This fic is an Xmas gift to all my "Better Off Dead" fans, and especially to my beta, Uchiha.s, who rocks my world. SasuHina FTW:)

What started off as a one-shot is going to be 3-4 chapters, and rated M, for later material. SasuHina, AU, tralala.

Enjoy. And happy holidays!


The Cursed Geisha

Chapter One: Trembling Like Leaves

He's beautiful, in the same way that predatory animals are beautiful—dark, mysterious. Dangerous. Only this time, instead of being the predator, Sasuke will learn what it means to be prey.

Hinata regards her cool reflection in the mirror, applies more white powder to her cheeks. This is her first solo job as a full-fledged geisha—her first mission, too—and the pressure makes her palms sweat. There is no room for error. Orochimaru's words whisper in her head, like the breeze sighing through the cherry blossom trees outside.

Make Uchiha Sasuke your danna.

Hinata shivers. Not many geisha in Konoha obtain a man as their danna, or patron. But she is different. She is one of the few geisha who are native to Konoha, and thus, considered more trustworthy; though she is not. However, even for Hinata, this will be no easy task. It is a scant few weeks since her debut, and it is early in her career to be landing a danna—and not just any danna, at that.

She finishes rounding out the curves of her lips with red paint, and spares one last look in the mirror. Wide, white eyes stare out from a white face, arching with two black brows and a slash of lips that curve like a red crescent moon. Her pale face is framed by hair so waxy, it looks lacquered. She stares at herself without moving or breathing, then she turns away from the mirror, wiping her clammy palms on a towel. She smoothes down her pale pink kimono, traces the golden embroidery with shaking fingers.

If she can do this, she will finally be able to buy her freedom from Orochimaru. She will shed her layers of fine kimono like a snake discarding its skin and she will be herself again.

She strides out of the bathroom with a confidence she doesn't feel, her zori clicking faintly on the pavement. The sun shines weakly, making the snow sparkle where it hangs on the cherry blossom trees, now bearing their first tender blossoms.

"Oi! Misaki-chan, there you are!" At first, Hinata doesn't respond, so caught up in her thoughts that her geisha name slides off of her like water on oiled cloth. When Naruto takes her arm, she smiles tightly as he whisks her off to the blossom viewing party. Every time he says her name, Misaki, she remembers her mother's dying words, sighed with stale breath into Hinata's ear:

A branch that is broken bears flowers twice, Hinata-chan. Like a broken branch, you will gather beautiful blossoms when the second spring comes.

And maybe her spring is coming, Hinata thinks; she's certainly been broken. When Naruto snaps off a twig covered in pale pink flowers and pins it in her hair, she blushes, and hopes that the flowers are a good omen.

Naruto takes her arm again, babbling pleasantries, and Hinata wishes that she could make Naruto her danna instead. He has brought her here to help him spy on the Suna ambassadors, since ninja are forbidden from using their jutsu during meetings of state, however informal.

But Hinata is not a ninja. If she is discovered using her doujutusu—which she won't be—it will only be a minor misdemeanor. It's part of Orochimaru's brilliance in buying all the okiya, or geisha houses, in Konoha's Flower District. It's a different class of women, not governed by the usual rules. At that thought, Hinata feels her curse mark tingling on the inside of her thigh and shivers, though she isn't cold.

Naruto leads her the to side of a cherry blossom tree and nods. Hinata unfurls her fan and covers her eyes, then activates her Byakugan.

"There are three four-man teams surrounding the garden," Hinata whispers. "Their signatures are foreign."

"Are you sure they're not Konoha?" Naruto murmurs, leaning against the tree trunk. A few stray blossoms fall across his face, and a light powder of snow shimmers around him like a halo.

Hinata shakes her head and deactivates her eyes, lowering her fan and fluttering it in front of her face. "They're Suna. I'm s-sure of it." Hinata giggles when a pair of dignitaries sweep by them, and she touches Naruto on the arm, making it look like she's just told him a joke.

Though her face is a serene mask, inside, Hinata is quavering. She had been sold to Orochimaru in the first place because she was a terrible ninja; to use her powers outright in front of the Hokage's son makes her uneasy. Even despite all of Orochimaru's training. Hinata grimaces at that thought before taking a deep breath and fanning herself. She will do whatever it takes to be free. Whatever it takes.

Even becoming Sasuke's mistress.

Remembering Orochimaru's orders, Hinata laces her arm through Naruto's again, and she floats beside him down the pathway, watching the sunlight flickering through his golden hair like a crown of light. He laughs about something, and his face breaks into a full smile that makes his blue eyes flash, like water glinting in the sun. Not for the first time, Hinata has to quell the red-hot jealousy in the pit of her stomach. She wishes she could always be perched on Naruto's arm, walking side by side with him.

Might things have been different, if she had remained a ninja?

It takes all of Hinata's training not to snort at herself in derision. If she had remained a ninja, she would have died a thousand times over by now.

Better by far to serve her country as a geisha, Hinata tells herself. Unbidden, her father's words echo in her mind, from the day he had traded Hinata for a ninjutsu scroll: Try to make yourself useful. Do not shame your new master, like you have brought shame to me. The way he had said it, acerbic, but mostly just weary, like Hinata was nothing more than a sack of potatoes Hiashi was tired of hauling around—potatoes fit for nothing more than grating and frying in burning oil. Even now, the memory makes her stomach roil.

"Are you all right, Misaki-chan?" Naruto calls, his blue eyes narrowed in concern.

Hinata gulps. Try to make yourself useful. "A-ah, y-yes." She takes a deep breath and says, more clearly this time, "Won't you introduce me to your parents, Naruto-san? I have never met Hokage-sama and his wife. It would be such an honor for someone like me…" She pitches her voice to carry.

Couples turn towards her and murmur, the weight of their gazes making Hinata flush. She's glad she put on extra white powder, and she prays to Kami that no one can see her blush. Naruto laughs his carefree, crystal laughter and leads her through the crowd. She can hear snippets of whispered conversation as she passes, like walking through fog and catching beads of condensation on her kimono. She concentrates on Naruto's sunny smile and on taking tiny, mincing steps so that she seems to glide over the cobblestones.

The crowd parts in front of Naruto like waves splitting before the hull of a great ship as they make their way to Kushina and Minato. Minato's manner is seemingly carefree, but the tension in his shoulders gives him away. Beside him, Kushina shines in the sunlight like a faceted ruby as her red long hair catches the light. Hinata meets her eyes and they share a long gaze. It is the first time Hinata has seen Kushina since that day, almost ten years ago, when her father had handed her off to Orochimaru.

Kushina takes her arm and murmurs a placid greeting to Hinata, but all Hinata can hear are the words Kushina had spoken that day, her blue eyes brimming with tears and glittering like an ocean. Forgive me, but Danzo… And I can't… Do you know, before your mother died, she told me that blossoms are more beautiful from a broken branch?

Misaki. Beautiful blossoms. Hinata can hear her geisha name chiming like temple bells, like a song swelling with sorrow and spilling over into tears.

But Hinata is broken out of her reverie when Kushina says, "Hinata-chan, what did you see?"

Hinata starts at that, because for the first time in a long time, someone has used her real name. The sound of it bursts through her muddled thoughts like the sun breaking through dark clouds. Like a flower turning towards a sudden light, Hinata stares at Kushina in a mix of fascination and startlement. But Kushina only smiles a soft, sad smile, and prods her with her elbow.

"Ah—my l-lady," Hinata stammers, "they say that the b-blossoms are b-beautiful surrounded by cold snow."

Kushina inclines her head slightly to signal that she's understood the code—the Suna ANBU surround the garden, but they are not moving. She gives a long, high whistle, as if in response to Hinata's words, and shadows flicker along the edges of the garden. Hinata sees them only because she was looking for them, and because of her eyes.

Hinata relaxes, but only a little. She has completed one mission, but not the other, more difficult task that Orochimaru has set for her. Bowing to Kushina, Hinata takes Naruto's arm in hers, and they circulate among the guests. She speaks to dozens of Suna men, learning little but piquing their interest—especially a jonin named Baki, who drops hints that he would love to meet her at the Red Lantern teahouse, the most elite teahouse in Konoha. She smiles and touches his arm, pleased to see that his face flushes.

If she can get him drunk, then she can get information from him. Orochimaru-sama would be pleased—but not if she loses sight of her main objective. Hinata draws away from the man and finds Naruto again, then scans the crowd for Uchiha Sasuke. She nibbles her lower lip. She can't ask about him without blowing her cover, but she doesn't see him anywhere. If she comes back to the okiya without making progress…she shivers. Best not to think about that now.

Just as the party is breaking up, and Hinata resigns herself to another "lesson" from Orochimaru, Naruto raises his voice in greeting, a great garrulous roar.

"Yo, Sasuke-bastard, I thought you wouldn't make it!"

Hinata's heart hammers in her chest when Sasuke strides forward, his dark eyes flashing. "Unlike some people," he snarls, "I had things to do. Where's Sakura?"

"Out on a mission. Sasuke, this is—"

"I know who she is," Sasuke says with a sneer, his eyes narrowed. Hinata's first reaction is to wilt, but she remembers Karin and Temari's advice. She forces herself to sneer back, though the expression feels unnatural on her face.

"I k-know who you are, too," Hinata says as coolly as she can. She takes a deep breath and holds onto Naruto's arm tightly. "You are the s-spoiled son of Uchiha Fugaku." She forces herself to glare up at Sasuke even as sweat beads on the back of her neck. She hopes it doesn't make her powder run.

Sasuke's eyes widen, then narrow again. "And you are the infamous Misaki," Sasuke mutters, leaving off the honorific after her name. "Pleased to make your acquaintance." She can tell by his tone that he is, in fact, not pleased.

Good. It's just as Karin has said.

Time to turn up the heat.

Hinata leans on Naruto and runs a manicured finger down his arm. Naruto gulps, and she smiles. "It's a shame you missed the cherry blossom festival, Uchiha-san," she says, and though she addresses Sasuke, her eyes never leave Naruto. "The flowers are beautiful, but it looks like it may snow again, and knock the blossoms off of the trees." She flutters her eyelashes and gives Naruto a seductive, sidelong gaze. "Naruto-kun has been such a gracious—"

"I actually have work to do," Sasuke interrupts, "and I need to talk to Naruto. Alone."

Hinata offers Sasuke a tight-lipped smile and takes his arm in her free one. "It would be a shame to waste such a beautiful day on work, wouldn't it? Why don't all three of us walk through the gardens together—don't you agree that it would be pleasant, Naruto-kun?" she says, drawing the pad of her finger under Naruto's wrist. She feels his pulse quicken, and draws a lazy circle on his bare skin before replacing her hand on top of his arm.

"You know, I think that would be a great idea," Naruto blurts out, turning towards the gardens to hide his blush. He walks down the swept pathway unevenly while Hinata leans on his shoulder. Her other arm still threaded through Sasuke's, Hinata hooks her elbow and practically drags him after her, smiling when Sasuke's scowl widens.

They haven't gone more than five paces when Sasuke growls, and pulls her aside, even as Naruto protests. "Listen," he hisses, his voice pitched so that only Hinata can hear him, "you may have convinced the Hokage and his family that you're trustworthy, but I know what you really are." He glares at her, his black eyes glinting red. The breath hitches in her throat, and she looks away quickly, focusing her gaze on the lapel of his coat.

"How can you know w-what I am," Hinata breathes, feeling anger replacing her fear, "when you don't even know who I am?" Don't you dare judge me, she thinks, as she runs a long fingernail down the curve of his shoulder, then turns away from him with a sweep of her pink kimono. Her laughter chimes like clinking glass, though it is forced. "Uchiha-san, I didn't know you had such a sense of humor."

"I don't know what Orochimaru is planning," Sasuke seethes, "but you can tell that slimy bastard that I'm not buying it."

Hinata gives him a wide-eyed, innocent stare, then bursts into laughter once more. "Oh, Uchiha-san," she says, taking her fan out of her sleeve and fluttering it at him, "you are wonderful. But not as w-wonderful as Naruto-kun, I'm afraid." She places her hand on Naruto's arm again and looks up into his two blue eyes with a gaze she's practiced hundreds of times, both in the mirror and on men. She can see him melting, his blush traveling down from his cheeks to his neck.

Such a shame, Hinata thinks, her heart sinking. She really would prefer to make Naruto her danna.

She glances at Sasuke over her shoulder and bats her eyelashes. "We should drink together at the Red Lantern," Hinata calls airily, turning back to Naruto. "It would be my honor to pour you sake there. There is a party tonight—I hope that I will see you there." Her finger darts out to stroke Naruto's pulse point again. She can tell from the way he gulps that his mouth has gone dry.

"Absolutely not," Sasuke hisses.

"I d-didn't invite you," Hinata says, trying to make her voice smooth and cursing her stutter. Many men find her stutter attractive, but it won't serve her here, not with the Uchiha. That's what Karin, her oneesan, has told her. She forces herself to take a deep breath and says, "But if Naruto-kun invites you, then I would be honored to pour you sake." Her mouth turns down as she glances at Sasuke, but she needn't have bothered with the expression; he's already caught her meaning from her tone.

"I don't have time to waste at a teahouse," Sasuke says, wrinkling his nose.

"Aw, Sasuke-asshole, you're just jealous," Naruto retorts. "Let's go out tonight. I love the Red Lantern," he says, though Hinata knows he doesn't go often. She has only entertained him there a few times, and every time, he has gone with Kiba, or his sensei, Jiraiya. She flushes at that thought. The last time Jiraiya came in, he had pinched her butt.

She had charged him extra for that, and admonished him that any more untoward behavior, and he would have to find himself another teahouse.

"The Red Lantern? Tch. I'd rather die," Sasuke mutters, his gruff voice breaking her out of her thoughts.

"And I wish that you would," Hinata says, smiling coldly at Sasuke. She pauses for a moment, feeling the weight of her words. There is some truth to them, after all—if she is successful in her mission, then Sasuke probably will die. Suddenly, she laughs her ringing, glassy laughter again and pats Naruto's arm, as if she's just make a joke. Naruto laughs uneasily. "I will be dancing tonight at the Red Lantern," she says to Naruto. "It would be a shame for you to miss it."

"Sasuke and I wouldn't miss it for the world—would we, Sasuke?"

"The hell?" Sasuke sputters.

Hinata bows and takes her leave of Sasuke and Naruto as they begin to argue. She casts one final glance over her shoulder before she exits through the gates, and catches Sasuke's flashing eyes staring back at her, like storm clouds streaked with lightning. Her blood runs cold, and she exits, more hastily than she should.

Slowing her pace to a more dignified walk, Hinata looks down at the daffodils pushing up through the snow on the side of the road, but all she can see is the memory of Sasuke's dark eyes glaring at her. He's beautiful, in the same way that predatory animals are beautiful—dark, mysterious. Dangerous. Only this time, instead of being the predator, Sasuke will learn what it means to be prey.

Hinata clenches her hands into fists and walks away, her head held high, her zori barely making a sound as she glides over the sidewalk. She can hear Naruto and Sasuke arguing faintly in the breeze:

I'm not going, you moron.

You have to! I promised Misaki. It'll be fun.

I don't trust her.

Well, I do. She's a good person, I can tell. My mother says...

The wind changes, and the voices fade. Hinata cannot hear more even though she strains her ears. She walks away, slinking like a cat holding its tail between its legs, feeling lower than the ground she walks upon. She thinks back to what Sasuke had said to her, and her cheeks burn.

He's right about her. They shouldn't trust her at all.

Hinata's own words ring in her ears, and she cannot deny them: How can you know what I am when you don't even know who I am?

Don't even know who I am?

Who I am…

It seems like a long, long journey from the gardens to the okiya.


"Ku, ku, ku," Orochimaru says, licking his lips. Hinata trembles. She is in Orochimaru's underground office under the okiya, taking small, shallow breaths so that she won't sneeze from the damp, moldering smell. She's thankful that Orochimaru isn't keeping her down here for training tonight; she's so distraught from her mission today, she doesn't think she could handle it.

"So you think Sasuke-kun will be there?" he purrs.

"I know that he w-will, Orochimaru-sama."

"Very good. Return with Karin and rest, Misaki-chan," he calls. "Remember, if you are successful, you will win your freedom." He dangles the promise like a jewel, shining and just out of reach. Hinata's jaw tightens. She bows to depart, but before she can scamper away, Orochimaru's booming voice stops her. "I wonder, Misaki-chan, what will you do when you are finally free?"

Hinata freezes. ""

"Come now," Orochimaru calls, affecting a fatherly tone with her. "You must know."

"I'd like to...ah...I'd like to r-retire. Maybe in the Land of T-tea," Hinata mumbles.

"You'd leave Konoha? Your home?" Orochimaru murmurs. Something about his tone unsettles her.

"If it p-p-pleases you, O-orochimaru-sama," she says, cursing her quavering voice. Orochimaru's barking laughter resounds throughout the cavern. He gestures for her to leave, and she practically flies away, not wishing to answer any more questions from her master.

Karin meets her by the secret entrance, taking her arm in hers as the stone shifts closed behind them. "I hate you, you know that." It is not a question.

"Y-y-yes, o-o-oneechan," Hinata whispers.

"It should have been me seducing Sasuke—me," she whines, throwing back her long red hair. Unlike most of the geisha in Orochimaru's employ, Karin wears her hair down in soft cascading waves, like a red ocean. She still wears traditional kimono, ones as scarlet as her eyes and hair, and lipstick a dark shade of blood red.

Karin goes on to moan about how unfair it all is, that she has powerful jutsu, too, jutsu that she's used to help Sasuke on undercover missions. He's got the most delicious chakra, she confides, licking her lips. She would give her right arm just to sleep with Sasuke and extract information from him and maybe, just maybe, get knocked up. Hinata blushes as red as Karin's misguided lipstick.

"Y-yes, o-oneesan," Hinata murmurs when Karin pauses in her tirade to glare at her. They walk up the stairs to their quarters in silence. When they get to the top of the landing, Hinata blurts out, "If it were up to m-me, o-oneesan, I would let you have h-him."

Karin barks with laughter, then stops sharply as she opens the door to their shared apartment. "Isn't that kind of you. I'd kill you, but it would displease Orochimaru-sama. So instead, I'll let you sleep. Let me help you out of your kimono."

"Th-thank you, o-o-oneesan." Hinata smiles weakly, knowing that Karin wouldn't do her harm, that her words are empty threats born of frustration and powerlessness.

"Pfft. Stop stuttering," she mutters. Karin releases Hinata from her pink kimono, leaving her in her pale blue under robes. Hinata lays down on her bed, resting her neck on a wooden bolster so that she won't ruin her hair or makeup.

"I'll be back in a few hours. Don't do anything stupid."

"Y-y-yes, o-oneesan. Th-thank you—"

Karin slams the door behind her, cutting Hinata off. Sighing, Hinata lays back on the board and tries to rest, but she cannot. There are too many memories fluttering through her head, black and white, like moths swirling around a candle and singeing their wings in the flame. They won't let her rest. When Temari opens the door some time later, Hinata has not slept a wink.

"What are you doing, lazy?" Temari mutters, stalking over to her. Temari had joined the okiya a few years after Hinata, when Suna had tried to invade Konoha and lost—badly. Temari's younger brother was killed, and Temari herself was captured by Orochimaru. Technically, Hinata has seniority over Temari, but in reality, the only thing that keeps Temari's perfectly manicured nails from digging into Hinata's throat is Orochimaru's favor.

As long as that is the case, Temari can't touch her. Physically.

"Please, Temari-san, let me r-rest," Hinata mumbles. Unlike Karin and Temari, Hinata is the only one in this okiya who has a geisha name. It is supposed to be a mark of respect for Hinata, one of the few geisha actually born in the Fire Country. The rest are mostly captured kunoichi from other countries, and they retain their own names to remind them how low they've come, entertaining the men they were once hired to kill. It's a strange system, a mix of shame and glamor that doesn't fool anyone, except for simple-minded soldiers.

She knows. And Sasuke knows, too, probably because he heads the police force and it's his job to know Konoha's inner workings. It's ingenious, Hinata thinks, something only Orochimaru would have thought of—who better to spy on Konoha's ninja, looking for traitors in their midst, than women who bear a grudge against the people they serve?

Not that she has a grudge, she tells herself, as she lays on her bed and tries to ignore Temari's stare. That's why Hinata is one of the most popular geisha in the Leaf.

People trust her, believe her wide, innocent eyes.

"Why should I let you rest?" Temari huffs, plopping herself down on Hinata's bed. "I have to work twice as hard as you do." Hinata looks up at Temari with half-lidded eyes. Temari's yellow hair is framed by the lamplight, making her golden hair glow and her green eyes flash. "Get up and bring me some tea. Now."

"She's going on a mission tonight, you tramp," comes Karin's gruff reply from the corridor. "Leave her alone."

"Oh. She's seducing that Uchiha kid," Temari mutters, pursing her lips. "He pisses me off."

"Don't talk about Sasuke-kun like that!" Karin shrieks, stomping into the room.

"I'll say whatever I want—whore," Temari mutters, rounding on Karin.

Soon, the two are arguing so loudly that Hinata gives up any attempt at resting and rises, draping a robe over her undergarments. She pads down the steps and hides in the kitchen. The servants do not question her. They are used to her, escaping her roommates. Without asking, Hinata is given tea, which she sips, slowly, without smudging her lipstick.

Before the steam has had a chance to cool, Karin storms into the kitchen, and drags Hinata back up the steps. "Come on," she mutters, "we're going to be late."


"I'm coming with you tonight." Karin pauses on the steps and grimaces. "I'm supposed to help you."


Hinata didn't think Karin had this in mind when she had offered her help.

"Oh Sasuke-kuuuuuuuuun," Karin purrs, draping herself on his arm. "Can I pour you more sake?"

"No," Sasuke snarls.

Karin rises with a broad smile and pours Sasuke more sake anyway, making sure to flash him her bare arms under her long sleeves. He turns away from Karin with a scowl, but Hinata is on his other side. She brushes her hand with his, then draws back quickly and frowns at him, like it was his fault in the first place, winning her a particularly withering look from Sasuke. While he's concentrating on Hinata, he doesn't notice when Karin slips an aphrodisiac into his drink. Hinata blushes, but not from Sasuke's glare. It won't be long now before she sinks her talons into him.

Her stomach clenches at the thought, but she tells herself that he probably deserves it.

She's doing the right thing.

She takes a sip of her own sake to dispel her thoughts. "The sake is lovely tonight, isn't, Naruto-kun?" she murmurs.

Naruto, on her left, is well into his fifth cup. "Ah," he says, downing the rest of his sake. Hinata rises smoothly and refills his cup, showing just a sliver of her bare wrist. His cheeks show a dusting of pink at that. When she is done pouring for Naruto, she turns to pour for Sasuke, but sees that he hasn't touched his drink.

"Uchiha-san," she says with an exaggerated frown, "your cup is still full. It would be a shame to waste such good sake."

He's about to retort when Naruto chimes in. "Come on, asshole. Get drunk with us—if you have the balls, that is."

Sasuke glares at Naruto, then downs his sake in one gulp. Hinata has to stifle her grin when Karin calls for a drinking match, and soon, Naruto and Sasuke are downing cup after cup, until they have to order a new bottle.

Just as they are about to commence the second round, Kankuro walks in. He is alone. Hinata shoots Karin a glance, and Karin nods. She strides forward and takes Kankuro's arm, neatly cutting off a geisha from another okiya, and takes him aside.

"Kankuro-san is one of Karin's best clients, when he is in town," Hinata explains softly, pouring another round of sake. This time, when Sasuke's eyes trail down to trace her bare wrist, she smiles. "They got into a fight today, and Karin has gone to apologize." It's a total lie—Karin has gone to report on the status of his sister—but Hinata needs a good cover story.

"Aw, it was rude of her to leave our table," Naruto grouses. "It was fun watching her torture the asshole." Naruto and Sasuke throw back more cups of sake, but then Sasuke frowns, and stares at Kankuro and Karin.

"Isn't Kankuro's sister in your okiya?" Sasuke says, slurring his words slightly but still as sharp as ever. Thankfully, though Karin is across the room, she is keeping an ear out. She bangs her hands on the table, and shouts that Hinata will now perform her dance. There is clapping all around. Hinata hides her face behind her fan and flutters it, affecting embarrassment, before she snaps it closed and strides forward. She makes sure her kimono brushes Sasuke's arm, and notes with satisfaction that his eyes follow after her.

Karin tunes her shamisen with a twang while Hinata takes her place in the center of the room, her body angled towards Sasuke. She doesn't have to look up to know that he is looking hungrily at her; his gaze is a palpable weight.

She rests her own gaze on the hem of her brilliant orange kimono, her eyes tracing the embroidered leaves done in gold and red, waiting with bated breath. When Karin plucks out the opening notes to the song Autumn is Dying, Hinata unfurls her fans and moves slowly, like a leaf falling on a gentle wind.

She closes her eyes and remembers her mother's withered hand laying on the pillow, cold and stiff; remembers the day she entered Orochimaru's subterranean office, hidden beneath the okiya above, the dank smell of mold and formaldehyde permeating his office. She remembers her father's hand as he signed his name in sweeping calligraphy, selling her off. The memories add weight to her movements, makes the dance come alive with the color of her emotions.

As she moves and flows with the music, she remembers the day Orochimaru himself took her mizuage, deflowered her to mark her entry into being a mature geisha—it's something he does for all the geisha in Konoha, for he owns all the okiya, not just Hinata's. She feels a twinge on her inner thigh where her curse mark resides, and she remembers Orochimaru's dark, rumbling words from a mouth still dripping blood. Her blood. You're lucky. The new formula isn't as likely to kill you. Then he left her there, blood trailing down her thighs, writhing in the sheets as Orochimaru's mark emblazoned itself on her skin.

As the music swells and her fans cleave the air, she thinks about her current mission, the chance to be free from Orochimaru—at the cost of another man's life.

And never mind that she doesn't like Sasuke very much, Hinata thinks. Never mind that he is probably guilty of the crime he is being accused of. It hits Hinata then that she is not very different from the ninja she is dancing for. She is owned by the state. She kills, she seduces, by the will of Orochimaru, and by his superior, Danzo. Her dance is the dance of death, she thinks, as she sinks down to the floor, her long sleeves trailing out behind her, her fans fluttering, then going still. The music fades, and there is a smattering of applause.

Hinata rises, then bows. When she looks up, she meets Sasuke's eyes, smoldering like a dying fire. She doesn't release his gaze, and her eyes go soft, and sad. She wishes she had danced a more appropriate song for spring, instead of a song that left her naked and trembling like autumn leaves. Something changes in Sasuke's eyes. They turn dark and smokey, and unless Hinata is fooling herself, she thinks she catches understanding flashing over the undercurrent of desire.

Hinata comes back to the table, fanning herself. She feels hot under Sasuke's gaze, like she is standing too close to a fire. She turns towards Naruto, who toasts to her health, and goes on and on about how much he enjoyed her performance. Hinata forces herself to laugh, to flirt, even though she has no heart for it.

"What did you think of Misaki's—hic—dance—hic?" Naruto says to Sasuke in between hiccups.

Hinata leans back on her knees. "I'm sure he hated it," Hinata says with a pout. "Uchiha-san probably has no taste for dance."

Sasuke looks at her. At first, Hinata thinks it is a glare, but is not. His eyes are dark, haunted. Starving.

"Pour me some sake," he mutters to Hinata. Hinata rises slowly, pouring the sake in a thin trickle to maximize the amount of time Sasuke will stare at her. She feels beads of sweat running down her back, but she doesn't let that ruin her graceful stance. Hinata replaces the bottle on the table with a clink and sinks down into her spot, feeling suddenly weary.

"I liked it," Sasuke says, so softly, Hinata isn't sure she heard him at first. "It was..." he trails off and swirls his sake in his cup before drinking it.

Before he can complete his thought, Karin is slinking over to their table. Hinata meets her gaze and nods—now is the time.

"Gentlemen," Karin says, and though her voice is smooth, and her face pinched into a smile, Hinata can tell it is forced. "Did you know that my little sister currently does not have a danna? Isn't that a shame, Naruto-kun," she purrs.

"A beautiful thing like Misaki?" he calls.

"Tch. You can't have a mistress, Naruto," Sasuke mutters. "Sakura would kill you."

"What she doesn't know can't hurt her," Naruto huffs. "What do you say, Misaki—wouldn't you love to have a danna like me?" He beams up at her with those guileless blue eyes, smiling widely. Hinata's heart drops like a stone sinking into deep water.

"N-n-naruto-kun is k-k-kind to say such things to m-m-me," Hinata replies, cursing her stutter. She's not usually this tongue-tied—she must have had too much sake. But Naruto thinks her stumbling is cute, and lays a hand on her arm. She flutters her eyelashes and looks up at him, as if for the first time. She does not have to feign her reaction.

"Of course, Misaki-chan would be just as lucky to have a danna like Sasuke-kun," Karin grounds out between partially clenched teeth.

"Are you kidding?" Naruto shouts. "Sasuke would be a terrible danna. He doesn't even treat Sakura—his own teammate!—with respect. Really, I'd be much better," he says, pointing to himself with his thumbs and smiling winningly at Hinata.

Karin titters at that, while Hinata stares down at the table, covering half her face with her fan. "But Sasuke-kun is very good looking," Karin chimes, "and he—"

"Enough," Sasuke mutters.

Karin catches Hinata's gaze. Time to switch tactics.

"I don't know," Hinata says, still demurely hiding her face behind her fan. "I would be lucky to have Uchiha-san as my danna, but luckier still if Naruto-kun chose me."

There. She has thrown down the gauntlet.

Naruto lets out a whoop. "Hear that, Sasuke-bastard? If it came down to it, Misaki-chan would choose me!"

Hinata closes her eyes, knowing that the choice is not up to her. It never was.

"She can have you," Sasuke mutters.

"Oh, you are so jealous!"

"I'm leaving," Sasuke says, rising abruptly.

"Ha! You don't have any balls, asshole," Naruto calls, after him. "When it comes down to it—"

Sasuke turns and slaps his hands down on the table. "You want to take this outside, moron?"

Before Naruto can retort, Hinata rises with a sweep of her shimmering kimono and takes Sasuke's hand. "I'm sorry to have caused so much trouble," she says, not sorry at all. "Why don't you walk me home, Sasuke-san? It would be a great honor for me."

This seems to mollify him. Sasuke gives one last glare to Naruto before taking Hinata's arm and striding out into the night air. As they depart, Hinata can hear Naruto complaining to Karin, who listens sympathetically as she pours him more sake. She and Karin share a glance before Hinata is whisked outside.

"Sorry," Sasuke says, once they have walked about a block. "I don't usually...drink." He shoots her that starving look again before glowering down at the pavement.

"It's all right, Sasuke-san," Hinata says, slowly, so that she doesn't stumble over her words. "I had a very nice evening with you."

"Tch. Why are you suddenly being nice to me? What are you planning?" he says, eying her warily.

Hinata giggles at that. "Oh, Sasuke-san, we geisha are always planning something," she says, patting his arm. And then: "I am sorry if I treated you less than courteously this morning. I was..."

"Put off by my bad mood," Sasuke says with a smirk. "That was probably my own damn fault."

Hinata puts a hand over her mouth in mock-horror. "I wouldn't have said that, Sasuke-san."

He chuckles, and they walk in silence. Sasuke is quite nice when he's drunk, Hinata thinks with a sad smile. He isn't scowling, and when they walk under the lamplight, his eyes look soft, like he is thinking of something precious to him. She wonders what he is thinking about, but doesn't ask. She knows better than to talk when she is not spoken to, with a client like Sasuke.

"Why did your father sell you to Orochimaru?" Sasuke asks suddenly, and the question startles her so much, she forgets to walk, and stands still in the middle of the street.

"I—I—" Hinata mumbles, feeling her cheeks flush. When she looks up into his velvety eyes, she doesn't have to fake her unshed tears. She turns away from him quickly. "I'd r-rather not t-talk about it."

"But I want to know," Sasuke rumbles, taking her arm once more. "I demand to know."

Hinata makes a pained, choking sound. If she is going to complete her mission and land Sasuke as her danna, she must do as he orders. It would be unseemly to deny him. Taking a deep, shaking breath, she steadies herself and says, "I had no skill as a n-ninja. So my f-father was k-kind enough to find me a p-profession more suited to my natural s-skill."

"You're lying," Sasuke says. When Hinata moves to protest, he mutters, "You're not lying to me—you're lying to yourself."

Hinata looks away and down at the snow melting into puddles by the side of the road. "N-no," Hinata says at last, "I am just making r-reality sound k-kinder than it is." She meets his gaze without flinching. "If I can find a good d-danna, then I will be able to buy my freedom from O-orochimaru," she whispers, and Sasuke doesn't miss how she leaves off Orochimaru's honorific, or the way she says his name, as if it leaves a bad taste in her mouth. What she's saying to Sasuke isn't part of the plan, but it's tumbling from her lips, and now that she's started, she can't stop. "O-orochimaru is..."

"A cruel, subhuman piece of scum," Sasuke completes for her. When her head snaps up at that, he says, "Don't worry. I won't tell anyone that you said so."

Hinata flashes him a bright smile, one that reaches her eyes. "Thank you," she whispers, laughing softly at his joke. She takes his hand, and gives it a squeeze, then releases him, slowly, before gliding towards the entrance to her okiya. When she gets to the door, she glances over her shoulder at Sasuke, who is still watching her. He offers her a slow kind of half-smile, half-smirk as he stalks off into the night. She opens the door to her okiya with a sigh, limp with relief.

Orochimaru himself is standing there by the door, a wicked smile curving his lips. Hinata's whole body goes rigid with fear.

"Very good," he rumbles, his voice sounding like thunder. "Very, very good." He places a cold hand on Hinata's shoulder, and she shudders.

Hope you enjoyed reading, more on the way soon. Please review;)