Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto. This story was written for fun, not profit. The italicized text at the beginning of the fic is from Alabama 3's "Woke Up This Morning" -- I don't own it, either.
Author's Note: I apologize for the formatting. FF.Net seems to have decided to remove any way of separating scenes, and as a result I'm stuck using horizontal bars. I'm really not thrilled with this, but I've made do. gripes
papa never told me
about right and wrong
Mio Uchiha balances precariously on a treestump, not so much arrogant as confident that she can deal with any challengers. Her eyes are closed and her hands are at her sides. She has calculated the possibilities, so that one might be reminded of her brilliant mother.
Then she opens her eyes and grins at Sasuke, all wide-eyed courage and blond pigtails standing up around her head like a fast-burning fire. "Are you gonna attack me or not?"
He narrows his eyes. "When I'm ready," he says.
Mio goes back to balancing. She is eight years old and will be a genin before she is nine. She has been training since her birth parents died. Now she is Sasuke's protégée, an Uchiha in name and character if not in blood, and one day she will have to do what he could not. Her world is circumscribed by his vengeance.
Sometimes Sasuke makes her stand there for hours, waiting for an attack that never comes. She never lives up to any of his standards, but this is the only test she fails so completely. She has no patience.
"What did they do this time?" Iruka asks, surveying the assembled students in a way he probably thinks is stern. Mostly he just looks disappointed.
Hinata hides a smile – a wholly inappropriate expression for a teacher, especially one who's supposed to be disciplining unruly students. "They got into an argument," she says tactfully.
Iruka ignores the property damage and peers at the two girls. Sayo shuffles her feet, Mio looks at what's left of the wall. Disappointing their favorite teacher is worse than any scolding, but Hinata doubts that he will ever understand that.
"You'll have to fix the wall," he says at last. "And you'll have to explain this to your parents."
Sayo wilts and whines. Mio simply nods, as if she was expecting little else.
When they have set the girls to work, Hinata sighs and glances over at Iruka. "She's been falling asleep in class."
"Sasuke trains her at night." Carefully neutral, a statement of fact, but he doesn't hide his disapproval well.
Mio is smiling again, heaving rocks back into place. Sayo has forgiven her already. But Hinata sees the dark circles under her eyes, the half-healed scars from a thousand falls, and specters and Sound rise up like ghosts.
She is sure Sasuke sees them too. And she knows, as surely as she knows her own name, that he interprets these warnings incorrectly.
"I'll talk to him," she says.
This time Sasuke chooses to attack.
Mio's expecting him. Hinata watches her balance on the stump, and then she's vanished in a blur as a kunai slices through the space she occupied a moment before. There are flashes of movement, too quick for the untrained eye to follow. But Hinata is far from untrained, and so she clasps her hands in front of her and is disturbed by the battle. The smiling little girl is vicious.
The Hyuga bloodline is famous for its clarity of sight. Now it is as though she can see the paths forking in front of all three of them, the weapon-child and the avenger and woman left behind. Somewhere down those paths is a demon, a golden-haired monster with empty eyes standing in Orochimaru's shadow.
A heartbeat later Mio's on the ground with Sasuke glaring down at her. His disappointment is very different from Iruka's, stern silences and looming failure and death.
But Mio climbs to her feet and bounces at him, hopeful as ever. "How'd I do?"
"Not good enough." He has never said anything else.
She shrugs and scurries back into position, as if the future can't weigh her down. By now she doesn't expect praise. That is just how he is.
Sasuke knows he's doing something wrong – although, in typical fashion, he doesn't approach the problem correctly. Mio has the raw potential, the courage and intelligence, but she's not fitting his mold properly. Possibly she's trying to break it. He wouldn't put it past her, not with the contrary streak Naruto must have passed on.
It doesn't occur to him that the mold is faulty to begin with. Such thoughts are impossible.
"You're working her too hard," a voice says behind him. It's disapproving and concerned all at once.
He deigns to glance over his shoulder, at Hinata with her history clinging to her. She still wears her hair short, but she stands taller and prouder now, and a long scar runs from her left brow to her right cheek.
"I wouldn't have to," he says. "Not if she improved."
And now she is glaring at him with her pale, disconcerting eyes. "She's falling asleep in class, Sasuke."
"She isn't learning."
"No, she isn't." But she means something else, another kind of learning that he has no time for. She frowns at him. "You're too harsh with her."
"She needs to be stronger."
She tilts her head to one side, because there is a confidence that comes with being a jounin, and if he had seen her first tests he would have expected this anyway. Irrationally, he blames the way she meets his eyes on Naruto and the effect he had on people.
But he knows that's wrong. This is Hinata's outrage, entirely her own. "If you can't kill Itachi and Orochimaru," she says, "what makes you think Mio can?"
He glares at her, because he has no answer he can put into words. And for the first time in forever, he's found someone who quietly, unobtrusively won't back down. He imagines he can see his teammates' ghosts flanking her, mocking him. We died first, they say. We died first because of your failures, because of your vendettas.
"She has to," he says, and wonders if there is any truth in his words.
Iruka thinks of himself as Mio's uncle. He doesn't know when this happened or what prompted it, other than the fact that she has no blood kin left. But why would blood matter to her anyway?
"You can't pick fights with people," he says when he takes her out to dinner. He's harsher with her than he is with most students, but he thinks she needs that. Coddling will get him nowhere.
Mio kicks her feet and pokes at her ramen. There are sharp lines on her face, three marks on each cheek, and her eyes are green and clear. "Sayo called me a baby."
"You didn't have to hit her."
"What was I s'posed to do? Let her get away with it?"
He is reminded of her mother and Ino, and then wishes her world could be so simple. "You still overreacted."
She scowls at him before changing the subject. "Daddy's not happy with me."
"'Cause I can't do stuff right."
It's a strange admission from a child who has never been anything less than perfectly confident. "He's teaching you very difficult jutsus."
She shrugs. This isn't news. She knows what she is, or at least what Sasuke needs her to be. "He doesn't think I'm good enough."
It's the way she says it, so matter-of-fact, that bothers him. He's seen her more upset about breaking school property, because at least that's fairly unusual. Sasuke holds her to impossible standards, trying to make a weapon out of a little girl, and of course she's used to disappointing him.
So he sighs and tells her. "You'll never be good enough for him," he says, hating his own honesty. "You can't be Itachi."
She falls silent, staring at her scuffed sandals. Iruka is struck by how small she is, much tinier than Naruto or Sakura was at her age. More mature as well, but of course that's Sasuke's fault, weighing her down almost before she could walk.
"I know," she says, and then she snatches a smile out of the past and beams at him. "I can be better."
He waits to hear her say she'll be Hokage, for her to reveal that there's something of Naruto or Sakura in her – anything at all besides Sasuke's revenge. But the moment comes and goes in silence. Her smile is something different, because her father was never so cold.
Sasuke has had a lot of practice walking away from well-meaning people. So when Hinata stands across from him again, tensed as if she's about to go into battle, he turns his back and starts walking.
And she doesn't chase after him. She doesn't shout. He just hears her voice, and like so many, he mistakes soft-spoken for weak-willed.
"You're just going to leave?" she asks.
He doesn't answer.
"You're a coward."
That stops him. He turns slowly, so that he's looming over her.
She doesn't back down. "You're a coward, Sasuke. You need a little girl to fight your wars."
"I adopted her. She will have to finish this if I don't."
"Finish what?" The sudden venom in her voice should be terrifying. "Are you going to chase her down when she goes running to Orochimaru?"
He imagines that the mark on his shoulder burns like a brand. "She won't have to. She'll be strong enough."
She falls silent. Naruto would have punched him and Sakura would have snatched him by the collar and hauled him back from the brink, but for all her compassion Hinata does nothing of the kind. She just stands with her hands clasped, utterly unreadable.
"I'm here for Mio," she says at last. "I'll help her. You're not taking her with you." And that is all she says before she turns her back on him and leaves.
He has had many people try to save him and just as many attempt to destroy him. This is the first time he has encountered simple anger, between one human being and another. He is startled to realize that he does not know what to do about it.
When Mio shows up, he trains her so hard that she falls asleep on the ground, curled up in a little ball. He tucks her under an arm and carries her home without a word.
Hinata is watching the youngest students when he comes to take Mio home from school. They don't look at each other.
Mio scampers over, and she's smiling and bouncing and for a moment the expectations can't quite keep up with her. She orbits him like a captured sun and thrusts an exam at him. "See? Told you I'd do okay."
He gives it a cursory glance. "You missed three questions."
She stops and pouts and doesn't notice the shadows catching up with her, can't see their fangs leaving mottled scars. "Miss Hinata said I did a good job!"
"I see," he says, and looks up at Hinata in time to meet her gaze. It's all there, futures and pasts and polar opposites.
Mio tugs on his arm, all simple curiosity. "Are you ever gonna say I did okay?"
For a fleeting instant he remembers a little boy in his brother's shadow, and he wonders how a child who does not share his blood can be so like him. But the understanding is gone before he can grasp it, before he is even aware that it flutters at the edges of his world.
"Don't ask stupid questions," he says. He wishes Hinata would look away.
Mio scowls and wraps her little hand halfway around his wrist. She is so serious, as if she were intent on saving a drowning teammate, and if he could articulate his thoughts he would warn her that she is too small to do any good. She will only be dragged down as well.
"Get some rest," Hinata calls. Mio just beams at her, mercurial girl, brilliant and wild – they'll see what she looks like when she's burnt up too fast.
Hinata claims that she'll save her if she can, and maybe Mio understands that. Maybe she thinks that if she hangs on, she can pull him along with her. It's a brave, stupid thing to do, because there's nothing a child can do that two teammates couldn't. But he's not surprised that she thinks that way. That was how Naruto and Sakura thought, their worlds untethered by impossibilities. That was what killed them.
When he wraps his hand around hers, he's not sure if he's pulling her into the shadows or hanging on for dear life.
She glances at him, Hinata's exam still clutched in her free hand. It's as if she knows it's a losing battle, and all that she says and does can only be extinguished by the Uchiha crest he has burned into her.
But she is his daughter, and she smiles and doesn't let go.