Disclaimer: I do not own anything from Naruto.


General Warnings: Self-insert fic, OC-centric, AU, violence, language


Chapter 3


"Hinata."

Hinata almost jumped half a foot in the air when her father's stern voice sounded behind her. She turned around as quickly as she could while still maintaining Hyuuga decorum and fought an inner battle with herself as she struggled to keep her head up and look the Clan Head in the eye.

Chin up, head high, Rei had lectured, a companionable arm thrown around Hinata's shoulders. One of the other kids had whispered something cutting and spiteful about her one day and Hinata had shrunk into herself until Rei had swooped in and prodded her out of it. You have nothing to hide. You are who you are – be proud of it.

"Yes, Otou-sama?" She enquired, internally cringing at how small her voice was even though she hadn't stuttered.

Pale eyes studied her with strict criticism. "I have received knowledge of your acquaintance with one Uzumaki Naruto."

A pause. Hinata couldn't help fidgeting, and then instantly regretted it when a tiny crease of disapproval appeared on her father's brow.

"It is unwise for a Hyuuga to interact with that boy," His father continued coolly. "Cease you association with him at once."

Hinata froze. What? Stop being friends with Naruto? Just because most of the village didn't like him? She didn't even know why most of the village didn't like him.

Her mouth opened to say something but nothing came out, not even a wordless squeak, and her father was already turning away, effectively ending the conversation. He had given an order, and he expected her to obey.

She closed her mouth again. Her eyes burned. She didn't want to stop being friends with Naruto. He was fun to be around, and neither he nor Rei made her feel stupid or weak or inferior to them.

Rei!

Hinata could ask her for advice, couldn't she? Rei was always far more confident than she was, and even though the other girl had confessed that she didn't know any taijutsu and her skill with kunai and shuriken was atrocious (Rei's words, not hers; she could never say something so insensitive about someone, and Hinata knew that it would just take more practice for Rei to get better), Hinata still felt there was something about her that simply screamed competence.

She watched her father disappear inside the main house, and then continued towards the front gates of the compound. She was running a bit late today – if she didn't hurry, she wouldn't make it to school in time to join Naruto and Rei at the front gates of the Academy.

{2}

" Rei-chan?"

I blinked and looked up from the latest book I was reading. It was three in the afternoon and Naruto had gotten detention again so Hinata and I were waiting for him on the roof per usual.

Normally, I would be going over information about fuuinjutsu or reading up on taijutsu basics while Hinata would use the time for meditation or homework. Sometimes we chatted, sometimes we didn't, though Hinata had never sounded so nervous, not even at the beginning.

"What's up?" I sat up, bookmarking my page before giving her my full attention.

Hinata was doing that finger-poking thing with her hands and I had to flatten the urge to grimace. That action annoyed me to no end for some reason, even more than the blushing and stuttering and no-eye-contact thing. Overall, she was getting better, but it was still an uphill climb of sorts.

"I- I-" Hinata paused and took a deep breath, centering herself before starting again. "My father – he's found out a- about my friendship with Naruto-kun, and he- he doesn't want me to continue being friends with him. I- I don't know what to do."

"Hmm," I leaned back, tilting my head to stare absently at the sky. From what I knew of Hiashi, the man could be a real stick-in-the-mud, and he hadn't really changed until Neji had snapped and blurted out his fate issues to Naruto during the Chuunin Exam.

"Well," I glanced back at her. "What do you want to do?"

Hinata jerked a little, surprised, and then bit her lip, gaze dropping back to her hands. "I- I don't want to stop being friends w- with Naruto-kun."

I grunted. "Then tell your dad that."

Hinata tensed. "I- He's the Clan Head, a- and I'm his firstborn daughter; I- I can't disobey him."

I looked at Hinata impassively. "Then stop being friends with Naruto."

Hinata flinched as if I had slapped her, and my stomach twisted uncomfortably. I ignored it.

"You're going to have to choose one or the other, Hinata-chan," I said adamantly. "You can't have both. Defy your father or give up your friendship with Naruto."

When she didn't reply right away, I goaded evenly, "It's understandable if you choose the first – you've only known Naruto for about two months. Not even. And it's just plain easier to turn your back on Naruto rather than stick with him against the majority of this village."

I eyed Hinata's suddenly balled fists with interest.

"That's just cruel!" Hinata burst out, lilac eyes narrowing. "I- I could n- never do that to him!"

I raised an eyebrow. "No?" I asked mildly. "What about your father?"

Hinata recoiled again, hands clasping together. "I- I- He's my father."

I sighed. This was something I couldn't really sympathize with. I had spent all of my living years without depending on any parental figure, not to mention I had a hell of a problem with authority when it came to people telling me what to do without good reason. Besides my employers (and even then there had been that one lady who had pissed me off so much that I had gotten myself fired within the first two days), I usually just told anyone trying to boss me around unfairly to fuck off – not exactly the best advice for Hinata.

But I did understand. I understood Hinata, and, perhaps more importantly, I understood Hiashi. I understood that Hinata wanted to make her father proud despite the man's strict, aloof countenance, and I understood that Hiashi's disapproval towards Hinata was not directed at her talent or potential but at her lack of determination to succeed as the future Clan Head, and was going about fixing it the wrong way.

I also understood that neither of them understood the other.

"So talk to him," I suggested. "If you really want to stay friends with Naruto, then stand up to your father and tell him so. He may be your father and the Hyuuga Clan Head, but you are still your own person. You have a right to your own opinion, and no one should obey mindlessly. For once, do what you believe is right, not what your father dictates."

Hinata's hands were lying flat in her lap now and her eyes had widened again as she took in everything I said. For a six-year-old girl, she had already been brought up to understand words and diction that could boggle people three times her age. Come to think of it, most of the would-be-Genin in our generation were like that – all geniuses in their own right sooner or later.

I tilted my head and drove my point home. "In the end, when it comes down to it, the only thing you have to decide is what's more important to you: keeping Naruto's friendship or following your father's orders."

There was no more time for talk when muffled footsteps raced up the stairs leading to the roof we were on and Naruto came barrelling out, already greeting both of us enthusiastically.

I spared another glance at Hinata as we packed up and headed down.

A distracted smile graced her lips as she listened to Naruto complain loudly about the teacher. Her shoulders were still a bit hunched and her grip on her schoolbag was white-knuckled and frightened.

But I rather liked the steely glint that had crept into her eyes.

{2}

Hiashi was reading over last year's renovation costs of the compound and calculating how much money would be needed to add a new training grounds within the next few months when he sensed his eldest daughter's chakra signature enter the house.

As was customary, two soft knocks sounded at his door several seconds later, and his expression automatically schooled itself into a mask of indifference even as he called out, "Enter."

The door slid open and Hinata crossed the threshold, closing the door before moving into the room and dipping into a respectful bow. "I'm home, Otou-sama."

Hiashi inwardly raised an eyebrow. This was new. Usually, both Hinata and Neji greeted him from the door before continuing on towards their respective rooms.

He nodded stoically, waiting for Hinata to continue. When his daughter only continued to stare at the ground, he stifled a sigh and prompted, "Was there something else?"

Hinata visibly swallowed, and then, much to Hiashi's surprise, his daughter straightened, lifted her head, and looked him straight in the eye.

"A- About what y- you s- said this m- morning, Otou-sama," She stammered out, looking ready to faint, but not once, not for a single second, did she drop her gaze. "I- I- I can't- I won't s- stop being friends w- with N- Naruto-kun!"

Her voice cracked on the last word and Hiashi was actually worried for a split second that Hinata really would pass out right then and there.

(Did he really scare her so much?)

But his daughter took a deep breath and seemed to steady herself somewhat, and Hiashi allowed her declaration to sink in.

"You won't?" He frowned in consternation. "It is for the best, Hinata. Frequenting with that boy will do the Clan no favours. You can make other friends."

He expected that to be the end of it. It was very, very rare for Hinata to press an issue in the first place. For her to persist even further would never hap-

"N- No."

Hiashi stilled, more shocked than angry. "I beg your pardon?"

Hinata's lips quivered like she wanted to cry but she was still looking at him. "N- No. I w- won't stop b- being Naruto-kun's fr- friend."

Hiashi mentally shook away his astonishment and frowned severely at his daughter. "Hinata, you will obey me in this. When you grow older, you will understand."

Abruptly, his daughter's jaw set, and for a split second, Hiashi saw his wife flash across his vision.

"No," Hinata insisted with uncharacteristic obstinacy. "I- I won't a- abandon Naruto-kun like that. H- He's my friend, a- and I won't- I won't turn my back on him."

Hiashi stared, dumbfounded. A detached part of his mind thanked his ancestors that his Hyuuga genes helped keep his features blank.

"I- I've only kn- known him for t- two months b- but I c- can t- tell he's a g- good person," His daughter stumbled on. "I- I don't know w- what problem the r- rest of the v- village has with him b- but no matter what i- it is, I'm not g- going to abandon him."

Hiashi's frown deepened. "As you said, Hinata, you met the boy two months ago. Surely that isn't enough time to form such bonds. It is doubtful you will even become teammates when you graduate."

He raised a hand when Hinata made to speak again. Strange how he had wanted her to stand up for herself for years, and when she finally did, he had to put a stop to it. "That's enough. I am your father – you will listen to me. I do not want to hear another word."

He watched with some regret and a startling amount of disappointment when Hinata's shoulders sagged in defeat and her gaze finally slid away again. Head still bowed, she turned and shuffled towards the door.

Still, with a satisfied nod, Hiashi prepared to turn his focus back to his work again.

"...own person."

Hiashi subtly stiffened and looked up again, only to find his daughter standing just inside the doorway. "What was that?"

Hinata looked downright miserable but she was looking at him again and seemed to be clinging on to the very last vestiges of her newfound courage.

"I am m- my own person," His daughter murmured shakily, sounding a bit like she was repeating someone else. "Y- You are my father, and I r- respect you v- very much, b- but I am s- still my own person. I know I'm n- not much r- right now, b- but I want- One day, I want t- to be able t- to look at myself a- and see s- someone I- I can be proud of, a- and I won't e- ever be able t- to do that i- if I b- betray the p- people who tr- trust me. E- Even if I've o- only known him f- for two months, N- Naruto-kun is still my friend. H- He trusts me t- to be his friend, and I- I won't b- betray that trust."

Hiashi sat frozen in his seat, wondering who this person standing in front of him was.

"Who said that to you?" He found himself saying before he could censor it. At Hinata's confused blink, he clarified, "Most of those words were not yours. Perhaps you believe in them, but they were not yours. Who was it?"

Who had given his daughter a backbone of all things in what seemed like a mere two and a half months since school had started?

Hinata flushed red and her hands began to fiddle in place again, but she managed a faltering response in the end. "R- Rei-chan did."

Rei.

Hiashi wracked his mind. Tsukino Rei – that was the girl who had recently arrived in Konoha to attend the Academy, the other student whom Hinata had also befriended.

He had done a discreet background check on her as well and everything had matched up to her file in the Konoha register. He didn't have a problem with Hinata having her as a friend. The girl was from an orphanage in a small town – Hiashi had dismissed her as unimportant after the report had come back.

Unimportant people did not cause such significant changes in his daughter in two and a half months.

"Sh- She's a good friend too," Hinata said defensively as if she thought Hiashi would try to take that friendship away as well. "Sh- She was the f- first person who t- talked to me a- at school."

Hiashi studied his daughter for a long moment. The silence once again made Hinata fiddle with the hem of her coat.

"Sh- She told me I sh- should t- talk to you," A spark of defiance entered her eyes. "B- Because I don't- I don't agree with you."

"Even if this is for the good of the Clan?" Hiashi countered sharply, ignoring the spark of guilt in his chest when Hinata flinched. "Is that not your priority?"

"He's just a boy, Otou-sama!" His daughter burst out. "I- I've seen h- how the v- villagers treat him, glaring a- at him and i- insulting him and even throwing r-rocks and g- garbage at him. R- Rei-chan a- always tries to protect him but what th- they're doing i- is wrong! I- If the g- good of the Clan means d- doing the same thing as them, if it d- depends on b-being cruel to a mere ch- child, s- someone my age who h- hasn't even done anything wrong, th- then no."

Hiashi's eyebrows shot up as Hinata's shoulders squared and the defiance surged through her tiny frame.

"No," She repeated firmly, and in that one moment, Hiashi caught a glimpse of his daughter grown up and standing tall. "That is not my priority."

Dead silence reigned in the room and Hinata abruptly shrunk into herself again looking shaken and shocked at her own audacity.

Irritation warred with satisfaction as Hiashi stared at his daughter.

No.

His eldest daughter, heiress to the Hyuuga Clan, had refused the pride of the Hyuugas, refused to put the reputation of their Clan before her own ideals.

"The Elders will not be pleased," Hiashi said in a flat tone.

Hinata tensed.

"I am not pleased," Hiashi continued, ignoring the fact that this was at least half untrue.

Hinata bit her lip and stared at her hands.

But she did not take her words back.

Hiashi smothered the urge to close his eyes and pinch the bridge of his nose. It would be... easier for the Hyuuga Clan to disassociate itself with the Kyuubi Jinchuuriki, but-

But it was just a friendship. They were both six years old – what could possibly happen? The Hyuuga Clan's name might take some damage, those Uchihas might attempt to further said damage, and Hiashi could foresee more than one headache in his near future if and when the Clan Elders demanded to know why his eldest daughter was interacting with the village's Jinchuuriki, but-

But the Kyuubi Jinchuuriki was also Minato's child, and Hiashi respected the Yondaime enough to feel some regret towards the way the boy was treated when he allowed himself to think about it.

And wasn't this what he had wanted? Ever since his brother had sacrificed himself to save him, wasn't change to the Hyuuga's caste system exactly what he had been trying to implement? The Elders had blocked his subtle attempts at every turn so he had hoped to instill some independence and confidence in Hinata instead, and while he was sure this new self-assurance, still as fragile as a single leaf at autumn's end, had next to nothing to do with him, wasn't this what Hiashi had wanted to see in Hinata all along?

And even if he never said it out loud, didn't know how to, Hiashi could at least admit to himself that he was damn proud of his daughter right now.

"You will not change your mind on this," He intoned at last, less a question and more a statement.

Hinata shook her head stiffly.

Hiashi really did sigh this time. Briefly, he considered hinting at disowning his daughter but this was discarded immediately. He wouldn't be able to go through with it anyway, even if it might force Hinata to back down.

"Very well, I will allow your continued association with the boy," Hiashi compromised, watching his daughter's eyes widen. "On one condition."

Hinata stilled. "Y- Yes, Otou-sama?"

Hiashi reached out and straightened a stack of paperwork. "Your other friend – Tsukino-san. Extend an invitation to her to dine with us."

Hinata's mouth dropped open. Hiashi made a note to remind her to fix that. Shock shouldn't come so openly to a Hyuuga.

"Not Uzumaki-kun," He added sternly. "I draw the line at inviting him into our compound."

Hinata wavered and then stuttered an agreement. "I- I'll see if sh- she is free next week."

Hiashi nodded and watched his daughter finally take her leave before returning to his work at last.

He knew better than to attribute his concession to Hinata alone, so if he had to concede, something he hadn't done in at least a decade, then he damn well wanted to know who he was conceding to.

{2}

"Me? He wants me to come over for dinner?" I echoed dubiously as we practiced the tea ceremony in kunoichi class. Hinata looked to be able to do it in her sleep while I almost dropped the tea bowl several times. "Why?"

Hinata looked sheepish, which was already a far cry from two months ago when she would've already been stammering apologies. "I- I may have mentioned you in passing. A- About talking to him b- because I d- don't agree with what he t- told me to do."

I groaned. "Hinata-chan, you have no idea how proud I am that you stood up to your dad, but I'm pretty sure I don't even have the clothes needed for stepping foot into your compound much less dining with your family."

Hinata stifled a giggle. "I d- didn't think you cared about that sort of thing, Rei-chan."

I scoffed. "I don't, but he is your father. First impressions and all. And no offense, Hinata-chan, but I don't want to sit through a stiff dinner where everyone has to sit up straight and speak formally. No proper clothes means I can't go."

A half-smile appeared on Hinata's face. "I- I don't think I can t- tell my father that, Rei-chan. You don't need to dress up or anything. Just come as you are."

I arched an eyebrow and then looked down at what I was wearing. A lot of grey – dark pants, lighter shirt – and a small hip pouch and sandals.

"Seriously?" I deadpanned. "Wouldn't I have to go wearing a yukata or something?"

Hinata hesitated and then shook her head. "Simple robes a- and a haori will be what Otou-sama will wear and Neji-nii-sama, my cousin, will probably w- wear a yukata as well, b- but I don't think it matters if you come in your usual clothes. I- If you want, I could wear this a- at dinner too."

I paused and eyed her attire. It was a lot like what she would wear when she became a Genin, except in smaller sizes of course, but it was still very... Hyuuga.

I sighed. "I'm sure I can find something a little more... suitable to wear. I've got some money saved up. You sure I can't just skip out?"

Hinata nodded sympathetically. "S- Sorry, Rei-chan. On the other hand, Otou-sama s- says I can stay friends w- with Naruto-kun now."

I smirked. "I still can't believe you told him to stuff it."

Hinata couldn't seem to decide whether to look horrified or amused. "I- I did not! W- We talked it out – I would never tell my father t- to stuff it!"

I snickered, and when Hinata's lips twitched with suppressed mirth, I burst out laughing. It must've come as a real shock to Hyuuga Hiashi when his timid, shrinking violet of a daughter suddenly stonewalled him like she had.

They paused in their chatter when Honami-sensei admonished them and got them focused back on the tea ceremony instead.

"Y- You probably shouldn't w- wear your toque though," Hinata said at length, peering tentatively at me.

I froze for a split second. "...Ah, that would be... rude, wouldn't it?"

Hinata nodded. A blush rose in her cheeks. "A- And you have pretty hair, Rei-chan. W- Why do you hide it all the time?"

I didn't answer her right away, concentrating on the bamboo water ladle in my hand as I poured hot water into my tea bowl. "...You've heard Naruto calling me Grandma. Where do you think that nickname came from?"

"B- But I don't think h- he means it," Hinata offered. "I- It's just friendly teasing. Your hair's the colour of snow."

I smiled ruefully at her, inwardly fighting down a small blush of my own. "Yeah, I know, but white is rather eye-catching. I've just gotten used to wearing my hat. I really should dye it eventually but... well, white hair's also me. I don't want to suddenly become a redhead or something."

Hinata smiled shyly but there was a teasing light in her eyes. "I don't think you'd m- make a very good redhead."

I grinned back. "Yeah, neither do I."

We were relatively quiet for the next few minutes, with Hinata giving me pointers now and then when I fumbled through the steps.

"Guess I don't really have much of a choice," I said at last. "Day after tomorrow?"

Hinata noticeably brightened. "Day after tomorrow," She confirmed.

{3}

"So you're going over to Hinata-chan's house to eat and you have to dress up for it?" Naruto scratched his head as he waited impatiently for Rei to finish up in the bathroom. "And you can't wear your hat?"

"Yes," Rei's voice floated back muffled. "To both. Okay, I'm done."

Naruto's eyes almost popped out when Rei stepped out wearing a plain dark blue yukata with a thin black obi around her waist. However, all of that paled in comparison to the shock of snowy hair that fell about her neck in feathery locks. What was it he had heard some of the girls at school giggling about? The colour of clothes bringing out the hair and eyes or something? Huh, it looked like they actually knew what they were talking about.

"Naruto, you're gawking," Rei said dryly.

Naruto clicked his mouth shut, feeling heat rise in his face. "You look- This is the first time I have ever seen you without a hat! Why do you always wear it? You don't look that much like a granny- ow ow ow!"

Naruto yelped as Rei caught one of his ears and twisted. "Alright, alright, I'm sorry! You look- nice!"

To his relief, Rei let go and rolled her eyes instead. He winced and rubbed his ear.

"Don't force yourself," Rei snorted, and then grumbled and tugged at her obi. "Ugh, I feel like I'm getting ready to go to a festival or something."

Naruto hopped up onto the couch and eyed his best friend from his perch. "You really look... not bad. Pretty good."

This time, Rei smiled at him, though she looked amused as well. "Don't go getting a crush on me just because I dressed up, Naruto. I'm not going to return it."

Naruto made a face, about to deny it, and then paused as something occurred to him. "Hey wait! What's wrong with that? Girls can have crushes on me!"

Rei chuckled. "Yes, I know, but you're like my brother."

A warm glow expanded in his chest and Naruto didn't bother fighting the grin that spread over his face. Sometimes, even after over two months, he still woke up some days in his own apartment and wondered if he had dreamed everything. This year was definitely starting out a lot differently than his last six years had been.

"Alright, I better get going before I'm late," Rei said as she put on her sandals. "Now don't forget to lock the door after me. And eat everything I made for you, including the vegetables, or I'll force-feed you when I get home."

It was Naruto's turn to roll his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, I know, Grandma. I wasn't born yesterday."

"Good to hear, Shrimp," Rei waved one last time before stepping out the door. "See you later."

Naruto waved after her before shutting the door and locking it. He allowed himself a brief moment to wish that parents didn't hate him so much that they tried to keep their kids away from him, and then reminded himself that Hinata's dad couldn't be that bad since Hinata was still his friend and hadn't made any move to stop being that.

Shaking his more depressing thoughts away, he bounced back into the kitchen and began raiding the fridge. Eating Rei's cooking was far better than feeling sorry for himself.

{3}

"Welcome to our home," Hiashi said formally, inclining his head ever-so-slightly as I stepped in through the door of the main house after Hinata.

I dipped into a shallow but polite bow. "Thank you for inviting me, Hyuuga-sama."

As I straightened again, I met the Clan Head's eyes levelly, noting the assessing gleam there as Hiashi studied her. The man didn't say anything though, only nodding and leading them to the dining room with regal bearing in every movement.

The only good thing about all this propriety, I thought caustically as I walked alongside a nervous-looking Hinata. Is that it would be highly inappropriate for any of them to activate their Byakugan and use it on a guest. At the very least, Hinata's dad won't see through my face paint.

As it was, I wasn't sure whether or not Hiashi would recognize me, or at least had an inkling of familiarity when he looked at me. I almost felt naked without my hat, and while Hinata's eyes had widened in surprise when she had met me at the compound gates, I was certain neither she nor Neji knew what Jiraiya looked like, or maybe even who Jiraiya was.

But I might have sparked some suspicion in Hiashi, and if the man went Byakugan on me and adjusted his depth perception, he could probably take a pretty good stab in the dark as to who I was.

As we entered the dining room where dinner was already set out and Neji was already waiting, standing stiffly beside one of the chairs with his hands clasped behind his back and his expression closed off, I caught Hiashi sending Hinata a pointed look and the heiress hurriedly took her cue.

"R- Rei-chan," She started, a lot shakier than she would be when she was with just me and Naruto. "Th- This is Hyuuga Neji, m- my c- cousin. H- He's a y- year older th- than us."

Neji didn't scoff aloud (that would probably break half a dozen Hyuuga rules for all I knew) but a flash of scorn surfaced briefly on his face, something Hinata didn't miss when she glanced meekly at her cousin. The heiress flushed and ducked her head.

My jaw tightened but I forced a bland smile on my face even as I stepped forward and squeezed Hinata's hand reassuringly. It's alright.

I felt her relax minutely beside me and squeeze back. Thanks.

"Nice to meet you," I lied through my teeth as I stared at the seven-year-old head-on.

Neji's eyes narrowed as he returned frostily, "Pleased to make your acquaintance as well. Welcome to the Hyuuga compound."

The silence felt awkward to me but, apparently, this was normal as Hiashi circled around and sat down gracefully at the head table. I followed Hinata's – and Neji's – example and grabbed a seat only after the Clan Head had sat down, ending up between Hinata and Neji and across from Hiashi.

God, could this get any more uncomfortable?

A murmur of 'Itakdakimasu' and everyone dug in. I felt like a bumbling ox as I struggled to pace myself and eat as elegantly as the three Hyuugas were. Normally, I wouldn't bother, but Hinata's shoulders were rounded and tense enough without me adding to her stress and making her even more wound up than she already was.

Still, the hush was unnerving – I was used to listening to Naruto's chatter and laughing with Hinata when Naruto talked about his pranks. I was even perfectly fine with eating by myself and in silence, but not this kind where everyone seemed to be ignoring everyone else even though they sat at the same table.

Fortunately, Hiashi decided to break said silence halfway through the meal. Unfortunately, it meant my interrogation had just started.

"So, Tsukino-san," Hiashi finally spoke up, giving me a measured stare. "How are you finding the Academy?"

I swallowed a mouthful of rice before replying directly, "Interesting enough, for the most part. The schoolwork is relatively basic at this point. I find more trouble with throwing kunai and learning taijutsu."

The last bit seemed to catch Hiashi's attention. "You have difficulties with taijutsu?"

I nodded. "Some. I've just started though, and I've never even held a kunai before the Academy. I'm getting a little better each day, but it's slow-going."

I caught another glimpse of quicksilver contempt on Neji's face but paid it no mind. So long as it wasn't directed at Hinata, I couldn't care less what the seven-year-old thought of me.

"Hinata-chan's really good at the basics though," I added in a sudden stroke of epiphany. Perhaps I could... "She's been showing me all the steps and she doesn't yell at me either when I trip up half a dozen times over the same move."

Hiashi's appraising gaze turned to his daughter, whose face now matched a brilliant sunset. She looked equal parts terrified and embarrassed, but underneath both emotions, I thought I caught a trace of pleasure.

"It is only natural for a Hyuuga to know the basics of taijutsu," Neji cut in. "It would be shameful for Hinata-sama to not know something as simple as that."

No clear insults, but there was no mistaking the disdain in his voice, and Hinata shrunk into herself.

I gritted my teeth. Shut up, Hyuuga. You're ruining my brilliant plan.

"Good thing she does then," I said out loud, smiling sweetly at Neji. "Or I'd be struggling way more than I already am. Hinata-chan's a good teacher."

Maybe something I said steadied her, or the recent backbone she had been growing was choosing this moment to show itself because Hinata's hand clenched around her chopsticks before she straightened in her seat, swallowing hard and casting a skittish look my way but raising her head again.

I looked up in time to catch the thoughtful speculation on Hiashi's face. Not that I knew what the Clan Head was thinking.

Hopefully nothing bad.

Neji scowled back at me – or at least scowled as much as his Hyuuga upbringing possibly allowed – before lapsing into a sullen silence.

Point to me.

...Not that it was much to boast about. Neji was a seven-year-old after all, even if he was also a genius. Then again, part of my own brain was wired to that of a six-year-old – half the time, my emotional responses were still that of a child's even if I had the experiences of an adult in my head – so I figured that that evened things out somewhat.

From there, dinner proceeded with only the occasional exchange of words between myself and Hinata's dad, as well as several subtle barbs from Neji that I neatly deflected. I did my best to manipulate the conversation – what there was of it – to include Hinata, and encourage her into joining in, but the Hyuugas were a relatively quiet family, if only because none of them seemed to have anything to say to each other. No wonder they were so messed up.

When dinner was over, I checked the time and hoped that Naruto had already eaten a good dinner and would be getting ready for bed soon. Although knowing him, he was probably waiting up for me, which only made me want to get out of here soon. The meal had been unpleasant at best, but it had also helped Hinata a little, who had mostly stopped shrinking away from Neji's occasional glowers throughout the evening, so I had no regrets on that front. Hinata had been the only reason I hadn't kicked up a fuss about me being invited but not Naruto.

"Rei-chan?"

I blinked and turned to Hinata. We had all retired to the sitting room with a tray of tea while suffering through more stifling silence and stilted conversation; apparently, this was the norm amongst nobility. Or probably just the Hyuugas. Maybe the Uchihas as well.

"W- Would you like to see my sister?" Hinata rushed out uncertainly. It was the first time she had spoken up without being prodded by either me or her father. I did a mental jig. Progress! "Hanabi is only one b- but if you want, I- I could introduce you?"

She ended on an upward questioning lilt, giving a perfect opening for Neji to remark rather snidely, "Why do something so pointless? Hanabi-sama is a baby, and probably already asleep."

Don't be stupid, the childish taunt went unspoken but still heard. This was Neji's way. He never outright insulted anyone but the underscore of mockery was obvious to anyone with ears.

Be polite be polite be polite, I immediately started chanting in my head for the umpteenth time in the past two hours.

Hinata instinctively flinched and clammed up, a flicker of hurt passing over her features.

Oh screw this.

I had wanted to make a good first impression, I really had, because this was Hinata's family even if they were also a bunch of stuck-up sticks in the mud. God knew I could be a downright bitch when I wanted to be, and I wasn't all that polite on a daily basis anyway, but I had been on my best behaviour all night.

Clearly, that wasn't going to last.

"Hey, I'd love to see Hinata-chan's sister," I interjected testily, throwing Neji a blistering glare for good measure. "Who cares if she's a baby? She's one; she's certainly not gonna care whether Hinata-chan introducing me is pointless or not."

Neji bristled and his eyes narrowed. "Hinata-sama should have more sense than to waste time on worthless matters."

"I hardly think her little sister's worthless," I shot back, deliberately misunderstanding. "That's rather harsh of you, Neji-kun."

Neji glared, temper finally flaring under his icy facade. "It is a waste of time introducing you. Hinata-sama is a Hyuuga; she shames the Clan by consorting with commoners who will never be fated to amount to anything. You can't even handle taijutsu. Though at her level, I suppose you are all she could find."

On hindsight, I should've wondered why Hiashi hadn't stepped in, even now, but at the moment, I was past the point of caring.

I set my tea down with a distinct thump, any remaining civility sliding off my face and replaced with my usual scowl reserved for people I either didn't like or didn't give two shits about.

"Alright, that's it," I snapped with enough vitriol that Neji visibly jolted, looking taken aback. "Look, I couldn't care less if you insult me; I know my taijutsu sucks, but you shut your mouth when it comes to Hinata-chan! She's your cousin, first and foremost, and younger than you. I have no idea what issues you've got with her but picking on her like you do is called bullying, jerk! And hiding all your insults behind pretty words is even worse! You've got something to say, then say it! Otherwise, back off and leave her alone, or you'll have me to deal with!"

For a long moment, Neji just spluttered, shocked and floundering for words. Very likely, no one had ever talked to him like I had, and even dressing-downs from his uncle or some other Hyuuga Elder would've been stern, stiff, and stuffily-worded.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, I'd never learned how to talk like a noble.

"Y- You can't i- insult Rei-chan e- either, Neji-nii-sama."

I almost gave myself whiplash as I craned my head around to look at Hinata. Frankly, the girl looked terrified but there was a resolute gleam in her eyes when she stepped forward to stand beside me. I wondered if she had looked like that when she had stood up to her father.

And speaking of her father...

I darted a glance at him. I didn't regret anything I said to Neji but being so rude was probably grounds for me being tossed out.

Hiashi was watching me with measured eyes. Whatever he thought of me or the situation in general was hidden behind an unreadable wall.

I sighed. Ah well. No use worrying about it now.

On the other hand, Neji looked like someone had punched him in the nose, and he didn't quite seem to know how to respond.

"O- Otou-sama," Hinata said next, and her hand slipped into mine. Without hesitation, I tightened my grip in encouragement. "I- I'd like to introduce Rei-chan to Hanabi now. Please excuse us."

She sketched a quick bow, and I followed her example before the two of us beat a hasty retreat.

"I- I can't believe I did that," Hinata gasped as soon as we had turned half a dozen corners through the Hyuuga main house. "I've n- never talked back to Neji-nii-sama before!"

I grinned and clapped her on the back. "I'm so proud of you, Hinata-chan. Now you've told both your dad and your cousin to stick their spiel where the sun doesn't shi-"

"Rei-chan!"

I burst out laughing, and a second later, unbidden giggles slipped from Hinata's mouth, and by the time we had made our way to Hanabi's room, Hinata looked much more relaxed than she had at the beginning of the evening.

"This is Hanabi," Hinata introduced as we finally calmed down and entered the nursery. I peered down at the baby currently sleeping peacefully in the crib, dark Hyuuga hair still short.

"She's cute," I offered, although I'd seen dozens of babies back at my old orphanage. I'd even helped the matrons out with some of them.

"Babies are so tiny," I added as an afterthought. "It's hard to believe we were all that small at one time."

Hinata nodded in agreement. "Hanabi is considered a prodigy though. She's already activated her Byakugan a few times."

I glanced sidelong at her. She didn't sound resentful; just a bit wistful.

I jostled her shoulder, and she blinked at me questioningly.

"Does it matter?" I huffed, crossing my arms and giving her a bossy look. "Prodigy or not, it all depends on how hard you work. You're going to be strong one day, Hinata-chan, 'cause you never give up."

I paused, and then pulled a Naruto and gave her an exaggerated thumbs-up. "Believe it!"

This instantly startled a laugh out of Hinata, and she seemed to stand just a little straighter. I'd count that as another win on my part.

When we left the room, Hiashi was waiting in the hall for us, and I wondered how long he had been standing there.

He didn't say anything though, and it looked like the rather excruciating house visit had finally come to an end since he simply escorted me to the gates along with Hinata. Neji was nowhere in sight, which I was grateful for because I didn't feel like getting into another argument with the guy.

"Thank you for having me over, Hyuuga-sama," I bobbed a curt bow once more before straightening.

Hiashi nodded back, expression bland as ever. "Would you prefer having an escort home, Tsukino-san? It is getting late."

I blinked in surprise but hastily shook my head. "No thank you, I'll be fine."

Hiashi accepted this at face value but tacked on, "Please do come again. It has been a rather... interesting evening."

More like disruptive; I couldn't believe Hiashi was willing to let me within a mile of the Hyuuga compound much less another dinner.

But just because he was okay with it didn't mean I was. I squared my shoulders and stared straight at him. "Not without Naruto, sir."

Hiashi arched an eyebrow, and I knew the man had gotten the message loud and clear. We both knew he had told Hinata not to invite Naruto, and while I could overlook that once for Hinata's sake, I wouldn't be leaving him behind again.

Hiashi said nothing more, looking more contemplative than anything else, so I turned my attention to a wide-eyed Hinata and gave her a quick hug. "See you tomorrow, Hinata-chan."

Hinata smiled and returned the gesture. "Yes, see you tomorrow. Goodnight, Rei-chan."

I waved once more before slipping away, shucking my sandals as soon as I was out of sight of the Hyuuga compound. It was definitely easier to move, which reminded me – I really wanted to learn Shunshin soon.

Overall, the evening could've gone a lot worse (I hadn't shouted at anyone; that was pretty good by my standards), though it certainly hadn't been a success either. Still, my being there seemed to have given Hinata a boost in confidence, and I had given Neji a good verbal slap in the face.

Yeah, not a bad night at all.

{3}

"Hinata, has Tsukino-san ever talked about her parents?" Hiashi enquired as they walked back into the main house.

His daughter started a little but answered readily enough. "U- Um, no. She said she grew up in a small town o- outside of Konoha, and that she moved here to train to b- become a kunoichi, b- but that's it."

Hiashi inwardly frowned. Had the girl not even mentioned that she was an orphan? There were a handful of kids from time to time whose parents couldn't afford to move away from their original home altogether so they would simply send their children to Konoha if said children wanted a career as a ninja. Hinata most likely assumed that this was the case with her friend if Rei had made no reference to being an orphan.

Well, it didn't matter in the end; the issue would be come up sooner or later.

His thoughts turned briefly on the pure white hair Rei had sported. He had received a report of what the girl looked like but it was different up close. She reminded him of... someone, and it wasn't just the hair either. There was something about the eyes that struck Hiashi as familiar as well.

He gave himself a mental shake. More important than physical features was the girl's personality. He had waited all evening for the underlying fire that he had glimpsed every time Neji had lashed out at Hinata to surface, and it had taken all of dinner and a much more direct insult from his nephew before Rei had risen to the occasion. Hiashi now knew where Hinata had gotten her backbone from.

In many ways, Hiashi approved of the girl. She was obviously fiercely protective of her friends, though she could show it in a somewhat uncouth manner unfit for nobility (he hoped Hinata wouldn't pick that up). Still, Rei had been polite for the most part, and had even had the gall to reprimand him for not including Minato's son in the invitation.

(Again, that particular disregard for authority figures sparked a distant memory in his mind that he couldn't quite grasp, though he was sure he had known someone else some time ago with that same lack of concern for political etiquette, less blatant about it than Rei but essentially identical. Not another child, but a... fellow shinobi perhaps? Someone he had met on a mission?)

"Otou-sama?"

Hiashi left his musings behind and concentrated on his daughter again. They had reached an intersection where Hinata would have to turn off to withdraw to her room so he nodded and dismissed her with a quiet goodnight.

For a second, it looked like his daughter wanted to say something, but it seemed as if her quota of courage had been used up for the day, and she simply retreated down the hall instead.

Hiashi continued on to his own office. He had some extra work to finish up before he could retire for the night.

It looked like this would be the last time Tsukino Rei would be coming around for dinner though, at least for a while. She would not return at another request without the Jinchuuriki, and Hiashi couldn't afford to invite the boy in without the Elders complaining.

But he would ask Hinata for occasional reports on both of them from now on. Rei, in particular, was worth keeping an eye on. Despite her claim of being average at best at taijutsu, her eyes had shown sharp intelligence, and what he had sensed of her still-developing chakra was powerfully built. The girl certainly had the potential to become a formidable kunoichi one day, and influencing Hinata to become more confident was simply a bonus.

{3}

"Ah, summer break's the best!"

"Shh! Pipe down, Naruto! Do you want us to get caught?"

"U- Um, is this really a good idea?"

I exchanged a grin with Naruto as we crouched in the shadows Academy gates. Between us, Hinata looked torn between anxious excitement and appalled disbelief at her current actions.

After four months of school, summer had finally arrived and all the students had been let out for vacation. This was, of course, the perfect time to paint the Academy building bright yellow.

"It's an excellent idea, Hinata-chan," I assured cheerfully. "You have to live a little, and pranking's the best way to start."

"Yeah!" Naruto agreed brightly, beaming at Hinata in a way that made the latter flush pink. "And think of it this way – we have to paint the entire Academy yellow without getting caught; that's good practice for our stealth!"

"He makes a good point," I encouraged, and Hinata came very close to rolling her eyes. Naruto and I had worked hard at breaking her out of her shell, and while she still had a touch of that stutter and a tendency to revert to her shyer persona, she had gotten a lot better from when I had first met her during that kunoichi class.

"Okay," I scampered up one side of the Academy walls using my chakra before hauling Naruto up (he still hadn't gotten the hang of it yet but at least there had been a little progress) and then giving a hand to Hinata (who could make it up halfway before she started sliding). "We've got three hours before that meeting that the Hokage called gets out, right Naruto?"

"Yeah, that's what Jiji said," Naruto nodded as we dropped down onto school grounds.

"Right then; Hinata, you do the side closest to the gates since you're our lookout," I instructed, and Hinata nodded determinedly, hefting a paint can and a large brush.

I suddenly had a mental image of Hiashi's face if he ever realized we were turning his eldest daughter into a delinquent. I almost broke down in hysterics right then and there.

"And me and Rei-chan will do the side sides and the back side," Naruto chimed in even as I flicked out several Bunshin as lookouts for the back gates just in case. This earned an envious look from Naruto which I returned with a teasing V-sign as we scampered off to our designated assignments.

Out of all of us, I was the best at using chakra, Hinata was the best at taijutsu, and, after realizing these two points, Naruto had worked like a madman with his weapons so that he was now, surprisingly, the best at throwing shuriken and kunai. His accuracy was nothing to scoff at for a six-year-old.

"Rei-chan, I'll start here," Naruto announced, setting brush to wall without hesitation.

I nodded and made my way around the building to start at the other end. This was going to take a while.

Two hours forty-five minutes later, the entire school had turned an eye-watering garish yellow interspersed with, upon Naruto's suggestion, large pink polka dots.

"Now that's what I call a masterpiece," I drawled, slinging an arm around each of my friends.

Naruto snickered loudly while Hinata bit her lip, trying in vain to hide her own smile as she rubbed absently at some dried paint on her sleeve.

"Right, let's head back to my place to change," I prompted. "We can throw everything in the wash so no one will ever know it's us."

"Oh they always know it's me," Naruto revealed sagely. "They just can't prove it."

We exchanged another glance before dissolving into laughter once more as we scurried off towards my apartment, making sure to take all the empty paint cans and brushes with us.

I kept my window open as we did our laundry – Naruto and I showing Hinata the ropes because apparently, the Hyuuga heiress had no idea how to go about it, much to her embarrassment – so when the shout came, all three of us heard it loud and clear.

"NARUTOOO!"

Birds took flight outside in an explosion of wings and squawks.

"...Wow, that was loud," I remarked, patting Hinata on the back as she reeled a little from the shock of hearing our esteemed Hokage evidently screaming for Naruto's head.

"Don't worry," Naruto assured, arms resting behind his head as he lounged on the couch (it wasn't even my couch anymore; Naruto stayed at my place more often than his own these days). "Jiji always gets over it after a while. And then he thinks it's funny because it's the poor little Genin who have to clean it up."

"Oh, do they?" Hinata looked a little guilty now. "Maybe we should help? It's a lot of work for the Genin."

"Hinata-chan, it was a lot of work for us to put it up in the first place," Naruto reproached indignantly. "And they're taking down all our hard work. They deserve what's coming to them."

I snorted at this reasoning and offered my own. "Think of it this way, Hinata-chan; when we become Genin, we'll be doing all the manual labour they have to do right now, so it evens out in the end."

Hinata's lips pursed in that this-isn't-funny-but-I-can't-help-myself way that I was starting to recognize as her doomed-to-fail attempt at reprimanding us. She slanted a look at both of us before sighing, "I think you're bad influences on me."

I grinned as Naruto cackled. "That's the spirit, Hinata-chan. Now let's go get ice-creams to celebrate your first outing as a delinquent, shall we?"

Hinata moaned and put her face into her hands. Naruto fell off the couch laughing. I sat back, satisfied and unbelievably happy with something as simple as this.

{3}

And so our summer passed, filled with pranks and trips to the local dango store, sparring practices in a small Hyuuga-owned training area that Hinata snuck us into and study sessions with the apartment window wide open because of the sudden bout of heat passing through the village (Naruto usually dozed off at least three times each session; Hinata pointed out that I took far too much pleasure whacking Naruto awake with a paper fan).

When school started again, it was much the same as before, with the exception of Hinata looking lighter and happier than she had prior to even just the summer holidays. Naruto's presence worked wonders on people, and I'd like to think I had a hand in it too. I hadn't heard of any complaints from Hiashi, and I hadn't seen Neji since that dinner all those months ago, so things were okay at that end as well.

I would've been perfectly content living the rest of my childhood years like this, with two best friends and a place I had really started to think of as home to spend my days, but life wouldn't be life if it didn't go out of its way to throw you a few curveballs.

My curveball came in the form of one gusty autumn day when I had been on my way home from some grocery shopping, alone for once what with Hinata already back at the Hyuuga compound and Naruto preparing dinner at my apartment.

More specifically, it came in the form of a headlong collision with one Uchiha Itachi.


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