Author: fireblazie PM
Well, what do you know? Naruto CAN fall in love.. [NaruHina]Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Words: 13,201 - Reviews: 47 - Favs: 61 - Follows: 12 - Published: 02-21-04 - id: 1743600
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Disclaimer:I don't own Naruto. -.- Or the song. @___@
As a note, this is a sequel to "Breaking Free," a ShikaIno fic, which, in turn, was a sequel to "The Day the Ice Cube was Melted," which was a SasuSaku story. There may be a few references here and there....
It was not unusual to find him sitting on one of the stools outside the Ichiraku Ramen Bar, his legs simply hanging down, contentedly sipping his ramen. It felt nice to have the warmth wash over him, wiping away all of his sorrows and predicaments, stranded in a state of temporary bliss.
That was how it had always been, and probably always would be, he thought, finishing the remnants of his ramen. But it wasn't like he was unhappy or anything, right? No, there was no reason to be unhappy or unsatisfied; this was his way of life, and he didn't need anything else.
A familiar voice jerked him from his thoughts, and as he turned, he caught a glimpse of pink hair together with raven hair, and a small smirk played over his lips.
It was...strange...["downright freaky," had been the exact words] to see Sasuke moderately happy these days. It was extremely unnerving to actually see him smile [which, depending on the reason for the smile, how big the smile was, and the amount of teeth it revealed, could send Naruto doubling over], and it was even scarier seeing him making attempts to be humorous. There were still times when Naruto wished for the old "ice cube," but then again, life was full of changes.
And Sakura...well, now that his daily beatings had dwindled down to a meager two or three times a month, Naruto really couldn't complain. She was happier than he had ever seen her, so he couldn't say anything.
That was the first time he'd seen love in action. It had been different, yes, but it had been good in the end.
Then, of course, Shikamaru and Ino. So different in so many ways, but they had been drawn to each other. It had been a little confusing at first, but in the end, they'd made it. [Not to say that the relationship wasn't perfect, of course. In the course of the time they had been together, Shikamaru had learned to talk back to Ino instead of letting her walk all over him like he used to, and they had their little arguments on a daily basis now]
Sasuke had Sakura, and Sakura had Sasuke.
Shikamaru had Ino, and Ino had Shikamaru.
But what about him?
For the first time in a long time, a frown settled on his usually smiling lips. He silently signaled to the cook for seconds, and he placed his head on his hands, elbows on the counter.
What was he thinking? There was no reason to be longing for something he didn't need, especially something like love. He had grown up without love, and only recently had he started receiving any from his friends. He had grown used to it, anyhow. And besides, he now had friends, and he wasn't alone anymore...
So then, he asked himself, why did he feel so..so...
He stared down at the bowl of ramen, suddenly feeling not so hungry. Empty? Where on earth had that come from? He hadn't felt empty, ever.
He picked up his chopsticks, slowly chewing on the noodles thoughtfully, staring off into space. Empty, huh? The realization stunned him; he wasn't the type to suddenly be eating ramen and realize that he felt empty.
It was around seven or eight at night, and outside, dark, stormy, gray skies moved ever so closer, blocking the light from the moon. He took a sip of his soup halfheartedly.
It was not like Naruto to be sitting there, wallowing in a state of what seemed dangerously close to self-pity. But then again, maybe he should have expected this.
He shook his head, roughly shoving some noodles and meat into his mouth. What was he thinking? He was being stupid again, no doubt, and he pushed that thought into the back of his mind.
Him, Uzumaki Naruto, empty?
Of course not, a small little voice in the back of his head put in. You can't be empty.
He wished he could force his heart to believe so.
It was in the underneath the dead, black sky that it happened.
Naruto had taken to calling the night sky "dead" when there was no moon or stars, just an endless stretch of nothing but black, black, black. It seemed fitting, in his mind, for when one was supposedly "dead," then there would be nothing, except, well, nothing... right? No light, no clouds, no stars...just...nothing.
Had life really changed him so much? The thought startled him, and he blinked. What had happened to the young boy whose only ambition in life was to become the greatest Hokage ever? What had happened to the spirited, loud, boisterous youngster that used to be known as Naruto?
The word came back to haunt him: empty.
There had been a time, long ago, when Naruto's greatest fear was living alone, all alone, for his entire life. He had friends now, so that fear couldn't possibly come back to haunt him. He had thought that everything would be all right now. He found friends, he'd found a place to fit in.
But he still felt empty.
It was -- frustrating. Frustration was something he was accustomed to, but for some reason, this particular frustration was different. It -- ate at him.
How could he get rid of this -- this emptiness?
Emptiness, unlike frustration, was something that the blond ninja was not accustomed to. There was a thin, fine line between emptiness and frustration , and however thin and fine it was, there was still, nevertheless, a line.
Being simply alone, in a sense, was to be all by yourself, with no one beside you, to comfort you and care for you when you needed it. This was what Naruto had experienced in his younger years...absolute loneliness, with no one to care for him.
Being empty, however, was slightly different. To be empty, you didn't necessarily have to be alone. To be empty was to be kept devoid of something; to be... to be missing, or lacking something, in a way. Naruto wasn't alone, but he felt empty. He felt like he was missing something.
Being empty was worse than being alone.
The voice was so soft and timid that he barely heard it. The voice sounded vaguely familiar, as if it was a voice that he had heard a long time ago, and had ceased to speak to him ever since. For a moment, he considered if he was hearing things, but when he heard the light footsteps behind him, he turned.
"Oh..." He grinned slightly. "Hinata..." And, just because she added the -kun suffix to his name, "..-chan," he added.
He slowed down, so as to let her catch up with him. They walked in silence for awhile, but for some reason, he didn't seem to mind, and she didn't either.
It wasn't like him to be silent, so he tried striking up some conversation. "So.." he began conversationally, raising his arms above his head. "What's up?"
"...mm...nothing..." Her voice was soft, her head bent down. She seemed uncomfortable, but Naruto wasn't one to notice the little details.
"Hinata-chan, do you think I'm strange?" He didn't know why, but his mouth seemed to be moving out of its own accord. He cringed.
There was a rustle of movement in the darkness, and he found her walking next to him. "No. I don't."
"But -- I'm so -- loud --"
"That doesn't make you strange." It occured to Naruto that this was the most Hinata had ever said to him, and he wondered why.
Naruto thought briefly about telling her about his emptiness, but declined. He wasn't apt to talk about his feelings, to anyone, ever, unless it was to boldly state that he would be the greatest Hokage Konohagakure had ever seen.
He realized that he hadn't talked to Hinata very much, except for a few short moments during the Chuunin exam... He hazily remembered sitting next to her during the written exam; he remembered her fight with Neji, and most of all, he remembered fighting him for her, in order to avenge her defeat.
Hinata seemed to sense his distress, and wisely chose to say nothing. She had never been one to use her words; she was the sort of person who liked to use her eyes and ears to gather information, and then safely tuck it into the back of her mind for later use.
She'd always liked Naruto-kun, and she was sure that he didn't hate her. But it was well-known fact that he would never see her in that way. No, he was too busy trying to accomplish his dream of being Hokage, and anyway, she didn't think herself a suitable girlfriend for Naruto. Their personalities were too different, that was all.
"Do you mind if I walk you home? It's really late, you know, and you shouldn't be walking around by yourself."
Hinata resisted the urge to ask him what he himself was doing out so late, but he hadn't done that to her, so she had no right to do so.
"No," she answered, in that same soft voice. "I don't mind at all."
Shikamaru and Sasuke, both intelligent beings -- although the latter was forced to admit that the former was a great deal smarter than him -- knew that it was only a matter of time before it happened.
So when they'd had their traditional "boys' night out" at the Ichiraku Noodle Bar, and had seen Naruto acting strangely, they weren't too surprised.
Naruto was on his second bowl of ramen, but half an hour had already passed, and by this time, he was usually on his third or fourth bowl. Shikamaru and Sasuke exchanged looks. Chouji wasn't here today, for his family had gone on vacation [Shikamaru was secretly grateful; today was his day to pay the bill].
"This ramen tastes better every time!" Naruto's voice was filled with cheerfulness, and he ended his sentence by tilting the bowl and slurping up the last of the soup.
The other two boys exchanged looks once more. Sasuke had reported seeing Naruto there the previous night, looking not too happy. They had a vague idea of what it could be, but with Naruto, they could never be too sure.
Confronting Naruto was an unusually delicate situation. One wrong word, and he could misunderstand everything entirely; one wrong move and he would fling a tirade of insults; one wrong suggestion and he would use his Kage Bunshin no Jutsu.
"So, Naruto," Shikamaru began, using all of his brain to try and corner the blond ninja, and signaling to Sasuke to follow his lead. "What's new?"
"Huh?" Naruto's face contorted into the look he used when he was being forced to think. "Nothing."
Sasuke took his cue, but it was hard to really ask the guy questions, when he himself wasn't particularly interested in it. "There has to be something new."
Sasuke felt like he was talking to a five-year-old...no, make that three-year-old. Before he had the chance to retort with a nasty insult, Naruto spoke.
"Well..." He blinked. "I met up with Hinata-chan last night."
"Did you, now?" Naruto was so clueless it was painfully funny. Shikamaru turned to him. "And what did you talk about?"
Naruto pushed his bowl of ramen -- empty -- away from him. "Well," he said thoughtfully, "We didn't really talk that much. Hinata-chan's not really a talkative person. And I couldn't find anything to talk about."
"You, of all people, couldn't find anything to talk about?" Sasuke remarked dryly. He usually had a difficult time trying to shut the guy up, and the knowing that he actually couldn't find anything to open his mouth and bellow about was a little frightening.
Shikamaru intervened before Naruto could explode. "Is that all? You just...talked...a little?"
"Uhm..." Naruto trailed off, oblivious to the reason[s] why Sasuke and Shikamaru had suddenly taken an interest in his social life. "Oh, I walked her home. Because it was late at night, and I didn't think she should walk around by herself."
Both black-haired boys filed this tender piece of information away in the back of their minds. No doubt that Sakura and Ino would want to know about this.
"Hey..." Naruto's brow was furrowed. "Why do you guys care so much?"
"Care?" Sasuke echoed.
"We're your friends," Shikamaru lied easily. "Of course we care."
Sasuke looked like he would much rather eat his hair. "Aa. We -- care."
Naruto looked quite suspicious. Although admittedly, he was not one of the smartest beings on the earth, he had enough brains [or rather, common sense] to know that Sasuke did not go around admitting that he "cared" for people, even if the person in question was his girlfriend.
"I'm going to the bathroom," he announced, and hopped off his stool and headed for the said room. Once the door slammed shut, Sasuke rolled his eyes.
"You were worse," Shikamaru stated matter-of-factly.
"As were you," came the quick response.
They engaged in an unspoken staring contest, and simultaneously looked away and finished the remnants of their ramen. Sasuke spoke first.
"Don't you find it funny," Shikamaru said thoughtfully, choosing to ignore Sasuke's question, "that we're doing the bidding of our girlfriends?"
"Funny? I find it ironic."
"And troublesome," Shikamaru supplied.
"Aa. That, too."
And when Naruto emerged from the bathroom, feeling quite refreshed, he plopped back on the stool, whistling a cheery tune. The two boys stared at him, and sighed.
It must be nice to be so clueless.
When Naruto ran into her again for a second time, he became more a tad bit more aware of the queasy, unnerving, thumping sensation that took place in the very pit of his stomach.
He had been on his way to buy some groceries -- most of which had consisted of instant ramen, of course -- and he was fishing some badly needed coins from out of his pocket in front of an impatient grocer who was tapping his foot impatiently. The only thing was, he didn't have the badly needed coins.
He met the grocer's angry eyes timidly. "Ano...'jiisan, it's only a few coins..." He immediately shut his mouth after meeting his glare.
Naruto stared at the packs of instant ramen that had almost made their way to the plastic bag. Well, maybe thirty packs of ramen was a little much for a week. Maybe if he returned three or four of them he'd have enough money to pay for it...
"Well?" Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. The tapping of the old man's foot embedded itself into his brain, and Naruto felt like his brain was going to burst with all the tapping. "Are you going to pay for it all, or put some of the ramen back?"
"Ah..." Naruto fell silent. He wanted to have thirty packs of ramen for the week, just in case. With all his ninja studying, the only time he really got to go to buy groceries was on Saturday. And last week, twenty-five packs of ramen had barely been sufficient... but, the fact remained that he didn't have enough money to buy all thirty packs.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Naruto tried smiling at the old man. A little, teeny smile at first, one that didn't reveal any teeth. When it didn't work, he tried to smile a bigger smile, showing a little bit of teeth. Again, there was no reaction, so he unleashed his full-fledged smile, showing every single one of his front teeth.
Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
And he really, really, really, really wanted to have his thirty packs of ramen...
He considered, for a short moment, as he quailed under the old man's glare -- he thought old people were supposed to be kind, and gentle, and caring -- using his Sexy no Jutsu. It had worked on many people, so he figured that this old man would be no exception....
Was he really that desperate just to obtain some extra packs of ramen?
The answer came almost as quickly as the question was asked: Yes!
He knew he would never be able to live it down; he could already imagine the jeers and lectures he would receive from his friends, and eventually, the adults, like Kakashi-sensei and Iruka-sensei, and Hokage-sama.
But he reeeeaaaalllllyyy wanted the ramen.
Sighing, he positioned his hands to make the sign of the jutsu, and was about to screech out, "BEHOLD!" when a soft, timid voice interrupted him.
"I'll pay for what he can't afford." Before Naruto had a chance to realize what had happened, he saw that she had thrust a handful of coins into the old man's outstretched hands. Breathing a sigh of relief, the old man quickly piled all of the ramen in a plastic bag, and held it out to Naruto, who simply stood there, mouth agape. Hinata, giggling slightly, took the bag for him, and began to walk. Naruto caught up with her seconds later.
"You --" Words failed him, for once. Sasuke would have sworn that pigs were flying, had he seen. He settled for giving her a slightly reprimanding look. "You didn't need to do that."
She, in return, gave him an apologetic look. "Sorry...but it just looked like you wanted the ramen so badly... and I had some extra money, so..."
Naruto felt guilty for having her pay for his ramen, but he had never been one not to accept a gift when it had already been given. "Thanks, then," he said sincerely, flashing her a grin. "I thought I'd go hungry this week."
She laughed, a sound similar to the tinkling of bells. That was the first time he had ever heard Hinata laugh, he suddenly thought, and he thought that he wouldn't mind hearing her laugh again. "Thirty packs, ne, Naruto-kun?"
"Yup!" Naruto nodded, grinning heartily. "I could live on ramen alone -- but Kakashi-sensei and Iruka-sensei always tell me that it's not very healthy."
Hinata smiled, and it was that same smile that she always wore... content, satisfied, and peaceful. Naruto wondered why he had never noticed it before. "Then I guess you hang around Ichiraku a lot then."
"Oh, yeah!!" Naruto proceeded to ramble on and on about what his favorite dish was, and why, and what times he was usually there, and about the traditional boys' nights out. Hinata seemed to be paying attention to it all; not once did he catch her attention straying away.
She nodded in agreement, and spoke a few words from time to time. Naruto noticed that she was finally becoming more outspoken, voicing her own opinions at certain times.
He'd never really talked with Hinata before, mostly because they just never seemed to meet up with each other, and also because she was too quiet, not the type of person he usually liked to be around.
But he had to admit, that in those few moments when they were talking, he didn't feel quite so empty anymore.
"I've never tried ramen before," admitted Hinata. "Never."
Naruto's expression was one of utter shock. "Never?" he repeatedly weakly.
She shook her head. "No...never."
In Naruto's mind, that was an absolute crime, to have been denied to pleasure of eating ramen. He made up his mind in a split second, and turned to face the girl with an expression akin to the one he wore during the beginning of a ninja battle. Hinata was slightly frightened by it.
"I'm going to treat you to ramen tonight."
"Wha --" Hinata blinked rapidly. "No, Naruto-kun --" If only she hadn't talked about not ever eating ramen...she should have known better, anyway, Naruto was a ramen nut.
"Nope," Naruto had on his stubborn expression, and he wasn't going to take no for an answer. "I'm buying you ramen tonight. No one deserves to not eat ramen."
Hinata muttered a feeble agreement.
This was why she didn't talk very often.
There were smiles on their faces that afternoon. They were kind of annoying smiles, really, a small little voice in the back of Naruto's head concluded, annoying, scary little smiles.
"Oi..." Naruto scowled. "Could you stop -- I dunno -- smiling?"
"Smiling?" Sakura tried to stop the smile from spreading through her lips, but she couldn't help it.
"Aa.." Naruto frowned. "It's -- scary."
Sakura wasn't quite sure whether he meant that in a good or bad way, but she decided to ignore the statement completely. "But I'm so happy for you!"
"Happy?" Naruto furrowed his brow. He hated it when people started talking about things that made no sense to him.
"Hai!" Ino squealed, and Naruto only became aware of her presence just then. "Of course we're happy for you, Naruto!"
"But -- why?"
"Because, this is a da --" A lean, somewhat muscular arm snuck from behind Ino and promptly clamped her mouth shut. Her expression was one of annoyance, and she looked up to glare at her boyfriend.
"They're girls," Shikamaru explained. "One of their more troublesome features is how they gossip."
"Gossip?" If possible, Naruto grew even more confused.
"Don't bother explaining anything." Sasuke stated flatly, "You'll just end up with a big headache."
Ino wrenched her mouth free of Shikamaru's hand. "We heard you were going to treat Hinata to some ramen tonight," she said eagerly.
"Oh!" A knowing look spread across his face. "Yeah, she told me she'd never had ramen before in her whole entire life! Can you believe that? So I told her I'd get her some -- it's not right, not ever having ramen before."
If Naruto had been one to pay attention to the little details, then maybe he would have noticed the looks that flitted across their faces, the muffled giggles shared between Sakura and Ino, the simultaneous rolling of eyes between Sasuke and Shikamaru.
"But you're still buying her ramen, right?"
Naruto nodded furiously. "Hai! I'm going to make sure she gets a taste of ramen!"
Sakura moved closer to him, staring straight into his eyes. Green met blue. "Is that all?" she asked slowly. "You just want her to taste ramen?"
Her closeness unnerved him; it made him a little more aware of what had happened that morning. He remembered how she had paid for his ramen, how she had smiled reassuringly at him, how she had opened up to him, a little bit more. And Sakura's eyes bored into his own, and he blinked.
"Of course it's just for ramen, Sakura-chan!" He smiled broadly, his eyes crinkling shut, missing the look of disappointment that had zoomed across Sakura's face. "What other reason would there be?"
Sakura backed off, taking her previous spot on the floor, cross-legged. "Ah...nothing." She waved it off. "Just -- you know, wondering."
Naruto was impatient, and he was aware, to an extent, that the two boys and girls knew something he didn't. He frowned, an obvious frown, and glared at everyone.
"Do you guys know something I don't?"
Sasuke, usually one who didn't like to talk unless it was absolutely necessary, rolled his eyes. "We've always known things that you don't, idiot."
"Sasuke-kun..." Sakura said lightly, eyeing him for a brief moment before she looked away. Sasuke shrugged carelessly, but desisted. Naruto watched this, fascinated. It was rare to see Sasuke -- the Uchiha Sasuke -- back down like that.
He then turned to Ino and Shikamaru, who had started squabbling over something or other. Back then, Ino would have been doing all the yelling, and Shikamaru would be sitting there, nodding dumbly, mind off in some far off land. But after what seemed like endless months of that, it seemed that the Chuunin couldn't take it anymore, and was finally learning how to fight back. He didn't miss the lightning quick action of Shikamaru placing his hand on Ino's, squeezing it, and then drawing his hand back. Ino's voice faltered, and she crossed her arms, pouting.
Was that how it felt to be in love? Naruto pondered, this subject very unfamiliar to him.
They expressed their love in little, soft, unspoken ways, but for some reason, Naruto saw everything clearly. He saw the little looks, the little gestures... everything.
And he began to feel empty again.
By the time night fell, Naruto had told himself at least a million times that he was being stupid, and if possible, even more stupid than usual.
He had already established the point that he was not empty. He couldn't be empty. He had friends, and he was happy with those friends, and they were happy with him....it was absolutely impossible to be feeling empty.
He was on time that night, and he wasn't surprised to already find the dark haired Hyuga girl already sitting on one of the stools, looking around expectantly for him. There was a twinge sort of sensation that tore at him.
"Hinata-chan!" He wore his regular smile, there was no reason to be feeling sad about being empty. "Ah, sorry...did I keep you waiting too long?"
She shook her head. "No, I just got here." She smiled, a small one. "Well, then, should we order?"
"Okay!" Naruto signaled to the cook, a good friend of his by now. "I'll have some pork ramen! And she'll have the same," he added, indicating the quiet girl sitting next to him. Then he blinked. "That is, if you want pork ramen?"
Of course, she nodded. He didn't think she would disagree. "I don't mind," she said.
It was silent for awhile, and both of them contented themselves by listening to the sounds of cooking coming from the kitchen. A few minutes after, two large bowls of ramen were placed in front of them.
He was surprised to find that he wasn't hungry tonight, so he turned to Hinata, who was surveying the bowl. Finally, she picked up the chopsticks, and slowly chewed at the noodles.
"Well? Well?" Naruto tried to sound excited, even if he wasn't feeling himself at this particular moment. "How does it taste, Hinata-chan? Do you like it? Huh?"
A warm, sort of surprised smile crept over the girl's pale cheeks. "It tastes...good." She stopped, and swallowed. "Warm," she added. Upon seeing the confused look on the blond ninja's face, she laughed shortly. "Oh, don't worry about it, Naruto-kun, I like it very much."
Naruto smiled, then, happy because she had smiled. "Great!" And then he proceeded to dig into his own bowl of ramen, although it was a halfhearted action.
The silence was getting to him, so he slurped his ramen extra loudly, just to fill up the silence with something. He was aware of the stares he was receiving from passers-by, but he didn't care. He needed to fill up the void, the silence, the -- the...
He dropped the chopsticks, hot soup splattering onto his skin. He flinched, only just then realizing that Hinata was still there.
"Na -- Naruto-kun?" She asked, concerned evident in her voice. "Are you all right?"
He blinked. "Aa..." he replied slowly. "I'm -- I'm fine."
She didn't look like she believed him, but she had never been one to pry into others' businesses. She continued to watch him out of the corner of her eye, all the while struggling to finish the giant bowl of ramen.
She looked up, startled. "Hai?"
He contemplated asking her if she'd ever felt empty before, but he ultimately decided that she'd probably think him insane or something along the lines of it. He shook his head. "Oh...never mind. Sorry." He gave her a half-grin to compensate, and she looked at him strangely, but didn't press the issue.
He continued to watch her. He noticed, clearly, for the first time, how pale her skin was, and how her dark hair framed her soft, frail face. He watched her every movement, and he realized, with a start, that she looked extremely -- extremely...
So that was what she had always reminded him of. Fragile. Like -- like -- Naruto cast around his mind for the right word, or example -- glass.
Glass was useful, and it was very nice to look at. But if you even looked at it the wrong way, or nudged it, ever so slightly, it could fall, and break into a thousand pieces.
Naruto had never liked glass, for he was a very clumsy person, and during his first years of living by himself, he had instantly realized that he would never become very good friends with glass. And so, all his glass possessions were quickly replaced with plastic, or some other unbreakable material. But as he watched Hinata, carefully sipping her soup, he thought, a little hastily, that maybe glass wasn't so bad after all.
Hinata was a shy, quiet girl, and she rarely talked to anyone at all, much less to Naruto. Besides, when you were with Naruto, you usually did the listening, and not the talking. So, it was strange to admit that she had actually been talking to Naruto, and that he had been the one listening to her.
The ramen had tasted good, delicious, and warm in her mouth, and eventually, her stomach. She had been sort of surprised at first, but she had liked it, and so she decided that she would start to have ramen more often, much to Naruto's delight.
She had grown up watching Naruto all these years, watching him push himself beyond his limits, watching him struggle to beat Sasuke in every way possible, watching him train to be the best Hokage the village of Konoha ever knew. And what had really drawn her to him, besides his determination to change himself and his inevitable destiny, was how he always seemed so happy through it all. There was always a smile on his face, a hopeful glint in his clear blue eyes, there had always been something.
But that night.... there had been nothing.
He had tried to hide it, more for his own sake than hers, she knew. Maybe he had been scared of something, and hadn't wanted to bother her about it. Maybe...
She wished he would talk to her about it, but almost immediately rejected the thought. She and Naruto-kun weren't even friends, the voice in the back of her head reminded her. They rarely talked, and they had only run into each other a couple of times this past week...
She liked Naruto-kun, that she could admit. But she had never really stopped to wonder why. She figured it was because she admired him and wanted to be more like him. And she had never really stopped to think about how much she truly liked him.
She wasn't stupid. She'd noticed that whenever she was around him, her heart rate would suddenly elevate, and bright red splotches of color would suddenly find their way to her cheeks.
She'd always liked him, but she'd never -- well, she'd never stopped to think about how he would feel.
She knew it was pointless to dream that he would ever like her back. Quietly, she wondered if he even noticed her. Anyway, Naruto didn't have time for girls... Maybe, one time, a long time ago, he had had feelings for Sakura-chan, but these days, all he wanted to talk about was ramen and being Hokage. Girls, especially a girl like her, were not anywhere near the top of his list of priorities.
She'd always liked him.
Somewhere in the back of her head, she thought that maybe the only reason he was even acknowledging her existence was because he felt sorry for her. And who wouldn't? She was a poor excuse for a ninja, she had been surprised that she even graduated the Academy.
But, she still liked him.
She would never tell him, of course not. The mere thought sent shudders down her spine. She didn't have enough courage for that. And although she was sure Naruto wouldn't be cruel about it, she was also sure that he wouldn't feel the same way.
She hated the way she always blushed around him. If it had been anyone else, anyone else but Naruto who picked up signals more easily than he did, she was sure that he would have figured it out. But eventually, Naruto would grow to notice the pink flecks on her cheeks...and then she would have some trouble explaining it.
"Oh... Neji-oniisan..." She mumbled. "I am weak. Just like you said."
Naruto was everything she wanted to be... brave, courageous, strong... someone who could inspire others to do better. She couldn't do that. She was nothing but a weak little girl, born into the wrong destiny.
They were the exact opposites of each other. He was loud; she was quiet. He was strong and confident; she was weak and easily intimidated. He was -- well, not too smart with the books; she thrived in learning from them.
No... Hinata closed her eyes. It was nothing but a far-off dream on the horizon.
His friends [consisting of Sakura, Ino, and grudgingly, Sasuke and Shikamaru] knew that their blissfully innocent and clueless friend would need help. And that's what they were there for -- to help and give him confidence.
"Geez... how troublesome." The familiar words found their way out of Shikamaru's mouth, and he let a long, slow sigh escape him.
"You said it," Sasuke remarked wryly.
"Oh, come on, you two." Ino turned to them. "You two are Naruto's friends. Besides, he helped you guys, it's only right that you help him back."
"Besides, you two needed more help than him," mumbled Sakura, lifting her pink-haired head from the couch. She yawned sleepily.
The remark caused somewhat of a reaction from the two boys, but in the end, they merely shrugged it off. "We weren't that clueless," Shikamaru stated boldly. "He doesn't even know how she feels about him."
"No," Sakura said, looking pensive. "I think he's starting to figure it out, but, well... he's going to need a little help."
"A little?" Sasuke muttered.
"Sasuke-kun..." She shook her head at him. "Anyway, it's only a matter of time."
"I don't know." Ino looked up from the book she was reading -- "Matchmaking for Dummies" -- "I mean, with Naruto, it's just so hard to tell."
Sakura smiled slightly. "After being stuck with him in Team 7, and plus with him being in all my classes at the Ninja Academy, and having had him chasing after me twenty-four seven...well, you can tell. Besides, he's gotten quieter, don't you think?"
"So that's why my ears have stopped hurting," Sasuke observed wonderingly. Sarcasm had always been a close friend of his, after silence, of course.
Sakura shook her head again, but an amused grin found its way to her lips. "We can't -- force him to like her," she admitted. "But we can -- help him figure out, at least, what his feelings are."
Shikamaru knelt down in front of Ino, frowning at the title of the book she was reading, and gracefully plucked it from her hands. She glared at him, annoyed.
"Matchmaking for Dummies?" he questioned, tossing the book on the floor. "That's not going to help, you know."
"You're not helping either," she retorted, but made no move to retrieve the book. She sunk down lower on the comfortable couch; this was a reason she had missed being friends with Sakura, her comfy furniture.
"I think we're going about this all wrong," Sasuke spoke up, for once. "We should -- wait it out. We can't force that idiot to do anything, and it wouldn't be right, anyhow."
"Do you know..." Shikamaru began wonderingly, "that that's the most you've ever said in front of me that didn't have anything to do with calling me an idiot?"
"I think he'll figure it out eventually," Sakura said honestly. "Naruto's not that dumb."
Ino sighed. She didn't know Naruto very well, except that he was growing into a fine ninja and that he was, well, a loud, boisterous sort of person. "I hope you're right," she said. "For Hinata's sake."
He didn't see her again that next week, and there was a sort of pang that hit his chest, but he ignored it. The hot, steamy styrofoam cup of ramen sat in front of him, but for once, he wasn't hungry.
Despite what others said, Naruto wasn't as stupid or as clueless as he seemed. This -- this emptiness, which he had finally admitted had been consuming him for some time, was bothering him greatly.
How could he be feeling empty? Why was he feeling empty? It still made zero sense to him, even though he had finally acknowledged the feeling. He -- He had friends. He had Sakura-chan, Sasuke, Shikamaru, and Ino. They hung out with him, he hung out with them. They accepted him, as he accepted them.
Why didn't they fill the void? Sakura, Sasuke, Shikamaru, Ino...
His brow furrowed in deep thought as he thought of her, Hinata-chan. Come to think of it, he'd never even talked to her very much before... after the Chuunin exam, it almost seemed like she'd disappeared. But she had reappeared again, on the very night when he'd realized for the first time that he was feeling empty.
It's not the same, he thought, quite suddenly, as he continued to think about her. It's not the same -- the same -- the same --
It wasn't the same feeling that he had whenever he was around other people, people like his friends and teachers, ordinary people. When he was around Hinata, he had... a ... a different feeling...
He blinked at this realization, and moved so suddenly that he almost knocked down the cup of instant ramen. A different feeling? What was he thinking about this time? And why would he have a different feeling around Hinata, anyway? Hinata was... well, Hinata.
He knew that he didn't really know her too well, but he felt like he could tell her anything. It was strange, and weird, and even a little bit frightening, but he knew. It was crystal clear.
He thought back to how fragile she looked back then, how it looked like just about anything could shatter her completely, and he remembered thinking about how he had never gotten along very well with glass before. He thought about her fragility, and how he would hate to see it if anybody would break her.
Naruto had always thought of himself as the opposite of glass. He had always thought of himself as the exact opposite of it, really. After all, glass was very brittle and frail, and Naruto wasn't brittle or frail at all. No, if anything, Naruto was probably something like -- like steel. Steel was tough, and extremely tough to break. Like him. His spirit wasn't broken easily, and he was a very tough person.
He never would have given Hinata so much as a second glance before. Sure, she had earned his respect during her fight with Neji, but she'd never really caught his attention before. Then again, he was Uzumaki Naruto, and the only thing that would ever catch his eye was ramen, or at least something more outspoken.
Not Hinata. Never in a million years, would he have expected it.
He wished, somewhat halfheartedly, that he could at least have been given a warning of some sort. A simple, easy sort of premonition of what he could only guess had already happened. He wasn't sure of course; Naruto had never been the kind who was fully sure about things, he usually just ran head-first at whatever his obstacle was... but he suddenly found out that he couldn't really do that right now.
Grasping at his hair, Naruto groaned, his face meeting the wooden surface of his kitchen table. The cup of ramen was forgotten. Naruto still wasn't exactly, one-hundred percent sure what it was he had just realized, but he knew it would end up to be something -- well, bad.
Naruto embraced the unexpected. It was part of his personality. Whatever came his way, he let it come, and accepted it freely. Like his instant ramen. He embraced his ramen [quite literally]. But this was truly, truly unexpected, and he was also truly, truly confused.
Kakashi, of course, cared for his students, the former Team 7, even if he -- erm, didn't exactly show it in the best ways. He also cared for the students of his colleagues. He was happy, of course, that the "ice cube" had been melted; that Sakura had finally become happy and had lessened her shrieks and beatings; that Shikamaru wasn't as lazy as he used to be [with Ino to thank for that, of course]; and that Ino had gotten over the Number One Rookie in Konohagakure. He knew it would only be a matter of time before the immature blond ninja would have his turn, but he hadn't expected it to happen so soon. Well, there had been rumors circulating around that kids these days were maturing more quickly than they'd used to... [although, the prospect of Naruto growing mature frightened him a bit..]
"You're late." Sakura glared at her teacher, hands on her hips, feet tapping impatiently. Sasuke looked nonplussed, Shikamaru was gazing longingly at the clouds, and Ino looked irked.
"Am I? Sorry, there was a flood --"
He was quickly silenced by the glare he received from all four teens. He sighed, shaking his head. Kids were too disrespectful these days....
He leaned against the bridge. Hm. This was a familiar spot, wasn't it? It was the very same spot he remembered meeting his Team 7 many times, some time ago... His train of thought was interrupted as he met the angry glares of the four teens. He sweatdropped.
He already knew, of course, the reason why they had called him out. What he didn't know, though, was why they had chosen him to help. If he remembered correctly, he hadn't even helped out with Shikamaru and Ino's crisis, and although he had played a part in the melting of the ice cube, he didn't think he'd really done a whole lot...
"Well?" The girl he recognized as Yamanaka Ino stepped up beside Sakura. Kakashi cocked an eyebrow.
"Well, what are you going to do?" Sakura asked, preventing the blonde from blowing up, which involved putting her arm around her shoulders and binding her so she couldn't move. "I mean...you do know why we asked you to come here today, right?"
Kakashi's expression was something akin to mild amusement. "Aa, I'm afraid I do. But I have to ask -- why me?"
Sakura, Ino, and Shikamaru all turned to Sasuke, who was defiantly refusing to face them. Shikamaru jabbed a finger in his direction. "He suggested it," he explained.
"Ah," said Kakashi knowingly. "My advice worked wonders for you, didn't it, Sasuke?" *
"...hn." He mumbled, and refused to say anything else. The other three teens looked on curiously. Kakashi smirked, from underneath his mask.
"Do you really think I can do it?" he asked, half-seriously. That time with Sasuke had almost been a fluke. If he were to ruin the situation even more...well, the wrath of four teenagers wasn't as pleasant as it sounded.
Silence. Kakashi shrugged; what had he expected?
"You're his teacher, and his elder," Shikamaru said slowly. "He respects you. To a point, anyway."
"And besides, he won't listen to us," Ino added.
"And... I think he just needs to hear it from someone else," Sakura pointed out. "And you're the best choice. He thinks you're a bother at times, but he knows you're almost always right."
Kakashi arched his eyebrows. Had that been almost a compliment?
"Anyway, Sasuke-kun said you could do it," Sakura added, like that proved her point.
"He can do it," Sasuke put in, joining the group. "He -- should be able to do it."
Kakashi pondered on that sentence. Yes, yes, he had been able to give Sasuke advice that he could listen to, so naturally, he figured that Naruto would be easy compared to the ice cube. Mm... Kakashi sighed lazily, stuffing his hands in his pockets to feel for his favorite book...
"So, will you do it?" Sakura asked him questioningly. Kakashi grinned; like they even had to ask.
"Aa..." He strolled away at a laid-back pace. "Of course I will. Anything for my favorite students."
It was a shame that Kakashi hadn't brought a camera of some sort with him. The look on Naruto's face had been priceless, and if he had gotten a little snapshot of it, then he could've sold it, and then he would have had enough money to buy the next volume of Icha Icha Paradise... but dwelling on things that could have happened that hadn't happened had never been Kakashi's style, so he went along the road of life, like he always did.
Anyway, it hadn't been that easy to corner the poor young boy. First off, Kakashi had gone to Ichiraku, where Naruto could be found ninety-nine point nine percent of the time. Apparently, this was the point one percent of the time Naruto chose not to go there [Kakashi had had some difficulty picking his jaw up from the floor], and so, Kakashi had had to waste a precious half-hour searching for the blond ninja.
When he'd finally found him, he found him at the edge of the lake at the park, not too far away from the ever familiar sakura tree where Kakashi had taught a lesson to his other student.
Kakashi remained where he was, some twenty feet away from his student. His bright orange jacket made him easy to spot. He noticed he was fishing.
Silently and stealthily, Kakashi plopped down next to him. Naruto eyed him warily, but Kakashi crinkled his eye to show that he was smiling, and Naruto visibly relaxed.
"What's up?" Kakashi tried to sound friendly, and tried not to look straight at Naruto's eyes. Looking into someone's eyes usually meant that you were serious about something, that you demanded his or her total attention, and he didn't want to do that. He wanted to have a lighthearted conversation with the boy...
Naruto frowned, looking thoughtful. His grip on the crude, wooden fishing pole tightened a little bit, shaking the pole, and he stared at the ripples that were caused by his previous action. Kakashi half-expected him to blow up at him, or at least spend the next ten minutes blabbering about his problems. But to his surprise, all the young ninja said was, "Everybody keeps on asking me that. I don't know how to answer."
Kakashi blinked. "Just answer truthfully. What's up?"
Naruto furrowed his brow. "I don't know."
Kakashi decided to switch tactics -- those darned kids had better thank him for this later, talking sense into Naruto was just as hard as it sounded -- and looked up into the clear blue skies for the answer.
"Ramen." Kakashi snapped his fingers. "You like it, don't you?"
Naruto gave him a look that quite clearly asked, Do you like reading that dirty book of yours?
Kakashi shuddered. That look reminded him of Sasuke.
"I'm guessing that's a yes," Kakashi went on, praying for the strength. "Ramen makes you feel all -- warm and fuzzy inside, doesn't it?" Kakashi couldn't really tell how or what Naruto would feel when he ate ramen, but he hoped he had hit it in the ball park.
Naruto turned to face his former sensei. "Aa..." He frowned slightly, but he had brightened up for a short moment before. "But -- what does that have to do with anything?"
Kakashi chose to ignore his question. "And up till recently, ramen was your only source of that warmth, wasn't it?"
Naruto pondered this for awhile, secretly wondering what Kakashi-sensei was up to. It was hard to tell, with the Jounin. One minute, he could be engrossed in that dirty book of his, the next minute, he could have a kunai at the throat of an enemy. "I guess so," he finally answered after awhile. "Except...I guess, when I'm with my team and my friends."
"But it's a different type of warmth, isn't it?" Kakashi pressed on.
Naruto blinked, what was the man getting at? "Of course it is," he replied. "The warmth I get with ramen only stays for a little while. When I'm with my friends, it stays longer."
"Good, I'm glad to hear it." And he was; Kakashi had honestly thought for a brief moment that Naruto was going to say that he had a better feeling of warmth with the ramen than with his friends. "Now, has there been some -- some other place you've gotten that warmth from recently? A different place, a place you never really expected to get that warmth from?"
Naruto now knew fully that Kakashi-sensei was definitely up to something, but the man never meant to cause any harm, so he decided to go along with it, for now, at least. He cast his thoughts around, thinking about the past days and weeks... and almost immediately, he thought of her.
He vaguely remembered something about realizing that he felt different around her, but almost instantly remembered that he hadn't been able to figure out what exactly that feeling was.
But, now that Kakashi-sensei had mentioned it...
He figured it out...
It had been warmth.. and the feeling... the feeling of completeness.
Kakashi contemplated the young boy in front of him silently. He looked torn and bewildered, and Kakashi really couldn't blame him. But that was what happened once you decided to step into the game of love... And all he could do, as his teacher, was to help him, and hope that he would make the right decisions.
There was a sudden tug at Naruto's fishing pole, and both men looked incredulous; it was rare that Naruto could ever catch a fish, he'd always been too loud and impatient. Dumbfounded, Naruto reeled in a fairly large fish.
This was the look Kakashi had been waiting for. It held all emotions ever known to man... bewilderment, confusion, absolute torment...but at the same time, joy, utter shock, and happiness... It gave the older man a slight pang to see that look on Naruto's face when the only look he had ever seen on his face was that wide grin he always wore, but it was part of growing up.
Naruto turned to face his teacher, the ever familiar Uzumaki Naruto grin back on his lips. Kakashi couldn't help but grin back, his one visible eye crinkling shut.
"Do you want some lunch, Kakashi-sensei?"
"Sure. I'm never one to turn down a free meal."
And as Naruto cleaned and gutted the fish with an exuberance and uncleanliness that only he could possess, Kakashi lay back, watching him.
It looked like the kid was growing up just fine.
Iruka had gagged, spit, and run like his back was on fire when he had originally found out. The four teenagers, and Kakashi had had to chase after him in order to prevent him from wreaking even more chaos than there already was.
"But -- but --" Iruka sputtered. "Naruto -- God, he's not ready for stuff like this!"
"Iruka-sensei, calm down!" Sakura looked frazzled, Iruka was looking and sounding extremely tramautized, very different from the calm sensei she had known for years. Although, she couldn't really blame him, the idea of Naruto growing up and experiencing new feelings could easily cause a heart attack.
"You can't just lock the kid up in a cage, Iruka," Kakashi reprimanded him lightly. "The kid's got a right to get out into the world, and try out stuff for his own."
Sasuke shivered. Was that Kakashi, giving advice? Advice that actually made sense? He checked the skies for any sign of flying pigs.
Iruka stopped twisting -- it has been failed to mention that he was currently bound and tied to a tree -- and narrowed his eyes. "Since when have you been sensible and practical enough to say words like that?"
"Ah, Iruka..." Kakashi liked to let his sarcastic side show. "...I'm hurt by your loud words."
"But -- who knows what could happen!" Iruka was losing it, but that was one of the things that everybody else seemed to know except he himself. "This is -- This is Naruto! What if he -- burns the whole village down --"
"I doubt he could do that," Shikamaru stated, but there was a hint of doubt in his voice.
"How -- why would he burn down the village?" Ino asked, furrowing her brow.
"Don't ask," Shikamaru whispered. "He's having a moment." Then, out of the blue, "How troublesome."
"You could give him a talk," Sakura suggested.
"The girl's losing it," Kakashi lied, giving Sakura a Look. With all due respect, Iruka was a very good teacher, much better than him, but there was a reason he hadn't been chosen to teach the sex ed class, and that was because he tended to be a little blunt at times. "Naruto doesn't need a talk, Iruka...."
The four teens -- all right, three out of four, the other one sort of just glared at him -- waved their arms around wildly, begging Kakashi with their eyes not to go on.
"...besides, I already gave him a talk."
With a loud poof, Iruka had disappeared, leaving the bare ends of the rope hanging on the tree. There was a dark mark where Iruka had struggled wildly.
"Ne, Kakashi-sensei..." Sakura began slowly, contemplating the situation. She turned to face the Jounin. "What do you think we should do?"
The four teenagers scrutinized the older man's face, wishing, hoping, almost praying to see some sort of unhappy, irked look on his face. But if anything, Kakashi only looked tired.
"Leave him alone..." Kakashi plopped down right on the dry grass, retrieving his favorite, favorite book. "And just let things play out for themselves." Upon receiving the disgusted looks that clearly meant, You lazy-ass, perverted Jounin!!, he rolled his eyes -- which, notably, never left his book -- and went on, "Iruka's a lot like Naruto, you know. He just needs to get things straightened out. Get the details. Understand the details. And then everything will be all right."
He didn't miss the not-so-quiet whisper of Ino: "I wish we could believe the words of a perverted middle-aged bachelor."
"Naruto!" Iruka was breathless by the time he made it to Ichiraku. He scanned the place for a sign of his former student, any sign... the orange jacket, the blond hair... For a fleeting moment, he swore inwardly when he didn't see him, all sorts of bizarre thoughts running through his head... Darn it all, what he was he supposed to do now?! He had to talk to Naruto, just a short talk, no more than an hour, hopefully, just so he wouldn't run head-first into things...
"Iruka-sensei?" Iruka whirled around, sighing with relief at the sight of Naruto. Naruto looked back at him, his clear blue eyes looking puzzled.
Now that Iruka was calm, it was to his utter chagrin that he realized that he had absolutely no idea what he wanted to do or say to the young teenager. He breathed in and out, and went by instinct.
"Come on." He jabbed his finger in the direction of the counter. "I'll buy you a bowl of ramen."
Naruto lit up. "All right!" He bounded for the stools, and quickly ordered his favorite dish. Iruka ordered his, more quietly of course, and turned to face the ambitious young man.
And they sat there, Naruto talking about one thing or another, Iruka half-listening, while the cook prepared their ramen. Iruka wanted to bring up the sensitive subject of Hinata, but he wasn't quite sure how... After all, he knew very well why Kakashi hadn't told him about this in the first place, and that was because of his reputation for being blunt. He would prove him wrong right now, he decided firmly to himself, he would give Naruto a talk.
"So, Naruto..." He began casually. "Is there anything new going on in your life?"
He didn't miss the narrowing of Naruto's blue eyes.
"Everyone's asking me that," Naruto answered carefully.
"Ah.." Iruka frowned, apparently this wasn't going to be as easy as he had originally thought. Just when he thought he couldn't do this, Naruto started to talk.
"You know, Iruka-sensei... you were my first teacher...and you were the first to really acknowledge my presence..." Naruto looked deep in thought, and Iruka watched his former student.
"...so in a way, you're kind of... my first friend."
Iruka allowed a small smile to seep through the worried expression on his face. He kept silent, waiting for Naruto to finish.
"...so...if I told you about...something..."
Iruka sat up, immediately alert.
"...like...there's...a guy...and he's starting to have...feelings...and..." Naruto trailed off, struggling for words.
Iruka, meanwhile, sat on the stool, leaning back against the counter, a soft smile on his face as he watched his former student, the very same student who had reminded him of himself so long ago. Naruto looked so -- so -- so innocent, so confused, so torn... that he couldn't bear to have him struggle any more than he already had.
"I think," Iruka began, very slowly, "that this 'guy' of yours should just do whatever he thinks is best. There's no right or wrong answer to this current predicament of your friend. All you can do is just try to do your best, and hope and pray that everything will be all right."
Naruto digested this new piece of information. Iruka found it ironic that he was giving such advice to him; after all, hadn't he always been the one who had a specific answer for everything? Yes, Iruka was really the sort of person who had a direct answer for everything. When asked, what should I do if there is a fire?, he would answer, put it out with water. When asked, what should I do, I broke my mother's favorite vase?, he would answer, say sorry to her and save up to buy a new one.
Issues such as these, however, did not have one direct, specific answer. There were countless, endless possibilities to a solution, yet there was only one right one. And the only one who could decide what the right answer was, Iruka realized, was Naruto himself.
He had been wrong, Iruka finally admitted to himself. He himself, Iruka, had been wrong, in trying to control Naruto and trying to dictate and tell him what he should do. It was almost as if -- all right, it truly was -- Kakashi was right: He couldn't put Naruto in a cage.
"You know, Iruka-sensei..." Naruto trailed off, looking unusually introspective. "It's funny. I thought I was happy, and that I had everything I needed..." He didn't need to finish his train of thought for Iruka to understand.
"We always do, Naruto," Iruka answered. "We always think we have everything, until something happens." Iruka smiled at his former student, who had given him another perspective to life. "But it's not too late for your -- friend -- to be happy."
"Ah... thank you, Iruka-sensei." Naruto put on his trademark fox grin.
Iruka smiled back, waving it off. "You're welcome."
No, he could not lock Naruto up in a cage and watch his every movement, and make sure that he was doing the right thing every second of the day. It was up to Naruto to figure it all out by himself.
Shikamaru and Sasuke, not for the first time, gaped, open-mouthed, at the two girls who were hurriedly flinging all sorts of objects around the place, searching frantically for a CD, any CD.
"What are they doing?!" Sasuke managed to sound incredulous.
Shikamaru forced himself to close his mouth. "Don't ask me."
Sakura stopped long enough to glare furiously at the two boys. "Well? Do something, why don't you?!"
They blinked. Do what? seemed like the right thing to ask, but both knew that if either of those words escaped their lips, they would be facing the wrath of Sakura and Ino.
"Help us look for a CD!!" shrieked Ino, and the two boys were only too happy to oblige. Heck, anything to get her ringing voice out of their ears....
After ten minutes of trying, and failing to look like they were even mildly interested in what they were supposed to do, Shikamaru gathered up his courage, and spoke.
"What are we doing?"
"Looking for a CD," was the monotonous reply of Sasuke.
"Not you." Shikamaru rolled his eyes, mentally thinking, How much more troublesome can this get? Shikamaru decided to try a different strategy. "Why are we looking for a CD?"
"For the theme song, of course," Ino replied. Shikamaru blinked, and comprehension finally dawned on Sasuke.
"Theme song?" Shikamaru felt curiously excluded and clueless, which was something that he didn't feel too often; after all, he was the smartest in the bunch.
"They want a 'theme song' for Naruto and Hinata." Sasuke looked weary. "Like that English song Sakura found you and Ino." **
Shikamaru blinked again. He just wasn't seeing the point to any of this.
"Don't worry, Shikamaru." Sakura looked up briefly. "I thought it was stupid too, but now I realize that it works!"
Shikamaru blinked, and then finally figured out that it would be pointless to resist. "Geez...how troublesome," he deadpanned, but bent down to search through the now cluttered floor of Ino's room.
He still didn't quite understand the concept of a "theme song," but once Ino and Sakura set their mind to something, it wasn't easy to get them to change their mind about that said something. He still thought that this was all very troublesome, and he still thought that this would change absolutely nothing about their current little situation, but, as Sakura pointed out, Naruto had been the one who started the whole "theme song" idea, so maybe it might work. Maybe. Shikamaru let a bored sigh escape his lips, and, not for the first time, stared out the window to gaze longingly at the clouds.
"Shikamaru?! What are you doing! Come on and help us look for a CD!"
Normally, Shikamaru might have liked to retort with a snappy comeback of his own, but judging by the flame in Ino's eyes, he decided that this would not be the time for that.
With yet another sigh, he proceeded to dig through the scrolls, papers, and stuffed animals that littered the ground.
Hinata sat on the same stool she had sat on some weeks ago, looking around timidly. This was her first time to be at Ichiraku alone, and she wasn't quite sure what to do. She halfheartedly wished that Naruto were still there, but just the thought caused a faint pink blush to come to her cheeks.
The smell of noodles and the sounds of cooking wafted through the restaurant. Hinata blinked as the elderly chef approached her with a friendly smile.
"Are you ready to order?" he asked, and upon receiving her silence, he added, a little teasingly, "... or are you waiting for someone?"
Hinata flushed a dark red, and wordlessly shook her head. "No...I'll just have the beef ramen, please."
The old man smiled reassuringly at her, and sauntered off to cook the ramen. Hinata's thoughts were nothing but a swirling mass of emotions, and she wished she knew why.
Not for the first time, her thoughts drifted to the loud, talkative blond ninja. She could admit freely that she did like him, but what had she accomplished then? It was obvious that Naruto didn't like her in that way, and even if he did, she doubted she herself had the courage to accept those feelings. It was a lose-lose situation.
She realized that she hadn't seen him in more than two weeks, and she felt somewhat...disappointed. So what, though? she quickly asked herself. After all, she hadn't seen him in months after the Chuunin exam...
Hinata knew that it was pointless to dream about things that had no chance of happening, but just this once, as she mulled over things while breathing in the fumes of the food that he loved so much, she thought, in her quiet way, that perhaps, just this once, it wouldn't hurt to dream.
Naruto had decided, on the very first moment his eyes had drifted open that morning, that he needed a bowl of ramen. His feet instinctively led him to the place, so his brain was free to to think about other things.
For instance, like Iruka-sensei's words. Naruto was never one to really pay attention about things and memorize them, but he had a hazy recollection of something along the lines of doing his best and praying that it would all work out in the end.
Part of him wondered if Iruka-sensei knew if it was him or not, but for now, he decided he would think about that later. His big problem right now was really what he should do, and how he should do it. Naruto, after all, was not a very good thinker, and the only reason he had survived for so long was sheer luck. He doubted luck could help with this situation, but he figured it was best to cover all his bases, so he prayed for luck, among other things.
He had figured that it would probably have more time -- an extra day, at the very least -- and Naruto was a well-known procrastinator, the procrastinator of all procrastinators, so he pushed his current problem to the very back of his mind and tried not to let it get to him. He shrugged, stretching his arms and closing his eyes.
When he opened his eyes again, he found himself at the familiar threshold of Ichiraku.
Incidentally, he also found himself about five feet away from a navy-blue-haired girl.
Naruto started, and for a moment, he lingered hesitantly at the doorway. Not for the first time, he wished that he hadn't procrastinated so much. He thought about turning back, and almost instantly, his pride got in the way. Uzumaki Naruto had never been the kind of person who ran away, and he wasn't about to start now!
So he walked right up to her, and sat himself down on the stool right next to her. She turned, a slightly baffled look in her eye, but it left as soon as she met his blue eyes.
"O -- Ohayou, Naruto-kun." She stammered faintly, but her voice was a little louder than it used to be. Naruto grinned back, pleased at this new change. Hinata needed to get a little louder, he decided, quiet people were sometimes pushovers, and he didn't want that to happen to Hinata.
The reason he was here hadn't escaped his mind, and his heart rate rose quite considerably, but he chose to forget about it, at least for this moment.
"Ohayou, Hinata-chan!" He exclaimed happily, and this wasn't all entirely an act. He was happy to see her, after all. "I'm glad you're here!" And he was. "And you're eating ramen, too!"
Pink flooded through her normally pale cheeks. "Hai...I missed the taste of ramen."
"Really? How long have you not eaten any?"
Hinata thought back. "Ano...maybe three weeks?"
"Three weeks?! I can barely survive not having ramen for a day!" It was at this moment that the cook brought Hinata her bowl of ramen, and Naruto placed his order as well.
Hinata broke apart the wooden chopsticks, and slowly began to eat her ramen. She did it in a very prim and proper manner, blowing at the noodles before inserting the noodles into her mouth and then chewing it, mouth closed. Every now and then she reached for a spoon and carefully sipped the hot soup.
Naruto couldn't help but think once more about how frail and fragile she looked. She honestly looked as though one mere movement could shatter her into a million pieces.
Naruto had had himself convinced that he had had everything he needed...friends, people to go to for comfort... but he now understood that there was one thing he was lacking.
Someone he could love.
Years ago, Naruto would have scoffed at the idea of him falling in love. He had never been the kind to really think about emotions, really, not after he discovered he had friends, and people he cared about. All he wanted was to be acknowledged, and to become Hokage. Love had never been part of that picture...
"Ne, HInata-chan..." Naruto started. He had always been the type of person who blurted out the first thought that came to his head, but as he thought about it, he wasn't exactly sure what to think. He settled for saying something else completely different. "I haven't seen you in awhile..."
"Oh.." Hinata looked up from her bowl of ramen. "Well...I suppose we just never crossed paths." She paused. "I was trying to get stronger." And she left it at that.
Naruto assumed she was trying to get stronger so that she would seem to be more of a worthy heir to the Hyuuga clan. "I think you're strong, Hinata-chan," he stated honestly.
Her cheeks grew noticeably brighter. "A -- Arigatou, Naruto-kun."
Naruto smiled at her, and that was when his large bowl of pork ramen arrived. That was also when he noticed what looked suspiciously like an antenna lurking behind the napkins. There was also a flash of silver hair, a little pink head sticking up, messy black hair next to it, two black ponytails next to it, some blonde hair as well. He frowned, but dismissed his suspicions. No, it couldn't be...
In a true Naruto fashion, he dug into his bowl of ramen, finishing it within minutes. Hinata watched him, eyes widened to some extent, a knowing smile on her lips. Naruto, oblivious to this, tilted the bowl and slurped up the rest of the soup, quite noisily, at that.
Emptiness. He didn't know why, but he just started thinking about it again. He started thinking about how whenever he would watch Sasuke and Sakura together, he felt a little twinge, right where his heart would be. It was the same way whenever he watched Shikamaru and Ino, as well. And whenever he watched the four of them together, it seemed to ache even more.
He thought he was happy, and he was, but not completely happy.
Did he want to be completely happy? The thought crossed his mind just as he set down the now empty bowl on the counter. He furrowed his brow, vaguely aware that Hinata was still there beside him. As he forced himself to re-examine his feelings, he finally answered, Yes, yes, I want to be happy. Completely happy, not just half-happy. I want to be truly, truly happy.
He had always had a feeling that maybe Hinata had liked him, and it wasn't just because she blushed whenever she was around him, or acted strangely, or acted so nice to him. It was more of -- more of -- more of the way she always smiled, or seemed stronger, slightly more outspoken around him. However, he had never taken notice of it, dismissing her feelings as easily as he dismissed his. He shouldn't have done that, he now realized...
At last, he turned to face the blue-haired girl. Her hand was remarkably close to his, and Iruka-sensei's words echoed in his mind... something about doing whatever feels right, and hoping that it will all work out...
"Na -- Naruto-kun?" Her voice was filled with anxiety and unease. "Are -- Are you all right?"
Naruto stared at her hand. It was a nice hand, pale and smooth. Without stopping to think about the consequences, he slowly, but certainly put his hand on top of her palm. She gasped, surprised, and glanced at him, alarmed. Naruto looked straight into her eyes, and nervously grinned.
Seconds later, he felt her squeeze his hand back.
It had been a gentle, subtle squeeze, but it was a definite squeeze. Naruto's grin widened, and the nervousness lessened. Hinata smiled as well, and it wasn't just one of her delicate, timid smiles; it was a true smile.
When the music began, Naruto found that he wasn't too surprised. Hinata had looked bewildered at first, but she soon figured out what was going on. She shook her head amusedly; her half-finished bowl of ramen sat, forgotten. Their hands hung freely between the two of them, still entwined.
The emptiness had left, and it had been replaced with a sense of warmth and completeness.
Naruto had never felt happier in his life.
[ Can you feel?
Can you feel that hybrid rainbow?
Koko wa tojuu nandatte shinjitai
I can feel
I can feel that hybrid rainbow
Kinou made eraba rena katta bokura demo
Ashita o matte ru ]
[ Can you feel?
Can you feel that hybrid rainbow?
I wanna believe that here is only partway through
I can feel
I can feel that hybrid rainbow
Even we, who weren't chosen up till yesterday
Are holding onto tomorrow ]
-- owari: the end --
Lyrics are from "Hybrid Rainbow," sung by The Pillows. Such a great song! ^.^
* - "Ah," said Kakashi knowingly. "My advice worked wonders for you, didn't it, Sasuke?" Reference to "The Day the Ice Cube was Melted" ... anyhow, Kakashi gives Sasuke advice! ^_^
** "They want a 'theme song' for Naruto and Hinata." Sasuke looked weary. "Like that English song Sakura found you and Ino." Reference to "Breaking Free" ... Shikamaru and Ino get a theme song, too! ^^
A/N~Originally, when I was working on "The Day the Ice Cube was Melted," which was the first of my series of Naruto one-shots [you know, the unusually long ones -- heck, unusually long for me -- that have to deal with how everybody finally gets together?] I hadn't planned on writing any sequels. But when the idea for a Shikamaru/Ino story came, and I finished that story, I knew that I would have to write a Naruto/Hinata story to make everything complete...and it's kind of weird, but this story was the most challenging. *shrugs* It was just so hard to keep Naruto in character without him exploding and telling Hinata of his feelings... @_@ Anyway, I hope that I did a decent job, for all you NaruHina fans out there. And as of now, there are no plans for a sequel. Sorry!! ^^;;;