Disclaimer: Naruto belongs to Masashi Kishimoto.


When Ino was still in her first year at the Academy, she met another girl who wasn't pretty and was weak about it and got picked on accordingly. With the subconscious recognition of someone who would be a grateful follower--and the knowledge that she was too cool to be dragged down by the other girl's uncoolness--Ino led Sakura away from where she'd been hiding, let her wash her face and put on a bandage in the bathroom in her parents' store, and made a promise that was easy to keep because it wasn't very important to her. When Sakura showed up at the bench the next day, Ino gave her a ribbon and introduced her to the other girls she knew, and for a couple years they called themselves friends. Sakura had flourished a little when the other kids stopped picking on her, had gotten a little more social grace and ability to speak up in groups, but she always glanced over at Ino to make sure that the other girl agreed with what she was saying; and when Ino didn't, Sakura immediately began weakening her previous statements with opposite arguments until she made herself admit defeat. That's why Ino had been so surprised when, after she told Sakura she liked Sasuke too and had liked him longer, Sakura had hesitated and then for the first time refused to back down. Ino didn't need someone who wasn't going to listen to her; the friendship ended then.

If this sounds like the story of a life, keep reading.

After Sakura was accepted as Tsunade's pupil, Ino didn't see her much. A month before the mid-year chuunin exam, Asuma called team ten together and asked Chouji and Ino if they minded having Sakura take the exam with their team, since Shikamaru wouldn't have been allowed to participate past the forest section anyway. Chouji had looked to Shikamaru, who said he'd be glad not to go through the damn thing pointlessly again, and then to Ino, who silently wondered when Sakura had cut her hair again and said that they could afford to be charitable as long as she didn't slow them down.

Sakura had only raised an eyebrow briefly and said, "Don't worry about it."

Asuma made the three of them train every day and accept missions together, and prodded Shikamaru into joining too when he didn't have separate work, so that they would be cohesive in the second test. They already knew the secret to the first one--and this time Sakura would be willingly helping Ino and Chouji cheat--and the third one didn't involve teamwork, so the second was what Asuma was most concerned with.

"I thought she'd be different," Chouji said once, when they were walking back from practice.

"Huh?" Ino replied, taking another drink of water.

"Sakura," Chouji clarified. "With all that training she's been doing with the Hokage, I thought she'd be . . . I dunno, different."

Ino snorted. "It's Sakura. She's training to be a medicnin, she won't be different unless one of us breaks something. Otherwise it's still all smarts and a little genjutsu."

"She's pulling her moves," Shikamaru replied.

Ino gave him a look. "Hey, I fought her in the last exam, remember? She's not better than me."

Shikamaru rolled his eyes and didn't bother arguing.

Ino won her battle in the final exam. She was still making her way through the stadium's passages when Sakura's fight was announced over. It had taken one minute and forty-three seconds.

When Ino arrived at the balcony where all the genin taking the exam were waiting, she looked over the railing to see Sakura healing the Stonenin's broken hands. Part of the circular wall of the stadium was cracked, and the crowds were being shifted elsewhere until the structure was determined steady.

"What the hell?" Ino said.

"Shikamaru was right," Chouji replied

Ino watched as Sakura had the Stonenin test his healed fingers below, and couldn't decide what to say.

When Sakura came up to the balcony, Tenten was making her way down for her own fight. She nodded to the other teenager. "You live up to Tsunade-sama's reputation."

Sakura called back a thank you as Tenten left.

Ino later overheard Asuma tell Kakashi, who'd been absent that day because he was on a mission, that they hadn't bothered with the post-fight conversation with the kages and the jounins. Sakura had displayed intelligence and strength and an absence of bloodlust, and she was the Hokage's student; she made chuunin and then reacted to the announcement not with excitement but with the attitude of someone who had expected to win because she'd refused to fail.

Ino couldn't see their faces from where she was standing, but it wouldn't have mattered anyway--Kakashi's expression was hidden by his mask.

After the exams, Ino saw Sakura less than once every couple of months, and those times they were usually running across each other in public buildings. At first she thought Sakura was ignoring her, but after talking with the other people in their age groups, she realized that the only ones who had seen much of Sakura lately were Hinata and Kiba, and those were because of medical supply deliveries.

Ino was sometimes a little slow to pick up on things, not because she was stupid but because she was self-centered, but eventually she realized that Sakura was leaving her behind in favor of chasing after her expectations of the boys she hadn't seen in two years.

The night after she figured that out, Ino rang the doorbell of the Haruno household for the first time since they were children.

Sakura didn't drop by to see her before leaving on her latest mission; Ino didn't know she was gone until she went by the hospital to get a sprained wrist looked at. She didn't learn that Naruto had come back and left again, taking Sakura with him, until Shikamaru finished the work he'd been doing when Temari had abruptly left and mentioned it in reference to something else.

When Ino asked Asuma what kind of mission they'd been sent on, he'd later replied that the information was classified. Ino found out that Kakashi was gone, too; and she soon learned from Hinata that Neji's team had left as well. If Hinata knew why, she also only said that it was seemed to be classified.

Sakura and Naruto's return to Konoha was dramatic. They brought a sickly-looking-but-recovering Gaara with them, and what seemed like half of Suna's shinobi ate and slept for a night at the Leaf before heading back to the Sand. It didn't take long for stories of battles with Akatsuki and resurrections and an old woman's prophecies to begin, though no one was certain where the stories were coming from because Sakura wasn't a braggart and Naruto fell into odd silences about a lot of the stuff involving Gaara.

Ino watched the two of them laugh at a comment from Neji, over something about Gai and Kakashi, and wondered what had happened to the timid girl who'd always glanced to her for confirmation on her opinions.