AN: Merry Christmas, everyone! I bet you thought this fic was dead, didn't you? Don't worry: even if I never write another chapter, I felt obligated to finish the one I had started writing. Due to me pretty much losing interest in Naruto, this fic has been on hiatus. And on hiatus it will continue to be. Don't expect any new chapters for a long time. But at the same time, I hate to leave things unfinished, and I'll try to come back to this fic someday. In the meantime, I hope this new chapter meets all your expectations!
STRANGER THAN FICTION CHAPTER 4:
Sakura came to pick Hinata up at about nine, by which time she had stopped crying. Her eyes were red and her eyeliner was a little runny, but overall she had composed herself very well for someone whose boyfriend was unconcious and possibly dying in the hospital.
"Oh, Hinata," she said, as though surprised that Hinata was at home to answer the door, "thank you for coming with me. I really appreciate this."
Hinata shook her head and grabbed her jacket. "It's not a problem."
As they drove to the hospital, Sakura talked in an almost frantic stream of information. "His leg is broken, but that's not it... When they found him, there was sand all over his eyes, in his nose, his mouth, everywhere. If it's just clumped in his throat, they can remove it, but the doctors said it may have gotten into his lungs... They talked about this disease you get when you're exposed to too much sand, but it's supposed to build up over years... I don't think they've ever seen anything this bad before."
"I'm sorry," said Hinata. She didn't know what else to say. Sakura's anguish would have been obvious even without her power, but as it was, the air seemed ancient with sadness.
Keeping her eyes locked on the road, Sakura very carefully changed lanes and passed several other cars. She looked like she was struggling to keep from crying again. "He could die," she said. "If the sand got into his lungs. They could just give up, like that. Even if he doesn't die, he'll be sick for the rest of his life."
"Have they done the x-rays?" asked Hinata gently.
Sakura nodded. "They said they'll get the results back soon."
"Well, t-that's good, isn't it? ...So we'll know."
"I feel awful," said Sakura quietly. "I never thought something like this could happen. I always treated him so badly, but I really... what if he thinks that I don't...? What if he... if he never... knows that I..."
Hinata covered Sakura's hand on the steering wheel gently with her own hand. "I'm sure he knows," she said. "You can't worry about that. He knows."
When they got to the hospital, Sakura practically jumped out of the car, forgetting to turn off the lights. Her high heels clicked sharply on the pavement as she power-walked to the front entranceway. Hinata locked the car doors and followed her.
"I'm looking for, uh, Rock Lee..." said Sakura nervously to the desk clerk once they were inside. "I'm his girlfriend. She's his, his cousin."
The lie was more obvious than usual for Sakura, but it seemed to pass. The man typed a name into the computer and waited a moment for the results. "Rock Lee? Okay, you can see him right now. He's in Room 312, in the Intensive Care Unit. Just go up the elevator to your left. "
"That's a good sign," said Hinata quietly as they entered the elevator. "That he's, um... he's taking visitors."
Sakura nodded. "I hope so."
Rock Lee's room was small and somewhat dark. A respirator sat beside his bed, puffing in and out in a series of mechanical breaths. Sakura flung the curtains open and sat down anxiously at Lee's side. "Is there a chart?"
Hinata took a look at Lee. He looked hurt, but not dying, and there were no signs of damage in his mind. She wished she could look into his lungs the same way. "Yes," she said, looking at the foot of the bed, "but I don't know how to read it. I'll, um, go get a nurse, alright?"
When she came back, Sakura had taken Lee's hand and was stroking it slowly. She stopped as Hinata entered the room.
"The x-rays came back," Hinata said, smiling in what she hoped would be a reassuring way.
"The nurse said the doctors think the sand in his throat actually blocked a lot of damage to the lungs. He'll, um, he'll wake up in a few hours, and they'll move him to a stable unit."
The transformation that came across Sakura was incredible. In several seconds, her face went from pale with worry to practically glowing with relief. Hinata thought about Sakura as she had known her in high school; she had always been the type to conceal her feelings, hiding behind her good looks, good grades, and moderate popularity. High school Sakura would probably be embarrased to see herself so changed.
"Oh," she said simply, and then repeated herself. "Oh. That's good." Hinata could feel the effort it was taking her not to simply start crying again.
She stayed for a while after that. They made small talk at the hospital cafeteria after their fifteen minutes were up, Sakura anxiously tapping her nails on the table. She left before Lee woke up; there would be no way to shield herself from the feelings accompanying their reunion, and she felt it would be best for them to have some privacy.
The next few days passed by with little of real interest happening. Hinata went into work, finishing off the Henderson Park story. Shino rigged up an impressive picture of a sand zombie. It reminded her very little of her intruder.
He came to her house only every other night now, but his interest in the romantic comedies she showed him hadn't waned. She showed him Dirty Dancing, You've Got Mail, The Wedding Planner, and others she had never even seen before. He seemed fascinated by them; unable to figure out even the most obvious plot twists, always stunned when the hero and heroine ended up together against all odds. Probably he was a sociopath. She wasn't much saner, either, considering that she hadn't called the police yet.
She didn't see Sakura and Lee, but several phone calls assured her that he was making progress and would actually be able to attend the Neji Hyuuga concert, albeit in a wheelchair. Of course it had been her intruder that had done it in the first place. She should have felt guilty. She didn't.
Finally the day of the concert came. In the mid-afternoon she packed a box of snacks, wore her best casual clothes, and waited patiently at the Greyhound stop for Naruto and the bus to Calgary.
He arrived just as the bus pulled up, carrying a backpack and running so he could make it on time. "Hey!" he said, as they boarded. "Sorry, I thought I had more time. I just had to, y'know, finish up at the store..."
"Oh, n-no, that's... that's fine," said Hinata quietly. She took a seat near the back and moved a little towards the window when he sat down beside her. "I, um, got there a little bit early."
Naruto nodded. "I see."
They sat in silence for a little while as the bus pulled away from the curb. Finally, Naruto coughed and turned to her. "So, uh, you're a journalist, right? Where do you work?"
"I, uh..." Hinata smiled awkwardly, deciding to tell the truth. "I work for the, um, the N-National Observer... You might not have-"
Naruto's mouth dropped open. "For real?" He grinned. "That's so awesome! I buy that thing all the time! I love the stories about that, uh... that caveman thing..."
"Disco Neanderthal," said Hinata. Looking at the expression on Naruto's face, she almost wanted to ask whether he believed the articles, but eventually she realized he was trying to put her at ease. She wasn't used to reading people's faces. "I, um, wrote some of those."
His smile got wider. "That's really cool, Hinata."
Hinata shook her head. "It's really n-not that... well, um, I guess sometimes it's very fun." She turned slightly red. "But I always thought it, um, it m-must also be interesting to work at a pet store."
"Yeah, sometimes we get some pretty weird customers," replied Naruto. "One time this guy came in and wanted to buy two hamsters so he could make them fight to the death and post it online! Of course we couldn't let him buy them. You have to wonder who would do a thing like that."
The bus continued down the highway. Naruto and Hinata talked almost all the way to Calgary, Naruto doing most of the talking, Hinata basking in the feeling of going somewhere with Naruto. Halfway there Hinata pulled out the snacks she had packed.
"These are really good," said Naruto, taking a bite of cookie. "Did you make them?"
"...N-no, I got them from, um, Tim Hortons," replied Hinata. "I n-never really... make my own... I mean, I'm not a very good cook."
Naruto shrugged. "Fair enough, neither am I." He took a look out the window. "Excited about the concert?"
"I didn't actually think you'd be the type of person to like this kind of music."
"Well," Hinata looked down, twiddling her thumbs, "it's okay. I m-mean, I, um, like it, but it's not..."
Naruto shook his head. "No, I get it. That's cool." He looked at her for a moment. "Hey, did anybody ever tell you you look a little like Neji Hyuuga?"
"I g-get that sometimes," said Hinata, and turned away to look out the window.
They got into Calgary just after five, had a quick dinner at a little Chinese place nearby, and then headed over to the hall half an hour early. It was already crowded. Hinata briefly thought she might have seen Ino in the throngs of people, but there was no way of knowing.
"Wow," said Naruto, surveying the vast expanse of seats. "I don't think I've ever been in a room this big before." He laughed. "Guess I don't get out much. So, uh, where're our seats?"
Hinata passed him the tickets. "We're... uh, up there."
Naruto scanned the tickets and looked up the long aisle to the stage, then back again. "Whoa. That's... we're in, like, the third row! That's incredible! Where did you get these tickets?"
"A... um. A friend gave them to me."
They made their way up to their seats and sat down, Hinata storing her backpack anxiously underneath her seat. For a while they tried to talk, but it was hard for them to hear each other over the noise of the crowd, and the opening act started soon after they arrived.
"Ladies and gentlemen," said a dark haired girl with a guitar, who looked like she would be more comfortable at a martial arts tournament than on a stage, "my name is Tenten, and I'm here to get you guys warmed up for the one and only Neji Hyuuga! So let's get started!"
Immediately after her self-introduction she launched into a spirited pop number. Hinata had never heard of her, but she was good; her voice wasn't particularly suited for singing, but she played guitar well, and her enthusiasm was contaigious. Soon the audience was clapping along with her. Several people even started dancing in the aisles.
After a short set, Tenten lowered her guitar. "Thanks, guys," she said cheerfully. "You've been great. Before I go, I'd just like to give a shoutout to a friend of mine." She pointed into the front row. "Lee! Rock Lee! Nice wheels, man! Jeet Kune Do forever!"
A pair of arms that Hinata assumed were Lee's waved enthusiastically in the air. Tenten gave one final bow and left the stage.
The crowd gave her one final round of screams. "Wow, she was good!" yelled Naruto through the applause, grinning. "Maybe this concert isn't gonna be so bad after all!"
Hinata couldn't help but laugh. "Don't speak too soon," she said, pointing to the stage, "here comes the main act!"
Then the hall went black.
When the lights came back on, Neji Hyuuga was standing at the front of the stage, microphone in hand. He was wearing a dark green dress shirt and black jeans, and his hair was tied back over his shoulder. As usual, his stage makeup was subtle but impressive, drawn to highlight the piercing blue of his contacts. His band was behind him in the shadows of the stage. Clearly they weren't important enough to share the limelight.
The entire audience clapped and yelled enthusiastically for him: 'we love you, Neji!' screamed several girls in the front row. Naruto said something to her, but Hinata had no idea what. She was already absorbed in the scene.
"Hi," said Neji. "I'm Neji Hyuuga. Thanks for coming to my show."
And with that, he started to sing.
He did all the hits: Somebody Else's Girl, Cheating, The Smile, Fields of Flowers. He even covered Coldplay. He barely spoke in between songs, only stopped to smile beautifically as waves of applause rolled over him. While he sang his face was a mask of concentration, but his voice was incredible, beautiful and raw-sounding even through the distortion of the mike.
Hinata kept her mental shields up at first, but the strain of blocking so many people was keeping her from really appreciating the concert. Besides, the pulse of emotions she could feel through the shield wasn't unpleasant. Gradually, with a great deal of care, she lowered her guard.
She had expected to feel claustrophobic, overwhelmed. Instead she was enveloped in the combined excitement and pleasure of the entire crowd. She was experiencing the euphoria of everyone in the building, the girls in the front row, Rock Lee in his wheelchair, waving his arms, Sakura beside him, composed but filled with gladness. Naruto's feelings pulsed beside her like sunlight. Neji's voice was amplified a thousand times over in her mind by the reactions of the listeners. It was like being high. She could feel everything.
"You're a great crowd," said Neji, "I'm so glad to be here," and the responding surge of joy from the people around her rose up into her throat, and she screamed at the top of her lungs.
If what Neji felt on stage was anything like this... no wonder he could sing like that.
After the show Hinata was exhausted; her legs shook as they walked down the street to the bus station. Her mind was still sensitive from the experience. She reminded herself not to try that again for a while. In fact, it might be better if she had a couple days of peace and quiet, to get her mind back in good working order.
"Are you alright?" asked Naruto, looking worried.
Hinata nodded. "I'm fine," she said quietly. "Just... just t-tired. Look!" She pointed down the street at the powerful headlights of the Greyhound that would take them home.
"Okay," said Naruto, but he helped her up onto the bus anyway.
The ride back home was quiet at first. Naruto commented several times on the concert, which he had apparently enjoyed quite a lot, and Hinata said yes, she'd liked it too, and continued staring out the window. She was trying to put the proper words together. This was her chance.
"I, um," she said, finally, taking a deep breath, "I h-had a really good time tonight. Um. With you. And, uh, m-maybe we could get together, another time, and do something..."
As soon as she felt Naruto stiffen slightly in the seat beside her, she knew the answer. "Sorry," he says. And he really was sorry, but that didn't make it hurt any less. "I'm sorry, Hinata. I like you, but not like that. I can't... I can't date you. I just can't."
She couldn't help it. Hinata reached in almost without thinking, too depressed to remember that it was the wrong thing to do, trying to find out why she had been rejected.
Naruto's mind was two-tiered. His antischitzophrenics covered the surface like the clear water of a pond, giving his thoughts and feelings a regularity similar to other people's. Below that, like the tangles of weeds at the bottom of the same pond, lay a mind sometimes deceptively normal, sometimes filled with fear and confusion, difficult to endure.
Buried deep inside was a little knot of pain, and it was there that she found what she was looking for.
"It's... it's Sasuke, isn't it."
Naruto stared at her, shocked, and a splash of paranoia rose to the top of his head. Hinata instantly felt horrible. She could only wait as his rational mind managed to convince himself that he was being stupid, that Hinata was just unusually perceptive, or that maybe he was more obvious than he had thought. She promised herself that after tonight she would never read Naruto again.
"Yeah," he said.
Naruto sighed. "This is gonna sound really stupid, but, uh, you remember in 9th Grade when we had that snowstorm?"
Leafhyde got a lot of storms, but that year they had been extrodinarily harsh; for a period of almost a month there had been nearly six feet of snow covering the town. Several senior citizens had almost starved to death without groceries. Hinata remembered it. She had still been living with Asuma and Kurenai at the time, and so things had been fine, but for Naruto, living alone...
"You g-got snowed in?"
"Yeah. And then I ran out of meds."
Naruto laughed awkwardly, painfully. "I, uh, I had just had my psychotic break earlier in the year, so... I guess you can imagine it wasn't much fun. I was freaking out. I was running out of food, and I couldn't think straight enough to find a way out of the house. I thought I was going to die. And then Sasuke came over."
"He what?" asked Hinata, surprised despite herself.
"He brought me some medication. I don't know how he got it. And some groceries and stuff. He had to shovel out my doorway to get in, but he did. And then he stayed with me for a couple days, until I got back to normal... even though, like half the time I thought he was trying to kill me. And I asked him why he would do all that, and he looked at me and he was like 'how the fuck should I know?' and I've liked him since then. But that's about it."
Hinata didn't want to know any more. But she couldn't stop looking. This was an emotion that had festered in Naruto's heart for a long time, mixed together with all the other feelings of jealousy and resentment towards Sasuke, but never being overcome by them.
"Have you... ever s-said...?"
Naruto shook his head. "No. Not really. There was... at Ino's grad party, I, uh..."
'Gave him a blowjob,' Hinata read automatically off the top of his mind. She shielded herself immediately, but the damage was done.
"I..." she started.
"But we were really drunk," finished Naruto, staring at the floor of the bus. "I don't think he remembers anything."
"I'm sorry," said Hinata.
"No, I'm sorry, too. I kinda talk too much, huh? It's not important." And for him it wasn't important, not really. He had experience a lot of hardship in his life: growing up alone, with a mental illness, shunned by his peers. This was just one more burden to bear. Naruto yawned, and then grinned. "I'm beat. I think I'm gonna take a nap. Wake me up when we get back to Leafhyde, 'kay?"
He turned away from her, and in minutes he was snoring softly. He stayed asleep for the rest of the ride. Hinata stared out the window into the darkness, hands folded on her lap, feeling too low to even cry.
TO BE CONTINUED