Characters: Hinata, Naruto
Genre: gen, friendship, some humor
Setting: My own version of the Hinata/Naruto first meeting in Shippuuden
Spoilers: For the manga and the series, including the filler episodes
Disclaimer: I don't own the Naruto universe, just having a little fun with it.
A/N: Special thanks to babaca for reading and encouragement. And thanks to catscradle for saving this fic from becoming Wake up and Smell the Ramen!. ^_~
The village hadn't changed in the past two and half years. The grass was always green, the sky always blue, the sun always bright; their faces always smiling and their eyes full of kindness, and a refreshing innocence that was hard to find in other places. As if all the suffering and pain, and the rivers of tears over lost comrades didn't have a lasting effect on the Leaf shinobi. But Naruto knew better, having grown up in this village. He knew that death and suffering were part of a ninja's life and as necessary as breathing, sleeping, eating. He also knew why their smiles didn't fade and why amidst wars and invasions, the village remained as beautiful as ever, as if frozen in time.
The old man had given him the answer, not so long ago, although it seemed forever since Sandaime had last walked among them.
It was the fire.
The fire that burned within each ninja born in this village, a blaze strong and hot, a bonfire that would slowly consume the souls of anyone who tried to put it out. That stupid Orochimaru would get his someday. His arms were already charred, and it would soon be time to roast the rest of him.
It didn't matter how much they told him to stop, to let go, to forget.
Naruto's will of fire would not be broken. The will of fire made them family. Sasuke was one of them. He wouldn't let him go. Never.
A soft breeze touched his face, and he watched the birds fly and the trees stir, as if they were waking from a very long nap, stretching out their branches to welcome him back. He was finally home, he thought, breathing in the fresh air that smelled of grass and cherry blossoms and moss. He sat down and rested his back on a tree.
This was his training site. The place where Kakashi-sensei had taught him - no, taught them - the importance of being a team. This is where they had sealed their bonds. Sakura-Sasuke-Naruto: Team 7. For all time, for all eternity, even if one of their members died - or worse, defected - they would still be Team 7.
Two and a half years.
And he still hadn't made any progress in bringing Sasuke back. Sure, he'd trained hard all this time, thinking of Sasuke and the promise he'd made to Sakura, but thought and action were two different things. And he hadn't done anything...yet. Not for lack of wanting. If that Ero-sennin hadn't kept him on a tight leash, he might have wandered away to find his teammate.
And that would have been very foolish. It had taken him a while, but he finally understood that making rash decisions, like Sasuke had obviously done by going to Orochimaru, could only lead to tragedy.
Soft footsteps suddenly brought him out of his reverie. Naruto glanced up to meet the newcomer.
The image he saw didn't quite match his memory of this person. It took him a moment to speak, but when he did, it was with a wide smile. "Hinata-chan! What are you doing here?"
"Naruto-kun." Her voice was soft and sweet, sweeter than he'd remembered it to be, and a decibel or two lower than the last time he'd heard her speak.
When Sakura-chan had asked Naruto if she looked more like a woman after all this time, Naruto had told the truth, that he honestly couldn't see any changes in her. He hadn't known this would offend his teammate, hadn't known what exactly he should be looking for to assess her development. As he watched Hinata, he suddenly knew.
Standing before him, Hyuuga Hinata, with her dark hair several inches longer, and her white eyes a little wider, a little deeper, like full moons that had seen just the right amount of seasons to be wise, looking more like the woman she was meant to be than the child he had known all his life.
For the longest time, he'd thought she was a very strange girl. The one who made little sense, because she would utter single words, incomplete sentences, and her voice was a faint whisper that translated to nothing if you weren't ready to listen. She would tremble and blush when she was near him, her face turning the shade of hot barbecue. And there had been all those times when she'd even fainted, making Naruto wonder about her health. Maybe she just wasn't getting enough ramen in her diet!
But as he thought of all this, something came to him, striking him like lighting, and he traveled back in time, picking up scattered pieces of memory...
On the day of the final examination at the academy, she'd looked at him, really looked at him. He'd dismissed it, because he was tired of the stares, of the snickers, the taunts, the mocking smiles from his classmates.
They'd all known he wouldn't graduate, even before his failed replication attempt. They'd all known he'd fail, maybe even hoped...
But she hadn't been one of them, and Naruto had missed it!
"Do your best, Naruto-kun," in her sweet, soothing voice. She had been serious. She hadn't been mocking him at all.
Then her disappointed look, while everyone had laughed. Only she hadn't been disappointed in him; she had been disappointed at the thought of his failure; disappointment, because unlike the others, she had expected him to succeed.
During the chuunin exams she had offered him medicine, a special ointment to heal the wounds that Kiba - her own teammate - had inflicted on him. He'd been hesitant to take it, not used to anyone besides Iruka-sensei or the old man, Sandaime, showing kindness toward him. But Kurenai-sensei had persuaded him, and he'd accepted Hinata's offering. The ointment had been close to magical, soothing his pain and uncertainty away as easily as Hinata's voice did now.
"I heard you were back in town, Naruto-kun. I only..." She twiddled her forefingers. Naruto was used to this gesture, like he was used to Sakura's violent fist, and Lee's bright smile and his 'nice guy' pose. "I wanted to...say hello."
"Hello!" He sprang up from his seated position, stood next to Hinata, and nearly stumbled and fell on top of her, because suddenly his legs were soft like noodles. "It's such a nice day today. Dattebayo!" He grinned from ear to ear, bringing his face close to Hinata, appreciating her transformation from a closer angle. She was so...pretty! As pretty as Sakura-chan. No. She was prettier than Sakura-chan, who had a horrible temper and turned into some kind of monster, with strength that mirrored Granny Tsunade's. He shuddered at the scary thought.
"It is." Hinata nodded. The blood rose to her cheeks, the heat coming from her face making a few things quite obvious; things he'd missed before because he'd been blind or slow, maybe both; things that had been there all along and were finally clear to him.
It wasn't just jutsu he'd learned from Jiraiya over the past few years.
But how stupid, how dense he had been. How could he not have noticed before! It was no wonder Kiba and Shino thought he was an idiot.
He scratched his head a little, unsure about what to say next, realizing he was suddenly nervous. "Do you, uh, want to take a walk?" He asked, bringing his arms behind his head, fighting the butterflies in his stomach that made him feel slightly faint.
"Me?" Hinata gasped. "You want to...walk with me?" She looked at him for a moment, and he blinked a few times, trying to keep his face straight and avoid the stupid grin that was forming on his lips, because for some odd reason, just looking at her was making him extremely happy. Maybe this was the feeling that Ero-sennin was always talking about, the magic of beautiful women that seemed to be the Sannin's obsession and single weakness.
"Hinata-chan, I would love to walk with you!" He couldn't fight it anymore, he wore a grin from ear to ear, and a stupid little laugh escaped his lips.
Hinata nodded, the red of her face becoming a deeper shade, like a dark plum.
They walked and walked, in silence at first, without disturbing the sounds of nature. The wind blowing through the leaves, like ruffling the feathers of very large birds; the soft hum of water as they passed near the stream, the splish and splash of fish, and sounds made by other animals in these woods that were full of life. And if you listened very carefully, the insects hiding in the ground, in leaves, in tree trunks, they made noises too. Shino had taught them to listen for them during their search for bikouchu. It had been hard at first, because it meant you had to be very quiet and very patient, which was in itself against Naruto's nature; it also meant that you had to tune in to the environment, learn to recognize even the faintest, the most diminutive life energy. But Shino had taught them well, and Naruto smiled noting rather smugly that although he couldn't see them, he could pick up the soft sound of tiny little legs moving all around, and beneath them.
When they broke the silence, they spoke of their teachers, their comrades, the rigorous training Naruto had endured under Jiraiya, and the milder version of Hinata's training, aided by Shino, Kiba, Akamaru, and, Kurenai-sensei. Sometimes, when he was free, when he could spare a little time in between missions and his own training, Neji would help too. It was a lot more challenging to train with another Byakugan user. Neji knew this, and he made it a point to supervise and participate in Hinata's training whenever possible.
"I'm so glad Neji has been helping you! It's a big change from the way things used to be between you two," Naruto pointed out.
"Everyone has changed," Hinata said softly. "Kurenai-sensei says we're growing up much faster than she'd have expected."
"Ero-sennin says the same thing," Naruto agreed. "He was even surprised at how easily and quickly I learned all his new techniques... but that's because I'm awesome!" Naruto grinned.
"Um." Hinata looked down for a moment, as if searching for something on the ground. The tips of her fingers touched, but didn't twiddle. Instead, she slid her hands in her pockets and looked up, straight into Naruto's eyes. "Naruto-kun... have I managed to... change? Just a little bit?" She blushed again, but didn't lower her gaze.
It was Naruto who had to look down this time, because her eyes were like moonlight, gleaming and white, hypnotizing him right in the middle of the day. He couldn't tell her she hadn't changed at all, because it would be a lie. But he couldn't tell her how much she'd changed either, because he didn't know where to find the words, and it was a little embarrassing to tell her that he thought she was beautiful, that somehow she reminded him of a dream he'd had in the past, about an ultra-pretty girl swimming in the middle of the night.
The question floated between them.
What to do, what to do.
So he did what he knew best. He laughed.
"You might have changed, Hinata. But not as much as me! Because I've been training really hard to be the next Hokage!" He said, rather loudly. "I've been training so much, I've even made a few adjustments to my Sexy no jutsu! Would you like to see?"
Hinata's eyes widened. "Um, no, Naruto-kun." She shook her head, and blushed even more furiously than before. "You... you don't have to show me. I believe you!"
"I'm just kidding, Hinata-chan. I'm not gonna show you that jutsu!" He snickered. "Even if it is pretty awesome!"
"You're..." she murmured something, and Naruto could swear that she had just said he was awesome.
"What did you say, Hinata-chan?"
"Um." She lowered her eyes and clasped her hands together. "You've grown a lot, Naruto-kun."
She was right. He'd grown. He'd trained hard and tried his best with only one purpose in mind.
"There's a reason." He cleared his throat as his hands closed into fists. "I must be strong to keep a promise I made. I have to master the most awesome techniques to be able to beat...someone."
His name didn't need to be spoken. They both knew.
A comrade, an old friend, an important person with the will of fire burning within, a brother.
Hinata stopped and leaned back on a tree. "You must miss him."
It was a sore spot, and far from a secret.
"I do," he admitted, biting his bottom lip until it hurt. "I couldn't bring him back. I broke my promise to Sakura-chan." The regret in his voice couldn't be concealed. "I failed."
"You didn't fail, Naruto-kun. You did your best."
Naruto sighed and leaned back next to Hinata, and he felt his body sag, slowly moving down to the ground until he could feel the dampness of the grass. He brought his knees up to his chest. "I should have defeated him and dragged his ass back here! I wasn't strong enough!"
"He would have left again." Hinata was now sitting next to him and he could smell her, something like vanilla and flowers and sweet rice cakes. "It wasn't up to you."
"What do you know!" His voice was loud, harsh, and raw with emotion. He was shaking; he was angry, though not at her.
She recoiled and seemed frozen for a moment, but made a quick recovery. "I know because... Kurenai-sensei says...you can only help those who truly wish to help themselves." She paused, slightly turning her head to look at Naruto. "Sasuke didn't want to be rescued."
"Even so, I won't give up!" He said stubbornly. "I will keep my promise and bring him back if it's the last thing I do. It's my way of the ninja!"
"I know you will, Naruto-kun. I...think, well... " He could tell that she was struggling, that she was now fighting for every word she spoke. "If anyone can bring Sasuke back, I believe it's you." She paused. "I believe in you, Naruto-kun."
Something pulled at his chest. It was acknowledgment that he had been fighting for since entering the academy, since becoming a gennin, since he could remember. He'd been acknowledged by Iruka-sensei, and Kakashi-sensei, and old lady Tsunade. Even Sasuke had acknowledged him during their last encounter, the one where he'd almost lost his life. He'd worked so hard to be recognized, to be stronger, to prove himself worthy.
But Hinata hadn't needed any proof to believe in him. She had believed in him from the beginning, since entering the academy....
"Do your best, Naruto-kun."
He could now see things he couldn't see before. There was a new light in everything. And he could see that Hinata was trying too. She was trying, just like him.
"Naruto, she has been working hard so you and her father will acknowledge her."
"Hinata-san." This time, her name had a different ring and taste. And as he looked at her, those butterflies in his stomach were aflutter once again. "I want you to know, that I really appreciate that you believe in me." On impulse, he moved his hand over, lacing his fingers with hers. A bolt of electricity coursed through him. It was like a rush of very powerful chakra, only better!
He'd been half expecting her to faint after this gesture, but somehow, she was still conscious. She didn't pull away, and she didn't seem to mind. So Naruto held her hand a little tighter, and stood up, pulling her up with him. They stood there for what seemed ages, and he didn't know what else to say.
Her face was so red, he was afraid it would remain like that permanently. But he wanted...he thought he wanted...
God, this was a lot harder than it seemed.
Well, he'd just have to pay a little more attention to that boring stuff Ero-sennin wrote in his books. Maybe it would come in handy.
"We should get back to the village," his voice was so low, he had to clear his throat. "I have to meet Kakashi-sensei for some training. Sakura and I are really going to kick his ass this time!"
Hinata nodded, her mouth slightly open, and Naruto could tell that she was trembling as her eyes drifted down to their hands, still clasped together. He quickly let go, and brought his hands up over his head, offering the widest grin he could manage.
"Naruto, she has been working hard so you and her father will acknowledge her."
Damn that Shino guy. No wonder they couldn't get along. He was a pest even when he wasn't anywhere near.
But Shino was right. Naruto had to tell her something. Anything.
"You have changed!" Naruto said turning his back on her, as he started back to the village, noticing that walking this familiar path suddenly felt completely alien, like walking on clouds. He was beginning to babble, but this was the best way to cover up the loud beats of his heart. "With all those new techniques you have developed, you could really kick Kiba's and Shino's asses if they're not careful!" He didn't even care that he couldn't hear her steps trailing behind him. "You're so great, Hinata! But you were always great, you know, even when you kept fainting and--"
There was a loud thud that made Naruto stop in his tracks and wince.
- Fin -