Chapter 4 - Meetings and Beginnings

The morning of my first day at the Academy, I dressed with care to ensure a good first impression, after hurriedly eating to make time. My father was waiting for me in the receiving room of his chambers, sipping slowly at a cup of tea. He looked up after I kneeled on the other side of the low table, scrutinising my appearance for flaws. With an almost soundless click the teacup was placed down, and he took a moment to gather his thoughts.

"Today marks the first time you will be representing the clan to outsiders unaccompanied; you would do well to keep the values and dignity of the Hyūga in mind, not only for today but throughout the academy and your service in the shinobi ranks. I do not expect you to have any difficulty, or you would not have been given leave to attend, but it is appropriate to give a reminder at this juncture in any case." He took a moment to take another sip of tea, and I remained silent, sensing there was more to come. "As you already know, the Juken is not to be used at the academy, but your proficiency with an alternate form should nevertheless allow you to excel; achieving a place befitting the Hyūga and your position."

The warning had been delivered, and I bowed in acknowledgement, "Yes, Otou-sama, I understand and will comply."

"Very well. Come, I will escort you to and from the Academy on your first day." He rose smoothly and moved towards the exit, and I fell dutifully in to one side and slightly behind. It seemed that my improved status in his and the clan's eyes had removed the need to hire a Chūnin to guide and guard me, and so the meeting with Yūhi Kurenai was not going to occur, crushing any plans I had about developing a rapport with her on the way to and from the Academy.

We passed in silence through the main gate of the compound, the guards from the branch family stationed there bowing to my father as we left. The contrast between the tranquil surrounds I'd grown used to and the bustling sense of activity generated by a city of more than a hundred-thousand souls, even here near the edge, was a marked one. One of the roads that led out of Konoha passed a short distance from the compound, and as we turned onto it I noted a merchant passing with a trail of wagons, obviously not willing to pay the extra expense to have his goods sealed and then unsealed at the destination point. Generally, it was only those who traded in time-critical goods with high price to mass ratio that bothered, and I knew from my studies that it was a common C-rank mission for Chūnin.

Hiashi didn't slow or deviate from his path for an instant, regardless of the people ahead. As we approached, eyes widened and those facing away were tugged to the side, making a path of inclined heads and muttered respects. I kept my face blank, seemingly paying no attention to our surroundings when in reality I took everything in eagerly, excited at what had been a rare chance up to now. Food and trinket vendors lined the edges of the road, catering to travellers entering or leaving Konoha, and had I not eaten already the smells would have been tempting indeed.

My father paused and in an instinctive response I halted also, keeping the correct distance. He turned slightly and past his body I saw a flash of white approaching.

"Aburame-san." His voice was utterly inflectionless, and the response matched it.

"Hyūga-san." Their motion brought them into view, and as I'd already begun to realise, Aburame Shibi the head of the Aburame clan, approached us with his wife and child at his side. My eyes darted to what I vaguely recognised as a much younger Shino, and I had to work to suppress a smile at the tiny white coat and sunglasses. The familiar and monotonously polite greetings between the two clan heads were a blur in the background as we stared at each other, and it was only my experience at noting and interpreting suppressed Hyūga facial cues that allowed me to pick out faint traces of expression on the small portion of his upper face I could see.

"Hinata." My father's voice was firm, and understanding what he wanted I stepped forwards and bowed.

"Honoured to make your acquaintance, Aburame-sama."

"A pleasure to meet the next generation of Hyūga, as expected." He gestured slightly to the side, "My wife you are already acquainted with, and this is my son, Aburame Shino. He shall also be attending the Academy."

At that my counterpart stepped forwards and repeated my actions, directed instead to Hiashi. After responding to Shino's introduction, he glanced down the road before questioning,

"Shall we proceed to the Academy?" Shibi raised one hand from his pocket, pushing up his sunglasses and causing the tassel attached to one side to swing before replying,

"That would be only logical." With that flat statement, he turned and began to move, my father falling in beside him and myself, his wife and Shino arranging ourselves behind.

Gathered in a group, the space afforded us by the civilians as we passed more than doubled, and the silence became almost oppressive. Had I not been so used to working by myself I might have been tempted to try filling it with conversation, and it was with a sense of relief that I realised that Shino was a comfortable person to associate with. He was unlikely to misinterpret my, by now, habitually reserved nature as either arrogance or an attempt to be standoffish; leaving us to our own thoughts as the place I'd be spending significant portions of the next six years drew closer.

I could hear the chattering noise of conversation long before I saw the crowd out the front of the Academy. It seemed that hundreds of people had gathered before the gates, clustered into family groups chatting with those they knew, then a small but noticeable divide between the civilian families and the applicants from clans or those with a shinobi parent. Hiashi and Shibi, apparently without discussion angled towards a small group consisting of spiky black hair, blondes and heavyset redheads. It was with a start that I recognised what must be the latest generation of the Ino-Shika-Cho trio, clan heads all, and their families. The small slumped form that exuded an almost palpable sense of ennui must be Shikamaru, which would make the red-head at his side Chōji. Curiously there was no sign of Ino though, and I briefly wandered where she was.

We drew within speaking distance, and as our fathers started a shorter set of greetings, Shino and I surreptitiously observed the other children. At a prod from Chōji, nervously chewing a mouthful of chips, Shikamaru expended the effort to raise his head and look about. His blank gaze settled on us, and for an instant something sharp seemed to flash there; then with a barely audible grunt he let his head drop down again. Even knowing something about his character, I had to firmly squash the well-honed sense of insult at such a dismissal, reminding myself yet again of the difference between my public face and the reality.

My attention snapped back as my father turned to face me, "Hinata-chan, I will return this afternoon to collect you. Keep in mind what we discussed this morning."

I dipped my head briefly in acknowledgement and quietly voiced my compliance. As he moved off to one side, I saw the other clan heads also drifting in that direction, and wondered briefly what they'd be discussing at the impromptu meeting. Dropping the speculation, I noticed Shikamaru and Chōji standing alone. The past couple of years had gotten me out of the habit of socialising easily, and I had to steel myself for what was to come. I needed to know and influence these people, if I was to have any hope of changing things for the better, and to do that I had to have a better idea of the details of their characters than that provided in a limited fashion through drawings and text.

I glanced at Shino out of the corner of my eye and took refuge in the formal speech patterns I'd grown accustomed to, "Do you wish to accompany me to greet our fellow students? We will be interacting with them for a considerable period of time."

The way the hood attachment somehow built into his coat creased, I got the idea he turned slightly towards me and nodded, "Should we greet the others? It could be beneficial."

Taking that as an agreement, I moved purposefully towards the male part of this generation's famous trio, Shino falling in behind me. Drawing myself up before them I bowed very slightly and introduced myself, "Good morning, I am Hyūga Hinata and it is a pleasure to meet you both, I look forward to working with you in the future."

There was movement beside me and then a brief, "Aburame Shino. Likewise."

A stilted pause followed, as Chōji finished chewing and swallowed, "Chōji. I'm Akimichi Chōji. Pleasure." Another handful of chips came up and again he bumped Shikamaru.

An annoyed grunt followed, and he slowly raised his head, "I've met Shino-kun already; you though... Ahh, how troublesome." Came in a groan. Again, the response had me biting back my annoyance, until I caught a glimpse of a dark eye watching me. The realisation dawned with a rush; he was provoking me to get a reaction.

Sudden amusement bubbled up, and I tilted my head slightly to the side as if in inquiry, "Oh, you must be Yamanaka Ino, everything I've heard about her personality matches you perfectly!" Ignoring the way his head snapped up and the sudden sound of Chōji coughing, I looked around in feigned puzzlement, "Is your fiancée Nara Shikamaru anywhere around, I would have thought he'd be here with you two?"

Eyes bulging, he stared at me in disbelief, "What? My fiancée... I mean I'm the fiancée... No! I mean..." He cut off there and his eyes narrowed suddenly, examining me.

I allowed one corner of my mouth to be tugged upwards in response to the mirth inside, "Oh? Did the lack of proper introduction cause me to make a mistake? How terribly embarrassing." The last sentence was delivered in a tone dry as dust, and as Chōji got his breath back Shikamaru shook his head,

"Nara Shikamaru, but you already knew that. I'm not betrothed either, troublesome girl..."

I gave him a very faint smile, "Honoured."

A muffled commotion amongst the civilians drew our attention, and following their stares I saw the regal looking couple bearing the Uchiha crest standing with a boy as if to invite undeserving adulatio... I cut the clan-influenced train of thought there, uncomfortably aware that father often paused in a similar manner when attending branch house functions. Assessing the positions of the crowd at a glance, the couple who could only have been Uchiha Fugaku and Mikoto moved with their youngest son to a position nearly halfway between myself and the others and our parents. Fugaku let one hand rest on Sasuke's shoulder, keeping him close by as he exchanged frigid nods with the other clan heads.

I wondered briefly if they were isolating themselves because of perceived or actual discrimination and segregation, they saw themselves as superior, or if the coup was already in the works. I remembered that it happened in canon early in Sasuke's academy time, but what year I had no idea.

The vague sense that'd been niggling at me for a few seconds became impossible to ignore, and I turned to observe the large chakra source approaching. The Sandaime walked slowly forwards, smoking his pipe and nodding to those that caught his eye. Trailing him there was a glimpse of gold at waist height, and with a start I realised I'd be seeing Naruto for the first time in person. The Sandaime halted briefly, bending to speak to a clearly nervous Naruto, before rising and moving towards the Academy.

With a series of clicks the Academy gates were unlocked, and a pair of identical Chūnin began to swing them open for the year. The crowd boiled out of the way, and the gates were pushed against the walls and locked in place. One of the Chūnin (an earth clone I now realised), merged into the ground and disappeared, while the other vanished into the swirl of a Shunshin. I'd only begun to deride the pointless expenditure of chakra when the awed voices of the children in the civilian section of the crowd rose in a wave of sound. On reflection I was forced to admit it was an effective bit of showmanship to inspire those without regular exposure to the feats possible for shinobi.

As the Hokage moved past the gates, we were called in by an elderly Chūnin or Jōnin; likely the head instructor or administrator if the body language of the younger instructors was any indication. Once we were gathered into a mostly silent mass, he stepped forward and ran his eyes over the crowd,

"I am Head Instructor Takahito, welcome. We are honoured by the unexpected attendance of the Hokage on this important milestone for so many of you. Today is an important day for all here before me, both the children who are taking the first steps along the path of the shinobi and the families that support them; but it is also important to Konoha as a whole, for without the strength of new shinobi the village cannot succeed. To the children; you have started on a long and hard path, as learning to be a shinobi is not easy, and will require many hours of your best efforts each week. It is however, a path that will bring you much honour as you serve your village and protect all those who call Konoha home from our enemies."

He took a moment to meet the gaze of several in the crowd, driving home the importance of his words, "Say farewell to your families for the day, and then wait in silence for your name to be called by the instructors and your class assigned. Parents, you may return this evening to hear about your child's first day." I made brief eye contact with my father, before he nodded and left at a brisk pace, and I turned back to wait for my name to be called.

I relaxed lightly back into the hard wooden seat, keeping correct posture but allowing the backrest to support me and looked around inquisitively. I'd chosen a seat near the back corner of the room, preventing any of my classmates from getting behind me in a situation where regular use of my dōjutsu wasn't feasible. At the front of the class heads of pink and yellow hair pressed close together, giggling quietly.

Well, that answered the question of where Ino had been that morning, although I wasn't aware she and Sakura knew each other before the Academy started. Sasuke sat at the front and near the windows - I wondered idly whether he'd move seats at all in the years we'd be here. The other clan heirs were scattered around, with Kiba on the far side of the room near the door, Shino next to me and Shikamaru and Chōji in the middle of the room.

Finished placing people, I turned my eyes towards Naruto, sitting diagonally down from my desk and looking around quietly. He wore a blue t-shirt and black shorts, and despite the many times I'd spied on him this past year I still somewhat expected him to be the shouting, orange-wearing boy I'd read about years ago. He'd obviously hit on that as a means to get attention and acknowledgement during the Academy, and I wondered how long it'd be before the jumpsuit made an appearance, if I hadn't already changed that unwittingly.

The door opened and a grey-haired man in a Chūnin vest entered, sliding it shut behind him. He strode over behind the desk, dropping a pile of folders and turning to face the class.

"If I could have your silence and attention please." For a moment I thought the excitement of the first day would keep people talking, but everyone wanted to make a good impression and the sounds of conversation died away. "Good. I am Nishi Takeo, Chūnin of Konoha. You may address me as Nishi-sensei, and I will be teaching you while you're in the Academy. This morning after I call the class roll, I will tell you briefly what you will be learning in the six years you spend here, and pass on some warnings that you need to know before you go any further. If we have time before lunch we'll start on the Shinobi code. After lunch we will test your fitness to see what level you're at and how much work you need to get where you should be."

He took a piece of paper from a folder on his desk and started off with "Aburame, Shino." Tuning out the question and response while keeping sufficient awareness to answer my name, I kept a wary eye out when he got to the U's, but apart from a slight tightening of the muscles along his jaw there was little difference when he called Naruto's name.

I hoped we'd lucked out and gotten a teacher that was at least indifferent to Naruto, though I wondered when or if Iruka would take over. Had I already changed things so much? I couldn't imagine how increased personal competence on my part could have affected teacher selection at the academy - unless my father intervened I thought with a sudden chill. Once again though, it wasn't something I could affect at the moment, so I put it from my mind as Nishi-sensei finished up with the roll.

Slipping the paper away, he moved to stand in front of his desk, pausing there to regard us. "Over your years here, what you will learn and be tested on falls into four broad categories: Firstly, you will still be required to learn the academic subjects your civilian counterparts do, for you may need them later if you cease to be a shinobi. Secondly, the physical aspect of shinobi life, including Taijutsu, kunai and shuriken and physical fitness. Thirdly, chakra usage, which is the energy shinobi use to perform jutsu and finally the theoretical studies that are part of being a shinobi, including such things as codes and procedures.

While you'll always be learning something from each area, the emphasis for the next few years will be the academic and theoretical areas, shifting to physical combat and chakra use as you progress and draw closer to graduation. I will now give you a warning that you'll hear repeated many times throughout your academy life: Under no circumstances except self-defence or defence of another are you to cause harm to Konoha civilians using the skills you learn here," he finished, staring hard at Naruto for a moment.

"This is not a game, and the citizens of the village have the right to live their lives without fear of us, the shinobi that protect them. If you remember nothing else I've told you today, remember that."

He gave a sigh and seemed to relax slightly, before clearing his throat, "Now, you have something of an opportunity not afforded to those who came before you; after the end of the war, the average length of time spent at the academy began to increase as the need for graduates decreased. Despite a surge in requirement a few years ago," he carefully didn't look at Naruto, "That trend had generally continued. Previously this resulted in additional training being 'tacked on' to the shorter curriculum, but from this year we're experimenting with a redesigned syllabus that will contain greater depth from the start."

Confronted by a sea of blank faces he obviously came to the realisation that his speech had been a little too complex for the average six-year-old, and with a half-heard groan he went on, "By that I mean you'll be leaning more and better things right from the start, okay? Does anyone have any questions?" There was an uncomfortable silence, and I imagined most had been cowed by the serious tone and earlier warning.

Nishi-sensei nodded and bending under his desk pulled out a box containing a pile of books. As he dropped a stack at the front of each row of desks and made motions to pass them back, he began explaining, "These are new texts containing the basic shinobi knowledge, written specifically for the new curriculum and going into more depth than before. Do not loose or deface... scribble on them. This first copy is covered by your enrolment fee; if you need a replacement it will not be cheap."

As I waited for my copy, I reflected that at least one of my worries had been partially dispelled; it would be difficult, though not impossible for a shinobi, to ensure Naruto missed out on or got a doctored copy with us all passing random books back. At some point in the future I'd have to check of course, but for the moment I relaxed.

Once everyone had a copy, Nishi-sensei seemed to nod to himself and spoke, "We'll use the time before lunch to read though the first part of the shinobi code - Hyūga-kun, you begin please."

"Yes sensei," I replied, turning to the first few pages of the book. As I started to read, the formal phrases falling easily from my lips, I wondered how much trouble the less well-read members of the class understood what I was saying, given the difficulty earlier. I'd only gotten through the first few points when I was interrupted,

"Good, well done. Uzumaki-kun, continue." The difference couldn't have been more pronounced, and I winced internally as the halting and often completely wrong words came in Naruto's high-pitched voice. I looked up from my copy to see his face getting redder and redder - he couldn't be unaware how bad it sounded. "Stop. That will be quite enough, Uzumaki-kun. Uchiha-kun, would you continue? Start from where Hyūga-kun finished."

As Sasuke began reading, perhaps not quite as polished as me but many times better than Naruto, I glanced again at the side of his furiously blushing face, moisture glinting for a second before he quickly scrubbed it away. A deep well of sympathy rose within me; he'd probably been hoping to make a good impression from the start, that the Academy would be different and he could finally make some friends. Nishi-sensei having Sasuke start from the same point as Naruto only emphasised the mistakes he made, and the titters of his classmates as he struggled would have been nearly impossible to miss. Children could be thoughtlessly cruel - laughing at someone else struggling let them ignore that many of those appearing most amused would have trouble themselves.

My thoughts were interrupted, "Enough, Sasuke-kun, that was the level I was hoping for." He turned to frown at the rest of the class, "If you struggle with reading, have a parent or guardian teach you. I don't have time to help you myself. You may leave early to lunch; make sure you return here when the double bell sounds." With a wave of excited chatter, students burst from their desks towards the door and I followed slowly in their wake, Shino a silent spectre beside me.

There were small area's reserved for each grade, with much of ours occupied by a series of wooden structures to play games on. To give myself a minute to think in peace I followed Shino when we got there, heading over to one of the few shade trees on the periphery. Approaching the base I knelt, scanning briefly before gently collecting a beetle and moving it to one side before sitting back against the tree. It was something I would have done anyway, as it took very little effort and care for insects was wise in Konoha in case they belonged to the Aburame, but I couldn't help feeling pleased at the opportunity to demonstrate my consideration to Shino. He pushed up his sunglasses briefly, watching me unpack my lunch, before sitting himself. We ate in companionable silence, as I pondered the problem of Naruto.

He obviously had very little in the way of reading skill, and I could see how if left uncorrected that might lead to the blatant ignorance he displayed in canon towards many aspects of shinobi and civilian basic knowledge. He'd been embarrassed today - how many times would that repeat before he gave books and theory up as a bad endeavour? Even now I could see him standing to one side, watching the rough-and-tumble play and fiddling with the hem of his t-shirt. Every time someone came close he'd open his mouth as if to speak before apparently thinking better of it. I wanted so badly to extend that helping hand of friendship, but his exposed position almost guaranteed that any move to approach would be seen and commented on by kids reporting to their parents later, and I couldn't afford to have rumours start.

At times as I checked up on him in the past I'd seen ANBU watching over him, and the last thing I needed was to draw questions from the Hokage or Danzō as to why the Heir of the Hyūga Clan was going out of her way to befriend an apparently unremarkable orphan that was held in contempt by the village in general. Any move to check with my Byakugan for watchers would have to wait until it wouldn't be noticed; I wasn't fool enough to assume that Shino wouldn't know what the bulging veins around my eyes indicated.

No, I'd only meet him personally once I had a strategy to both avoid notice for the meeting itself, and perhaps more importantly, thought of a way to convince Naruto that our association had to remain a secret without hurting his feelings. Unfortunately that could take weeks, and I wasn't sure I could watch him try and fail to succeed or make friends for so long; I needed an intermediate strategy. I spent the rest of lunch mulling it over without any workable ideas coming to mind, and as the bell rang I reluctantly shelved the problem for later and rose with Shino to go inside.

I ran, keeping about ten feet between myself and the lightly sweating backs of Sasuke and Kiba. It was only the second lap, and already the class was spread out, looking like a snake that swallowed a large meal; a few at the front, gradually turning into a large bulge containing most of the class, then tapering off into those too unfit or lazy to keep up with the main body. Not surprisingly, most of those with shinobi backgrounds were leading the pack, and I'd chosen to maintain a comfortable distance just behind the leaders after Nishi-sensei dragged us out here with a command to "Run until told to stop."

Two more laps and Sasuke and Kiba were sweating hard, and we'd passed everyone slower than the main body, most of whom were faltering in that pace on the border between a run and a fast walk. I could hear the panting breath of Shino behind me, drowning out my own measured breathing. Another lap and we'd passed the large group, after which most of them dropped to a walk. I had to choose whether to further restrict my pace, as the leaders were starting to flag, and in the end decided outperforming the boys so early wasn't in my best interest.

A quick flash of my dōjutsu when no one was looking showed Naruto coming up fast from behind. He'd fallen back a bit at the start, not comfortable with the faster pace, but once he found the speed he liked he had the stamina to keep it up. With Sasuke and Kiba slowing, he'd pass them out in a lap or two, and it was telling that only a faint sheen of moisture could be seen on his brow.

He was just drawing even with Shino and I, when a voice cut across the grounds, "That's enough! Come in towards me, all of you." Sensei waited until we were all together before continuing, "This was a test to see what level of physical fitness you had; how much you could run before getting tired, because that's very important for a Shinobi. Some of you did very well; Sasuke and Kiba particularly, and Hinata and Shino as well. The rest of you aren't as fit as you should be at the moment, and some of you are in terrible condition."

He took a moment to level a hard look at the worst offenders, before continuing, "That's okay though, we expected this. You'll do at least some exercise every day here, and more on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. If you work hard, by the time you graduate you should be at the average standard of fitness for a new Genin. If you need or want to do more fitness training outside the Academy, come and talk to me first - I'll help you manage your time so you don't hurt yourself by overtraining. Just like your parents make you sleep at night because it's good for your health, your muscles need to sleep and rest or they'll get hurt."

I had to admit to tuning out some of what he said after that, as I had little interest in following an explanation of the importance of stretching and warm-ups and cool-downs simplified for children's limited understanding. Keeping only enough of my attention on the others to follow in the stretches, I considered what he'd said, and what he hadn't said. I couldn't believe a Chūnin hadn't seen Naruto catching the leaders, or how fresh he still was after the run. While there hadn't been any active acts of discrimination, Naruto's weak point had been highlighted and no acknowledgement had been made of his strength. It wasn't conclusive, but I'd certainly keep an eye out for this pattern of behaviour in the future.

It might take longer than the more egregious examples of abuse and discrimination I remembered from reading fanfics, but long-term exposure to this kind of attitude would either crush Naruto or conceivably give rise to the canon personality I'd been expecting before I started to watch him. The frustrating thing was I couldn't tell if Nishi-sensei was actively discriminating against Naruto in a calculated effort, or just not making the effort to treat him fairly in the face of his own personal dislike.

I was pulled from my thoughts by Nishi-sensei's voice as he called for us to follow him over into the shade of a large tree. Waving those in the front to kneel or sit, he opened the pouch at his belt, pulling out a pair of kunai and a brace of shuriken.

"Although you will also learn other things, these are the main weapons you'll be taught to use as a shinobi here in the Academy. The kunai," He held it up, spinning on one finger, "And the shuriken." Without seeming to look, two shuriken were sent spinning into a far tree, the kunai following a moment later and landing precisely between the two."

"You're giving us them now, sensei?" Kiba exclaimed, eyes gleaming excitedly.

Nishi-sensei chuckled, "No no; you don't even know how to use them in most cases yet. You will each be assigned a set from the Academy; it will stay assigned to you and be restocked with new equipment each year. For the next two years, you'll be given a set before each lesson and return it at the end. The two years after that you make keep it here at the Academy and use it on any of the Academy training grounds when you like but it must not leave the grounds. In your final two years you may take it outside the Academy and purchase some weapons from stores in the village but you are not to use any training grounds outside the Academy until and unless you graduate, or the grounds belong to your clan or you are a guest at a clan's grounds. Do you all understand?"

Nodding at the chorused reply, he smiled slightly. "As it's your first day, we'll finish there. Go to the classroom and collect your things, then wait at the front gate for your parents to collect you; I'm sure they're eager to hear about your first day."

I nodded at Shino as he moved away to his parents, taking a moment to scan over the chaotic mess of children and parents milling around the gate, until my eyes caught on the despondent features and bright hair of Naruto at the back. He was looking around hopefully, trying to ignore the family groupings right in front of him but seemingly not finding what he was looking for, his shoulders slumped and he ambled away. Presumably he was waiting for the Hokage, whose busy schedule could easily have prevented him from picking up Naruto in the same way he dropped him off. I mentally shook myself; there was nothing I could do about it at the moment, and so I turned and walked forwards to meet my father.

"Tell me of your day; did you make any progress with the important students?" The low-voiced question had waited until we passed the boundary of the clan grounds, and it drew my attention away from my so far nebulous plans for Naruto. As I gave a brief description of the interaction with Shino, Shikamaru and Chōji, I reflected with mild amusement and resignation that the question itself revealed so much about the Clan, my father and myself that he could refer to six-year-old children as having more intrinsic worth than others, and that I'd immediately understood who he was talking about.

"As most things of worth, it will take time. You may find your own way to the Academy from now on." Left unspoken was the backhanded compliment that I was skilled enough to prevent a quiet abduction, at least within Konoha's very walls. We parted, and I moved swiftly back to my rooms.

A quick check revealed no sign of Naruto at the orphanage, and it took several minutes of what was likely irrationally worried scanning before I found him trudging his way down an alley. He shortly turned into an apartment building and made his way to a small set of rooms on the top floor. 'Well, getting to him might be easier if he had his own place,' I mused thoughtfully. I expanded my field of vision... Ah. Perhaps not, then. I suppose it was theoretically possible that the heavily armed and masked residents that were both immediately below and to the side of our resident Jinchūriki were there by happenstance, but somehow I doubted it.

Even completely alone, ingrained habit kept the curses locked behind my lips and a bland expression pasted on my face. It was useless making plans at the moment, I needed to wait and see if the current arrangements were permanent or if they'd be relaxed at all over time. A better idea of both Naruto's routine now that he was at the academy and the full extent of the freedom afforded me was also necessary, much to my disgust. Somehow I would've thought that having to practice patience over the years would have helped more in situations like this, but the sense of anticipation had been building unnoticed within - this was my chance! Now I could begin changing things outside the clan!...

Except outside factors prevented me from actually doing much of anything, and it was with resignation that I forced myself to other issues. After all, Hanabi was no doubt waiting for her big sister to come with stories about the Academy, and it was with a lightened heart that I headed off to entertain her.

Author's Note: So. A Year. I won't go into all the reasons in depth here but I'll say the main reason for the pathetic size of the chapter was the long delay itself – I had a detailed plan for how the remainder of the story would go, and how I'd pick up all the training and technique bricks I've been throwing up. It seemed to be going well at first and I managed to get the academy years done fairly early. Unfortunately as I got back into writing these last few weeks (I've been trying to draft the events between graduation and the Chūnin exams before posting this chapter), I found myself increasingly reluctant to write anything even resembling canon. Although there were significant planned changes as the butterflies started to have ever-increasing impact, because I originally intended to limit any influence to the Academy, Hyūga Clan and the other students, major changes to events driven by outside factors became difficult to effect.

I sat down a couple of weeks ago and redid my plot outline completely to something I'm much happier with, but it came with a cost. Virtually all the material I wrote post the first few weeks at the academy was heading in the wrong direction, and I needed things to start diverging earlier. Unfortunately despite significant effort invested I've decided to completely scrap what I'd written for the rest of the Academy, leaving only the first day. Still, I am at least writing again and although I'm not exactly happy with the quality of this chapter (or at all, really), it was at least a good lesson to me in the dangers of taking too much time off, so I'll commit to writing at least a little each day until I get back into a decent pace.

Sincere apologies for the long delay, I'll make sure that doesn't happen again, and I'll go over this chapter when I post the next to try and fix it up. Thanks for all the reviews and PM's, they are appreciated even if I didn't always reply – I'll try to do better in the future.