An Answer at Last
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto.
Note: Because the author just HAS to drag everything out, doesn't he? Especially the eagerly awaited shipping news! Spoilers for recent manga chapters. Also, may contain sap.
"So Hinata, I hear Naruto's back in town," Kiba teased.
His shy teammate, as expected, looked at the ground. "I see…"
"Hey!" Kiba remembered suddenly. "I heard from Lee who heard from one of Jiraiya's frogs that you finally confessed your love for Naruto! Congratulations, I'm so proud of you!"
"Thanks," Hinata said, still not looking at him.
"How did that go, anyway? I bet he was completely taken by surprise," Kiba laughed to himself. He might love Naruto like an extremely annoying and hyperactive cousin, but man the boy was oblivious.
"It did," Hinata acknowledged, a faint pink tingeing her cheeks.
"So how did he take the news after he recovered from shock and the battle ended?" Kiba prompted.
"I don't know," Hinata confessed.
"…What do you mean you 'don't know'?" Kiba asked, hoping for once that his instincts were wrong. "He didn't just up and leave to go do…whatever he was doing that probably involved Sasuke in some way…without talking to you…did he?"
"I'm sure it was very urgent," Hinata defended the clueless love of her life.
"He had time to celebrate with all of us! And hang out with Sakura! And I heard he even had time to catch up with some kid he knew for maybe two weeks three years ago!" Kiba pointed out.
Hinata sighed. "Well…it was a very serious confession, Kiba, and would thus merit a serious conversation. I told him I was willing to die for him, you know. He had no idea about my feelings before and he probably didn't know how to respond."
"Stop making excuses!" Kiba ordered. "You confessed you loved him and nearly died for his sake and he just up and left? Uncool. That's it, we're totally going to hunt him down and DEMAND that he answers you."
"You really don't have to do that," Hinata tried to assure him as he dragged her arm and started dragging her along to where he could smell Naruto strongest.
"Don't be silly, this is what friends are for," Kiba told her with a grin.
"Going out of your way to embarrass me?" Hinata asked.
Kiba shrugged. "You should hear what the Uchiha think friends are for. Or, thought, really."
Hinata considered that for a moment. "Embarrass away," she decided eventually.
"Will do," Kiba said cheerfully as they reached the clearing where Naruto was standing.
He wasn't alone, though, he was talking with Sakura.
"Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a pervert to see about a costume!"Naruto announced, turning to go.
"That doesn't sound good…" Sakura noted.
"You know what else doesn't sound good?"Kiba demanded. "Leaving poor Hinata hanging! Seriously, what is wrong with you?"
"Kiba!" Sakura looked uncharacteristically nervous. "How much did you hear?"
"Something about Naruto needing to see some pervert so he could role play," Kiba said dismissively.
"…Let's go with that," Naruto said, eyeing him strangely. "And what do you mean I left Hinata hanging? I couldn't possibly have been supposed to meet her; I just got back from…wait, am I allowed to talk about it?"
"With Danzo as the Hokage?" Sakura snorted. "Probably not."
"Hinata confessed her love for you and you just left without saying anything! Probably to go chasing after Sasuke again! Dear God, it's like you're in love with him!" Kiba laughed wildly at the idea. "…You're not, are you?"
"No," Naruto assured him. "His brother and I were having a long, torrid affair, though." He paused and cocked his head to the side, "Or at least I think we were. He did use a lot of genjutsu."
"Stop messing around," Sakura ordered, whacking her teammate on the arm.
"He started it," Naruto whined, rubbing the spot.
"About Hinata?" Kiba prompted, pointing at the girl in question, who looked too mortified to speak. The last thing she wanted to do was be rejected by Naruto for Sakura in front of her teammate and Sakura herself.
"Do we have to have this conversation right now?" Naruto asked, looking distinctly uncomfortable. "It's kind of…crowded."
"No, later is fine," Hinata said quickly, hoping Kiba would just leave it at that.
No such luck.
"Later is absolutely NOT fine! If I leave it up to you, I'll come back in a week and find out you two still haven't talked! If Sakura wants to leave, that would be great, however," Kiba hinted.
The pink-haired medic crossed her arms defiantly. "I'm not going anywhere."
"Well, uh, Hinata," Naruto coughed. "I was quite taken aback by the revelation that you have been harboring feelings for me. In retrospect, I probably should not have been surprised as you were always stuttering and blushing when I was around…" he laughed softly to himself. "Did you know I used to think you had some sort of serious medical condition? Jiraiya never did explain why he laughed himself silly after I told him that…"
"Naruto…" Hinata said quietly, wondering if that was a good sign or bad sign. She knew she'd been fairly obvious, but Naruto had never been one to pick up on subtleties. Even if it was the most glaringly obvious subtlety ever.
"You always believed in me. I didn't see it then, but I appreciate it now. You tried to help, even back then, and you were always so…happy when I simply noticed you," Naruto looked a bit distant at that, no doubt remembering his own struggle to be acknowledged. He'd had to literally cause half the town to be brought back from the dead, but he'd done it.
"You always worked hard, even when no one believed you could do it," Hinata explained. "Your confidence…I didn't understand it, but it never wavered. It was always there, always steady. It was…so different than what I was used to. I wanted to be like you because I saw in you someone worth being."
"You ask me how I feel about you and to be honest, I don't know," Naruto confessed. "Your feelings only very recently occurred to me and only after you very literally shouted them for the world to hear. You were willing to die for me, though, and that means something. You know, Sasuke was willing to die for me once, way back on our first mission outside of Konoha. We both thought he had for a while, there. It's one of the things I hold to to remind myself that there's still hope for him."
"Yeah, that's great, Naruto," Kiba muttered. "But he's tried to kill you since then. TWICE. Sai said that Orochimaru, of all people, had to convince him to spare you. I kind of think he's past hope…"
"To be fair, we did wake him up at two in the morning to try and convince him to come back to Konoha and have to actually be held responsible for his actions," Naruto defended.
"Because God forbid someone actually hold Sasuke accountable for his actions," Kiba said sarcastically.
"Kiba," Hinata scolded gently. "Don't be rude."
Kiba snorted but didn't say anything, mostly because he wanted to see what Naruto decided to do about Hinata. And so help him, he WOULD make a decision before they left the clearing.
"Wait…" Sakura, who had been politely letting the couple talk even if she wouldn't politely leave, spoke up suddenly. "Are you telling me that you might like Hinata, Naruto?"
Naruto shrugged helplessly. "Maybe. I don't know. I think we should spend some more time together so I can find out."
Hinata beamed. That was more than she'd hoped for. And even if Naruto didn't choose her in the end, at least she'd have no regrets.
"But…what about me?" Sakura asked, still confused and somewhat hurt.
"What about you?" Naruto didn't see how she was involved. "I thought we were done talking about…you know."
"We are," Sakura assured him. "But…don't you love me? Sai said you did and everyone else seemed to agree."
Hinata looked down. She'd been there when Sai had declared that and it was true; everyone just knew that Sakura and Naruto were Meant To Be. Even if Kiba was choosing to ignore it for the sake of his friend.
Naruto stared at her in frank disbelief. "You took relationship advice from Sai? Of all people? Seriously, I'd sooner take relationship advice from Jiraiya! Or Kakashi! Or both! While they were drunk! Besides, wasn't he also the one who told you that I was only trying to bring Sasuke back because I promised you I would? It's been three years; I'd like to think I wouldn't be that obsessive if I didn't care, too."
Sakura flushed. "Well, maybe he's not the best source when it comes to these things," she admitted. "But everyone else agreed that you love me!"
"I do love you," Naruto assured her.
Hinata's heart shattered at the news. But hadn't he said he didn't know how he felt about her not two minutes ago? Surely he wouldn't be so presumptuous as to think he could date another girl while going out with the Hyuuga heiress? Especially not one that hit as hard as Sakura did.
"Just…" Naruto trailed off, searching for the right words. "I love you like I love Sasuke."
"I knew it!" Kiba couldn't resist blurting out.
Naruto glared at him. "I meant that he's like a brother to me!"
"Sakura's like a brother to you?" Kiba asked innocently.
"No, she's like a sister!" Naruto shot back.
"You do realize that this is Konoha, land of the obsession with Kekkei genkai, right? Being family is not necessarily a deterrent and, in some cases, and encouragement, to a couple," Kiba pointed out.
"Kiba," Hinata said reproachfully. He knew full well how much it bothered her when people told her she should get together with Neji in order to 'heal the rift between the Main House and the Branch House.' Of course, Hinata had her own ideas on how to end the rift: stop applying the Caged Bird Seal to small children. Or anyone, really. Also, even if she was okay with the fact that their fathers' were identical twins making the two of them biologically half-siblings, Neji would kill her. If Tenten didn't get to her first, that is.
"Well, I'm not in any big clan, so that's irrelevant," Naruto decided.
"You…don't love me?" Sakura sounded hurt. "Not like that?"
"I'm sorry," Naruto said gently. "But you're family to me and that's more permanent anyway."
"But…I don't understand," Sakura confessed. "You've always loved me. I counted on that to help me make sense of everything." She paused, then added sheepishly, "Well, that and I was a better ninja than you, but that quickly went down the drain…"
"Why does everyone always seem to think I'm in love with Sakura?" Naruto wondered aloud.
Kiba snorted. "Look back at your behavior from the last time you were really around and ask that again."
"You mean three years ago?" Naruto asked. At Kiba's nod, he protested, "I was twelve! I had a crush on Sakura just like she had a crush on Sasuke!"
Sakura stiffened at the mention. "That's hardly the same!"
"It's exactly the same," Naruto said bluntly. "We both were ridiculously devoted to someone who treated us like crap-" Sakura winced at the reminder but Naruto paid it no mind "- and we both 'defended' our love interest against the other member of the team. Sasuke thought you were useless and you thought I was an idiot."
"I was pretty useless," Sakura admitted.
"He could have been nicer about it," Naruto insisted. "Then again, he could have been a lot of things, but then he wouldn't be Sasuke."
"You say that like it's a bad thing," Kiba piped up.
"It's a terrible thing!" Naruto announced.
"For YOU, maybe. For the rest of the world…I'm not so sure," Kiba replied. "Hell, I'm not even sure it wouldn't be best for you."
"Whatever," Naruto shook his head, dismissing Kiba's words. "The point is: I was a child with a crush, the same as you were. Sasuke left, I left, and Kakashi just sort of faded into the background. You had never really lost anything before and had to grow up really fast and confront the reality of your crush disappearing directly. As for me…as I grew up, I realized how much you meant to me…but not like that."
"I see," Sakura said softly.
"For what it's worth…I'm sorry," Naruto told her genuinely.
"I know," Sakura smiled sadly. "You could never hurt anyone on purpose. You couldn't even kill Pein."
Naruto looked at her for a moment longer before turning back to Hinata, who was watching the scene before her solemnly. "I'm kind of hungry," he told her, sounding almost shy. "Do you think you'd be up for some ramen?"
"I'd be honored," Hinata replied, letting Naruto lead the way to Ichiraku Tsukemen Bar, where they would no doubt combine their food to make the ramen the boy so loved.
"Well that went well," Kiba said, sounding satisfied as he watched them go.
"For you maybe," Sakura said bitterly.
Kiba shrugged. "Hey, don't look at me! I'm not the one who assumed the guy who used to have a crush on me would be devoted to me forever!"
"I hate you."
"There's always Lee," Kiba pointed out.
"Until you convince him he's secretly in love with Gai," Sakura muttered.
"Now that's an idea…"
Note: I love Sakura and Naruto as friends, but as a pairing…not so much. Too much history and Sasuke between them.