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The Last Prayer

Chapter Text

 

 

 

NARUTO

 

 

At first, it was just a hum; the kind one might annoyingly swat away, absolutely sure a fat fly was buzzing far to close to the ear.

Mere weeks later and for quite some time, the sound morphed into distant chatter; hazy, like the final incoherent echoes of conversation. It had made, then, potential graduate student, Uzumaki Naruto constantly swivel his head like a whip, dead intent on locating this elusive chatter. He heard it everywhere; in the middle of class, walking through the markets, training in the woods, relaxing in his apartment, and his frustration grew every time he couldn't locate its source. Presently, however, as he drags his feet away from Konoha's hospital, the last thing on his mind was some annoying chattering sound he couldn't identify.

The day was bright and the pure white clouds were large and puffy against the baby blue of the sky. Certainly, a joyous day for many in the nation of Fire, unless you were Naruto and Umino Iruka. The thoughtful and caring chūnin-sensei had selflessly saved his life from the traitor, Mizuki, just days before, using his body to stop a large shuriken that was meant for him. For his troubles, Naruto's favorite academy sensei is now paralyzed from the chest down.

Walking that long sorrowful path toward nothing and no one, the only voice in Naruto's head was the list of injuries the nurse was adamant the young genin had caused that night by needlessly moving Iruka-sensei in a panicked rush to get the injured chūnin-sensei to the hospital.

“Because of your carelessness,” the nurse yelled, “his spine, spinal nerve roots, intercostal nerves, ribs, and lungs were extraneously damaged. Because of you, he'll never have a career as an active Konoha shinobi again! He'll be lucky if he can ever walk again. Now, get out! He doesn't want to see you!”

Truthfully, Naruto didn't understand most of what she said. It all sounded terrible, but the part that struck him the most, the thing he blames himself so utterly over, is being the reason Iruka-Sensei can never be a shinobi again.

Before he knew the extent of his sensei's injuries, Naruto was supremely confident the scarred sensei would be fine in a couple of days. Naruto himself recalls being stabbed before and he was always fine in a day or two. He had been so excited to visit the chūnin to show off his brand new hitai-ate, to regale him with how they passed Kakashi-sensei's bell test, only to be yelled that Iruka-sensei doesn't want to see him. The difference in walks to and from the hospital is like a moonless night and a pleasant day.

Why wouldn't he be fine? He was supposed to be,’ Naruto can't help but think. ‘That shouldn't happen to good people.’

Lamenting over the grievous injury of his single mentor—his fourth special person after Ji-chan, Teuchi-jiji, and Ayame-nee—he unknowingly found himself on the best spot overlooking all of Konoha. Admiring the robust village, now cognizant of why the majority hate him and the thing inside him, it only fueled his need to make things right again, to desperately fight this horrible feeling in his chest from festering. Jiji had taught him long ago that nothing changes if you stay unhappy about it.

“Smiling is contagious because happiness is contagious,” Naruto recites, recalling Hokage-jiji explain to him after another crowd had hurt him. “When we are happy, people can feel that energy, and it can make them happy in return. That is why I think the best weapon against hatred and loneliness is love and friendship.” The old man would smile happily at a frightened five-year-old Naruto, and Naruto, though sad and confused, couldn't help a small smile spread his lips. From that point on, Naruto grew to understand the old man's words with every passing day, and tried to fight the village’s animosity with his best smiles and goodwill.

If I became the best shinobi in the village, and then the best Hokage of all time, I just know Iruka-sensei would be happy,’ Naruto mentally declares as if combating the guilt within with his sheer determination. He may not be the smartest shinobi in class, but even he knows the steps to take Jiji's white hat; work harder than anyone and protect your village. ‘I couldn't stop Mizuki-teme from hurting Iruka-sensei, but I won't let anything bad happen to sensei again! I know it!

Na.. rut..o.’

Naruto whipped around, hopping on his feet, looking for whoever called his name. It was faint, wispy really, but he's certain he heard it. “Hello!” he cautiously calls. “Who's there?”

There's no response. After a few seconds of silence, Naruto straightens up from his guarded stance. Confident it must've been his imagination, he hops off of the Yondaime's stone visage to train; To make Iruka-sensei proud. Team seven's first meeting as an official Konoha squad isn't until next week, and with clenched fists, he's determined to be the best one in it.

It won't be for nothing Iruka-sensei! Just you watch,’ he mentally pumps himself up as he dashes to his favorite training ground: Training Ground 28.

It's a small thing compared to the better newer training grounds, or the older revered ones nearer to the center of town, but it's less likely to have any shinobi already training in it. Using rotting, weathered targets hanging from various branches of several trees for his shuriken and kunai practice, he concentrates on attempting six simultaneous shuriken throws. He's gotten fairly good at throwing two shiruken per hand with decent accuracy, but three per hand is frustrating him to get right. As he's just about to release the spinning missiles, he hears it again.

Naru..to,’

It's louder, seizing his muscles for a split second and breaking his concentration, scattering his precious few throwing stars everywhere but on target.

“Uah, wh-wh-wh-who's there!” Naruto yells out, searching desperately around, in shadows, in the canopy above or bushes below, extending his senses for any sound that's not of nature. “Whoever it is better come out now or I swear I'll make you eat dirt!” he adamantly yells with a pointed finger. No one comes out. It was silent, unnerving, and he was still and rigid for a solid five minutes. He nearly relaxes his guard when he heard it again.

Can...ou hear... e?

Naruto begins to wonder if he's going crazy because it was starting to sound more like this unrecognizable male voice was in his head rather than somewhere around him where unrecognizable voices ought to be.

“W-w-wh-who,” Naruto stammers, asking aloud but dreading a response... very much so dreading it.

I can... ear you bet..er,’ the voice said, and Naruto runs. Like a bolt out of a bow, he sprints full out with no real direction in mind other than away. ‘How's… that,’ the voice asks. ‘That better?

I'm going crazy, I'm going crazy, I'm going crazy...’ Naruto mentally repeats, casually noticing the voice feels even clear despite sprinting away from it. Feeling nothing but adrenaline in his legs, he runs flat out, making the trees look like a blurry paste around him.

You're no... going crazy,’ the young but deep voice states, interjecting his reply in Naruto's thoughts.

Suddenly, Naruto ends his panicked sprint with a bit of a slide, ninja sandals ripping earth until he comes to a stop, shouting, “wait a' minute!” Looking around the forest again, he asks, “is this a prank? That you Konohamaru? ...Sasuke-teme? ...Kakashi-sensei? Whoever it is, you better believe I won't rest until I get you back ten times worse!”

It's not... a prank,’ the voice says. ‘Though that'd be a... pretty awesome prank.

“AAHH,” Naruto groans in startling surprise, bringing up his fingers nails to be nervously gnawed on by his teeth. “This is genjutsu! Some kinda crazy illusion... trying to- to make me do something stupid, like steal women’s panties or eat vegetables. I won't do it!”

This isn't genjutsu, Naruto,’ the voice says with a chuckle. ‘Kami, it feels so weird calling you that.

“Why would that be weird, you weirdo. It's my name! How do you even know my name!?” Naruto tosses back strongly, walking around bushes and behind trees, doing his best to locate a physical person nearby who's responsible for this jutsu, and yet he finds no one.

I know it's your name,’ the voice says, still seemingly sounding amused. ‘Because it's also my name.

But for a couple of skeptical blinks, his entire body freezes as his patience momentarily yields and reboots. “....this- this may be a wicked prank, but I'm still not falling for it!” Naruto yells. “I'm the one and only, future Hokage, Uzumaki Naruto! Now get out here so I can kick the crap out you!”

Well, listen up, Uzumaki Naruto: the Next Hokage,’ Naruto starts, lightly mocking the boy's use of his full name and aspiration. ‘What I’m about to tell you is going to be hard to believe, but you and I share the same name because we're actually the same person. I'm the you from the future.

Two more blinks at the unexpectedly ludicrous revelation and an exhale of admiration, and Naruto can't help but think with a small measure of respect, ‘Uwwaaahh, even I wouldn't have thought of a prank like that.’

Thanks, but since I'm you, technically you did, or will... No, I mean, this isn't a prank,’ the voice mentally replies to Naruto's thought.

“You can read my mind!?” Naruto calls out, nearly falling from the branch he was using to scale a tree in search of the hidden prankster. After regaining his balance, he hops to the ground, beginning to entertain the notion that there's no one to find because there was no one around.

Oh, this is going to take a while... time we don't have,’ the voice couldn't help but exhale. ‘Look, I really am you from the future and I can prove it. You should be Genin by this point, at least that's what I was aiming for. Our- your Jōnin-sensei is Hatake Kakashi, and your teammates are Haruno Sakura-chan and Uchiha Sasuke.’

“Beh! That doesn't prove anything,” Naruto quickly retorts, still looking around. “They announced it in class. Everyone heard.”

Fair enough,’ the young deeper voice concedes. ‘How about something only we- you would know? Like the first time you had Ichiraku's Ramen. We- you were eight-years-old and Teuchi-jiji found you unconscious in the alley where he dumps his trash. You were scared but he was kind, and let you sit in his stand. Ayame-nee bandaged you up while Teuchi-jiji made you a bowl of pork and beef ramen. We knew instantly, outside of Ji-chan, he was one of the few safe adults in the village. And Ayame-nee was just as awesome. Who else could know that but us?

Naruto doesn't respond for a few moments, absorbing the nature and the truth of the voice's accurate claims. He did meet Teuchi-jiji and his daughter when he was eight. The civilian adults stopped attacking him long before that but teenage bullies were another matter entirely and would chase him down every time they spotted him. It's true no one would know what Teuchi-jiji and Ayame-nee did...

“Wait,” Naruto sluggishly speculates aloud. “They would know. Jiji and Nee-chan could've told you.”

I mean I doubt they ever would, but fine,’ the voice states. ‘We're low on time so I'll name a few things quickly; stuff only we know. We- ...you first developed the Oiroke no Jutsu(Sexy Technique) because you noticed how girls are treated better and how much more attention they’d get. You found a box of Barely Legal and Raw Kunoichi magazines in the dump, peeped on girls in the bath houses, and finished the jutsu in six months.’ Though wide-eyed in shock and red in the face, Naruto refutes nothing as the voice continues, ‘you found your green goggles in the park by the academy. You stayed there for nearly three hours waiting to see if anyone would come back for them. When no one did, you kept it on your head in hopes someone might recognize them. You found a fat toad in that pond by the Hyūga compound. You became best friends and named him Gama-chan.’ Naruto can hear the levity in his voice all but disappear when he continues, ‘we were really sad when some of the Hyūga kids killed him. That was a hard month, but while you were scavenging the dump, you found a toad wallet that reminded you of Gama-chan and kept it. Your shinobi tools were mostly scavenged from corpses in Training Ground 44. Everything else in your apartment is a hand-me-down, clearance sale, or found in the dump because nearly all the shops in the village make you pay more. You sent a letter to yourself when you first learned how to write because you never got any mail and you wanted to know what it felt like-

“Okay,” Naruto finally said, calling an end to the voice's rather depressing tirade of his life. “Uh... whatever, I still don't think you're me from the future, but, I'll hear you out. Start by telling me how awesome I become. How fast do I become Hokage?”

First,’ the voice interrupts, cutting off some of Naruto's excitement. ‘You have to know I won't always be with you like this—speaking to you like this isn't a constant thing. What I'm doing takes a lot of effort and concentration to keep up. I'll explain what that is next time. As we speak, it's getting harder and harder to stay, so until I can get a better handle on this, for now, I can only talk for minutes at a time, maybe twenty if I really try.’

“Sounds complicated,” Naruto grumbles. “Why can't you tell me now?”

Not enough time,’ the voice says. ‘I'll be back, though—once I've rested—but for these last few minutes, I just want to explain a bit of why I'm here. The short version is, there's a fourth great shinobi war, and basically, we lose. Lots of people we know will die, and the rest are trapped in a never-ending, unbreakable genjutsu. I'll explain more next time but, the reason we lost is because I wasn't strong enough. Team seven, our friends, our village, the entire shinobi world is a slave to this really bad guy because we weren't strong enough to stop him. It was all too easy to manipulate us—the nations, I mean—because we were all too busy hating each other and fighting amongst ourselves to stop and think. In the end, we couldn't stop this cycle of hate, which meant, we couldn't stop him.

“Are you serious?” Naruto huffs with wide eyes.

Hehe, yeah, I guess that would be hard for anyone to accept,’ the voice admits. ‘But it's true. There's something else, and this is going to be really important. You already know Kage Bunshin, right?

“....Yeah,” Naruto slowly acknowledges.

Good,’ the voice affirms. ‘What you probably don't know—or won't know until years later for some odd reason—is that any knowledge or experience your bunshin experiences, you'll learn as well after it's dispelled. T-Try this... if you don't... believe me.’

“Oi, oi, Naru-nii, you okay?” Naruto asks uneasily, sensing the struggle in the Voice's speech.

I only have... seconds,’ Naru-nii barely manages to get out. ‘Make... a Kage-Bunshin. Make... it... talk... to Teuchi-jiji... or Iruka-sensei... somebody. Then... dispel it. You'll... learn... e.. e.. every... thing.... it.... learnned.’

Quiet fills Naruto’s expectation of further conversation. After several moments of silence, Naruto can't help but call out, “Neh, Naru-nii? Naru-nii, you still there?” Other than the wind breezing through grass, leaves, and branches, and the birds singing, Naruto is met with silence.

Head tilting to the side, Naruto scratches his smooth hairless chin, pondering everything that's happened. He questions the merits of this complicated prank... if he can even call it a prank. Humming inquisitively against the rustling sounds of blowing trees, he slowly reflects on the voice and how it knew things about him that no one else could know. Naruto was fairly sure if the voice continued, it would've only mentioned more anecdotes about his outcast of a life, so, it's either the most elaborate prank in the history of pranks, or...

“Meh!” Naruto shrugs forming the hand seals for the Kage Bunshin. He's always been a practical guy, not that he wouldn't love the brains to think his way through problems but the academy pointed out to him a long time ago he just wasn't smart enough for that kind of rational approach. What's more, he isn't really doing anything dangerous, or suspect, like how Mizuki tricked him into stealing the Scroll of Seals.

“Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!” From a quickly evaporating puff of white smoke, nine shadow clones of himself pop into existence. “He said one... but whatever,” Naruto mumbles, taking a commanding step in front of his troops. “Alright, listen up. I want three of you to go... somewhere. Ah! One goes to Ayame-nee, one to Ji-chan, and one to... Iruka-sensei. Break into his room if you have. Just see him. You can dispel after that.”

With little more than a quick look between the nine, three immediately break off. How those three knew they were the ones, the original didn't know, nor care. “What about us,” one clone calls.

“The rest of you go to look for the shuriken I threw earlier. When you find one, leave it there and dispel. I guess I'll learn where it is.”

“Yosh!” The rest of the clones call, fists in the air, and Naruto watches them rush off to get to work, all the while shrinking a bit at what he's heard. It's not every day you're told the fate of the entire shinobi world rests on your shoulders, much less failed when it mattered. Lives of families, friends, strangers, ninja, civilian, and everything in between somehow are depending on him and he doesn't know why. Ji-chan is the strongest person he knows. Why wouldn't they rely on him instead?

If for some absolutely insane reason, everything Naru-nii said turns out to be true, he can't help but compare it to Iruka-sensei. He failed to keep his sensei safe, even ended up hurting him worse in his great panic, and that was only one person. What Naru-nii is talking about is for the fate of everyone; Ji-chan, Teuchi-jiji, Ayame-nee, Iruka-sensei, Sakura-chan, maybe even the people that hate him. Naruto can't see how everyone could depend on him like that. Wouldn't he just fail to keep everyone safe as he had his favorite sensei? Naruto felt restless, like he's been sitting for too long and itching to get up. All these questions he has no answers for is making him doubt himself.

“This has to be a prank!” Naruto calls out. ‘How could it not be?’ He thinks, when suddenly information, a memory, knowledge he didn't have of a lost shiruken he tossed somewhere in the woods, pops into his mind. It feels like a little strained pulling, like someone quickly ripping a single strand of hair from his head. As he takes in the entire memory, he questions how true it is, how real this is. His first step to fetch his newly recalled shuriken is interrupted with another flash-memory, leaping into his mind, cause the ache on his brain to momentarily sharpen. Before too long, Naruto learns where all six of his shuriken went and has a headache similar to prolonged brain freeze for his efforts. The concentrated, lethargic pricks of pain don't last long—a couple minutes or so—and it's not nearly the worst pain he's ever experienced. However, it's an effect he makes a note of nonetheless.

With all his worn throwing stars in his pouch, the first of his shadow's conversations floods his mind. Naruto squints his eyes at the pinch to his brain as a whole conversation with Ayame-nee plays out in his mind. It was a simple conversation. Nothing of note or relevance other than the usual, ‘hey, Ayame-nee,’ and, ‘how's it going?’ Though she had finished their short conversation with a phrase she's often directed at him. “Nothing but the freshest ingredients for our favorite customer.”

No sooner had he thought that sounds just like her, did another memory materialize in his mind. He was in the Hokage tower. He tried to see Ji-chan but his secretary had informed him that the Hogake was in a council meeting.

“That should be easy to double check,” Naruto says to himself. Whether the voice knew about the meeting or not didn't matter. He himself didn't know about the meeting, so if there is, in fact, a meeting, the Voice will have told him something about this jutsu that neither Kakashi-sensei or Ji-chan informed him of. He's not angry with them, but he certainly doesn't understand why they wouldn't mention this neat little trick. If he wasn't a serious shinobi of the Leaf, he would certainly be planning the biggest chronicle of pranks for the year.

The final memory he received on the path home. It was a hurried memory. His clone had been found trying to get past the entrance, and they chased after him. The majority of the staff may be talented in saving lives but he's been chased for most of his. He managed to hold them off until he finally found Iruka-sensei. He was asleep, propped up on his bed with at least five pillows and a harness around his torso, keeping him up. It was the last image before his clone ended its existence, but it was enough consolation just to see Iruka-sensei.

He didn't look great,’ mentally Naruto admits and if he were honest with himself, he's having a hard time keeping the guilt from assuming control. So much so, in fact, he stops his journey back home in favor of returning to Training Ground 28 to continue training. He may or may not have spoken to his future self... he may or may not have been duped... but he wasn't going to waste any time on his path to get stronger. If everything Naru-nii said turns out to actually be true, he will not fail again, just like he won't fail Iruka-sensei again.

 

 

KURENAI

 

 

“Thank you very much for granting me audience, Hyūga-dono,” Kurenai clearly and evenly tells the Hyūga Clan Head, her palms placed daintily on the floor in an upside down V as she bows her head respectfully. The large receiving chamber in the main branch's home of the Hyūga compound was as traditional as every other resident on the large property. Despite the antiquated style of the sitting room, the hardwood furnishing, the tatami mats, the gold and silver trim lining the beams, counters, and zaisu, was immaculate. It gave the impression of wealth within tradition. The sliding doors were closed for privacy and despite there being no windows the well-lit room was not stuffy.

Hyūga Hiashi sat rigid, kneeling on an elevated platform ahead of the bowing kunoichi, while Kurenai sat kneeling ten paces away, her lush ebony hair flowered the sides of her bowed head. Such deference to a man that wasn't her Hokage was unfavorable to her, but sadly unavoidable. The beautiful kunoichi was taught well and studied hard.

Though coming from very little, she had unassailable drive; a drive to make her father proud, a drive to prove her mother wrong, a drive to exalt the reverence of Konoha's Will of Fire. She worked hard to be the best genjutsu master in all of Konohagakure, as much for herself as for her deceased father, but what made her most proud, is that every ounce of hard-earned skill and knowledge gained is in profound service of future generations. Their distinguished gains as shinobi of the Leaf is her greatest honor. In mind, body, and soul, her goal is to help the youths in her charge in any and every way she can, so they might pass on their Will of Fire to the students in their time.

Determined, Kurenai knows she needed to be respectful to Hyūga Hiashi for her goal, far more than she would otherwise be. In truth, she doesn't approve of the Hyūga system, but for her charge, she'll bow and give reverence to the arrogant slave owner, even if she'd much rather trap him in a hellish never-ending nightmare for the rest of his miserable life.

“You’ve declared this meeting was in regard to Hinata,” Hiashi stated in a deep, belittling tone nearly to the point of offensive. “Speak.” The man had little eyes of steel, the kind that would express the same amount of emotion to an infant as an enemy. He peered over her, exhuming nothing but vain misogynistic pride.

Now that he's spoken to her, Kurenai raises her head to meet his brass gaze and address him. “As you are no doubt aware, I am your daughter's Jonin Sensei.”

“You are not who I would've chosen were I given the honor of petitioning for recommendations,” Hiashi easily explained, as if his callous judgment on the choice of his daughter’s sensei was beneficial to how Kurenai viewed herself.

For her part, Kurenai didn't betray her ultimate goal for the growing ire toward the Hyūga head. Instead, she continued as if no insult was given. “It is because of my inexperience that I wished to speak with you. It is why I've also spoken with the Aburame and Inuzuka Clans.”

“Continue,” Hiashi commanded like he would another of his servants.

Putting great effort in keeping her face neutral of any animosity swirling within her ample bosom, Kurenai continues, no less bothered than by a sunny day. “I would not wish to violate any clan's laws, inadvertent or not, as I educate your heir. If there are any subject matters with regard to confidential Hyūga affairs you would prefer I avoid, I'd like to be aware of those boundaries beforehand so I can make the appropriate adjustments to my training regiment. I would also be grateful for any input you can offer me with regard to Hinata-san's training thus far and your hopes for her future progress. I wish to make up any lack of experience with a great amount of preparation, determination, and humility should outside counsel be helpful.”

“I see,” the Hyūga Head states with spiritless interest. “Your willingness to make up your shortcomings is admirable, no doubt serving you well in your short career, however, it is unnecessary and a waste of your efforts.”

A twitch of the skin between her brows is the only indication that she's taken aback by his words. “May I inquire as to why that is?”

“I have no doubt you'll soon learn Hinata has no talent as a kunoichi and is sorely lacking as the heiress to the Hyūga clan,” Hiashi easily answers the beautiful Jōnin-sensei. “As a veteran shinobi and her father I can say, with regret, Hinata is a disappointment as a daughter, an heir to our great clan, and as you'll soon learn, as a kunoichi. I offer you words of caution, as a token for the appropriate respect shown here. Conserve your time, skill, and effort where my daughter is concerned. Save your consideration for the students who have real need of it.”

Before the death of Kurenai's father in the Kyuubi attack, he instilled in her the foundation her every decision, her every act, her every ambition draws strength from. Kurenai believes that the Will of Fire passed along to the rising youths of today is more vital to the village than the role of Hokage—after all, the Hokage is only one man. The Will of Fire is an immortal ideal that's lived on from generation to generation since the founding of the village. It was her absolute imperative to serve her village, her home, by instilling this value in those shinobi of the Leaf that need it—Anko being a prime example of that. When everyone else shunned her, feared her, reviled her very name for her association with Orochimaru, Kurenai extended a friendly hand and honest friendship. A decision she’s been happy with every day since.

For the Hyūga clan head to disregard his own flesh and blood, and disrespect the future of this village to such an extent, Kurenai had to bite the inside of her red lips hard enough to draw blood to keep from losing decorum and failing her mission. She still had need of formal civility, and more than anything, she won't allow him his way.

“I understand your position, Hyūga-dono,” Kurenai starts evenly if not slightly more sweetly than earlier. “However I've had the opportunity to witness her abilities and I am confident she can make a great addition to Konoha's forces. I am most grateful and honored for your advice, however, I have faith that Hinata-san will flourish in the future as a kunoichi, and if I may be so bold, as the Hyūga clan's heir.”

“Your confidence gives me pause for concern,” the pompous clan head drolls. “If you've indeed witnessed Hinata's skill level and still claim that she will make a fine kunoichi of the Leaf, than I question your competence. Hanabi has defeated her in every exchange. Not only does Hinata lack the acumen to master our Clan's techniques and fighting style, but she has no resolve, no tenacity. Her spine is weak and her mind brittle.”

How the arrogant, high-born scum can say that about his firstborn daughter with a straight face, Kurenai will never know, nor care to understand. It's very clear to her this man has given up on Hinata's future. From everything she's heard, what she's been told, as well as watching Hinata herself, Kurenai certainly expected a domineering figure, imposing in his reproachful role as a founding clan of the village, but this goes far beyond Hinata's timid selflessness. Kurenai would bet everything she owns that this man hates his daughter, or at the very least, holds a deep grudge against her. She's certain there's a reason, an explanation of sorts, but at the moment, the why isn't important. Her decision is clear. She must take Hinata away from this man's clear psychological abuse if Hinata ever has a chance of reaching her potential and gain her Will of Fire.

“Soon, Hanabi will enter the academy, and exemplify the true strength of the Hyūga clan,” Hiashi proudly states with even a hint of affection. “As for your request, Hinata is capable enough to keep clan affairs to herself. You need no summary of her training thus far. It will not change her grade nor her fate. You may leave.”

Kurenai wasn't leaving. She was practically vibrating with conviction and with resolve, stating, “I wish to make a request, if you would do me the honor of listening to my selfishness.”

He remained still as a statue, however, the rumbling groan she can hear from within his chest gave away his irritation. After some tense moments of stretched silence, his tense jaw responds, “speak.”

“I wish to take Hinata-san as my live-in ward,” Kurenai promptly responds with all the steadfast tenacity she could possibly imbue in her tone.

“She doesn't lack parental care,” Hiashi grounds out, his ire quite clear in his tone. “She does not need your custody.”

Regardless of the Hyūga's desire to end discourse, Kurenai is driven to continue. He father taught her to fight hard when it matters, as he did when the village was attacked by that detestable demon, so too will she against this one. “I do not ask to foster her as a parent-less child, but to develop her capabilities and confidence in our shared profession as shinobi of Konohagakure. I firmly believe she is still more than capable of improvement and I have great faith she can make her clan and village proud.” She may have put too much emphasis on 'can,' but maybe he needs to hear Hinata is not beyond hope as much as she needs to hear it—that there is somebody in this village who believes in her. And Kurenai is going to make sure Hinata knows she has all the support she needs in her sensei.

“As her sensei,” Kurenai continues. “It would be unsatisfactory if I could not perform the duties requested of me by our Hokage to the best of my ability and raise a valuable kunoichi for our great village.”

“Enough!” Hiashi bellows, certainly hearing his own failings in her own doctrine. Kurenai flinches at the boom of his voice, slightly jerking her head and lush dark locks to the right. It's not that she was scared or startled by the man's outburst; quite the opposite in fact. She saw an opportunity, a strategy only women can employ. It's been her daily experience that men find her attractive—even among other beautiful women—and unbeknown to most men in the village, they are beguiled or pacified by her charms. In this case, her flinch and slight jerk bounced the buoyancy of her ample breasts, showing a full view of exposed cream colored cleavage he could easily view from his elevated position.

She can already see him calming down, but does not smile, lest he feels mocked for his gender. Even if the little show didn't outright lure him from his convictions, it assisted enough as he continued. “You dare presume I've failed in my duties as clan head and as her father. I will not hear it! I know what is right for this clan along with this village. For you to say otherwise is an egregious offense to the hitai-ate you wear over your brow.”

“I do not presume anything of the sort,” Kurenai calmly returns, thinking how much worse his response could've been. “I only wish to suggest a perspective not previously available. Consider, Hinata may respond more advantageously under the guidance of another kunoichi. As a woman, I may better understand her mindset, her needs, and address them to the benefit of her growth.”

The seconds tick on in silence. Kurenai is certain the pompous man is weighing his options against his disinterest against his public image. That's exactly the position Kurenai wanted to back him in. If she's truly too far gone and he's given up on her than her request shouldn't matter. And should he deny her request, it's more clear than ever how much contempt he holds for her. Furthermore, the Hyūga's image could not possibly appear weak. The Hyūga are too proud to accept any outside assistance with one of their members, much less the heiress. She's fortunate that's not an issue here since Kurenai is already her assigned sensei.

The tense silence seems to stretch on forever until Hiashi finally addresses her. “You play a dangerous game Yūhi-san. Your attitude towards me is not as well hidden as you believe, not from my eyes; for no one can see better than the Hyūga. Regardless of your childish beliefs, you have a duty as her sensei. If it is professional prerogative that Hinata needs supplementary lessons, I will allow you to take a vested interest in her growth. As the head of this great clan and her father, I am not so proud that I would deny my daughter additional aid, no matter how misplaced it may be. However, if I see no significant form of improvement by the end of the Chūnin exams, Hanabi will succeed her as heiress.”

He didn't have to say the rest for Kurenai to understand what's at stake. The Hyūga clan needs only one heir. Like Hizashi before her, born only seconds after Hiashi, Hinata too will be branded with the clan's cursed seal, despite being born of the main family branch, a fate no better than slavery by many accounts.

“You paint a lofty picture of my daughter,” the man continued almost snidely. “Let it not be said that I did not give you the opportunity to realize such passionate claims.”

It would be an undue waste to challenge the time stipulation, but she won't simply take such a concession lying down. She's never been the type to roll over and show her belly; not since her father. No, for her students, she'd slit the man's throat without hesitation. With just as much tenacity as she's demonstrated thus far, Kurenai continues, “to further aid her progress, I request she stay with me in my home. It is a simple three bedroom home in the Shinobi District with all the amenities necessary for training.”

Almost with a tooth-grinding growl, he responds, “you may house her for the week at your own expense. As for the weekends, unless she is training or on a mission, she stays with her clan.”

Kurenai promptly bows, the cool steel of her forehead protector touching the back of her hands placed firmly on the floor. “Thank you for your time and consideration, Hyūga-dono.”

 

 

CHŌJI

 

 

Waiting patiently behind a wood bean within the large traditional home of the Akimichi clan, Chōji watches his mother speaking with Nara Yoshino-san by the doorway. Spying on the two woman laugh with such gusto every few minutes was a bitter reminder of how much he wanted that kind of friendship, not that Shikamaru wasn't great. The Nara heir was like the brother he always wanted, and if their parents were anything to go by, they always will be. It made Chōji glad to know that he would have a best friend in Shikamaru for life.

It's the third member of their newly formed cell he's hoping will emulate the friendship and partnership their parents seem to effortlessly have. So far, Yamanaka Ino's been demanding, vain, and just shy of outright abusive towards her teammates, and while he agrees with her that Asuma-sensei's smoking is bad for them, he certainly does not care if Uchiha-kun would think her skin is splotchy and sickly because of it. Shikamaru explained that's just how girls are but, Chōji's seen how their parents interact, so that can't always be the case.

He'd spent a whole night making Welcome-to-The-Team dango, three different flavored sticks for each of them. Asuma-sensei and Shikamaru accepted theirs gratefully, not quite as happily as he would've preferred, but certainly much better than Ino, who flat out rejected his gesture, yelling at him about her strict diet and how Uchiha-kun wouldn't appreciate a… fat… girl. He knew she didn't mean to call him fat, but it didn't hurt any less than when other kids said it. In fact, now that they were teammates, it easily dashed his hopes of forming the type of bond their parents easily share.

Even Chōji can see how pretty Ino is, and her figure is more feminine than the other girls, so he couldn't see how a few sticks of dango could really hurt. Watching the mothers in front of him conversing joyfully, he wondered if that could happen soon between himself, Shikamaru, and Ino. His mother suddenly lets out a boisterous laugh and hops on dexterous toes toward the product room connected to their large red-brick kitchen.

Chōji follows her down the clean halls of their large house and can't help but ask his mother, “Okaa-san, what does Yoshino-san want? Is it about the celebration barbecue?”

His mother slightly tilts her head towards him as she continues to walk forward, answering, “no sweetie, that won't be until this weekend. Yoshi-chan just needed to pick up a pill is all.”

Walking through the large brick kitchen, feeling the wall of heat before a single step was taken, Chōji generously asks, “do you need any help? I can carry it for Yoshino-san.”

“That's sweet of you to offer, but she'll be fine,” his mother happily tells him, a bit of pride slipping in her tone.

“Shikamaru never needs anything,” Chōji points out.

“Not too unlike his father that one,” she answers as she moves to the safe in the product room. Chōji never really took note of the safe, nor was he ever curious of the contents within.

When his mother opened the steel security box, she watches his mother pull out a pill, unlike the three colored pills he's familiar with. It was slightly larger than even the red pill, but he couldn't help asking his mother, “why is it blue? I've never seen that pill before.”

Closing the safe, and spinning the levers until it clicked, his mother stands at her full height. Eying the blue pill cautiously, she hums like she does when she's considering her words. The Akimichi clan aren't like the Nara clan. They have a much less elegant way with words and can sometimes take a moment to gather their thoughts.

“Ahh, well, this is a special pill, so ninja boys and girls can be... friendly with each other,” she answers as she picks up the pace on her way back. “Don't worry your beautiful little head about it. I'll, uh, have your father speak to you about it later, okay sweetie?”

Chōji watched her scurry off, all the while thinking, questioning really, the possible existence of a ‘friendship pill?’ Chōji wondered about such a pill and the secrecy behind it long and hard. Clearly, this was a clan secret, after all, why keep it in a safe if it wasn't? But for his clan to need an actual friendship pill, can only mean it's harder for his clan to make friends than others. So difficult in fact, they needed a special chakra pill for it. Chōji would not take this responsibility lightly. He loved his parents and would never want to disappoint them. Without even being told, he knows he'll keep this secret for them and the clan, because, despite the teasing, shaming, and hazing, he was proud to be an Akimichi. With designs slowly forming in his mind, he looks for a post-lunch, pre-dinner snack, as he considers the details of how this might help his newly formed team.