Snap Back To Reality @jazhop
Chapter 40

Snap Back To Reality 40

I placed some lilies on the black marble stone and sighed. It had been a long time since I visited their grave. I lit the incense and knelt down on my knees.

"It's been a while tousan, kaasan. I'm sorry I don't come by more often. Taichi and Tsukiya are a handful and honestly it feels like I'm walking a very thin rope between happiness and complete ruin. Things are getting better though. I learnt how to play the flute a little from Rui, and Anko drilled it into my head how to make proper tea. Guy is his usual self. He taught me a cool grappling move he learnt from his old man. I wish I could show you."

I stopped talking, unsure of what exactly I was doing. Could they hear me? Were they watching over me, or were they reincarnated into another life already? If so, was it this world, were we fated to meet and never truly realise it? Or was death simply the end for them? I put a hand on the cold stone and sighed. It didn't matter. In the end it didn't change the dull ache in my heart, or the fact that I missed them dearly.

"I failed you. Don't worry about me though. I know I shouldn't keep grieving, that I should move on, but it's not as easy as it sounds. I've failed so many people already, and I'm afraid to try again in case I fail them once more. I should have taken the risk long ago, really protected them, but all I've done is keep my head down and submit."

All I had ever done was submit, to Danzo, to Orochimaru, to this fate. One step out of line and Danzo could take my brothers. Orochimaru kept me from ROOT indoctrination, but he didn't keep me away from its missions or from its repercussions. In the end I was on my own with this. I had to take matters into my own hands once more, and I did.

"I told myself I would try something. I'm so close to it kaasan, tousan. I'm so close I can taste it. I promise I won't fail again, and I know it's not my right to promise something like that when I've failed you so terribly, but I mean it this time. I won't fail because I can't."

A whole organisation, a sanctioned organisation that the fucking Hokage himself approved of. I had to go up against that by myself. Shikaku was working on dismantling and blocking Danzo's projects but that was all the Jounin Commander could do, especially when he had the Elder Council and a whole private army against him. Still, I could feel his influence in ROOT, how funding was severely lacking for the younger agents and even myself now. He was making it hard for Danzo, which was all he could do when Sarutobi was practically turning a blind eye to Danzo's private army. Not that Sarutobi could do much now that we were in war and ROOT was an essential service.

I could not stop hundreds of indoctrinated Shinobi on my own, but I could stop Danzo. I couldn't pretend like this would end well for me in any way. I most certainly would be in a shitty position if I killed Danzo without compiling enough proof on my end to justify taking out a councilman. Still, I knew Shikaku would keep my family safe, and I knew it would end in Kusari's freedom.

Fuinjutsu wasn't just a fun pass time for me. It was a key to end all of this bullshit.

I wanted to say more to my parents, but I had intentionally kept my words vague and innocuous. Having been unsure of what else to say, I simply kept my gaze on the stone and remembered the short time I had with them. A short time that was my fault…


I turned around to see Obito. He was holding some flowers too. I forced a smile and he came my way awkwardly. He probably called out my name without thinking. That was quite like him.

"I was just talking to my parents," I said amiably.

He scratched the back of his head and chuckled a little sadly.

"Yeah, I was going to do that too. Um, do you want to come?" he asked.

I was a little shocked he had offered seeing as we weren't so close, but I nodded and followed him down the cemetery. We came to his stone graves and I was a little surprised to see both his parents' names. This was a civilian grave site, and I had assumed Obito's parents had been shinobi. Maybe it was just a false assumption that all Uchiha were shinobi.

He lit his incense before kneeling and clapping his hands a little dramatically.

"Yosh! It's been a while kaasan, tousan! I got a new Genin team. Rin's in it, which is awesome, but now I have a moody asshole to deal with too. We have been doing so many boring D ranks that I pulled out some hair out of frustration yesterday! I'm totally going to continue pestering the Hokage until he lets us get a C rank! Watch me raise the ranks, and thanks for looking out for me!"

He clapped once more before grinning and turning to me. I felt a little unsure of how to act. It was a little odd how happy he was talking to his dead parents. Maybe it was a front? If it was, it was a darn good one.

"Are you just going to stand there, or are you going to say something to them too?" Obito asked.

I nodded unsurely before kneeling down and bowing my head slightly in respect.

"Ah, your kid is great. I'm totally expecting him to be the first Uchiha Hokage too, so you should definitely keep watching ok, but right now he's an idiot so I'll have to take care of him."

"Hey, don't make me look bad in front of them," Obito exclaimed blushing.

I snorted in amusement, before turning to the grave.

"Things might be a little scary for you, watching your son go out to war, but I know he's destined for something great. He just needs the right push, and maybe a little more sense."

I turned to Obito to see him wide eyed and flushed. I wasn't talking to his parents anymore. I was talking to him. I didn't want the canon story to happen. I didn't want him to be crushed and brainwashed by some dying Uchiha bent on some twisted desire for peace. I didn't want to see him or Kakashi suffer. I didn't want Rin to be just some sacrificial pawn to a megalomaniac's desires. I didn't want Minato to die by the hands of his own wayward student.

I didn't want a lot of things, but my hands were tied. I had my own missions to run. I most likely wouldn't be there to change any event that I presumed might still happen in the future. All I could really do was prepare them beforehand. Maybe if Rin and Obito were a little faster and stronger Rin wouldn't be abducted in the first place and Obito would be quick enough to not be crushed. I nodded my head resolutely. I would do what I could.

"Obito, I'm going to teach you the Shunshin," I said determinedly.

"Right now? Ah about that... Cousin Shisui has tried to show me but I'm just not good at it."

"What kind of useless Hokage just gives up when he can't do something. Maa, I guess you just aren't good enough to be the best then," I chided, playing with his pride, and putting on my best Kakashi tone.

"I can do it! Don't look down on me!"

Hook, line, and sinker. I smirked before grabbing him by the collar and performing a rapid shunshin in succession until we landed in a nearby training field. Obito dropped to the ground and groaned before his green face puffed out and he puked.

"Ughhh, give me a warning next time, you psychotic vegetable!"

"Can't stomach it Uchiha? Wow, definitely not Hokage material," I goaded.

He grumbled, face flushed in embarrassment as he stood up and pouted. I smirked.

"Now pay attention because I don't have much time with you today. This is how you perform a Shunshin."

As both a shinobi in wartime, and a godforsaken member of ROOT, I really wasn't allowed much down time. Adding Orochimaru to the mix ended up in me being like that one too busy parent in the relationship. Not that I wanted to be like this. It was ridiculous even for someone as career oriented as I was. Once this war was over, I vowed to fight for a year's worth of a vacation. I'd have to kill Danzo first, but that was a given. That was less of a chore and more of a pleasure. I'd even take a vacation in prison if it came down to it. Fuck Konoha, I just wanted some sleep.

I sighed as I felt my kage-bunshin release itself. That took a good chunk of my chakra to make. I was more than a little jealous of Naruto for having his near infinite pools to draw from. I made one and it very nearly crippled me. But I needed it to do my research. Having a physical copy of me posing my daily routine at home had freed up some well needed time to finally get to my main priority.

Sprawled on the ground was a large array of a complicated algorithm called Fuinjutsu. It was a practice that needed unending patience, and a resolve to keep studying. The only known masters of the art in Konoha were the high ranking Sannin, the Hokage, Kushina, and by extension her husband Minato who had learnt from his wife. Orochimaru was also incredibly knowledgeable about seals and he had even helped me in this little pet project. I couldn't keep it hidden from his eyes. It was too much of a drag to even try.

The troublesome thing about Fuinjutsu was that no matter how much of a prodigy you were at it, Fuinjutsu was just too wide of a subject to master entirely. It was like science. You studied the basics, about atoms, cells, and DNA, and then you specialised in one specific subject or branch in detail. Of course there were the easier things to learn, like making explosive tags, or a finely crafted vacuum seal, which in its rudimentary stages were easy to produce with just a few months or so of study. But even with the basic explosive tags and storage seals you could spend decades learning to fine tune the art. You could have spent years on a rudimentary explosive tag until it became something like a rather large bomb, maybe install a timer into it and a triggering seal you could activate from a long distance, until something rudimentary became both game changing and masterful.

In essence Fuinjutsu was exactly a science, a science based on energy and intent.

I had the intent, but my energy was lacking. My blood was tainted. Orochimaru faced a similar problem. Our blood wasn't particularly chakra potent, not like Jiraiya's, and definitely unlike Kushina's, who's very blood and chakra would instantly make a seal that much stronger. The Uzumaki were born to do Fuinjutsu and that wasn't an exaggeration. Meanwhile those of us who weren't blessed with such genes would have to make do by compensating with sheer skill and intent. The words had to have more meaning, be more specific. The channels we crafted had to be more flowing, more precise.

I spent 3 years focused on the branching seal-work art of deconstruction. It was a type of seal-work that focused entirely on just that: deconstructing seals. It was a very useful branch of Fuinjutsu, that allowed me to deactivate seals. I'm sure Minato wouldn't be so fond of me using it on his Hiraishin if we ever did fight. It wasn't for Minato though. No, this was for motherfucking Danzo, a man who I dreamt many nights of killing in various different ways. It sent a shiver down my spine every time, making me feel positively bloodthirsty. Vengeance was not a word I would have associated with myself long ago, but it felt like with each day the hate only grew, leaving me feeling just a little bit angrier. I never thought I'd ever sympathise with Sasuke of all people.

"Hmm still studying I see," Orochimaru cut in.

"Of course," I hummed, not quite paying attention to him, my eyes still running over the calculations.

"Shouldn't you be training in ROOT right now?" Orochimaru asked entertained.

"I am," I said, finally looking at him with a playful smirk.

"Oh, I do like where you're going with this," he said patting my head.

I flinched slightly from the unwanted touch before looking down at the scroll wondering whether he was talking about my work or fucking with Danzo. Maybe it was both.

"I'm close. Any pointers?" I asked.

"I did tell you I'm not a part of this didn't I?" Orochimaru reminded me with a dark smile.

Yes, he did, but I knew he knew how to get me to the next stage in the process. I'm pretty sure he knew exactly how to deconstruct the cursed seal on my tongue. The bastard just wouldn't help. What a useful sensei I had, I thought to myself sarcastically. Whatever, I didn't need him.

"I'm going to kill him you know. Whether you want me to or not?"

"Go ahead and try little neonate. It'll be amusing either way," Orochimaru replied amiably. "Now if only you would study the heavenly seal like you do this."

Orochimaru had a penchant for dramatics when he was in a good mood, always sounding so over the top exasperated or teasing. It was stupidly annoying, although a part of me couldn't help but not hate it so much. I didn't want to think I was softening up to the man… which I definitely wasn't. I sighed. I was just using him. Nothing more, nothing less. He meant nothing to me!

The Heavenly Seal, or the Cursed Seal as I liked to call it, was very nearly finished. Orochimaru's experiments were so close to a final product. Instead of open-heart surgery we could simply place a seal on the experiments neck now before it would absorb straight into the tenketsu. It needed an anchor chakra, and so we just ended up using Orochimaru's since we didn't want to change a variable in the experiments and throw off our data. That essentially meant we were inserting a bit of Orochimaru's chakra into the subjects, and it wasn't a secret that his chakra wasn't entirely natural either. Still, it was meant to be his life's work, a way for him to be able to finally get a working sage mode, so there was no real point in trying to see if it worked with a less tainted chakra source. Not that I could help in that department considering my chakra was tainted by body modification too.

Currently the subjects absorbed too much sage chakra and died after a few days or so. It was going a lot better than exploding body parts though, so that was definitely a win. Not to mention there was less for me to clean up after, which made my life easier.

"When are we working on it next?" I asked.

"Hmm maybe tomorrow. I will need to tweak the chakra channels once more before we start on our next batch of experiments."

"I'd suggest increasing the test subjects to around five so we can see if it's simply that the survival rate is low," I replied after a moment's thought.

"Well do pass on a message to Danzo for me then."

I shouldn't have opened my mouth. I sent the man a scowl. He simply chuckled it off.

"Oh by the way, it seems our next mission is a big one. It's a long-term infiltration assignment. You're to report to the Konoha Hospital Cosmetic-ward."

"The cosmetic-ward?" I asked curiously as I took a scroll Orochimaru handed me.

"It deals in appearance modification for infiltration missions."

I couldn't help the worried frown that took my face. Appearance modification? What the actual fuck? That sounded not very fun.

"After how much you seemed to be enjoying my body modification procedures, I thought you'd be ecstatic about this," Orochimaru joked.

"I don't enjoy it," I hissed with a deepening scowl.

"I recall you asking for more all the time."

I decided not to give him the joy of hearing my protests. He was gleaming too much entertainment from my irritation. Now this was what a Jounin instructor was stereotyped to be towards their students. A complete asshole that took pleasure in constantly throwing their students into a flustered, uncomfortable state. I wanted Gaku-sensei back!

"Well, no need to get too worried. They specialise in scar removal. They'll probably fatten you up a bit, so your muscle definition isn't as noticeable. The rest is rather superficial changes such as hair dyes and contact lenses."

That made me a lot less worried. "You could have started off with that explanation."

"Where's the fun in that?"

Before I could send him an even more potent stink eye, he waved a quick goodbye and left. I couldn't help the childish need to flip off his back and stick out my tongue as I watched him leave. Stupid, irritating Sannin. I wouldn't tell Danzo about how we needed more test subjects just to piss him off a little. He deserved it. He should learn to treat his assistant with some respect, or I'd bite his ass.

Ah, how I wanted to rip this man's croaky old throat out. I eyed the somewhat drooping flap of skin on his neck, just imagining sinking my fingers straight into it. His baritone voice made my eyes flit back up to his face, which was just as stern and ugly as ever.

"Utsuro, you've proven useful in quite a few sabotage missions. Iwa and Kumo have lost a combined force of an estimated 3 thousand soldiers to your team's sabotage missions. My next task for you is of great importance. I have tasked both you and Orochimaru in a retrieval mission in Mist. We have gotten a plea for help from the Kaguya clan requesting aid in their extraction. A coup is brewing, and while Konoha can't afford another enemy, this is a chance to involve a strong clan into Konoha's fold.

The official mission parameters state that you will bring them to the Western Gate to be processed into Konoha proper. I will have you bring the adult refugees through the normal channels, but I will require for you to aid Kusari in scouting for children with potential. An agent will contact you with the details later."

"Hai Danzo-sama," I said, keeping my voice as stilted and baritone as I could in his presence.

I accepted the scroll and bowed my head, eager to leave when I was stopped by his hands.

"Utsuro, you will not cross me on this mission. Failure will mean the heads of your brothers."

I felt a chill of both fear and outrage run down my spine, but I nodded either way and body flickered out of the room. It was only when I was outside of ROOT that I allowed myself to punch a tree out of anger, blasting a hole through it. I took in a deep breath and calmed down. I would have my time soon. For now I would focus on the plan.

I shifted out of Guy's way as he threw a punch, and then another, ducking down and going into tiger palm to stab as gently as I could into his stomach. His stomach caved up and he fell to the ground in a groan.

"Agh, I'm sorry!" I said hastily.

"No, no, it's ok!" he said coughing as he held up a hand stopping me from fretting more. "You've really become strong!"

Yeah that's generally what would happen when you were injected with a specially concocted growth hormone specifically made to ensure your muscles, and body would develop at peak capacity. When I helped Guy up, I was a head and a bit taller than him too. I'd like to see Gaku ever call me short again.

"And you've really improved your Taijutsu," I praised. "I see a bit of the Circle Walk there."

"Yes, Gaku-sensei told me it really fit the Lotus style my tousan was teaching me!" Guy beamed proudly.

"So have you seen Kakashi around?" I asked.

Guy frowned and shook his head. "No, not really! He's becoming such an unyouthful recluse!"

That wasn't exactly unexpected. What did they expect would happen when they sent a five-year-old dealing with the suicide of his father out to war? He wasn't ever going to be mentally stable ever again, not after being denied the right help, and instead being thrown into violence and death. He was let to fester out there in war. It would be a miracle if he wasn't emotionally traumatised after that.

"I always manage to find him though! He always wins my challenges!" Guy cried with frustration.

I smiled. "It's good that you're reaching out to him. Don't stop… I should too but I can't ever find the time," I sighed.

"That is alright! Both you and Kakashi-kun are very busy people! Yosh, I will aim to be just as useful in aiding the war! Another 5 laps around Konoha on my hands will do the trick!"

"You're going to force me to join too, aren't you?" I asked with a raised brow.

"Of course! Training is always full of youth when done with f-friends!" he said, his cheeks heating up a red tint.

I tried to ignore the fact that a child had a crush on me. Instead I jumped onto the palms of my hand and laughed as I got a head start. A part of me was a little mortified when we came to the wall. When we did ridiculous things like this together, the Chunin on gate duty around the walls would make fun of me. Oh well, they were the ones missing out on the intensely rewarding feeling of your muscles aching after an intense work out.

We were about lap 3 around Konoha when I started feeling the burn. Guy was shouting out breathless encouragements and I was equally as energetic. His enthusiasm had a way of rubbing out on me. I was surprised when I bumped into someone familiar. I lost my balance and plumped down on my butt, before craning up my head to see Gaku.

"Gaku-sensei! Did you want to join us in our youthful training today?" Guy asked.

Only Guy could ever make his own Jounin sensei laugh nervously at the thought of training. I snorted in amusement, before wiggling my eyebrows up at the man. Gaku replied with a miffed look my way before his lips tugged up in amusement.

"So are you going to join us today in youthful training?" I urged with a gleeful look.

The nervousness came back into his eyes when he looked at Guy practically radiating expectant pleasure at another training buddy. I had the feeling he was dragged into Guy's antics more often than not.

Gaku sighed, scratching the back of his head in exasperation. "Sorry Guy, but not today. I actually came to collect Hina for a… chat."

"Just Hina?" Guy asked dejectedly.

"Ah, sorry kiddo. Its missions related. How about this, I'll set up a solo training session with you this Saturday and I'll teach you anything you want!"

Guy's dark eyes lit up in excitement, his dejected visage almost turning in a 180 with sheer enthusiasm. I tried to ignore the fact that I for some reason could see the sun rising behind his form like a well-crafted Genjutsu. Guy didn't know Genjutsu though… hmmm maybe I was the one hallucinating. I turned back to Gaku and tried to keep the apprehension from my face. Was he coming on my next mission with me? Why would Danzo allow Gaku of all people in close proximity to me?

"YOSH! Then I'll be on my way!"

He sped of back on his palms leaving me with Gaku and I couldn't help but fidget a little uncomfortably. Despite everything, he was someone I truly loved, and I had neglected meeting him on purpose. I was the one keeping him at arm's length. I didn't want to, but maybe once this was all done and over with, I wouldn't have to continue.

"What was this about a mission?" I asked.

Before Gaku could respond I sensed a shinobi presence behind me, and I signed at Gaku for silence. I didn't want a potential spy listening in on us. He sent me an amused look, and I remembered that he was a much more experienced sensor than I was. Before I could truly blush in embarrassment, I turned around in confusion to be greeted with Shikaku of all people.

"What's going on?" I asked.

"At ease Hina-chan," Shikaku said placatingly.

"It's a little hard to be at ease when I'm being ambushed by two Jounin so far away from other people," I said scoffing before folding my arms.

"You know us kiddo. Would we do anything to hurt you?" Gaku scoffed.

I wanted to say 'no', but a part of me was worried that they knew I was aiding Orochimaru. A part of me whispered danger because I was a traitor to Konoha and its people. If Shikaku and Gaku knew about my deeds, I had no doubt that whatever love, let alone respect, they had for me would truly be killed. So yes—I was a little worried that they would hurt me.

"I'm sorry I couldn't protect you sooner," Gaku sighed, eyes darkening as he looked at me.

My eyes widened as I looked up at him and then back to Shikaku. Did he—did he know?

"What are you—"

"I know about ROOT," he replied shaking his head. "I know what they did to you."

I put my shaky hands into my pocket and sent Shikaku a look of betrayal. A part of me was extremely relieved that Gaku didn't know about the experiments. Still I was mad at Shikaku for getting him involved any further. The man let out a sigh and scratched his cheek with a particularly guilty look.

"You told him! I did everything I could to make sure he wasn't involved!" I hissed.

Shikaku's eyes went hard and his back straightened a little. He was back in commander mode and I felt myself bristle back in line. I knew when I was and wasn't allowed to talk back and question my leaders. This was that moment, and I honestly couldn't believe Shikaku would pull rank on me like this when he so clearly hurt me.

"Gaku is a Jounin of Konohagakure, and a Taijutsu master. It's not your place to protect him," Shikaku said in a matter of fact tone.

"Yeah kiddo, I appreciate the thought, but I knew what I was signing up for as a shinobi. This job comes with its risks, but I'm more than capable of handling it on my own… unlike you. You are the one who's not in the position to deal with something of this level on your own."

I felt cowed, and a little stupid at my outburst. Of course they were… right, but I didn't have to like it. In fact I hated it. I hated that Gaku was involved now because it felt like a death sentence waiting to happen. My parents were killed by my own two hands because that was the level of power Danzo had, and now every time I looked at a loved one, I couldn't help but picture them dead. I didn't even realise my hands were shaking until I felt fingers wrap around it tightly. I turned to see Gaku kneeling before me, eyes softening in expression.

"I know you're scared kiddo but have some faith in me ok. Shikaku and I aren't going to die so easy."

I hesitated but eventually nodded anyway. His words were… reassuring, but words weren't ever really enough. I looked at Shikaku as he too moved closer, holding out a scroll which I accepted.

"We have word of your next mission, and the separate task you were assigned by Danzo," Shikaku said.

"You're keeping track?" I asked, making sure to keep my questions vague so as to not trigger my seal.

"The Hokage knows too. I'm reporting straight to him. Our hands are tied in this moment. We can't exactly shut down the Foundations more illegal practices. As it stands about 40% of our A rank missions are being completed through ROOT proper. We're unable to engage in a direct confrontation with Danzo due to the war. Not only would disbanding ROOT put a significant dent in our forces, but that's simply assuming we can disband it without added casualties and other unforeseen consequences," Shikaku continued explaining.

"Meaning your hands are tied," I replied with a frown.

"Not entirely. I've been directing funding and other resources from ROOT. I have a trusted shinobi infiltrate the proper ROOT ranks too, but you're our only contact into the child program."

"Does Orochimaru-sama know?" I asked.

Shikaku shook his head. "We're keeping this to as little people as possible."

"Then why tell Gaku… no offence," I added, sending the Inuzuka a guilty expression.

"Offence taken," he grumbled rolling his eyes.

"I didn't want to tell him, but he was insistent on snooping around. It would be troublesome if he got himself killed because of a lack of information so I let him in on it," Shikaku sighed.

I was more than a little grateful and suddenly felt a little stupid for being mad at him earlier. It would have devastated me if Gaku got himself killed snooping around looking for the person who was sending me off to missions. I had no doubt he had started his investigations the moment he had found out about my parents. I couldn't help but feel a little warm at the thought that he still cared so much… and relief that he knew why I had to cut him off all along.

"What does all this have to do with my next mission?" I asked, hoping to get back on track.

"It's one thing to allow clan-less children to grow up indoctrinated by the Foundations ideology, but to have children with powerful kekkai genkai under his disposal would be too dangerous."

My knee jerk reaction was to be furious at Shikaku. Why was a clan-less child's life any less important than a child with a kekkai genkai? I wanted to hiss at him that all their lives mattered just the same, but I stopped myself. I had no right—no right to pretend like I was some advocate for human rights, not after what I had done to dozens of people all begging for their equally as important lives. I had ignored it in favour of pragmatism, which was simply what he was doing now. In the end he was right. A clan-less child with no kekkai genkai had less risk of being as powerful than someone born with an ability already putting them above the general flock. Shikaku wasn't disregarding the value of the normal children, just taking into consideration the damage control he was allowed to handle.

"But Da—"

I gasped as a hot, sharp pain tore through my throat and I fell limply to the ground. I clutched my head, hoping the throbbing stabs of pain made me vomit out my lunch. It took a few minutes of having my back rubbed before I could even think straight and when I looked up, I noted the closed off expression on Shikaku's face, and the visible outrage on Gaku's.

"That was the seal?" Gaku asked.

I didn't reply. I was too afraid to. I hadn't experienced a pain worse than the seal activating. It was worse than any fire Genjutsu, or broken bone. It felt like your whole body was ringing in distress and the screaming in your head got louder and louder until it felt like someone was taking a sledgehammer and slamming it into your exposed brain. No body modification procedure even came close to the agony that was this seal activating. I felt for all the Hyuuga children who had theirs activated by the main branch. It was basically an off-chute of their seal after all.

"You don't have to tell us anything. Just make sure you follow the instructions on the scroll." Shikaku said after giving me a moment to settle.

"My family," I said vaguely, hoping my desperation was enough to convey how little I wanted to aid Shikaku in this mission.

"I will have measures in place to protect them," he said reassuringly.

"Y-you don't understand," I whispered, my breath hitching.

No one would understand. There was very little in this world that could terrify me, but the thought of the people I loved dying because of me was too much to handle. For a moment, I wasn't near the Konoha walls, for a moment I was back at home driving a knife into my own father's chest. Watching the terror in my mother's eyes as I ripped a hole right into her. I snapped back to reality, and my eyes dropped to my hands which felt far too bloody to look so clean. A warm body took me into an embrace, and I shut my eyes tightly as Gaku took me into a hug.

"I'm so sorry I couldn't help you more after that. I'm so sorry," he repeated.

Why was he apologising? Why was he sad for me when I was the one who did the unspeakable? I didn't deserve this kind of sympathy, but I couldn't help but hold onto him a little more. How long had it been since I felt this safe in someone's arms, when touching didn't mean pain?

"I've said what I need to say. I'm sorry for asking for your help Hina but trust me when I say we have measures in place. What happened with your parents won't be repeating again."

I turned my head to see Shikaku send me one more sad smile before he body flickered away. I was left with Gaku and I felt more than a little jolted. I had managed three years of keeping my head under the radar, to be a good little solider and do my job, and now that was being threatened. I was so close to undoing the seal too, and I couldn't even tell them that.

"Hey, you need to trust us a little more ok," Gaku said, breaking me from my thoughts. "Shikaku is a genius. He won't be asking you this if he wasn't sure that he could make sure you and your family were safe."

I nodded, but I felt too rattled to talk. My tongue felt like someone had filed it sandpaper. I wasn't sure whether it was because the seal had recently activated, or because I was still jittery with nerves after the sudden news. Having sensed my mood, Gaku sighed and ruffled my hair. I had to stop myself from flinching, my body going irritatingly rigid under the contact. The mood plummeted further, and I felt a little guilty about that.

"You've been through a lot, but you don't have to do it alone anymore. You can come talk to me whenever you want," he said, his eyes searching mine for confirmation.

I looked away. Talking seemed… nice. Having someone to just rant all my problems to without worrying about the repercussions was certainly a great thought, but I didn't want to activate my seal. Not to mention, I really didn't want to be seen around him more than I needed to be. He might be willing to risk his life for me, but I wasn't willing to let him. It didn't mean I couldn't hug him for a little longer…

"If you die, I'm going to bring you back to life and kill you myself," I said instead.

Gaku barked a laugh, that deep, rumbling laugh that reminded me of tousan's. I chuckled back and pulled away, happy to have diffused the situation with some jokes. There went my quota of emotional vulnerability for the whole year!

I looked up at Gaku and smiled.

"I'm not sure whether I'm relieved or worried that you know now... I didn't want to leave you, but I had to—to keep you safe."

Gaku sighed in resign. "Orochimaru is treating you right, isn't he? Your eyes have become like his."

I touched my cheek and had to stop the frown that threatened to take my expression. A part of me hated that I was easily recognisable as his protegee. It was widely accepted in the shinobi circle that I was his more notable student, if only because of our similarities. There were a few rumours going around that I was his bastard child… which just made me want to gag.

"He's a hard-ass, but he's training me well. My eyes are like this because I signed the snake contract."

Well it was actually because of the body modifications but I didn't think he would be happy to hear that.

"Ever since I found out, I've been doing everything in my power to stop Danzo from getting his hands on more children," he said, with a guilty grimace.

Did he feel responsible for me ending up in ROOT? That was ridiculous. It wasn't his fault in the first place. If anything it was mine, for being an absolute idiot and not playing it safe.

"I'm sorry I failed you, but I'm going to make things right," he said determinedly.

"You never failed me. How could you have known anyway? Don't beat yourself up over stupid things ok," I snorted.

"You're right," he chuckled unsurely. "But that goes for you too ok kiddo."

"Yeah... I'm trying."

"What happened to your parents—it wasn't your fault. Don't even think about blaming yourself, alright. We'll bring Danzo to justice soon. Just be patient."

I felt my stomach churn in anticipation at his words. I didn't have to do this alone. It was both a frightening and comforting thought. I really couldn't stop Gaku from meddling, but it made me feel guiltily safer just knowing he was there behind me.

"If you trust me kiddo, do me the favour and put it in action. Don't think I'm going to die so easy."

I took in a deep breath. "Ok, yeah. You're right. I'll trust you."

It was hard, but looking into his strong, warm brown eyes, I was reminded that trust was a two-way street. If he could let me go out back into ROOT and trust me to play it safe, then I had to afford him the same respect. We were both shinobi. Death was always around the corner and there was no escaping that.

"I trust you."


I don't know whether it's creepy or cute that Orochimaru's nickname for Hina is 'neonate'. It's essentially the term used for baby snakes, like kit, babe, or lamb. It's endearing yet scientific, so it's low-key the perfect nickname Orochimaru can give Hina. A mixture of endearment, condescension, and science! XD

It took this long for Hina to develop her Fuinjutsu because it's honestly a very hard and tedious subject and she has a lot of missions that take up her time. I reckon if she had two years of normal missions Hina would have already cracked the Foundations seal (because whether she wants to believe it or not she's a genius). I don't understand why some stories have characters instantly become good at things, so that's why I made it take this long. Hina is a very intelligent person, but Fuinjutsu has been proven to be like the D&D equivalent of a Wizard class. Which means years of applied study and experimentation to get results, but once you do achieve what you're looking for from a seal, it's definitely an insane game changer. Her having the ability to literally deconstruct seals will be a massive thing in the future. I mean just imagine all the people she can threaten with this ability alone! (Insert evil laugh)

Also check out my art for Hina jaz_hop on Instagram. I drew her post time skip outfit and it's hecka adorable (it's also the new cover art). There's also art of Hina with her team. The same art can be found in chapter uploads on AO3 where I cross post under the author name jaz_hop. Actually there's a lot more sketches up on AO3 that I wouldn't put up on my insta because they're not finished pieces.

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