Hinata listened to the conversation, or rather yelling from at least one part, going on around her. She was sitting at the breakfast table with her father, and watched in half amusement the two men in the door frame as they frantically tried to tell Hiashi, her father, about something they apparently, at least as she could make out, had seen in the forest. She tried not to smile as the two of them rambled on, and she noted the frown on her father's face which told her that his patience was disappearing rapidly.
The two men were hunters from the village. They were both young, which could clearly be made out because of the raspy voices they talked in. They wore normal, brown clothing and each their bow, which made them a big contrast to everything around them. Yet they did not seem to be bothered by that, and they were still trying to explain something that could not for everything good in the world be made out, as they were both talking at the same time.
Hinata cast a glance at her father, and saw that he was about to explode. And a second later he did.
"Enough!" he roared, and both the teens promptly shut their mouths. Both of them looked frightened; this was the lord of the lands, after all. The power he held was not to be argued on.
Hiashi rose from his chair and stared down at the two youngsters. One of his eyebrow were about to disappear into his hairline. He seemed to have had enough of rambling teenagers.
"I cannot make out a single thing of what you two are saying," he said sternly. "Please repeat yourselves, Hagane, Amon."
Hagane, the oldest of them, spoke up before Amon could get the chance.
"It happened earlier this morning, sir, when my brother and I was hunting in the forest. We started out kinda early, so it was almost dark, and – "
"Get to the point," Hiashi snarled. It was clearly visible that his patience was long gone. Hagane cowered, seemingly both because of fright and the annoying fact that he wouldn't be able to give a long speech about what a great hunter he was.
"W-we saw something suspicious in the forest," he muttered. It looked like he suddenly thought what he said sounded stupid. Hinata felt a little sorry for him. Being exposed to her father's anger was not something likeable.
Though now it seemed that Hiashi's interest had been kicked into gear. His eyebrow fell down to its normal place, and he unfolded the arms he had held crossed in front of his chest.
"Something suspicious? What do you mean?"
Hagane apparently took this as a good sign, because he continued with a little higher spirit.
"I don't know what it was, but it seemed like a big animal. We had gone a little longer into the forest than we usually do, and when we were following the trails of a young deer we suddenly saw something dark in between the trees. We were both hidden, so it didn't see us, but it looked like it was walking on its hind legs. But the weirdest thing was that it was followed by a pack of foxes. We saw them, because they ran out from the trees and across the trail we were following."
"And scared away the deer," Amon added sourly.
Hiashi's eyebrows knitted together in a worried frown. The woods around the area were all his, so if something was running around in them and posing a threat to humans he would have to take responsibility if something happened.
"Thank you for telling me this," he said and turned away from the two hunters. "You can both go down to the kitchen and have the cook prepare a meal for you since you lost the deer. Just tell her I sent you."
Hagane and Amon looked like the Christmas Eve had come early. They sprinted out of the room without even the slightest curt bow and ran straight for the kitchen.
Hiashi ran a hand through his hair when they had disappeared and let out a sigh. Hinata got up and went over to him.
"Is there anything I can do to help, father?" she asked quietly. She didn't have the best of relations with her father, but if she could be of assistance to him, she would do what she could.
Hiashi looked surprised down at her, eyed her small figure and gave a loud snort.
"I do not think there is much you can do, Hinata," he said and turned away from her. "Neji."
Neji, Hinata's cousin, had appeared from seemingly nowhere. He stood in the door frame, ready to listen to what his uncle wanted. Hiashi waved him closer, and he stepped into the room and walked over to stand in front of her father.
"I have just received a message from two hunters who have spotted a strange animal in my woods. I cannot have something dangerous running about, so I want you to form a search party of six men and try and find this animal. If necessary, you will kill it. Otherwise bring it back. Understood?"
Hinata's curiosity perked up. A search party? Walk around looking for something maybe dangerous? It sounded risky, scary, and yet she wanted to come with them. She was tired of her father thinking of her as a fragile flower; she wanted to prove to him that she wasn't.
She watched as Neji nodded quickly and turned to leave, and before she could try to reason with herself, she burst out:
"F-father, can I go with them?"
Both men turned around and looked at her, her father's expression showing a strange mix of astonishment, anger and fright. Neji just looked at her with a raised eyebrow. She felt her courage fail her a little, but she hurriedly spoke before her father could find his voice again.
"I-I am nearing seventeen years now, father. Do you not agree that it is time I do something other than draw and play piano? A-after all, you yourself told me that you did not want me to spend my life doing nothing just because I am a girl." She hoped that bringing up something he himself had said would help her, but when she saw that his expression didn't change she looked quickly away. "A-at least I think so," she added, mumbling.
Hiashi didn't say anything until almost half a minute later.
Hinata felt her stomach sink. Deep down she had probably expected this to be his answer, but she had hoped that it wouldn't.
"B-but father, I – "
"I said no, Hinata! It is far too dangerous for you!"
"But why? Neji is only a year older than me, and he is the one you are leaving in charge of the entire search team!"
"That is because Neji is a – "
Hiashi stopped abruptly, and instead he rubbed the bridge of his nose with two fingers, as if he was being put through something very tiring.
"I will not allow you, Hinata. Do not argue with me."
Hinata took this as defeat; it wasn't safe to argue too much with her father. She was about to leave the room when Neji suddenly spoke up, startling her a little.
"Uncle, if it is all right, I would like to bring Hinata with us."
Hinata turned, completely dumbfounded. So was her father, it seemed. He stared at Neji in the same manner he had been staring at her minutes earlier.
"Excuse me?" Hiashi's voice had a dangerous, cold tone.
"She would be a great help for finding the tracks of this animal. Women have a greater sense for small details than men, and I dare think that will prove useful to us."
Hiashi stared at both of them as if they had suddenly grown tentacles. Then it seemed like he relented.
"All right," he said, voice giving away something akin to defeat. "She can come with you. But if any harm comes to her, you will carry full responsibility! And keep her on a horse!"
Neji gave a curt bow, and turned to leave with Hinata in tow.
"Thank you," she whispered to him before she ran off to get ready before her father could change his mind.
The forest seemed oddly quiet, even though the sounds of soft leather shoes against the wet ground and the quiet steps of horse hooves surrounded Hinata on all edges. The men were talking amongst themselves, yet it seemed like no matter how loud they were speaking they wouldn't be able to break the silence the forest held. Or maybe it was just she who had blocked out everything other than suspicious-sounding noises. She was determined to at least discover one important thing, so that she could live up to what Neji had said, and what her father now expected of her.
Neji was walking beside her horse, probably because Hiashi had ordered him to. He had probably made sure that Neji swore to never be more than two meters away from her, to be able to aid her in case something happened. It annoyed her, because she was starting to feel 'the call of nature' and therefore wondered how in the hell she was supposed to be able to do what she needed when she had a bunch of men surrounding her at all time.
She bent down towards Neji and opened her mouth to say something, but before she managed she felt Neji's hands clamp down on her shoulders and push her into a safe position again.
"Be careful, Hinata," he said. His voice sounded worried, but whether it was from concern for her or fear of getting killed by Hiashi if something happened to her, she could not know.
She relented and sat back up again, just to ease his nerves a little. But she went on with what she had wanted to say.
"Neji, can we take a break? We are already deep within the woods, and we have seen nothing. Would it not be wise to stop and look around for a while?" She hid her ulterior motive, of course.
Neji looked like he pondered over whether it was a good idea or not, all the while staring at her as if he was judging just how safe it would be to let her down on the ground. She smiled at him, and a moment later it seemed he decided.
"We will take a short break here, to investigate this area further. We are close to where the animal was spotted, and it is likely to find trails of it around here. We don't know what we are dealing with, so be careful."
He turned towards the six men and sent them each out in their own direction. Hinata took that opportunity to slide down from the horse and run in between the trees. She was starting to feel the slightest bit uncomfortable; needing to visit a toilet in the middle of a gigantic forest wasn't something she liked. She pondered whether she should just wait; it was probably not very smart to run off like that.
"Neji is probably worried about me," she thought, a slight twinge of guilt bothering her conscience. But before the guilt could start gnawing at her for real, her train of thoughts were interrupted by the sound of soft footsteps and rattling from several bushes a small distance ahead. The trees around her were all thick oaks, with a few birches spread in between, making it hard to see past the big tree trunks. All the moss covering the ground didn't help either, because it absorbed all the sounds, but she could hear it coming definitely closer. She could feel cold sweat start to form on her back, and her hands began to shake ever so little. How could she be so stupid?! To leave the group when she knew there was something out there was just immensely stupid! And poor Neji; what would happen to him if she got killed by an animal? He wouldn't live to see the next sunrise.
The sounds were coming closer, and she now heard that it was a pack. There was more than one pair of footsteps, although she could make out one of them to be heavier than the others.
By now she realized that she should be hiding. She looked around frantically, searching for even the smallest hiding place with her eyes filled with tears. If it was something she didn't want, it was to be torn apart by the claws of a monster. She took in the surroundings in a blur of colours; the trees, the ground, the small bushes. Nothing fit. The trees had no branches she could climb on, there were no holes in the ground and the bushes were all way too small. Ironically enough she was standing in the middle of what looked like a tiny clearing.
"Neji, father, I'm so sorry," she thought miserably. Fear was making her almost incapable of breathing, not to mention moving, so she just stood frozen as whatever it was came straight towards her. She closed her eyes, trying to shut out what was happening.
Something burst out into the clearing from behind her, and she spun around on reflex. What met her was simply surprising. A small pack of foxes had skidded to a halt at the outer edge of the clearing, staring at her with suspicious eyes. For a moment Hinata felt incredibly relieved, but then another, much bigger creature, came into view. Hinata felt her breath get caught in her throat, and the fear she had lost moments ago returned with renewed strength.
It was a human boy, tall and slender, with golden hair and outstandingly blue eyes. He halted when he caught sight of her, stopping right in the middle of the pack of foxes. Hinata couldn't help but stare at him. He was dirty and, embarrassingly enough, stark naked, but it was as if an animalistic beauty radiated from him. His muscles tensed as he stared at her warily, measuring her as if to see what kind of threat she was.
By now it seemed the foxes decided to make a run for it. The turned and fled, obviously expecting the boy to follow them, which he did not. One of the foxes stopped to wait for him, and Hinata half expected him to disappear, which would probably be the best outcome for her. But to her fear-filled surprise all he did was to let out a low, growling sound, and the fox which had waited for him turned and followed the pack.
Hinata tried to make her breath function the right way. She felt like she wasn't getting enough oxygen, and the fact that the boy now had started moving closer to her didn't help at all.
"D-don't come closer," she said, her voice sounding weak, and she held out a hand as if to push him away, only that he wasn't close enough for her to do that. But in some way it seemed to work, at least for a little while. He stopped when he heard her talk, and cocked his head to the side as if he was watching something that made him very curious. But a moment after he moved forward again, and Hinata found out that this was a good time to start moving backwards. She warily put one foot behind the other, all the time watching the boy. He followed suit, actually if anything he sped up the tiniest fraction. Suddenly Hinata felt her foot get caught in something, and she fell. She mentally cursed that damn root that had tripped her and tried to get up quickly. The only problem was that the boy was now towering over her, staring at her with curiosity. Hinata felt like she wanted to cry.
"This is probably the end of me," she thought to herself, trying to shuffle backwards only to find her back pressed up against a tree trunk. She held her breath and tried not to whimper just in case it would act as a threat and make the boy go on a rampage, yet a tiny little sound escaped her lips, very akin to a sob. She watched with horror as the boy crouched down, and tried not to think about how naked he was. She half expected him to grab a hold of her and rip her apart or start gnawing at her, but he did neither of them. He reached out a hand and stroked her face, from her forehead to her chin, as if he wanted to feel the contours, and then he went to her shoulder and tugged at the clothing covering it. He stretched out the other arm too and with both hands he started patting her hair. It felt soothing, in a way. It almost reminded her of how her mother had used to stroke her hair when she was little. He leaned closer, and to her astonishment he started sniffing at her. It was almost like he was exploring her, and it felt embarrassing.
Hinata's head shot up so fast that she almost clashed her forehead into the boy's. She pushed him away without even thinking of possible consequences, jumped up and shouted:
It was Neji's voice which had called for her, and judging by the strength of it he wasn't far away. She was right. Only a couple of moments later Neji and the rest of the search team burst into the clearing, their weapons ready in hand. They all stopped short when they saw the strange-looking boy which was standing only a couple of feet away from Hinata. The only one who ignored him was Neji. He ran over to her and took a good hold on her to support her.
"Hinata, are you okay?" he asked frantically, eyes searching for the smallest scrape or injury. She could only nod, too relieved to say anything. At least now she knew, at least half-way, that the boy wasn't dangerous. He hadn't hurt her, after all.
"Are you sure?" Neji insisted, but before he could go on one of the men called his attention.
"Neji-sama, what should we do with him?"
Neji turned, irritated.
"What are you – " Then he noticed the now tensed-up boy which was slowly backing away from them. Neji's eyes widened as he took in the appearance before him, and then he turned his head towards Hinata.
"He's not dangerous," she said in a hurry. "He hasn't hurt me."
"Yeah, I can see that. But who is he?"
"I don't know," Hinata admitted. "But – "
Neji had already turned away from her again.
"Never mind that, we have to get you back." He placed his arm firmly around her and started to guide her towards where they had come from, and then everything suddenly happened very fast.
"Neji-sama, watch out!" one of the men yelled, and a moment later the boy attacked Neji, dragging him with him as they fell down on the ground and thus dragging Hinata with them. The look of curiosity that had been glinting in the eyes of the boy before Neji had come was now replaced by a frightening rage. Hinata didn't understand that; he had seemed like such a peaceful and childish being, but what she saw now scared her. And on top of it all she was in the middle of their fighting. She tried to crawl away, but by now Neji had managed to get up, and his foot landed hard on the ground only inches away from Hinata's face. She tried the other way, but there also she was met with stomping feet. Then she suddenly felt something pulling on her ankles, and she was dragged away from the two fighters. She turned her head and saw that two of the men had pulled her out of the fight zone.
"Hinata-sama, it may be best if you stay back for now," one of them warned. She only nodded, and pulled herself up. She could taste dirt in her mouth, and that certainly wasn't pleasant, but she didn't give it much thought. She couldn't help but stare at the two fighters. They were wrestling, either one trying to overpower the other with sheer force. They looked almost epic, like they were gods locked in an eternal battle. But just as fast as it had started, it ended. One of the team's men had snuck up behind the blonde and hit him dead on in the head. He slumped together in an instant, falling heavily on the ground since Neji didn't bother to catch him.
Neji was breathing heavily, and kneading his sore biceps. The other had obviously been strong. He stared down at the boy with poorly hidden disgust, and said:
"We'll bring him with us. It was probably him the two hunters saw earlier. I don't know what he's doing here or what he is, but we'll let Hiashi-sama make the decision of what to do with him. Hinata," he said and turned towards her. "If you ever expose yourself to danger by running away like this again, I'll make sure uncle locks you up somewhere far away."
Hinata just bowed her head. She had never been one to argue, and certainly not now when her cousin was so angry and probably lightly injured. But she was worried about that strange boy; she wondered what had made him so furious suddenly, and she was afraid that the blow he had taken to the head had been too hard. She didn't like letting injured people go without checking up on them, but Neji was so angry now that she didn't dare ask him, and the boy had been slung up on the shoulder of one of the men, tied on hands and legs, so she had no way of checking up on him either. All in all she would just have to wait until they came back. What a party that would be.