“That guy with the long hair who just left,” he said, in answer to the Cloud ninja’s question. “He can do medical ninjutsu.”
Naruto stared at him.
It was so brazen, but—but really, Neji did.
The Leaf chuunin raised his hands as if to ward them off. “Well, hey, we can’t, like, force anyone to do anything, if they don’t want to. That wouldn’t be right.”
“Fuck this,” said the guy on the Cloud team. “The embassy will get someone on it. Let’s go.”
“Whoa,” the Leaf chuunin said, “there are still teams out there, probably!”
The Cloud ninja both ignored him, carefully lifting their teammate up to carry her slowly back out through the double doors and into the forest, supporting her limp body between them.
“That’ll disqualify them, right?” Sasuke asked, deactivating his seal and the sharingan.
“Gosh, I couldn’t say… probably not,” the chuunin said, “but it’s not my call. I mean, if they die then that might be a problem, but we have to have eight. We could just let someone else through, though, so I don’t think I should worry about it… Yeah. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
“I’m going back to bed,” said the other chuunin. “Good fight, Uchiha.”
“Yeah, I’m gonna take a nap too,” said the other. “I’ve had the worst pain in my eye today. I think there was something in it before, but I’ve just been rubbing it so much that I can’t even tell if it’s still there or if I’m just making it worse…”
“Wait—so, are we just supposed to stay here until the tournament?” Naruto asked.
“Yeah, just relax now, don’t worry. They’ll come in and clear out the forest in a few days. We’ll be escorted out. Nice little extra rest for you guys before the tournament.”
Uneasy, Naruto returned upstairs with his teammates, passing the rooms where Neji was waiting. Watching.
Naruto kept a close eye on him in return. He tried to settle back into their room, but after a couple of hours Neji still hadn’t deactivated his byakugan. It was nothing for Naruto to maintain it all day, but he still didn’t feel quite comfortable being observed using it for so long, and certainly not by Neji, for all the same reasons he was reluctant to show off his chakra reserves at other times. He didn’t just want to disable it, though; maybe that was exactly what Neji was waiting for. It would have been illegal to attack him now, before the tournament, but who knew whether that would be enough to stop him if he saw a chance.
Naruto called out to Hinata. “Hey. Your cousin’s still glaring at us through the floor.”
She activated her own byakugan for a moment to look. “I—I apologize for his… behavior…”
“He’s just sitting there… It’s creepy.”
“Have you been watching him, as well?”
“Well, yeah, but he started it,” Naruto said. “And I was here first. And I’m scouting for stuff. I have to make sure he doesn’t try to come and murder us.”
“If you have both been watching each other for some time now… it is possible he may feel honor-bound not to be the first to back down,” Hinata said. “Perhaps he even regrets having committed himself, now, but it is too late. He cannot submit.”
Naruto grumbled. He could easily have outlasted any real Hyuuga in a staring contest, but Neji didn’t know that, and Naruto didn’t want him to know it.
“I guess I’ll just have to out-stare him…” Naruto said.
Hinata bit her fingernails. “Um, Father used to say that… sometimes, he said that to direct the movements of another person, you can reframe the situation, and challenge them in such a way that they will want to perform the action you require,” she said. “He told me a story, about a man who threatened to commit suicide by jumping from atop a little shoulder-high wall. This was not the first time he had ‘attempted’ such a thing, and he had never suffered more than a sprained ankle from the short fall, so the bystanders were understandably dubious, but they also felt a natural sympathy for his suffering, so they stood back, feeling uncertain how to proceed. My grand-uncle alone stepped forward, feigning frustration, and scoffed at the man’s pain, openly deriding him, denying that he would have climbed something so low to the ground when there were so many higher points around to jump from if he truly intended to kill himself. Hearing this, the man was faced with the choice of either allowing it to go uncontested—all but admitting that he was a fraud and denying by implication the reality of his anguish, or to ‘prove’ his sincerity by showing my grand-uncle wrong. He flung himself at the ground with as much genuine intent to harm himself as he could muster, and broke his head open, dying instantly. It was the most flawless assassination ever performed by a Hyuuga, and none of the witnesses ever suspected my grand-uncle’s outburst had been a calculated act, and that he had intended that man to die.”
Naruto put his hands over his mouth. “Holy crap…”
The elders of the Hyuuga were not the kind of people he should be making angry.
Another of Naruto’s clones spoke up. “So, you’re saying that in this case, if I want Neji to stop, I should reframe it so that he can ‘win’ by doing what I want.”
“Yes,” Hinata said. “Well, that is what my father would say, anyway… I don’t know…”
“So… what’s a virtue that Neji would love to show off, then…” he wondered. “Determination? His… nobility? …His great wisdom and maturity?”
One of Naruto’s other clones went wide-eyed. “Oh no…” he said “I see it now. Yes… I know what must be done.”
“Burst. We’ll help.”
“No…” he said. “This is something I have to do alone.”
Naruto gave himself a confused look.
“Trust me, guys,” he said, standing. “You all can disable your byakugan. In fact, I want you to. I’ll keep an eye on Neji.”
“…Where are you even going?” Naruto asked.
He opened the door to the empty room adjacent to theirs. “Somewhere far stranger than you poor souls shall ever know… Goodbye, my brothers.”
“Alright, bye. See you back inside our brain, in like two minutes, I guess.”
Naruto shook his head in disbelief, but disabled his byakugan to play along with the joke—whatever it was.
Hinata looked at him curiously. “What is it—I mean, what are you doing, in there?”
“I wish I knew,” Naruto replied. “Some parts of me are, just… really weird, sometimes. It’s best not to take them too seriously.”
Naruto was kind of curious about what his other clone was getting up to on his own, but it would be rude to sneak a peek after having been asked not to, and he’d find out soon enough, anyway.
“Um, Naruto… can I ask you something?”
“Um… I was just wondering,” Hinata said, “how do you come up with your ideas? Like, for bluffing, or for planning things?”
Naruto scratched his head. “Oh, uh… well, I have a lot of extra brains to think of things,” he said, sheepishly. “Once you adjust for that, then, it’s probably nothing unusual.”
She looked disappointed. “Oh…”
Only then did he realize that she hadn’t just been praising him or looking for reassurance; she’d been genuinely trying to find a way to improve, and he had basically said that it was all because of his amazing natural gifts, and for her it might as well be impossible.
“Uhh—but I mean, that’s not all,” he quickly added. “Like, there are tricks you can try that might help you come up with more ideas, if you want.”
“Like what?” she asked, interested.
“Well, uh…” Naruto wondered for a second what he could say. He needed to find an idea for finding ideas. “Well, you can try, like, maybe looking at what your thoughts are doing, and finding patterns or—actually, wait, no, here’s a better one. I did this a while ago myself, actually. Write down a bunch of crazy ways to do something—they don’t even have to be good—and then pretend to be an enemy trying to exploit them in every way you can figure out. It’s like a kind of practice for seeing loopholes and stuff. Sometimes I’ll even notice an idea is only bad most of the time, and if I was ever in some specific situation where the enemy had exactly four allies and a wet pair of boots then it’d be the perfect strategy.”
“I mean, I think I would have eventually figured out that I had enough spare chakra to use my shadow clones for extra training, even if I was an idiot, but luckily I could get started right away because I already had the habit of looking for dumb tricks like that. Imagine if it had taken me a few months to notice—I’d be way behind you and Sasuke by now; I wouldn’t have a chance of surviving a real battle if I was up against someone like Neji.”
The door to the adjacent room opened. Naruto’s weird clone came back through.
“Ah, welcome back. How’d it go in there?”
“All is well.” The weird clone put a hand on Naruto’s head and closed his eyes. “Be at peace, my child…”
“Hey,” one of the other clones said, his byakugan now active. “Neji actually turned his eye off. What did you do?”
“I fear it could not be conveyed by mere words.”
“Bite your tongue and burst, I wanna know!”
“No… this memory is not something to be shared,” he said, staring wistfully out the window. “I alone will shoulder this burden. I will cross the deserts of Sand country, to be alone; never dispelling, never sharing what I have seen. This fragment of our lives must forever remain obscure.”
His clones stood up, moving to surround him as they drew their kunai.
The weird one yelped and tried to dodge out of the way as they leapt at him, but something managed to burst him in the ruckus. His memories of the last few minutes alone in the next room flowed back into each of them, and their mouths went slack.
“Neji saw us—”
“—we did a striptease!?”
Their remaining days in the tower passed largely without incident, other than one point near the end of the exam period when Shikamaru’s team tried to sneak in without any scrolls. They were caught by the chuunin on duty, and sent back into the forest, but it was good to see they were alive and well, at least.
Late on the final day a consignment of jounin reached the tower and escorted the eight of them back to Leaf. The forest would apparently be swept thoroughly the next morning to recover the bodies and to flush out any teams that hadn’t yet made their own way back out.
The village was even livelier on his return than when he’d left. Late-arriving delegates had shown up from a few more countries and the streets were packed with civilian peddlers catering to the increased traffic.
As one of the coming tournament’s eight precious gladiators Naruto had an entire team of chuunin assigned to guard him, day and night. They made it a little difficult to get any last-minute training in with his shadow clones, but they showed no sign of dissatisfaction at being assigned as bodyguards to a genin. That was to be expected from chuunin. Professionalism.
Kakashi came to visit when he could, with news.
The Cloud team had apparently survived their journey back through the forest, which was no great surprise, and the two of them remaining would indeed be competing in a few days time. The darker-skinned girl’s spinal injury had been too severe to heal, though, and would have left her paralyzed from the neck down. The Cloud delegation had overseen her euthanasia in the hospital, and they would bear her body back to their native country for a proper sky-burial after the tournament, alongside that of another Cloud genin who had lost his life in the forest.
Kakashi was clearly proud of them for having lasted so far, already, but he warned that the tournament was always the toughest part, and the word among Leaf jounin was that the Cloud trio were actually chuunin. Of course, nothing would be done about it—the present diplomatic situation being somewhat delicate. The danger to mere genin weighed little on such a scale.
The tournament brackets had also been settled now that it was known who would compete. Hinata was to participate in the very first fight, up against her cousin, Neji, either for the sake of the Hyuuga who by now must know of what she’d done, or for the sake of the spectators who loved a dramatic match between close kin; especially one to the death. Her best chance would be a quick surrender—Neji might not want to let her live, but hopefully the decision could be taken out of his hands. Once the tournament was over they could figure out how to proceed, depending on who survived.
Sasuke’s first fight was to be against the male Cloud ninja, whose name was Omoi, and Naruto would be up against Tenten, with Rock Lee set to fight the blonde girl of Cloud, who was called Samui. After that, if Naruto won he would fight the winner of Lee’s bracket, and Sasuke would be against Neji’s. Maybe Sasuke would even kill him, but Neji was the gamblers’ favorite to win overall. Still, there was at least a small chance he could be up against anyone, depending on how things played out.
Well, probably not Hinata.
On the day of the tournament Naruto was escorted to a holding room beneath the stands. He could hear the crowds gathering above.
He was under guard now more to prevent him from getting out than anyone else getting in, as the roster had been made public and it would be an inconvenience to have to change things if he fled or died. He could still forfeit a fight, of course, but it would be his responsibility once the battle began, and the shame would be on him rather than the organizers.
One of the ostensible purposes of the show was to entertain the civilian population of Leaf—it wasn’t particularly common for them to see a real display of ninjutsu, other than when they were running for their lives, but Naruto was cynical enough to guess that a better explanation was its function as a show of strength. A civilian “revolt” couldn’t really pose much of a risk, even theoretically, but witnessing a few ninja children throwing fireballs around and beating each other to death probably helped to minimize the level of active military oversight necessary.
Once the hour struck, the bells were rung and the chuunin escorted him out before the crowd. He was part of a slow procession, each of the genin being shown off one by one, their clans announced by criers.
“Naruto, last of the Uzumaki,” they said.
“Sasuke, last of the Uchiha.”
“Hinata, born of the Hyuuga, now clanless.”
That was the first he’d heard of that. They’d disowned her, then, formally. He wasn’t sure whether it was any surprise to Hinata or not, but she didn’t let it show. Her face was a stoic mask as the eight of them took their places, lined up before the assembled crowd.
On the signal they raised their right hands, fingers together and palms down, pointed toward the cushioned seat of the Third.
“Ave, Hokage!” They spoke in unison. “We, who are about to die, salute you!”
The Hokage waved. “Fare you well.”
They took their individual places around the rim of the arena, standing just in front of the closest seats in the crowd. They had a good view down to watch and comment on the other fights, which was as much a part of the spectacle as the combat itself; they had been encouraged beforehand to make their feelings heard as their friends fought for their lives. For the crowd’s sake.
The arena itself was a wide open ring set low into the ground, with hard-packed earth to fight on and a solid wall surrounding it that reached up to the base of the stands. There was nothing but a few patches of grass scattered around for visual variety.
Hinata and Neji took their places in the ring as the Hokage made a short speech about the value of teamwork, and the ancient ties between Cloud and Leaf that could never be broken, and so on.
The Hokage was seated next to a strange old man, again, too; someone Naruto had noticed a few times recently. He was memorable because the byakugan clearly showed ten sharingan eyeballs beneath his sleeve, surgically embedded in his arm. Naturally the first time Naruto had seen him he’d told Sasuke, but the Uchiha records apparently made no mention of such a person. Their best guess was that he’d picked up the eyes after Itachi’s massacre—that was the most obvious opportunity to grab so many at once—and that he’d probably kept it a secret since then. The eyes would have been too valuable just to leave to rot in the corpses, but there was no reason anyone should want to buy more than one or two for themselves, so he had probably just lucked into stealing them all before anyone noticed, or something—maybe he was the first one to arrive at the scene of the crime. He probably would have had to reach some kind of deal with the Hyuuga to keep it quiet, though.
Naruto was beginning to understand just how the Hyuuga had become so influential. A clan with the byakugan living in a crowded village couldn’t help but stumble across a lot of terrible secrets. Hinata had even suggested that that was actually the real reason the Hyuuga were so protective of their eyes—not even the Uchiha went as far as putting regulatory seals on the members of their own branch houses.
The Raikage of Cloud village was also present to witness the tournament. He gave a short speech reiterating the strength of the bond between their two villages, and then went on to introduce his “tag-team partner”, Killa-Bee, the last of the Killa-Beez who had served the clan of Wu-Tang since times most ancient, and who was also the current jinchuuriki of Cloud’s eight-tailed beast—a spirit artistically depicted as a monstrous ox, with eight tentacles in place of limbs.
Killa-Bee was also recognized as Cloud village’s most distinguished practitioner of their folk singing tradition, and had offered to regale the crowd with a brief song before the battles began.
Some group in the back began a drum roll, clashing their cymbals together as Killa-Bee left the Hokage’s box and walked through the crowd. He was a tall guy, heavily muscled and dark-skinned like most Cloud ninja, with eight katana strapped to his back. Eight.
He leaped over the last few steps and landed on the railing that surrounded the arena, turning to point his finger back at the crowd, his voice resounding. “Yo… do-re-mi, fee-fi-fo-fum… A-B-C… let’s kick it. Hit the drum!”
The cacophony of noise fell into a steady rhythm, and Killa-Bee nodded his head to the beat, continuing.
They call me the Octopus; eight swords—my form’s anomalous,
my tendrils bend wills, I send chills through an optimist.
The other option is: I’m named for wrapping with suckers,
or my cock ‘n my nuts, ink-stained to black, motherfuc—”
“Okay. Okay!” the Raikage shouted, waving his hands to cut off the beat. “That was great. The end. Thank you Killa-Bee!”
Killa-Bee refused to step down from the railing, continuing his song even as the Raikage personally came down to remove him.
“Yo, I’m the—”
“No! I told you to keep it family-friendly,” he grunted, Bee squirming against his headlock. “There are children here!”
The audience applauded politely, the more cultured ninja thoughtfully nodding their heads.
Once Killa-Bee had been successfully wrestled off-stage the official commencement of the first battle of the tournament was announced.
To the sound of applause, the adjudicator counted off for the first fight to begin. Neji against Hinata.
“Fighters ready on three: …zero… one… two… three!”
Neji kicked off the dirt instantly to fly at Hinata, mimicking Sasuke’s bout in the preliminaries, but Hinata was ready for it. A single hand-seal raised a spherical barrier of translucent chakra around her, blocking Neji’s advance.
Naruto had expected her to yield, now, but instead she just stood there, shrinking the barrier slowly down to a more sustainable size, looking around with her byakugan, burning 21 mc by the second.
Even if she hoped to wait him out, she’d need more than twice Neji’s chakra pool to have anything left by the time he finally drained himself with his byakugan alone.
Naruto realized, now, that if she did intend to forfeit, then as long as she could hold the shield up, it cost her basically nothing to drain Neji and leave him weakened for the following rounds. The crowd might not like her for it, but it was a good idea. It would require that Neji kept his byakugan active, though, and he probably would stop as soon as it became apparent what Hinata was trying to do.
Naruto shouted out loud enough that he hoped Neji would be able to hear, “Get ready, Hinata! As soon as his guard’s down!”
Naruto had meant that to keep Neji on his toes—wary enough to keep his byakugan on, draining his chakra for longer, but he smirked when he heard it and dropped his combat-stance, visibly deactivating his eye. He was taunting them. And worse, it seemed that Hinata had interpreted Naruto’s comment as genuine advice. She dropped her shield and pushed off the ground, throwing herself toward Neji.
With the gentle-fist style she had been trained in since birth she reached for his pressure points with precision strikes, but Neji was too quick, and even without the aid of his byakugan he effortlessly dodged around every attack, humiliating her before the crowd and the observing Hyuuga clan. A tap against her ankle with his foot tangled her legs up and sent her sprawling face-first into the dirt.
She hastily erected another barrier around herself before Neji could deliver the killing blow. She rested beneath it for a second, catching her breath.
Neji took the opportunity to test her barrier for the first time. He tossed a pebble at it, first, and then nudged the dirt around its bottom edge with his foot. If he tried to dig under the shield it would just form into the opened spaces where it could, but he didn’t appear interested in trying.
He made a few probing strikes with his hands and feet. The barrier didn’t sting to touch, but it would hurt to beat against as much as any solid object. If Neji had any technique in his repertoire carrying as much power as the whirlpool or Sasuke’s chidori he didn’t attempt it—maybe the chakra cost was too great with two more rounds for him still to consider. The early battles were as much a test of control as of fighting ability for ninja as strong as him, and he couldn’t afford to be wasting energy against Hinata when there were people like Rock Lee or the Cloud chuunin to consider.
After her failed attempt at taking the offensive Naruto was no longer even sure that Hinata intended to surrender. He didn’t want to demoralize her by shouting out that she should just give up—especially not in front of such a large audience, but continuing the fight was even crazier; he had to say something. She’d be killed if she gave Neji another chance like that.
“Good job Hinata!” he shouted. “Leave the rest to me! I have a great idea he won’t see coming!”
That wasn’t strictly true, but his shadow clones had to count for something, and by that point Hinata would be safe outside of the ring.
Hinata looked up at him from beneath her barrier.
“Thanks, Naruto…” she called back, a little out of breath, “but I think… I think I’m going to try to fight him myself, first.”
Naruto could hear the audience’s enthusiastic reaction behind him. There were criers in the stands repeating their conversation word for word, and the more prominent clans had seats near the front to get a view of the action directly—some of the wealthiest civilians even had magnifying eyeglasses, up in the back. Why would she want to fight him? To risk dying for a promotion she didn’t even need? She’d never seemed like a particularly prideful person, nor vengeful like Sasuke—maybe it was the money? The Hyuuga were rich, but she’d been disowned. She might not even know how to get by, without them.
“If you’re worried about being stuck on genin pay, it’s really not that bad!” Naruto shouted, “You can live with me if you want! I owe you for all the lunches, anyway!”
Neji paced around her shield as she called out in reply.
“Thank you, but… can I just ask one last thing? About the fight?”
“You said once that… that the gentle fist style was weak. I was upset with my clan at the time, so I understand if you were just trying to cheer me up—but did you mean it? Is it really a weak style?”
He wasn’t sure what to say—he had been trying to cheer her up, but he also really did think the gentle fist was impractical. That was only based on what little he knew of it, though. There might be some non-obvious advantages, and if either of them was qualified to make that judgment it was her.
The crowd were straining to listen—to hear the two genin who openly mocked the Hyuuga. Some of the criers were reluctant even to repeat her words.
“…Probably?” he said.
“Probably…” Hinata echoed.
There was a smile on her face. She had resigned herself to her fate.
“Okay,” she said. “Thank you, Naruto.”
He was about to try to shout out some kind of clarification—a more detailed explanation of his uncertainties, but she dropped her shield and kicked off the ground, flying high away from Neji as her fingers ran through the seals of the shadow clone technique.
Tiger, Boar, Monkey, Hare, Horse, Ox, Rat. Neji threw a kunai but by the time it hit there were nine of her in the air.
The ones that survived landed near the other end of the arena, Neji already among them and striking them swiftly down, but before he could reach every one she got a barrier technique off and caught three clones in the radius, protecting them from his attacks.
Neji cleaned up the remaining clones on the outside and backed off again. She wasn’t entirely unhurt by his efforts—seven strikes of varying power had made their fractional impact in concentrations as high as a full quarter of Neji’s last hit.
With spare hands to work with, inside her barrier, now, one of her shadow clones focused her attention on Neji and instantiated another barrier, around him, rather than her.
Neji looked around at the bubble, amused. He knocked against it with a finger, and then struck it with the force of his open-palm strike, failing to dispel it.
Hinata dropped her own barrier and wiped the sweat from her forehead.
Neji shrugged his shoulders to the audience, theatrically. It seemed unlike him. Maybe the indignity of being “trapped” was getting to him.
Hinata’s clone began to contract the shield inwards around Neji. He looked briefly concerned before discovering that merely leaning against the surface was enough to halt its advance. He walked his hands up to the roof of the dome and held it up at a radius of about six feet from the center at the ground. The barriers had to be anchored around a source of chakra, but Hinata had chosen to use the nature-chakra in the patch of grass at Neji’s feet rather than using Neji himself, which had the added effect of essentially imprisoning Neji where he stood, rather than letting him run around with the shield as a weapon to grind her against the wall or something. The downside, though, was that the barrier itself had to be larger to encompass him entirely, from below his center, and thus it was lot more costly. Hinata didn’t know the exact numbers, but she was probably burning more than 50 millichakra every second now, even without her byakugan, and the casting price alone for all those clones and shields must have already used up about a third of her total.
Evidently she had some sort of plan in mind, though, as her other body began casting the shadow clone technique again. This time, eight more bodies burst into existence around her. It was a bold strategy, but it was just possible she might actually get in a hit or two by surrounding Neji. That alone might even be enough to earn her the promotion, up against someone like him. Naruto had even seen a few cases in previous years of genin being promoted after losing a fight to someone who themselves had remained a genin—it had as much to do with how you fought as it did with whether or not you won, though the overall winner seemed at least to be guaranteed some recognition—their public promotion was an integral part of the closing ceremony.
Hinata’s clones didn’t move to surround Neji, though. Instead, they raised their hands and one by one cast new barriers around him—shells around the shells, a second layer, then a third, a fourth. The shimmering translucency overlapping itself made the view inside the hemisphere progressively less clear until eventually Neji had faded completely from sight to those without the byakugan. Naruto could see him inside, though, looking around.
Then, one by one, Hinata’s clones brought their hands slowly together. The shells began to constrict, overlaying more tightly with each other, and then, when they touched, adding their own force to the increasing pressure. The extra power pushing inward took Neji by surprise, and he braced himself to put up a greater resistance, but as the extra layers came down on him even that proved insufficient to hold them off.
He struck at it again with his palm, but they moved no slower for his efforts. Trying another technique, he spun rapidly on his heel, turning himself around with chakra, pushing hard against the shields, but the force was too diffuse to have any effect.
He took up the stance of the gentle fist in the middle of the opaque shell, his arms spread out in that characteristic fashion Naruto had seen Hinata display, but slightly different; his body bent lower as he mouthed the words to some technique of significance. Then, in an accelerating flow of movement he struck at the walls twice, then twice again, then four times. Sixteen finger-point strikes in each direction, but every one of them too weak to break the incoming walls. Thirty two strikes, with every part of his body joining in the perfectly executed dance, and then the final strike—a step forward that plunged his open palm with incredible force into the oncoming barrier.
One of Hinata’s ten shells broke, and was shortly re-cast anew on the outside, barely perceptible to the naked eye.
Neji’s heartbeat was racing, his shoulders tense as he stepped back into the center of the dome. Again he hurried through the steps of his technique. Two strikes, two again, four, sixteen—but the barriers were too close now; there wasn’t enough room for the final step forward. He started over again anyway, two strikes, two, four—but now there wasn’t even enough room to follow the required pattern with his arms. He pushed his palm against the inner surface again, a mimicry of the dance’s final step, but it did nothing; there must have been something in the sequence itself that built its strength beyond that of a normal blow.
He slammed his fist against the inside of the shell, in futility.
The shields continued their slow descent from above, constricting against his upraised arm, threatening soon to swallow him whole.
“…I yield,” he mouthed, unheard by anyone on the outside of the walls that surrounded him.
“…I yield! She wins!”
The barriers steadily contracted inward, pressing down now on his head from above, forcing him into an awkward crouch. “Hey, I said I yield!”
No sound escaped the shell.
This sort of strategy would never have worked in a real battle against any ninja with a faster primary striking technique, or with a teammate or two to act in support, but those limitations didn’t apply here.
Neji lay on his back, bracing his legs against the ceiling as it descended, but even that wasn’t enough to hold off the combined force of ten shrinking shields at once, and once his knees buckled there was too little room to even try it again.
Hinata’s father stood up from his seat in the stands. “He yields!”
His voice was only one amongst the cheers, though, and the adjudicator made no move—he couldn’t see what those with the byakugan saw.
Neji beat the wall with his fist, shouting something unintelligible.
He started clawing at the dry earth beneath him. He scraped a little out with his fingers, then with a kunai, digging to escape the inflexible force descending from above, even as the walls steadily came in on every side. Murmurs of confusion were making their way through the crowd as the glowing ball seemed to be getting too small to fully contain Hinata’s opponent.
Neji’s frantic ministrations unintentionally dislodged the clump of grass around which the shells were anchored. The whole construction shifted around him as it moved, rolling him over. It took him valuable moments to connect the events and reach for the grass again, grasping it in his fingers. He tore it apart with his teeth, but the grass would take time to die, and Hinata could safely anchor her shields wherever she liked, now.
He crawled across the earth like a beetle, trapped, with his head low to the ground until an inopportune ambulation trapped his lower leg upright between the earth and the barrier, his knee barred against the descending roof. He couldn’t dislodge it.
Neji screamed in pain as the unyielding barrier descended still, crushing his knee down into itself until his shinbone buckled violently. He curled into a ball, clutching his shattered leg as the barriers came in; compressing him, screaming and sobbing into his knees with his last gasps of air until finally the advancement of Hinata’s walls gradually and relentlessly crushed his body down into a wet pulp of bloody muscle and bone.
Hinata released the compact ball of layered barriers, dispelling her shadow clones. She had avoided using her byakugan, to preserve chakra, so she hadn’t seen his cries for mercy. Or had she known that they would come, and chosen not to look?
The adjudicator raised his green flag.
“Winner: …Hinata of Leaf.”