Title: One Small Step
Author: Shawny Wong
Theme: #22 cradle
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 2: Eskimo Kiss
Hinata was the strangest girl he'd ever met. He never noticed her before, but ever since that day – the day she gave him her tape player – he couldn't seem to stop thinking about her. She was nothing like the other girls in his class. The other girls were always together in groups, or in pairs – as if they needed the support of numbers. Hinata was always alone. The other girls loved to gossip and chatter and giggle. Hinata rarely spoke. (He'd never heard her laugh either, but he'd caught her smiling once or twice.) The other girls were loud and bossy, especially that Ino. Hinata was quiet and timid.
Then there was her physical appearance. Most girls wore bright colors and things to make them look pretty. Sakura wore bright red. Ino wore bright purple. Hinata, on the other hand, wore an unflattering plain beige jacket that looked too big for her. And what was wrong with her eyes? They were such a weird color. Not quite silver. Not quite white. Not quite lavender. Weird. But the strangest thing about her eyes was the lack of pupils. Was it a birth defect maybe? (Naruto would not learn about bloodlines and related doujutsu until his third year a the Academy.) She looked like she was blind, but obviously she could see just fine.
She was definitely the strangest girl he ever met. And why had she had given him a gift?
Aside from the Sandaime Hokage, no one had ever given Naruto anything just because. There was always a price. Always. He never received birthday presents, Christmas presents, or any kind of presents. Why had she given him her tape player? The question burned. Was she playing a prank on him? The day after, he almost expected her to yell, "Just kidding! I want my tape player back." Or even worse, for her to accuse him of stealing it. (It wouldn't be the first time he was accused of a theft he hadn't committed.) But… No… That couldn't be right. Iruka-sensei was there when she gave it to him. If she were going to trick him like that, then she would have waited until there were no witnesses.
Two weeks had gone by since that day. By now, he was sure it wasn't a prank, or something would have happened already. He caught her looking at him more than once – not with cold, hateful eyes – the way the older villagers looked at him. Did she think he was funny looking? But then, every time tried to catch her eye or get her attention, she would look away. It was almost like she was trying to avoid him. Was she afraid of him? Should he talk to her?
He didn't understand her at all.
Well, whatever her reasons were… Naruto was grateful for the tape player.
He used it to practice those memory retention techniques Iruka taught them. Again, and again, and again. He really mastered them! Then he started to use them during Iruka's lessons. He treated Iruka's lecture like another memory exercise. At first, he did it because he was simply bored in class and doing memory exercises to Iruka's lecture made the class go by faster. He quickly discovered the first side benefit of doing this: no more flying erasers aimed at his head (because he was actually paying attention)!
He didn't discover the second side benefit until Iruka posted the results of their last exam. To his great surprise (and everyone else's), he aced the last exam! It was the first time he had ever done something well – better than well – instead of coming in dead last. Iruka-sensei had even congratulated him before the entire class. Naruto swelled with pride just remembering it. Of course, he wasn't memorizing whole lectures. But using the memory tricks, he could at least memorize the important points of the lectures quickly. Combine that with actually paying attention and Naruto was well on his way to academic success.
Hinata was genuinely happy. When Naruto did so spectacularly on their last exam, she was so proud of him! She imagined she felt a bit like a proud parent would towards their baby's first steps. She was just bursting with pride! She had always known that Naruto was smart. It upset her whenever the other kids called him "stupid" or "dead last." To have her belief vindicated felt… satisfying.
And she was proud of herself. It was such an alien concept – being proud of herself – that it took several days for her to correctly identify the emotion. She, the Hyuuga failure, had done something right, for once. She had helped Naruto-kun! And he'd called her "the best!" Of course, it was just an expression – and he didn't really mean she was actually "the best." (She was a weakling. How could she possibly be "the best" at anything?) But he had been happy. She had been the one to make him happy with her gift. For someone like her, it was a major accomplishment – almost a minor miracle. She wanted to approach him again to talk… to be his friend. But… What if he didn't want to talk to her? What if he rejected her?
Hinata sighed. What little courage she'd found to approach him that day was lost again.
"Next year, we will be introducing the basics of ninjutsu," Iruka smiled, as he noticed nearly every student sit up a little bit straighter. (Shikamaru was still slumped in his seat.) Naruto in particular was almost bouncing in his seat with excitement. Ninjutsu was the calling card of shinobi. The first two years of the Academy were focused on basic taijutsu, basic weaponry, and non-combat ninja techniques (including history of the Shinobi Nations, basic strategy, and memory retention techniques) – much to Naruto's disappointment. To hear the word "ninjutsu" before third year was always cause for excitement.
"But before we get to that, we need to learn chakra theory and master the twelve fundamental hand seals used for manipulating chakra. What is chakra?" Iruka wrote the word on the blackboard as he asked the question. He turned back to the class. "Chakra is the combination of mental, physical, and spiritual energies in the body. Chakra is essential to life. Without it we would die. Chakra is also the essential ingredient to performing any shinobi jutsu.
"Hand seals are the second ingredient. Hand seals are used to change the chakra within your body into a jutsu. To perform a jutsu, you first summon chakra, then transform it into a jutsu using a hand seal – or a series of hand seals. In an actual fight, you will have to form hand seals while evading enemy attacks, so being able to make hand seals quickly and accurately is critical. The faster you can do the hand seals, the faster you can pull off a jutsu. And in a real fight, fractions of a second can mean the difference between life and death. Before you leave the Academy, performing hand seals quickly should be as natural to you as breathing.
"First we will work on accuracy. Then we will work on speed. Now, I'm going to demonstrate the twelve fundamental hand seals. The trick to remembering them is to say the name aloud while forming the seal with your hands. Practice this until your fingers can move instinctively."
Iruka went through hand seals, calling out the names as he demonstrated them. He held each seal for several seconds, so that his students could get a good look at it, before moving on to the next one.
The next hour was spent going around the classroom. Iruka had each student form the hand seals for him. He gently corrected fingers and hand positions as he went along. The key to learning hand seals was repetition – but all the repetition in the world was no good if the seal was formed incorrectly! So Iruka didn't move on until he was certain the student knew the correct finger positions. Doing this didn't actually take much time. A majority of the students – about 70 percent, Iruka guessed – came from ninja backgrounds, where one or both parents were ninja. Some even came from prominent ninja clans, like the Hyuuga and the Uchiha. Those students already knew the twelve hand signs and even had decent speed for Academy students.
Naruto was not one of those students. Iruka dedicated a good ten minutes to helping him with his hands. When class let out for lunch, Naruto was cornered by Kenta and Jirou. The two of them came from minor ninja families and took great joy in rubbing Naruto's failures in his face.
"Hey, dead last! How are you going to be Hokage if you have to take remedial lessons from Iruka-sensei?" Kenta laughed.
"'I'm going to be Hokage!'" mocked Jirou. "You're so slow, I can finish all twelve hand seals before you can even do one. I have a better chance of becoming Hokage than you do."
"I am going to be Hokage!" Naruto shot back. "You won't be faster than me for long. Once I get some practice, I bet I can finish all twelve hand seals before you can!"
"Yeah, right! Not in a million years!"
"Have fun with your remedial lessons! Loser!"
With one last shove, the boys ran off to enjoy the rest of their lunch break. Behind a corner, Hinata had witnessed the entire confrontation. Naruto sat down and started to slowly practice his hand seals. His eyes burned with determination. She heard him mutter.
"I am going to be Hokage. I am going to be faster. I'll be the fastest in the class. I won't give up!" Then in a loud voice, "Monkey!"
Good luck, Naruto-kun. I know you can do it.
A few days later, Naruto had memorized all the hand seals. But his speed still needed work – a lot of work. He didn't understand it. No matter how many hours he practiced, he was still slower than most of his classmates – even the ones from non-ninja families, like Sakura. I'll ask Iruka-sensei today after class. Maybe there's something I'm missing. Iruka-sensei will help me.
Iruka looked up from grading papers to see Naruto hovering at the door of his office. "Yes, Naruto?"
"Can you give me any tips to help me get faster at making hand seals? I've been practicing really hard, but for some reason I'm still the slowest person in the class!"
"Hmm… Have a seat." Iruka gestured at the chair in front of his desk and waited for Naruto to get comfortable. "How many hours a day are you practicing them?"
"At least, three hours a day. Sometimes five."
Iruka fought to keep the surprise from his face. That was above and beyond what he expected from most students. Naruto was certainly tenacious. But if that was true – and he had no reason to lie – then Naruto should be one of the fastest in the class. So why wasn't he? Unless… Iruka had never seen Naruto play ninja games with the other children. Could it be…
"I'm glad you're working so hard, Naruto. It is strange. With that much practice you really should be much faster."
"Then why am I not? Can you tell me what I'm doing wrong, Iruka-sensei?"
"You're not doing anything wrong." Iruka hesitated. He really didn't want to bring up Naruto's isolation from the other children. But if he were right about this, then it would make a lot of sense. "Naruto… Have you ever played Cat's Cradle?"
"You mean that string game?" Naruto shook his head, looking confused. "No. What does that have to do with anything?"
"Have you ever wondered why Cat's Cradle is such a popular children's game in Konoha?" Iruka slipped into lecture mode. "It's not a very popular game in most places, except the Hidden Villages. Cat's Cradle isn't just a children's game for fun and passing time. It's actually an early training exercise. Cat's Cradle develops coordination and strengthens the muscles in your fingers and hands. It makes your fingers more nimble and flexible and improves manual dexterity. Most ninja parents teach their children to play the game before they can walk. Children from civilian families will play it, too. Even if their parents don't teach it to them, they learn by playing with other kids. We do live in a ninja village, after all.
"Think of it like lifting weights and running laps for taijutsu. Even if you're taijutsu forms and stances are perfect, without lifting weights and running laps, you'll never be a taijutsu master. Cat's Cradle is like physical conditioning for hand seals – the same way weights and laps are physical conditioning for taijutsu. It's not part of the curriculum because most children have already learned it before the enter the Academy."
"None of the other kids would play with me. Not even when I asked." Naruto said softly.
Iruka winced. It was exactly as he'd thought. Naruto was just a kid. He shouldn't be treated like this. Sometimes, I hate being right. Iruka dug around his desk drawers. Now where is it? Ah! There it is.
"That's all right, Naruto." Iruka smiled and held out a red string. He knotted the ends together to form a loop. "Would you like to learn how to play right now?"
Naruto stuffed the red string into his pocket as he stepped outside the Academy. Class was over for the day, but there were still a lot of kids hanging out on the premises. Some kids (like Kiba) stayed behind for extra training and after school sparring with other kids. Some kids (like Sakura and Ino) stayed just to gossip and hang out with their friends. Others (like Shikamaru) stayed to avoid chores at home. (Although Naruto did not know this, Hinata stayed behind for two reasons: to avoid her family and to catch an extra glimpse of him.)
Naruto thought back to his meeting with Iruka. Iruka had explained that there were two different versions of Cat's Cradle: a civilian version and a ninja version. The ninja version had about thirty extra steps and was more complex. Also, the ninja version had an advanced level – with two strings and required three players. After playing several rounds of Cat's Cradle (the ninja version, of course), Iruka had told him to find a friend to play it with.
"I think you've got the hang of it, Naruto. Keep practicing, okay? If you can find a friend to play this with, come back here – and I'll teach you to play the advanced level of Cat's Cradle, since we'll need three people for that. The three-player version is actually quite challenging – and fun. The two strings together form intricate designs and a single mistake can tangle you in knots very quickly!"
Naruto frowned. Find a friend to play this with? Yeah, right. No one had ever played with him before. He didn't see how that was going to change anytime soon. But he really wanted to play again. It had been… fun, playing with Iruka-sensei. He wanted to play it again, and not just because it would help his speed with hand seals. Unfortunately, he didn't think the other kids would play with him. I won't give up before I try. I'll ask around anyways.
"No way, man! Why would I want to play a baby game with you?" asked Kiba. He grinned, fangs showing, "Want to spar instead? I'll go easy on you."
"What are you, three? That's such a boring game." Ino flounced away.
"Eww… Get away from me! You probably have cooties!" Sakura ran to rejoin Ino.
"Cat's Cradle? It's so troublesome," drawled Shikamaru, lying on his back. "I just want to watch the clouds and take a nap. Ask me some other time."
Hinata wavered with indecision. She'd heard Naruto asking around for a partner to play Cat's Cradle with. She didn't understand why he wanted to play a children's game. But if he wanted to play, she would play! She wanted desperately to go up to him and volunteer to be his partner. But she just couldn't! That was much too forward for the timid girl. If only he would ask her. Ask me, please! I'm here. He didn't see her. She saw him turn to leave. Ask me! Please! She took one small step forward.
Naruto growled in frustration. He'd been shot down, not once, not twice, but four times! Four! He might as well go home. There was no one else he could ask. A small sound and a flash of beige at the corner of his eye caught his attention. What was that? I could have sworn… Wait! Is that Hinata?
In an alternate time and place, Naruto never noticed Hinata standing there, so he never thought to ask her – and he never found a partner for Cat's Cradle. Instead, Naruto worked hard to improve his speed little by little through sheer repetition on his own – and with a few more rounds of Cat's Cradle with Iruka-sensei. (However, Iruka had other responsibilities and couldn't dedicate a great deal of time for one student, no matter how fond he was of Naruto.) He would remain in the bottom quartile of the class – and never reach his full potential. One small action at the right time, at the right place, would change the world.
In this time and place, Naruto had just spent two weeks wondering about Hinata and watching her, so he noticed her standing there – and thus, thought to ask her. Her small act of kindness gave him hope. Here was a person who didn't hate him. Otherwise, she wouldn't have given her tape player to him. Dare he? Should he risk being shot down yet again? I'll ask her. She might say "no" like all the rest, but she might say "yes." Maybe… She's so strange… Normal people don't like me. She's not normal at all. She's different… so maybe she'll be my friend?
"Hinata, right?" Naruto shuffled his feet a little. "Would you… I mean… I know it's kind of stupid, but would you like to play Cat's Cradle with me?"
"Really? That's awesome! Come on!"
Naruto was nervous as they sat on the front steps of the Academy to play. No. Scratch that. He was beyond nervous. He was about to have a full-blown panic attack. The training that Cat's Cradle was supposed to give him was irrelevant. That was neither here nor there. He almost couldn't believe she'd said "yes." It was the first time anyone his age agreed to play with him. Playing together was the first step to making friends, right? Friends played together. This was his chance! If he made a good enough impression… then maybe she'd agree to play with him again. That could lead to real friendship – something he'd only dreamed about.
I can't mess this up! I have to do this right!
Naturally, the moment he decided not to mess up, he ruined it. Naruto was so flustered that it didn't take more than a few steps into Cat's Cradle – the ninja version, of course – before the red string was one giant knot. He looked down at it in dismay. Hinata gently removed the string from his hands and worked on straightening the string out.
"It's o-o-okay, Naruto-kun. W-w-would you like t-t-to try again?"
Naruto could only nod. He looped the string twice around his fingers and held his hands out to try again.
Three giant knots later, disaster struck. Somehow – he didn't know how – somehow he managed to tangle the string around both their hands – inadvertently, tying their hands together. Now they were stuck. Naruto swore internally. Idiot! I'm such an idiot. My big chance to make a friend, and I go and ruin it. She'll never play with me again… He glanced at his partner – only to see that her face was bright red. She was nice to me… and now she's angry. Why can't I do anything right?
"I'm sorry," he said somberly without his usual volume. "I'm sorry I'm such a horrible player. I'm sorry I made you angry. Damn it! I really messed up. I'm always messing up. No wonder nobody wants to be friends with me. Heck, I wouldn't want to be friends with me, either."
Hinata – who was blushing and not red-faced with anger – was startled by the misery on his face and the self-loathing in his voice. She rushed to reassure him – and for the first time, spoke straight from the heart, without thinking. "No! I'm not m-m-mad. I want to be your friend."
"Do you mean it?" Naruto looked at her in wonder.
"You want to be my friend?" he asked again, just to be sure. When she nodded, pure joy erupted within him. The rush made him giddy. His heart felt strangely… full. And for reasons he couldn't explain, he wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. She had accepted all his mistakes without derision. She wasn't angry. She accepted him – as he was.
He had a friend!
"Thank you," he whispered at last.
Had she done the right thing? Hinata wondered. She had quickly realized that he was a beginner at Cat's Cradle, but she didn't mind. Except Naruto had looked so upset. And the more upset he got, the more mistakes he made – which only made him more upset. Hinata was intimately familiar with those feelings. So she simply helped correct his mistakes. When their hands were tied together, she could only blush. And then… he was so hurt and miserable. The desperate need to comfort him made her bold; she would never have spoken so recklessly and impulsively otherwise. Now… although there was a sheen of tears in his eyes, his joy was unmistakable.
Had she done the right thing? Yes.
Naruto smiled at her.
Hinata smiled back.
"All right!" Naruto was back to his confident, excitable self. "Let's go find Iruka-sensei to help us get untied. Then we can play again! I'll get it this time for sure!"
Naruto jumped to his feet. He was in such a hurry that he forgot to account for the law of inertia – which states: an object at rest tends to stay at rest and an object in motion tends to stay in motion… unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. When Naruto leapt to his feet, he became a moving object that wanted to keep moving. Hinata, who was quite comfortable where she was, became the stationary object that wanted to stay still. Unfortunately, the stationary object and the moving object were still tied together. The result was painful collision. Hinata was forcibly pulled up from a sitting position, while Naruto's upward leap was forcibly reversed; he was jerked backwards. Their heads collided with a resounding CRACK!
Dazed and disoriented, Hinata opened her eyes and promptly forgot about the pain in her head. She had landed on top of Naruto with their hands trapped between their chests. More importantly, they were face-to-face – and so close that their noses were touching! And all she could see were blue eyes. Hinata instantly turned the color of a ripe tomato. It was too much for the poor girl. Oh no! I'm going to faint!
When Iruka arrived on the scene a few minutes later, he found a Naruto sitting on the steps with an unconscious Hinata lying beside him. Her head was pillowed on his lap. Their hands were still tied together by red string. Iruka raised an eyebrow. "Do I want to know what happened here?"
"Ah! Iruka-sensei! Hinata and I were playing Cat's Cradle and we got stuck," Naruto said in embarrassment. "When I jumped up to find you, I knocked our heads together. I think I must have hit her head too hard because Hinata passed out. Can you help us out?"
That night, Hinata fell asleep with a smile on her face. She – the weakest Hyuuga – had done it again: something right. Maybe, just maybe, she wasn't as big a failure as she thought. Maybe she was able to change… a little bit. Hinata dreamt of blue eyes and Eskimo 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) 2 down, 28 kisses to go!
(5) Usually the stories I've seen for this theme (#22 cradle) use a baby's cradle (for obvious reasons). I wanted to give this theme a more unique interpretation. I hope I succeeded.
(6) This chapter was a lot longer than I originally intended. Also the ending I had in mind was completely different. But the scene I wanted to write refused to get written! So I scrapped the original ending and you get this instead. I'm not very happy with it. Was it too rushed?
(7) I don't know if Cat's Cradle helps develop manual dexterity or not. Just assume that the ninja version does!
(8) Iruka's lecture on chakra and hand seals was partially paraphrased from the Naruto Official Fanbook released by Shonen Jump. (ISBN: 1421518449)
(9) Too many Author's Notes! I'll stop talking now.
(10) Please review and let me know what you think. Thanks!
EDIT 3/24/08: Fixed formating. I didn't realize my scene breaks weren't showing up. Sorry about that.