Naruto's fight with Pain, and the training leading up to it was a harrowing experience. It changed him a little bit, in all honesty. Now he understood hatred and he understood what Ero-sennin entrusted to him. There would be a long path ahead of him, one that he had to walk to the end, but before that he promised Ino they would talk.
The village was in shambles after Pain's attack. The restoration process had begun immediately, but there was no doubt it would take a while. Yamato-taichou's abilities certainly came in handy though! Walking through the recovering village, Naruto could still feel some of the bitterness he felt when he lost Ero-sennin and the village. After a long walk, Naruto found himself at the place where Ino's home once stood. Reconstruction hadn't reached this far yet, having only just begun, but Ino and her father were standing before the wreckage, digging around for anything that had survived Pain's attack.
"Ino!" Naruto called out, waving when she turned to face him. "Can we talk?"
Ino looked at him for a moment and nodded, then looked back to her father and said something Naruto didn't catch before coming towards him.
"How's it going, Hero?" she asked with a grin.
"Um, okay, I guess." Naruto answered. He started to walk down the road and Ino came with him.
"Just okay?" she pressed, "You're the village's savior! Not long before the make you Hokage now, huh?"
Naruto didn't respond to that, because that's not what he wanted to talk about. What they needed to talk about.
"Ino," he began, not sure what to say, "this is just... really weird, y'know?"
The kunoichi nodded, but didn't say anything.
"I mean, you and I weren't exactly close before this. And now look at us." Naruto remembered when they were younger, back when they were rookies, when both he and Ino couldn't stand each other. Naruto was annoyed by the way she latched on to Sasuke like Sakura, and how Ino always acted superior. A lot of that was just him being defensive about Sakura. Ino, like everyone else, thought Naruto was an obnoxious, loud-mouthed brat. Since then, Naruto's relationship with all his peers had improved by leaps and bounds, but some of them he was never exceedingly close to, like Ino. Still, here they were now.
"It's weird, I know," Ino replied, "but it works, doesn't it? I mean, it might seem totally crazy, but I'm happy. Actually happy for the first time since Sasuke-kun left the village."
"Ino, this won't work."
Ino shook her head violently. "Come on!" she blurted. "Give it a chance! I know this started as a one time thing, but then it became regular. It's evolved since then, let it! Naruto, you're the first guy I've been happy around since Sasuke-kun-"
"See, that!" Naruto spat, "that's why it won't work!" Ino looked shocked by his hostile tone, but he didn't back down. "You still call him Sasuke-kun... just like Sakura-chan does. You're still stuck on him and I'm just something more convenient to keep your mind off him. It doesn't work like that, y'know? You love Sasuke, and I love Sakura-chan. Even if they don't feel the same, that's how we feel and this won't work!"
Ino stared at him for a long moment, her eyes furious and holding back tears. Frustrated tears? Naruto couldn't really tell, he wasn't good at that kind of thing. He couldn't read people very well at all... that was one of his greatest flaws.
Finally she lowered her head, and when she spoke her voice sounded vulnerable. It was a weird tone for Ino, but Naruto had heard it before. "Fine," she murmured, "if that's what you think, then fine. But don't expect me to keep putting out for you." She turned and ran down the street without another word or another glance.
Naruto felt horrible. But he knew it was true. Right now, as much as it hurt her, Ino had to know this wouldn't work. She was still stuck on Sasuke. Just like Sakura. "Maybe I'm just drawn to girls I can never have, y'know?" he grumbled to himself.
More like he was drawn to girls that liked Sasuke.
The young ninja found himself passing by the rebuilt Ichiraku ramen and thought about ducking in for a quick bite... but he didn't want to explain his situation to Teuchi, who would surely pick up on Naruto's mood.
"I had a feeling I'd find you here."
Naruto looked up to see Shikamaru standing atop Ichiraku with his hands tucked inside his pockets, looking as disinterested as ever. He hopped down from the building and approached Naruto.
"Let's go somewhere more quiet," he suggested, "I need to talk to you."
The two of them ended up at Naruto's place. It was nothing like his old home, but it was only temporary while the village was rebuilding. It was small with bare necessities like a cot, a basic kitchen, and the only other room being a bathroom. Naruto sat down on his cot and Shikamaru sat in the floor across from him.
"I know what's happened between you and Ino," Shikamaru said frankly.
Naruto avoided his eyes. "So?" he replied, "It's not like it's any of your business, y'know."
"Ino is my teammate, and I consider you both to be two of my closest friends, so yeah, actually it is my business." Shikamaru told him. "I just saw her and she looked devastated. What did you do?"
Naruto shook his head, still avoiding Shikamaru's eyes. "It wasn't supposed to turn out like this," he said, sounding weak. "One night we were both feeling alone so we spent it together, and we ended up doing that a few more times, but it was only to avoid the loneliness. Now I think Ino has mistaken this for love or something, y'know, and it wasn't supposed to be like that." Naruto found it hard to explain. His eyes were locked on the ground, but he went on, "I know she still has feelings for Sasuke, like Sakura does. But she's gotten caught up in the moment and thinks she loves me. After a little while she'll see that I'm right."
"What if you're wrong?" Shikamaru asked him.
Naruto hesitated. "Then... then I'll have to break her heart, because I still love... Sakura-chan."
Shikamaru sighed. "This is all too troublesome..." he grumbled. "This is why I'm focusing on being a ninja for now, I don't want the headache that comes with women."
Naruto tried to crack a smile, but it felt wrong.
"You have to talk to her again," Shikamaru said, "and you have to let her know exactly how you feel."
"I already did, and look how that turned out."
"Right, but this time you need to have an actual conversation, not one that ends up in her running away. She needs to understand it. You both do."
Naruto nodded. "You're right." he conceded.
"Good," Shikamaru said, "I'm out then. If you need to talk, Naruto, I'm still your friend."
With that Shikamaru stood and walked out of the apartment. Naruto sat on his cot for a long time, staring at the ground. It wasn't supposed to be like this.