The house of Hyuga. All those white eyes, dark and light.

It was a different place when it filled with people again. Its nature was quiet before, ghostly, hidden in the folds of the ice storm. Now the candles were set alight again.

It was possible to be quite unemotional about this.

Sasuke had learned that, ironically, from Itachi. From example. From what Orochimaru told him of his time with Itachi, even if Sasuke suspected that much of it was not true. He couldn't imagine, really, what it would have been like. Orochimaru's hands on Itachi, instead... and Itachi slipping out of those hands, racing beyond them. Lost forever.

The first step taken was a victory. That is what the old woman said, and what he said, too, to Hinata. He had days when he believed it himself. Days when he didn't. There was much to do. He took that first step. He stayed. Now the real battle began.. and he focused on progress. As long as he got closer, closer.. Always. He could live, then. He could keep going.

Hinata helped... her warm hands, her soft voice, her affection and all the protection and sanctuary it could provide. The house, too, full of many shadings of comfort and trouble. He was not unhappy here. He was changing. He was moving closer... Closer to her, as well. The time ticked down. He would turn nineteen in the summer. He would inherit the Uchiha estate. The money. The property. He would propose then...

And they enjoyed one another's company. More than just one another's company. They enjoyed one another, body and soul.. until then. In the perfect silence and safety of her room, every night. He could take the pain and struggle of the day from her, with only his bare hands. He was making her stronger. And she was healing him.. and it was coming together, but so murderously slowly. He had to cling to either faith or reason, pick one or the other. Keep going. Keep going...

He could almost forget what this was. They were touching hearts and minds, not body parts, that's what they told one another, but...

It was filthy, though. Animalistic. It was two animals. There was a higher plane to it. There was their love for one another. There was the gentleness, and the pleasure shared. But what was done with Orochimaru, what was done with Naruto.. what he did in his own mind, when Hinata snuggled into his arms and he reached up to switch off the lantern light. That was just dried semen and filth and degradation. There was nothing else to it but that.

But it was possible to be unemotional. To understand, intellectually, what Orochimaru had done. Sasuke could see the precise method, like a clean medical diagram. Exactly where Orochimaru had sliced, and twisted. It wasn't surprising. It was almost just the story of the world itself. Nature, red in tooth and claw. Lazy evenings after dinner, nature documentaries on television, the incoming lion killing every cub in the pride. Hinata sitting back beside him on the couch, lost in her own thoughts. Hinata's sister rolling around boredly on the floor with the cat, half-watching. Only half-interested. It was natural. Ordinary. Loss, death, atrocity.

Hinata saw that he was upset, and he confided in her, as usual. She bore it, the way she bore every other horror he visited onto her through his own disgusting little problems.. with grace. Dignity. He knew he was destroying her innocence, millimeter by millimeter. If you took away motive and intent... If you took away context. In the end it wasn't really that different from what Orochimaru had done, was it?

He was healing. He was. He was like a person frozen half to death, left to die out on the fields in the middle of a cold winter night. As he warmed, as the blood vessels and nerves began to awaken again, he simply became aware of the full extent of his injuries. He started to feel it. That was all.

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"I am tired of your attitude." Hyuga Neji said, the next morning.

Sasuke was tired of Neji's attitude too. He set his sword back into its wooden sheath and let both fall to the grass. He was tired of a lot of things about Neji. He was tired, in particular, of being less talented than Neji, looking into Neji's white eyes, knowing that Neji knew it.

So they fought. This was ordinary, natural and normal, too. Even the little bullfinches sitting in the evergreens didn't scatter, as if they were used to this. Just one more tawdry little scene. One animal trying to kill another. Neji's fist connected, and the cold fire burned, Sasuke collapsed to his knees. His Orochimaru reflexes kicked in and he snapped Neji's ankle into splinters before he could think. Neji caught himself on his hand, his mangled foot quivering agonized in midair.

His shocked white eyes... Neji was from a good family, a tidy reality. He'd never been to the places Sasuke had. He didn't understand, and.. ultimately.. he had no way of expecting the way that Sasuke had to fight.

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Healing from atrocity, when atrocity was just another day... When it was normal. When none of the Hyuga stirred a single white eye, to see him sitting on the edge of the veranda, shivering in the warm sunlight. Trying to pull himself back together.

The servants brought him tea, and the old woman put a blanket around his shoulders. Hinata was either at work or locked away in a tatami room, in a secret family council.

"You're doing well." the old woman said. He didn't have the spare energy to even sneer at her.

Bleeding fresh and new where he was frozen before. Memories came back with sensory impressions. Smells, mostly. The charnel smell of Orochimaru's mausoleum. The formaldehyde was the worst, but close after was the scent of the hospital. Konoha hospital, the post-surgical ward. The smell of flesh, rotting blood, of decay, and infection. It mixes in his memory with the sharp blood scent of the butcher's stands on the Nakano river, where they dumped the viscera down the riverbank and the water swarmed with wild carp, mossy green scales glittering wetly, glimpsed in swirling bloody water. Sasuke didn't like being reminded too much of the reality of the body.

What Sakura did, with chakra and nothing but the smell of smoke, ozone, expended clean-burning energy- that was all right. The old woman and her crushed herb pastes, her freshly landered scraps of linen and cotton batting, used to bind his wounds up tightly. That was all right. It was the hospital, where the volume of patients and blood and infected body fluids just simmered under the disinfectants they sprayed. Sasuke could smell them. Lying in recovery, too drained to move his head, he was locked down, imprisoned in the meat of his own flesh.

Disgusting, really.

Too much reality for him. He needed his childish illusions. Itachi had shown him. It was possible to be unemotional, even as you felt it. Sasuke couldn't decide if that would help him or not, having no emotional reaction. But fear and rage were getting him nowhere. He wondered if he had to collapse completely, a tower built on a faulty foundation, before he could be over this, free of this. It was possible to be unemotional about it... Sasuke just couldn't manage it.

This wasn't the sort of thing that Itachi dwelled on, either. Itachi's high resolution memory of the killing was as clinical as a sterilized surgical field. Itachi hacked and slashed through spinal bone and rubbery intestine, Sasuke's family and parents were just flesh. Quivering meat, still alive and vibrating up the handle of the butcher's cleaver, and Itachi's sharingan-memory recorded that perfectly, the vibration quivering up the blade into Itachi's hand.

But Itachi didn't waver, or notice. The memories he poured down Sasuke's throat were clean. Almost.. abstract... as if this was all a textbook scenario. This was something that was just happening in Itachi's head. It wasn't real... it was real. It took on high, sharp contrasts of hyper-reality. It was beyond real, Itachi had transcended all limitations..

..at least in his own mind, in the long, grinding glimpse of it he gave to Sasuke, along with the bruises, the internal bleeding, the crushed ribs. The clear scalpel-sever of his hands and feet. Sasuke couldn't keep up with him, in the end. He couldn't even reach for him, or raise his head to try to watch Itachi fade away. The way everyone and everything did, just so long as he wanted them, needed them, tried to love them. It was the things that he hated, that hurt him. Those things stayed. He couldn't escape the rotting prison of his own body, the smell of his own drying blood. He hated that fucking room in the hospital. He took a sick, sadistic, irrational pleasure in grinding Neji's shattered ankle under his foot so Neji would be sent straight to it.

What had Neji done to him? Nothing, really. Nothing.

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Kabuto was speaking into his little electronic stenographer. Making notes. "This is what I do for an autopsy." he said, smiling.. always smiling. "Because my hands get too dirty to hold the pen." Behind him, in the darkness, Orochimaru was shedding his clothes, like a snake shedding its skin.

"You're performing an autopsy." Sasuke growled at him. Being contemptuous, above it.. it made him feel better about being small, naked and bright white under the hot, intense lights glaring down on him, sitting nervously on the edge of Kabuto's steel examination table. It was good that someone else finally understood that he was dead. But he couldn't squelch the deep shiver of fear completely. He was only fourteen.

"Resting pulse 42, normal respiration... " Kabuto said.

And they began.

"Do you see... Sasuke-kun? Do you see how this is?"

Kabuto pushed Sasuke's back against the cold metal table. His rear slid, wetly, squealing across the metal. Orochimaru wiggled his fingers inside him.

"He sees." Kabuto said.

Orochimaru pulled his hand out, slid back into his robes, smooth as snakeskin. Silk sliding over silk. "Clean him up." he said, disinterestedly, now. He tossed the silk glove he'd been wearing into the biohazard disposal. Orochimaru had no time once Sasuke was all used up. The show was over, Orochimaru just walked out.

Kabuto smiled, Sasuke could see it, like the curve of a new moon in the darkness. The reflection off his glasses. Kabuto had switched off the examination light. The autopsy was done.

"Time of death, ten forty five.." Kabuto said into his little machine. He switched it off. "You should learn your lesson, and he won't have to do this to you all the time." he said, smiling down at Sasuke, his eyes cold and distant. Clinically abstract, he could see just as clearly as Orochimaru did. He reacted differently, yes.. but this was pretty much how Itachi had reacted too. They'd all known him, inside and out. Sasuke had just closed his eyes. Tried to feel nothing. Tried to reach that clean, distant, abstract height, and be able to get through this.

Kabuto pulled on a fresh latex glove with a snap. "Or maybe you just like it?" He shrugged, mildly, smiling. Always smiling. Always.

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But Sasuke couldn't leave the memory alone. He took Hinata at her word. He loved her.. respected her.. enough for that. To take it all the way. When she said 'I want to know you'... So he told her. Everything.

It was a night in late spring, with the windows open and the house full of the sound of wind in the trees. Well past midnight. The house was silent, full of dreams. Even Hinata's bedroom was full of soft, scented darkness. Hinata's soft skin, the warmth of her body, her healing presence, making him happier than he should be. Making him careless... She asked him what was bothering him, and he told her.. everything.

"If you knew me the way he did, I think you'd want to hurt me too." he said, finally.

"That isn't true. At all. I love you. I know you and I love you." she said. He could feel her struggling for the higher ground. Rationality. To rationalize this.. to find a way to make it better. He knew her.. too.. fucking.. well. He was getting the knowledge, the way Orochimaru had.

"He knew me.."

"He's a sick monster." she snapped, suddenly. With sudden crisp venom.

Surprising. The deep wells of strength she had in her. The reactions he could bring out in her. Like he was the same smirking torturer proding around with a silk glove. "You hate him." he said, pressing his face into the gentle swells of her breasts. "I've taught you how to hate."

"..Sasuke-kun.." she whispered.

"I'm turning you into me. You'll have to hate me soon, that's exactly how I would feel.."

"Sasuke-kun." Struggling to be firm. To find her daytime authority. The Hyuga clan's eighteen year old heir. To think that there were worse things in the world than the elegant cruelties of her family... people with even less decency...

"He knew me completely. He knew what I needed." Sasuke told her, pressing on.. and on. The wind rustled all around them. She held him tightly against her heartbeat, her warm, heavy breasts. She wore only a thin silk nightie, and it was half-rumpled up to her waist, between the press of their bodies. He could be inside her right now, it was barely a muscle twitch away. That was what Orochimaru would have done, Sasuke was certain. Talked to her. Upset her. Penetrated her, twisted her better nature shut, like a pinched artery, severed hands. Messed her up, used her. Sasuke knew. Knew it unemotionally. He held himself still and thought that he would never do that, right? Never. But knew.

"He took advantage of you." Hinata told him, her heart beating hard against him now. With outrage, he thought. Outrage on his behalf. Which he didn't deserve.

"I'm taking advantage of you." he whispered.

"No. No, you're not. I know this."

"You can't win this argument with me, Hinata.."

"...it's not about winning. And it's not about hate, either. I love you."

"I've ruined this too."

Because there was nothing, nothing she could say when he got in this mood. There was nothing anyone could say, no sense or reason, that could save him. He was just going to drown in his own bile and that was it. She was close, he loved her, and she loved him, so he'd end up dragging her down with him. That's the way the world was and that's the way he looked to himself- everything looked- when he felt like this.

"No, you haven't." she said to him, her voice gaining force. Determination. She was so clean and pure.. she was so completely beyond what he should have. He should have just been fucking killed by Orochimaru, his worthless neck snapped on that examination table. Just a temporary fuck, something to be used and thrown away. It would make him feel good.. really. It would feel right. He was just worthless anyway, not worth killing. He was telling Hinata all of that, and she was crying now.

"No, stop!" she said to him, her voice hissing with the effort to keep from screaming, from waking the servants. "Sasuke-kun, that isn't true! None of that is true!"

He had to smile, bitterly, up into the darkness. "You'll tire of me soon enough, if I keep telling you this." But he had to tell her. He couldn't stop. This feeling was wanting to ruin it, drive her away. Take her at her word. Tell her. "When you know me... because, no one could stand to really know me, Hinata." The way Orochimaru had known, and Orochimaru had handled it the right way. The way he had also handled it, throwing himself into Orochimaru's arms. Knowing himself.

She sighed. She had wiped her tears. And now, he knew, she was thinking about how she could solve this. It was both heartbreaking and almost pathetic, the way good people wanted to save him. That was the way he almost thought, when he felt like this. That she could never save him. She was holding him that way, that tight, fierce way she had. He felt abruptly horrible for doing this to her, more so than he had. He was making her suffer. He was spilling his pain onto her.

"...this is why." he whispered. "I warned you."

"I want you to go see Tsunade-sama." she said, softly in his ear. Soft, but with an iron undertone. "In the morning. First thing in the morning. I want you to get a referral and I want you to see a counsellor."

"Weakness." he mumbled.

"I love you." she whispered, sharply. "I am not going to watch you destroy yourself. I'm coming with you, we are going, and that is the end of it. I'll cancel my classes at the academy." Her kiss was like a hot seal, pressed into wax. It dissolved the hot, numb walls of.. whatever this feeling was. Despair, like a warm fuzzy blanket. He almost liked to wrap himself up in it, destroy everything, just get right down in the pain and muck and drown in it. She stripped it all away. She was upset now. He'd made her upset. As if pain was a zero sum game. He felt strangely better. He felt fucking horrible. He was doing it. Ruining this. He warned her. He warned her.

Terrifying, really. Because he didn't know how to live without it.

"We're going." she whispered, the hint of tears wet in her voice. "And.. you're going to understand that none what you've said.. none of it.. is true."

He loved her. He could die, his heart could stop from love of her.

He didn't know why he got this way. He didn't know what got into him.