Title: One Small Step
Author: Shawny Wong
Theme: #14 radio-cassette player
Disclaimer: The characters of Naruto belong to Kishimoto Masashi. This story is written without permission, for fan purposes only. Do not reproduce without permission.
Summary: What if Hinata had actually found the courage to approach Naruto at the Academy? How would befriending him change their lives? Drastic changes are the result of one small step.
Chapter 1: Butterfly Kiss
Naruto had the most beautiful eyes she'd ever seen. They were like the summer sky, like the tropical sea, and endlessly blue. Hinata thought privately – for she would never dare voice this aloud – that his eyes were more striking than any Hyuuga eyes could ever hope to be. The pale pupiless eyes of her family's vaunted bloodline were cold, prideful, and intimidating. Naruto's eyes were the exact opposite; they were warm, vibrant, and full of life. Naruto's eyes were almost too pretty for a boy, she decided. Long, full eyelashes that curled up at the tips framed sapphire orbs. She could spend all day daydreaming about his eyes.
Naruto was almost the exact antithesis to the Hyuuga. Her clan was stern, almost cold; dignity was to be preserved at all costs; rules were to be adhered to at all times. With their unique silver-white eyes and dark hair, the Hyuuga were unmistakably the elite of the elite and the pride of Konoha. Naruto, on the other hand, was anything but. He was an unrecognized orphan with no background. He embodied chaos and flaunted the rules. It seemed fitting that, physically, he was as far from a Hyuuga as it was possible to get. He had sun kissed golden hair – not brown or black – and adorable whisker-like birthmarks on his cheeks. And he was so strong! He seemed to bounce back from any obstacle with little to no effort. Whenever he got knocked down, he got right back up and kept going. He was like no one else she'd ever met in her short life.
He was everything she'd ever wanted to be.
It was no wonder she developed a horrible crush on him the instant she'd seen him.
Currently, she was in class trying desperately – with limited success – to keep her focus on Iruka-sensei's lesson, instead of on her blond classmate. She couldn't afford to miss a thing! She was only in her second year at the academy, but already her performance shamed her father and her clan. Last year, she had received decent scores all across the board and been ranked somewhere in the upper-middle of her class. But for the Hyuuga, a decent score was abysmal – a Hyuuga should ace any test of skill or knowledge – and to rank around the middle of her class was an embarrassment – a Hyuuga should easily be able to surpass his (or her) peers. This held doubly true for the Hyuuga heiress. She needed to do better this year. If she failed to score perfect marks this year… She didn't even want to imagine what her punishment would be. She shuddered inwardly.
It didn't help matters that her cousin Neji – who was just one year older than her – had ranked first in his class. He had out performed all his peers, seemingly without any effort. Already, he was hailed as the next great genius of her generation – and he was only eight! To make matters worse, he was the prodigy of the Hyuuga branch family – while she was the heiress of the Hyuuga main family.
The lesson of the day was memory retention techniques used by shinobi in the field. Iruka-sensei was going over various mind games to strengthen memory recall and different ways to memorize information quickly. It was intriguing. She could see useful applications for these memory tricks outside of the shinobi field. For instance, she could use them to remember all the guests (by name and title) at the formal political dinners with her family that she was forced to meet and greet. She could also use them to memorize names and qualities of medicinal plants.
"Naruto! Pay attention!" barked Iruka-sensei, as he threw an eraser at the blonde. The class snickered as the eraser hit him in the face. (The blond boy had apparently been simultaneously preparing spitballs, folding paper airplanes, and carving the words "Sasuke Sucks!" on his desk with a kunai. Naruto took multitasking to a whole new level.)
"These memory retention techniques are very important for a ninja! And they're especially important for you! You can use them to help you remember your lessons and homework assignments, especially since you seem to keep forgetting everything I say!"
"No buts, Naruto. If you're going to be a ninja…"
"If you're going to be a ninja," Iruka continued as if he hadn't been interrupted, "then you'll need to be able to remember mission details after only hearing them once. You'll need to memorize names, faces, ranks and techniques from the Bingo Book. And what if you're sent on an espionage mission? After you infiltrate the enemy's base, you'll need to memorize exact numbers of enemy ninja and escape routes. If you discover their plans and strategies, you'll need to memorize those, too. You'll need to do all this without writing any of it down."
"Hai, Iruka-sensei," Naruto said with a gusty sigh, rubbing his head where the eraser had struck.
"Cheer up, Naruto. You can also use these techniques to memorize my lectures." Iruka grinned. "Tell you what. If you can prove to me that you've mastered these memory retention techniques… I'll let you get away without taking notes in class for a week – because I'll assume you will memorize the lectures instead."
"All right, Iruka-sensei! Why didn't you say so before?" Naruto pumped his fist in the air. Hinata almost giggled at his behavior. He was just so full of life!
"That applies everyone else, too." The rest of the class perked up at that announcement.
Iruka continued with the lecture.
"Now as part of the midterm exams next week, you will be expected to demonstrate your ability to retain information using the memory techniques that we just discussed. An audio recording of 5 different mission details and 5 hypothetical conversations between enemy ninja will be playedonce, for the entire class, first thing in the morning. So don't be late! After lunch, you will write down every detail that you can remember from all 10 scenarios. Your grade is based on how much detail you have memorized."
The class groaned.
"Your homework assignment for this week will be to practice all of these memory techniques using these." Iruka held up a cassette tape from a box on his desk. "Make sure you each take one before you leave today. Each of these tapes contain 60 minutes of different scenarios you may encounter in the field, as well as a handful of Bingo Book entries – mostly well known ninja. I expect you to listen to the tape, write down what you can remember, then go back and listen again, to see how much you were able to remember."
The lunch bell rang, signaling the end of the lesson and the beginning of the lunch hour. The class, as one entity, swarmed out the doors of the Academy and into the fresh air outside. Hinata noticed that her crush was lingering behind, deliberately waiting for all the other students to exit.
He must want to speak with Iruka-sensei in private.
She was torn, hesitating just outside the classroom. It was wrong to eavesdrop on other people's conversations. Hinata knew this. But the chance to find out more about her crush was so tempting! In the end, her curiosity overrode her conscience. She stayed where she was – out of sight of both Naruto and Iruka-sensei – but not out of earshot.
"Um… Iruka-sensei?" Both Iruka and Hinata were surprised at the hesitant tone coming from the normally confident blonde.
"Yes, Naruto? What can I help you with?" asked Iruka kindly.
"It's… it's about our homework assignment."
"The assignment is very straightforward. I know it might not be fun. But if you master these techniques, it'll really be good for you," encouraged Iruka.
"It's not that, sensei," Naruto said in a small voice. Hinata had to strain to hear him. "I don't… I don't own a cassette player," he said in a rush. At Iruka's look of surprise, he hurried to explain himself. "I don't own a cassette player. And I can't purchase one. The stipend I receive for my school expenses won't cover something like this. I barely have enough for our textbooks and practice kunai and shuriken since those are so expensive."
For someone like Hinata who had been trained from a young age to read both body language and tone of voice, the shame of having to admit to money problems was crystal clear.
"Can I borrow a tape player for the week? Please! I promise I won't damage it!" Naruto asked hopefully.
Outside, Hinata was momentarily stunned to hear that her crush couldn't afford something as simple as a tape player. Then she berated herself for her lack of insight. She knew he was an orphan. Coming from one of the richest clans in Konoha, she'd never had to worry about money. Still… that's not a good excuse! Of course, he wouldn't have money! He was an unrecognized orphan with no inheritance and he was too young to work. She was so distracted by this revelation that she completely missed what they were saying next.
"Naruto," Iruka said slowly. "What do you mean when you said that your practice kunai and shuriken were expensive?" Those things are dirt-cheap! Practice kunai and shuriken intended for Academy students were usually damaged or blunted and just one step away from being melted down for metal. I know approximately how much Naruto receives from the Orphan Scholarship Fund. It should be more than enough!
"I buy them from the main weapons shop downtown, by the Hokage Tower. They're cheapest there. Everywhere else is more expensive. I've checked. But they still cost about 2500 yen a pair." Naruto looked down.
2500 yen a pair! That's at least five times more than practice weapons are worth!
Naruto was being deliberately overcharged. Iruka knew that the villagers despised Naruto's existence. He was ashamed to admit that, for a while, he had as well. Until Naruto had entered his classroom, he'd never thought much of the blonde, if he thought of him at all. But in the year that he'd been teaching Naruto, he had become fond of the little troublemaker. Naruto was just a boy – very much like Iruka had been. Naruto was quickly becoming the little brother he'd never had.
Of course, Iruka had always been aware that the villagers were rude and unkind to Naruto. But to charge over five times what the practice weapons were worth! This was the first time he'd really understood – in his heart – and really saw – with uncovered eyes… how Naruto was abused and mistreated. Iruka seethed internally with anger. He took deep breath to try and calm himself.
Naruto, still looking down, missed the dark look that crossed Iruka's face.
"Listen, Naruto. I'm sorry… I guess I never realized that ninja tools would be so expensive..." Iruka thought furiously… How could he help Naruto without injuring his pride? More importantly, without bringing up the injustices Naruto was suffering? That would lead to too many questions he couldn't answer.
"But as an instructor for the Academy, I receive significant discounts on practice weapons for Academy students," he lied through his teeth. At least the smile on his face was genuine. "So the next time you need to buy them, come to me first, okay? I can help you buy them for much less than what you're paying now."
"Really? Wow! Thanks a lot, Iruka-sensei! You're the best!"
Naruto's enthusiastic shout brought Hinata out of her self-chastisement.
"Unfortunately, that won't help you right now." Iruka sighed. "The academy has a few tape players. But I'm afraid that students aren't allowed to use them without supervision and they aren't allowed out of the classroom."
Naruto's shoulders drooped.
"The best I can do is to let you stay in here with me during lunch times. You can use the tape player to practice then."
Hinata slipped her hand into her pack. Fumbling a little, she felt for the cold, hard plastic of her own personal tape player. In a rare moment of indulgence, she had splurged and purchased a little player for herself – so that she could listen to her favorite music whenever she wanted. She could help him! This was her chance! She could give Naruto her player! The Hyuuga weren't the richest clan in Konoha for nothing. There were several other tape players scattered about the estate that she could use for her assignment instead.
If she gave it to him now, then Naruto would know that she'd been eavesdropping. What would he think of her? Would he hate her for spying on him? Her heart trembled with indecision. To run forward? Or to run away? What should she do?
In an alternate time and place, Hinata did not move. She did not offer him her tape player. And she did not find the courage to offer her friendship to Naruto until after their first chunin exams. He would go through the next 5 years of the Academy friendless and lonely while she watched from afar. One small action at the right time, at the right place, would change the world.
In this time and place, Hinata took one small step. One small significant step. Followed by another, then another… I won't run away! I won't run away! … until she was standing before the two surprised males.
"Hinata?" her sensei asked, surprised. But to Hinata, only Naruto existed.
Hinata held her tape player in both hands and bowed quickly, thrusting it in Naruto's general vicinity and almost hitting him in the chest with it in the process. "F-f-for you!" she managed to squeak out.
Naruto reached out hesitantly and took the player from her hands. "This… is… for me?"
He couldn't contain his disbelief. He could count on one hand all the presents he'd ever received. And now the quietest girl in his class – who had never even spoken to him, not even to say "hi" – was giving him her own tape player? He didn't understand it – not at all.
Hinata didn't quite trust her voice. So she settled for just nodding vigorously.
"Well… I… um… I'm s-s-sorry! I'm s-s-sorry!" she stammered. "I o-o-overheard you s-s-say you d-d-didn't have one… s-s-so…"
Her voice trailed off and she shut her eyes in a futile attempt to avoid the revulsion that they must be feeling at her shameful confession. Oh why, oh why did she not run away? Naruto would certainly hate her now. She had just confessed to deliberately spying on him! There was no way she could possibly justify her actions. The next several seconds were the longest in her life. She dared a peek at her crush… only instead of anger or disgust – which she fully expected – she saw wariness.
"You heard me say I needed a tape player. And you want to give me yours?"
He gave her a long searching look. Just as she was about to fidget nervously, the wariness in his face vanished – replaced by happiness. Suddenly, she was nearly knocked over by an exuberant blond who had enthusiastically thrown his arms around her. "Thank you!"
All sentient thought ground to a halt. His beautiful eyes – the ones she'd spent hours daydreaming about – were so close! Too close! Hinata felt her cheeks burning. The sudden rush of blood to her face left her stumbling – and on the verge of fainting. Naruto had already overbalanced with his joyful movements. With an extra cheerful shake, he almost sent both of them crashing into the ground.
Luckily, Naruto was able to right himself (and her) at the last moment, saving them from an undignified tumble. But in doing so his face came dangerously close to hers. For three full seconds, Hinata could feel his eyelashes brushing against her cheek.
Naruto let go almost as quickly as he'd tackled her, leaving her head spinning. (Now that there was distance between them, she remembered to breathe again.)
"Thanks, Hinata! You're the best!"
And with those parting words, Naruto dashed outside. Iruka smiled at the still blushing girl as straightened his desk. Then he, too, left for lunch. Ah… Puppy love.
Alone in the classroom, Hinata raised her hand to her still tingling cheek.
That night, Hinata dreamt of blue eyes and butterfly kisses.
(1) At this point, Hinata and Naruto are both 7 years old.
(2) I'm assuming that the Konoha Ninja Academy starts at age 6 and leads to normal graduation at age 12, when the series starts.
(3) This was written for the Thirty Kisses (30kisses) community on Live Journal.
(4) 1 down, 29 kisses to go! Don't worry. I already know where I want to go with most of this. 26 of the 29 themes left have already been outlined and/or drafted. So hopefully, I'll be able to update fairly quickly. I'll do my best, anyways.
(5) Please review and let me know what you think. Thanks!