Author's Note: Um. Hi guys. *waves* This chapter has been half written for a while (by a while, I mean over a year), so I thought I'd finish it. I seem to have a penchant for starting long stories and never really finishing them. Luckily I sort of like this one, so maybe it'll survive.
Naruto © Masashi Kishimoto
– Being Social
"You should go out more, Hinata," Neji commented dryly over dinner. He surveyed her unchanging expression over a bowl of rice. "Make friends, socialize and such."
"I do." Her reply was soft as she lifted her chopsticks to her mouth and chewed numbly on the clump of rice. "I-I went out to the karaoke once, a-and I go on w-walks sometimes…" Her voice trailed off. It was true, what her cousin said. In retrospect, Hinata had just holed herself up in the cold, empty condo. School was basically the only place she ever had any contact with people.
"There's a fair just a few blocks away." Neji suggested, flipping through a local newspaper. "Looks interesting. Maybe you could ask your friends to take you." Hinata nodded absentmindedly. Naruto and Ino had been talking about it eagerly, as well as the other students in the class. They had invited her to go along, but she had politely refused their well-meaning invitation. Of course, her refusal had nothing to do with the fact that she had seen Uchiha-sensei turn down the same invitation.
"I-I have homework." The excuse was usually foolproof, but never against Neji. She looked down, not daring to meet his white eyes, which were now clearly focused on her bangs.
"You've always finished your homework right after school, Hinata. I don't think the word procrastination is in your dictionary." He chuckled to himself and took a sip of water. After another bite, he pointed his chopsticks at her and continued, "Besides, I'm sure it wouldn't matter if you missed one or two homework assignments. I could talk to your teacher for you."
"No!" Her chopsticks clattered to the ground. She blushed when he stared at her, surprised at her violent reaction. Neji and Uchiha-sensei was definitely a lethal mix. Besides, she didn't want her depression and apparent need to socialize to spread around the school.
"S-sensei's just fine, nii-san…I'll go." She sighed.
"That's better," Neji finally smiled and reached over to pat her shoulders. "Actually, I think I'll go along with you. There's nothing I have planned tonight."
"That would be nice." Hinata secretly began to warm up to the idea of going to the fair, just a little. It had been a long time since she and her cousin had gone anywhere by themselves.
Neji was only a few years older, but he was the model overachiever and always busy. The last time she could remember going anywhere with him was at the very beginning of junior high school; then he had gotten a girlfriend and Hinata was out of the picture. Although there were no more girlfriends in college, the schoolwork and opening business had made Neji busier than ever.
Popcorn sounds like a good idea…she bit her lip and began to eat more eagerly. It had been a long time since she had looked forward to something.
"I remember those," Neji pointed to the Ferris wheel towering above the other attractions. The large white wheel was covered with gaudy lights, outshining the stars in the sky far above them. "You were six then first time we went on it. You started crying so hard when we stopped at the top."
"Neji!" Hinata gasped and her cheeks turned pink. True, until she was ten, she had been terrified of falling off of the ferris wheel. Then she had discovered roller coasters and the fear had evaporated. Fear didn't even have time to appear when the speed and exhilaration enveloped her. However, dangling at that monstrous height with nothing but thin metal underneath her feet still made her knees tremble. And it was slow, which meant she had plenty of time to think about all the ways the machinery could malfunction and she could die a painful death. She pouted, trying to look displeased. Neji just ignored it and pointed to the merry-go-round.
"And then that. You refused to get off, and Hiashi-sama had to buy you a carousel horse and it was stuck in your room for months!" He chuckled to himself. Hinata just shook her head and shoved some cotton candy in her mouth.
"Only old people keep reminiscing like that." She patted his shoulder and smiled patronizingly at him, "oji-san."
"Hey!" Neji frowned, "I'm only a few years older than you!"
Hinata laughed softly to herself. Neji looked down at her fondly and patted her head softly, relieved. She had been suffering; he noticed that when he had first stepped into her condo. She was noticeably paler and gaunt, though the sun was stronger in Tokyo and the season was approaching summer. He pulled off some cotton candy from the cone she held in her hand, and put it into his mouth, feeling the sharp sweetness melting on his tongue. He looked down at her again; her blushing cheeks and flustered look suited her much better than the coldness and loneliness that she had been emanating earlier.
But no matter her condition, Hinata had always been beautiful to him.
He looked away from her after a moment, surveying the crowd when something caught his eye.
"Hinata," he shook the girl next to him. "Those kids look around your age, do you know them?" She followed his gaze and gasped in surprise. A smile lit up her features, brightening up Neji's vision. Maybe he had been right to take her to this troublesome fair, after all.
"That's Naruto and Ino," she paused and then whispered in surprise, her voice, as well as her smile, faltering,"…a-and Uchiha-sensei."
"Well," Neji gave her a little push, unpleased with the sudden change in her mood. "Why don't you go talk to them?"
"Um…" Hinata closed her eyes and turned away, shaking her head. "I..I don't want to."
"You seemed happy just a second ago." Neji stated dryly. "Why the sudden change?"
"It's…it's nothing." Hinata tried not to meet Neji's eyes, knowing that her words wouldn't hold up.
Neji frowned; Hinata had never tried to hide things from him before. Whether it had been lost homework or problems with friends, Neji had always been confident that he knew everything about Hinata. Yet earlier, she had tried to convince him that she wasn't starving herself to death though she obviously was; but he had brushed that off as concern and homesickness. And here they were, in the middle of the fair, and she was hiding something else again.
He glanced over again at the group of high-school students; they seemed harmless enough. There were two blondes in the group, one natural with bright blue eyes and one unnatural with colored contacts. They were walking and talking excitedly, pointing to different attractions and generally acting like children. Behind them trailed a taller and older-looking man, talking on his phone and looking utterly bored.
He was the only one who didn't quite seem like a student.
Neji sighed and rubbed Hinata's head. There was no reason to force her to tell him what was going on. After all, she had just moved to Tokyo for a month; it was understandable that there would be problems with making friends and such. Hinata had always too passive about initiating friendship; it was something that irked Neji but also comforted him. At least it meant no boys would get close to Hinata. That could get messy and Neji didn't like it when Hinata cried. The other option was even worse, however.
"Okay," he mumbled, injecting some false sadness into his voice, "If you don't want to tell me, it's alright."
She looked up at him, her eyes wide and concerned. "I'm sorry, Neji-nii…I-I don't really know why…" When she caught him smiling, she pouted and tried to glare at him. "Don't tease me like that, Neji-nii."
The man chuckled and replied, "Let's just go on the carousel. You'll have fun on it. Maybe I'll have to ask Hiashi-sama for that old carousel horse again – hey! Ouch!"
Hinata had pushed him, hard. Even through her displeased face, Neji could see her relaxing again. She wasn't strong enough to hurt him anyway. Neji stumbled back, his foot landing on a big piece of fresh gum. He frowned when he felt the squelching feeling under the soles of his formal shoes. Crap! Neji looked down, why hadn't he changed into sneakers instead of the leather dress shoes he usually wore while traveling? Oh right, his mind reminded him, getting Hinata out of her hermit cave had rearranged the whole list of priorities in his head. Hinata laughed a bit at Neji's expression, as he lifted his foot experimentally. The gum was quite stretchy and quite fresh as well.
"Now look," Neji said dryly, "It seems that you owe me a new pair of shoes." Hinata giggled at his dismay and Neji sighed – these had been his favorite pair. They were new and shipped right from Italy a few weeks ago. However, Hinata seemed to be perking up, so maybe the shoes had to be sacrificed after all.
He quickly jerked his foot away from the gum and scraped it on the sidewalk, trying to get off the excess. It would really be annoying to have to constantly feel something under his shoe adhering to the ground. He located a bench twenty paces away, deciding that maybe one of his gift cards would have to take the fall as well. Being a clean freak, he was surprised that he wasn't already hyperventilating from the grime.
"I'm going to go get this gum off my shoe, Hinata," he said to his cousin, who had by now recovered from her giggle fit. "You should go talk to your friends. They seem nice."
"Wh-what?" Hinata looked startled. "B-but, I'll just help you get it o-off."
"I'm fine by myself," Neji replied with a slight smirk, "Besides, who knows, you might push me off the bench. These are very expensive pants."
"I was just kidding," he patted her on the shoulder and gave her a little push in the general direction of the group. "Go on, now."
"B-but," her fingers were up to her mouth again, a nervous tic she had never outgrown.
"Now Hinata, socialize. It's not that scary," Neji gave her a wry smile and walked off. He would be watching closely of course; there were males over there, and as much as she needed to talk to other people, he still didn't like the thought of Hinata being near the opposite gender.
"I-I…." Hinata faltered as she saw her cousin head for the bench on the corner. Great, now she had to actually talk to them. She cursed herself for actually coming to the fair; look where it got her now. And, she thought as she glanced at the unmoving group of chattering classmates, didn't Uchiha-sensei reject the invitation to the fair? What did it matter to her anyway? She shook her head hurriedly to dispel such troublesome questions. It really wouldn't do to stand awkwardly in the middle of the street, especially went she could just feel Neji's eyes burn a hole into the back of her head.
"Fine, fine," she muttered under her breath. Taking a deep breath, she slowly approached the ticket stand, where they were waiting in line. Naruto caught sight of her when she was just a few steps away. He waved and shouted something she didn't quite catch, but suddenly every head swiveled to look straight at her. Hinata knew her cheeks were burning, and at that moment, bolting into the middle of the street seemed to be a viable option.
"Um..h-hi," she raised a hand and put on a weak smile. It was just so odd to see her classmates out of uniform. It made them seem more real. The thought suddenly struck her that they were real people, with lives outside of school, and with their own thoughts and lives. Somehow, that was strange.
"Hinata!" Ino ran up to her and immediately attached herself to Hinata's right arm. "I thought you couldn't make it?"
"Uh…I-I finished my h-homework early…" Hinata blushed at her blatant lie, but she couldn't really say that her cousin had randomly showed up and forced her to socialize, could she?
"That's great! We can go on a ton of rides together then," Ino grinned, leading Hinata to join the circle. Hinata surveyed the group; a strange sense of vertigo encompassing her. Other than Naruto and Ino, there were Kiba, Shino, Chouji, and some other people she didn't know.
Something brushed her ankle and she yelped, quickly withdrawing her foot. She looked down, realizing that it was just a puppy.
"Akamaru, get back here boy," Kiba scooped the puppy up into his arms and smiled apologetically at Hinata. "Sorry 'bout that."
"I-it's al-alright," Hinata blushed again. Then she ventured, with a quiet voice, "He's cute."
"Didja hear that Akamaru?" Kiba grinned, showing off sharp canines. He patted the puppy's head, "You've got yourself an admirer!"
"Hina-chan!," Naruto immediately sidled up to her. Hinata could help but meet his clear blue eyes, which probably worsened her already dark blush. "When did you get here?"
"J-just a f-few m-minutes ago," she answered. Was it really a few minutes? She and Neji had just walked around a bit. It couldn't have been too long.
"This is awesome, now you can ride with me," Naruto grinned happily. Hinata gave him a weak smile, wondering how anybody could be so exuberant.
"Sasuke-kun, guess who came!" Naruto shouted to the dark-haired man trailing a little behind the group. Hinata caught his eye for a moment, noticing that he seemed quite…annoyed. Still, it was all very strange to her – for once, Uchiha-sensei wasn't wearing his usual suit and tie. Instead, he was wearing a dark blue polo with equally dark jeans. His glasses were gone. Maybe they were just for show, she mused. He looked much, much younger without them.
"Che," he grunted noncommittally. "You're too loud, Naruto. And call me Sasuke-kun again; I will fail you on tomorrow's exam."
"Aww, you can't do that!" Naruto whined. Hinata suppressed an urge to giggle. Outside of school, anybody would've thought that these two were brothers, or classmates – not teacher and student.
"Yes, I can. It'll be better than the zero you'll probably get." Was that a smirk she saw on Sasuke's face? He glanced at her and his expression softened a bit, "Hello, Hyuga-san."
"H-hello," she managed to stammer. His eyes looked darker than normal without the frames blocking them.
"Ugh, let's ignore this jerk, Hina-chan," Naruto put a hot, uncomfortable arm around Hinata's shoulder, and dragged her away from Sasuke, who had turned his attention back to his small, stylish phone.
"I-I don't h-have any money," Hinata mumbled when they reached the front of the line. She hadn't planned on doing anything at the fair, so her purple wallet was still lying on the glass coffee table back the condo.
"It's alright, Hina-chan," Naruto pulled out a swollen frog-shaped coin purse, "Gama-chan is pretty full right now, so I'll pay."
Hinata eyed the bulging frog sack, wondering if it was the "Gama-chan" Naruto was referring to. Strange thing that Naruto would nickname his coin purse. But then again, today had been full of strange things, so maybe this was just one of them.
After Naruto had paid for their tickets (Hinata promised to pay him back the next day), they waited for the rest of the group to pay for theirs as well. Hinata was content, for the moment, because Naruto kept the one-sided conversation flowing, and all she had to do was nod and smile once in a while. She didn't have to say anything. Glancing back at the form of her cousin, who still struggling with the bubble-gum, she felt that maybe this should count as "socializing". She wasn't talking, but someone was talking to her.
"Naruto! Get over here!" Ino shouted and waved a hand.
"Be right back," Naruto told Hinata, "I still have to tell you about that one time when I ate ten bowls of ramen in half an hour!" He loped off to the group, leaving Hinata stranded in the middle of the fair. She glanced over to where Ino was talking in rapid-fire pace with Naruto and the rest of the crew. It seemed like such a warm and happy go lucky picture, just them and their smiles. She couldn't help but feel that maybe she was putting a damper on the mood.
It was some time before she noticed a familiar figure standing next to her, equally as silent but more relaxed.
"O-oh, hello a-again," Hinata looked up and gulped, "U-uchiha-sensei."
"Hyuga-san," he smiled politely. "How are you?"
"U-um…I'm okay," she replied shakily, not really knowing what to say. After a few seconds of unbearably heavy silence, she focused on his chin (his eyes were frightening to look at) and muttered, "I-I thought y-you weren't c-coming?"
"Oh? And how would you know that?" He raised one elegant eyebrow and looked at her questioningly. She flushed pink again, and murmured, "Ah-u-um, I-I just th-thought y-you…w-weren't?"
"Again with the stuttering, Hyuga-san," he shook his head as if disappointed. Hinata cringed. "I'm not that frightening."
"I-I'm s-sorry," she bit her tongue and looked at the pavement. The awkwardness was just completely unbearable. She just didn't like being around him, for some odd reason. He gave off an odd feeling, something that made her feel alive. Like what she said mattered somehow, like she was important.
Hinata wasn't sure if she liked it.
She heard a fizzle and a loud pop resounded around her. Then suddenly the lights shut off and everything was dark.
Author's Note: I had such big things planned for this chapter…but I realized that everything would drag on too long and I didn't want to end up with a large, humongous chapter. So I cut it in half.
But anyway, if you read my other stories, you can see I'm going in rounds, trying to update each one.