Yin and Yang
Naruto belongs to Masashi Kishimoto.
Chapter 8 – Ill Omen
We gathered outside the Hokage's tower at the appointed time the next morning where we found Kurenai-sensei waiting for us. Surprisingly, I found Naruto had arrived before me. He smiled when he saw me and began to chat away animatedly after we exchanged greetings. Though as energetic as ever, I noticed faint dark pigmentation under his eyes and knowing him, he'd likely been on pins and needles all night anticipating the events that were about to unfold. When Kiba joined us a few minutes later with Akamaru in tow, they too seemed to have an extra bounce in their steps.
In contrast, I found myself strangely unaffected. Today was only a single step forward down a path for me that seemed to have no end. How long would I have to keep Neji and Uncle Hizashi waiting for justice?
"Good, you're all here."
I think I jumped a few inches off the ground when I heard a sudden voice speak from behind my ear.
"Gah!" Naruto bested me by at least a whole foot.
Kiba grinned at us both, a smug, self-satisfied glint in his eyes. "Relax, you two. It's just Kurenai-sensei."
We turned found ourselves face to face with our jounin instructor, just as he'd claimed.
"Oh?" Kurenai-sensei said with a slight frown when she looked at Kiba. "You were able to sense me?"
Kiba shook his head. "No, but Akamaru did. He told me you were coming."
"You could have told us," Naruto growled angrily. I added my glare to his own.
Kiba wasn't impressed. He laughed aloud, slapping his knee. "And where would the fun in that have been?"
"Hmm…" Kurenai-sensei bent over until she was almost at eye-level with Akamaru. She stared appraisingly while the little dog held his head high with pride. "You have a lot of talent for one so young," she said at last. Then she straightened her back and looked at the rest of us. "The rest of you should follow Akamaru's example."
Fortunately for Naruto, Kurenai-sensei had already turned her back and was walking towards the tower when his mouth fell agape. It was an unflattering look for him. I'll admit to sharing a certain amount of his incredulity, however, along with a faint itch of an annoyance at having been bested by a dog. I doubted if I would ever live down that shame.
Naruto grumpily fell into line behind Kurenai-sensei, his head down and arms crossed. Kiba followed suit with a more chipper demeanor but I lingered behind, still staring at Akamaru. He cocked his tiny head to the side and stared back.
I waited until the rest of our group was out of earshot, and then whispered from the corner of my mouth, "I won't lose to you again."
His impudent little smile only soured my mood even further.
After receiving a mission scroll from the Sandaime himself, Kurenai-sensei motioned for us to wait outside when he requested to have a private word with her.
"What do you think she's talking with him about?" Naruto whispered conspiratorially.
I rolled my shoulders but Kiba said, "You, I bet. Probably wants to trade you in for another genin who isn't such a bigmouth."
"I'm not a bigmouth!" Naruto protested loudly. Kiba and I both shot him deadpan stares and he pouted. "Fine, I'm a bigmouth. But you're both friends with a bigmouth, so bleh!" And he stuck his tongue out at us.
"He has us there," I sighed, feeling a headache coming on. The day was not off to a good start.
"I just hope he doesn't start to rub off on us," Kiba groaned.
Shortly thereafter, Kurenai-sensei joined up with us again and we followed her a short way until she stopped in the shade of an old oak tree near the academy. Naruto, Kiba, and I sat cross-legged on the ground as Kurenai-sensei unfurled the mission scroll and began to read aloud from it. Naruto leapt to his feet soon after she started.
"I refuse," he said flatly. He forcibly ripped off his hitai-ate and thrust it at Kurenai-sensei while keeping it clenched in a tight grip. "I thought this was proof that we're ninja now!" he complained loudly, not that he ever complained quietly. "I busted my butt to earn the right to wear it and now you're telling me it was all pointless?"
Kurenai-sensei weathered his childish tantrum without comment. Naruto's over-the-top personality was something of an acquired taste, and she hadn't been exposed to him long enough to acquire it. For a shinobi of her rank, she struck me as an unusually patient person but I could tell by the way that her eyebrow twitched that even she had her limits.
"I don't recall saying anything of the sort," she said in a clipped tone.
Naruto replaced his hitai-ate around his forehead, then folded his arms and frowned. "Babysitting," he deadpanned. "Our first-ever mission as ninja is babysitting."
"Yes," Kurenai-sensei said unapologetically. "I selected a mission I thought suitable for your current abilities."
Naruto scowled at her words, and even I felt slightly insulted. Granted, the three of us were only newly initiated shinobi, but surely any civilian citizen could look after a child. Were Kurenai-sensei not my direct superior and for the fact that, quite frankly, the woman somewhat terrified me after yesterday's events, I would have added my own voice to Naruto's at that point.
"That is bull!" my orange-clad teammate objected. "We're better than that! Way better!"
"Oh?" Kurenai-sensei said in a deceptively mild voice that sent chills up my spine. "I seem to recall that not a single one of you could land a clean blow on me yesterday afternoon."
'W-well, yeah…" Naruto stuttered, his confidence flagging. "But you're a jounin!"
"And I suppose you think Konoha has a monopoly on jounin level shinobi?" Kurenai-sensei said.
"I guess not… but-"
"But nothing. Make no mistake Naruto, you are still a green academy graduate that any chuunin or a more seasoned genin could dispatch with ease." She turned to Kiba and me. "The same applies to the both of you. What ever bloodline limits or clan techniques you may possess, nothing trumps real combat experience. Compared to nearly any enemy shinobi we're likely to encounter out in the field, you're all barely out of your swaddling clothes."
My teammates and I were not at all happy, but couldn't deny the truth of her words and held our tongues. Beside me, Kiba grunted his displeasure but didn't argue. Naruto merely scowled and looked away from Kurenai-sensei.
Our team leader sighed and rolled up the scroll she'd been referencing. "On your feet, all of you," she snapped. "We've already wasted too much time. I'll explain the rest of the mission en route to our client."
We obeyed like good little genin, even Naruto, though he muttered the discontent we were all feeling under his breath.
"As I was saying," Kurenai-sensei said as we followed her lead, "the parents of the child we'll be supervising today are both ninja and their duties have forced them to leave the village for a short time. The boy has a private tutor who doubles as his caretaker in such situations, but this man, also a shinobi, was injured and won't be released from the hospital until later this evening. We'll be overseeing the safety of the child in his place, until we can release the boy back into his custody."
"In other words, we're babysitting some brat for a day," Naruto groused. "How old is this kid supposed to be, anyway?"
"Eight," Kurenai-sensei answered.
Kiba let out a relieved sigh. "Good. I was afraid we might have to change diapers or something. But I guess if he's that old, he shouldn't be too hard to keep in line."
"I wouldn't be so certain of that," Kurenai-sensei warned. "His grandfather tells me the boy can be quite the handful."
"You spoke with his grandfather?" I asked in confusion. "Why can't he look after his own grandson?"
"Unfortunately, his duties don't afford him that luxury," Kurenai-sensei said. "He's a very busy man."
"Too busy for his own family?" Kiba scoffed. "Mom raised me and Hana practically by herself and she's the clan head. What does this kid's granddad do that's so important?"
Kurenai-sensei looked over and gave him a thin-lipped smile. "He's the Hokage."
I must still have been suffering from lingering effects of exhaustion the day before because the short journey to the hospital left me winded, though Kiba and obviously Naruto looked unaffected. I couldn't imagine why only I was affected. While, objectively speaking, I probably had the least amount of stamina between the three of us, I'd had adequate time to rest and had slept well the night before.
My sparring sessions with Father and Neji continued at regular intervals in the evenings after I returned home from my practice with Kiba and Naruto, and even all of that physical exertion including drills at the academy never wore me down enough to affect me the next day.
Perhaps it was a testament to Kurenai-sensei's effectiveness at pushing me to my limits. Or perhaps I was merely coming down with a cold. Either way, I set aside the worries in my mind to focus on the task at hand.
We first glimpsed the Hokage's grandson as we entered his caretaker's hospital room. A masked member of ANBU restrained the boys arms, who was hollering his protestations at the top of his lungs.
"Let me go! You can't treat me like this! I'm going to be the Godaime Hokage!"
Both the words the boy spoke and the volume with which he spoke them reminded me immediately of a certain blonde troublemaker. Physically, there wasn't much of a resemblance besides shortness of stature relative to their gender and respective age groups and poor taste in clothing. Even in the latter category, the younger boy at least sported a more diverse mix of colors with grey shorts, a blue scarf so long it dangled below his toes, and a yellow t-shirt with Konoha's leaf symbol imprinted on the front in red. The miniature tornado with a mop of spiky brown hair flailed his arms wildly, trying to hit his captor, but the ANBU operative didn't seem to even notice.
"I said let me go! Don't think I won't forget this once I take Jiji's job!"
"Shut up, you damn brat!"
Naruto marched up to the boy and screamed back twice as loudly. Almost immediately the child ceased his struggling and stared at Naruto like he was some alien being. As the honored grandson of the Sandaime Hokage, I expect no one had ever spoken to him in such a manner before. Perhaps if someone had, he wouldn't have grown into a boy so eerily similar to my teammate with an over fondness for orange and loud proclamations of unfounded bravado.
"That's better," Naruto said with a satisfied nod. He looked up to the ANBU operative. "Hey ANBU-san, we'll take it from here. This little punk is our mission today."
The black-clad man looked from Naruto to Kurenai-sensei.
"It's fine," our team leader said with a nod.
The ANBU operative inclined his head and released the boy, who fell on his behind as he continued to stare at Naruto. Kurenai-sensei kneeled down to help him up at the same time as the ANBU member silently left the room.
"Is Ebisu-san here?" she asked with a warm smile. The boy turned to her, noticing her presence for the first time. A faint blush touched his cheeks and he nodded slowly, pointing towards a bed in the corner of the room where a nurse was attending a patient.
Kiba and I followed Kurenai-sensei as she approached the bed. Naruto and the boy seemed to have returned to their staring contest and none of us bothered to interrupt them.
The man in the bed also had his eyes trained on Naruto, and in them I saw the same hard look in his eyes that Neji always had when he spoke with me or my father.
"Ebisu-san," Kurenai-sensei greeted. "How are you feeling? Better than you look, I hope."
I'd been so intent on studying the man's eyes up until then that I hadn't noticed the rest of his body. The few patches of skin where he wasn't bandaged, I could see dark, black bruises and fresh cuts that had only just begun to heal. His face was wrought in a stern expression, dark eyebrows angled inwards with a slight curl to his upper lip.
"It's nothing I don't deserve," Ebisu said in response, though his eyes never left Naruto. "I'm always lecturing the young master of how he must never underestimate an opponent, and what you see is the cost of having made that very mistake. Damn that Mizuki…"
The name briefly caught my ear, making think of our academy instructor, Mizuki-sensei, but I quickly put it out of mind. While the man was a mostly competent teacher, I couldn't imagine him doing damage of that scale to an enemy, much less a fellow Konoha shinobi.
Kiba shot me a confused look that informed me he'd followed a similar train of thought. I looked back to Naruto but he was still concentrating on the young boy from earlier. Both of their eyes had begun to water from the strain of their silly contest.
No matter. The name was most likely a coincidence.
"But never mind me, Kurenai-san," Ebisu continued. "I take it that your genin team has accepted the mission to safeguard young master Konohamaru?"
"Yes," Kurenai-sensei affirmed. "Will you have had enough time to recover when we're scheduled to return him to you?"
"If this woman who isn't even a medic-nin is to be believed," Ebisu sniffed, causing the nurse to eye him with disdain. "But… that boy. Is he…?"
"He is a member of my genin squad, yes," Kurenai-sensei said curtly. "Naruto, come here."
Naruto's head snapped up the moment his name was called, turning towards us.
"Ha!" the boy whom Ebisu had identified as Konohamaru exclaimed triumphantly. "You blinked first!"
Naruto turned back and growled at him. "No way! That doesn't count!"
"Does too!" Konohamaru taunted, sticking his tongue out.
"Naruto," Kurenai-sensei snapped. "Over here. Now."
Naruto's back straightened instantly and he was on his feet at our team leader's side in moments. "Yes, Kurenai-sensei!"
Sensei put a hand on his shoulder. "Ebisu-san, this is Naruto Uzumaki."
"Uzumaki…" Ebisu echoed under his breath. As he looked at Naruto, his stare from earlier only intensified. "Kurenai-san, I must object to his presence. The boy in a known malcontent and would prove a poor influence on the young master."
"What-" Naruto started to say, but Kurenai-sensei squeezed his shoulder and cut him off.
"Naruto passed his examinations and is a full fledged shinobi of the Leaf," she said. "His pranking days are behind him, aren't they, Naruto?"
She tightened her grip as she ended the question, causing Naruto to wince. "Y-yes, sensei."
Kurenai-sensei smiled. "Very good. May I also introduce Naruto's teammates, Kiba Inuzuka and Hinata Hyuuga. Oh, and we mustn't forget our little friend, Akamaru."
Kiba raised a hand in acknowledgement and I allowed a single, stiff nod. Akamaru barked at the mention of his name.
"I accept full responsibility for the actions of my subordinates, Ebisu-san," Kurenai-sensei said. "I am quite confident that they won't disappoint me." There was an edge of warning in her tone that made my teammates and I audibly gulp.
We didn't have any desire to see what she might do to us if we did disappoint her, not after yesterday's "test" she had given us.
Ebisu's lips twisted sourly. "I suppose if there are no alternatives…" he said while continuing to glare at Naruto. "Enough. I suggest that you and your team return to the Hokage's Tower immediately."
Kurenai-sensei frowned. "Ebisu-san, I'm sure you are aware of the current staff shortages. If you hope to replace us with another team…"
Ebisu started to shake his head, but stopped before completing a quarter rotation and squealed in a high-pitched, almost comical howl of pain. His attending nurse rolled her eyes, fluffed his pillow, and helped him ease back onto the bed.
"I warned you not to make any sudden movements," she chastised. "I can't promise you will recover enough to check out today if you keep ignoring my advice."
"Yes, well…" Ebisu cleared his throat. "You misunderstood my meaning, Kurenai-san. I meant you ought to depart for the Hokage's Tower should you hope to intercept the young master."
"What are you talking about?" Naruto demanded. "The brat is right over…" His voiced trailed off as we all trained our eyes to where he was pointing. The Hokage's grandson was absent from the space he'd been occupying only moments earlier.
Ebisu smiled grimly. "The young master entertains fanciful notions of usurping his grandfather, Sandaime-sama's position, and frequently makes less than successful assassination attempts."
"That kid actually thinks an eight-year old has a chance of beating the Hokage?" Kiba mused. "Congratulations, Naruto. We finally found someone dumber than you."
"Young man," Ebisu growled angrily. "Inuzuka-san, was it? Need I remind you that you are referring to the honored grandson of the Sandaime Hokage?"
"The hell does that matter?" Naruto retorted. "He's not the Hokage. His grandpa is. Big-"
"Naruto," Kurenai-sensei warned.
"Yes, sensei," he responded automatically, ending his tirade before it started and standing at attention.
"Our destination is the Hokage's Tower," Kurenai-sensei said, cutting to the heart of affairs. I liked that about her. Finally a serious model for an aspiring kunoichi. The fact that I was slightly afraid of her only made me want to emulate her more. "I want the three of you to go ahead. I still have a few questions for Ebisu-san. Hinata, you're in charge until I can meet up with you. Keep those two in line."
I raised my arm across my chest in an impromptu salute. "Yes, Sensei!"
We left in the most expedient manner available to us: through the window. But before we were out of earshot, I heard the nurse say in a tone of resigned frustration, "Why can't ninja ever be bothered to use the door?"
As we got underway, leaping across the rooftops, Naruto was the first to voice his complaints. "Man, we just came from the Hokage's Tower and now we're going back? Once we find him, I'm gonna hogtie that little squirt."
"You might not want to do that in front of the Sandaime, Naruto," I suggested. "He might not approve of you treating his grandson that way."
"Hey, Iruka-sensei's done way worse to me when he caught me pulling pranks," Naruto said defensively. "And even I never tried to kill the old man."
"Man, what a pain in the neck," Kiba groused. "I was hoping our first mission would involve a VIP or something, but not like this. Now we'll have to use kid gloves with this munchkin or we'll catch crap with the Hokage and that Ebisu joker."
"I'm more worried about what Kurenai-sensei might do if we screw up," Naruto said with a shudder. He turned to me. "So she put you in charge, huh, Hinata-chan?"
She had. And I was rather relieved, to be honest. Given her propensity for mind games and psychological warfare, I'm not sure I would have been surprised if sensei had appointed Akamaru to command.
"Is that a problem for you, Naruto?" I asked. I tried to imitate Kurenai-sensei's placid yet somehow threatening tone she used when issuing orders.
"No, no!" Naruto said with a touch of panic in his voice. "I just thought that, you know, I might make a good squad leader." I'd barely cocked an eyebrow when he amended hastily, "Not that I'd do a better job than you! I'd just like to give it a try is all… for practice when I'm Hokage."
Kiba snorted. "There's not a chance in hell of me taking orders from a pipsqueak like you."
"Oh yeah?" Naruto growled. "Well you'll have to once I'm Hokage!"
I waited for Kiba's inevitable retort. I'd known it was only a matter of time before my two teammates instigated another silly spat for an even sillier reason. And with Kurenai-sensei absent, it would be up to me to break it up, as I'd done at least a few dozen times before.
His reaction was more subdued than I'd been expecting, however.
"Will you give the Hokage thing a rest for once?" he complained. "We get the idea, okay? Just saying it over and over isn't going to make it happen."
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Naruto's face go blank. Whatever emotions had passed through him at that moment were masked beyond my perception. The expression wasn't unfamiliar to me; it was the same one I wore at home in my clan's compound. But it struck me as singularly peculiar on Naruto's normally expressive face.
"Kiba-kun…" I started to say, only to find I didn't know how to continue. Was I supposed to reprimand him for being honest, even when I agreed with him on a certain level? Yet, despite not even knowing why, I felt the need to say something. Naruto's reaction, or rather his lack of one, bothered me.
Kiba apparently didn't hear me because he didn't react after I said his name.
"Heh, yeah I guess I must sound like a broken record by now," Naruto said with a soft chuckle and when I looked over to him again he was smiling good-naturedly. "I'll try to tone it down from now on."
Kiba only grunted in response. As we drew closer to the Hokage's Tower, further conversation ceased. Under ordinary circumstances I'd have been glad for the peaceful respite, but the silence felt heavy, almost oppressive.
"We're getting close," Kiba finally said when we'd almost reached our destination. "I'll take point with Akamaru. His nose will be able to find the kid a lot faster than any of us."
He quickened his pace and pushed ahead of us, Akamaru bounding after him. After he left, Naruto's grin faded and he grew pensive. It wasn't consistent with his typical behavior at all. It also wasn't any of my business, but against my better judgment, I asked him about it.
"Is there something on your mind, Naruto?"
He looked at me and that same smile from earlier returned. "Huh? What are you talking about?"
"You just look a bit different than usual. Did something about what Kiba said upset you?"
His eyebrows shot upwards. "What? No way! That's just how it always is between us. You know that."
I peered at his face uncertainly but he turned away from me. "Hey, we should catch up. If we let Kiba take all the credit for this mission, it'll make us look bad."
I reached for his arm before he could pull away, but felt the fabric of his sleeve slip through my fingertips. Sending a burst of extra chakra to my legs to close the distance between us, I felt a sudden, sharp pain lance through my entire body.
It passed as quickly as it came, but it was enough to interrupt the flow of chakra reinforcing my limbs. When my feet next landed, they collapsed from under me and I hit the rooftops rolling. I was still at least three stories from the street below and the edge of the roof fast approached me.
Collecting my wits, I braced my arms and legs and applied a small amount of chakra to my hands and feet, molding it to take on a sticky adherence. The extra friction helped, but I'd already collected too much momentum. I went over the edge feet first, the air streaking around my body like a leaf caught in the wind. I cast my gaze downward and saw the street rushing up to meet me.
I looked back up and saw a flash of orange in the infinite blue above. Naruto.
"Take my hand!"
We clasped hands and I felt my arm lurch back up independent of the rest of my body. The ligaments in my elbow buckled under the strain, but my descent halted. My leftover momentum sent me straight into the side of the building I'd been falling from, but I found it preferable to the alternative.
"Urgh…" I could hear the strain in Naruto's voice as he tried to hoist me back onto the roof. "You're heavier than you look, Hinata-chan…"
Being locked away in my counterpart's mind with no human contact for as long as I'd been, I was largely ignorant of many commonplace social niceties; but that comment struck me as unforgivably rude.
Though, considering the fact that Naruto had just saved my life, or at least saved me from a long, unpleasant stay in an infirmary, I was willing to let it slide.
"Can you pull me back up?"
"I'm trying," he grunted. I saw beads of sweat pooling on his forehead. "Just… hold on… Can you reach your kunai pack with your free hand?"
I tried. "Yes, but how does that help me?"
"Just toss a couple into the side of the wall," Naruto said. "You can use them as footholds. They probably won't support much weight, but they should make it easier to pull you back up."
I followed his suggestion.
"Okay, on three, try to jump up and climb over me. One… Two… THREE!"
Naruto pulled as hard as he could while I simultaneously pushed off from my makeshift footholds. I felt the kunai break away from the wall and fall from under me, but I was able latch my arms around Naruto's neck by then. He lay flat against the roof with part of his upper torso dangling over the edge.
"Just… a little… more!"
He pushed up with arms, teeth tightly clenched, and with a single final burst of energy, he gained enough leverage to reverse his legs from under him and fell backwards on his bottom with me still clutching his neck. I lay in a tangled mess on top of him, and we were both breathing hard.
"Hinata, Naruto! Are you all right?"
I lifted my head.
"Sensei…" I gasped, rolling to the side and onto my back. "We're… huff… we're fine."
"Fine," Naruto agreed. "Never… huff… better."
"What happened?" Kurenai-sensei demanded. "I saw the three of you in the distance. Why did Kiba break off from the group? And, Hinata, how did you stumble like that?"
Naruto and I both crawled to our feet and gave brief salutes to our team leader. I took a few extra moments to collect my thoughts, and my breath, before answering Kurenai-sensei. "Kiba went to scout ahead. I… don't know what happened to me. Suddenly my body just burst into pain."
Kurenai-sensei looked at me sharply. "Has that happened to you before?"
I shook my head. "No, never."
"Do you have any ideas as to the cause?"
I shook my head again. "None."
"Then I'm suspending you from active duty, pending an exam by a medical-nin."
I couldn't believe my ears. How could she even consider pulling me from my first mission? "Sensei, that won't be necessary! I'm certain it was nothing. Perhaps I've been pushing my body too hard recently. I'll be fine if I adjust to a more moderate pace."
"Hinata, that was a direct order. Report to the infirmary. Now."
Kurenai-sensei crossed her arms and looked at me expectantly. Judging from the hard expression of her face, I knew she would brook no argument from me.
But I did so anyway. Maybe, as Kiba had feared, Naruto's stubbornness was rubbing off on me.
"Sensei, with all due respect, I must ask that you reconsider. I cannot, in good conscience, abandon a mission on account of an inconvenient fluke of random chance. I am a shinobi of the leaf and the Hyuuga heir; I would never forsake my duty to my clan or my village."
Kurenai-sensei was unmoved. "I admire the nobility of your intentions, Hinata. However, by that same token, I cannot in good conscience allow you to needlessly endanger your own health."
"Please, sensei. The risk to my health is minimal. We're within the walls of Konoha and the nature of our mission doesn't require combat. I know my own body better than anyone. I can do this."
"Hinata…" Kurenai-sensei sighed, but didn't sound unsympathetic. "I understand how you feel, but you need to trust me. If Naruto hadn't caught you, you could have been seriously injured or killed. Maybe it's nothing, or maybe you have a serious condition. I don't know; I'm not a medic-nin. And neither are you. However, I think we're both aware that sudden spasms of pain with no apparent cause are not normal. Report to the hospital and get yourself checked out. If the staff gives you the all clear, then you can rejoin the team for this mission. That's an order. Understand?"
I suppose I should have known I couldn't win against Kurenai-sensei. I knew she was right, that no matter how small the risk it wasn't worth taking when I had so little to gain and already had almost lost everything.
That didn't make it any easier to accept, but orders were orders. "Yes, sensei."
Kurenai-sensei nodded with approval. "Good. You're going to be a great kunoichi someday, Hinata. Don't rush things."
"Yes, sensei," I repeated.
"Naruto, you're with me. We need to find Kiba and Akamaru and intercept Konohamaru before he disturbs his grandfather, assuming we aren't already too late."
"Okay, sensei. Umm, see you later, Hinata-chan."
When I saw Naruto and Kurenai-sensei turn to leave, I felt an unease stir in me. I was forgetting something. I'd come very close to potentially losing my life, but for the actions of one person.
"Sensei," I burted. "Could I have a moment with Naruto? I… want to thank him properly. For saving me."
I was half-expecting a refusal, but Kurenai-sensei smiled mysteriously and said, "Oh? I suppose there's no harm in that. Meet me in front of the Hokage's Tower when you're finished, Naruto."
I blinked, and when I next open my eyes, she'd been replaced with a whirl of falling leaves. It simply wasn't fair that she could do that.
But now wasn't the time to be impressed.
I looked at my teammate. He didn't resemble anything like a proper ninja at all. His orange jumpsuit was too garish and attention catching, where a shinobi must blend into the shadows. His smiles came too easily. His eyes shone too brightly.
Yet that boy who never should have become a ninja deserved to wear his hitai-ate with pride, as much as any other shinobi of the Leaf.
And what of me? My first assignment and I'd nearly died from falling off a building. What an ignoble death for the proud heir of the Hyuuga clan. I couldn't help but chuckle. "It's only our first mission, Naruto, and you've already saved my life."
"It's no big deal," Naruto said, shifting uncomfortably. He ran a hand through his hair. "Iruka-sensei said we hold each other's lives in our hands, right? Well, I'm gonna hang on to yours real tight, Hinata-chan. I'll protect it with everything I've got. I promise."
I smiled wryly at him. "That's a very nice gesture, Naruto, but I'm hardly a damsel in distress."
"Yeah, I know…" Naruto muttered. "You're strong- stronger than me. But, even if I'm the class dunce and not very reliable, you can depend on me, Hinata-chan. I don't know what use I'd be, but if you're ever in trouble and need my help, I'll be there. You don't even have to ask. I know I talk like a big shot all the time, but I don't want you to think I'm trying to sound cool in front of you or anything. I just… want to do what I can, for my friend."
"That goes both ways, Naruto," I said seriously. "If you ever need anything, just say the word."
He only smiled at me, the same way he always did. "You've already given me enough."
No, I hadn't. I didn't know if I ever could. But there was one thing that my counterpart had always wanted to give Naruto. Maybe it wasn't mine to give. Maybe it was selfish of me to deny her that honor and take it for my own. But at that moment, I really didn't care.
I stood in front of Naruto and placed my hands on his sides. Then I pulled him close and held him in my arms.
"Thank you, Naruto," I whispered. "For your friendship, and for my life, today."
I released him and withdrew. His face was flush with a shade of crimson even darker than after our exhausting drills with Kurenai-sensei the day prior, though I had no idea why. Then again, there were a great many things about Naruto that I still didn't understand.
"You should catch up with Kurenai-sensei and Kiba," I said. "I'll join you later, if I'm able to."
Naruto nodded mechanically and turned to leave.
"Actually, there's just one more thing before you go."
He stopped in his tracks and turned again. "Y-yeah?"
"Just so we're clear," I said, walking over to him, "that gesture from a moment ago was to express my gratitude for saving my life."
I smiled. Then I slapped him.
"That one was for calling me fat."
A\N: I know it's been a while since my last update, but here's the next chapter of the story at last. In terms of plot advancement, I know there's not a whole lot going on, but that's going to change very soon. The purpose of chapter 8 is primarily setup and character exposition. Go back and compare Yin Hinata with how she was back in chapter 2 and you'll see what I mean.
Just to clear things up: Yang Hinata's absence in recent chapters is a part of the plot. I haven't forgotten about her or abandoned her because her presence was no longer convenient.
For future updates, expect a turnaround time of about a month. Updating every three days just wasn't a sustainable pace.