There was light spilling into the windows of the dojo.
White light, too lurid to be sunlight. The shadows it cast were too sharp.
Then Orochimaru struck him on the back of the head, and that light flared behind his eyes. Bright. As he fell, he recovered his wits enough to realize that it was nerves flaring in the back of his eyes. Orochimaru was striking the place on his neck that fed his optic nerve. And then the ground crashed in on him.
Orochimaru didn't snap at him to get up. Sasuke knew that Orochimaru would simply leave, should he fail to find his footing again. He would simply turn and walk away, as if Sasuke wasn't worth the effort of a reprimand. Orochimaru was like his father, in that way. And Sasuke knew that was intentional. Psychological manipulation. There was no particular jutsu to it, just observation and malice.
But Sasuke had no energy to waste on countering it. So he simply took what Orochimaru handed out. All of it. He proved he could take it, all of it, and more. He shamed Orochimaru's tactics with his strength to endure.
In theory, anyway.
"Sasuke," Orochimaru whispered in his ear, savoring the word.
He was in a room. The air was fresh, and it smelled of sandalwood. Daylight pressed on his eyelids. He groaned softly. Genjutsu? It would have to be.
He centered himself by slowing and shaping the pattern of his breathing. He retraced his steps in his mind. He had been training. Orochimaru had beaten him into unconsciousness.
No... Orochimaru had dazed him. He'd been lying at his feet. He'd felt Orochimaru's strong, thin hand tear at his scalp, pulling him up by a handful of hair. Then the whisper of coils, snakes that were not there, that only seduced his senses into believing. He foggily remembered a sense of invasion. Maybe Orochimaru had cast the genjutsu at that moment. Then, exactly. He exhaled, long and slow.
Orochimaru testing his resolve with the sensory impression of Konoha. Maybe he drew from his own memories. He had been a Leaf ninja once, too.
And those days were gone.
He had to break the illusion. He didn't like it. He hated this in particular, feeling this way, being reminded of this. He hated it. More then anything...
But he was so tired. And his limbs were heavy. He couldn't open his eyes. He couldn't stay awake.
Hinata bowed to her father.
"Good morning," she said, brightly.
He was distracted with his baggage. "Where is Neji? He was to come with me."
Neji was on a mission. "He was assigned by the Hokage last night," Hinata replied. She had intercepted the message that came at midnight, and woken Neji. She wanted to let her father sleep, his health was unreliable lately. Of course, it would be rude to say that directly.
"I wanted to make sure you slept well for your journey," Hinata said sweetly, after explaining Neji's situation. She smiled, and let that speak her affection for her. Her father was a proud, aloof man. He was not easy to be close to, in any way. But she was learning. They were coming together as a family. Her father smiled too, slightly.
"Take care of the house, Hinata-chan." His tone was almost warm. "It will be yours someday. I leave it in your hands."
She followed him to the gate. In her folded hands, she carried the lunch she'd made for him. The affection had to be indirect, but she was allowed to express it. After so long, it made her smile just to share this moment in comfortable silence. She believed that her house would go on, that she would come to terms with him, and with Neji. She was beginning to believe what he said, that she could be the heir after all.
There was no encouragement from him today. Nor did he smile at her again. There would be no hugs at the gate. She simply handed him his lunch, wished him a safe journey.. and then both of them walked away, in separate directions. Safely inside the shadow of the gate, she paused, caught her breath. Then she went to wake Hanabi.
Hanabi did not want to get up.
"Nooooo..." she moaned, holding the quilt over her head.
"Now.. you have a mission today, maybe." Hinata told her gently.
"Liar," whined Hanabi, "I do not! I just have stupid training, Choji-sensei said we have to do pushhands all day..." She curled herself up in a way that sealed the edges of the quilt all around herself. Hinata tucked away her sigh, braced her foot on the edge of the futon, and pulled.
Hanabi tumbled out on the floor with a squeal. "Oneeeeeeesaaaaaaaaaaan!" she shrieked. "Aw! I don't waaaaaannnaa! No!" And further hysterics as Hinata calmly remade her bed, picked her clothes out of the bureau, handed her sister each item one by one, and finally tied the forehead protector around her head.
"Have a good day," she said, gently as before.
"Awwww!" growled Hanabi. But she stomped down the hallway, dragging her kunai pouch with her. "When I'm grown up, I'm living alone!"
Hinata trusted the cooks and servants to see her sister to the gate, where her teammates were already waiting. She felt some residual responsibility for that. Sometimes she would bring them a tray of sweets and tea. Not today, however.
She had the day off from teaching at the academy. She was biding her time before applying to become a jounin, becoming an instructor had made sense. And truth be told, she enjoyed it. She remembered the first time she had stood in front of the class, speaking to a roomful of squirrelly children, turning strawberry red, sweating with anxiety. All of those little eyes on her... But in time, she adapted. She had chosen it for that reason, to face her shyness head on, and defeat it.
She was a few months shy of her eighteenth birthday. Neji was twenty, and would have been eligible to attend the family council her father was attending. Hinata would be able to next year, should she choose to. She was dreading it. It was one thing to speak to young children. It was another to address a room full of adults, all of them watching her carefully, judging her as the heir. But she knew she would have to go. She would have to face her weaknesses, and slap them down, head on.
Though, she still stumbled, and quivered, when she spoke to Naruto-kun.
He had married Sakura-san earlier that year. She kept her feelings to herself. She didn't want to spoil their happiness, or the friendship that she was slowly easing into, with both of them. She wished them well. And inwardly, somewhere along the way, she knew that she had decided that she could not fight fate. Either Naruto would have come to her, or not. In the end, her path turned out to be different then his. Shino had said that she would need the courage to not only change herself, train herself, but to accept the new places these changes would lead to.
But she did miss him. Sometimes. Teaching helped. Working in her own quiet way to pull her family together.. that helped too. She told herself she had time. She was only eighteen. She would find her way. The comforting rhythm of the day, the rigorous structure of the lessons, all of these things helped to occupy her mind.
But today, Lee was taking over her class. He was popular with the young students, who competed to work as hard as he did. They pushed themselves for a smile, a word of praise, a pat on the head from him. And he distributed these often. She'd watched him stroll through the school training yards, encouraging each young student in turn. It was a style she envied. But she couldn't match his energy, she was softer, somehow. More empathetic. Her students, ironically, shushed and reprimanded one another. "Don't do that, sensei will be sad!" And "try harder, sensei will feel bad about it if she sees you do that!" At moments when they thought she wasn't looking, or she couldn't hear.
It bothered her at first. But she came to appreciate it. How strange.. It was her softness, her emotional weakness that ended up inspiring her students to work harder, do better. If only because they didn't want to upset her, or disappoint her. They cheered when she smiled. When she did so with true feeling. They could tell the difference, it was a bit eerie.
The faculty, for their part, made her take these little holidays. They worried that she worked too hard. They saw her training after class, and before it, and well into the evening. They didn't know that she had done this every day, every night, every morning, since she was twelve years old.
And they also didn't know that she used her days off to train even harder.
The air smelled of early spring. Her mind was clear with the sheer joy of heavy exertion. She ran swiftly through the woods, avoiding patches of thawing ice, exposed roots, rocks slippery with dew, even the ants and small creatures that crawled over the forest floor. She didn't use her byakugan, she didn't have to. Her body knew, and remembered. Her feet sensed the ground and reacted, it seemed, independent of her conscious mind.
Ten miles, just under an hour. She paused, leaning over to brace her hands on her knees and catch her breath.
She wouldn't have found him, if she hadn't stopped. She never used her byakugan in plain body skills training. She would have run right past him, never seeing the smudge of body heat, the hint of his sleeve that spilled from the underbrush.
As it was, she didn't recognize him at first. He was covered with bruises, caked with the wet topsoil. His side was wet with blood. She felt the heat of his fever with her hand only, when she dragged him from the muddy tangle of bushes.
He was alive, his pulse fluttered under her fingers. He was breathing.
But she had carried him halfway home before she finally placed his battered face in her memory. It was Naruto-kun's vanished comrade, the missing-nin Uchiha Sasuke.