Shikamaru rolled his eyes as Kiba flirted shamelessly with some of the contestants who were waiting for their turn to perform. His cheeks reddened imperceptibly as his thoughts turned to a certain bold, blond Sand kunoichi. I wonder what Temari's talent would be, he thought to himself. For the most part, the rest of their cohort stood silently and stoically at the back of the audience. Young women in the crowd kept turning to eye the shinobi, especially Neji, with appreciate looks.
Hinata gulped audibly and pulled her face away from the tiny opening in the curtain.
"I can't do it after all, Megumi-san. I just can't."
Megumi's eyes narrowed strictly. "Hinata-chan, you can do it. You must do it. Not for me, but for yourself. You've worked so hard to prepare yourself. Are you really going to give up now?"
Hinata made a small noise of mortified distress as she peeked once more at the delegation from Konoha. If only the boys wouldn't stand in a row like that. They looked like a panel of silent judges!
"Hinata," Megumi's expression softened as she sighed the younger girl's name. "It's not the end of the world. You don't have to go out there trying to win the competition. Just go out and enjoy yourself. You look beautiful. Your fans are eagerly waiting to see your performance. Don't you want to share that with your friends?"
Hinata squeaked what might have been a yes or a no, but Megumi decided to take it as an affirmative.
"Good!" she exclaimed.
Hinata started and looked back at her as the older woman shoved her through the curtain and onto the stage.
"There's Hinata!" Chouji shouted excitedly.
"Where?" Neji asked.
"Where? I don't see her at all."
Shino froze, his gaze locked on the voluptuous figure on the stage. As the girl on the platform began to move and sway to the music, he felt his throat go dry and his brain go numb. He'd always known his Hyuuga teammate had a more curvy figure than her baggy sweaters let on, but…this was the first time he had ever seen her acting in a purposefully sexy way and dressed…like that.
"No," Neji flat out denied, even when Chouji helpfully turned his head in the right direction. "No, that can't possibly be Hinata-sama."
"Why not? Hinata's very graceful and beautiful. Don't you think so?"
"But, but, but…!" Neji's flustered face grew redder and redder.
"But what?" Chouji prodded.
"But she's not wearing enough clothes!"
Kiba wolf-whistled cheerfully, and Neji broke off his slightly horrified stare to glare at the happy-go-lucky nin-dog user.
"Hazukashii! (I'm so embarrassed!)" Hinata whispered as she stealthy slipped behind a copse of trees and tiptoed her way back to the changing rooms. She had snuck out after the awards ceremony and was assiduously trying to avoid anyone from Konoha. It's okay. I'm a ninja! I can sneak out without anyone seeing me, and, and…put a paper bag over my head for the rest of the journey! It wasn't a fool-proof plan, but it was all she had at the moment.
Just past this door…
Several pairs of hands suddenly reached out and pulled her into the room.
Loud cheers rang in Hinata's ears. Kairu, decked out in the complete Miss Beautiful gown and crown smothered her in a hug and spun her around before tugging her onto a small stage.
"Ladies, lets hear it for the girl who saved the pageant, our lives, and the whole of Island Country!"
The temperature of Hinata's face slowly rose and rose until steam was practically pouring out of her ears. She barely heard the rest of the speeches and would have fallen over in a dead faint if various girls hadn't kept coming up and hugging her.
At one point she gazed down in amazement at the medal the other girls had awarded her and fingered its cool smoothness. When it came time to give her own little speech, however, all she could manage was a squeaky but heartfelt, "A-Arigatoo."
Hinata introduced her new friends to her old comrades. She had tried to slip back into her normal shinobi pants and jacket, but Megumi had somehow spirited them away for the time being and conveniently had an "emergency" summer dress in her size. Her fingers fiddled with a little ribbon on the bodice as hoards of people milled around to talk to the pageant girls.
Koeru tucked her arm into Hinata's and the two spoke quietly as various girls wondered past with their well-wishing. Miyako, Mieko, Hoseki and the rest eventually crowded around, too. The general warmth of affectionate conversation and bubbling enthusiasm soon filled the area as girls promised to write, visit, etc.
A handful of rowdy young men ambled into view and, for some reason, headed straight for Hinata.
"Hey, cutie! We loved your dance!"
"Ano…" Hinata backed away uncertainly.
"What happened to your pretty little sexy outfit? Think you could change back into it so we could take some pictures together?"
Suddenly, a wall of muscle appeared between Hinata and the offending young men.
"Uh. Hey! What's the deal!?" the closest one demanded as one of his friends suddenly swung and punched him in the face.
Hinata glanced down to see the shadows linking the young man and Shikamaru. Neji and Shino stood just ahead and to the left and right of her. Chouji stood ready and patient to help in way necessary. Kiba and Lee were the only ones missing.
"Excuse us for the interruption," Neji suddenly bowed to Hinata's companion. Then he added, in all polite seriousness, "Please continue with your girl talk," before disappearing from view with two guys held by the scruff of the neck. Shino and Chouji had already carried their prisoners away, while Shikamaru had merely wandered off to lie down on the sand and watch the clouds.
Hinata chuckled, and Kairu grinned at her.
"Your friends are very protective and…energetic."
"Hai," Hinata agreed just as her eyes turned to where Kairu was looking. There was Lee with leis of flowers around his neck and waist. He was apparently in the middle of challenging one of the pageant girls to a hula hoop contest. "Hai! They're the best!" Hinata giggled.
Hinata stood at the railing of the ship as she looked back at the retreating islands. She looked down at the shiny medallion on the ribbon around her neck and smiled.
"I'm proud of you, Hinata," Kakashi said from where he'd appeared at her side.
Hinata turned pink at the praise and beamed up at him.
"I'm proud of you, too, Hinata!" Chouji chimed in loyally.
Hinata giggled and rewarded him with a sudden hug. "Arigatoo, Chouji-kun!"
"Hey! Where's my hug?" Kiba barked out with a grin. Hinata jumped into his embrace and kissed Akamaru on the top of his head.
When Hinata stepped away, a pair of strong arms wrapped around her from behind and turned her gently to face a large light-colored coat. Shino whispered softly into her ear, and Hinata flushed from the tip of her chin to the roots of her hair. Her stoic teammate held her just a bit longer than anyone else, though Kiba refrained from commenting and merely shared a little smirk with Akamaru.
Neji watched his cousin quietly from the side. She seemed so happy, almost glowing with positive energy. He'd never seen that kind of smile on her face before, and he resolved he would do whatever it took to keep it there. Neji approached her place at the railing and spoke quietly. "Hinata-sama, you have truly become strong, and I, too, am also very proud of you."
Hinata froze, and Neji started when she turned to him with eyes swimming with tears.
"N-Neji-n-niisan," she sniffed. Hinata buried her face against his chest and wailed happily.
Neji looked around as his panic increased. How had he made her cry?! He was trying to be encouraging! He looked to the resident genius. Perhaps he knew how to still the flood of a crying female.
Shikamaru merely shrugged at him.
Neji patted Hinata's back awkwardly and murmured something soothing and stupid-sounding, but that seemed to work just fine. When she looked up at him and smiled, he knew things would be alright. Neji let her keep her arm linked through his, and Shino stood on Hinata's right with his hand resting on her shoulder as the Konoha shinobi watched the sunset on their journey home.