“ You have shed a thousand skins to become the person you are today.”
The stadium was packed despite the abruptness of recent events. A few hours previous, at the conclusion of the second stage of the Chuunin exams, the announcement had suddenly gone out that the first trials - to choose who would continue on to the third stage - would be held in the village's main arena and would be fully open to the public. In the heat of the moment, only a few Clan members had been available to attend. Despite this, the turn-out was… considerable.
The crowds were roaring, voices thunderous and shaking fists raised to the sky in enthusiasm and outrage as the match below dragged on and on. The stamping of feet in the tiered stadium, masses of people moving and yelling and, in the pit below, two small figures were a blur of motion.
Two Genin exchanged vicious blows, each deflected strike and painful hit earning boos and cheers. A man above them was cursing out the kunoichi for hesitating, the second of weakness having lost her even more ground, and Hanabi was in firm agreement, no matter how uncouth the sentiments themselves.
The female’s guard slips again, for the fifth time in the past six minutes, and the harsh ‘ smack’ as a chakra-powered palm slams into her shoulder is drowned out by the answering din.
In the pit below, two Hyuuga battle for dominance.
Lavender eyes rise from where they stared, entranced, at the on-going battle to meet an identical pair beside her.
“Pay close attention to your sister...her weakness will be her ruining.”
Hyuuga eyes, the Byakugan dojutsu, always developed in characteristically pearlescent irises, with little-to-no white sclera and no pupil. There was always slight differences from person to person; Hinata’s were slightly darker than most whilst Neji’s eyes were as cold and white as deep-sea pearls.
Hanabi’s were exactly the same as her father’s.
And the Clan Head had only taken such a detail, their ‘identical’ Byakugan, as further confirmation that his youngest would prove a better successor.
Wordlessly, Hanabi nods, even as her eyes immediately latch back onto the fight below.
In the arena, Hinata staggers backwards a few steps, an involuntary whimper wrenched from her lips when Neji pursues her relentlessly. His strikes are ceaseless and, from the pallor of his face and his Byakugan, he looked like a vengeful ghost come to extract some punishment from the trembling Heiress.
Eyes detached, Hanabi did not look away.
Hinata pleaded, crying out “Neji-nii-san,”, even as the village troublemaker and her teammates encouraged her efforts.
It was futile, Hanabi had long ago decided. She’d known it as a child, when she was small enough to still cling to her sister’s skirts or link their pinkies together. Hinata was everything soft and gentle, like the orchids she so digelently cared for on her window sill.
Orchids were pretty, feeble things, that had to be carefully monitored. They meant nothing when it came to being a good shinobi...and neither did Hinata.
She’d known in her room, peeking out between the blinds to catch glimpses of her sister crying by the koi pond after being beaten to the ground in her training. She’d known it when Hinata could barely lay a finger on their cousin, on her, kicked across the room by their own father. It was impossible, a foolish pursuit of a goal Hinata herself wasn’t even sure of.
At this point it was almost intrinsic; Hinata...was weak. Hinata...would lose.
And she did.
Neji was yelling, Hinata’s slumped shoulders struggling to straighten, and then their frantic attacks came to a standstill.
But there could only be one victor.
And it was then that Hinata collapsed, coughed up blood in choked gurgles, the sound shockingly loud in the frozen stadium. Crimson splattered across pale skin and packed dirt before Hinata slumped, boneless, to the floor.
Medics rushed to aid her, the Tokubetsu proctor and another Chuunin reaching to restrain an incensed Neji, and her sister’s yearmates exploded in outrage. The crowds surrounding them murmured in discontent, the bloodthirstiness all-but-evaporated at the brutal finale of a battle between clansmen, between family.
Hanabi’s eyes had not wavered, her fingers yet to tremble, and her smooth mask was untouched.
Beside her, Hiashi expressed nothing but apathy. But his eyes…his eyes were disappointed.
The corridors beneath the stadium were reserved for private waiting rooms, the proctors quarters, and as a short-cut to the hospital, which was just a ten-minute walk towards the village center.
It was utilitarian, as expected, with plain concrete as far as the eye could see and cheaply lit with panel lights that occasionally flickers from the raging match above them. The red-head had eluded a bloodthirstiness unparallel to any Hanabi had ever felt before, which, at almost eight years old, wasn’t a great amount.
But his opponent was one of her cousin’s teammates and Hanabi had seen Neji return to the Compound with bruising on several occasions. Perhaps it would not be a complete massacre, then.
An explosion sounded overhead and was swiftly followed by a piercing shriek, a terrible sound that cut through the concrete and drilled into Hanabi’s eardrums with a bolt of pain.
The academy student barely managed to contain her flinch, pale eyes flickering to catch the subtle shake of her father’s shoulders. Her own slip was forgivable then, if her father’s own mask had slipped.
The corridors were eerily quiet as the two Hyuuga walked, silent but for the echoing of their footsteps. Hiashi was silent, hands tucked into his long sleeves, and frown severe. He’d yet to speak a word since her sister’s defeat, by a Branch member no less, but he did not need to.
Hanabi knew full well what thoughts were raging in his head, what he planned to do, the consequences of this day.
“Otou-sama,” Hanabi’s high, reedy voice echoed strangely in the long corridor and Hiashi’s head slowly turned to survey her, expression inscrutable.
Face serene, the small brunette fought to keep her nerve, lest any limb tremble or feature flicker to reveal anything. “Onee-san was badly hurt,” Hiashi did not so much as blink. “Neji-niisan is much stronger than she is and my sister paid the price.”
The corridor finally opened up, the walls widening into an informal atrium to the far side of the hospital reception. Her father’s dojutsu activated for a brief moment before, with an expansive sweep of his hand, he led the two of them through the double doors and into the wards.
Without prompting, Hanabi continued, carefully picking her way around the delicate subject. “Neji-niisan is strong, stronger than most. Stronger than any other Hyuuga at his age.”
Hiashi jerked to a stop, his head stiffly inclining to pierce his youngest with a disapproving look. “Hanabi.”
There was a thousand sentiments in that single word. Hanabi demurely lowered her lashes like the little princess she was...and continued on mercilessly.
“Hinata is weak.” Hiashi’s sharp gaze shifted, the bite latching onto a different victim, and Hanabi felt no guilt. “She is weak against Neji...but not the other Hyuuga.”
They stopped walking.
“Onee-san is not an exceptional fighter, no...but she is not a poor one. Otou-sama, Hinata has been placed against a far superior opponent. Our Clan has Jounin who would struggle against Neji-niisan. He has exceptional shinobi skills...and a hateful grudge against Onee-san. Their fight was twice as violent, then.”
Sucking in a careful breath, Hanabi went for the finishing blow.
“Onee-san is a weakness but not an exceptional one. Neji-niisan is an exceptional shinobi and, perhaps, he will become one of our Clan’s greatest fighters...but, as things are now, he’s a weakness. His hatred for Hinata has blinded him to the values of our Clan.”
Blank eyes calculating, Hiashi spoke coldly. “He is a Branch member.” He bears the seal.
Identical pearlescent lavender stared back. “He needs to be removed from the situation. After all, he blames Onee-san for the death of our uncle.”
And there. There was the faltering that Hanabi had been looking for, the tiny kink in their father’s armour. The younger daughter pressed her advantage before her father had time to emotionally shut down, closing this conversation forever.
“Hinata would be better off with Neji-niisan’s trainers.”
The Clan Head shifted his torso to face the student, his first true acknowledgement that he was even listening to her, and Hanabi fought to keep the satisfied smirk from her lips. Now was not the time.
“She is a failure, a disgrace to our House.”
A second acknowledgement, that the leadership of the Clan fell to the two of them, Head and second daughter, bolstered her confidence.
“Even the weakest can learn, given enough time. She is not enough, will never be enough but…” Hanabi thought of gentle smiles and soft orchid eyes, a gentleness that had once filled her with warmth and now only brought about a bitterness that sank like a stone in her chest. For...for old times’ sake. “...to discard Onee-san completely would be an acknowledgement of defeat.”
Hiashi may as well have been carved of stone. “And Neji?”
Hanabi’s chin tilted up defiantly. “He is our strongest Branch member, maybe ever. And, one day, he’ll be our top fighter...Let him train with me.”
Let him train with the new Heir.
A scant half an hour later and Hiashi left, sweeping from the hospital room with barely a glance at his youngest and without a shred concern towards his eldest.
His eldest who was currently hunched over in her bed, tears streaming down crimson cheeks - red in shame rather than the usual embarrassment - and her hands clasped to her bandaged chest.
In the chair beside her, Hanabi shifted uncomfortably, large eyes fixed on the overhead lamp shade, as if meeting her sister’s gaze was paramount to expressing concern.
That Hanabi was not feeling.
“H-Hanabi-chan,” the injured Genin hiccuped weakly, “was today not a training day?”
Gnawing her lip, the younger girl admitted to herself that ignoring her sister was both childish and counterproductive at this point.
“Yes, but watching the fights proved educational, too.” It went unsaid that not only had Hiashi insisted they both attend to see Hinata perform, but he had been bitterly angry at her failure. It had been a grave slight to the Main Branch and fully in the public view on top of that; the Elders would be raging for weeks over this day. The atmosphere soured further, regardless.
As one, both girls dipped their heads to fiddle with their fingers and avoid looking at each other.
“How...how long until you are released?” Hanabi’s voice was muted.
The rustle of the cheap hospital gown as Hinata shrugged was awkwardly loud. “A...awhile, t-the medics ha-ave to see how quick-ly my i-internal bruising heals.”
Hanabi’s mouth parted once, twice, as she wondered what there was to say. I hate you? I wish you were stronger? Hanabi may as well have said that she wished Hinata wasn't Hinata. And Hanabi refused to waste time of stupid, pointless hopes anyway. She was done being that stupid.
The tension had thickened so much at that point that, when disruption burst out in the corridor outside, it took everything within Hanabi to remain impassive. Hinata, high strung and lacking such stern self-discipline, jerked with a painful squeak.
The door was then flung open, smacking into the wall with a bang that had Hinata flushing, even as Hanabi climbed to her feet and resisted the urge to pinch her nose.
“Hinata-chan!! Are you okay?” A scruffy brunette, the door abuser, bounced through the entryway with a heavy frown, his grimacing mouth flashing sharpened teeth and pulling at red Clan markings. Urgh, an Inuzuka.
A taller boy, Aburame judging by the clothing and the aggravated buzzing that belied his worry, followed after his teammate, shutting the door with a polite click .
Oh, excellent. Now I'm boxed in.
Ignoring her sister’s stuttering reassurances, Hanabi slowly shifted towards the window and turned her back on the team behind her. When her face was fully concealed, the seven year old silently activated her Byakugan.
It took only half an instant for her perception to go through to roof. 360° Vision had taken some getting used to as a child but now it was as easy as breathing. After taking a second to simply feel the world around her with heightened awareness, Hanabi focused in on her target. The trio behind her were oblivious, although they seemed slightly unsettled by her presence. Usually, by now Hanabi would have bolted. But...
Neji was but a few corridors away, a nurse performing the obligatory check up after the long second stage and fight earlier. From here, Hanabi could easily see that he was fine, a few limbs stiff and a handful of bruises on one side. Most of all, judging by the flow of chakra, her cousin was just plain tired.
“H-Hanabi-chan…” her sister piped up behind her and Hanabi immediately deactivated her dojutsu and pasted a bland expression on her face. Aburame may be loners and Inuzuka loud but neither Clan was to be underestimated.
The two boys had seated themselves either side of the older girl, the bespeckled boy in the chair she'd vacated and the other brunette flopped casually at the foot of the bed. Nevermind the fact that Hinata was fresh from heart surgery. Nevermind the fact that she was so weak she'd undoubtedly catch something from that dusty dog in her lap. Never mind.
“W-would you like o-one of the t-treats sensei sent us?” Hinata carefully extended the lovingly arranged box of sweets. Sticky panda faces smiled up at her.
Red eyes and curly black hair with a carefully friendly smile flashed through Hanabi’s mind.
I'd rather eat dirt than anything that woman has prepared.
“No, I'm going to go visit Neji-niisan.” Hanabi bit out coldly, turning away from her sisters stricken expression and completely ignoring the rising anger of the two boys present.
Why...why am I even here?
It was deceptively easy to cross the room and push down the handle, swinging the door open to an empty corridor. Behind her, Hinata was silent but for her shaky breaths.
No doubt she'd be miserable for the remainder of the day, maybe even cry again. Her teammates would smother her in attention and affection and she'd soak it all up like a bone-dry sponge. And, then, her sensei would coming sweeping in and Hinata wouldn't return to the Compound for a long time.
Hanabi had no time for that, wasn't allowed to cry, and the thought only hardened her heart.
It was even easier now to close to door behind her, cutting off the Inuzuka’s angry “Oi!” before it was even fully formed. No doubt the older boy would kick up a fuss about her. But it wasn't as if her sister would defend her any time soon. Not that she had any reason to.
Disregarding the fact I’m the only reason she's still a Hyuuga.
Setting her jaw and waving away that heavy thought, the small brunette started making her way down the hall as she activated her Byakugan once more.
“Urgh…” she huffed under her breath, clicking her tongue and swinging back toward the exit instead.
Neji was already making his way, via the rooftops, to the Compound. Noting his speed, and the likelihood of the older boy disappearing to brood, Hanabi strode to the nearest window and levered herself over the sill, silently landing on the ledge. It was a sheer drop of four floors to the pavement below but there was a shorter roof a hundred or so meters to the left.
Hanabi was pretty tiny, only 7 ( nearly 8) and short for her age, but she was confident she'd make it across in one leap. Nothing less would do.
It had taken a long time, and a lot of effort, for Hanabi to be able to channel the chakra to her feet with nary a thought, just the right amount to have her arching through the air from the window sill. The wind snapped at her shrug, tugging at her long loose hair, before she landed on the cobbled roof with a clatter of sandals on terracotta.
The tiles were slightly wet from the morning rainfall, half dried in the spotty sunlight, but the small brunette channelled chakra to her feet just in case.
It would be ridiculous to be seen slipping and sliding all over the place, after all…
Her Byakugan had not wavered since she’d realised Neji had already left and, now, she followed his chakra signature across rooftops, heading towards the forests closest to the Compound. Knowing that she didn't have the chakra to waste with an increase of speed, a frown pulled at her brows as her cousin slowly pulled away in front of her.
A couple of Chuunin stuttered to a halt when Hanabi ran across the rooftop in front of them, freezing in disbelief that a small child was able to maneuver the upper levels of the village with a technique usually reserved for Genin.
Huh, Hanabi’s lips twisted as her dojutsu registered their flabbergasted expressions. She was a Hyuuga and had been training day in and day out since she had been able to walk... ignorance was only for those who could afford it.
Kami knew Hanabi had never been allowed such a luxury.
With a final push, Hanabi landed a few streets away from the Hyuuga Gates (a futile effort, really, but even shinobi let their guards down inside their homes) and set off straight passed it.
Her hair was windswept, a stubborn strand falling across her nose no matter how many times she tucked it behind her ear, and her yukata was in need of some adjustment. Then again, her cousin was hardly going to nit-pick at her unlady-like appearance. In all honesty, Hanabi would hardly be surprised if the sight of her alone, especially after he publically tried to stop her sister’s heart, incited even more violence.
Her... friends... would be insufferable if she came back looking like she’d been mauled.
Picking her way through the trees, the foliage gradually grew thicker the deeper she ventured until ferns were brushing her cheeks and the canopy was like a cave overhead. It was then that the forest abruptly ended, the treeline cutting off into a man-made clearing, formed from a training incident no doubt. The grass was neatly maintained, a short carpet beneath their feet, and empty save for some targets and a punching log. In the centre, her cousin waited for her.
Well, when dealing with Hyuuga, there was no point in preparing a surprise attack. And Hanabi had expected nothing less than a ‘power move’ like this.
Her cousin could be so dramatic.
“Hanabi-hime, why are you pursuing me?” Neji cut straight to the point.
Carefully picking her way into the clearing, Hanabi rolled her shoulder in a casual shrug. “Why do you think?”
“Don’t play one of your silly little games, Hanabi-hime.” The older boy spat the words as if they were some vicious slur. Too used to his own games, Hanabi didn't so much as bat an eyelash. “You are just a spoiled little girl. Tell me why you spoke to Hiashi-sama about your weak sister. Why? You loathe her yourself, O Heiress .”
Lavender narrowed at pearl.
“Hinata is weak, yes. But we both knew that already.” Hanabi gestured to the clearing around them. “But the real question is...why did you try to kill her, and so publically as well?”
Jaw twitching, Neji didn't answer. Hanabi didn't need him to, anyway.
“You have something to prove, don't you? That you are strong, despite your seal or ‘fate’, and are to be reckoned with.” The seven year old resisted the urge to to fiddle with her hair, instead stepping further into the clearing. “Are you going to kill me, too? Another innocent life saddled with a guilt that is not theirs-”
“ It was Hinata’s fault-”
“She was a child, Nii-san!” Hanabi interrupted with a shriek, feeling terribly, terribly young in that moment. Neji had frozen, face still flushed in anger. He hadn't heard Hanabi raise her voice since Hiashi had started her training at four.
She soldiered on. “Onee-san was only a baby...do you expect her to have fought back? Or simply... died ?”
“If you think we are so bound to our fate, then why punish my sister for something she had no control over? Would that not be a punishment for the circumstances of her birth, in that case?”
Her cousin was silent.
The small brunette took another breath. “I...I spoke to Otou-sama because I did not want anything be be wasted.”
“...Do you speak in regards to myself or…” A pale lip curled into an involuntary sneer, “... Hinata-hime?”
Hanabi’s face was bland. “And if I said ‘both’?”
Neji crossed his arms and glared off to the side. “Then you would be even more stupid than I thought.”
Sensing that the possibility of bloodshed had abated (for now), Hanabi lowered herself to perch on one of the horizontal logs that lined the clearing. After dusting off the worn surface before sitting, Hanabi absentmindedly began straightening herself out as she continued. “You are a prodigy, Neji-niisan. This is a fact. But you will never develop to your full potential if you are not given the opportunity...can you blame me for acting?
Whilst Hanabi had been getting comfortable, her older cousin had wearily followed after her, still staring suspiciously at the Heiress six years his junior. However, at her words, Neji glared down at his cousin with renewed vigour.
“You may be destined to succeed Hiashi-sama, Hanabi-hime, but you are only a mere academy student, a first year. You have no business meddling in affairs of which you have no understanding.” The older boy jerked his chin back the way they had come. “Go back to your tea ceremonies.”
Inwardly seething, Hanabi only allowed the smallest smile to slip through.