Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto's cute little tush. I still cry myself to sleep over it. Enjoy!
The Best Dates are the Cheap Ones
Konoha's annual Matsuri no Otsuki was just two days away and the streets were abuzz with the excited chatter and giggling of Konoha's women as they rushed from shop to shop, squabbling over kimonos and comparing each other's dates. The odd thing about this scene was that these were not civilian women; these were kunoichi. The female warriors were not oft known for frivolous expenditure or gossip, more likely to spend time in the field or on grueling missions battling enemy ninja. Not the most graceful of lifestyles.
This was exactly why the Matsuri no Otsuki was introduced over fifty years ago. It was a day that could pass for the equivalent of Valentine's Day—except without all the love—celebrated every year on the last day of September for ninja over the age of sixteen. The day would revolve around one romantic date that the kunoichi's escort would be responsible for planning. Often the women would wait for a shinobi lover or friend to ask them, but it wasn't uncommon for a kunoichi to choose a civilian escort.
A nice idea...but like all traditions, this one evolved into something a little less symbolic. The years turned and it eventually grew into a competition of sorts: whoever could find a guy to take them on the most expensive date would "win". Of course, nothing corporeal was won for the victor, just the knowledge that they had the best taste in men. The richest. The classiest.
And it was for this reason alone that Yamanaka Ino stood behind the counter of her family's flower shop with her arms crossed and lightly glossed lips turned down in a scowl. She was young, she was beautiful, and now that she was finally old enough to participate...she didn't have a date!
Ino wasn't the complete ditz she acted like from time to time; she knew that there were some people that may call her arrogant or self-centered or even shallow. But those couldn't have been the reasons for her lack of callers in the last week—she was still hot and that was all that mattered. Right?
She shook her head, long blonde ponytail swinging from side to side by the motion, and tried to focus on her mission of convincing her last hope to save her from the humiliation of missing her first Matsuri.
She shouldn't have been forced to do this, but nearly everyone else she knew had already had a date. Chouji had asked a kunoichi who was originally in their class but graduated a year after them. Kiba asked Hinata. Shino was on a mission with his father (though she probably wouldn't consider him an option anyway due to the bugs). Tenten and Lee were going together because Neji refused to participate in such a "frivolous event". No doubt Naruto had somehow convinced Sakura to go with him. That left her with Shikamaru as a last resort—sure, he may not have been particularly rich or classy, but he was quickly become a highly respected shinobi. A decent enough option.
Sadly, he would not comply with her wishes.
"Tch, for the last time Ino, I can't ask you..."
He dropped the prearranged orchids and freesias on the counter and waited expectantly for her to ring them up. She stared at the bouquet but didn't move. Comprehension dawned on her.
"It's because she's here isn't it," the blonde accused. Her fingers made no movements towards the cash register.
"Will you please just ring me up?" Shikamaru sighed, not meeting the hard glare she tried to smother him with.
"They're for her, aren't they?" she continued, jealousy rising high. "She's not even from Konoha!"
His eyebrow twitched, his patience wearing thin. "You suck at your job, you know that? Just ring them up, troublesome woman..."
Sabuko Temari...oh how Ino wanted to rip each and every spiky pigtail off that stupid, sandy head. Why did she have to be in Konoha this week?
Grabbing the bouquet roughly off the counter, the fuming young woman began to furiously punch in the numbers on the tag.
"Shikamaru, who am I supposed to go with?" she griped as if the entire situation was now his fault. In her mind, it was.
Shikamaru sighed for what seemed like the umpteenth time at the way she manhandled his purchase and rubbed the bridge of his nose, "Why did you turn down all the guys who asked you in beginning of the month? You wouldn't even be in this situation if you weren't so picky."
"Duh," the young woman said with a flip of her hair, "I was playing hard to get! It was supposed to get the attention of some older shinobi. Preferably a jounin..."
Shikamaru looked dumbfounded.
"Why—? Ugh, you know what? Never mind. It's your own fault for assuming a tactic as pathetic as that would work out. You can be so shallow sometimes."
Anger welled within her. Most of it was irrational and directed at Shikamaru for not coming through as her last resort, but also at the painful truth that what she did was rather shallow. She didn't need that pointed out to her and she most certainly did not need her failure shoved in her face.
"Don't act like you're so much better than me," Ino spat out, begrudgingly accepting the money he offered her. "It's not like you're going to ask Temari because you like her."
Shikamaru didn't respond to the accusation. He just grabbed his purchase and walked out of the store.
Two doors down from the Hokage's office, in a small study filled with medical scrolls and training worktables, a similar conversation was in motion.
"Aw come, on Sakura-chan, please?" a fifteen-year-old blonde boy begged with pleading blue eyes. He sat on one of the cleared worktables, swinging his feet back and forth as his pleas went unheard.
"It will be fun, I promise!"
"Naruto, I go out to ramen with you all the time. It will really be a waste of my time," the young medic exhaled as she shuffled through some scrolls, trying to appear busy in a poor rouse to avoid looking at him.
If she had been looking she would have seen Naruto recoil as though struck.
"A waste of your time, huh?" he remarked belatedly. Sakura winced at the strained hurt in his voice and made a desperate attempt to remedy the rejection.
"You know that's not what I meant. It's just...you're fifteen, that's too young. You have to be sixteen to ask someone." They both knew she grasped at straws by this point.
"But you could ask me," Naruto pointed out the obvious. He was, if nothing else, determined.
Sakura knew there was no escaping it—the real reason she couldn't spend the holiday with him. She took a breath and turned away from the scrolls, preparing herself to hurt him in a way she really didn't want to.
"Look, Naruto, the truth is...the Fire Lord is coming to town, and he's someone who Tsunade-shishou owes quite a bit of money to. And...well...as the Hokage's apprentice I kind of promised her I'd let his son take me out for the Matsuri..."
A part of her did feel bad for neglecting Naruto like this; she knew it wasn't fair for her to be out having a good time while he sat at home uninvited, but this was a festival originally created for Kunoichi. He could survive one night by himself without nagging her to get ramen with him or to try and wrestle in another hour of training. Naruto would just have to deal with the fact that she was going to give her attention to another boy. Honestly, it was just one night!
"I see..." Naruto's exuberance from earlier had dulled. The son of the Fire Lord would probably be able to take Sakura on the best date money could buy—which was exactly what he thought she deserved. He knew he didn't have a lot of money and he knew he wasn't the most charming of guys or the best looking...all in all he didn't have a lot to offer a girl for a festival such as this. How could he compare to a noble when the entire point of the holiday was to take the girl out on the best date possible?
"Well, if it will make Sakura-chan happy, I'll be happy!" he declared, his eyes were closed and his smile was strained at the corners of his lips. It wasn't the most sincere of smiles but his teammate appreciated the effort all the same.
"Thank you Naruto," she said in a soft voice, reaching out and touching his arm lightly, "for understanding. I'll make it up to you, alright?"
He opened his eyes in shock at the unexpected contact. He tried to control the blood rising to his cheeks but it was hard with the way she gazed at him in such a caring manner. He had only seen her look at Sasuke like that before...
He cleared his throat and turned his eyes away from her.
"Uh...right, well, I better get going. Got a lot of training and all that..." He hopped off the table and quickly maneuvered around his teammate. "Have fun on your date Sakura-chan!"
He gave her a wave over his shoulder and slipped out of the room. Sakura bit her lip as the door glided to a close, the guilt increasing by the second with his too-easy acceptance.
Naruto stuffed his hands in his pockets as he strolled out of the administration building. That certainly didn't go as planned. He frowned, thinking back to certain parts of the conversation. Did she honestly think he would take her to Ichiraku's on a date-date? Even he had better sense than that. Girls liked surprises...and wasn't he known for being the number one surprising ninja?
A flash of purple from the corner of his eye drew his attention away from the depressing thoughts. He spotted Ino sitting on a bench all by herself. Her legs were crossed at the ankles and her ponytail was thrown over the front of her left shoulder where she continued to fiddle with the fine, blonde ends. She stared at the same patch of dirt between her feet in an unfocused trance.
The mind-walker jolted to awareness when a body landed heavily besides her, shocking her out of her thoughts. She couldn't complain; they weren't particularly pleasant thoughts. She mostly dwelled on her single status for the festival.
"Naruto?" she questioned, blinking a bit in the sunlight to get a better look at her once-rival's teammate. The other blonde was in his off-duty clothes: a pair of black shorts and a white T-shirt with the leaf sigma. He grinned at her as he made himself comfortable on the other end of the bench; he leaned back against the armrest and slung one arm over the top of the bench.
"Hey, Ino. What'cha doing by yourself over here?"
Ino blew her bangs out of her eye, debating on whether or not to tell Naruto her problem. The urge to let out all her feelings and frustrations were overwhelming and here was a willing victim. She looked at him for any sign of dishonesty or insincerity but he just stared right back with wide, blue eyes. Naruto was pretty earnest looking and she supposed it couldn't hurt to confide in someone...
The young woman had no idea how it happened, but somehow, once she started talking, she couldn't stop. She ended up blurting out everything, from her plan to get an older, more experienced ninja to take her out, to Shikamaru's rejection. She voiced her fears of being ridiculed for not having a date and how her first Matsuri would be pathetic and reflect poorly on her social status. Amazingly enough, Naruto sat through it all listening patiently and attentively—his eyebrows rose appraisingly at the mention of her plan and he nodded sympathetically at Shikamaru's rejection.
"...Tenten with Lee and you'll be going with Sakura and I'll be all alone!" she finished in a near-whine. Naruto took a moment to digest everything that had been thrown at him in a rush, deciphering her last sentience.
"No...I'm not going with Sakura-chan," he said, his voice flat. Ino looked at him in surprise.
"What? But I thought—why not? Wouldn't she be the first person you would ask?"
Naruto shrugged one shoulder, looking uncomfortable.
"I'm too young to ask anyone, I'm still fifteen, remember?"
"I didn't think that would stop you..."
"It didn't," he admitted, "but that was one of her excuses."
"Forehead's not being a bitch to you, is she?" Ino asked threateningly after hearing such a pathetic excuse. Seriously, the academy days were gone and over, Naruto was one of their friends now and turned out to be a pretty cool guy. Her own unnecessary bitchiness had evaporated as she matured and she had thought Sakura's had as well, especially considering the two were teammates.
"No, no, nothing like that," he assured her with hastily waved hands. Even as he said it, Sakura's earlier words rang in his head.
'...waste of my time...'
"She already has a date," he continued, now looking up at the clear blue sky. It was much too nice of a day to be feeling so shitty.
"What?" Ino said a little too quickly. Who else could forehead be going with? "Is it Sai?"
Sai! She almost smacked herself in the head just as the words left her mouth. Why didn't she think of him before?
Naruto closed his eyes and shook his head.
"The Fire Lord's son," he replied quietly.
"...WHAT?" Ino cried again. She nearly leapt from her seat. Naruto winced and drew back, rubbing at his smarting eardrum. "Forehead's going with the Fire Lord's son? How the hell did she land a date like that?"
Her companion repressed a scowl. "Tsunade-baba made her promise apparently."
Ino would have loved to embrace the jealousy of Sakura possibly getting the best date out there—the guy was loaded after all, he could take her anywhere—and stew in her own rage, but one look at Naruto's face and she knew she couldn't bring herself to make him feel any lower.
"Well...I bet it will be really awkward," she said falsely. "Yeah, they don't even know each other so..."
Naruto gave her a look that told her to stop trying before he smiled and shrugged.
"It's alright; I guess it can't be helped anyway. This is Sakura-chan's first Matsuri so it should be the best. And I...I can't give her the best."
Ino stared at him partly in wonder and partly in sympathy. How could a guy be so selfless, even during heartache?
"Hey, Ino," he interrupted. Not wanting to hear any word of pity or the like, he threw out a hasty suggestion, "Since you don't have a date, could—I mean, maybe I could, uh, be your escort?"
The blonde beauty looked at him—first in shock at the sudden proposal, then in a more evaluated manner, as if sizing him up. He was cute enough in his own right, she admitted to herself, especially with his hair down and his bangs hanging in his face. That and he had really beautiful eyes; she had always thought so, even when they were little kids. The whiskers were really quite endearing and despite his faults he had a pretty sweet disposition. It wasn't a total loss on her part.
'It's not like I have any more options,' she thought, though she wasn't mean enough to voice it out loud.
"Really?" If anything, Naruto looked even more shocked than she did when he first asked her. It made her wonder just how often he was used to rejection. "Great! Wow, okay...then I'll see you in a couple days. Meet me here around six, okay?"
The bench was conveniently an equal distance between their homes. They both stood from their seat.
"Sure," she said as politely as she could, trying to hide the disappointment she couldn't help but feel at the same time.
"Thanks, Ino, you'll have a really great time, I promise," Naruto assured her, not seeming to notice her subdued demeanor. He turned in the direction of his apartment and began to jog away. "Bye!"
Ino sighed as she began her short trek home. Well, at least now she had a date—though it was no secret that Naruto wasn't exactly well off so she could kiss her dreams of a having a romantic dinner at really fancy restaurant goodbye. Ichiraku's it was. Looks like forehead won again...
Startled, she turned around to see Naruto on the other end of the street calling to her with his hands cupped around his mouth.
"Dress really, really nice!"
It was all he said before turning away again and disappearing into a more crowded part of the street.
A happy flutter bloomed in Ino's chest and small blush crossed her face as possibilities for fancy attire channeled through her mind.
'Well, he can't be taking me to Ichiraku's if he asked me to dress nice, right?'
Maybe she'd get her romantic dinner after all.
The next day had started out well enough for Ino. Despite her seemingly mediocre date planned for tomorrow, she at least wouldn't be single for her first Matsuri no Otsuki. On top of that she found the perfect dress on sale in one of her favorite boutiques.
She now stood in front of the full-bodied mirror, turning her body every which way to admire each flawless angle the dress showed off. It was a figure-hugging satin gown, the rich color of amethysts—her favorite stone. The thin strips of the halter gave her neck an elongated look and a low back dipped to the base of her spine. The bodice was detailed with hand-sewn beads as was the slit running up the front left leg.
She would look rather good with her hair down and a pair of earrings, she mused.
Her cheerful temperament came crashing down as another face appeared in the background of her mirror image. She whirled around to face the last person she needed to see right now. Haruno Sakura stood before her with a freshly filled store bag—no doubt it included the dress for her date with the Fire Lord's son.
Sakura stared back at her in an admiring way, showing her appreciation for the tasteful dress without words.
"I take it you found a date, Ino-pig?" she asked invitingly. The curiosity practically oozed from the simple question.
"Yes, I have, actually," Ino replied as haughtily as she could. She smoothed her hands down the hips of her dress. It really did look great on her; it made her look older if anything. She knew the evasive answer wouldn't work on the other girl, and sure enough Sakura persisted with genuine interest.
"Well? Who is it?"
Ino paused for a moment before reluctantly answering.
Her face flushed in anger and embarrassment as Sakura predictably laughed. It wasn't a cruel laugh by any means, just disbelieving. Sakura noticed Ino's discomfiture and composed herself as best she could, clearing her throat a little.
"I'm sorry," she said, shifting her bag to the other hand, "but are you actually buying that dress for a date with Naruto?"
Ino didn't answer and Sakura's face dropped to one of concern as she realized her friend was serious about this.
"Ino, come on, you know he can't afford anything that would constitute buying something that showy," she tried to reason. She found the situation a bit troubling; she didn't want Ino to waste her money on overkill. She had seen where Naruto lived and it certainly wasn't on the sunny side of town.
"Maybe he can," Ino answered quietly, trying to sound as though she believed it herself.
The rosette rolled her eyes. "Whatever you say pig. Anyway, I was just buying this for my date. Daisuke is taking me to Bukemono's! Can you believe it?"
Ino schooled her face into one of indifference, internally wincing at the blow. Bukemono was the most expensive, well-to-do establishment in Konoha. The perfect place for a romantic dinner. How could she ever beat that?
"On a first name basis with the Fire Lord's son, now?" she lightly stated. It was hard to act so nonchalant when she felt worse and worse by the second.
"Yeah," Sakura giggled. "He's really nice, actually. Not as snobby as I thought he'd be. And not bad looking either."
Ino continued to examine herself in the mirror but didn't really register anything in the refection. Her heart hurt for some reason. She knew Sakura wasn't trying to be mean, but it hurt all the same when her failure was unintentionally rubbed in her face. Just like with Shikamaru...
Sakura frowned when Ino appeared to be ignoring her. Was Ino mad at her for getting a better date? It was only a once-in-a-year celebration; it wasn't that big of a deal. Of course, she wasn't the one with the poor date so perhaps her boasting was a bit over the top.
"Well, I guess I should get going," Sakura said a bit awkwardly once she realized that her bragging was not appreciated. She turned to leave the boutique. "Ah, good luck with tomorrow, but if I were you I'd save the receipt on that dress."
It had been a long time since Ino felt the urge to cry over something as petty as boys. She could only hope that Naruto would pull through for her.
September thirtieth had arrived and Konoha was alive with festivity. Restaurants up and down the roads were packed, the park walkways were filled with slow walking couples and movie tickets of all shows had been sold out for hours.
Yamanaka Ino had watched as pair after pair of finely groomed couples passed her by on the same bench she occupied only two days ago, some wearing traditional garb, other's wearing more modern styles. She looked ravishing in her own mauve gown. Her hair had been left down to frame a face lightly touched with makeup and a pair of dangling purple earrings complimented the long, pale neck shown off by the dress. Around her shoulders lay a silvery, silk shawl to give her some protection from the bite of the fall air.
But despite her picturesque beauty a scowl contorted her image. Her legs were crossed, one long shapely leg over the other, and a high-heeled foot jiggled in irritation.
He was three minutes late...
No sooner than she thought it did the blond bombshell himself arrive, running up the street and panting as though he had run across town—which he probably had.
Ino jumped to her feet, fully prepared to berate him for making a lady wait, when her voice died in her throat.
She couldn't believe she was looking at the same orange-wearing idiot who was the dead-last of the academy. She had never seen the scruffy teen look so well groomed!
Like her, Naruto went the modern route in attire. He wore a form-fitting tux; the single-button peak emphasized his narrow waist and broadening shoulders, and the black pants brought her attention to his long, lean legs. She hadn't realized until then how much taller he was than her, likely close to Shikamaru's height by now. The navy tie knotted at his throat made the sapphire of his shining eyes jump out and...did he brush his hair?
"The one and only," he grinned. "You look great, Ino! I like your hair down. It's very sophisticated."
Ino blushed attractively at the complement and suddenly found herself very excited for tonight.
"Shall we," Naruto offered his arm in the imitation of a perfect gentleman. The smile wouldn't leave Ino's face when she lightly wrapped her arm around his, even after they began walking away from the center of town.
It looked like her first Matsuri no Otsuki wouldn't be a complete bummer after all!
Heads turned as they made their way among the public and she could only imagine what a couple they looked like. Sure, they were both a little over dressed compared to several of the escorted Kunoichi, but that could only mean they were going somewhere high-class, right?
"So which restaurant are you taking me to?" Ino asked blithely, now able to enjoy the crisp autumn air that whipped around them as she breathed freely.
"Huh?" Naruto seemed confused by her question.
"Is it Bukemono's?" she guessed, though even as she said it she knew it wasn't true. Still, it was nice to fantasize about. That was where Sakura would be going after all; maybe she would see them and see what a dish Naruto turned out to be. Then Forehead would be the jealous one.
Then again, maybe she didn't want to run into Sakura. Maybe the Fire Lord's son was riche and really good-looking.
The fantasizing woman was broken out of her thoughts by Naruto's next unsettling words.
"We're not going to a restaurant."
She stopped walking right then and there, jerking her arm away from him.
"WHAT?" she nearly shrieked. "What do you mean we're not going to a restaurant?"
Naruto stopped as well, his confusion dissipating at her over dramatic reaction. He knew exactly why she sounded so upset. After all, Ino was a girl about competition and knowing her she wanted something better than what his teammate was getting. He wasn't stupid; he knew he was just a last resort for the popular young woman, and he was fine with that. But surely she knew what she was getting into when she accepted his offer. Did she honestly expect him to be taking her to Bukemono's?
"Come on Ino, you know I can't afford that!"
Her face contorted to one of disappointment and rage. She took his proclamation of poverty as a sign that they weren't going out to eat at all.
"Naruto! Then why did you have me dress up?" She wasn't about to admit that she bought the dress for this very occasion. Not to him. Not now!
He laughed and the easy manner in which he grabbed her hand almost had her relaxing against her will.
"Hey, trust me, will ya?" The voice he used was one of a gentler tone that Ino had never heard from him before. She was sure Sakura had heard him speak so delicately and possibly those kids he hung out with—the Konohamaru Corps she believed they called themselves—and she was kind of glad he talked to her like that too. It had a comforting touch to it.
Deciding to give him the benefit of the doubt Ino went back to having him lead her with his arm. They walked a bit further into more sparsely populated streets before Naruto broke the silence.
"So tell me, what's the one thing you wanted to do, if you couldn't be a ninja?
Ino didn't answer at first. She took the time to wonder at the strange way of conversation and gave him an incredulous look.
"Come on," he urged her.
Taking it for small talk, she answered, "Well…I guess I always liked the idea of being a ballerina..."
Naruto smiled and nodded.
"You know, I can see that with you. Then it's settled. You're a ballerina. But you're taking a break from dancing for a while after a...a knee accident!"
He seemed very pleased with his little imaginative scenario and Ino forced a wary grin. She hated not understanding what was going on in people's heads—especially being someone who specialized in such a thing—so people like Naruto, who were so unpredictable they were dangerous, tended to put her on edge.
"Naruto, what is this all about?"
He only smiled down at her mischievously.
"And I will be...a firefighter!"
She couldn't help it—weirded out or not, Ino laughed. Naruto pouted down at her.
"What's wrong with a firefighter?"
"I'm sorry, but when I look at you, I don't see firefighter," she giggled, glancing him up and down for effect. He pursed his lips and tried to look annoyed.
"And what, pray tell, do you see? Besides sexy?"
Ino laughed again and gave him another good hard look. Truth be told, he looked innocent with his big blue eyes and pouty face. He just didn't have that hardcore image that firefighters had. But somehow, innocence suited him.
"Street sweeper," she answered after a bit of thought. He scrunched up his face and she could have sworn the 'whiskers' twitched.
"Aw, come on!"
"How about something with a little more money?"
Deciding to give him a break, she thought a minute longer, occasionally glancing at him to get the best picture of what he would be doing.
"A merchant then," Ino decided at last. "You're pretty charismatic, I bet you could be a good haggler."
Naruto cranked his neck back to the sky and smiled wistfully. "That could work actually. Jiraiya used to have me barter down hotel rooms for a cheaper price all the time while he was out getting 'research'. I guess I did get pretty good at it."
Ino bit her lip. She felt guilty at bringing up the topic, though unintentional. It wasn't so long ago that the news of Jiraiya-sama's death reached the village and Naruto had been hit pretty hard. The normally loud blond hadn't scream or cried or even cussed. Instead he had taken it with a silent stoicism that had Sakura worried for weeks. In fact, it wasn't until very recently did he return to his laughing, obnoxious self.
"Why do we need to do this again?" she fished, hoping to draw away from the serious mood. A disheartened face like that just didn't look right on Naruto.
"Well," her date replied slowly as if in thought. "We're going to need temporary identities, but I suppose we can keep our names..."
"Temporary identities?" Ino repeated blankly, "What? Are we going on a mission?"
"No..." Naruto grinned, he gestured with his hand to the long, dirt road in front of them. She hadn't realized how long they had been walking until she drew her attention away from the other blond for the first time in a while. Immediately she knew that she no longer recognized where they were or if they were even still in Konoha; if they were she had certainly never seen this part of the village before. It was a wealthy looking area with large houses seated at the end of extensive walkways and spaced far apart with plenty of trees lining each branch off the road.
She looked straight ahead, seeing a large shape come into view as they reached the top of the small hill they climbed. The sounds of laughter and music could be heard coming out of a huge, white tent decorated with hundreds of little lights that shimmered like fireflies in the approaching dusk. Despite the beautiful sight, Ino's earlier happy mood with Naruto vanished; there were only so many things that could be going on inside a tent and none of them seemed classy in her mind.
"Naruto," she began testily, planting her feet in the ground in a refusal to walk any further, "did you have me dress up just to take me to a circus?"
Immediately the boy burst into laughter, slowing his walk to bend over and put his hands on his knees.
"A—a—a circus?" he gasped out between guffaws.
Ino huffed and crossed her arms, not appreciating being laughed at. What the hell did he expect her to think, leading her to a big tent in the middle of nowhere like this?
It took a while, but Naruto eventually calmed down after taking a few deep breaths and wiped a tear from his eye.
"Ah, Ino, Ino...give me a little credit will you?"
He offered his arm once more and, for the second time that evening, the girl decided to give him the benefit of the doubt by accepting. As they approached the entrance she came closer and closer to the conclusion that it couldn't be a circus. The music was classical and far too refined for something so childish, and the decorated lights hanging around the opening were expensive-looking enough to suggest refinement rather than entertainment.
"Remember: you're a ballerina and I'm a merchant. My father was an old business associate of Miyagi Oda's father, who is a wealthy, traveling merchant originally from Water Country. Also know that Kinjo Maemi is the Fire Lord's daughter...and they're getting married," Naruto muttered lowly into her ear.
"M-married?" Ino sputtered out as she was escorted into the tent.
The sight that greeted her was nothing short of majestic. The tent was far larger than she originally thought, rows and rows of tables were spread across one half; fine, linen tablecloths embroidered with the Fire Lord's emblem lay neatly beneath sets of crystal china and polished silverware. An ornate variety of the most deliciously catered food she had ever laid eyes on was splayed in buffet style on large table, open to all guests. An orchestra was set up in one corner; men in uniform tuxedos homogeneously played every string instrument imaginable in unison. There had to be over two hundred guests, all dressed in the finest furs and most expensive shoes. Elegant women and richly dressed men floated across the polished wood dance floor with practiced ease.
It was like a dream ball from a fairy-princess tale. Ino's face flushed with excitement and her eyes sparked against the dazzling chandeliers that somehow managed to be hooked up to the tent ceiling.
"Oh wow Naruto!" she gushed in appreciation, "How did you ever get invitations to something this high-class?"
Naruto snorted at the very suggestion.
"Invitations? Are you kidding me? We're here on principal only."
It took only five seconds for Ino to process just what he said. A sudden panic seized her and she gripped his arm with an iron hand, dragging him over to a more secluded area of the tent just before they reached the general crowd.
"What? Are you telling me we're sneaking in here?" she whispered furiously. Her eyes darted around to see if anyone had noticed them yet. If they were lucky they could still leave without raising anyone's suspicions.
She felt to large hands warm the skin of her shoulders through her shawl and she turned her attention back to Naruto, who was bending slightly forward to look her directly in the eye.
"It's called wedding crashing, Ino. This'll be good for you—you're too stressed out for your own good."
She scowled and smacked his hands off her shoulders.
"We could get arrested if we're caught, dumbass."
"Ino-chaaaan," he drew out the the honorific in a feeble attempt to help his argument, "that's half the fun! Besides, once we get some alcohol in you, even if we do get arrested—which is very unlikely—we'll be too drunk to care! This is a misdemeanor at best."
The smile on his face was wolfish—no, not wolfish—foxy. Ino tried desperately to keep the condescending scowl in place but she couldn't deny that the thought of crashing such a chic reception did sound exhilarating. And everything looked so beautiful; she really wanted to join the upper class and pretend she was a part of it. That must have been why Naruto was asking for another identity...
"I mean, look at how many people are here," Naruto said while making a sweeping motion with him arm around the room. "We look good enough to fit in. The wedding's over and I bet they've already done most of the speeches... Now it's just a free for all. Come on! Let's mingle! Let's dance!"
"Alright, fine," she snapped, trying to stay aloft so not to give him the impression that he persuaded her, "but if we get caught—"
"—then you can say it was all my idea—"
"—it was all your idea—!"
"Yeah, just like that," he praised her. She sputtered and puffed before he grabbed her arm and tugged her into the activity of high society.
"Let's go, I don't know about you, but I'm starving."
As if in response to his suggestion her stomach released a low growl. She blushed a little at its rudeness. She hadn't eaten in at least five hours.
"Uh, yeah. Good idea."
They arrived at the main buffet table and took a moment to admire it in spite of their hungered state. Ino almost couldn't believe that she was here eating the finest looking food with the wealthiest people she'd ever seen. Naruto had already jumped into the line and began piling as much food as he could onto one plate. Shaking her head, she followed his example with a bit less enthusiasm.
After a bit of searching they found a clear table with an ornate candle in the middle and a full bottle of champagne.
"Alright!" Naruto crowed, popping the cork and pouring decent amounts into two crystal glasses seated upside-down on the table.
"Naruto, you're still underage," Ino teased. She accepted the glass he poured nonetheless. Just getting some food into her system seemed to loosen her up a great deal.
"Ha," he said mockingly. "I've probably drank more alcohol than you've ever seen, little girl."
"Oh really?" Ino scoffed, never one to back down from a challenge. "I highly doubt that. I'm the one who's of-age now—you're still the only one of our age group who's not legal yet."
As expected, Naruto's face dropped to one of annoyance at the reminder. "You only turned sixteen a week ago, if I remember."
"Yeah, but for the last year I've been going to the Tanto Shinobi Bar almost weekly," she boasted. It was true, too. She and the girls frequented the bar since they turned fifteen as it was the only bar that would serve underage ninja.
"I used to work in a bar," Naruto countered and Ino looked at him, startled.
"Ah! Fresh faces!" The duo was startled out of their playful banter by the new voice overhead. "I don't believe we've met. I'm Narita Yasuo, a benefactor of the Fire Lord. And you are...?"
The man who introduced himself was tall and thin, looking to be around the age of sixty with grey hair pulling at the temples, a neatly pressed kimono, and to top it off...a monocle. Naruto stood from his chair whilst trying to remember everything he knew about appropriate behavior and took the proffered hand in a strong shake. He knew better than to show any signs of weaknesses or hesitance around this kind of company.
He also didn't want to give their full names or use the name of someone in the village, just in case.
"I'm...Hidaka Naruto and this is Yagima Ino."
Ino inclined her head at the mention of her "name" but kept her mouth shut. She was just starting to have fun; she didn't want their time in wonderland to end so soon. Plus she hadn't had nearly enough to drink to find going to jail funny yet.
"And how are you related to the newlyweds?" The man's tone held a naturally suspicious undertone but Naruto did not faulter.
"It was my father actually; he was an old business associate of Oda's father," he answered smoothly.
"Ah, yes, yes, the merchant," the man mumbled to himself, stroking his grayed goatee. "And who was you're father, exactly?"
"Hidaka Minato," Naruto replied after a second's hesitation. He had learned of his true heritage the same time he learned of Jiraiya's death, so it seemed only natural to use a familiar name.
"Hmm...never heard of him," the older man said haughtily. Ino sat back in her chair and took a long swig of her champagne. They were about to be busted in the first hour!
"Well he did most of his business outside of Fire Country," the whiskered youth replied slowly. Had she not been so nervous about being caught Ino would have been impressed with how easily Naruto could lie straight to someone's face. Then again, Naruto sent far too much of his youth investing in hedge-related pranks and identity-theft.
"I see," Yasuo said, adjusting his monocle and looking like he had no other choice but to believe him, "and what did your father sell?"
"Oh, eh—wheels," Naruto blurted out, thinking of the first thing that popped into his mind. "...among other things, of course."
Ino coughed into her drink and began choking a bit on what went down the wrong pipe. The two men stared at her as she pounded on her chest to get her coughing fit to calm down.
"I'm—*cough*—sorry. I'm alright!" She continued to muffle her giggles with more coughs while trying to compose herself.
"Narita-san! Over here!" An older male a few tables away waved over their unexpected guest enthusiastically.
"Right, well enjoy the party," Yasuo said absently without giving the young pair another look. He took off with his nose in the air, leaving Naruto to sigh in relief.
"Ok, so now we know to avoid that guy," he said cynically, sliding back into his chair and taking a sip of his own drink. He glanced over the rim of his glass. "Very smooth, Yamanaka."
"Shut up, Uzumaki," Ino huffed, "Or should I say, Hidaka? You know, think I'm going to call you "Wheels" from now on. That was great."
He laughed, sipping again at his champagne as he nodded and stabbing at his food with a pair of chopsticks.
"So what did you mean when you said you worked in a bar?" Ino asked while nibbling on the end of some umeboshi. She just couldn't imagine their 'dead-last' slinging bottles no matter how hard she tried and figured he was just trying to sound impressive earlier.
Naruto swallowed the fair amount of katsudon in his mouth before answering.
"Well...whenever I needed some extra cash to pay off my rent and stuff when I was a kid...there was this pretty shady bar by my apartment that would let me work in the back sometimes, stocking bottles and stuff—that's how I initially learned a few tricks from the other guys that worked there. So when we needed money while I was traveling with Jiraiya we would stop a few weeks in one area and pick up odd jobs...if it wasn't taking rogue missions, which usually was our first option. I bartended at a couple places. You can actually make a lot of money when it comes to the tips..."
Ino whistled, admittedly awed.
"Wow, Naruto, who knew you could be so badass?"
There were a number of things Ino would have liked to ask him after admitting that little piece of his life. She wanted to ask him for how long he had been paying his own rent (she had yet to move out of her own parents' home), why he didn't have enough money to pay off his rent with all the missions he went on, or what else he had to do besides bartending.
If she were to be honest with herself, Naruto was probably the most mysterious person in their group of friends next to Shino. No one knew exactly how powerful he was since he always curbed his performance in spars. No one knew anything about his past except that he was an orphan. No one knew anything personal about him except that he wore orange and liked ramen and wanted to Hokage.
"Is it really that hard?" she asked instead. "To pay rent? I've been thinking about moving out of my parent's home and getting my own apartment for a while now."
Naruto shrugged and shook his head, "Not really if you know how to manage your money. You should be fine on a chuunin pay."
Ino sighed in relief and took a few more bites of her food.
"That's good. But I don't understand why you would have trouble paying. You get orphan funds until you're of age, don't you?"
"Oh, I'm fine now." Naruto assured her. "But the bank and orphanage were more of a bitch to me back when I was younger and cut me off from the orphan fund a little early. So I had to struggle a bit after I made gennin."
He missed the look of outrage on his date's face as he took the time to refill his champagne glass.
"That's horrible! Those bastards! How can they get away with something like that?"
He smiled, not seeming troubled by it in the least.
"It's fine. I always managed to find different ways of keeping my landlord off my back and keeping myself decently fed."
Ino snorted. Naruto's idea of decently fed was thirty bowls of ramen a day.
"Yeah? So what other kinds of things did you have to do? I mean, there are only so many places that would hire a kid...and I remember that you weren't the most popular prankster in our village," she prompted. She washed down her food with another mouthful of alcohol.
The tips of Ino's ears were hot and the buzz of surrounding conversation relaxing. She didn't even feel guilty about prying into his life like this or bringing up potentially hurtful topics. Though, as she watched Naruto take a sip from his own glass, she had to admit that he didn't seem to mind so much himself.
Naruto had a faraway look in his eye as he was brought back to his earlier employments.
"Well...there was this one old lady who let me run errands for her business—I think it involved fruit—and sometimes I had to fix a bunch of stuff like plumbing and whatnot in my apartment building to finish off my rent. Nothing too difficult—I wasn't that handy. And I remember that winter when...when I..." He trailed off for a moment, his eyes widening. "Oh—oh my God! Oh shit—I—I can't believe I forgot about that!"
His next laugh had a mixed ring to it—somewhere between nervousness and incredulity—and she could bet her overpriced shoes that the new flush in his cheeks wasn't from the alcohol. He was shaking his head in disbelief, his facial expressions flickering between horror, shame and amusement. Ino's interest was beyond piqued at this point.
"What? Tell me! Did you rob someone?" she all but demanded.
"You better laugh when I tell you this..." he grinned uneasily. A tiny part of his brain screamed at him 'Why? Why would you tell her? Stop!' but he was too damn warm and for the first time ever he found thinking about his past to be funny, not tragic. He kept too many things bottled up inside anyway, he reasoned with himself. That and Ino looked like she had enough to drink to possibly not remember it tomorrow...
"Did you sell drugs?" Ino asked again. She wore a big grin on her face but something told him she seriously considered that option.
"No, it wasn't drugs," he sighed and glared suspiciously at his drink. This was the reason he was being so open with her, he just knew it. "Do you remember that one winter when it was ridiculously cold...the one that happened the year before we graduated?"
"Hmm...Oh! Of course," she replied, tapping her temple with her index finger, "I remember because my mother bought me the latest kunoichi-styled winter jacket with kunai pockets in the lining and all the other girls were so jealous!"
A temporary silence reigned over their table as Naruto stared at her bleakly and not for the first time that night he wondered how she ever survived the chuunin exams.
"Anyway," he finally continued, "normally I can't afford heating, but that winter was brutal, so, well...I was a little desperate...God damn it, I had to be..."
He didn't know how to word this without it sounding completely horrible. He probably would have been more horrified himself if he hadn't had a few glasses of champagne already. The only reason he could attest to forgetting something like that was because it was overshadowed by even more traumatic events of his life. Or he just blocked it out for his own sake.
"Desperate is good," Ino nodded to herself, her gossipy habits revitalizing. She was leaning against the table in her own eagerness to hear him out. "Desperate is juicy!"
Naruto felt like smacking himself but he was afraid he would miss his own head. Why couldn't he have kept his mouth shut in the first place?
"You promise not to tell anyone?" he asked her quickly. She glowered at him.
"Stop building the suspense, dope! I promise I won't tell, just tell me!"
He slowly began to work out what he was trying to say, piecing together the slowly regenerating details as they came to him.
"Well...there was this tenant two floors down from me...I think she had a kid or two, I really can't remember, and I think she had a husband as well—I never saw the guy, but I remember she had a ring on her finger..."
He glanced at Ino uncertainly.
"Hmm, sounds like one of those desperate housewives," she murmured, dipping her chopsticks back into her sukiyaki dish. The utensils froze as she realized what she just uttered. Her head shot up and her wide eyes bore into his own.
"No!" she whispered conspiringly and Naruto had to cringe a little.
"She asked me if I had heating one time when I was scrounging around for extra blankets in the dumpster next to our building, and I said no, and I think she said something about her paying for it throughout the winter if I returned the favor with...more...favors..." he quickly explained, stumbling over his words by the end.
Ino looked caught between hilarity and alarm.
"When you say favors you mean..." she trailed with her eyes still impossibly wide.
"Er...yeah. Wow...I mean...it all just came rushing back to me when you asked me about the things I did for money. It was so weird. I remember being freaked out at first, but after the first couple of times I guess I realized that it wasn't so bad in exchange for not freezing my ass off."
The Yamanaka's brain just wasn't working at that particular moment in time. The mind-boggling concept of the cherubic-looking baby of the rookie nine practically whoring himself out to a middle-aged married woman to pay for heating had left her completely short-circuited.
Naruto noticed her perpetually incapacitated state and babbled some more in a sad attempt to save face. "Not that she made me have sex with her or anything! It was just all the other stuff—after all I was only eleven—"
Ino could do nothing but knock back the rest of her glass as unbidden images flourished in her mind.
"—If anything it got some good practice in so I knew what I was doing later on..." he mused.
"Naruto—!" she gasped, slamming her glass down with miscalculated force.
"What?" he asked, becoming increasingly unabashed. "I was cold!"
"You—you—," she squinted at him, "you're a hustler!"
It turned out her voice was louder than she intended it to be and Naruto shushed her harshly in response to the odd looks they received from nearby tables.
"You're a gigolo!" she continued to label him accusingly.
"Keep your voice down," he hissed. "It's not like I do it now."
Ino groaned and dropped her head on the table. Their mission of appearing refined and regal had all but flown out the window at this point.
"Does Sakura know?" she mumbled into the tablecloth, she lifted her head enough to see the disbelieving stare Naruto cast on her.
"What are you nuts?"
"Well, she is your teammate."
"All the more reason not to tell her. I see her every day."
"I think you should tell her."
"I think you need to drink more."
Sakura stirred her straw around in the iced water, occasionally nodding and smiling politely at the dull dialogue. Daisuke looked very smart in his traditional yukata. His long dark hair was pulled back into a low ponytail, the pleasant smile never seemed to leave his face and he had dark, chocolate eyes. He seemed quite fit too for someone who wasn't a shinobi, and while she found him nice to look at Sakura really didn't care about the commerce history between Fire Country and Tea Country. She'd rather drink her tea than worry about where it came from.
Bukemono's was a beautiful atmosphere; it lived up to everything she had ever heard about its reputation with its embellished décor and flawless service. The food was great too. The menu had enticed her with a wide variety of classy dishes that were prepared to perfection.
She glanced around at the other tables, recognizing a few faces here and there, but noting that none of her friends managed to get into the esteemed restaurant. She supposed it was something she could boast about later on, but at the moment she couldn't help but feel self-conscious; she came from a middle-class lifestyle and hadn't been exposed to such aristocracy before. She felt strangely alienated.
Her thoughts strayed to Naruto and Ino and she idly wondered how they were doing. Did Naruto really bring Ino to Ichiraku's? Did Ino actually wear that dress? She stole a look at her rambling date and sighed. Even if they weren't at Bukemono's her friends were bound to be having more fun than she was. After all, Naruto was a fun guy...he probably had something else planned besides just Ichiraku's.
She really shouldn't have told him that he was a 'waste of her time'. That wasn't what she meant at all and came out sounding pretty bad. She would have to apologize again to him after—
"Oh, er, sorry," Sakura blushed and sat up straighter. She couldn't believe she was caught ignoring him! And thinking about another guy, no less. She gestured to the murals coloring the walls. "I'm just still so amazed by how beautiful this place is. I can't believe I'm actually here."
It was a nice save on her part, if she did say so herself. Her date bought into it well enough.
"It's alright," he declared with a wave of his hand. "It's my pleasure to take such a beautiful, young kunoichi here."
A light blush blossomed across her face, enhanced by the unique color of her own hair. He really was quite charming when he wasn't boring her with politics.
"Thank you," she replied, feeling a bit guilty at this point. She should try to enjoy herself a little more on this date.
Music broke through their slightly edgy conversation and she looked over to the small stage set up against a wall of the restaurant where the quartet began to play a slow, beautiful song
"Would you like to dance?"
Her head snapped to the young noble at the suggestion and she let out a small squeak. "What?"
"Do you want to dance?" Naruto repeated. He had already stood from his chair and was holding a hand out to his slightly intoxicated date.
Ino squinted at the appendage and wondered if he was serious.
"Do you even know how to dance, Naruto?" she asked suspiciously but allowed him to pull her to her feet at any rate. She took a moment to steady herself when the room went for a couple spins around her head upon standing.
"Only one way to find out," she heard Naruto say before he tugged on her arm to get her moving. He led her across the hardwood floors, weaving between dancing couples.
Though she left her shawl on the chair, her arms and shoulders now completely exposed, Ino felt very warm. She knew her cheeks were a little flushed at this point—she could feel the heat radiating off of her face—and she began to find the smallest things ridiculously funny. Like that Yasuo guy and his monocle.
She realized they stopped walking once Naruto lifted one of her hands to be held with his and lightly let his other rest on her hip.
"Don't crush my feet," she threatened, to which he only grinned cheekily.
Needless to say, Ino was shocked when she found herself being moderately-well guided across the floor. She only knew what she remembered from basic kunoichi training back in the academy and it was probably the only reason she was able to follow his movements at all.
"Where'd you learn to dance?" She gasped. She used to have dreams about dancing across the floors of a royal ball, all dolled up and with the handsome Uchiha Sasuke holding her tightly him in his arms as the other girls of her academy class watched from the sides in jealousy. Now, in reality, it was Naruto who held her and she found herself unable to find complaint. Even in her imagination Sasuke's face remained impassive—but Naruto actually smiled and had those lovely, expressive eyes, and had a way of making people feel like they were special just by paying attention to them. Just yesterday she was worried about the knucklehead taking her to Ichiraku's, and here she was at the Fire Lord's daughter's wedding reception, dancing away in a fairytale with the 'dead-last' of her graduating class.
Said 'dead-last' smiled disarmingly at her in a way that no woman could help but blush under.
"Jiraiya took me all over the place," he explained readily. "From the red-light district to palaces. I picked up some things everywhere I went."
"Yeah? Like a venereal disease?" she asked wryly. He laughed with a bit of sarcasm and surprised her by spinning her quickly and then dipping her. She shrieked none too quietly and clutch his shoulders for support from the sudden movement.
"Ah, Ino, Ino..." Naruto lightly chided. "You better not sass me while I'm leading you."
"Don't try and pull anything on me Uzumaki! I'm not that drunk," she warned him half-heartedly. Though even as she said it she had trouble trying to keep her balance. How many glasses of champagne had she had?
He laughed again, and lifted her back to their previous dancing position. A few surrounding couples were giving them amused looks for their less than subtle antics.
It wasn't long before they had relaxed a bit more into their dance. Her elbow was crooked at his shoulder with her hand splayed across the broad muscles of his back; she could feel the muscles twitching under her fingers as he danced. At the same time, his palm had gradually inched closer to the base of her spine, pulling her closer to his hips. Ino realized that their proximity was the closest they had been all night (probably their entire lives if she were honest with herself) and it was more obvious than ever that Naruto stood taller than her now by a good three or four inches. The hand that held hers was large and warm and surprisingly soft.
He smelled nice too.
She frowned at the direction of her thoughts. Sure Naruto was attractive—she recalled him being secretly voted "best eyes" among the kunoichi of her class (of course saying anything out loud would have been social suicide at the time)—and his increasing resemblance to a certain former Hokage had more and more people talking. But she certainly was not going to make a move on him tonight. Not while she was tanked at any rate.
Ino sighed inwardly as she realized her date probably wished he danced Sakura in that moment and not her. It left an unpleasant sinking feeling in her stomach to know she was once again second to her rival.
"Why Forehead?" she wondered out loud. His devotion to the rosette had many of his friends shaking their heads, and a few others silently rooting for Hinata to finally catch his attention. Sakura's current feelings for Sasuke were—at present—a mystery. It was because of this that the increasing amount of positive attention she gave to the blond had more of their friends feeling anxious rather than happy for him. Naruto had somehow managed to worm his way into the hearts of everyone who got close to him, and no one wanted to see him get hurt. If Sakura was the one to hurt him—unintentional as it may be—she would suddenly find herself on the receiving end of quite a few cold shoulders. Ino's included.
For all her suddenness, Naruto didn't seem all that surprised by the question.
"You know, sometimes I think I'm still trying to figure that out myself," he replied honestly. He had tried not to focus too much on his pink-haired teammate that evening; the thought of her out with another man (a better man, in his opinion) left him feeling slightly ill. He was glad that she got what she wanted—the best date possible—but that didn't stop him from gulping down a mouthful of champagne every time she popped into his head.
"For the smartest kunoichi of our class, that girl can be so stupid sometimes," Ino nodded sagely. She quickly stopped moving her head as it only brought to her attention how delayed her actions were becoming.
"Common sense can't be learned through books," Naruto added. "Sai is proof enough of that."
"Oh come off it, he's not that bad, is he?"
Naruto leaned back to give her a dead look.
"Ino, he's more interested in my penis than you."
Her face flushed automatically at his mentioning of his own piece of anatomy.
"Let's not talk about Sakura," he continued, oblivious to her discomfort. "She's probably having her own good time. Besides, tonight is about you. Right?"
Those few words were just the right thing to say and had automatically lifted her spirits. Ino never hesitated with her hearty, "Right!"
The next song came on with a much faster tempo and their pace picked up along with it. They spun around, their movements becoming a little sloppier as their bodies absorbed the alcohol in their stomachs.
"Although..." Ino trailed after a bit of thought. Naruto glanced down at her, turning their bodies to avoid colliding with another couple, and saw an impish gleam in her eye as she peeked coyly up at him. "You could always look at it this way: once she opens her damn eyes you'll know how to keep her happy."
The words seemed innocent enough and it took him a moment of turning them over in his mind to interpret what she implied.
"Oh! Ha ha—this is very true. But seriously—you can't say anything to anyone. I'm pretty sure the only reason I told you was the sheer amount of alcohol I've already consumed."
As if to prove her similar inebriated state Ino laughed far too loudly. "Oh come on! Every woman loves a man who knows how to use his tongue!"
Naruto's face reddened as the agreeing sound of giggles from several nearby women reached his ears. Their dance partners shifting uncomfortably but amused nonetheless.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," she brushed him off. "Don't worry, I'm not that much of a bitch.
"...Ok, I won't be that much of a bitch to you. But only because you're starting to grow on me Blondie."
"Well I'd appreciate that very much," he replied as cordially as the alcohol burning through his brain would allow. "I'll have you know I'm making an honest living now."
Ino couldn't help herself.
"Yeah, one that doesn't involve prostitution?"
"Ah!" he cried, his pride suffering under the term. "Don't call it that!"
Ino ignored his whining and shook her head at the more-than-disconcerting information that she found strangely easier to accept as the night wore on. "Seriously, Naruto. I don't know whether to cry for you, hunt down this woman and drag her to court, or laugh my ass off."
"Please choose option C."
The young woman began giggle some more and stumbled a bit over Naruto's feet
"Forget Wheels...I'm gunna call you prosti-tot from now on!" she snorted. Naruto tried to manage an annoyed look to dissuade her from such an action, but it probably looked more like he was pouting if her increase in giggles was any indication.
Anyone who knew Uzumaki Naruto and Yamanaka Ino also knew that the two blondes were talkative by nature. Add some alcohol and some laughs and they were chatting with any nearby couple unfortunate enough to be within hearing range.
"I kinda wish we will be found out now," Ino confided in him as they began their fifth dance. The balls of her feet were starting to ache in her heels; she would have to stop soon and have another glass of champagne. "I think going to jail would be hilarious."
Naruto was about to agree to a similar state of intoxication when his back collided with another's, knocking him and his dance partner apart.
"Sorry about that!" he said as he turned around. "I—"
He cut himself off as he found himself staring into the slightly unfocused, grey eyes of Miyagi Oda. The bride and groom of the wedding had stumbled to their own stop and were staring at the younger pair in surprise.
"Oh! Hello!" Naruto called cheerfully, completely unfazed by the significance of the couple whose dance he ruined or the possible consequences that could follow. "I'm sorry. We've had a bit too much to drink."
"We should apologize as well," the radiant Maemi laughed while rubbing the side of her arm sheepishly. "We must have slept through those "don't drink and dance" lectures. We've had a bit too much ourselves."
"Well you should! It's your wedding!" Ino insisted eagerly. She was talking to two of the most important people in Fire country—who cared if they were thrown out in a few minutes!
It didn't seem like their night was about to be cut short when Oda smiled winningly at them.
"How are you enjoying the reception?" he asked. His voice was deep and smooth; judging by that and his appearance she would have had to guess he was in his late twenties.
"Oh it's beautiful!" Ino praised. "It's just like out of a fairytale!"
"I told my father that I wanted nothing less," Maemi chirped with a wink. Had either of the teens been a little more sober they would have been surprised at the easygoing attitudes of these high-class individuals.
Naruto caught the darkening blush on Ino's cheeks and trailed her fixated gaze to Oda's tall and lean form. He was a handsome man with his dark eyes and wavy, auburn hair, extremely rich and influential, and tailored in the finest clothing. In other words: he was every girl's fantasy man.
The Jinchuuriki smiled lightly to himself. He knew that despite her stronger characteristics, Ino still had her girlish, whimsical side—just like Sakura did. Maybe it was a girl thing but...he did say tonight was about her so it couldn't hurt to try...
"I'm sorry Miyagi-san, but do you mind if I cut in? It's been ages since I saw Maemi-hime here, she probably doesn't even remember me," Naruto asked with just the right amount of bashfulness, switching lies like a pro.
Oda glanced as his new wife as though looking for permission (he might as well get in the habit) before giving a single, jovial nod and stepping back to allow a partner switch.
"Have fun," Naruto's warm breath tickled the shell of Ino's ear before he relinquished his hold on her hip and moved to take up with the Fire Lord's daughter.
Ino blushed as the handsome and older Oda took her by the waist and led her off in their own waltz. Naruto smiled at the barely contained excitement in his friend's eyes as she was whisked away and turned to his attention to his new dance partner. Maemi smiled at him in a way that told him she knew that his request had less to do with her and more to do with his friend's happiness.
"Naruto," he supplied, slowly beginning to lead her around the floor.
"So Naruto, I take it we've met before?"
"It was a long time ago when we were kids, but yeah. My father was doing some business at the palace about a decade ago and took me with him. I was too young to remember it at all really, but seeing as you were the Fire Lord's daughter it was something I never forgot," he fabricated effortlessly. Lying was so much easier when he was drunk—probably because his conscience was all but drowned in ethanol.
"Ah, well that would make sense. There are so many people going in and out of the castle that I hardly remember any of them. It's a little embarrassing to be talking to someone who knows you when you don't know who they are," she replied with a small shrug.
"Don't worry about it. I understand how hard it must be to remember all the little people..."
They made small talk through the next two songs; Naruto told her about his fictitious merchant life and Ino's nonexistent dancing career, and in return Maemi shared humorous stories about Oda's first attempts at wooing her behind her father's back.
When the orchestra announced that they would be taking a short break they decided to call it quits and return to their original partners.
"Well, Maemi-hime, it was a pleasure dancing with you. Now I have another memory to hold onto. I wish you the best with your marriage and hope you enjoy your honeymoon," Naruto bowed respectfully. She smiled beautifully at him, looking every bit the blushing bride that she was.
"Thank you Naruto-kun. You're very sweet...and not a bad dancer. Ino-san is very lucky to have you as a boyfriend."
Without giving him time to discredit her assumption, Maemi glided away from him in search of her husband. Naruto watched the young woman in the regal white gown disappear into the crowd before he shut his mouth and shook his head bemusedly.
Figuring Ino would find him soon enough, he headed back to their table and refilled their champagne glasses. He had a great buzz going on and he didn't want his abnormally high metabolism to kill it just yet. Naruto spent the next couple minutes sipping his drink and observing the surrounding company, taking note that the tent on a whole became much more animated over the last hour as people got more and more into the party.
Feeling a bit hot, he shed his jacket, leaving him in a collared, button-up shirt loosely tucked into his belt. It was fortunate that he had set down his drink for the task, for no sooner had his jacket been lain on the chair did a torpedo strike him from the side, nearly taking him down in a fierce hug as two, slender arms wrapped around his waist.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you!" Ino squealed into the thin, white cloth of his back. He looked down at her, both amused by her excitement and a little embarrassed by her affections.
"Naruto!" she exclaimed breathlessly as she pulled away. "Do you realize we were both dancing with practically royalty?"
"Yes," he answered simply as he hesitantly lowered one of his arms to her shoulders. "Why do you think I did that? I saw how you were practically undressing the poor guy with your eyes."
She slapped his stomach playfully.
"Shut up, I was not!"
"Seriously though, thank you," she repeated sincerely. "This has been the best date ever!"
"I'll drink to that," he said as he handed her a newly filled glass. She took it with a grin.
Despite the high noise level a chime of fork against crystal carried over the crowd, effectively lowering the volume to whispers and murmurs. All eyes were directed on the Fire Lord as the robust aristocrat stood from his seat at the head table.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," he began in a loud, rumbling voice, "I thank you for joining us this evening to witness my lovely daughter's marriage to Miyagi Oda. There are so many things I can say about them...but they can go unsaid a little longer. For now...let's cut the cake!"
Naruto and Ino were among the first to begin cheering.
Sakura inhaled the deep, sweetly scent of grass and sighed blissfully, unconsciously tightening her arm around her escort's bicep in her state of contentment. Her steps along the dirt-packed path that weaved through Konoha Park were slow and even as she enjoyed the perfection of the atmosphere. The air was still a bit warm, even on the cusp of fall, and the soothing sound of crickets surrounded the couple on their after-dinner walk. Different patterns of dull-green flares combated each other as fireflies coated the grassy hills.
"I always forget how beautiful this place is," Sakura said softly. "I hardly ever have time to come here, especially at night."
She could sense Daisuke nod his agreement from beside her.
"Konoha is a beautiful village in general. I have traveled around the country quite a bit and I can tell you that it's hard to come by a military-run village as peaceful as this one. I hope to visit it more often in the future..."
Sakura could feel his eyes focus in on her profile and she struggled to remain impassive. A sudden nervousness had taken over her as a new tension blanketed the once relaxed atmosphere. He was trying to convey something to her, she could feel it. Something that she wasn't sure she wanted to interpret just yet.
Hesitantly, she turned toward him once more at the call of her name. He was looking over the fields of fireflies; the soft glow the bugs provided highlighted the sharp angles of his face. He was definitely good-looking, she mused to herself in his few seconds of silence, not to mention rich, mannered and tasteful. Everything she had always looked for in a man because, well, what else was there to look for?
Daisuke turned to face her—poignant, dark eyes drawing her into the very core of the brown irises—and she realized then that his eyes were a bit too dark for her tastes.
"I'd like to thank you for allowing me the pleasure of taking you out tonight. It has truly been an honor to escort the beautiful apprentice of the Legendary Sannin Tsunade-sama on her first Matsuri no Otsuki."
He bowed to her as he finished his short speech of appreciation. Sakura's heart was pounding as a degree of formality and praise was directed at her like never before. She made a conscious effort to push down the blood rushing to her cheeks before she responded.
"Oh n-no, really, it's me who should be thanking you," she insisted once he straightened from his short bow. "Tonight was beautiful; I never thought I would ever get to experience such a high-class date, and with the Fire Lord's son, no less! So thank you Daisuke-san, for everything tonight."
Sakura preformed her own gratuitous bow, knowing it was only appropriate to appear humble in such a situation. It was a bit surreal, the amount of formality that came with such a "classy" date; another thing she realized was not quite her style.
The soft pads of fingers—ones that had so obviously never been exposed to training—pressed against the underside of her chin. Her head was lifted, her bow released, and Kinjo Daisuke leaned in to steal Haruno Sakura's first kiss.
A few miles away, leaving the margin of Konoha's boundaries, another couple enjoyed their own leisurely walk. The streets had emptied by that ungodly hour and they were left with only the light of street lamps and the moon to guide them back across town. The young duo seemed to have no regard for who they woke up as they laughed and joked in loud voices, occasionally bumping into each other in play.
Ino hadn't felt this good in years. She felt free and careless and childlike again as she walked along the cool pavement with her bare feet. Her shoes swung by the strap of their heels in her right hand while her other was amicably clasped in a bigger, stronger one.
The rest of the wedding had been wonderful. After the bride and groom had cut the cake and smashed their pieces in each other's faces, the father had gone on with his speech, giving Naruto and Ino more time to guzzle some more alcohol to wash down the overly frosted cake. More dancing followed.
Then the time came for the Oda and Maemi to ride off into the night in an ornate and polished horse-drawn carriage. Just before entering the carriage, Maemi threw the bouquet of flowers over her shoulder. Unfortunately it sailed right over Ino's head and instead landed in the arms of one of the groom's cousins. Ino's petulant pout was wiped from her face when Naruto approached her with some Baby's Breath that had fallen out of the arrangement in the throw. He tucked it behind her ear, causing the twentieth blush of that night to arise on her cheeks.
They left soon after, not wanting to push their luck with the thinning crowd. It would be a long walk back but neither seemed to mind. They had reached a companionable level over the night as they slowly built upon their rocky relationship from the academy days. Now they were no longer on opposite ends of the social ladder; Naruto's growth in power and skills coupled with Ino's lack of hindering boy-fanaticism had erased the initial impressions they used to carry. With a little help from the alcohol they were able to recognize kindred spirits.
There was nothing romantic about the joined hands swinging back and forth between their bodies; it was simply a relaxed gesture between friends. Ino felt completely comfortable around Naruto, and she was pretty sure it had nothing to do with the stolen champagne bottle he held at his other side. The more she got to know him, the easier it was to talk to him. He wasn't as hyperactive as she remembered him—granted she still remembered him as thirteen seeing as he recently got back from his training trip. He was funny but easygoing, devious yet honest, making it easy to just talk to him. The conversation throughout the entire night had been great as they continued building up on a long overdue friendship.
Just now they took turns asking general but personal questions and comparing answers.
"Alright...um...first kiss," Naruto asked when his turn came around next.
Ino hesitated for a second before she turned her head away from him as she answered, "...Kiba"
Naruto planted his heels in the ground and, in turn, jerked her own arm to a stop.
"K-KIBA?" he squawked. "As in Inuzuka Kiba? This high? Brown hair? Smells like dogs?"
A mix between an embarrassed smile and a scowl molded Ino's face into something far more amusing and Naruto began laughing.
"Oh shut up, prostitot—" she snapped good humouredly. She tugged on his hand to get them walking again. "Ee were ten and it was spin the bottle at my birthday party! I was just following the rules!"
Naruto didn't even blink at the nickname she gave him and continued to snicker. "Wow...that's hilarious. Do you think he'd remember it?"
"Of course he would," she sniffed, throwing one end of her shawl around her neck with an exaggerated flair. "It was probably the best kiss of his life."
"Probably the only kiss of his life," Naruto muttered, taking a swig right out of the champagne bottle.
"How about your first kiss?" Ino giggled.
Naruto heaved an overdramatic sigh and made a show of thinking long and hard, giving the impression that he was tasked with rifling through many, many memories.
"Tanaka Ami," he answered slowly after his moment of thought. This time it was Ino who had jerked them to a stop. She stared at him as though he were completely insane.
"A-Ami? From the academy? That purple-haired bitch?"
Naruto furrowed his brow. "Yeah...she pretty much cornered me after school one time and planted one on me. I was pretty scarred from that. Why? What about her?"
"Naruto," Ino sighed. "She's was like...Sakura's nemesis back in the academy."
"Huh?" he noised intelligently, cocking his head to the side. "I thought you were?"
"No, I was her rival. There's a difference. Ami did everything she could to make Sakura's life a living hell until I showed up," she explained patiently. She couldn't help but giggle at his horrified look.
"Really?" he whined, feeling a little blameworthy for the involuntary act. "Aw man, now I feel so dirty..."
Ino full out laughed at that.
"You are dirty. Really, Uzumaki, what is it with all these women taking advantage of you? I'm surprised you're still into women after all they've put you through."
"Maybe it's cuz I like being dominated?" he suggested in a sly, husky voice while leaning in a little towards her face. Ino lightly punched him in the arm to get him to back off before snatching the half-empty bottle out of his hand.
"Naruto!" Ino gasped, pretending to be scandalized. "You don't say stuff like that in front of a lady!"
She threw her head back with the bottle attached to her lips, gulping down a few mouthfuls of the addictive fizz. She let out a small belch and wiped the back of her arm across her mouth.
"Alright! It's my turn!" she declared. "Best mission?"
"Ha! Tora the cat, of course!" Naruto quipped before stealing back the bottle.
"Bah...I eat cats for breakfast!" Ino griped, both at losing possession of the alcohol and the memory of that damn cat. Oh, how she hated that cat.
"I eat your mom for breakfast."
The two stared at each other before both breaking out into obnoxious laughter.
Sakura gently slipped her shoes off her feet prior to walking through the darkened entry room. She somehow managed to stumble her way up to her bedroom in a daze as her mind replayed those last few moments in the park.
Her first kiss!
She hadn't even realized what had happened at first; it was all so fast. One minute she was thanking Daisuke and the next she had his warm, slightly-chapped lips pressing gently against hers. The kiss was innocent enough, lingering just long enough for her to gather her wits and return the pressure before he slowly drew away with a smile.
Years from now she would be telling her children that she received her first kiss from the Fire Lord's son. Forget that, she was going to tell Ino tomorrow—that pig was going to be so jealous!
She finally reached her room, slipping out of her dress and pulling out the pins in her hair at the same time. As soon as she fit on a snug T-shirt and some calf-length pajama pants she collapsed backwards onto her bed. The springs let out a few squeaks as the fall bounced her a few times.
All in all, she saw her first Matsuri as a total success. It was a lovely date, a bit conservative for her tastes but still sophisticated and expensive and succeeded in leaving her feeling completely spoiled.
She turned her head to get a look at her clock, saw that it was one in the morning, and smirked. Ino had probably gone home a long time ago after a bowl of ramen and a movie.
She frowned at the callous thought—why was she suddenly so obsessed with how Ino's date went? It had been fruitless to try and convince herself it was because Ino and Naruto were both her best friends and she was simply interested for that reason alone. Of course she wanted them to have a good time but, in unison with this feeling, there was another part of her being that she hated—the part that wanted their date to fail.
What she couldn't figure out was why she felt that way. So what if Ino and Naruto went on a date together? It's not like it would amount to anything.
She couldn't be...jealous...could she?
Just as she was about to brush the idea off as ludicrous the unnecessarily noisy sound of laughing penetrated the thick glass of her windows.
What was more: she knew those voices.
Sakura scrambled up from her bed, nearly knocking the comforter off the mattress in the process, and slipped out onto the small balcony attached to her bedroom. Looking down over the cement guard showed her two hysterical figures trying to catch their breath.
...Or perhaps they were trying not to fall down. It was hard to tell.
"Naruto? Ino?" she called as loudly as she dared without disturbing anyone's sleep—not that it would matter at this point after the raucous the two ninja below made. "Is that you guys?"
She could see that Ino was in the dress she saw her wearing the day before. What surprised her Ino's barefoot state—something Sakura would have thought her friend would find too unhygienic. The mind-walker usually advocated the "pain for beauty" theory.
Naruto surprised her even more. She had never seen him in anything formal before and even with the jacket tied around his hips she could tell he wore a suit by the slightly wrinkled, half-buttoned white shirt and dress shoes.
Sakura frowned as her mind pieced together everything the scene had to offer. If he had dressed up...then that meant...he really did take Ino somewhere nice!
Ino squinted up when she heard her name, not even registering the shadowed figure two stories above them.
"Who's Naruto?" she asked while pointing to the boy himself. "That's weh—Wheels—ha ha..."
Sakura blinked, "What?"
Naruto wasn't even paying attention to the girl at his side; as soon as he saw Sakura his eyes alighted and he waved furiously at her.
Just in case she hadn't already seen him.
"Sakura-chan! Hi! Hi!"
The young blossom held back the urge to slap a hand to her forehead at the sheer volume of his voice. Something told her any reprimands she imparted on the pair would be lost on them.
"Naruto, what are you doing out here?" she asked instead. He looked at her and then looked around as if just noticing where he was.
"I'm...well, I'm bringing sexy back!"
And once again she was forced to watch the unfortunate sight of Naruto and Ino falling all over each other in laughter.
Sakura made a face. Really, did Ino have to run her hand all over his chest like that?
She couldn't comprehend why they were acting so familiar with each other when they hardly talked outside of missions. Furthermore, she couldn't understand why she didn't like it so much. Perhaps it was because she herself had never gotten that close to Naruto—not as physically as Ino was at the moment—and he was her teammate, damn it!
A sharp pang struck her chest as she realized she had never even hugged him.
'And now that hussy is all but dry humping him in the middle of the damn street!' the more provocative portion of her personality complained within her mind.
The dim amber glow of the streetlights had illuminated their faces enough to reveal the familiar pink hue she often saw on her master's face whenever Shizune had the day off.
It was then she noticed the green-glassed bottle in her teammate's hand.
"A-are you two drunk?" she accused more than asked. She was rewarded with more laughter.
"Psshh...puh-lease forehead," Ino giggled as she slowly dragged the bottle towards herself. Unfortunately, Naruto wasn't ready to let go, and her actions only served to bring their bodies closer together. "I eat this shit for breakfast, lunch and dinner."
"Yeah!" Naruto agreed without even knowing what he was agreeing to. "Sakura-chan, you should come down and play with us!"
Ino began laughing some more; clearly she thought the word 'play' was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Sakura could feel her mood worsen. An unpleasant sensation resembling nausea churned in her stomach and she knew it had nothing to do with the food she ate earlier. She couldn't deny it anymore; watching Naruto and Ino interact as though they had been lifelong best friends, enjoying a date filled with laughs and antics rather than manners and refinement, left her jealous.
"Go home you two, and keep it down. You're being rude," Sakura growled before briskly returning to her room and slamming the slider door shut with such a force that it rattled the glass. She stayed there for a moment, her back pressed against her wall as she tried to control her emotions. She shouldn't be feeling this upset. What was wrong with her? Why did she want to pull Ino's hair out of her stupid, blonde head and punch Naruto's dumb, grinning face halfway across town just for having a good time? Together...
Why did she feel so betrayed?
Sakura threw herself face-first into the sea of pillows and plushies that surfaced her bed, burying her nose into the cool cotton to help keep the burning anger at bay. She didn't want those idiots ruining her first Matsuri. She didn't want to think about what she might have missed out on if she hadn't been so hell bent on getting the richest guy to take her. She didn't want to regret yet another decision made for superficial reasons. She wanted to forget those two and focus on the better parts of the night. She just wanted to succumb to a dreamless sleep that was free of anything blonde-haired or blue-eyed.
Sadly it was not meant to be.
"Hey...where the hell are we going?" She heard Ino ask from the other side of her window. The blaring voice echoed through the deserted streets with an obnoxious tenor.
"I dunno—I was following you!"
Much to the chagrin of one middle-aged Yamanaka Inoichi, the Yamanaka Flower Shop was becoming more of a hangout for teenagers rather than a professionally run business. Each day he found himself subjected to the chattering and giggles that carried through the wall of their house attached to the side of the shop.
Currently his daughter worked the register and, judging from the accompanying voices, Haruno Sakura, Nara Shikamaru and that Suna ambassador were the visitors of the day. Inoichi could hear bits and pieces of Sakura telling the group parts of her date with the Fire Lord's son. The man had to suppress an eye roll; it must really pay off to be an apprentice to a Legendary Sannin.
When Inoichi had first heard the Uzumaki kid was taking his little girl out for her first Matsuri he couldn't help but feel a little bad for her. Not that he wanted her going out on dates in the first place, but he did want her happy and it was no secret that the boy wasn't exactly financially endowed. Therefore, the mind walker found himself completely caught off guard when Ino greeted him that morning in the highest of spirits. Whatever that kid had done last night, it had definitely pleased her.
Sakura had just finished her account of her Matsuri date, omitting the encounter with Naruto and Ino at the end of the night. She was perched up on the register counter with her legs swinging back and forth as she observed Ino bustling about the greenhouse. Shikamaru and Temari were both seated on a bench by the shop door. Temari's head rested comfortably on the shadow-wielder's shoulder and, as a result, a light blush was just barely visible on the young man's cheeks as he tried to play it cool.
"Wow!" Temari whistled, impressed by the end of the account. "You kissed the Fire Lord's son?"
Sakura gave her a victory sign. "Yep!"
Shikamaru shook his head at the useless gossip and glanced at his teammate who was arranging some new shipment of flowers. He had half-expected her to immediately discredit Sakura for such a feat but it appeared as though she were barely listening, lost in her own little world.
"Hey Ino," he called with a tiny smirk. "I heard you got stuck with Naruto as a date. Is that true?"
The blonde straightened from her work and brushed her hands on the front of her apron, blowing the long strand of hair away from her right eye. She turned to face her guests and gave them a wide smile.
"You're damn right I did!"
The lazy ninja certainly had not expected a reaction like that.
"How was it?" the golden haired nineteen-year-old at his side asked.
Ino realized that she couldn't even bring herself to feel annoyed at Temari anymore—especially after seeing how close she and Shikamaru were sitting. They really were a cute couple.
Sakura sat up straighter from her high perch. She was curious to finally hear just what they had gotten up to that had resulted in them drunkenly traipsing down the streets in formal wear last night.
"He...took me wedding crashing!" Ino squealed. Her eyes closed as she pictured the events of the previous night. "It was so much fun!"
Sakura stared at her friend, numbness seeping into her mind as she sat completely flabbergasted after hearing the last explanation she could have expected. Shikamaru as well was stunned into silence; he could only blink at his teammate as thought wondering if he had misheard.
Temari's head shot off of his arm.
"Wedding crashing?" she questioned.
"Yeah! We snuck into the Fire Lord's daughter's wedding! Can you believe it? We got so trashed off of just champagne. By the end of the night we were telling a different lie to every person we bumped in to!" Ino babbled on in an excited rush. It was clear that she was just waiting for someone to ask about her date.
Shikamaru snorted a short laugh and scoffed, "Well he is the most unpredictable ninja..."
Temari hummed her agreement, totally entranced by all she heard. She had never even known about wedding crashing before. It didn't sound completely legal but it did sound like fun.
Sakura discretely slid off the counter, suddenly feeling a little queasy for some reason. It was probably that Sashimi she ate at Bakemono's. That had to be it.
"And who knew Naruto-kun could dance?" Ino continued, oblivious to Sakura's increasing discomfort. "We were all over the dance floor—it was awesome!"
"Man," Temari joked, elbowing her former escort in the side. "I should have had him take me out rather than this lazy bastard."
"Tch. Troublesome," Shikamaru muttered, conveying his annoyance with his flat tone—though his irritation may have been directed at Temari for her suggestion, Ino for her incessant chatter or Naruto for unintentionally having him suffer under both. He realized his teammate probably wasn't even listening to either of them as she continued talking.
"—and then we bumped into the Maemi and Oda—that was the bride and groom—and he got them to dance with us! So I was dancing with Oda and he was, like, with Maemi and—hey, Forehead, where are you going?"
Sakura was caught halfway through her sneak towards the exit. She glanced at her three friends and bit her lip.
"I—I gotta go. I have another shift at the hospital I don't want to be late for."
This was a lie of course; she didn't think she could handle the strange and unpleasant feelings of envy and jealously that churned in her stomach.
Ino shrugged, buying into it.
"Alright. See you later Forehead. I wanna hear more about your date with that Daisuke guy later."
Sakura waved a hand absently behind her head as she hurriedly left, the bell on the door jingling in her wake. She let out a deep breath of relief as she escaped the confinements of the greenhouse; already the uneasy sickness was starting to clear and she could begin to properly dissect her recent weird behavior.
So it turned out Naruto had taken Ino out to crash the Fire Lord's daughter's wedding and they had had a great time.
The young medic began the slow walk down the busy streets of Konoha, hoping that the loud noises would drown out her own thoughts.
Sadly she couldn't help but wonder about all the things they had done at this wedding. It sounded like they had so much fun; they got to dress up, mingle with high society, and Naruto took Ino dancing...
What was more...all throughout Ino's boasting Sakura couldn't help but think that it could have been her in Ino's place.
But that just didn't make sense to her. She had the best date possible, hadn't she? She had the richest, classiest guy take her out.
And Ino went out with Naruto, the cheapest guy she knew. Ino had spent her night around the same kind of people Sakura had; the only difference was that she had a guy like Naruto to turn a normally reserved experience into a fun one. Instead of sitting straight and placing their napkins on their laps they were laughing at the pompous attitudes of the other guests and guzzling down alcohol. Sharing stories and laughs while she had to listen patiently to topics she was unconcerned with.
Her feet had taken her to the central street in Konoha where the Ichiraku ramen stand was. She stopped and faced the tiny stand that Naruto frequented, her gaze unfocused as her mind revolved around her teammate. The image of him laughing, his shirt partially unbuttoned, his arm around Ino as they loudly joked about things she had no idea of flashed before her eyes.
That sickness returned full force and Sakura finally realized what it was that she was so afraid of.
She was afraid of another special guy walking out of her life for someone else. Sasuke left her on a cold bench to follow Orochimaru and pursue Itachi. She took comfort in knowing she wasn't alone in her pain as Naruto had lost a brother and best friend in Sasuke. But what if Naruto left her for Ino? She couldn't spend all her time with Sai—it just wouldn't be the same. She and Naruto had been through so much together; no one got her quite like Naruto.
She only wished that she could understand him as well as he seemed to understand her.
"...It will really be a waste of my time."
She closed her eyes, cursing herself for her insensitivity. Talk about foot-in-mouth syndrome. First chance she got she was going to apologize again.
A thunderous explosion sounded to the far west, followed by the caw of a dozen birds flocking from the trees in terror. Tremors were sent underfoot, rattling carts and scaring the villagers. It was obvious who were the ninja in casual wear by the number of people who immediately dropped into a defensive stance under the possible threat of being attacked.
Sakura squinted against the bright light of the afternoon; from over the tops of the buildings she could make out a huge pillar of smoke cloud over the area around training ground 27.
There were only so many people she knew who could make a jutsu that destructive just while training.
After a powerful jump enforced by perfectly-controlled chakra Sakura began a hurried dart across the rooftops to the hazy area around the training ground. By the time she landed in the grounds much of the unsettled dirt had dissipated, giving her a clear view of the destruction.
Nearly the entire acre of the training area had been transformed into a deep basin. Some of the trees around the edges of the crater had been uprooted and in the middle of it all was one Uzumaki Naruto.
He was seated on the ground, leaning back on his hands in his obvious exhaustion. His jacket was thrown off somewhere to the side, leaving him in the fishnet undershirt he now wore underneath. Tsunade's crystal gleamed against the afternoon sunlight as his chest rose and fell with each gasping breath.
Somehow he had sensed her immediate arrival.
"Heya Sakura-chan!" he greeted her gaily. Nis voice was naturally loud enough to carry across the distance between them. Even from where she stood Sakura could see his face was smudged with sweat and dirt as he gave her his squinty-eyed grin. She could also seem him struggling to stand up so he could greet her.
Something was paining him.
Rolling her eyes, but concerned all the same, Sakura slid down the steep edge of the crater and made her way to him.
"Don't get up, you idiot," she scolded him, though not harshly. "You've hurt yourself haven't you? What the hell were you doing here?"
Naruto's grin never left his face, even as sharp pains shot up and down the arm he hid behind his back. "Ah, come on Sakura-chan, I was just training."
She reached his side and knelt down, raising her hands to check him out for any injuries that he undoubtedly had sustained. She was startled when he shifted away from her touch.
"I'm fine," he hastily assured her. "How was your date with the Fire Lord's son?"
Her smile faltered but she pulled it up to answer him in an over exuberant voice, "Oh it was great! He took me to Bukemono's!"
"Wow, Sakura-chan! That place is expensive, isn't it? You're a pretty lucky girl," Naruto sounded completely sincere when he expressed his congratulations on her successful date, which only made her feel lower that she couldn't grant him the same courtesy about his. "He treated you alright?"
Sakura couldn't help but smile warmly at the protective question, even though she knew that he knew that she could take care of herself.
"Yes, Naruto, he did. Don't worry, he was a perfect gentleman."
"That's good," Naruto nodded to himself. "I would hate to have to ruin Konoha's relationship with the Fire Lord by killing his son."
Normally Sakura would whack his head and then giggle for his admission, but the mention of the Fire Lord made her remember his other child. The daughter who was just wed last night...
"So I heard you had a good date with Ino..." she trailed, averting her eyes to the ground.
Naruto brightened immediately, the pain in his arm forgotten.
"Oh yeah! It was awesome. We met a lot of cool people and the food was great—"
He began to gesture as he spoke, a habit he was known for, and it was then that she saw his arm—badly burnt and oddly discolored. She had only ever seen his arm like that once before.
"NARUTO!" she shrieked, causing him to jump guiltily. "I told you to never use this jutsu again!"
She roughly grabbed the appendage he was fruitlessly trying to keep from her, causing him to cry out in pain. She couldn't feel bad for him, not when he was going behind her back and practicing things he was told specifically not to.
"I—I—how can I finish learning it if I never get to practice it?" he asked lamely.
"It's not worth it," she growled at him. "You could permanently cripple yourself! And where would that get you, huh?"
"Jeez, you sound just like Kakashi-sensei. How many times do I have to tell you people that I know my body better than anyone else does? You guys are completely underestimating my regenerating abilities."
She wanted to discredit that, to tell him that she and Tsunade-sama were medic-nins and that they knew what was best, but even as her healing chakra focused on the shattered bone in his arm she could detect the tiny fissures slowly mold themselves back together of their own accord. And it was happening much faster than it had last time. How was that possible?
With nothing left to say about that she went to the subject she promised herself she would cover the next time she saw him.
"Naruto, I—I'm sorry." She forced out. Naruto blinked up at her in confusion and she struggled to elaborate, "I'm sorry...that I said you weren't worth my time. You know that's not what I—"
"Oh that?" he cut her off with a comforting smile. "Don't worry about that, I had completely forgotten all about it."
His words did nothing to reassure her. It didn't matter to her whether he remembered it or not. What mattered was how he felt when she first said it. He should never have to feel that kind of pain, especially not at her hands. The fact that he ended up completely proving her wrong over the matter only made her feel worse.
"So, what? Are you with Ino now...?"
Why oh why couldn't she just shut up about that? Naruto's eyebrows rose to his hairline, the disgruntled undertone was not lost on him.
"No...did she tell you that?" he asked suspiciously. He liked Ino alright, but it was only one date.
"Well no, but...she sure has been bragging a lot today," she muttered contemptuously, tugging harder on the bandage than she anticipated. He winced.
"Ino-chan's a really cool girl," he started, unaware of the saddened look in his "doctor's" eye at those five words. "I never knew because I guess I never gave her the time of day. Well, she never gave me it either but..."
He could sense her distress levels spike as he spoke and he focused in on her face.
Sakura dropped her hands from his freshly bandaged arm and wrapped them around her elbows in a shielding stance. Her bangs were coving her face, making it impossible to discern what was wrong with her at the moment.
"It's...it's ok if you want to be with her, you know," she mumbled, still refusing to look at him. "You two seemed to get along really well and...you looked like you were really close last night...I don't know if you remember it but—"
She abruptly stopped talking when she felt her chin being lifted by soft fingers. Immediately, her mind took her back to the kiss Daisuke gave her after a similar gesture. Back then she was caught unawares by it, she didn't have time to feel anticipation or nervousness before she felt the boyishly chapped lips of a noble's on hers.
Was that going to happen now? Was Naruto going to kiss her? Did she want him to kiss her?
Her eyes slowly cracked open and she could make out a shadowed figure closing in on her face before closing them in anticipation.
Something warm and soft touched the skin of her brow before drawing away, leaving a pleasantly cool tingle in its wake.
Her eyes fluttered open. Her stomach was doing flip-flops. Naruto hadn't pulled away that much; his face hovered just above hers and she could see the darker flecks of blue mixed into his sapphire irises. Their bodies were settled practically knee to knee.
"I think you think too much."
The blunt words caused her to sit back on her heels in a huff. Humiliation swelled in her breast once she realized that she had unconsciously leaned forward in anticipation of what Naruto was going to do to her.
"Well I think you don't think enough," she countered automatically in her new founded anger. She internally berated herself for getting so worked up over Naruto of all people.
"There's nothing going on between Ino-chan and me," Naruto said with a light chuckle, completely unfazed by her waspish response.
His laughing only served to make her angrier. Sakura felt like he was laughing at her. For the last two days he had been on her mind—she couldn't even enjoy her date for constantly wondering what he was doing with Ino and if they were having fun and how close they were getting. She felt guilty for turning him down so harshly, unintentional as it was, and she felt guilty for automatically assuming any date with him would be a waste of time because he was poor.
But now she was mad for feeling such guilt. She was mad that he had so much fun without her and with Ino. She was mad that she had been so wrong about him. She was mad that he couldn't see how bothered she was by his date with Ino, that he had the gall to act so carefree when all this guilt and jealously that she didn't even understand tore her up inside. She was mad that he might leave her like everyone else she cared about.
Most of all, she was mad that she cared so much about him.
"I—Daisuke kissed me!" she blurted out as the swirl of angry thoughts became too much for her. Her hands flew to her mouth the second she realized what she had just said. She wanted to hit herself for trying to cause him intentional pain—and just after she promised herself she would never do that to him. It wasn't his fault she was feeling so confused and irrational; she was the one who rejected him, she was the one who undervalued him, and all he ever wanted was to escort someone for the Matsuri no Otsuki. So why was she taking it out on him?
Sakura fearfully looked up to see Naruto's reaction, still cursing herself for her short temper and irrationality.
Naruto had leaned back on his heels just as she had and stared at her with an unreadable expression.
"I'm sorry," she whispered to the hands in her lap. Shame filled her being at her inability to look him in the eye even as she apologized. She couldn't handle that same 'kicked puppy' look he had when she dismissed him three days earlier, nor could she handle the look of resignation and heartbreak that she could now recognize as the same expression he wore when she asked him to bring Sasuke back to her three years ago. Just what had she been doing to him all this time?
"That's ok," he said and she wanted to yell at him that it wasn't ok, that he shouldn't let her treat him as she does. Before she could say so he continued, "Ami kissed me."
Sakura was completely blindsided by this confession. It took a moment for her to recognize the name before a young, sneering face framed with short purple hair was brought to mind.
Her exclamation was caught with an open mouthed kiss. The mocking, brown eyes of her childhood antagonist had disappeared from her mind's eye as her brain blissfully shut down. Butterflies erupted in her chest as the contact between their lips brought electrical currents coursing through her body in waves.
This kiss was nothing like Daisuke's kiss.
The young noble's kiss was innocent and chaste—a brief pressing of their lips in simple gratitude and attraction—while Naruto was insistent in his exploit of her mouth. He had started out with his mouth pressed open against hers, the hot air within each cavern mixing, stifling their senses until they could feel nothing but each other. His tongue followed soon after, unrelenting in his mission to taste every part of her mouth yet slow—careful and thorough. She was dizzy with the sensation, falling against his body as his arms crushed her to his chest.
Sakura could tell he treasured this moment by the tender, yet passionate, way he handled her—the very moment he had waited over five years for. His lips weren't chapped or weathered despite the daily punishment he put his body through, they were soft and caring. She hadn't noticed the rhythmic motions her mouth was drawn into with his (suspiciously skilled) guidance. Nor had she realized that she had been pulled completely into his lap at some point; she straddled his thighs as he sat back on his butt, his arms wrapped around the small of her back as the heat from his thinly-clothed chest radiated into hers. Her brain had yet to catch up with what has happening—apparently her body didn't need its approval—leaving her completely enthralled with the man who held her. She could smell the sweat that clung to his clothing from hours of training mixed with a musk that was purely masculine and the unique scent that belonged to Naruto.
She raised her hands to his head and dragged her nails across the sides of his scalp, fingers parting the slightly sweat-damp hair. A primal growl erupted from his throat, vibrating from his mouth into hers, and he tightened his grip around her waist. She still couldn't grasp was what going on, her inability to breathe properly had her suffering from a light head and disorientation. The feelings and sensations that had so abruptly burst forth from her rapidly beating heart kept any concept of reality out of her reach.
Just when it almost became too much for her, Naruto slowly drew away—much slower than when he initiated the kiss at any rate.
Sakura's eyes opened and were finally able to focus on the young man whose lap she sat on. His lips were wet and slightly swollen and his face flushed; she could only imagine that she looked the same. For several seconds they did nothing but stare at each other as they tried to catch their breath. Naruto's sapphire eyes bore into hers, glowing with both passion and hesitation and something else...something more powerful.
There had always been something about Naruto that made Sakura feel so exposed while, at the same time, accepted, and it was liberating. This is what she had been afraid of for so long. This is what she had been searching for. This is what she had been waiting for. She knew now that this is what she wanted. She didn't want posh and groomed, dark and pale, reclusive and mysterious. All of last night Sakura felt like she had to constantly try and impress Daisuke, impress the company around them, just like she spent her entire childhood trying to impress Sasuke, Ino, the other girls of her academy grade.
She didn't want a brooding mystery. She wanted a bright enigma. Someone she could unravel with time to discover one delightful surprise after another. She wanted energy and light. She wanted someone she could interpret, someone who wore their emotions on their sleeve so she could respond accordingly instead of constantly guessing.
She wanted someone who made her feel like a better person rather than feel like she had to try and be one.
She wanted Naruto.
Sakura must have sat in thought for too long because she could feel Naruto shift uncomfortably under her. One look at his face told her everything: he was afraid—afraid of what she would do now—but unregretful.
"Sorry," Naruto puffed, trying to keep a confidence in his voice that didn't match his eyes. "I-I just couldn't handle the sexual tension anymore. I don't know, maybe I was the only one who felt it..."
He averted his eyes to the ground, taking whatever comfort he could get out of the fact that she was still in his lap and that she had yet to hit him.
Sakura didn't say anything at first. Instead she brought her hand up and he flinched back out of instinct. Her smile was delicate and perceptive as she tenderly brushed his bangs back from his forehead. At the feel of her touch he lifted his gaze to meet her own, insecurity shining brightly back at her between those dark lashes.
It was a vulnerable side he only allowed a very select few to see. His tough-guy act was dropped around her and that was how he really made her feel special. He never faltered under the (diminishing) harsh and cold looks of the villagers, or the put-downs of his peers, or even in the face of death. But Sakura had seen Naruto cry and rage and cower. She had heard him whimper in pain and felt him tremble in fear. He allowed her to see him.
"Are you mad?" Naruto asked in little more than a whisper. The anxiety continued to mount as her calculating silence prevailed.
"I'm sorry," she finally stated, her voice low. She dipped her face towards his and her hands took to gently cupping his cheeks, noting how his jaw and cheekbones accented against the palms of her hands. Her eyes continued to hold his, relishing in this strange power she had over him.
Now it was Naruto who found it hard to concentrate. He had kissed her on a whim, unable to control himself any longer, and it had been everything he could have hoped for and more. He never expected it to amount to anything in his favor. But here she was, straddling his hips, holding his face in her hands, looking at him so tenderly and apologizing for whatever reason.
"Why...?" was all he could manage. Her lips were so close to his and he just wanted to feel them again. He watched, transfixed, as they moved with her next words.
"I'm sorry," she said again. "That I took so long to realize how special you are...and how much you mean to me."
She could feel his body start beneath her and an audible gasp escaped his mouth.
"S-Sakura-chan," he breathed at her confession. He was going to wake up soon, he just knew it. He was going to find himself alone in his creaky bed, suffering from the after-effects from such a dream.
"You could never be a waste of my time," Sakura uttered. She couldn't believe she had said those things to him now; it hurt her that she hurt him. "I'm sorry—"
Naruto pulled her to his chest—not with the fervor of their earlier embrace, but with tenderness—and wrapped his arms around her in a comforting hug. She huddled under his chin, selfishly soaking up any reassurance he would give her.
"I thought I told you that didn't matter," he murmured into her ear with his hands rubbing lightly up and down her back. "You being here is enough for me. Heh—I never thought I would get to hold you like this."
Sakura sighed in content and gently rubbed the warm skin of his exposed neck with her fingertips. Naruto had no idea that his naivety could be so endearing at times and, dare she say, romantic. Even the smallest confession could make her feel special.
"So, what does this mean?" Naruto asked after a beat.
"Are we...together?" he forced out. "Or do you just want to kiss me...or...or never again...?"
Sakura slowly pulled back to stare at him. He stared back, ready for whatever answer she would give him.
"I want to be with you," she said simply and he gaped at her.
"Re-really?" he gasped, completely taken back by her answer. It was as though he had already resigned himself to her dismissing him. "You really mean that?"
"Of course I do," Sakura giggled. "I wouldn't have said it if I didn't."
"Sakura—I—I don't even know where to start," Naruto mumbled. "I've liked you for so long...I never thought you would ever see me as anything more than a teammate. This—this is—I don't think I could ever be happier—"
He was stopped from his butchered admission with a slim, pale finger against his lips.
"I think you talk too much."
"I think you don't talk enough," he pointed out in retaliation.
Sakura gave him a cute, mock scowl and poked him in the chest with her forefinger.
"Less talk, more kiss," she demanded to which he gave her a silly lopsided grin.
"Now that's what I'm talking about, dattebayo!"
A shadowed figure concealed between the thick branches of the trees whistled lowly at the embraced forms.
"Wow...that was hot."
"I'll say," another voice responded. "Do you think if I blew up a training ground I would get the same treatment?"
The first voice jumped down from his perch on the tree. The thin light filtered through the leaves left triangular patterns on his boar mask. Seconds later his companion joined him on the forest floor, his face masked with that of a tiger.
"You can try," Boar answered with a shrug. "But you'll probably just get demoted to chuunin and get stuck with a gennin team."
A third figure came into the clearing, shaking his head and glancing back out towards the crater. "Damn...the Hokage's apprentice and the Kyuubi kid? Who'd have thought?"
The badger-masked ANBU received a sharp slap on the back of the head from a much shorter bird mask.
"Don't call him that!"
"Ah—! Tori-chan, I didn't mean anything by it!"
"Hey," Tiger asked Boar, ignoring Badger, "did you send word to the Hokage that it wasn't an attack?"
Boar's expression was hidden but he still managed to give off an aura of exasperation.
"I thought Kori did it?"
The Badger drew his hand from his head and nodded towards the only female of the group.
"Are you serious?" Bird snarled at his silent indication. "I thought that was Tora's job?"
"You mean to tell me that no one sent word that there was no attack?" Boar asked in complete disbelief.
He received no reply.
"Well someone has to do it!"
The lush forest of Konoha went strangely silent as four trained and highly dangerous shinobi remained motionless in their stare-down.
Yep. I can seriously see Naruto doing that on a date. But hey, when you have no money, you gotta be creative. I know this. I'm in college. Which means I have a VERY creative future ahead of me.
I really just needed some quality narusaku luffin, so I typed away and have this as a result.
Anyway, thanks for reading, drop a review, and remember: Aloe Vera!