Lunch Break Doesn't Have to be Torture

September 10, 2002

Hinata almost felt like laughing at her own gullibility and naivete. Almost. Not quite. She'd probably succumb to the ridiculous urge later, but for right now she had to focus, or she'd never be able to get through this.

Gripping her bento box with determined fear, she risked a longing glance around the tree she had taken refuge behind to the oh-so-inviting door that would grant her salvation from this humiliating torture. Her pale grey gaze slid from the high school entrance to the throng of students surrounding it, enjoying their own lunch hour in the company of friends.

As she quickly darted back behind the foliage, Hinata felt her heart clench ever so slightly with an ache she thought she really ought to be used to by now. She didn't understand why the boys would invite her to eat lunch with them and then simply not show up. Hinata knew she shouldn't be complaining. It could have been worse. They could have eaten lunch with her just to pick on, or bully, her.

The girls at her old school would sometimes do that. They would be friendly and nice and would Hinata like to sit with them at lunchtime? And she knew the niceties were fake, knew that they enjoyed humiliating her and they were almost assuredly planning to do just that if she went with them. Their intentions were so obvious and all her survival instincts were screaming 'RUN!'; but deep down there was that tiny grain of desperate hope, frantically clinging to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, they really did just want to have lunch with her.

Hinata hugged her knees to her chest and rested her forehead on them, smiling bitterly at her own foolishness, her blue-black hair falling forward to hide her face.

The six boys who had asked for her presence today were classmates from her homeroom. They made her nervous and confused with hesitant hope; at her last school, when her classmates didn't bully her, they ignored her completely.

But these boys... they talked to her, even when it wasn't required for them to do so (in fact, usually did so when they weren't actually supposed to be talking at all). It wasn't even just polite conversation- it almost seemed as though they liked speaking with her. And, after her initial shock wore off, Hinata found that... she liked talking with them, too.

Not that there had been many conversations. While Naruto-san and Kiba-san seemed to never stop chattering, the others were fairly quiet people. Shikamaru-san, though extremely brilliant, was very laid back and appeared to consider speaking as a chore most of the time; Shino-san didn't talk much either, but it was more from being a quiet presence than from being laid back as Shikamaru-san was; Sasuke-san and Gaara-san were too intense to fade as Shino did, though they were considerably less vocally active than the giant twin balls of energy known as Naruto-san and Kiba-san.

So when Naruto-san had excitedly run up to her that morning, just a few hours ago, Kiba-san hot on his heels, the two of them turning their bright blue and dark chocolate puppy eyes on her and practically begging her to meet them for lunch later, that tiny grain of hope fluttering in her chest had been just a little bigger than normal. She had looked over their shoulders to see Shino-san, Gaara-san, Shikamaru-san and Sasuke-san coming up behind them, looking at her expectantly. And how could she say no?

Dialogue between the boys and herself was sparse, but she... Hinata had thought... she had hoped that... that maybe they might... be her friends... Hinata couldn't bite back the harsh sob that ripped from her throat.

Lost in her thoughts and trying to stop the hot pressure that had spilled over from behind her eyes, Hinata didn't hear the footsteps closing in on her hiding spot until they stopped in front of her. Panic gripped her small form, still heaving with repressed sobs. Her head shot up to see... Gaara-san.

He was panting slightly, his bright red hair more disheveled than usual. His pale green eyes were looking at her with an odd mixture of irritation and... relief?

"Where," he gasped out, "the hell have you been?" Hinata blanched at the harsh tone, too frightened to process the words. More tears trickled down her cheeks and she wanted to hate herself for it.

"I- I, uh-hm-"

"We've been looking everywhere for you!" Gaara forced himself to halt, took a deep breath to calm his frazzled nerves- and looked at the panic stricken, tear-stained mess before him trying to contain the sobs racking her petite frame. Her calf-high socks, which had been a pristine white that morning, were streaked with faint lines of dirt, the immaculate pleats of her knee-length skirt were creased and wrinkled, and Gaara could see tiny scratches covering her palms.

Anger coursed through him and he rubbed a hand over his face as he tried to compose himself. The last thing he wanted was to snap at the girl and make matters worse than they already were.

Gaara was well aware, as were the others, that Hinata had had a rough time at her last school and that some of the girls who had transferred to Okibi High for the 'co-ed experiment' were old classmates who had been responsible for a large part of that. There weren't very many girls attending the school, either. While Okibi was officially co-ed, the female population, including the school's one female teacher, still had yet to exceed the monumental count of thirty-one. Though, thankfully, Hinata hadn't had to spend a lot of time with any of her past tormentors as the 'new' students had been distributed thinly among the classes, to give the unfamiliar sense of female presence a broader scope.

Hinata was actually the only girl in their own class. This, of course, brought her the immediate attention of everyone else in the classroom. Gaara didn't know if he would have paid her any more notice after the first round of introductions if not for the earlier incident in the entrance hall, when Naruto and Kiba- clumsy idiots that they were- bowled the timid girl over as they raced through the door and Gaara, Sasuke, Shikamaru, and Shino had been forced to rush over for damage control.

After that, though, the boys had, somehow, without them even really realizing it, unofficially added Hinata into their tight knit circle of friends. He and Sasuke were still trying to figure out how it happened- the others didn't really care; she was their friend and that was that. Though he was more than a little puzzled by how quickly the girl had made her way into their ranks (school only just started two weeks ago), Gaara found that he didn't really mind the intrusion.

At this point, the only thing that irked him about the situation was that a good number of their classmates still went out of their way to make Hinata's life miserable, despite the fact that she had inadvertently endeared herself to the top members of Okibi High's national champion martial arts team. It was a direct blow to his and his friends' pride and they all hated to see any of their friends suffer like Hinata was.

And then Sasuke had pointed out that maybe they should mark their territory more clearly. No one bothered to correct this cavemanesque remark; they were too busy wondering why they hadn't thought of that solution.

After that, they decided to take a more active role in letting people know that Hinata was off-limits. It didn't occur to them that Hinata might object to the arrangement until she hadn't shown up at the beginning of the lunch period. Kiba had done a better job of hiding his dejected pout than Naruto, but not by much. Gaara and Sasuke covered theirs with with weak attempts at appearing irritated. Shino merely continued to search for her tiny figure among the crowd of students. Shikamaru looked thoughtful.

"Oi, where did we tell her to meet us?" The lazy genius turned to survey his friends questioningly. Naruto blinked at him in confusion, "I told Hinata-chan to meet us right here. Duuuh."

Shikamaru looked as though he was trying not to roll his eyes. "I was asking what directions you gave her."

Understanding dawned across the blonde's face. "I told her that we always meet under the big tree outside the building." Naruto smiled as though he'd just told them he had invented a new flavor of his beloved ramen. They stared at him blankly... then the horrifying comprehension of this new information set in; even Naruto paled as he realized what he had done. The school's campus was surrounded by by a small forest.

Shino, the team's captain, didn't pause to waste any more time.

"Naruto, Kiba, take the east side, Shikamaru, Sasuke, south, Gaara, you go west, I'll take the north side."

They ran off to search for their missing friend. Fifteen minutes later, Gaara was trying to control his worried temper as he stared down at the source of his aggravation.

Hinata had managed to calm down quite a bit and was no longer sobbing, though tears still lingered at the corners of her eyes and quiet hiccups occasionally stole from her tired throat.

"Gomen- n-nasai," the quiet whisper broke the silence between the two. She peeked from beneath her bangs to see Gaara's incredulous stare.

"What?" He couldn't have heard that correctly. There was just no way she was apologizing to him.

She squeaked in fright as he glared confusedly at her. If she were a bolder person, Hinata might have laughed at his miffed expression. Gaara sighed in exasperation.

"Whatever. Let's go."

No matter how many times it happened, Hinata was always surprised by the hands that appeared in front of her face when she was standing up from the ground and any of the boys were nearby. She blinked at the proffered appendage.

"A-ano, go w-where?"

Gaara felt his eye twitch. "To go meet up with the others. We were all worried about you."

Hinata felt something in her chest flutter. "Y-you were... wor-ried...?" She allowed him, somewhat hesitantly, to grasp her hand and pull her to her feet.

He frowned, not liking the way his gut clenched and twisted under that painfully hopeful gaze. "Of course we were worried. We didn't know where you were."

Pulling his eyes from hers, Gaara scooped up Hinata's bento into his hand and proceeded to drag it, and her, back to the others. All the way there he grumbled under his breath about girls being bothersome, and why did he always make friends with the ones that gave him headaches.

They turned a corner of the building and Shino, Sasuke, and Shikamaru came into view, trudging towards a big tree. They visibly relaxed when they caught sight Gaara heading to the tree, Hinata trailing along behind the irate red-head. Naruto and Kiba burst out of a clump of bushes across the small clearing and barreled toward them, both manically waving their arms as though their lives depended on it.

Storming ahead of her as he was, Gaara missed the tiny smile that lit Hinata's blotchy, tear-stained face; the others didn't.

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto or any affiliated characters or copyrights.

Author's Note: I'm just going to throw this out here now, before anyone makes any assumptions about this story. What you will find in these chapters is not a continually developing main plot or storyline. Each chapter is written to be a stand alone oneshot (as in, independent from each other) of character interaction or study. They just all happen to take place in the same alternate universe which I have invented for my own nefarious purposes.

Also, the chapters aren't going to go up in any semblence chronological order (pfft! order. who needs that?). However I will state at the beginning of each story when I imagine it to take place. So I guess I just went and made myself a hypocrite. Shoot.

Lastly, would those of you who have put in the time and effort to actually read this far please be willing to go just that tiny bit of distance more to the little blue button in the corner of your screen? Any comments, suggestions or criticisms are welcome and appreciated.