Soul Fire a NaruHina fan fic
Chapter 46: Opinions
The hidden tree house had been unusually quiet all day. Even the resident’s gruelling outdoor training sessions had been a subdued affair. The three ninja had each been keeping to themselves as much as they could. It seemed all were feeling rather uneasy after the events of the previous night.
It was mid-afternoon now, and it was time for the teenagers’ weekly medical examinations. Hinata was in the living room waiting for her turn while Hitomi checked on Naruto. The infirmary door had been left open, and even though she tried not to, the girl couldn’t help but hear what was being said inside.
“I hope we don’t have to discuss this again,” Hitomi’s voice echoed down the hall. “You need to learn to respect people’s privacy.”
“But I already tried to tell you,” Naruto whined. “It was just a misunderstanding.”
“Aw save it,” Hitomi snapped. “I’ve heard it all before. I’ve been dealing with dirty little boys since I was your age.”
Hinata sighed silently. This sort of thing had been going on since the three of them left the village. It seemed Hitomi made it a point to make fun of Naruto at least once a day. Sometimes he didn’t seem to mind so much. Sometimes he pulled faces behind her back (which she often saw). And sometimes he would grumble and sulk. But every now and then, the yelling would start.
Hinata hated Naruto and Hitomi’s shouting matches. She never knew what to do when one broke out. She always felt the urge to run and hide and cover her ears until it was over, but she never did. She always had to stay close and listen, just in case things got really bad and the two of them actually came to blows. She had no idea what she would do if that happened, but she stayed just in case.
“I know your type,” Hitomi continued. “You’re always trying to look like the tough guy, aren’t you? You like to show off and tell everyone how great you are. But underneath all the bragging and the noble façade, you’re just a selfish little boy scrambling for attention. It’s pathetic!”
Naruto grumbled a reply that Hinata couldn’t quite hear, but it didn’t sound polite. Hitomi hissed something accusing in return.
“What?” he shouted in protest. “No I don’t!”
“Oh really?” Hitomi drawled. “Not even that little pink haired friend of yours?”
Silence was the boy’s answer.
“Yeah, I thought so,” Hitomi said in a smug, satisfied tone. “You know, she told me a thing or two about you. She said…” Hitomi’s words were too hushed for the girl to pick up, but she recognised the mischievous note.
“W-wait. How could she know that?” the boy said shakily.
“You can’t hide anything from a medical ninja,” Hitomi teased. “And what was that other thing she mentioned? Oh yeah…”
Whatever she said next drew a strangled squeak of horror from him.
Hitomi giggled. “Alright, little boy, you can run along now.”
Their shouting matches often ended in such a way. Hitomi usually got the last word in, saying something the boy couldn’t, or didn’t want to, argue against.
Seconds later, Naruto slunk his way out of the infirmary, wide eyed and red faced. He jumped when he saw the girl standing at the end of the hallway. He forced a grin and scooted past her before she could say a word.
Not that she could’ve said anything. Hinata watched him retreat to his room and slam the door shut behind him. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to know what Hitomi had said.
“You’re up, Kiddo,” her sensei’s voice called, sounding rather cheery.
The girl shuffled into the infirmary. Hitomi was leaning over her desk making notes. A familiar slick smirk spread her lips.
“Ah, boys, they’re so predictable,” she sighed happily. “That line works every time.”
Hinata didn’t share in her sensei’s humour. She sat up on the examining table without comment.
Hitomi finished making notes in Naruto’s folder and pulled out the girl’s. “Okay, Short Stuff, let’s see how you’re doing.” She focused her byakugan and looked her up and down. “Hmm, it looks like you’re making progress in your flexibility training. I can see your muscles and tendons are really loosening up.” She stretched one of the girl’s arms out and kneaded her shoulder with her fingertips. “All of those little stretch tears are healing nicely. I think you’ll be ready to move on to … bigger and better things soon,” she said with a mysterious air.
Next Hitomi lifted the girl’s chin and looked at her temples intently. “Yes, you’re progressing in your chakra development, too,” she said with a curious hum. Over the past weeks she’d been paying a lot of attention to the girl’s eyes and the chakra pathways that fed them, though she never mentioned why. “Very intriguing...”
Hinata had been asking her sensei why she was so interested in her ocular chakra pathways, but today the girl didn’t feel like inquiring. Something else about Hitomi’s behaviour was bothering her far more.
“Now, how is our little experiment going?” Hitomi ran a hand through the girl’s midnight hair. It slid smoothly through her fingers. “Oh yeah, that’s perfect,” she said. “It looks like the cream has bonded nicely. Now we’ll be able to continue with our experimentation.” She seemed enthusiastic, smiling wide as she returned to her notes. “I can’t wait to get started. I’ve always wanted a research assistant. What do you say, Kiddo, do you want to try out some new techniques tonight?”
Hinata wasn’t really interested in Hitomi’s lessons, either. “I suppose so,” she said, almost with resignation rather than enthusiasm.
Hitomi turned and cocked a quizzical eyebrow. “Okay, we can talk about that later. I just have to figure out another study plan for Whiskers and we’ll be free for the evening.”
“How is he?” Hinata asked quietly.
Hitomi paused in her note taking. “You mean the voyeur? He’s doing fine,” she said dryly. “All of those booster pills are finally burning off. His metabolism and glucose levels are returning to normal. He’ll be back to his usual semi-bearable level of hyperactivity in no time.”
“That’s good,” the girl said without mirth.
Hitomi sniggered. “It’s kind of a shame that he’s not swinging from the rafters anymore,” she said with that sneaky smirk of hers. “It would’ve given me an excuse to gag him and lock him up for a day or two.”
It was supposed to be a joke, but Hinata didn’t laugh. Instead she pouted and turned away.
Seeing her reaction, Hitomi sighed and sauntered over to her. “Okay, Kiddo, what’s the problem?”
Hinata didn’t look up. “Why do you keep making fun of Naruto like that?”
“Ah, so that’s what it is,” Hitomi said, unsurprised. “You think I’m being too hard on our witless whiskered weirdo.”
“You shouldn’t call him names like that,” the girl protested weakly. “It’s not … it’s not nice.”
Hitomi frowned. “It’s not nice? Come on, Kiddo. I thought you would’ve figured it out after last night. He is not the shining example of chivalry you thought he was.” She folded her arms and snorted in the direction of his bedroom. “You know what he was doing up there. He deserves worse than what I’m giving him.”
Hinata winced and shook her head. “No, I’m sure he wasn’t doing anything wrong,” she said with slightly less meekness. “Naruto isn’t like that at all.”
Hitomi smiled, shook her head, and sighed. “Oh, my sweet little Kiddo, we really need to have a talk.” She hopped up and sat next to her on the examining table. “Let me tell you a thing or two about boys.”
The girl turned a brilliant shade of red. “W-wait, you don’t mean…”
“No, I’m not going to give you a biology lesson,” Hitomi assured her. “I’m just going to share some of the insights I’ve gathered over my years of interaction with the primitive creature known as the teenage boy.” Her roguish side resurfaced. “As a teenage girl, you’re going to have to learn how to deal with this wild and dangerous animal, lest you become its prey. With my guidance, you can learn how to contend with, and even control, the beast.”
The blush didn’t quite disappear. It was now tempered with a touch of confusion, and a little worry. The girl didn’t like where Hitomi was heading.
“For our first lesson, we’ll begin by observing how the creature thinks.” Hitomi sat up straight and cleared her throat. “The typical adolescent human male is interested in three things: his social standing, his stomach, and the adolescent human female,” she recited. “At any given time, virtually all of his mental energies will be focused on raising, filling, or gaining the attention of these three things. It is for this reason that the adolescent male often struggles to perform any mental task that does not involve the pursuit of one or more of these goals.
“Now many have observed such behaviour and made the mistake of thinking that the adolescent male is invariably stupid. Whilst this is often the case,” she shot an eye toward the boy’s room again, “it is certainly not always the case. For when he is in pursuit of one of his primary goals, the adolescent male can be capable of extraordinary acts of cunning.”
Hinata followed her sensei’s lecture with a sideways frown. She still didn’t understand why she was being so mean, not just toward Naruto but to boys in general, now. The girl could only wonder where such a negative attitude came from.
“Let us use our housemate as an example,” Hitomi continued in her intentionally overacted professor voice. “It is easy to see that he pursues the first and second interests of the typical adolescent male with vigour. First, our subject is obsessed with his childish Hokage fantasy. He seeks to raise his social standing by acquiring a position of military and political power.”
A touch of disdain curled Hitomi’s lip. “Unfortunately, he seems to have given little-to-no thought as to whether he is actually suitable for such a position. Clearly he has no comprehension of the requirements and responsibilities of the office of Hokage. He is severely lacking in the necessary mental faculties, has laughable organisational skills, and has precisely zero experience in leadership.”
Hinata felt a weight drop into her stomach. Her sensei was picking the boy apart, and the girl didn’t know how to stand up for him.
Hitomi carried on. “Our subject has set his sights on a prize, and is so fixated on claiming it that he hasn’t bothered to think what he will do with it once it’s his. To him, ‘Hokage’ is a trophy, not a duty – something to be won via the achievement of goals and the defeat of enemies, not something to be accepted as a responsibility. It is easy to conclude that he only pursues the title of Hokage in order to gain the accompanying fame and social adoration which he so clearly craves.”
She tiled her head to the girl and gave a patronising smile. “On a personal note: I wouldn’t trust that howling moron to run a lemonade stand, never mind one of the most powerful military forces in the ninja world.”
Hinata pouted at the floor. She wanted to defend the boy, but it seemed that Hitomi’s disarming vocal skills were working on her just as well as they did on him. Any protest she could think of sounded weak and pathetic in her head.
And the verbal beating continued. “Also, our subject has been seen to pursue the filling of his stomach with a passion that may actually rival his blind social ambitions. His willingness to consume vast quantities of expired junk food is one example. Another example can be seen in his recent consumption of an entire tray of unidentified sticky yellow blobs. Clearly he views the immediate filling of his stomach as being far more important than the long term maintenance of his own health.”
A grin cracked her caricature. “In common vernacular, he eats like a horse,” she leaned in again, “and I don’t mean out of a bag strapped to his face.”
Hinata still wasn’t laughing. None of Hitomi’s jokes sounded funny to her. She shifted uncomfortably on the examining table, frowning at her feet. She wanted to say something, anything to defend him. Every mocking word levelled at Naruto stung like it was meant for her.
Undeterred, and in fact seeming rather pleased with herself, Hitomi stretched her arms out and straightened the long fingerless glove she always wore on her left hand. “Now, knowing that our subject pursues the first and second interests of the typical adolescent boy with such enthusiasm, it should be no surprise to find that he pursues the third interest with equal enthusiasm … not to mention equal ignorance, selfishness, and lack of forethought,” she added scornfully.
Her sensei’s words were growing progressively more venomous. The girl didn’t want to listen to her cruel lecture. An unfamiliar quiver began to grow in her chest.
“Over my many years of dealing with males, I have learned to interpret their common behavioural patterns,” Hitomi said. “By observing their actions, it can actually be quite easy to determine their motives and desires. This is an effective way to identify whether a particular adolescent male might be a threat. In that regard, let us observe the behaviour of our subject.
“Consider the way he aggressively sought the attention of a certain pink haired girl despite her repeated attempts to dissuade him. Consider his tendency to ‘forget’ basic rules of privacy. Consider the two years he spent in the company of a well-known author of adult fiction novels. And most importantly, consider the fact that he was recently caught in an obvious act of voyeurism.”
The quiver in the girl’s chest grew into a painful hollow feeling which swelled with every word her sensei said.
“Our subject displays all of the typical signs of having an unhealthy obsession with girls. In conclusion, I have little doubt that he is a threat to our privacy and our dignity. As such, I feel that it is necessary to keep the filthy little monster firmly in his place.”
“That’s not fair!” Hinata blurted out. She shrunk back as soon as the words had passed her lips. “I … I think you’re wrong.”
Her sensei wasn’t angry, as she’d feared. Instead, she seemed intrigued. She smirked at the girl’s outburst and started stroking her chin in a thoughtful gesture. “Oh, you don’t agree with my conclusion?” she queried, maintaining her professor act. “Well, my assistant, if you have an alternate theory pertaining to our subject, I’d be very interested in hearing it.”
The girl pouted at her persistently mocking attitude. She felt strangely guilty for arguing with her sensei, but she’d already opened her mouth and she didn’t want to back down. She wanted to try and defend him.
“I-I’m sorry, sensei, b-but I think you’re wrong,” she murmured with all of the minimal courage she could muster. “I don’t think you really know who Naruto is. You don’t know about all of the things he’s done – amazing things!”
Hitomi folded her hands over her crossed knees and listened. Her haughty smirk taunted the girl to continue.
Hinata felt even more awkward. “Naruto is not selfish,” she said with shaky but rising confidence. “He fights hard for his friends, even risking his life for them without hesitation.”
Her sensei gave an amused hum. “That’s called showing off, my dear. Have we forgotten the first interest of the adolescent male?”
“No, you’re wrong,” the girl insisted. “He doesn’t just do it to get attention. He does it because he cares. He really cares!” At last her courage was finding its footing. “If it’s to protect his friends, Naruto will gladly put his life on the line. He was even willing to fight against Orochimaru of the Sannin, one of the most dangerous rogue ninja in the whole world, to try and rescue one of his friends, because he made a promise to do so. And Naruto always keeps his promises.”
The woman’s greasy smirk slid off her lips and a disgusted frown took its place. “Promises?”
She finally dumped her sardonic professor voice. “Oh yeah, they like to make promises to you, Kiddo. It makes them sound all noble and honourable,” Hitomi said bitterly. “They’ll whisper the words you want to hear, spinning their sweet stories about how they can make your dreams come true. But words are cheap. Making a promise and keeping a promise are two very different things.”
She started scratching at her gloved arm. “It’s a trap, Kiddo. All of their promises are just bait used to draw you into their lair and trick you into lowering your guard. Boys who make promises are the worst kind.”
Hinata shook her head firmly. “But that’s not true, Sensei. Not with Naruto. When he makes a promise, he’ll do anything to fulfil it.” Her courage was swelling, though her words still felt weak. “Naruto never goes back on his word. That’s his ninja way.”
“Oh come on, Kiddo!” Hitomi sneered, wringing her arm absently. “You need to accept it. He’s not the perfect, honourable gentleman that you want him to be. You know he was spying on us last night. And that’s not all he’s been doing. Oh, you don’t want to know what he’s been doing!” The glove bunched under her trembling fingers. “Whether you want to accept it or not, that boy is a pervert!”
Hinata gasped. “Don’t say that, Sensei! Naruto is not a … he’s not!” she said, cringing at the word.
The woman shook her head. A mix of bitterness and sadness pinched her brow. “Yes he is. I know he is, because they all are, even the ones who seem to be so selfless and honourable.” She looked down at her wringing hands. “On the inside, they’re all perverts.”
“That’s not fair!” the girl said again. “I don’t believe that. I know Naruto is not perfect. He has his flaws and he makes mistakes, like everyone does, but he could never do something so selfish and cruel.”
Hitomi gave a sympathetic groan. “Oh, Kiddo, you’re so young and sweet.” She put an arm around her shoulders. “But you have got to wise up. I’m trying to look out for you here. I know you don’t like the way I treat him, but it’s for his own good, and yours, too. My first priority is to protect you.”
Hinata shrugged her arm off. “I don’t want you to protect me if you’re going to do it by hurting Naruto. You shouldn’t be saying all of those mean things about him.”
Hitomi sat back. “I’m sorry that you don’t like hearing it, Kiddo, but I’m not sorry for saying it,” she said softly. “You need to know and accept these things. If you don’t, he’s going to hurt you someday.” She sighed as she smoothed her long glove. “Boys always break their word. You’ll see what he’s like soon enough.”
“No, Sensei, you’re wrong,” Hinata declared, but with a quivering lip. “Naruto would never hurt me. And he never goes back on his word, you’ll see.” And with that, she dropped off the table and ran from the room.
It was wrong. Everything was so wrong. She couldn’t believe her sensei’s cruel words. She ran to his bedroom door. He would tell her the truth. Naruto wouldn’t lie to her. But her certainty wavered as she was about to knock.
Hitomi wouldn’t lie to her either. Why would she? As mean as she was to Naruto, she’d never said or done anything to hurt her.
Hinata lowered her hand and slid away from his door silently. Was Hitomi really right about him? Did her sensei see things that she couldn’t see?
The girl slunk into her room, sat up on her bed and hugged her pillow against her chest. She desperately wanted to believe that Hitomi was wrong. She wanted to talk to him and hear the truth from his own lips. But she was afraid. What if his words weren’t enough to assure her? Or worse – what if they only confirmed her fears?
How could she find out the real truth? How could she decide who to trust?
The sun was beginning to set over the mountains. Cloistered away in the small tree house kitchen, the young blonde ninja was finishing up his hated dishwashing duties. The chore was not the reason for his depressed expression, though. He was frowning over his current state of loneliness.
Dinner had been even more quiet and awkward than lunch. The boy could hardly remember two words being spoken between the three of them. Hitomi had been shooting glares at him the whole time. That wasn’t unusual. Neither was it unusual for Hinata to spend the entire meal staring straight down at the table. What was unusual was that he’d been as silent as either of them.
Naruto had been far too nervous to try making any dinner conversation, as he usually would. Something told him that the girls would prefer him to keep quiet. Hitomi was still convinced that he’d been spying on them while they’d been doing whatever it was down by the pond the previous night. Naruto knew he hadn’t been spying on them – he had no idea what they’d been doing – but nothing he said would convince Hitomi of that. The boy didn’t know if Hinata thought the same, but she’d been extra quiet ever since.
The last plate was finally dried and stacked away. He wiped his hands on his dish cloth and sighed. His dishwashing chore was done, which meant Hitomi would have one less reason to yell at him that evening. Not that she ever had trouble finding a reason.
Naruto shuddered at the thought of receiving another scolding from his new sensei. He would never admit it, but the white haired woman actually scared him a little bit. He wouldn’t say that she was as scary as Tsunade or Sakura. But something about her frightened the boy in a way that a chakra powered beating never could. Hitomi was an expert at making him feel awkward and embarrassed. It was as if she could tell what he was thinking, sometimes.
Naruto shuffled out into the living room and tried to think of something to do. The teens always had a little bit of free time before they started their evening studies. His favourite thing to do at this time of day was to hang out with Hinata, but with the way she’d been avoiding him, he was afraid that wouldn’t be an option.
It was weird. He’d hung out with her just yesterday, but the boy felt like he hadn’t seen her in a week. It was all because of that huge misunderstanding, and Hitomi’s wild accusations. He’d only wanted to do a little late night training. What was wrong with that? He’d been so confused by their sudden appearance and all of the awkward questions that he had utterly failed to prove his innocence.
Now he was separated from the only friend he had within a hundred miles. He hadn’t felt so lonely in years. Naruto didn’t really care what the girls had been doing out there or why Hitomi was so angry with him for not seeing it. He just wanted his friend back.
The boy had no idea how he could fix things up with her, but then he’d never been very good at coming up with ideas. It looked like he was just going to have to wing it, as usual. He decided it was time to pluck up his courage and go talk to her.
He didn’t have to look far. The balcony door was open. There she was, leaning on the railing, peering through the tangle of leaves to watch the sunset.
He joined her on the balcony, but at a cautious distance. “Hey, Hinata, do you want to hang out?”
She didn’t look at him. The girl just stared out across the treetops at the yellow sky silently. She didn’t answer his question.
The boy began to think she wasn’t answering him on purpose, and the thought made a lump rise in his throat.
Hinata closed her eyes and took a slow breath which sounded suspiciously like a sigh. “I guess so,” she said at last.
The lump didn’t go away. Cautiously, Naruto leant on the railing and looked out at the sunset along with her.
The balcony was their favourite place to hang out. The branches that supported the tree house snaked around the railing and grew up the walls on either side. They formed a canopy over their heads and provided shade and shelter from the wind without blocking too much sunlight. Sometimes the two would talk for hours out there, if Hitomi let them. But this time it was uncomfortably quiet.
The boy kept looking across at the girl, but she wasn’t looking back. Sunbeams cut through the leaves and danced across her face. She squinted and blinked through them, looking away now and then when they proved too bright, but never in his direction. Her long hair hung around her shoulders. It seemed different from before, he noticed. Was it shinier, or was it just the light? He couldn’t tell.
But that didn’t really matter. What drew his attention was the pout hinted on her lips and the sadness hanging around her eyes. She was as miserable as he was. The boy could only guess why exactly, but he felt sure it was his fault. Naruto wondered if he should try to cheer her up. He hated the thought that she was unhappy because of him.
“Hey, Hinata, dinner was really good; thanks,” he offered.
“It was Hitomi’s turn to make dinner tonight,” the girl said quietly.
“Oh…” he said, disappointed that his compliment had been misplaced. “Well, I like your cooking, too, you know.” He risked a smile. “Uh, but next time you leave something unattended in the kitchen, could you put a sign on it so I know whether it’s safe to steal some or not?” he said with a half-hearted snigger.
He looked for a response from the girl, but received none. She just stared out at the sun, her eyes still heavy with sadness. He couldn’t be sure if she didn’t think his joke was funny, or if she just wasn’t listening. Either way, it was weird. Granted, she hadn’t always laughed at his jokes. Sometimes she would even scold him for some of the meaner ones. But Hinata had always listened to him before.
“Hinata, is something wrong?” he asked, though he feared he knew the answer.
Once again, she didn’t say anything straight away. Of course she never really said all that much, but this was getting unusual even for her.
She looked down at the railing and picked at the gnarled wood with her fingernail. “Naruto, what do you think about … girls?”
The boy blinked. “Girls?” He’d wanted her to say something, but he certainly wasn’t prepared for a question like that. “Uh, well I’ve never really known any girls except for Sakura… Oh, and I know you, of course,” he added quickly, scratching the back of his head.
He felt very stupid all of a sudden. Hinata had become one of his closest friends over the past weeks. Why had he only thought about Sakura when girls were mentioned?
“Um, I guess I don’t really know much about girls. W-why do you ask?” he said with hesitation.
“You like Sakura, don’t you?”
The boy felt extra warm. “Um, do I like her?” Hinata had never asked about Sakura before. “Well she’s my friend and all, so yeah,”
“Your friend?” she repeated.
Something about the way she said it made Naruto feel awkward. “Y-yeah, that’s right, she’s my friend.”
All she gave in response was a quiet, “Hmm…” Her finger traced random patterns across the overgrown rail. “What about Hitomi Sensei? What do you think about her?”
Another awkward question. “What do I think about Hitomi Sensei? Um…” Naruto took a wary glance around the door into the living room. “To be honest, I guess I can’t say I like her very much,” he said behind his hand. “I’m sick of the way she’s always using those annoying nicknames for me. And her training, I don’t get it at all. But most of all … um…”
Most of all, he hated the way she kept teasing him about ‘certain things’ – things he didn’t want to talk about with a girl. His ears were still burning from what she’d said to him in the infirmary. He could only hope that Hitomi hadn’t told Hinata what she’d said.
“Uh, Hinata, why are you asking me so many questions all of a sudden?” he asked, trying to change the subject.
She shifted a bit. “Hitomi Sensei has been saying a lot of things about you.”
“She said that … you do things … mean things.”
The boy shrunk back a little. “I do mean things? W-what kind of mean things?”
Hinata curled up into herself a little bit, too. Her face was going pink, and she squinted almost as if she was in pain. “She says that you like doing mean things t-to girls.”
Naruto’s mouth fell open. He felt genuinely hurt. “What?” he winced. “What do you mean? Why would I do mean things to girls? And what kind of mean things, anyway?”
He leant over the railing to try and catch her eye, but she turned away again. “Hinata, you know I don’t go around hurting people – especially girls,” he appealed. “Whatever Hitomi said about me, you didn’t believe her, did you?”
The girl started fidgeting nervously, and her cheeks turned a brilliant red. “When we were in the academy, I remember you making fun of Iruka Sensei,” she said in a high, trembling tone.
“Um, I made fun of Iruka Sensei a lot,” Naruto said with a hesitant chuckle. “Could you be a little more specific?”
She shrunk down between her shoulders. “You used a transformation jutsu,” she squeaked, “t-to turn into a … a girl with … with no…”
Naruto’s cheeks began to match hers all of a sudden. “Oh! You mean that jutsu.” He rubbed the back of his neck and giggled uncomfortably. “W-what about it?”
By now her whole face was scrunched up as though she’d bitten into a lemon. “You don’t still use that jutsu … do you, Naruto?”
“No!” he said immediately. But the pangs of guilt hit him hard. “I mean, well, I haven’t used that technique in … a while,” he tried to say calmly, and failed.
The lump in his throat grew thicker. The girl was gripping her jacket hem and shuffling around on the spot. He could tell that she knew what ‘a while’ meant. Clearly he was making her more uncomfortable with every answer. He had an idea of what she’d been talking about when she said mean things now.
‘She thinks I’m a pervert,’ he realised. ‘That’s why she’s so unhappy and why she’s been avoiding me. Hitomi’s probably convinced her that I really was trying to spy on them last night. I could try to convince her that I wasn’t, but even if I do…’ He groaned inwardly. ‘Oh, why’d she have to ask about my Sexy Jutsu? She’s going to end up hating me if I keep answering these awkward questions. But how can I stop this? What am I supposed to do, lie to her?’
Normally that would have been his first choice. He was a ninja, after all. He’d always been quick to come up with a story when caught in the act – something he’d learned from his old perverted mentor. Unfortunately, Naruto had never been very good at lying. Sakura always saw through his excuses like a pane of glass. Most girls did. He couldn’t imagine Hinata would be any easier to fool. But regardless of whether or not he could successfully fool her, he wasn’t sure he wanted to.
‘What would she do if I actually admitted it?’ he wondered nervously. ‘If I said something like that to Sakura, she’d send me flying for miles!” He shuddered. “But there’s no way Hinata would do that. She wouldn’t hit me just because she was angry. In fact, I can’t even imagine her getting angry.’
He risked another sideways glance at the girl. She looked as if she was going to burst into tears or run away at any moment, or possibly both.
‘Why does this feel so wrong?’ the boy thought miserably. ‘I feel filthy!’
He’d never really considered the way girls felt about his habits. Sure, they got angry with him, and he didn’t like that. But this was a completely new reaction. Girls were supposed to yell and throw things at you when you did something wrong. That’s what all the other girls did. But Hinata, she never yelled. She never called him names or tried to punish him for anything. Even when she scolded him for his impolite jokes, it was always ‘Naruto, please don’t say things like that’, or at the most ‘Naruto, don’t be so mean’.
He never made Hinata angry. He only made her sad. Naruto wondered if other girls felt like this, too. That thought made him feel strangely ill.
The boy sighed heavily. He knew he couldn’t lie to her. “Hinata, I think I understand what you were saying about me doing mean things to girls.” He pushed past the lump in his throat. “Hitomi is kind of right. Sometimes I’ve tried to look at girls when they didn’t want me to see them.”
Hinata gripped her jacket collar tightly, as though it was going to choke her. “You mean like … like … p-peeking?” she winced.
Naruto hung his head. “Yeah…”
Finally, she looked up at him, but it was the last kind of look he wanted to receive. Wide eyes, pinched brows, and a mouth hanging open – she looked horrified and hurt, as though he’d said the worst possible thing he could have said. He couldn’t bear to look back. Somehow this was far worse than any time Hitomi had scolded him.
“N-Naruto,” she said in a shaky voice that warned of oncoming tears, “h-have you ever done something like that … to me?”
“No!” he answered at once. “No. Not in a million years! I’ve never even thought about doing that to you.”
The girl took half a step back. Her look of anguish actually softened. “Y-you’ve never even thought about it?”
“No. Absolutely not, I promise!” the boy said with a hand over his heart. “I’ve never peeked on you, Hinata. That’s the truth.”
Was she relieved by what he’d said or unconvinced? He couldn’t tell. Her eyes fell away from him.
“What about Hitomi Sensei, would you ever do that to her?”
Naruto recoiled in horror at the mere suggestion. “Gah, no way! And not just because she’d kill me, I mean. Peeping on her would just be … I don’t know … wrong!”
That was the truth. It wasn’t that Hitomi was unattractive – not in the least. He was certain that the Pervy Sage would love to conduct his ‘research’ on her. But something about the way Hitomi lectured him, and the things she seemed to know, made the idea of peeping on her strangely sickening. He hadn’t really thought about it before, and he didn’t have any idea why, but he was certain that it just wouldn’t feel right. Considering it now, he realised he felt a similar uncomfortable sensation at the thought of peeping on Hinata.
The girl was still fidgeting. She didn’t seem to be reassured by his answer. The boy could see another question coming when she swallowed and took a deep breath.
“H-have you ever done that to Sakura?”
Her question felt like a punch in the stomach. He’d never actually succeeded at peeping on Sakura, but that wasn’t for a lack of trying. The boy’s jaw worked wordlessly. He knew that any answer he gave would only make the girl even sadder.
Unfortunately, it seemed that saying nothing was just as bad. Hinata turned away and looked out at the last sliver of the sun disappearing behind the horizon. Naruto hoped that wasn’t the glint of a tear he saw under her eye.
The boy couldn’t take the guilt. There was no point in trying to soften his answers to avoid hurting her. He knew he was going to make her sad no matter what. By now, he just wanted to end the misery, for both of them. It was time for him to admit it.
“It’s true. I really am a pervert,” he said into his chest, too afraid to see her reaction. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I keep doing it. Sometimes I just can’t help myself.”
He’d always known he was one, no matter how much he tried to pretend otherwise. He’d certainly been told enough times. The boy imagined a crowd of angry onlookers sitting in the branches around him. It felt like he was apologising to every girl he’d ever known.
“But I promise I’ll never, ever try to sneak a peek at you, Hinata,” the boy said mournfully. “I know it makes you sad, and I don’t want to do that, so I won’t even think about it, alright?”
Once again, Hinata didn’t answer. She reached up and wiped her face with the back of her hand.
“I promise I won’t peek at you,” Naruto repeated. “So please don’t be sad, Hinata. I gave my word, and you know I always keep my word, right?”
He waited for a response that didn’t come.
“You believe me, don’t you, Hinata?” the boy pleaded.
The last rays of the sun had disappeared by now. It had turned cold all of a sudden. Her pained face looked pale in the shadow of the leaves. Without warning or response, she turned and dashed inside.
Dismayed, Naruto followed her. “Hinata, wait.”
Halfway across the living room, the girl paused, turned, and jumped at something. Naruto turned to look and felt the bottom drop out of his stomach when he saw what it was.
Hitomi was leaning against the wall right next to the balcony door.
“So, you like transforming into girls, do you? That’s … interesting,” she said with an accusing, ice-blue glare. “Girls with no … what was that?”
The boy stood frozen, caught like a frightened deer in the middle of her gaze. No doubt she’d heard everything.
“What did I tell you, Kiddo?” she said, without taking her eyes off him. “You heard it from his own mouth. He’s a pervert, just like I said.”
Hinata stood for a moment, staring at the floor between them. Her mouth opened slightly, as if she wanted to speak, but she didn’t. Instead she turned and dashed off again to her room.
Hitomi didn’t try to stop her. She pushed off from the wall and squared up with the boy, her arms folded and her expression hard as stone. “So, you say you’ve never thought about peeking on her?” the white haired woman drawled. “Good.”
Her approval didn’t put the boy at ease.
“And you say there’s no way you’d peek on me?” Hitomi said with an added twist of venom. “Better.”
She strolled up to him – hands on hips, eyes on ice. “Okay, maybe you were watching us last night, maybe you weren’t. Either way, I’ll be keeping a much closer eye on you from now on.”
The boy flinched when she raised a finger and put it to his chest.
“You made a promise,” she hissed the word through her teeth, “that you wouldn’t try to get sneaky with her, huh? Well, I’m going to hold you to that promise, little boy. We’ll see how long it lasts.” Her granite glare cracked under a sneer. “Be advised, Ogles; there is nothing I despise more than a pervert.” The sneer split into a wicked grin. “And there is nothing I enjoy more than putting a pervert down.”
Naruto thought for sure he could see a rippling around her temples. And he definitely felt a sharp prickling sensation coming from her fingertip.
“But,” she said with restraint, “at least you were man enough to admit it. There may be hope for you yet.”
She poked him gently and swaggered a few steps back. “I don’t ever want to catch you trying to invade Hinata’s privacy in any way, shape, or form. You got that?” she questioned, her ice-blue eyes still pinning him.
The boy answered with a fearful nod.
“I hope so,” she said with an unassuring smile. “And if you ever try to invade my privacy…” She rolled her eyes and whistled.
“I’m giving you a chance to prove yourself. Don’t expect to get a second one. Now you had better grow up,” she ordered. “Because if you don’t learn to be a gentleman real fast, what I do to you won’t be gentle by any stretch of the imagination.”
She glanced at the girl’s door, pointed at his stomach, and whispered behind her hand. “And while you’re at it, quit dawdling and tell her your other secret. Because if you don’t tell her soon,” the finger pointed lower, “I might decide to tell her something else.”
With that, and a cheeky smile, she strode off to the infirmary and shut the door behind her.
Naruto stood alone in the living room for a while until the feeling came back into his legs. For the second time that day, Hitomi had left him weak-kneed and speechless. The boy still didn’t understand how she managed it, but he now decided that she was definitely scarier than Sakura or Tsunade.
The clamour that disturbed the meeting hall of the Noboru compound had been brief. Four members of the clan now lay unmoving on the floor. They were not dead, not bleeding, seemingly not even injured. But they showed no signs of rising.
From his seat, Lord Noboru, head of the clan, stared at the one standing figure impassively. His eldest son, Ichirou, stared also, but with noticeably more malice.
There rose a faint hum in the air as the younger Noboru slid forward to the edge of his carved stone chair and addressed the man who had just defeated his clansmen.
“You, whoever you are, must be brave to the point of insanity to enter my father’s house wearing a mask and attack his guards.” His short brown hair seemed to stand on end like the hackles of a dog. “If I were not waiting for my father’s command, I would have already reduced your body to ash from the inside out.”
He raised a fist. Arcs of electricity danced between its knuckles.
“That is correct, Ichirou,” the older man said calmly. “I have not given my command.”
Lord Noboru reclined on his ornate stone carved throne, its high back bearing a relief of a magnificent rising sun. His gnarled hands rested on his broad belly, and his expression betrayed nothing of his emotions, except perhaps a touch of curiosity twitching his thick grey eyebrows.
Ichirou snarled. He flexed his hands on the arms of his own, smaller chair, and glared at the masked man furiously. Unlike his father, he made no attempt to hide his emotions.
The focus of their attention stepped over their still unmoving guards. His posture was almost as calm as Lord Noboru’s, though his expression could not be seen beneath the black and orange stripes of his tiger mask.
“As I said, I am here for information,” the ANBU declared.
Ichirou seemed to have another wrathful response prepared, but his father waved it down before he could deliver it.
“Information often has a cost,” Lord Noboru said, remaining impassive. “Depending on what you seek, we may be willing to provide it. State your business.”
The Tiger nodded slowly. “Approximately one month ago, a battle was fought less than a day’s journey from the Leaf Village. We know that at least one member of the Noboru clan was involved. You will tell us what happened.”
A flash of light and a deafening boom shook the hall. Ichirou’s seat was empty.
“Halt!” Lord Noboru bellowed over the rolling thunder.
Ichirou’s crackling fist stopped inches from the Tiger’s mask. He seemed unfazed by the pointed fingers hovering equally close to his chest, and the two other masked figures that had appeared on his either flank.
“I gave no order, Ichirou. Stand down at once!”
Ichirou’s fist shook with barely contained anger. He withdrew it, but did not withdraw his glare from the man’s mask.
The ANBU did not lower their guard, even as Ichirou lowered his and stepped away. The air within the hall was still filled with a low hum and the distinct smell of ozone.
“Take your seat, Ichirou. We have not finished conducting our business,” Lord Noboru ordered.
With a frustrated sneer, Ichirou turned away and strode back to his seat. His hand flicked out as he passed an ornamental stone pedestal. With a flash and a crack, it broke clean in half, spilling the bowl of scented oil it carried across the floor. The hum that had filled the hall disappeared.
The Tiger gave a barely perceptible nod, and the other two ANBU, the Hawk and the Snake, stepped back.
Now sitting upright on his throne, Lord Noboru glowered at his son as he retook his seat next to him. Ichirou ignored his father’s eye.
“I must apologise for my son’s recklessness,” the grey haired old man said curtly. “We are keenly aware of the battle that took place near the Leaf Village. Members of the Noboru clan were indeed involved. My son Jirou, Ichirou’s younger brother, was killed in that battle.”
Lord Noboru motioned to a young woman who had been cowering by the door. She approached his throne, watching the three masked ninja fearfully.
“Bring Shinobu to us immediately,” Lord Noboru ordered.
The servant nodded and rushed from the hall.
The old man returned his attention to the masked trio. “What exactly do you wish to know about this battle?” he asked.
“We are on the trail of two individuals,” the Tiger said mechanically. “We believe they have some connection to this battle. We want any and all information regarding their whereabouts.”
Lord Noboru gave a slow, knowing nod. “It seems we may have business indeed.”
“Father, you are not going to tell them!” the younger Noboru said indignantly.
“Aren’t I, Ichirou?” the old man growled. “Is that your decision to make?”
Ichirou seemed to be biting back a response. He returned to glaring at their uninvited guests.
His father harrumphed at his attitude. “You had best not make any more of a fool of yourself, Ichirou. I will not be as indulgent with you as I was with your brother. That was a mistake I shall not repeat.”
The servant returned, pulling someone else by the arm. The man struggled to keep up with her. He was leaning on a wooden crutch and favouring a thickly bandaged leg. Several half-healed scrapes and fresh scars could be seen on his arms and face. A white robe hung loose from his shoulders. It looked as though he’d just been dragged out of a hospital bed.
With obvious difficulty, the bandaged man bowed to his clan head. “Y-you called for me, my Lord?” he said with a tremor in his voice.
“Shinobu, you were present at the battle that took place outside the Leaf Village,” his lord growled. You said that the woman who killed my son had two youths with her, is that correct?”
Shinobu bowed his head again. “She did, my Lord.”
The Tiger pulled a pair of photographs from inside his vest and threw them at the bandaged man’s feet. “These are the two we are looking for.”
“Are they the ones, Shinobu?” Lord Noboru demanded.
With a pained wince, Shinobu bent down to pick up the photos and examined them. “Y-yes, my Lord,” he answered. “Those were the ones that were with her.”
“With whom?” the Tiger asked.
The elder Noboru motioned for Shinobu to hobble over. He snatched the photographs from his hand and waved him aside with a grunt. “Her name is Hitomi Haruka. She is a freelance ninja, associated with no village or clan. She is the one who ended the life of my son.
“Father, why are you answering them?” Ichirou interrupted. “We cannot let these outsiders find her before we do. She killed my younger brother, your son! Our clan’s honour demands that she be punished. And since Jirou was my responsibility, it is my duty to the clan to see that he is avenged.” He flexed his fingers, and a hum rose in the air once again. “That woman will pay for what she did. I will crush her under my fist!”
“Be silent!” Lord Noboru snapped. “Jirou was a fool. The honour of our clan demands nothing when it comes to him. Justice will be served, but I will not have my eldest son dirtying his hands for the sake of the dignity of a traitor.”
Ichirou gritted his teeth and glared furiously at his father. Lord Noboru glowered back. The humming sound grew to a faint rumble, enough to be felt through the polished wooden floor beams.
Shinobu backed into the shadows and edged his way toward the door. The servant girl had already fled.
The two men traded looks that would melt steel. Eventually though, it was the younger Noboru who would back down. Ichirou slumped back in his chair, clamping the arm rests and scowling. The oppressive humming sound faded almost completely.
Apparently triumphant, Lord Noboru turned his glower to the three masked figures. “You are from the Leaf Village, aren’t you?”
They did not answer, but the old man seemed convinced, regardless.
He held up the photographs. “I am well aware of the prize that has been offered for these two. But it does not interest me. Instead, I will make you a new deal.”
Between his throne and his son’s sat a stone side table bearing a collection of large envelopes. He reached over and picked one.
“I offer you all of the information we have on this woman, including her last known whereabouts. In exchange, I want her life.”
Lord Noboru slammed his fist down on the stone side table. With a deafening crack, it shattered into tiny pieces. “I will hear no more of your protests, Ichirou! This is my will!”
He paid no attention to his son’s glare. “Do you agree, Leaf Village ninja?”
The three masked ANBU exchanged brief glances. They seemed to come to a silent consensus. “We have no interest in your clan and its … issues. Our mission is to find and recover those two individuals,” the Tiger said. “However, if this ‘Hitomi Haruka’ should try to prevent us from completing our mission, we will eliminate her without hesitation.”
Lord Noboru nodded slowly. “Very well, then.” He tossed the envelope in front of the ANBU trio, despite his son’s growls. “Our business is concluded. Now you will leave my house.”
The Tiger snatched up the envelope and tucked it in his vest. He gave a signal and the trio were gone in an eye-blink.
The old man leant back on his throne and let out a relieved sigh. “You still have much to learn, my son. Our clan has not survived this long due to a blind obsession with honour or any reckless attempts at revenge.”
Ichirou stood and stormed off toward the nearest door.
“Justice will be done, Ichirou,” his father called after him, “though it may not take the form that you wish.”