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A Little Pain

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At the age of 7, there were a few things Hinata Hyuga was sure of. One, her father, Hiashi Hyuga, was the strongest shinobi she knew. Second, just the thought of her having to one day make decisions for her entire clan terrified her beyond belief. Third, her younger sister Hanabi, at the age of 2, was very easy to impress.

 

“The Ninja Academy? You’re going to the Ninja Academy?! That’s so cool, Hinata-neesama!”

 

Hinata gave Hanabi a small smile. “Father thinks that it’ll be good for me to get experience with training with others aside from him and Neji-niisan.”

 

“As heiress, there are many things for you to learn.” Her father had said. “The history of our village, the responsibilities of a shinobi, and dealing with others outside of the Clan. While you won’t be placed on genin team after your graduation, these are valuable information you can acquire from the Academy. But diplomacy and the Hyuga’s history and secrets will be mine to teach you.”

 

Hinata bit her bottom lip a little just remembering what she had been told just an hour prior after she had finished her sparring session with her cousin. Her father had announced she would be going to the Ninja Academy just like Neji. The only difference was the fact he would be actively pursuing missions for genin. Apparently missions like that could be dangerous and as heiress of the Hyuga Clan, it would be better not to risk letting her go on any as an inexperienced kunoichi.

 

Heiress.

 

Hinata felt a trickle of anxiety fill her chest.

 

A big title with many expectations.

 

Hanabi’s chirping cut of Hinata’s train of thought before it could even begin whirling down the tracks. “You’ll teach me everything you learn, right?” Her lavender eyes were shining.

 

“You aren’t even old enough to start your training, Hanabi.” Hinata giggled.

 

Hanabi pouted, chubby hands clenching Hinata’s shirt. “But still! I want to catch up to you and be a ninja just like you, Hinata-neesama! If I don’t start early, I’ll be so far behind!”

 

I’m not really not that strong.

 

“You have to wait to begin your training just like Lady Hinata did, Lady Hanabi.” Natsu finally cut in, but a soft smile was on her face. She could never truly be cross with Hanabi. She was to Hanabi as Kou was to Hinata, a caretaker. “It’s so you can grow properly. Real missions aren’t as exciting as you might think they are. They are dangerous and deadly and one can-”

 

Hinata could only stifle a giggle as Natsu went on with her lecture and Hanabi puffed out her cheeks in indignation. “Don’t worry,” she whispered into Hanabi’s ear, low enough that Natsu wouldn’t hear it. “I’ll make sure to tell you that happens when I’m gone.”

 

Hanabi smiled widely once more.

 

That was a fourth thing to add to the small list of things Hinata was sure of. There was no one who supported her more than her own little sister.

 


 

If there was one benefit to Hinata needing to be enrolled into the Ninja Academy, it was that she got to leave morning training early.

 

She didn’t have to be scrutinized by the constant stares of her father and grandfather, Housen. Nor did she have to see Neji and be pierced by his staring. His Byakugan wouldn't even be activated, and yet it still felt like he was staring right through her.

 

Did Neji even like her?

 

Hinata couldn’t tell. When they were younger, perhaps. She could barely recall the smiles her elder cousin would give her when she was 3. Now she never saw him smile, let alone around her. “Kou, I can never tell what Neji-niisan is thinking.” She told him as they walked down the main street together. “His face is always blank like Grandfather’s.” And Father’s. Hinata added to herself.

 

“You mean he has a ‘poker face’.”

 

“Poker…?” Hinata’s nose scrunched up in thought.

 

“Ehh it’s a game involving cards.” Kou replied, face a little strained. “But the idea of a poker face is something very useful for a shinobi. If your opponents can’t read your face, they can’t predict what move you may make next in a fight. Or how you might be feeling during a meeting of diplomacy. So you’ll learn this skill as well as heiress.”

 

There was that word again; heiress .

 

The word that meant one day, when she was old enough, she would be the head of the Hyuga just as her father and his father before him. Hinata couldn’t even imagine being a good ninja let alone the leader of an entire clan. The Hyuga Clan.

 

Hinata spent the last seven years of her life learning about it. How the Hyuga was the most distinguished Clan in all of Konoha with renowned techniques many coveted for themselves. How the Byakugan is the most well kept power that outsiders can’t know much about lest the Hyuga wish to be taken advantage of or become weak. How everyone has a destiny they were born into and how they can’t escape it or change.

 

And it was her destiny to lead the Hyuga. Which means one day she would become a ninja like her father.

 

But why don’t I ever feel that way? Hinata stared at her feet, absentminded of anything that could be coming out of Kou’s mouth as they continued their walk to the Academy grounds. Father is so sure of everything. He doesn’t second guess anything either. How can I lead the Clan if I’m not even good with others.

 

Hinata knew better than anyone that she was painfully shy. She could barely look anyone in the eye when she meets anyone new. Like on her first outing outside of the Clan compound. A kind shopkeeper had given her a greeting and Hinata froze, looking anywhere but the person hoping that the situation would resolve itself if she did nothing. Thankfully she was with Kou who was there to apologize to the shopkeeper, Tamura, on Hinata’s behalf and Hinata was able to leave the situation with a cinnamon roll in hand-- but Hinata knew she wouldn’t have Kou with her at the Academy.

 

She would have to confront people.

 

Hinata hated confronting people.

 

“Kou, will I do well at the Academy?” Hinata mumbled so low that she was surprised that Kou even heard her.

 

“Of course you will, Lady Hinata. It’s your destiny to succeed and become a leader that the Hyuga can all be proud of.”

 

The words were probably meant to be comforting, but those words filled with Hinata with so much dread that she felt dizzy and needed to squeeze Kou’s hand in order to keep herself grounded. I don’t want to lead the Clan. The thought rung out in Hinata’s mind with great clarity. She didn’t want to be in charge of over 200,000 Clansmen. She didn’t want to be in charge of diplomatic relations. ….I don’t want to disappoint everyone.

 

Hinata bit her bottom lip and her eyebrows knit into each other. Despite the fear of being in charge of so many people, sometimes the fear of letting down her family was worse than it all put together.

 

So many high expectations were on her to lead and be strong.

 

Hinata was very sure that there had to be some that didn’t agree with her being the heiress. She had heard the whispers around the compound. ‘How can she be a Clan Head with such a shy disposition? Surely she’d lead us to ruin.’ ‘Perhaps it would be best if Lord Hiashi chose someone more fitting?’ Those were only two of the things she’s heard, but Hinata is pretty sure that have been other things. The only ones who seemed to believe that she was capable of leading the Clan was Mother, Hanabi, Kou, Natsu, and Father. But if it’s my destiny, does that mean I’m destined to be a weak leader? The blue haired girl could only wonder.

 

“Ah, here we are, Lady Hinata.” Kou announced and Hinata jolted from her thoughts. “The Academy.”

 

Hinata gulped at how large the school was. “Here?”

 

Kou must have seen the discomfort on her face because he quickly added, “It will seem a lot smaller once you get used to the building and are running around playing with your new companions.”

 

I’m not very good at making friends. Hinata wanted to say aloud but instead she shifted her feet and looked at the grounds.

 

“Lady Hinata.”

 

“.... Yes?” Reluctantly, Hinata looked back up at her caretaker expecting to be scolded for being so unexcited.

 

“Would you feel better if you stayed out and played instead?” Kou smiled reassuringly pointing over to a forest of sorts. “Those are the trees you’ll be practicing your shuriken and kunai training with. But since there is no studying going on today, you don’t have to worry about being grazed by anything. I can take care of the paperwork and when I am done, we may go to Tamura-san’s shop and eat some of her delicious cinnamon rolls.”

 

Saliva began forming in her mouth just from imagining the smell and taste of one of Tamura’s cinnamon rolls. “Really?”

 

“Really.” Kou repeated as he looked over for a particular spot for Hinata to play at. “It will only take a moment, so you might not be able to make any friends but if you play over-” Kou cut himself off.

 

“....” Hinata blinked.

 

Once.

 

Twice.

 

Thrice before finally saying something. “Kou?”

 

Kou’s grip tightened over Hinata’s hand, not enough to hurt but enough to cause discomfort. “Kou?”

 

“On second thought, Lady Hinata,” Kou’s voice was grave. “I’ll have to take you inside with me.”

 

Why? Hinata peered over Kou’s leg to see what he possibly could have seen that would make him change his mind. Did he see something scary? Like a large spider. Or maybe what Kou had seen was a group of children coming out of the forest area in order to set up a place to practice throwing their shuriken.

 

Instead, all Hinata could see was a boy around her age sitting on a swing.

 

Hinata held her breath and tucked her back behind Kou instinctively, thinking maybe he had seen her. But she was able to relax after realizing the boy hadn’t seen her at all. He was too busy staring at his own lap. Is he already a student here? Or are his parents enrolling him today too? “Do you know him, Kou?”

 

Briskly, Kou began walking through the Academy gates causing Hinata to start. “Kou?!” Hinata looked behind her back at the boy and saw him looking back at her, his eyes a clear blue.

 

Hinata looked away immediately. She didn’t like staring people in the eye.

 

It seemed to be an eternity before Kou finally stopped walking and Hinata was panting a little by the end of it. “My apologies, Lady Hinata. I should have taken a different approach.”

 

“I-it’s fine.” Hinata took a deep breath, hoping to calm herself down. “What was wrong?”

 

Kou didn’t say anything immediately at first. His jaw was firm and he closed his eyes as if in deep thought. Then he opened them, lavender eyes holding Hinata’s firmly. “You must never talk to that boy, Lady Hinata. He is a monster.”

 

“.... A monster?” Hinata had heard of monsters in old nursery tales. They had claws and fangs and shaggy fur. Yet that boy had none of those things. The only thing that could be considered odd about him were his eyes. Being so used to seeing dormant Byakugans on a daily basis, Hinata still found it odd when she left the compound and saw people with a variety of eye colours with a black dot in the middle.

 

Kou’s eyebrows furrowed. “A social outcast.”

 

“What’s an outcast?”

 

Kou seemed to deliberate for a few more moments before saying anything again. “Someone who doesn’t fit in. He’s flawed and not right. You shouldn’t associate yourself with him while in the Academy.”

 

Hinata looked away as Kou’s gaze came crashing down on her. “Yes, sir…” She said automatically. But her mind was elsewhere.

 

A social outcast.

 

Someone who doesn’t fit in.

 

Someone like me.

 

However, Hinata ultimately ended up seeing that boy again; they were in the same class. Not that Hinata talked to him. She didn’t really do any talking on her first day at the Academy.

 

She sat all the way in the back in the chair seat closest to the door and fiddled her fingers hoping that the day would end fast so she could go home.

 

She did, however, look around to see some of her classmates. Like the boy with the blue eyes and blond hair who sat nearly all the way in the front. He was definitely the confident type. And leaders are supposed to be confident. Hinata knew this due to her grandfather Housen. He made it quite clear to her that being unconfident was not the way to lead the Clan. So what makes him an outcast? The boy had even stood up, faced everyone, and took a gander at his surroundings (Kou told her that was another way to say ‘look around’) before announcing loudly and clearly:

 

“I am Naruto Uzumaki and I’m going to be the next Hokage!”

 

Hinata couldn’t even imagine saying something like that in front of a few people she knew let alone a group of people she didn’t even know.

 

She glanced at her other classmates to see how they reacted. They weren't the best reactions one could hope for.

 

“Yeah right, Naruto. You’ll definitely be the next Hokage.” Said a boy whose cheeks were dashed with red. His hair was just as wild and unkempt as the blond's, except it was brown. “When dogs fly.”

 

The blond boy-- Naruto-- made a face. “I will be the next Hokage, I will! And when that happens, Kiba, you’ll have a front row ticket in order to see me accept the hat and cape!”

 

‘Kiba’ only snorted and went back to conversing with someone else in front of him. Everyone else was whispering around them, but from the looks on their faces, Hinata could tell they weren’t whispering good things. They kept giving Naruto dirty looks.

 

So maybe he really is an outcast. Hinata realized. She could ask but… that would require her actually talking to him. And she couldn’t do that.

 

Instead, she looked around some more to see if there would be anyone else who caught her eye.

 

There was another brunet that she could see. His hair was easily defined as looking like an uncut pineapple fruit. Hinata giggled silently to herself about it. He seemed generally disinterested in everything, settling for laying his head on his arms. Next to him was a much chubbier boy, he was slightly more interested in their surroundings as he ate out of a bag of chips. Glancing around at the people sitting in the front of the room as he mumbled something to the pineapple head beside him.

 

Like a loud blonde girl who was surrounded by various other people. Her eyes were a bright blue and her clothes were very stylish. Pretty was the first word that came to mind when Hinata looked at her. Definitely not an outcast. She was an untouchable or someone Hinata was probably expected to be like when around others her age.

 

Hinata looked away before she could begin comparing herself to the girl too harshly and saw a different boy who had on sunglasses indoors. Odd.

 

Then their homeroom teacher walked into the room and everyone scattered to sit down in available seats. “Good morning, everyone! I hope I gave you all enough time to try and talk to your new classmates because we are all going to be together for the next 5 years. So I hope you’ll all get along!” The man said cheerily.

 

“Yes, teacher.” Came the expected response.

 

Hinata didn’t say anything. Instead she let herself be distracted by the flash of pink that she saw from the corner of her eye.

 

All the way to the left of the chairs in the back row was a girl with shoulder length pink hair. Pink hair. Hinata almost couldn’t believe it. She’d never seen pink hair before. The girl sat, looking as uncomfortable as Hinata felt. Hinata couldn’t see her eyes very well, they were slightly obscured by her long bangs that covered her forehead.

 

She hadn’t talked to anybody either as far as Hinata could tell.

 

…..

 

Hinata guessed that she learned something else that day. There were two potential outcasts inside her class. People who didn’t fit in with everybody else; people who were like her.

 

[';']

 

“Hinata! Be more assertive! Again!”

 

“Yes, Father!”

 

Hinata swallowed back her saliva nervously as she allowed herself back into the Gentle Fist stance. Neji was in his, looking at her expectantly. She would have to strike first, be aggressive.

 

Bracing herself, Hinata strode forward, right palm aimed to strike Neji's shoulder. It was expectantly blocked by his own palm and Hinata squeaked as she felt the world underneath her fade and she collapsed unceremoniously on the floor.

 

She lost to Neji. Again.

 

Right in front of Father and Grandfather.

 

For a moment, she dared to peer over to the right and look at Hiashi and Housen and see what kind of expressions were on their faces. But she decided against it, not wanting to see something she wouldn’t like.

 

Gingerly, Hinata stood up and fell into her stance once more. She would make sure not to lose in this sparring session.

 

(She did continue losing in their sparring sessions until finally, Hiashi announced that the training was over and they could proceed to leave. Hinata bowed, then she ran out of the room to escape what was probably eyes of disappointment.)

 

[;';]

 

Sakura.

 

The pink haired girl’s name was Sakura.

 

Hinata had learned her name during a lesson during homeroom when Iruka-sensei had asked if anyone knew the names of the previous three Hokage Konoha has had thus far and the pink-haired girl had risen her hand. “Yes, Sakura?”

 

“Their names were Hashirama Senju, Tobirama Senju, and Minato Namikaze?” She asked rather than stated, her green eyes filled with worry at the thought of having the wrong answer. Hinata knew the feeling when she was being quizzed by her father on matters of diplomacy.

 

“That’s correct.” Iruka said and Hinata felt relief for her classmate who smiled widely. “I’m surprised, Sakura. Most children your age don’t know all the previous Kage.”

 

“My dad really likes history.” Sakura replied, smiling nervously. “He told me that the First and Second Hokage were brothers and that our Third Hokage was their pupil.”

 

“Your father would be correct about that as well!” Iruka beamed. “I see we have a studious kunoichi on our hands, everyone.” Sakura blushed at being brought to attention, but no one said anything. Nothing positive, anyway.

 

“Forehead Nerd!” Someone coughed under their breath, and Sakura’s happy flush disappeared and she shrunk back into her own seat, a hand pulling more hair to cover up her forehead now that the mystery person had brought it up.

 

What was wrong with Sakura’s forehead? Hinata could barely tell with the amount of hair Sakura had covering it up. Was her forehead what made her an outcast? That seemed like a silly reason for everyone to not like someone for. Or maybe it was her shyness? Hinata had never seen the girl actively play with anyone at recess. Or anyone at all.

 

…. Maybe we could be friends?

 

Hinata looked from Sakura over to Naruto.

 

All three of them could be friends! All the outcasts in the class could play together and it wouldn’t be awkward at times because they all knew what it was like not to fit in. Hinata could easily imagine herself, Naruto, and Sakura playing tag or maybe even ninja together. Maybe I could bring them over to the compound for snacks!

 

“You must never talk to that boy, Lady Hinata.”

 

Hinata remembered Kou’s words abruptly, his lavender gaze firm.

 

She felt disappointment settle in her stomach as she stared down at her desk. Maybe she wouldn’t be able to be friends with all the outcasts in her class after all. Maybe no one would have to know. Hinata thought briefly, but she shook the idea out of her head.

 

The fear of disappointing Kou stood out more than trying to be rebellious.

 

(Sakura’s bullying only seemed to get worse since the time a person made a rude comment in class about her forehead.

 

Hinata looked down at her feet as she heard the words echoing around at recess between three boys-- Atsushi, Kenta, and Ganta. Sakura crying in between the circle they had around her. “Billboard Brow, Billboard Brow, Billboard Brow!”

 

The name calling only made Sakura cry harder and Hinata tightly squeezed her knees into her chest and clenched her eyes shut, hoping to drown them out somehow. I’m sorry. Hinata thought, sure she could feel her eyes starting to water. I’m really sorry I’m not brave enough to help you!

 

Hinata had hoped someone else would try to come to Sakura’s rescue.

 

They didn’t.)

 

[';']

 

At age eight, Hinata had acquired new knowledge about herself and the world. One, her father, Hiashi Hyuga, was the strongest shinobi she knew. Second, just the thought of her having to one day make decisions for her entire clan terrified her beyond belief. Third, her younger sister Hanabi, at the age of three, was still very easy to impress. Fourth, no one supported her more like her younger sister did. Fifth, there were two definitive outcasts in her class. Sixth, her grades at the Ninja Academy weren’t impressive. And seventh, she was an outcast. A cowardly outcast.

 

Not that she could tell her sister that, Hinata tried to ignore the dark feelings in her stomach as she smiled at the approaching forms of Hanabi and Natsu. “You’re going to your studies?”

 

Hanabi smiled widely in return. “Yep! I can write my name now! And I know some of my kanji now too!” She extended her booklet out, excited to show off the kanji she had learn. “A lot of kanji!”

 

But Natsu politely cut into the conversation. “Lady Hinata, you mustn’t keep Lord Hiashi waiting.”

 

Hinata didn’t let her dread to go and train with her cousin show. “Right. I’ll see you later, Hanabi.”

 

Hanabi thankfully didn’t look upset at the thought of Hinata needing to go and train for hours. “Okay, I’ll show them to you later!”

 

Hopefully, Hinata wanted to add, but she didn’t. She was usually very tired after her training sessions. She was thankful that Hanabi’s wouldn’t be as rigorous when she finally had to begin her own training, which was right around the corner. It would start off lightly, then it would build up in difficulty once she reached a certain age.

 

Maybe Hanabi will have to train with Neji-niisan as well. Hinata wished that wouldn’t be the case. Neji and his poker face. Neji and how easily he could defeat Hinata’s defenses, little effort showing. Hinata was sure it was only luck that she could land hits on him.

 

She was also sure that her grandfather felt the same way. She seldom held his gaze whenever she came across him. He was always there, watching. Just like the day before that, and day before that day, and today when she entered the special training room that all Hyuga heirs trained in. Hiashi and Neji were already there as well.

 

“Thank you for taking the time to train with me, Neji-niisan.”

 

Neji’s reply was sharp. “Let’s hurry and get this over with.” There was a pause. “Lady Hinata.” He added at the last minute, sensing Hiashi’s own look. Neji took the Gentle Fist’s standard position and Hinata followed suit, taking a deep breath.

 

Strike.

 

Parry.

 

Block.

 

Counter.

 

Strike.

 

Try to read your opponent’s moves.

 

That had been repeated to Hinata many times since the day she began her training. Hinata always had to strike first, and, as per usual, Neji always seemed to block with ease before he sent a palm flying in her direction.

 

Thankfully, Hinata was able to dodge quickly, leaning back before reaffirming her balance as she struck back and Neji blocked once more with his forearm.

 

There was no use of the Byakugan this lesson.

 


 

There hadn’t been much change in her one year at the Academy either. Her classmates had their established cliques, Hinata not part of any of them. Pineapple head, Shikamaru, was typically around the chubby boy Hinata remembered from her first day-- Chouji. Kiba had recently began bringing a dog to their classes, a cute puppy named Akamaru.

 

And Naruto always seemed to be wrapped into some kind of mischief with the aforementioned boys. Hinata wasn’t sure if she could still deem him an outcast, but she wasn’t sure if she could deem them as the other boys’ friend. For the only time they seemed to hang around each other at one time was when Iruka told them they all had detention.

 

But there was something that was definitely new since Hinata’s first year at the Academy. Hinata’s eyes were full of surprise when she saw Sakura Haruno sitting in one of the front row desks. Her short pink hair now sported a ribbon a top her head and she was smiling shyly as she talked to Ino, the popular blonde girl from before, and her friends.

 

Hinata felt a small smile on her lips. I’m happy you made some friends, Sakura-san. She ignored the disappointed pit swelling in her. If she had talked to Sakura and Naruto sooner, the three of them could all be friends now.

 

This is why I’m a coward. Hinata thought spitefully. Why she still had no friends. She’d been lucky enough thus far to avoid the bullies in her class due to her own hiding at recess. But bully avoiding doesn’t necessarily make for great friend making skills. Iit was probably just the world’s response to how Hinata cowered in fear whenever Sakura was being bullied. Or whenever Naruto braced harsh words and returned them with scoffs and self reassurance that one day everyone would regret picking on him since he would become a leader everyone would look up to.

 

Hinata didn’t even have that level of confidence for herself and it had been a year. A long one and here she is.

 

“Everything is predestined, Hinata.” Housen said, his voice sounding like gravel. “Do you know what that means?” His eyes were completely white and Hinata had grown up constantly wondering if he was blind and yet he always looked and talked like he could still see perfectly fine. Kou said it was probably because he had very good hearing.

 

Hinata, age six, cocked her head to the side as she thought carefully before reluctantly answering, “No, Grandfather.”

 

“It means that, everything in your life has been decided for you from the moment you are born.” Housen answered. “Whether you are destined to be heiress or a success or a failure. It’s all laid out for you. Your father, he was born to be the leader of the Hyuga after me. Hizashi, he was always meant to be part of the Clan’s many branches.”

 

Hinata blinked, awed.

 

“So never forget, Hinata. There’s no such thing as choice when it comes to destiny. You were lucky to be born with the destiny of heiress. Remember that and always be humbled.”

 

Then I was always meant to be a coward and to never be good at anything and never have any friends. Hinata lowered her head down on to her arms, trying not cry. She wanted to go home.

 

Not that home offered much comfort, because as always she had training with Neji. The cousin she who she wasn’t sure liked her and who had a poker face. Maybe one day she’d get a definitive answer for that question of hers, maybe she wouldn’t.

 

 

Either way, Hinata took a deep breath, now in her sparring clothes. She still had to train with him, always under the watchful eyes of her father and grandfather. “Thank you again for training with me, Neji-niisan.”

 

“Of course, Lady Hinata.” Neji replied curtly, eyes cold.

 

It was the same routine.

 

The morning sparring sessions included newer techniques, the afternoon included strengthening the foundations of all jutsu-- the basics. Multiple sparring sessions that occasionally had a quip from Hiashi on Hinata’s hesitance.

 

Strike.

 

Parry.

 

Block.

 

Counter.

 

Strike.

 

Hinata loses.

 

Strike.

 

Parry.

 

Block.

 

Counter.

 

Strike.

 

Hinata loses.

 

The sun begins to set.

 

Strike.

 

Parry.

 

Block.

 

Counter.

 

Strike.

 

Strike--

 

Sigh.

 

Neji stops, eyebrows furrowed and a hand on his hip.

 

Hinata felt a nervous flutter in her chest. “Neji-niisan?”

 

Neji lifted his head and looked at Hiashi instead. “Her sparring partner doesn’t always have to be me.” He finally grounded out, irritation clear on his face no matter how respectful he managed to keep his tone. “I would prefer to do my own training instead.”

 

Hiashi only closed his eyes, face giving nothing away as to what he could be thinking. “No.” He replied coolly. “Continue the training session.”

 

Hinata held back a shaky breath, though dread crept coldly around her. It was what her father wanted. “Please continue training with me, Neji-niisan!” She had returned to her fighting stance, hoping that the training would continue more-or-less smoothly and she saw Neji scowl at her, eyes burning and Hinata felt frozen.

 

“Fine.” Neji fell into his own stance and as expected of her, Hinata charged forward palm intent on landing a blow to his arm.

 

But a bandaged hand slapped it away so harshly Hinata fell back a few steps with a gasp.

 

“What’s wrong, Lady Hinata?” Neji asked with a smile. No. It wasn’t a smile. At least, not a good one. “This isn’t child’s play or some beginner taijutsu lesson. Shouldn’t you be able to continue on from a simple slap?”

 

Hinata inhaled, hoping she didn’t look as scared as she felt in this moment. Then she ran forward as aggressively as she could as she struck a palm out again, this time, Neji dodged. She struck again and he ducked down before rising up and striking out towards her face. Hinata lost all sense of dodging and blocked against it and ignored the burning sensation of his palm hitting her forearms.

 

But another hard palm hit her.

 

And another.

 

“That was nothing!” Neji growled.

 

And another.

 

“And you honestly expect to fulfill your destiny as the leader of our Clan!?”

 

Each one sending her further back than the last until Hinata hit the wooden floors with a pained whimper. Tears were brimming in the corner of her eyes, burning as she saw Neji-- his Byakugan awakened and full of rage as he brought back his palm as if steadying an arrow in a bow before quickly bringing his hand down.

 

That was when Father leaped into the fray, large hand covering Neji’s completely as he gracefully flipped him onto his back.

 

Hinata looked up at her father gratefully before she nervously darted over to Neji. What will Father do to him? What will Father do to him? What will Father-

 

Hiashi made an Earth Release seal then suddenly, Neji was screaming. Bloodcurdling, pain-by-all-meaning-of-the-word screaming. Hinata was frozen again as she saw Neji grabbing at his head in an attempt to make it stop. His scratching only succeeded in tearing his forehead bandages off showing Hinata a brand she had almost forgotten existed but her father had told her long ago.

 

Something all the males in the Branch families were required to have.

 

The Cursed Bird Seal.

 

Neji’s screams finally tapered off into silence as he collapsed backward, eyes rolling to the back of his head.

 

Now Hinata definitely felt cold and numb.

 

Her father was saying something. But she couldn’t hear anything. Her eyes were glued on Neji’s crumpled form.

 

Neji-niisan… Is he-

 

“Hinata!”

 

Hinata jumped and looked up at her father. His expression wasn’t clear and his lavender eyes were cold. She couldn’t make herself say anything.

 

“Training is done for the day.” Hiashi stated. “And from now on, your sparring sessions will be with me. Your fool of a cousin seems to have forgotten his place.”

 

Hinata wasn’t sure if she felt relieved or not. “H-he isn’t-”

 

“Your cousin is fine. He simply needed to be reminded of his position in this Clan. His destiny as a Branch Member who must always protect you. He will recover. Now go.”

 

Hinata didn’t waste any time running out of the room.

 

She had her answer now, an eighth piece of knowledge she was now sure of in her eight years of living. Yes. Her cousin Neji did hate her.

 


 

Hinata felt especially sore the day after the incident with Neji and she hadn’t seen him around the compound either. She secretly felt relief at that. She didn’t want to see him quite yet. Not anytime soon, anyways.

 

Instead, she wanted to find solace elsewhere. “Natsu!” Hinata called out to the green-haired woman when she saw her all alone. “Is Hanabi in her room still?”

 

Natsu gave a kind smile with a nod. “She was a little slow getting out of bed this morning. Four year olds. Excitable one day and sluggish the next. I'm sure she was up all night playing ninja.”

 

Hinata felt herself laugh despite her anxieties feeling high. It wasn’t that long ago that Hanabi’s birthday had passed. Hinata couldn’t believe it. “I’ll go get her. Maybe she’ll want to play before breakfast.”

 

“I’m sure she would love that.” Natsu clapped her hands together. “It’s been a while since the two of you have had a moment between yourselves. Your training as heiress is important, yes, but she is still your younger sister. You have to be a good elder sister for her.”

 

“I will.” That’s at least something I am good at. Hinata felt a little better already. Hanabi, her biggest supporter and best friend despite the age gap and how much training seemed to come between them at times. Nothing made Hinata happier than Hanabi. She still remembered how excited she was when Mother had told her she was going to be an elder sister.

 

“I’m going to be a big sister?!” Hinata, age four, could barely contain her excitement. “Really?!”

 

Hinata’s mother, Tomoebi, chuckled as she stroked her daughter’s hair lovingly. “Elder sister, dear. That’s more proper. And yes. The doctor confirmed it this morning, by next March we’ll have another family member to welcome to the world.”

 

Hinata couldn’t hold back a squeal and was happy Tomoebi didn’t chide her. “Can I get to name it, Mother?! Please?”

 

“Hmm, maybe if you’re a good girl.”

 

Hinata gave a little bounce in her mother’s lap. “Is Father excited too?”

 

“Of course he is, silly girl. Now we have two children to adore, it’s happy news for everyone. Especially me and Father.”

 

“No, Mother! It’s ‘Father and I ’!” Hinata felt a little smug by the fact she was able to correct a grown up-- no, adult-- on something.

 

“You must be slipping in your senses a bit if a child is correcting your speech patterns, Tomoebi.” It was Hiashi, looking tall as always in his robes he always seemed to be wearing as Clan Head. It was a simple yukata and jacket, though. The fancier clothing were always worn for special occasions. It’s to be humble, Hinata believes he once said.

 

“Oh hush.” Tomoebi scolded but Hinata saw nothing but warmth in her mother’s lavender eyes. No one was more beautiful than her mother, she decided then and there. Her mother was pale with long plum-coloured hair and she always had a pale plum yukata that faded into white the further down it got. And she smelled like flowers. She was always practicing ikebana.

 

I hope I can be beautiful and kind like her when I get older. Hinata snuggled into Tomoebi’s shoulder. “Mother says I can name the baby if I’m good, Father.” Hiashi only gave a nod to show he had been listening to her comment. “Is the baby going to be a boy?”

 

“Only the gods know.” Tomoebi replied, brushing a soft hand through Hinata's bangs. Hinata let out a giggle from the slight tickling sensation. “And we will be happy regardless.”

 

Hinata opened her mouth to agree but then a different thought popped into her head. “Father, where do babies come from?”

 

Hiashi had stiffened and turned around before barking out a harsh, “Ask your mother.” 

 

Hinata smiled to herself at the memory before she felt a pang in her chest. There were no more moments like that anymore between her family, not since after Hanabi’s birth when Hiashi began giving a harsher training regiment to Hinata as her responsibilities as the first born child were mentioned more and more.

 

She was busy with her training and her mother was busy being Lady Hyuga who handled diplomatic events while her father busied himself with Hinata’s training. Maybe Hanabi and I can try to see Mother today. Hinata’s schedule was so jam packed that seeing Tomoebi outside of mealtimes were a blessing in their own right. “I’ll go and see Hanabi now.”

 

Natsu smiled politely before continuing down the hallway and Hinata hurried to catch Hanabi. Hanabi who was luckily still in her room. “Good morning.”

 

“.... Morning.” Hanabi gave Hinata a glance before staring down at her feet. “Aren’t you supposed to be at morning training with Father?”

 

“Father had a meeting, so I get to have free time until noon.”

 

“So are you going to train on your own then?”

 

Hinata felt something stir in her chest but she ignored it. There was no reason to feel the way she normally did with people around Hanabi. “I was thinking we could try to see if Mother had any free time today so we could play with her.” It wouldn’t be Ninja, Hanabi’s favourite game when she was two. Tomoebi preferred her daughters to play Tea Party, probably to prepare them for actual diplomatic events. But Hanabi and Hinata were easily bought off with little tea cakes and daifuku to eat with the floral teas their mother would prepare.

 

“.....”

 

“Hanabi?”

 

Hanabi finally looked up. “I think I want to train this morning instead. Natsu really wants me to focus on learning my kanji so I have to do it now so I don’t fall behind. Maybe next time?” Hanabi replied, tense.

 

“O-oh.. Okay. If that’s what you want.”

 

It became what Hanabi always wanted, Hinata had long since realized when she turned 9. Hanabi was now just a month away from becoming 5 and she was training constantly when she wasn’t busy with her lessons with Natsu.

 

“She just wants to be like her elder sister,” was what Kou, Natsu, and even Tomoebi had stated. Hinata honestly felt like it was more than that.

 

Hanabi had become distant.

 

Hard to reach.

 

Hinata hated the feeling like she couldn’t reach out to her own sister when it seemed impossible in a world full of adults who constantly talked about her future as heiress. The one person who treated her normally even if Neji hated her.

 

It was awful.

 

It sucked.

 

She couldn’t fill the distance.

 

“Hinata.” Hinata jumped out of her thoughts and looked at her father meekly. “Today you and Hanabi will be sparring in front of a few our Clanmates.”

 

“What?” Hinata couldn’t hold back her surprise.

 

“I am telling you now so you can prepare yourself.” Hiashi continued on like her outburst never happened. “You need to show them that you’re skilled and learning your techniques fast.”

 

“B-but Hanabi is-”

 

“Showing her capabilities as a kunoichi. Do you understand?” Hiashi’s replied cool as ever, but Hinata could hear the authority belying his tone. This wasn’t an option. She never had options, not with Hiashi.

 

“... Yes, Father.” Hinata said, feel dread sinking from her chest down to her belly. She had to spar against Hanabi who just shy of five just as if she were sparring anyone else. Neji or Father. With Hanabi. What if I hurt her? Hinata had already begun to picture it. Hanabi crumpled on the floor like Neji had been, but this time it was because Hinata had struck out.

 

….

 

Hanabi, if she had any feeling of nervousness at all about sparring each other in front everyone, was the first to strike.

 

Hinata wasn’t sure how she kept her face from showing it as she blocked Hanabi’s palm and sent one of her own forward. But Hanabi quickly countered, her hand sending Hinata’s back as she rushed forward with both palms poised for Hinata’s stomach who stepped back to respond with her own attack.

 

But Hanabi deftly smacked Hinata’s slower palm away before rushing forward and sending Hinata back a few steps.

 

She was quick.

 

She was precise.

 

Hinata didn’t need to hear some of the amazed comments to know that her sister, five years younger than her, was already at her current skill level. Hanabi had only begun training on her fourth birthday.

 

And her training had never been prioritized.

 

Hanabi could hold her own and she didn’t hold back like Hinata had been when she had purposely slowed her hand, images of Hanabi in pain still echoing in her mind. But perhaps Hinata’s worries were for naught. And if she had been able to notice Hanabi’s skills in the Gentle Fist basics, what was Father thinking?

 

[';']

 

It didn’t take but a month or so for Hinata to found out what her father was thinking when he had rounded herself and Hanabi into outdoor training area of the compound.

 

Hinata kept herself from glancing around under her father’s watchful gaze, but she could feel the eyes burning into her back from the small group that had gathered to watch what Hiashi had yet to announce.

 

“The two of you will be participating in a mock battle today.” Hiashi’s voice was crisp and clearly projected across the clearing. Hinata instantly felt shock enter her system and gasped, barely hearing Hanabi do the same. “I want to see the skill and power the both of you have gained up until now. I do not want either of you going easy on each other despite you both being sisters. Fight with the intent to defeat.”

 

Hinata could hear the clearing abuzz with voices.

 

‘What is Lord Hiashi thinking?’

 

‘Fight with the intent to defeat?’

 

‘Surely there are other ways to measure this with Lady Hanabi barely five.’

 

But all that was silenced when Hinata felt Hiashi’s hands on her shoulders, his grip tight as if he was desperately trying to convey something to her. His voice was low when he began talking to her. “Hinata, you’re the heiress of our Clan.” His voice was tense. “Show me that you are worthy of that.” You have to. Hinata could hear the silent words clearly in her father’s voice.

 

She had to prove it to everyone right here and now. She was the destined leader of the Hyuga and not even her little sister, skilled as she may be, could defeat her.

 

“... Yes, sir.”

 

How she was suddenly in front of Hanabi, poised in the typical Gentle Fist stance, Hinata wasn’t sure. Time seemed to skip forward for a moment and land right here. They both had to fight as if this was a real battle. No more hesitation and no dormant Byakugans.

 

I’m the heiress of the Hyuga Clan. Hinata told herself, feeling the veins near her eyes beginning to bulge and her sister’s chakra pathways coming into her vision. She no longer needed her hand signs to activate it after so long of having to using it in various sparring sessions and neither did Hanabi. I’m stronger than my sister and I can beat her and I will show everyone that I was always meant to be heiress.

 

It’s my destiny.

 

“Begin.”

 

Hinata didn’t even get to blink before Hanabi was already in front of her and she ducked down, pushing the hand to the side as she felt a burst of chakra flow past her ear. She moved back as another palm came forward and Hinata pushed it away, ducking down once more as Hanabi swung out her left arm. Chakra heavy in the air.

 

Hinata didn’t let herself panic, she just stood back up as she finally struck back herself. She didn’t even panic when Hanabi blocked that. She continued to surge forward, jumping up with a fast kick Hanabi flipped away from.

 

Hinata could have sworn she saw Hanabi smiling to herself, but Hanabi was back in front of her to strike again so it didn’t matter.

 

All that mattered right now, was winning.

 

Strike.

 

Block.

 

Sweeping kick.

 

Dodging jump with a counter of Hanabi’s own leg that was Blocked.

 

Strike. Strike. Block.

 

Flip away.

 

Blow for blow, chakra spewing from their limbs as they barely managed to strike each other in the face and sent out large gusts in the opposite directions.

 

Hinata wasn’t sure how she was thinking so clearly in this moment. She wasn’t fighting Hanabi anymore, she was fighting an enemy of the village and making everyone proud.

 

Yet the battle was stagnant. Each striking palm blocked to be returned with another palm or a kick only to be dodged of blocked.

 

‘Observe your opponents.’

 

The eyes of the Byakugan before her were growing frustrated as their palms kept meeting each other.

 

‘Lull them into beginning they might have the upper hand.’

 

For a brief moment, Hinata let go of her closed off stance and left an opening near her stomach. And like a blood calling a shark, the enemy she was going against fell for the bait and Hinata deftly smacked the hand down and aimed her other hand to strike down as their head came into range and--

 

“Hinata-neesama!”

 

Hinata felt herself freeze with a gasp as the flash of Hanabi, flushed cheeks and chubby hands, entered her mind.

 

Then she saw that same face, contorted in pain and limbs spread out across the dirt .

 

And that moment was all Hanabi needed to regain her footing and begin attacking once again, Hinata barely in the moment as she clumsily aimed for Hanabi’s shoulder and Hanabi sent a hard palm to Hinata’s chest so hard it sent her flying to the ground.

 

“That’s enough!” Hiashi’s voice rang out against the stunned silence.

 

Hinata didn’t need to look up as she heard the footsteps approaching her, each step sounding like a taiko drum.

 

She knew it was her father.

 

She clenched a hand into a fist, dragging up dirt with her fingernails. It stung a bit, but the expression on her father’s face when she finally looked up stung even worst of all. People were talking, people weren’t talking. She could hear everything but she could hear nothing at the same time. Her heart was thrumming loudly and blood roared in her ears--

 

“To fall to Hanabi who is five years your junior.” Hiashi’s eyes were cold as the moon. “When she’s only been training for a year while countless hours have been put into yours. I don’t want to hear your excuses.” Hinata felt like she couldn’t breathe. “Get out of my sight.”

 

The tears in Hinata’s vision blurred her eyes but she didn’t hesitate this time.

 

She swiftly made her way out of the clearing and past Hanabi who could only stare at the ground.

 

….

 

A light broke unto Hinata’s room.

 

She had stayed in there for hours after the mock battle. She didn’t want to face anyone. Couldn’t face anyone.

 

“Hinata? Are you awake?” It was Tomoebi.

 

Her mother was definitely the last person Hinata wanted to see right now so she lied still hoping that Tomoebi would leave. The door shut and Hinata almost allowed herself to think she was alone until she heard the soft steps coming forward and the weight shifting on her bed as her mother sat down and stroked her head.

 

It didn’t take long for Hinata to start sniffling and for the sniffling to become sobs she tried to hold back.

 

She wasn’t the heiress any longer.

 

She had disappointed everybody.

 

“I-I’m sorry…” Hinata managed to grind out. “I’m sorry, Mother.”

 

“Shhh.” Tomoebi hushed gently, the stroking never stopping. “I know, I know. I’m sorry too.” That only seemed to hurt Hinata more than it helped.

 

Hinata cried herself to sleep that night.

 


 

It was wintertime now, her last winter as a nine year old, her birthday just a few weeks away though she dreaded it. She seemed to dread everything now. Leaving her room in the morning to see everyone like it was the still the day after her mock battle with Hanabi, it was like she could still hear the whispers that talked only of her defeat to her five year old sister who was the new heiress of the Clan.

 

She still received training, though it was mostly from Kou, but she had more free time. She could have trained in her spare time, like Hanabi did before her. Try to prove her worth to the Clan. But there was no point. That much was drilled into her. She was born a failure and she would never be able to escape from it’s clutches and would be lucky to serve the village as a genin.

 

So instead, she spent her time walking outside in the village to avoid them. But even then, that didn’t make her feel better.

 

If anything, it made her feel worse to see the children in her village that weren’t ninja that had no grand expectations about them being heirs. They just got to play and enjoy their days. And it didn’t help when she saw her classmates about with each other, always in their little cliques.

  

Hinata still hid at recess, rubbing the soles of her sandals against the dirt.

 

It had been about two years since she had started going to the Academy and nothing had changed about her. She was still the same shy, cowardly Hinata who had no friends and couldn’t even attempt to try and protect someone from the bullies who now seemed to enjoy picking on other targets now that Sakura was constantly under the watchful protection of Ino and seemed to embrace her forehead and it’s quirks.

 

Now it was winter, and Hinata felt as cold as the snow around her. Cold and frozen.

 

Hinata heard the sounds of laughing children and looked up from her feet and there was now a new sense of dread in her. Kenta, Ganta, and Atsushi. They were the last thing she needed right now.

 

Hinata bit her lip and tried to duck away undetected when--

 

“Hey! Aren’t you that weird girl from our class?!”

 

Hinata jolted, but instead of continuing forward, she felt herself stay glued to her place and she looked over to see all three boys staring back at her. “Yeah, she is!” Atsushi said, more to himself than the others, eyes wide with realization. “You’re the one we can never find at recess! You know, the one who always disappears super fast?”

 

“Oh! I know who you mean!!”

 

Hinata felt her legs trembling a little. Perhaps they would leave her alone?

 

But instead, the three boys only came closer trying to get a better look at her now that their elusive classmate was finally in front of them. “Woah, has your eyes always been like that?”

 

“Eww gross! It’s like looking at milk, man!”

 

“I-it’s-”

 

“It’s what, Weird Girl?”

 

Hinata’s clamped shut at the remark and fell silent.

 

“Geez, no wonder you have no friends.” Atsushi grinned cruelly. “‘Cause your eyes are so weird and you’re gloomy!”

 

“Gloomy Girl!” Kenta snickered.

 

“Weird Eyes!” Ganta added, looking quite proud of himself.

 

Hinata bit her lip and felt her eyes starting to well up and Atsushi rolled his eyes. “Oh come on! Why do girls always cry when you joke around? And you’re a ninja, Milky! You aren’t supposed to cry! You’re supposed to fight! Come on! Fight!!” Atsushi pushed Hinata, sending her stumbling.

 

“Yeah, fight! Fight! Fight!” Kenta and Ganta rallied around their leader and Hinata could only sniffle and look at the ground in return. She was going to cry. Atsushi was readying a fist.

 

Maybe this was what she deserved for not sticking up for Sakura back when they were seven. It was only a matter of time it came back to haunt her.

 

“Hey leave her alone!”

 

Hinata looked up from her feet and past the boys who were about to beat her up and all she saw was pink. Pink, red, and green from the girl behind the bullies. “Huh? What do you want, Billboard Brow?”

 

Hinata’s eyes were wide. It was Sakura. Of all people to come and help her, it was Sakura Haruno.

 

“U-umm…” Sakura’s hard face turned into one of self doubt as if she hadn’t thoroughly prepared to get this far. “I… I said leave her alone! It isn’t good to hit girls, s-so…” She looked unsure of herself as Atsushi sneered.

 

“And what are you gonna do about it, Billboard Brow? Cry because Ino isn’t here?” Ganta and Kenta laughed as if Atsushi said the funniest thing in the world.

 

“No!”

 

“Then I guess we just have to fight you!” Atsushi lunged at Sakura who gave a squeak as she fell into the snow, Kenta and Ganta quickly holding down her arms to keep her from fighting back. Hinata felt tears welling up in her eyes all over again and hot water spilled right onto her cheeks.

 

She wasn’t doing anything to help. Again.

 

I’m so useless!

 

But as quickly as Sakura’s beat down began, it ended as yet another feminine voice cut into the snowy forest area the children were all in. This time, Kenta spoke out first. “Oh crud it’s that Ino girl.”

 

“Ino-chan!” Sakura repeated, relieved to see her best friend.

 

Ino was still as pretty as ever as she darted over quickly pushing Atsushi way off Sakura whose ribbon was now lopsided. “And what the heck are you losers doing?!” Her blue eyes glared fiercely at the other two boys and she pushed them away as well. “Get off of her!” She stood protectively in front of the girl she had taken under wing years ago. Hinata felt envy creep into her chest but she couldn’t help but be in awe of the blonde girl. That’s what she had wanted to do had she had been brave enough.

 

“You can’t tell us what to do!” Atsushi barked.

 

“Yeah! We’re boys so we’re stronger and you have to listen to us!”

 

Ino crossed her arms with a sharp ‘hmph!’ “Well my dad says that a real boy doesn’t have to hit girls to prove that he’s strong and that one who does is a chump weakling!” Ino grinned wickedly. “So I guess that makes you all chump weaklings ever since we started out at the Academy! Chumps!!”

"W-well my dad says that it doesn't matter if who you're fighting is a boy or a girl if you're a ninja!" Ganta stammered out. A nervous sweat was beginning to show on his forehead.

"Well your dad's wrong because my dad's the best ninja ever!" She had a look of pride on her face. "And my dad trained me! So prepare to get hit with a sixteen hit combo!"

That was all it took for the three boys to finally retreat, one of them yelling out something about getting their big brothers. Ino couldn’t have cared less as she chased after them yelling at them. “I thought you jerks wanted a fight! Bring it on, I’ll whoop all of your sorry butts!!”

….

And then there were two, Hinata sucked in her breath as she look away from Ino and her pursuit and back at Sakura who was looking back at her.

She was mad.

Hinata could already tell even if Sakura’s face gave away nothing. A poker face. She was mad, really mad because once again Hinata didn’t come to her aid when she needed it and Sakura had come to help her even if no one ever stuck up for her when she was being picked on, let alone Sakura and-

“Hinata, are you okay?”

What?

Hinata blinked, surprise. “You’re okay, right?” Sakura repeated coming closer to where Hinata stood. “They used to pick on me all the time too.”

“You know my name?”

Sakura looked at Hinata liked she grew another head but smiled a little anyway. “We’re in the same class and I remember from the attendance.”

“....”

“...”

It fell silent between them both as Hinata fell into her thoughts. All she could think about was all the bullying Sakura went through and how she never stood up for her and with a twist, Sakura stood up for her when the time came for Hinata to pay for it. “..... I’m sorry.”

“Huh?”

“Y-you… you got beat up again because of me…” She looked away, hoping to disappear where she stood.

Sakura’s voice was kind. “That’s okay. I’m sorry I wasn’t that good of a protector anyway, I needed Ino-chan to help me again. But, I know what it’s like to be bullied. So I didn’t want you to go through it too.”

“... I didn’t for you though.”

“What?”

“I said.. I didn’t stick up for you before, though. I wasn’t brave enough and… and it happened again. Right in front of me and I still couldn’t…”

“....” Sakura paused for a moment and Hinata was sure that she was going to start yelling at her before going off to find Ino and go play with each other. “.... I wasn’t either.”

Hinata’s gaze snapped back at Sakura whose jade green gaze never wavered and were as kind as could be considering Hinata’s confession. “I wasn’t brave either. And I had no friends. I cried all the time because everyone made fun of my forehead and I never stood up for myself and hid behind my hair because I thought maybe the bullying would stop.

“But then, Ino-chan became my friend and she told me that they only wanted to pick on me because I cried and hid my forehead and that if I started acting more confident and like I didn’t care, that I would. And at first, I just pretended and still hid behind but her but then one day I noticed that I did change! And I had lots of friends and I didn’t care about my forehead anymore. And then today, yeah I got beat up but… I stood up against the people that always used to hurt me and I used to be super scared of. And now I- well, I kinda lost track but I just wanted to say that, if I can go from being a friendless crybaby with a best friend then you can go from being not brave to actually brave. That’s what my mom always says, that we can change and that people are always changing and that it’s always possible to change as long as you want to.” Sakura beamed as she finished.

“....” Hinata didn’t say anything, but she felt her heart flutter for the first time in a while. It wasn’t like the fluttering she got from when she felt nervous and like all eyes were on her waiting for her to mess up. This one was light and fluffy and warm, like a butterfly flying through a field of flowers in the middle of summer. I can change? Sakura was right about herself changing.

By all from she had been told as a little girl (well, littler girl), if Sakura was born a cowardly crybaby then she was always supposed to be one, even now.

And yet here she was, friendly smile and all. A pretty smile and all.

“.... So-” Sakura cut herself off as the sound of crunching snow entered the air. It was Ino, who was mumbling to herself.

“Stupid boys. They said they’d have their older brothers come fight me? Right. I’ll just sixteen hit combo them too.” She stopped right in front of the two girls. “And you! Geez, Sakura.” She sighed, giving her a once over. “I can’t let you go anywhere by yourself.” She dusted Sakura off. “And they messed up your ribbon too.”

 

“My ribbon?!” Sakura repeated, hands flying up to feel at it.

 

“Don’t worry, it’s just lopsided.” Ino replied, already making the adjustments herself. “We were supposed to be playing hide and seek, Sakura, not hide and go get beat up. And when did Hinata get here?”

 

“I-Ino-chan, she was here the whole time though. That’s why I came over here.”

 

“What?!” Ino looked at Hinata whose cheeks flushed.

 

Even when she was right in front of someone, she lacked a presence. That was nice to know. “Oh. Um.” Ino looked a little awkward. “Are you okay?”

 

“Y-yeah, S… Sakura-san helped me.” Hinata shyly glanced over Ino’s shoulder and felt her cheeks heat up more despite the cold air. Sakura was smiling back at her. She looked away.

 

“Are you getting cold?” Sakura’s voice broke out into concern.

 

“It’s snowing Sakura, of course she’s cold. We’re all cold.”

 

“Yeah but her face is pink. My mom says that happens when someone is really cold and could get sick.”

 

Ino hmm’d before looking Hinata’s direction. “Did you want us to walk you home? We can if you need us to, but those boys are long gone. I scared them off pretty good, ha! They really are chumps.”

 

“I-I um… It’s okay. I can go home by myself.”

 

“Are you sure?” Sakura stepped a little closer. “Do you at least want an extra scarf? You can take mine if you want.” Sakura was already taking hers off, shuddering when the cold touched her neck before wrapping the scarf around the lower half of Hinata’s face. The action only made Hinata’s face blush more and her heart was beating harshly in her chest like she had just finished running a couple of laps around the training grounds at the Academy.

 

“Pff how is she supposed to breathe, Sakura?” Ino asked, not unkindly as she gave Sakura a playful nudge.

 

“Ino-chan!” Sakura yelped embarrassed and Ino gave her a light pat on the back.

 

“Come on, let’s go back to my house. My mom is making hot chocolate with marshmallows and you can sleepover. Later, Hinata.” Ino was already dragging Sakura off, voice echoing excitedly in the air about sweets and doing each other’s hair.

 

Sakura still managed call back over her shoulder, “You can keep the scarf, see you at school, Hinata!”

 

Hinata finally snapped out of her daze. “T-thank you for helping me!” Sakura smiled again before turning back around, giggling as she and Ino drifted further and further to Ino’s home leaving Hinata with a red face and a heart beating like a drum, but despite that, she couldn’t stop the smile spreading across her face as she hurried back home as well.

 

For once, there was no dread in her chest after many months of feeling it like it had been frozen completely in her chest as each day seemed as dreary and similar as the one previous. Like time had stopped.

 

At age nine, her very last winter of being nine, Hinata Hyuga had acquired some very true facts about the world around her.

 

First, her father, Hiashi Hyuga was the strongest man she knew. Second, her cousin Neji definitely hated her. Third, her sister was the new heiress and she was the family disappointment.

 

However, Hinata thought her heart feeling light with hope, all that could change with the newest fact.

 

Fourth, change is a possibility as long as she wants it. Hinata wanted it so badly.

 

And fifth, though Hinata couldn’t fathom why this was so important to her considering it was only a brief interaction-- no one had a prettier smile in the universe than Sakura Haruno.