A/N: Sorry this chapter took so long. ._. Writer's block has got me by the metaphorical balls. I could spend another week working on this chapter, but I shouldn't keep everyone waiting. Someone guessed flashbacks, they were right, but it's going to be broken up over the next few chapters. Dear god, I hate writing flashbacks. They're just so difficult for no apparent reason. Thanks everyone for being patient!

Beta'd by Lecs

Chapter 25 Sacrifices II

9 Years Ago: Hyuuga Estate

It was a cold winter's morning when she first saw him. A young girl barely seven years old, Hinata, had been bundled up with layers of thick clothing by her nursemaid before being allowed to go outside and play. She fussed unhappily with her stuffy mittens, and her overly large knit hat. However, she was amused by the white puffs of smoke coming from her mouth when she blew on her freezing hands. Pretending she was an angry dragon, she blew harder until her face turned pink.

The first snow of winter had come and turned her yard completely white. Hinata did not like winter very much. She preferred the colorful flowers of spring, the blue skies of summer, and the golden leaves of autumn. Winter was too cold, too gloomy, and there was absolutely nothing to do or look at. So when she stepped out into the barren lifeless yard, she was surprised to find a single slither of color.

Red. It was the redness of cinnabar amongst a pile of black coal, a concentration of anger pulsing within a bleak sea; bright red, like the tongue of a dragon, it coiled greedily around the neck of a mysterious figure who sat beneath her cherry tree. Eyes, black. Hair black, Clothes, black. Only his scarf, heavy around his neck, was that deep crimson red.

To says she was astonished would've been an understatement. She had never seen anyone like him before. His concentration was so engrossed in a hard covered book in his lap, he did not notice her approaching. From the binding, she knew that it was from their own personal library. She wondered how he got a hold of the book. Their library was not a place for outsiders. Wary, but still curious, she decided to greet him.

"E-Excuse me," she called out as she wandered close to him. "You should be careful."

"Of what?" he asked with disinterest, giving her only a brief glimpse.

Hinata pointed up to the branches above his head. "There are icicles up there. The wind might knock them down and they will fall down on your head!" Even now, she could see the branches quivering threateningly. Beads of liquid dripped from the sharp tips, leaving little dark stains on the boy's red scarf.

"Watch out!" she cried, running over to him as a gust of wind sent several icicles crashing down to the ground, barely missing him. "Why aren't you moving? It's dangerous," she told him.

He remained placid and unconcerned. Normally she wouldn't touch strangers without permission, but she liked this mysterious boy and thought he surely would get hurt. She grabbed at one of his arms and tried to pull him away from the tree but he didn't want to budge. "You have to move!" she said as she pulled. The icicle above his head was shaking. She gasped when she saw it come falling down.

Instead of getting his head bashed in, he had nonchalantly shielded himself with the backcover of the book. The icicle broke off and the ice shards bounced off while Hinata fell flat on her behind into the mud.

"I can take care of myself," he retorted, raising an eyebrow.

"T-That's my father's book..." she said, stunned to see the dent on the cover. The History of the Hyuuga was the title. She wondered why he was reading something like that.

"He won't notice."


"Children shouldn't be playing in such dangerous places. Why don't you hand this back to your father. I'm done with it," he stood up and placed the book into her arms before walking off.

The Hyuuga gardens were vast, and she followed after him to make sure he didn't get lost. They walked past the koi ponds with the series of pagodas sitting on the water's unbroken surfaces, the sand and rock gardens, across the dark brown cedar wood bridge through the path lined with stone lanterns, until he finally stopped and turned to her, an annoyed expression on his face.

"Must you follow me?" he asked. "I would like to be alone."

"Let's be friends!" she suggested.

He looked at her dubiously and took off again, this time towards the large old willow tree that sat at the edge of the wall. With a leap, he grabbed onto its lower branches, hoisted himself upwards and climbed it as easily as a lithe cat, disappearing into the curtain of hanging leaves white from hoarfrost.

"How did you do that?" she exclaimed, slipping through the frosted leaves until she too was cocooned by the tree.

He ignored her question and looked down at her thoughtfully. "If your father told you that you had to marry a complete stranger and spend the rest of your life serving them, how would you feel?" he asked.

"Marry?" she uttered blankly.

"Hinata-sama! Where are you?" one of the servants called from the main house. Hinata yelped and hid behind the leaves.

"Why don't you go? They're going to be worried about you," he said.

She hugged the book tightly to herself, lowering her eyes. "T-They'll just yell at me again. My clothes got dirty. Father will be mad."

With a sigh, he slid down from the tree and took the book back from her, clipping under his arm. "I'll take responsibility. Come on, I'll walk you back."

Her face immediately brightened up.

"I'm Hinata. What's your name?" she asked, happily stepping into the footprints he left behind in the snow as they headed back.

"Uchiha Itachi," he replied.

"Look Itachi!" she cried. The clouds had cleared and a golden sunlight poured down from the sky, hitting upon the flecks of snow swirling in the air, turning it into diamond dust. She skipped over to him, her boots crunching in the snow. "They look like crystals!"

He waited at the center of the bridge for her to catch up, while the swirls of glittering snowflakes danced around him. She stopped in her tracks, regarding him with stunned awe. Her small childish heart fluttered in her chest like the rippling of his red scarf being pulled by the wind.

He was smiling.

Present day:

Sometimes when standing amongst the pine needled forest, Sasuke would be unable to differentiate between dawn and twilight. It was the same shade of blue, the same shadow of night lurking at the fringes of the sky, the same chill that seeped right to the bone. After hours of training and hours of meditation, he would lose all sense of time and wonder if it the day was beginning or if it was ending.

Confusion was not something he often felt. In his eyes, the world was cut in black and white. On one side were things that concerned him, on the other, things that didn't. There were good people and then there were bad people. There were things he liked and things he didn't like. Decisions were supposed to be easily made and with every choice he made, there wasn't supposed to be regrets.

Though lately, things weren't so easy anymore. With the return of his brother and Hinata's unshakeable belief in his innocence, doubt was beginning to form.

He blamed her for clouding his judgement. Hinata was, to him, somewhere in between the two binaries. Neither this or that, she resided in a special spot he created just for her, in a place where love and hate overlapped and emotions ran high, balancing on a tightrope above the point of no return. Needless to say, she made him uncomfortable. Like standing at the edge of a cliff looking down into a dark abyss that appeared to have no bottom, all it took was one push and then... and then what? He didn't know, didn't ever want to know. Whatever it was, he didn't like it.

He resented her because even though he looked only at her, she did not do the same. Sooner or later, her eyes would lose interest and wander off to look at something new: another person, some animal, an interesting pattern on a piece of old furniture, an oddly shaped cloud, things he deemed insignificant.

His wounded pride told him to forget about her, to not care for her more than she did for him, but if there was an exit somewhere, he kept passing it by, unable to leave. She was a simpleton: naive, stupid, and overly sentimental; yet, sometimes he would catch the glimmer of something hidden in her eyes. She was always holding back, as if the real her existed in some deep impenetrable secret place completely out of reach by everyone else. Just like the Hyuuga castle, he would get lost before ever reaching its heart.

In the end, he found himself standing in front of the infirmary again. He had not slept the night before and it was evident in the dark circles beneath his eyes and his pallid skin. While walking to her room, he stopped briefly outside of Itachi's. In a moment of weakness, he considered going inside to see how his older brother was doing, the last he heard he was in critical condition, but the moment quickly passed and he moved on, shedding his guilt as easily as the cold-blooded reptile.

Hinata was still fast asleep when he came in. Flowers and other get-well gifts from friends and secret admirers covered her room, filling the air with a musky sweetness. He had not brought anything himself except for a book which he read to pass the time before she woke up.

An hour or so later, she stirred in her bed with a soft sigh. His heart caught in his throat when he saw her eyes slowly open, revealing those milky orbs still glazed over with slowly dissipating dreams, and he put his book aside, scooting to the edge of his seat.

A fairy tale, that's what it always felt like: a fairy tale where happy endings weren't guaranteed. Sometimes dragons overpowered knights, and sometimes they died, leaving the princess trapped by the villain forever.

"How are you feeling?"

Her mouth parted to speak, but nothing came out. She shook her head with a melancholy smile.

"What's wrong?" he asked, trying to control the alarm rising in his voice.

She sat up on her bed and started to move her hands wildly, acting out something he couldn't quite understand until she made an "X" with her fingers over her mouth and then proceeded to massage her throat.

"...Your voice is gone?" he said with a sharp inhale. Why was it that bad things were always happening to her?

She nodded enthusiastically and smiled.

"I'll get the nurse," he said with a frown, disappearing from the room and coming back with one of the morning shift nurses. The woman made Hinata open her mouth and then felt around her neck with a gloved hand.

"There's no damage to the vocal chords," the nurse said shaking her head as she reviewed the clipboard once more. "The problem is probably psychological, but the good news though is that it'll only be temporary."

"How long?"

"It varies per person. Just relax and be patient. Everything will return to normal soon."

Sasuke and Hinata sat quietly for a while after the nurse left the room. Eventually Hinata started gesticulating with her hands again, but he couldn't really understand her. She was smiling, probably to reassure him that she was okay. At some point, she reached her hand out and took his, giving it a firm squeeze. She had never willingly touched him first before, so he almost flinched in surprise.

"You'll be fine," he said, more for himself than for her. She nodded.

He brought her some breakfast to eat, and was a bit glad she couldn't speak because then she wouldn't be able to kick him out or tell him to go to class. However, she fidgeted more than usual. At times she would flip through his book restlessly, her eyes scanning the inside covers, or she would rearrange all the flowers that were sent to her until all of them were mixed and matched. At one point, she reached out and removed a strand of hair that had fallen over his eye, the back of her finger softly brushing against his brow, and he found it was in this attention to the little things that made her cute. She didn't blush as much as she used to, instead, when they touched, her expression would grow unexpectedly serious and he swore that she was trying to seduce him.

The time passed easily even though not much was said and Sasuke went to buy them both lunch. There was a commotion outside of Itachi's room when he came back. Too many get-well presents and not enough room, the guards considered it a health hazard as Itachi's fans brought flowers by the cartload. Sasuke scoffed as he walked by.

When he returned to the room, Hinata was leaning out the open window, staring off into the distance. He could see a bunch of students walking by since it was lunch break. However, she did not seem to be looking at them, but at something else.

"Do you see something interesting?" he asked, putting down their bentos on the table.

She immediately turned away from the window and shook her head. They ate silently while Sasuke pondered over her the thoughtful expression on her face. She was thinking about something, and he knew with some certainty that it was not about him. When he looked out the window, he didn't see anything that could've possibly caught his attention. The trees blocked most of the view, and only the old abandoned watchtower was visible.

"Is it good?" he said, referring to the food.

She nodded with a happy smile.

"I was going to make you soup or something but... I was having a hard time focusing."

There it was again, Sasuke thought. Her eyes had turned serious, as if she was resolved, but about what he couldn't tell. She nodded appreciatively and continued to eat her food.

He told her about the recent events involving the explosion, her expression melancholy the whole time he did. There was a lot of debate over the issue, the main one being whether or not the explosion was an accident or on purpose. However, in the end, Gaara and his family weren't held liable since it had been written in his contract with the school that no one was allowed into his house without permission, and anything that happened to trespassers was not something they could be held accountable for. What was specifically in that contract and why there was a contract drawn up in the first place was never explained. The school had its fair share of secrets and even with two dead and one fatally injured, everyone's lips were tightly sealed.

Itachi was alive, but only barely.

"He can draw people's attention by just breathing," Sasuke found himself saying suddenly. Hinata put her food down and looked at him quizzically. "How could someone like him who was always looking smugly down at the world understand someone like me, who has always been in his shadow? Itachi had always been everyone's favorite. Even if my parents said that they loved us both equally, they obviously liked him much more. I don't remember my dad ever getting angry with him, not even once. Back then... when we all still lived together, everything revolved around Itachi. If I still had photo albums to show you, most of it would be full with his pictures. Everything, it was always, always about him. Photos, newspaper clippings, trophies, medals, awards, there was so much of it that it was as if he was the only one who lived in that house and the rest of his were only his guests. Everything I owned were his old hand-me-downs. Everyone treated me like his defective clone, and they weren't wrong either. I tried to be like him, but was never good enough," he said.

He honestly wasn't sure if he really wanted to talk about Itachi, but Hinata gave him an empathetic look and seemed eager to know more. It wasn't that he didn't want to tell her, but he was just afraid that she wouldn't understand, that she would take Itachi's side instead of his.

"Ironically, he would tell me that I was the lucky one. Only a bastard like him could say something so incredibly stupid. Though maybe I was the stupid one because even after all of that, I still loved him," he said with a wry laugh. Hinata reached over, putting a supportive hand on his arm.

He couldn't talk about it anymore. Itachi had betrayed him. When he looked up, he was startled to see that tears were falling from Hinata's face. She began to talk, mouthing silent words as she wiped her tears away. When she finished, she threw her arms around him, her wet cheek pressed against his warm one.

"I can never be Itachi," he muttered quietly, not sure why he was telling her something like that.

She looked at him with a small smile, pressing her forehead to his. It's okay, she seemed to be saying.

"Would you pick me over him?"

She seemed taken aback by the question, but then nodded. He was relieved, yet, he could not completely trust her either. In the back of his head was doubt, and it existed, a festering tumor growing ever larger.

"Lately, Sasuke has been acting kind of differently," Sakura said to Ino.

Ino arched a perfectly blonde eyebrow, but did not dare to comment. It was such a nice sunny day and telling Sakura that her crush of seven years was tonguing his own roommate would simply ruin everything. The two were eating lunch on the rooftops because the almighty Sakura had fallen even further in the eyes of her beloved. If Sasuke had insulted and snapped at her before for bothering him, he now no longer cared, and that was somehow even worse than being despised.

"It's like he doesn't even see or hear me anymore. Yesterday during cooking class I had dropped a cup of flour on him and he just brushed it off without a word. The cup of flour might as well have come from thin air," Sakura wallowed. "Is he doing this on purpose? Did I do something wrong?"

"He's just going through a phase, but if you don't have any confidence left, you could always give up and hand him over to me," Ino joked.

"Never!" Sakura snapped her head to glare at her friend. "You have to be the most underhanded, conniving, and manipulative person I've ever met! I voice one complaint and you immediately try to steal him away. You're unbelievable!"

"Stealing implies that he's yours, which, by the way, he isn't," Ino pointed out snidely.

Sakura fumed angrily, her face turning a tomato red. "Sometimes I can't stand you!"

She stormed out, leaving Ino alone by herself, which suited her just fine. The view was lovely and the air was sweet with the scent of cherry blossoms. As she was finishing the last of her melon bread she heard the door to the roof open. Even without turning around, she could tell who it was by those dragging footsteps.

"Pissing off Sakura again?" Shikamaru asked in his gratingly dry tone. "She nearly pushed me down the stairs on my way up here."

"Oh, always," Ino said with an indifferent shrug as she turned to face the boy who always had the perpetual frown on his face.

"I can't understand why you two are still friends," he said, leaning against the roof's edge with her. There was a fence around the top to keep anyone from falling off, but sometimes Ino liked to lean in with all her strength to see if it would suddenly break. Of course, it never did since she was still perfectly alive and well.

"Really, you can't? Let me give you a hint then genius. It's because we're both complete and utter idiots," she said with a charming smile.

"Strange reason to be friends," he pointed out.

"It's as good of a reason as any. So what do you want? I already see you during class so having to see you during break too is just overkill. Well, unless you like me," she said with a wink.

"In your dreams. There's no way I'd like you," he snorted.

"Good, because I don't like you either. Yet, here we are..." she said.

"I really don't get you two and your obsession with Sasuke," Shikamaru scoffed. "Girls."

Ino smiled. "Then should I tell you a story?"

"As long as it isn't very long."

"Once upon a time there were two little girls who grew up as next door neighbors. Their mothers were friends so they became friends too. Their mothers often compared their daughters, and because of that, the girls also compared themselves to one another too. It started out innocently enough. Who could run the fastest, who got the best grades, who could jump rope the most consecutive times. Even when they competed, at the end of the day, the losing girl would congratulate the other and work twice as hard to be better the next day. They were rivals. However, one day, there appeared a beautiful boy that both of the girls liked, and they competed for him. Their rivalry grew increasingly intense until things that were insignificant before became important. They compared their heights, weights, legs, waist, arms, necks, eyes, and even finger lengths if you could believe that. Charts were drawn up, tables were filled in, and the two girls were so invested in their competition that all their interactions revolved around this boy. Eventually, one of the girls came to a realization that neither of them would ever win. It was no longer a competition to see who the best was, but a competition to own something that could never be owned. The girl was sad, but mostly she was frustrated. She did not want to admit defeat because her relationship with her friend was based on this competition. Without him, they would have nothing in common anymore. They would no longer be equals. She doesn't know what to do, so she shifted the blame to the boy who had come between them. This boy always had so much power over everyone, that she wanted to give him a taste of the misery he had caused her. So she decided to take something that belonged to him, like how he had taken from her."

Shikamaru listened carefully, scratching his head occasionally out of confusion. "So, the fairy tale becomes a revenge story. How original," he said with his usual dry tone. "How does the story end?"

"Who knows," Ino shrugged. "The two girls and the boy all grow up, go their separate ways and never look back. They live out their tragic lives happily ever after."

"You're impossible to understand. It's too troublesome to even try."

"That's all you have to say? I'm disappointed," she jeered.

"The girl should just give up on such troublesome things and focus on what she actually likes. That's what I would do," he said with a frown.

"Sometimes the simplest thing to do is the hardest," she told him.

"Now that makes absolutely no sense. Haven't you heard of Occam's razor? What's with girls always wanting to make everything so much more complicated and dramatic than it needs to be?"

Ino laughed. "Of course you wouldn't get it, you're not poetic at all. Hey, do you want to know how the girl in the story realized she had made a mistake in competing for the boy?"

"How?" he asked, not really caring but humoring her anyway.

"The boy fell in love with someone else," she said with a forlorn sigh.

"Yeah yeah, I get it. The girl figures out that the boy is a human being and not a trophy. What a shocking revelation," Shikamaru said, rolling his eyes. "Your story is putting me to sleep. I'm going to do what I came up here to do: nap."

"You're such a lazy bum sometimes. Weren't you supposed to work on passing out fliers for the play?"

"I'll do it later," he said, and plopped down on the floor.

Ino shrugged and let him be. Shikamaru, even though he was a decent guy, was impossible to deal with sometimes. Getting him to do something when he didn't want to was like trying to talk a cat for a walk: it just wasn't happening. She left the rooftop and hung around the campus until class started again. When she saw Sakura again, they greeted each other as they always did. It was as if they had never argued in the first place. They fell back into their regular routine, and it was comfortable and easy.

They talked all the time, but nothing was ever said. What was important slipped through their fingers like water and evaporated underneath the oppressive glare of the sun.

Babble. That's all it was, and that was the true tragedy of their friendship.

After school, instead of hanging out with the other girls, Ino went off on her own and took a long walk through the woods to clear her head. Sometimes she liked to be alone because she hardly recognized herself when she was around other people. She wandered off until she stopped in front of a gaping crack in the earth. Ino had always liked scary things. It was a bit of a secret because everyone would think she was weird for liking ghosts, monsters, blood, and gore.

A twig snapped followed by a faint rustling of leaves. Ino froze when she heard the sound of metal creaking somewhere nearby. A hush seemed to fall over the woods and she was suddenly all too keenly aware as to why teachers always advised against going off campus alone. Spooky. Ino carefully stepped towards the sounds, sure that it must be nothing, but a little on edge anyway, until she saw the figure of a man pushing a metal wheelbarrow covered by a white cloth. Her eyes widened and a chill ran down her spine. It was Orochimaru. Quietly, she stalked after him, curious as to what he was doing in the middle of nowhere. He had always been creepy-serial killer slasher flick creepy-but she had never considered the possibility before now.

After several minutes, he finally stopped a small dirt clearing free from the thick roots of trees and other vegetation. Picking up a shovel from his wheelbarrow, he started to dig. Ino watched as the pile of dirt grew bigger with the hole until finally, the whole was a good three feet deep. Orochimaru climbed out, pulled off the white sheet and tipped the contents of the wheelbarrow inside the hole. She almost screamed.

Bloody limbs rolled with eerie thuds into the hole. Mangled arms, legs, feet, and torsos were poured in. Some of them were intact, like the legs, while others, like the torso, had been cut open to reveal broken rib cages and missing organs. Blood and other digestive fluids and chunks of fallen out organs were dumped in as well. Just watching the slime slowly drip down the hole made Ino want to vomit. She clamped her hand around her mouth and tried to swallow her terror.

The smell was unbearable. Just because she liked murder flicks didn't mean she actually wanted to meet a real life murderer. He filled in the hole with the dug up dirt and then, with his wheelbarrow, started to leave.

But after he had moved a few yards, he suddenly stopped and turned back around, his beady yellow eyes searching the area in front of him. Ino hid behind the trunk of a large tree and hoped to all the Gods that he had not noticed her there. Her heart hammered loudly in her chest and she tried to keep her breathing shallow and low so he wouldn't hear it.

Orochimaru stood there for awhile, and then started coming towards her. The sound of his approaching footsteps made her break out in cold sweat. She mentally prepared herself to run. The emaciated old man couldn't possibly catch her, she tried to reassure herself. She was on the track team, and that had to count for something.

When he got too close, she turned around to flee but then screamed when she saw that someone had been standing behind her the whole time.

"Going somewhere?" a spectacled young man with silver hair asked.

The man pushed her against the tree, both hands gripping tightly around her neck until she she started to choke. She tried to pry his fingers loose and kick him away, but it was futile. Her lungs were burning for air and she swore that she was going to die soon.

"If you want to live a little longer, then you better cooperate," the man said. When she nodded fearfully, the man loosened his grip so she could breathe again.

"W-What do you w-want?" she coughed uncontrollably as she massaged her bruised neck, thankful for the air. Breathing was good, she had never really appreciated being able to breathe so much before in her life.

"Yamanaka Ino," Orochimaru said with a creepy smile, finally arriving to the scene. "It is not good to spy on your teachers."

"You're not a teacher," she wheezed. "You're a murderer."

Orochimaru's smile disappeared. "Not feeling very civil are we Yamanaka-san? It is really unfortunate that you had to witness something so...unpleasant, because now I have to find a way to keep you quiet."

She gulped. "I-I won't tell anyone."

"I highly doubt that," Orochimaru replied. "But perhaps we could come to some sort of arrangement? You do know your classmate Hyuuga Hikaru I presume?"

Ino nodded reluctantly, not liking the direction this was going. What in the world did they want with Hikaru? Whatever it was, it couldn't have been good, especially after witnessing the dumping of all those decapitated limbs. "Yes?"

"Good, then you could help bring him here."

She glared at the both of them, furious that they would involve her in whatever scheme it was they were plotting. There was no way she was just going to rat her classmate out like that, but on the other hand, she also didn't want to be cut up and dumped into some anonymous grave.

"Yamanaka-san, you should know that you don't have a choice in the matter. If you don't do as you're told, we can dispose of you just as easily as the others."

Ino wanted to laugh at how ridiculous this whole situation was. How cliché could they get? Yet the situation wasn't so funny anymore after the silver-haired man unsheathed a very long and sharp carving knife.

"What makes you think I can bring him here? I mean-I could just run away and you would never catch me," Ino silently hit herself for saying something so stupid. Now they would just kill her and get it over with. She shut her eyes, waiting for the death blow, but it didn't come. Instead, the two men laughed.

"Then we'll just have to be a little more persuasive," Orochimaru said.

She glanced uneasily between the two and then turned to run, but as soon as she did, something hard hit her in the back of the head and stars exploded in her vision as she dropped to the ground. With the last moments of her consciousness, she felt her body being dragged across the prickly grass.

A/N: You can kind of tell we're getting kind of close to the end, but only of this "arc" let's call it. This fic will follow Hinata into adulthood when she inherits the clan.

Reviews are always appreciated!