*This story takes place in the late Itachi Pursuit Arc at the same time Jiraiya is infiltrating Amegakure.
"Hey, you still with us, Naruto?"
Naruto snapped back to reality, on the dirt path through the forest that led back to Konoha at the sound of Sakura's voice. "What? Yeah!" he replied, "sorry, guess I'm just getting tired, y'know?" He scratched the back of his head anxiously and grinned.
"That doesn't surprise me, the way you chased down the bandit leader." Sakura said. "He never stood a chance!"
"It's just like you to take it upon yourself to go after the main target alone," Sai commented.
"Yeah, I guess so," Naruto said, sounding disinterested.
Sakura's expression grew troubled. "What's up? You're acting weird, Naruto."
"It's nothing! Like I said, I'm tired!" he lied, grinning as widely as possible.
The truth was, for once, he felt overwhelmed by it all. He couldn't name every little thing that contributed to his state, but primary candidates were Sasuke and Sakura. Sure, nothing had changed much since the pursuit of Itachi, but Naruto felt the pressures getting to him. He had long ago accepted that Sakura may never have feelings for him, but still it hurt sometimes. Usually he covered it up well enough and only moped when he was out of sight, but that coupled with the stress of the Sasuke situation was getting to him. Not even he could keep up this façade forever, but he would try.
"Here we are!" Yamato said as they approached the gates to Konohagakure. "It's good to be home, huh, team?"
"I could use a soak in the hot springs!" Sakura said, "after a mission like that, some rest sounds good."
"I have a drawing I've been meaning to finish, so I'll do that." Sai stated.
"How about you, Naruto?" Sakura asked him. "Before I hit the hot springs, how about you pay for ramen?"
Naruto sincerely grinned this time. "Sure thing, Sakura-chan!" he answered.
"I have a report to deliver, see you next time, guys!" Yamato said and vanished.
After parting ways with Sai and Yamato, Naruto and Sakura made their way to Ichiraku. Naruto could smell the familiar scents of the place, and swelled up with excitement knowing he would be eating here with Sakura.
The two of them stepped into the building and sat down at the bar. Teuchi greeted them with a smile and took their orders. They sat and talked about the mission for a while, waiting for their ramen and shared a few laughs. Naruto couldn't stop thinking about how great it was to be sitting there with Sakura. He wanted the moment to last forever. Even if they were only friends, it just felt so pure and comfortable, like the two of them just connected so naturally. But of course, the moment didn't last as long as it would have, had Naruto had his way. Before long he was walking her to the bath house.
"Thanks for the meal, Naruto," Sakura said with a smile.
"Any time, Sakura-chan! We should do it more often; I had a lot of fun just talking with you, y'know?" Naruto answered genuinely, his smile irrepressible.
They stood there just outside the bath house for a moment, looking into each other's eyes. What is she thinking? He wondered. If only he could kiss her… hold her. But, thinking about that would only be harder on him so he fought his imagination. Still, it wasn't so easy. Then he realized he was holding her hand.
"Sakura-chan, I…" Naruto began, but had no idea what to say. His emotions were not so easily put into shallow words.
Sakura pulled her hand away from his, gently but her point was clear. She still didn't feel the same thing for him that he felt for her. "I'm sorry," she said weakly and turned to run into the bath house. She stopped at the door and looked over her shoulder, and said, "Thank you, Naruto," before stepping inside.
Thank you for what? He asked himself. For the ramen, their friendship, his promise, reminding her why she didn't and would probably never love him? Naruto shook his head and walked down the street as alone as he felt.
He ended up sitting at the swing outside the Ninja Academy, a place he hadn't visited in a long time. Before he knew it, the sky had darkened and the full moon was shining in the sky. Naruto looked up at the moon, both hands resting on the worn rope that tied the swing to the tall, old tree in the academy courtyard. With a heavy sigh, he rose to his feet and began walking. It took him a moment to actually realize he wanted to go the village gates. Not just to them, but beyond them. Where? To train, perhaps. Or maybe he would leave and chase down Sasuke on his own. Right now anything was better than sitting around getting lost in pointless emotions.
As he neared the gate he saw three figures entering through them. Getting closer he realized they were Shikamaru, Chouji, and Ino. No doubt they were returning from a long mission. Naruto almost wanted to hide so he could avoid conversation. Right now he didn't feel much like talking. They had already seen him, however.
"Hey, Naruto, you're up late," Shikamaru said, not looking displeased by the fact.
"You didn't wait up to welcome us home by any chance, did you?" Chouji joked.
"No, I just couldn't sleep." Naruto replied.
Suddenly, Shikamaru's expression got heavier. He took a step toward Naruto, with one foot forward in an aggressive stance. "Where are you going?" he asked, his implication plain.
Naruto didn't want to respond. In fact, he didn't want to be talking at all right now. "I just needed to take a walk, and be alone."
Shikamaru looked somewhat repentant for his aggressive tone. "Is something bothering you, Naruto?"
Naruto hesitated. "I don't want to talk about it, y'know?" he said finally.
Shikamaru looked like he wanted to persist, but clearly saw the futility of it. He stepped closer to Naruto and placed a hand on his shoulder. "If you ever want to talk," he said, "I'm here. Even the strongest of shinobi need to let themselves be vulnerable sometimes. It's not healthy to keep stuff bottled up. I am your friend."
Naruto nodded, and said, "Yeah, I know… Thanks, Shikamaru."
Shikamaru nodded and walked past Naruto. "I still have to report to Hokage-sama. Good night,"
After they left, Naruto sat down at one of the nearby benches along the path to the gates. Of course Shikamaru wanted to help, and Naruto appreciated it, but he couldn't confess what was hurting him. To everyone Naruto was the knucklehead who was always ready to take on anything, and never afraid of anything. Some of them would never admit it (Kiba comes to mind) but his peers were starting to see Naruto as somewhat of a beacon for their generation. Somewhere, Naruto realized this and knew he couldn't let his resolve falter. He was the strong one.
Naruto had no idea how long he remained sitting there, hours at least, but he had no will to move from that spot. Nor did he have much of a reason to leave that spot. The bench was as good a place as any to waste moonlit hours with one's own thoughts. Those thoughts were interrupted by a hand gently touching his shoulder. Naruto was surprised to see Ino standing before him.
"Need some company?" she asked him softly.
Naruto didn't reply. He wasn't sure how to. Ino simply sat down next to him and the two sat in silence for a few passing moments.
"I think I know what's wrong," Ino said, finally.
Naruto looked up at her to show he was listening.
"I can tell," she went on, "I don't know, call it women's intuition, but I can tell why you're hurting: you're alone." Naruto didn't disagree, but still couldn't find words. "Not in the sense that nobody cares about you, or that there's not a living thing around you, but in the way that you need something more than a friend. Not family, but not a friend either." Ino took a breath, and closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them, she went on, "I know how you feel about Sakura… And I know the feeling isn't exactly mutual. I've been there, you know. You might think all I ever felt for Sasuke was just a schoolgirl crush, and maybe it was at first, but now, when I think about him I feel so… so…" She stuttered, unsure how to go on. It was then that she had to stop because she felt the tears starting to build up.
Naruto just nodded, not sure what to say. Of course he understood how alike the two were feeling right now and somewhere it almost helped subside the pain a little just being with someone who felt the same way. It made it no easier that Sakura held Naruto as just a friend, a close one, but still only a friend. It didn't change the fact that Naruto might never kiss Sakura or hold her intimately, but for some reason, it helped a little.
"Ino…" Naruto finally spoke, his voice weak. It didn't sound like him at all. He put his arm around her and hugged her. It was more than just the comforting hug one would give a friend, but not quite the hug you'd give a lover. It was the hug of two people, two broken hearts who could connect with each other.
"We don't have to be alone," Ino said to him, looking up finally. Her eyes were watery, but she wouldn't let herself cry. "Even if it's just for one night, we're both here… We're both…"
Ino wasn't voicing her thoughts very clearly, but Naruto understood what she was saying. "Ino, tonight…" Naruto began. He held her tighter. "Tonight, let's be together. Even if it's just for one night, it's still… it's still better than all of this."
Ino looked up at him, a single tear breaking through, and she kissed him gently. Naruto made no attempts to pull away, and the two kissed and held each other. After a while they ended up at Naruto's home, were they shared a bed. For the night, they weren't so lonely…
The next morning came shortly afterwards, but the two slept through it. It was the midday sun shining through the windows that they finally awoke to. Naruto, eyes still shut tight, felt Ino stir beside him. For a moment he remained still, recounting the events of last night. It was so dreamlike and hard to believe. It was insane, really, but he didn't regret it.
Ino was already getting dressed when he finally opened his eyes. "Good morning," he said to her.
She turned around, and smiled mischievously. "Good morning," she replied. She leaned over the bed and kissed him on the cheek.
"That's pretty tame, y'know?" Naruto said cheekily.
Ino stuck her tongue out at him and said, half-joking, "I guess we're friends with benefits now, huh?"
Naruto thought that one over. "Yeah, I guess so," he answered, "in that case… you don't have to leave so soon, y'know?"
Ino shook her head with a grin and climbed back into bed.