Rustling Leaves


"Name."

"H-Hyuuga Hinata."

"Rank."

"Chunin."

"Squad."

"T-team 8." Hinata swallowed.

"Team 8…" The ninja at the desk sorted through a collection of forms. "Team 6, Team 7, ah, here we are." Opening a folder, he reached in and took out a wad of papers. "There. Fill out these forms and return them to the desk, then report to orientation room B12." He gave the girl a short nod and turned. "Next?"

"Hey." The person just behind Hinata bumped her forward as he moved to the desk.

"Name."

"Inuzuka Kiba…"

Hinata left the voices behind her as she headed over to the desks lining the walls of the enormous room. Clutching the papers to her chest, she scanned the seats for someone she knew. There. Sakura. Hurrying over, she slid into the adjoining desk. "Mind if I sit here?"

Sakura glanced up, apparently startled from her perusal of the document. "Huh? Oh. Oh, sure. Help yourself." Immediately she returned her gaze to the paper.

Somewhat disappointed by her classmate's non-reaction, Hinata took out her papers and placed them on the desk. Her eyes ran over the lines without really reading them, instead just taking in the overall effect. Very official. Very plain. Very ordinary. The usual questions about name, rank, serial number, squad, former missions, and current assignment. A few new entries about living wills, disposal of remains and next of kin. All so many bits of life inked out in black and white.

With a sigh, Hinata moved to fill it out only to realize she'd forgotten something. "Where are the pens?" she whispered frantically to Sakura.

"Table over there, next to the rice cakes and water," answered Sakura without looking up.

Hinata jogged up, grabbed a pen and a tasteless rice cake, and returned to her seat. Somehow, in the interim, Ino had arrived. She gave Hinata a nervous grin. "Hey, Hina."

"Ino-san." Hinata gave a little bow as she sat back down. "Are Shikamaru and Chouji here too?"

"I don't know. I think so," replied Ino, casting a look around the room. "We sorta got separated in the crowd."

"I haven't seen Shino yet either."

"He'll probably be coming with the other Aburame." Ino shivered slightly. "I wish they'd heat this room up. It's cold in here."

"It is." Hinata agreed, shivering herself. Odd, considering she was wearing a full hooded sweatshirt as opposed to Ino's tanktop and shorts, but nonetheless, she felt the chill also. It filled the air, permeated the look, leapt from the hard lines on the sheet before her. Everything had the same cold feel to it.

For a moment or so the two kunoichi sat, staring across the room and the hundred or so ninja clustered within. They entered the atrium in several long lines leading to some desks, where they scattered to the innumerable desks throughout the room. As they watched, Sakura got up, nodded to them, and jogged over to the desk to turn in her paper.

"So." Ino swallowed. "War."

Hinata nodded ever so slightly, staring out across the room of pencil-scratching ninjas. "It's a lot… different than what I thought it'd be. Right now, I mean."

"Yeah."

"I guess it'll be… it'll probably change."

"Sure."

"But it just…" Hinata shook her head. "There're so many of them."

Hinata had no memory of Orochimaru's attack on the village. She'd been unconscious throughout the whole. Pein's attack, in contrast, was burned vividly into her mind, but more as a confused jumble of dust, noise, and blood, not as a mass struggle of hundreds of ninjas. She hadn't seen this many ninjas in one place since the Hokage's funeral, and all of them were here for the same purpose, preparing to fight in the same battle. The sheer enormity of it all was a bit much for the Hyuuga heiress to absorb.

"Anyway, I'd better get started." Ino bent over the desk.

"Y-yes, of course." Pulling free of her own musings, Hinata returned to the form before her. Most of them were answers she could rattle off by heart, although, as always, she hesitated slightly over the "next of kin" section before putting down her father. Simply reading through the new sections gave her the chills all over again, but she filled them out anyway. Finished, she stood from the desk and walked over to the desk.

"Good." The ninja looked over her paperwork, pointed out a few answers she had missed, and then ripped the back off it. "Here's a copy for you to keep in your records." He intoned. "In the meantime, collect your new gear and orders from orientation room B12."

Unsure of where the orientation rooms were and what to do with the 'copy' until she got home, Hinata hurried off. She caught sight of Chouji and jogged after him, hoping he knew more than she. As she caught up to him, he offered her a nod. "What room?"

"B12." she panted.

"Oh. I'm in A3. Yours is probably on the second level."

Hinata almost stopped. "We're not in the same orientation room?" For some stupid reason she had expected all the Rookie 11 to go through things together.

"Apparently not." Chouji cast a rueful glance back at her. "Shikamaru figured they'd probably break up teams in favor of new, more specialized categories. We probably won't even be with our teams, he said." Looking down at the copy in his hand, he added mournfully, "I just hope I'm with him."

Hinata's mind was working on her own ideal team. "Have… have you seen Naruto-kun?"

Chouji gave her an odd look. "You know he's out on a mission, right?"

"Y-yes." Hinata ducked her head. "B-but… I just thought… it's war and everything… I was hoping he'd…"

Chouji's shoulders sagged. "Yeah. I wish he was here too. Everything here is so darn depressing." He grinned suddenly. "He'd cheer this place up."

"I kn-know."

"Well, here's my room." Chouji stopped just outside the door. "Good luck in…"

"Couji." A cough came from the inside. "About time you showed up. This was getting troublesome."

"Alright! Shikamaru!" Chouji grabbed his friend in a bearhug.

"Good to see you too," grunted the other. "You're a little late, they were about to start without you." He nodded to Hinata. "Hey."

"H-hello Shikamaru-san." Hinata bowed slightly. "I-I'm looking for room B12."

"B12? That makes sense, they would be the close-range fighters. Neji's probably there, they have lots of Hyuuga. I think Genma is in charge of the orientation."

"I-is… Is Naruto-kun there?"

Shikamaru let out a little amused snort. "Doubt it. He's not exactly a close-range type." Pointing, he explained, "The stairs are over there. Go up one level and turn left, you should find the room without too much trouble."

"Thank you, Shikamaru-san." Hinata gave another short bow and then hurried off.

She followed the directions without too much difficulty, and a few moments later she pushed open the 'B12' door. A few unfamiliar faces glanced up as she entered before returning to their various tasks, but otherwise the crowd of bustling ninjas ignored her. Hinata pushed her way to a rather stressed-looking Genma.

"Hey." He greeted her. "Name?"

Hinata blinked—surely Genma knew her—but responded nearly automatically. "Hyuuga Hinata."

"Right," nodded the jounin, scanning over the list of names. "Hyuuga Hidari, Hyuuga Hifuru, Hyuuga Hishiro… ah, here we are." He picked up a set of papers. "Here's your information packet…" Turning, he sorted through the pile of boxes behind him and picked one out. "...and here's your gear. Get suited up behind the curtains over there and then head back here so the aides can tell you how to get acquainted with it."

Swallowing, Hinata hurriedly stuffed the information packet into the side of the box and headed over to the curtains. Several girls were already changing behind there, in various states of undress. Some were Branch Family Hyuuga, and they gave her a little bow as she entered. Hinata returned it as quickly as possible.

Since the whole incident with Pein, the Branch family members had been treating her in a whole new manner, as if they had suddenly remembered that she was still the clan heiress. Ko and Neji had reached a whole new level of protectiveness, but most of the others seemed almost to be in awe of her. Why, she couldn't say, it wasn't like she had even DONE anything incredible against Pein. Anybody could have charged in there and died, she just happened to be the only one stupid or selfish enough to.

Which, of course, fueled the inevitable gossip. Hinata didn't even have to be a ninja to know what the servants must be saying.

All the attention rather flustered her. Hinata had never been really prepared for her role as heiress, partly because most had expected Hiashi to appoint Hanabi in that station. Raised in the academy and trained on missions, she'd never been treated as anyone particularly special, and the sudden recognition of her status in the clan was not exactly welcome. Already she longed for as well as dreaded the return of her father to Konoha.

Still, she couldn't spare time to think of that now. Quickly she stripped off her sweatshirt and pulled off her jeans, kicking them toward the box. It felt very bizarre to be doing this alongside the other girls (in a room of Hyuugas, no less), but she had done stranger things before. Hastily she donned the loose black jumpsuit found in the box and strapped the utility belt around it.

And then there was the vest.

She suppressed a shiver as she zipped the vest up. This was the flak vest nearly all the adults wore, not just the jounins, but most of the chunins also. None of her classmates (with the exception of Shikamaru and Lee) had ever bothered with the things before, instead opting for more comfortable, individual costumes. She wore her sweatshirt because she liked it, Kiba wore his leather jacket because he thought it looked cool, and Shino wore his coat because, well, he was Shino.

Not so with the vest. It was professional, strictly utilitarian gear, meant for combat and nothing more. The padding absorbed shocks and deflected knives, the pockets contained all manner of equipment (Hinata could hear the mysterious contents jingling), and the color identified friend from foe. In the sense, these vests marked everyone who had fought in the last Great Ninja War, the last time these sort of things had been mandatory. Now they would mark the soldiers of this one.

The vests were a sign of adulthood. A sign of war.

Hinata hurried out from behind the curtains and presented herself, wondering who the 'aides' who were supposed to help her were.

"Hinata-sama." Glancing up, Hinata met Neji's calm gaze. "You are here too, then?"

Hinata gave a short bow. "Yes, Neji-nii-san."

"Hmph." Neji seemed about to say something but thought better of it. "Your vest is not adjusted correctly." He said, reaching over to tighten the straps. "Make sure to look after it, each ninja's vest is uniquely fitted to them."

"Yes, Neji-nii-san."

"Smoke pellets are in the right side pocket, substitution packets in the front." He pointed. "Kunai are to be stored on the belt and on the left center pouches, over the heart. Any extras must be kept in your miscellaneous areas."

"M-miscellaneous…?"

"Left side pocket, large right pouch on belt. Use them to carry whatever else you feel you need." Neji finished adjusting the vest and looked straight at her. "There's a great many soldier pills in the right center pouch—they give the Hyuuga an abnormal amount. Also… you've received medical training?"

Hinata gave a short nod.

Nodding back, Neji added, "You should have a standardized kit in your box of gear. It's to be attached to the left side of your belt. Be sure to tie the armband around your upper arm too, so you're distinguishable in combat. Try to keep all these items in their set locations so that other ninja can take supplies off you." Unspoken came the implication, 'your dead corpse.' "However, if you find it's interfering with your technique, switch them as you see fit."

"Y-yes, Neji-nii-san."

"Good." Neji looked at her for a long moment before adding, in a quieter tone, "Did you explain to the recruiter the situation with the Hyuuga?"

Hinata nodded. "Yes."

"And?" Neji pressed her.

"He said Father will be back long before the army leaves, and that clan leadership will not be an issue." Chewing her lip, Hinata added, after a moment, "He did say they would try not to place me in a dangerous role."

Neji snorted at that. "What are you doing in close-range fighters, then, I wonder." He muttered. "Well. Nothing to do about it now. Have you looked through your information packet?"

"Not yet," admitted Hinata.

Neji's brow tensed ever so slightly as he leaned forward. "Division 2—that's us—will be led by Kitsuchi of Iwa." His mutter was low and angry. "He's the son of the Shodai Tsuchikage, and we'll be working alongside his daughter, Kurotsuchi."

Unsure of exactly what to say, Hinata simply waited. Iwa and Konoha relations had always been strained at best.

"There's more," continued Neji. "There are also a number of… KUMO shinobi in our division."

Hinata closed her eyes. None of the Hyuuga had fond memories of the ninjas of Cloud, least of all Neji. On some level, she supposed she should share their animosity, but she remembered so little of her own kidnapping and the drama surrounding it that she found it difficult to connect.

"We have a mission, Neji." She answered. "That has to come first."

The fire in Neji's eyes cooled. "Yes." He nodded slowly. "Yes, you are… you are right."

"The Hokage has agreed to the alliance. There's nothing more we can do."

"True," sighed Neji, leaning back. "We will have to do what we must. After all, this is war."

"Yes." Nodding, Hinata shifted uncomfortably under the weight of the flak vest. "Yes it is."


A/N: To those who are following "Connecting the Dots" and wonder what the heck I'm doing working on other stories, I must apologize. Naruto 515 was too awesome NOT to have a story written about it, and I haven't done anything on this "Leaves of Konoha" story for a while. The next chapter to "Connecting the Dots IS being worked on, I promise, and I may even have it up by next week. No promises, though.

To everyone else, this may seem an odd piece to write about the start of the Ninja World War, but it's actually a part that really fascinates me. Before 515, I was actually going to do a one-shot sometime about the veterans complaining about the outlandish costumes all the rookies wear. Now I don't have to, because the rookies are getting serious. And I just wondered what it would be like for all these younger ninjas, who've never done real combat, to suddenly be faced with the idea of how serious everything is.