Lost and Found

He had been blurrily staring down at a book when he felt the room somehow change. It was some legendary tale, or so Sai had told him, and he had tried to stay focused long enough to get the gist of it. But then that unmistakable scent of strawberry mixed with latex and sanitizer had captured his attention elsewhere. Head swiveling, he searched, and when his eyes finally found what he had wanted to see, a wide goofy grin spread across his face. Immediately he stood and waved, hoping she would stop by.

Her eyes slowly turned to him, but what he saw in them made his face fall and eyebrows furrow in sudden worry. She looked at him only briefly before ghosting away, her steps unusually dragging and her shoulders slumped. She looked defeated.

"What's wrong with Sakura-chan?" he asked, plopping back down into his chair with an annoyed expression settling upon his face. He felt helpless, which immediately made him cross at whatever had caused her to look so depressed. Something somewhere was deserving of a fist in the face.

Sai, who had also noticed Sakura's odd behavior, looked at Naruto with his usual blank, and yet somehow unnerving, stare. "Oh. I would guess it must have something to do with Sakura-san's boyfriend," he offered, his shoulder blades inching up in indifference. "Or, rather, former boyfriend."

Naruto had felt a jolt, or perhaps a stilling, at the answer. As if Sakura and boyfriend didn't belong together in a sentence. Or at least they didn't as far as he was concerned. Even more unnerving was that he hadn't known she had one.

"S-Sakura-chan has a…" he couldn't finish it, but instead let the sentence hang heavy between them.

"Had." Sai corrected, but Naruto was still stuck on the first part.

"Why didn't she tell me?" Naruto wasn't sure why that was what bothered him the most. But Sai had known, and Naruto was surely the closer friend. It was a childish thing to be jealous over, he knew, but it scared him to think she wasn't as close as he had thought. It scared him that she could slip away from him without him being any the wiser.

Sai, on the other hand, didn't seem all that focused with that aspect of the revelation. "I cannot begin to explain what someone like Sakura-san is thinking. I have learned that much by now." He rubbed his cheek, as if in some painful memory. Naruto could only sympathize half-heartedly as there were more important matters at hand.

Tilting back dangerously in his chair, Naruto crossed his arms, his eyes squinting in defiance. "How long?"

Now this Sai could answer. "Not long. Two weeks maybe." He eyed the pouting blonde who was trying to defy gravity with his chair and decided more information might be needed. "I tried to talk her out of it."

The chair fell back to earth with a resounding thud, and the other occupants in the library inched away, whispering complaints to their neighbors as none were brave enough to confront the loud jinchuuriki. Naruto ignored them, instead fixing Sai with an untrusting glare.

"Why would you do that?"

The ink-nin was forced to sigh at the rapidly changing mood presented before him. He now realized that he had somehow provoked Naruto's protective streak, a simple task when it concerned those close to him. If he had to guess, he would say that Naruto was still in shock over the whole situation.

Calmly, he tried to explain. "I saw them together, and it appeared to be more than casual, so I confronted Sakura-san about it. I told her that I thought she was looking for a civilian type of love in a ninja lifestyle, and that it would most likely lead to more heartbreak for her. I've read several accounts of cases like this, and it never ends well. Shinobi aren't meant to love like that."

This too had been the wrong thing to say, unfortunately for Sai. Slamming his hands down against the table, Naruto angrily asked, "Why the hell would you tell her that?!"

Sai held up his hands against the potential storm. "I was only trying to help. We are friends, and it is my duty to tell a friend when I see a possibility that they could be hurt. Isn't that true?"

Naruto didn't know what to say to that. He knew it was true, but he also knew he was angry at Sai, so he settled for his continued glare. Meanwhile, the others in the library had begun to clear a wide area around the epicenter of commotion.

"You know how Sakura-san has been hurt," Sai pressed on, realizing he wasn't about to get an answer from his teammate and feeling a sudden desire to truly explain his side of things. "And yet it seems like she still wishes to find a deep relationship with someone. It is hard for shinobi, and most don't even attempt to settle down. Wouldn't you be worried?"

Truthfully he didn't worry, because he hadn't considered it. Nor had he considered how shinobi were forced to behave due to their dangerous lifestyle. It made sense, and yet at the same time, he felt his usual stubbornness arise at the dreariness of it all. Shinobi needed bonds, and bonds came in many different shapes and sizes. Romantic love was just another type, a deep type, of course, but to think that it was not allowed because they were ninja was extremely depressing. And even more so was the thought that Sakura would not love with that same open heart. She wanted a fairy tale, he remembered clearly, and even after she had matured, she still tried to grasp it. For some reason it made his heart beat faster, and he felt closer to her. It was because he could understand that unrealistic goal, that secret wish. That part about her had always called to him. She was still willing to believe in goodness and embrace her heart for its full worth.

Abruptly he stood, sliding his chair away, and Sai looked at him in surprise.

He couldn't accept it. Even if Sai's heart had been in the right place, there was no way Naruto could agree. "I believe in her," he told Sai stubbornly before stomping away.

At his leaving, the entire library took a collective sigh.

He found her already leaving the hospital, her frame somewhat hunched as if she carried a heavy weight against her back. When he got closer, he noticed her eyes were red. She had been crying. Naruto clenched his fist, feeling, once again, that he would like nothing more than to give this mystery guy a good punch in the face.

Calling her name, he was able to get her to pause and look back at him.


A moment later and he was at her side, his aggression replaced by worry. He felt slightly better just being close to her, but the far away look in her eyes reminded him that she was hurting and that he, at the moment, didn't quite understand.

"What's the matter Sakura-chan?" It didn't feel right telling her Sai had explained things, especially since, for whatever reason, she had chosen not to tell him about the relationship in the first place. She stiffened at his question, her eyes filling with fear, but when she opened her mouth to speak she was halted by a voice calling her name.

They both turned to a young man running down the steps of the hospital. Naruto's mood immediately darkened for he just knew who the man was.

"Sakura, please wait!"

Naruto felt his cheek clench in annoyance, his blue eyes immediately narrowing threateningly. Sakura too had reacted negatively, though where Naruto had bristled, she had chilled into ice. Even though he was standing right next to her, it was almost like she was miles away, and Naruto had to suppress the urge to grab her hand.

"What do you want?" Naruto had had to fight the reflex to shudder at the cold tone she had used. It was a tone that meant you were royally screwed; it had been directed towards him more than once, so he had the experience to say.

The boy too must have known of his doom as a fraction of a wince appeared on his face. Surprisingly, he too ignored his instinct to run and instead cautiously approached the angered kunoichi.

"Please, can we talk?"

Naruto had to bite back a snicker. Begging would get a man no where when it came to Sakura. In fact, it was often cause for her to hit harder. He wasn't about to share this information however. Let someone else feel her wrath for once.

Sure enough, her reply was said so harshly that she could have stabbed him right there with a kunai, and it wouldn't have stung any worse. "What the hell is there to talk about? I think things are perfectly clear."

She was giving him a daring look now, as if goading him to go ahead and disagree. Naruto saw the desire to flee once again pass across the man's face, but he managed to hold his ground. He might have been impressed if he wasn't currently scheming up ways to make him suffer.

"Please," he pleaded, as he took a moment to glance in Naruto's direction (as if asking silently why he was still there) and then back to Sakura. "I'm sure we can work this out."

Naruto's reply was to puff out his chest to appear as intimidating as possible. Sakura, while ignoring the blonde's silent battle, finally allowed the ice to shatter.

Actually, it didn't just shatter. It exploded.

"Work this out? Are you kidding me? There is nothing to work out!" Her green eyes flashed and her voice was harsh, yet Naruto heard a pained edge to it. No matter how strong she was acting, inside she was barely holding herself up. His own eyes softened as he watched her; his jealousy and anger no longer mattered, not when she was hurting. He wanted to touch her, just to let her know he was there, but Naruto knew she needed to do this on her own. Some battles are just personal like that.

"I'm sorry if I offended you. You must know I would never intentionally try to hurt you like that." He tried, and, damn him, he actually did look sincere. "It was a misunderstanding, I swear! My other relationships were…I didn't realize you…" he was fumbling and Sakura had yet to blink. "I've- before you, I'd never been with a kunoichi who wanted a deep relationship. So I wasn't expecting…"

Sakura flared. "So you weren't expecting me to refuse you? Is that it? You were expecting me to jump into bed with you because you asked nicely and said I looked pretty?"

Naruto's cheeks had tinged at her words and just like that his anger was back, but even more powerful than before. His eyes darkened, his mouth tensing into a dangerously straight line.

"No! I-"

But it was already too late for him. Sakura was on the attack now, her emotions raging out of control. Hurt, anger, wounded pride. And Naruto was right there with her, as if he had also been insulted. While he didn't speak, she could feel his own silent fury adding to fuel her fire.

"Forgive me for thinking you actually meant anything you said! I guess now I'm just a prude who wouldn't give you any. How unfair."

"Sakura, that's not it! We can work this out, really!"

She sighed as if he really just didn't get it. "There is nothing to work out. You want one thing, I want something else. That's all!"

It was over. He knew from the finality in her voice that she was done. Sure enough, she turned without another glance and marched away with Naruto close behind. The boy didn't chase her or say anything else. It was for the best, really. She had made up her mind, and if he had continued to pursue her, Naruto was positive he would have gotten involved (if only to stop Sakura from doing something she might regret later on).

Sakura didn't say anything the whole way to her apartment, and Naruto, not knowing what to say, had been uncharacteristically silent as well. He watched her, watched how the line of her back had slowly fallen into that slumped position the longer she walked. Watched as her pace slowed and her head hung lower. She looked fragile, as if she would break if he reached out to touch her back. Naruto felt Sakura should never look like that, and yet he couldn't bring himself to comfort her. He was somewhat afraid because she could easily snap at him if he said something wrong. And, at the same time, his desire to comfort her was fed by the bottomless love he always felt for her. If he acted on it, he might not be able to hold himself back. If he ever allowed himself to freely express his feelings, to show more than an ounce of all the love her held for her, he feared he'd never be able to stand her rejection. So he swallowed his worry because of his fear and watched helplessly as Sakura attempted to keep one foot moving in front of the other.

When she finally reached her door, she unlocked it and entered, leaving it swinging open. Inwardly, he wondered if she even realized his presence, and then if he was invited in. He had only been in her apartment a handful of times and never without her permission. So he stood, somewhat frantically, outside her door.

"If you are coming in, come in. Otherwise close the door and leave."

She hadn't bothered to look at him, instead turning down her hallway and out of sight. Naruto, not needing to be told twice, bounded up her stairs and into her home, closing the door once safely inside. He always felt slightly giddy being allowed in her apartment. Everything was so nice and smelled faintly of Sakura. He'd like nothing more than to rub his nose in her couch pillows just so he might be able to become a fraction more familiar with her.

Peeking around the corner, Naruto checked to see if Sakura had maybe gone into the bathroom, but he found the room to be empty. Padding quietly down the hall, he stopped to look into the bedroom. There on the bed was Sakura, lying curled up on her side, holding a pillow while staring at the wall. His features fell, and yet his heart skipped a beat at the same time. He had never been in Sakura's bedroom before.

Once again he was unsure if he was allowed. "Sakura-chan?" She didn't answer and instead opted to continue staring off into nothing.

He glanced around worriedly, and then down at his toes which had yet to cross the line at her doorframe. Looking back at her one more time he decided that whatever wrath might befall him for entering was worth it if only to take her mind off of her hurt. So he entered, creeping slowly to stand in front of her, and then lowered himself into her direct line of sight so that she was forced to look at him.

Sakura blinked, her green eyes finally focusing on him, staring into his bright blue. At first her eyes were hard and unrelenting, not wishing to divulge any of her thoughts or feelings. Naruto worried she might tell him to leave, but then he touched her cheek and said her name softly, calling to that part of her heart that was connected to him. As if he could pluck at the string of their bond in just the right way. And just like that, her eyes melted, the veil passing away from them, and she revealed her fear and hopelessness. It was heartbreaking for him, to see it so clearly in her eyes, but it was a step in the right direction, and he forced himself to hold her gaze.

"I think they're right," she whispered, her voice sounding alien, even to him. "Ninja aren't meant for love. All I've done my whole life is fumble around with it; tried to grasp something that might be unreachable. Why can't I just let it go?" He heard the anger edge into her voice at her query, as if it was truly her own fault for the way she felt now. As if it was deserved, even.

Naruto glanced away and then back. "Sakura-chan…" he began, but then found he had no words to follow, which was odd for him. Usually his feelings could spring forth from his mouth, as if they possessed him to form the correct words and sentences. But this time there was nothing, only the obvious worry and tightness at his heart. At his hesitation she fell back, away from him, allowing her head to bump against her pillow so that she stared at the ceiling.

"It's a never ending cycle."

Of hatred, he wanted to say, but then he remembered, no, not this time. This was heartache. It was different, though connected, but Sakura wasn't the type to cause others pain purposefully. Instead she focused it inwards on herself, blamed herself.

"Sai was right…I'm just wanting the impossible. This has to stop."

He paled at those words, his heart tightening to the point where he was sure it couldn't possibly beat anymore. She was giving up; Sakura, the girl who had always loved so fully was letting her heart go. And Naruto knew, from that determined sound of her voice, that it was serious. It wasn't something she would sleep on and shrug off the next morning. No, this was the last straw for her.

Naruto swallowed. He needed to say something to stop her, and yet still he didn't know what to say. Where did he stand on this issue? For the first time, he was coming to realize that perhaps, yes, love was something that most ninja could not attain in their short lives. You could fall in love and hope, desperately, that it might be returned, but that didn't mean it was possible to hold onto. Falling in love had never gotten him anywhere, had it? Heartache, pain and desperation is what he had gotten, and from the girl lying before him, no less. He knew how she was feeling and knew how real it was to reach one's limit.

And yet…Naruto knew, without a doubt, that he didn't want to see her give up. Was that just naïve optimism on his part? Certainly he knew he was full of it, enough to spill over onto others even. How easy it would be to tell her that she was right and it was time to grow up. Fairytales didn't happen, not all dreams come true, but that doesn't mean life still can't be full.

As soon as the thought crossed his mind, however, Naruto knew he would never utter such words to her. Because he loved her, hopelessly, helplessly, he would never take action against her dreams. And even selfishly, because he loved her, he could not bear to see her any different.

"Don't listen to Sai, he's just being an asshole."

Perhaps not the most eloquent or heart touching words he could come up with, but Naruto, at the least, had found his voice once more. And even more importantly, Sakura had looked over to him. She looked surprised, as if she had only just remembered he was there, but she was obviously listening.

He gave her a stubborn look as he continued, "Yeah, he always lets those books tell him what to do and what to think. On this you should just trust yourself." He unscrunched his eyes to look at her clearly, inwardly cursing his hot face. This was Sakura-chan, and damnit, even if he usually swallowed his emotions when it came to her, this was something he needed to say. "Don't let anyone tell you what to feel, Sakura-chan. You wouldn't be you if you didn't have such a big heart." You wouldn't be the girl that I love, had crossed his mind, but those words he found too hard to actually say. Too heavy, too revealing. He was still being a coward, he knew, but at least for now, she knew mostly how he felt.

Sakura released a choked sort of laugh. "How could you say that, Naruto? I hurt you, perhaps more than anyone."

Heat had burned into his cheeks, and he was struck with sudden frustration. Children are cruel, but that is because they have faced their own cruelty. He didn't blame her, couldn't blame her. "We were kids, Sakura-chan!" he told her, his voice revealing some of his exasperation. "That doesn't matter."

But then she had fixed him with that look, one that could read him, one that saw into him and could glimpse his pain. "Even when I didn't want to hurt you."


His eyes widened. In her eyes he saw a heaviness that had never noticed before, and Naruto knew this was something she thought of frequently. It had never occurred to him that she still felt guilty, and now he cursed his oversight. When had they become so similar? He honestly hadn't been expecting to find his own faults shared clearly with her.

"No…" His voice had been so breathless and he immediately wished he could sound stronger. Sakura, it seemed, could no longer take anymore, and he caught a glimpse of the first tear leaking from her eye as she turned away from him.

"No more, Naruto. I can't."

His fingers clenched, his knuckles whitening at the pressure. She was falling away from him, and soon not even he could catch her. Naruto didn't know what to do, so desperately he moved towards her. The mattress creaked underneath his weight and dipped so that Sakura was forced to roll onto her back again. He loomed over her and called her name desperately. When she finally stopped trying to hide her face away and looked up at him, shock slowly spread across her features. It wasn't until a moment later, when a tear drop fell to land against her cheek, did he realize why. Naruto blinked back the burning feeling at the corner of his eyes and instead pulled Sakura up and against him.

"Please, Sakura-chan," he begged, his nose buried against her neck. It was as if he thought if he could hold her close enough, tight enough, her heart might not be able to hide itself away. But even as he held her, Naruto knew he was not reaching her completely.

After a handful of agonizing seconds he felt her arms reach about him and she returned a small amount of pressure. "Naruto…" Her voice was filled with sadness and guilt and he worried she would once again blame herself.

Pulling away, he looked at her and was surprised to find her cheeks reddening. While unexpected, he didn't dwell on it, instead bringing up his hand to wipe away the wetness on her cheek. "Things will definitely get better, you'll see. That guy was just a bastard. Not everyone is like that."

At this she let out a sarcastic sound. "No. No, he wasn't really. He's actually a nice guy. He's not the type that would just sleep around with a bunch of girls." Her eyes fell, lashes lowering to veil her jade irises. "It was my own fault."

Naruto held her shoulders securely, as if he was afraid she would bolt at any given chance. But her body felt relaxed against his fingers, and he knew she had accepted his company, at least for now. He had to admit he was surprised that she suddenly was defending the man she had been so angry at (though he couldn't bring himself to feel any less dislike towards him).

At least she was talking, and because he desperately wanted to understand her, Naruto asked, "How could it be your fault?" It had surprised him at first that he had asked it, because his initial impulse would have normally been to deny that it was possible. But the hurt he had felt due to the fact that she had never mentioned her significant other had possessed him to relieve that curiosity.

Slowly she looked up and presented him with a fearful look; it was a look that a child might give to an authority when they feared they had been caught in an act that deserved punishment. He allowed his fingers to relax their grip, though he didn't pull away. Hesitation flickered across her eyes, but he held her gaze stubbornly. It was a moment that reminded him of another. He could vividly remember the crunch of snow beneath their feet, the white curtain falling around them, how chilling his words were even against the already cold air. She had looked so lost then too, in that one fateful moment where he had lashed out against her. He honestly tried not to think of that time. It always caused his eyes to burn, threatening tears, and his heart felt that much heavier.

He hated those who lied to themselves. But wasn't it a lie that he could ever hate her? And Sakura was far too kind to ever call him out on that fact. She had turned her hurt into anger, but as to how deeply she had been stung, he had never been brave enough to ask.

Finally, it seemed like she had made up her mind, and she blinked and drew in a deep breath. "I liked him because he was easy to talk to. We were friends at the hospital, and he was a nice guy and a reliable medic. He also seemed to enjoy giving me attention, so I wasn't all that surprised when he asked me out to lunch." She paused and chewed her lip, and Naruto felt his stomach clench painfully. "At first I wanted to make some kind of excuse. But when I thought about it, I didn't really know why. I thought, why can't I give him a chance? He was seriously interested in me and that was what I wanted." A shuddering breath released out of him and when his hands tightened over her shoulders, she looked away. "I've always been behind when it comes to romance. Always late." She sucked in a shaky breath and wrung her hands between them. "It seemed like saying no would be a huge mistake. So we went out a few times, and I enjoyed myself. It was nice because we took things slow. I didn't love him, but I thought it was worth giving him a chance."

His heart selfishly clung to her admittance, repeating her words over and over. She didn't love him, she didn't love him. But his mind reminded his foolish heart, she didn't tell you.

"I was afraid to make it a big deal, so I didn't tell many people. Ino knew, and Sai found out. He told me it was a mistake, and I got mad. I didn't want to listen. I wanted to prove him wrong, so when we went out that night I suggested we hang out at his apartment for awhile." Sakura squeezed her eyes shut for a moment as if pained. "It was a stupid idea. At first things were alright. We talked for awhile, but I had already given him the wrong impression. We ended up kissing, which I was fine with, but then things started going further…"

He hadn't blinked for the longest time, and his eyebrows had disappeared into his hairline. He wanted to run, or cover his ears because he wasn't sure if his poor heart could handle it, what with the way it beat so painfully against his chest. Surely it could explode at any moment. Surely she could hear it and would find out. But he had asked for this. He had to know, even if it destroyed him inside. Her eyes had opened to reveal a far away look and her cheeks were still tinted red. "I…panicked. I pushed him away and ran. The more I thought about it, the more angry and sick I felt. At him, at myself, at everything. I blamed him because it was convenient." She shook her head and sighed. "I'm horrible."

She was done, and he was finally able to breathe again. His relief had been so great, in contrast to how awful she currently felt, that he had pulled her against him so quickly that all she was able to do was utter a strangled gasp in surprise.

"Guh," he puffed against her hair, his hand curling around her head as he closed his eyes in relief. His heart slowly began to settle now and he finally realized how close to the edge he had been. Naruto had never felt such strong jealousy in his life. And now that he had her crushed against him, he had no way of possibly explaining it to her. So he, reluctantly, released her and gave her an awkward laugh as a weak cover. But she knew him well enough by now to recognize when he was hiding something. She knew he was impulsive when he believed greatly in something, and she was giving him a questioning stare because of his actions. He had lost control, and she wanted to know what he was trying to hold back. In her jade eyes a curiosity had sparked, and it was almost enough to make her momentarily forget her hurt. It was a look that made his heart hammer loudly within his chest, and he held his breath when she spoke.

"Naruto, you…" She paused, and both looked up into the hall at the sound of a knock at her door. Sakura moved first, pulling herself out of his arms to swing her legs over the bed. Watching her disappear down the hall, he waited a moment in order to catch his breath. He suddenly felt incredibly fortunate, but then he realized who might be at the door and his worry grew. A beat later and he had bolted down the hallway and was hovering behind her as she pulled the door open.

His fears were unnecessary, he realized, when he caught sight of platinum blonde.

"I heard you might be in need of my assistance, Forehead," Ino was saying, holding up a plastic grocery bag. When she noticed Naruto though, a look of shock passed across her face. "Naruto?"

Choosing to ignore her surprise, he peered over Sakura's shoulder at the bag which seemed to be filled with food items. "What do you mean assistance?" His eyes scrunched up and he crossed his arms. "You're probably just a bad influence anyways." He couldn't help but act bratty when it came to Ino; the girl was just asking for it.

Unfortunately, Ino seemed too shocked to care, and instead ignored his words altogether as she looked between them carefully. Finally, her eyes settled on Sakura who she offered a knowing look.

"I guess I'm not really needed here after all." She stepped in the doorway to force the bag into Naruto's hands. "You're an idiot, but I guess I'll trust you with this." She told him loftily. "I'll talk to you tomorrow Sakura."

A small smile found its way to Sakura's lips. "Thanks, Ino-pig."

When she closed the door, she turned to find Naruto looking curiously into the bag.

"Ice cream, chocolate fudge, whipped cream," he named, his brows furrowing. "How exactly does Ino…assist you?" His face revealed a mixture of interest and horror as he wondered, and her eyebrow ticked in slight annoyance at his suggestion.

"It's comfort food, you idiot!"

"Ok, ok," he relented, turning to take the bag into the kitchen. "You just relax and I'll get you some." He needed a moment to regroup anyways, after what Sakura had nearly discovered.

It was a mess; what had always been kept sealed deeply within, almost as deep as the Kyuubi itself, had slowly unraveled out of him as if he had sprung a leak somewhere. Things always ended up so messy when it came to her. He had never behaved the way he wanted to. He could never act as cool as he desired. She could be impressed by him, but that was usually when he didn't even expect her to be. Girls were different. She was different. Special. Any moment where he couldn't be what she wanted had to be considered a failure.

Peeking in a few of her cabinets, he finally located the bowls and took down two. A little more searching found him with spoons, and he tore open the carton to dig into the already melting dessert. He gave Sakura two generous scoops and himself three. Opting to ignore the toppings, he made his way out to the living room where Sakura sat on her couch, staring off into space. When he held the bowl before her vision she blinked, looking up his arm into his face where he offered her a broad grin.

"Here you go, Sakura-chan."

She took the bowl, her arms moving slowly as if they didn't quite belong to her. For a moment, he thought she might drop the bowl altogether, but her fingers curled around the cool glass securely, and she pulled it down.

"Thanks, Naruto," she said into the dish, as if the ice cream was fascinating enough to study.

He hesitated a moment, watching her; when she dipped her spoon in and took a bite, he took that as a good sign and began shoveling down his own treat. After everything that had happened, his stomach had finally found its voice and he couldn't help himself but to indulge. And surprisingly, he even could feel happy. He was in Sakura's apartment, she had somewhat opened up to him, and they were eating ice cream together. All in all, it wasn't a bad situation, added to the fact that he could breathe freely once again, and Sakura seemed to have forgotten his slip up.

Unfortunately for him, Sakura had only managed a few feeble bites of her ice cream before she looked up to watch him intently. He didn't notice it at first, all of his focus instead trained on rapid consumption, but when she set her bowl on her coffee table, he looked up at her with a questioning stare.

"What's wrong Sakura-chan? Aren't you hungry?"

She glanced down at her mostly uneaten bowl for a moment, though he could tell she wasn't really looking at it. But then her lips strained up into a smile, and she turned back to address him. "No, not really."

Naruto hardly heard her reply, his attention focused on that tightness of her mouth as it held her smile. Her fake smile. His blue eyes went wide and his mouth turned down. This wasn't what he wanted to see from her. She wasn't supposed to hide away now. Not from him, not ever.

"Thank you Naruto, for caring. I always make you go through so much trouble." An awkward laugh found its way from her lips, but still her eyes were void of true joy and his brows furrowed. "You are a good friend. But only I can figure this all out, right?" Her hands splayed across her lap and she looked down at them. "I think I'll just get some sleep and see what I want to do tomorrow." Her voice was far too high, her eyes were squinting in fake consolation. She was trying to ease the problem away from him, trying to pull away.

He was stubborn, though, and without thinking he had reached out to hold her arm, applying enough pressure that she would notice. "Don't." His voice held a strong conviction and his face mirrored it with a resolute look. He wouldn't let her go like that.

Green eyes roved from his hand back to his own eyes. "You don't have to protect me Naruto. No one can protect someone from this. We both know that."

Leaning closer, determination sparked in his eyes, and he replied defiantly, "I don't care."

Pink brows knit together. "I know how you are, that you never give up on a friend. But this is different! I can't allow myself to rely on you this time." The smile had gone, fallen away, and inwardly he felt relieved to see it go.

Still he repeated, "I don't care."

"Don't be stubborn!" Her voice was exasperated and he knew anger wouldn't be too far behind. "If I don't want to worry about love anymore, that's up to me! You can't just tell me what to do. You can't just decide." And then suddenly, her voice and expression softened. She was trying to make him understand. "I've always been behind, Naruto. Always too late. You used to be called the dead last, but…at least you knew what you wanted to do. You hardly ever faltered. With me, I always realize too late what is most important." Her eyes held regret now, as she looked at him. "With you, it was especially true." She moved her hand to rest against his apologetically. "I…regret that more than anything else. That's why I-"

"We should be together." The words flew out of his mouth uncontrolled, like steam escaping from a kettle. Immediately he blushed and released her arm, embarrassed by his sudden outburst.

Shit, was the first thought that came to mind. He hadn't meant to say it, not yet. And now the words were gone, taken in by the girl who looked at him with wide eyes and surprise. "Um, ah.." He tried to fill the emptiness with sound, as if that could comfort him somehow. Sakura still stared. "I mean…ahah…if you-"

Shockingly, Sakura interrupted him, leaning in closer to look at him. "Do you really think so?"

"What?" Naruto said dumbly, taken aback by her question. He certainly hadn't expected that. "Are you serious, Sakura-chan?" His cheeks felt hotter by the second yet somehow Sakura seemed completely calm. She was so frustrating sometimes.

For a brief moment, he saw fear and hesitation pass across her eyes. But she blinked and opened her mouth to whisper, "Did you mean that?"

With that final question his body slumped and he released a long breath. Finally he had given in. Even if she could break his heart there was no more room for hiding away and being untrue to himself. He couldn't possibly ask Sakura to be honest and yet hold back himself.

Eyes softening with vulnerability, he answered, "Of course."

She was moving closer again, her hand was gentle when it found his arm and she asked, "You still…love me?" Her voice sounded surprised mixed with her own fear and vulnerability. It caught his attention right away and he was able to lift himself up somewhat.

"Still?" he repeated, confused. "I've never stopped."

He heard her gasp and the hand that had been lying against his arm sprang away as if he were hot to the touch.


His heart fell when she pulled away and inwardly he began to brace himself. Any moment now she would look sorry and tell him no. At least he had been brave enough to tell her. He wasn't a coward any longer.

Sakura turned her head away and he could tell she was thinking. Blue eyes watched her face carefully, cautiously, waiting for any slight change. When he saw the corner of her lips twitch, he held his breath. In the next seconds though, her lips stretched up and out, spreading across her face in a dazzling smile. He was so taken aback by it that his mouth hung open in shock, his eyes impossibly wide as she turned to him. When she saw his shocked expression, her face brightened even further and a laugh erupted from her.

As confusion gripped him, he entertained the thought that perhaps she had lost her mind after all. She brought up a hand in attempt to cover her giggling before finally settling in order to explain, "I'm sorry…I just was so surprised and…happy." He breathed finally, his emotions finally calming slightly. "Hearing you say that…it was something I didn't dare hope for. I was sure I had lost my chance already." When she moved her hand to brush her pink locks behind her ear, he noticed a faint blush on her cheeks. "I promised myself I wouldn't bother you anymore, not after I confessed without being ready. I thought that if you felt the same, you would let me know." He swallowed hard and blinked at her.

"You were waiting for…me?" It was almost more than he could fathom. She nodded slowly, pink hair swinging gently, telling him it was true. "Gaaaaaaaaah!" He sounded, distressed and annoyed with himself. "The suffering could have ended sooner? Damnit, I'm so stupid!"

"N-Naruto, settle down!" When she took his hand he stopped completely, his pout falling away in order to give her a genuine smile.

"Sakura-chan…" He said her name with more love than he had ever allowed himself, and was rewarded by her blush and soft eyes. Naruto had never seen her look like that, so gentle, and his happiness swelled knowing that he was the only one she had been so open with.

"Stop gawking and kiss me already, idiot." His grin broadened. Only Sakura could be both soft and spirited all at once. To him it was a perfect combination, and it only served to enforce his reasons for loving her.

All at once she reached to grab him, but his hands moved quickly to stop her.

"Wait. There's something I have always wanted to do."

Question spread across her features, but she settled in his hold and he released her hand. He faced her fully, grinning at her confused expression. Gently, he brushed his fingers against the bangs at her forehead.

"You may think it's weird, but I've always thought it was cool if I did this." With one hand cupping her cheek, he leaned in. "Such a charming forehead. Makes me want to kiss it." His lips met her forehead in a chaste kiss, and then he pulled away with a laugh. "I know it's really lame, but I came up with it a long time ago and I couldn't help it."

Sakura was stunned to silence, her mouth gaping and eyes wide.

"Heh, you're really cute Sakura-ch---omf!" Suddenly she had lunged towards him until her body pressed tight against him. He uttered a gasp but it was swallowed by her mouth, hot and needy against his. Naruto replied, after only a moment of shock, and wrapped her up in his arms. He wanted to tell her so much, to promise her everything. He wanted to say she would never have to cry over a man breaking her heart again. He wanted to tell her how happy she made him, how long he had loved her and why. He wanted her to know that he was completely hers as long as she wanted him and that he would always stand by her side. For now though, he could settle with this. For now they would speak through tender touches and caresses.

Heh, guess I'm pretty cool after all.

A/N: Well, it's been awhile since I wrote a Naruto fic, but it feels good to write a NS story again. I had been bored with the Naruto for awhile, but I have never stopped supporting NaruSaku, so when a new idea came to me I knew I had to write it out. Hopefully I haven't lost my touch ;)

And of course, thank you to my snow fairy beta! Oh yeah!

--Miss Soupy