AN: Done, now I'm going to crawl back into my hole and write porn for the next six months. Tired, off to bed now. Will answer reviews when I have some more free time. Once again, much love to everyone who's left reviews.

Muma IX: A Bird in the Hand

The screaming had been over and done with for thirty minutes by this point, but Dr. Tomohiro Haniwa was still deeply annoyed and not about to hide it.

"How often have I told him, not near the recovery wards?" he snapped to the patient little orderly hovering around him as they completed the afternoon rounds. "I know--I know! the Gods forbid you tell the great Kabuto Yakushi what to do with his own projects but he knows and everyone knows that I've asked him time and time again to make sure his precious work doesn't encroach on my own projects! Screaming fit to wake the dead when my men should be sleeping, how the hell does Lord Orochimaru expect any of them to recover at this rate. Not that he actually gives a damn, none of them do, but I like to think that the hours I spend reconstructing these people aren't going to waste because wonder boy there is too full of himself to show some common courtesy! YAKUSHI!"

No response. The orderly, who had heard it all before, slipped away with a polite murmur of support while Dr. Haniwa was gathering air for another attempt.

This time, he opened the door first. "YAKUSHI!" he bellowed down the hallway and received a muffled and distant "In here, Haniwa-kun," for his efforts. Tomohiro muttered yet another imprecation against Kabuto Yakushi (a new one, asking the gods to please see to it that angry lizards consumed Yakushi's intestines) and set off for Laboratory 2.

Much to his surprise the door to the lab was unlocked and more than that, slightly open. Even opened, the heavy steel door required a good push and he finally made it inside, only to find himself half-blinded from glare, as every examination light in the room had been turned so high it was rather a wonder Yakushi's eyeballs hadn't burned out of their sockets yet. Squinting and cursing, he finally located the younger man, crouched over a desk and scribbling furiously in an over-sized sketchbook, and strode to his side.

"Ah, Haniwa-kun, I'm glad you're here," Yakushi said in his blandest tones, not even granting him the courtesy of a look, so completely focused was he on his drawings. "I hope you don't mind doing me a small favor, because as you can see, I'm really very busy at the moment...I need someone to wash her for me. That's all."

"Her?" he asked and Yakushi gestured abruptly at a screen tucked away in a corner of the room. "There are rags and a basin already prepared by the sink. Be gentle."

A flutter of premonition went through him, but he walked to the screen without hesitation, pushed it aside, then looked and let out a breath he hadn't even realized he'd been holding.

So, it's true...I don't know why I thought things would turn out any differently, he thought, looking at the sad little corpse as it lay, limbs flung outward, on the blood-sodden bed. He wasn't a man normally moved by these things, but he'd long had an admiration for the Hyuuga, who always did what needed to be done and damn the consequences, and the girl...well, it had been plain from the beginning that she wouldn't survive long. She was, he remembered, supposed to have been the gentle one.

The body was in remarkable good condition despite all the blood, he noted with some surprise: all her parts seemed to be intact and her eyelids were full under their sticky crust: he hadn't taken away her eyes. Odd! Damned odd!

Yakushi's voice, thinned slightly with impatience, rose behind him, snapping his thoughts. "Now, if you please...? She needs to be cleaned and I have to get this down before I forget the finer details."

Haniwa drew in a long breath, then let it out in a snort. "Bathing corpses, what's the point? What the hell is that, anyway?"

"Anatomical images from the dissection: they'll form a good starting point for my research, if I can get them finished before my memories start to lose their clarity. So, do you mind?"

"Why, if it's so damned important, didn't you just remove the eyes?" he snapped, but Yakushi's attention had gone completely back to his pad and pencil and his question went unchallenged.

Sighing a curse, he dipped the rag and began to wash away the crusted blood from Hinata Hyuuga's limp body. Despite Yakushi's admonition, the blood had obviously been dried for a while and could not be removed through careful wiping alone, forcing him to fetch more water so he could try and loosen it by soaking her face. The water ran down her cheeks, rusty streams dripping from her chin onto her breasts. Some of the crust began to loosen and with care, he picked it away. Her arms and hands, he noticed, were seamed with defensive wounds...and were those strips of flesh under her nails?

Yakushi chuckled at the question. "She put up quite a struggle and Mishima will be nursing his injuries for at least a week, if not longer--but if someone as large as him can't control such a little girl, then he deserves what he gets. I'm not healing him and you won't either."

The blood wasn't as thick on her body and he devoted his efforts first there while he waited for more of the blood on her face to soften. Her body mostly done, he went for fresh water and poured it on her head once more, water running into her ears and parted lips.

She coughed.

Haniwa nearly dropped the basin on her head from shock. What the...? Did I accidentally press some trapped air out of her lungs when I leaned against her just now? He stopped and took a good hard look at her: the Hyuuga was motionless. And yet... He bent down until his face hovered right about her mouth. Was he imagining things, or was that the faint movement of air against his cheek?

Wiping water aside, he parted her robe, then pulled out his stethoscope and placed it on her chest; for a moment, nothing, and he grimaced, watching Yakushi out of the corner of his eye. The younger man appeared to be serenely oblivious to the little drama unfolding behind him, his hands never stopping as he plotted out the Hyuuga's inner workings, but he knew Yakushi far too well to be lulled by his inaction.

And then it happened: a beat, almost imperceptible, then another followed slowly, nearly as faint. Dr. Haniwa counted, his lips folded into a thin, flat line, then removed his stethoscope and placed it back in his pocket, his movements slow and exaggerated to the point of pantomime. That damned cheeky brat... "So, sensei: when were you going to mention that she's still alive? When I knelt on her chest and broke some ribs while cleaning her?"

"Don't say ridiculous things just to make a point," Yakushi replied in an absent tone. "I thought it would be perfectly obvious that she's still alive...Honestly, Haniwa-kun, I really wonder at you sometimes: did you really think I'd throw away such a precious resource so quickly? Dead, her eyes are set forever. I'd never learn all their secrets that way. Alive, her bloodline limit is's in that the truth lies.

"No," he continued, "she's like that because I gave her some D-Cell 240 once her resistance was exhausted, to prevent, shall we say, another resurgence of feeling on Miss Hyuuga's part...heh. I never predicted that she would keep fighting me for so long. Her resilience was quite a surprise, to say the least."

He stared hard at Yakushi, but the boy continued to have eyes only for his sketching."You spout off about how obvious it is that she remain alive and then turn around and tell me that you gave her D-Cell 240? Yakushi-sensei, are you out of your overly busy mind? D-Cell 240? Torture and vivisection and D-cell 240, it's not surprising, it's absolutely bloody staggering that she's still clinging to life! At the very, very least, she'll be in a coma for weeks."

The younger man shrugged slightly, his fingers flying over the paper as he drew spirals and curves, both sprawling and tiny. "I see that you still don't trust me, Haniwa-kun; it was a very small, very calculated dose. She should be awake in a few days at most, and we can smooth over the rough patches then. Very soon, if things go well, this will all seem like nothing more than an unpleasant dream."

"An unpleasant dream, huh. If she wakes up...and if she does, what makes you so certain she won't try to escape again?" he pointed out, ignoring the younger man's jibe. "Even if she stays put, she's nothing more than your lab rat now: what incentive does she have to live? You'll just make new nightmares for her and I'll be bothered once more with screams."

Yakushi laughed softly, one corner of his mouth hooking up into his trademark thin smile. "Oh, I think she's learned her lesson about running away for now," he said, his hand tracing wide arcs on the paper. "As to the other...she's really quite stubborn, though sweet and agreeable when she's given the right incentives to cooperate. I have a feeling that she'll be very willing once I set my terms down."

Tomohiro grunted. "You have another Konoha nin here? A friend?"

"Unfortunately, no." Yakushi was shading something in heavy, dark lines, his face bent close to the paper. "But she's an intelligent little thing. I think she'll see the wisdom of my offer once it's made."

There was one flaw in Yakushi's brilliant plan: Hinata didn't wake up.

Over a week had passed, and the Hyuuga showed no signs of returning to consciousness. Haniwa, who had spent the better part of the week fighting a restless curiosity, finally gave in one afternoon and slipped away to the girl's room to see how things stood.

He should have known better, as Yakushi was already there ahead of him. When Haniwa arrived, Yakushi had just finished packing away his needles into his case and three new vials of blood stood propped upon the nightstand. Yakushi's movements were slow and his face oddly blank, his eyes on the girl laying still in the bed before him and he neither turned, nor acknowledged Tomohiro as the older man came to stand besides him.

There was nothing to do but make the best of it. "So, it looks like the great Kabuto Yakushi isn't infallible after all. I'd say she's found a way to escape you without running away," Haniwa said, his tone dry and snide.*

Normally, Yakushi responded to all sarcasm from him with his infuriatingly sweet smile and an air of infinite tolerance, but now all Haniwa's words drew was a slow blink, and then, a frown, as if it had taken Yakushi a while to process the situation. "Watch your mouth," he said, very quietly and Haniwa could almost feel the splinters as the ice cracked beneath his feet.

They stood in silence for a while, and watched her. Hinata was small and still, her skin the color of rice paper, but with a troubling purplish undertone, and Yakushi was still frowning, his teeth sunk slightly into his lower lip. "My mistake..." he finally muttered, looking only at Hinata. "Or is this all her...Haniwa-kun, you think that this is the result of unconscious but deliberate action on her part?"

He shrugged, not really wanting to commit himself. "As much as I'd like to say it's all your hubris causing this, you did admit she's unusually determined. Like I said before: why wake? What's the point? She'll suffer either way."

Yakushi abruptly turned away and grabbed the blood vials off the nightstand, sliding them into his case. "Hmm. If it is her doing, there are ways to get around that," he said, and his mouth twisted from a frown into a grimace. "But they're not without complications...I'll give her some more time. Another day or two. After that--" and he was out the door, leaving his sentence dangling.

Dr. Haniwa crossed to the door and stuck his head out, then exited and walked around the corner, then back down the hall in the other direction. Yakushi was nowhere to be seen. He verified the time on his watch--four o'clock, which was when Orochimaru expected Yakushi on attendance with him for some reason or other--and went back inside, satisfied that the boy was truly gone.

Still, he didn't take any chances: he shut the door and locked it, then went to the comatose girl and bent close. "I don't know if you can hear me," he said, keeping his voice low, "but if I were you, I'd seriously consider waking up. It's just--he means to make use of you, conscious or no. Awake, you might have some control over things...well, think it over. If you do come back and it gets too bad...I promise I'll give you something to get out of this. I hate to see you struggle so hard and then give in. There's always a chance, no matter how small."

Hinata opened her eyes and looked down at her body.

She was floating about five feet above her own head, feeling very much like a bubble or a balloon, bobbing gently on air. It was a very strange feeling, made even stranger by the fact that she wasn't upset at all about seeing her body lying before her. Before she had a chance to become frightened, her body's chest moved up and down and her hand, curled into a fist on the top of the coverlet, moved slightly. She slipped down and stretched out a hand, touching her cheek tenderly, feeling the warmth underneath her transparent fingertips.

Ah, I'm still alive. That's fine then.

Everything in the room glowed faintly, including her and she admired the way her arm shone like a pearl in the odd light, waving it before her. I feel...cradled....I feel....

The door opened and Kabuto walked in.

Hinata had flashed across the room away from him before she even realised it, her joy swallowed by fear. Oh no, no...not him.

I'd almost forgotten...

She watched, hands to her mouth, as Kabuto prodded her body, shone a penlight into her eyes, grabbed her wrist to take her pulse. There was a sour, ugly look on his face, and when he finished, he dropped her arm as if it was a filthy thing.

Away in her corner, Hinata's fist clenched. A heavy dullness was rising in her body, pushing her down: her feet touched the floor and she found herself looking at the back of Kabuto's head.

He didn't leave, but leaned on her covers, far too close to her body. "Why don't you wake up?" he muttered as she drew near softly. "Please...I don't want to have to get rough with you but if that's what it takes, I will."

The dullness crackled and surged and Hinata was limned with white-hot fire. Rough with me! You...I won't let you! I'll never let you! she snapped and snarled, and reached for his throat.

I'll kill you! I won't let you! I'll kill you!

Kabuto gasped as her hand wrapped around his neck and she squeezed hard, for once taking pleasure in the kill. He thrashed, jerking backwards and Hinata, unable to let go in time, felt something hard shove into her and then darkness rose all around her.

For a moment she was in a deep red world, feeling oddly fat and she couldn't move her body freely any more: every time she tried, it felt like wading through thick mud. She could see her body but darkness rimmed her vision: then, something fell and everything turned fuzzy.

What was that? What's going on? she cried out, her voice echoing. A persistent, steady beat was ringing in her ears and making her dizzy. Where am I (It felt like I was choking! What on earth is wrong with me?) and how did I get here?

Huh? I never felt like I was choking (Was it some kind of attack, brought on by stress? My failure to awaken Hinata is weighing more heavily on me than I thought).

...Kabuto...Is it...Could it be...I'm hearing his thoughts...

Feeling flashed around her: a headache, bending over to pick up a dropped pair of glasses, the rough wool of blankets beneath her fingers and the realization flowed over her like cool water. I am...inside you. Kabuto.

That made things so simple, so easy. Now that she knew, she could recognize the red of blood and muscle, ivory arcs of bone, the strange wet shapes of organs. If Kabuto drew breath, moved, spoke, Hinata felt it: she was now a part of him, which meant--

--that obnoxious, persistent ringing--

His heart was located just where hers would be. She touched it lightly, one finger only, and Kabuto shivered suddenly, placing his hand on his chest. Hinata felt the sudden upswing of chakra and things began to shine blue: she didn't have much time before he healed her away, so she wrapped her hands around him and--

That's really not a good idea, a dry, heavy voice whispered from behind.

Hinata's hands contracted in shock and she almost crushed Kabuto's heart between her rigid fingers: he fell forward with a shudder and moaned into the blankets as she squeezed him. W-Who said t-that, who's t-there?

A hot gust of wind rose suddenly and pushed at her: she let go of Kabuto and raised her arms to protect her face as the sharp air slapped at her, shoving her down.

S-Stop it! H-Help!

Darkness swaddled her as the ground disappeared from beneath her feet. Breath, light, touch left and Hinata was away.

She fell for a long time, drifting aimless in the dark while things rumbled and hissed at her. Tiny lights sometimes appeared and then disappeared in an instant: things moved in those lights. She was so numb with terror that she couldn't be absolutely sure, but those things looked very much like...


Yes, the voice said from the darkness, surprising her.

I am falling into a pit lined with snakes.

It is my home. Such as it is!

Hinata touched bottom: snakes under her toes. Snakes wrapped themselves around her ankles and pulled her down to sit: she stumbled, tugged away and cried out, but they didn't bite.

Up, a chorus of tiny voices whispered in her ear, up, up up.

She looked and there were two enormous lights glowing golden in the darkness above her. Hinata could vaguely make out the curve and sweep of a head and a long body disappearing into infinity but all detail was lost in the darkness. Smaller curves (for smaller snakes?) bobbed along behind the largest one, less than more five, more than ten, she thought. As she watched, the lights dipped a little closer. Hello, Hinata Hyuuga. I am not going to eat you.

O-Oh....H-Hello. U-Um, h-how d-did y-you...

You are inside me now.

I-I s-see...U-Um, w-who--

Do you really want to die over him? the voice asked, steeping the pronoun in contempt. A waste of a life...because that's what will happen, you know. He dies, you die. Orochimaru will kill you slowly and you'll have accomplished nothing.

B-But...O-Orochimaru depends on him. The snakes brushed against her, soft on her bare skin. Killing Kabuto would hurt Orochimaru...

Not that much. It would hurt, but only for a while. Then he'll find someone else and the cycle will repeat. Head of the snake and all that...Do you think that Kabuto is his first genius medic?

...he's horrible and dangerous...

and you could take him for yourself.


The eyes glowed more brightly. Just what I said.

N-No, no I-I couldn't...Why, would h-he...

The snakes moved faster, sliding across her legs and under her arms, while the voice talked calmly on.

Everyone has a weakness, everyone, even him. And his failing is a particularly large and human one, though he hides it well.


Just think of what you could do with his power and cunning at your side. Wouldn't it be such pleasure to have him on a leash? Isn't such a resource much better alive than dead? Bend him to your own ends. In the long run, it will be kinder to him.

But...I hate him...and...he can' trusted...

I'm not saying you must make your move now. But, keep it in mind.

The burning eyes were growing larger and larger by the second, blotting out everything else in the world. Her body was beginning to flake away, as if she had burned to ash.

Think on it, was the last thing she heard the voice say before she blew away completely. Though, I am not sure how much of this you will consciously retain...

Her arms ached with the cold and Hinata fumbled around for the blanket to cover them. A faint smell made her nose wrinkle: beef bouillon perhaps, and her stomach rumbled in agreement.

A pale crescent lay before her in the dim light and Hinata had to look at it for several seconds before she remembered what it was: my hand...

I can still see... That brought her completely awake and she lifted that hand to touch her face, her fingers trembling. She felt nothing but smooth, unbroken skin and her eyes, when she brought her hand to them, seemed whole...

She continued to feel along her face, shivering. Is this true? Is this true and not just a trick? My eyes are okay? But he cut them, I know he cut them, he took them apart, but now they're fine...

If this was a genjutsu, would I even know it? Her head began to ache. I'd have no way to know it...maybe I'm sitting here with black holes in my face where my eyes used to be and he's watching and laughing at me...

The table, when she reached her shaking hands out to it, seemed to be in the place where her eyes informed her it would be. There was indeed a cup of bouillon and a small dish of rice and toast along side it: the kind of food you would give an invalid recovering from a long illness. Her eyes filled abruptly with hot tears. The only thing to do is behave as if this is true and my eyes are okay...

She nibbled at the food and threw up most of it later, but when she awoke again, someone had cleaned up the vomit and left more food on the table. This meal stayed down and Hinata ventured up on shaky legs to explore her new room: very dark, built like her other room, with a bed, table, one chair, separate toilet room and a large, shuttered-off window. No light fixtures anywhere.

Food arrived on a regular basis, but no one came for her and Hinata began to wonder if this was Kabuto's new torture: leaving her sitting alone in the dark for the rest of her days.

Then one day (if it was a day: she was having trouble distinguishing time) Hinata passed by the window on one of her circuits around the room and felt cold air on the back of her neck. She stopped and the window rattled slightly, as if something was loose. Carefully, she lifted a hand and pressed her palm against, then pushed in. The cover moved and when she took her hand away, it swung out slightly.

Hinata stood there for several minutes, mouth open. Did it...and if I... Heartbeat pounding in her ears, she slid a fingertip under the shutter and pulled, and it came away completely from the wall. The other, when pulled, did the same.

The shutters were never locked.

Starlight danced above her, with a thin crescent sliver sailing over the horizon behind the trees. She was so glad and so grateful that she stood rapt for several minutes, forgetting everything but the night sky. If I can look outside...things aren't so bad...

Her next thought made all her joy came crashing down on her. Wait, what if this is a trick? What if he deliberately left it open so he could punish me if I figured it out? He'd say I was trying to escape again!

Shivering, she quietly and quickly resealed everything and went back to bed.

It was difficult to stay away once she knew the secret, however, and Hinata started sneaking tiny glimpses outside, always at night or on foul weather days when there was less likely to be anyone outside to see her. With an outside view, the days were easier to tell apart and she felt slightly more settled, though the knowledge that she would eventually see Kabuto again made her feel sick to her stomach.

The summons came not long after her window discovery. She was sitting up against the window watching rain fall on the trees outside, feeling a weak pleasure in the cold panes against her cheek, when someone rapped on her door. Hurriedly she moved away, back to the bed and pulled the bedclothes back up around her. The rapping came again.

"C-Come i-in."

The door opened and a short and fairly scrawny Sound-nin entered her room. Behind him loomed a much larger man and Hinata's heart twisted in her chest.

"Miss Hyuuga?" the smaller man said, almost respectfully. "If it's okay with you, Kabuto-sensei wants you to come to his office. Right now."

She wasn't dragged like last time: each man merely put a hand around her elbow and guided her down the hall. They moved slowly for her sake and when Hinata stumbled once, they stopped, made sure she was all right, then continued on.

Hinata had a vague sense of moving through more than one building as they walked: some of the areas were made in a different style from the section before--brick to wood, wood to iron--and the twisting corridors they passed through seemed to go on for miles. It might have simply been, she acknowledged, that she was very tired and very scared again.

Finally they reached a door that looked no different than any of the others they had passed in the clean white section they were currently on. The short Sound nin knocked and a muffled but familiar voice asked them to come in.

Black dots swam before Hinata's eyes but somehow she made it inside the open door and stood without falling: the Sound nin closed the door behind her and waited outside with the other. Her vision gradually cleared and she saw stacks of books, many glass-fronted cabinets and oddly, a anatomical skeleton that was missing the lower half of one arm.

"Over here," she heard and she managed to turn her head enough to see Kabuto sitting and what looked like drawing at a desk stacked with neat piles comprised of various books, papers and jars. A stool had been placed at the side of the desk and it was to there that he beckoned her. She went towards him slowly, unsteady on her feet.

There was a large window positioned directly Kabuto's head, crammed full of plants, Hinata noted to her vague surprise. As she drew closer, she began to recognize them--aconite, nightshade, angel's trumpet, lily of the nile--and her surprise dissipated, but there was a lone violet sitting in the middle of the poison and of that, she wondered.

Kabuto smiled at her as she sat down. "How are you feeling?"

"U-Um...o-okay," she whispered: her voice wouldn't come out any louder. "Uh...y-you're d-drawing?" It wasn't a hobby she would have expected from him.

He tilted the pad towards her and Hinata saw ovals, circles, lines and what might have been scribbled notes in characters she couldn't understand. "It's your eyes--beautiful, aren't they?"

She had nothing to say to that and Kabuto seemed to accept it: he worked in silence for several minutes more while Hinata sat and sweated into her robes, wishing he would get things over with.

"Well," he finally said, making her jump "I suppose I should tell you why I asked you here. I have a bit of a proposal for you.

"It's quite simple. I've been short-handed lately and need someone to handle menial tasks and assist with my research and experiments; in other words, a drudge. I'm willing to let you occupy the position--I'm sure you don't want to spend all your time cooped in your room, do you?--and in return for your hard work, I pledge to keep you as comfortable as I can while you're here. Your own room and bed, clothing. You'll eat the same food I do and you won't have to worry about starving unless absolutely everyone else is. You can go about on your own--within reason, of course. And--" he raised his hand and touched the ridge of cheekbone under her right eye very lightly, smiling when she shied away--"most importantly to you, I'll make it completely painless when I examine your eyes. Does that sound like a fair bargain to you?"

What. It took all her control not to tip backwards off the stool in shock. Of all things...of all things...!

Kabuto watched her face, looking disarmingly serious. When she failed to respond after a minute, he turned away and began working on his diagram again.

This must be a trick...he's acting like I'm supposed to take him seriously, that he really wouldn't hurt me if I do as he says, but this must be a trick.

"W-What if I-I...r-refuse..."

A long spiky line appeared under Kabuto's fingers: he extended it to the edge of the page and drew what looked like a triangle around the end. "Then you'll join the group I already introduced you to, the ones in the dark. I doubt you'll find their company or their filth very pleasant, though they certainly come up with some interesting ways to pass the time." A tiny smile played around the corners of Kabuto's mouth. "Lord Orochimaru values me for my ability to keep subjects intact long after they would have crumbled apart. I can keep you alive for years, even in the most degraded of circumstances. Would you be able to endure having your eyes sliced open and dissected without anesthetic week after week after week? Well. Maybe you would. Sometimes people grow inured, and then you have to find new methods...hmm. Oh, while we're on the subject: don't ever think of committing suicide. You would be absolutely amazed at how much leeway you can have when bringing someone back to life." He scribbled another note in his odd code and put a frame around it. "Personally, it would be a big hassle for me to keep you under those circumstances, not to mention that I would really prefer to study your Byakugan while you're in normal health. But, if you're not certain...I could arrange to have you spend a week or so experiencing the 'life' you would have if you decide not to accept my offer. Perhaps you'd be better able to make your decision once you're familiar with both potential outcomes, yes?"

Hinata's right eye throbbed, as if a needle was probing it, and she almost reached for it, but clenched both her hands tightly together instead. Live those days, over and over if that's not how I would live even if I said yes...

"Well? I'm waiting."

Please...please stop pretending to be sincere...

"Miss Hinata. I don't have all day."

Her breathing thickened as she put the first spoke in.

"I-If I-I d-do accept, I-I w-won't hurt anyone, e-even if y-you threaten to k-kill m-me or t-torture m-me."

Both of Kabuto's eyebrows went up. "I'm quite capable of hurting people without your assistance, thank you. But I'll keep that in mind if the situation ever arises."

Sweat was pouring down her back in a long, steady stream."A-And..I-I w-won't tell y-you any of Konoha's secrets. I w-won't do anything that b-betrays the village."

He frowned at her, causing his glasses to slip, and pushed them back with an annoyed huff of breath. "Miss Hinata. Do you really think that you know anything that I don't? You're a Chuunin. They don't tell you anything of real importance to begin with and your family is not exactly loved by the ruling elite of the village: the Hyuuga have always been too independent and self-important for the Council's liking. That's why your cousin was turned down for ANBU, by the way...they knew if it came down to a choice between them and your family, your family would win out." He chuckled. "Funny...for that, he would have been better off if he had never reconciled with you and your father. But I digress. I have other spies in Konoha, you're not an elite shinobi, therefore you don't know anything of any interest to me, and I simply don't care about any Hyuuga secrets unrelated to the Byakugan. Everything else that I want I can easily learn from your eyes. Any other objections?"

She had no idea how he could possibly sit there and lie to her with such a straight face and even tone. Even such a wonderful liar as Kabuto couldn't keep up such a farce as this up for long; surely, if she looked at him and said yes, she would see the triumphant silly little girl I've fooled you lurking in his eyes. She stared at her hands. He hadn't healed everything; there were still faint scars from her flight through the woods etching the backs of her hands and the tips of her fingers.

"W-Why d-do y-you think it's safe to let me have all this information? What i-if I-I'm rescued..."

Kabuto shrugged. "Because you won't be. No one has ever been able to descend into Sound and return alive. If you think finding us for a rescue mission is so easy, then why have neither Konoha nor any of the other shinobi countries found and tried to destroy us already? Hah, well, we do have treaties with some of them. You'll understand once you see some of the safeguards we have in place--that's if you agree, of course. And as I already said, it's much less hassle for me if we're on equitable terms with each other and you're able to take care of yourself for most things. The best and only true way to study a bloodline limit is to follow it as it changes over time, and since I have no access to an infant Hyuuga--yet--you're my next best subject. I really do look forward to seeing how your Byakugan evolves throughout the years."

If she didn't get away soon, she was going to be sick. "Um....I-I'm s-sorry, but...m-may I t-think about this for j-just a b-bit longer?"

"Of course," Kabuto said, not sounding surprised or put-off in the slightest. "Nidon-kun, Wakame-kun, please take Miss Hyuuga back to her room."

She locked the door and crawled back into bed, pulling the covers up and around her. If Kabuto was to be believed, there would be no bed and no covers if she refused. Dirt and the company of other starving bodies. Endless pain. That old man had told her he wanted to die.

But trying to live with him--and the mention of not having an infant Hyuuga yet!

Why am I even acting like I have a choice in the matter...agreement or no, nothing would stop him...

Hinata rolled over and pressed her face down into her pillow and smelled the slightly rancid scent of old feathers.

Can I really stay down there in the dark.

She had been so grateful for those minutes watching the stars and the trees: even the cold had been a blessing for one half-smothered on Sound's dead air. Was thoses fragment of free time enough to keep her going through deep darkness and pain? Would she even be able to remember? Last time, her mind had gone crippled and numb. If I tried to hold out, would I end up losing everything, I memories might not sustain me, they might desert me and leave me totally alone...

The image of her huddled senseless in a cell sent Hinata's muscles into spasm and for a moment she couldn't breathe. Kabuto was wrong: she already had brief, but first-hand knowledge of what her life would be like if she turned down his offer and...and...

I think...that I would not be able to stand it. I am weak and I would not be able to stand it. And...I mustn't forget that whichever I pick, in the end, Kabuto will do whatever he wants with me.

Her room was growing darker, the light moving to the corners. But to give in and act as if I believed him. If, by some infinitesimal chance, he isn't go willingly and do whatever he says...he's crazy. Giving me all that knowledge, if he's truly planning on letting me assist him. What is he thinking? He might claim that I'm never going home, but there's always a chance and if I do, I'll have so much information on Sound's locations, routines, experiments, research to share--unless he's planning on faking all that too. I can't really put it past him...Going through all that trouble for me: oh, Kabuto-san, you really shouldn't have! she thought and almost giggled, feeling light-headed and silly.

If he is telling the truth, I'd be a fool to refuse him. If this is, by the smallest, slightest chance, truth...but I don't believe him. There has to be a catch. Somehow. Somewhere. But if I can learn something...and get away...

Even though this is all fake, when he looks at me and laughs, when he drops the disguise...I'll look him right in the eye and I'll show him that I knew all along. That I was never fooled, not once. That I am not stupid.

I know what you are.

Down to the bone, I know what you are.

Kabuto was waiting for her answer but it was such relief to close her eyes.

Later on, someone shook her shoulder: she woke with a start and tried to roll away from the touch. The hand on her tightened and she looked up to see a red and white face looming over her, everything else invisible in the dusk.


The figure reached up, removed the mask and then Kabuto was smiling down at her. "Sorry, did I startle you?"

"T-that...isn't that..."

"My disguise from the Chuunin exams, yes," he said, nodding to the mask in his hand. "Frankly, it's an old favorite of mine; a memento, if you will."

Hinata was still shaking. "W-Wh--"

"Ah, why am I dressed like this...? There's something that I have to take care of for Lord Orochimaru. However, before I leave, I wanted to know if you've made up up your mind yet."

"I-I'm sorry, I fell asleep...b-but...y-yes...I-I've decided." Her lips were parched and the words slow in coming. "A-As long as it won't hurt Konoha...I-I'll d-do as y-you ask."

Kabuto patted her hand. "There's my sensible girl."

*You may have recognised this line from my Fifty Themes: One Sentence fic that I published, oh, three years ago. Slow Amaiko is slow, though it should give an idea of how long I've been working on this damn thing.