Fear of the Dark

Ino had always wondered when she had been young and naïve why people feared the dark.

Because, really, there was nothing scary in the lack of light. Everything was still the same at night as it was during the day—you just had to squint a little more to see it just as well.

She'd wondered why most her friends feared the dark because she knew that the monsters that they were told by their parents were lurking in the darkness did not—could not—exist.

But Ino had grown up and found that there were, in fact, very much real monsters brooding in the lightlessness; monsters that could be the last thing that ever happened to you if you weren't quick enough, capable enough… strong enough.

At twenty-two, Ino still didn't know why others feared the dark. But she didn't dwell on it anymore either.

All that mattered was that she was afraid of the darkness as well.

And it was ironic, really, because she was a kunoichi—a very important part of the reconnaissance shinobi force too—and it was ridiculous of her to be afraid of her greatest ally. There was no reconnaissance without aid of stealth and stealth was greatly aided by the darkness, it allowed you a bit more freedom of movement.

It was even more ridiculous of a grown woman to shudder slightly when the lights went out because she was chakra sensitive and reasonable enough to know that there was nothing in her hollow apartment aside from her and yet, when the light played with the tasteful curtains, she couldn't help but pull the comforter a little higher up her body, in a vain attempt to chase away the paranoia that the darkness begot in her.

How could she not be afraid of the same thing that helped her so much if it hypocritically helped her enemy just the same? How could she not fear that which in skilled hands became a formidable weapon? How could she not be wary when she was well aware that there was always someone better than you, someone who is more at ease with the darkness, can use it better, can use it against you without strain?

And how was she to feel safe when even the darkness behind her eyes was no longer comforting, her nightly visions haunted by crimson irises with hypnotizing windmills swirling in them? How could she not fear the dark that housed the twin demon orbs of the defector, that accommodated them so well against her?

She hated the dark, because the dark made her weak. The dark made her disoriented and scared. The darkness obscured her goals and dreams and became only a vortex of blackened emotions that she didn't want to feel; emotions that seared her whole being when they reached into her.

She detested the dark because it was so vast, so ever-encompassing that it seemed like it could swallow her whole and not leave a memory of her existence behind, as if she had never been there in the first place. And she loathed that thought, with every fiber of her being, for she had not grown up to be someone so impressive in character, with such great impact on those around her, to be so easily discarded.

Yet she was a kunoichi. It was part of a kunoichi's life to live in the dark, deal with it and learn to use it well. It was either kill or be killed in the cruel game that was her life. You either adapt or perish. Idiotic things as being skittish of a little lack-light were not tolerated in the harsh reality. There was no room for fear when you have chosen the path of a tool for your village to use as it saw fit.

She eradicated her fear of the dark every night and every morning it came back full-force, as if she'd never given it any effort at all. It was a vexing vicious circle that she couldn't seem to break out of.

So she lived on, in the darkness which she abhorred because she dreaded, away from prying eyes, inconspicuous to all her colleagues. She lived on, alone and cowering in the darkness, unwilling to ask anyone's help anymore, because, really, who would help her when she couldn't even help herself?

Because there was no way logical, down-to-earth Yamanaka Ino was truly afraid of a little darkness, right?

And she assured herself she was content with maintaining that notion.

As she lurked in the sparse light of the dingy pub she mused that the darkness had its benefits and good points as well.

When it was so dark, no one could see her fears, her remorse, her shame or her failures. Her flaws were expertly hidden away in the lack of lighting, not to be looked upon by prying eyes. No one needed to know that she was just as human, just as imperfect, just as capable of mistakes, as everyone else was as long as she had the darkness to shroud her faults.

For when the bar was so slightly illuminated no one could see just how deadened her eyes were, just how deep her rue ran. And it was better that way, because she didn't really need anyone's help at all. She had her accursed darkness, that double-faced bastard that a shinobi could not live without and yet couldn't live within. Frightening—this paradox—wasn't it? It was almost enough to make you laugh out loud. Almost…

She stirred languidly the contents—or rather the lack of such—of her shot glass, eyeing the melting ice with unseeing cornflower blue orbs. Her vision had long since blurred irreversibly it seemed but the fog stifling her mind was still not thick enough to suit her fancy. It didn't not wrap well around the thoughts that she didn't want to access at least until morning, it did not give her the absolution that she so desired yet.

The blonde felt and heard a large body—male, she deduced at once—slump on the stool next to hers but as long as the person did not bother her she could see no reason to bother him either.

She lifted the empty glass to the bartender.

"Hey, uncle; be a nice guy and give another one of these, would you?" She shook the glass suggestively before placing it on the counter, waiting for her refill.

She was positively drunk but not drunk enough not to feel someone's gaze on her. She didn't pay that any heed either though—she was used to being ogled at in such vulgar places like pubs where all the abominations of society seemed to gather at all times.

The bartender gave her a critical look which she returned effortlessly. He sighed and shook his head dejectedly while giving in, refilling her glass, and she could have sworn she heard him mutter something about "Deteriorating youth nowadays" and "Drowning misery in alcohol, inebriating themselves" but she couldn't have cared less. Not when her salvation was this close to her.

She was brining the glass to her pinkish lips when a painfully familiar voice—though not in its regular (endlessly annoying) pitch, which was a first to her—interrupted the ware's journey to her mouth.

"Is it really a good idea to get yourself wasted in a bar full of men without any inhibitions who are equally as wasted?"

Her hand hovered before her face as if frozen in place. She sighed in exasperation and guzzled down the alcohol in the glass in a breath. She ordered another one from the grumbling bartender, knowing that when dealing with this particular individual one needed to be properly inadequate not to try and strangle the life out of him. She dreaded even the moment she'd have to look at him, what was left for anything else?

Slowly, the young woman turned a bored and flushed from all her drinking face to the newly arrived man, scrutinizing his listless cerulean eyes that seemed to shine through the barely existent light in the pub to bury right into her.

"Honestly, Uzumaki," she began with a blatantly agitated tone, "don't you have someone else to pester with your profound advice in life? I seriously don't feel like I want to hear anymore of it."

Naruto watched with what seemed complete disinterest how she received another shot of whatever she was on which she in turn immediately downed.

He'd been watching her repeating the same thing over and over again from a distant corner of the pub for some time before finally deciding on coming over and seeing what was the cause of her drinking frenzy. She was usually quite averse to alcohol, going as far as to say it tasted awful on several occasions in the past. He was frankly curious.

"Did something happen?"

Ino knew her hand would start shaking as if in a seizure if she reached for the glass then. So instead she balled her hands tightly into fists and threw Naruto a death glare that was lost on his dense nature. The concern that his cerulean eyes radiated was a bit too much for her to swallow.

"Even if something did happen, you're the last person I'd go to."

Angry at the guy's impertinence—that dumb blond busybody—Ino swung her miraculously refilled glass again and gulped down another portion of the throat-searing liquid. The world was out to get her if it sent her Naruto, of all people, when she least wanted to see any familiar face.

"Go rain your sympathy on someone else, preferably a person who actually needs it." She stirred the remaining crystalline drop of melted ice in front of her hardened azure eyes. "Because I, for one, do not."

Naruto had always been knuckleheaded, never knowing when to stop. But his annoying factor was obviously at its peak that night because he didn't get the message and, instead of turning tail like every part of her body was screaming at him to do, he leant on the counter on his elbow, propping his chin up on the heel of his hand.

"Yeah?" he intoned conversationally in a noncommittal voice. "Could have fooled me."

This time the glass did make a cracking sound under the pressure of her tight grip. Ino was leaning on every ounce of sanity she still had left not to slug the idiot in the ugly mug for that comment just now.

How dare he just waltz over to her and start asking her questions as if he had any right to know the answers? How dare he look at her with that absolutely pathetic face? Wasn't he just a ray of fucking sunshine? He rent the darkness enveloping her as if it was his place to do so. What an irksome guy… She felt an urge and—before she could think better of it—she gave into it.

"What would you know how it feels to lose your parents, dead last? It's not as if you ever had any to begin with," she hissed out venomously, her words carefully picked so they could cut deeper than the sharpest blade.

She hadn't called him that in ten years, dead last. Ten years in which she'd grown to know him better, to admire him and respect him. Yet in her ire she knew well what to say, to call him the one way his once brother had demoted him without even giving him the time of the day, just to make him feel if even just a fraction of the pain that she was experiencing.

But the bastard took even that tiny victory away from her as the only sign that she'd hit a nerve was a shadow crossing his eyes before it was gone with the next blink of his lids. The asshole… Was he actually invincible?

He looked sympathetically at her.

"My condolences," he offered in a voice barely above a whisper.

And it pissed her off; that he seemed so sincere trying to recollect something about her parents even though he didn't even know them, hadn't even cared any about them while they were still alive. It annoyed her as hell but all the indication she gave was the tight narrowing of her eye brows and a barely discernible eye twitch that was gone almost the moment it surfaced. It wasn't his fault he was so stupid. It wasn't his fault he irritated her so without even trying.

It wasn't his fault they were dead…

Well, that and she felt a bit guilty for purposefully trying to dig into an obviously gaping wound.

So instead of biting his head off—which was her initial choice of reaction—she opted for calling to the bartender instead.

"Hey, uncle; won't you give my friend here some of that good stuff as well? He seems keen on getting some."

The man behind the counter eyed Naruto expectantly who in turn only shrugged his shoulders lightly in consent. The elder male shook his head and sighed, doing as his drunken lady customer desired, not very eager to see what would happen if he didn't.

She appeared to be one of those troublemaking ones if she didn't have her way while under the steady hold of inebriation. By the kunai pouch he'd seen on her slender thigh on her way over to the stool when she'd entered, she was a shinobi too—all the more reason not to push his luck. After so many years of tending to a bar you learnt a thing or two about the kinds of people that frequented them.

When his drink arrived, instead of following Ino's lead and downing it as soon as it was in her sight, Naruto just eyed critically the small glass with the crystalline clear liquid. Losing interest in it soon, he turned his studious gaze towards his companion on the counter, who in turn only glared at him. Her attempt at intimidating him fell flat on its face considering how blurred her vision already was though.

"Don't be a prude, Naruto! Drink up, drink up!" When he didn't relent, she took her own full glass and raised it to him, "For the Yamanakas!" and drank at her toast.

Naruto sighed lightly through his nose. She was being cynical. He wasn't sure what to make of it. This wasn't exactly what he had planned on when he'd made his way over. Hell, he hadn't even wanted to play the part of the knight in shining armor for her and neither did he want all the drama but his sense of propriety had prohibited him from leaving without doing something for his vaguely-friend-like-person when she seemed perturbingly bent on getting herself stoned so bad she wouldn't remember her name in the morning. It was just wrong to leave a girl behind when she seemed to lose herself completely to the glass, you know?

That is why Naruto did the gentlemanly thing and downed his glass in a gulp under the slightly surprised and even just a tiny bit amused glance of his recently promoted drinking buddy.

"And they said that you were absolutely hopeless at everything back in the day."

He didn't appreciate her joke or sarcasm and his sardonically cocked brow should have told her that but it mattered little when she planned not to remember the night at all tomorrow.

"You're quite a natural when it comes to drinking, Naruto-kun."

She was adding the suffix just to spite him and it annoyed him that he could actually feel it. The least she could have done was try and be subtle about her resentment. And—while his overall attitude hadn't suffered much change—over the years the blonde Hokage-wannabe had learnt how to retaliate to being poked fun at and sneered upon by his peers.

"Here—have another!" she interjected.

Ino raised her own glass in another toast but this time he didn't dignify her attempt at mocking him. She shrugged her dainty shoulders—which were very much too exposed for a bar of such nature at that particular hours of the day—and mimicked his actions from a minute ago, the scalding hot liquid burning her esophagus right down to the pit of her stomach. She grimaced at the feeling and let out a hiss.

"Got'ta love the feeling of approaching absolution. Don't you?"

Her obviously forced attempts at small talk did nothing to soothe his rising ire.

"Haven't you had a bit too much to drink tonight, Ino-chan?" he asked tentatively, putting a hand over her glass when she made a move to bring it to her lips again.

Neither noticed how much larger his hand was than hers.

Not that it was something overly important to note in the first place too.

Ino's slightly dazed corn-flower blue eyes bore into Naruto's remotely concerned cerulean eyes, not really looking for anything there. She made a show of thinking his query over, scrunching her face up slightly and rolling her eyes to the ceiling.

It was all a good guy could do not to sigh in aggravation at her behaviour. His students in his genin three-man cell were more mature than her at that moment. And they were just five years old

"I can still feel perfectly well every inch of my body which would go to say that nothing has really gone to my head at current so, no, I think I am going to stay here a while."

She pulled her wrist free of his hold and gave him the fakest and most saccharine smile he had ever seen in his life. And that was saying something, because he was one of the people who had had to force those on their faces one too many times.

"Your concern is quite uncalled for and very much not appreciated so if that was all you wanted to talk to me about, do feel free to excuse yourself and scurry off, doing whatever it is you do when you're not pushing your nose into others' business."

He had been about to leave—really. There was absolutely no one on the face of the Earth that would stand that much insult and wouldn't want to leave. But seeing how much she wanted that to happen just tickled his fancy a bit; just enough to make him compromise with his sanity and stay just to annoy the daylights out of her the way she had tried to do with him.

He wasn't vindictive; oh, by any means, no. But she had it coming and she would get what was coming for her because a future Hokage's main worry is the well-being of his villagers… even if they were bitchy drunken kunoichi.

Little he knew that Ino was much more annoyed than she let on.

He was spoiling her fun after all. He waltzed over unannounced, shoving his unwanted help in her face and expecting her to just surrender her glass like that and just go peacefully home? Whoever would give in to that kind of persuasion?

She hated it when others intruded on her private time. There were few instances when she actually sought out the despised darkness, but when she did, she usually had a good goddamn reason for it. How was she supposed to submerge her mind in the dark absolution if he kept pestering her with his questions and pretence kindness and worry?

She hadn't asked him to come to her and try to save her from the dark. She'd been perfectly well on her own, drowning in the sea of forgetfulness that bore no light. And then he interjected, dragging her back to the shore of utter consciousness because she still had a long way to go with the number of drinks to become a hopeless cause for saving.

She hadn't wanted him to come over and bring his accursed natural radiance with him. She didn't want any of it. He was from the type of people that she abhorred in her guts—even when he was broody, angsty and a quiet drunk he was just too goddamn bright! …Y'know?

Ino's perceptive ears heard him slide off the chair sluggishly and trod away from her in a steady pace. She heaved a sigh of relief and rolled her eyes upwards, as if to thank any higher instance that had taken mercy on her.

"Good riddance," she muttered under her breath and relaxed back into her stool, closing her eyes to enjoy the sensation of her mind growing progressively numb. Sheer bliss, that it was.

And she could finally enjoy it on her own, too—now that was truly priceless, after she'd got to know how it felt when she wasn't on her own.

She'd thought that she'd be able to enjoy her alone brooding time a little while longer, too, when she heard a bottle—which was still full, judging by the sound it made when connecting with the surface of the counter—land by the side of her hand. She looked out of the corner of her eye to see who was bothering her this time (there was just no end to the busybodies tonight) only to groan in despaired annoyance, her head lolling back on her neck dejectedly. She made for a really pathetic sight, she was sure, but at that particular moment in time she couldn't have cared less.

You see, she was just so busy cursing every divinity there was for even entertaining the thought of letting a… a creature such as Uzumaki freaking Naruto survive to his twenty-second anniversary of being born with no realistic prospects of his life ending in the near future, to care about much else.

"Now, now, Ino-chan, I know we got off on the wrong foot." The blond abomination sat back in his seat, one hand still clutching the bottle of alcohol. "But I have an idea that I'm sure that you're going to love."

Ino cocked an unimpressed finely shaped brow at the thought that Naruto, of all people, could even know the first thing about her to be able to talk like that but she decided to let it slide just this once in favour of his much more curious insinuation.

"Do you, really?"

"Since we're both going to stay here a while, I thought I could challenge you to see which one of us endures alcohol better, you know, just to see who's the better sport between the two of us." He laughed light-heartedly, his face alight with mirth.

The blond girl's brows furrowed with aggravation again. 'Too damn bright…'

"You're willing to compete… with me?" She said slowly, as if it was inconceivable even to think that kind of thing.

Of course, she completely omitted to comment that he was talking to her as if she was one of his goofy goons with which he could have belching contests and 'Whose-thing-below-the-belt-is-ugliest' juxtapositions. She was a lady and it went without saying that such language was not suited before one.

Naturally, there were times when a lady forgot she was a lady. Like when her (she'd deny it hotly if said to her face) larger than ordinary ego was being—unjustly so—doubted.

He shrugged noncommittally, as if what he'd just off-handedly thrown into the conversation did not come on par with obscene blasphemy in the middle of a sermon in front of a premise full with fanatically religious patriarchal men with serious anger management problems.

"Well, I figured you wouldn't wan'na, since you've probably been drinking a while and it would be just unfair to start now—"

"You're on!" She slammed her forearm on the counter as she said that, interrupting forcefully his tirade that obviously meant to disregard her.

If there was one thing she really, really hated, it was to be looked down upon, for whatever reason. She wasn't about to let this mistake of nature treat her like a second-rate human being just because she was mourning.

"But I'm going to warn you now that I'm really good at this despite my appearance so you better ready yourself to grovel at my feet when I beat your ass, ha!"

Naruto smirked semi-conceitedly, crossing his arms over his well-built chest.

"Is that so… Well, we'll just have to see, right?" He lifted his glass in a silent toast that Ino indulged with one of her own grudgingly. "Cheers!"

The drinking game was on. And Ino didn't plan on losing it.

But things don't always necessarily go as we plan them to, do they? Ino found that to be just the case with her drinking win.

Naruto had to admit that she did fare quite well though. She'd drunk so much before he joined her and she'd drunk even more after he did. To her credit, even when it was becoming increasingly obvious by how flustered her expression was becoming that she was getting more and more inebriated, she never quite let her mind sway under the effects of the alcohol.

If anything, some of her more infuriating qualities amplified painfully (bitchiness, loudness, snarky comments frequency and so on and so forth) but she was still one hundred percent Ino. He was sincerely surprised and not entirely unpleasantly so. Sure, it had taken him a bit more time and money to get her wasted enough to be able to drag her out of the pub—semi-unconscious too, mind you, because he'd figured in the first few minutes of their so-called "game" that it was the only way to get her out of that place in her current state of mind—but it was worth the useful knowledge. He could use a drinking buddy the next time because everyone else he could opt for wasn't nearly as endurable as she was.

As they trudged on slowly, one of her slender arms slung over his much broader shoulders, Ino all but hanging lifelessly from said appendage in his firm hold, there was something that the blond vessel couldn't keep to himself for some reason; perhaps he felt that he had to do her justice for her earlier performance? He didn't know.

He had just always lacked this infinitely beneficial quality that most living creatures possessed by default—self-preservation instinct they called it. Fancy name for something so simple, isn't it? He was sometimes so simple-minded that you can't help but wonder why, oh why he still hasn't acquired it, after getting smacked around so much by his pink-haired teammate.

"I have something to confess, Ino-chan, because it's just too unfair to leave you in the dark about it."

She gave an undignified grunt as her heavy-lidded swimming eyes continued boring into the ground she dragged her feet against. She hated that phrase, "leaving someone in the dark"; it was such an insensitive phrase, especially when used with someone who hated the darkness as much as she did.

She wasn't about to tell Naruto that though. There was as much beating as a proud girl's pride could take for one single night.

As if it wasn't enough that she could barely stand on her own and he didn't even have a difficulty with walking in a straight line, she wouldn't grant him the pleasure of knowing her greatest secret (darkest one too, and she could have laughed out loud at that thought for the irony of it, if she wasn't sure that it was something only hopelessly drunk people did, laugh for no apparent reason and she was not hopelessly drunk just a bit tipsy, that's all).

"I, uh… kind'a never get drunk, no matter how much I have to drink." Her fine brow twitched at that little piece of information. "I guess Kyuubi makes quick work of the toxins or something but it never gets to my head, no matter what I do. So, erm, I knew beforehand what the outcome would be… which is why I suggested it." He grinned guiltily at her profile next to him and her eyes narrowed even more. "Sorry about leading you on like that."

She hadn't just been humiliated. She had been humiliated on purpose. Now that made things quite different. She was sure that there had to be something worse that could happen to you. She just couldn't think of anything at the moment.

Suddenly she wanted to have as little physical contact with this foul creature that had made her seem so ridiculous as possible, given the predicament she found herself in, what with being unable to focus on anything at all if she didn't particularly strive for it.

She snatched her arm back from him rather abruptly and the action almost had her lose her balance. With all the mercy of the Heavens above and the grace she possessed naturally, she managed to stay upright and take a few wobbly steps on her uncertain feet on her own.

"Brilliant," she muttered to herself after a few meters of dragging herself onward with Naruto hot on her tail like a homeless puppy.

She hadn't felt pathetic while getting drunk but she definitely did at current. This was definitely not the way she'd hoped to spend the night mourning her parents' death. This… this irksome sobriety of mind—born from the presence of another while trying to get inebriated—was just as much as she could take before she started feeling the urge to rip things to shreds to vent some of her frustration.

And the fact that she had a provoking factor in the face of one endlessly bothersome Uzumaki Naruto definitely did not help soothe her temper. Which only led her to conclude, more firmly this time, and with a point-making roll of her slightly mismatched eyes,

"Just freaking brilliant!"

It helped even less that he walked beside her as if she was fragile or would topple over herself any minute now… which she nearly did several times, but that is just besides the point now, isn't it?

"I know you're probably angry—and you perhaps have every reason to—but I'm sure it'd be a lot better if you just—" He began to coax her but was halted mid-sentence by the extended forefinger shoved in his face. He blinked several times, as if attempting to blink the shock away.

"Damn right I have every reason to, Uzumaki and, no, I am perfectly fine walking on my own. I've been able to for twenty-something years now and I hadn't needed your help once during that time—I don't plan on starting now." She nodded curtly to herself after her little independence statement and turned on her heel to get back to marching towards her flat.

Or as close to marching as she could get without letting either of her feet really leave the ground.

He seemed just as determined not to respect her strive for independence though. How could she tell? It was quite simple, when he kept following and pestering her even after she'd said that to his face. Didn't that guy know when to quit?

"Well, I got you in this predicament—" but he was once again cut short by her brisk words before he could get an entire sentence out. That should have been hint number one for him to take a hike. Men

"And I am going to get myself out of it. And there will be no cause for you to worry, because the moment I can't see your ugly mug will be the one that all my troubles go away." There was just so much bite to her words that his feet temporarily ceased to work. This led him to staying, nailed to the spot, in the midst of the deserted dusty street of Konoha, staring at the hunched back of the retreating female.

In that moment, he couldn't help but wonder—why was he still pushing himself? As far as chivalry was concerned, he'd done the gentlemanly thing by getting her out of that bar (even though he'd been forced, he reasoned to himself, to resort to not-very-chivalrous ways of accomplishing that) and, since she was knuckleheaded enough to demand getting home by herself, who was he to stop her?

He really would be better off leaving right then and doing both of them a favour. But… He hung his head against his collarbone in dejection, heaving a great sigh from the exhaustion that was yet to come.

When his head rose again, it was with new determination that he faced her depressingly slouched figure, lugging itself down the narrow street. Sometimes he thought he was masochistic but being the good guy really sucked. Big time.

He caught up to her and fell into her step—it wasn't that difficult since she could barely breathe, not to mention move efficiently—facing forward stubbornly as well. She rolled her eyes from his insistence but chose to do the smarter thing and just kept her mouth shut, doing her best not to need the help of the hand that stretched out before her—with the full intention of breaking her fall should it come to that—every time she lurched forward a bit too convincingly.

After many ordeals (not really, but walking itself had become such a challenge these days…), they finally arrived at her block. Before opening the door of the main entrance, she shot him a questioning look that he returned coolly, standing right behind her. She huffed ill-temperedly.

"What, you're going to let yourself in here, too? Have you nothing better to do with your free time than stalk me around?"

"Whatever you say, Ino—just get up those stairs to your flat, if you'd please." He then made a movement as if to usher her inside.

Her jaw hung open and her barely focused eyes blazed suddenly with anger before it wore off, as quickly as it appeared. She glared at him some more, her lips a taut, thin line before she began to ascend the stairs, one at a time to assure she wouldn't fall on him (was he purposefully lagging behind her, to make sure she'd fall on him, should it come to that, and not risk breaking her skull open?) because that kind of thing would just annul the point she was trying to make on the entire way here.

"Just to make sure we're clear on this—I go along with what you say because it's what I intended to do in the first place," she informed him over her shoulder while fiddling with her apartment keys. She missed the keyhole. And again. And again. He cringed. "Not because you told me to, got that?"

And again

"Let me," he emphasized, prying the keys from her hands before she could object.

He swiftly unlocked the door and swung it open, stepping aside for her to enter, an expectant look on his face. Hers was fixed into one of utter disdain that he discredited completely. Shaking her head in disbelief, the girl made her way inside, not bothering to flick the lights on as she did so.

He tried to step over the threshold after her as well but was stopped by the open palm shoved in front of his nose.

"And that's how far you go. It's been touching—not at all though—this overbearing concern of yours for me that suddenly materialized out of the blue—not that I mind but, seriously, never give me a taste of it again—but from here on I can really handle it myself." She crossed her arms over her chest, glaring at him. The effect wasn't as great when it was obvious she could barely focus on him though. "So you're free to crawl back to whatever hole you crawled out of in the first place. It's been really pleasant,"—and she said the word with the same tone she would have cursed someone to their grave—"chatting with you tonight. Ta-ta!"

To add some drama, she slammed the door in his face. Once she could no longer see him, she nodded to herself, a pleased—and very much deranged for an onlooker—grin slid on her face. Content with a job well done she made a turn to go to her room only to stop dead in her tracks when she was encountered once again by Naruto's skeptic frown.

She seriously started to ponder if she needed some professional help because she was dead certain she'd seen him on the other side of that door when she'd closed it.

As if reading her thoughts—which was a dreadful idea in itself—the blond abomination told her in an off-hand tone,

"You do know that I am a shinobi specializing in the Shadow Clone technique, right?"

It was all the explanation she needed to hear. Not that she needed the reminder how wasted she must be to forget something like that—the guy only performed the technique several hundred times in every fight and sometimes even for daily chores if he needed an extra hand.

Ino groaned with all the despair that she felt building up inside her.

"Don't you have someone else's night you could ruin? This is getting very tiresome and I meant it when I said not seeing your face would make everything just so much better." She slumped on the sofa in her pragmatically compact in size living room and buried her head in her hands. She could already feel a headache coming on and she'd always thought hangover didn't catch up with you until sunrise the day following the drowning of your consciousness.

Naruto snorted.

"Really, Ino, you shouldn't show so much gratitude for me taking the time of my day to make sure you don't make a complete fool out of yourself in public when actually I should have just sat back and enjoyed the spectacle—you're going to make me blush with your extreme flattery." He went over to her and sat on a chair opposite her.

The blond girl exhaled a calming breath before pulling her hands away from her face. She was so exhausted… and all she really wanted was to be left alone. How was she supposed to let herself break down for her loss properly when there was someone in the room to witness it? She was Yamanaka Ino—parentless Yamanaka Ino, as of today… or rather yesterday, since it was a bit past midnight—and she did not cry her eyes dry in front of others.

Especially not annoying chatterboxes like her 'pal' Naruto here.

"You want me to show gratitude? Alright, Naruto, gratitude it is you'll get."

He steeled himself for another snarky tirade. He could feel it coming.

"Thank you so much sparing me the embarrassment of being ogled for an entire night by a mob of lifeless drunkards and waking up next to someone whose name I won't remember in the morning. Thank you from taking me back from a hellhole of a pub back to my cozy little apartment where everything reminds me of the fact that my parents are no longer among the living and that it happened so suddenly I had no chance to say good-bye to them before they passed on."

Naruto blinked a few times, trying to digest what Ino was saying instead of focusing on how broken her eyes looked at that moment, glazed over from the countless shots she'd taken and the emotion just welled up in her whenever she talked about this. But it was too late to stop her now—she was on a row and it was his entire fault so he'd have to listen raptly, if just out of good manners.

"Thank you a million times over for taking care that I stay sober enough to want to hurt everyone and everything I lay eyes upon just because I'm bitter at the world in general instead of harmlessly slurp my booze on a counter. And, on a related note, I am most deeply sorry for going all PMS on you but, you see, the only two people who ever really loved me for who I am and supported me no matter how badly I screw up everything just up and died and all I could do was just brave the news without given the chance to get stark-raving drunk because this hypocrite of an acquaintance of mine thought he could ride in on his white horse and save me, the damsel in distress, and prove to the world what a good guy he was by refusing me the comfort of oblivion just because it's wrong for a lone girl to get stoned in a bar full of low-lives."

She got up from the sofa after she'd dropped the rock on him, her resent glaringly obvious in her cornflower blue eyes as she scrutinized him.

"I just can't thank you enough for all the wonderful things you did for me in this time of need. As a token of my appreciation, make yourself at home while I go freshen up, huh? We can have chocolate-chip cookies and talk about Academy old stories and get to know each other better now that we're all buddy-buddy like, you know?"

And with that she disappeared behind a door that he presumed was her bathroom. This left him to reevaluate what she'd just said and try to come up with an excuse for still sticking around at this point in time.

He hadn't really needed to come see her get in her apartment—not really. And perhaps his concern for her had been a bit selfish and inconsiderate of what her wishes might be. Instead of getting her pissed drunk and taking her back to her apartment he could have just sat quietly in his corner, sipping his drink and making sure no suspicious folks approached her until she passed out, when he could have carried her home without a hitch in plans—both their evenings would have been fine (or at least so they'd lie to themselves because there is a reason people seek out the glass) and everyone would be safe and happy.

The fact he was in the wrong about her wishes on the subject did not change that she'd been a royal bitch to him all the while, letting him know how much she resented his presence, and behaved freakishly rude, even for Yamanaka Ino.

Naruto sighed deeply. There was no longer any need for his help—there probably never was but there was just no way in hell he would have just left her there to drown her brains where anyone could take advantage of her fragile state of mind, kunoichi or not; it just went against his moral code, though they weren't exactly friends—and his staying was thus required no more. He'd been ridiculed, teased and insulted a few too many times that night and he'd been just as mean to her on many levels so that called for a time out.

Ino was in her apartment, would be soon in her bed, with no pressing threats to her well-being—his mission as a gentleman was complete. And it was a gentleman's duty to know when the appropriate time to leave was and, judging from the results of his chivalrous attempt to help, he'd need to work on that part of being a gentleman.

He pushed himself to his feet and went to Ino's closed bathroom door, knocking softly on it.

"I'll take my leave after I seem to have caused so much damage for one night, Ino-chan, and once again, you have my condolences and my sincerest apology." He sighed again, his shoulders slumping with the sigh. "I meant well, you should know that…" He stood, silent, awaiting any response from her, before venturing on, "Well… Bye then and take good care of your head because you'll have the mother of all hangovers tomorrow."

When there was still no reply—no sound of movement whatsoever too—from the opposite side of the door, he took the hint and took his leave.

It was odd, though, that Ino wouldn't gloat or at least throw a last insult at him before his departure. He'd already been nosy enough and if everything was alright in there she'd have his head for it…

Before he knew what had happened, he was already pushing down the handle of the bathroom door.

He winced at the sight that greeted his sore eyes. He knew that it was out of character, this silent treatment that she was giving him, and he had only known the girl for one night.

There, on the tastefully picked tiles lay sprawled the body of Yamanaka Ino, who was very much unconscious.

Massaging his brow, the young shinobi kneeled down to gather her limp body in his arms and get her in a more comfortable position that could assure some quality rest.

As he carried her through her eerily dark and quiet apartment, he noted how light she was, even though that was completely irrelevant to everything.

She could vaguely remember it was pitch black behind her eyelids before she opened them and it was still pitch black in her apartment when she awoke. The best part was she didn't remember falling asleep or closing her eyes in the first place. And she especially didn't remember crawling into her bed beneath the covers.

The last things she could recall—blurrily at best too—was throwing up all the booze that she'd drunk and rinsing her teeth before putting the brush down and looking at her reflection in the mirror. And afterwards… afterwards everything went black, which she could guess was her clue that she'd fainted, for whatever reason.

This fabricated explanation of the events following her biting down on Naruto's head a bit too severely than was absolutely necessary was plausible but certainly lacking. It did nothing to clarify why, for goodness' sake, she wasn't bleeding her brains out from knocking her head on the tiles from her fall or how she brought herself to her bed after fainting.

Because she knew for a fact she was no sleepwalker, especially after a night out at a bar.

On a not completely related topic, being afraid of the dark—which was currently surrounding her as the lights were off and it was well around the wee hours of the morning—had a great upside to it. You see, when you're wary and strained, all your senses amplify greatly and when you're a kunoichi that means you can see even the faintest of movements, hear the tiniest of sounds and feel even the slightest shift in the air in the room.

And thanks exactly to that monstrously amplified hearing Ino was able to catch perfectly the sound of someone stirring awake with a barely audible grunt by her bedside. When their sleepy gazes met—even through the total lack of light—all of her questions were answered immediately because there was no mistaking that silhouette.

"You're still here," she remarked coldly, her voice raspy from the mistreatment of her throat.

"I didn't plan on being…" Naruto appeared and sounded disoriented. He turned to massaging his temples for some tension relief. "I'm… sorry, I must have nodded off while just taking a breather." He got up very quickly for someone who'd just awoken from a very uncomfortable sleep in an armrest-less chair. "I'm leaving right away."

She was drunk, not stupid. Her mind was dimmed by the encroaching splitting headache but she could still do the very simple math.

"I put an aspirin for you on the nightstand and got you some water, y'know, for tomorrow—"

"Thank you, Naruto," she interjected, smiling at him and hoping he'd see. He looked a bit uncertain for a second and she almost laughed—humorlessly—at that before clarifying, "I'm really grateful, for… everything."

He made a face.

"Before… or after you passed out on your bathroom tiled floor?"

Now it was her turn to make a face but she passed on it.

"For everything, before and after." She made a pause, wondering how to phrase what she wanted to say for once that night—she'd insulted, both intentionally and not, this guy enough for one day. And, if she had to be honest with herself, he didn't quite deserve all of it—just most of the hell she gave him. "I'm… sure you meant well, even if—at any rate, thanks. For… being there."

Yamanaka Ino was a girl of many, many talents. If there was something she couldn't do naturally well at, she honed her skill at it until she was practically the best at it. But there were two things she really sucked at that she could—would—do nothing about: apologizing and thanking.

Expressing her real feelings had never really been easy for Ino. When the time came to do one of the two aforementioned, she became stiff and her words just couldn't come out of her mouth the way she wanted them to and it always became awkward afterwards.

Like it was at that same moment.

She could practically slice the silence with a knife—it was that tangible.

"You're welcome… Ino-chan," he finally said, his voice only slightly strained. "That's what friends are for, after all."

The blonde girl swallowed dryly, reverting her eyes to her tangled sheets in hopes of keeping the tears from spilling down her cheeks. She had the cover of the darkness, sure, but Naruto wasn't as dim as he made everyone else believe—she'd got to know at least that much tonight—and he was a good shinobi despite all her bitterness in that department about him as well and he'd hear her sniffs and suppressed sobs if she broke apart now, no matter how much she'd try to suppress the sound.

"Well," he began, making her head whip in his direction at her rapt attention, "I guess I better get going now, what with being really late with that unforeseen nap and all."

He laughed in good humor but she wasn't in the laughing mood, really. A sudden panic seized her that she couldn't even explain to herself but she knew that she couldn't let him go home then. If she fell in the darkness one more time she wasn't sure she'd be able to stand up again, not without her parents, not without her mentor, not with most of her friends off on missions all over the continent.

So she did the one thing that would certainly prolong his stay, if even because he'd be too shocked to do much. It was also the one most idiotic thing she could have come up at such a time in the circumstances that she was in.

She kissed Uzumaki bleeding Naruto. Fully; on the lips.

And she was right—he was too shocked to think about leaving. He was too shocked to even move. For about a couple of seconds.

He sprung out of his chair, as though scalded by the contact. He was looking incredulously at her.

"What the hell was that?!" All that he was left to do was start spitting indignantly as if something foul had made it to his mouth because he'd already added insult to injury by turning away so quickly from her. Not that she liked him like that but she was Yamanaka Ino, for Christ's sake! She was the To-Die-For girl of the former Rookie Nine.

"It was a kiss," she snapped back in indignation. She was not a person who handled rejection well. "What did it feel like?"

He was really still in shock though, because he made a sound an odd mixture between a snort and a wheeze that was definitely not coherent.

"I know what it was—why did you do it?" His shrill tone was drilling on her nerves. Her temper was sure to flare soon.

"I can kiss whomever I want, whenever I want to!" she declared confidently, crossing her arms over her chest.

"Two hours ago you were insulting me and now you're jumping me?"

Oh, yeah. Her temper was definitely getting the better of her.

"Well, sorry to say that my fancy is obviously easy to sway." She gave him one of those saccharine smiles that he'd seen only once and already despised in his guts.

"Mine isn't and you know I'm in love with Sakura-chan!" Ino rolled her eyes at that—and felt sorry for it because it made her head spin like there was no tomorrow.

"Naruto, repeating it aloud will not make it mutual, so you can stop embarrassing yourself now and let the past go." How did they always end up bickering? It was saddening, truly.

But one thing was sure—he wasn't going to leave anytime soon. The kiss served its purpose. Besides shaking her self-esteem a bit…

"Oh, that's definitely a great way of getting into someone's pants—go on and insult their "silly little crushes" or however you call it because you are so above such frivolous things like affection and compassion and the like, aren't you?"

"Believe it or not, Naruto, I am not emotionless." She scowled deeply before continuing. "And how can you actually call yourself a man? How can you prefer Billboard Brow over me? Look at me!" She stood up on her knees on the bed for emphasis. "I am every man's wet dream!"

The blond jounin shook his unruly haired head in disbelief.

"Well, you are not my wet dream. And where do you go off judging people's masculinity simply because they're not smitten with you? Just what is wrong with you today?"

It was immeasurably difficult to pretend that what he'd said hadn't struck a nerve. Hard. It was even more difficult to ignore the rest of what he'd said save for one thing which, for some reason, cut the deepest.

"Oh, am I now?" she muttered beneath her breath, changing tack too quick to slip his notice. "You prefer Forehead Girl over me?" It was as if she was talking to herself in low volumes—it was really demented and he didn't appreciate it. It was creeping him out. "And you believe that you love her?"

"I don't believe—I know and you should too – she's your best friend."

Ino was positively seething. On a night of death, she was reminded of a promise that she'd made before another loved one had died. She would not break that promise, the promise of her lifetime, and she would not lose to Sakura—at being a shinobi and in love. Even if she didn't want him that way or like him at all in that aspect (so she told herself).

So the blonde girl stood up and walked over to Naruto, circling around him under his suspicious gaze.

"What are you scheming now?"

"Don't make it sound as if I'm a terrible person with nothing better to do than to come up with stupid plans to get a rise out of people." She stopped in front of him, an indecipherable look in her eyes. She reached out and smoothed the inexistent wrinkles on his shirt. "I was just thinking of putting this 'in love with Sakura' theory to the test for you." She cocked her platinum haired head slightly to the side, making her messy ponytail get a little looser. "You know, just so you can say it confidently next time, I'll give you my best shot."

Naruto had been about to demand what she was raving on about before he was shoved into the nearest wall and pulled down by his neck into a searing kiss.

You see, Ino was a horribly sore loser. There were very few things she wouldn't do to win and it is a widely known fact that all is fair in love and war. And since she was having a competition in both with the wide forehead, she only saw it fitting to throw in some tongue play in there.

Her guinea pig though wasn't as ecstatic as she was about this whole deal. Uzumaki Naruto was a truly devoted boy and when he chose someone, he chose to last. Minor obstacles and setbacks would not hinder him from achieving his ultimate goal and when Sakura finally saw what he'd been seeing all along, it would all be worth it. No one believed it would happen but nobody had believed in his constant blather about becoming a Hokage and now half of Konoha was rooting for him as Rokudaime. Because he'd made it possible, because he'd made them believe, made them see what he'd always seen. Why should his love life be any different?

Therefore he considered himself spoken for which was the reason he was so irked by the fact someone he'd been just about ready to let into his life as a close friend—if even just because of her close relationship to the woman he loved with all his might—was letting her hands touch him in ways he'd rather she didn't.

She was all over him—exploring, kissing, ravishing and grinding. Clothes against clothes, chest against chest, she rubbed herself on him, showering passionate kisses all over his face and down his neck which was far more accessible to her given she was almost a head shorter than him. His body was starting to react but it would to anyone who behaved like that. He was a healthy twenty-two year old man, after all.

When her way too adventurous for his taste hands reached his belt and were about to make a go for it, though, he saw that it had to stop.

He grabbed both of her hands firmly, trying his best to keep from hurting her (though on a subconscious level he really wanted to… or not that subconscious). He gathered them in his left—he could hold both her tiny wrists with just one hand—and made her look at him with his other. His expression was a rare one of absolute seriousness.

"Ino… stop."

She pulled away slowly.

"You're just drunk and upset. It'll pass."

She shook her head vigorously before looking away. There were fresh tears in her eyes. She really didn't take well to rejection.

"This isn't what you want—it's just the alcohol you had speaking."

"Yeah, you're… absolutely right." They were strained and forced words. "I'm going to be just fine, like you said. It'll pass and then I'll… be great again."

If her voice hadn't cracked he would have believed she would. She was a really convincing liar, especially when she had her back to him.

Make no mistake—Uzumaki Naruto was spoken for, to a lady worth all his time and affections. But he was also a person who'd go to great lengths for the sake of his friends.

Even the newly acquired ones. Especially the newly acquired ones.

He took a step and then another until his chest was flush against her back. He inhaled deeply…

…And then lightly bent his neck to plant a tentative kiss on her exposed neck. Another followed it soon and by the third his hands were gently massaging her shoulders. And this time both noticed how much larger his palms were than hers—he could cover her entire shoulder with one of his hands easily. But the discovery was lost to yet another tender kiss that traveled a little farther up the column of her neck.

"Do you feel anything from that?" he asked her in a voice barely above a whisper in her ear.

Ino knew that there was some kind of right answer to that. She knew that and she just had to find it. Again, she was drunk, not stupid.

"Nothing," she returned in the same volume.

"See? That's all the proof you need to calm you down that it's just the alcohol." He smiled and backed away from her. She was unpleasantly aware of the disappearance of his body's warmth. It made her feel like she was in a freezing cold room instead of the comfy temperature of her abode.

She nodded and went to sit on her bed. Before her legs gave out beneath her for lying through her teeth. Before the flock of butterflies burst out of her tummy because this was not a little white lie she'd just said. Because, if that little stunt had been proof for anything, it was that it wasn't the alcohol speaking and that she needed to sit because she had a problem that hadn't been there before he'd sat down next to her at that bar.

"You'll be good as new tomorrow morning, I promise you that." He smiled reassuringly at her but she wasn't looking. He didn't let it faze him one bit though. "You just need to get some rest, is all."

Usually, this kind of discovery was cause of happiness, for giddiness and for excitement. Not in her case though. It was mortifying.

And the light that she'd been holding onto for the entire night like a drowning man to a lifeline was flickering and slipping away from her grip just like light always tended to do.

And she was horrified… Horrified of the darkness that she just noticed was embracing the whole room, the darkness that was encompassing her heart.

Ino pulled her knees up and embraced them with unsteady arms. Her companion noted that as well.

"I think I should get going now but if you need something—anything!—you know where to find me." He looked at her, as if to assure himself she'd be fine, before turning to go for the door.

But he didn't make it very far.

"Actually…" a shaky voice began, cracking under emotion. "There is something…"

He was back by her side in a breath—it was really amazing.

"What is it?" he asked in a hushed voice as he sat down next to her huddled figure.

She didn't say anything for a while, fighting an internal battle that she was bound to lose some day or another.

"This is going to be so humiliating…" She muttered to herself while burying her face in her knees.

"Well, if it will make you feel any better, I could share a ton of humiliating stories after that." He laughed lightly and she felt a bit more certain about saying what she wanted to say. He had the most mysterious of ways to make someone relax and it seemed he did it so naturally, soothe people's fears.

All the more reason to try to get this out of her system.

"Naruto…" She sounded like she was a hair's breadth away from a mental breakdown. "I'm just… so afraid."

He didn't know what to do with a crying girl—he really had hoped it wouldn't come to that. He knew the basics but he really sucked at consoling people.

"You're probably going to laugh at me…" She sniffed long and hard. "But I can't help it. I tried to fight it but it won't go."

"What won't?" he prompted, his voice lighter than ever before, coercing, coaxing, tentative not to be the last thing that would make the proverbial dam break.

She looked at him with tear-strained cheeks through the darkness of the room and he was taken aback. He would have never thought Ino capable of crying. Ino was… well, Ino and crying was for girls like Sakura, who were over-emotional and… delicate… fragile.

He'd just never considered Ino was as well.

"I'm so afraid of the dark, Naruto…" she whimpered, before starting to rock lightly back and forth onto her comfortable mattress.

It was true that Naruto was uncomfortable with showing affection and giving consolation. He knew what to do generally but he just didn't have it in him, the thing that made a good consoler.

In this case though, he spared no time gathering the small ball that Ino had curled into in his arms, resting his back against her bedpost and embracing her tightly while caressing her head gently.

Because Uzumaki Naruto was one of the people who were well acquainted to the dark and knew what it felt to be afraid of it, to be scared out of your wit about the monsters that might lurk in it.

He had been born in darkness and raised in it. But he refused to lose himself or any of his friends to it.

That night, Naruto stayed over at Ino's. And, unbeknownst to either of them, began to guide a stray soul back to shore, little at a time…

A/N: I have always wanted to have a story titled that and when I finally do, I am displeased with the way it comes out. I liked my initial idea which is why I took the project up despite all the piling stuff I have to do more but it just came out a bit wrong. I don't know… It came out well, just not spectacular, the way I had intended it to. And I just like interacting with my characters a bit too much and it comes off this long.

Just so we're in the clear, Naruto doesn't like Ino that way at current. He is just being an overly devoted and sympathetic friend.

Edit, 08/11/07: I finally read the thing over, added some minor things and generally I am more confident about letting people read it now. Hope you enjoyed your read.