A.N: Sotte Voce is the series that deals with things that happen to Hinata in Sound that don't quite fit into the regular Muma chapters. Enjoy!
Sotte Voce 01: Care and Feeding
On Tuesdays, she feeds the snakes.
If she could, Hinata would like to leave this job for last, or perhaps do it first thing in the morning, grit her teeth and get it over with, but it's out of her control. Kabuto's schedule says two o'clock on the dot and that's what she must abide by.
The door to the serpent room is warm and slightly damp: this section of the labs is kept under strict climate and temperature control and the door must never remain open for more than a minute. Hinata shifts the basket on her arm, fumbling for the key in her pocket as Nidon and Wakame take up their positions by the door, ready to wait for her. The key is found, the lock clicks, and Hinata slips inside and pushes the door firmly shut behind her.
Without chakra and Byakugan, it takes her eyes a moment to adjust to the dim. The snakes are waking: they know their food is here and most of them start throwing themselves against the glass of their enclosures and hissing at her. Hinata's hands start shaking, as they always do, and she puts the basket down.
"D-don't," she says. "I-If you misbehave, y-you won't get your d-dinners." Empty words, but it makes her feel a little better to speak up against the maelstrom of hissing: technically speaking, she is in charge here. She wraps that thought around her like a cape and the weight of it straightens her spine so she can once again take up the basket.
The snakes are arranged smallest to largest around the room: some have nearly summon-level intelligence, but most are just snakes. All have been engineered in some way and all are poisonous. Kabuto has taken dozens of different varieties and altered them until they bear only a passing resemblance to the breed they once were: it simplified things immensely, he said, to be able to keep them under similar habitat conditions and diet.
Hinata starts with the little ones at the front of the room, taps out crickets for them from the cricket tin. A few of them get tiny eggs as well in their feeding tubes: one gets a snail. She snaps the latches shut and checks water levels and general condition, looking for any signs of deterioration that need to be reported to Kabuto.
She takes a deep breath in: the little ones are all fine, and now...
The empty cricket tin goes back to its compartment in the basket: she takes a moment to pull on gloves and then she opens the next compartment to take out the mice cage.
The mice wriggle around and over each other, tiny pink claws scrabbling at the plastic of the cage. Ordinary white mice, each with a special, color-coded dot on its back: the mice have also been specially altered to fit the requirements of the serpents they feed. Her heartbeat pounds inside her skull.
"If any of these mice should bite you," Kabuto had told her the first time she was left alone for the feedings, after he had handed over the basket, "come straight to me. Don't wait."
The next snake is one of the few that actually has a name: Tohru according to the tiny plate fixed to the front of his cage. Hinata squints at the mice until she sees green crawl by, then she scoops it out and drops it into the feeding tube. She snatches up another green when it pops up from the roiling mass, drops it down and Tohru is done.
She was nearly sick the first time she did this: she is faintly sick even now. It's not something she understands; hasn't she hunted rabbits in the forest with Kiba-kun and Akamaru-kun, killed them with the Gentle Fist, skinned and roasted them for dinner? This is nothing different. Yet she can't bring herself to look at any of the mice-fed snakes after she drops in their meal, tries not to think about tiny balls of white running frantic to escape while the snake blots out everything and unhinges its jaw, ready to feed.
The cage grows lighter and lighter in her arms until she has only one snake left: Radu, the largest and most intelligent of the bunch. The last fifteen mice belong to him, and Hinata unlatches his feeding tube and takes up a handful, quite ready to just dump them in and get out of here.
She lifts the lid on the tube with her free hand and Radu slides up her left arm.
The mice drop to the floor and scatter in all directions. Radu is warm and smooth against her skin as he climbs higher, tongue flickering as he tastes the open air. Hinata's mouth is open, but she's not screaming, she's barely breathing: she can't do anything other than watch the snake slowly wind his way along her arm and remember Kabuto: Radu is quite the achievement, I must say. His poison kills in five minutes and has the charming trait of liquefying the victim's brain after it paralyzes the lungs and circulatory system. Interesting, don't you think?
She is screaming, she slowly realizes, but she can't hear herself: she must be screaming, because here come Nidon and Wakame bursting through the door, ready to slay whatever's attacking her. Nidon stops short and starts yelling himself as soon as he realizes what's happening, but Wakame (who is slow and always does exactly what he's told, and his orders are very specific: protect Hinata) steps foward: Radu disappears off her arm and into Wakame's enormous hand. Nidon is dragging her free.
Brighter lights. The cool air of the hallway hits her in the face and she sinks to her knees. Nidon is saying something to her, but she can't make it out, because she's still screaming, She can hear it now, a distant buzz like bees in hives, like the bees they keep out in the garden, the ones that make the poison honey. She can tell from the heat and the bulk behind her that Wakame has come out as well, but she doesn't turn around, she doesn't want to see his brain liquefy.
Kabuto comes up at a run, with Nidon panting behind him: they talk, then Kabuto tries to talk to her, but she can't hear him. He takes her by the shoulders and shakes her, speaks in her ear, but none of it is intelligible. Kabuto leans back on his heels, looks at her for moment with a good deal of annoyance on his face, then raises his hand and slaps her, briskly.
He has to slap her five times before she stops screaming and comes down. Nidon jostles her as he presses water to her lips: she drinks and winces as it runs down her raw throat. She isn't even given a minute to collect herself before Kabuto takes her cold hands in his warm ones and pulls her to her feet, supporting her with one hand as he opens the serpent room door with the other.
Hinata freezes again, but Kabuto is stronger and has the advantage of not being afraid; she is pulled back inside. The door opens a crack and a new mouse cage is passed through, which Kabuto takes. The door closes again and the lock clicks shut.
"I see Radu's been up to his tricks again," Kabuto says: he releases her hand and fiddles with his glasses, pushing them back up his nose. "That being said, I can't have you going off into hysterics like that, Miss Hinata. You're supposed to be a shinobi. I expect better from you and quite frankly, I'm disappointed."
"I-I'm s-sorry," she whispers. "I-I j-just...i-it j-just..."
Kabuto's eyes are hidden behind the shiny silver moons of his glasses.
"Well, we'll just have to work harder to make up for it, shan't we?"
He hands her the cage, then kneels and peers under the rows of snake cages, whistling softly; his hand snaps out suddenly and twists and Kabuto lifts a squirming Radu into the weak light, smiling at him.
Radu hisses in reply.
"No, it's not cute and it's not funny. I was in the middle of something important, and now I have to take time out to deal with your juvenile antics. Lord Orochimaru won't be pleased either, I can tell you. Miss Hinata? Come here please, and take this bad snake back to his cage."
She almost drops the mice cage again and only through a series of small, precise movements can she set it gently on the floor with her shaking hands. Dragged forward by Kabuto's smile, she takes a step, then one more, but she can't come any closer than that.
"He won't bite. I promise."
He ought to be banned from saying that, a small, fierce voice pipes up in her mind and she makes herself take another step and hold out her hands.
Radu is still warm against her skin, his dry scales smooth and almost silky. He looks a little like he's laughing at her. Kabuto drapes the snake around her shoulders so his body won't drag on the floor and she walks under her power back to Radu's cage, Kabuto and the mice close behind her. She puts him in, Kabuto adds the new mice and all the latches are firmly shut.
"That's better," he says once they're outside again and the door to the serpent room has been locked behind them. "But now we have the little issue of the mice you let escape. The mice that took several hours of hard work for me to refine."
She looks at the floor. If anything makes Kabuto angry, it's disorder and loss. "Y-yes. I-I'm s-sorry. I-I won't be so c-careless next time."
Kabuto's thumbs press against her temples; pain and light crest together as he reactivates her chakra and she holds her hands to her mouth to keep back a cry. "Instead of your usual chores, you'll look for the mice and recapture them. Can you do this?"
"It'll be your first D-ranked mission for me, then," he says and smiles at her, lips thin and mean. One part of Hinata has to admit she deserves it for her mistakes: the other wishes she could hit him.
Carrying her basket and cages, she turns her back on him and sets off to hunt, Byakugan activated, Nidon and Wakame trailing behind.