I hereby disclaim any ownership of the characters, events, and names relating to Naruto™ in this chapter and the following chapters thereof.
ps.--I changed my mind--again--about this fic. I hope you find it to your liking.
What is fate, anyway? Those around me believe it be unchangeable, something set in stone the moment we come into existence, like the sword smith's brand on each weapon he processes. To reject your fate is like smiting God himself, so I am told. But who can say what his fate is, and what gives him the right to dictate his brother's?
The air in this place is stale, like the water left out by my bedside. But I drink it in everyday regardless, filling myself up with the ideas and concepts of a family that tells me my destiny is to forever dwell in the shadows of failure. I cannot bring myself to think otherwise.
Hinata closed the leather-bound book and placed it aside, sighing with depression. It was her only comfort in a house crowded with people who intentionally ignore her, but it failed to put her in a better mood. Brushing a strand of wayward hair from her face, she shut off her bedside lamp, frowning at the clay mug of water set aside her pillow. Outside, the wind batted against the window with the impatience of an oncoming storm, but she was too tired to notice or care. Tomorrow was a day to endure.
- - - -
The smell of burning plastic drifted in the humid air, alarming Hinata. She snapped into a sitting position, shifting her gaze around the room for the source. Beside her hand was her smoldering alarm clock, crying out in a muted, prolonged beep it was betrayed. Realization seeped into her soggy brain after she saw her hand covered in fragments of black plastic and the matching indentation in her small black timekeeper. She couldn't help but groan out loud, leaning back into her sweat-soaked pillow and letting her eyes drift to her window.
The sun was beginning to climb the hills to its perch in the azure sky, burning away the pink and orange along its gentle ascension. Despite the tempest bearing down on Konoha the night before, the sky was clear and light, promising a good day forthcoming, at least on the outside.
Shards of her former alarm clock pricked her hand, reminding her that she subconsciously demolished the only loyal object in the house and set an inevitable encounter with her father. To go on without an alarm was considerably worse, however, no matter how much she dreaded imposing on Hiashi.
She mentally slapped herself. Why did she have to do that? Confronting her father over something so trivial wasn't something she wanted to do. Hinata looked down at her hands, cringing. It was something she had to do.
Hinata pushed the warm covers away from her body and rolled onto her knees, edging towards the false wall that hid her closet. She slid open the door and fished out her normal wardrobe—a black undershirt with light-weight mess at the neckline and arms, her black pants, and her modest white jacket with the clan in sigma on the back. After fully dressing herself, she gently slid the door shut and stood up, stretching her muscles as part of her daily routine. Holding out her favorite one the longest, Hinata let out a refreshed sigh and swung her arms, ready to depart her sanctuary. Lingering in her doorway, she ran her undamaged hand through her hair and took a deep breath, quietly closing the only access to her room behind her.
Pressing herself to the wall, she inched her way towards the tea room, feeling cold as she got farther away. She knew her father would be drinking his morning cup, probably speaking to an honorable clan member or training Hanabi.
Hinata's eyes drifted to the floor unwillingly, her heart crushing itself in her chest. She felt uncomfortable with even the mere mention of her sister, the stronger of the two despite the years difference. She arrived at the entrance to her current crisis while she was musing over the younger Hyuga, pausing to prepare herself for the usual apathetic glare. After taking yet another deep breath, she gently pushed aside the door and shrank inside herself.
"What is it?"
Hinata froze and felt the familiar dread associated with facing the formidable clan head. He was a pillar of unreachable goals and expectations to her, not a father or a leader at all. Turning in place and setting her feet in his direction, she bowed low and kept the difficult pose. Her eyes followed her toes, but they could not make the path to his face.
"Hai,… I-I need a new alarm clock, please," she inside. Surely he was going to tell her to leave, declaring her unworthy of his time—unworthy of a simple thing like a bedside alarm. Surely he was going to deny her of the one thing she pushed herself to ask for. Hinata waited for the response, the silence crackling in her ears.
"Is that all?," he grunted, giving her the motion to leave. Hinata nodded and slipped out as quickly as she could. The clack of the wooden door against its frame resonated in the air, the only sign she had been there at all. The old man shook his head, frowning seriously.
"Is that your daughter? She seems quite lovely," stated a woman with startling red hair pulled into an austere bun and deep, expressive green eyes. She placed her tea on the table, watching the man for any visible response. She received none.
"She is the eldest."
The woman frowned. Surely he could say more than that? How she did in school, what she wanted to do? What a sweet girl she was? She folded her hands in her lap.
"Well, then. I must be going. I will bring your concerns to the hokage," she stated, preparing to stand up. Suddenly, she paused midway in motion, her scarlet eyebrows knitting in thought.
"If you would like, I could see to her request. It's on my way, and I have to be coming back here anyway," she offered, once again searching for some kind of emotion to pass through his face. A flicker of something went through his eyes, but she couldn't be sure it wasn't the sun flickering through the small high window.
He picked up his tea and took a sip before answering.
"That is unnecessary."
She waited for more, but that seemed to be the end of the conversation. Talking to this man is like conversing with a brick wall, she thought. Being the polite, diplomatic woman she was, she merely smiled and nodded.
On her way out she noticed a pair of shy pearl eyes watching her depart, weary and unsure.
Hinata grew invisible wings and flew towards the academy. The smeared colors of the trees and sky left an after image in her peripheral vision, no single object staying steady in her line of sight. Detached and numb from the world, Hinata let her thoughts wander without restraint. They crossed into curious musings about the red-haired woman, about what point of time she destroyed her alarm clock, about her forgotten lunch, and even ventured into surreal fantasies where she lived fearlessly.
As the building loomed ahead, she slowed down her pace to a fast walk and searched for classmates. I hope I'm not…, Hinata thought as she watched a few girls giggle and walk across the front grassy yard. She hugged her bag closer to her chest and gazed downward the rest of the way.
Class was finally over. The bell rang several times, but Hinata still sat in her desk, hands folded neatly in her lap. Iruka had asked her to stay after for some unknown cause, her only clue the worried crease etched into his brow as he ushered the last students out. She was curious and a little nervous at the same time. Couldn't be an extra assignment or late homework; Hinata was a model student after the Haruno girl, lacking only in confidence. Hinata could only wonder, idly twiddling with the hem of her jacket with a crushed frown.
Iruka placed a hand on Hinata's shoulder and took it away, breaking her away from her thoughts. She jumped and smiled demurely, her nerves swimming in cold dread.
"Oh, uh, Sensei," Hinata whispered, her eyes fell to her hands in her lap. His concerned gaze was too much to bear.
"Hyuga-san, I wanted to talk to you," he started, looking away at the blackboard. She sneaked a quick glance to his face and saw concern and empathy written in his eyes, knowing this was far worse than she expected.
"A-about what?" Hinata asked, almost inaudible.
"About the upcoming exam. I think it would be in your best interest to wait and take the next opportunity," he looked back at her face, putting a false, assuring smile on.
Hinata furrowed her eyebrows.
Iruka sighed again, putting a hand to his throbbing temple, responding quietly, "I've been observing your progress since you've entered the academy, and I don't think…"
I don't need your special treatment. I'm not weak.
She gulped, furious with herself for not being able to open her mouth.
I can do this. Just let me try.
"Hyuga-san, I don't normally approach students about this, but since you are the heir to the Hyuuga clan, I have to warn you this exam is different than those in the past."
Feeling betrayed by her own status, Hinata rose from her seat and gave a low bow to Iruka.
"F-forgive me, Iruka-sensei. I… I want to take the exam with everyone else. I think I can do it," she replied, feeling heat rise from her collar and wash over face.
As he stroked his chin Iruka thought over what she said and decided. After reaching inside of his vest for a slip of paper and pen, he sighed and said, "Well, if you think you are ready, then I won't hold you back." He scribbled something on the paper and continued, "This is the address of an acquaintance of mine. I'm not allowed to offer assistance in the course of the exam, but she can."
Hinata reached out without looking and took the paper, placing it in her pocket. She brushed past her sensei while mumbling a quiet good-bye, feeling his eyes burn into her back.
She took her time on the trip home, gazing softly down at the slip of paper and silently screaming.
1500 Toga Apartments
Sighing, Hinata placed the paper back in her pocket and shrugged her bag closer to her center of gravity, keeping her vision lined with the edge of the sidewalk. Her prediction for fair weather was spot-on; not a single cloud or a haze over the horizon to dilute the sunlight or alter the shocking blue sky.
The path jarred to the left, but Hinata kept moving straight, hopping off the path and trudging into the bushes without a glance back. She felt the cool glance of the shade soon as the trees reached out and snagged the light from above her, relief flowing through her as her shoulders loosened from the tight posture she kept during the day. There was something mystical about the woods, something soothing.
Leaving the stretch of oaks at last, she strolled into the clearing and dropped her bag down by her favorite tree stump, weathered smooth around the edges from age and the elements. Hinata produced a new theory behind the tree's decapitation every time she saw it, the latest and most treasured being that a struggling young carpenter scoured the woods far and wide for the perfect tree to harvest excellent wood for an engagement present for his love, finding this one after days of desperate searching. And what a masterpiece he could have extracted, with the ancient stump spanning more than five feet across the diameter. She could fit blissfully stretched out in any direction, always warmed by the heat radiating off of it collected from the sun during the day.
Sighing, Hinata draped herself across the smooth surface and rolled onto her stomach, staring down at the slip of paper. She wondered what kind of person this Inatsu was, and how they could possibly help her. The prospect that this exam gartered outside help was daunting on its own, without the notion of having extra lessons with an unknown shinobi.
Finally dropping her tired gaze from the meaningless characters, she folded it neatly and pinched it through the open zipper of her bag, scouting back to the middle of her special perch to sit cross-legged with her back ramrod straight. Breathing in deeply, Hinata flushed her busy mind with a prolonged exhale, the numb gray fog overtaking her senses as it crept like cold molasses from her head to her toes. Internally chilly, she basked in the sunlight comfortably while the cicadas and birds crooned continuous noise around her into the late afternoon.
- - - -
After a meditating and a long stroll through the forest, Hinata sought out the path leading back to civilization, expertly weaving through the dense brush. When her feet touched the beaten lane obscured by thorny bushes, she slowed her pace to an easy walk and re-shouldered her bag. The sound of her footsteps failed to reach even her own ears, being confined to the soft mush her shoes created in the grainy sand.
Glancing up, Hinata noted the sun's departure from his throne in the sky, the fiery orb scaling down towards the horizon behind the trees. Before very long it would be dark—too late to make an unannounced call on anyone, let alone a complete stranger. She hastened her pace, remembering most of the apartments and homes housing active ninja were located either in the mid-center of town or scattered throughout the Oju district. With any luck, Hinata had about two hours to locate Inatsu. She couldn't believe herself for making the decision to act on Iruka's advice so last minute—she could have had all afternoon to find Toga Apartments.
Hinata whisked over the gate dividing Konoha from the surrounding wood, breathing easier when she caught sight of the dim gleam of city lights above the trees of the training grounds. She passed through the cleared area quickly, ignoring the occasional genin hacking away at training dummies and the more advanced chunin's attempts to master complicated techniques. She recognized a few of her classmates the closer she got to town, even spotting the flash of steel from a clash between a boy she recalled sitting next to her in class and an older shinobi throwing pointed remarks about his younger charge's aim.
"Do it without spinning the kunai!"
She dipped around the entrance and sprinted, the voices fading the further she ventured nearer to town, leaving the comfort of the shaded oaks to venture through houses and
- - -
With one hour down and no closer to Inatsu than she was becoming a respected clan leader, Hinata began to feel frustrated and discouraged. There wasn't much time after classes to spend hunting down phantom instructors and train for an exam. In fact, wasn't it only next Tuesday? That left the shortened class days on the weekend and Monday—not a lot of time for improvement. Maybe she should accept a postponement…
Hinata sighed and spun around, almost lost in the clutter of buildings and stalls of the most populated part of town. Her heart stopped when she spotted a vendor selling grilled duck, the fumes wafting to her from across the street. Deducing the lack of a line and the steady rumble from her stomach was enough cause for a break, she hobbled to the counter and pulled out her modest wallet.
"Hai, I would like a bowl, please," she croaked, realizing she hadn't spoken out loud since leaving the academy. After paying and receiving a steaming bowl of sticky rice and meat swabbed most delectably in sweet sauce, Hinata leaned against the nearest building and began to tear into her meal with as much delicacy as possible, since she did represent an honorable clan.
Her bag slipped off her shoulder and plummeted to the ground next to her shoes, issuing little attention from the hungry girl. The single slip of paper stuck in the broken zipper floated out in front, uncurling from the fold and bearing its contents. A hand peppered with grit picked it up and held to Hinata's face.
"We don't take kindly to litter around here. Don't you know about the city ordinance about punishin' violators?"
Hinata stopped chewing and gaped, shaking her head numbly.
"Eh? No? Must not be from this part…," the old man blinked down at the paper, reading the scrawled words. He directed a thoughtful look at her.
"You lookin' for a deported ninja?"
She continued to stare wide-eyed at the grisly elder, unsure. Rice started to trickle down her throat without her knowledge, causing Hinata to cough to keep her airway clear. Finally, she wiped her mouth and stuttered a response.
"Well, yeah, most everyone knows the people livin' there are discharged shinobi banned from someplace."
Hinata blanched, wondering what sort of person got exiled from their own country. She wasn't sure she wanted to meet this Inatsu after all.
"It's up yonder, a big ol' red building next to the hospital," he continued, gesturing to the north. After gingerly placing the paper into Hinata's hand, the man turned around and walked away, the back of his shirt filthy from oil and mud. She guessed either he was homeless or a laborer of some kind, looking in the direction he pointed. Her mind tumbled in conflict. Certainly her sensei knew that the person he sent her to was banished, or else he was a terrible judge of character. Perhaps it was a minor infraction? Why else would Konoha allow a foreign shinobi with a stained record reside and work in her walls?
She bit her lip, wondering if this extra credit assignment was worth this. After all, if her father found out about this? It was bad enough she did poor enough in some area to warrant special attention—but to convene with a fugitive?
A cool gust of air caressed her face, reminding Hinata of the sun's presence near the horizon. Inwardly sighing, she returned her bowl and trekked home.