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A Wretched Recovery
Of course, keep in mind... they ARE twelve. Best to be patient...
Hinata awoke in a haze of pain. Her chest ached so much it took an act of will just to inhale. The air she inhaled was redolent of medicinal smells. She almost choked on the cloying odors, but just imagining how much coughing would hurt made her throat relax.
She cracked open sleep-gummed eyes to see a hand wreathed in glowing blue-green chakra rest lightly on the blanket over her sternum. As the glow flared the pain eased, just a little. After a moment, she realized she was in a hospital.
Then she remembered the fight with Neji. No matter how hard she tried, no matter how determined she was, she still couldn’t defeat her cousin.
She’d been so hopeful going into that fight. She’d trained so hard, learned so many new things. This was her chance to prove that she had changed, just a little. But in the end, her father was right. She was nothing but a stain on the main family. Better that she’d died and left no reminder of her legacy of failures.
For that matter, she was honestly surprised she’d survived. Her last memory was Neji charging at her in response to her final words. She’d already recognized the signs of internal injuries and known that her hard work had been for nothing, just like the rest of her meaningless life. But she’d wanted to leave her cousin with… something besides the bitterness that she could see was consuming him. It wasn’t his fault she was a weakling born into his proper place within the clan.
Trying to remember was so hard, but she thought there might have been a familiar surge of chakra and a sense of… motion? Everything else was blackness.
Hinata tried to shift a little under the starchy hospital bedding, but a renewed surge of pain demonstrated the folly of that. She hadn’t even managed to die with honor… after publicly demonstrating that the Hyuuga branch family was stronger than the main family. It didn’t matter that Neji was a year older; her father’s daughter should have prevailed. Instead, she had publicly humiliated him.
Hinata let her eyes fall closed and wished for the death she’d been denied.
Naruto didn’t know which was worse, waiting at the hospital or waiting at home. He supposed he should be grateful that Kurenai-sensei made the decision for him. She sent him home under orders after three days of waiting for Hinata to wake up. He supposed he was getting a little ripe, but she’d also ordered him to stay out of the hospital until she sent for him.
He and Shino were excused from missions to prepare for the Chuunin exam finals. His teammate was planning to spend most of his time working with his parents in their specialties, but for once Naruto didn’t really feel like training.
He’d become so used to practicing with Hinata that it felt... wrong… somehow to train without her.
Maybe it was a good thing that Gai wasn’t really giving him any choice in the matter. He and Lee were waiting for him outside his apartment when he woke up the next morning.
For once, Gai wasn’t his normal, completely over the top self. Instead, he somewhat somberly informed Naruto that Kurenai wished to be on hand when Hinata woke up. Naruto nodded when he heard that — she’d assured him that she or Iruka-sensei would be there for her. But then Gai went on to say that Naruto’s warning about Sabaku no Gaara prevented Lee from being seriously injured during their match. Thus, they owed Naruto a debt of honor and would discharge this obligation by helping him fan the fires of his youth in preparation for the finals.
Naruto noticed that neither of them mentioned Neji. He wasn’t about to bring up the bastard either.
But if he thought early mornings with the Gai and Lee show were strenuous, adding noon and evening sparring sessions was downright insane. And even if he managed to tire Lee out, Gai would have him do cool-downs while he â€˜tested Naruto’s power of youth’ himself. The first time this happened, Naruto realized what a pachinko ball felt like.
But it did keep him from worrying about his teammate. Gai-sensei worked him so hard the rest of that first week that each night he fell asleep the instant his head hit the pillow.
Shino spun the kamas in his hands as he settled into a modified back stance. While the motions served no intrinsic purpose, they did demonstrate a degree of manual dexterity and expertise that could serve to intimidate potential foes. While normally it was better to conceal one’s capabilities, there were circumstances in which overt demonstrations can achieve mission objectives without necessitating excessive violence.
Not that there weren’t occasions in which violence was preferable. Not for the last time, he envied Naruto’s opponent selection in the upcoming finals.
Irrational behavior was not something appreciated by any Aburame and Shino was no exception to this. When that behavior resulted in serious injury to his teammates, he found himself desiring a role in undertaking the appropriate corrective action.
While there was a slim probability that he would meet Neji in the finals, Naruto would first have to lose to the Hyuuga prodigy, something he did not wish to see happen. Aside from the implications for team morale, he did not think Naruto would let anything stop him short of death or incapacitating injury.
But if the worst happened, he would be ready. He cleared his mind and began the next kata, his blades a blur of motion.
The third Hokage set aside the scroll he was reading with a sigh. It was the third petition he’d received in a week concerning the results of the preliminary matches. Each was worded differently, but they all suggested, in various diplomatic terms, that he â€˜adjust’ the results to address some â€˜obvious errors’.
Oddly enough, none of the apparent authors of these missives were shinobi — though he was certain at least one of them may have been prompted by one of the major clans. He noticed a certain turn of phrase, "uphold the honor of Konohagakure," that sounded a lot like Hyuuga Hiashi. But for the most part, shinobi took the rank examinations very seriously. Indeed, their own status was based upon fitness certified by these tests. Showing any sort of favoritism threw the whole system into question.
But to other residents of the village, the rank exams were political exercises. He himself explained that to the examinees a week ago. The performance of the genin reflected glory on their home village. Strong shinobi implied a strong village — which meant more and better contracts in the future. But the civilians also understood clan politics and prestige as well. In previous generations, the Uchiha Clan had helped carry Konoha to glory and prosperity. The loss of almost every member of that clan was a blow that was only dwarfed by the attack of the Kyuubi nearly a decade before that. The fact that Konoha still retained a surviving heir was some consolation, and it suited many peoples’ sense of appropriateness that the sole remaining Uchiha showed signs of great skill and ability.
To such people, Uchiha Sasuke’s elimination in the preliminary round was practically a blow to their personal aspirations. No matter that it was almost unheard of for a rookie genin to pass the Chuunin Exam — it was only due to their skill that he and his team were even allowed to enter. Such people, ignorant of why the examination must be rigorous, wished to see the rules bent for their favorite. That way, they could continue to boast of the invincible Uchiha genius that was the pride of their village.
The Sandaime shook his head ruefully. To the genin’s credit, he didn’t think Sasuke would accept any favors, even if they were offered. By all reports, Hatake Kakashi was training his team harder than ever after they were eliminated from the Chuunin Exam — and only Uchiha Sasuke had refrained from commenting on the grueling pace. Any appearance of coddling or favoritism now would only inflame his wounded pride. For that matter, this whole situation may have been a good thing for Team Seven’s sensei as well. Yuuhi Kurenai was not given to excessive boasting, but he was sure she’d made at least a few pointed remarks to the colleague that seemed to exasperate her most.
It probably didn’t help that the one who defeated the Uchiha prodigy was the village pariah. One of the more offensive messages he’d received argued that of course Naruto had to have drawn on the demon caged within him to beat the Uchiha. Thus it was only fair that he be disqualified and the victory awarded to Sasuke. Even putting aside the issue of how to explain such a decision to the genin without violating his own rule, the Hokage was offended that they thought Naruto could use the demon’s chakra without anyone noticing. Kage aside, high-ranking ninja from more than one village had been watching the matches with considerable interest. Did that simpleton think no one had even considered the possibility?
Not for the first time, the Hokage wondered if it was such a good idea to let non-shinobi citizens have such a large say in the running of the village. Starting during his first term, and continued during the Fourth’s reign, the civilians and village council were encouraged to take a more active role in managing Konoha than was typical in a hidden village.
These greater freedoms and political stakes had paid off in many ways. Konoha’s economy was much more active and robust than usual for a ninja village. This went hand in hand with a steadily increasing population and higher quality of life. But at the same time, these newly empowered villagers had been given the power to ask inappropriate questions, the power to poke their noses into things that were really not their concern.
More than once he’d discussed the ramifications of what they were doing with his successor. But every time Sarutobi started to question the wisdom of their course, the blond-haired man who would sacrifice everything for Konoha stayed firm in his convictions. He’d reminisce about infiltration missions he’d taken to Iwakagure and how the common villagers lived in fear of their shinobi. They had no rights under the harsh laws of Stone and their lives reflected this. "The farther away we are from their path," he insisted, "the better off we are." Amazingly, the Iwa leadership still didn’t understand why their villagers were only half as productive as those of their rival in the Land of Fire.
It was painful irony indeed that those villagers would use that freedom to persecute the Yondaime’s legacy, but the old man supposed it was inevitable. Giving people freedom meant also giving them the freedom to behave foolishly. He shook his head wearily. At least he could accord this latest proposal with all the respect it deserved, he thought as he dropped it into a wastebasket.
The second time Hinata regained consciousness, the pain was much less than it had been before. She could now take shallow breaths without stabbing pains that seemed to go right through her. The skin of her face felt cool and her eyes were clear of secretions. Someone had recently wiped her face with a damp cloth. She willed her eyes to focus, trying to make out details in the dimly lit hospital room.
"Hinata?" a voice quietly spoke.
She shifted her eyes in the direction of the sound, making out a vague profile that looked like her sensei. This was getting a little frustrating. Her constant failures aside, Hinata was used to having fairly acute vision — it was a legacy of the Byakugan that almost no Hyuuga suffered from normal vision defects.
The figure took a step forward and she could see that it was, in fact, her sensei. "Don’t try to use your eyes," she said in a somber voice. "Your bed is under a chakra suppressing seal. Some of your inner coils were damaged and the medic-nins don’t want to risk a rupture before they are fully repaired."
Hinata let out a tiny sigh. The fact that such extreme measures had to be taken only underlined how badly she’d failed. "I’m sorry," she said in a very small voice.
Kurenai-sensei nodded. "I know, but it’s not just me you need to apologize to."
Hinata swallowed. "Yes. I humiliated my father."
"And I don’t think you are sorry for the correct reasons," her sensei continued.
Hinata fell silent, looking at her teacher and feeling even more stupid and useless.
"You fought well," Kurenai said. "I and the other jonin-sensei were impressed by the gains you have made. Gai claims you have the â€˜youthful potential of genius’, whatever that means."
For a moment, Hinata allowed herself to believe her sensei, and the sick weight of guilt on her spirit seemed to lighten for a moment. But the memory of her father’s face brought her back to reality. No matter how well others might think she had done, she had failed to live up to the standards of her clan.
Kurenai leaned forward a little more and Hinata noticed that her expression was one of stern disapproval. "I do, however, find myself questioning your judgment."
"S-sensei?" she asked, hating herself for the quaver in her voice.
"At the end of the fight," she clarified, "when you kept getting up again. You couldn’t even defend yourself at that point. Did you actually believe you still had a chance to defeat your cousin?"
Hinata thought back to that time. She’d been in so much pain that the idea of launching an attack was ludicrous, really. But she couldn’t bear the thought of failing again, failing in front of everyone, her teacher, her teammates. Naruto. Staying down meant adding to her legacy of failures. She would not stay down. Not again. She’d rather…
Staring off into the distance, she glanced back at Kurenai-sensei’s face and slowly shook her head.
"Were you trying to die?" Kurenai asked in a voice that was little more than a whisper.
Hinata stared at her teacher, those words freezing her in place. She tried to shake her head, to deny them, but she couldn’t. At the time, she honestly would rather have died than live with such a failure. Ending it all was preferable to what would happen afterward… proving her father correct, again… seeing the disappointment in everyone’s faces, no matter how hard they tried to hide it.
Evidently Hinata’s lack of response was answer enough, because Kurenai-sensei sighed and leaned back in her chair. "That’s what I thought," she said after a moment. "Hinata, you need to listen to me and pay close attention. Right now I’m not sure I will ever be able to certify you to return to active duty."
Hinata felt like her stomach was encased in a block of ice. "A-are my injuries that bad?" she asked.
"It’s not your physical injuries I’m concerned about," Kurenai clarified. "It’s your state of mind. I can’t have someone on my team that places no value on her own life."
Hinata could only stutter out "I-I’m s-sorry, sensei."
Kurenai just shrugged. "I suppose it’s more my fault than yours. I should have realized this sooner. I just thought you actually cared about your teammates."
That accusation tore through Hinata’s heart like a kunai. "S-sensei!" she gasped with just a touch of outrage. She might be a perpetual failure, but no one could say she didn’t care for her teammates. No one should be able to… she… she cared for them more than her family, at times. More than anything, really.
Kurenai cocked her head and peered down at Hinata, making her feel like one of Shino’s new acquisitions. "Did you ever consider the effect that your death would have on them?" she asked. "Naruto was so worried about you that he nearly forfeited his match because he didn’t want to leave the infirmary. Shino is just as upset, in his own way, and I understand that he made a public death threat against your cousin."
Hinata froze as her mind tried to wrap itself around this new information. To be honest, she didn’t think Naruto would react so strongly, but she still damned herself for her thoughtlessness. No matter that she wasn’t thinking clearly during the fight, too much was going on, too much was at stake. She’d forgotten her team in her rush to prove herself… to her father. Hyuuga or not, that was inexcusable.
But Kurenai wasn’t finished. "And now Naruto will face Neji in his first match of the finals, and I’m fairly sure he intends to kill him — no matter if it disqualifies him. Shino doesn’t care so much about his foes as the chance that he might face Neji as well… to avenge you. These are the people you forgot about when you faced your cousin. These are the people that you thought wouldn’t care if you got yourself killed."
Hinata felt something snap within her. Suddenly the bedclothes were too tight as she levered herself up on her elbows, ignoring the spasms of pain in her chest. "Why do they care?" she heard herself asking in a rasping growl that made her want to cough. "Why should anyone care if a failure like me dies? I’m useless! I’m worthless! I can’t beat my cousin. I can’t even beat my little sister! I never do anything right — it would be better if I was dead, or never even born, so they’d have someone useful in my place." Her rant dissolved in a flurry of coughing that left her curled on her side with a coppery taste flooding the back of her mouth.
She barely noticed a hand gripping her shoulder as the coughing subsided. "Who told you that you are worthless?" Kurenai asked in a softer voice.
Hinata tried to speak, but the words wouldn’t come. She felt her face reddening. She was mortified by her outburst. What had possessed her to say such things, even if they were true? Kurenai-sensei would have no choice but to remove her from the team now. She would never get to see Naruto or Shino again.
As Hinata struggled to get her breathing under control again. Kurenai-sensei helped her sit up. Her sensei wiped a cloth across her lips that came away with a faint smear of pink. "Don’t speak," Kurenai commanded her, "just nod. Did your father tell you these things?"
Hesitantly, Hinata nodded.
"That is no surprise to me. I find him to be a cruel and spiteful man," Kurenai said in an angry voice.
Hinata felt a surge of guilt because she didn’t argue with her. Being the leader of the clan required him to be demanding at times, even harsh. But it was all for the good of the clan, wasn’t it?
"You told me once that he has a very low opinion of Naruto," Kurenai continued. "Do you think he is correct in that hatred as well?"
Hinata shook her head, but frowned. Her father hardly knew Naruto, but he’d raised her from infancy. Surely he knew her better.
"I can see you are not convinced," Kurenai said with a sigh. "Who do you spend the most time with every day? You know the answer as well as I."
Hinata swallowed and nodded. Training with Naruto, hours each day, was something she’d only dreamed could happen when they attended the Konoha Ninja Academy. The thought of losing that if Kurenai-sensei removed her from the team was unthinkable.
"Good," Kurenai said. "Would Naruto agree with your father? And given how much time you spend with each other, who would you say has the more accurate estimation of your ability?"
Hinata froze in place, not even breathing for a moment. Unbidden, a memory of Naruto’s words echoed through her mind, "Hinata, you rock!" She wanted to dismiss the question - she knew Naruto was nice to almost everyone. But was it possible that Naruto knew her better than her father? Maybe instead of being a constant failure, she did â€˜rock’, even just a little?
Kurenai stood up. "I’ll leave you to think on that, Hinata. I’ll hold off on making any decisions regarding your status for now, but you should give serious thought to what we’ve talked about."
Hinata nodded slowly and lay back on the bed as her sensei faded into the shadows of the room. She barely heard the door open and close.
"How much better your life would have been," Kurenai whispered as she closed the door, "if your father had died, instead of your mother."
She took a deep breath as she made her way down the corridor. The medicinal smells that clung to hospitals the world over made her faintly nauseous. Her mind replayed the look on Hinata’s face when she’d delivered her ultimatum and her stomach rebelled. Only the iron self-control of a jonin kept her face expressionless as she made her way to the bathrooms. Once the door was closed and she was sure she was alone, Kurenai bolted for one of the stalls and promptly emptied her stomach.
Wiping her mouth, she tried to forget the desolate look in her student’s eyes, the raw, writhing emotion on the girl’s face when she regurgitated her father’s hateful words. Tears stung in red eyes that had spurned such things in years gone by.
Cruel necessities, no matter how needful, were still cruel.
Hyuuga Neji fell back into a ready stance, waiting for his teacher to attack. He had been informed, the day after the preliminary matches, that Hiashi-sama would be taking personal charge of his training in the month leading up to the finals. Gai-sensei accepted this with barely more than a nod. His jonin-instructor had been rather cool toward him since the match with his cousin. While highly skilled, Maito Gai did not understand how things worked within the Hyuuga clan, nor did he appear to care.
Neji was acutely aware of the unusual interest his uncle expressed in his development, leading to his inclusion in training normally only given to main family members. This led to some very discreet whispering among the Hyuuga elders, but Neji’s growing prowess silenced any complaints. Being the top rookie of his year was an accomplishment, even for a Hyuuga. Not even his cousin in the main family had managed that.
Neji suppressed a twinge as Hiashi-sama lunged toward him. He spun into a picture-perfect Jyuuken block — nothing less would have sufficed. Thinking about the match with Hinata made him… uncomfortable. Aside from his lapse in composure at the end, it had suitably showcased his capabilities. A main family ninja once considered the heir to the clan had only landed one significant blow before she was defeated. He smoothly slid into a counterstrike his teacher avoided with ease. Neji’s anger in response to her inappropriate words at the end of the match was far overshadowed by her own emotional displays. Her almost desperate desire to defeat him was inappropriate for a shinobi representing a clan that prided itself on having firm emotional control. The Uchiha insanity would not strike at the foremost of Konoha’s shinobi clans.
Hiashi’s last strike wasn’t fully deflected and Neji felt the muscles in his forearm burn as a bruise formed. He neither knew nor cared why Hinata was so desperate to beat him, nor why she had kept getting up after her defeat was sealed along with her tenketsu. But he knew he had done nothing wrong. Her own father had commended him on his performance in the preliminary matches, and Neji knew he was less than pleased with hers. Not only had he not been to the hospital, but he forbade any other clan members from seeing her before she was released. Neji knew that some branch family members, especially women who had known her mother, privately expressed sympathy for the discarded heir. Of course, a true heir would scorn such expressions of useless sentiment.
Back on the attack, Neji began another combo, but hesitated slightly on the last blow, hoping his teacher’s block would follow the normal timing. It almost worked, but all he ended up with was a bruised wrist as Hiashi turned the blow aside. That earned a slight nod from the clan leader — his was an acceptable variation on traditional forms, unlike all the tricks Hinata had used to try and beat him… something he knew Hiashi-sama was less than pleased to learn of.
Still, the reactions of his peers were somewhat disquieting. Lee, while little more than a parody of their jonin-instructor, was still competent within his limited range of capabilities. Moreover, Tenten was one of the more accomplished kunoichi of their generation. Their defeats in the preliminaries were due to unfortunate match-ups rather than lack of ability. Each faced an opponent that possessed skills that effectively neutralized their specialties. For that matter, it was Hinata’s fate to meet a more competent Jyuuken user in her match.
But both of them had exhibited the same quiet disapproval as Gai-sensei, as if he had done something wrong or shameful. It was unfortunate that they did not seem to understand how things worked in the real world. If you fought someone stronger, you were destined to lose, and railing against the nature of things would only lead to worse injury. He learned that lesson the last time he saw his father alive. The only way to avoid this was to harden one’s heart and become as strong as possible. Anything else was foolishness, and being a shinobi allowed no room for such things. If they could not come to understand this, then he would be forced to request a transfer once he became a chuunin.
It was interesting to note that Tenten, before shunning him along with the others, did see fit to warn him that Hinata’s teammates were extremely angry about the injuries he’d inflicted during her defeat. Both would likely seek revenge when he faced them. Neji thanked her for the information, but didn’t consider it very important. They would face him and, angry or not, they would be defeated.
It was their fate.
Naruto couldn’t suppress a twinge of nervousness when Kurenai appeared at the end of his morning session with Gai and Lee. It took some effort not to rush through Gai’s cool-down exercises and go see what Kurenai-sensei wanted, but he ground his teeth and stuck to the routine. Gai-sensei had lectured both him and Lee on the importance of both stretching and doing proper cool-downs, and making him repeat that lecture would only delay things more.
Finally, when they were dismissed, Naruto hustled over to see his jonin-sensei.
"I see you are still improving," she said in an approving tone that made Naruto’s face heat up, just a little.
"I’m still trying to catch up to Lee," he said honestly. Despite his loss to Gaara in the preliminary match, Lee still dominated the beginnings of their sparring sessions, putting Naruto on the defensive until his greater stamina came into play. Considering that Sabaku no Gaara had done the same, according to Shino, Naruto worried, just a little.
"If that is the standard by which you choose to measure yourself, then I think you will continue to improve," Kurenai replied. "Gai-sensei’s offer to train you this much is very generous. Make the most of this for now. I will concentrate on gathering as much information as possible on the opponents you and Shino will face in the finals, especially this Gaara person. Closer to the matches we will meet to work out what strategies and techniques will prove most effective."
It took a moment for Naruto to digest that. His sensei was being especially enigmatic today. Finally, he just nodded to acknowledge her words. He missed her team training sessions but she had a point. Plus it would be a little awkward since he and Shino might end up fighting each other at some point. Anyway, finding out how to beat Gaara would be worth it, let alone Neji.
"I thought you would want to know that Hinata is well enough to receive visitors today," his teacher announced, pulling him out of his reverie.
Naruto smiled with relief. "Can we go see her now?" he asked quickly.
Kurenai nodded and they began walking toward the center of town. On a sudden impulse, Naruto created a shadow clone and handed it some money. "A double order of miso ramen to go - meet us at the hospital," he ordered. As the clone sped off, he called after it. "It’s for Hinata, so stay out of it!"
When he turned back to his sensei, she had a curious expression on her face. "You’ve certainly become rather… casual… with that technique," she observed.
Naruto shrugged. "It’s useful sometimes. And the more I practice it, the better I seem to get with it. Besides, I know that hospital food sucks."
"I don’t disapprove," Kurenai-sensei said, "I just don’t think most jonin have considered uses for that technique outside of missions. And how do you know about hospital food?"
Naruto shrugged. "I was in there once when I was a kid. I think a brick fell on my head or something, I don’t remember very well. The only thing I do remember clearly is wanting to get out of there because the food tasted awful."
Kurenai-sensei nodded thoughtfully and they were quiet until they reached the hospital. An annoyed-looking clone was waiting for them, holding a bag. "Konohamaru almost popped me and spilled this," the clone growled as it handed Naruto the food. "I told the brat that if he ruined Hinata-chan’s food with one of his games, she’d let the missing-nins keep him next time."
Naruto made a face when the clone dispersed itself and he received the memories. "What a potty-mouth," he muttered. He hoped no one saw him chewing out the Hokage’s grandson like that.
When he turned back, Kurenai-sensei had the oddest expression on her face.
Any worries about foul-mouthed clones disappeared from Naruto’s mind when he saw his teammate lying on a hospital bed. He’d always thought of Hinata as strong — he wasn’t kidding when he said she kicked butt as a ninja. But seeing her like this… she was so small. Had someone done a shrinking jutsu on her? Or did she just look bigger in his memories?
He supposed it was the latter, because he was also struck by how still she was. She appeared to be napping, with only the motion of her slow breaths keeping him from thinking the worst. A sudden spike of white-hot rage bloomed in the pit of his stomach. He was going to make Neji pay for hurting her.
He supposed he must have released a little of that â€˜killing intent’ stuff Kurenai had explained to them about, because Hinata’s eyes suddenly popped open. Embarrassed, he quickly stifled his anger. He didn’t want to upset Hinata or make her feel worse.
"N-Naruto?" she asked in a thick voice as she sat up and rubbed at her eyes.
For an instant Naruto was struck by how cute she looked doing that, scrubbing at her eyes with the back of her hand like a little kid — nothing like the graceful kunoichi that sparred with him. He shook his head. She wouldn’t appreciate him making fun of her either. "I brought ramen!" he announced after an awkward pause, holding up the bag. Hinata blinked. The nurses had eyed his burden rather dubiously as they exited the elevator, but Kurenai-sensei did that scowling-but-not-really-scowling thing and they didn’t say anything.
Hinata gave him a tremulous smile as Naruto carefully placed the bag on her bed-side table and opened it. He carefully handed her the covered container and a pair of chopsticks. She straightened up a little more, smoothing the blankets, and then peered at the bag. "Aren’t you going to have some?" she asked.
"Nah," Naruto said, "I’m not really hungry."
Hinata froze in place, staring at him.
"Er, I mean, that is," Naruto babbled quickly, "I’m going to get some later. I just got done sparring with Lee and I need to let my stomach settle. You know that lotus thing, right?"
Hinata nodded slowly and then cracked open the container. The reek of medicinal smells and disinfectants was swept away by the fragrant steam of hot ramen broth. Naruto considered this a vast improvement and his salivary glands agreed. Next time he was going to find a way to sneak in an order big enough for both of them to eat. Trying to distract himself from his annoying stomach, he glanced at the bag and noticed it wasn’t completely empty.
"Hey," Naruto said as he pulled a folded piece of paper from the bag. "Ayame stuck a note in there. It says she hopes you get well soon. Isn’t that-"
His words cut off when he looked back at Hinata and saw her lower lip trembling. Her head bent forward as her hands began to shake. Naruto rescued the ramen and put it back on the table as she sniffed loudly. "Hinata? What’s wrong? Is it the-"
His words were cut off when Hinata let out a low cry and buried her face in her hands.
Naruto looked back at Kurenai-sensei for help, but the jonin was no longer standing in the doorway. The door itself was closed, and he considered going to get a nurse for help, but he didn’t think Hinata would appreciate that. He remembered how Ayame took Hinata aside to help her get cleaned up. He needed to help her without embarrassing her worse. He had to. This was his friend.
It would really help if he’d known what to do. He gingerly sat on the edge of the bed and awkwardly patted her shoulder, but that seemed to have no effect. "Neh, Hinata, it’s okay?" he asked, feeling like a complete idiot. Why didn’t they cover this in the Academy? Most of the boys in his class ended up teamed with a girl, and girls cried, right? Why didn’t Iruka-sensei tell us what to do when that happened? Maybe that psychologist guy was supposed to tell us that privately and he screwed me there too.
"Hinata, don’t cry!" he finally said, surprising himself with the pleading tone that came out of his mouth. He really hated this. He hated seeing her upset, almost as much as seeing her hurt. Neji was going home from the finals in a damn body bag if he could manage it. No. He didn’t need to be angry right now. That wouldn’t help. He tried patting her back, but that didn’t help either. She was shaking like leaf.
"I’m sorry," Hinata wailed. And suddenly her hands were fisted in the material of his jacket as she held onto him like she was drowning and he was a life preserver.
"For what?" Naruto asked, feeling stupid. He felt like he was only getting about half of this conversation. The patting wasn’t working. That wasn’t a surprise, since she wasn’t Akamaru. I am an idiot, he thought. It wasn’t working. What was wrong with his brain? Hinata was still crying. He gingerly settled his forearms across her shoulders in a kinda, sorta hug. Twisted around like this wasn’t very physically comfortable… which was fine because it wasn’t comfortable in any other way, either.
If anything, Hinata’s crying got worse.
Naruto would have let go, possibly even gone to get a nurse. But now Hinata had somehow wrapped one of her arms around his back, exerting enough pressure to give Lee’s turnip-planting jutsu a run for its money.
So instead he mostly just sat there, half twisted around, as the weeping sounds slowly abated. Hinata took a great, shuddering breath that suddenly exploded into a fit of coughing. She let go of his waist as she doubled over, but one hand was still holding onto his jacket, shaking as it held her up.
Naruto twisted around and grabbed a cloth from the table, holding it out for Hinata to grab. She held it up to her mouth as the coughs made her whole body spasm. When she brought the cloth away from her mouth, Naruto saw a flash of red and wanted to kill her cousin all over again.
But at least she was breathing easier now. Her voice was only a little rough when she quietly thanked him.
Naruto helped her lay back on the bed and fussed with the covers, trying to straighten them. "Do I need to get a nurse?" he asked in a worried tone.
"No," she answered in a small voice. "One of the Jyuuken strikes hit my lung and caused a rupture. It’s healing, but there are blood clots loosening. The doctor says the treatments are softening them as well, but coughing them up naturally is the best way to expel them."
"Oh," Naruto said. That was really kind of gross. He wondered how Neji would like it if Naruto just pulled one of his lungs out through his nose. That would probably be even more disgusting though. Better think of something else before Hinata thought she was grossing him out. "I don’t really understand what you have to be sorry for," he continued.
Hinata went very still and Naruto wanted to kick himself. "I was very selfish," she said after a moment. "I… when I fought Neji."
Naruto scowled. "Don’t worry, Hinata, I’m going to beat him like a drum."
Hinata shook her head. "Kurenai-sensei is disappointed in me… I…"
"No way!" Naruto interrupted. "You were great! You fought so hard, everyone was impressed! I loved it when you nailed him with one of your weights! He looked like he swallowed his tongue when you did that!"
"But I still failed," Hinata said, looking down at her hands clasped in front of her. Naruto could see her knuckles whitening. "I was so ashamed of my failure… I think I kept getting up when I had no chance to beat him… because I would rather have been killed than lose again. I… I wasn’t thinking about anyone but myself."
Naruto stared at his friend as his mouth slowly fell open.
"I wanted to let you know now… in case…," she swallowed. "In case Kurenai-sensei has me removed from the team."
"No!" Naruto snarled. Hinata flinched and her wide eyes snapped up to meet his. "I won’t let her!"
"Naruto-kun!" Hinata gasped and in the pale red glow on the blankets he realized that the red chakra was beginning to show. It seemed to be appearing more and more often lately, usually when he thought about the preliminary matches.
Naruto took a deep breath and tried to calm himself. "I’ll talk to Kurenai-sensei," he said after a moment. He was proud of the evenness of his tone. "I’ll get Shino to help if I have to. No one wins an argument with him."
Hinata shook her head. "No, it’s all right-"
"No, it’s not all right," Naruto said, some heat creeping back into his voice. "You’re part of our team, and we’re not going to just give up on you. You belong with us. We’ll make her see that."
With that, Naruto spun and marched out of the room. It was pretty rude, but he had to leave before he said something worse. How the hell could Kurenai-sensei say that to her?
He took no note of the nurses and doctors as he left the hospital, though he did notice more than a few people hurrying to get out of his way. He supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised to see his sensei standing just outside the entrance.
"She told you," Kurenai said. It wasn’t a question.
"Yeah, she did," Naruto spat. "Sensei, how could-"
Kurenai cut him off with a sharp gesture. "This is better discussed elsewhere. Meet me at our normal training area," she ordered, and then disappeared in a puff of smoke.
Naruto wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that he’d set a new personal record for traversing the roofs of Konoha. It felt good, in a way, to exercise after what he’d just heard. Using his muscles as hard as he could gave vent to at least some of his more violent emotions.
Kurenai-sensei was standing in the middle of the clearing, so Naruto hurtled out of the trees to land next to her. She didn’t even flinch, but began speaking even as he straightened up.
"You are upset about what you have learned," she began.
"Yes, Sensei," Naruto agreed. "How could you even think of threatening to remove her from the team?" he asked. The sheer injustice of it all made his hands shake. He wanted to hate his teacher for a moment, but she wouldn’t just do something like that for no reason, would she?
"Would you rather see Hinata removed from the team or dead?" Kurenai asked flatly.
"It’s a very serious question," Kurenai continued. "I wouldn’t be free to discuss this if she hadn’t already told you, but her behavior during the match gives me reason to be very concerned. Determination is all well and good, but such disregard for her own well-being is not acceptable."
"She just wanted to win," Naruto objected. "She wanted to do her best in the exam."
"She practically dared her cousin to kill her," Kurenai disagreed. "In a rank test. No lives were on the line. The village’s safety was not at risk. But she considered her own survival unimportant."
Naruto stood there, his sensei’s words striking him like clubs. Thinking back over her match, he remembered wishing she’d stay down as Neji continued to pummel her, until finally the older Hyuuga had appeared ready to end her life before Naruto’s substitution technique yanked her out of the way.
He took a deep breath and looked up at the noonday sky. He thought back to a conversation he and Shino had shared in their tent during the border patrol mission. "This has something to do with her screwed up family, doesn’t it?" he finally asked.
"I’m fairly certain it does," Kurenai confirmed.
Naruto made a face. He suddenly had a bad taste in his mouth. He spit on the grass.
"Do you really think she should be placed in life and death situations unless this is resolved?" she asked.
Naruto shook his head.
"What are you planning on doing?" Kurenai asked as he began striding away.
"I don’t know yet," was his honest answer.
Naruto was a mess during his noon-time session with Gai-sensei, and Lee nearly knocked him unconscious during their first spar. Eventually, Gai ended it early. Naruto apologized to the taijutsu specialist, but Gai merely waved it off. "It is clear," he said in his booming voice, "that the fires of your youth need to be banked, Naruto. Come back tomorrow when your mind and spirit are as one and you have regained your youthful focus."
Naruto didn’t know if Kurenai-sensei had said something to Gai-sensei or not, but he thought the green-clad jonin was awfully optimistic about his problem-solving abilities. At the moment, he didn’t have a clue as to what he should do.
After a quick lunch, Naruto found himself sitting on top of the Hokage monument. He looked out over Konoha and thought about the situation. No matter how many times he tried, he just couldn’t seem to wrap his head around the differences between how Hinata was and how she saw herself. She didn’t really think she’d done that well in the preliminary match, but everyone who knew her was impressed by what they saw. Why was it so different?
Eventually, he decided to head back and just ask her. It wasn’t like his blundering mouth could make things any worse than they were.
Naruto arrived back at the hospital just in time to see Shino walking out of the entrance. He immediately changed his plans and intercepted his teammate.
"You have spoken to Hinata," Shino said with no preamble.
Naruto nodded. "You?" he asked.
"She has apologized to me as well for her… thoughtlessness," Shino replied. Naruto didn’t even need to look up to know the forehead over those dark glasses was furrowed.
"Remember what we talked about on the patrol mission?" Naruto asked him.
Shino nodded. "That appears to be the most likely origin of our present situation."
Naruto gritted his teeth. He knew better than most that Shino’s emotionless voice was not an accurate gauge of his teammate’s real feelings. "So what are we going to do about it?" he asked.
"Do?" Shino asked. "I am not sure this is a situation we are qualified to deal with."
"We can’t do nothing!" Naruto protested.
"Our instructor will undertake the proper corrective action," Shino said. "There are professionals better equipped to deal with this situation than we are."
"They’d probably remove her from the team first!" Naruto hissed, struggling to keep his voice down. "That would kill her. Maybe for real."
Shino just looked at him for a long moment. Naruto had learned how to tell, glasses or not. "You are highly agitated about this," he said after a moment.
"This is Hinata," Naruto said. "She’s our teammate. We need to look out for her. We need to fix this. Not some assholes like the guy that tried to screw me up."
Shino was silent for a long time. "I have observed," he finally said after a while, "that our teammate is highly affected by your words, including intonation as well as phraseology and context."
"She listens very closely to what you say," Shino clarified. "You, more than anyone."
"More than Kurenai-sensei?" Naruto asked in stark disbelief. "Why?"
"More than anyone," Shino confirmed. "It would be inappropriate for me to speculate regarding issues in which I do not have first hand knowledge. But that is what I have observed. I believe that you would be best suited to interact with Hinata in an effort to satisfactorily resolve this situation."
"Damn," Naruto said. "I was hoping she’d listen to you better."
Shino went very still. "And why is that?" he asked.
"Because you’re smarter than me," Naruto replied. "I’ll probably just make things worse."
"I do not believe that raw intelligence is the most important factor in resolving interpersonal issues," Shino declared. "I theorize that if you simply ask questions and listen attentively you will experience a greater degree of success than you anticipate."
Hinata felt better after Shino left. He accepted her admission of selfishness without batting an eye — that she could see anyway — and stated that he too was impressed by her performance. Furthermore, he did not wish to see her removed from Team Eight either. He said her conduct and capabilities were well above average for their cohort, and the team social interactions had proven to be more enjoyable than he had considered possible. He concluded that removing a key component from the matrix was neither necessary nor desirable.
Hinata accepted his words as they were spoken. It wasn’t like Shino to whitewash a situation just to be nice. He was too precise for that. But still, remembering the disappointment in Kurenai-sensei’s voice seemed to sweep all that away. It was just the latest in a grand litany of failures.
She wondered if she’d even be admitted back into the clan if she was rejected as a ninja. Probably not.
She jumped a little when the door opened and Naruto walked in. She had to firmly clasp her hands to keep from pushing her fingertips together in her nervous habit. She was a little mortified when she remembered how she broke down in front of him earlier. At least she’d been able to maintain her composure around Shino.
Naruto was silent as he carefully pulled up a chair and sat down next to her bed. She wanted to open her mouth, to say something, to apologize, to do something. But no words would come. Instead, she found herself staring at his face. No matter that it was rude and unmannerly, something her father would abhor, she just couldn’t help it. Naruto, always so enthusiastic about everything, looked very different with such a somber expression. For a moment, she pictured him in the Hokage’s robes again and felt a chill go down her spine.
"There’s a lot going on here that I don’t understand," Naruto began, jolting Hinata out of her reverie. "I’m used to not knowing things. But now I can’t accept that. I don’t understand how you can see yourself so differently than everyone else sees you. I don’t understand why you… " he paused and swallowed. "Why you seem to hate yourself. Something is not right."
Hinata looked down. She didn’t need Naruto to tell her she was defective. An unpleasant voice in the back of her mind said that it was about time Naruto saw the truth of things. Now maybe she would stop wasting her time…
Motion caught her eye and she looked up to see Naruto leaning forward, peering intently at her. He cocked his head in a manner eerily reminiscent of their sensei. "And I do not think that something is you, Hyuuga Hinata," he said, imitating Kurenai-sensei when she wanted to make a point.
Hinata froze, her mouth half-way open, the protests dying on her tongue as bright blue eyes bored into hers.
"I was an orphan," Naruto said after a moment, leaning back in his chair. "I don’t really know what it’s like to have a family, but I always wanted one. I always wondered what it would be like to have parents or a brother or sister. Maybe I had some idealized image of family, because I knew I’d never have one. Shino’s parents seem kind of neat. But now I’m starting to wonder if I might have been better off in some ways."
Naruto’s words tore at Hinata. She knew how lonely he’d been at times in the past. She knew now that he was ostracized because of the seal he bore. "Naruto… I…"
"Tell me about the Hyuugas," Naruto said, his tone gentle but firm.
Hinata found she could deny him nothing. She began speaking.
Naruto left the hospital two hours later, his head spinning. He felt like he’d sat through one of Kurenai’s mega-lectures, only less organized. He’d had a glance into the life of one of Konoha’s most prestigious clans, but he didn’t really like what he saw.
The factual details were interesting. He had no idea there were that many feast days recognized in the Land of Fire, many of which required some sort of formal dinner. He had no idea the Hyuuga compound was as large as it was, and that there were several buildings set farther back in the grounds for the branch family. Tea ceremonies sounded weird, but boring after you sat through your first one. Maybe Hinata was graceful enough to make it interesting to watch.
But it was the things that were missing that made him wonder. Shikamaru was always telling stories about his dad saying or doing something troublesome. Kiba always complained about his big sister trying to boss him around. But Hinata didn’t really have any stories about her father or her sister. She had a few pleasant recollections of her mother that were faded with age, but those only highlighted the lack with respect to her still living family members. As far as he could tell, Hinata avoided them as much as possible, and none of them seemed to ever have a kind word for her.
But the real eye-opener came after Hinata had another coughing fit. As she wiped her mouth and drank a little water, Naruto muttered darkly about how he was going to kill Neji at the finals.
Hinata immediately began pleading with him not to, which puzzled Naruto. At first, he thought she was just being too nice. Then he thought she was just worried about him getting in trouble.
Then the truth came out and it stunk like an opened grave.
To get at the heart of it, Hinata had to go back all the way to when she was almost a baby. She vaguely remembered her uncle Hizashi, Neji’s father, who acted very different than his twin brother. She remembered seeing her father hurt him once using the curse seal, and had to explain how the branch family members were branded with it on their foreheads to keep them under the control of the Hyuuga main family.
It took a moment for Naruto to digest this. More than a moment, actually. The branch family members were, in some ways, little better than slaves of the main family. He felt a twinge of sympathy for Neji that he ruthlessly extinguished.
Then Hinata told him about the kidnapping attempt that ended with her father killing the assailant — who turned out to be a diplomat from Kumokagure. Kumo demanded the life of the killer, but Hyuuga elders sent Hizashi in his brother’s place, leaving Neji fatherless. Later, with his mother dead as well, Neji was informally adopted by his uncle and trained along with his daughters. But the boy was always cool toward those who controlled the seal placed on his forehead.
Neji turned out to be unusually talented, Hinata told him, which was painfully ironic given his birth into the branch family. The main family was supposed to be stronger and more skilled, but he quite obviously overshadowed Hinata even years ago when she was the heir.
He wondered as she spoke if this tension was related to other things as well. Maybe Hinata wasn’t as skilled as Neji, but she was still pretty damn good at what she did. Why did they have to label her as a failure?
Naruto wondered if her father resented Hinata in some way related to that whole mess, blaming her for the loss of his brother. It was stupid, but he couldn’t think of anything else. He was about to ask her when the nurse entered the room and coolly informed him that visiting hours were over.
Now he found himself walking aimlessly through the streets of Konoha, pondering a problem that he wasn’t sure had a solution. He really needed to talk to someone, but he didn’t feel right discussing what Hinata had told him. It was… private. Her telling him that stuff, it was really a measure of the trust she placed in him. She was hesitant enough telling him, Naruto was sure she’d be really embarrassed if someone else knew, and he didn’t want to make her feel worse.
Naruto was thinking so hard that he didn’t even notice Iruka calling out to him until the chuunin’s hand fell on his shoulder. Startled, Naruto spun around, making Iruka stumble back. While he was well enough to help with the Chuunin Exam, Naruto’s old instructor was still recovering from the serious injuries he’d sustained battling the missing-nin kidnappers. Without thinking, Naruto grabbed Iruka’s wrist to steady him.
Iruka halted in mid-stumble, much to his apparent surprise. "That’s quite a grip you have there, Naruto," he said in a pleased voice. He smiled. "Want some ramen? My treat?"
Naruto started to apologize, but then remembered that Gai-sensei had given him the rest of the day off. "Sure, Iruka-sensei!" Weighty problems or not, ramen was ramen.
It was a little early for the dinner rush, so they found Ichiraku’s mostly unoccupied. "Eat all you want," Iruka said in a grand voice.
Naruto looked over at one of the first people to really believe in him. "Are you sure you’re all right, Iruka-sensei?"
"I made a lot of money off of you at the preliminary matches," Iruka informed him with an uncharacteristically smug grin. "When your match with Sasuke was announced, I made as many bets as I could before it started, and most of the chuunin and jonin gave me ten to one odds. You should have seen their faces when you won!"
Naruto was a little annoyed that people had been so sure Sasuke would beat him, but for the most part he was happy for Iruka. People that believed in Uzumaki Naruto, future Hokage, should profit from it… especially at the expense of those who didn’t. "If I’d known you were making bets, I’d have asked you to place some for me," he said sourly. "Maybe gone a little slower so you’d have time to place more."
Iruka chuckled and reached over to muss Naruto’s hair. That gesture still made Naruto swallow heavily, which was the reason why Iruka was the only one he’d let get away with it. "Don’t worry, I had enough time to wager all my back wages from when I was in the hospital."
Naruto felt his face redden. It meant something that Iruka, who was ordinarily very practical with expenditures, was willing to bet that much on him.
"I wish I’d been able to get in on that action," Old Man Ichiraku said as he handed them a couple of menus.
"I imagine there will be a lot of wagering on the finals," Iruka said as they placed their orders.
"True," the old man said, "but now everyone knows not to underestimate Naruto here, so the odds won’t be as good."
Naruto could almost feel his head beginning to swell at those words. Only the thought of Kurenai-sensei’s probable reaction kept his ego firmly under control.
Those thoughts were quickly dispelled by Teuchi’s next question. "Is this Neji character Naruto has to fight next the one who beat Hinata?"
Naruto was fairly proud of his self-control. Not a word left his lips. Not a muscle moved in his face. It was just a coincidence that his chopsticks chose that moment to explode into a cloud of splinters.
Iruka shot a quick glance at Naruto before answering. "Yes, he hurt her pretty badly," he said quickly.
"Oh," the old ramen cook said, looking back and forth between Naruto and Iruka as the broth began to simmer. "How is she doing?" he asked with an uneasy expression.
"Better," Naruto said flatly.
"Is she allowed to have visitors now?" Iruka asked, seeming eager to change the subject.
Naruto nodded. "She started today," he said.
"Good," Iruka said with a smile. "I’ll have to drop in and see how she’s doing."
"She’d like that," Naruto said. He didn’t add that she probably wouldn’t have any visits from her family.
The conversation lapsed into a semi-comfortable silence as the old man prepared their orders. The ramen was as good as ever, but somehow it didn’t taste quite right to Naruto. After his first bowl, Naruto sat back on the stool and glanced over at Iruka, who also seemed kind of quiet. "Sensei?" he asked after a moment, "have you ever had students who had problems?" Naruto struggled with how to do this. He needed to keep things as vague as possible to avoid giving away Hinata’s secrets, but if he made them too general his questions would become meaningless.
"All my students have problems," Iruka assured him with a grin.
Naruto had no doubt he was at the top of that particular list. "I mean problems… problems at home."
Iruka looked thoughtful. "You mean with a family member?"
Naruto shrugged. "Or maybe problems with their family in general. I never had one so I was just curious." The excuse at the end was probably unnecessary, but he wasn’t taking any chances. Iruka didn’t seem overly curious, so maybe it was working…
"That can be tough," Iruka said thoughtfully. "Usually, there really isn’t anything we can do about the family, so I just try to make school as much of a haven as possible."
Naruto looked confused.
Iruka drank the last of his broth. "Sometimes if there is a lot of stress in the home, a student may find coming to class a welcome relief from that stress. If I think they don’t really have anyone in their family they can talk to about their problems, I make sure they know that they can talk to me."
"Do they?" Naruto asked, genuinely curious. He thought about how Iruka always seemed to be the one who supervised when he was forced to clean up the results of one of his pranks. The odd question now and then just seemed a way to ease his boredom, but now Naruto had a feeling there was more to it. This looking underneath the underneath could be fun. When it didn’t give him a headache.
"Sometimes," Iruka said philosophically. "There really isn’t anything you can do to force the situation, you have to just let them know help is available and wait for them to ask for it."
"That kind of sucks," Naruto said, wrinkling his nose. Beating the crap out of Hinata’s family sounded like a much better idea. The only problem was that he didn’t think it would help.
"It does," Iruka said, turning toward him. "It’s awkward and it’s frustrating, and often you feel like an idiot wasting your time. But you keep trying because it’s important."
"That’s it?" Naruto asked. "You just make yourself available and hope they ask for help?" He needed something more active or he was likely to go nuts.
"Well," Iruka drawled, "you can try to make them feel as comfortable as possible. I always think, â€˜When in doubt, do the friendliest thing’. Sometimes little things
mean more than you realize, and even little things can add up eventually."
Naruto was quiet for a while as he digested this. "Did you ever get the urge to go to their home and start knocking heads together?" he finally asked.
Iruka’s sudden laughter startled them both. "Most of the time," he admitted after a moment. "Not that it would do any good."
The next morning, Naruto showed up for his morning session with Gai and Lee determined to make up for his pitiful performance the day before. Instead of waiting for Lee to tire out, Naruto did his best to fight him to a standstill from the very beginning. Even as he accumulated a new set of bruises, Naruto chided himself for getting lazy. He’d gotten so used to his normal strategy with Lee that he wasn’t pushing himself as hard as he could.
It also helped to have a way to vent the previous day’s frustrations.
Lee’s grin got wider and wider as Naruto continued to go on the offensive, and his taijutsu combinations became more and more elaborate. After a while Lee was doing things Naruto had never seen before, forcing him to block and counter on pure instinct. He realized after a moment that this was surprisingly fun.
Right up until Lee broke a bone in his forearm.
Naruto was blocking a punch to the face that suddenly turned into an off-angle kick intended to remove his head. There was loud crack, accompanied by a jolt of pain that made Naruto’s whole arm go numb for a moment.
Naruto stumbled back, clutching his forearm. It was hot to the touch, but the blinding pain was already leaking away. Lee looked horrified, so Naruto just gave him a tight grin. "Good one," he said after a moment, letting go of his arm and flexing the hand. The pain was little more than a dull ache now.
He stepped forward to resume sparring, but Gai-sensei was having none of that. He’d evidently heard the crack as well, and insisted that Naruto have his arm x-rayed immediately.
On the way to the hospital, the jonin explained the best way to counter Lee’s move, even as he chastised his genin for â€˜letting the fires of his youth burn out of control’.
Lee looked so disconsolate that Naruto spoke without thinking. "That’s okay. After all, I don’t think Neji is going to take it easy on me."
Both of the spandex-clad shinobi looked distinctly uncomfortable and Naruto cursed his stupid mouth. They were silent the rest of the way to the emergency room.
The doctors were less than enthusiastic about treating Naruto, especially since he didn’t seem to be in too much pain, but Gai was insistent. The x-rays revealed only a faint shadow on the ulna that looked to be a hairline fracture that had healed long before. The medic looked annoyed at Gai for wasting his time, but Gai just explained that Naruto had taken a heavy blow while fanning the fires of his youth, and fulfilling his youthful promise to Naruto’s instructor meant making sure there was no serious damage. The doctor’s eyes glazed over halfway through this explanation and he didn’t even notice when Gai took the x-ray with him.
Naruto stared at the jonin as he and Lee followed him out of the hospital. Did he do that on purpose sometimes?
By the time they returned to the training area, it was almost time for the morning session to be over anyway. Gai had them do a couple of kata before beginning the cool-down exercises.
After he was dismissed, Naruto created some clones and then stopped by the Yamanaka flower shop to purchase a cluster of yellow chrysanthemum flowers. During his conversation with Hinata, he’d noticed that her room didn’t seem to have a single card or decoration. While she’d only just been cleared for visitors, he knew her worthless family wouldn’t be bothered to do anything to cheer her up.
He shook his head. No matter what his opinion was, he didn’t need to be ranting about them to Hinata. She knew what he thought, and getting too angry would only upset her.
When he returned to the hospital, arriving through the visitor’s entrance this time, Naruto marched straight to Hinata’s room and knocked on the door. He didn’t want to give the nurse that kicked him out yesterday time to come up with an excuse for why he couldn’t see his friend. He could feel a couple of glares aimed in his direction, but just ignored them. If Hinata had to put up with all that crap from her family, what did he have to complain about?
"Yes? Come in." maybe it was his imagination, but her voice seemed to be a little stronger today. He shifted the flowers so he was holding them behind his back.
"Good morning, Hinata-chan!" Naruto announced brightly as he opened the door and walked in.
She was indeed looking less pale than the day before and she seemed to be moving a little easier as she sat up. Surely if her face was that pink, her circulation must be improving as well.
"N-Naruto-kun," she said, sounding surprised. That bothered Naruto, just a little bit.
With a flourish, Naruto pulled the flowers from behind his back and placed them on the table. "I thought this place could use a little color," he explained.
"They’re b-beautiful," Hinata said in a choked voice.
"I’m glad you like them," Naruto replied as he walked over to the window and opened it. The clones standing on the wall outside climbed in with their burdens.
"Gai said that was a good book on Goken katas and combinations," Naruto explained. "And I got ramen for both of us this time. Kurenai-sensei still had your bag and I figured there was some stuff in there that you might want so she let me bring it."
It took a moment for Naruto to unpack the ramen. When he looked up, Hinata was staring at him, clutching her bag and with the book sitting in her lap. "What?" he asked.
Hinata shook her head for a moment. "Why are you doing all this?" she asked, an uncertain tone creeping into her voice like a thief in the night. Naruto hated that painful way she had of second-guessing herself. He vowed to do his best to kill it.
"I just wanted to have lunch with my best friend," he explained as he handed her a steaming bowl.
All right, you people begging for fluff, here’s your fluff. With a bit of drama and character development thrown in to cut all the teeth-rotting sweetness.
I was actually originally intending to move the story a little farther along, but I was waylaid by Kurenai and Hinata who proceeded to curb-stomp me into compliance with their wishes. That whole nasty confrontation between teacher and student pretty much wrote itself. And it makes sense when you think about things. Hinata’s determination in her match with Neji, while admirable, went beyond the appropriate for something that is really little more than an exhibition match to showcase the competitors’ skills.
Or to quote Al Yackey from Always: "You see, Pete, there is no war here. This is why they don't make movies called Night Raid in Boise, Idaho , or Firemen Strike at Dawn . And this is why you're not exactly a hero for taking the chances you take. You're more of what I would callâ€”a dickhead."
Yes, Naruto is being especially considerate, circumspect, and perceptive in this chapter. He’s had some nasty things thrown in his face this chapter and all the things Kurenai has been doing to get him to think through things is finally starting to pay off.
Considering Sasuke’s defeat last chapter: Going by canon facts, there is no way Sasuke could win that fight. Lee cleaned his clock in canon before the first exam, though that never occurred in this timeline. Naruto and Lee have trained and pushed each other for months and Naruto has enough speed to keep up with a Lee that has trained even harder than he did in canon. Also, Sasuke just had his curse seal dealt with - and in canon that left him so weak that Yoroi nearly beat him. Finally, Sasuke has only seen Naruto fight once since the Academy, and his attention was focused on Orochimaru at the time... so based on past experience, he was horribly overconfident. Naruto also had a nap and a meal before the second exam ended. That all adds up to a very one-sided fight. Any one of those three factors could spell defeat... all of them? Ouch!
Final Note: Bibliophile suggested he’d like to see the scene with Iruka cleaning out the assembled Jonin by betting on Naruto in the preliminary match. I think I’ll open this up as another Omake Contest. See my blog for the details!