A/N: What started as one thing, quickly became something else. I'd started this a long time ago, with the intent of doing...
I'm not really sure what, to be honest. In any case, after picking this back up, I managed to get it finished and here is the end result. Not much to it, just a "nice bit of fluff" as my good buddy, AJT, put it when he first read. Of course, when he'd read it he must not have eaten anything recently as he came up with a really good food analogy before running off to go find a sandwich. But I digress, enjoy my first, and to date, only one-shot that didn't end up in Vault M2J.
Uzumaki Naruto was dressed smartly in his Hokage robes as he stared out at others at the party, a slight smile tugging at his lips as he nursed a small glass of sake. It wasn't entirely genuine, nor was it false.
"Are... You okay, Naruto... With all of this?" asked Ino.
"And why wouldn't I be?" he asked feigning ignorance.
He really wished people would quit walking on eggshells around him. Both Sasuke and Sakura were probably the worst of the bunch. Ironically enough, the only person who didn't treat him like a fragile and brittle piece of glass that was just waiting to shatter was Hinata.
"W-well... I mean..." Ino uncharacteristically stuttered.
"I'm fine, Ino. I knew exactly what I was doing and what was going to happen when I made that promise," replied Naruto, "And do you know why?"
Ino was giving him a confused, but still concerned look, and shook her head.
"Look at them. Both of them," he tilted his head towards the dancing couple. "They're happy. It's more than I had a right to ask for."
"But what about you, YOUR happiness?" asked Ino.
"I'll get over it," answered Naruto, sloshing his sake around idly, "I always do. Maybe find another girl. If she's 'The One', I'll live happily ever after with lots of children. If not, she'll fall in love with my best friend and I'll be having this same conversation with HER best friend."
"There's always Hinata," suggested Ino, "She's admired you for ages and would be a good match for you."
"Maybe..." Naruto reluctantly agreed. "Listen Ino, I know what you're trying to do, but it's not going to work. Not while I'm still hung up on Sakura. I'm not a good match for anyone right now. Hinata's a sweet girl, and one of my best friends, I couldn't do that to her."
"Well, what about some other girl?" asked Ino.
"I'm not going to use some random girl to get over her, Ino," Naruto stated firmly with a slight glare. "I'm not my senseis... I won't let myself get hung up on the past like they did."
"Yes, because you're doing just fine on your own, right?" snapped Ino sarcastically.
Naruto shrugged indifferently. "I just need time, Ino-chan. Being here, supporting them, helped, in a way."
Ino looked at him in bewildered confusion. "How so?"
"Closure." Naruto answered. "It's something that neither of my sensei's ever got. Kakashi-sensei is too filled with self loathing to let himself have some. He has too many sins in his past, real and imagined that he feels too much guilt for, though he is getting better. Hopefully, some day soon, he'll find forgiveness from the one person he needs to hear it from the most."
"Who?" Ino asked, before realizing the sensitive nature of the topic. "If you don't mind me asking."
"Himself," Naruto easily answered, waving off her concern. "Now that he's finally stopped running, he should be able to forgive himself and then he can stop living in the past and start living for the future."
"Oh," Ino responded. Having managed to avoid some of the worst atrocities of the Shinobi world, she never imagined that the memories of other's experiences weren't nearly as good as hers was. After all, the worst she'd ever lived through was the death of Asuma-sensei and the destruction of Konoha, both of which had been taken care of by Naruto, who had killed one of her sensei's murderers and somehow managed to convince Pein to resurrect everyone who had died over the course of the village's destruction.
"Baa-chan and Ero-Sennin, on the other hand, were always too busy keeping the status quo to let themselves be happy," Naruto continued. "Baa-chan drowned herself in alcohol and gambling while Ero-Sennin buried himself in sex and pornography. They kept coming up with excuses and reasons why they shouldn't be together and in the end that's what hurt the both of them more than anything else they went through in their lives. Orochimaru's betrayal, Dan and Nawaki's deaths, and everything else, all of those paled in comparison to the decades of torture the two of them put themselves and each other through."
"But they knew, didn't they, in the end?" Ino asked concernedly.
Naruto nodded. "It's what makes their end bittersweet, rather than a tragedy."
"My, my, who would have guessed that the little screw up of our class could sound so philosophical?" Ino asked teasingly.
Naruto's slight smile turned a bit more genuine. "I don't think even Hinata would have imagined that and she was probably the only person I've ever known who never had doubts about my ability to become Hokage."
"Are you saying that even you had doubts?" asked Ino.
"All the time, but people seemed to be in the right place at the right time to keep me from giving up hope completely," Naruto replied.
"Well, then we should really thank those people," Ino stated. "Konoha wouldn't even be standing right now if it wasn't for you, not to mention all that hope and courage you seem to inspire in everyone. I don't think anyone could have predicted how far you've come since our academy days. You're not only the best of us, but you're probably the most respected shinobi in the entire Elemental Countries."
"Maybe," Naruto shrugged. Ino looked at him incredulously. "And I already have, in my own way. All of you have helped me become what I am. Everything I've done has been to repay all of you for everything you've given me."
Ino looked at Naruto sharply. "I don't understand. I don't ever remember doing anything to help you. In fact, I was probably one of those who treated you horribly when we were younger."
"We were kids and didn't know any better, Ino. Besides, it wasn't that bad. And, trust me, even if our Rookie Nine or Konoha 11 and Sai didn't realize it, or even do it consciously, each of you have helped me out more than you could possibly imagine. Even you, Ino-chan."
"Really?" Ino asked skeptically.
Ino sighed. "You know, Naruto. You're probably the sweetest guy I've ever met. Forehead has no idea what she's missing."
Naruto shrugged. "She's happy and that's all I've ever wanted."
"And one of the most stupidly noble too," Ino added.
"I'm just me, Ino," Naruto replied.
"I know, and I think that makes me understand Hinata a little bit more," Ino responded. She giggled when Naruto raised a querying eyebrow. "It's a girl thing, Naruto-kun."
Naruto merely shook his head, deciding it was best to accept what she said at face value, at least for now. Still, he was feeling better than he had in some time. In a spur of the moment action, he decided he wasn't going to let his good mood go to waste and that he wanted to forget about everything that was bothering him, content with just enjoying the moment when it presented itself.
"Say, Ino, would you like to dance?" he asked her with a grin that wasn't faked or forced in the slightest.
His smile must have been contagious as Ino's instantly matched his when she saw it. She couldn't resist the temptation to tease him, however. "I'm surprised you know how."
The smile on her face told Naruto that she didn't mean anything negative or spiteful. However, he decided to impart a small, unknown truth to her. "You don't think I spent the entire two and a half years of my training trip with Ero-Sennin just learning shinobi stuff, do you?"
This was said in the same teasing manner Ino had used, but even then she couldn't keep the delighted look of surprise off her face. "Well, then I'd be delighted."
Ino promptly grabbed Naruto by the hand and led him to the dance floor.
On another part of the dance floor, this was noticed by the bride who was currently dancing with her new husband. Sakura's eyes misted slightly, seeing Naruto happier than she could ever remember seeing him in recent years. She smiled as she directed the groom's attention to their Hokage and greatest friend.
"You know, I think everything is going to be all right after all," she said with no small amount of relief, as one of her constant worries over the past several months was how their marriage would affect Naruto and their friendship with him. She might love Sasuke, but Naruto was the most reliable constant she had in her life and she didn't know what would happen if she didn't have that assurance anymore.
In another part of the reception area, a lone woman wore a bittersweet smile on her face as she watched the two blondes begin to dance, paying no attention at all to their surroundings and only to each other. She loved Naruto long before she even knew what love was. She had admired and silently supported him longer than all others. However, despite these facts, Hyuuga Hinata knew that she wasn't what Uzumaki Naruto needed in his life.
No matter how different she wished it, despite her loyal, unwavering devotion to him, she knew that she couldn't make him as happy as she wished she could. She'd come to grips with that long ago, even acknowledged that fact, if only to herself, long before she'd even confessed to him the depths of her feelings for him as she confronted the monstrosity that was Pein.
Despite this, she'd always held onto a small sliver of hope that one day he'd return her feelings. That maybe there would be a day that she would be exactly what he needed. Unfortunately, that day for her had long passed before she truly understood it for what it was. But no matter, she bore no ill will towards Ino or Sakura, nor did the ugly, vicious feeling of jealousy rear its' misshapen head. Because even though she had lost the battle before it even truly started, it was Naruto's happiness that mattered to her most.
All she need now was a bit of closure.