I took a drag and let the smoke exit though my lips. The sky was painted with pinks, oranges, and purples and the clouds looked like the wispy smoke I was exhaling. It was a beautiful sight that I watched every evening. It became a habit after it hit me that I could no longer have whom I desired.
My hair once rivaled the suns morning rays, but like this dimming sun before me, my hair has also lost its shine. My eyes were once as alive as the ocean but now are only colored with a vague blue given to me by genetics. I swear my skin was losing color, the pink had faded from my cheeks and pale gray was what I saw in the mirror.
Slowly the colors of the sky faded and that's when I put out the cigarette, already almost done in. I reached up and freed my long hair from its bonds, letting it fall over my shoulders and linger on my face. I take one last look at the sky outside before I climb in from the balcony. The lights are off and I don't bother changing, I just curl on my bed and weep. My arms are folded around my legs, brought up to my chest and I wish I wasn't alone.
Wishing is one of my favorite pastimes.
I wish for the one I could not hold, I wish for his smile, his touch. I wish not be so hurt inside and I wished to let go. I wish for someone to take me away, to rid me of this pain. I wish for something else to occupy this hole inside me, I wish for someone else.
But most of all I wish he was mine.
I've wished on stars, on eyelashes, and dandelions, I've begged and pleaded to someone above.
I place a hand to my aching heart and silently I wish for it to stop.
In the morning I wake and feel my body ache. It's just after four and I get busy making tea to watch the sunrise with. I wrap a blanket around me and sip my tea, waiting for the sun. It takes a while but it comes and I am once again graced with many colors that dull the painful throbbing of my heart.
I shower and wash the dried tears away. The heat of the water soothes my body and I want nothing more than to cut my heart out so I can bathe it, too. Maybe it just needs a little heat to sooth it. My outfit feels a little loose and I remind myself to eat. Even though I'd rather not be any more, I don't want to waste away. Something tells me to live a little longer and though I'm tempted to ignore it, I oblige.
The refrigerator needs to be stocked and so do the cabinets, but I can't yet bring myself to go into town. All of those smiling faces who think they know me wouldn't like what I've become. I lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling for quite some time before I hear knocking. I ignore it but the person's persistent.
"Ino! Open up!"
The voice sounds loud and very familiar, but I can't bring myself to think to think of the face it belongs to. Soon enough there's a loud bang and I roll my head over to see. Another blond is standing on my door on the ground. I go back to staring at the ceiling, hoping he'll get the message.
"Holy crap, Ino! Are you okay?"
And I don't know why, but that makes me laugh. A terrible, terrible laugh. It sounds of pain and hurt and anguish and absolutely everything but humor.
'Are you okay, Ino?' They all asked. The quiet question seemed to be the only thing people wanted to talk to me about that whole day. 'Are you okay?'
I cry. I squeeze my eyes shut but the tears keep coming. My body wracks with sobs and it hurts. I feel arms wrap around me and I feel the warmth spreading to my frozen heart. It doesn't thaw it, but I feel it again. He lifts me up and I'm gone.
My eyes open to bight light and I groan, shutting them again. The bed I'm in is uncomfortable and the sheets are scratchy. Not my own. I dare to open my eyes again to look at where I am. I'm connected to a machine and I wonder how long I stopped eating for. Looking to the side, there's a sleeping boy in a rather uncomfortable-looking chair. His jaw is strong and I see lines crinkled around his face and I realize he is no boy. I reach my hand out and lightly ghost over his whiskered cheeks. His eyes twitch but I don't stop. I even let my lips turn up, but only for a moment. His blue, blue eyes snap open and stare right into mine. His eyes flash and I let my hand fold back to my side.
"Ino, how could you let this happen to you?" He motioned to my frail form and I didn't know what to say. So I don't say anything. I turn my head away from him and stare at the ceiling. Just like home.
Naruto frowns in anger and gets up. I think he's done with me until I see that he only pokes his head out of the door. He calls for the doctor and within seconds they're at the door, talking in hushed tones with one another. The blond leaves and the doctor begins to ask me some questions and I answer though I'm hardly paying attention.
When I'm alone I go back to staring at the ceiling, wondering what would've happened if Naruto hadn't come by. I probably would've been okay, I tell myself; it was the shock of being held that was just too much. They keep me in the hospital for one more day to make sure my vitals are okay and by the time sunset comes I'm itching for a cigarette. I had just one every night to watch the sunset with, just as I had one cup of tea every morning. I tried to watch the sunset but I couldn't. So to the best of my ability, I curled in the small bed and cried.
When I dream there's smoke of pretty pinks, oranges, and purples surrounding him. He's in all of my dreams but this one's different. The sun's shining brightly behind the pretty smoke and I wake up confused. I never dream of the sun.
I don't know what time it is, but light's peeking through the thin curtains, hitting the pale walls to make them glow. I feel empty inside and I wish for nothing more than to just see the bright colors I've grown so use to. My throat's dry and tea sounds amazing. Time goes by and the doctor's back and a nurse is in and out of the room so fast I don't know what she's up to. I lie there like an empty shell, ignoring how I know that's all I am.
Not too much longer goes by and a familiar blond is back in my room. He still doesn't look happy with me, but I don't see anger anymore. But I can't bring myself to see what has taken its place. Instead I lie there like a lifeless doll and let things work around me as if I weren't there, even though I'm the main attraction. I only finally notice Naruto brought a few clothing items when he places them on my lap and tells me to get dressed. Moving slowly, I try to follow his orders. My head throbs when I lift it and he puts his hand on my arm to help me sit up right. I'm only able to even get out of the bed with his help. The nurse ends up having to help dress me while Naruto waits outside the door for us.
I don't remember moving to be so difficult and I don't like it. Everything hurts and I feel so tired. I feel as though I haven't slept in ages.
After I'm done being dressed, I have to sit in a wheelchair and I hate it. I hate not being able to properly walk on my own and it's degrading. But it's my own fault, I suppose. I wheel myself out of the door but Naruto's soon there, pushing me. I lick my lips and try talking for the first time.
"I can make my own way home."
He's quiet for a while and I wonder if he heard me, my voice was very quiet and scratchy, and I'm pretty sure not all of the words even made it out. Opening my mouth to repeat what I said, I'm cut off.
"You don't know the way."
His words confuse me. Of course I know the way to my own home. Once again I open my mouth to tell him this, but instead he leans down and cuts me off again.
"Just rest, Ino," He tells me gently, his breath ghosting my ears, "We'll be there before you know it."
And I don't know why, but that makes the tired sink in and my eyelids become heavy. I only have time to nod twice before I've dosed off. And this time, there is no short dream.
I don't know how long I've been sleeping but by the time I come to, I've noticed I'm once again in a bed that I did not put myself in. It's nice. Soft covers, but slightly cold. My eyes open and I notice that it's yet again not my bed. The sheets are yellow with purple accents and, even though I find it very pretty, I have no idea whose they are.
Getting me out of the bed is hard, very hard. My thin arms hoist my torso up and my eyes burn at how my muscles and head scream against it. Slowly my feet find the floor and I cringe at the coolness. With a deep breath I try to stand. My knees begin to buckle under my weight so I throw myself to the wall for support, frowning deeply and hurting so, so much.
The door is thrown open and Naruto – Naruto? – barges in. He rushes over to me and puts his arm around my waist, concern flooding his face.
"Ino! What are you doing!?" I throw him a face at his tone of voice and weakly try to push him away, which I'm pretty sure he doesn't even notice.
"Trying to find out where the hell I am." It's been a while since I've had emotion in my voice and it sounds unusual, though more like me; or the old me, anyway.
He looks at me peculiarly as if he notices the strangeness in my voice and he, oddly enough, gives me a smile.
"You're with me, Ino."
I roll my eyes and ignore how tight my eyes feel. "Obviously. But really, where am I?"
He laughs lightly and sets me gently on the bed before sitting right next to me. I can feel the warmth from his large hand on my forearm and it feels nice. It's been a while since I've felt anyone at all.
"You're with me, Ino," he repeats himself, "In my home."
My heart gives a small jump and my body feels different. It feels more alive than it had weeks, even months, before.
His eyes soften even more at the quietness of my voice, at the vulnerability.
"Because I'm worried about you."
Again my eyes sting, but for a different reason.
"Why are you worried about me? You don't even know me. Besides, I'm fine." Even as I say the last sentence, I know we both know that was the biggest lie I could've said. And there's something in his eyes that make me feel bad for lying, even though I'm used to it.
"Because, Ino, I do know you. And," he rolls his eyes, "you're very much not fine."
I look away as if ashamed. "What happened to the happy, energetic, annoying Naruto?"
I can feel him grinning beside me. "He's still here. But so is the one that cares about you, and doesn't want anything bad happening to you."
I turn to look at him with a curious, suspicious expression. "Why, though? Why care about me now?"
A tense laugh meets my ears and I remember how I'm not the only one who has ever been hurt.
"I've always cared about you, Ino," his voice sounds strained and my heart jumps again, then he continues, "Just as I care about everyone."
I noticed the way he speaks and I can tell he wants to say something different, but I'm not sure how to ask so I don't. The silence now surrounding us feels different; shifted. I don't know if I like it or not but it's warm and better than being alone so I don't say anything to break it. I'm really too tired to, anyway.
With a quick, rather half-assed argument about being capable, I end up being thrown – set gently – into the wheelchair and Naruto smiled at me triumphantly while pushing me to the kitchen. I try to glare at him but instead I take to looking at what I can. It's different than what I thought it would be. I hadn't thought about his home before, but I would have imagined it to be mess and cluttered. Instead it was neat, if not a little bear. We get to the front of the apartment and I'm surprised at the homey décor.
"Sakura helped me," he admits sheepishly. Nauto rolls me around to the small table where he has a small breakfast laid out then sits down across from me. I stare at the food thinking about Sakura. It had been a while since she even entered my mind.
"Does she know?" I look down at the thin hands on my lap and the thin form that is me and my eyes start to water. I don't want anyone to know what's happened to me. I don't want this and I sure don't want pity.
Naturo looks at me softly and reaches over the table to rest his hand on my shoulder. I can't help but look up to him and I'm greeted by warm eyes that are just so full of care it overwhelms me.
"No one knows, Ino. They've been worried and I knew there had to be something up. Trust me; everyone would like to find out what's wrong."
My fists clench loosely for my lack of strength and my eyes shut tightly. "Life is what's wrong!" I cry out. My hands cover my face I feel absolutely disgusting. This isn't who I'm supposed to be, I'm not supposed to depend on anyone.
"I'm supposed to be the strong rock!" I scream, "I'm the one who has everything together!" The barrier I put up over myself comes crumbling down and a wave of nausea hits me. I don't deserve anything from him but a cold shoulder and yet here he is, being kind and caring and comforting.
"I just don't understand." I'm sobbing into my hands when I feel arms wrap around me and whispers in my hair.
"Ino, let me take care of you. You can let go."
So I do. It takes a while and many, many tears, but finally we're side by side and I'm nibbling on a piece of toast while he has a plate of edibles that I'd rather not look at.
The rest of the day went on very slowly and neither of us left the house. Bathing was awkward and difficult, with Naruto having to help me step over the tub. I had covered myself in a towel, which yes, did get quite wet, and only removed it once I was seated and he had left the room. He talked to me from behind the door and, while I found it strange, it was comforting. Having someone who was so completely devoted to me and my wellbeing was something I had never experienced before. Even with our small spats about me, he was quickly becoming a close friend.
After two weeks of being confined to a wheelchair I was finally taken to the hospital again for a checkup. At the end of it the doctor decided I no longer needed to be in the Chair of Death just so long as I wouldn't strain myself and had supervision for the first few weeks. I was just happy to be out of the damned thing so I took Naruto's help with much less of a battle. We got to his house and I took a bath all by myself. I stared in the mirror as I got there, finally being the height of it, and was surprised. Already I had color back in my cheeks and I didn't look as sick. I smiled to myself in the mirror and cried. In the bath I sobbed and my body wracked with sobs. I could hear a loud knock on the door.
"Ino are you okay?"
I sobbed some more and chocked out a small 'yes'.
"Are you sure?"
I took a deep breath. "Y-yes, I'm sure."
He left me to be alone and I hugged my legs to my chest. Thinking back over everything since he passed on, I felt ashamed. How could I have done that to myself? He would be so disappointed in me – so ashamed. I cried some more and whispered my apologies to Shikamaru.
When I was sure I was completely clean I drained the bath, hoisted myself up with the rim of the tub's help, and wrapped myself in a towel. I opened the door and paused in surprised when I saw Naruto sitting on the opposite wall waiting for me. He blushed and stood up hastily.
"Oh, good, you're okay!" He scratched the back of his head and looked sheepish. "I just… I was worried."
I gave him a smile and a slight nod, and even though I was only in a towel, I hugged him. My arms went around his waist and I hugged him as tightly as I could. He was only still for a second before he quickly hugged me back.
"Thank you so much, Naruto."
That night I sat on the porch with a lit cigarette and watched the lovely sunset. I smiled at the colors and only thought of his memory. I wasn't sure if Naruto could hear me or not, but I talked at the sky, to Shikamaru.
"I am so sorry for what happened, Shika. I know that's not what you would want. 'C'mon, Ino, you're better than this!' you'd say that, I just know it. And you'd be right. As usual." I gave a small laugh and sniffed. "I don't know why I just can't forgive myself, but I'm trying… Naruto has really been a help, not sure I'd even be here if it weren't for him…" I trailed off and took another drag, tasting the smoke on my tongue, feeling it enter my lungs. Finally I didn't want to smoke any more. I put it out and stepped on it for good measure.
"I still don't get why you liked those things." Then I thought about Asuma and shook my head. "Never mind, I do."
When the colors finally vanished I went inside. I found Naruto sitting on the couch rather emotionless. I stepped further in the room hesitantly, not sure if he wanted me there or not. Noticing my presence, he shook himself out of a stupor and grinned.
"You can just come in, Ino. This is your home too now." I stared at him. I supposed it was I just hadn't thought about it before. After a few moments I smiled back and sat beside him. His grin lessened and he turned to better face me.
"I heard you talking, sorry."
I sighed and flitted my hand through my long locks. "It's alright, doesn't bother me either way." I chewed on my bottom lip and looked away only to look back. "You don't… Think I'm weird or anything, though, do you?"
He rolled his eyes. "Really, Ino? Why would you even care?" He nudged me, "You shouldn't give a damn about what people think."
"I don't know if you know this or not," I started, "But you're kind of important to me."
He blinked. "Am I?"
It was my turn. "Well… Yeah, of course."
He looked at me then and I felt a shiver run through me. This his expression changed to a lighter one and he smiled. "Well that's cool then! I'm glad!"
We relaxed in the couch in relative silence before he asked about me.
"Do you often talk to him?"
Though I was caught a little off guard, it didn't take long for my answer.
"No. Usually I just think about him, but sometimes I do talk to him… I just felt like I needed to apologize to him. He wouldn't… He wouldn't like what I've become."
I looked out of the window across from us at the dark sky and felt so many things. I just wished I had done better for him. My attention was brought back to Naruto when I felt his hand brush my shoulder. I glanced at him and very gently he pulled me to him. I let myself fold into him and he held me. I closed my eyes and let myself just feel.
"Ino," he whispered into my hair, "He would understand." He paused and stoked my hair. "And he would hold you and love you just the same."
A few more days went by and Naruto only took lower ranked missions so he could be with me every day and be safe so he could take care of me. I told him and myself that I could take care of myself now, but either he didn't believe me or didn't care, and I didn't want to be by myself yet. I liked having someone be there for me and smile and laugh and talk with me as though I was normal. I stopped smoking and substituted my cigarette for another cup of tea. Naruto had eventually started to join me at night and we would watch the sunset together. At first he thought it wouldn't be good to interrupt such a personal time, but he wanted to see me while I was reflecting and thinking and talking to him. It didn't bother me at all and I actually appreciated his company so he stayed and it became a nightly ritual.
My dreams were also changing, just as I was. They stopped being so troubled and most of them were good. Most of them involved the sun, which I still was trying to understand. Shikamaru's face stopped appearing to me and I wasn't sure if that was a good or bad thing. My heart still ached for him, but it was easier to go on. It was actually much, much easier.
But while most of them were good, there were also some bad ones. Some horrible, awful ones. The first time I had one of those I woke up with my heart racing in my chest and a cold sweat over me. I was crying and scared and so, so sad. I wanted to be with Naruto but I wasn't sure if he'd really want me to wake him up just because of a bad dream. The second time it happened, though, I had been living with him for three months and figured he'd understand. So I left my bed and walked slowly to his room. I cracked the door open and peeked inside. There was a soft snore coming from inside and I was immediately comforted.
I tipped toed to the vacant side of the bed and just crawled in next to him. I scooted closer until I was touching him and he awoke staring at my face. He didn't jump and he didn't push me away, he didn't even question why I was there or what was going on. He only put his warm arm around me and pulled me even closer. I buried myself into his bare chest and breathed in his warm sent. Sleep came to me in second and I slept soundly. It was the best sleep I had in months.
I had been expecting the next morning to me awkward and strange, but it wasn't. He was awake first and he continued to hold onto me. I woke up to warm blue eyes and immediately smiled into them.
"Haven't slept that well in a while," he told me, his smile growing ever bigger. I nodded and gave a grin of my own.
We lay in bed for a while and I told him about my dream. His hand rubbed my arm the whole time and his eyes were filled with concern. He hugged me when I was finished and just kept holding me. "You can come in any time, Ino, I'm open to you, okay?" I nodded into him and repeated 'okay'.
Even though I still thought of Shikamaru often and still missed him terribly, and even though I still dedicated my early mornings and evenings to him I was beginning to let him go. I started sleeping in past the early morning and started not being able to watch the sunrise. The first time I missed it I felt terrible and guilty and I apologized to Shikamaru when I watched the sunset.
"He won't get mad at you for moving on, you know."
I sighed into my tea cup and closed my eyes. "Yes, Naruto, I know."
He shrugged. "If anything he'd approve of how much you're growing and still living. You need to live for him, Ino." I kept quiet when he said that, knowing he was right. It was after that morning I stopped watching the sunrise. I had to live for him now and he wouldn't want me up so early. Sleep was a luxury that was important to him, and while I wouldn't sleep for as long as he would, I got more just for him. And with each morning of me waking up to bright eyes and a smiling face, I realized I wasn't doing it for just Shikamaru anymore. I started taking care of myself for this caring man next to me, this friend who only wanted me to be at my best.
I thought a lot. About everything. About him, me, Naruto, my old friends, my old life, this new one. I thought about everything. I thought back to when I used to wish all the time and smiled when I thought about the last time I wished. It had been a long time and it wasn't a pastime any more. I closed my eyes and relished that revelation. I could feel myself healing each day and I knew I deserved it.
I noticed I was pacing a lot more and Naruto had noticed to. He thought that maybe it was time I reintroduce myself to the world again and maybe he was right. I thought about seeing everyone again and wondered if I was ready. Naruto assured me that I was. And he also said that everyone was really anxious. He told them all I was doing well and had just been focusing on myself. They still didn't know to what extent my pain was and they didn't know just how bad I had gotten.
With my hair up and day clothes on, I ate and brushed my teeth and put on my shoes. Naruto wanted to go with me to make sure I would be okay but I made him stay while I left I needed to do this part on my own. And while I walked down the street, I knew he was only a yell away. I smiled at the thought of him being so protective and felt warm. Once again I wondered what I would do without him.
I walked down to the market and being out in the real world felt invigorating and nerve-wracking all at the same time. The first place I went was the market. It wasn't that busy but seeing other people and I giggled foolishly to myself. Finally I wasn't alone and I was well enough both physically and mentally to be out and about. I couldn't even remember the last time it had been so long.
"Ino!" I heard a squeal behind me and my heart jumped. I turned around and nearly fell over with Sakura in my arms. I felt my shirt become damp with her tears and felt my own eyes welling up.
"It's been… It's been years!" She pulled back and held me at arm's length to look at me. "Are you okay?" I cringed at the question I despised but managed to smile anyway.
"I am actually okay. Naruto has been… Absolutely amazing." She blinked.
"Naruto's talked about you a few times but… I didn't realize… Are you two..?"
I blushed and took a step back. "Oh… No. We're… Friends. I've just – he's been – we're-"
Sakura laughed and shook her head, "It's okay, I think I get it." She looked at me and I could tell she had changed a lot as well. I didn't even realize how much I had missed her. I smiled and pulled her into another hug which she eagerly responded to. I didn't give her many details about what had been going on with me and instead asked her many questions. She was engaged.
"You're the first person I wanted to tell, but… I couldn't get to you. I was so – I wanted to tell you."
Guilt swirled around in my stomach and I furrowed my brow. "I'm so sorry, Saukra." She shook her head and smiled at me.
"I'm just glad I was able to tell you before I actually got married! And I understand. It was hard on all of us, I can't even imagine…" She put her hand on my shoulder and I could feel the pity roll off of her. I hated it. But I know she was only worried so I tried to shrug it off. It was hard on 'all of us' huh? The girl didn't even have a clue. But I didn't let her have one, so I let it go. She wasn't getting married for another few months so we had time to catch up more and I could actually be a part of it.
Hinata had taken the role of being her maid of honor, but Sakura said we could team up. She then started chatting to me about everyone and it ended up being hours when Naruto finally showed up.
I was surprised it had taken him so long but I was also glad. He greeted Sakura with a wide grin and a hug but then settled next to me and put his hand on my side. Without thinking about it, I immediately leaned into him. Sakura looked at him and he looked nervous but the exchange was so quick I wondered if I had imagined.
The small chatter, I noticed, seemed a little forced on both their parts. It made me wonder what ever happened to the crush Naruto had and the feelings I remember Sakura having. Thinking about the past was nice for a moment, but it was hardly any time at all when Shikamaru was the center of my thoughts. My stomach felt sick and I apologized to Sakura again for not being there before excusing myself with something that I needed to do somewhere else.
"Oh, okay. But call me! Have Naruto give you my number, I'm always available, okay, Ino?"
I smiled and nodded, giving her one last hug and promising to call within the next day or so.
As I walked away from her with Naruto by my side, I couldn't help but want things to be how they were. To be with a friend I haven't seen since his death, it just wasn't the same and it pricked at the wound that hadn't quite healed.
I felt Naruto's hand envelop mine and closed my eyes and smiled. Just a small gesture with so much comfort, it was very odd and I was once again so happy to have him as a friend. Shikamaru would be glad I had him, too. But something kept me at bay, still, something kept me tethered to Shikamaru and with each passing day, I was slowly coming to see what it was.
"How was it to see her?" Naruto asked me once we had gotten back home and settled on the couch. I smiled thinking about her and seeing how much she missed me and knowing how much I missed her.
"It was great."
He laughed and winked, "How does it feel knowing she still wants you as her Maid of Honor?"
I laughed back. "Pretty good." And it did. It was just hard. It's not like I had expected it to be easy, but I hadn't expected him to be so much involved, I hadn't expected Shikamaru to come back full force.
He pulled me to him and laid his head on mine. "It's okay to take things slow, you know."
I took a deep breath. "Slow is good."
We ended up just putting on a movie and he took my mind off of Shikamaru with stories from his past and his team. He brought up Sasuke and we both clutched our stomachs laughing so hard at how immature we all were. Sakura and I with our dumb crushes and our intense rivalry and Naruto with… Well, himself. He actually blushed at some of his memories and I nudged him with my elbow.
"It was good that you were like that. Someone needed to take things more like you did. More like you do."
He laughed. "So hope isn't overrated?"
Another movie was played but we basically talked through the whole thing and fell asleep before it ended. My dreams were full of color and warmth and even the spit of green mixed it was nice. The sun was so bright and I closed my eyes and just felt it. I woke up with a smile on my face and arms around me.
I was pressed into Naruto's chest and the back of the couch. It wasn't often I woke up first, in fact I don't think I ever had, but it was a nice sight to wake up to. He was so calm and expressionless. He looked so peaceful and I couldn't help but let my fingertips run along the edge of his jaw. Vulnerable isn't a word I would use with him, but he looked vulnerable. He trusted me enough to be this way with me and it made my heart swell. How far we had come and finally I felt that this was okay. I could be okay.
As I snuggled in closer to him and let my platinum hair drape over my shoulder and onto his chest, I breathed in his sent and knew I was already okay. And it was his entire fault.
A few weeks went by and I had steadily become up to date on Sakura's wedding plans. I collaborated with Hinata and she was happy I was involved. The shy girl had even pulled me aside and let me know that I was very much missed and that things weren't the same without me. I ended up crying and she hugged me. Things were getting close to normal and it was about time I visited Shikamaru. I did once and as soon as I got to my house, I had locked myself in and stayed there for days. It all went downhill from there.
Naruto walked with me to the grave site and it was quiet. He didn't try to make conversation or to make it seem like it was alright and it was an everyday thing, because it wasn't. He let me make my way there without him so I could have some space, and it gave him time to visit a few others. My feet padded on the soft ground and once I made it there and read his name on that stone, I broke down.
I slipped to my knees and buried my face in my hands, telling Shikamaru how much I missed him and how empty my heart was. Then I paused. I looked around to spot a yellow head not too far away and wiped my face. My heart wasn't empty, not any more. I turned back to his name and took a deep breath. And then I talked to him.
I told him everything. I spilled out my heart to him and pretended as if he really were listening. Maybe he was. I told him about how awful it was when he left and I admitted how poorly I dealt with it.
"You would have been very disappointed," I said, "But you'd smile at me now and tell me how you knew I'd be okay.
Naruto showed up then and I quieted down, not wanting to seem weird by talking to someone that wasn't really there. But then he started talking to him.
"Man, Shikamaru, we really miss you," he started with a sad smile. "But I know Ino misses you the most." He didn't even glance my way, and he spoke so confidently, like I wasn't there. Like it wasn't me he was talking about.
"You'd be proud of her, I know you would be." He ran his hand through his spiked hair and blushed. I mumbled a few other things that I couldn't catch but I didn't prod. We sat next to one another in silence, saying good bye in our own way. It was hard to leave but I was still strong afterward. Once again Naruto and I sat down to a movie and ate ice cream in relative silence. I had started to fall asleep on him when he nudged me.
"C'mon, Ino, to bed." I was reluctant at first, but it was a good idea so he got me there. I curled up next to him as soon as we were both in and covered and shivered when his arms circled around me.
"I'm so happy I have you, Naruto," I whispered into his skin, "You make everything okay." His grip tightened and it wasn't long until I fell asleep.
We visited a few more times but didn't make it a habit. I couldn't go on living while he was a priority. He was gone and, though it wouldn't be the same; that was that.
Sakura's wedding was beautiful. I ended up being her Maid of Honor, the spot personally given to me by Hinata. We all cried and that was the start of it all. We all celebrated and finally it was brought up that Naruto and I went to the wedding as a date. The first person to suggest it only earned a funny look. I hadn't thought it at all like that, but as I watched Naruto laugh with a group of friends in his charming tuxedo, I smiled just at the site of him. His gaze found mine and his smile widened and he sent me a wink. My cheeks flushed and I waved shyly at my best friend.
The pastel pink dress she had me wear was actually nice to have on. It made me feel completely apart of everything and, while I didn't love the color myself, I was glad that Sakura was happy. Her and her new husband looked very much in love and I just wished I had been there at the start of them.
Their first dance was very lovely. They fit perfectly with one another and it brought a tear to my eye, and when I looked around the room, I noticed I wasn't the only one. Hinata was right there with me, along with most of the bride and grooms' family members.
Naruto was, of course, my dance partner when we all joined in and the way we moved together in perfect harmony was ecstatic. I felt like a princess with my prince, even though it wasn't even my wedding. I leaned back to look at his face and my face bloomed with a smile when I saw the way he was looking at me.
My heart jumped and I folded myself back into him before he could see my rapidly reddening face. The dancing went on for what seemed like hours, and maybe it did, but it ended sooner or later. I stepped away from Naruto and headed for the bride. I pulled her away from everyone's elated faces and chatter to speak to her in virtual privacy.
"Sakura," I started, my blue eyes staring into her vibrant green ones, "I just have to say I love you, so, so much and I am so happy for you." She smiled wide and already her eyes started to tear.
"You are my sister and I'm sorry I wasn't there for you like I should have been." She started to speak, probably with protest, but I held up my hand to stop her. She obliged.
"I promise to always be here for you whenever you need me, and when you have a child, because face it, you will, I will be there for her as well." She flung her arms around my neck and pulled me close. I could feel the familiar wetness on my face.
"I love you so much, Ino, you don't have to prove anything to me. I trust you." She pulled away and held me at arm's length.
"I should have pressed more into how you were doing as it is. We both could have been better."
With a small smile I nodded and hugged her again. "We'll do better this time around," I promised.
I pulled away and rolled my eyes.
When we entered to be with the masses again, she was immediately crowded and I slunk away to Naruto's side. I waved at Sakura who peered at me through a slim line between people and she winked and waved back.
"Let's get out of here." Naruto grinned and nodded.
It was a quiet and comfortable walk back to his place. Our place. It still gave me shudders thinking I wasn't alone. He out his arm around me and my heart jumped again. Shikamaru wasn't the first thing I thought of when I felt Naruto's arm and it was nice. I only felt Naruto - his warmth and the gentle firmness that he had about me. I leaned into him and I could feel his grasp tighten.
When we stepped inside, it was like something had changed. He was a little bit more serious than he just had been and the air felt tense. I crossed my arms over my chest and looked at him as if trying to get him to spit out what he wanted to say.
"Ino," he began with a gulp, "I… It was fun. Tonight, I mean. I'm really glad we went together." Then he laughed nervously and rubbed at the back of his neck. Growing nervous I started to twist my hands into the pink dress I was wearing.
For a while he remained quiet and awkward and I wasn't sure of what to do or say. I wasn't even sure why he was being so strange, though a small bubble in my throat had me hoping.
"You know, I'm not very good at this." He smiled sheepishly and I couldn't help but smile back, even though I was still confused. The bubble grew bigger.
Naruto took a deep breath. "Ino." He took my hands in his. "I love you."
My heart shuddered to a stop and my eyes widened. Then all of a sudden my heart was in my throat and, goodness, it was getting quite hard to breathe. He seemed to realize I was practically panicking because he let go of my hands and stepped away.
"I-I know you don't feel the same, and might not even, but I just – I had to tell you." His face was so red it was cute. "I'm really sorry if I made things awkward…" He trailed off and sat down, shaking his head.
"That's probably all I did, huh? Make things awkward." I could hear him mumbling curses and I knew if I wanted things to either go back to being okay, or even advance anything, I had to say something. It took a while bit I finally got my arms and legs to move.
I stumbled my way next to him and I could feel him tense beside me. I inhaled deeply and put my arms around his shoulders.
"I think I love you, too, Naruto." My voice was quiet and a little horse, but by the sound of his sharp intake of air, I could tell he heard me.
"You were there for me when no one else was. You cared about me when I thought I had no one left." Saying this made me feel guilty because obviously more people cared than I even thought.
"You were the friend I needed at the time, you were the protective parent, the loving brother," once again I felt him get tense and I couldn't help but crack a smile, "you were everything I needed when I needed. Now I only need you, as you are." I turned his head to face me. Were his eyes always so blue and clear?
"I love you for everything you are and everything you did. I love you because of you." My heart was pounding so frantically in my chest it hurt. His eyes looked so bright and hopefully that I laughed and cried all at the same time.
"I love you, you ridiculous man, you."
And I kissed him. I leaned in, put a hand to his face and planted my light pink lips on his. It only took a brief moment for him to respond with all the vigor that was expected of Naruto.
It had taken time, but I finally had what I needed. I finally had who I knew would love me and who I could love back, completely and wholly. I gave my heart to him that night and in its place was his. I had loved Shikamaru so furiously but this, this was different. This wasn't Shikamaru and I knew that. I actually liked that. It was Naruto and that's who I wanted.
And finally I let Shikamaru go.