A/N: It's been a long time, and the chapter is fairly short. However, I hope it satisfies those of you who have been waiting for an update. In this chapter I set the stage for a little character development, more of which will follow next time. Please enjoy, and review! With enough encouragement, I might decide to ignore my job and start writing the next one :)
Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto
Chapter 4: A Room at the Inn
The Travelers' Joy was an old, wooden inn, and had been standing almost as long as the city of Konoha itself. To hear the innkeeper tell it, his inn had been almost the first building erected after the Hokage's Palace. Hinata wasn't sure how much faith she could put in the innkeeper's story, but she had to admit that the accommodations were very comfortable. Perhaps her father would have sneered at the rooms, which were only eighteen paces across, but Hinata found hers more than adequate. There was a tub for washing, and even a folding screen that Neji put up to allow Hinata some privacy.
That, of course, was the only problem with the situation: Neji. Ever since Hinata had appeared and introduced herself as Hideki, Neji had been watching her like a hawk, just waiting for the opportunity to strike. Hinata avoided him as long as she could, but she bowed to the inevitable once she realized that she would have to share a room with Neji. Of course, Hinata had never shared a room with anyone before, let alone a man. However, the fact that it was Neji was actually a blessing in disguise. Once she convinced him not to give away her secret, Neji would be in the best possible position to make sure that no one saw through her disguise. He could become her most important ally, if only she could keep him from blurting out the truth to Jiraiya or the others.
Later that night, when everyone had unpacked and settled in, Hinata found herself facing an extremely angry Neji. She steeled herself, straightening her spine and trying for the regal stare that her father used to such great effect. She had a feeling that her version wasn't working very well.
"Lady Hinata," Neji began, keeping his voice extremely quiet. Hinata prayed that the walls were as thick as the innkeeper had been boasting. "I don't know what you were hoping to gain by this foolishness, but it is my sworn duty to bring you home. The only reason I did not reveal your identity earlier was because I hoped to spare you from your father's wrath. If Jiraiya or any of the others learns the truth and it gets back to Lord Hiashi, you will not be glad it did."
"I appreciate your concern for me," Hinata said, feeling even guiltier about what she was going to do. Not guilty enough to reconsider, of course, but still guilty. "However, it is misplaced. I have no intention of returning, and I told my father so in a letter. By now I imagine he's sent the guards through the slums in search of me, and in a week he'll think I've perished. He'll be happier with Hanabi as heir – you know it's true."
Hinata saw Neji's slight nod, before he could catch himself. It was common knowledge in the Hyuga compound that Hiashi doted on his younger daughter and barely acknowledged Hinata's existence. Hiashi might grieve for his eldest daughter, but he would waste no time officially making Hanabi his heir.
"That doesn't change a thing," Neji said stubbornly. "I am honor-bound to serve the Hyuga family, which means I cannot lie to your father to protect you. If I don't return you to him, it's the same as betraying him. He would kill me on the spot."
Hinata looked down at her lap, where her hands were balled tightly into fists. She drew on her courage, stifling the voice saying that what she was about to do was immoral and cruel. With the prospect of freedom so close she could almost taste it, it was frighteningly easy to ignore her conscience. "Actually, he'll kill you on the spot if you do bring me back." Hinata was proud of herself – her voice didn't shake at all.
Neji drew back, eyeing her with a frigid poise. "Why would he do that? Surely even Lord Hiashi would reward a guard who returned to him his daughter and heir?"
Hinata shook her head. "Not if I told him that you tried to kidnap me and sell me to the Tsuchikage for ransom and a new life in Iwa."
Neji's face was practically a thundercloud, so much anger waiting to be released. But he controlled himself with a great effort. "So it's blackmail, then. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, considering who your father is. Lord Hyuga would be proud of you." He spat out the last words with considerable venom, his iron self-control cracking. "However, I think you've miscalculated. How could your father believe that I was trying to kidnap you when I'm the one bringing you back?"
It was hard to keep looking directly at Neji, knowing that she was treating him no better than her father had treated Neji's father, but Hinata had come too far to stop now. "I'm prepared for that as well. I'll simply tell Father that the contact from Iwa you were going to meet never showed up. You were too scared to continue with your plot, and decided to bring me back, threatening me to make sure that I stayed silent. Which I wouldn't. Even if Father doesn't fully believe that you betrayed him, he would dismiss you, if not kill you, just because I requested it. Your only chance is to protect my secret. But I promise you, I swear on my mother's grave, if you only help me in this you'll have my lifelong gratitude."
When Neji spoke next, it was as if he was talking to himself. "You're just the same as your Father… you step on anyone who gets in your way, without caring about the lives you have to ruin to do so. This time I won't take it lying down!"
He walked around the foot of the bed, advancing on Hinata with an expression that she couldn't read. Just when she was starting to become truly frightened, there came a knock at their door.
Thunk! Thunk! Thunk!
Neji seemed to snap back to reality, years of protecting the Hyuga family asserting themselves. He placed himself between Hinata and the door, gesturing at her to be silent.
A woman's voice replied, "It's Lady Anko. I was hoping to have a few words with Hideki before bed. Now open this door while I'm still being polite."
Neji went to the door and opened it a fraction. "Hideki and I are very tired. Perhaps your business could wait until-"
His words were cut off by the door swinging violently inward. There was a painful crack as the door hit him in the nose, driving forward with enough force to send Neji reeling back a pace. Before he could recover, Lady Anko slipped into the room. She was wearing a lacy nightgown and fuzzy slippers, and moved with a liquid grace that seemed slightly out of place considering she had just donkey-kicked a door. Neji held a hand to his nose, from which blood was trickling sluggishly. All the while he watched Anko warily, his knees bending to assume a ready crouch. Anko smiled widely, but it didn't reach her eyes.
Anko wagged a disapproving finger at Neji. "Let's get one thing straight, muscle-man. You don't get to tell me to wait. You don't get to tell me anything. Your job is to stand there and look stupid until I tell you to stop – to stop standing, that is, because I doubt you can do anything to stop looking stupid."
Hinata listened with growing amazement as the petite woman harangued Neji. The Hyuga warrior, who was a foot taller than Anko if he was an inch, was actually shrinking back. Hinata didn't think anyone, not even her father, had ever spoken to Neji like that. Anko nodded approvingly.
"Good – you're getting it. Now go outside and grunt, or lift something heavy for a while. I want to speak to the girl."
It was a second before Hinata processed the word 'girl,' but when she finally understood she let out a small eep. Anko looked at her and laughed quietly. "That's right, I said girl. Did you think I wouldn't notice? Disguises and deception are my life, honey, and you're certainly no expert."
Neji reacted quicker than Hinata would have thought possible, charging at Anko with his arm lashing out in a fast strike that Hinata had seen level much older and bigger guards in the practice yard. But as quickly as Neji moved, Anko moved even faster. She took one fluid, controlled step to the side, her hand flashing up in a move that was too quick for Hinata's eyes to track. The next moment Neji was staggering past her like a drunk, flat-footed and clumsy. He whirled to face Anko, one hand clasped against his opposite arm, his face wearing a murderous expression. He took one step and stumbled, confusion spreading across his features. Anko crossed her arms, regarding Neji with smug satisfaction.
"You can feel it already, can't you? The poison spreading through your veins. In ten minutes you'll be food for the crows."
Neji's eyes widened, his face growing pale. He lifted his hand away from his arm, staring with horror at the tiny red gash just inches above his exposed elbow. Hinata took a step towards Anko, her mind evolving a hazy plan to subdue Anko and search for an antidote. All thoughts of maintaining her cover were gone, replaced by concern for her cousin. But Hinata froze less than a second later, mesmerized by the gleaming dagger Anko was pointing directly at her. Hinata wasn't even sure when Anko had drawn it.
"Stop right there," Anko commanded. "I don't want to kill Neji, merely teach him a lesson regarding the consequences of butting into my business. You!" she pointed at Neji, who was walking towards her with his mouth set grimly. He was clearly in great pain, but he forced himself forward one step at a time. "Your dedication is noted," Anko said in a long-suffering voice, "but completely unnecessary. I have no intention of harming your lady-friend, nor of revealing her identity. Now hold still for a moment, so I can administer the antidote."
She stepped forward, while Neji extended his arm. He was weak enough now to have to kneel for support, so his head was just above the level of Anko's waist. Thus he didn't have a chance of dodging when Anko spun suddenly into a roundhouse kick. Her slippered foot hit Neji flush in the jaw, and he collapsed gracelessly to the wooden floor.
"What are you doing?" Hinata cried.
Anko held a finger to her lips. "Hush! If you don't want someone else to find out your little secret, you'd better quiet down."
Hinata almost screamed in frustration. "I don't care about that! Just give Neji the antidote!"
Anko looked at her blankly, as if she was speaking gibberish. She regarded Neji, who was sprawled out on the floor, and then comprehension dawned. "Oh, you mean him? Don't worry, he's not dying. I used a short-term sedative, just enough to make him sleep until morning. He seems to be a determined bastard, though – I've seen larger men go out like a doused lamp from the same dosage, without putting up a fraction of the fight he did. I'd be impressed with his tenacity, if he wasn't clearly such a colossal bonehead."
Hinata blinked, feeling as though the conversation was rapidly getting away from her.
"So… Neji will be all right?"
From Anko's disbelieving gaze, one might have thought that Hinata was being very slow indeed.
"Of course," Anko declared. "He'll have a monstrous headache in the morning, but I didn't kick him hard enough to hurt that thick skull permanently. I just wanted him out of the way, so we could talk without any annoying interruptions."
Anko jumped on the edge of Hinata's bed and patted the space beside her insistently. Her expectant gaze never wavered, and Hinata imagined that this must be what a pet felt like when its owner wanted it to follow directions without wasting time.
"Don't look so frightened, little mouse!" Anko said brightly. "We're just having a little girl talk, nothing to be scared of!"
Hinata was not reassured in the slightest, but she didn't see any way out of the situation. So she sat down next to Anko, shrinking away just a bit as the older woman craned her head to watch Hinata curiously.
"So what's your story?" Anko began, her voice pitched low so that it wouldn't carry. "You're young, clearly noble, and you practically reek of innocence. What could make a young lady take to the wide open roads, with nothing but some boy's clothing and a disgraceful haircut to protect you? Let me guess: you're newly married, and your husband beats you?"
Hinata shook her head, her eyes wide as saucers. Anko began counting on her fingers and listing off new possibilities almost faster than Hinata could shake her head.
"Are you running from an abusive father? A lecherous old suitor? Perhaps you stole some of the family jewels? Committed a murder, by accident or design? Oh, I know – maybe it's not what you're running from, but what you're running to. Do you have a lover that your father doesn't approve of?" Anko glanced at Neji skeptically. "It's not him, is it?"
Hinata giggled in spite of herself. "Ew, NO!"
"Then what is it?" Anko's eyes grew serious, and she dropped her joking tone. "Whatever it is, I promise not to betray your secret. I know what it's like to be on my own with only my wits and a disguise to protect me. The world can be a cruel place for an innocent girl." For a second Anko looked immeasurably sad, the shadows in her eyes threatening to swallow Hinata whole. "Sometimes you're forced to grow up far too soon. That's why I swear to you, on what little honor I have left, you have nothing to fear from me." Anko's tone, so fierce and protective, spoke to a part of Hinata that she thought she had silenced long ago – the part that wanted to be loved and cared for, cherished even. She wasn't sure why, especially considering Anko's all-too-casual use of poison and violence, but for some reason Hinata trusted this woman.
Hinata's story poured out of her like a river bursting through a broken dam, and Anko listened silently until she was finished.
When Hinata finally stopped, Anko's head was cocked to the side, like a curious cat. "So you've run away from home, throwing yourself into the power of a man you don't know, all to avoid marrying a man you haven't even met? Then you blackmail a soldier who already hates you and your family? Dear, you may be more featherbrained than your lump of a cousin on the floor there, and that's saying something."
Hinata hung her head, blushing furiously.
"You do realize," Anko said, her voice stern, "that almost everyone in this wretched city would kill to have the life you just threw away? Every day women are raped and killed, some sold into slavery by their own families to pay off a gambling debt, or to make the day's rations stretch a little more. There are women working themselves to death just so their children won't starve, while you're running from an aristocrat who's going to shower you with affection and jewels. The worst you'll have to worry about is a leer or a potbelly, and perhaps a mistress or two on the side. Hardly the worst problems a woman of Konoha has had to face."
Hinata thought that if she felt any worse, she might die of shame. However, she held her head high. "I'm still not going back," she declared, unable to keep her voice from trembling.
"I wasn't going to make you," Anko replied. "I just want you to have some perspective on your life. You've been extremely lucky when compared to most people, and you'd better realize that now. However, I've met Lord Hiashi several times, and I admit that he's the last man I can imagine caring about anyone's feelings besides his own. There is a certain appeal to taking his precious princess under my wing – it's hardly likely I could do a worse job preparing you to face the world than that stubborn war-hawk did."
For a while, Hinata had feared that Anko was preparing to send her back home. Now, she allowed herself to hope. "You mean you won't tell Jiraiya who I am?"
Anko scoffed. "That old busybody? Of course not! Listen, Hideki, you've got a lot to learn and I don't see anyone else lining up to teach you. I'm not giving you up until I'm convinced that you'll be able to last more than a minute on your own. You're mine now, young one, body and soul." Anko's bright smile reminded Hinata of Cook looking at the lobsters before throwing them in the pot.
"The absolute first thing I'm going to teach you," Anko went on, watching Hinata with faint amusement, "is how to keep from blushing every five seconds."
Hinata couldn't help it – she blushed even more, feeling the heat spread all the way down her neck. Anko snorted gruffly, but the kindness in her eyes reassured Hinata that Anko's teasing had no real bite to it.
Anko jerked a thumb in Neji's direction. "Don't worry about the snoozing swordsman. I'll have words with him tomorrow, and when I'm done he won't even think about giving away your secret. That reminds me, though – you need to learn how to blackmail someone properly. Ah, well… we'll get to that later. Get some sleep, girlie. Tomorrow's going to be a long day, and you'll need to be well-rested."
Hinata watched Anko leave, feeling more than a little dazed. Apparently Anko viewed her as a project of some kind, and there was only word to describe Hinata's attitude towards this prospect: terrified. One thing was for sure, however. Whatever Anko's idea of education might be, Hinata just knew it would be more interesting than her father's.
A/N: My plan for this chapter originally included the next day, which is told from Naruto's perspective, but I thought this was a good place to cut it short. I won't be able to finish the next chapter for a while because I'm working, and I wanted you all to have an update without having to wait another month. Let me know what you think, and I'll try to have Naruto's next chapter up in a few weeks. Don't worry, the adventurers WILL leave Konoha within the next two chapters. Their first stop: the Great Library of Sunagakure. That should make for some fun interactions ;)