Lost Behind the Mask

Lost Behind the Mask

He'd been hiding behind it so long that he couldn't find his way out. How she had seen past the mask was beyond him, but he was grateful that she had. Almost as grateful as she was. Naruto/Ino NaruIno One-shot.

Naruto laughed out loud, his lips stretching wide across his face in his characteristic grin, and his eyes squinting shut.

Sakura rolled her eyes. No matter what she ever said, no matter how harsh her rejections were, Naruto never seemed to be affected by it. Everywhere he went, he was smiling and laughing. The most cheerful shinobi in all of Konoha.

So cheerful it was annoying. Sakura repressed an urge to yell at the stupid blonde, knowing that Naruto would merely laugh louder at her anger, and, still chuckling, avoid any violence she might attempt on him for his disrespect.

Despite his constantly jovial nature, Naruto had become a great shinobi. Somehow. Sakura didn't really know what Naruto had done to become so well known in Konoha, since she was never on his teams anymore. She worked at the hospital, and Naruto worked in ANBU. Occasionally, she heard rumors about his exploits, but she would bet good money that they were all exaggerated. No way could Naruto, that silly, laughing blonde who always wore the most garishly colored clothing of any ninja she had ever seen, could possibly be the almost-legendary Nobody.

If it was him, Sakura knew that every single person in every single country would know it. Naruto couldn't keep his mouth shut if he depended on it. So there was someone else in ANBU who always announced his intentions before any attack, and always left one survivor, usually crippled, to report to the enemy that he had struck. And invariably, this ANBU, when asked for his name, would reply:

"I'm nobody."

Sakura rolled her eyes at the confusion this had caused in other countries, when the lone survivor would stumble back and report that his team had been killed by nobody.

Sakura wished she knew who this nameless wonder could be. He was supposed to have a deep, growling voice, but she didn't know anyone like that. But sounds could be faked, and the senses fooled, so Sakura supposed that it really could be anybody.

Maybe Kakashi, who had rejoined ANBU shortly after helping Naruto find and kill Sasuke? Kakashi seemed that type that might do something like that.

Sakura couldn't think of any other person she knew in ANBU who might do that. Many times she had asked Ino, the only girl her age in ANBU, about this mysterious Nobody. But Ino, in a short, clipped voice, had told her that it was none of her business.

Sakura didn't ask anymore, since it always seemed to put Ino in a bad mood, especially with Sakura. To be sure, she and Ino weren't great friends anymore. Ino had sort of drifted away after joining ANBU. But bringing up the subject turned Ino almost hostile, and all that Sakura had ever gotten out of her about Nobody was that it wasn't Ino.

A fat lot of help that was. Sakura had figured that from the start. But still, she was curious. She wished that Naruto would tell her, but every time she asked, he just laughed out loud, like it was the funniest question he had ever heard. When she pestered him for details, he would just laugh harder, occasionally throwing out cryptic comments disguised as jokes.

But even Naruto's momentary slips weren't enough to help her any. Maybe it was so secret that even the loud-mouthed Naruto had to keep it secret. All she had gathered from him was that this person was a person with 'a heart as cold as death,' who 'acts like an animal' was a total jerk to be around on the job. Naruto never said what the mysterious ANBU was like off the job, and any questions about it made him roll on the floor laughing.

Sakura wished she knew more, and wished that she could be sure of what little Naruto had let slip. But it was entirely possible that the idiot blonde had been joking, and that she really knew nothing at all.

Sakura sighed, and watched Naruto slowly calm his laughing. It was a mistake to take him out for ramen, even if there was a slight possibility of finding out more about this enigmatic Nobody. He just annoyed her to death.

Sakura slowly walked out of Ichiraku's, grateful that Naruto had long ago given up on dating her. Or this would have been a lot more embarrassing and annoying to have done.

The blonde's raucious laughter followed her home.

Naruto was pissed. What sort of jerk was Sakura, pretending to take him out for lunch as a friend when all she really wanted to do was interrogate him about Nobody? She treated him like some sort of tool, to be used and tossed aside. To find out about genin, she looked in a file. To find out about jounin, she looked in a different file.

Naruto was just her ANBU file, less conveniently located. So when they had arrived at Ichiraku's for lunch, Naruto was incredibly angry. He had, therefore, expressed it in the way that he had for years.

He smiled. He stretched his mouth to the sides of his face in a toothy grin, and squinting his eyes shut. He had figured it out long ago. Smile wide, stretching his feral grimace into a more friendly looking smile. And squint, to hide his accusing glares and flickers to the red eyes that emerged with his anger.

And when Sakura had begun the questioning again, Naruto expressed his terrible wrath in the same way he had practiced for as long as he could remember.

He laughed. A loud, barking laugh that prevented him from letting out any other sound, such as the low, rumbling growl that he sometimes gave off even in his sleep.

Once the stupid pink-haired medic had left him alone, Naruto retreated to his sanctuary, at the top of the Hokage Monument.

She was waiting for him.

Ino had seen Sakura and Naruto walking into Ichiraku's, and her stomach had instantly clenched in a paroxysm of jealousy and hatred. But she had controlled herself, knowing that Naruto only did this out of a feeling of necessity, and because every time, as he had once told her, he secretly hoped that Sakura would come around.

Knowing better than that, Ino had climbed up to Naruto's favorite spot on top of the Yondaime's carved head, and waited for him.

She stared off into the sky, feeling the breeze toss her ponytail around behind her. She had grown it out again, like she had worn it back in her early genin days. Partly because she just never got around to cutting it. But mostly because she had found out, one day, that Naruto liked it that way.

She hadn't cut her hair since. Now stretching down almost to her waist, her pale blonde ponytail fluttered and swung in the wind.

The sound of feet scuffing up the path brought her out of her reverie. She knew who it was, but she asked, like she did every time.

"Who's there?"


Naruto sat down next to her, and reached with one hand to play with her hair. Ino closed her eyes and sighed as she enjoyed Naruto's attention, however slight. She could never get him to do much, emotionally or physically, so she always made sure that he knew she appreciated it whenever he actually initiated an action on his own.

Still twirling her blonde strands around his hand, and running his fingers through it, Naruto spoke quietly.

"I'm tired, Ino." There was a long pause, but Ino was used to it by now. She knew that he had more to say, and so she waited. "So tired of pretending. Pretending that I'm happy. Pretending that I care. Pretending that I matter to anyone."

Ino leaned her head on his shoulder, slowly, so that she wouldn't disturb his continued attentions to her hair, and wrapped her arms around him in a gentle, sideways hug. Sensing that he was done talking for a moment, she whispered, "Even if no one else cares, Naruto, I do. And aren't you even a little happy, when you're here with me?"

She tried to sound more confident that she felt. Naruto was so hard to read. It was only thanks to her vague sixth sense, a feeling that came with the long use of Yamanaka mind techniques, that she had ever noticed Naruto's façade at all. She knew that he didn't hate her, but Naruto had never even once spoken of how he felt about her. So many times over the past two years, after Ino had first gotten to know him, she had tried to get him to tell her exactly how he felt.

But as time went on, she realized that he probably didn't even know himself, how he felt. Naruto was so used to hiding his emotions that he could no longer sense anything except the constant anger and frustration, strong feelings that blocked him from sensing anything other emotion that might have grown within him over the years.

But for Ino, it was enough that he accepted her. No one else was allowed to touch him this way, when Naruto wasn't pretending to be something else. No one else was even allowed to approach him this way, when he revealed his soft and vulnerable side. Only Ino was allowed to see his true self. And only Ino was privileged enough to hear his complaints about the way he was treated, the people who slighted him, and the so-called friends who only stayed around him for reasons other than his company.

So Ino drew in a quick breath when Naruto embraced her back, putting his arms around her shoulders and pulling her to sit sideways on his lap. He had never been so affectionate. Ino leaned onto his chest, moving and breathing carefully and slowly, afraid that any sudden movement might startle him and put more distance between them.

Naruto held her head against his chest with a single hand, and traced lazy circles on her back with the other. Slowly, Ino relaxed into him, as she stopped worrying about scaring him off. She nuzzled her cheek against his chest, and smiled when she felt a gentle rumble emanating from within.

Even if others could possibly guess about Naruto's façade, she knew for a fact that she was the only one who was aware that Naruto purred when he was pleased. Which, Ino thought bitterly, was far too infrequently. She could only remember two other times when Naruto had purred for her.

The first was when she had told him that she knew about how he pretended for others, and told him that she accepted him anyway, while hugging him tightly.

Although Naruto had not responded in any outward sign, she had felt the low vibration from his chest, and, after a long, questioning stare, Naruto had told her that he was slightly more foxlike than most people knew. His teeth and whiskers were obvious, but there were other things. Like his purring, which he had briefly explained to her.

Ino also remembered Naruto purring the first time she had comforted him after one of Sakura's interrogations. Naruto had been more outwardly pleased this time, the first day he had played with her hair, and he had purred gently as she rubbed his back and spoke quiet, soothing words, telling him to never mind all those others who ignored his many good qualities.

And, of course, now. Ino closed her eyes and just enjoyed Naruto's pleasant warmth, another byproduct of the fox that only Ino knew about. They sat there in silence for several hours, while Naruto watched the sun go down, and Ino drowsed and all but fell asleep.

As it began to darken into night, Naruto rubbed Ino's bare arms to keep her warm, causing the young blonde woman to take a deep breath and return to full wakefulness.

She opened her eyes and looked up into Naruto's face, still gazing in the direction of the sunset with a faraway look in his eyes.

She felt his chest expand, and Naruto spoke in soft voice, the voice that only she ever heard.

"Yes, Ino. I am happy when I'm here with you." Ino sat in quiet stillness, and hugged his chest more tightly. Although the words themselves were nothing, coming from Naruto, they were a huge admission. Any other boy would have had to bring flowers and diamonds for any words to mean as much to another girl, as those words did to Ino.

He continued. "I joined ANBU years ago, because I was lost behind that mask I had created, the mask of false happiness and enthusiasm." Ino felt him gather the strength to continue with this painful revelation. She knew how much it hurt for him to speak about anything like this, and so she waited in respectful silence while he regathered his courage.

"Soon, I was also lost behind the mask of the ANBU. I could only act like myself when I appeared as someone else, and could only look myself when I acted like someone else."

Ino rubbed his back gently, silently willing him to continue.

"One time, when I was told to leave a survivor, as a warning, he asked me who I was. I opened my mouth to reply, and realized that I wasn't really anybody. I was never truly myself, and I was never truly someone else. I was nobody. And so I told him so."

Ino didn't react to this revelation, still rubbing slow circles on his back, comforting him, giving him strength. She had known that he was called Nobody, but finding out why only made her more sorry for him. Tears formed in her eyes, and she blinked them away, the better to watch his face as he pushed on.

"And I stayed Nobody for so long, lost behind my masks, I didn't realize when I became somebody again. Two years ago, Ino. Though I didn't realize it until today."

Ino could stop the tears that ran from her eyes. She meant so much to him? She knew what he meant by two years ago. When she had first found him hiding from the world behind false pretenses.

Naruto tilted his head down and looked her in the eyes, wordlessly thanking her for her patience, her understanding, and her unconditional love.

"Stay with me, Ino."

Ino smiled through her tears of joy. "Always," she said, and kissed his cheek

I think it turned out alright. The ending was inspired by a scene from Frank Herbert's Dune.

As always, reviews are appreciated. Constructive criticism is welcome, especially, so that I can improve as I continue. Please be sure, if you tell me something was bad, tell me how to fix it. I want to improve. And if you just wanna tell me you read it, and have no particular advice, that's fine too. I'm glad to read any review.