Miso Ramen, Fanclubs and better things
"Your miso ramen, Hyuuga-sama," the smiling waitress announced, as she placed a steaming bowl on the scrubbed counter top before the pale-eyed kunoichi.
Hinata smiled wanly. "Arigatou," she whispered, before reaching for a pair of chopsticks from a large porcelain mug painted with the name 'Ichiraku Ramen' in bold red brushstrokes.
Her pale hand paused halfway to the mug, as her eyes caught a flash of bright orange behind her, reflected in the large mirror hanging on the opposite wall. Just as quickly, she slumped again as a longer glance revealed the orange reflection to be cast by a portly man in a pumpkin coloured jacket, who bore no resemblance whatever to...the person she had been hoping to see.
She looked up at the clock hanging beside the seasonings rack. It was almost noon. Maybe he won't come here today, she thought miserably, Maybe someone told him that the creepy Hyuuga girl was lying in wait and he got scared off or something... the heiress of the noblest and most powerful living clan in Konohagakure shook her head furiously at these gloomy thoughts, then stopped and blushed as the previously smiling waitress now shot her an odd look.
I'm just being silly now, of course he'll be here...unless Hokage-sama sent him on a mission suddenly...but no, he just got back from the last one...she tried to reassure herself.
"Hey Hinata! How are you?"
A cheery voice cut in on her thoughts. She looked up and smiled faintly at a girl, no, a young woman now, with long, pale pink hair and sparkling green eyes.
"Hello Sakura," she answered softly, "I'm fine thankyou, how are you?"
As she spoke the words, a sudden panicky thought shot through her brain, "Are you, are you meeting someone here?" she asked, trembling with apprehension.
Her heart sank at the blush that coloured Sakura's cheeks in response, making her look more beautiful than ever.
"Actually, I am," she murmured. To Hinata's surprise, her brow then furrowed slightly and she gave a rueful laugh, "I told him we would meet here at 9am."
The Hyuuga's dark brows raised in amazement as both kunoichi glanced at the clock, which now showed the time to be 12:05pm. Her dark brows rose even higher as Sakura chuckled at her confusion. "I knew it was the only way I could get him here on time."
Hinata was staring at Haruno Sakura in bewilderment, wondering if the pink-haired medic had been working too long hours lately, when a sudden puff of smoke and a casual "Yo" broke the silence.
Sakura turned to the masked jounin who had materialised behind her and promptly snatched a small orange book from his right hand, placing it in her handbag. "Not while we're shopping, please," she said firmly, reaching up to run a hand through her former sensei's unruly silver hair.
Hatake Kakashi, the feared Copy Ninja of Konoha, genius shinobi and former elite ANBU squad leader eyed his former student in silence for a moment as Hinata watched the pair with a mixture of initial astonishment, sudden relief and growing amusement.
At last the jounin's uncovered eye crinkled into a smile as he wrapped an arm around Sakura's waist, drawing her close and brushing his lips against her cheek.
"Then we'd better hurry and get the shopping done, hadn't we, Sakura-chan?" he said lightly.
"It leaves us free for...more interesting activities..."
"...like kunai practice."
Sakura scowled at him as he chuckled, smoothly shifting his stance and looking at Hinata.
"Good day, Hyuuga-san." Hinata smiled up at them and almost laughed at the look on Sakura's face.
After a naughtily grinning Kakashi had left with a trying-to-be-angry-and-failing-miserably Sakura in his arms, Hinata looked down at her as untouched bowl of ramen.
She wasn't even hungry. Her father, despite his harsh treatment of her in other areas, always made sure she ate before leaving the house.
"We don't want you any weaker than you already are," were his loving, supportive words.
She sighed, and looked up at the wall clock for a 3rd time.
Ten minutes after twelve.
Well, that's not really late. At least he doesn't make a habit of it, like Hatake-san. Sakura-san and he make the cutest couple. Who would have thought it? He's at least 15 years older than her. Her parents had a hard time accepting it at first, but now, with the wedding next spring and all...they look so happy, he loves her so much...I was so paranoid to think she might be meeting him here...
Hinata's head snapped up again at the sound of raised voices, at the flash of spiky blonde hair...
"Hey! Oyaji! Have you seen Nara Shikamaru around today?"
Temari's loud, bold voice almost made Hinata wince as she looked up at the older kunoichi where she stood framed in the doorway.
The wrinkled Ichiraku owner shook his head mutely then returned to his cooking, while the Sand nin cursed freely and rumpled her spiky dark blonde ponytails in frustration.
"Damn that lazy, no-good...I've looked everywhere...when I find him..." she growled, slamming the butt of her heavy fan into the ground at her feet.
Her tantrum was interrupted by a higher, even louder, even more piercing voice.
"WHERE IS HE? WHERE IS THAT LAZY BUM?" screeched Yamanaka Ino, looking like a blonde Valkyrie as she stormed up to the counter, her sky blue eyes flashing dangerously.
Temari spun to face her and both girls, no, young women, went dead silent.
Hinata suddenly found it difficult to breathe, as the eyes of both kunoichi, periwinkle blue and stormy cobalt blue, met and narrowed. It seemed an even match. Although Temari was heavier, older and better...equipped, Hinata had seen the damage Ino could cause when she was in a temper.
The Sand kunoichi moved first, walking up to Ino with that graceful, dangerous, cat-like stride so characteristic of her. Ino stood her ground, watching her with eyes that burned with a fierce light. Temari stopped just in front of her. She spoke.
"You've known him longer, where does he like to hang out?"
"There's this hill near the genin training grounds that he likes to sit on while he watches the clouds."
"How typical of him."
And to Hinata's astonishment, the seemingly murderous intent vanished from the eyes of the two women, to be replaced with identical looks of dreamy longing, accompanied by equally dreamy sighs.
Ino snapped out of it first. "I know the way, ikusoo!" she exclaimed, whirling on her heel and sprinting out the door.
"He won't escape this time," Temari smiled grimly, picking up her fan and racing off after the blonde chuunin.
Hinata, the old Ichiraku man and the waitress all stared in a group portrait of utter confusion, which was followed by fervent prayers offered up from the mind of each for the physical safety of a certain lazy, pony-tailed jounin.
The time was now 12:18. Hinata was getting to the point where she was almost considering eating her miso ramen. She looked down at it again, then sighed and laid her chopsticks neatly together on the left side of the bowl. No, she couldn't face it yet. Besides, she could wait until it cooled down a little more...
How long would it take for Shikamaru's remains to cool after Temari and Ino had finished with him? Hinata sighed, then giggled.
How was it possible that the laziest, grouchiest, albeit most brilliant and reliable jounin in Konoha, renowned for his distaste for all things troublesome, had captured the hearts of two of the loudest, fiercest, most beautiful and definitely most troublesome kunoichi in Konohagakure and Sunagakure?
Poor Shikamaru-san, things can really get complicated when opposites attract. Kind of like Sakura-san and Hatake-san, she's all passionate and uptight, he's laidback and relaxed. Such different types of people can end up loving each other so much...does that mean that there's hope for me...?
Hinata's reverie was interrupted once again. This time, nothing familiar caught her eye, it was the unfamiliar that made her eyes widen and her muscles tense up. A tall, busty girl with a long black braid shot through the door as if Orochimaru were after her and flung herself at the counter, panting for air.
The waitress hurried forward, looking concerned as the girl clutched at her side, her pretty features, rather flushed and sweaty, creased with pain.
"I want, I want, three seafood ramens, please, with, with, extra prawns!" the girl gasped out dramatically.
The words, "Are you ok?" were just leaving the confused Ichiraku waitress' lips, when she was interrupted by the sound of pounding feet, a crash as a curvaceous girl with a bright red ponytail tripped on the threshold, picked herself up and almost vaulted over Hinata in her haste to get to the counter.
"Two beef ramens please!" the newcomer screeched in a voice to rival Ino's, "And," she panted triumphantly, "FOUR pork ramens with extra noodles!"
The first girl scowled at her darkly, but before Hinata had time to duck down from between them and make an escape, two more girls arrived in an identical manner, both streaming with perspiration and looking as if they had just run in the Annual Konoha 400m women's final. They too landed on the counter and blurted out with what seemed their last breath,
"Three egg ramens and three chicken ramens, don't skimp on the soy sauce!"
Hinata was staring at the girls in bewilderment. The Ichiraku waitress would have been staring, had she not been frantically scribbling down the orders and jolting the old chef into action.
"Oyaji!" she yelled in much the same manner as Temari had, "I don't know what's going on, but you'd better get cooking!"
She glanced out the door and her face blanched. Hinata whipped around to follow her gaze and paled.
"I don't think that dust cloud is from locusts, do you?" the waitress yelled over her shoulder at the old man, who grunted and shrugged as his hands began to work at lightning speed, preparing the ramen ingredients.
Hinata gazed at the rapidly approaching dust cloud with growing trepidation. Soon she could distinguish figures from flying dirt, figures running as if their lives depended on it.
"Byakugan!" she whispered, forming the seals, gazing intently, her eyes widening.
Every one of those figures is female! What is going on? They all seem to be heading here! What on earth...
But there was no time to think, the Hyuuga heiress shrank against the counter, making herself as small as possible, as within seconds, Ichiraku became packed full of shrieking, gasping, sweating girls aged from about 15-21.
Amidst the jostling and shoving, the air was filled with feminine voices yelling out orders for ridiculous quantities of every flavour of ramen on the menu.
Hinata managed to pick out some intelligible words from the uproar.
"Six vegetable ramens, please!" was heard, followed by squeals of contempt.
"Chieko, you baka, he doesn't LIKE vegetable ramen!"
"Silly! Get some crab ramen with wasabi on the side, THAT'S his favourite!"
"How do you know that, Sanae? He told me last week that lobster makes him feel stronger!"
Then suddenly, as the first orders were being hurriedly thrown onto the counter by the wide-eyed waitress,
"ARGH! QUICK! He's coming!"
"Oyaji! Can't you cook any faster!?"
"Oooh, he is looking so HOT!"
Hinata blinked at the last comment.
She turned back toward the entrance of Ichiraku, craning her neck painfully around the girls pressed against the counter, and there, towering over a small, giggling knot of girls who were clinging to his arms and anything else they could get a grip on, was...
The girls all squealed in unison.
The Hyuuga heiress sighed softly and felt her heart sink, past her stomach, down her legs and straight to the floor with a crash.
I should have guessed, she thought miserably, His fan club would never let him eat alone, especially when he's just returned from a 5 month mission.
(Yes, that's right, Naruto has a fan club now.)
All eyes were glued to the blonde jounin as he strolled over to a booth in the corner and sat down, immediately followed by ten or so girls, who began bickering over who would sit nearest him.
Hinata stared at the counter, desperately trying to keep her eyes off him. He didn't even see me. Well, I guess it would be a bit hard to, when I'm practically buried beneath his whole fan club, she thought, biting her lip.
Feeling the pressure of the girls around her lessen as they began to migrate in Naruto's direction, Hinata gave in and let her eyes find him. When they did, her heart missed a few beats and her breath seemed to get caught in her throat.
She was used to it by now, but somehow that still didn't make it easier to look at him.
The shrimpy little blonde genin with the squeaky voice and eye-damagingly orange tracksuit was no more. In his place was a tall, broad, powerfully built 19 year old jounin, with a stature to rival that of Jiraiya-sama and stunning good looks to rival those of the Fourth Hokage himself.
His features had hardened and sharpened, becoming more angular, complimented by the whisker-like scars on his cheekbones. His hair was the same golden blonde, framing his handsome face in spikes that brushed his shoulders.
The orange tracksuit had finally been discarded, to be replaced by the jounin uniform navy trousers, topped with a dark blue fishnet shirt, stretched tight over the rippling muscles of his torso. On missions he wore his green jounin vest, but today he was clad in a sleeveless leather jacket that Iruka-sensei had given him for his birthday. Its back was marked with the Konoha leaf symbol and showed off his arms, which were nothing short of impressive.
But it was the eyes, always the eyes that caught her. They had not changed since his genin days, for which she was grateful. Still that dazzling shade of cerulean blue, still full of power, determination, energy, but also mischief and sympathy and a kindness that extended to anyone who looked as if they needed it.
Dragging her eyes away, Hinata caught sight of herself in the mirror and slumped miserably. If only, she thought, if only time had wrought the same miraculous changes in her!
If only she could have grown tall and leggy, like Ino-san, or filled out nicely, like Sakura-san had a few months after her 15th birthday. If only she had Tenten's sparkling brown eyes and weapons ability, or Temari's dry wit and cat-like grace of movement (as well as an impressively, um, curvaceous physique that rivalled that of the Fifth Hokage herself!)
But no, the image that gazed dismally back at her from over the counter seemed no different to the one that had gazed at her from the back of her wardrobe door 7 years ago.
Her skin was still ivory white, stubbornly resisting any effects of the sun or tanning salons. Her blue-black hair was still in the short hairstyle of her genin days, after failed attempts at ponytails and French braids. She had not grown much, taller or in any other direction, with her hooded, beige jacket still effectively concealing any shape she might have gained in 7 years, and her eyes were still as milky white as they had ever been.
She sighed dismally. She had been doing that a lot lately. She picked up her chopsticks and got as far as sliding them out of her paper wrapping, but lost interest at the sound of laughter and general hilarity emanating from the booth in the corner.
"So then I said to him, NOBODY TOUCHES MY RAMEN!"
"Oh, Naruto-kun! What happened then!?"
"Well, then I..."
"Oh be quiet Aki! Let him eat his beef ramen! Naruto-kun, I ordered this one just for you!"
"Wait Naruto-kun! Can we get a photo of you first?? Flexing your arms!?"
Hinata cringed and clutched her head, waiting for the answer.
"Sure girls! There's always time for a photo!" came the cheery reply in Naruto's deep, velvety voice.
Hinata clenched her fists in her hair and felt like ripping out a few handfuls. Surely, surely, no other girl had endured this kind of aggravation. It was true that Sakura and Ino had been in agonies over Sasuke and his fan club for years until they got over him, but Hinata couldn't help feeling that her own situation was much worse.
After all, Sasuke had never even smiled at his fan club, let alone grin and allow them to follow him around the village. Sasuke had never agreed to go on a date with ANY of his fan club, let alone agree to go on group dates with up to FIFTEEN of them at a time!! And Sasuke had never happily laughed and said, "Sure, why not?" when asked for a photo, let alone agreed to pose SHIRTLESS for photos with four of his fan club members squeezing his biceps!!
Really, Hinata couldn't see WHAT Sakura and Ino had had to complain about! Their situation had been a BREEZE compared to HERS!
It was at this point that Hinata realized that she was beginning to rip out strands of her hair, so she quickly released her head and sat on her hands, ignoring more odd looks from the waitress, who was finally beginning to catch up with all the orders and once more had the time to direct odd looks at the strange actions of customers...
Thirty-four minutes later, Hinata still had not gathered up the courage to eat her miso ramen, let alone tear Naruto from the grip of his fan club and confess her undying love, so instead she was sipping green tea, hoping to clear her head. Unfortunately, every time she caught a glimpse of Naruto, her head seemed to fog up again, and the purpose of the tea was being hopelessly defeated.
During the past thirty-four minutes, Naruto had happily vacuumed up an obscene amount of ramen, while laughing and joking with his fan club, posing for photos and submitting to impromptu shoulder massages - "Your shoulders look SO tense, Naruto-kun! Let me do something about that!"
Hinata had finished a whole pot of green tea and had had to visit the rest room twice, where she had been forced to push her way (inaudibly apologizing the whole time) past different groups of the fan club, who were touching up their makeup and chattering incessantly about the perfections of Uzumaki Naruto.
Now she as sat, sadly watching Naruto working his way through the 2nd last bowl, a voice spoke to her.
"Hyuuga-sama? Would you like that re-heated? It looks quite cold."
She turned in surprise to see the waitress already tipping her bowl of miso ramen into a small pot on the stove.
"Thankyou very much," she said softly. At least that would give her an excuse to stay longer, just until Naruto left, that is.
"Is Uzumaki Naruto-san here?" a firm, authoritative voice rang out from the doorway.
All heads turned to see the Hokage's personal shinobi assistants standing in the doorway. The one who had spoken held in his hands a large, official-looking brown envelope, sealed with red wax.
"Yeah, I'm over here guys," called Naruto cheerfully, "What's up?"
Without replying, the two ninjas marched past the counter and over to the booth, the crowd giving way at the sight of their serious faces. Hinata watched, a sick feeling growing in her stomach as the grin faded from Naruto's face when he looked up at the two men. Quickly standing up, he took the envelope from the shinobi's hand, ripped it open, pulled out a sheet of paper bearing the crest of Konoha, and skimmed it, his blue eyes intent.
The girls of the fan club stepped back. Even they knew that messages from the Hokage were not meant to be seen by any person but the recipient.
Naruto's expression was indecipherable as he folded the document and slipped it back into the envelope. Looking at the two shinobi standing before him, he suddenly grinned, but Hinata could see that his blue eyes were sober.
"Sure guys!" he winked at Tsunade's assistants, "Just leave it to me!"
With brief nods and bows, the two men turned and left Ichiraku, heading in the direction of the administration building. The girls immediately began to cluster around Naruto again.
"Naruto-kun, what did they want? Their faces were so scary!"
"Is it another mission? Where will you be going?"
"It's not fair Naruto-kun! You only just got back!"
Naruto grinned around at the girls clinging to him on all sides.
"Sorry ladies, duty calls."
He sighed dramatically and addressed a teary-eyed blonde, "Ruko-chan, this means I'll have to skip that dinner you planned, please send my regrets to your sisters. And Sadako," to a tall mini-skirt clad brunette, "That skirt looks great on you, but I won't be able to go bikini shopping with you tomorrow."
Hinata's fists began to clench again.
Naruto continued, "But, before I go..."
All heads perked up expectantly.
"I could use a miso ramen, one for the road, you know," he grinned cheekily.
All the girls turned hopefully to the counter, already digging out their purses, only to be met with the waitress' apologetic face.
"I'm so sorry Naruto-san, actually you've eaten our entire stock for today," she said, with a wry smile. Naruto blushed and his face fell slightly.
"We'll be getting deliveries at 5:30 this afternoon..." she began, but Naruto sighed and shook his head.
"Thanks anyway, but don't worry about it, I'll be gone by then," he said ruefully.
As the girls then began plying Naruto for information about when he would return and other non-classified details about his mission, the old Ichiraku owner slowly approached Hinata, a bowl in his hands.
"Finished heating it, Hyuuga-sama, nice and hot now, just like it was fresh-made, you'd never taste the difference if you ate it now, it'd taste just as good as if I just cooked it."
Hinata looked at the old man, smiling tolerantly at what sounded like meaningless chatter, when she was surprised by the wrinkled brown face creasing into a mischievous smile and one cloudy old eye closing in a definite wink.
"Funny coincidence isn't it?" he continued, looking definitely conspiratorial now, "You liking miso ramen just like he does. Pity this is the last lot we've got in the shop. Looks like he'll have to go without," he grinned even wider as Hinata's face suddenly seemed to light up with a new idea, "Then again," he said, pushing the steaming bowl towards her, "Maybe he won't, eh?"
Naruto was already moving towards the counter on his way to the exit, the girls clustering around him. Hinata began to tremble as he came closer and closer.
Offer him your ramen! Do it! Do it! She screamed at herself as he drew level with her. You'll never get another chance like this! Hurry up!
Raising her head, she saw the faces of the waitress and the old Ichiraku man smiling and winking at her encouragingly.
"Go! Go!" they were mouthing frantically, making nudging motions.
She began to turn on her stool, taking a deep breath. He was so close, just a few feet away, but separated from her by a bevy of bustling females, all of whom seemed to outweigh her ten to one. This was hopeless, her mind said dismally. No! she cried back silently, I can still call out to him! Quick! He's almost at the door!
"Na-naru-Naruto," she stuttered out in a squeaky voice.
Hinata cheered herself silently. He heard me! Yes!
His head began to turn.
Hinata felt an uncomfortable rush of something in her stomach as it twisted and clenched. Her head began to whirl.
Is this it? Is this the moment? Is this the beginning of everything? Will these next moments change my life?
Naruto's face was turned in her direction. Her heart seemed to stop, then to speed up dramatically. His face, his FACE! Why did he have to be so HANDSOME!? It just made everything even harder!!
His brow creased and a hand reached up to tug lightly at the gold ring adorning his ear. The closest fangirl spoke to him.
"Naruto-kun? What's wrong?"
He shook his head as if puzzled and abruptly turned around again.
"Nothing, I just thought I heard someone say my name."
"Silly, that was me!"
"No, it was me!"
"Come on Naruto-kun! We'll all walk you to the Hokage's office!"
"Ok, let's go girls," he grinned, as he crossed the threshold, his fan club following him eagerly.
Even through the tears welling up in her eyes, Hinata could still see how the sun lit up his hair like spun gold, and how his tanned skin seemed to shine like some precious substance.
She dropped her head on the counter beside her bowl of ramen. Ouch, that hurt. Serves me right, she thought, deliberately lifting her head and letting it fall again. Ouch. It doesn't hurt that much the second time, maybe the third time...
She lifted her head again and dropped it, only to find her forehead cushioned against a thick wad of napkins bearing the Ichiraku logo. She looked up to see the old owner and the waitress gazing down at her, disappointment and pity written all over their faces.
Oh, please, don't look at me like that. How pathetic am I? Now I have the owners of a fast food shop pitying me...why do people either pity or despise me? Who am I kidding? How could someone like me ever get Naruto to notice me? It was hard enough before he turned into the hottest shinobi in Fire Country, and now...
Hinata didn't want to lift her head, the napkins were so soft and comforting...minutes passed as she slowly let her mind clear. The old Ichiraku oyaji was busily washing up his cooking pots, while the waitress, having shut the doors and put up the 'closed' sign, was wiping down tables. With new supplies not arriving until 5:30, there was no point in staying open.
Hinata lifted her head, which suddenly felt very heavy, and propped her chin on her hands, her elbows on the counter. At home, she never put her elbows on the table. From childhood, proper etiquette and manners hade been drilled into her, and any lapses had been met with harsh chastisement. But right now, she was not in the mood to think about her Hyuuga ancestors reeling in horror at the sight of her elbows on the counter of a fast food establishment.
What am I going to do now? The usual? Go home, have Father get mad at me for being weak, go to my room and cry into my pillow over another failed attempt to speak to-
Her depressing train of thought was thankfully interrupted by an exclamation from the waitress, who had begun to stack the bowls left behind in Naruto's wake.
"What is it, onee-san?" asked the pale-eyed kunoichi, surprised at the huge grin spreading over the waitress' face as she gazed down at something on the seat of the booth where Naruto had been sitting.
The waitress looked up at Hinata and her mischievous grin seemed to stretch even wider. Hinata had a brief flash of déjà vu and began to feel nervous.
"Hyuuga-sama, this must be your lucky day!" said the waitress. Bending over, she picked something up off the seat and held it aloft in triumph.
"Guess...who...left...his...JACKET behind!" the woman squealed, as she practically danced over to the counter and waved the garment in Hinata's face. The shy Hyuuga heiress ogled the jacket, the blood rushing to her cheeks.
Naruto's jacket! He loves this jacket! He'll definitely notice he hasn't got it and when he does, a smile touched her pale lips, he'll come back for it!
The maniacally grinning waitress laid the jacket on the counter beside Hinata, then pranced back to the table and continued stacking the bowls and glasses, humming merrily.
Meanwhile, Hinata gazed at the jacket. This was Naruto's jacket that he wore all the time. I wonder what it feels like? I've never gotten close enough to know. Before she could stop herself, her hand had reached out and lightly stroked it, as if it were a living thing. It felt soft and worn from so much use and she could feel the roughness were it had been cut and patched by inexpert hands.
She picked it up by the shoulders and marvelled at how long and wide it was. It just came to Naruto's hips, but it would probably fall almost to her knees. She brought it closer to her face to read the label at the collar and suddenly stopped, a flush rising in her cheeks.
Her nose had caught a scent.
A nice scent.
A very nice one.
After looking around to make sure the judgmental Ichiraku staff were safely out of sight in the kitchen, the girl brought the coat to her face, holding it in both hands, and inhaled deeply.
"Hey Hinata! You found my jacket!"
She could have died.
Or, she wished she could have.
But, she couldn't.
Instead, wearing a weak smile on a face now resembling a beetroot, she took her nose out of the jacket and handed it to its suddenly materialized owner, trying to avoid eye contact.
"Thanks a lot Hinata, I don't know what I'd do without this jacket! I can't believe I just left it here!" Naruto was saying energetically.
"I'm sorry," whispered Hinata almost inaudibly, staring at the ground.
"Um...no, I think the words you're looking for are 'You're welcome', 'That's ok, don't do it again', or maybe 'You owe me big time Uzumaki!'" he said teasingly, grinning down at her.
Her face became even redder than before as she watched him slip on the jacket, the muscles of his arms and chest moving as he adjusted it on his back. Less than a minute had passed before he turned to leave, with a friendly wave and a, "See ya, Hinata!"
Struck by a sudden thought, and seeing the waitress frantically gesturing at her from the kitchen doorway, Hinata summoned up all her courage.
"Naruto! Wait!" she squeaked.
He stopped and turned back to her, smiling, eyebrows raised questioningly.
Do it! Do it! You'll never get another chance like this again...well...it looks like you have...but...ARGH! He's looking at me funny now! Just say it!!
"Naruto, would you-would have to you like my riso mamen?"
Bravo Hinata, way to sound like a COMPLETE nutcase...
Naruto was looking at her in confusion. "Would I what?"
Ok, he hasn't run away yet, push through the embarrassment, Hinata, you can do it! Push THROUGH IT!
She took a deep breath.
"Naruto, would you like to have my riso—um, my miso ramen? I, I haven't touched it," she added hurriedly, seeing the apparent lack of enthusiasm on his face.
The blonde jounin came closer until he was standing just in front of her, forcing her to tilt her head right up in order to be able to maintain eye contact. Her heart began to sink as, smiling gently, he shook his head.
"No thanks, Hinata."
He can't even bear to touch food that was ordered by you. He must be so repelled...Wait, what is he doing with the chopsticks? When did he start holding my hand!?
As the shy kunoichi watched, dumbfounded, the object of her adoration gently snapped apart the chopsticks, placed them in her hand, then, cradling the small, white hand in his large, tanned one, dug the chopsticks into the bowl of noodles.
Hinata was staring at her hand in astonishment, when suddenly, the same, large, warm hand, palm rough with calluses and fingers scarred from years of performing summoning jutsus, cupped her cheek and turned her face back to look at him.
Naruto was smiling down at her, a gentle, tender smile. He spoke in a low voice.
"I think you need it more."
Then, with a brush of his fingers over her cheek, he turned and left, the glass door swinging shut behind him.
In the Hokage's office...
The Fifth Hokage, busily pretending to be reading last month's mission reports, looked up in surprise as her personal assistant burst into the room, with a scowl and an empty coffee pot.
"Shizune? What's wrong? Wasn't there any coffee left?" asked Konoha's Shadow Flame in a mildly surprised tone.
Shizune stopped dead, looked wildly at the coffee pot, then gave vent to an impotent groan of frustration. The Hokage's eyebrows shot up.
"Seriously, Shizune, what's going on?" a thought struck her and her brow furrowed, "It's not Gai challenging Kakashi to another of his insane bets is it? Last time he tried to talk ME into judging the contest, then told everyone I was biased when Kakashi won! I'm never doing that again..."
"No, Tsunade-sama, nothing like that, I'm so sorry I forgot your coffee! I was on my way to the lounge, when I caught a group of girls trying to break into the mission debriefing room.
"What!?" exclaimed Tsunade, leaping to her feet, "Were they spies? Did you apprehend them!? Bring them to me!"
"No, no, no, Tsunade-sama, it's nothing like that at all," Shizune reassured her hastily, 'They weren't spies at all, actually, they were..."she trailed off.
"Well!?" the Hokage's eyebrow was twitching dangerously.
"Well, I recognized some of them. They belong to Uzumaki-kun's fan club and it seems they were trying to find out the location and time of his departure. They said they were planning a surprise send-off for him." Tsunade rolled her eyes.
"And," Shizune continued, her irritation mounting, "I've had complaints from other jounin that for the last few hours, various other girls from the fan club have been trying to break into that room for the same reason!"
"Hormone-driven teenage girls," sighed the Hokage, "Is there anything worse?"
"Well," said Shizune reluctantly, "You must admit, Tsunade-sama, that Uzumaki-kun hasn't exactly been discouraging them. I mean, he lets them buy him food, accepts their gifts, goes on dates with different members every day, and as for this posing shirtless the other week..."
"Naruto!? Posing for photos!? In only shorts?" the pig-tailed woman exclaimed in astonishment, brown eyes wide. Shizune nodded before bursting into helpless laughter.
Tsunade frowned deeply for a few moments, hands folded in front of her face. Her purple-clad assistant went quiet, waiting for the wise judgement of the Fifth Hokage. After a few moments, Tsunade lifted her eyes and slapped her palms down on her desk.
"Let it be made freely known to any who ask, that Uzumaki Naruto commences his mission from the East gate, at exactly," her eyes flicked to the clock on her desk. It read 2:42. She continued, "At exactly 3:35pm." She gave a brisk nod. "That should do it, I think."
Shizune grinned. "Right away, Hokage-sama. I'll go get your coffee as well." She turned towards the door, still smiling, when suddenly Tsunade's voice arrested her.
"Incidentally, Shizune, if a certain young lady of the Hyuuga clan should make any enquiries, or if you should accidentally come across her, you may tell her that Naruto will be departing at 3:45, from the North gate." Shizune's eyebrows shot up as she stared at the Hokage, who had a small smile playing over her lips.
"As you say, Tsunade-sama, I'll get right on it."
"Thankyou, Shizune. Oh, and, one more thing-"
Shizune's eyebrows rose even higher at the faint blush that was rapidly deepening on her employer's face.
"I, well, do you know, um, that is to say, these photos you were mentioning before, of Naruto, how would one, er – get hold of a copy?"
The dark-haired woman stared at the furiously blushing Hokage in disbelief, then chuckled.
"I heard that Yuuhi Kurenai-san is the major distributor, but you should hurry, they're disappearing fast," she grinned wickedly and patted her pocket, "I have my copy already."
"Kurenai, eh? She told me she was photocopying surveillance photos from her last mission! I wonder if Asuma knows about this? Hm...I smell blackmail material, that'll teach her to beat me at poker!"
Leaving the Fifth Hokage grinning and rubbing her hands together with glee, Shizune walked down the corridor towards the jounin lounge.
I guess you can't grow up with someone like Jiraiya-sama without picking up some bad habits, she thought resignedly.
Hinata's steps turned toward the administration building, which reposed in the shadow of the great cliffs, bearing the sculpted likenesses of Konoha's four previous Hokages. The faces of the first two meant little to her; they were simply images from history books, faces of great men who had laid the foundations of Konoha, great men now dead and gone.
The face of the Third meant something; memories of a kindly old man with a dry wit and indomitable courage, who had ruled wisely and well, and died bravely in defence of the village and the people he loved. When she gazed up at the stone face, she felt affection and a gentle sorrow, from which the sting had long faded.
Depending on her mood, she tried to avoid looking at the face of the legendary Fourth. He looked too much like Naruto.
Some would say Naruto looked too much like him, and only one or two people could have said that such resemblances were to be expected between a father and son. These people, however, had been silent for a long time.
Hinata, knowing nothing of all this, entered the administration building, after deciding that after such a hot morning, the dark clouds gathering overhead were a welcome sight.
Quietly she made her way to the large common room on the second floor, which was labelled "Jounin Lounge", though in reality, any shinobi past genin level, or, failing that, age 17 or over, were free to enter and make use of the facility between missions.
Originally it had been a mission debriefing room, but with the expansion and updating of the administration building in the Third's time, it had changed gradually over the years into a comfortable 'kicking back' room, including plenty of soft chairs and couches, coffee tables, a non-alcoholic café, and even some billiards tables and dart boards. It was even rumoured that Rock Lee was trying to obtain some ping pong tables, but had been having difficulty in raising funds.
Due to the large message board taking up half of one wall, it was also a great place to get information about what various ninjas were up to at certain dates and times. The shy Hyuuga made a bee-line for the board, her pale eyes roving at lightning speed over the posters, flyers and scraps of paper attached by tacks, sticky tape, staples, and, in a few cases, even shuriken and kunai.
She was expecting to find a note from Naruto, not to her of course, but nowadays, before leaving on missions, he usually left some kind of message for his friends or fan club tacked to the board. Depending on the classification level of his mission, the note might give some details about when he would be leaving or returning, or how he could be reached.
What she was not expecting to find, was a large orange sheet of paper, decorated with red lovehearts and lip-prints, which said, in stereotypically girly handwriting:
"Announcement for all Uzumaki Naruto fan club members
Our beloved idol is leaving on a mission again! If you want to come see him off (which of COURSE you do!) come to the East Gate at exactly 3:35PM.
Don't be late, because he will be giving free farewell cuddles to the first 10 lucky girls! See you all there!"
Hinata nearly choked. Free farewell cuddles!? Have they no shame? After her initial disgust and shock at the new atrocities of the fan club, she began to feel puzzled. Something here didn't add up; from the manner in which Naruto had received the mission, anyone would have assumed that it was of the highly classified, top-priority calibre, yet here were his exact departure details, in black and white, for the world to see. Well, in plain red and orange anyway, yuk! What a terrible combination...
It didn't make sense, but the pale-eyed kunoichi did know one thing for sure: none of the fan club in their right mind would ignore an announcement like that. By 3:15 or probably even earlier, the East Gate would be swarming with squealing girls, fighting over who had got there first and would therefore receive a farewell cuddle.
What's the point in showing up to watch that? Apart from the fact that I really want to know why he did that before in Ichiraku. She blushed and raised a hand to her cheek as she had in Ichiraku after he had walked out the door. Her skin still seemed to tingle. Suddenly remembering where she was, the girl quickly dropped her hand from her face and looked to see if anyone was eyeing her strangely.
It was then that, surveying her surroundings for the first time, Hinata realised just how quiet the lounge seemed to be. Well, not quiet exactly, there were some young shinobi joking and talking over a game of pool, and two bearded contemporaries of Asuma-sensei were contending for the bulls-eye at the darts board, but something seemed to be missing.
Most of the armchairs and sofas were occupied by middle-aged kunoichi sipping coffees and snoring shinobi...Hinata's eyes widened as the realization struck her – there was not a single kunoichi under the age of 30 to be seen anywhere. Whipping her head around, her eyes fell on the clock above the door. A sick feeling swept through her. Twenty-five minutes past three.
Oh no. Where did the time go? I'll never make it. It takes at least fifteen minutes to get to the East Gate from here, and for a mission, he wouldn't be permitted to leave even a minute late. Her lips began to tremble, even as she raced toward the lounge exit, her feet seeming to move of their own accord.
The linoleum tiles flashed past beneath her feet as she sprinted down the corridor, then, unable to bear waiting for the elevator, ran straight to the stairwell. Two long flights of stairs stared her in the face. After a moment's hesitation, Hinata vaulted over the railing and landed in a crouch 7 metres and 1.5 seconds later. She leapt to her feet and ran to the main entrance, only to collide head on with the Hokage's personal assistant, Shizune.
Both being highly-skilled kunoichi, the collision was not serious, and, after the correct expressions of shock, concern and regret were voiced, if a little hastily for traditional ideas of courtesy, Hinata was turning to continue her race with time, when the purple clad woman grabbed her hand firmly.
"Hyuuga-sama, please wait, this is a lucky coincidence, actually I've been looking for you! I have a message from Tsunade-sama," Shizune said, clutching her hand. Hinata felt like crying with frustration, Now, of all times!
"Yes, Shizune-san? What are the words of the Fifth?" she asked, in as polite and calm a tone as she could muster.
To her astonishment, Shizune simply winked and patted the girl's hand, then, closing it into a fist, released it and walked away. Hinata stared after her in bewilderment for all of two seconds then once more began to run.
As she did so, she opened her fist. There in her palm lay a piece of folded paper. Mystified, she unfolded it and read three or four short lines of script in a flowing, feminine hand. Her mouth fell open as she slowed, then stopped, staring at the words.
A most undignified, unlady-like phrase burst from the kunoichi's lips. Her noble Hyuuga ancestors were rolling in their graves, but Hinata could not spare a penitent thought. She was already running again, running with all her heart, running north. The time was 3:30pm.
Gasping for breath, lungs burning, legs aching, a pearly-eyed girl with short, wind-tossed black hair framing her flushed face, came to a halt at the great gates facing Konoha's northern border. She had no idea what time it was; there were no clocks, and, though she had run her fastest, she feared that too much precious time had been lost.
What if he's already gone?
The very thought chilled her sweating body. She had stripped off her over-sized, padded coat along the way and left it, finding herself invigorated by the cool winds from the gathering storm, but now she shivered slightly, and rubbed at her bare arms.
Looking around her, she could not see or even detect the shinobi on guard, but knew they must be on top of the wall, perhaps watching her. The thought comforted her slightly, as she gazed on the empty, rolling grasslands that lay to the north of Konoha. Beyond them was a great river, and beyond that lay Stone Country.
She had never been there before. It was not on particularly friendly terms with Fire Country, and despite friendly overtures by Tsunade-sama, relations had not improved much. It was a dangerous place. And soon Naruto will be in there...
I wonder what kind of mission it is? Is he going alone? How long will he be? When will he come back? A small, treacherous voice whispered in her ear.
If he comes back at all...a cold hand seemed to clutch at her heart.
Still no one had arrived. This is crazy, Hinata thought, as tears began to well in her eyes, I don't know what time it is; he's probably already left and gone. It's pointless to wait longer----
She only had time to catch a flash of black, before a pair of powerful arms snaked around her; one around her waist, imprisoning her arms, and the other around her neck, a large hand clamping over her mouth. She couldn't scream, couldn't think, as she was effortlessly lifted and pulled back into the shadow of the village walls.
The pale-eyed girl was set on her feet, back pressed against the cold stone of the wall as she looked up, trembling, at the tall, broad figure before her. He was clad in the armoured uniform of an elite ANBU member, and she could see two sword hilts sticking up over each shoulder, the straps slung across his chest.
He wore no identification, no forehead protector. His head was covered with a black bandana, and a matching black mask covered all of his face except... a pair of blue eyes that she could have recognized anywhere.
The two voices exclaimed in unison.
"When did you get here?"
"What are you doing here?"
Naruto grinned, pulling down his mask.
"No, you first, Hinata-chan."
"No, please, you first," whispered Hinata, feeling herself blushing again. Since when does he call me Hinata-chan!? I...I like it...
He grinned again, just a friendly grin that only made her heart beat faster, nothing too drastic.
"If you know enough to be waiting here, I guess it's ok to tell you. I'm not doing this alone. Shikamaru's coming too. We'll be meeting Gaara after we cross the river. It's kind of a joint mission thing." He looked around and sighed. "I hope that lazy bum shows up soon, we've gotta go!"
"Oh, I'm sure he will," Hinata said softly, "Shikamaru-san is very reliable."
She was just inwardly sighing with relief that Naruto appeared to have forgotten his question, when he said casually, not even looking at her, "So, Hinata-chan, what are you doing here?"
Her mind froze.
"I, well, I was just walking this way..." Uh oh, Hinata, moment of truth approaching...
"Just walking this way, huh?" Naruto had turned back and was looking at her with an unreadable expression on his usually transparent face.
"Er, yes, I mean, I like the view from here and I usually come here, well, sometimes I like to," she said lamely, inwardly berating herself. What am I saying!?
"You like the view from here, do you?" He had placed one large hand beside her head where it rested against the wall, and was leaning down slowly, gazing directly into her eyes.
"I, I, yes, I do," she whispered, trailing off, all coherent thought vanishing from her mind as he leaned closer and closer towards her. His other hand reached up to cup her chin, tilting her face up to his.
What is happening!? Am I going to wake up? This is too much like all my dreams! It's a dream, isn't it? ISN'T IT?
But he was never wearing a bandana in the dreams...and...is that a BLUSH on his cheeks!?
"Me too," he said softly, gazing deeply into her eyes. He was so close, almost close enough to---
"Yare, yare, I thought Tsunade managed to throw all your troublesome fan girls off the scent?" a deep voice called lazily from behind them.
Grinning easily, without a trace of embarrassment, Naruto straightened and stepped back, turning to face Konoha's notorious Shadow Jounin.
"What are you doing, Nara?" he chuckled, "You're not even gonna wear your bandana? It might be a good idea, with hair as distinctive as yours." He gave a cough that sounded suspiciously like "Pineapple head, pineapple head!"
Shikamaru smirked. "Right back at ya, Blondie."
Meanwhile, Hinata had gotten over her light-headedness and utter mortification and was standing quietly, determined that she say something intelligent before he left, if it was the last thing she ever did.
Shikamaru glanced at her, his piercing, narrow brown eyes seeming to read her mind exactly. "Sorry, Hinata."
She and Naruto looked at him in surprise.
"What for, Shikamaru-san?" she murmured, confused.
"You're better than those fan girls, and hopefully this dimwit will tell you so one of these days," he smirked, "I wouldn't waste time if I was you; I bet he didn't tell you how dangerous this mission is, did he?" She shot a glance at Naruto, who avoided her eyes.
"Shikamaru!" he hissed, scowling, "What are you doing?"
The lazy jounin continued relentlessly. "The Hokage's note said survival chance is about 30. He probably won't come back in one piece, if at all. But maybe we'll be lucky, who knows? Anyway, hidden love is such a troublesome thing." Hinata gasped and stared at the ground, face flaming, wishing the earth would open and swallow her.
No, on second thoughts, Shikamaru being swallowed would be much better...
"Yare, yare," said the shadow-user, "The life of a shinobi is so short and fraught with peril. It's best just to get it all out in the open, ne, Naruto?"
Naruto? Hinata looked up and was astounded to see a slow, deep blush rising in the blonde jounin's sun-tanned cheeks.
"Damn you, Shikamaru!" he sighed, scratching his head, "This isn't the best time for it, really."
"On the contrary, your fan club isn't here to mess things up and besides, women are way friendlier when they think they might never see you again," the pony-tailed jounin winked lazily, as he turned and wandered a few metres away out of earshot.
"Naruto?" Hinata was staring up at him in disbelief, hardly daring to move as, still blushing, he turned back to her and carefully, awkwardly took both her small white hands in his own.
"Ok, um, I, well, I wasn't planning on saying this now," he began, looking at her hands, "Actually I'm not sure when I was going to say it, there never seemed to be a good time, what with all the missions lately, and my fan club and training and stuff...um, anyway," he continued hastily, "I don't really know how to say this..."
"Just tell her already! You're making this so troublesome, you baka," Shikamaru's irritated voice reached them from twenty metres away.
"Fine!" yelled the blushing jounin over his shoulder, "But if she tells me to get lost, it's YOUR fault for making me do this now!" He turned back to the stunned Hyuuga, his face reminding her of a tomato.
"Um, ok, it's like this, I, I mean, you've always been really nice to me, actually I think you've always been the one who believed in me and you're so different from all the other kunoichi. You're so sweet and so quiet, but then you're so tough as well when you need to be, and I really like that, and, actually I like you...a lot...I mean I really like you, Hinata-chan...are you laughing!?" For the shy Hyuuga's small frame had begun to quiver and a strange, jerky noise was coming from her mouth.
Slowly her bowed head rose and she looked up at him. Tears were streaming down her pink-flushed cheeks, but a small, delicate smile lifted the corners of her mouth.
"Naruto – I –," she couldn't finish, her voice unsteady with sobs.
A look of wonder and happiness flooded Naruto's face as he gazed into her eyes.
"Should I take the fact that she's crying as a good sign?" yelled Shikamaru.
Ignoring him, Naruto smiled down at her tear-streaked face.
"I'm sorry I'm only telling you this now," he said, "But maybe when I get back...we'll have some time to...talk about this?"
She nodded dumbly, unable to find words. But as he leaned down and lightly kissed her cheek, then turned to leave, replacing his mask, she finally found them.
"Yeah?" he looked back over his shoulder, eyes crinkled with a grin hidden beneath the mask. This is how Sakura-san must feel all the time with Hatake-san...the thought flashed through her mind as she looked at the black cloth concealing his features.
"Promise you'll come back, because I'll be waiting."
He grinned and flashed the peace sign at her, "I promise, Hinata-chan. I never go back on my words!"
She watched him turn and leave, falling into step with Shikamaru, watched as their figures grew smaller and smaller, before merging with the long, waving grass.
"Because that's your way of the ninja," she whispered to herself, unable to check the tears flowing down her smiling face.