Chapter 3

Hinata was buzzing with excitement. After countless shogi matches and mentaltraining exercises (mostly really bizarre lateral thinking puzzles shesuspected Naruto was making up himself), as well as her nightly homework ofplaying shogi against her clone, he’d finally declared her ready for practicaltraining and taken her to the Training Grounds.

Beyond the joy of advancing to a new level of training, there was anotherlayer of expectation making her heart beat faster. Her and Naruto, alone inthe vast expanse of the Training Grounds. His attention focused on her and heronly. Their bodies in continuous, close contact…

Hinata shook her head. No. Whatever she may dream about at other times,whatever their relationship may be at other times, here and now they weremaster and apprentice. This training time was sacred, set aside from thethoughts and feelings of daily life, and she would not dishonour it by showingless than total dedication. Besides, she could always fantasise to her heart’scontent afterwards.

“All right,” Naruto announced, oblivious to Hinata’s many thoughts. “Let’sstart off by seeing how good you are at taijutsu.”

Hinata settled into a neutral Gentle Fist stance and waited for Naruto to comeat her. Within a matter of seconds, she realised that he was good. Not onthe level of the Hyūga experts her father had her spar against, of course, butfar better than anything he’d ever displayed at the Academy. She said as muchwhen she next caught her breath.

“Well, the teachers at the Academy mostly hated me too much to actually teachme anything, so when I stuck to the Academy style, I didn’t have much to goon,” Naruto explained. “Most of what I know comes from provoking people intotrying to kill me, and then learning from their styles. You’d be amazed at howquickly you pick things up when you regularly fight people much better thanyou are. It’s even better when they’re angry enough to use techniques they’dnormally try to keep secret.”

“And now I have shadow clones as well,” he added. “They’re not as good as realpeople for picking up new moves from, but they’re always available, they giveme complete freedom to experiment, and they do a great job of showing me myown weaknesses. I get great mileage out of them when my normal partners aren’tavailable.”

“Oh.” Hinata looked at him. “So whom do you normally spar with?”

The answer surprised her.

“Sasuke, of course. What, you think I piss him off just for the fun of it?”

Hinata considered this in light of everything she knew about the two boys.“Actually… that _is _what I think.”

Naruto shrugged. “All right, you got me there. But I’ve learned more fromdoing that than from all the Academy teachers put together. I never said thisand you can’t repeat it, but that guy’s taijutsu is really something.”

Hinata giggled.

Naruto decided this was a good time to move away from the subject. “Let’s stepup the pace a little!”

Naruto threw out a quick punch, then immediately moved to avoid her counter.Within a few exchanges, it became obvious that while Hinata had a veryrespectable defence, her attack was rather half-hearted by comparison. Narutowas just starting to think about the implications of this when he slipped on awet leaf, and instinctively grabbed Hinata (who’d just moved in close to takeadvantage of an opening) for support.

The Gentle Fist Style is in fact surprisingly poorly adapted for defenceagainst grappling, with its best grapple counters being advanced moves relyingon chakra emission. This weakness is in no way ameliorated by being a highlyflustered twelve-year old girl.

Hinata went down, with Naruto on top of her. Naruto managed to avoidheadbutting her as they landed, but his movement instead brought his mouth up,and his lips brushed gently against hers. At this, Hinata gave a squeak, wentbright red and collapsed in a dead faint.

Naruto froze. “Hinata? Uh, Hinata?”

In a strange sort of karmic revenge for the suffering of Kakashi-sensei, ascript started writing itself in his head.

Hinata: (waking up) “Kyaaaa! Naruto, you pervert! How could you take advantageof me like that?”

Naruto: “What? No! Hinata, I swear I never did anything!”

Hinata: “Do you take me for a fool? Get out of my sight. I never want to seeyou again!”

Exit stage left.

Hinata’s father: (entering stage left) “How dare you violate my poor, naive,innocent daughter who also happens to be my precious heir?!”

Naruto: “What? No, it’s just a misunder-”

Hinata’s father: (glowing with a blue aura of doom) “No excuses. You will payfor your crimes. Hyūga Certain Kill Ultimate Death Technique: Fist of EternalTorment!”

Naruto: (dying in agony) “At least… I’ll get to see my parents in Heaven…”

Hinata’s father: “No, you won’t. Perverts and molesters like you go straightto Hell!”

Demons rise from beneath the ground to drag Naruto’s soul into Hell. Thepeople’s cheers and sounds of jubilation drown out his cries for mercy.

Curtain.

-o-

Leaf General Hospital, ten minutes later…

“What’s wrong with her? Is she going to be all right?” Naruto was near panic.He’d received a fairly solid grounding in first aid along with the rest of theclass at the Academy, since while the relevant instructors did all want himdead, sabotaging his ability to save other people’s lives was a step too farfor any true medic-nin. And knowing as much about medicine as he did madeHinata’s completely inexplicable loss of consciousness that much moreterrifying.

The doctor, a man of forty or so with a short, neatly-trimmed black beard,looked at him over the top of his glasses. The unmediated gaze of those coldblue eyes made Naruto feel like his soul was being weighed in the balance.

“She will be fine in a few hours, young man,” the doctor told Naruto in aneven, dispassionate voice. “As far as I can tell, she has merely fainted fromexcessive sensory stimulation. Now, would you like to tell me what you did tobring about this state of affairs?”

Part of Naruto was going red with embarrassment, while another was going palewith worry at the implications, to the net effect that his complexion did notchange.

“I didn’t do anything!”

“I see,” the doctor held his gaze for a few seconds. “And is that what you aregoing to tell Lord Hiashi when I inform him that well-known troublemakerUzumaki Naruto has just hospitalised his beloved daughter?”

Now the paleness was definitely winning out.

“You wouldn’t really do that, would you?” Naruto should have been analysing,calculating, looking for a way to take control of the conversation, butsomehow none of his higher brain functions were willing to respond.

“I’m afraid it’s part of my oath as a doctor to take all steps necessary toensure the welfare of my patients. And if I can’t get you to admit the truth,I’m sure Lord Hiashi will.”

“Look, we were sparring and we sort of fell over and our lips touched eachother’s and she fainted! It was a complete accident! She’ll tell you as muchwhen she comes to! And anyway, if I was some sort of molester, would I bringher to the hospital?”

The doctor considered this.

“And I’m a fricking ninja! If I’d done something wrong, I would at least havecome in disguise!”

The doctor said nothing.

“Look, I’m not disguised at all!” Naruto shouted desperately. “I’ll prove it!”

He promptly punched himself in the face.

The startled doctor did note the lack of a transformation technique beingdispelled.

“Please don’t call her family!” Naruto all but begged.

The doctor stroked his beard with a glint of amusement in his eye. “Ahh, thepieces begin to fall into place. I’ll tell you what. I’ll leave the matter toLady Hinata’s discretion. She can inform Lord Hiashi herself if she sochooses.”

“Oh, thank you!” Naruto was immensely relieved. The immediate crisis averted,his brain belatedly started working again, and a thought occurred to him. “MayI stay here until she wakes up? Even though it was an accident, I sort of feelresponsible.”

The doctor thought about it for a second, then nodded. Subtly inclining hishead to indicate an end to the interaction, he left the room and returned tohis work.

“Perhaps the boy is not so bad after all,” he chuckled to himself as hestarted to settle back into his daily routine. “Still, of all the people shecould have gone for…”

-o-

Naruto sat down next to Hinata’s bed and looked at her. He’d somehow nevernoticed before how ridiculously cute she looked (though, then again, he’dnever seen her asleep). Had this always been the case, or had she changedrecently?

The silence was a peaceful one as he watched Hinata’s sleeping form, ponderingher taijutsu abilities and where he could take her training from here. Itwould also help if he could figure out what had made her faint, and how tostop it happening again, but quite frankly he didn’t even have a clue where tobegin. After all, people’s lips touching wasn’t a big deal unless it was akiss. Wait, that _hadn’t _been a kiss, right? No way. That definitely had notbeen his first kiss, or hers, it didn’t count, and the explanation had to besomething completely different.

As he pondered, he noticed Hinata start to mutter something quietly. Narutopolitely ignored her, but then he caught his own name.

“Oh, yes, please, Naruto…”

His eyes went wide. That couldn’t be right. No, absolutely not, she wasprobably just dreaming about him offering her tea or something. Yeah, that hadto be it. No matter what it sounded like. Or how much supporting evidence hewas steadily accumulating.

And anyway, no girl had ever liked him. Well, Sakura used to be nice to him,once upon a time, back before she fell for Sasuke and her personality did a180. He’d never forgotten that she’d been one of the first people in his lifeto treat him with kindness, but the flames of that passion cooled with everypassing day as he watched her grow up more and more two-faced, sickly-sweet tothose she liked and angry and violent to those she didn’t. These days, halfthe reason he asked her out was because of how incredibly effective it was atreinforcing his image as an idiot.

“Oh, Naruto…”

That was it. He couldn’t stay here a second longer. Naruto wrote Hinata aquick note to explain what she was doing in a hospital bed, and practicallyran for the exit.

-o-

“Gentlemen,” Naruto exclaimed back in the safety of his own flat, after beingrestored by the calming power of cup ramen, “this state of affairs cannot beallowed to continue.”

He paced back and forth before the rows of chairs, the clones sitting on themwatching him attentively. Since he didn’t actually own that many chairs, mostof them were clones as well.

“Now, I will be taking any suggestions on how to resolve the situation. Yes,Naruto Number Five?”

“Sir!” the clone raised his arm. “We could infiltrate the Hyūga clan compoundand attempt to seize strategic intelligence assets, which is to say herdiary.”

“Rejected!” Naruto Prime snapped. “Can you imagine her reaction if she foundout we’d read it? She would hate us forever. And besides, the Hyūga wouldslaughter us if they caught us.”

“Sir!”

“Yes, Naruto Number Twelve?”

“We could ask her straight out if she likes us,” the clone suggested.

“Are you mad, private?! Do you have any idea how awkward things would get ifit turned out we’d got the wrong end of the stick?! It could jeopardise hertraining!”

“Hey, how come I have to be a private?” Naruto Number Twelve demandedpetulantly.

“Have you completed any missions that have furthered the cause of theWorldwide Uzumaki Naruto Coalition?”

“Well, no, sir. You just created me five minutes ago.”

“Exactly. Now shut up.”

Naruto Prime turned back to the whiteboard, which had a rather badly drawnpicture of Hinata next to a list of facts and objectives written inexaggeratedly bright colours. Naruto had discovered to his delight that,whereas merely touching normal clones was enough to dispel them under any andall circumstances, writing on a shadow clone disguised as a whiteboard did notautomatically cross the damage threshold. He looked forward to experimentingwith the implications as soon as the present crisis was dealt with.

“Sir!”

“Yes, Naruto Number Three?”

“What if we…”

The clone outlined a very cunning plan indeed. As other clones offered input,pointed out flaws and suggested refinements, Naruto Prime’s grin grew everwider.

-o-

“Hey, where’s Sasuke?” Kiba asked. “Didn’t you invite everyone to the publicbaths?”

“Eh, he’ll turn up. Or maybe he thinks he’s too cool to come.” Narutoshrugged.

He carefully scoped out the area. Shikamaru and Chōji were relaxing in the hotbath. Chōji was apparently oblivious to the world, while Shikamaru was idlypoking at some stray bubbles.

Kiba and Shino were still washing, and Sasuke was nowhere to be seen. And asfar as he knew, Hinata, Sakura and Ino were in the girls’ section on the farside of the dividing wall (which, while tall, did not reach all the way to theceiling for reasons of air circulation). The time had come.

Outside the entrance to the baths, a man leaning against the wall felt hisheadband suddenly disappear in a puff of smoke. He nodded to the woman next tohim, and they walked inside.

Once next to the entrance to the women’s half, they suddenly erupted into aloud shouting match.

“But Yumi, can’t you see I love you?”

“Don’t lie to me, Hitachi! I saw you last night with that floozy Kihara! Ifyou really cared about our baby…”

“You mean the baby you had with that ANBU assassin? He told me all the sordiddetails, Yumi! What would your pacifist brother say if he could see you now?”

“You leave Sōichirō out of this!”

Pretty much everyone turned to listen to the soap opera as it continued.

Naruto walked nonchalantly up to the far corner of the dividing wall, oppositethe entrance, looked around to make sure no-one was watching, and then put hisfingers together.

“Multiple Shadow Clone Technique!”

In a matter of seconds, a stack of shadow clones reached the top of the wall.The one at the top then proceeded to create more shadow clones, each pre-transformed into a slim cushion. As they fell into the corner on the far side,the very last shadow clone to be created, on top of the stack of cushions, waspre-transformed into a standard-issue small wooden bucket.

As it fell, it hit each cushion in turn, making them vanish but slightlysoftening the impact, so that the bucket finally landed in the corner withoutmaking a sound.

A few seconds later, the couple at the entrance stopped shouting at each otherand walked outside. Once safely out of sight, they vanished in puffs of smoke.

Shadow Clone Naruto, safely concealed in bucket form, was now in position tolisten to the three girls talk about boys. He knew from manga, his sole sourceof information about romance, that this was what invariably occurred whengirls were in baths or hot springs together. The minimal height of the bucketmeant all he could see was the girls’ heads, but this more than sufficed forhis purposes.

With the soap opera couple gone, the girls’ conversation resumed.

“Um, Sakura, Ino…” Hinata said quietly and rather timidly (again Narutowondered, had she always been this cute?). “Can I ask you something?”

The girls turned to her. “Sure, Hinata,” Ino replied.

“How do you know if you like a boy?”

Jackpot! Naruto was cheering in his head at the combination of his sheerawesomeness and his incredible luck. It had occurred to him (or, morespecifically, to Naruto Number Four) in the process of composing the plan thatperhaps there were some areas where manga wasn’t 100% trustworthy as a guideto how life worked, but now he felt guilty for ever doubting his truest ally.

Sakura decided to field this one. “How, huh? Well, your heart beats fasterwhen you look at him, and you want to spend all your time with him, and youfeel like you’re the only person who realises how amazing he really is, andyou really want him to notice you…”

“Oh, come on, Sakura,” Ino interrupted. “Quit filling her head with thatsoppy crap.”

She turned to Hinata. “Navel-gazing is a really dumb way to do romance. Youthink you might like a guy? Go talk to him. Invite him out to do stuff. Maybeask him on a date. And then if you decide he’s fun to be around, it’ll be easyto figure out the rest from there.”

“Oh, what do you know?” Sakura demanded. “You’re just stupid andinsensitive! You could never understand a normal girl’s feelings!”

“Oh, yeah?!” Ino snapped back. “I’m not the one who’s spent all this timetwiddling her thumbs on the same damn team as the guy she likes. If _I _hadthis much time with Sasuke every day, I’d have him eating out of my hand bynow!”

“If you had this much time with Sasuke every day, he’d realise what a thick-skinned pig you are and dump you in a flash! He doesn’t need a dumb tomboylike you!”

“Um… Sakura, Ino… please don’t fight…” Hinata attempted to interject.

“Oh, but he needs an over-sensitive drama queen who couldn’t fight her way outof a paper bag?” Ino countered, ignoring or possibly just not hearing Hinata.“Oh, save me, Sasuke, I’m so girly and helpless!”

“What was that? You think you’re a better ninja than me now? Did you forgetwho kicked your ass in the last three throwing exams? Let me remind you!”

Sakura grabbed a nearby bucket (fortunately, she was on the other side of thebath from Naruto) and threw it at Ino shuriken-style.

The bath, however, was pretty big, and Ino had all the time she needed to duckout of the way. “Oh, it’s that how it’s gonna be?!”

She jumped out and leaped backwards towards the washing benches, where therewas a stack of other such buckets. “Here I come!”

Fortunately, there were no other customers in the women’s section of thebaths, and Hinata sensibly moved to the furthest possible corner from Sakura,so there was no-one to get hurt in the crossfire as buckets flew back andforth, sometimes striking each other mid-air, but generally missing theirtargets before being returned at even higher speed.

Naruto wasn’t too worried. He’d considered the possibility of being struck bya sudden impact and having his disguise dispelled - this was one of thereasons he’d decided to use a shadow clone. A blow that accidentally got ridof the disguise would also dispel the clone at the same time, especially if itwas putting the minimum amount of effort into maintaining itself, which itwas.

This is why he was busy pondering whether to wait and see if the conversationresumed once Sakura and Ino ran out of steam, or to cut his losses anddisappear in the chaos, when one of Ino’s buckets hit the corner of the bath,ricocheted against the wall, bounced back and forth several times, and tappedhim very very gently with the last of its momentum.

By a thousand-to-one chance, this was exactly enough to dispel theTransformation Technique while leaving the clone unharmed. A naked Naruto nowstood in the corner of the women’s baths.

“Urk.”

“Naruto? What are you doing here?” Hinata asked, puzzled.

Naruto was stunned to realise that, while she technically didn’t need tobecause she was entirely submerged and the angle was all wrong anyway, Hinatawas making no move whatsoever to cover herself up.

“Whoa,” the Naruto clone thought. “That has to mean she likes me. She actuallygenuinely likes me. It’s the only logical conclusion. I mean, if it wasSakura, she’d have punched me through the ceiling for seeing her naked by now.Wait… where _is _Sakura?”

“Secret Kunoichi Art: Shatter the Spheres!”

On the other side of the dividing wall, Naruto collapsed in agony as thedestroyed shadow clone’s experiences came back to him.

As soon as he could move again, he jumped up, ignoring the other boys’ oddlooks, and ran for the changing rooms. He had to escape at any cost! Aware ofthe danger awaiting him, he was even prepared to use some of his secrettechniques, but the incredible pain still running through his body made itimpossible to concentrate enough to manipulate chakra.

Unfortunately, his time spent lying on the floor in the foetal position hadgiven the girls the opportunity to get changed and move to intercept.

“Gwerk!” Naruto choked as his momentum was arrested by Ino’s hand around histhroat.

“Uh, can we… talk about… this?” he managed to force out.

“Oh, we will,” Sakura smiled sweetly. “Afterwards.”

-o-

The doctor had refused to give Naruto an estimate of how long it would takehim to recover, which was never a good sign in his book. He lay back in thehospital bed, staring at the ceiling while alternately pondering Hinata’sreaction and reflecting on what his plan had taught him about infiltration.Next time, he decided, he had to be more careful. He did not enjoy beingtrapped in a hospital bed feeling like a packet of crisps after five minuteswith Chōji. About the only thing he had to be grateful for was that he had aprivate room - presumably because no patient would be prepared to stay in thesame room as the loathsome Nine-Brained Demon Fox.

After some time, the door opened. Sakura and Ino walked in.

“Um… we’re sorry. We may have gone a bit overboard.” Sakura and Ino bowedtogether, just shallowly enough Naruto couldn’t be sure if they were genuinelyrepentant or just making fun of him.

“I think you broke my everything.”

“I hope you learned your lesson, Naruto,” Sakura admonished.

“I definitely have,” Naruto said in a voice of the purest sincerity. Thelesson, of course, was to always have more than one backup plan.

“Oh, just wondering,” Ino went on in a suspiciously casual voice, “which oneof us were you trying to peep on?”

Naruto thought about this for a second. “Is there any answer to this thatwon’t make one or both of you really angry with me all over again?”

The girls exchanged glances.

“I told you he was smarter than he looked,” Ino told Sakura.

“But now we can’t settle our bet,” Sakura complained.

“Uh… the doctor said I need lots of peace and quiet… so…” Naruto lied.

“All right. See you later.”

The girls left before his fragile body could be put in any more danger.

-o-

“Hey, loser.”

Sasuke walked in through the door without waiting for an invitation, a heavybag in his right hand.

“What’s up, moron?” Naruto gave the reply demanded by shinobi etiquette.

“I didn’t want you to lose the pathetic little skill you have while you’restuck in here, so I checked out a few books from the library for you. Not thatI expect you to be able to read, but you can at least have fun looking at thepictures.” Sasuke dumped the stack of books on Naruto’s bedside table.

“Uh… thanks?”

Sasuke shrugged. “You’re not much of a challenge, but I wouldn’t want you toget even worse. See you, loser.”

And with that, he left.

Naruto looked through the books with his more usable hand. Master Wu’sCompendium of Fire Country Taijutsu. Meditation Exercises for the Chakra-Deficient. E-Rank Ninjutsu and You. Raiden Steelweaver and the Country ofZombies. And a few others.

Naruto grinned and began to read.

-o-

Someone knocked on the door.

Naruto put his book down. “Come in!”

Hinata entered.

“Um, hi, Naruto. How are you feeling?”

“Not that bad, surprisingly,” Naruto smiled. “I’m even getting the feeling inmy legs back, although part of me wishes I weren’t.”

“Oh, that’s terrible!”

“Don’t worry about it.” The important thing, as far as Naruto was concerned,was that he’d probably make a full recovery. He’d healed from worse injuriesthan these before, though admittedly those had only come one or two at a time.And thanks to industrial doses of painkillers, he was merely suspended over avast yawning abyss of agony rather than actually plummeting into its infinitedepths. If he’d been on civilian analgesics rather than shinobi ones, heprobably wouldn’t even be conscious right now, but the latter were designed toallow debriefing of shinobi who had sustained major injuries in the course ofobtaining urgently-needed information, and were doing a stellar job of keepinghim lucid.

“Is there anything you need? I could go get you books. Oh, you already havebooks. What about food? Or… or a pen and paper? Anything at all.”

Naruto thought about this. “Thanks, Hinata. How about a shogi board? Then youand I can have a game. If you want to, I mean.”

“Thanks to you coming round so much,” he added, “I realised how boring playingwith myself all the time really was.”

There was an awkward silence at this.

“With clones! I meant playing with my clones!”

Hinata giggled. “Sure, I can get us a board.”

“By the way, what were you doing in the girls’ section of the public baths?”she asked.

“Um.” Naruto’s mind flashed back to their interaction. “Can we put that on the‘for another time’ list?”

“Sure,” she nodded. “I’m very sorry Ino and Sakura hurt you like that.” Shewas also sorry she hadn’t tried to stop them, but it hadn’t even occurred toher that they would react so violently until it was too late.

Naruto winced. “Yeah, well. I’m just glad you didn’t. I don’t think I couldhandle being beaten up by someone who was actually good at taijutsu on top ofall that.”

Hinata frowned in confusion. “Why would I?”

Naruto gave her a puzzled look. “Why wouldn’t you?”

After considering this question for a few seconds, Hinata went “oh!”

“What is it?”

“I keep forgetting,” she elaborated. “Being seen naked by a boy is supposed tobe a big deal, right?”

Naruto nodded, still puzzled. “Of course it is.”

“How to explain…” she pondered. Her expression of concentration was apparentlycute too. Naruto started to wonder how he’d never noticed all these thingsbefore.

“Do you know how the Byakugan works, Naruto?”

“I know it lets you see through solid objects and see people’s chakra, and Iknow it gives you a wider visual range than normal eyesight.”

Hinata nodded. “There’s only so much I’m allowed to talk about with a non-Hyūga, but basically it gives you 360 degree vision when it’s on, over a verylarge area. You still focus on some parts, but you end up seeing everything ina sort of peripheral vision. It’s complicated to explain.”

“Right,” Naruto nodded.

“Think about it.”

“… oh.”

“Exactly. When you live in the Hyūga compound, you get used at a very youngage to the idea that there’s no such thing as privacy, at least where vision’sconcerned. No matter what you’re doing, there could be someone out there who’sseeing it, down to what your chakra is doing inside you at the time, whetherthey want to or not. So you never learn to be embarrassed at what you see, orat what other people see.”

“And that’s why you didn’t cover up when you saw me looking at you.”

“Yes.”

“Oh.” Maybe he’d been wrong about Hinata liking him after all. It made sense,of course. He shouldn’t have got his hopes up in the first place.

“Um… did I say something wrong?” Hinata asked, suddenly looking worried.

“No, not at all,” Naruto forced himself to smile. “Uh, it’s pretty late, andI’m feeling kind of tired, so would you mind if we called it a night?”

“Sure,” Hinata nodded, not entirely convinced. “Sleep well.”

And with that, she walked out, closing the door very softly after herself.

-o-

The next morning, Naruto got another visitor. Iruka came in with a worriedexpression and a truly enormous bag of fruit.

“I’m sorry it took me so long to come visit, Naruto. I only heard about whathappened to you this morning.”

“Oh, that’s OK, Iruka-sensei. I’m just glad you came.” Naruto meant it. Nomatter what else happened in his life, Iruka-sensei was a rock-solid pillar ofstability, a guaranteed source of affection, sympathy, and occasional ramen.He was the one person Naruto hated himself a little for deceiving.

“Now, I do have to tell you,” Iruka’s voice turned stern, “that peeping ongirls in the bath is unethical and ungentlemanly, and I hope you realise thatwhat you did was very wrong.”

Naruto nodded automatically.

“Good. I’ve brought you some healthy fruit and vegetables - make sure you eatthem all so you recover faster. And do everything the doctors and nurses tellyou to. They’ve got your best interests at heart.”

Naruto nodded again.

“I’m sorry I can’t stay, but class starts in half an hour. I’ll try to come bywhen I can.”

“Thank you,” Naruto told him.

As Iruka headed towards the door, Naruto called after him.

“Iruka-sensei, did _you _peep on girls in the bath when you were young?”

Iruka went a bit red. “No, and it was wrong then, too!”

And he rushed out.

-o-

The next visitors, to Naruto’s surprise, were Kiba (with Akamaru, who hadpresumably snuck onto the premises using canine ninja skills) and Shino. Kibashoved the door open with an abundance of energy; Shino closed it carefullybehind them.

“Hey, Naruto. How’re you doing?”

Naruto waved. “Not that bad. I think my spleen’s no longer inside out. Howabout you?”

“I’m fine. Thanks for inviting us out yesterday. It was good to unwind.”

“Thank you for thinking of me,” Shino added in his usual strangely earnestvoice.

“Man, I can’t believe you got beaten up by Ino and Sakura of all people,” Kibalaughed.

“Hey, they got the first strike. I wasn’t exactly in top form after theKunoichi Special, know what I mean?”

Kiba winced and Shino shuddered.

“Anyway, listen, we’ve got something serious to talk about.”

“What’s that?” Naruto asked.

“I’ve been smelling your scent all over Hinata lately. Now, I don’t mind, andfrankly she’s seemed happier the last couple of months than I ever rememberseeing her before, but just remember this:”

Naruto swallowed.

“If you hurt her, in any way, they will never find your body,” Kiba told him,looking him straight in the eye.

“Why?” Shino added, “Because I will feed it to my insects.”

“Way to ruin a great threat, genius!” Kiba snapped.

“On the contrary, I believe mine was more original and had greater impact,”Shino retorted.

“Anyway,” Kiba turned back to Naruto. “We’ve got a mission coming up, so weshould go. We’ve been preparing for this one - that damn cat won’t know whathit it. Right, Akamaru?”

“Woof!”

“We will return at another time,” Shino said.

As they walked out, Naruto could hear them bickering over the best way tothreaten someone.

-o-

“Oh, hi, Kakashi-sensei.”

“Good afternoon, Naruto. How are you feeling?”

“All right. How are you?”

“Glad to hear it,” Kakashi replied. “Now I should tell you that I’m verydisappointed in your behaviour yesterday. It was conduct entirely unbecomingof a Genin under my tutelage.”

“I’m sorry, Kakashi-sensei,” Naruto said.

Kakashi nodded sternly, then continued his rebuke in a softer voice. “Whatpossessed you to position yourself right next to the bath? If you wanted topeep on them from a secure location, why not transform into a ceiling light,or a wall fixture at a safe distance?”

Naruto’s jaw dropped.

“You still have much to learn, Naruto. But don’t give up. I believe in yourpotential,” Kakashi added at normal volume.

“Also, there’s some very simple training you can do to mute the pain frominjuries to your shadow clones. Remind me to show you once you’re back on yourfeet.”

“I’ll check in on you in a few days. Get well soon.”

-o-

Naruto was feeling a lot better by the time Hinata came by in the earlyevening. Not only were his injuries considerably less painful than before, butChōji and Shikamaru had dropped by with some sweets and manga for him. Hedidn’t really know Shikamaru, and had a feeling the bored-looking boy wouldjust as soon have stayed home, but the fact that he’d come anyway wasappreciated.

Naruto had spent some time pondering the mysterious and conflicting evidenceregarding Hinata after his eyes got too tired for reading. On the one hand,she was happy to spend lots of time around him, far more than anyone else heknew. She apparently had dreams about him. She had an almost scarily highopinion of him (Naruto was pretty awesome, but having other peopleacknowledge this was an utterly alien experience). On the other hand, in allthe time they’d known each other, she’d never said or done anything obviouslyromantic. She certainly didn’t behave anything like Sakura or Ino, his onlyreal-life references for girls in love. She didn’t even seem put out by theknowledge that he regularly asked another girl out (admittedly with zerosuccess). The whole thing was utterly confusing, and he couldn’t even askanyone for advice without risking giving away too much. In the end, Narutodecided that his best option was just to try and forget about it until suchtime as new information came in.

“So,” he smiled at Hinata, “ready to resume your training?”

“Yes, Naruto-sensei!”

He did a double-take.

“Say that again.”

“Yes, Naruto-sensei?” Hinata repeated questioningly.

“Wow. That sounds even better than I thought. No wonder so many people becomeninja instructors.”

Hinata smiled. “Shall we play?”

“Sure!”

Naruto’s concentration wasn’t at its peak thanks to his injuries, and his mindwandered somewhat more than usual. As a result, there was a lot more smalltalk with Hinata than he was used to. He noticed that she still carefullyavoided any mention of her home life, but they did share a lot of laughs overthe universal suffering of D-rank missions. Apparently the Team Eightexperience involved a lot of Kiba trying to bait Shino, and Shino being stoicand serious and strait-laced and generally exactly the kind of person whodrove Kiba crazy. Captain Kurenai sensibly adopted a hands-off policy when itcame to this sort of thing, which left Hinata trying to refocus the boys’attentions on the task at hand whenever Kiba started to mess around and Shinostarted to get lost in thought. Naruto felt a nice warm glow when Hinata toldhim that the training, despite the lack of easily quantifiable progress, wasalready making her more confident when dealing with her teammates. It hadn’toccurred to him that sustained commitment to moving in the right directionwould in itself make such a difference to her mental state.

When Hinata left, Naruto made some notes (using the pen and paper she’dbrought him even though he’d forgotten to ask for it), and then found himselflooking thoughtfully at the enormous stack of books, manga and fruit on hisbedside table. It seemed strange how here he was, in hospital with a brokeneverything (he’d asked one of the nurses, and she secretly admitted that thiswas an unofficial diagnosis where ninja were concerned), and he was stillfeeling happier than he thought he’d ever felt before.


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