Title: The Life Pursuit
Pairings: Naruto/Ino, Ino/OMC, slight Kiba/Sakura
Summary: ("Want me to buy you another hooker?") In which adulthood is unsimple.
Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Kishimoto Masashi.
The Life Pursuit
According to some, the only story that matters in a perfect and reasonable world is the one where boy meets girl and they live happily after. In life, this is hardly the case, but that doesn't make it any less important, lest whole planets should stop revolving in protest.
Fact: Before that essential moment of the universe's complete realignment, Yamanaka Ino was just a girl who worked at the village's flower shop and was friends with Shikamaru and Chouji and was someone Sakura-chan made evil eyes at and occasionally looked thoughtful about.
Fact: It is a week since she rang him up to call it off, and he still can't stop thinking about her.
This is how we have our story.
"You're like a dog with a bone," says Kiba derisively, a remark which bestows Naruto with a prime opportunity to reflect that his friend, for all his personal charms, should really make more of an effort to fight the stereotypes.
From the shade of a nearby tree, Akamaru yelps loudly, as if in concurrence. Mindless drone.
Naruto drops heavily from atop the training pole and scowls darkly, trying to look as affronted and menacing as possible, which he kind of knows how to do given his long acquaintance with various and sundry emotionally tactile shinobi. "Honestly, man? I don't need this crap from you too."
Kiba snorts uncharitably. "Can I help it if you're pathetic?"
Being an adult, Naruto has learned through years of traumatic firsthand experience, is all about reality, responsibility, accountability, and all other sorts of etc.-ity. Adulthood is tied up in so many complexities that it's amazing people like Kiba still exist – people who always mean exactly what they say and always say it in the straightest, most no-nonsense manner they know.
He likes to think at times that this is the reason they're friends, but is forced to reflect that this is probably a case of gross exaggeration.
"That is likely true," he admits with chagrin. "Nevertheless – and call me completely insane here – I was expecting the barest minimum of support from certain people who call themselves my friends."
Where any normal person would fall all over himself apologizing and fervently offer to heal a dear friend's breakup-related pains, Kiba just nods sympathetically and says, "Want me to buy you another hooker?"
This is the reason they're friends.
"Yeah, because the one you got for my eighteenth birthday was a real scream." Literally. Adulthood is apparently also all about embarrassing sexual encounters. "Didn't I tell you never to do me any favor ever again?"
Kiba waves his hand vaguely. "How was I supposed to know she was a tranny? And for someone who won't stop bitching about it, you sure seemed to have had a good time. Yume told me you gave her the biggest tip she'd ever got. You're her favorite John! That special discount she mentioned still stands by the way, if you're interested."
"You must be real popular with the transsexual community," Naruto mutters sarcastically.
Kiba makes a face that doesn't contradict his point. "Anyway, we're getting off-topic here. Without accidentally implying that I care, because that would just be a tragic misunderstanding, what do you reckon you're going to do?"
There's a sudden shift in the atmosphere, and the air gains the density of lead. Naruto punches the ground harshly, and stares at his fist-mark in the soft dirt. "I don't know. Really I -- this isn't even like one of those other times, you know? You can't just go and say me or her will come around and pretend like that settles everything anymore."
Kiba doesn't say anything, for which Naruto's mostly glad. He gazes at the ground for a few moments longer before looking up and smiling wryly, "But a guy's still gotta try, right?"
"Wouldn't be you if you didn't, man," says Kiba, suddenly thoughtful, and turns away to call Akamaru to heel. Naruto thinks on this and nods grimly to himself. Wouldn't be me if I didn't.
Being an adult is all about complexities, but in many ways, he is still a child, six-year-old and racing across the playground toward the girl with the shiniest blonde hair.
How he came to take interest in Ino is this: there was this mission in Earth Country.
Point of fact: Naruto had long been on the Godaime's Super Short List (which was very short, indeed) for relentlessly vocalizing his belief that she was running the village into the ground, so he wasn't (too) surprised that punishment of some sort was in order. Tsunade had always had a vindictive personality – it was one of her best traits.
He was surprised to learn that punishment came in the form of replacing a laid-up Chouji for an out-of-country mission with Shikamaru and Ino. Granted, Shikamaru could be an asshole at times, and Ino's voice alone was unparalleled cruelty, but in the grand scheme of things, Naruto could seriously have envisioned worse. He had managed to stage brilliant escapes from megalomaniacal S-Class supervillians who wanted to kill him on multiple occasions. What was this, in comparison?
In fact, there was no comparison. Because Hatasa of Earth Country equaled Incomparable Hell.
The village of Hatasa, according to the guidebook, was the picture of coastal wholesomeness, the dainty beauty mark on the tip of the Iwa peninsula, a true-blue fishing village that combined the simplicity of small town economics with the splendor of breathtaking nature. Within the first five minutes of arrival, Naruto quietly deduced that whoever had penned those pretty lies ought to be dragged out into the streets and shot, or failing that, burnt alive with the village itself, which would be doing the world the kindest sort of favors.
There were shabby, crooked shacks of rain-stained rickety pinewood, there were sad little fishing boats of similar conditions, and the weather was all manners of helpful, alternating between apocalyptic downpours and black freezing spells. All the inhabitants were fishermen – or were trying to be – and their backs were bent by the age of seventeen. The young and the old could not be distinguished: everyone walked around with grim expressions of resignation with a healthy side of hostility that gave a new, sinister meaning to the term 'small town hospitality'.
It was so depressing truckloads of antidepressants would prove insufficient. To add insult to injury, Shikamaru had at some point developed the sudden awareness that he enjoyed withholding information for the sake of power trips, so Naruto had spent going on a week in the fiery pit of misery without even knowing what he was there for. Possibly, there was no mission at all. Possibly, this was all part of Tsunade's devious plot to drive him out of his mind.
It was working. By the end of the week, he was seriously debating the merits of searching for a suicide point. Surely, they had those in Hatasa.
One day, Shikamaru went out by himself under the clearly apocryphal premise of 'gathering information', and Naruto found himself at the mercy of Ino, who had somehow graduated to an all time high level of bitchiness, and their host for the day, a foul-tempered, taciturn fisherman in his fifties. By noon, he was finding himself getting worryingly in touch with his more violent side, and briefly considered quitting his career as a shinobi and joining a delinquent street gang. Those, too, must exist in Hatasa.
That was, until he met his host's daughter.
She was fourteen, and so adorable confused puppies would have competition. She had pale cheeks and curly dark hair and an unearthly air of the ethereal that mortals left in long exposure should fear for their sinful nature. When Naruto found her sitting on the steps of the front porch, she was in the process of writing a Heaven-bound letter to her deceased mother, and even though the day was grey and gloomy, he could swear the space around her was glowing, like a silver pool of light.
The girl gave him a blinding smile and spent half an hour explaining to he and Ino about how life had been hard on her father since her mother had passed away, and how she'd tried her best to alleviate that but could probably try a little more, and how she had no time for school but still practiced her letters in hopes of becoming a grade school teacher someday, during which Naruto mostly found himself rapidly falling into a sort of terrifying, protective love.
It was then that the unmistakable sound of a baby wailing rent the air, and the pale face of their lovely friend got even paler, and she leaped to her feet and disappeared into the house.
Naruto and Ino shared a look of incomprehension, interrupted by a rough cough and the arrival of the host himself, who apparently had been watching the entire conversation from behind a tree.
A year ago, it transpired, a group of engineers had visited the village and announced their intention to build a bridge across the great river that separated Hatasa from the closest neighboring town, a project which, if realized, would have put the village on the map and ended the days of isolated poverty. This prospect had been so overpowering that the villagers had found themselves unquestioningly opening their arms – and pockets – to the strangers, one of whom had been a handsome and respectable young man who had quickly befriended the host's then-thirteen-year-old daughter, and assisted her daily with her kanji.
But, as it'd turned out, the group of engineers hadn't really been engineers, and had disappeared one fine morning with the poor town's collected bridge fund. And the respectable young man hadn't been so respectable after all, because in addition to making off with the town's money and trust, he had also left behind a little reminder of himself. The word 'bridge' had thus become something of an insult in the village, and especially in this household.
It was the Wave Country all over again, minus the happy ending.
"Guess that taught us a real lesson about being naïve," the fisherman said sourly. "But if they think we're gonna let that slide, they have another think coming. As soon as the fishing season's over, me and a couple of other men are going to track down those bastards, and when we do…"
He smiled wryly – the first time Naruto had seen him do it – and showed them a large butcher knife, the blade water-slick from repeated sessions with a sharpening stone.
There was a long silence. Then two things happened, in very quick succession: Naruto opened his mouth to speak, and Ino stretched her hand across the kitchen table and wrapped it determinedly around the old man's shaking fist, the paleness of her skin striking a stark contrast against the weathered, salt-burnt tan of his larger hand.
Her other hand remained under the table, clamped tightly around Naruto's fist in a vice-like grip, the long lacquered nails digging into his flesh in a painful warning.
"What was that all about?" he asked later, when he was finally left alone with Ino and the night had fallen dark and quiet all around the house. He remembers rain was drumming a soft staccato on the shingle roof, and the air smelled like rotten earth and decomposition, tempered with sea-breeze.
She paused in the middle of doing up her hair and shrugged. "You were going to say some stuff. I stopped you."
"I realized that," he snapped, scowling. "Why did you? It wasn't like I was going to stop him. I was just…"
"Offering to help," she cut in swiftly. "Is that what you were going to say?"
"I..." he began, but suddenly his reasoning sounded very stupid, and he swallowed what he had meant to say. Instead, he said, "What's so wrong with that?"
Ino stared at him blankly, eyes grey and mercurial. Then she dropped her hands – her unbound hair tumbling around her face and shoulders like a sheet of pale blonde silk – and laced them together in front of her chest. "It's not your place," she said solemnly.
"It's not your place," she repeated, sounding a little angry. The color was high on her cheeks, furious red blots spreading like spilt wine across the pale skin – if he hadn't been so irritated himself he would have noted that she looked fucking gorgeous. "That's not your daughter. You don't understand what he's feeling. It's not your place to interfere."
"I wasn't trying to interfere," he said stubbornly. "I wanted to help."
"It's the same thing," Ino said, shaking her head. "You don't have the right to help. It was his daughter whose life was ruined. He should have the right to protect her, and failing that, he should have the right to rip out the balls of the heartless bastard who did it to her. What rights have you to say you can help?"
Before he could say anything, she had spun on her heels and made for the exit, and with the sound of a closing door, was gone.
Later, when he asked Shikamaru what Ino's problem was, the genius just looked at him pityingly and said, "Leave it alone, Naruto."
And really, anyone who knew anything about him at all should have realized saying something like that was a plain request for eternal harassment, but for some reason, he just sort of stared at the way Shikamaru's shaking, yellowed fingers played around the cigarette he was smoking – ten, twenty, thirty times a day, even then – and then looked away quickly.
He left it alone.
By the following morning, however, he had made a decision.
The day was chilly, and there was a ruffling breeze and the sky was crisp and a rare blue. They were (thankfully) walking down the road out of Hatasa – Ino leading, he and Shikamaru side by side behind her – and as he watched the brilliant winter sunlight come down and bounce off the long rope of Ino's swinging ponytail, the refracted rays like moving lights off still water, he knew he had made a decision. And when he turned to look at Shikamaru for encouragement, his friend took one glance at his smiling face, all gleaming with resolution, and made an odd expression that combined a conjunction of feelings including but not limited to sheer horror and faintly-awed fascination.
He also looked as if he desperately wanted to say something, but quickly curbed the impulse and muttered a few words that sounded suspiciously like "It's your funeral." before diverting his gaze skyward and immersing in some enthralling cloud formations.
Which left Naruto with just his resolution and his sweaty palms and his vaguely troubling sense of self-doubt, because a childhood deprived of familial affection and social acceptance really wasn't conducive to the building of self-esteem and had to have left a mark no matter how hardy the subject, as he bridged the four-step distance separating him and a nebulous future and said, almost shakily, "Hey, Ino…"
In the early days of their – whatever the hell it was – Naruto wasn't sure why he liked Ino, or whether he did at all. But there were certain things about her that he did like, mile-wide protective streak inclusive, and after extensive observation, these are the things that he knows of:
(1) Ino will always fight and compete with Sakura, as though if she ever had her way the other girl would be no more than a pink stain on the carpet. She will wear her hair long because Sakura has hers short, and will never be above engaging in frivolous contests with her rival, though she's had to admit that Gymnastic Ramen Eating was truly a stupid idea. At the end of the day, however, she will never fail to brew therapeutic herbal tea and smile fondly while Sakura spazzes over some needlessly esoteric medical journal, and will pretend not to see when the other girl steals her french-fries.
(2) Despite being thoroughly cultured in every other domestic sense (the girl arranges flowers on a daily basis), the only culinary cuisine Ino knows how to make is Inari-zushi, and she seldom – if ever – makes it well.
(3) Most of all, he likes waiting for her to come home, standing on the corner of her apartment building bumming a cigarette under an October-blue night, the moon big and pregnant with silver light, the ember-end of his smoke mimicking fireflies as mid-autumn settles around him like silk. He likes seeing her wavering figure in the distance, likes the way she looks in the shop's pink apron (her mother's), thin arms loaded with bags of groceries and a bouquet of some flowers (but never roses; she hates them, and picks at the petals until they all fall out), smiling in that unique way of hers (a sly sliver of teeth, glossed lips pulled back and bow-shaped) that he likes quite a lot.
What he mostly can't ignore is the way that Ino, like all the other people (all five of them) who have managed to break down his prickly barriers, is too there, too effusive, spreading into every corner of his life like a sparkly but particularly persistent fungus – "I'm taking down all these ratty posters and replacing them with prints of Monet's garden series." while he leaned away in stricken horror – with a completeness that is both disturbing and strangely exhilarating, which he mostly doesn't notice until it isn't there anymore.
He tries to take comfort in the knowledge that this is not, and will never be, a love story. But then he realizes that he's never been in love, and probably wouldn't know a love story if he saw one.
That's when he decides that he might be a little screwed.
When Naruto finds out through the treacherous Konoha grapevine that Ino's got a date lined up for Saturday night, the first person he goes to for help is, once again, Shikamaru.
He is predictably useless.
"Is it my fault you get off on extreme sports?" Shikamaru says nonchalantly. "And I did try to warn you."
"Lies," Naruto shouts back. He tries to glare balefully at Shikamaru, but due to the angle of the roof and his unwillingness to get ten feet closer to the scorching summer sun just to wring a lazy man's neck, is forced to direct the brunt of his anger at a pair of sandaled feet sticking out over the roof's edge. "You're the worst genius ever."
This could not be more true. When he and Shikamaru met for the first time at the Academy, it was because Shikamaru had somehow managed to turn the kunai-throwing session into pandemonium while sleep-walking and Naruto had been caught trying to set the teacher's desk on fire. They sat next to each other in the hallway for fifteen minutes waiting for Iruka-sensei to come chew them out, and in that length of time Naruto found himself shamelessly marveling at his new friend's sheer, unrivaled brilliance. Tragic, how the brain declines in later life.
"And still I don't see how this is any of my problem," Shikamaru replies maddeningly, just to be utterly maddening.
The trouble with mute rage, Naruto decides, is that it is mostly futile. He shoots Shikamaru one last dirty look before stomping off, vowing mentally to inform a certain diplomatic liaison from the Hidden Sand of the exact number and locations of his friend's usual haunts at his earliest convenience.
The next item on his agenda is trying to think of the second smartest person he knows.
It doesn't take long.
"Naruto," Sakura says feebly. "You know I love you, you know I'd do anything for you, it's just that you're asking an awful lot."
"Come on, Sakura-chan," Naruto pleads, clinging on to the sleeve of her lab coat. "I'm not asking you to break the rules. I'm just saying you might, you know, bend a few of 'em. I swear it doesn't involve terminally ill people getting killed!"
The corridor suddenly grows silent. A couple of medics passing by at that moment flit their heads around to stare at the two of them. Sakura's eyes widen fractionally, and her face turns a funny greenish tinge before she grabs Naruto's arm and ushers him forcefully into a quiet, shuttered room which he happens to know belongs to her favorite coma patient.
"Are you trying to get me kicked out of my program?" she hisses the moment the door swings shut behind them. "Seriously."
"Oh like they'll ever do that," Naruto waves dismissively, nodding in salute at Favorite Coma Guy. "You're the best medic they've got, and honestly, look who's running this place."
"This may be true," Sakura says loftily. "But really, what is it that you want me to do?"
Naruto takes a deep breath. "So, I suppose you've heard about Ino's big date?"
"Oh, honey," Sakura gushes, eyes suddenly huge, pretty brow wrinkling. "Oh sweetheart, it completely slipped my mind. I'm so, so sorry. Is there anything you need? Tissues? Ramen? You can cry on my shoulder."
Naruto rubs the space between his eyes and quietly considers the benefits of having his manhood painfully and messily removed. It's not like anything can top this emasculation.
"I'm fine, thank you," he says in a pained voice. "What I do need is for you to channel your endless concern into helping me dish out the dirt on this latest loverboy."
Sakura looks momentarily confused. "What do you mean exactly?"
"I mean pull his medical records," he replies brightly. "I want to know all the skeletons – any past cosmetic surgeries, embarrassing sexually-related diseases, things of that nature. And while you're at it, you might as well break into the Hokage's filing cabinet and see if…"
"I'm not doing that to him," Sakura interrupts, sounding scandalized. "And besides, I could get my medical license revoked."
Sometimes Naruto suspects that Sakura, despite being brilliant and beautiful and the love of his life, has her priorities in all the wrong places. "Oh right," he says in his best I'm-hurt-and-shocked-here voice, "throw in a possible felony and suddenly you're the other guy's best friend!"
"I'm walking away now," Sakura announces flatly, spinning with a snap of high heels.
"Does that mean you'll do it?" he calls hopefully after her retreating back. She neither pauses nor turns around, but does make a frustrated, high-pitched sound that he grins triumphantly at. Success.
On Friday afternoon, having suffered most of the week in silent agony without hearing any promising news from Sakura, Naruto makes a trip to a part of town that's been deserted for over a decade. The sky is grey and the clouds are grey and the dilapidated buildings look especially grey, as if they're trying to rub it in. He briefly entertains the forlorn hope that the weather's foulness will extend to Saturday night, but figures he isn't on that good terms with Fate.
"This is all your fault," he declares, glaring at the dark rows of houses, which brazenly glare back in shadowy resentment. "I hope you're happy about it, wherever you are, you bastard."
Strangely enough, the accusation doesn't seem to bring him the customary relief this time around. And that's when he decides that, if he can no longer blame all his life's problems on Sasuke, he must really be screwed.
"I hope you know you're very disturbed man," is the first thing Sakura says when she appears at his apartment's door on Saturday morning.
Naruto beams. "Aw, Sakura-chan, you and your sweet nothings."
Kiba looks up at the sound of their voices and waves a hello at Sakura from the sofa where he's currently sprawled out like some large, attractive pet, and considering the way he's mimicking Akamaru down to every luxurious stretch, the comparison isn't far off the mark. Sakura looks at them strangely for two minutes. "Did he draft you into this too?"
"Nah," Kiba grins, stroking one of Akamaru's floppy ears. "I'm just here for moral support."
Which as anyone would know is a filthy lie. Inuzuka Kiba tends to balk at anything relatively moral in nature, but can generally be prevailed to appear at any specific location with the promise of free beer.
"So, what do you have for me?" Naruto asks, plopping down on the sofa and narrowly missing Kiba's foot in his excitement.
Sakura launches into her presentation, but not before glaring at him like he's deeply hurting her soul. "I have here the records of one Tamura Ken, twenty three years old. Jounin of five years. Graduated from the Academy threes years before us." She pauses and deepens her scowl. "Oh, and judging from his medical files, he appears to be perfectly healthy."
"Shame," Naruto remarks. "I was really looking forward to those venereal diseases."
"And," Sakura interrupts blithely, "he's an excellent shinobi. Looking to be promoted to Elite Jounin at the end of the year. Not surprising, considering he comes from one of the older ninja families. Elderly parents, no siblings, I see, probably next in line to inherit quite a fortune…"
"This guy sounds like a real asshole," Kiba comments.
"Utterly revolting," agrees Naruto.
"Well, I think he's a great guy," Sakura says crossly. "Moreover, I think he's the kind of guy that doesn't deserve this kind of treatment just because he had the misfortune to ask out your ex-girlfriend. Honestly, I can't believe you! What are you going to do next, spy on their date?"
She looks to be half-joking, but then the silence gets longer and Naruto tries not to look too guilty but utterly fails, and then her expression just down-gears to slightly doomed.
"Seriously?" Kiba boggles, breaking the pregnant pause. "Like, a stealth mission?"
"Naruto," Sakura says gently, laying a hand on his shoulder. "You've clearly lost your fragile grip on reality. It's not your fault, I know you had a rough childhood and you have deep, twisty psychological complexes as a result. I suggest you take deep, calming breaths…"
"Maybe you should show him your breasts," Kiba offers helpfully.
Sakura, mostly because she's an Angel of Mercy, chooses to ignore that. "My point is, this is all very, very wrong, and I don't think…"
"No more thinking," Naruto says quickly. "Thinking is obsolete. In fact, I've done all the thinking that we could possibly need. I perceive no foreseeable way that anything can go wrong."
Both of his friends look vaguely ill at that notion. He pretends not to have seen their expression, grinning widely in a way that he hopes is entirely reassuring. It sort of hurts his jaw.
"So let me get this straight," Kiba begins weakly, making a nebulous hand gesture that may or may not be offensive in Bird Country. "We're going to spy on Ino and this Tamura guy on their date. Us? You, me, and Sakura?"
"That's the worst stealth team I've ever seen," Sakura wails.
Naruto can feel his smile falter a notch. She brings up a valid point.
"Wasn't there anyone else you could have asked for help?" Kiba inquires. He sounds really sad about that.
"Obviously," Naruto snaps. "Not when Shikamaru's being a total douchebag and Chouji wasn't available for comment." Meaning that the latter has unexpectedly decided that he'd rather take Ino's side in the matter, which makes one more person Naruto isn't talking to.
"What about Emotionally Crippled Guy?" Kiba suggests optimistically. "You know, the sexually ambiguous one with the unfortunate fashion sense who wants to be your new best friend. Isn't he, like, a trained double agent?"
"You think Sai would agree to help?" Naruto perks.
Sakura suddenly begins coughing violently. "That's no good," she croaks warningly. "Ino and Sai, they have some… history."
Naruto suppresses his murderous urges, and decides to stop speaking to Sai just on principle. "No matter," he soldiers on bravely. "I'll work with what I've got. This is what we're going to do…"
"I don't remember agreeing to this," Sakura says sullenly.
An unforeseen obstacle, but no matter, he's not above groveling. "Sakura-chan," he begins sweetly. "I think you're completely right."
Sakura looks not a little pole-axed. "I am?"
"Always," he supplies readily. "I did have a very troubled childhood, made still more troubled by the lack of acknowledgement on the part of certain otherwise lovely individuals."
There's something intrinsically pathetic but weirdly satisfying in watching the emotional turmoil that flickers across Sakura's conflicted face. He can literally see the moment she folds like a cheap pocket ruler, and decides it's a very real if sleazy victory. The Guilt Card is magic, let no man disabuse you of that precious notion.
"What about you?" he asks, turning triumphantly to Kiba. "Got any squeamish issues with this?"
Kiba shrugs. "Not really. I had nothing else planned for the night."
It's a hot night and large, angry mosquitoes swarm the sidewalk outside the restaurant – which turns out to be one of those paradigms of high eateries that manage to combine both hip and classy, and which Naruto figures the likes of him could neither afford nor get a reservation at in a million years. Many a time he's fantasized about the multitudinous cuisines offered by their aesthetically appealing menu, all of which could say HORSESHIT now for all he cares.
Sakura and Kiba are already stationed at strategic lookouts in the surrounding; he himself is ducking behind a tree and keeping a close eye on the entrance of the restaurant. The 'targets' are already inside, and – by his count – well on their way into the overpriced appetizers by now, which means things are progressing to nuclear meltdown nicely. So far, highlights of the evening have included Kiba wondering aloud whether Ino 'puts out on the first date', to which Sakura and Naruto unanimously answered with a resounding "Yes!"
Naruto rubs the bridge of his nose. This line of thought is all of the bad. Perhaps he should reconsider just killing everyone.
Instead, he digs the walkie-talkie out of his pocket – the same one he used in the days of D-Rank missions and simplicity – and barks into it, "This is Rocking Future Hokage. Do you copy?"
There's a buzz of static, and then Kiba's pained voice filters through, "Copy, Total Loser And Not Rocking Future Hokage Because That Is A Stupid Name. What do you want?"
"I'm going in," he announces, emerging from his hiding place. "Watch my back. Be ready to assist if there's an incident."
"There's going to be an incident?" Kiba sputters, at the same time that Sakura cuts in from the background with "I think that's a very bad idea." but he's already flicked the off switch and made for the brightly-lit entrance.
Ten minutes later, all his laudable efforts at convincing the hostess that he does in fact have a reservation – "I'll give you five hundred ruan to let me sneak in through the kitchen!" – have failed miserably, and the nice woman is looking mightily amused, the curve to her pencil-thin eyebrows clearly saying NICE TRY, GO HOME. That's when disaster strikes.
"What in hell's name are you doing here?"
And yet, somehow Naruto's managed to forget to figure into his calculation the fact that Ino is kind of excitable and is going to kill him a lot for this whole stunt. Desperately, he sneaks a glance behind him to see if Sakura and Kiba might not emerge from the bushes any moment now and incite a bloody melee as distraction. His hopes and dreams are quickly dashed. Cowardly traitors.
Accepting what cannot be changed, he turns around to face his maker.
Who stands five-foot-four and stunning in a little black dress, complimented nicely with chic, silver jewelry and an elaborate hairstyle that involves a lot of piling and intricate twisting of pale locks. One of her strappy black shoes is tapping out a menacing rhythm against the marble tiles. She has a yellow rose corsage pinned to her dress.
He opens his mouth, meaning to comment on her looks, but the only thing that comes out is, "You hate roses. And you think yellow is tacky."
Ino stares, and then lets out a noise that means she's completely disgusted. "Oh for God's sake, get over here," she orders, grabbing him by the arm and pulling him into a crook just off the foyer. "You have three minutes to explain before I start breaking bones. I suggest you talk fast."
"You look very nice," he offers belatedly. It's true – the fanciest thing he's ever seen her put on for one of their dates is a denim skirt, which admittedly he kind of likes, but still.
"Two minutes and thirty-three seconds," she hisses ominously.
"Really, you do," he repeats himself, and is surprised to find that it is, for once, exactly the right thing to say.
Ino's expression not so much softens as folds in on itself. Naruto can't tell if she looks angry or exhausted, and decides it's probably a little of both. Standing this close, he can vaguely make out the smell of her perfume, gazelle-grass, trademark girl of summer, cinnamon with a twist of vanilla, and he thinks cursorily that perhaps he should start making a concrete list of the things he likes about her, because there seems to be so many of them and he doesn't want to forget a single one.
"What?" she asks tiredly when she notices him staring, and the fact that she's off-center just brings to mind all the reasons that have brought him here. That he, Uzumaki Naruto, has only a few goals in life, and one of them involves Sasuke, and another involves becoming Hokage – which he's probably well on his way towards if only he can stop insulting Tsunade long enough for her to pen a recommendation – but mostly his brain is telling him that if goals equaled the pursuit of happiness, then the only goal he should concern himself with involves the woman standing in front of him.
"Can I help with anything here?"
Both he and Ino spin around to face the newcomer, and Naruto doesn't need to see the deer-in-headlights expression on Ino's face to know that he has just officially met Tamura Ken, He Of The Perfect Health.
There is handsome, and then there is tall, lean, and pressed, pale skin with dark hair and devastatingly beautiful cheekbones. Naruto thinks dully that, Ino's well-known fondness for dark-haired men aside, the man standing before him does indeed bear an uncanny resemblance to someone with pristine records; moreover, he's also in possession of soulful brown eyes and an easy grin that looks so attractive scenic landscapes would bow in subordination. In fact, if Naruto were all about masculine attributes, he'd be all about Tamura too.
Tamura smiles genially at Naruto, wide and friendly and seemingly unconcerned that he is essentially facing the Cock Block Brigade. "You must be a friend of Ino's. Would you like to join us for dinner? You'll be just in time for the entrée. They have an excellent pork tenderloin for Saturday nights, if I recall correctly."
And it is in that moment, standing in the restaurant foyer with Tamura Ken's mellifluously cultured voice sifting through his ears, that Naruto comes to a sudden realization. Which is: even if you were to disregard the high rank and family connection and hereditary wealth, Ino would still choose Tamura anyway, if only for all the qualities that make him, more or less, not Naruto.
So he does the only thing left to do, and shakes his head politely at Tamura. Then he turns to Ino and drops a chaste kiss to her temple – lingering perhaps longer than he means to – before spinning on his heels and stepping off into the dark, humid night.
"I'm really sorry we had to ditch you," Sakura says earnestly. "I would have stayed, except when Ino appeared Kiba just sort of grabbed my hand and said something about every man for himself, and you know how persuasive he can be."
Naruto doesn't, but nods vaguely, finding the effort to care somehow beyond the scope of his understanding. "So what did you two do afterward?" he asks, just because it seems like the right thing to say.
Sakura, for some reason, blushes prettily. "Well, it was kind of early and between everything neither of us had remembered to get any dinner, so we thought we'd just do that. And then we went back to my place to hang out and drink coffee andthenwehadsex."
The silence is horrible.
"Oh," Naruto manages at last, and he thinks it sounds pretty supportive given that he's screaming in his mind, but some of the horror must be showing on his shellshocked face, because Sakura blanches immediately and says, "I knew you'd take this the wrong way."
"No!" he says frantically, willing his tongue to recover from its catatonic state. "Absolutely not. I'm glad for you. Actually, I think that explains a lot." Like Kiba's somewhat perverse Sexy, Bossy Librarian Kink, but he figures bringing it up would be a sure ticket to the afterlife, and wisely keeps his mouth shut.
Sakura smiles radiantly, and the sight of it makes something soften in his chest. "Well, it's probably just a one-time thing anyway. It's not like we're going to do it again."
Except they totally are, as reflected by Naruto once Sakura's related to him Kiba's offer of dinner the following Friday and her plan to wear the Special Tunic. He keeps that to himself, too.
"Really, it's a good thing," he says weakly, still trying to wrap his mind around whether or not that might be too much information. "I mean, you were starting have a strangely sexual relationship with Favorite Coma Guy, and I was really getting worried back there."
She slaps his arm playfully, and laughs, practically sparkling with delight. He tries to look hurt and dejected, but kind of fails because honestly, who's he kidding? He fucking loves her, and if she's happy then what's his problem anyway?
A small, petty part of him whispers that his problem might be that while his two partners in stalking-crime were off having raunchy, pornographic romps with coffee, he was busy nursing an abusive relationship with miso ramen and six – count them – six bottles of warm beer, after which he just sort of barreled into bed and didn't emerge until noon the following day. He woke up feeling so sorry for himself that he was immediately alarmed and disgusted, and had to hightail it to the nearest training ground, where he attempted to sweat out the entirety of his misery. It didn't work.
Sakura, who was waiting in front of the apartment when he finally dragged his battered body back, now frowns in deep concern and asks tentatively, "So, what are you going to do?"
He's always known he's sort of a loser; there's no point in prolonging denial. "Nothing. I'm going to let it go, and I'm going to do nothing. Maybe it's even for the best."
The line of Sakura's lips thins, but she blessedly stays silent.
"It's for the best," he continues, staring at the space above her head, "because it's going to give me the time I need to focus on my real goals. Yeah, that's what I should do. I've forgotten what's really important. From now on, it's all about the long-term pursuits. Can you believe I haven't kept a tab on Sasuke's whereabouts for months now?"
Sakura suddenly looks immensely, unattractively guilt-ridden. "Um," she mumbles, avoiding his eyes. "There's something I should probably talk to you about."
Something tells him doesn't like the sound of that.
"So I know how much you love Konoha," Sakura goes on, quickly and a little breathlessly. "And I love it too. I mean, it's our home and everything, where else would we love? But Sasuke-kun…"
She pauses, and fidgets with the sleeve of her blouse. "He's never really been happy here, Naruto. Konoha is where he lost his family, and I don't think you can get over something like that."
"But that shouldn't be too much of a problem," Naruto cuts in, uncomprehending. "Now that Itachi and Orochimaru are dead, I mean."
If possible, the arch of Sakura's pink brow grows even more epic. "See, that's just the thing. When he was with Orochimaru, I guess he met some people -- people who were like him, who got along with him better. And now, I suppose he just wants to make it work with them, but he doesn't want it to be here. It's nothing personal, but I agree it's probably better anywhere else but Konoha…"
"Wait," Naruto interrupts, narrowing his eyes suspiciously. "How do you know all this?"
Sakura flushes guiltily.
"Oh my God," he says in dawning comprehension. "You've been in contact?"
Sakura waves her hand frantically. "Well, no, Kakashi…"
"Kakashi's in on this too?" he wails incredulously. "Why didn't you tell me? What were you waiting for, him showing up and inviting us to his kid's first birthday?"
"I don't think you have anything to worry about in that department," Sakura mutters darkly.
The silence seems to have gained a life of its own.
After a moment, Sakura glances at her watch and jumps urgently to her feet. "I have to go. My shift starts in twenty minutes." She casts him a worried look. "Are you going to be okay?"
"Yeah," he answers feebly, still finding it an effort to form coherent sentences. "It's just… the idea of it, you know. Sasuke. Being happy."
Sakura smiles wanly. "It took me awhile too, but you'll get used to it."
She bends over his chair and places a soft kiss on his cheek, and ruffles his hair distractedly on her way out.
After Sakura leaves, Naruto seriously debates the merit of returning to the training ground and working himself unconscious. The impact of the day's events have been staggering; he feels helpless and stupid, and isn't sure he'll be able to sleep tonight under that terrible weight. But before he can so much as take a faltering step in the direction of the door, the darkening sky flashes a luminous blue through the window. There's a loud clap of thunder, and then water begins to stream from the sky like ribbons, flooding the streets, misting up the glass.
Even that might not have stopped him, but as he's digging through his closet for that pair of non-slipping sandals, there comes the sound of loud knocking from the front door, accompanied by a furious "Open up this door before I kick it down!"
In the time it takes for his eyes to stop widening at the sound of that voice, he's already crossed the distance to the door and flung it open, revealing Ino, pale, shaking with anger, and sopping wet. He notices abstractly that she's wearing his all-time favorite denim skirt. She looks completely deranged.
"I broke up with Ken," she announces, rivulets of water making their way down her ashen face and neck. "And it's all your fault."
He stares at her. "Um."
She stares back. Her damp forehead seems fairly popping with veins, and for a moment, he worries for her blood pressure.
"I'm very confused," he admits.
She rolls her eyes and makes one of those completely disgusted noises, which – he can't help it – makes his lips quirk up involuntarily. Sensing imminent disaster, he says quickly, "You're freezing. You should get out of these clothes before you catch a cold."
She continues to stare.
"Um, I mean…" he stutters, realizing suddenly what he's accidentally insinuated.
"Oh just stop already, you've embarrassed yourself enough," she says witheringly, and brushes past him, making for the open door of his bedroom.
"Do you want me to make you some soup?" he calls after her, rather sheepishly.
There's a distinct sense of suspended reality as he putters about his tiny kitchen, breaking eggs and checking the expiry dates on bonito boxes, as if he's suddenly gone down a different trail where his life diverts from the main road of life, and he's not completely sure if that's a bad thing. All the familiar objects around him have taken on the thick, glassy quality of dream-things; everything is a tantalizing whirl of awareness, everything is surreal – unreal.
As the soup simmers, Naruto turns to the window and watches as rain sweeps the village, coloring the buildings shades of blue and grey. Konoha is visible as a canvas of black dotted with small, blinking lights, against which the rain can be discerned slanting in parallel pencil lines. Usually, this is his favorite time of day, when the village seems to slow down and come alive at the same time. The rain, however, renders everything a little sleepy, a little sad.
Ino's image appears, reflected in the glass of the window. She's standing in the doorway of his bedroom, and her thin frame is swallowed up in one of his white button downs and a pair of too-long shorts. For a moment, he's wracked with an achingly clear memory of so many sunbright mornings, she in his clothes and sweetly whispering, "Good morning," as she puts out her cigarette in his coffee.
"Your soup is ready."
She sits herself down at the kitchen table without a word and picks up the chopsticks. He places the two bowls in front of them, and takes the seat opposite hers. They eat in silence.
"So," he ventures, tapping the bowl, "you broke up with… with Tamura."
She says nothing, sipping noisily and unladylike.
"And, apparently, it's all my fault," he continues, wincing.
She scoffs, pausing to light a cigarette. "Of course it's not your fault."
"Again," he says, "I'm confused."
"Look," Ino says, leveling him with her piercing eyes. "He doesn't need me."
He stares at her, mouth slightly open.
"I knew you wouldn't get it," Ino mutters angrily, her cheeks growing pink. "You saw what he was like, he doesn't need…"
"No," he interrupts, coughing. "Uh, I understand, actually. I do." Because I do it too, he doesn't say.
Ino seems to catch the unspoken words anyway, because she unspools a stream of bluish smoke and says abstractly, "Do you think it's normal? People like us?"
He can't help but laugh a little at that. "I don't know. What kind of people are we?"
"People who can't function unless they can treat others like little projects to be protected and ultimately smothered to death." She sighs gloomily. "It's not that I didn't know we were freaks, it's just that the nature of our freakiness never fails to shock and dismay."
There's a pause, in which Naruto vaguely wonders when the 'we' has made its smooth return into the semantic stream of their conversation again. The thought brings up all venues of dangerous thinking, questions like 'What are you thinking?' and 'What are we doing?' and 'Why?', all of which can be condensed into a single momentous one.
"Why did you leave?"
Ino's eyes widen for a moment, before they falter and she massages the closed lids tiredly. "You know the answer to that."
"No, I don't, actually," he persists.
She opens her eyes then, and meets his gaze squarely. "You don't need me either."
He blinks, and waits for the signal that it's just a joke, which never comes. Ino's eyes are grey and dull, newly imbued with a heavy solemnity he doesn't like. She thinks he doesn't need her.
What makes it worse is the fact that it's also true.
His wandering mind settles suddenly on the fable of the frog and the scorpion. The frog helped the scorpion across the river. Halfway across, the scorpion stung the frog. As they both sunk beneath the water, the frog asked why he did it and the scorpion said, "Because it is my nature."
And Naruto, because it is his nature to not be capable of incorporating 'Why can't we just not need each other together?' into a pithy morsel of wit, finds himself saying, "If this rain keeps up, you're going to have to stay the night."
For what seems like a thousand years, he waits for a reaction, holding his breath, and when she snorts and says "Fuck off, sweetheart," and puts her cigarette out in his soup, he figures that's as good as he's going to get.
He's peripherally aware of a deep tiredness, of his bones giving out and turning to liquid within his flesh. The room is too warm and his head nearly slips off its perch atop his propped up arm. Ino's form seems to waver into the yellow-orange light of his kitchen, into the lingering cloud of hazy smoke, as the stormy darkness melts into the apartment through the window.
"Do you remember Hatasa?" her voice filters in suddenly.
"Hmm." Hatasa, where everything began. That sad rain-washed town by the sea.
"It rained just like this in Hatasa, except all the time," Ino muses.
"Do you remember that cute little girl we met there?" he asks, fighting drowsiness.
"She wasn't that cute," Ino says flippantly.
"Okay, I know how your bitchiness makes you allergic to all creatures filled with goodness and optimism," he says, smiling broadly. "But even you have to admit that she was pretty cute."
Ino turns her gaze window-ward, a faraway expression drawing over her face. "I hope she gets to be a teacher like she wanted. She'll be good at it."
"Do you remember what you said to me afterwards?" he asks.
"That was never about the girl, was it?"
With his eyes closed, he can't see the look on Ino's face, but there's no need. He's beginning to think there never was one to begin with, and maybe, just maybe, that's okay, too.
The heaviness dips further still, and he's falling with it, sinking deeper into a misty fog like a child floating away to the island of sleep, simplistic and unconcerned. The entire room seems to float with him, myths and memories and half-remembered lullabies curling like smoke in the silence of the falling rain, and in that silence, he and Ino sit like two people in a story, as the great sky opens up and a greater ocean washes over the world in huge, sweeping waves.
"I wonder if they ever got that bridge," Ino says quietly, half-dreamy, half-nostalgic.
It may be years until this story is finished, or it may all be over tomorrow, but Naruto knows too well by now that what's really important is here and now, and he thinks he might be alright with that equilibrium.