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The Delicacy of Growth

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“You’re gonna be great,” Kiba says, and he’s smiling so wide she has to believe it. His hands run through her hair, combing out all of the tangles, gathering it all into a tail high enough on her head so as to settle on her crown.

She glances down at Shino, sitting beside them with one of her hands in his, thumb rubbing soothingly over her nail beds. Her hands are always warm, which is a comfort to those she heals and those she comforts, but her boys know that when she’s nervous, they shake. So Shino holds her hand and returns the shaky grin she offers him with one more confident, and calming.

Kiba ties her hair off with a band—she has too much hair for ribbons—and comes around in front of her with a sharp-toothed grin. Shino stands, lets her fingers slide away from his, and lifts his hand to straighten some of her fly-aways. He tucks some of them behind her ear and smiles, just a shy crook in the corner of his mouth, partially hidden by his collar, but it makes Hinata feel steadier.

“I’m excited,” she admits nervously, biting her lip.

Shino nods, says, “You’re ready.”

There’s nothing much changed from her usual look, the same lavender jacket and pants, the same nin-sandals, the same self-conscious stance. But her hair is pulled up and away from her face, and this is new, and this is exciting. She only ever wears her hair up when she works at the hospital, or volunteers in Ino’s flower shop, or helps Shino in his garden.

She doesn’t want her hair to get in the way of her face today. Shyness is not a bad attribute, this she has come to accept and fight for, but in this new chapter of her life, it is something she is going to push back on.

She will not hide her face, even while being the center of attention.

“I’m heading off, then,” she says, and Kiba’s face scrunches up. He pretends to wipe a tear from his eye, slinging an arm carelessly around Shino’s shoulders. The taller of the two hunches slightly, and sighs, but he doesn’t throw Kiba off.

“They grow up so fast,” he sniffs, turning to Shino. Shino sighs again, audibly. But they’re both looking at her and smiling and she feels warmed from the inside out, like the sun radiates from her very bones, and she’s happy. There are still so many people and things troubling her, and worrying her, and her life is nowhere near perfect, but.

She’s happy.

She’s wanted this for years, for years, filled notebooks with ideas and diagrams and pictures and plans, tested and experimented and practiced in her backyard and Shino’s both, and now at long last she has the Hokage’s seal of approval, and she’s ready, and it’s now. It’s now.

“Thank you,” she whispers gladly, grinning. She flicks her gaze between her boys and she thinks how special they are, and how lucky she is. “Thank you for always believing in this.”

And in me.

She reaches out and squeezes their fingers, gratitude overflowing, and then she’s heading towards the Academy, shoulders thrust proudly back.

She’s ready.

 

 

Hinata has always loved kids.

There’s something about their verve, their innocent inquiry of everything they interact with, and their willingness to learn that has always soothed her soul in some unfathomable way. They’re special, she thinks. They’re special.

And she wants to protect them, in any way that she can. This has been one of her dreams, one she has been planning to foster and help grow into something substantial for years. She hadn’t known how to pin it down, and for a long time she and her team brainstormed about different ways she could help the youngest of her community.

Kiba had suggested volunteering at the Academy, and that was well and good, but she already did that and sure, she was making an impact, but it wasn’t exactly what she had in mind.

Shino had suggested planting gardens for the children, out by the training fields, where they could relax and play afterwards. And that was close, really close, but there was still something missing.

It was about three months ago that she woke from a dream where she’d stood in front of a class, holding a single sunflower, every shade of sunrise, and realized that this is what she wanted. It was Kiba’s and Shino’s ideas together, and what she’s been doing all this time, too, and it felt right.

She would teach kids how to take care of themselves through taking care of flowers. She knew how it sounded, she knew people would laugh at her until they realized she was serious, and then they would pity her. But this felt right, and she knew this was what she wanted to do. She started planning in-between missions, when she was home and had nothing to do, not much to worry about. She stayed entirely focused on her missions when she was on them, and kept up her training of mind, body, and spirit, but now there was this, too. And she was enjoying the preparation.

Before she could realize the dream, though, she had to get approval.

And so several months later, she found herself standing before the council and Hokage, both, in order to deliver her proposal. She imagines for anyone else this might’ve been a frightening affair, with such powerful and critical eyes upon her, all looking for weaknesses to exploit. And she had been afraid, if only of the potential for them to shut her down.

But Hinata was a Hyuuga, and she can’t remember a time when she had not been judged by powerful, critical gazes tearing into her. If she has learned nothing else from her family’s strict teachings, she has learned how to be strong and respectful in front of authority figures.

And she has learned how to win them.

After delivering her proposal, she had waited patiently before them for their criticism and eventual verdict. The Hokage had remained silent and watchful behind his desk for the most of it, hands folded in front of his masked face, eyes heavy and indifferent.

The council had not approved of an arts class being thrown into the mix of a shinobi training Academy. These are children training to be warriors, they had said, what will they do with flowers?

They will learn to appreciate the beauty of the world, outside of destruction and death, she had responded immediately, tone icy and steady and everything she’d never quite been able to get it to be in the face of adversity. They will learn to know peace, too, and self-care through my teachings. They will not be left out in the world knowing nothing outside of battle and blood.

That had gotten the Hokage’s attention, eyes sparking with something like interest. Hinata had not turned away from him, had met his gaze steadily, unflinchingly. She knows some of his history—how could she not? He is a living legend, and as such, the privacy of his life had been taken from him. He is exactly the kind of shinobi that she wants to protect the children of Konoha from becoming, no matter how strong and how efficient he is.

Having one’s childhood taken from them is unacceptable. Growing into an adult who feels comfortable with nothing outside of war is unacceptable.

Hinata knows Kakashi-sensei, she respects him, and she admires him, but his is not the life she wants for the youth of Konoha. And she thinks, truly, from the bottom of her heart, that he agrees.

How exactly, he had finally said, speaking up for the first time since the start of their meeting, will your classes benefit their growth? They will be trained to fight and kill. This will not change.

No, she had responded, watching him carefully, but they will learn how to support and create, too.

The meeting had lasted even longer than she had expected, the Hokage and the council both grilling her, demanding specific answers, specific insight. Her hands never stopped shaking, not once, but when she walked out of their office she had a Hokage-signed adjunct credential for the Academy, and the council’s skeptical permission.

There were conditions, of course. She had six months to see if the children were interested, if her teachings helped, and if it was worth it to lend an Academy room to her for that time. She would not receive funding; everything in her class would have to come from her. The class would not be mandatory, but each Academy teacher would give an announcement on the first day of class, explaining her course and that it would all come down to the choice of the children.

She hoped they would choose her.

She walks down a poorly lit hall with fliers peeling from the walls and a flickering light overhead, and her hands are still shaking. The key dangles from her fingertips, and her heart tosses and turns in her chest. She stops before room 16 and takes a deep breath as she slides the key into the lock.

And at long last, she opens the door on a new and exciting chapter in her life.

 

 

“I can’t believe you did it!” Ino shrieks, jumping up and down with Hinata wrapped up in her arms. “I mean I totally can, but like I can’t.”

“This is going to be so much fun,” Sakura says from over Ino’s shoulder, grinning darkly and rubbing her palms together. Hinata feels a playful flicker of dread spill through her, and once set free from Ino’s embrace, she shakes her head.

“You can’t do anything to my kids yet,” she says, then purses her lips. “I don’t even have kids yet, actually. I only just barely got a room.”

“Semantics,” Ino says, flapping her hand gaily. She slips her arm through Hinata’s and tugs Sakura over to them to do the same, and together they start walking leisurely through the streets. People crowd around them on every side, early-morning shoppers and workers and vendors, everyone with somewhere to be or someone to see. Children race by, kicking at a ball with a following wave of pealing laughter.

The sky is a palette of blues splashed against a smattering of clouds, and the sun beats down on them, bright and shining. Hinata soaks in the warmth on her skin and thinks suddenly of Naruto, before Ino’s words win her over again.

“So you have a room,” she says, “and you have permission. This is so fucking cool.”

“How was the meeting by the way?” Sakura asks, turning to glance deep into a shop that Hinata is familiar with; they have extraordinary scrolls, and the widest assortment of scroll parchment she’s ever seen. Sakura gives up on it after a moment, and they continue on, slow and unhurried.

“It was rough,” she admits, smiling over at them. Ino rolls her eyes and mumbles, “understatement,” under her breath, but Sakura’s sudden pursed lips key Hinata in to the incoming threat, thankfully not aimed her way.

“Was Kakashi-sensei an ass?” She asks, and then before Hinata can defend his professionalism, Sakura punches a fist into her open and waiting palm. “I’ll destroy him.”

“He was professional, Sakura-san.” Hinata defends, stifling her laughter. “He asked pertinent questions.”

Sakura sniffs, sounding disbelieving. Ino laughs out loud at her expression, tightening her grip on both of them.

“All that matters,” she sings, “is that she got approved—battle won!”

She turns suddenly, looking over her shoulders and standing on tiptoe, as if that might help her see over the crowds surrounding them, and the backdrop of buildings and vendors behind them.

“We should celebrate,” she decides, and Sakura groans, but doesn’t exactly look opposed to the idea. Hinata laughs.

“I can’t tonight,” she says, standing strong under the sudden onslaught of both Ino’s and Sakura’s disapproving squints and playfully pursed lips. “I need to buy supplies, and set up a lesson plan. I haven’t made a curriculum yet.”

“Hinata, you literally just found out this morning that this ship was allowed to set sail.”

“Yeah,” Ino agrees, bumping lightly against her. “You have time for all of that later. Now is the time for celebration!”

“How about this weekend?” Hinata bargains, eyebrows lifted hopefully. Sakura and Ino consult one another without words, using only glances—though Hinata definitely just saw Ino stick her tongue out at Sakura—and seem to finally come to an understanding, both of them sighing.

Fine,” They groan in unison, utterly put out. “But we’re going dancing.”

Hinata’s heart drops, and Sakura and Ino know it, and burst into laughter. They shift as a unit when a group of teenagers head straight for them down the street, with no intentions of moving. They needn’t have, though. The moment the teens look up and recognize who they’re about to collide with, namely Sakura and her fists, they deviate immediately, cursing and flailing.

Ino and Sakura continue on as if nothing strange had happened at all, and Hinata purses her lips and tries to stifle the huge smile trying to crawl up her face.

“Fine,” she agrees at last, even though she really, really does not like to dance in public. She likes dancing with friends, but with strangers who are usually often drunk or getting there? Not her cup of tea. But fair is fair, and they have a compromise.

“Now,” Sakura says, “let’s look for supplies.”

And so Hinata lets herself be directed towards several supply stores, asking Sakura’s and Ino’s opinions on several things she plans to orchestrate into her curriculum, and decorate her classroom with. Their last stop is Ino’s flower shop, and they spend most of their time there, looking for just the right starter flowers and plants that the kids might not absolutely destroy. They start with good intentions, but then Sakura finds a ripped soil bag and throws some at Ino, who squeals and heads immediately for a hose and points it at Hinata, and from there things go a little awry.

At the end of the day, though, Hinata makes it home (soaking wet and covered in soil and with a few bruises from thrown pebbles, Sakura) with more supplies than she could’ve hoped for on day one, largely thanks to Ino and Sakura purchasing a few things for her, knowing that she’s going to be totally on her own in the way of supplies. She’s got the essentials, and some decorations to liven up the room – one that Iruka had carefully told her hadn’t been in use for years.

She has a few flowers for starters: pansies, sweet peas, and orange poppies, all easy to care for and fun to look at, so the kids know what they’re working towards.

Her last flower purchase was a single sunflower seed, one that will grow up to fourteen feet tall if properly nourished. She has big plans for this one, and in a way, since it had been in the dream that started all of this; she thinks her class may grow around it entirely.

But more importantly than the supplies and the flowers and the excitement of tomorrow, where she’ll be able to go in and decorate before class starts the following week, she has this: support.

Nothing with a price tag can ever be so important.

 

 

She gets to the Academy an hour before her first official class opens to the Academy students, and several teachers stop by.

“Just came to see what you’ve done with the place,” one of them says, and she’s smiling in a way that makes Hinata think she approves.

“Unreal,” someone whispers, “I don’t even recognize the place, which is a compliment. I can’t believe the council put you in here.”

“Where else was she going to have a room?” someone says acerbically, “we don’t get much funding. We don’t have any other rooms this big, they’re all closets.”

Someone sighs, and then, “True.”

Iruka-sensei comes to stand beside her, resting a hand on her shoulder and squeezing slightly; pride races through her system.

He says, “It looks really incredible,” and Hinata feels tears welling in her eyes.

She whispers, “Thank you.”

She looks around at her hard work, at the pictures of flora and plants taped to the walls, of the corner with a small tower of soil bags and a single potted pansy atop it. She glances across the room to the still-grimy but slightly clearer windows she’d nearly broken her back to try to clean the night before, and the chalkboard in the front of the room, mostly untouched except for her name scribbled in the corner, and a silly smiling plant etched into the center, welcoming the kids.

The room gets a decent amount of sunlight filtering in, because it faces the east; Hinata thinks Kakashi may have had a hand in orchestrating her place here. She’d moved some of the tables and chairs from a nearby storage room into hers, since it had been empty, and already it looked like an open, flexible classroom. No orderly lines or rows or anything, but seats and tables, and a rug underneath it all.

The chairs are cheap and some of them are falling apart, and the tables are chipped and lopsided, there’s only one piece of chalk and it’s already broken in half, but all of it is hers and she loves it.

She absolutely loves it.

 

 

Hinata arrives an hour early on the first day of school, and anxiously straightens different displays around her classroom. She flits to and fro, stumbling against desk-corners and chair-legs, nearly tripping a few times. She goes over her introduction several times to herself, hands clasped in front of her, eyes steady on the sea of yet-unfilled chairs.

Hello, my name is Hyuuga Hinata.

The clock hand is an audible addition to the nearly silent air in the room, and it draws Hinata’s eye frequently. She hears footsteps outside of the room, and freezes. But the steps dissipate before they make it to her hallway, and she’s able to breathe again. Should she wait by her open door? Would that be too intimidating for the kids, to see her standing there waiting?

“Breathe,” she tells herself. She almost wants to laugh at how nervous she feels. Steps approach again, more singular and heavier, and when she turns to the hallway this time she finds Iruka leaning against the doorframe.

“Nervous?” He says, and it’s clear he knows the answer. He smiles and something in his eyes sparks like pride, and amusement. “You’re gonna be fine. They’ll love you.”

Will they even show up? She doesn’t ask, but Iruka has always been more perceptive than most, and he sees right through her.

“They have mandatory classes first, remember,” he says gently, a reminder that’s meant to soothe her frazzled nerves. He steps away from the doorframe, says, “In the meantime, you wanna show me around?”

Hinata huffs out a laugh, flushing slightly as she turns to gesture towards the room—her room. She leads him around the outskirts, where countless plants already thrive. She speaks of them by name, knows them all as well as she knows the names of her family members, and she reaches out and fingers the leaves of several, almost reverently.

She shows him the bins holding the packets of seeds, enough to account for a myriad of different potential plants for her students to choose from. She shows him the water pales, each in different shapes and colors, ensuring a diverse enough set of options to encourage her students’ interest. It’s when she’s showing him the succulents huddled in the brightest corner—in shades of green and blue and the most brilliant red—that he says, almost in wonder, “You truly want this to work.”

Hinata isn’t offended by his tone, or the question itself. She straightens to her full height and glances over her shoulder, meets her old teacher’s eyes steadily and says, “Yes.”

Iruka’s smile opens something up to her she only remembers from her time here, in the Academy, that makes pride well heavy and comforting in her heart.

“You’re gonna be just fine,” he says again, and this time she believes him.

 

 

Hinata’s class begins, and no one shows up.

She waits for five minutes at first, thinking they might not know where her room is, and then ten after that, because maybe they’re still thinking about it. At the twenty minute mark, her shoulders start to droop, and she wonders if this was a good idea after all. She knows that it is, but maybe the timing isn’t right, maybe she needs more to entice students to get interested in plants than plants.

She thinks about the council giving her six months, and hopes she won’t have to appear before them to call it off in one.

She’s standing in the brightest corner, one fingertip trailing over the fine edge of one of her jade pathos plants when she hears the faintest hint of an approach, followed steadily by unmistakable footsteps. She glances over her shoulder, heart in her throat, and finds a young girl with an older girl clasping her shoulder. She smiles hesitantly at Hinata, eyes glancing curiously around the room before returning back to her. The younger girl stares at the floor, cheeks flushed and hands clasped in front of her.

“H-hello,” the older girl greets, “is this the new plant class?”

Hinata takes a steady breath, turning to face them with a shy smile of her own. She nods her head, says, “Yes. You’re welcome to come in, if you’d like.”

They pause for just a moment, still examining the room, and then the older girl gives a gentle push and they both walk inside. Hinata’s heart races, and she beams when they choose seats close to the peony centerpieces she’d set out on the front tables. She walks over to them cautiously, bizarrely afraid of startling them. She crouches by the table and slides the potted peonies closer to the girls, smiling when the younger and shyer of the too reaches out instinctively to touch a petal.

“They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” she says, and the older girl nods, eyes wide and trained on the bright pinks and reds of the flowers.

She dips her fingers lightly into the soil, touches a single root, and says, “I’m Hana. This is Mei.”

And Hinata smiles at them, her first students, and her cheeks fill to heated peaks with the joy of succeeding, if even in such a small way.

“Thank you for coming to class,” she says, “I’m going to help you grow.”

 

 

In the next couple of months, students start trickling into her classroom, a light sprinkling of rainfall.

There are twelve of them now, and Hana and Mei’s sunflowers are growing faster than anything else. Po, a boy of ten who treats flowers the same way that Shino treats his bugs, comes early to class every day—just to tend to his plants first, on his own time, of his own learned knowledge, before readying himself for the lesson.

Hinata beams every time she turns around and finds the steady stream of her students migrating through the door and right towards their chosen plants and flowers. She’d made sure to make her class as open to self-expression as she possibly could, while still retaining a fragile sense of authority.

Her class is a little different than most, a little slower, a little smaller, but the kids are still learning and they’re enjoying it and really, that’s all that matters.

“Can anyone tell me,” Hinata says, holding up a small screen as the kids finally start trickling back to their seats. “What this plant is called?”

Hands rise into the air, a concert of interest, and Hinata smiles. She’d been able to negotiate a trade with one of her neighboring teachers for one of their handheld electronics, in exchange for a half dozen baked cookies. She’d found some interactive games online and had wanted to share the fun with her students, except that she couldn’t afford more than a single device. So she’d orchestrated the trade, and for now, letting the class pass around the screen one by one, to view the plants and notes she’d written the night before, would have to suffice.

The devices help hold their interest, and that’s key, because they are not always interested. There’s not much that’s exciting about plants if they’re not already something you find fascinating, and these students are young. Taking care of plants involves much waiting and gentle, delicate care, and her students get bored.

But they’re learning well, and they’re learning quick. The lesson here is important, too, that patience is something you can wield in any angle. Hinata uses it to her advantage, though subtly, because there’s a line she can’t cross in this room—one that separates the sides of licensed teacher and adjunct volunteer.

She is not licensed to teach them in the way of shinobi, even if she is one—one of the best.

So instead, she teaches them shinobi ideals through their gardening, their plants, and interweaves the information in with proper self-care.

When they show signs of edginess with how gradually their plants grow, she tells them about patience on the battlefield, about waiting for the right moment to strike to get the result they need. She tells them that plants, too, require patience; they’re not an enemy, but even allies require their patience. And should they allow it, should they show calm in the face of a slowly roiling storm, they’ll be rewarded with growth of self and situation both.

When they express distaste while using the soil, undisciplined and leery of the creatures that grow beneath the surface, she explains the unexpected importance of being comfortable in the field, regardless of conditions. The soil may stink and the creatures may be slimy, she says, watching her kids smirk, but they can trap other pests you might not expect to show up, and you’ll be grateful for it afterwards.

And when the plants and the flowers start growing, visual progress, and her students start showing real appreciation for their hard-work and diligent tending, she teaches them this: when the mission is over and you come back home, seeing something as beautiful as this, hard work tended by your hands alone, it’s something to be proud of.

She watches the understanding flicker in their eyes and she hopes it holds, she hopes she can help hold it there, but she dismisses them early from class with a smile.

This is something they’re going to have to learn themselves, a seed she has planted, but only they can make grow.

 

 

Hinata comes back from a mission bone-weary and tired, but it’s the evening before her next class day and so she sleeps. When she wakes up the next morning and heads into the Academy, she notices people looking at the smudges under her eyes, exhaustion and sadness intertwined like bruises.

The mission had gone wonderfully, in that a dozen enemy shinobi had died at her hand. Success, at any cost.

Even now, so many years after the fact, killing does not get easier for her. She knows some of her peers and her superiors have found a rhythm, have taught themselves how to let the reality of it slide off their back, but she can’t. She can’t.

She walks down the hallways without looking, eyes open but unseeing more than shades of scarlet, and it’s not healthy but it’s there. Her hallway is quiet, secluded, and for once she’s glad for it. She pauses before her room and leans a shoulder heavily against the wall, right before the doorframe, and she thinks of a slate wiped clean.

Not a moment later, she pushes herself off the wall and rounds the corner into the room, wiping the exhaustion from her face. Three of her students are already in the room, elbow-deep in some soil.

She laughs, asking, “What are you doing with the gardens?”

“Making sure there’s enough soil, duh!”

“The basil’s roots were really showing,” Po says seriously, crouched low with smudges of soil on his cheeks.

“Someone might’ve pulled at it.”

The shock and anger in that last comment brings a smile to Hinata’s face, one she hides behind a hand, because her three students appear truly disgruntled by the fact. There have been several times where outside students have come in to cause a fuss, treating the plants cruelly or making a mess simply because Hinata wasn’t present. She doesn’t lock the door when she’s away. What would be the point? Her students come in to check on their plants and flowers every day, tending to them, nourishing them, even if it means simply inspecting them without any necessary action.

But children can be mean, and some of them like to destroy what others have worked so hard to cultivate.

“Perhaps,” Hinata admits, “But look.”

She crouches with them, ignoring the way her knees crack and her back creaks—she skipped her morning stretches; it was a mistake. She reaches out and carefully traces the line of a single, delicate root, upended and fractured. She trails the length of it tenderly, almost forgetting her students are there, and then she carefully tucks the root back into the soil. She reaches with both hands and straightens the stalk, pushing it deeper.

“It can be saved,” she explains, and this is important, so she looks into their eyes. “Pat the soil around it, and we can save it.”

“We can?”

“We can try,” she says, smiling kindly. “Even if damage has been done, this basil plant is something you’ve worked hard to help grow, right?”

“Yes!” a chorus of three voices, pitched in different tones.

“So we try to save it. We don’t give up, because—”

“That’s our ninja way!” a voice from the doorway calls, and Hinata’s heart starts racing, her breath pushing out of her lungs in an audible gasp, just like that. “Believe it!”

“Naruto-sempai!” her students squeal, and in an instant they’re racing over to him, clinging to his legs and reaching for him with smiles as bright as sunshine. Hinata finishes patting the soil around their basil plant, an excuse to take a few seconds longer to garner her courage, and stands back to her full height. There’s soil on her fingertips and now on her pants, where she rubs at them. She turns to face him and he’s as bright and as beautiful as she remembers, and taller, too.

And injured.

Hinata’s eyes, wide and surprised and worried, flick over the bandages on his left arm and his face for only a blink, before her gaze settles heavily and in devastation on the space where his right arm should be.

“Naruto-kun,” she breathes, and tears prickle her eyes. She watches as he hoists Mei up against his chest without any sign of pain, resting her on his bandaged arm. His only arm. Mei, usually so shy and reticent, wraps her arms around his neck and starts chattering in his ear about basil, and peonies, and worms.

Po, surprisingly honest and perhaps a little tactless, asks Naruto where his arm went. Luckily, Hinata thinks with an unsteady wheeze of a breath, Mei’s chatter overcomes the question and draws Naruto’s full attention.

Hinata takes the moment to re-catch her breath, and teach herself how to stand without trembling. When had she last seen him? Some time in the week before he was sent to the borders, possibly. Years ago; before the war outside their door had called to him first, and foremost, the village savior, the village hero, and he had answered.

And at what cost? She thinks now, eyes trickling over every sign of injury, every wrap of bandage, the border of discoloration she can only just make out from under the collar of his shirt, spreading over his left shoulder. His head is wrapped and she worries about concussions, about head trauma.

His eyes are as bright as she remembers, catching every fleck of sunlight in the room and drawing them inward, magnifying them with joy. He smiles and laughs and Mei continues on happily, overjoyed with his attention. They pull on him, wanting to show him their plants, their hard work manifest.

They say, “They’re beautiful now! You’ve never seen anything so beautiful!”

And Naruto’s eyes find her through her students, and hold.

Hinata reminds herself to breathe, to breathe, to breathe, and she realizes suddenly that she wants desperately to reach out to him, to heal whatever he’ll let her. But she doesn’t move, because she’s stunned.

He must see it in her eyes, the fear and the pain, because he seamlessly cuts into Mei’s retelling and asks if she can show him how they saved the basil plant. Mei excitedly asks to be put back to the ground, and he crouches to slide her off his body as carefully as he might with his own child.

The thought does nothing but make Hinata ache.

“Show us,” he says, and when he looks up at Hinata from his crouch, his eyes are dark pools of shadow, pained and somnolent.

Her students lead him towards her, and he never takes his eyes from her, not once, not even when they start explaining the process of caring for their basil plant. He’s right next to her, so close her breath would reach him if she could just remember how to breathe.

“That’s awesome,” he says to her students, when they finally wrap up the story. “You guys are great! Can you, uh, do me a favor really quick though?”

“Yes!” they chant in unison, desperate to please.

He says, “Could you go tell Iruka-sensei I’m looking for him?” And Hinata doesn’t know what he’s planning by asking that, considering Iruka isn’t expected until this evening for parent-student conferences. She doesn’t interfere with whatever he has planned, though, and let’s her students run an errand they won’t be able to fulfill. A small selfish thing she allows herself, if only for private time with Naruto, after so long without any time at all.

When they’re gone, the silence in her classroom is eerie and unmistakable. The last time she’d seen Naruto, she’d told him she loved him, and Pain had driven an iron stake through her heart.

“Hinata,” Naruto breathes, too quietly, so unlike him. “Are you well?”

And isn’t that so typical Naruto, she thinks, to return home from war with critically apparent injuries and openly worry about someone else’s well-being. She wonders how many people he’s looked after since he’d returned home—and when had that been? How long has he been home? Long enough to get medical care, certainly. Long enough to come find her, in this place that would be unfamiliar to him, considering she hadn’t started it until some time after his leave. She wonders who told him, or if he’d inquired first, and she sees the sudden scarlet spread of a wound opening on his arm and she realizes he’s been here long enough for medical care, but not long enough to complete it.

Had he come to her so quickly? Why? Hinata’s still in shock from seeing him, here in her classroom, after all this time—and with so many injuries—her mind and her heart pound with a frantic twinge she can’t put into words.

She looks back up into his eyes and the pained confusion she finds there sends a single tear trailing down her cheek.

He doesn’t say a word, then, and this is new, too. For a flicker of a moment, she wonders if he’s the same person she remembers at all, or some new and sharp-edged version, with shadows for eyes.

His eyes trace the trail of her tear, and he reaches out and slides his fingers through the hair on her nape, pulls her head in against his neck. She breathes in against him, citrus and copper, and his fingers massage her nape with a gentleness that nearly destroys her.

“It’s okay,” he says, and she believes him. She always believes him.

“What happened?” she asks, then revises, because that’s too open-ended for a brief conversation. And that’s what this will be, she thinks. From experience, all she has with Naruto are brief conversations, before something or someone else draws his effervescent attention elsewhere.

“You’re bleeding,” she whispers, nearly against his skin. She lifts her hand and gently grasps his forearm, where she’d seen the bleeding. Healing chakra races through her fingertips, and he sighs so quietly against her she isn’t even certain it’s him at all.

“What you’re doing here,” he says, and his voice is low and close and moves through her, molten and heated, with ease. “It’s awesome, Hinata. It’s really awesome.”

What you’ve done, she immediately thinks, what you’ve given of yourself on the borders of our home is so much more

“What you’re doing with these kids,” he continues, “is going to change their lives. It’s going to help improve so many lives.”

Her chakra stutters, not from his words, but from exhaustion. She’d gotten four hours of sleep the night prior, after returning from her mission, and she’d sustained quite a few injuries herself. They’d required her attention, her chakra, and now she’s finally feeling the effects. She pulls from an empty chasm, draining the dregs, and Naruto seems to realize it a moment before her exhausted sigh, quiet and low, transforms involuntarily into a whimper.

“What’s rule number one, though, eh?” he says, laughing quietly in her ear. He pulls back and takes her hand from his forearm, letting their hands drop in-between them, still clasped. “If you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of others.”

Hinata laughs, nearly hysterical, and sways. Naruto smiles at her with those still-shadowed eyes, and she has so many questions but she’s suddenly so tired. Naruto moves into her space, appearing utterly unbothered even when he says, “Put your arms around my neck, Hinata. On the right side.”

That shocks some energy back into her, and she’s already shaking her head before saying, “I’m okay.”

Naruto smirks, but it’s a sad thing compared to his usual luster.

“You’re swaying on your feet,” he points out, “come on, don’t fight me on this.”

And Hinata doesn’t want to, of course she doesn’t want to, but this is all so bizarre. There are so many chapters in-between that they’ve skipped, so many years apart without any correspondence, and it’s not like things had been different before he left. Before she ever confessed, all they had been was friends.

Friends.

But maybe it was silly of her to question this, the act of leaning on a friend.

“You’re injured,” she says, and this is a viable point of negation, but he just laughs. He laughs.

“Only my body,” he says, which doesn’t make any sense to anyone but Naruto. He follows it up with a partial explanation in the form of sparks dashing across the shadows in his eyes, a sudden onslaught of energy.

He moves for her, coming forward and lifting one of her arms around the back of his neck. He smiles, so close to her she can barely breathe, and says, “now the other.”

And she listens; she wraps her arms around his neck and holds on tightly, just as he crouches down and slides his arm under her legs, pulling her up and flush against his chest. He moves comfortably, without strain, as though he’s lived his entire life with only one arm.

He holds her against him, so close she can feel his pulse tap, tap, tapping away against her forehead, where she nuzzles cautiously against his neck.

“If I’m too heavy,” she starts, and he snorts to derail her.

Please,” he laughs, and turns towards the doorway. He takes one step before the pitter-patter of footsteps trickles down the hallway, and another before her three students are in the doorway, staring wide-eyed and curious up at their hero, with their teacher in his arms. Hinata does the only appropriate thing and hides her face in his neck, counting slowly to ten to distract herself from the rapid racing of her heart.

“Iruka-sensei isn’t here.”

“Ah, too bad. Thanks for looking though. And hey,” Naruto says, stifling a laugh but letting his smile grow. “Teach isn’t feeling too well today. You’re gonna have to take care of the basil plant by yourselves okay? Think you can handle it?”

“Believe it!” Mei, of all people, chants with a clenched fist. Naruto laughs heartily, and every deep thrum of it vibrates against Hinata’s chest. Her cheeks stain pink, then red, and she burrows further against Naruto’s neck, and the comforting warmth of his skin. She might be taking more than he’d expected from him, but she’s honestly just too tired to care, at the moment. The alternative is her students seeing her in his arms, blushing full-scale, and honestly that doesn’t sound as appealing.

“Awesome,” Naruto says, stepping past them. “Work hard!”

And then he carries her through the Academy, the long way. Hinata’s embarrassment grows deeper and deeper, a pink spill over cheeks and nose and throat, until her entire body feels heated from the core, or maybe from Naruto, whose skin is always so warm. People call out to them, some wonderingly, some smugly. Naruto fields their calls and their questions, laughing through almost all of them, offering no explanations other than to say, “I’m taking her home.”

He lets them interpret that themselves, and Hinata is either too embarrassed or exhausted or both to do a single thing against it.

Let them think what they want; she’s not going to start a fuss.

Had someone told her that this morning Uzumaki Naruto would appear to literally sweep her off her feet and carry her home to a bed she’d highly regretted leaving that morning, she would’ve laughed. She would’ve laughed so hard tears may have formed.

It’s funny, sometimes, how strangely the world works.

 

 

Naruto and Hinata do not talk about that day, or what it might have meant to either of them, but he becomes a semi-solid fixture in her classroom henceforth, and she wonders about that.

He’s one of the busiest men in the village, of that she has no doubt, especially with a war on the fringes, and one he’d only just returned from. He had told her a little about that, the morning after she’d gotten a full cycle of sleep and found him making messy eggs in her kitchen. He couldn’t say much, of course, but he explained his injuries and gave her a shaky timeline of major events, of which he was involved in. As it turns out, Sasuke made an appearance on the border, not to fight for a side but to fight Naruto.

It cost both of them an arm, but according to Naruto, it had been worth it.

“There’s no bitterness between us anymore,” he smiles, carrying a single potted sunflower in the palm of his hand, leaning crookedly in its base. “I definitely call that a win.”

Hinata laughs lowly, shaking her head. “Leave it to you,” she says, without really thinking about it, “to call losing a limb a victory.”

It says something about how well she understands him, that he laughs so boisterously at that, rather than being offended. There’s a mirthful tear in the corner of his eye, and he wipes it away with the last vestiges of his bubbling laughter.

“It’s just an arm,” he jokes, setting the sunflower down on the windowsill, where the sun bathes it with warmth and light. He turns back to her with a grin, leaning his hips back against the sill. He smiles at her, just watching as she rearranges some things in her room. She’d told him earlier in the week that she wanted to change her room up, keep the kids guessing, and he’d showed up unannounced to help her. She appreciated it, truly, but it was also nerve-wracking to suddenly be seeing so much of him, and to constantly have his eyes on her.

She wonders sometimes if he knows he’s staring, and if he does that with everyone. It’s intimidating…and heady.

“You should try it,” he says, as she crouches low to the ground to retrieve a fallen ornament, something dainty and light that Mei likes to hang on some of her plants. It touches Hinata’s heart that she has come so far, from being one of Hinata’s first students—of twenty, now!—shy and uncertain, to the person who now feels confident enough to decorate her plants, and nourish them with tender care.

“Try what?” Hinata huffs, reaching far under one of the desks, fingers grasping the ornament at last. “Losing an arm?”

“Not actually,” Naruto laughs, smiling wide. “Pretending to only have one arm.”

Hinata lifts back up onto her hands and knees and glances over at him wonderingly, brow and lips pursed. His head is tilted slightly, eyes heavy and content, and he simply stares back. It’s disconcerting, sometimes, how comfortable he is with gazing at her.

Not for the first time since his return home, she wonders where they stand.

“Pretend?” she asks, as she gets back to her feet, dusting her knees off. She smiles over at him, suddenly, a spark catching in the pale spheres of her eyes. “Okay.”

Naruto’s eyes flash immediately, and his brows jump in amusement. He points at her, calling, “left arm!” before she can even think to choose which arm to ‘lose.’

She laughs, shoulders bouncing, and nods in acquiescence.

“Alright.”

She makes a deliberate show of going around the room and lifting different pots, packets, and at one point, even a bag of soil with just her left arm and hand. She does so rather seamlessly, until she gets to the bag of soil. It’s heavy, nothing she’s unused to, considering her training regimen, but with only her non-dominant arm, it’s a struggle.

“Not to be mean,” Naruto finally chortles, laughing at her through his teeth, eyes squinted shut. “But I’m glad you’re struggling.”

“Hey!” she calls, pretending to be affronted as the bag slips through her fingers and lands heavily over her foot. She doesn’t even hiss, or make any sound of disgruntlement other than a sigh, but it still sends Naruto into hysterics.

“Well it wasn’t really fair in the beginning,” he admits, grinning. “You had no trouble at all with anything! That’s not how it works.”

“I’m good with my hands,” she says, before she realizes how that sounds and flushes every shade of sunset.

Naruto snorts, utterly confident. “So am I, believe it.”

The way he says it sounds like he’s flirting. Hinata feels faint.

“But even I struggled at first! It was weird that you didn’t.”

“Not weird,” Hinata grumbles petulantly, smiling at him from under her lashes. She gives the bag of soil another attempt, and drops it again, the weight of it just not fitting right against her arm. Naruto pushes away from the windowsill and saunters over to her, all self-assured swagger.

He crouches down to her level, quite abruptly, until they’re face-to-face, so close she can taste the citrus of his breath. His eyes dance, this close to her, a sunrise reflected in flames, effervescent and enchanting.

“I’ll teach you,” he says, and he reaches for the bag of soil and hefts it into the crook of his arm, balancing it there with ease, all while still crouched. His center of balance impresses her, and that’s saying something, considering her lineage and their known prowess with poise, both on and off the battlefield. She’s never really paid attention to that aspect of Naruto; she knows his battle style to be aggressive and choppy, nothing like the seamless dance of an Uchiha’s fighting form, but thinking back on it, even within his explosive style, balance never appeared to be an issue.

It baffles her that so suddenly after having lost his arm, his balance still remains so wonderfully intact. Her admiration of him grows, swells, and blossoms into something new in her chest.

“It’s all in the physics of it,” he says, and it’s so random and so not Naruto that Hinata can’t help but burst out into laughter. He doesn’t take offense, and only holds his serious, pouting expression for a moment before he, too, bursts into laughter.

“Just kidding!” He sings, “I don’t even know what that is, to be honest.”

This only sends Hinata into another round of uncontrollable laughter, and by the time she manages to get a handle on herself, she finds Naruto gazing at her with something that feels frighteningly like affection. It reminds her of how she feels for him, the admiration and the affection. Love.

She can’t quite believe that of him, though, for whatever ridiculous reason her still-growing self-esteem can give her. The negative voice in her mind feeds her excuses, like you were only just barely friends before he left, and it’s been so long since you’ve seen each other, and—

He didn’t respond to your confession.

But his eyes, she wonders, how can he look at her like that and it not be love?

She remembers her confession starkly, vividly, and she remembers so clearly the weeks following; her recovery in the hospital; the time spent waiting for him to appear with an answer, any answer, and finding nothing but absence. He visited her plenty, but never with a response.

With her confession on her mind, Hinata barely notices Naruto let the bag of soil slide back to the ground once more, until he speaks again and his voice is surprisingly quiet, almost—intimate. She thinks of waiting for an answer that never came, and she looks up into Naruto’s eyes and wonders at the feeling in them, the brightness edged in shadows made of war, and she wonders if maybe—

“Here,” he says, and the words are heavy for some reason she can’t quite fathom. “Try again.”

 

 

Kakashi Hatake comes by her classroom six months from the day she came to him, in full Hokage regalia. He looks bored before he even steps foot into her room, and when he finds a class of twenty-six students looking curiously back at him, he blinks.

Hinata muffles her laughter behind her hand, rising from her crouch in front of the succulents, where she’d been instructing two of the twenty-six on how to properly water them, and the types of environments that help them thrive.

“Hokage-sama,” she greets with a respectful bow, before turning to her class and gesturing for them to greet him as well. Twenty-six small Konoha citizens bow to him in a very poor attempt at unison, which makes Hinata smile, and greet him loudly enough to wake the dead. Kakashi picks at his ear with his pinky finger in response, flicking something suspicious away.

“Yes, yes,” he greets, his visible eye crinkling in amusement, whether feigned or authentic, Hinata has some ideas. “Quite a few of you in here, huh?”

“Twenty six,” a young boy in the front boasts, with obvious emphasis. Kakashi widens his eye dramatically, lifting a hand to his masked-mouth.

“My, my,” he replies breathily, and the sound of footsteps behind him have Hinata’s eyes trailing to the door, where Iruka leans with arms crossed over his chest.

“Aren’t you supposed to be reporting back to the council soon, Hokage-sama?”

Kakashi turns to Hinata instead, eye crinkling in amusement, this time so very clearly genuine.

“Iruka-sensei is so diligent, ne, Hinata-chan?”

She nods, amused at their interplay. Iruka sighs, looking heavenward, but there’s a tick to the corner of his mouth that gives away his delight.

“Well, if you’re going to stay longer,” Iruka begins, peeling himself away from the doorframe. “You should tell her how well she’s doing.”

“Bossy,” Kakashi grunts, before turning to the class. “One at a time, I want each of you to tell me briefly what you’ve learned.”

Her entire class immediately shouts in unison, offering every detail of what they’ve learned. Kakashi appears to very nearly take a step backwards, towards the door, an obvious sign of retreat, but Iruka blocks the way smugly, shaking his head.

“Ah,” he sighs under the torrent of their continued streams of updates. “I see.”

Hinata has mercy on him if only so that she can regain her breath from all the laughing she’s done at his expense, and calls her class to order with ease. She just barely misses the proud spark of Iruka’s eyes upon watching this, her ease with the students, and their obedience to her gentle authority.

“We can show Hokage-sama one thing we’ve done,” Hinata decides suddenly, crafting a plan to show him more without actually putting it into words. “You have to choose one thing, and you have to agree on it.”

“Only one?” Hana asks from the back, pursing her lips.

“Only one.” Hinata nods, strong on this point. “And he’s a busy man, so I’d say you have about three minutes, starting now.”

She crosses her arms over her chest and turns to study Kakashi’s face, unaffected and bland even as her students crowd into a circle and begin discussing options. She supposes the true learning curve won’t appear unless her students meet the deadline, and have in fact agreed upon only one option. In the meantime, Iruka makes his way over to her and compliments her style, and the formatting of the class.

“Every time I drop in here,” he says, “I can feel the learning environment. It’s palpable. It doesn’t feel like there’s much confusion, or frustration.”

“Oh,” Hinata grins, “There is. We usually work it out before class ends, however.”

Iruka smiles, and Hinata feels almost as though she’s just passed some unknown test.

Three minutes pass and Kakashi only manages to look entirely too put-upon, to have the attention turn back to him once more.

“Have you come to a decision?” Hinata asks, utterly trusting that they have. She’d done plenty of teaching on compromise and negotiations before, the only difference had been the topic. Usually it involved which focus they’d have for the day, plants, flowers, or succulents. If they agreed without hurting anyone’s feelings, she offered them the option of trees; that meant a field trip of sorts, to the edge of the forest just outside their windows.

“Yes, sensei,” Hana concludes, the unofficial appointed leader. “We want to show him Konoha.”

Hinata watches Kakashi’s eyebrow jump up in surprised curiosity, and she counts that as a win.

“Good choice,” she praises, beaming at her kids. “Po? Will you?”

Po is out of his seat and heading towards the back corner of the room before she even has to voice her request fully. He bends to a crouch, just the way she’d taught them to protect their backs, and lifts the heavier pot with his legs. He holds it steadily in his hands, watchful of the low ceiling, and brings it carefully to the front of the class. Iruka claps his hands once, excitement apparent on his face when he sees the chosen flower.

Po sets the pot right beside Kakashi’s feet, and backs up with a proud smile, arms tucked behind his back.

“This is Konoha,” he says, and Hinata’s students chatter excitedly behind him. Hinata lifts a hand to rub idly at her heated cheeks, suddenly overcome with affection. She’s so caught up in their satisfaction that she misses entirely the sudden presence in the doorway.

“We’ve been taking care of Konoha since we started this class,” Po explains, “It’s a special kind of sunflower, that’s why it grows so tall. Hinata-sensei says it’s ‘resilient,’ and will grow with even a little bit of love. But it definitely likes more love, better.”

“Yeah,” Hana adds, “and it’s still growing. Konoha. Sensei says it’s possible to make it grow twice the size it is now!”

And that’s something that brightens the eyes of every one of her students, every time she reminds them—because already Konoha the sunflower, at the start of their class just a seed without a pot or soil, is an inch taller than Hatake Kakashi.

He hums, stepping back to examine the sturdy stalk and the thick leaves, the brightness of the petals, the durable core.

He glances through the leaves and catches Hinata’s eyes, and he smiles, and Hinata feels this moment cement into her memory. Kakashi doesn’t say a word to her, not about her class, not about Konoha the sunflower, or about how far she’s come. Instead, he turns and heads for the doorframe, pausing just before it to turn back and glance at Po, then Hana, and then Hinata’s class, each student in turn.

“Keep up the good work,” he says, with an accompanying thumb’s up that has all of the regalia of a Hokage behind it. “Well done.”

He steps through the doorframe and pauses, only a fraction of a second, and mumbles something too low for Hinata to hear. Iruka follows him out and grins, suddenly, when he turns down the hallway. There’s more muffled conversation, not between Iruka and Kakashi, which is strange, but it’s difficult for Hinata to hear, even as she returns to the center of the room.

Then the conversation changes, switches perspectives, and she hears Kakashi say, “They named the plant Konoha.”

Iruka instantly chides him, saying, “Don’t even.”

That line of thought effectively dismissed, Kakashi changes tactics and hums amusedly, “Three students was struggle enough.”

And Hinata hears Iruka laugh, vibrant and pleased, the sound of it echoing through the hall. “You're ridiculous,” he chides, and their footsteps disappear down the hall along with their voices.

Hinata turns back to her class and beams, lifting a hand to trace the thick edge of one of Konoha’s leaves, admiring how far it’s grown, and how it continues to grow even still.

“Thank you,” she tells her class, “for working so hard and for nourishing your plants. You did so well! Your hard work was acknowledged by the Hokage. I think this means you deserve a field trip.”

“To the trees? And our gardens there?” someone shouts, sounding hopeful. Hinata smiles, eyes heavy with affection.

“I was thinking Ichiraku,” a voice interjects from the doorway, and Hinata turns to find Naruto leaning there, as if he’d been there from the start. The kids grumble and contemplate his offer, but seem to reject it entirely after someone suggests ice cream.

Naruto glances critically out at the sea of students and blows a raspberry, shaking his head. Hinata can’t help but snort; amused with the way he pretends to be affronted.

“I wasn’t asking you,” he says, sticking his tongue out at her students playfully. Hinata, confused and off-balance, flicks her gaze over to him and finds that same adoring expression, so clear and expressive. “What do you say, Hinata?”

Her entire class, twenty-six well-behaved, wonderfully exceptional students, immediately become a combined chaos of cooing and catcalling, and Hinata only barely manages to stay on her feet.

“A field trip?” she stutters, glancing between her smug class and Naruto’s equally smug face, unable to believe that he is asking her out in front of her entire class, until he seals away any misconceptions with a smug sort of expectant clarification that only Naruto could pull off.

“A date,” he says, and her class roars.

 

 

Naruto presses her further back against the desk, his hand sliding artfully under the hem of her shirt to press firmly against her hip, his skin hot, his touch unforgettable. Her hip bumps one of her student’s plants and she flushes down to her neck, where Naruto’s lips are pressing insistently, sucking at her pulse.

“Naruto-kun,” she begs, wanting to laugh and maybe to cry because she can’t believe this is happening to her, that she could be so lucky. “We can’t—not here.”

Naruto groans against her, pushing even closer until there’s nothing left between her legs but him, the drag of his clothes against hers a familiar and thrilling frustration.

“Why?” he pouts, but she can feel the smile he presses against her throat. He’s still smiling when he pulls back enough to kiss the underside of her jaw, just at the hinge.

“My class is open,” she explains breathily, and her fingers are at odds with her words, still sliding through the hair at his nape, holding him to her. He doesn’t seem to mind, as his lips continue to trail over her jaw, to her cheek, and up to her temple. “The door is never closed. My policy.”

“Might have to make a revision,” Naruto grumbles, sighing against her. His hand slides away from her hip, fingers trialing like stripes of lightning over her skin, eliciting a gasp and a trail of chills racing down her spine. He touches her so gently, but she feels it all viscerally, so close to home he’s inside of her before he ever really knows it, tucked deep in the recesses of her heart that have always been his, anyways.

At long last, she lets her fingers slide away from his hair, and he steps out of the cove of her body, from between her legs. She slides off of the table he’d hoisted her upon, straightening her clothes. Neither of them can stop smiling, Naruto’s eyes bright and vibrant, no sign of the shadows she’d seen so long ago. They’re still there, she thinks solemnly, but returning home has been good for him. Healing.

She reaches out and trails her fingers over the bandages on his arm, before gently grasping his wrist. She pulls his hand to her and presses a kiss to his palm, closing his fingers around it, letting him keep it.

“Ah, Hinata,” he sighs, and his eyes are heavy and there’s the expression she’s grown to love so much, the one he saves just for her.

They both hear the pitter-patter of footsteps in the hall at the same time, and Naruto takes another centering step away from her, not even bothering to straighten his clothes. Hinata’s cheeks stain rose petal pink, but she heads back for the front of the class once again, seemingly unruffled.

Naruto heads for the windowsill, his favorite place, and leans against it. The sunlight streaming in makes a glowing backdrop around him, his hair a golden halo catching and distorting rays. He grins at her, then lets his eyes trail over to the doorway, waiting.

She follows his gaze just as students begin to trickle in, unsurprised to find Naruto there too, because this class has become his almost as much as it is hers.

Their kids find their seats, and Hinata smiles for them in much the same way she’s been smiling all morning.

With unchecked happiness.