His hand stung. The veins in his arm pulsed, throbbing with every beat of his heart. He liked it. Pain meant progress, and Kakashi had been beating him into the ground for the past three weeks, in addition to teaching him the Chidori.
Chakra out of control, electric sparks screeching and biting like the violent chirp of birds; the Chidori was by far the most powerful attack Sasuke had ever been taut. Sometimes he imagined testing it on Naruto. Other times he imagined annihilating Gaara with it. But more than anything else he meditated using it on Itachi.
His brother should have been the only thing on Sasuke's mind. Nothing else mattered. Nothing. Not his teammates, his classes, or even his sensei, whose only real importance was to teach Sasuke new techniques. The Chidori was a blessing, and Sasuke needed Kakashi to master it. But he knew that once that was done (and it would be), Kakashi would no longer matter. That's right. Nothing mattered.
And yet weeks ago he remembered dropping by the sweet shop in town. A bakery. Curry buns, cream pies, and garlic rolls, but the only interest he'd had was in the cinnamon buns. He knew what he was doing when he bought them. Early as sin in the morning and right before training, he had deigned to stop by, and for a specific purpose. 'This is stupid,' he had kept thinking. 'Why am I here? I told myself I wouldn't bother anymore.' All the while he had been standing behind the counter, handing the baker money in exchange for the pastries.
He had left them in her room at the hospital. Being right there next to her, seeing her sleeping obliviously, he had wanted to stay. As much as it pained him to admit it, he had wanted to stay. Her sleeping face, bruised and bandaged, her little frame shaped by the thin hospital sheets . . . He had made sure to leave quickly.
That was the last time he had seen her. Through all the hand signs, fractured bones, and raging chakra, he had done an admirable job on not thinking of her. Besides avenging his family and strengthening every part of his body, pushing her from his thoughts had single-handedly been his toughest goal.
Three weeks. Twenty-three days. Not thinking of her, no. Fully focused on training. Fully focused on not dying. Fully focused on treating his sore muscles every night in preparation for the next day, and yet he had been counting the days.
One time he had wanted to see her. Badly. Like a possessed man he broke from training and started straight toward the estate. Not wobbling, but wanting to, not eating, but starving like a wolf, and not sleeping even though he was on the verge of passing out, Sasuke had gone there. He remembered standing at the gates, looking beyond the wrought iron bars into the courtyard.
Servants lingered about, either carrying food or occupying concealed corners to smoke. No one saw him. His chakra was so damn depleted not even an entry level ninja would have been able to sense him. Five minutes he had stood there. Five long minutes of hurting, aching, and debating. Finally, he had turned around, disgusted with himself, and vowed to never step foot anywhere near the place again. Unless he came to throttle Neji or bury Gaara in his own sand, there was no reason for him to be there. No reason.
The next hurdle of the tournament was close. Only six days away. Kakashi never failed to mention the slash in calendar days, so Sasuke was always aware. In three weeks he had done good. That's what Kakashi had said yesterday. There was healing to be done now, his arm being the main focus, but Sasuke didn't want to heal. A waste of time. It was best to train while still throbbing, but Kakashi was the one who laid down the rules. Puh. A joke. Sasuke would have dismissed that completely, that is, if Kakashi hadn't promised another session right before the tournament. His teammates would even be there for that one.
In his time of healing Sasuke only did two things: studied, and meditated. The amount of focus executed over these last three weeks was impressive; more intense than at any other point in his life. Far more than his time spent training Hinata. She was nothing but a distraction. This is how he viewed her. It was the only way he could manage to get anything done.
Whenever he started thinking of her as anything other than that, those feelings would start to surface again. Potent and noisy, they cut through any amount of concentration he was able to muster. Such power in a single thought: 'How will she do in the next exam?'
This question was a root, a harbinger for other similar thoughts. They always ended up sprouting in all different directions. Was she training enough? Had she healed all the way? Was Gaara harassing her? Her cousin? Her father? And even more irrelevant, ludicrous thoughts such as, is she thinking of me?
And that's why he was here now. A crazed man starved of narcotics had nothing on Sasuke. At least that's how he felt, sitting back on his legs, directly in the middle of the Hyuga's living room. And awaiting the headmaster. Kami's sake, what was he doing here?
While he waited a servant brought him tea. She was an old woman, clothed in a typical servant's kimono. "Is Hinata here?" he asked without turning his head. He didn't reach for the tea. The woman's frail shoulders jumped with surprise, her yellowish eyes widening. "You're here for the young miss?"
"Is she here?" Sasuke asked again.
"She is," the servant replied with a smile. Sasuke noticed the way she lowered her voice, and assumed it was inappropriate for servants to be making conversation while serving guests. It had been a while since he'd adhered to any prestigious house custom. He asked her to speak up. "Are you one of her friends?"
"Her classmate," Sasuke answered, a bit annoyed by the woman's prying. And even more by her apparent disappointment.
"Oh, I was under the impression that . . . well, you call her by her first name. Hinata-sama doesn't often get visitors. I should know. I'm her nanny."
"Where is Hiashi Hyuga?"
"He's coming." Either she was too pleased to react to Sasuke's rudeness, or she didn't notice. "He is a busy man."
"That's enough, Keiko," Hiashi announced, coming in from the next room. He waved a hand. "Leave us."
"Yes, Hiashi-sama," the nanny replied hastily, and scurried away. Hiashi's white-gray kimono was thick and layered, making him look bigger than he actually was. There certainly was a presence about him. The lines of his face were sparse, but set firmly in places where they appeared. His age was obvious not in his physique or posture—far from it—but the hard set of his face, the faded scars along his skin, and those intelligent rock-white eyes that seemed to pull things apart for inspection without permission.
Sasuke was not intimidated. His own father had been pretty much the same.
Hiashi lowered himself to the table across from Sasuke, fixing his steely gaze on him. "It is an honor to have you here, young Uchiha. Is there something you need?" Right to the point. That was good. Sasuke wasn't here to waste time. Then again, neither of them had time to waste.
"I'm here to see your daughter," Sasuke said with unwavering directness.
"For what reason?"
"Does the reason matter?" Hiashi didn't seem to react much to Sasuke's insolence, and Sasuke did acknowledge to himself that it was insolence. He just didn't care. What he wanted with Hinata was none of his business. Not for a father that didn't give two craps about his daughter. When Hiashi spoke, his voice was a restrained and chilling calm.
"You come here demanding the presence of my daughter, who at this time is in the middle of an intense training session with her cousin. If you're going to extract her from it, there needs to be a good reason."
What a headache. Sasuke suppressed the urge to grind his teeth and sigh. This frustration further prompted him to ask: Why. Am. I. Here? "Her training is the reason I'm here," Sasuke managed in a leveled tone. Was that true? He didn't really know himself, but it didn't sound wrong. Not that it sounded right, either, but . . .
"Oh?" Hiashi didn't raise an eyebrow.
"I don't know if she told you," Sasuke said, "but I trained her for a time. I'm interested in how she's . . . progressing without me."
"You think her incapable of making progress without you?" There wasn't hint of smugness in his voice or even a twitch of a smirk on Hiashi's face. Sasuke was annoyed, nonetheless, because that wasn't what he meant at all.
"No," Sasuke said shortly. "I don't think that. I'm only here to see her. I didn't know it would be this complicated." At that, the first semblance of emotion appeared on Hiashi's face. It was a smile. The wrinkles around his mouth stretched, but not in that tight, unhappy manner he was accustomed to seeing in older people; especially hard-hearted men like Hiashi.
"I knew your father when he was young," he said. Sasuke didn't emote at all at the mention of his father. Hiashi was undeterred. "He was a lot like you. We were two of the most prestigious clans in Konoha. I knew you as a little boy, Sasuke Uchiha."
"I don't see what this has to do with anything."
Hiashi chuckled slightly. "At least your arrogance is the same." And then the hard set of his face was back, scorching into Sasuke with those ghosty white eyes. It all happened in a flash, but that was probably the closest thing to warm Hiashi Hyuga had ever been. Sasuke didn't exactly feel privileged to have witnessed it. "You cannot see Hinata."
If Sasuke had any less control over himself he would have winced. With even less control he might have turned the table over, steaming teacup and all. All this dancing around just to be told no. "Why?" he demanded.
"As I said, she's busy training. Something you should be doing, if I'm not mistaken. You know how close the next exam in the tournament is."
"I don't need reminding," Sasuke said, letting his irritation slip for the first time. "I assume the sand freak will be entering this time."
"Sabaku Gaara. That is correct."
"Why is he living here?"
"That is absolutely none of your concern. Know your place, boy. You may be the last surviving member of the Uchiha clan, but you are still a child. Your insolence is more than enough indication: speaking to me as if we were equals, making demands and clenching your fists hard enough to bleach the skin. You're lucky I have the patience that I do." Ignoring Sasuke's scowl, Hiashi rose to his feet. "This discussion is over. You may finish your tea if you want, but afterwards, please leave."
Amazing. What was it about this house that turned everyone into a douche? Sabaku Gaara, Neji, and now Hiashi. Then again, Sasuke never liked Hiashi to begin with. Being dismissed as he just was—infuriating. Only Kakashi ever dared to treat him like a child, and here was this bastard of a father making a show of it.
Sasuke looked down at his hands in his lap and realized that he had been clenching them. Veins bulged underneath his knuckles and branched all the way up his arm, dark blue, a stark contrast with the rest of his pale skin.
Whatever. He wasn't going to let it get to him. He had wanted to see Hinata, but today wasn't the day. This wasn't his house, and she wasn't his family. With Neji he could easily disregard the letdown, but Hiashi was different. Under that heavy-weight Kimono was a tight girdle of authority, one whose strings could not be cut. Not by him, or anyone.
As Sasuke took his leave—damn the tea—he felt someone's eyes on him. Stepping out into the courtyard, he looked around. There was no one out here: no servants, not even a stray cat. And yet he could feel someone out here. The aura seeping into the wind was cold and dark, swirling with discomforting shades of red and purple, which he could see with a quick activation of his Sharingan. This smog of a chakra was suffocating, hostile, and he recognized it right away. "Damn stalker," Sasuke muttered, and left through the gates.
"Sakura-chan, what does this mean?" Naruto waved the new guidelines in front of her face. She blew air out her nose and snatched it from him. After weeks of separation and multiple stages of training the team had finally been assembled together, even though Naruto and Sasuke were the only ones competing in the next exam. Kakashi had told them to meet on top of one of the watchtowers in town, even though he was nowhere to be found, as usual.
"How many times am I going to have to explain this to you?" Sakura scolded. "I don't know how you passed the last exam. You're lucky you got teamed up with Sasuke."
"Hey!" Naruto whined. "I passed on pure talent alone! Sasuke-baka only held me back."
Sasuke said nothing to this. He barely even heard it. When Hinata wasn't around, ignoring Naruto was extraordinarily simple. There wasn't even a need to pay attention to Sakura, who had been recounting the rules for the upcoming exams. It was simple enough.
At the start of the exam names were to be picked at random to form pairs, and from the same village. Every pair would be given a kunai, colored and marked with their village symbol, and then dispersed into the forest. At the top of the forest was a tower. The goal was to steal a kunai from each competing village, and then rush to the top of the tower to mark a victory. Only two other villages were competing, which meant that Sasuke only needed two other kunais to pass the exam, along with the one from his own village.
Avoiding traps, putting down teams, stealing kunais—all a headache. But it was a relief to know that teams from the same village wouldn't be battling against each other. Now that didn't necessarily mean that pairs from the same village were forbidden to battle; it was just a waste of time.
Hinata, Naruto, Neji, Rock Lee, and himself. Those were the only ones he knew of that had passed the last exam. Interesting. That meant there would be one team of three. And if that was the case, that meant acquiring an extra kunai—for fairness. An extra person meant more power, that is, of course, depending on who that extra person was. Sasuke felt sorry for the team who got stuck with Naruto.
Well, not really.
Mixed emotions raged inside of Sasuke when he thought of being paired up with Hinata. That's what he wanted. Not to protect her, of course. Just to ensure that she passed.
Great Gods and Kami forbid she should end up paired with Naruto. Sasuke's teeth gnashed together at the thought.
Sabaku Gaara would be paired up with someone from his village. Sasuke wondered who. If teams of three were permitted, shouldn't teams of one also be allowed? If that was the case it was a possibility that Gaara would end up battling against the other teams alone. He certainly didn't need a partner, as strong as he was.
Whenever Sasuke had seen Gaara, someone had always been with him. His siblings. His sensei. Only a few times did Sasuke ever see him alone, and each time the results were bad. Sabaku Gaara was a force meant to be tamed. Alone, who knows what disasters would ensue. No. Regardless of the rules, the jonins would make sure he had a partner.
The exam was two days away now. While Sakura continued to hound Naruto on the rules, Sasuke ignored them both, lounging back on the bench, staring in the direction of Hinata's estate. He wondered if she was still training. She probably was. She was a hard worker. He used to wonder what he would do when she didn't need him to train her anymore. Had that time already come and gone?
How utterly stupid. What did it matter? A tournament was a tournament, and the definition of a tournament was always very clear. Multiple battles, one victor. Whether Hinata would come to face him or someone else, really, what did it matter? Both of them couldn't be left standing. The road to becoming a warrior was full of rocks and ditches. It couldn't all be carriage ride. His life had never been. Not once. The only time when it had even been remotely enjoyable was . . .
No. There was no time for that. Carriage rides were for fairy-tales. Affection was for children. And Sasuke hadn't been a child since the day his parents were killed. This ridiculous tug-of-war between happiness and revenge had become far too stabilized. There was no equilibrium when the two was involved.
Revenge was happiness, two in the same. He was convinced of that. Where this sudden struggle had come from, he had no idea. There was only room in his heart for one person—someone who he hoped to eradicate as soon as possible. He was sure of that.
Without knowing it, he continued to stare out over the town toward the Hyuga estate.
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