AN: Oh my goodness! I've finally gotten around to finishing one of my chapter fics! I think I've learned a valuable lesson here, having more than one in-progress fic at a time it troublesome. I always felt that one or other of them was being neglected. Well, I can only hope that this was worth the wait. Thanks for reading everyone.
Sakura leaned her head against Naruto's shoulder as he steered her around a corner and into Konoha's shopping district.
Aside from the numerous stores and vendors that lined the street there were also a number of cafes and restaurants where weary shoppers could take a break.
His voice drifted down to her and she smiled; it still impressed her how much his voice had changed, no longer did he shout with the high-pitched voice of a twelve-year-old.
Naruto's voice was deep and smooth, and from her place pressed against his side, it reverberated through her frame, sending tingles down her spine.
"It's just at the end of the street Sakura-chan."
She nodded, "We don't need to hurry."
He chuckled, sending a thrill through her nerves, "Right, no hurrying here."
The evening was cool and the electric lights were sputtering to life in the gathering darkness; this time of the evening the shops were still open for business, and the area was busy with civilians and ninjas alike.
They fell into a comfortable silence, each lost in their own thoughts. The pink-haired kunoichi looked up at the darkening sky, content to let Naruto lead her.
Sakura paid little attention to the other people around them until she felt Naruto sigh heavily; he shifted at her side, shoving his free hand in his pocket.
She looked up at him, surprised by his sudden change in demeanor. His shoulders drooped for a moment then he took a deep breath and straightened up.
He stared straight ahead as they walked, his blue eyes shining with some emotion that she couldn't quite place.
She stared at him for a moment, confused when he refused to look at her, He has to have felt me staring at him. What's the matter with him?
She turned away from him, still holding his arm, and carefully examined their surroundings.
At first she saw nothing out of the ordinary; she searched the area for anything unusual and scanned the rooftops for any potential enemies, more out of habit than any real concerns for their safety.
Naruto twitched and her head snapped around to look at his face. She watched as his eyes flickered involuntarily to his left, before he set his jaw and forced his gaze forward once more.
Sakura's brows furrowed in confusion, but she followed the direction he had been looking, determined to find the source of the blond's discomfort.
It dawned on her slowly and she bit her lip; several of the villagers had crowded together to stare at Naruto and herself, gossiping to each other in hushed tones.
Sakura clenched her jaw and she felt her anger rising as she looked around. Her eyes hardened and she fought the urge to punch something; instead she tightened her hold on Naruto's arm and one of her hands slid down to his and caught his fingers in hers.
She felt him relax slightly and he looked down at her, "Sakura-chan..."
Sakura smiled up at him, "It's nice out tonight isn't in Naruto?"
He blinked down at her, then smiled, "Yeah it is Sakura-chan."
She leaned her head against his shoulder once more and he squeezed her hand, "Hey Naruto..." she bit her lip, "You know, maybe we should go to Ichiraku's after all."
Naruto shook his head, "No, that's okay Sakura-chan." he grinned, "I promised you something other than ramen, and I always keep my promises."
She laughed, "That's right. Forget I mentioned it."
Naruto steered her towards a restaurant with several customers eating out front and soft light streaming out through the open front door.
They walked inside and a waitress smiled at them as she approached, but before she could say anything they were greeted by a chorus of shouts from the back of the room.
The waitress scowled in irritation at the rowdy group but Sakura and Naruto smiled at their friends, who were enthusiastically waving them over.
Naruto grinned, all traces of his discomfort forgotten, "Do you want to join them Sakura-chan?"
She pulled away to look at his face, then shrugged, "They've already seen us, we can't leave without at least saying hi." she pulled on him, leading him towards the table, "Besides, I'm still hungry.'
Naruto trailed along behind her, "Good point."
Ino jumped up and put her hand on Sakura's shoulder, "Hey Sakura, glad you decided to join us." she leaned around the other kunoichi and smiled, "Hey Naruto, how'd your mission go?"
Naruto leaned around Sakura's shoulder and gave her a thumbs-up, "Excellent. A complete success."
The other blond smiled, "Glad to hear it." she looked back at Sakura with her eyebrows raised, "You two came here together to get dinner didn't you?"
Sakura smiled warily, "Yes, we did. What of it Ino?"
The taller girl grinned mischievously, "Oh nothing. I was just thinking that the two of you have been spending a lot of time together lately. Well, even more than usual anyway, and I was wondering if there was something going on that I didn't know about..."
She leaned in close to Sakura as she spoke, and Sakura smiled right back at her, without blinking, "Yes, Naruto and I enjoy spending time together, but I thought you already knew that Ino."
Naruto sputtered incoherently from behind Sakura and looked pleadingly at Ino's teammates. Shikamaru sighed and nodded to the blond, "Ino will you sit down already? I'd like to enjoy my meal in peace."
Chouji grinned and shoved some rice into his mouth, not wanting to be put in the middle, but Ino settled for grinning knowingly at the irritated Sakura, then slid back into the booth beside Shikamaru, "Scoot over Shikamaru and make some room, don't make them stand there all night."
Shikamaru rolled his eyes, but obeyed, motioning for Chouji to move over as well, the larger boy complied, carefully dragging his dinner plate across the table with him.
Naruto stepped back and offered the seat to Sakura, intending to be a gentleman, but she shook her head and gently pushed him towards the booth.
He shot her a confused look, but she smiled sheepishly at him and gave him a little nudge, "Go ahead Naruto."
Naruto shrugged, then sat down and slid closer to Ino, making room for Sakura. She slid onto the seat beside him, and almost immediately regretted putting him between Ino and herself.
The other kunoichi had slung her arm across his shoulders and was pressed to his side talking to him in a hushed voice and sending pointed looks in Sakura's direction.
Naruto grimaced and Sakura felt her inner self roar to life, filling her with irritation at the sight of her teammate in her rival's arms.
She closed her eyes, trying to control her temper, She's goading me, she's trying to piss me off.
It's working isn't it?
She's had a lot of practice.
She brewed silently for a moment as Naruto blushed and he tried, unsuccessfully to extract himself from Ino's grasp.
Sakura couldn't hear what her friend, sometimes-rival, was saying, but she saw Shikamaru roll his eyes, and Naruto tried to stutter a reply.
"I-ino-chan, I don't think-"
Sakura clenched her hands on the table causing the wood to crack, "Ino, do you have to hang all over him?" their eyes met and Naruto slouched in his seat as they glared at one another, "If you want some one to hold on to, stick to your own teammates and leave mine alone."
Shikamaru grimaced, "Oh no! Don't bring me into this!"
Chouji nodded enthusiastically and shoved some more food into his mouth, "Right, this has nothing to do with us."
Ino wrinkled her nose at him, "Gross Chouji. How many times do I have to tell you not to talk with your mouth full?"
Chouji swallowed and frowned at her, "Sheesh Ino, you sound like my mom."
The blond rolled her eyes, "Have you ever thought of listening to her?"
Chouji shrugged and muttered something that only Shikamaru seemed able to understand. Ino rolled her eyes then turned back to Naruto and glared defiantly at Sakura, "At least Naruto doesn't chew with his mouth open!"
Shikamaru rolled his eyes once more and turned his attention back to his meal, "You guys are so noisy. Shut up so they don't kick us out of here."
Ino waved him off without taking her eyes off of Sakura's captive teammate.
Sakura scooted closer to Naruto and poked him in the ribs; forcing his attention back to her, "What are you ordering Naruto?"
Naruto looked over at her, trying to ignore the kunoichi on his other side, "umm, I haven't really had a chance to look at the menu yet."
The other blond coyly pushed her hardly touched plate in front of him, "That's alright Naruto. You can share with me," her eyes met Sakura's daring her to take the challenge.
Sakura barely contained the growl that was rising in her throat, "Here Naruto," she pushed an open menu into his face, blocking his view of the rest of the table, Ino included, "I was thinking of getting the tuna rice balls and the chicken dango."
Ino pushed them menu down, away from Naruto's face and grinned evilly at the other kunoichi, "Careful Sakura. You wouldn't want to put on any extra pounds."
Sakura glared at Ino and leaned menacingly towards her. Naruto grimaced and sank further down in his seat, clearly not comfortable acting as the girls' newest battle ground, "Sakura-chan, Ino-chan..."
Sakura slammed her hand down on the table causing the dishes to rattle and leaned across Naruto's lap to glare into Ino's ice-blue eyes, "You shouldn't worry about me Ino, but if you need a hand then I can help you work off some of those excess calories that you're smothering Naruto with."
Chouji almost choked on his food as his head snapped up to watch his teammate's reaction; even Shikamaru stopped eating to watch as the two kunoichi smiled nastily at one another with veins pulsing in their foreheads.
The boys watched the scene with raised eyebrows, waiting for the inevitable torrent of anger and insults that always followed the girl's taunting.
Sakura opened her mouth, but she was interrupted when Kiba appeared over the back of the booth and leaned on Naruto's head, crossing his arms over the golden blond hair, "Hey everyone! How's it going?"
Naruto looked up at him through his bangs and sighed in relief at the Inuzuka's timely interruption, "Kiba!"
Akamaru jumped up next to his master, his front paws resting on the back of the seats, and the wood groaned under his weight, "Woof!"
Naruto grinned and reached back to pat the giant dog's head, "I didn't forget about you Akamaru."
Shino walked up behind his boisterous teammate and nodded in greeting, "Hello everyone."
Kiba laughed, "I'm starving, I hope you don't mind if we join you." the dog-ninja pushed himself up then swung his legs over the back of the seat attempting to wedge himself between Naruto and Ino.
Ino was forced to pull away from Naruto to avoid being squished by the overzealous chunnin, "Hey watch it dog-boy!"
Kiba ignored her and heedlessly squeezed himself in; the addition of another person in the already full booth pushed Naruto into Sakura and she yelped as she was pushed to the edge of the seat.
At the last moment Naruto caught her arm and pulled her against his side to keep her from falling onto the hard wooden floors.
She looked up at him and he smiled at her, "Sorry about that Sakura-chan."
Sakura smiled back at him, then looked past both Naruto and Kiba to get a look at her fellow medic nin.
She smirked in satisfaction at the irritated look on Ino's face; the other kunoichi was glaring at Kiba who was chatting away with Chouji in blissful ignorance.
As Shino pulled up a chair from an unoccupied table the waitress appeared with refills for team ten and took the orders of the newcomers then bustled away through the busy dining room.
Unable to continue their bickering across two people, Ino and Sakura settled into conversation with the boys as they ate.
Sakura watched Naruto out of the corner of her eye; he was grinning as he told them all a story from his time traveling with Jiraiya.
She couldn't help but smile as he gestured exuberantly, It's not often he goes into details about that.
Naruto laughed, "So after the entrance was clear I used a henge to switch the bath signs. The old pervert wasn't even paying attention because he was so focused on finding a good place to spy from. He ran around the side of the baths and found himself looking into a bath filled with a bunch of old guys! The look on his face was so funny!"
The table erupted with laughter, and Ino patted Kiba hard on his back because he had begun to choke on his food.
The blond wiped a stray tear from her eye, "It serves him right!"
Naruto nodded, "It was the perfect payback. That guy didn't know he was messing with the best prankster in Konoha!"
Chouji chuckled as he waved his chopsticks at the shorter ninja, "I'm not sure that's something to be proud of Naruto."
Sakura playfully elbowed her teammate, "It does come in handy when setting up traps though."
Shino pushed his ever-present sunglasses higher up on the bridge of his nose, "Fun and dangerous hm?"
Chouji grinned, "What's the difference?"
They sat chatting amiably as the other patrons trickled out into the chilly night air and they were finally forced to leave when their waitress informed them that the restaurant was closing.
Together they walked along the nearly empty streets of Konoha still enjoying one another's company.
Shino and Kiba were the first to leave the group, both waving over their shoulders as they sprang off in different directions.
Sakura and Naruto were walking side by side as they came to a deserted cross-street and team ten paused to say their good night's before they parted ways.
Shikamaru turned to Naruto, "Well, this is where we get off. I assume that you're going to walk Sakura home?"
Naruto nodded, "Yeah, don't worry about us."
Sakura blinked at the exchange, "What the heck are you guys talking about? That's a really round about way for you to get home Shikamaru."
Ino pulled her aside and whispered into the other kunoichi's ear, "They insist on walking me home when we're out late. I think it's kind of cute actually." she giggled, "It's funny that we can go into battle with them, but they don't like us walking home alone at night."
Sakura rolled her eyes, but she couldn't help but smile at the boy's odd sense of chivalry, "That's guys for you. They make no sense."
Shikamaru called to Ino and the blond walked to his side, "Yeah, yeah, sorry to keep you from your beauty sleep Shikamaru."
She turned and winked at her pink-haired friend, "See you tomorrow Sakura. Have fun you two."
Naruto waved to their friends and began walking again; Sakura followed him without thinking, falling into her usual place at his side.
He turned and smiled down at her, "Well, that was different from our usual routine. Did you have fun Sakura-chan?"
She nodded enthusiastically, "Yes, did you?"
He gave her a thumbs up, "I always have fun with you Sakura-chan."
Naruto shoved his hands into his pockets and smiled to himself as he walked the familiar path towards Sakura's home.
She walked quietly by his side, trying to sort through the strange feelings that he had stirred up in her heart.
He was about to turn the corner onto her street when she grabbed him by the arm and pulled him down a side street towards the park.
Naruto stumbled after her, "What's wrong Sakura-chan?"
She looked back at him and smiled, "I just decided that I didn't want to go home yet. I'd rather go for a walk." she grinned, "You wouldn't leave a lady all alone in the middle of the night would you?"
He laughed, quickening his pace so he was walking by her side, "Of course not." he gestured in the direction that they were heading, "Lead the way."
Sakura clasped her hands behind her back as they strolled along the moonlit path.
She took a deep breath to collect her thoughts then turned to her teammate, "Naruto, do you ever wonder why we search so desperately for Sasuke-kun?"
Naruto's head snapped around and he stared at her, "I—huh?"
She smiled sadly at him, "I mean, we're happy like this aren't we?" she looked into his eyes, her expression pleading with him to say it was true, "We can be happy with just the two of us can't we?"
He blinked at her, hoping he could give her the answer she needed, "We can be happy. We are happy, but he's our teammate. Our friend. You miss him, don't you?"
Sakura sighed, "I do. It just seems like we've spent the last three years chasing his shadow. We're risking our lives looking for him, and I can't help but wonder if Jiraiya-sama and Tsunade-sama are right about letting go of him."
Naruto frowned, "They gave up on Orochimaru and look what happened. He was a danger to them, himself, and Konoha. A lot of people suffered because of him," he looked at his feet as he spoke, "I don't want to see Sasuke end up like that creep."
Sakura shuddered at the thought of their raven-haired teammate following the same path as the snake-sannin, "I know, but, I was just thinking; if you died chasing after him; even if you managed to bring him home in the process, I could never be happy again. What would be the point of you losing your life to bring back someone who doesn't want to be here in the first place?"
He looked back at her, surprised, "You don't think you could be happy? Just you and him?"
She shook her head sadly, "No, not anymore. I'm not the stupid little girl that I used to be." she smiled at him, "I don't think he would be happy with that either."
Naruto ran a hand through his untamed hair and chuckled, "You think so? Sometimes I wonder..."
Sakura stretched her arms above her head, "Yeah, I think so." she paused, considering her words, "As I grew up I looked back on our time together and I realized that the one person who always understood me, the one person I was always able to count on was you."
Naruto sheepishly rubbed the back of his head, "Sakura-chan..." he turned away from her and looked out into the darkness, "We'll find him Sakura-chan."
She stopped and stared at his back; he walked a few more paces before he realized that she had stopped and turned back to face her, "I'll always be here for you Sakura-chan. As long as we stick together and don't give up, we'll be okay."
Sakura beamed at him, "You're right." she reached for his hand and entwined her fingers with his, "I knew I could talk to you. I was beginning to feel like we were just going in circles, but I feel encouraged now."
He grinned at her, "That's the spirit Sakura-chan! We'll get stronger and no one will be able to stand in our way!"
Sakura smiled, "How is it you are always so confident Naruto?"
Naruto chuckled, "Not always Sakura-chan. But what good does it do to give up?"
She smiled up at him, "Yeah, you're right."
They resumed their walk in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Sakura plucked a flower from a bush as she walked past it and idly twirled it in her fingers.
Now would be the time to tell him.
How you feel. You know you can talk to him about anything.
That's different. I'm not sure I'm ready to tell him yet.
Afraid? You already know how he feels about you.
She sighed and absently stroked the petals of the flower, There's just so much going on right now...
Exactly. Who knows if he'll still be here tomorrow?
Sakura shuddered at the thought of losing her closest friend, No, I'll protect him this time.
Naruto watched Sakura out of the corner of his eye as she toyed with the flower; she seemed to be deep in thought, but he couldn't even begin to guess what could be weighing so heavily on her mind after their last conversation.
I should tell her how I feel.
She already knows, you tell her all the time.
I want her to know that there are people who care about her.
What good would it do? You already know how she feels about you.
I can live with that as long as she knows I would do anything for her.
He sighed and kicked a pebble from his path, I just don't know how to make her see how much I care.
You never give up do you?
Naruto smiled to himself, Nope.
He looked over at the pink-haired kunoichi, "Sakura-chan?"
Sakura carefully pulled a petal from the flower and let it float to the ground, "Hmm?"
Naruto fidgeted with the zipper on his jacket, "Don't forget that I'm here for you."
She pulled another petal from the flower and turned to look at him, "I know Naruto." she smiled, "Thanks"
He stopped and stared at his feet as he shuffled the dirt, "Sakura-chan. You know I really like you right? I know you don't feel the same way, and that's okay, I'm still gonna keep my promises."
The remains of the flower fluttered to the ground as her hands fell to her sides, "Naruto..." she gazed at him for a moment then took a step forward and wrapped her arms around his torso, "You're so dramatic sometimes."
Naruto was surprised by the sudden movement but he slid his arms around her shoulders and held her tight, as much for his own comfort as hers.
She leaned back against his arms, "As long as we're together there's no way that I could forget how you feel." she grinned, "But you better not forget how I feel either."
Naruto tilted his head in confusion, "How do you feel Sakura-chan?"
She smiled and pulled out of his arms as she turned and began walking further into the park, "Good question."
The blond ninja gaped at her back, "...huh?"
Her soft laughter drifted back to him and he jogged to catch up to her as she turned off the main path and plunged into the foliage, "Sakura-chan! Where are you going?"
She paused to let him catch up to her, he slowed to a walk as he drew closer then looked down at the smiling woman.
Sakura twirled her hair with her finger, "I'm not sure; does it matter?"
He laughed, "I guess not; you're really confusing me tonight Sakura-chan."
She ducked under a branch, "Sorry, I've been a bit confused myself lately." she turned to smile at him, "You know, if we stay out much later we'll be having breakfast together too."
Nauto leaned past her to push a low-hanging limb out of their path, "Did you have something particular in mind?"
She shook her head, "No," she shot him a mischievous grin, "I was just thinking that it would put Ino into overdrive gossip mode. If she finds out that we spent all night together then she'll be dying to know what went on."
Naruto chuckled, "Let me guess, you're gonna make sure she hears about it."
Sakura laughed, "Of course! The only way it would be better is if we went back to your place. That would really push her over the edge."
He blushed, "S-sakura-chan..."
She rolled her eyes at him, "Geez Naruto. It wouldn't be the first time we spent the night together!" she smiled playfully at the blond.
"Saukra-chan! That's different, that was on missions!" he laughed, "Besides, if Tsunade-baa-chan thought I had done something perverted she would kick the crap out of me and Ero-sennin."
She patted him on the shoulder, "Hahaha, I don't think you need to worry about that, she knows I would do it myself first."
Naruto grimaced, "That's scary..."
They jumped over a bush and back out onto the walkway.
Naruto sighed as he looked out at the dock; the moonlight shimmered on the water and an image of Sasuke, hugging his knee as he sat all alone on the edge of the dock flooded his mind.
He closed his eyes, letting the memories wash over him as guilt tugged at his heart, I should have said something then. Then neither of us would have had to be alone.
Like he would have accepted that. Proud bastard.
Heh, yeah. But I still should have tried.
He opened his eyes and looked over at his teammate; her sea-foam eyes were filled with guilt as she stared at the faded wood of the dock, and tears at the corners of her eyes sparkled in the moonlight.
Naruto sighed once more and put his arm around her shoulders, "I'm sorry Sakura-chan."
She wiped the tears from her eyes as she looked up at him, "For what?"
He smiled sadly at her, "For making you wait. I'll keep my promise for sure. Please, just believe in me"
Sakura smiled, "I know, you never have to apologize for that, I do believe in you." she patted his arm, "Besides, this time I'm helping too, I'll be by your side."
She turned her body towards his and he curled his arm around her as she leaned up against him.
He watched in confusion as her hand slid up his other arm and to his neck; her heart was pounding in her ears as she lifted her heels off the ground slightly and pulled his face close to hers.
Naruto blushed at how close she was, "Uh, Sakura-chan--"
He froze as she closed her eyes and pressed her lips to his. His eyes widened in shock then he forced himself to relax in her arms and he leaned closer, gently pressing his lips tighter against hers.
After a short moment she pulled back and looked up at him, her eyes shining with affection, "Naruto..." she smiled at him, "I'm still confused...I-I'm not sure what I'm feeling, but," she hugged him, "Can you keep waiting for me while I figure it out?"
He grinned down at her, his face still flushed with pleasure, "You know I will."
Ino flicked her hair back over her shoulder as she poured water into the vase of roses that stood by the counter.
The bell over the door jingled and she looked up to see an excited Tenten rushing towards her, "Oh, hey, good morning. What's going on Tenten?"
The older kunoichi put her hands on her shoulders shaking the blond in her excitement, "Ino! You're not going to believe it! When I saw I just had to run over here right away to tell you!"
Ino blinked at her, "What happened?"
Tenten took a deep breath, "I just saw Sakura and Naruto leaving his apartment together!"
Ino rolled her eyes, "So? They're teammates, they're at each other's places all the time."
Tenten grinned, "True, but I head Sakura say, 'Thanks for letting me spend the night Naruto. I had fun.'"
Ino gasped, "No way!" she clapped her hands together, "I knew it! I knew there was something going on! Did they say anything else?"
Tenten shrugged in resignation, "I thought that was pretty juicy on its own. But, no they didn't say anything else, they started talking about where to go for breakfast."
Ino sighed, "Oh man, I need to know what happened! I wonder if I would have an easier time getting it out of Naruto or forehead girl..." she trailed off, plotting her approach.
Tenten waved to her as she walked towards the door, "Well, I have to get to a mission I just thought you would want to know."
Ino waved half-heartedly at the other girl, still lost in thought, "Yeah, later."
Tenten walked out of the shop and turned around a corner where Naruto and Sakura were doubled over with laughter.
She smiled down at them, "How was that?"
Sakura looked up at the other girl, tears streaming from her eyes as she struggled to breathe through her laughter, "T-that was perfect!"
Tenten held out her hand, "My payment?"
Naruto reached into his back pocket and tossed her a small package, "Haha, there you go, a brand new set of kunai." he wiped a tear from his eye, "Thanks Tenten, you were awesome!"
Tenten laughed as she twirled the package in her hands, "Of course, thanks for the kunai. Let me know if you need anything else, but the fee will be the same."
They watched her walk away, then turned back to each other and collapsed into laughter once more.
Naruto put his arm around Sakura's shoulder, "You're pretty good at this."
She leaned on him, "I know! I should have taken this up years ago."
AN: I love it when Sakura and Ino argue, and I could totally see her messing with Naruto to tick her off. It took me FOREVER to write this. I just wasn't happy with it no matter what I did. I'm pretty satisfied with it now, but I have to say my favorite part is Ino picking on Sakura. It was tough because I had a lot of ideas that I wanted to cover. I hope it was okay everyone. I welcome any feedback. Thanks!