A/N: This story takes place at the beginning of the series, when the rookie teams are working on their genin missions. Timeline wise, this occurs at about the same time that Team 7 was busy dealing with Zabuza.
Shelter from the Rain
Hinata was glad it was over. Another mission, another battle, another failure. She used to look forward to team missions, but lately they seemed to be nothing more than opportunities to make a nuisance of herself. This one had been no different.
She leapt through the leaves, landing on a thick moss-covered branch.
Hinata winced. Her ankle was getting worse. The swelling was so bad now that her sandal was uncomfortably tight, and pain was beginning to travel further up her leg with every impact.
Ahead of her, Kiba and Shino moved quickly, leaping from branch to branch in the steady pace that Konoha ninja had perfected for traveling through the forest. It was getting harder and harder to keep up with them.
Hinata reached down, gingerly touching her leg. She had been too ashamed to tell the rest of her team that she had been hurt, but faking it was getting difficult. Even worse, they were still at least an hour's travel from Konoha. There was no way she could continue at this pace.
"Hey, Hinata, what's going on?"
Hinata looked up. A short distance ahead, her teammates had stopped. Kiba was crouched on a nearby branch, staring curiously at her. Beside him, Shino stood silently with his hands in his pockets.
Hinata thought fast. She couldn't tell them what was really wrong. It was too humiliating, especially after what she had already done...
"Um, my pouch came open and some of my kunai fell out. I--I think I see them down there," she said, gesturing to the bushes below her on the forest floor. "It'll only take a minute to get them. You two can go on ahead. I'll catch up."
Shino turned his back to her, still watching her over his shoulder through his dark glasses. "There's no excuse for that kind of sloppiness," he said coldly. "Ninja shouldn't be so careless."
Hinata cringed, dropping her gaze to stare down at her fingers. She knew he was really talking about the mission they had just completed. A band of thieves had attacked the tea shipment they were protecting, and the team had been forced into close combat. Hinata had been concentrating on an enemy in front of her, and had failed to notice the one behind her preparing to pepper her back with projectiles. If Shino hadn't intervened, sending out a swarm of insects to shield her from the poisoned darts, she would have been killed.
Once again, she had been nothing but a nuisance and a danger to her teammates. Shino hadn't said anything to her about the incident--face it, he didn't say much of anything, period--but she knew exactly how he felt about it. Shame coiled in her belly like a lead snake.
How could she tell them, on top of everything else, that her ankle had been injured during the fight? She was still a nuisance, even out of battle. They would hate her even more if she slowed them down.
"I'm sorry," she mumbled. "I--Please don't wait for me."
Akamaru whimpered softly. Kiba scratched the little dog behind the ears. "Don't take too long, then," he said. "It'll be dark soon, and it smells like it's going to rain. Come on, Akamaru." He bounded from the branch, continuing on in the direction of Konoha. Without another word, Shino followed.
Hinata watched them disappear into the forest ahead. Once they were safely out of sight, she swung from the branch and dropped to the ground, gasping as she landed on her injured ankle. There was no way she would be able to continue tree-hopping; she would have to go the rest of the way to Konoha on foot. At least now she didn't have to worry about holding the rest of her team back.
She plopped to the ground and leaned up against a nearby tree, thankful for the chance to rest. She gingerly pulled the sandal from her foot, wincing as the rough material scraped across her skin. Even with the protection of her shoe, the bandit's kama had done serious damage. The skin was gashed open along her anklebone, and a huge purple bruise was forming across the top of her foot. The entire foot was red and swollen, and getting worse by the minute. At the rate she would be limping, it would take her all night to get back to town.
Tears began to drip down her cheeks. This kind of thing happened on almost every mission. She was always the weak one, the useless one, the helpless one that everyone had to protect. It was bad enough when she had failed her family, but failing her teammates hurt even worse. She wanted so badly to stand and fight beside them as equals, but no matter what the situation, she always ended up being nothing but a hindrance. It hurt worse than anything she had ever felt.
"Ha! I knew it!"
Hinata gasped in surprise. She reached instinctively for a handful of kunai, preparing to throw them toward the voice.
A few feet away stood Kiba, his hands on his hips. He grinned wolfishly at her.
Hinata slumped back against the tree, dropping the knives.
"K--Kiba-kun You scared me..." She quickly wiped the tears from her face. After all that had happened, she didn't want him to see her crying like a baby. "Why did you come back?"
"Akamaru said he could smell blood on you," Kiba said, nodding to the dog at his feet. "And I'm not stupid enough to fall for that crappy excuse you gave either."
"But you'll be late if you don't go," Hinata said. "You're the team leader, you should be there to make the report to the Hokage with Kurenai-sensei."
Kiba snorted. "Shino can give the report. He likes to pretend that he's the leader anyway, so it's no big deal if I'm not there. I can't let you struggle all the way home all by yourself."
"Thank you," Hinata said softly.
"Whoo, somebody got you good." Kiba crouched in front of her, examining her injured foot. Akamaru sniffed at the bloody gash, his whiskers tickling her despite the pain.
The sound of raindrops pattering on tree leaves was becoming noticeable. Kiba looked up, where dark grey clouds could be seen through occasional gaps in the thick canopy of leaves above them. Thunder rumbled softly in the distance.
"It will be pouring in a minute," he said. "We need to find cover or we'll be drenched."
He stood up, reaching out to Hinata. She tucked her sandal into her jacket pocket, then took his hand, allowing him to pull her to her feet. She stumbled as she stood up, unable to put any weight on her sore foot. Before she could fall, Kiba pulled her against him, shoving his shoulder under her arm. She leaned against him, grateful for the support.
"We passed some big rocks a few minutes ago," Hinata said. "There might be a cave or something we could hide in until the storm's over."
"Sounds good. Akamaru, you lead the way."
The little dog dashed off through the underbrush. Hinata and Kiba followed, stumbling along at an awkward run. Just as the rain was threatening to pour down, they heard Akamaru barking in the distance.
Following the sound, they limped up to a small rock formation covered in shrubs. Sure enough, Akamaru had found a gap between two of the slabs of stone, forming a small space sheltered by the rain. Hinata crawled into the tiny cave, sitting against one of the stone walls. She pulled her legs up against her chest, careful not to jar her foot. Kiba followed her, wedging himself in beside her. There was barely enough room for both of them in the tiny space.
Outside, the rain was coming down in steady sheets, drowning out all other sound. The storm had done nothing to ease the summer heat, and steam rose from their damp clothing. But at least it was dry and safe.
Hinata pulled some medical supplies from the pouch on her hip, which wasn't easy in the cramped space. She always carried a jar of her own medical ointment with her, as well as a roll of standard ninja wrapping tape. It wasn't perfect, but it would do for a field dressing until she could get back to the hospital in Konoha.
"Here, you better let me do it," Kiba said, watching her struggle to reach her foot among the tightly packed jumble of limbs. He pulled her foot into his lap. He opened the jar of cream, scooped some out with his fingers, and began smoothing it over the torn flesh. Hinata flinched slightly as the cold ointment touched her feverish skin.
"You should have told us you were injured," Kiba said, tearing off a strip of tape with his teeth. "It's not good to keep things like that a secret, you know. I guess I was too busy fighting to notice you getting hurt."
Hinata's shame came sliding back. Kiba had been too busy fighting because Shino had been forced to leave him alone, facing multiple enemies, to come rescue her. Kiba was lucky to have escaped injury himself. The situation could easily have been deadly.
"I'm sorry," she mumbled. "You wouldn't have so much fighting by yourself if I was a better ninja. Shino-kun had to stop everything just to save me..." She faltered, unable to continue. Tears gathered at the corners of her eyes, and she could feel her cheeks flushing. So much for her vow not to let him see her cry.
Kiba stopped wrapping her foot and looked up at her, startled by the sudden emotion in her voice.
"I'm always a nuisance," she continued shakily. "No matter how hard I try, I always bring the rest of the team down." Now the tears flowed freely down her cheeks. "Neji-niisan was right. I should just give up. I'll never be a ninja."
"What are you talking about?
"I--I was just born to be a failure. Nothing can ever change that."
"Oh no? Akamaru can tell you that's bullshit. Right, boy?"
"What?" Hinata asked, confused. Akamaru?
Kiba eased Hinata's foot out of his lap. Her ankle was bandaged securely, the ointment already easing the pain and swelling.
"Akamaru was the runt of his litter. He was the last one born, and was smaller and weaker than all of his brothers and sisters. They would always eat his food, and take his toys. He was always the last one to get attention from his owners."
Hinata was slightly bewildered. What did a dog have to do with her failure as a ninja?
"But do you think he let that stop him?" Kiba continued. "Hell no! He fought for his place. Just because he was smaller and weaker didn't mean he could be pushed around."
"The breeders decided that he could never be a ninja's partner. In the Inuzuka clan, only the strongest and smartest dogs get chosen for that. Because Akamaru was so small and weak, they thought he was useless and only good for being a stupid pet. If he had given up and accepted that he was just a useless runt, he never would have ended up as a ninja dog."
He ruffled Akamaru's ears, earning a happy tail wag from the little dog.
"But Akamaru believed in himself and never stopped trying, no matter how much of a failure everyone else thought he was. Every time someone underestimated him, he made sure they regretted it. In the end, he was the first one in his litter to be assigned as a partner. And we've been together ever since."
He turned to Hinata, his expression earnest.
"That's why you have to keep trying, Hinata. If you roll over and give up, you'll only be helping the assholes who want to shove you out of their way. You have the potential to be a great ninja. I believe it, Kurenai-sensei believes it, hell, maybe even Shino does. The only thing left is for you to believe it."
Hinata felt strange, like someone had wrapped her in a warm blanket. She wiped the tears from her face.
"You're not angry that I always mess up and put you in danger?"
"Huh, angry? The only thing that pisses me off is that you let jerks like Neji convince you that you're useless. When you screw up on a mission, it's not because you can't do it, it's because you're afraid to really try."
The warmth wrapped around her, washing away the shame and sadness. He really believed in her...
"You can do it, Hinata. I know you can."
He smiled warmly at her. Hinata was suddenly aware of how close they were, and how dark and deep his eyes were, staring into hers...
Before she knew what was happening, their lips were touching. The world seemed to drop away, leaving only the warm touch of his mouth and the pounding of heart against her ribs. For an instant she had the overwhelming urge to pull away, to run and hide from this strange new experience.
No! she thought. I won't be afraid. Not any more.
Ignoring the fear, she leaned forward, pressing her mouth firmly against his.
What seemed like an eternity later, the two of them pulled apart. Hinata could feel her stomach squirming, but this time the feeling was completely different than before. She felt the intense desire to go leaping through the trees again, feeling the sun and wind on her face and shouting with joy.
Kiba growled contentedly, leaning back and stretching his legs out as far as they could go without sticking his feet out in the rain.
Hinata snuggled against him, resting her head against his shoulder. His jacket had a distinct odor of wet dog, but she didn't care. She felt a wet touch on her hand, and looked down to find Akamaru nudging her with his nose. Smiling, she gently pulled him into her lap, where he curled happily with his chin on his paws.
Outside, the rain showed no sign of stopping any time soon. Hinata didn't mind.