by Misery's-Toll

Summary: Hinata struggles to be herself. AU College fic NaruHina

Songs listened to: "John Doe" by B.o.B featuring Priscilla, "Coffee and Cigarettes" by Augustana, "Copper Down" by The Boy Who Trapped the Sun, and "Love, Love, Love" by The Mountain Goats.

Hinata stares at the halo of light overhead, trying to keep her tongue out of the way while the dental assistant scrubs her teeth clean.

There's a crackling noise, like a droplet of rain hitting a flame, and then the woman is apologizing.

"One of your molars just chipped," she says.

The countdown begins.


What am I so afraid of?

"So basically we're trying to sell a make-believe product," Naruto determines, browsing over the handout Professor Kurenai gave them.

"M-hm!" Hinata squeaks, relieved that they are beginning to make some progress.

The morning consisted of a few awkward moments in which they both attempted to speak at the same time, only to both also insist the other finish what they were going to say first. Neither of them addressed what happened the night before, but she could feel Naruto smiling at her when he thought she wasn't looking.

She feels like her whole body is tingling.

"Have you come up with anything?" Naruto asks gently, an attempt at coaxing her to share the frayed piece of notebook paper she's been holding close to her chest since the moment they sat down.

"Um, just one thing," she giggles nervously, her voice almost getting lost amongst the chatter of the other coffee shop patrons, "I m-mean, we don't have to do it if you don't want to."

He gives an encouraging grin and outstretches his hand for the sheet of paper. Hesitantly, with quaking fingers, she passes it over.

"A voice recorder that transcribes your professor's lecture into text. That's a really neat idea, Hinata! You even drew a diagram. Wow," he says, looking honestly impressed.

Hinata's stomach burns, and not in the usual unpleasant way. "I just doodled it in class yesterday," she offers.

"You're really talented," Naruto says, and then starts to get up, "I'm gonna grab a coffee. Do you want anything? I'm buying."

The memory of what happened last time he offered brings a flush to her face. When the cashier asked are you together?

Hinata nods shyly, "Whatever is g-good for hangovers."

Naruto laughs hard and boisterously at that, and gives her a wave as he goes up to the buy counter.

There is a couple sitting at a table beside her. The girl is eating a slice of cheesecake, drizzled with strawberry glaze, licking her fork almost obscenely. Hinata tilts her head, watching each bite vanish into the girl's mouth, like a magic disappearing act. There is no guilt on the girl's face. Her boyfriend isn't judging.

Hinata thinks I used to like cheesecake. She can taste the ghost of it on her tongue, but no craving surfaces. Her stomach doesn't so much as growl.

She can't remember the last time she felt hungry. She can't remember the last time she ate a meal in front of someone else, or the last time she swallowed without feeling the uncontrollable urge to GET. IT. OUT.

Maybe it should feel like progress. But thinking about all of it just makes her tired.

She doesn't notice when Naruto sits back beside her.

"Hinata?" he asks, his fingers brushing her wrist. It takes her a moment too long to respond, finds it difficult to look away from the other girl.

Maybe it's the hangover.

She smiles fondly at Naruto, another thrill jolting through her at his casual touch. "What did you get?"

He passes an insulated cup to her, and says a bit hesitantly, "I don't know if you'll like it, but it's some sort of ginger root tea. I used to hate it, but mixing a packet of sugar really helps."

Hinata cups her hands around the warmth of it, feeling it seep into her bones and the ache of her joints. The aroma of ginger is rather pungent, but when she swallows it at its scalding hot temperature, she can barely taste it.

"It's good," she tells him, her tongue stinging.

They sit in the coffee shop for close to two hours, hunched over the laptop Hinata borrowed from Neji. The power-point presentation looks halfway decent by the time they're finished, complete with sliding transitions and clipart stolen from the internet.

"You know, you make a really good partner Hinata," Naruto says when they're finished. He's on his third cup of coffee, and Hinata can't help but suspect that that's where his boundless energy comes from. "Sasuke may be prodigy or whatever, but he's impossible to work with. His pompous bastardness gets in the way."

Hinata giggles self-consciously, shoulders tense from Naruto leaning over her for so long. "I'm g-glad you're my partner too."

She holds her breath, wondering if she's been a little too honest. But Naruto just rests his hand on her shoulder, giving it a squeeze before he sits back in his chair.

"So..." he starts, "About last night..."

Hinata's fingers clench around the hem of her skirt, her knuckles cracking with the effort.

I was drunk, and it didn't mean anything.
Sorry, but you're not a very good kisser.
I prefer pretty girls.
We can still be friends though, right?

She's almost hyperventilating by the time she's cycled through all of the scenarios in her head. She can't do this. She's not ready for her heart to snap in two. Her fingernails bite into her flesh.

"I had fun," he says tentatively, eyes grazing floor, oblivious to the cold sweat breaking across Hinata's forehead, "Would you like to...I dunno, do it again sometime?"

In her surprise, Hinata bumps the table, spilling the remainder of her tea all over herself. The reddish liquid immediately seeps into her Betsy Johnson sweater, dripping down her corduroy leggings. She hastily shoves away from the table, squeaking, "Save the computer!"

Naruto grabs the laptop and sets it aside, saying, "I'll get some napkins!"

Hinata shakes her head, feeling her entire body tremble from shock, "Excuse me..."

She stumbles away, feeling like an idiot. At the same time, her heart is thrumming in her chest with joy. Naruto likes her. He liked kissing her. He wants to do it again.

The first thing she does when she gets in the bathroom is collapse on the floor, breathing heavily into her knees. Her heart is beating too hard and too fast, impossible to calm down. She reaches around for something to hold on to, something solid in this spinning world.

She finds the toilet bowl.

She emerges from the bathroom, clothes only marginally drier. Naruto sits at a different table from before, packing the computer in its travel case.

Without looking up, he says, "Don't worry, I don't think anything got on the computer. It's still working just fine."

He tilts his head up to meet her eyes, and his smile droops at one corner. "Oh, that doesn't look good."

Hinata touches the moist, oblong stain on her sweater and says quietly, "It's okay."

"You still have to walk to the train though," he insists, "You're going to freeze. Do you want to borrow my jacket?"

He pulls the fleece article from the back of his chair, offering it adamantly. It's not stylish like what Kiba would wear. Not leather or designer. But when she takes it from his hands, it feels like a precious gift, infinitely more valuable.

"Thank you," she whispers gratefully.

To her surprise, Naruto helps her put it on, one sleeve and then the other. It smells like him, warm and safe ―it smells like that night after the carnival, when he took her to Ichiraku.

When she's bundled up, Naruto takes her hand like its the most natural thing in the world, like he doesn't feel the way it trembles in his.

"I'll walk you to the train," he says.

It's strange, standing outside the train station at the very same spot. She can see Naruto's apartment in the distance, the dark shadow in a wall of lights. She can feel the ground shaking beneath her shoes as a train passes.

"You never answered my question, you know," he says pointedly. His fingers are still twisted with hers.

Hinata bites her bottom lip, and feeling brave she asks, "W-what question was that?"

Naruto leans in, close enough that she can see freckles of gold in his bright blue eyes. She never knew they were there. One more thing for her to fall in love with.

He asks, "Can I kiss you again?"

At a loss for words, with her heart in her throat, she blushes, nods. And then his chapped lips are pressed against hers again.

There's a kind of hunger in this― separate from the hollowness that's carved its way out of her stomach. Its a gnawing ache of loneliness, one she didn't know needed healing until Naruto's kiss salved it for her.

Just when she's sure she might explode, they pull apart, white winter puffs of breath culminating between them. Naruto's hot, callused hand is on her face, the pad of his thumb tracing circles on her cheekbone. His other hand rests on her hipbone― frail and small like a bird's.

She wonders what he feels when he holds her like this.

"Wow," he says, with a heat in his expression that she's never seen before. And Hinata's face flushes scarlet.

"Wow," she agrees, her fingers resting against the soft cotton covering his chest. She thinks maybe she can feel his heartbeat, fast and thready. Like hers. It gives her a sense of security, like maybe she's not the only one who feels nervous. Even Naruto, brave Naruto, can feel a taste of what she does.

He hums, a throaty sound that fills Hinata with butterflies. "I like it when you blush," he admits, and presses another chaste kiss to her glowing cheeks.

She ducks her head into his chest and says, "Sadist," feeling lighter than air when he laughs in response.

"Let's meet up again tomorrow before class, huh? We can practice the speech that goes with our badass power-point. Let's blow their minds!" he says enthusiastically, pumping his fist in the air.

"Y-yeah!" she shouts, invigorated in a way she never could have imagined, "Let's do it!"

I loved you more than I loved myself.

"He kissed me!" Hinata squeaks into the phone. She feels like a kid, bouncing up and down on her bed, but inside her is a whirlwind.

"Oh my God!" Sakura's shout is so noisy that Hinata has to pull away from the receiver, "I knew it! I knew you liked him!"

"Well duh, Forehead!" Ino's reply is just as loud, "My bet was always on Naruto. Kiba is cute, but he doesn't have that charming week-old ramen smell that Naruto has."

"Ew, Ino. That's gross," Sakura says, "I hope you're joking."

"Again, duh," Ino replies, "Seriously though. I'm so happy for you, Hinata. Have you been to second base yet?"

Hinata chews her lip, suddenly fascinated with pulling threads from her old quilt, "Um...which one is that again?"

"Boobs," Sakura interjects, "And ass. Clothes on."

"...is that supposed to happen?" Hinata asks, feeling very shy. Of course, of course she's always wanted to go further with Naruto. But her imagination included what she would do to him...not what he might want from her.

"You're so crass, Sakura. I love it," Ino giggles, "But don't worry about it, Hinata. Shikamaru and I were dating for a whole week before we got that far."

"A week?" Hinata shrieks. She thought she had a little longer than that at least.

"You're freaking her out, Pig! Not all of us have as much trouble keeping it in our pants as you," Sakura insists, and then continues sensibly, "Naruto and I were together for two years, remember? It took him a month to get up the courage to kiss me, and then another three before we reached second base. He'd freak out if I even said the word boobs. He was such a kid sometimes."

Hinata mouths the word boobs to herself, and wonders if Naruto would still react the same way at age twenty-one. She looks down at her chest, sunken teepees that are barely noticeable in her sleep camisole. She pulls a pillow to cover the view, feeling very self-conscious. Maybe it would be better not to put thoughts in his head.

"Hinata's so sexy though, I'm not sure he'll be able to keep his hands to himself," Ino cackles shamelessly, "Better start wearing your pretty panties, just in case."

Hinata shifts uncomfortably on her bed, thinking about the nude-color, control top lingerie she's been wearing ever since...this started.

"It's not like you've never done it before though, right? You dated that guy in high school..." Sakura reminds her, "What was his name? He was kind of weird. Had an ant farm."

Hinata blushes. "Shino."

"Right! The bug guy!" Ino exclaims, "You said he was your first."

One of the few interesting Truths! she confessed during Truth or Dare.

"Um, well," she starts. She was young then, when she― with Shino... Fifteen, and hurting. Right after her mom-

"First times are always awkward," Sakura says placatingly, "Especially when they're with creepy bug guys. It'll be better with Naruto."

"Cuz you taught him all your moves, right?" Ino says jokingly, "Guess you won't have to start from scratch, Hinata!"

She groans, burying her face in the pillow. Conversations always seem to spiral out of control way too quickly.

"Speaking of, Sasuke and I had the greatest make up sex last night-"

After hanging up the phone, Hinata decides to take a shower.

The hot water rinses away whatever remnants of tea still linger on her skin, as well as the dirt of the subway station. She presses her fingertips to her lips, smiling at the feeling of skin against skin. The memory of Naruto's lips is sweet on her tongue.

Then she notices the water trailing between her breasts, dripping down the planes of her ribs and her hips. She grabs the loofah from the edge of the tub and begins to scrub at the unattractive flesh, rubbing it raw as if the blood rising beneath her skin will make her appear any healthier.

The flesh doesn't spring back beneath her touch, doesn't feel soft to her roaming hands. It's just skin on bone, nothing loveable about it.

She can't stop the sudden tears that form, hotter than the steaming water pouring over her. They are stinging and salty, catching in the corners of her lips. She crumples in on herself, falling to her knees in the tub, a wilted flower getting pummeled by a rainstorm.

Hinata remembers being fifteen. Remembers the feeling of Shino's delicate hands trailing over her body. She didn't love him, but she didn't hate him either. She needed him. Needed to feel anything after her mother-

The falling water swirls around the drain of the tub, forming a small cyclone before it disappears.

Naruto kissing her at night by the riverside. Sakura lying on the shore, coughing up seawater before Hinata could save her. Shino fucking her as a thunderstorm raged on outside. Her mother, lying in the bathtub, an empty container of sleeping pills and a toppled bottle of vodka floating beside her.

Hinata climbing in on top of her, cold water seeping into her clothes as she pumped her mother's chest. One, two, three. Breathe! Hopeless.

Hinata lets out one wailing sob, and her tears disappear down the drain.

Selfish. Selfish. Selfish.

Hinata is descending the stairs at the subway station when it happens.

It's a little disorienting. One moment she's at the top of the steps, and a second later she's being lifted onto a stretcher.

She sees the computer case lying on the ground a few feet away, and she tries to point, but it seems that her arm is broken.

"My laptop," she croaks to the man lifting her into the ambulance, "Naruto needs-"

"Don't try to talk, okay ma'am? We're taking you to the emergency room," he tells her, "You're going to be fine."

"But-" she says. Her vision swims. "Okay."

Despite the overwhelming flurry of activity it took to get her into the E.R., waiting to be seen by a doctor takes a remarkably long time.

They lead her to a small cubicle-like room, with nothing inside except for a hospital bed covered in blue fabric sheets. It's chilly, and Hinata finds herself shivering as she sits on the edge of the only piece of furniture in sight.

And she waits, and waits, for what seems like hours in that small room with no clock. She holds her injured arm close to her chest, wrapped in a few itchy layers of medical tape.

Her phone is smashed to bits, the screen crushed when she tripped. Which is odd, because she doesn't remember falling.

Eventually, a nurse comes in― or Hinata thinks she's a nurse at least. Until she realizes that, unlike the man who bandaged her arm in the ambulance, this woman isn't wearing scrubs.

"Hi," the petite woman says, outstretching her hand for a shake, "I'm Shizune. I'm your social worker."

Hinata doesn't understand why she needs a social worker. Why they're keeping her here in this tiny room, refusing to let her leave. She and Naruto are supposed to give their presentation. What will he do without the power-point? What happened to the laptop?

She gestures at her useless right arm, and says quietly, "Nice to meet you."

"You're probably wondering, 'Why do I need a social worker?' Am I right?" Shizune asks rescinding her hand, voice overly perky for a room this stark.

Hinata gives a vague shrug. She wants to go home.

"I just have a few questions for you," Shizune says, and clicks open a pen to press against a clipboard, "To start, how old are you?"

"Twenty," she squeaks, training her eyes on the floor, "Turning twenty-one later this m-month."

She takes a deep breath, trying to ignore the throbbing in her arm, and the annoying high-pitched whine of the florescent bulb over her head. The sickening anxiety.

Shizune makes a mark on her clipboard, and then continues, "What is your height?"

"Five feet, three inches."

"And your weight?" Shizune asks reproachfully, almost like she already knows that the answer won't be pretty.

"Ninety-two pounds," she whispers. Hinata knows, because she checked this morning. Because she checked the morning before that, and before that.

"What does your daily routine look like? What is a day in the life of Hinata Hyuga?" Shizune asks, still taking notes.

Hinata's mind searches for some vague sense of a schedule. What does she do when she's not pining over Naruto? When she's not failing classes, or trying to prove that she's good enough? That she's worthwhile?

"I...don't understand the q-question," Hinata finally says.

"Well, let's start with this. What time do you get up in the morning?" she asks, looking at Hinata kindly.

At first, Hinata thinks 8:00. She needs to get up early to do her beauty routine. She needs to curl her hair, perfect her make-up, and try on five different outfits. She needs to smell like lavender and freesia, and most importantly, she needs to weigh less than she did yesterday.

But then she thinks about the past couple of weeks, about struggling to even lift her head from her pillow. Being paralyzed by the idea of taking one more step. Her stomach rolling even at the thought of food.

Such a simple question shouldn't be so difficult to answer.

"Usually 11:00," Hinata finally admits, like its something shameful, "But I woke up early this morning." To meet Naruto.

"And what did you have for breakfast?" Shizune asked expectantly.

Hinata feels a twist in her gut.

"A bottle of water," she says, and then adds thoughtfully, "With lemon."

Shizune nods and asks, "Is that what you usually have for breakfast?"

No, Hinata thinks. She and Hanabi usually fight over who gets the last cinnamon roll, and blame each other for finishing the orange juice. Only that's not true. That was a year ago.

Shizune has a bright, cheery face. She looks...trustworthy.

"Yes," Hinata answers.

"And what do you usually eat for lunch?" the woman asks.

"An apple," Hinata says wearily, "Or a piece of bread."

Shizune nods again, like that's to be expected, "And dinner?"

Hinata thinks of the pile of candy wrappers strewn across the kitchen floor. The empty pudding cups, the apple cores, or a quart of milk, all downed in the course of an evening. It's just that...they never stay down.

"It depends," Hinata finally says, unable to justify her routine, even to herself.

"Have you ever had the urge to throw up after you eat?" Shizune asks. For a moment, Hinata thinks maybe social workers can read minds.

"S-Sometimes," she reveals, galvanized with the realization that she can tell the truth without having to say the words.

"How often?"

"...every time," she whispers.

Hinata thinks maybe she should feel scared. She just revealed a year's worth of carefully guarded secrets to a woman she doesn't even know. But if this isn't the time for honesty, she doesn't know what is. She's tired. She's tired of lying, to herself, to others. She's sick.

The tears start trickling out, no preamble. Like her body has just given up on holding them back. She can't keep anything in anymore: her tears, her words, her food. It all just comes back up.

"Ever used laxatives, diet pills, or diuretics?"

She shakes her head, thinking of Karin. "No."

"Miss Hyuga, has anyone ever talked to you about having an eating disorder?" Shizune asks, finally lowering the clipboard. As if she knows that Hinata has nothing left to offer.

Hinata shakes her head again, fervently, "No. Never. I mean... I learned about them in school. And I don't want that."

"You don't want what?"

"An eating disorder."

Shizune meets her gaze levelly, a somber genuineness to her voice.

"Miss Hyuga, you meet all the criteria for Bulimia Nervosa and Anorexia Nervosa. Your weight and your symptoms all speak to that diagnosis. And judging by the weakness of your bones, you are probably at risk for Osteopenia, although a nurse would have to order a Bone Density Scan to be certain."

This time, Hinata doesn't say anything. She can't. No words come to mind.

"You're an adult, so I can't make you do anything. But there is a very good program in this very hospital for young adults with eating disorders. I used to work in that unit, I think you would fit in there, and probably learn a lot. Are you willing to do that?"

Hinata stares blankly, considering. Why not? Maybe this is what she's been waiting for. For some direction, for someone to finally tell her what to do with her life. She's been braving it on her own for so long.

"Is there someone you would like to call to keep you company during the admissions process?"

Hinata thinks of her father, who is full of backhanded compliments. Hanabi, who is too young to understand. Neji, who doesn't say goodnight.

There is obstinate Kiba, who won't look her in the eye anymore. Genius Sasuke, who always seems to have a snide comment waiting. Ino, who is beautiful and flawless, but says things like Maybe a pair of skinnies would be better, don't you think? Intelligent Sakura, who was valedictorian, but still makes comments like Wow, think maybe you should slow down there, Hinata?

And then Hinata thinks of the boy she's in love with, who is probably sitting in Speech class right now waiting for her. The boy who graduated high school despite the bullying, despite the merciless foster care system, and the girlfriend who left him for a younger guy. A boy who thinks Hinata is talented and amazing and says I'm listening. I can hear you.

"I can't yet," Hinata says, calming herself with a deep breath. She wipes the tears from her cheeks, and squares her shoulders. "I have a p-presentation to deliver."

It would probably seem ludicrous to anyone else― Hinata's not sure she could explain it if she tried. But this feels like her last chance to do something right. An opportunity to reveal that, unlike all of Sasuke's suspicions, she's not 'all talk.'

She's capable. She can fulfill her promise, and not let Naruto down.

She bursts into her Speech classroom, five minutes before class ends. It's a miracle that she made it, one she can't wrap her head around. It's pure adrenaline and determination that allows her to pass the threshold and enter the room under the scrutiny of her peers.

She isn't pretty. Her hair isn't curled, her make-up undone. Her arm is still wrapped in medical tape, her stomach lined with Ibuprofen and water (with lemon). For the first time, her class is seeing her as she truly is. Sick, but powerful.

"Miss Hyuga," Kurenai says, surprised.

"S-Sorry I'm late," Hinata wheezes, out of breath.

"Hinata!" Naruto exclaims, full of worry. She feels the eyes of everyone in the room on her sweaty, shaking form. At least she's back in her civilian clothes, instead of that horrible, starched gown.

"Naruto," she says with a pained smile, "Are you ready for our p-presentation?"

Naruto, appearing beyond confused, but always fearless, professes, "You'd better believe it!"

Kurenai, at a loss for words, gestures for the two to take the podium.

Standing in front of the rows of classmates, Hinata can't help but feel that she's facing a tidal wave, ready to drag her under. Naruto takes her sweating, uninjured hand in his, giving it a supportive squeeze behind the podium, where no one else can see.

It's then that Hinata realizes that she still doesn't have the laptop.

"The computer...it, uh," she stutters, just loud enough for Naruto to hear.

He laughs a soft, reassuring chuckle. "Don't worry so much, Hinata. I copied the file onto a USB after the tea incident, in case of emergency."

He pulls a bright orange flash drive from the pocket of his matching orange polo, and sticks it into the teacher's computer. After pulling up the file, he takes Hinata's hand in his again, and whispers, "You ready?"

Hinata clears her throat, a cold sweat dripping down the back of her neck. She can feel her blouse sticking to her skin from the moisture, her jeans hanging low from her hips like they can just barely find purchase.

She's sick. She's going to the hospital. This is her chance to say goodbye.

"Introducing," she starts, her voice a small quivering squeak into the microphone, "The Voice Connect, a d-device for students of all ages!"

It feels like a dream. The words trip over her tongue uneasily and out of order, but they never halt awkwardly in the air. Naruto's thumb strokes reassuring circles over the back of her hand, his callused skin anchoring her to the shore.

Halfway through the presentation, when her throat runs dry and tears are stinging the backs of her eyes, he takes over.

"I'm sure all of us has fallen asleep during a boring lecture at some point, right?" he asks rhetorically. Then, upon seeing Kurenai's skeptical expression, he continues hastily, "Not yours of course! I find every lecture of yours riveting. As we all do. Please don't fail me."

The class laughs at his antics, and Hinata finds herself shakily laughing along with them. They're just students, clamoring for the moment they get to go home, taking solace in the few moments of humor Naruto can offer.

When he's wrapped up their speech, closing out of the power-point, the class applauds. Hinata feels her heart stutter, her stomach warm with pride. She retreats to her desk on shaking legs, her head spinning. Is this real?

Kurenai wraps up the class with a few concise remarks, and then they are dismissed. When she and Naruto reach the door, Kurenai places a hand on Hinata's shoulder, says sternly, "I'm proud of you Miss Hyuga. Good job today. You too, Mr. Uzumaki."

Things have to get worse before they can get better.

Somehow she ends up at his apartment door. When he turns on the light, it doesn't seem so sad anymore.

It's disorganized, chaotic in its inherent Naruto-ness, but she thinks that must be part of its charm. Toppled cups of instant ramen, laundry of ambiguous cleanliness, and mismatched school notes litter the floors and tabletops like confetti. Such an inherent difference from the air of the Hyuga compound.

"I'll get you some ice for that arm, Hinata! Victors deserve 5-star accommodations!" Naruto shouts, too loud in his tiny apartment. She wonders if he gets a lot of noise complaints, "Then you'll have to tell me what happened! Did you get hurt in battle? Are you a member of Fight Club― wait, don't answer that..."

He rummages around in the freezer, finding his icebox disappointingly empty, but he fortunately discovers a bag of frozen shrimp.

He wraps it in a faded hand towel, and offers it with slight embarrassment, "I like to mix it with the ramen," he admits, "...cooked of course! Not when its frozen. But you probably figured that out."

Hinata giggles, and then finds herself sitting cross-legged on his kitchenette floor, no longer able to support herself.

"Naruto, I have something important to t-tell you," she says, her voice cracking. She digs her fingers into the hand-towel as she presses it gingerly against her arm. The continuous throbbing reminds her of why she's here.

Always agreeable, Naruto sits down on the floor beside her, not commenting on how there are chairs only a few feet away. The smile on his face is honest, but his eyes betray the anxiety churning in his mind. It hurts her to know that what she's about to say is only going to make it worse.

"Yeah, alright," he says, resting his elbows on his knees. He looks like he's in for the long haul.

Suddenly, Hinata can't look him in the eye anymore. Every last drop of adrenalin from before has drained away, leaving her only with her empty husk of a body. And the truth.

"I have an eating disorder," she says, ripping off the proverbial band-aid. The words taste foreign on her tongue, a mirror of what the social worker said. Words Hinata didn't want to believe, but knows ring true.

Hinata risks a brief glance upward, to see Naruto's lips turn down at the corners, all trace of humor gone. He takes a sharp inhale, but doesn't say anything, so she continues.

"I didn't show up for our study-session this morning b-because I fainted at the train station. I spent the morning in the emergency room," she says, eyes firmly planted on the ground, "They want me to get treatment."

Naruto's hand cups her cheek, tilts her head up so she has to look him in the eye. There are tears there.

"I'm so sorry, Hinata," he says, his lip trembling, "I should have known... I can't believe I― I'm such an idiot. Please forgive me."

Hinata jerks away from his warm, comforting hand, banging her spine against the cabinet behind her. "D-Don't apologize," she says severely, "I don't deserve it."

Naruto doesn't lower his hand, it just hovers between them as he insists, "Don't say that. There are so many people that love you, Hinata. You have to know that. Sakura, Ino, everybody! You take care of all of us. Let us take care of you."

Hinata shakes her head, fervently. She came here because she needed his support, but now that she's faced with it, the gravity of her actions weighs on her. She's never seen Naruto cry before, despite everything he's been through, but now...

"I'm no good," she sobs into her uninjured hand, stained with nicotine, "I'm a failure. I'm unlovable."

This time she's too weak to push Naruto away as he pulls her into a fierce hug. He rocks her fragile, doll-like body against him, shushing her sobs as she wails pathetically into his chest.

"You're so strong, Hinata," he whispers repeatedly, tangling her hair in his fingers, "You're so brave."

He just holds her, comforts her, like no one ever has. And for once in her life, it's enough.

I am scared. I am hopeful.

The first day is by far the most monotonous. The admissions process is endless, repetitive, and exhausting. She's assessed by three different nurses, two psychologists, a psychiatrist, and a dietician.

The social worker from before drops by briefly to say hello, and to promise Hinata that she made the right decision; then Hinata gets her blood drawn by an orderly.

After determining that her radius bone has only suffered a minor fracture, they get it properly braced. It's such a hassle to change back and forth from her clothing to the hospital gown, that eventually they take her designer clothes somewhere and stuff them in a locker.

The EKG is the hardest. Lying on a cold examination bed while they stick electrodes to her hollow chest brings tears to her eyes. It's when she hears the nurse whisper, Oh my, at her cadaverous body that she realizes how close she was to ending up in the morgue.

The bone density scan rings back positive for osteopenia, but negative for osteoporosis. She takes her wins where she can.

They prescribe her Clonazepam, Fluoxetine, 50,000 units of Vitamin D supplement, and a bottle of Calcium tablets. The small prescription sheet with the hospital letterhead feels like an obituary notice between her fingertips.

"I recommend PHP," says the psychiatrist, "Partial hospitalization. You'll spend breakfast, lunch, and dinner with us, and go home in the evening."

In the beginning, home is Naruto's apartment. For someone who hasn't even declared himself her boyfriend, he is fiercely loyal and incredibly protective. He doesn't spill her secret, even though sometimes Hinata wonders if it would be easier if he did. If it would relieve some of the burden of needing to be honest all the time.

It's the third day that she finally cracks under the pressure. Breaks down at the lunch table, tears and snot dripping into her tuna salad.

"I can't do it!"

Somehow though, she does.

A week later she gets her final Speech grade in her email. It's a B+. Naruto picks her up and twirls her in the air, and they laugh so hard Hinata feels like her sides are going to split.

She confesses the truth to Ino and Sakura, and then stares in wonderment as the two burst into apologies. Hinata still can't wrap her head around that part.

The overwhelming support from her three friends makes her brave. She talks to Neji, Hanabi, and her father, and is disappointed when they aren't understanding. She is encouraged though when they promise to meet for family counseling.

Kiba still avoids her, but Hinata supposes its just as well. Sasuke meets the news with recalcitrance, unable to understand or be supportive, despite Naruto's unrelenting attempts at persuasion.

The meals get larger and more difficult, but with her friends beside her, Hinata manages.

Six weeks in, and six pounds heavier, a new girl joins Hinata's therapy group.

"They caught you too, did they?" Karin asks, less intimidating without her thick eyeliner and flat iron. Her greasy roots reveal her locks to be a naturally dull brown color, the fading red hair frizzy and untamable. She has a yellow hospital bracelet around her wrist that says in thick letters 'AT RISK.'

"Bastards put me in inpatient," Karin continues, "After I tried to hang myself with my boyfriend's necktie."

She is a firestorm, difficult to reign in, and hard to convince. Hinata feels accomplished when she's the only one able to persuade Karin to sit down at the table for breakfast, much less eat a bread roll coated in margarine.

"We're all in this t-together," Hinata promises, and the other patients around her nod in agreement.

Symptom control is touch-and-go. Hinata stays on track for ten days at a time, and then slips up and purges when she sees a triggering billboard. Then she stays clean for another eight days, just to puke her guts out when her father says something unintentionally insulting.

Still, after so many weeks, Hinata starts to look healthier.

"Congratulations!" Doctor Tsunade says on Hinata's last day at the program.

"Good luck, and goodbye for now," the other group members say, before Hinata signs her discharge papers.

They give her a coin for her efforts, bronze-colored with the Serenity Prayer stamped on the back.

God Grant Me the Serenity to Accept the Things I Cannot Change,
Courage to Change the Things I Can,
and Wisdom to Know the Difference.

One day at a time.

"Your new phone is so adorable," Ino says admiringly, "I love it."

"Who knew they even made flip phones anymore?" Sakura continues, "It's very retro of you."

They help her lug five trash bags of laundry to the nearest Clothing Exchange store in the metroplex. It's been three months since that first day at the hospital, and Hinata is ready to get rid of her sick clothes.

"I'm t-trying something different for awhile," Hinata tells them, determined to start her life over. She's decided that she doesn't give a damn about RESTRICTED anymore. She has her suspicions of who the perpetrator might be, but there's no real way to know for certain.

She has a new phone number now. She can decide for herself who's trustworthy.

"You have so many clothes, it's ridiculous," Ino gripes, relief palpable as she throws a trash bag on the store counter. The sales associate looks a little alarmed by the large pile.

"Hopefully they'll give you a fair amount for these," Sakura continues, "Most of these are designer! Chanel, Marc Jacobs. I'm proud of you for getting rid of them. It must be hard."

Hinata shrugs, although Sakura hit the nail on the head. It's easiest if she just thinks of it as spring cleaning. She can get new clothes now, ones she feels beautiful in.

She still struggles with that part; feeling beautiful is a daily challenge. Naruto doesn't seem to mind texting her daily reminders of how gorgeous he thinks she is, though. It helps.

"What are you going to do with the money?" Ino asks curiously, watching the numbers climb on the register. The sales associate is halfway through the second bag, and the total is already near three-hundred dollars. It's the tiniest fraction of what Hinata spent on them, but she supposes that is to be expected.

"I want to p-pay back my father. For the hospital bills," she explains, "And apply to universities."

Sakura gives Hinata a tight hug, bubble-gum hair tickling her cheeks. "That's so exciting! Do you know what you want to major in?"

Hinata nods, feeling confident in her decision, "Healthcare Management."

Sakura pulls back from the hug, resting her hands on Hinata's shoulders. Her smile is encouraging when she says, "I think that's a brilliant idea."

Ino raises her hand for a high-five, and the resounding smack is a heartening one.

"...Miss?" the sales associate says, wary of interrupting, "We can offer you fifteen-hundred dollars in store credit, or nine-hundred in cash."

"Rip-off," Ino mutters under her breath, offering the woman at the counter a dirty glare.

"Cash, please," Hinata says, ignoring Ino, and fails to fight back the wide smile pulling at her cheeks. She feels so accomplished when she folds the money into her wallet. She did it. She passed the test.

"Where are you going now?" Sakura asks when they step out into the sunshine, "Do you want to catch a movie?"

Still smiling, Hinata shakes her head. "Sorry, I'm m-meeting Naruto."

"Aww," Ino coos, causing Hinata to blush, "You guys are so cute together. We'll have to take a rain-check then. Does Sunday sound good?"

Hinata nods, excitement reverberating through her limbs; not all anxiety is bad, she's learned.

When Hinata starts to walk toward the subway station, Sakura hollers out, "Don't forget to use protection!"

This time, Hinata's screaming is for dramatic effect.

Naruto opens his apartment door before Hinata even has the chance to knock.

"You're here!" he shouts in her face, far too exuberantly.

He looks beautiful, hair ruffled and T-shirt wrinkled. He's the same as always, filled with boundless confidence regardless of what he put on that morning.

Hinata giggles and pulls him into a hug, his chest burning against her face. "Shh, your neighbors are going to riot."

"Let them," he says, and lowers his chin to give her a long, satisfying kiss.

Three months in, and her lips still tingle when they part. She must be the luckiest girl in the world.

"I'm the luckiest guy in the world," he says proudly, "The whole world needs to know!"

Hinata can't hold back the laughter that spills out, and he looks at her gleefully when she steps into his apartment.

"You cleaned?" she asks in amazement. It isn't spotless, but the mess looks more managed. It resembles casual clutter more than a tornado, she thinks fondly. The ramen cups are gone, the laundry stuffed away in the hamper, but all of his papers are still scattered across the room.

Naruto rubs the back of his neck self-consciously and admits, "I was feeling a little restless."

Hinata cocks her head, watching the blush rise on Naruto's cheeks. It's rare for him to be the one who's embarrassed.

"What's wrong?" she asks, delicately taking his hand in hers. His is the one slightly shaking, so its her turn to grip on tightly.

"W-Well," he stammers, full of awkward energy, "I just wanted to ask...you don't have to say yes, but... Will you be my girlfriend?"

Hinata bursts into peals of laughter, tears leaking from the corners of her eyes. She has to balance against the counter the keep from falling over, she's giggling so hard.

"Hey! I'm serious!" Naruto says, sounding somewhat affronted.

Hinata nods, patting him on the arm sympathetically, "I know, I'm sorry. Of course, I'll be your g-girlfriend."

Uncertainty gone, Naruto squeezes her against him in a powerful hug, shouting, "Hey neighbors! Guess who has the best girlfriend in the universe?"

The giggles keep pouring out, and Hinata pinches him on the ribcage, "Shh, stop! Stop!"

He relents, but presses his lips against her forehead, rocking her body against him lovingly. "I love you, Hinata."

Hinata smiles against his chest, and says confidently, "I love you too."

I am strong. I am beautiful. I am loved.



Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto, the song Swallow by Emilie Autumn, any of the designers mentioned, or the Serenity Prayer.

A/N: Can't believe I actually finished it!

I don't know whether or not you'll find the ending rushed. It's over 7,000 words long, but I know I sped through Hinata's treatment at the speed of light.

The reason it took me so long to update this is because I have an eating disorder of my own. I spent the last few months in treatment at the hospital for Anorexia.

I'm telling you that because I want you to know how genuine each and every word of this story is.

Hinata's tale isn't my own. I don't want you to think that I just copy-pasted experiences from my own life. If there's one thing I learned at the hospital, it's that there is a powerful difference between the lives of those with Bulimia and Anorexia. And I think it's also important to inform those of you who don't know, that you can have a duel diagnosis.

Still, Hinata's anxiety and feelings of inferiority may as well be universal. And the struggle for young adults to find their identity is just as common.

If any of you suffer from eating disorders of your own, or know somebody who does, feel free to send me a PM on this site. Recovery is difficult, but it is possible.

I hope you all enjoyed the ending, cheesy as it may have been. Send me a review if you can! I'd appreciate feedback, both positive and negative.

Love you all! Thanks for reading and for being patient!