rare occasions the seemingly unapproachable Nao had given her some good advice when she had needed it or had, at times, shared some more advanced tips or insights about a few different ninja techniques.

    Still recently something had felt a bit… off about Nao-sensei, something Rei couldn't quite put her finger on. Rei took a moment to examine her academy instructor of six years. Her glasses were different this year, the black frames thicker and somewhat more rounded, with an eyeglass chord made from tiny dark beads hanging off of them as a new accessory. Pale tint on her lips. Her aquamarine hair drawn back into a tight bun without a single hair out of place. Barely a hint of eyeliner and no other makeup. Except for some tiny differences she looked just as she always had. So what was it about her teacher that had been tickling at her subconscious lately? It was akin to a word on the tip of her tongue that she couldn't quite remember no matter how hard she tried.

    "This technique of yours… it's going to attract attention."

    Nao's voice made her blink. By the unamused look in those feline eyes Rei knew that she had been caught staring, and that her teacher didn't appreciate it in the least. For the second time that day Rei cleared her throat awkwardly and decided to just focus on what her teacher had just said.

    "You make that sound like bad thing," said Rei with a shrug after she thought it over. "I'm not sure why I should really care to be honest." Actually I do want people to stand up and take notice, but that's not really the sort of thing I want to admit to you out loud right now.

    "After you graduate. People are going to be coming to you with offers," Nao said, her voice all of a sudden very neutral and completely without inflection.

    Rei had some idea what she was talking about but decided to play dumb for the time being. The girl raised a questioning eyebrow. "Offers?"

    "The buzz word will be 'opportunity'," Nao said with that same neutral tone, the tiniest hint of disapproval coloring her voice. "If you choose to accept any offer, make sure you know exactly what you will be getting into beforehand."
    Her warning was heavy with things left unsaid. Rei narrowed her eyes. She had always been at least a little bit fond of Nao-sensei but as far as she could tell that had mostly always been one sided on her part. Whenever Nao had helped her she had always assumed it was out of a sense of duty or responsibility. This could also be the same but something about it felt a bit… different.

    "Why are you telling me this?" Rei asked, not bothering to completely hide her suspicion.

    Nao scrutinized her for a long moment before replying in a quiet but firm voice. "Getting into things is easy. Getting out, however, can be next to impossible."

    Holy shit. That wasn't ominous at all, no sir. Rei could tell by her tone of voice that Nao was done with their conversation and wouldn't answer any more of her questions. Though Rei wasn't sure she really needed the warning she at least… appreciated the concern.

    "Thank you, Nao-sensei," Rei said with a little respectful nod that communicated more than just the words.
    Nao looked to the side, seemingly now bored with their conversation. "Get out. The school day is over and I have paperwork to do."

    Rei resisted the urge to point out that they were in a conference room, not in her office, and if she was so eager to do paperwork she should be the one leaving the room and heading there first. But Nao had just tried to do her a solid. She could can the sass for one day.

    "I'll head out then. See you in class," Rei said easily. Nao didn't respond or react in any way, but Rei had more or less been expecting that. Turning on her heel she walked out of the room leaving her teacher all alone in the empty conference room.

    As she walked out of the academy, Rei's mind was still on Nao-sensei. Partly on the cryptic warning she had deemed important enough to impart. Mostly however she was dwelling on that feeling that she was missing something obvious and that she didn't know what it was. It was like a splinter in her skin that was just irritating. What was it that had been bugging her recently? What was she missing?

    It was her looks, she decided. It was something about the way Nao-sensei looked.

    But what? She looked the same as she always had, more or less. So what was it that was bugging her?

    As she walked, Rei let her eyes drift almost closed as she remembered Nao when she had first met in her first year. The Nao of today looked a bit older, of course. Back then she wore square rimless glasses. The tint on her lips had been a brighter color and a little bit shinier. Maybe she wore a little more make-up, her eyeshadow had been noticeably thicker. But everything else was the same.

    Rei stuck out her tongue to the side as she thought. There was something there. She felt like she was getting closer, like she was nearly there. But what was she missing?

    Nao looked exactly the same. So why did she keep getting the feeling something about her looks was off? Why?

    Rei kept thinking back, searching through her nearly flawless memory. Two years after she had started at the academy Nao-sensei had changed her glasses. A little rounder with a thin frame. Her lips had been… yes, the tint on her lips had been less shiny, just a shade or two more pale. Maybe a little less makeup though she couldn't be sure.
    A year and a half after that… new glasses, slightly different with a thicker rim. Subtly different make up. Lips barely a shade more pale. Her distinct outfit had changed just a bit too to something that wasn't as flattering on her admittedly quite nice figure. Rei felt like she was on the cusp of figuring something out here.

    Why? Why the gradual changes over the years? Why would someone do that? Especially since, except for looking older, Nao-sensei still looked…

    Rei's eyes slowly widened as it all began to click.

    … exactly the same.

    The changes. The gradual changes over time. Make-up. Eyeliner, from relatively thick and slowly thinning over the years until now it was practically nonexistent. Generally speaking thick eyeliner makes you look younger, while thinner eyeliner made you look older. Also the gradually disappearing make up, concealer, blush, etc also made her appear older.

    The lip color. Gradually making it paler and less glossy over the years. Also something that would make you look older.

    The clothes. More figure-hugging ones made you seem younger. More conservative cuts gave the illusion of age and maturity.

    Glasses, the slowly changing styles. Wider rims, more round shapes. Things that made you appear older. Hell, she'd started including freaking beaded eyeglass cords this year, something only old ladies would typically be caught dead wearing!

    When Rei had begun at the academy she had pegged Nao-sensei at about sixteen or seventeen years of age. Now, when Rei pictured Nao-sensei, she looked to be about twenty two or twenty three. Exactly as she should. But… But…
    It was just her clothes, the makeup and lip color and glasses that made her look that age. If Rei focused on filtering out what she was being presented and just focused on the face underneath… comparing it now as to what it had been six years ago…

    Rei breathed, Holy shit. She stopped walking and her heart rate sped up as she contemplated the implications.

    None of her classmates had noticed. Not one. Not even Neji. Even she, Rei, had not caught on until just a few months before graduation. It was well done. Oh, was it ever well done. People saw what they wanted to see after all.

    But why? Why the disguise? Why not use a simple Henge? Rei didn't know the answers to any of those questions. In fact there were now suddenly a whole truck full of questions Rei didn't know but would sorely like the answers to. In that moment, however, there was only one fact that mattered, one fact that would forever change how she thought about and looked at her long time academy teacher.

    It's been six years and Nao-sensei looks exactly… completely… one hundred percent… the same. Underneath all the makeup and disguises she's still the same seventeen year old girl. She hasn't aged a single day. Exactly just what the hell is going on?

    000
     
    meri, Tur, Perspicacious and 48 others like this.
  15. Threadmarks: Chapter 41
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 41

    000

    As she left the academy, Rei did not know what she was going to do about her newest discovery. Rei decided that the higher ups in the village were definitely aware of Nao-sensei's little subterfuge, it would be almost absurd to think no one at all had noticed, so she could reasonably assume that whatever her academy instructor was playing at was officially sanctioned. Deducing that much, however, still didn't answer any of her questions.

    Perhaps it would be best if she just left well enough alone. Calling attention to what was obviously an elaborate ruse would ruffle feathers and most likely lead to a confrontation. Such a thing was, frankly speaking, useless to her as it did nothing to further her own goals… if anything it would just be borrowing trouble she didn't particularly want or need.

    Then again… then again, since when had trouble ever stopped her from doing anything? If Rei wanted something, she got it, end of story. The only question then was how badly she wanted to peruse it. Part of her was insanely curious. How could she not be? Another part of her, however, was loath to deviate at all from her rigidly structured and utterly punishing self-imposed training schedule. If she began to make exceptions and invested her time and energy elsewhere, how long until she was making excuses left and right to skive off and her training suffered for it? It went without saying such an outcome would be completely and utterlyunacceptable.

    Well, whatever she decided to do, Rei wasn't about to make a decision right then and there. She had other plans for the day that needed her attention. Without any conscious thought Rei's lips turned upwards into a small, quirky smile as she spotted the person who had been waiting for her.

    "Yo," Rei casually, as she walked up to Neji who was sitting on a bench in an isolated area near a training ground and very intently reading a book.

    "You're late," he said without even looking up, turning a page as his eyes remained glued to the item in his hands.
    Rei glanced at the title before plopping herself down next to him. A Comprehensive Treatise on Small Squad Tactics, Vol. III. "No I'm not. I told you there was some uncertainty about how long the old guys would take."

    "Hn," was his only noncommittal response. Rei couldn't help but grin at that. How very Uchiha of you.

    "Aren't you going to ask me how it went?"

    "I'm assuming that your general lack of anger and angst means it went well."

    "Well yeah," said Rei, sounding playfully exasperated. "But it's still polite to ask."

    "Whatever," said Neji, turning another page on his book.

    Rei couldn't help but lean back on the bench and smile a little at his response. Anyone else would probably have been annoyed or even outright angry at Neji's curt dismissal and how he had not even deemed to look in her direction since she had arrived. Rei, however, was by now very fluent in Neji so she could easily spot what everybody else would miss. Saying "whatever" for example was something Neji would only do with someone he felt extremely comfortable with. That kind of offhand remark was extremely casual and starkly deviated from the painfully polite and formal manner of speaking he had been raised to always utilize. No one else would catch him dead using such an informal and relaxed manner of speech. He only allowed himself to slip in such a way with her every once in a while.

    As to not even looking at her to acknowledge her… well, it was actually a compliment. Sort of. If you squinted. Had she been anyone else Neji would have wasted no time in acknowledging their presence so he could chase them away with his absolutely fantastic people skills. Simply accepting someone's company without even a hint of discomfort or passive-aggressive hostility was quite a huge deal for Neji. As far as Rei knew she was the only person in the world afforded such a privilege.

    I've almost got a full set of all the Hyuuga that matter, Rei thought with not a small amount of satisfaction. The only one left would be Hanabi. Probably not worth the trouble though. I'm more than happy with the ones I have right now.

    "What did you want to meet with me about?" Neji asked, pulling Rei from her reverie.

    That's right, this meeting wasn't just training or idle chit chat. Rei had come here with a purpose and, as with everything, she was determined to see it through. Turning her body to more fully face Neji, Rei decided to attack the matter head on. "Have you ever thought about expanding your skill set beyond just the Juuken?"

    That had an impact, as Neji completely froze before slowly closing his book and methodically putting it away. He turned to face Rei, his expression uncharacteristically severe and serious even for him. "Not in any serious manner. The Juuken already has methods to deal with any sort of threat imaginable. There is no need for me to learn anything else."

    He said it with such a serious sort of finality that Rei had to suppress a grimace. While she could be almost obscenely stubborn and bull headed Neji was absolutely no slouch in that department either. Convincing him was going to be a nasty uphill battle, she could tell. Still Rei Yamanaka had never been a person to shy away from something just because it might prove "difficult" or "impossible".

    "You don't seriously believe that," said Rei gently, settling in for what was likely to be a long discussion. "The Juuken is a Taijutsu based art. No matter how strong it is you can't say that kind of style doesn't have some inherent limitations."

    Neji glared at her with enough angry heat to actually really surprise Rei. It was frankly... bizarre, to be perfectly honest. Neji, for all his pride, had never shied away before from discussing the shortcomings of his clan in private when it was just the two of them. He also wasn't the type to delude himself about the strengths and weaknesses of any approach or technique. Why did it suddenly feel like she had stumbled across a sore spot?

    "The Juuken is a complete art," said Neji, his voice crisp and clipped. "If the user is adaptable and skilled enough, it has no weaknesses. It was forged and refined to perfection in the centuries of the Warring Clans era. I am blessed to be able to learn such a complete and superior art. There is no need for anything else."

    Rei sucked on her teeth as she scrutinized Neji, trying to figure out what the hell felt so off about this conversation and why Neji was acting this way. After a few moments she replied, "You can't seriously believe you wouldn't benefit from broadening you repertoire of skills."

    "Why not?" Neji countered. "All the major clans of Konoha take that route, after all. Inuzuka. Hyuuga. Aburame. The now-defunct Uchiha. All the clans, all of them refine their family styles to a razors edge and then, if they are skilled and lucky, go on to contribute something meaningful to their art for the next generation. If you say that my position is foolish then you say the position of all of Konoha's clans are foolish, including your own."

    Well, they kind of are. However Rei was smart enough not to say that, not the least reason being that Neji was unlikely to react well to it. Still Rei had the feeling this wasn't really the root of Neji's objections, just a reasonable enough sounding argument to cover up what was really getting under his skin. Rei decided to try another track.

    "At the rate we're going, sooner or later - and I'd put my money on sooner - I'm going to be definitively stronger than you. You do know that right?" Rei asked, her head tilting in curiosity as she scrutinized him.

    Neji shifted uneasily, before turning his head away and snorting derisively. "Please. I still win the majority of our spars by a wide margin. There is no empirical evidence to support such a statement."

    "Isn't there?" asked Rei, leaning in and smiling slightly as she smelled weakness. "When was the last time you learned a new technique that wasn't just another variation on the Gentle Fist Taijutsu? Sure, your Taijutsu and the mastery of your Byakugan have grown by leaps and bounds, to the point where me going hand-to-hand with you is practically suicide for me. But that has always been the case, you refining your Taijutsu further doesn't do much outside of what happens when you get someone in melee range. As for me, let's see since we've met... I've won a summoning contract, I've become adept at using poisons, I've become a stealth specialist, I've become pretty damn good at using wire, and I've just proven to a bunch of Chunnin that I learned how to become practically immune to Genjutsu, among other things. Need I go on? Even if your style of fighting and your blood line is in some ways a perfect counter to my chosen style it won't be long until I learn something that will allow me to beat you. Simply put, the fact that you aren't looking to diversify your skills is going to seriously limit your potential in the future."

    And wouldn't all that wasted potential end up being a tragedy? It wasn't not just a theory either. That was the exact thing that happened in the story from what Rei remembered. Neji never became more than a highly competent Jounin. In her book, that is a tragedy. Having trained with Neji for as long as she had Rei knew that he was legitimately a genius, someone who could probably pick up and master literally anything he put his mind to.
    If she was going to have Neji as a training partner, he needed to be able to keep up with her. That, at least, was the reason she told herself. Worrying that he might one day be killed because he was too mule-headed to learn anything outside of what his family taught had absolutely nothing to do with it.

    It was telling that Neji didn't have any response to her right away, and that his displeased expression directed at her deepened to the point it would have sent anyone else in their age group running for the hills. It took a few long moments before he replied. "Deeply mastering a more limited set of complementary techniques that are designed to work well together is at least as good as focusing on a wider scope of techniques that most likely won't work so well together. Both are legitimate approaches on the path of a shinobi."

    "Uh-Hugh," replied Rei, sounding unconvinced. "I suppose that is fine if your goal is to become just another more-or-less average Jounin. But let's face it, in Konoha that kind of narrow specialization has never produced any of the sorts of ninja who sit at the very top of the shinobi world. Who are the most revered ninja in recent memory? The Sanin, to start with. Two of them renown for, among other things, the wide number of techniques they know and have mastered. The third of the Sanin is most famous for her medical techniques... but it is less well known that she also knows at the very least many dozens of other techniques. The Third Hokage is renown for his versatility and the number of jutsus he knows. The Fourth Hokage was a ninjutsu master and a sealing expert. Do I need to go on? If you're actually serious about reaching for the top you'll be better served broadening your horizons... just as the ones who came before us did. None of this 'being narrowly specialized will work just as well' crap you were spouting just now."

    Neji had turned his head away by this point, looking down and glaring at the ground like it had just killed his puppy and tried to molest his mother. "So?" he asked, his voice hard and bitter. "What is the point of telling me all this?"

    Well, she wasn't going to get a better set up line than that. With a flick of her wrist she was suddenly holding two rectangular pieces of paper in one hand, a half-grin growing on her face that was almost wolfish. "Weeeeelll, I thought the two of us could learn what our Elemental affinities are together. We're both over qualified by this point, having far exceeded the few sensible 'suggested' requirements, and learning a few Elemental jutsu would not only be amazingly useful but also incredibly impressive. Also keep in mind we're graduating soon. We'll only get one shot at making a first impression as freshly minted Genin. Having a Chunin level skill under our belts as soon as we graduate will go a long way towards people taking us seriously... and they'll remember."

    Neji's eyes flicked over to her, his expression unreadable except to show he was even more unhappy now after her little speech. As he eyed the two strips of special Elemental paper in her hands Rei couldn't help but wonder what it was about this whole conversation that suddenly had Neji all tied up in knots. As it turned out Rei didn't have to wait long. Neji turned his head away, and for the first time in a long time saw something she had not been allowed to see in him in a long time: regret, and just a tinge of melancholy and sadness.

    "... I can't."

    He'd said it so low it took Rei a moment to decipher what she'd heard. She couldn't help but frown. "What the hell do you mean, 'you can't'?"

    "I mean I can't," he said, bitterness creeping into his tone as he refused to meet her eyes. "It's forbidden. Branch house members are not permitted to learn any techniques not authorized by the Main house. And they won't let a lowly Branch member learn anything that might potentially loosen the noose they have around our necks."

    Rei was... struck speechless by what she just heard. Her mouth opened and closed a few times but no sound came out. As seconds ticked by, however, her shock slowly morphed to an indignant sort of outrage.

    "But that's stupid," Rei practically shouted. "How the hell do they expect to improve themselves as a clan with stupid ass rules like that?!"

    Neji made a sound halfway between a snort and an pissed-off scoff. "You and the clan have very different priorities, Rei. Besides the Main branch is still permitted to innovate, even if none of them ever actually do so. We Branch members are expected to become just strong enough to become useful shields and cannon fodder for the Main house."

    That last part was probably a bit unfair, but it also probably wasn't too far from the truth. That revelation of the restrictions Neji was under was... fucked up. Beyond fucked up. Rei literally had no idea how any Branch members could live in that kind environment without going literally insane. She knew that she would not have been able to do it. Rei wanted to say something, anything, to make things better, or at least to make Neji feel better.

    "You can still learn the advanced Juuken techniques if you can figure them out yourself, right?" Rei asked, her voice going soft but carefully not pitying. In the story she remembered Neji learning those Main house skills on his own at least seemingly without punishment.

    Neji shifted his shoulders uncomfortably. "It is a loophole in the clan laws. We are not permitted to be taught them, and we are not permitted to learn non-clan techniques without permission. If a Branch member were to discover the advanced clan techniques on their own however then there would be no broken laws and he should be free from reprisals. Technically speaking."

    That was... good. Technically. However, anyway she looked at it, it completely wasn't fair. Her eyes flicked over to her best friend. She wanted to help him. Neji deserved better than this. Neji was better than this. Better than just about everyone in that damn stupid backwards clan of his.

    "You should try to reverse engineer the Vacuum Palm first," Rei said absently in a quiet, thoughtful voice as her mind whirled. "You desperately need some more ranged options in your fighting style."

    Neji made a derisive, mocking sound at that. "The Hakke Kusho is a more refined version of the Hakkesho Kaiten, which needs to be mastered first. I'll thank you not to comment on things you have no understanding of."

    Rei took no offense at his words, as she understood he was upset at having to confess this to her as well as everything... else. Her mind explored and discarded different potential options to help at a rapid pace, her mental faculties which had been refined to a honed edge over years attacking the situation from a number of different angles.

    However, no matter how she looked at it, helping Neji overcome this problem in the short term looked to be nearly impossible. Trying to keep any new techniques learned secret from the Hyuuga clan was bound to end in failure sooner rather than later. The only way to help Neji was if... well, if Hiashi Hyuuga could somehow be persuaded to give Neji permission.

    Unfortunately Rei had nothing useful that the head of Konoha's most powerful remaining clan would want in order to strike some sort of bargain. Though she had a perfectly cordial relationship with Hiashi he wasn't about to just throw his clan into turmoil just to do her a favor. She was, after all, not even a Genin yet. Rei cursed her lack of influence and power. In short order she was forced to reluctantly admit that there was nothing she could do for Neji at the moment.

    However... that did not mean that things would necessarily have to stay this way forever.

    "You know," she began cautiously. "Hinata hates the whole Branch family division and how you guys are treated. When she becomes clan head she'll try to do something about it."

    "Don't talk to me about that girl," said Neji with unexpected heat, sending Rei a glare that promised an all out fight between them if she pushed the issue.

    Rei had to hold in her frustration. Hinata had become... a point of contention between the two of them. As in, Neji despised his cousin with a fervor that Rei had never quite discovered the root of and at first he had acted furious and slightly betrayed when he discovered how much time the two of them had started spending together. Later after he had calmed down Neji had taken to just... pretending his cousin didn't exist when he was around Rei and her name had become sort-of taboo between them.

    Usually Rei didn't push the issue because she didn't see any good reason to. She spent time with Neji and Hinata separately and that was that. However in this case Neji's obstinate childishness when it came to his cousin was getting in the way of Rei comforting him like she well damn wanted to.

    "She will be clan head. I'll accept nothing less from her," Rei said, fearlessly locking eyes with Neji despite the promise of violence in those pale orbs. Her voice when it came out was low and insistent and laced with conviction.

    "When she ascends to the position she will change things. Either because she wants to – which she does – or because I will make her. So maybe you should get off your high horse and do what is in your best interests which is doing your damnedest to ensure Hinata will become the next head of your clan."

    Rei had expected her words to make Neji even more angry. She had expected him to maybe come at her with the nastiest, most hurtful things he could say. Hell, she had even expected him to take a swing and attempt to sucker punch her. What she didn't expect was the shocked look on his face before his whole expression and body language suddenly closed off. A little too quickly Neji rose to his feet and even backed up a step to put some space between them, all of a sudden looking at Rei like he had never seen her before.

    Rei frowned at his unexpected reaction, feeling confused and uncertain. "Neji, what-?"

    "Since when do you presume to have a say in what goes on in the Hyuuga clan?"

    Rei looked at Neji in shock, opening and closing her mouth in utter bafflement... before it suddenly clicked, and it was all Rei could do not to hit herself in her face for her own stupidity.

    I just implied – or hell, outright said – that I think I'm going to be able to dictate what happens in the Hyuuga clan though Hinata. Me. The Heiress of another ninja clan. A clan known for its social-fu and it's proficiency at psychological manipulation. Shit. This is bad. Really bad. I've gotten way too comfortable around Neji and forgot that he has other loyalties besides just our friendship. If people start thinking I'm only friends with Hinata to set her up as a puppet I'll never see her again. I'll probably never be able to be friends with Neji again, either.

    The thought sent a cold shiver of fear down her spine.

    Somehow it was even more distressing still given that the implied accusation was completely unfounded.

    Granted, in the future Rei would convince Hinata to change the Hyuuga clan if it would benefit her personally, but it's not like she had any nefarious plans to lower their standing or make them a vassal of the Yamanaka or anything crazy like that. Right then Neji was looking at her like he was beginning to question if everything about their friendship was a lie. That look of distrust directed at her hurt... a lot more than Rei would have expected.

    One slip and suddenly everything is at risk.

    If Neji ran off and reported this to Hiashi and the elders like a good little Hyuuga... that couldn't be allowed to happen. Absolutely not. She had to defuse this situation somehow. But how? Trying to back out on what she had just said was right out. Neji would not believe that she had just been kidding or that it had merely been hyperbole, he knew her far too well for that. Rei didn't know any convenient techniques to make him forget the last few minutes, even if she could somehow overpower him without making a huge ruckus and causing a scene. The only way to make sure this didn't go sour was to convince Neji not to tell anyone... which was probably easier said than done. Neji knew perfectly well how very much Rei she was, ambitious and power hungry and willing to step all over people she didn't care about to get what she wanted. As much as Neji personally liked Rei he would still be incredibly wary of someone like her possibly having undue influence inside his clan.

    If she couldn't back out, and she couldn't make him forget, there was only one thing left for her to do. She was going to have to double down. She was going to have to own it. Rei wasn't a hundred percent sure if it would work but right then she judged it to be the best chance she had.

    The Yamanaka Heiress let her expression of surprise slowly melt into a little lopsided smile, half sardonic and half amused. With grace born of years of learning proper etiquette and mastering her own body Rei leaned back on the bench she was sitting on, crossed one leg over the other and adopted a pose that projected nothing but complete confidence and ease. Neji eyed her warily, as if she were a large sharp-toothed animal that at any moment might bear her fangs and reveal her true nature. But he wasn't running yet. That, more than anything, was a good sign.

    "I know you think your cousin is a weakling," Rei began, her tone conversational despite the incredibly tense atmosphere. "Tell me Neji: do you think I'm a weakling?"

    The frown on Neji's brow narrowed even further. "What does that have to do with anything?"

    "Humor me and I'll tell you," Rei replied, a pleasant suggestion with a subtle barb of command.

    The boy in front of her shifted uneasily, his silence stretching for long agonizing moments before he chose to comply.

    "No. I don't think you're a weakling."

    Rei tilted her head to the side, regarding him thoughtfully, her lavender eyes pinning him in place. "Of course not. Which means I don't listen to you because I'm afraid, or because I'm trying to take advantage of you. I listen to you because you've proven you're worth listening to, over and over again for as long as I've known you. Whenever you have a suggestion, I take it seriously, and we tend to go along with it more often than not. I wonder then... has anyone in your clan ever showed you the same amount of respect that I have?"

    Neji crossed his arms, the gesture coming across as extremely defensive. "That has nothing to do with this right now, Rei."

    "No Neji, it has everything to do with right now," Rei said, her voice suddenly cracking like a whip, almost making Neji flinch. "You can choose to believe me or not, but the only issue I've ever considered 'influencing' the Hyuuga clan in regards to is the issue of the Branch members and the curse seal on your foreheads. And the only reason I've thought of changing that is because of you," Rei said, sounding as worked up and impassioned as Neji had ever heard her. "But let's assume for a moment that the worst case scenario in that head of yours is true. That I want to turn the Hyuuga clan into some kind of puppet through Hinata. What would you care?" Ignoring Neji's incredulous look Rei barreled forward. "You're still my best friend and the only person who can get me on a whole lot of levels. Soon we're going to be teammates on the same Genin team. I listen to you. I trust you. You want to change the Hyuuga clan? Well maybe you should pray that your paranoid ideas become a reality and I become the shadow ruler of the Hyuuga. Because I would still listen to you, and that means you would have far more control over your own fate than you ever would otherwise."

    Rei saw on Neji's face what she had been looking for, what she had been attempting to create: doubt. He was looking down, the conflict plain on his face. After all... controlling his own fate was Neji's dream, his ultimate forbidden fruit. The one thing he longed for and was terrified to even let himself long for. Every move calculated and controlled, Rei stood from the bench and smoothly slid over to Neji, placing a hand lightly on his shoulder. He looked at it and debated shaking her hand off, but didn't. Rei smiled at him, her voice turning softer and more intimate.

    "Look, if you go and tell anyone they'll split us up. You'll never get to see me again, we'll never end up on the same team, we'll never be able to train together again. People will take what I said in the worst possible light... and I admit, it was a really dumb thing to say," Rei said, looking sheepish for a moment before turning more serious. "Please don't ruin our friendship over a slip of the tongue. I promise you I have no ambitions to do anything except what we talked about. I hope you can believe me. And if you can't believe me, then it's a good thing we're friends. What better way to make sure I'm not doing anything dastardly than being close enough to be able to constantly look over my shoulder, yeah? That way you can protect your precious clan from the big bad academy student out to suck out their souls."

    Neji's conflicted expression didn't... go away, exactly, but at least it seemed to scale down from DEFCOM 1 to DEFCOM 3. He peered at her from under his lashes, his eyes piercing and inscrutable. When he spoke his voice was soft and heavy with meaning that Rei didn't quite fully comprehend. "Don't ever try to make yourself out to be harmless. We both know that nothing could be farther from the truth."

    Something heavy passed between them, and for the first time in what seemed like years Rei found she couldn't read Neji like an open book. The realization left her feeling more disconcerted than it probably should have. Pushing her nervousness down, Rei locked eyes with him, their shared history hanging heavy between them.

    "You gonna narc on me, Neji?"

    Neji held her gaze for a long moment before grimacing and brushing her hand off his shoulder. He turned around and showed her his back and for a moment Rei felt a hot stab of panic through her guts.

    When he spoke his voice was steady and deadly cold. "See no evil, hear no evil. I'm going to forget I ever heard anything. But from now on... don't say any more unnecessary things around me. I won't be part of anything untoward."

    Without waiting for a reply Neji put on a burst of Chakra and took off, tuning a corner and going out of sight in a matter of seconds. Rei sighed heavily and rubbed her face with both hands, feeling part relief and part guilt. Neji liked her enough and hated the clan enough not to rat her out over her slip up, but he was still loyal enough that he couldn't stand the thought of being disloyal. She'd put him in a hell of an awkward position. And yet... he'd sort of given his tacit permission to mess with the Hyuuga. As long as she didn't tell him about it and he was kept in the dark. What a convoluted mess Neji's feelings about his clan must be to sort through. Rei knew she didn't want to be the shrink to have to sort through all that, though given her position as his best friend maybe one day she would have to.

    However that whole experience had been... disconcerting. It had been more than a year since the last time she had slipped enough to risk being caught. Having it just... sneak up on her like that left her feeling more than a little rattled. She'd obviously started to let her guard slip. Too many successes in a row, too many months without any active danger or setback.

    Sloppy. Too sloppy. Rei had been lucky that Neji had been willing to keep his silence. If he hadn't been... then... Rei, Rei would have... no idea whatsoever what she would have done.

    Shaking her head, Rei turned and headed for home. She'd planned to find out her elemental affinity that day and to do some preliminary work on the subject. Just because she'd narrowly adverted disaster was no reason at all to skimp on her training.

    000
     
    meri, Tur, Perspicacious and 47 others like this.
  16. Threadmarks: Chapter 42
    SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Chapter 42

    000

    Rei loved her room; though she knew it was only an illusion, it was one of the only places that she felt somewhat safe. The fact that the Rats had, over the years, warded it with stacks upon stacks of seals to prevent any kind of monitoring or surveillance helped. Rei knew even the Byakugan could not look into her room now, thanks to independent testing by both Neji and Hinata. It wasn't a guarantee of privacy, of course, but unless some high level nin decided to
    seriously go out of their way to surveil her she should be perfectly safe from prying eyes and ears in her own room. And if some high level nin was already going through that much trouble to spy on her, then the gig would probably be up anyway.

    The girl sat on her small desk, the surface of it clean and orderly to an almost obsessive degree. In fact her entire room was so clean and tidy it would make some professional maids weep in either joy or due to extreme feelings of inadequacy. Rei hadn't always been so much of a neat freak, not by a long shot, but she supposed it sort of made sense that she had turned into one. Hinata had been the first to take notice and make an insightful comment about it. It's something else that you can have control over.

    Of course, as much as she hated it, there were a great many things she had no control over. Take my Elemental affinity for example, Rei thought to herself sourly as she examined the innocuous looking sheet of Chakra paper held in between her fingers. Oh how she would have loved to have control over that, to be able to further personalize and customize her fighting style from the very start. Alas, that was currently impossible. Her Elemental affinity, like most of the truly important things in her life, was well and truly out of her control.

    Still, even as she examined the rectangular piece of paper in her hand, Rei couldn't help but think of what Elemental affinity she would prefer to have. Which Element she would wish to have. Her top two choices would definitely be wind and lightning. Each one appealed to her for differing reasons. Wind was, in her opinion and in the opinion of many ninja, the best element to have if you were interested in purely offensive ninjutsu. The destructive power and the versatility of wind in that respect was simply unparalleled. Lightning, on the other hand, was still incredibly powerful offensively and Rei suspected she would greatly benefit from the property of being able to shape raiton energy into crackling blades of electricity and such. With her unparalleled Chakra control she might be able to come up with some truly creative things.

    Just slightly below lighting and wind, Rei would have liked to be earth affinity, if for very different reasons. The ability to hide underground (and even on other surfaces she was sure) and then move in that medium would give her already top notch stealth skills an enormous additional boost. Plus earth boasted the toughest clones around and was the best element for setting traps and ambushes. While not her top choice she would not be very dissapointed if her element turned out to be earth.

    Her bottom two choices were without a doubt fire and water. Fire techniques, from what she had learned and from what she remembered from the story, while destructive enough seemed to suffer from an unsettling lack of versatility. In fact the only versatility she could remember from the story when it came to fire jutsu was "how big do you want your fireball to be?". Water, on the other hand, was probably the most versatile element of all. While not able to do any one job as well as the other elements it could do pretty much all of them, albeit with lesser effectiveness. However Rei loathed the idea of being weaker if she happened to be in a place without a body of water nearby or with low ambient moisture. None of the other elements had such a liability and Rei was not keen on the idea of being hampered in any way.

    If only it was a choice and not some random twist of fate.

    Rei took a deep breath and let it out slowly, mentally crossing her fingers. After hesitating a moment Rei allowed her Chakra to flow through her hand and into the reactive paper that it held. Nothing seemed to happen for half a second before all at once the whole thing caught fire, causing Rei to drop it on her desk as it singed her fingers, before the paper consummed itself utterly after a few seconds of dancing flame.

    Rei sighed, dissapointed but not terribly surprised. Since when have I ever been lucky?

    Fine. Fire. She was fire affinity. She would make it work.

    Even if it seemed to take the top spot as the least flexible of all the elements.

    Even if you ran a pretty good risk of barbecuing yourself as well as your opponent if you made a mistake.

    Even if it somehow prickled at her pride that she'd ended up with the most common Elemental affinity that existed in Konoha.

    Rei could be stubborn and try to start on an off Element for her, but everything in her research had convinced her that course of action would simply needlessly make things more difficult with no discernible upside whatsoever.

    Fire. Okay. It was what she had. Rei would make it work because she had to. Not my first choice, certainly, but at least I'll get to set lots of things on fire. Despite her disappointment her lips twitched up briefly at the thought.

    Burning things were rather pretty, weren't they? She remembered finding bonfires hypnotizing in her previous life. Once, when she had been a rather young adult in her last life, she'd gotten much closer to a wildfire than was strictly safe because she had been drawn in by the dancing flames and could not turn away from such a primal display of power and destruction.

    Rei had only ever considered which Elemental affinity would be the most useful.

    She had never considered which one she would like using the best.

    Well... I suppose I'll just take the small blessings where I can get them.

    000

    A/N: Some girls just want to watch the world burn.
     
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  17. UrsaTempest

    UrsaTempest Don't Panic!

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    Welcome back(?).

    For the fic, that is.
     
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  18. SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    If you've followed this fic at all in the past, then you probably know why I put it here.

    Kinda missed the feedback/forum format.

    Will update again soon.
     
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  19. UndecidedDice

    UndecidedDice Not too sore, are you?

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    Welcome!

    Good to have a place where story present outside of FF-net. I have it in alerts there, but it's simply not the same. :)
     
  20. KinKrow

    KinKrow Dead Air

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    Cause we were getting into mental domination stuff, if I remember correctly?

    Hinata the mostly willing sub?
     
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  21. darthdavid

    darthdavid That Guy

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    This is one of my favorite fics of all time. I'm really glad to see you getting back into the swing of things on a site where you can get feedback, and not have to worry about getting b& if things stray too close to lewd.
     
  22. chiefnewo

    chiefnewo Getting out there.

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    So is Rei still planning on leaving the village when she thinks she's powerful enough? That's one of my favourite things about her, it would be kind of disappointing if something was able to make her stay.

    Otherwise I really enjoy this fic, it's nice sometimes to see a more self-centred protagonist.
     
  23. Tavarokk

    Tavarokk Pursuer of perversion

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    Aaaaaaa!!! It's here! Awesome!
     
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  24. SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Sure, but saying "willing sub" invokes sexual connotations to mind. Rei won't be humoring any romantic/sexual ideas for anyone anytime soon (too young and she's wound way too tight for that anyway). This is in the SFW section for a reason. If anyone is expecting titillating content they are going to be dissapointed for a long time.

    Yup. She is planning on leaving the village still. Unfortunately she needs to be powerful enough and scary enough to have a chance of getting away with it, so... getting to that point still won't be trivial. Still whether she eventually changes her mind or not remains to be seen. Saying any more than that would be spoilers ;)
     
    Last edited: Apr 9, 2018
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  25. KinKrow

    KinKrow Dead Air

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    heh, 'titillating'

    But in all seriousness, it's good to see this here.
     
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  26. Berserkslash

    Berserkslash Happiest. Fucking. Lizard.

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    Woo! Nice to see you continuing with this. Will wait for the new chapter for feed back and the like.




    Except one thing. Fire nature lends itself pretty well to a lot of pretty interesting things off to the side of all the fireballs, smokescreens, heat hazes, area denial, bunch of fun things possible if you work at it.
     
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  27. Pwnbot

    Pwnbot Getting sticky.

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    Like bombing completed.
    I'm also happy I stumbled onto this because the omakes can continue here, I always did hope for a series in which Rei reincarnates as an Ardat-Yakshi from Mass Effect but I'm having trouble thinking of a long lasting story.
     
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  28. SixPerfections

    SixPerfections Know what you're doing yet?

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    Thanks for the carpet bombing:D

    Also, that one is easy. Ardat-Yakshi are feared/reviled by Asari society in general but they are also viewed as exceedingly powerful, seductive and mysterious. Useful in certain contexts. Assuming she knows the ME story and isn't content to get wiped out along with everyone else by the Reapers she can take over the Asari underworld, criminals and such being the only people who wont run away screaming on principle or have her shot on principle. That would be Aria in Omega and Jona Sederis of Eclipse as obvious individuals to work with.

    If she didn't know about the Reapers, then the story probably wouldn't be as good unless people wanted to read about Rei just fucking about in the galaxy, being a tourist and generally enjoying the fact that Council Space is basically a galactic civilization that operates on the principles of the Wild West.

    Could be fun.
     
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  29. Prince Charon

    Prince Charon Just zis guy, you know?

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    Binge-reading this took a while, and I took a break for a day partway through, but it was worth it. Also, reminds me that maybe I should work on my own Naruto SI (I think I posted some fragments in a thread on TFF). I seriously doubt mine will ever have chapters this long, if I get it written at all, though.
     
  30. GLH

    GLH Really?

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    I'll try and write up some useful and lengthy feedback in a day or so when I'm not dead tired and sleep deprived. That said, I am happy to see this here where I can comment on it.
     
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