Pairing(s): Sasuke/Hinata, in a way, although I'd put it more as friendship than anything.

Relevant notes: Future fic.

A/N: This is the product of a 'what if' and a challenge to myself to write a realistic way of Sasuke noticing Hinata (Even then, I still think I stretched it a bit.). I'm sure other people have found better reasons, but this was fun anyway. Coming up soon: utterly out-of-character fluff, which will be a blast to write!

Who We Are Now

He feels like a prisoner stepping back into his cell.

The men guarding Konoha's gates stare at him with open curiosity. He knows what they're thinking: There's the Uchiha kid, the traitor who joined the Third's murderer. He let his own comrades fight for him until they nearly died. Power hungry, like his brother.

And he would agree. Except he's not a kid anymore, and he isn't like his brother.

For one thing, he isn't rotting away at the edge of a forgotten cliff.

x . o . x . o . x . o . x

Boredom and habit take him early one morning to one of the lesser-used training grounds, a consequence of its size.

He finds the place already occupied. A woman spins in the clearing with feminine grace, displaying an array of whirlwind-like steps. She makes a final twirl and lets four kunai soar from her hands, landing precisely on a tree in different directions.

She contemplates the weapon imbedded in the northern-most tree, her back to him.

'Is there something you need?'

Caught, he leaves the cover of the greenery and stands at the edge of the field.

'I do a lot of reconnaissance missions,' she says in answer to his silent question. 'I noticed you when you were still on the path, even without my Byakugan.'

She turns and he recognises the distinctive pale eyes of a Hyuuga- Hinata, he believes. Her features appear altered, but then, he'd never really looked carefully. He does see that the timidness he'd observed back in the Academy has disappeared; she looks hardened, somehow.

'Uchiha-san,' she greets him and though the politeness is evident, he can't help but sense a note of disdain. 'I heard you had returned.'

He merely inclines his head.

'I'm afraid I don't plan on leaving anytime soon,' she tells him. The unvoiced message: Find another training ground.

He doesn't oblige. He was never the perfect gentleman.

'That's fine. There's enough space.'

Five words. It's more than he's said to anyone in Konoha, lately.

x . o . x . o . x . o . x

It begins with random meetings, because he still insists on using the grounds that she has mentioned is used predominantly by her. Soon, it becomes regular sessions of training together.

They don't train together, per se; she stays on the left side of the clearing and he claims the right. Words are rarely exchanged and the only time she crosses the invisible line of division is when a stray kunai flies onto his side.

One day, she breaks this routine and approaches him.


She seems a little nervous, he notices. He waits impatiently for her to continue.

'Will you fight me?'

The request takes him aback. He studies her for a second, unsure whether to agree. She doesn't look to be a worthy opponent, he decides truthfully, but she's a Byakugan user. And that, at the very least, should be interesting.

He accepts.

They drop into fighting stances and he runs a practised eye over her form. It's obvious almost immediately that she's too tense; each muscle is held unnaturally rigidly. He doesn't estimate the battle will last long.

Ten minutes later, he's proven right. She holds herself up admirably, but he's fought with opponents far stronger- and ruthless- than her. Detachment is the key: she's too afraid to inflict true damage, too afraid to hurt and that is what he learnt when he left the constraints of Konoha.

She meets his gaze squarely, but he sees her blink back tears.

'Thank you.'

Then she is gone.

x . o . x . o . x . o . x

Naruto stiffens visibly, the bottle of sake clutched in his hand.

'Why do you ask?' he questions. 'And why have you been training with Hinata, anyway?'

Sasuke chooses not to answer.

'I don't want you messing with her,' Naruto warns, tipping the bottle upside down and casting a forlorn glance into the darkness within it. A regular partaking of sake seems to be a bad habit he has picked up from Tsunade.

'What makes you think I'll 'mess' with her?' Sasuke asks. A hint of quiet fury emerges in his voice and he sees Naruto consider him carefully.

Trust is not something he will ever gain easily again, not even from Naruto, his best friend, the one who'd found him, saved him even when he didn't need saving.

The next gulp of sake douses his bitter thoughts.

'Hinata's changed. We all have.' There is nostalgia touching Naruto's words and his eyes show his mind's shift into the past. He recovers swiftly and Sasuke still marvels at the maturity that lines his face.

'People change over the years, but not to that extent.' Sasuke isn't sure why he even cares.

Naruto orders another drink, drains half of it and leans back, as though the alcohol is necessary in order for him to explain.

'It was her sister,' he begins. 'She had a younger sister, Hanabi, who became a Genin a few years after you left. Hanabi's team was sent out on a mission. It was a low rank- nothing important- but they encountered a pair of missing-nin.'

Sasuke doesn't react.

'You can imagine what happened.' Naruto smiles tightly. 'They didn't have the luck we had.'

He tries to feel something, as he knows he should, but Sasuke has never been one to pity strangers.

'And Hinata?' he finally asks, unable to find the cause of her drastic change in Naruto's explanation.

'You don't see?' Naruto lets out a sharp laugh, disbelieving. 'And you were always the smart one...'

The sake finds its way into Naruto's hands again.

'She's an avenger, like you.'

x . o . x . o . x . o . x

An avenger.

He muses over the title as he heads to the training ground shortly after dawn.

Hinata is already there, practising the steps he'd seen during their first meeting. Her moves are flawless, but he sees the difference between her training and their fight. She doesn't have to hurt anyone in this situation and they hold a conviction- a stability- that she lacks when in a real battle.

He knows that that can be the deciding factor in the outcome of a match.


She looks up, curious, though understandably wary.

'I want to train you.'

'I'm sorry?' she says, furrowing her brows.

'Lesson one: Don't ask stupid questions like that. You don't get second chances in a fight.'

'I don't under-'

He cuts her off with the activation of his Sharingan.

x . o . x . o . x . o . x

He forces her to get up, again and again and again.

There is a silent plea in her muttered curses and her anguished gasps, but she surprises him by keeping that plea unvoiced. She knows how merciless he is by now and she knows that a month and a half have seen her skills improve dramatically.

'Get up, Hyuuga,' he taunts. 'I don't like seeing people crawl; it's pathetic.'

He still calls her Hyuuga out loud, even though mentally, he addresses her as both Hyuuga and Hinata. It depends on his degree of frustration with her.

She picks herself up off the dew-slick grass and launches herself at him. He pushes himself into a defensive stance, watching her. She twists at the last second, attacking him from behind, and he has to spin faster than humanly possible to block her. He catches her wrists roughly.

'Good,' he says, breathing evenly even as his lungs demand more oxygen. 'You're getting better.'

She nods, her laboured breaths a contrast to his own- and for some reason, that leaves him more determined to appear to take in air normally.

'My hands?'

He drops them unhurriedly and she begins to collect her kunai and shuriken with a slight stain of red on her cheeks.

He doesn't pay attention.

x . o . x . o . x . o . x

Sasuke thinks he should have known it would happen eventually.

As he strolls through the village, whispered conversations break out behind him. The gossip is audible even as the instigators attempt to speak in softened tones.

Word has gotten around that he has been spending a curious deal of time with the Hyuuga heiress. Speculation follows in his wake and some theories are so far-fetched that he wonders how they even began.

Sakura questions him on the rumours in her tidy office at the hospital. Surrounded by medical equipment and books, she runs through the check up Tsunade demands he has every week.

'Hinata has been through a lot,' Sakura says, treating one of the few cuts he has gained through training with the Hyuuga in question. Sakura's hands are deft in their movements. 'I'd like it if she had someone who could support her the way she needs.'

Her voice is teasing; she is the only person who is light-hearted around him.

He only responds with a dismissive 'Hmm' and she sends him off with a cheerful wave.

Others are less subtle in their opinions. Hinata's former teammates, and her often absent cousin, glower at him whenever they pass him.

x . o . x . o . x . o . x

They are training again and he gives her a few minutes to adjust to the darkness. Senses other than sight are enhanced through night training and he has expressly forbidden her from using her Byakugan. They are returning to the basics.

She's faster than he expected, but still moving sluggishly in the dark. She steps to the left, hesitantly, and he sees an opening. He flings her across the clearing.

'Too slow,' he tells her. 'You need to rely less on Byakugan.'

'Why?' she snaps back, annoyed. 'I'll always have it.'

'You won't always be able to use it.'

He approaches her again and they spar until she is thrown painfully away again. Sighing, he grants her a break.

She perches on the ground and he recognises a part of the Hinata she'd been all those years ago: demure, proper. He opts to stand.

'Why did you come back?' she blurts out suddenly and another shadow of her former self manifests: she apologises unnecessarily for the question and he can almost hear her blush.

He is silent for a moment.

'Because there was nothing left for me,' he says flatly. 'I avenged my clan and once it was done, I had nothing.'

'And when Naruto asked you to return...'

He notes the absence of an honorific.

'When he asked me, I came.'

She lifts her head, contemplating the starry heavens before turning to look at him.

'He told me you left because you had to sever your bonds.'

He understands what she is asking with that statement.

'Friendships aren't easily forgotten, Hyuuga.'

He can tell she knows her situation is no longer secret to him.

x . o . x . o . x . o . x

When she fails to arrive at the usual time, after being punctual for three months, he searches for her. He finds her in front of the Academy and instinctively, he realises her purpose.

'I was going to spare you the goodbye scene,' she admits, readjusting the bag on her shoulders.

'Are you ready?'

'It doesn't matter,' she says, gazing at the school where they'd grown up, never once anticipating the courses their lives would take. 'I'd always planned to leave on this date.'

He moves up beside her and an eerie breeze sweeps past, moaning, as though mourning with her.

'It's the anniversary of her death. It felt right, choosing this day.'

He doesn't know how to answer.


She wraps her arms around him in a grateful hug, catching him by surprise. His own limbs hang awkwardly by his side until it hits him that she is leaving, and this will be the last real, human contact she will experience for a while. He returns the embrace.

'Why did you never try to stop me?'

He draws back and meets her eyes, allowing the veil over his emotions to drop briefly.

'Because I knew how impossible it would be to dissuade an avenger.'

She smiles, as steady and controlled on the exterior as he had been the night he'd left.

'Thank you, Sasuke.' She shyly presses a kiss to his cheek- shy, even when she is departing home for a stage of her life that will end in death, either for her or her targets- and walks away.

x . o . x . o . x . o . x

He feels like a prisoner stepping back into his cell.

Tsunade and Naruto stare at him accusingly from behind the Hokage's desk. News of Hinata's disappearance has spread quickly; her father does not want to lose another daughter.

'You trained her,' Naruto fires at him, brimming with anger. 'You helped her do this.'

'You couldn't have stopped her, Naruto,' Sasuke says calmly. 'I didn't stay; why did you think she would?'

Naruto cannot form the words to express himself, but Sasuke sees it all: the fury, the denial, the hope, the resignation. It all flickers by so quickly, and he wonders if she had seen this after he'd left.

'You knew she would leave one day.'

And even though his friend seems to accept this, Sasuke knows Naruto will go after her.

He prays she will not be forced to do what he had done.