The noise settled.
It had taken a bit of effort, but Naruto finally managed to quiet down the excited gaggle.
There was a reason for the children's rambunctious behavior. Busy with various missions, the orange-clad ninja had been unable to pay them a visit for an extended period of time.
Most of the waifs and rapscallions had gleefully proclaimed their happiness to see him with prolonged shouting and clapping. But, nearly as many miffed ragamuffins had made it a point to show him their displeasure, afraid that he might prove like the adults who came and went from their lives.
"So… where's Hinata…." One particular girl walked over and stood toe to toe with Naruto. "It's more fun when she's here, too." That brought a wave of assent from a number of mopsy-headed girls. "She should be here…." She and the other children new something that their visitor did not. The bunch of them were tied up in knots, practically bursting from anticipation.
"O really?" Naruto hid a grin and spoke in a gruff voice. "Well… if that's the way you want it…." He wiped imaginary sweat off of his brow and stood in a bold pose. "…I suppose I ought to leave." He knew something the others did not. Hinata was indeed planning to pay them another visit that morning.
"Shhhh-hhh-hh-h…" A number of boys put fingers to their mouths. Their shushing sound reminded Naruto of a nest of snakes. That had him sighing, thinking of Sasuke.
"Yeh…." One boy stood tall, the largest and oldest of the bunch. "Don't be a bunch of bitches!" That had the boy strutting like he had done something b-i-g. Numerous mouths hung open in cute little 'o' shapes before shocked children all turned and pointed their finger at the young lout.
"Huh?" Naruto's eyes narrowed. He wasn't a big fan of boorish behavior, even though he had been no angel himself. Far from it. "Hmmmm-mmm-mm-m… I think I should reward 'brave' talk like that? Right?" His unexpected support of the bad-mouthed boy left the other children speechless. "You get some special one-on-one time with the next Hokage." He thumbed himself in the chest. "You cool with that?"
"You bet!" The boy started thinking of more bad words. All of the other twerps would be jealous, big time! "We could… maybe…." He tried to find some other way to elevate his status. "Ummm… talk about girls…." Naturally, he knew nothing about the fairer gender.
"Nah," Naruto said, shaking his head. "We'll be too busy to be talking." He snapped off a couple of Taijutsu moves, as if implying he might do some training again. He and Hinata had both taken time to teach the youngsters a few of the fundamentals they had learned at the Academy. "Lets go…." He smirked in a fashion that no one else could see. He chuckled when any number of the children blew raspberries. His eyes went wide when one boy said he blew too hard, and 'crapped his pants.'
"Righteous!" The naughty boy rubbed his hands together, and then turned abruptly, thumbing his nose at the other orphans.
The two were not gone long. Things had not gone the way that anyone had expected. Anyone except a certain strutting shinobi. Walking with big self-satisfied strides, Naruto returned to the room, with a rather shaken boy in tow.
Soap bubbles still formed a thick 'V' on the lad's shirt front, making it look like he had grown a snowy beard. He kept making faces, his mouth moving as if he was trying to spit out something powerfully disagreeable.
"Lesson number one," Naruto crowed, holding up and waving a solitary digit on his right hand. "If you say bad words… you get your mouth washed out with soap…."
"Yayyyy-yyy-yy-y…." The children weren't happy about the prospect of getting their own turn in the bathroom. They were ecstatic, seeing that the bully had gotten his comeuppance. Their cheers were cut short when a sudden noise filled the room.
"Lesson number two…." Naruto had created a dozen Bunshin, and they had all stomped their feet rather loudly. All of the clones held up two fingers. "Anyone making fun of anyone else…." Naruto put his hands on his hips. "That means anyone…." He wanted to make certain they understood that bullying wasn't allowed, and that bullies themselves were not to be ganged up on. "….They get soap a-n-d the Akatsuki corner!"
"Oooo-ooo-oo-o…." The children all shook their heads and made promises. No one wanted to go to the Corner.
In a flash of brilliance… or a pawn of deranged machinations prompted by one bowl of pork ramen… Naruto had shown up at the orphanage a few weeks earlier with a bag full of paint and brushes. He had chosen the darkest and dingiest corner of the common room, and had spent hours covering himself and the wall with oil-based pigments, while the children sat in on class unawares. When the orphans returned to their domicile, they found painted representations of Akatsuki, past and present. They were rather frightening, if not all that accurate.
"And I mean Akatsuki Corner with the eyes on!" Naruto folded his arms across his chest. He watched as one of the shadow copies walked over and threw a light switch. Small red light bulbs lit up inside the eyes of the graphic figures. He had added that neat touch after the paint dried.
"No!" "We'll be good." "We'll all be good." "We promise!" "Promise." "Yeh… cross our hearts… hope to die!" "I don't want anymore nightmares."
Naruto tapped his finger against his chin, looking like something out the Grimm's Fairy tales book he had rescued from a trash heap and brought to the orphanage. One by one, he made eye contact with the shivering children, many of whom hid little grins. Any number of them actually liked the Corner, but hated being singled out and sent there.
"Alright. I think I made my point. Because if the Corner doesn't work…." He put his hands behind his neck. It was the usual zinger. The one that would never fail to get the kids in line. "….This might be the last time that Uzumaki Naruto pays a visit…." No one grinned, now. Many doubted that their hero would follow up on that threat; but no one was willing to take that risk.
"That's alright… we'd still have Hinata," the one girl said, sticking out her lip. Her knees trembled a bit, hoping her gambit wouldn't backfire. As much as she idolized and adored the Hyuuga girl, she had a powerful crush on a certain noisy ninja. That had made her scheming with her fellows a sacrifice of sorts.
"Shhhh-hhh-hh-h…." The other children knew that this was part of the game, since the vocal girl always met Naruto's challenges head on. A number of orphans put a dusty pillow sack over the head of the bully, afraid he might blurt out the 'B' word again. They made sure they were out of Naruto's view.
"I see…." Naruto couldn't help but smile. He treasured that young girl's spirit. He had seen how the other orphans' moods and feelings fed off of hers. It was time to go from stern to playful. By instinct, he always knew the right time, whether or not someone gave him the perfect opening. "So… you like Hinata better… huh…." He turned his back to the children and walked over to one of the large produce bags he had brought the day's healthy snacks in. "You wish that she was here instead of me, the-" He waved one hand in familiar fashion.
"STRONGEST NINJA EVER!!"
The childrens' combined voices echoes out into the hallway and down the huge spiral staircase.
"That's OK…." Naruto shrugged. "I won't let your favortism hurt my feelings..." he sniffed in a flamboyant and exaggerated manner. "But... since she's not here…." He swiftly rummaged through one bag, taking out a number of snacks turned props. "…This is the best I can do…." Actually, he could have done the Sexy Girl jutsu instead; but, he kept his behavior within certain limits: not as limited as the Headmistress might like, but she was too wise to look a gift ninja in the mouth. "Ta dahhhh-hhh-hh-h. Sorry I'm late." He had made his voice sound frighteningly close to Hinata's.
The shinobi turned prankster jumped around. He had stuffed two large grapefruits down his jumpsuit, making it look as if he was rather well-endowed. Sure, it was bit risqué. So what. It was funny. It wasn't as if Hinata or any of the caretakers were watching.
The nose had Naruto jumping. The clones all smirked before they disappeared in puffs of acrid smoke. The sound had come as a result of someone falling on her rump. Yes. The operative word was 'her.' Hinata. Hyuuga Hinata.
"O… hey Hinata…." Naruto's face went beet red. With his luck firing on all cylinders, his fellow shinobi had shown up at the complete worst moment. "We were… you know… just talking about you…." He took out his fruit and held his hands behind his back. "Ha ha ha…." He blinked rapidly. At least Hinata hadn't fainted this time.
"And acting like you!" One young boy snatched the grapefruits from Naruto's hand, put them down his own shirt, and walked around with his chest thrust out. All of the girls smacked him with pillows, treating him like a human pinata. Some tried to extricate the wayward fruit.
"I…." Naruto's face felt as if it were aflame. His eyes went wide as the others boys made a beeline to the bags, tossing aside vegetables, apples, and pears, looking for grapefruits of their own. One industrious lad tried to make use of two watermelons, only to fall on his back like an unlucky turtle.
"I'm sorry I'm late." Hinata was blushing, too. She bit her lip, knowing that if she hadn't stopped to speak with Sakura and Ino for a few moments, the frenzied scene could have been avoided. "I hope…." She was about to say 'I hope the fruit will still be edible.' Instead, her newfound sense of humor made its appearance again. She had gotten a lot out of these visits, herself. "I hope you didn't turn all of the boys into cross-dressers…."
Naruto had been so shaken by Hinata's joke, that he had whirled around to intercept the misappropriated snacks, only to smack his head against one of the creaky support posts. Dust rained down and coated him like a sugar donut.
"Help… help…." One of the boys squealed in exaggerated fashion, trying to fend off the girls who put their hands down his fruit-filled clothing. "I'm being molested!"
That exclamation had Hinata falling over the exact same moment that Naruto slammed into the post again. The falling started him wheezing. That, and the picture of a potential parent or the Head lady peeking in the room at the same time someone called out 'Help' and 'molested' together.
That voice bounced off of the thick plank walls like a ricochet. A number of children cringed, crouched, or leaped behind the nearest cots. One tried to climb up the chimney flume.
It was the Headmistress, of course. Who else could it be, with the Uzumaki curse in operation again. A number of the facility administrators were with her.
"We don't speak that word lightly, here," The Head Lady admonished, her voice cold enough to freeze the narrow in their bones. "Ever!" She frowned, causing her brow to furrow like some flesh canyon. "E-ver…." She looked over at Naruto. "Unless there is good cause for it." She raised one eyebrow. It was both a question and a threat.
"There…." Naruto coughed and cleared his throat. "There was no molesting going on." He glanced at Hinata as if to say 'Even if I was sick enough to do something like that, I wouldn't do it with here watching.' The expression on the woman's face was clear evidence that she was thinking the exact thing. Just the same, she was apt to find out just what kind of shenanigans had been going on.
"No, Ma'am." Hinata shook her head vehemently. "None."
"Yes there was…." One brash little boy wanted his turn in the spotlight. It just so happened he was one of the minority that was royally peeved with Naruto. This would teach him to stay away for too long! "The girls were trying to squeeze my fruit." He cupped his hands under his fake breasts. "I was afraid they were going to make a grab at my nuts next!" He wasn't talking about the almonds and cashews that were still in the snack bags.
The silence that followed that unfortunate statement was deafening. To make a long story short, the Head Lady spent a fair bit of time scolding the whole bunch of them, Naruto and Hinata included. In a fit of pique, she ordered a number of attendants to drag the orange-clad ninja off to have his mouth soaped, even though he hadn't said anything bad that time. Just the same, her message was rather clear. The children had watched in awe after he returned, as the irate woman held up her fingers and ran through her lessons. After that, she checked her wristwatch and left.
"Well… that was fun…." Naruto coughed, blowing out a number of soap bubbles. Hinata quickly offered him a mint, to take away the bad taste. "Thank you Hinata. You truly are someone I could like." He echoed his words from long past, but the timeworn words had the same effect on Hinata that they did the day of Naruto's match with Neji. The observant children noticed of course. They all smiled and nodded their heads. Their idol, however, was as oblivious as ever. "So… next…."
As usual, play time followed, including the mandatory 'good guys versus bad guys' mock ninja battle. After snack time and a visit to the restrooms, the children hurried back to the room and sat in a big circle, the cots all pushed up against the wall. They knew what came next. And, their hearts aflutter, they knew what would happen even later!
"OK. OK. Everyone settle down." Naruto laced his fingers together, stretched, and cracked his knuckles. "You know what time it is now, right?"
"STORY TIME! STORY TIME! STORY TIME! STORY TIME! STORY TIME!"
"Hmmm? They don't sound too enthusiastic, do they Hinata?" Naruto pulled at his lower lip.
"I… ummm… I suppose not…." Hinata mimicked Naruto's actions, tugging on her lip, too. "I guess… ummm… maybe we should save story time for our next visit." She had added that last bit, after catching Naruto's wink.
"I think… I think maybe they do want a story…." Hinata spoke quickly, stealing Naruto's thunder. "I… ummm… I believe we should tell them one…."
"Yayyyy-yyy-yy-y!" "Hinata rocks!" "We love you, Hinata!" "Hinata Hinata Hinata."
"Naruto sucks!" Instead of smacking the boy who said that with pillows, the other children patted him on the back. Gleefully, they started a 'Naruto sucks chant' that lasted an entire five minutes. They had all giggled the whole time through, since none of them meant it. It was the way the game was played.
"Ahem!" Naruto did another brilliant imitation, this time sounding like the Head Lady instead of Hinata. "You heard what I said, earlier. Luckily we got a new shipment of soap in yesterday! Plenty for all of you…."
Things went dead quiet. Quiet, that is, except for the boy who announced that he had pooped his skivvies again. Words were unnecessary. The odor made quite clear what had happened.
"Well… that was sure fun…." Naruto returned from the restroom, the fragrant boy following, shorts changed and a good scrubbing done. "Why is it always the boys?" Naruto scowled. When boys got messy, in one fashion or another, he was the one tasked with cleaning them up, naturally. The girls were Hinata's responsibility. At least they would be, if they ever did anything untoward.
"Because men are pigs," a tiny girl piped up. She had heard that from one of the janitor ladies, once. That had all of the distaff children pushing their noses up and making 'buhi' noises.
"Geee-ee-ez." Naruto smacked himself in the forehead in mock severity. "They don't pay me enough to do this." He gave Hinata a wink. She was supposed to say 'me either.' It wouldn't scandalize the youngsters. It was another part of the game.
"I do it for free," Hinata chirped, stealing the wind from Naruto's sails again. "I'd even pay to do it." That brought another chorus of praise for Hinata.
"That just proves that Hinata is the best." That was the brave girl. "But… we still love you Naruto…." She actually blushed when she said that, certain everyone could read her mind. "That is… if you actually tell us a story…." She rubbed her fingers together, just as she had seen a certain Hyuuga girl do.
"Women," Naruto said. "Can't live with them…." He sighed. "Can't live without them." That had the boys nodding their heads sagely. Hinata smiled ear. Their mannerisms were so much like Naruto's, now. "But… I guess it's best to keep them as quiet as possible…." He grinned when the girl shook a finger at him. "Let's begin…." He looked over at Hinata. "I'm sorry. Would you like to go first?" Being around Hinata had actually improved his manners. Miracle of miracles.
"That's OK," Hinata remarked. She didn't admit it out loud, but she loved to hear him tell stories, too. "You go ahead." She blushed, and took her eyes from his face.
"It's love." Luckily, the girl who said that hadn't spoken too loudly. The others pillow sacked her. They didn't want anything to ruin their efforts.
Naruto sat quietly for a moment. He had originally decided to tell a number of short fluffy stories, the type that always seemed to raise the spirits of the young orphans. Instead, for some reason, he decided to tell a tale with a message. Rubbing his chin, he tried to dredge up just such a piece from his memory.
"Well…" One boy stepped past the others, arms tight across his chest. "Get on with it…." He sounded far older than his handful of years. "We don't have all day you know…."
"Yeh," a cute-faced moppet seconded. "Time is money, you know!" Naruto and Hinata could only wonder where she'd heard that.
"That's right!" Another youngster spoke up, her voice high and nasal. "And we want to have a chance to tell our story before mrphl brflll grmblfrph…." She couldn't finish what she said. Numerous small hands reached out to cover her mouth.
"Forget what she said!" One boy blurted out.
"She was hit on the head as a baby," a girl offered quickly.
"Story… story… story…." A wiser boy decided to try distraction. "Story… story…story…." The other little geniuses who caught on began chanting the same words.
"STORY… STORY… STORY… STORY… STORY… STORY… STORY…."
"Alright already!" Naruto stuck his chin out. "Chill. I've got a good one for you. It will fit in well with some of the stories I told you before." He smiled. "Listen carefully. Hinata might need one of you to explain it to her." That had the boys laughing and the girls crying foul. Hinata simply grinned. Naruto was paying attention to her in his way. What more could she ask for? "Here we go! Once upon a time there lived a stonecutter, who went every day to a great rock in the side of a big mountain and cut out slabs for gravestones or for houses…."
"Gravestones?" One little girl tugged at her earlobe. "Is this gonna be a spooky 'tory? I don' wike spooky 'tories." She wrinkled up her nose. "I don' know if my bwadder can take it." That had the other children scooting away from her.
"I…." Naruto just shook his head. He never knew what might come out of the little cherubs' mouths. "It won't be spooky. Don't worry."
A number of the boys liked spooky stories. Sometimes Naruto stayed after dark and told ghost tales for the braver souls, while the other orphans played board games with one of the counselors.
"The man understood very well the kinds of stones wanted for the different purposes, and as he was a careful workman he had plenty of customers. For a long time he was quite happy and contented, and asked for nothing better than what he had-" Naruto was interrupted.
"Is that the message?" A clever boy had raised his hand.
"Maybe," Naruto replied. "Why don't we wait and see?" He nodded to Hinata, and motioned towards the snack bags that held milk and crackers. She hopped up and began passing around those treats to the children who weren't busy nibbling at the fruit they had grabbed. "Now in the mountain dwelt a spirit which now and then appeared to men, and helped them in many ways to become rich and prosperous…."
"Only to men?" The bold girl piped up. "I think it would be better if the story was PC. It should be men and women."
Hinata and Naruto looked at one another.
"You're absolutely right," Naruto agreed cheerfully. He loved seeing the children voice their opinions. He could remember all too well when the boy-with-the-demon had tried that kind of thing in his days at that very same building "In the mountain dwelt a spirit which now and then appeared to men and women, and helped them in many ways to become rich and prosperous. The stonecutter, however, had never seen this spirit, and only shook his head, with an unbelieving air, when anyone spoke of it. But a time was coming when he learned to change his opinion."
"That's always the way things happen in these stories," a chubby-faced boy opined.
"Yes… well…." Naruto wondered if he would be able to finish the story without a gazillion interruptions. Some days the little rascals listened in rapt silence. Other days, they said more than he did! "One day the stonecutter carried a gravestone to the house of a rich man, and saw there all sorts of beautiful things, of which he had never even dreamed. Suddenly his daily work seemed to grow harder and heavier, and he said to himself: 'Oh, if only I were a rich man, and could sleep in a bed with silken curtains and golden tassels, how happy I should be!'"
"That would be cool…." One little boy thought about the big homes they passed by on their walks about town. "I wish I was rich…."
"Yeh…." Other kids echoed his thoughts.
"Hmmmm…." Naruto gave Hinata a sideways glance. Coming from a preeminent clan certainly hadn't made her early years easy. "A voice answered the stonecutter: 'Your wish is heard; a rich man you shall be!' At the sound of the voice the stonecutter looked around, but could see nobody. He thought it was all his fancy, and picked up his tools and went home, for he did not feel inclined to do any more work that day. But when he reached the little house where he lived, he stood still with amazement, for instead of his wooden hut was a stately palace filled with splendid furniture, and most splendid of all was the bed, in every respect like the one he had envied. He was nearly beside himself with joy, and in his new life the old one was soon forgotten."
"He probably had a lot of toys…." The little boys dreamy-eyed sigh had the other children sighing too.
"And a kitty!" One girl cradled a stuff cat in her arms, paying no mind to one missing shoe-button eye.
"Puppies!" A boy crowed. "Lots and lots of puppies."
"Candy!" "Cake!" "Mash…m-mush…m-m-marshmallows." "T… bone… steak!"
Hinata felt tears well up in her eyes. Her throat felt tight. Despite the efforts that the caretakers made for the orphans, and the generous contributions that came in anonymously, there were so many children and so few resources. The various wars and struggles facing a shinobi village spared no one in the long run. She looked over at Naruto. Once again she filled to the brim with pride, knowing how he had started coming here on his own, without any prompting. She also felt a small twinge of pride on her own behalf.
"Yes… he probably had all of those," Naruto said softly. He remembered his own early childhood. There had been even less to go around, thanks to destructive rampage of that bastard Fox. And, naturally, as the vessel chosen by his father to house that powerful being, he had been last in line for everything from the hate-filled villagers. He clenched his fists unknowingly. What ever it took, he would help these children reach their dreams, just the way he had. He was a ninja. He was strong. And best of all, he had precious friends!
"It was now the beginning of summer, and each day the sun blazed more fiercely," he continued. "One morning the heat was so great that the stonecutter could scarcely breathe, and he determined he would stop at home till the evening. He was rather dull, for he had never learned how to amuse himself, and was peeping through the closed blinds to see what was going on in the street, when a little carriage passed by, drawn by servants dressed in blue and silver. In the carriage sat a prince, and over his head a golden umbrella was held, to protect him from the sun's rays."
"I bet the man wants to be a prince now," the clever boy deduced.
"It would be more kinky if he wanted to be a princess," a girl stated. That had Naruto and Hinata staring at one another again. Independently, they each wished that they had started keeping a ledger of all of the things the children came up with. It would make a very entertaining book.
"Ahem." Naruto winced. He hated sounding like the Headmistress. "You're right," he said pointing to the boy. That had the girl sticking out her tongue. "'Oh, if I were only a prince!' said the stonecutter to himself, as the carriage vanished around the corner. 'Oh, if I were only a prince, and could go in such a carriage and have a golden umbrella held over me, how happy I should be!' And a prince he was. Before his carriage rode one company of men and another behind it; servants dressed in scarlet and gold bore him along, the coveted umbrella was held over his head, everything his heart could desire was his. But yet it was not enough. He looked around still for something to wish for, and when he saw that in spite of the water he poured on the grass the rays of the sun scorched it, and that in spite of the umbrella held over his head each day his face grew browner and browner, he cried in his anger: "The sun is mightier than I; oh, if I were'…."
"HE WANTS TO BE THE SUN!!"
All of the children called out at once, each wanting to be the one who got credit that time.
"Ummm… that… it would be…." One boy struggled to get his pun out. They had all developed a rather expansive sense of humor after being regaled repeatedly by the village's most unpredictable ninja. "That would be hot."
The other orphans all began groaning. Some shouted that it was a very bad joke. Others started making rude fart-like noises. That had the little jokester trembling, about to start crying.
"It was very funny," Hinata said, standing up. She went over to pat the boy on the top of his head. Then, filled with a maternal feeling, she bent over and kissed the lad on his brow. That had most of the boys making faces and saying 'Yuck!' Some, however, felt a bit envious.
"Yes, that was a good one." Naruto paused a moment, looking at Hinata in a new light yet again. She might just be the kindest person that he knew. "You're all correct. The stonecutter wished that he could be the sun. The mountain spirit answered: 'Your wish is heard; the sun you shall be.' And the sun he was, and felt himself proud in his power. He shot his beams above and below, on earth and in heaven; he burnt up the grass in the fields and scorched the faces of princes as well as of poorer folk."
"That's not very nice," one girl said, her indigo hair done up to look similar to Hinata's.
"He's just a bully," a boy said, looking over at the orphan who had been on the wrong end of the bar of soap.
"You're absolutely correct," Hinata said. "It's not nice to take advantage of others, just because you're strong." She looked over at Naruto. She doubted that he would ever change that way. Every time he grew more skilled, he found some way to use those skills for the benefit of his friends and fellow townspeople.
"Naruto would never do that!" The brave girl felt compelled to talk up her hero.
"Because…." One of the boys rushed to fill the set-up role.
"HE'S GOING TO BE HOKAGE!!"
"And the Hokage loves all of us!" The little girl who made that true remark had listened to Naruto and Hinata both talk about what kind of man Sarutobi had been, and how he had given his own life to stifle Orochimaru's evil plans.
"That's right," Naruto agreed. "And you're right, too." He got off his rump and wiped the milk off of the indigo hair girl's face. She had a bit of trouble using her bendy straw. "I've told you guys… and girls… a lot of stories about the ninjas who used their incredible jutsus for the wrong reasons. But…." He held up a finger and waggled it. "Don't be too quick to judge someone. I told you what that's like, too…." Yet more truisms that came from his personal experiences. His and Hinata's, both.
"The stonecutter is probably a good man at heart," Hinata added. "He's just not used to feeling important or powerful."
"Yes, we can't all handle being incredibly strong," Naruto said in a facetious voice, flexing one biceps and then the other. That had the children tossing pillows at him. Pillows, grapefruit rinds, and a worn shoe. "After a short time, the stonecutter began to grow tired of his might, for there seemed nothing left for him to do. Discontent once more filled his soul, and when a cloud covered his face, and hid the earth from him, he cried in his anger: 'Does the cloud hold captive my rays, and is it mightier than I? Oh, that I were a cloud, and mightier than any!" He smiled as the children all held up their recovered pillows, pretending to be clouds. "And the mountain spirit answered: 'Your wish is heard; a cloud you shall be!'"
"What else does he want to be," a girl said, tapping her toe impatiently. Normally, she would listen to the most boring story, only to get attention. But, like many of the others, she was feeling antsy, as if her undergarments were filled with chakra bugs.
"Yeh… let's get to the punch line," one pipsqueak asserted.
"Relax," Naruto huffed. "Kids these days…." He created a few Bunshin and set them to peeling oranges for him. His stomach was rumbling again. "And a cloud he was, and lay between the sun and the earth. He caught the sun's beams and held them, and to his joy the earth grew green again and flowers blossomed. But that was not enough for him, and for days and week he poured forth rain till the rivers overflowed their banks, and the crops of rice stood in water. Towns and villages were destroyed by the power of the rain, only the great rock on the mountainside remained unmoved."
"May I make another point?" Hinata asked politely. She hated interrupting Naruto in the middle of his oration, especially since the children had no such reservation. When Naruto gave her a jaunty salute, she continued. She looked at the bully as she spoke. "If people are stronger than others, they can hurt people even if they don't mean to… even if they might be trying to help…." She saw the boy look down at his feet shyly. "Do you understand?" She addressed that to the other orphans, happy to see them struggle with the concept and then nod their little heads.
"She's right," Naruto said. "There's a first time for everything." He quickly sent to clones into action, snatching the thrown objects before he could be soundly pelted. "Seriously. She is right. It's something I have to keep telling myself." He held up an arm he had injured performing his new technique for the first time. "If you use your strength wrong, you can hurt your self, too." He took one of the peeled oranges and handed it to a grateful Hinata.
"He's so smart," a voice said from behind them all. It was one of the janitorial crew, peaking his shiny bald head in the room to get an idea of what type of mess he could expect.
"Yeh," another worker said, her hair hidden behind a bandana. "You could never guess that by looking at him.
"Funny," Naruto grumped, waiting until all the laughter died down. Feeling a bit peevish and provoked, he tossed a piece of rind out into the hall. So there! "Where was I? OK. The cloud was amazed at the sight, and cried in wonder: 'Is the rock, then, mightier than I? Oh, if I were only the rock!'"
"And the spirit answered," the impatient child said in a rush.
"You're a rock!" One of her peers took the idea and ran with. "And he was powerful. And he was proud. And…."
"Hey! Slow down! Who's telling the story here." Naruto wondered what had gotten into them all. Was there too much sugar in their diet? He was glad he hadn't brought chocolate this time. 'Your wish is heard; the rock you shall be!' And the rock he was, and gloried in his power. Proudly he stood, and neither the heat of the sun nor the force of the rain could move him. 'This is better than all!' he said to himself. But one day he heard a strange noise at his feet, and when he looked down to see what it could be, he saw a stonecutter driving tools into his surface. Even while he looked a trembling feeling ran all through him, and a great block broke off and fell upon the ground. Then he cried in his wrath: 'Is a mere child of earth mightier than a rock? Oh, if I were only a man!' And the mountain spirit answered: "Your wish is heard. A man once more you shall be!'"
"Told you," the wise boy said, sticking his nose in the air. That earned him a rain of fruit parts that time.
"And a man he was, and in the sweat of his brow he toiled again at his trade of stone cutting." Naruto headed into the home stretch. "His bed was hard and his food scanty, but he had learned to be satisfied with it, and did not long to be something or somebody else. And as he never asked for things he did not have, or desired to be greater and mightier than other people, he was happy at last, and never again heard the voice of the mountain spirit."
After that, Naruto and Hinata took turns trying to embellish the moral of the story, but the orphans would have none of that. It was their turn now. They had waited patiently.
"I think it's time for a potty break," a little girl said, sounding like a miniature adult. "Then we get to tell a story."
"We can't wait!" Most of the boys and girls shouted that at the same time. Neither Hinata nor Naruto was certain whether they couldn't wait to tell their tale, or couldn't wait to use the potties. They followed after the youngsters. Some carried large brown paper bags. Others carried sheets. The bags had been hidden behind a number of broken cots. The sheets came off of their beds. The two shinobi couldn't begin to guess what that was all about.
When everybody was finished, they returned to the room in good order. The childrens' eyes practically glowed with excitement and anticipation. One boy went to ring a large brass bell that the attendants used to call the children back to their room after activities.
"OK… OK… Miss Hinata… you sit here…." The brave girl showed Hinata over to a cot and sat her on the left side, then looked over at Naruto. "And you come over here." She pointed to the spot next to Hinata and stomped her foot. "While we're still young…." As the two shinobi took their places, a number of the older children re-entered the room, the sheets draped over their bodies. They all lined up on an area a little boy busily marked off with masking tape. That was there makeshift theatrical stage.
As it turned out, the forthcoming presentation was the brainchild of one of the smallest orphans. In some fashion of another, after the idea had taken wings amongst the children, the grown-ups at the facility had gotten wind of it. A number of them volunteered to help the industrious tots, creating props and costumes. A few select adults then went out and spoke to a number of people who knew Hinata and Naruto.
"She's here," a boy said, looking over at the door. The Head Mistress had returned, accompanied by most of the orphanage staff. "We can get started now." The reason for the tolling bell became clear now.
"Finally!" The brave girl stepped to the front of the 'stage.' She had been chosen to be the narrator. "She bowed to everyone, and then abruptly began speaking in a 'storytelling' voice she had learned from Hinata. "Naruto…." She was cut-off,
"Hey!" A rather energetic boy began bouncing up and down. He didn't need to pee. There was something he felt compelled to say. "You forgot 'There once was….' There should always be 'There once was….'"
"That's right," a drowsy looking girl agreed. "Or 'Once upon a time….' I really love 'Once upon a time….'"
"Wrong!" The narrator spoke with a loud ring of finality. "It's not once was or upon a time. It's now. Look. They're sitting right there!" She waved her hand in effusive fashion, encompassing the two ninjas. Under her breath she muttered "Everyone's a critic." She had heard Naruto grumble that on more than one occasion.
"It's alright," Naruto said kindly. "Do it anyway you like. I'm sure it will be great."
"I will," the girl said, hoping she wouldn't blush at Naruto's kind words. She quickly said "For Hinata!" That had Hinata grinning and Naruto making a sour face. The kids smiled, each and every one of them. He hadn't seen anything yet. "Naruto was once a big troublemaker." That had the Heady lady whispering 'Once?' "I said… Naruto was once a big troublemaker…." She bit her lip and narrowed her eyes, still waiting for her compatriots to do what needed to be done. Then, she suddenly whistled louder than anyone might have expected, causing Hinata to jump up, almost landing in Naruto's lap. The two shinobi quickly slid a little further apart when the boys and girls said 'Wooo-ooo-oo-o.'
"I'm here…." A tallboy with blonde hair ran into the room. He had let his sheet drop to the floor, and could be seen to be wearing orange and black pajamas, made up to look a great deal like a certain ninja's jumpsuit.
"Me too… me too…." Two girls bolted into the room pushing a large poster-board mounted on wheels. It depicted the stone Hokage faces, covered with graffiti. They rolled it behind the boy portraying Naruto.
"I want to be a ninja!" The boy said, striking a dramatic pose, slipping a pair of goggles onto his forehead. "I want to have friends!"
"He wasn't very smart," the narrator said, holding back a giggle. "He wasn't very tall. He couldn't do the ninja tricks. And nobody liked him." While most of the lines had been penned by the orphange staff, many were scripted by the children themselves.
Naruto folded his arms against his chest. Those munchkins had minds like steel traps. They obviously remembered the things he had told them about his youth.
"But he didn't give up!" The boy playing Naruto pretended to run up a large cardboard tree someone held up. He kept falling on his back with one gruff exclamation or another.
"And he finally had friends!" All of the children called that out at once. Dropping the sheets they still wore, more players took the stage. There was a young girl with a pink wig; a boy with a perpetual scowl and black eyeliner; and a tall girl playing the role of a male jounin, one eye covered by a fabric mask. She held two bells in her hand.
Naruto's eyes shot up. He didn't recall telling the ragamuffins about Kakashi's bell test. Where were they getting their background information from?
"Lots of friends!" The narrator snapped her finger. At that signal, more children threw off their sheets. One boy had a set of green stretchy pajamas. He wore a bowl-cut wig and had two large bushy pieces of wool taped over his yes. He began doing push-ups. Behind him, there was a girl with elaborated woven muffs clipped to her hair, looking like a cross between panda ears and hair buns. Next to her, a boy with two pillows stuffed up under his shirt began eating chips, pouring them out of a bag into his mouth.
"Good friends!" A boy hid behind the rest, dark sunglasses on and a cowl pulled half over his face. He began dropping plastic bugs on the floor.
"What a drag." A boy with a topknot sat down, lay on his back, and looked up at the ceiling.
"Fetch!" A boy with face paint threw something across the room. It was a number of empty toilet paper spools, tapped together in the shape of a bone.
"Woof!" A girl dressed up in an adorable dog costume chased after the bone, her fake tail wagging. "Arf arf."
"Most of his friends were very loud," the narrator continued. "All except one." She looked to the door. The indigo-hair girl came in, wearing white sunglasses with open black circles drawn on them. She slowing walked over behind the cardboard tree and peaked out. Sighing repeatedly, she looked at Naruto. When the boy playing their hero looked at her, she fell hard to her rump. That had Hinata turning pink in the face.
"She… she… she…." The girl playing Hinata stuttered on purpose. "She was very shy. And she didn't have the best childhood growing up either." While the other mock-ninjas acted as if they were practicing, she walked over to a far corner and watched the fake-Naruto as he stood bragging and shouting that he would be Hokage some day. "And she didn't really want to be a ninja."
"At first!" All of the orphans called that out together.
"That's right," the narrator said. "She didn't practice very hard. She was always doing a bad job. She was scared of everything." She smiled as the fake-Hinata tried to do a high kick, and fell flat on her face. "But, like someone told us…." She looked over at Naruto.
"THINGS CAN GET BETTER IF YOU BELIEVE!"
The Headmistress nodded her head hearing that concerted shout. Just about every child in the room had shown one kind of improvement or another after the two shinobi had started their visits.
"You shouldn't try to be a ninja." A boy wearing a black wig and white glasses like the girl's walked into the room. He looked down on a small crumpled piece of paper for his next line. "You'll die if you fight me!"
The girl playing Hinata brought her hands to her mouth. Her legs quivered in exaggerated fashion.
"You can do it, Hinata!" The boy playing Naruto held up his fingers in a 'V' shape. "Kick his a-…ummm… beat him up…." He offered words of encouragement as the two 'Hyuugas' did battle.
"The girl lost the battle," the narrator said, slyly reading her line off of her shirt sleeve. She pointed to where the fake Hinata lay on her back, ketchup smeared across her face. The false Neji stood arrogantly, hands on hips. "But… she had won something more…." She frowned, fining it hard to decipher a word. "Im… impor… important!"
"I believe in myself now!" The indigo girl jumped back on to her feet. "And it's all because of him!" She clasped her hands on her chest and looked at the pretend Naruto. "I would do anything to be strong. To be a ninja. To be just like that proud failure." She stood quietly as a number of orphans beat upon empty and overturned buckets like they were kettledrums. The noise grew to a crescendo, announcing a dramatic moment. "I… would… I would do anything... if he would just notice me." That had many of the children grinning or giggling. Hinata had slid off the front of the cot.
"Wh-wh-what?" Naruto stood up, and quickly sat back down again. "You never said anything like that, did you Hinata?" He wondered why the Hyuuga girl wouldn't meet his eyes.
"Yes, she did." That was the narrator ad-libbing. She spoke as if she were an adult scolding a child. The look she gave Naruto was well beyond her years. Returning to the script, she said "But, just because someone grows taller…." The Naruto-boy stood on a cot. "Gets stronger…." The boy called out 'Rasengan' and bowled over a number of children like they were ten-pins. "Or grows up to be a really good person…." The boy began telling a story within a story to his peers.
"THAT DOESN'T MAKE HIM SMART!"
"What-" Naruto scowled. So what, if he wasn't a genius. He wasn't actually a dolt or something. How many of his friends routinely came up with the clever things that he did?
"That's alright…." The indigo girl walked over and patted Naruto on the hand. "We still love you…." That was impromptu. But, the mention of the word 'love' had everyone going 'Whooo-ooo-oo-o' again. Hinata's eyes went wide. She calmed herself down. The girl had said 'we,' not 'I.'
"Everybody else could see what he always missed," the narrator said, putting things back on track again. The look she gave the indigo girl clearly said 'only I get to do the ad-lib routine!'
"Ohhhh-hhh-hh-h…." The boy playing Lee did a dynamic entry kick. "I can't believe that Naruto doesn't know how Hinata feels." He struck a manly pose. "That cannot be so! It is not possible. I will do a billion laps around Ko… Kono…"
"Konoha," one of the counselors said. "That's the name of this village."
"I will do a billion laps around Konoha if Naruto doesn't know." When the fake Naruto walked past the pretend Hinata, the Lee-boy began running circuits around the room.
Naruto was tugging at his lip. He kept looking over at Hinata, and frowning at the actors. He swallowed hard when he met the Head Lady's eyes.
"I may be creepy…." The boy playing Shino threw plastic bugs everywhere. "And Naruto can't remember who I am when he comes back to the village…." He shook his head. "But at least I can see what's happening under my noz."
"That word is 'nose,'" a seamstress called out. She had helped make the costumes, and had written a number of the cheat-sheets.
"Even Akamaru is smarter than Naruto," the Kiba boy said. The ersatz dog sat up on her haunches and yapped happily.
"It's bothersome," the Shikamaru character drawled. "I mean… how could anyone possibly miss it…." He hung his head. A girl with a long blond wig and a bouquet of flowers in her hand walked over next to him. "So many of the others have crushes." That had a number of girls sighing and no small number of boys sticking out their tongues.
The pink hair girl followed after the Uchiha-boy, before stopping to look long and hard at the fake Naruto. The Ten Ten girl kept moving closer to the fake Neji. Stuffing pork rinds in his mouth at a prodigious rate, the pillow-padded boy kept staring at the blonde. The Lee-character began running circles around the Sakura-girl. The Uchiha boy hugged a stuffed snake. That artistic license had Naruto cringing.
"How could he miss something that obvious!?" The narrator practically shouted in exasperation. That was her line, but she was not acting.
"Well… he never was the sharpest kunai in the pouch." The Kakashi character held up a book. The Head Mistress turned an evil glare on the other adults, wondering who had added that inappropriate touch. Sure, it was just a story book, and the kids probably didn't know about the Icha Icha novels. Just the same, she promised herself that someone would be working late shifts.
"Dumb ass." After saying that, the Uchiha-boy held up his hands, looking worried. "No soap… no soap… I'm just saying what Sasuke Uchiha says…."
"It's sad." The narrator wiped away a real tear. Her fellow orphans began singing a quiet song as she continued speaking, an angelic chorus of little devils. "Hinata is such a sweet girl." The children sang 'sweet… sweet… sweet.' "She has such a big heart." That was followed by 'heart… heart… heart….' "And all she wants is to have the boy she lo-… likes… know that she cares." 'Cares… cares… cares….'
"I bet she wants a kiss, too." The indigo girl blurted that out.
"And she probably wants to do it!" That came from the smallest and quietest boy. Everyone stood shocked. Everyone but the Headmistress. When she struck a support pole with a long stout ruler, the sound rang out like cannon shot. She didn't need to say a single word after that. She sighed, watching Hinata pick herself off the floor again.
Now it was time for the adults to play their role in things. They had heard about Naruto's obtuse behavior from the children on numerous occasions. Each understood just how the matter lay. Some thought the whole affair was worse than any soap opera or penny dreadful. They gathered in a group, pretending to hold a conversation.
"I can't believe it," one of the carpenters said. "Things have gotten so bad, that he had to have children get him to see the truth." That had all of the orphan girls looking at Hinata and giving her a thumbs up.
"I know," a gardener said, brushing some grass clippings off of her skirt. "That's so embarrassing. I hope he doesn't get his knickers in a knot and take it out on Miss Hyuuga. That would only make things worse." That had Naruto looking sheepish.
"You're right," a cook added. "But, he's too kind a boy to do something like that. Besides, I bet he would find it really nice to have such a sweet girl adore him." Hinata was warm in the face now. She was actually happy to see that people cared; but, she was mortified by their approach.
"She wouldn't shout at him," the carpenter said. "Not like a pink-haired girl might." That had Naruto scowling. He didn't like anyone implying anything about any of his precious people. Then again, Sakura certainly did scold him more than he could stomach.
"She'd probably cook for him," a counselor remarked. "I hear she's a very good cook." That had Hinata thinking. She did like to cook. And everybody knew that Naruto liked to eat.
"I bet she'd watch anime with him," the gardener said. "And wouldn't mind if he read manga." That had Naruto rubbing his chin. Would any girl watch anime with him? Would he want one to?
"Except the hentai stuff he probably keeps hidden under his bed," a custodian quipped That earned a loud 'Harumph!' from the Head Lady. Both Naruto and Hinata went whites as a sheet. Hinata, because of the subject matter. Naruto, because the custodian was spot on target.
"No doubt… being kunoichi… as well as a girl of good breeding…." The Headmistress brought things back into safer waters. "…She would like to hear about jutsus… watch someone do a new jutsu… and practice jutsus with another ninja who enjoyed that kind of thing…." She looked over at the narrator and nodded.
"Thank you all for watching," the courageous girl said on cue. "That is our show for today. Everyone here is hoping for a happy ending…." She added 'dattebayo' on her own, and took a bow. The other children walking in front of her holding large sheets, as if they were closing the curtains in a theatre.
Hinata felt as if she had been dipped into the icy cold of space. It Naruto even looked cross at her, she was certain that she would shatter into a myriad of tiny pieces.
Naruto had a heart as big as the entire Hidden Leaf village. His sense of humor was nearly as large, even if his taste in jokes sometimes left his elders closing their eyes or shaking their heads. He loved others, and he wanted to be loved. He appreciated hard work, and always felt gratitude for anything done on his behalf.
Despite all that, he sat silently, a frown on his face and a large furrow in his forehead. It wasn't that he didn't like Hinata. Indeed not, seeing that he had felt an unconscious closeness to her ever since she had joined his sessions with the orphans. No. He hated to be the butt of jokes, and at the moment, the children's play felt like one big laugh at his expense. What's worse, he hated to be told what to do, directly or through innuendo.
Nonetheless, the seeds of fortune and destiny had been planted. Some day, they might actually grow and flower, and bear fruit. Some other day.
"Come on, Hinata!" Naruto fought the urge to tromp off without her. "We're both late for practice. Our teams will be waiting." He stood, turned on his heals, and marched for the doors.
Hinata watched Naruto walk off and sighed. She looked over at the children, hoping they weren't terribly disappointed. Would they burst into tears? She hoped not. A feeling of warmth welled up inside her, as she thought about the efforts made on her behalf.
"Thank you all so much," she said graciously. "It was wonderful. Everybody did so well."
"It's OK," the wisest boy said, correctly reading the kunoichi's concern. "He doesn't have to like it."
"That's right," the indigo girl said. "He just has to learn from it." She too sounded precocious beyond belief.
"It's one of the lessons he keeps teaching us," the boy playing Lee added.
"Yeh," the smallest girl said in her squeaky voice. "We were kinda mean…."
"But it was for his own good," The Head Lady said, walking over to squeeze Hinata's shoulder in a rare show of affection. "Hopefully some day he'll thank us all for our efforts."
"Ma'am," Hinata said, her throat feeling thick. Then, remembering that Naruto was walking without her, she said hurried farewells and headed after him. Turning one corner, she saw him waiting for her at the head of the winding stairs. Catching sight of her, he began silently walking down towards the lobby.
The white-eyed girl hadn't been the only one to run from the room. The brave girl had followed, as fast as her little legs would carry her. Like a certain orange-clad ninja, she had a need to get the last word in.
"Hey!" She shouted down the stairs, hearing the receding footsteps. "Naruto! Hinata! If you're going to practice something…." She grinned, her eyes flashing wickedly. "Why don't you practice kissing…."
There was the sound of someone tripping, falling, and rolling down the stairs. The mischievous girl fluffed her hair and smiled. She didn't know which one had fallen. It didn't matter at that moment. The important thing was that she had gotten her message across.
They all had.