A/N:

Yet another way to try and get Naruto to pair up with Hinata. Eventually. This one can be held away in reserve, just in case Kishimoto Masashi eventually pairs the village's most unpredictable ninja with a certain pink-haired girl.

Also, it's food for thought. What if Naruto and Sakura did end up getting paired up? As teammates, that might present a problem even without a break-up. Things would be doubly hard if one dumped the other.

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There was a sudden sound of metal falling.

That was followed by a frightened yowl, and the hurried footfalls of a stray cat in the alley beneath his window.

The ruckus did not wake Naruto. He was already wide away, and had been since the moment his head hit the pillow. It would be dawn soon, and he hadn't managed to steal a single wink of sleep.

"I need…." Naruto dragged his pajama sleeve across his stuffed and runny noise. His voice sounded strangely distorted, as if he spoke from the room next door, or outside his balcony window. His throat was sore, and his eyes still burned. Turning to place his cheek on the pillow again, he frowned. It was still wet with tears. "I need to get some sleep…."

He closed his eyes. Aware of his breathing, he had to voluntarily in hale and exhale for a while, until his thoughts settled elsewhere. Against his will, he thought back to an afternoon months past. He had been sitting on a grassy knoll just outside the practice grounds, not long after Team Seven had finished their training for the day.

In his memory, the plain and breezy day seemed splendid and filled with warmth and color. The events that traipsed across his weary mind seemed framed in light, as if everything had been a miracle or some kind of magic moment. Sakura had sat down beside him. They had spoken together. Before either had known what was happening, their lips met. Lost in each other's presence, they had kissed until sundown, both somewhat surprised, even though each had hints of how the other felt.

"If I believe strongly enough…." Naruto clutched his pillow tightly, folding it nearly in half. There were no dry spots to be found. Even the sheet beneath it was sopping wet. "Things can be like that again. It's my Way of the Ninja…." Filled with a sudden burst of anger, he slammed one hand down hard on the mattress. "Sakura… why…." He rolled around in his blanket, getting tangled. Looking up at the ceiling, he wondered what a certain pink-haired girl was doing at the moment, and what she would be doing later that day. He clenched his fists, wondering when she might find someone else to fall in love with.

The two of them had thrown themselves into their relationship with a vengeance, spending every waking moment alone, when missions and practice allowed. Whenever Sakura worked at the hospital, Naruto could be found hovering around the place, hoping to catch a glimpse of her, or waiting for her to get off shift. When Naruto sat down to bowl after bowl at the Ichiraku Ramen Bar, the other patrons knew enough to leave a stool open for a certain pretty medical ninja. He got her to like noodles. She got him to love syrup-coated anko dumplings and pickled ume fruits. He worked on quiz books with her. She watched anime while teaching him how to do his laundry properly. He helped her get over her fear of frogs. She taught him about butterfly kisses. There hadn't ever been a happier time in either of their lives.

"It isn't fair!" Naruto spoke to the ceiling, as if it were Fate itself, or the Spirit of the Fire Country. "I didn't do anything wrong. I don't deserve this." He pulled the blanket up over his face. His breathing increased, and he felt slightly short of breath. "I can't believe it happened. I can't!" Nothing felt real to him at that moment. Not the bed his back rested against. Not the coarse wool tickling his nose. Not the fingers he pressed against his eyelid. Nothing. "Please. I'll do whatever is necessary to get her back. Anything. Believe it!"

He wondered if he had done something wrong. Sakura hadn't said anything, and she was usually vocal to a fault. Sitting upright suddenly, he dislodged his silly nightcap. He swallowed hard, his eyes looking somewhat wild in the diminished light of his dormitory.

On one occasion, he had been kissing her, and his lips had traveled down a slight way beyond her neck. She had gently turned his head back up to where she wanted it, without any angry noise or gesture. They had continued on with their kissing marathon after that. Another time, his hands had wandered to her breasts ever so briefly, in the lightest of touches. Again, she had left him know that she wasn't ready for anything like that, without saying a single word. Those innocent explorations couldn't be the reason for her change of heart, could they? No. It couldn't be that. Nothing had changed for weeks after those incidents.

He sat there like that for hours, without moving much at all. He had never felt this numb before, not even as he lay on the hard ground of the Valley of the End, after failing to stop Sasuke. Sasuke! Just thinking that name at the moment had him growling. Sliding out of his bed, he put his bare feet on the cold and cluttered floor, kicking away a pile of Ramen boxes that had been sitting there for weeks. He had some illogical urge to strike out, to do something, but felt too depressed to follow through.

"Sasuke…." Naruto sat back down on the edge of the bed. He put his face in his hands. During his time with Orochimaru, Sasuke had come to the conclusion that if he ever wished to stand a chance against Itachi, he would need to push away all of his past bonds with his friends and make revenge a priority even above his life. Because of that, he no longer cares about Konoha or anyone from the village, despite the fact that when he encountered Naruto for the first time after the time after his defection, he made remarks about Team Kakashi and scolded Naruto, saying that his quest to recover him could threaten his chances of becoming Hokage. He also stated that unlike their last encounter at the waterfall, he had no more reservations about killing Naruto, and even attempted to do so. He would have killed sakura too, not to mention Sai and Yamato. "He couldn't be the reason… could he…." Naruto felt a sudden burning surge of jealousy. His thoughts flew off in many directions, like a flock of frightened birds.

Sasuke had been aware of the fact that he was intended to be the container for Orochimaru's soul, and plainly showed that he doesn't care what happened to himself, as long as it resulted in Itachi's death. Both Naruto and Sakura had been badly shaken up by the encounter, and the only reason either of them was still alive was the fact that Orochimaru ordered his protege to stop, convincing him that leaving them alive would help them against his brother, since they too were opposing Akatsuki. Stricken by his failure, Naruto had worked hard to learn how to harness his wind chakra, creating Fūton: Rasengan to counter Sasuke's Chidori Nagashi and other new techniques. After Asuma's death at Hidan's and Kakuzu's hands, and following a later encounter where both Akatsuki members had been defeated, Naruto had gone on to assist in other battles against the megalomaniacal organization. He had also been sent on one last desperate attempt to retrieve Sasuke. That attempt had succeeded.

"That jerk hasn't even made any attempt to be our friend again," Naruto grumbled, picturing Sasuke in his mind. The image he saw was that of an aloof and apathetic young man, one who didn't care about a single thing in the world except for his brother's death. "Even though we opened up to him…." It didn't make sense, thinking that Sakura could have fallen in love with someone like that, or that Sasuke might even be capable of any kind of affection at the moment. Just the same, he felt the urge to shout when his imagination turned traitor, showing him fictitious images of the two of them locked in an embrace. He got out of bed again to put his head under the faucet, turning on the cold water to chase away steamy images he never wanted to picture again. "It couldn't be that. I know it!"

The fact that Sakura had begun to change slightly after Sasuke's return was probably coincidence. Neither of them were allowed to spend much time alone with him, and he didn't seemed to want to spend time with anyone. Sai was still part of Team Seven, and might remain a part forever. Tsunade and the elders had not been forthcoming about their plans for the prodigal ninja. But, the powers that be seemed anxious to have him back in the village's good graces as soon as possible. That fact never failed to leave Naruto steaming, and now was no exception, despite his inner torment. Uzumaki Naruto should be a hero in the eyes of the populace. Instead, too many of the older generations still viewed him as the Boy with the Fox. In contrast, Uchiha Sasuke, one time heartthrob and everyone's favorite genius, had turned against Konoha, joining up with one of the Fire Country's greatest foes. But, because the sharingan meant so much to the village, people were willing to welcome him back with open arms. Well, not Tsunade. But, she was in the minority.

"Sakura…." Naruto thought back to the days when they were all in the Academy together. He remembered the early missions he went on, with Kakashi, Sakura, and Sasuke. He had grown upset, whenever Sakura would dote on the other boy, thinking that Uzumaki Naruto was little more than a pimple on a flea's butt. He sighed, remembering how he had felt after those first kisses with Sakura. He had stood here in this very room, looking at the mirror, bragging about how he had succeeded in winning Sakura's heart, despite her earlier negative feelings for him. Gloating, he had thrown out his chest, telling himself that he had finally defeated Sasuke in that manner. Those words now left a bitter taste in his mouth. "Why can't you still love me…." His mouth now felt very dry. Wrinkling up his nose, he nodded his head, and then marched over to the refrigerator. He took out a carton of milk and began chugging. He was soon sputtering, having forgotten to check the expiration date. The milk was spoiled. That had him thinking about the past yet again. He remembered taking on Sasuke's form, hoping to steal a kiss from a pretty pink-haired girl with a prominent forehead. "It's… well… it's not like I'm a total loser…."

His self-confidence was drooping again. He was the village's noisiest ninja, without a doubt. But, in the past, that loud exterior had been a way to project a confidence he didn't really feel, or a continuous cry for attention. But, after he had returned from training with Jiraiya, he had been brimming with true confidence in himself. Now, he felt the growing pangs of doubt again. He was going to be Hokage some day, wasn't he? He had mastered a jutsu that both Yondaime and Kakashi had been able to complete, hadn't he?. He had played a major role against the Nine, and in the latest defeat of Orochimaru. Right? Right??? He had friends. He had won people's respect. He really was someone special! Sure. You bet. If he was sooo-oo-o special, why had Sakura done what she did?

"Stupid bitch!" His anger flared up again, this time directed at his former girlfriend. He never used that kind of language. But, that didn't seem to matter right now. As far as he was concerned, it was the perfect word to fit the sour feeling deep inside him. He tossed the milk carton, missing the overstuffed garbage bin. It skittered across the floor, leaving a clotting trail of stinky milk. Why should he care? His room was a mess. Well, it was always somewhat messy. Now, after he had gotten back to his dormitory in a state of disbelief, it was even more disorganized than usual. He just didn't seem able to follow through on any action to its completion. "Why did she have to do that to me?" He looked over at his dresser. There was a picture on top, one of him hugging Sakura. The urge to form Rasengan bubbled up inside of him, almost as if he could wipe away all of his pain if he could obliterate that picture. "What did I ever do to her…."

Naruto felt somewhat dizzy. He was hyperventilating again. Unaware that he was doing so, he repeatedly ground his fist into his hand, trying to find some way to distract himself from his emotional pain. The dull aching in his chest grew stronger by the moment, until he felt as if he couldn't breath. His thinking was skewed by his grief. He was certain that he would never find happiness again. He felt unloved and unwanted. He told himself that fate had marked him out for a lifetime of solitude, misery and bad luck. But, that wasn't anything new, was it? He had simply been fooling himself, thinking that things had gotten better. Maybe he really was the idiot that some people seemed to think he was. Hell, maybe Sakura finally realized that fact. He pulled open his refrigerator, banged a few drawers and crispers open and closed, and then slid open the bottom bin.

Starting to peel an orange, he stopped, tossing the fruit into a sink stacked with dirty dishes. He really didn't have much of an appetite, despite the random impulse to eat. Rubbing his eyes, he realized that he had been standing there for a while. Glancing at his clock, he knew that he should start the shower water, so that he could clean up before heading over to the practice fields.

"Screw that!" Naruto's rage was short-lived, followed by a longer lasting feeling of hopelessness and helplessness. What good would it do him to train? Would that make Sakura love him again? Would it turn back the hands of time, before she shattered his world beyond repair? There was no way he wanted to see her today! He also couldn't face Kakashi or Sai. "What good does it do to get stronger, anyway…." Having already slipped out of his night clothes, he stood naked in the middle of his room, wondering if he would ever want to set foot outside again. He allowed himself to fall backward, bouncing off of his bed before laying still.

There had been signs of trouble earlier, even though there hadn't been any reason for him to see them for what they were. How could there be? Things had seemed like something straight out of the manga he read so voraciously. Boy has super powers, or secret that defies belief, not to metion a tragic past, one that sets up impossible obstacles for him to overcome. Girl is exceptionally bright, and has some remarkable physical characteristics that make her stand out from the crowd. Boy has crush on girl. Girl hates boy. Boy suffers repeated abuse at that girl's hands. As time passes, girl realizes how wonderful boy is, despite what she and others once thought. Romance blossoms. He never liked the series that had the boy and girl falling out of love. He never could relate to that kind of ending before. He could now. Maybe this would turn out like some of the stories that only started off angsty, but later ended up for the better. In those manga, there was often a quiet unassuming girl waiting in the shadows.

"Right!" Naruto looked over at the calendar on the wall. "Like something like that would ever really happen. I wish!" No. He really didn't wish that. He couldn't even imagine any other girl meaning that much to him. Sakura had been perfect in his eyes, even though he had been quite able too see her warts and blemishes before falling head over heals in love. A number of people had told him that they doubted the relationship would last very long, but he had written them off as jealous or mean-spirited. He had finally lucked upon the one thing that truly made him feel like a normal boy. He had deserved it, after all of the suffering he had been through, and after all of the hard work he had put in! "Happy endings are for anime, not real life." There was a large orange spiral on the calendar, marking the date of the big Dance. A few days before that, a smaller spiral marked the night of the dinner at Sakura's house.

The two of them had been apart for a fair amount of time. Tsunade had needed Sakura at the hospital after Shizune and a number other medical-nins had fallen sick from an influenza virus making its rounds through the village. He, Sai, and Yamatao had been sent off on a series of missions with Team Ten and Team Eight, while Kakashi once again recuperated in the hospital after another encounter with the remnants of Akatsuki. When Naruto had returned, somewhat banged up himself, he refused Yamato's order to go to the Medical Center. There was no way he was going to do that. It was the night of the big dinner with Sakura!

"I really should have gone to the hospital that night." Naruto grimaced, poking at a bandage that was tightly wound about his flank. He needed to change it daily before he showered, until the nasty wound underneath healed. Thinking about seeing Sakura again, he had shut out the pain when the injury was fresh. When she acted coldly towards him that night, he had figured it was because she was angry at his refusal of treatment. Professional matters and all that. Now, in retrospect, he realized that she had been uncomfortable around him, because she was confused about her feelings. "Her acting that way hurt more than the beating I took." He had told himself that she was just being moody. Girls tended to be that way at times, right? And since Sakura was an über girl, she would be über moody.

Yes, Sakura's behavior towards him had left him feeling a bit down; but, things like that never lasted long with him. He had brushed the incident aside, and began thinking about the big Dance. It would be nice to see her in a dress. And, it would be nice for everyone to see that he was with her, when she was in a dress. Sure, pride goes before a fall. But, he never had any hint that he was about to take a tumble the likes he had never seen before. Happily, he had seen about getting fitted for a formal jacket, and had pestered all of the other girls ad nauseum, trying to find out the best kind of corsage to buy. Gama-chan, his beloved frog purse, had gone from corpulent to flaccid in record time. Not even Ero-sennin had chewed through coins at that rate!

Naruto looked over at his chair. The dress coat and his neatly-pressed pants were unceremoniously crumpled, sitting akimbo. Once again, he felt a strange sense of detachment, as if the formal Dance had never taken place. Instinctively, he knew that he would always have a pain in his heart because of what happened… and because of the way that they had happened… even if he somehow managed to be deliriously happy some day. Sakura had been his girlfriend. He had given his heart to her. But, it was more than that. Before things had gotten serious, she had been his friend. His teammate. Someone he could trust. One of the people he would give his life for without a moment's thought. During that family dinner, she must have known that she didn't feel the way about him that he felt about her. For whatever reason, she had let him go on thinking that things hadn't changed, soaring on an emotional high at the Dance, only to be caught unawares soon after everyone left the Ball to go home. He felt foolish, having gone out of his way to dress up so nicely. He felt like the world's biggest idiot, having gone from shop to shop looking for the perfect flowers. He never should have let himself have hope. Hope was for people who didn't have a fox demon sealed behind their navel!

His face could hardly contain his smile, when he caught the first glimpse of Sakura in a formal gown. He though his heart might burst out of his chest, like Kakuzu in reverse. But, when he walked over to speak to her, she had looked distant, and even a little bit anxious. He couldn't figure out why. When no one was looking, he sniffed under his armpits. They smelled fine. He checked himself in every reflective surface he could find. He looked great. Even Granny Tsunade had told him so. He had eschewed orange for black, and cut a rather rakish figure, much to his friends' surprise. She had told him to meet him at the pavilion, so he knew that he hadn't forgotten to pick her up. Had she gotten into a fight with her mother? Was she feeling self conscious? Bad case of indigestion?

"I must have looked like a real dope." Naruto sighed, rubbing at his temples. He wondered if everyone except for him knew how Sakura's feelings had changed. That didn't make much sense, but he didn't care. Stung by perversity, he had some innate need to make his misery as devastating as it could be. He could feel the exact emotions that he had felt hours ago, sitting at that table with Shikamaru, Ino, Choji, and a girl he had not recognized. He had been in a haze of sorts, after Sakura told him that she didn't feel like dancing, and answered each of his questions with as few syllables as possible. The meal was delicious by all accounts, the best that many of them had ever eaten, but to him it might as well have been mud. He still found it hard to believe that things happened the way that they did. "At least no one saw me after Sakura told me what she did." He had begged. He had pleaded. He had offered arguments to show that she had misinterpreted her feelings. He had ended up crying, standing on a bridge over an ornamental pond, the wind causing the hem of her gown to puff up like a bell, and to wave and snap like a flag.

Everything replayed itself in slow motion. Usually, when he reviewed past events, he had to make due with sizeable snippets. Now, for some reason, he could remember each and every word. Not only that, he could hear the inflection of everything that he and Sakura had said after they walked away from the dance. In the moonlit darkness, under a night sky dotted with miraculous clouds, she had finally brought herself to break the truth. 'You're a really great guy, Naruto. You know that. Everyone knows that.' Those words had done nothing to soften the blow. In his heart, at that moment, he knew that something bad would follow. It had been like sitting in a movie theater, watching his life unfold in front of him, thinking the events involved someone else. 'It… well… I just don't want to go out with you any more….' She had been the first one to shed a tear. The truth hurt her as much as it did him, precisely because she didn't want to do anything to hurt him. 'But… I was so scared… I didn't know what to say… I don't want to lose you as my friend….'

"Why did she have to fall in love with me in the first place, if she wasn't going to care about me?" Naruto then turned to berating himself, thinking that he somehow should have picked up on that kind of thing early on, even though he was far from an expert with women. No sane man could claim to be that, especially where teenage girls were involved. "I was so stupid, falling in love. So… damn… stupid." He felt on the verge of tears, but no water came. Maybe he had dehydrated himself with all of his earlier crying. "Maybe I should have done something different. Maybe I shouldn't have wanted to be with her every day. Why couldn't she tell me I was getting too close, too fast, before it was too late?" He turned up his nose, the odor of the spilt milk reaching his nostrils. He made no effort to clean up the unsightly mess. He was in no mood for messes, or training for that matter. He didn't even want to think about that subject. He knew what would happen. Because he still cared, he would keep hoping that Sakura would change her mind, but she never would. He would keep getting his heart broken day after day after day. "Maybe I should ask Old Lady Tsunade to put me in a different team." No. Maybe he should ask her to end him to a different village.

That night, after hearing what Sakura said, he had felt so many different emotions, not the least of which was humiliation. He had stood there on that bridge, lapel wet with tears, wondering what all of his friends might think of him. Kakashi had warned him about starting a relationship with a friend, and had told him to think about what might happen if he fell in love with a teammate, not just from a tactical and strategic point of view, but also from a personal one. He had sworn up and down to the Copy Ninja that he and Sakura could handle something like that. After the Ball, he had felt frantic, trying to convince Sakura that her feelings had changed by mistake. 'Things are going much too fast.' She had said after that, a look of justification in her hair-shrouded eyes. Tugging at a fancy pendant that had been her great-grandmother's, she had added 'I just got the sense that you had marriage on your mind. I'm nowhere near ready for that. There's so much I want to do in life, first….'

"How could she think that!" Naruto rolled over onto his stomach, the cold air coming through the partially open window giving him goose bumps. "I'm nowhere near ready for anything like that, either. It's just the way I am. When I like something, I want to do it all the time. When I love something, I want to do it even more often." He buried his face in his pillow, wondering why else Sakura had decided that they should break up. Was it her parents? Did they have bad feelings, knowing that their daughter was dating the boy with Kyuubi? Hadn't having that stupid fox inside him caused him enough grief already? Was this just the first of many painful break-ups he would be forced to suffer through? "This just isn't right. No one else has to live with this. Why did it have to be me?" He conveniently forgot to think about Gaara and the Jinchiruuki who had died at the hands of the Nine. What else might have changed her mind? It could have been any number of things. Maybe he was too impulsive. Maybe he did dress funny. Maybe he fixated too much on certain foods and activities.

There was a knock at his door. When he didn't answer, pillow pulled over his head, the knock grew louder.

"Naruto?" Great! Of all people. It was Sakura. "Naruto… are you in there…." Silence stretched on for a short while, before she spoke again. "We were worried about you. I was worried about you. I just want to make sure you're OK…."

Naruto almost broke out in inappropriate laughter right then and there, an incredulous look on his face. She wanted to know if he was OK? After last night? After what she had done to him? How the Hell could he possibly be OK! This was just his luck. This was destiny laughing at him for sure, rubbing salt in his wounds.

"Please… Naruto… if you're there…." There was a definite catch in Sakura's voice. Naruto's heart almost caved in, hearing her obvious pain and sorrow. Almost. But, he was in no mood for understanding, forgiveness, or any shit like that. He wanted her back, or he didn't want her at all! He didn't care if that sounded childish. He didn't care if he might be forcing himself to feel that way, as some kind of punishment for something that didn't really deserve punishment. "I just want you to know… I still want to be your friend… I'll do anything I can to help you…."

"Not the one thing that matters," Naruto whispered to himself, fearing for a moment that she might possibly be able to hear him, even though he could barely hear himself. He clamped his mouth shut, and added a second pillow to his head.

"I mean that," Sakura asserted. The door moved a bit, suggesting that her weight was heavy upon it. "Kakashi and Sai are there if you need them, too." Footsteps could be heard after that, followed by the door on the stairwell opening and closing.

"Great." Naruto tossed one of the windows across the room, knocking over the one potted plant that was doing well. "She told Kakashi-sensei and Sai." Naruto threw the pillows across the room. "I wonder who else she rushed to tell." He lay on his back again, suddenly aware that his curtain was all of the way open. He simply shrugged. So what if the old woman across the way might see him naked. It would probably make her day. No, it would probably make her whole damn wrinkled life! He contemplated playing with himself, just in case she was watching, but quickly coughed and vetoed that idea. He looked over at his stack of anime, knowing that he had hidden certain ones away from Sakura. Them, and certain magazines he hadn't wanted her to find when she was cleaning his room. It looked like he was back to imaginary girlfriends again. "At least I can get a lot further than I ever could with her." That bravado didn't help. Talking big like that didn't return him to the past.

He frowned. When he had looked over at his DVD collection, he had caught sight of something that Sakura had made for him. She had knitted a small scene, a pink-haired girl holding hands with a yellow-haired boy. That shot small needles of pain into his heart. Part of him wanted to get up and tear that thing apart, or throw it out the window. He should do the same thing with other reminders tucked away in drawers, hanging on the wall, or sitting out on his kitchen counter. But, once he did something like that, there would be no going back Would he ever regret such a rash act? Might he some day want a reminder of the good things that they had shared? Well, he could go half way at least. Rummaging through his closet, he took out an old beat up box and began tossing anything inside that made him feel lovesick. It could sit in his closet for as long as necessary. If need be, he could punt it into a dumpster some day.

"She's lucky I'm not Orochimaru or something," Naruto said, trying to force a smile and lighten the mood. It didn't work. But, it did give him reason to pause. He was glad to find that he felt no need for revenge. He had no desire to hurt Sakura some way, just because she had hurt him. He hoped he would never be one to whine, mope, or lament in front of her, trying to make her feel guilty. He doubted that he ever would. That was not his Ninja Way! "Then again… if I had been Orochimaru… I would probably have been dating Kabuto or Sasuke…." He made a face. The Legendary Sannin was like something out of a bad fan-fiction, the type that kept hooking guys up with guys, even though the original author wrote something very different. "Bleh… can't get much sicker than that…."

It might have been that disgusting thought. It might have been the fact that he felt somewhat grimy after sweating and crying the night away. It might have been some psychological need for cleansing his spirit. Or, it might simply have been force of habit. Whatever the reason, he walked over to the cabinet and looked for a clean towel. Fining none, he began looking through the hamper for the towel that was the least stiff, or smelled the best. Soon after that, he got the shower water going, waited until the temperature was right, and stepped in. Before lathering up, he turned on the small water-proof radio that hung from the spigot. If he had been thinking clearly, he would have changed the channel. It was still dialed into the sappy romantic station he had taken to listening to.

'You chased me
I caught you
so glad we found each other
We whispered forever
to share our lives together
to watch our dreams unfold…'

Naruto flinched. He turned the knob the wrong way, scalding himself with steaming water. That song. Why did a song like that have to come on now of all times? It was just another nail in the stinking coffin!

'…And I love everything about you
everything you are
You'd catch a falling star
if I asked you
And I couldn't live a single day without you
You hold me in your arms
and once again, I know
that I'm the only one for you…'

He slammed one fist against the wall, clenching his teeth. Tears came to his eyes, lost amongst the heavy spray from the shower head. He hit the wall again, causing one of the tiles to come loose. It broke free from the ancient yellowed adhesive, fell, and shattered at his feet. Great. Now he would be stepping on sharp ceramic. Perfect. So wonderfully perfect. Small knives in his heart and small knives at his feet. What more could he possibly ask for?

'…The way you laugh, the way we dance
the way you hold my hand
the way you give, the way you kiss
the way you look at me
you make life beautiful…'

"Beautiful…." This time he did laugh inappropriately, the pain squeezing his chest. He placed his forehead against the cool tile all and closed his eyes. He stood like that for a while, breathing in and out slowly, oblivious to everything around him. He didn't even realize what was happening when he stood over the drain hole, covering it up. Eventually, water overflowed from the bathing basin, spilling out onto the floor.

As he stood there feeling number than before, Naruto pictured Sakura as an island of beauty in a life full of ugliness. Despite the Fourth Hokage's wish that he be seen as the hero who contained the Nine Tailed bijuu, the villagers of Konoha had harbored a fierce hatred for him, because he contained the spirit of the demon who decimated their lovely and peaceful village. Naruto hadn't even been aware of the presence of the bloodthirsty entity inside him until he was twelve years old. As a result, he had been terribly confused during his childhood, wondering why the villagers of Konoha hated him so very much. He would carry those emotional scars forever, no matter how wonderful his life might become.

Naruto's life began to turn around when he made friends with named Umino Iruka. Even though Iruka's parents perished at the hands of the Kyuubi, he didn't blame Naruto for their deaths. Instead, Iruka accepted Naruto and empathized with the boy's desire to be accepted, since he too had grown up alone and mischievous, with a thirst for attention. The stalwart chuunin had been one of the first people to believe in Naruto, and he was the closest thing that Naruto had to family. Their friendship was the thing that first helped him overcome the sadness that made up his ill-fortuned life, but it did not diminish his craving for acknowledgment. Day in and day out, Naruto played pranks all around the village, needing to be recognized by its inhabitants. He painted graffiti on the stone Hokage faces. He learned how to transform into a naked female version of himself to annoy his exasperated instructors. His schemes and machinations were beyond counting.

Naruto's exuberant personality and fiery desire for self-improvement caused him to impact the lives of friends and enemies alike, in ways that other people would be unable to do. If he was able to look at the positives in his life, he might think about Konohamaru, Haku, Neji, and even the Hokage herself. Those four were hardly the sum total of his effect on the people around him. But, early on, it wasn't the people whom he affected that changed his life. It was the small group of people who had affected him. After he had helped defeat Mizuki and had received Iruka's forehead protector, there had been a small number of shinobi who gave him reason to hope. They were the people who helped him learn how to focus his attention beyond himself. One such person had been Hatake Kakashi, the jounin chosen to lead Team Seven, and the man who labeled Naruto as 'The Number One Loudest, Unpredictable, Hyperactive Knuckleheaded Ninja of Konoha.' Another had been Uchiha Sasuke, a boy whose unwanted praise and attention stuck in Naruto's craw, creating a rival that he wanted to prove himself to at any cost. The last had been Sakura. His first crush. Later, his first love.

It almost felt as if one of the great pillars holding up his world had been knocked down. A sob escaped between his lips, and he banged a fist near the shower head. It caused a ringing sound that had him thinking of bells. That dredged up the memory of the first test that Kakashi had given the nascent Team Seven , one which had been designed to test their teamwork, and had been passed down from Sarutobi to Jiraiya, Jiraiya to Yondaime, and Yondaime to the Copy Ninja. None of the three genin passed on their first try. Naruto had ended up tied to a post for cheating. Hungry, he had been touched when the other two ninja trainees offered their food, even though they were prohibited from doing so. Kakashi went on to give them another chance, and they passed the test by learning to think as a team.

"Some team." Naruto began coughing when hew drew water into his nose. Sasuke had later run off with the Sound Four. Sakura broke his heart. The memories from those earlier days would be tainted from that point onward.

He treasured friendship more than anyone else he knew. It shouldn't be surprising, that he suffered loss and longing greater than anyone else he was familiar with, too. People who are given too many things often have trouble valuing any single thing. Those who start off life with little often appreciate even the simplest things, if they are able to appreciate anything at all. Fortunately for Naruto, he had a very strong will, even when he seemed determined to wallow in misery and self-pity for the rest of his days. Barely knowing what he was doing, he turned off the water, slogged through the miniature lake on his bathroom floor, and opened the door to his living area, letting a wave of sudsy water spread across his messy floor. Not bothering to towel off or dry his hair, he slipped into an odd assortment of clothing before leaving his abode, the door still open.

That evening, it wouldn't be his willpower that came to his rescue. It wouldn't be his talent for clever diversions. It wouldn't be his exuberant sense of humor. It wouldn't even be his amazing amount of chakra. No. Like numerous times before, it would be dumb luck that would save him and sow the seed of his recovery. Indeed. The right place. The right time. More specifically, the right person and the right time. He hadn't been the only shinobi to suffer through feelings of loss.

His stomach rumbled, as he stepped out on the street, the world around him somehow feeling strange and irrelevant. While he wasn't consciously hungry yet… an anomaly, given the time of day… he felt a need to talk. Teuchi and Ayame were very good listeners. As he made his way towards the Ichiraku Ramen Bar, he found himself stopping ever so often, heart in his throat. At first, he thought he was having hallucinations. Soon enough, he realized that he was simply noticing girls and women with physical similarities to Sakura, assuming they had pink hair or a wide brow before he looked closer and saw the truth. It was a spooky feeling, and left him with a racing pulse each time.

Every time he came in sight of a couple, he quickly hurried to the other side of the street or ducked into a convenient alcove or alley. Each time he walked by a place he had spent a memorable moment with Sakura, he felt the singe of heartache. He never realized before, just how many places like that there were. That bakery over there. The small ornamental tree across the street. Benches. Stores. Restaurants. Those kind of places. And that didn't even scratch the surface. There were so many places that they had taken classes together… trained together… had wounds treated together. He also felt twinges of shame and embarrassment, every time he caught sight of one of his friends in the distance. He really wasn't ready to face any of them yet.

"Naruto-kun…." There was no mistaking that voice, even though Naruto hadn't spent much time recently with the kunoichi it belonged to.

Naruto immediately ducked, as if something was about to hit him. He fought the urge to simply walk away with a quick acknowledgement, because that wasn't the kind of person he wanted to be. He hated the way that his sorrow had him acting as it was. He had to draw the line somewhere. Just the same, he wished he could quickly crawl under a rock. Rubbing his chin, he felt the peach fuzz he neglected to shave away that morning. He had slipped into the fancy dress pants he wore to the dance the night before, but had mindlessly paired that with a T-shirt depicting his current anime fave. Looking down at his feet, he saw that each sandal was a different color, and that he was wearing two left shoes. Great. Splendid. Wonderful.

"Uh… Hi, Hinata…." Naruto shuffled his mismatched feet. "You… are you heading home from practice or something…." He had to force himself to meet her gaze. He almost felt like a child who had been caught doing something wrong or extremely foolish. He wriggled around a bit, since his shirt was wet and sticking to his back.

"Yes," Hinata replied. Her facial expression was unreadable, even though Naruto had an innate ability to judge a person's feelings unconsciously. "We… Kurenai and the others… we just finished up…." She rubbed her fingers together. A look of sorrow crossed her face and then was gone. She blinked more rapidly than usual. "Are you alright?" She knew what must be bothering him. Sakura had been looking for him earlier, and had stopped to ask everyone if the had seen him. Speaking with Kurenai, the mediacl-nin inadvertently let the truth slip. In some ways, there was reason for Hinata to have hope again. But, instead of feeling elated, she had finished training with a heavy heart.

Naruto shook his head. His first impulse was to simply keep silent. His second impulse was to shout 'Does it look like I'm alright?!' But, he had been looking for someone to talk to. Hinata qualified as 'someone,' didn't she? As quiet and unassuming as she normally was, he wouldn't feel the same way talking to her that he might if he chatted with Kiba, Choji, or Lee.

"Sakura told Kurenai what happened," Hinata admitted quietly. "She didn't mean to… it slipped out…." She looked Naruto up and down. It was easy to do now, seeing that he was being quiet and standing still. No. That wasn't the only reason. He was vulnerable now. He didn't seem so shining and bright. She wasn't worried about what she should talk about, or what he might think about her. He was a friend. A person she treasured. Someone in pain.

"I guess everyone will know sooner or later," Naruto said, shoulders slumping. This wasn't something he could run away from forever. But, there was nothing wrong with wanting to take things as slowly as possible. "Not that anyone will understand how I feel." He kicked at a loose stone on the street. "Maybe it will be a big joke or something…."

It was Hinata's turn to shake her head. "No. I do not think so, Naruto-kun." She felt somewhat short of breath herself. There were things that she never could bring herself to tell him before. Now, it seemed that the boundaries were down. That was scary. "Kiba was very upset. He said some things about Sakura that he probably doesn't mean. Even Shino had something to say." They were a very tight knit group of friends, when push came to shove. That was both a plus and a minus in a situation like this. Acting on impulse, Hinata spoke again in a quiet voice. "And I do know how you feel… in a way…." Her eyes immediately went wide. Part of her desperately hoped that Naruto didn't hear her, or was in no state to follow up. Another part hoped that he would.

"Huh?" Naruto screwed up his face, eyes squeezed shut, as he tugged at one ear lobe. Now that looked more like the usual Naruto! "How could you possibly know?" He felt a surge of righteous indignation, but closed his mouth before anything hurtful came out. "I never heard any rumor that you were dating someone."

"…" Hinata opened her mouth, but couldn't take the next step. There it was. The opportunity to spill her heart. A chance to let him know just how much he meant to her. But, she couldn't get the words out. How could she, at a time like this? She felt so mixed up. If only someone could tell her what to do and say! She looked away for a moment.

Naruto almost blurted out 'None of the guys ever talk about you; at least not in the way they talk about other girls.' But, even in his discombobulated state, he realized at the last instant how degrading a statement like that might be. If she was a recluse, she wouldn't care. But, if she was lonely, it might make her feel worse than usual. Instead, he took a deep breath and let it out. His eyes widened and he snapped his fingers. "I get it. You weren't talking about a boyfriend. You meant your mother." Hinata had lost her mother to an illness at a young age. "Or… you could be talking about the time your father sent you away from the house to become shinobi…."

"Those hurt, too" Hinata's voice came out in a croak. She could let things stay like that, without being dishonest. But, something inside her made her want to say more. "My mother's death hurt me terribly. It was almost worse, feeling that I failed my father, and being sent out of sight." She clasped both hands together. Again she tried to speak her heart without success. Luckily, Naruto's mind grabbed hold of one word, the way a terrier worries a rat down a hole.

"Too?" Naruto put one hand behind his neck. For some reason, talking with someone else who had suffered some kind of loss made him feel at ease. There were numerous people in Konoha who had lost someone due to Kyuubi, Orochimaru's attack, and other unavoidable parts of a shinobi's life. That wasn't the kind of loss he was thinking about, since he had lost people that meant something to him before. The Third Hokage. Gekko Hyate. Asuma. Others. "Someone else died? Or pushed you away?"

"No." Hinata tensed up. She felt a bead of sweat run down the side of her face. "He didn't die." She swallowed hard, looked up at his face, and then quickly glanced down at her feet. "He was never close enough to push me away."

"What?" Naruto scratched at the top of his head, making another face. He might be a genius for pranks, and could come up with unexpected solutions with the best of them, but he was no Shikamaru, Sasuke, or Neji. "I don't get it." He stretched and yawned, immediately apologizing afterwards. "If someone didn't get close to you, how could you lose him?" Miracle of miracles, while he tried to find an answer to that minor mystery, he forgot to wrap himself in his misery. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

"It's…." Hinata still couldn't pick up the ball and run with it. "Well… you see…." She felt the overwhelming urge to find the nearest lamp post and hide behind it. "He…."

"You keep saying 'He'…." Naruto rubbed his chin, feeling like a sleuth or an adventurer. "Who is he? And how did he get you to know how I feel?"

"It…." Hinata felt her heart begin to flutter like the wings of a butterfly. "You see…." She was feeling dizzy, the way she used to, whenever Naruto's face every got accidentally close to hers. She didn't know if that was because she was so close to telling him her secret… the one that every person in the village except him seemed to know… or because he kept leaning his face closer and closer to hers, wanting his answer. "Ummm-mm-m…." She took small steps backwards.

"Is this how you stood up to Neji in the arena?" Naruto raised one eyebrow and folded his arms over his chest. "Is this how you acted those years I was gone, while everyone else was getting stronger?" Being someone who always strove to move forward, he almost had a pathological need to see other people do the same. "Huh?" He began tapping one foot up and down on the cobblestones. Why was he suddenly taking his anger out on a sweet girl like Hinata. Nothing that happened was her fault.

"No… it's just…." Hinata clenched her fists. She had grown a lot since those days, and not only in height, hair length, and bust size. "This is really hard… because… ever since the Academy…." She felt like such a coward. Why couldn't she just tell him? He had already shattered her childish and innocent dream once, when he started going out with Sakura. But, that didn't mean her feelings had changed. It didn't mean that she had given up all hope. "I've always watched him. I… ummm… I always took strength from him…." That might give it away, if he thought back to the words of encouragement she had offered him prior to his match with Neji. "I had the b-big… b-b-biggest… biggest crush on him." She had a hard time hearing her next words when she added "But he never caught on."

"Really? You? A crush?" Naruto actually smiled in disbelief. For some reason, he never even associated Hinata with the possibility of boys before. He face froze. Sticking out his lower lip, he came down from his momentary high. "So… what you're saying…."

"…" Hinata took another tiny step backward. He had figured it out. He knew that it was him! She began trembling uncontrollably.

"You must have really fallen in love with him big time." Naruto sighed sadly. He knew what that was all about. "But he must have found someone else, right?" He looked up at the sky, sighing again. It would be really hard, when Sakura found someone else. "I can see how that might feel a little like getting dumped by someone who meant an awful lot top you." He no longer felt any great need to find out the identity of the mystery man. Instead, he focused on himself again. "Hinata… if you were hurt really bad… what did you do to get over it?"

"I…." Hinata was struck by the irony of it all. Here he was, the boy who had broken her heart, asking her advice about getting over heartache. "It's getting dark…." She pulled her coat around her when a strong gust of wind swirled around her legs and lower waist, just as the village street lights began going on. "Aren't you cold?"

"I guess so," Naruto said with an apathetic shrug. "But, I really don't feel it." He paused, thinking for a moment. "Oh. Wait. You're not getting tired of talking with me, are you?" He hated how he sounded so hang dog. "It's alright if you are… I just thought…."

"My father is at a clan meeting tonight," Hinata said. "I don't have to go home just yet. We can sit over there if you like." She motioned to a small bench under one of the light posts. "Or… we could find some place warmer… like the classrooms…."

"This is fine," Naruto said, resigned to discomfort of any sort. He looked over at Hinata. She was so different than Sakura. There was absolutely no reason to feel threatened by Hyuuga Hinata. "Thanks for staying. You always were a very kind girl." He felt a bit of indignation on her behalf. How could some guy hurt someone as sweet as Hinata? It was almost like kicking a puppy! "So… do you have any advice… are you going to tell me that everything will be alright?" At that moment, he wouldn't believe it if she said so. Not when he felt such a heavy weight crushing down on him. But, maybe something she might say would help him when he was ready to listen.

"No." Hinata shook her head. She sat primly, hands resting in her lap. She looked up at the sky. Snow had begun to fall. She had always loved snow, even though it rarely feel on the village and surrounding lands. It had her looking up at the dark expanse above her, feeling the chill kiss of the small flakes. Snow had always seemed so pure when she came across it in other nations. Was this some kind of sign? An omen of reborn chances? "I… I kind of have reason to hope again…." She glanced at a shivering Naruto out of the corner of her eye. "Do you want me to find you a blanket?" When Naruto shook his head, she continued. "I'm not very good at sharing my feelings. But, when Kurenai-sensei finally got me to open up, I began to feel better. Shino and Kiba helped me, too."

"Kiba?" Naruto sat up straighter. "I never would have taken him for a softy. Shino, either." He stuck out his tongue and caught a few flakes. "But… you know… I'm going to have some trouble around my teammates…."

"You have Iruka-sensei. Brother Neji normally wouldn't want to get involved in that kind of talk; but, I think he would listen for you." Hinata thought of something one of her teammates might say. She usually wasn't one to make humorous remarks like that. But, why not? "How about Gai? I… ummm… I bet he would hug you, pound you on the back, and cry the way he does for Lee."

"What? Gai? Are you crazy?!" Naruto stood up for a moment, and then looked very sheepish. "You were joking…." He pointed at Hinata, as if to accuse her of a crime, or to say that she might be some kind of enemy spy the way that Yakushi Kabuto had been. "You told a joke. Hyuuga Hinata told a joke." Putting one leg up on the bench, he cupped a hand around his mouth and shouted "Hey! Everyone! Hinata just told a joke!" Briefly, the mischievous troublemaker inside him had made an encore performance.

"Any way…." Hinata felt her face grow warm. She was feeling somewhat exposed, and not a little bit embarrassed. "I finally began to feel better about the time I grew bored of talking about my troubles." The snow stopped as suddenly as it had started. In its place a very fine mist fell. "It was important to have people who cared. They made certain that I looked after myself, even though I didn't want to eat, and stopped caring about my appearance. It was Kurenai who helped me the most, maybe because she is still dealing with Asuma's death." She sighed. It had been painful watching her friend and team leader go through all that. It had made her even more vulnerable to her own feelings of loss when Naruto started going out with Sakura. "She convinced me to take long, hot, scented baths, and to play music that helped me let all of my feelings out. She also…." Hinata put a hand to her midsection without realizing what she had done. She had gained a few pounds, and was working hard to get rid of them. "She told me to tempt myself with my favorite foods."

"Food." Naruto's belly grumbled again. "Hey. I was heading over to get some ramen." Well, he was heading over to talk with two people who cared about him. But now, he actually felt true stirrings of hunger. "If you don't mind, maybe we could talk more there."

"Ummm…." Hinata didn't need to think for long. "Sure." She nodded her head. As they walked, she began talking again, amzed at how easy it was for her to do that now. "One of the women in the Branch Family works to clean our house. She gave me some advice too, after my sister Hanabi told her everything." Hinata made a face that had Naruto's eyes going wide. He never thought he'd see that kind of look of anger on her. "She told me to write down the things that I didn't like about… ummm… him…." She coughed. The irony was growing rather thick again. "A little each day, anything that I might think of. She told me that it would show me that he wasn't perfect, and that I didn't lose as much as I might think I did." She had done that. Even when she had read a list of Naruto's faults, it couldn't wipe away the things that he had meant to her. He had been her inspiration. That kind of thing is hard to brush off.

"Well…." Naruto was thinking along similar lines. Sakura, as his teammate, had been one of the first people to see value in him. And, she had never missed a beat when she learned about Kyuubi. "She does have her faults…." He still had bruises from the last time she had gotten angry. And, even though Shizune couldn't find anything, he swore he must be going deaf in one ear from her occasional shouting. But, while he was no philosophy, he realized that love could cover up a lot of shortcomings. "Still…." He let out a long sigh, closed his eyes, and clenched his fists.

"Yes," Hinata said, commiserating. She stopped walking, waiting for Naruto to resume his stroll. "The woman told me that most people think that they will never be loved again, and will never find someone else they can love. But, that's usually not true. She said that we… ummm… I mean…." She began walking again. "People with broken hearts need to appreciate who they are, and look at all of the good things they have in their lives. They need to think about all of their own good qualities, since people who get spurned often put all of the blame on their own shoulders, saying 'If only I had been more this' and 'If only I had been less that.' And you shouldn't do that…." Her last words came out in a rush. The next statement came out even quicker. "Because you're such a wonderful person."

"Sure. Sooo-oo-o wonderful." Naruto grimaced. "So wonderful that she didn't want me any more…."

"If someone has had a relationship with someone, they shouldn't ever try to put things back together, if that person leaves." Hinata felt a bit guilty saying that, even though she meant it, and was not being self-serving. She also realized that it didn't refer to her, since she had never had a two-sided relationship with Naruto. "If that other person finds out that things aren't greener on the other side of the fence, ands wants to come back, the same problems might rise up again, and you… I mean the person who was rejected… will suffer through the heartache all over again."

"But… Sakura might realize that she…." Naruto bit his lip. He knew exactly what Hinata was saying. Unfortunately, if Sakura ran tearfully into his arms tonight, he would want to start up right where they had left off. Just because the head sees logic in something doesn't mean that the heart will too. "Sorry. I interrupted you." Deep in his heart, he hoped that Sakura would see the error of her ways and understand that he was perfect for her. But, he had also hoped that the townspeople would learn to embrace him, after he had saved them from Shukaku, or when he had brought Granny Tsunade back. That still hadn't happened.

The dinner crowd was hovering around the Ichiraku when the two of them arrived. Chill night or not, most of the regulars were there. As usual, they turned to Naruto for their usual greeting, but stopped. They all stared at him, taking in his appearance, wondering what was going on. Few there had ever seen him without the original orange jumpsuit, or the later black and orange outfit. One man, a veteran of broken relationships, mouthed the word 'dumped' to one of his cronies. Fortunately, Naruto was too oblivious to notice.

Teuchi, the owner of the shop, was one of the best ramen cooks in the Village Hidden in the Leaves, if not the entire Fire Country. He was a wizard when it came to soup, noodles, and toppings. Much to his daughter's dismay, he wasn't very observant when it came to people. The first thing that Teuchi should have noticed was that Naruto hadn't shouted out 'Hey old man,' wasn't bouncing up and down on his feet, and didn't have his frog purse out and open. Instead, he zeroed in on the one thing he shouldn't have.

"Naruto! We didn't see you today. I thought you must be away on a mission." Teuchi continued with his work. "Who's the young lady? Your girlfriend? I though you were dating that fiery pink-haired girl." He smiled at Hinata. "This one's prettier. Quieter, too." Observant or not, he was immediately taken aback by the look on Naruto's face.

"Faaa-aa-a-ther…." Ayame pushed her father away from the counter area and back to a big stove. She then adjusted her hair covering, smiled while she took one more order, and came out to the customer area. Taking Naruto by the wrist, she pulled him back into a small food storage area, motioning for Hinata to follow. Her reason was simple: Sakura had stopped by the Ramen Bar, asking if Ayame had seen Naruto. She knew everything that had happened. "Just wait here a second." She disappeared in a swirl of skirts, but soon returned holding a large bowl of steaming ramen, topped by a crooked mountain of sliced pork. "Here… for you… no charge…." She looked behind her. "Just don't tell my father…."

Normally, Naruto would have grinned, shouted his thanks, and attacked the steaming soup and noodles. Instead, he simply hung his head, staring at the overfilled bowl. He didn't notice Ayame and Hinata exchanging glances.

"I'm sorry," Ayame said abruptly, not knowing what else to say to break the ice. "I heard what happened. I know what it's like to be dumped." She looked over at Hinata, trying to judge her body language. One of her eyebrows shot up when she put two and two together. Hyuuga Hinata was the girl that had the major crush on Naruto, without his knowing it. She knew all about crushes, too. She still dreamed about Kakashi, after having seen under his mask one day at the restaurant. "She was someone pretty special to you…."

"Yeh." Naruto sighed. He would have to get used to this kind of thing. He would be hearing it a lot. "She was…." His voice cracked.

"I've been… ummm…." Hinata looked over at Ayame, wondering if she would be intruding by asking the question for Naruto's sake. "I've been trying to help him. Would you… I mean… do you have any…."

"Advice?" She met Hinata's eyes. She knew that the other girl was asking about advice about how to survive being dumped. But, she wondered if she also wanted advice on how to deal with an unrequited crush, or how to win the heart of the boy she had her crush on. "If he wants." She looked down at Naruto, who was seated on a burlap back filled with wheat flour. He was not simply one of the shop's best customers. He was someone that her father and her had come to think of as family. "When he's ready."

"It's OK," Naruto said, making a feeble attempt at one of his trademark arm gestures. "Right now, I just need to hear someone talk." A bit of his spunk returned for a moment. "Maybe Hinata should go out and help your father. I bet she'd look cute in one of those hair cloth thingies…." He picked up a loose rag and draped it over Hinata's head. That had the white-eyed girl blushing again.

"I could…." Hinata looked through the door, watching Teuchi at work.

"No," Ayame replied, shaking her head. "He'll just have to wait. They all will." She looked back at Naruto. "This is more important." She smiled, seeing the look on Hinata's face. She didn't need to tell that girl how important this was. "I'm sure the customers would support me. You know the saying: 'There are no bad people among ramen lovers'. "Right?"

"Thank you." Naruto finally remembered his manners. He did feel better, being around Ayame and Hinata. He always made it a point to protect his precious people. It was good to see that it wasn't a one way street. "That's right!" He salivated, smelling the cooked pork.

"Fine then." Ayame looked down at the uneaten ramen and nudged Naruto in the leg. Before she knew it, he was slurping noodles at a prodigious rate. She had to hide a smile after giving Hinata a wink. "You eat. I'll talk. The first month will be the worst. You can sit around moping in your pajamas… make a mountain out of wet tissues… or spend your time eating ice cream…." That had been her usual modus operandi at first, until she gained weight on top of everything else. "Or…." She held up one finger, a gesture that had Naruto thinking of the Fifth Hokage.

"Or what…." Cheek full of noodles, Naruto's voice was distorted. Stuffing himself with food, and sitting there with two of his friends, he was beginning to feel a small spark of good cheer. "Sluuuu-uuu-uu-urp! What should I do?" He clenched his fists, almost seeming eager. He put another huge amount of noodles up to his mouth.

"I'm busy, father!" Ayame's voice rang out after she heard her name being called. "The first forty-eight hours are the toughest. You should give yourself at least one full weekend to cry your eyes out, eat junk food, and lie around on your couch in a broken-heart coma watching sappy movies or a ninja B-movie marathon." She frowned, when the look in Naruto's eyes said that he did those last two all the time, regardless.

"What?" Naruto made a face. "Sluuuuu-uuuu-uuu-uu-rp!"

"You should watch some comedies, too. Or, find something else that tickles your fancy. Laughter is good for you." She leaned back to avoid a spray of soup coming off the noodles that Naruto was slinging around. "If you want to do it all alone, then be alone. If you want friends around, then invite some people. But… remember one thing….." Her face grew very stern. She looked the slurping boy right in the eyes. "Do… not… ask… your… ex!" With each word she kept reaching out, pushing back pieces of pork that threatened to tumble out of Naruto's bowl. "Not to watch movies with you. Not to at with you. Not to take a walk with you. Not to come back to you. Not in person. Not over the phone. Not by e-mail. Not in a letter." She had her hands on her hips now. She looked as if she expected a response.

"Sluuuuu-uuuu-uuu-uu-urp! Alright. Whatever. I hear you." He saw Ayame furrow her brow, as if she didn't believe him. "I promise!" That ought to do it. She and her father knew all about his Ninja Way. He sighed and grumbled. "We will have to practice together, though."

"That's different," Ayame said, realizing then just how hard things would be for the poorly-dressed young man. "Any way. I'm not saying you have to shut her out of your life entirely. You just need a chance to build your ego back up." It never ceased to amaze her, how hard a break-up could hit someone. Going out with someone can give a person a lot of confidence, or make him or her feel proudGetting dumped can have the opposite effect. "But… whenever you are around her… no matter how hard it might be… you have think of the relationship as over." Seeing him nod her head, she looked over at Hinata, who twitched at the attention. Smiling, she whispered 'Crushes are different,' and then refused to tell Naruto what she had said, no matter how hard he pleaded. She frowned when her father called again.

"She's still busy, old man!" Naruto put the large bowl up to his lips, tipped it, and began drinking soup. "Slurp. Sluuu-uu-urp! Sluuuuu-uuuu-uuu-uu-urp!!!" He caught sight of the look on Hinata's face. "What?" He wondered why she was smiling now. Ayame, too. He had no idea that a piece of pork was hanging from his nose. "W-h-a-t!" Yes. Definitely. Some of his spirit was returning. "Oh." He looked somewhat sheepish when the meat fell back into his bowl.

"After those first fourty-eight hours, it is important to get off the couch and take a shower." Ayame eyed Naruto's disheveled appearance. She didn't look convinced when he said 'I did.' He could be wet from the light drizzle outside. "It's not only for reasons of hygiene." On a whim, she reached out and touched the hair on his chin, as if she were teasing a younger brother. "It's simply a way to start taking action. If you didn't do it already, take down all of the photos of your ex. If you feel a need to make a bonfire, go right ahead. If there are things you want to keep, put them somewhere that won't be easy to stumble across on a daily basis. If you find yourself idealizing your ex, then make a list of things about her that bothered you. The more humorous, the better."

"Hey. Slurp." Naruto wiped his chin with his arm. "Hinata said something like that. Sluuu-uu-rp!" He looked at his friend as if she might know something after all. "Sluuuuu-uuuu-uuu-uu-rp!"

"Good for Hinata," Ayame said, bowing her head slightly to the younger woman. "Back to you. No matter how sad you feel, you have to start returning to your normal life. The life before Sakura. The life before you felt your heart torn in two." Her eyes had a faraway look for a moment, as she remembered the biggest break-up in her young life. "Wear clothing that makes you feel handsome or confident." She pause, remembering just what Naruto usually wore. "Never mind that part. Make plans to go out with friends. Go out dancing, if you can. Or, practice your ninja things together. The physical activity will be a great release." She grinned, feeling an impish urge. "You might even try a massage. That does wonders for me. Hinata, do you know how to give a nice massage?"

"…" Hinata stepped backwards, tripped over a barrel or kansui, and landed hard on her rump. Her face looked like it was on fire.

"Just kidding," Ayame said with a laugh, giving Naruto a wink this time. "OK. On to the second week. I do know someone who teaches massage, if you want to learn." That was directed at Hinata again. This time, the white-eyed girl shook her head vehemently, staying steady on her feet. "I'm glad you're a good sport." She made a subtle motion towards Naruto with her head. He was smiling at the joke. Being someone who enjoyed teasing people, he also liked to witness a good-natured razzing.

"Ummm… Ayame is still busy…." Hinata called out to Teuchi this time, feeling a bit forward doing so.

"I want you to remember something," Ayame said, wagging her finger. "You're a unique, wonderful, person. I'm pretty sure that someone, some day will fall madly in love with you." She saw Hinata start wobbling. "If you're lucky, you'll fall in love with her too. Keep doing the things I mentioned before. Make plans with friends. Be sure you keep those plans, no matter what. Spend a lot of time exercising by yourself, like that boy with the bushy eyebrows. Jog. Lift weights. Climb the cliff if you like." She made a face. "No paint cans!"

"I don't do that any more." Naruto stuck out his lower lip, looking somewhat insulted. What did she think? He was some kind of kid?

"I hope not." Ayame adjusted her hair covering again, frowning when her father 's calling grew more urgent.. No one answered this time. "Make sure you pamper yourself. You always try so very hard. Don't think that my father and I really appreciate how you go out and defend our village and our friends. You deserve pampering. You like manga, right? Anime videos? Buy as many as you can and have some fun." She winked at Hinata. "If you were a girl, it would be shoes. Lots of shoes." She frowned, remembering something. "Whatever you do, don't hang around that dirty old hermit! I can imagine what kind of advice he might give…."

"Something with a telescope… a waterfall… and girls in bikinis…." Naruto sighed again. Jiraiya was one of the most predictable people on earth. That is, he was, when he wasn't suddenly flicking people into an endless ravine, hoping they will learn to use the demon fox's chakra! "Hey! Hinata! Do you have a bikini?" That ought to have her falling over something again.

"N-… N-… No…." Hinata sank her fingernails into one of the burlap bags, helping herself keep her feet. She knew it was a good thing, Naruto wanting to tease someone. But, that did not mean she liked those kind of jokes. Beggars shouldn't be choosers, though. Any attention was good, right?

"Owww-ww-w…." Naruto rubbed a sore spot on his head where Ayame had hit him sharply with a ladle she reached for. "Hinata knows I'm just joking." He made a face, much like the one he used whenever the Hokage was taking him to task. "You said laughter was good for me."

"Make sure it's good for her, too." Ayame wasn't playing around. "Any way, after two weeks, you'll be half way through the Black Period. By that time, you should have eased back into the routine you had before you started dating the Haruno girl. Use your time to make changes you might like. Clean your room. Buy new clothes. Look at your life and think about the plans you've made. Make sure it's what you want. If not, make new plans. Reach whatever goals you can over the next couple of weeks. Before you know it, you'll be feeling fine again." She looked over at Hinata again. "There's something else I found. It works every time, if you don't rush things, or reach for something on the rebound."

"Huh?" Naruto passed the empty bowl to Ayame when she held out her hands. "What do you mean?"

"Nothing cures a broken heart after being dumped…." Ayame actually looked dreamy eyed for a moment. Hinata could relate. Naruto simply stuck out his lip again and rolled his own eyes. "…Better than the next great relationship….." She knew those words wouldn't magically lift him out of his funk. But, she also knew that he would find out they were true, sooner or later. "It might not happen right away. It might not happen when or where you expect it. Eventually, you'll be at a point where you're ready to look for romance one again." Her eyes narrowed and she sounded stern again. Naruto was tempted to call her 'sensei'. "Before you look to fill that spot in your heart, take time to think things through carefully." She held up one finger. "Has there been enough time?" She put up a second finger. "Will a new relationship just cause you more pain?" She put up a third. "Will the way you get along with your ex ruin any other opportunities that arise?" She put two fingers at the tip of his nose and tweaked it. "When all of the lights are green, that's when it's time to look at who you might want to be with. You'll need to know exactly what you are looking for in a romantic partner. Simply grabbing the first girl who comes along probably won't do you a lot of good…." She wanted him to remember it wasn't just about him. "…Or her a lot of good…." She flicked his nose again, causing her to bat at her hand.

"What first girl?" Naruto sounded grumpy now. "It's not like there's a line girls waiting outside of my room or something."

"Give it time," Ayame said, heading back out to where her father was banding a large metal spoon against the sides of his cooking pot. "For all you know, the perfect girl might be right under your nose." She disappeared from view.

Hinata swallowed hard. She knew that Ayame had meant that as much for her as she had for Naruto, but in a different way. Looking over at Naruto, she watched him run a hand through his wet hair. With the hair sticking up like that, he almost looked like a rooster! She stiffled the urge to giggle. Ayame had offered him good advice. She didn't feel so worried now. In time, Naruto would be alright.

"Hinata…." Naruto tilted his head, a puzzled look on her face. Why had the girl jumped like that when he said her name?

"Y-… Y… Yes, Naruto-kun…." Hinata put her hand over her chest. Her heart was pounding again. She knew better than to think he was going to suddenly transfer his affection to her. But, she couldn't help but wonder if he might have taken some kind of hint from Ayame's words.

"You never did answer me." Naruto stood up, put both hands behind his neck, and headed back into the dining area.

"I…." Hinata was the one looking perplexed now. "Answer?" She followed him back out onto the street. Looking at the ground, she saw that the rain must have picked up while they were chatting. There were large shallow puddle at the sides of the avenue.

"Yeh. You know. Him." Naruto rubbed his nose. "The guy you have a crush on." He didn't know why he was so curious.

"Ummm… he's…." Hinata tensed up. Here it was, her big chance. Again. She looked down at one of the puddles. Naruto's image was reflected there. "He's someone … ummm… who's…. "What clue should she give? "A genin. But, he should have made chuunin long ago." She saw the sour look on Naruto's face. He hated it when events reminded him of his rank, not that rank really mattered to him and the missions he was assigned to. "He's… he's taller than before. Stronger, too. And faster." She meant 'before he left the village.' Would he pick up on that?

"That could be a lot of people," Naruto said. "Why don't you just tell me his name. It's not someone you're ashamed to like, is it?" His eyes widened. "Shino?" Shino was a good friend, but it creeped him out when he thought about things in too much detail.

"No." Hinata shook her head vehemently. "The boy I… you know… have a crush on…." It was hard even saying that. "He's cunning. I think that's a good word for him. He's no genius, but he always seems to come up with clever plans." She put a finger to her lips in a cute way. "Or, maybe he's just incredibly lucky."

"There's nothing wrong with that," Naruto said smugly, putting himself in that category, but failing to make the connection.

"No. There's not." It was easier for Hinata to look at the reflection than it was for her to look at the real Naruto. She went on to mention a number of other characteristics, describing the way she saw Naruto.

"Come on, Hinata. Just tell me his name." Naruto was not the most patient of people in the world, despite the amount of improvement he made while staying with the Pervy Sage. "I'm not really a big fan of detective manga and stuff like that." And, the cold was finally beginning to get to him. He wasn't feeling numb any more.

Hinata still couldn't do it. But, she could do the next best thing. Never one for puns, she must have taken her inspiration directly from Naruto himself. "Reflect on that puddle…." She pointed to the one at his feet. "And you'll find your answer."

"Huh? What?" Naruto screwed up his face. He looked at Hinata as if she had suddenly grown a horn or a third eye. She wanted him to stare at a puddle of water? "You sound like a fortune cookie or something!" His frown deepened.

"The answer's there, if you want it." Hinata felt very much on edge, She really needed to get going. "Remember. Reflection. Think about it." With that, she said her farewells and left, leaving a disgruntled Naruto glaring angrily at the puddle.

"Ohhh-hh-h…." Finally, it came to him, just before he threw his hands in the air and gave up. He looked off in the direction that Hinata had gone. A lot of things began making sense about the way she acted around him.

He didn't know what to think. He didn't know what he should do about it, if anything. But, for one reason or another, he felt better. Sneezing, he headed back inside, dreading what he was going to see.

There was a lot to clean up.

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Postscript: I came across the lyrics of the song Everything About You by surfing Google. They seemed perfect for that scene in the shower, and were written by someone named Darlene Zschech, who turns out to be an Australian Pentecostal worship leader and singer-songwriter. According to Wikipedia, her best known song is Shout to the Lord, sung by an estimated thirty million churchgoers worldwide, every week.