Title: A Ramen Rhapsody
By: Doc Destructo
For: Arrankaara Request: Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol"
Note/Warning/Summary/Holiday Greeting: Naruto wants to share his favorite food with Ino, but she refuses, citing diets, disgust and general loathing. However, this leads to an education for Ino on the joy of ramen and its significance for Naruto.
"Geez, Ino, it's just one bowl!" Naruto exclaimed, rubbing his tender scalp. Sure, Uzumaki Naruto had incredible regenerative powers thanks to the demon sealed away within him, but it wasn't like he had incredible pain-dampening powers. That swat to his head hurt, dammit! "If you're not interested, you can just say so!"
"Naruto, listen," Yamanaka Ino said, grabbing the young man by his jacket and yanking him into close proximity with her face. Her fierce, blue eyes narrowed as she continued to bite out her words, "I might -- and let me repeat this, MIGHT -- be up for hanging out with you. POSSIBLY. But I am NOT going to eat ramen. It's fattening, juvenile, disgusting and pretty tacky. Do you understand me?"
"What?" Naruto blurted, taken aback. "Ramen's not dis- OUCH!"
Ino shook her hand a little, annoyed that even after all her ninja training and conditioning it still hurt when she thumped her current companion atop his head. Absently she wondered if maybe it was just that his head was so dense. Taking a glance around, Ino noticed that a few fellow shinobi were snickering. Admittedly, standing just outside the Mission Hall of Hidden Leaf's central administration building wasn't exactly inconspicuous or private, but that blonde idiot had just HAD to mention his stupid ramen.
Watching the demon vessel rub at his sore skull again, Ino sighed. The goof was just so pathetically adorable, sometimes. She really hated having to throw on the brakes, just when he'd screwed up the courage to ask her out. But if experience had taught her anything, it was that if Ino didn't take her stand early, he'd just keep at it until she wanted to murder him. Besides, sometimes she was just a bitch; he should have really figured that out by now.
Sighing again, she snapped her fingers in front of Naruto's face to regain his attention. Calmly, she stated, "You're kinda cute, Naruto, head trauma not withstanding, and when you're ready to be a grown-up you know where to find me."
Ino could have kicked herself when she watched the young man flinch at her words. Thankfully, she didn't stick around for any potential fallout. Ino considered feeling worse about the whole ordeal, but honestly, what the hell kind of precedent would she set if RAMEN was the best Naruto could come up with?
The winds outside Ino's apartment window whistled across the glass with the hollow chill of winter. She'd rented the place after her chuunin promotion, wanting to establish her independence from her parents. The Yamanaka Flower Shop was only a couple blocks away, close enough to stay easily in touch with her family, but distant enough to maintain her autonomy.
The apartment was small and not altogether spacious, but that suited Ino fine. It was large enough to house her ninja gear, her wardrobe, a couple plants and the queen-sized bed and warm, soft comforter and duvet set which Ino was snuggling into at that very moment. Alarm clock set, she smiled as she burrowed further into her bedding, grinning as if to spite the blustery cold outside. Ino thought about the crestfallen look on Naruto's face for a moment before deciding she'd just deal with it tomorrow. With that problem resolved (for now), she settled into her pillow and could feel her mind drifting off into unconsciousness.
Until her window started tapping.
Years of ninja training and life-or-death survival drove her as Ino hurled her body out of bed. Landing next to the closet, Ino already had several kunai between her fingers just waiting to bury them into her would-be assassin. Looking at the window, Ino found her view of the winter sky unobstructed with only the distant stars glittering in the dark. Taking several calming breaths, she crept closer to examine the window. After several minutes, Ino could detect neither genjutsu nor any lingering chakra presence.
Satisfied that there was no one inside or outside who shouldn't be, Ino made her way back to bed. Though she chose to maintain the grip on her daggers and kept the window in her sight at all times. Just as she settled back into her cooled bed, Ino heard her window fly open.
"That's it!" she shouted, hurling her kunai at the open portal. Once more out of bed and crouched next to her weapons pouch, Ino glared at the empty space in the window. Her hair in her face, she gripped a new brace of kunai as a shadow formed out from top of the window's ledge.
"I knew you wouldn't remember, Piggy," said the dark lump as it slowly revealed its shape to be human and land inside Ino's apartment.
"Forehead?" Ino asked, tossing a kunai end-over-end to the light switch. With a soft thud, the ringed pommel activated the apartment lamps. Sure enough, leaning against the window sill was her pink-haired childhood friend, Haruno Sakura. "What are you doing here? And what wouldn't I remember?"
"Our little code? For when we'd sneak out?" Sakura asked. When no response seemed forthcoming, she reached out and tapped the window in a familiar rhythm. "Remember?"
"Oh yeah!" Ino said, smiling as the memory dawned. "I can't believe I forgot that!"
Ino grinned at Sakura for a moment before taking a closer look. Clearing her throat and really hoping their friendship hadn't taken a weird turn, Ino asked, "Um, Sakura, why do you have chains wrapped around your arms?"
"Huh?" Sakura said, blinking. She immediately looked down, confused before it became obvious the kunoichi had remembered. "Oh, that's right! Ahem. Yamanaka Ino, I, much like you, once scorned the ramen offered to me by friends and loved ones. But now I'm doomed! DOOMED! These chains are my eternal burden -- all the noodles I detested in life now weigh my spirit down!"
Ino stared, mouth agape, as Sakura shook her chains in emphasis. Finally, the blonde spoke, "What the hell are you talking about, Forehead? I see you eat that stuff with Team Nutso all the damned time."
"Just play along, okay, Piggy?" Sakura sighed, rolling her eyes in exasperation. Clearing her throat, she continued, "You will be visited by three bowls of ramen! Expect the first one for breakfast, at Ichiraku's stand!"
Before Ino could proffer her opinion on ramen for breakfast, Sakura rattled her chains again and then jumped out the apartment window. Ino was slightly disappointed to not hear an accompanying thud. Shaking her head, Ino crossed the floor and closed her window, noting no footprints or signs of other impending visitors. Once more in her bed, Ino resigned herself to visiting the ramen stand in the morning. Not that she would eat there, but maybe she could pummel some sense into whoever was behind her little visit.
And with visions of violence in her head, Ino fell asleep.
Ino clutched her gray cloak tighter around her shoulders as a particularly forceful gust of wind buffeted against her frame. The hood of her garment flew back, unleashing a blonde stream of hair behind her. Gritting her teeth, Ino marched onward to the small ramen stand, adding her mussed hair to her laundry list of hashes to be settled. When she finally found the shelter of the Ichiraku ramen stand, Ino was already taking a massive breath for her explosive, diatribe.
Seeing absolutely no one sitting at the ramen bar, Ino visibly deflated and moved to slump onto a nearby stool. Propping her head up, she glared at the deserted eatery. Then again, she only knew of one person stuck on ramen enough to eat it for breakfast so what did she expect?
"If you're worried about the lunch rush, don't be," the aged ramen chef said behind the counter as he hoisted a large pot onto his stove. With a grunt of exertion, he surveyed his work and wiped his hands on his pristine apron. Turning around, he gave Ino a grin and said, "I think you just beat it."
"Hardly," Ino snorted, trying to blow the hair out of her face. "I'm supposed to beat the crap out of someone here."
"Ah," Teuchi said, nodding in understanding. "You must be Uzumaki's friend."
"Friend might be pushing it at this point," Ino muttered. "I prefer executioner."
"Ha! They told me you had moxy!" the elder gent laughed. "I'm supposed to get you a bowl of ramen."
"No, you really don't," she replied, but too late. The man had already ducked down beneath the bar and out of her field of vision. Ino let out a groan as she heard a small clattering of dishes. Trying to spare the old man his feelings, Ino said, "Listen, I'm sure the ramen is good and all, but I'm on a diet and-"
The remainder of her excuse was silenced in its prime as Teuchi smacked a chipped, off-white china bowl in front of her. The bowl itself was nothing special, but the stiff, uncooked noodles within left Ino speechless. With less gusto, the chef set a small glass of water next to the bowl and fixed Ino with a knowing smirk.
Ino looked from the bowl to the chef and back a few times before finally saying, "Um, you know these aren't cooked, right?"
"That," Teuchi said, nodding at the bowl, "is the Bowl of Ramen Past."
Ino continued to look owlishly at the wizened ramen chef, mere words incapable of voicing her consternation.
"Y'know," Teuchi said, leaning against the counter. "I remember the first time that little loudmouth came in here. Heh, the Third Hokage came in with him, practically had to drag him into the place. Oh man, you wouldn't believe how scruffy that kid looked! I swear you could see this, this CLOUD of dust at his feet whenever he walked!"
"Well," Ino ventured, not sure if the chef would appreciate commentary on his anecdote. "It's not like he's cleaned himself up that much since then."
To Ino's relief, Teuchi just belly laughed his agreement. "You got that right!" he exclaimed, so overcome he had to slap the bar in his amusement. "You'd thought the shrimp'd never stepped into a restaurant, though. Kept hidin' behind the Third, heck, even tried to get under his robes once. To look at him now, you wouldn't believe how shy he was back then," he said, shaking his head. "Quiet, too. I could barely hear him the whole time the two were in here."
At this, Ino HAD to pipe up. "Naruto? Quiet? NARUTO?!" Her well-trained Yamanaka mind simply refused to envision such an image. Just about every memory or impression she had of demon vessel included his mouth open and shouting something. "Tell me you have pictures," she pleaded.
"I wish," he said longingly, shaking his head. "If I'd known he was going to get so loud, I would have. Well, I would've tried, at least. Kid was skittish as hell. He actually jumped off his stool when I put his ramen in front of 'im. Then said he didn't want it, the little punk!"
"Whoa whoa whoa!" Ino said, raising a hand to halt the man's narrative. "You're telling me that Uzumaki Naruto, ramen glutton extraordinaire, didn't want his ramen? Now you're just messing with me."
"Nope, he's telling the truth," said a smiling brunette as stepped through the small curtained door behind the bar. With practiced ease, Ayame tied her hair back with a pastel kerchief and made her way to her father. "I barely remember him back then but for a time he was quiet as a mouse."
"Yup," Teuchi agreed. "I think the loudest noise he made that day was burping after the Third made him drink the broth."
Ayame giggled at the memory as Ino stared at the two of them, eyes wide with disbelief. "Once Dad told him what the fishcakes were called, though," Ayame said, conspiratorially, "you couldn't shut him up."
"I think he STILL thinks I named 'em after him," Teuchi sighed, flashing the girls a quick grin.
"Gee, I wonder who encouraged THAT little misconception?" Ayame asked sarcastically.
"I keep telling you it was the Third," the elder ramen chef said, throwing his hands up. Ino blinked, judging that this particular detail had been debated before.
"I, uh," Ino said, clearing her throat and hoping to stave off a full-fledged argument. "I didn't know the Third liked ramen that much."
"I don't think he liked it a great deal," Teuchi said, as though owning up to a personal failure. "But then again, once you've seen Uzumaki eat, no one likes it that much. He wasn't exactly a regular, though. He'd just pop in every now and then with the runt. They'd laugh and cut up and the old man would pay for however many bowls the kid could knock back."
"Really?" Ino asked, and Ayame seemed to take interest as well.
"A Hokage can't look after every orphan every day," Teuchi said with a shrug. "But I reckon he did what he could. Even if it cost him a small fortune."
Ino nodded in silence as the two ramen vendors drifted back to their pots and stoves. With no small amount of effort, she stood and braced herself to face the merciless weather outside. On a whim, though, she looked back at that chipped, off-white bowl with the dry and uncooked noodles. She could see now its discoloration was due to layers of thin smudges and stains on its surface, no doubt the product of years of wear and neglectful handling.
Part of her dismissed the whole thing as silly. Another part of her wondered what that bowl would look like if someone took the time to clean and polish it, and maybe fill it up with a bowl of warm noodles.
Growing up in a flower shop with florists and ninjas for parents had been something of a dream come true for Yamanaka Ino. She knew the meanings of every breed of flower, how those meanings meshed and conflicted with others, and even how to just appreciate something because the color made her smile. Ino also loved nailing a moving target dead center with a kunai and executing a perfect ridge hand through her father's guard. And using flowers as weapons? The best of both worlds.
Ino did not, however, realize that her love of decorative flora would eventually make her a subject matter expert in the eyes of the Hokage. Though Ino suspected Sakura may have had a hand in that bit of foul play. Regardless, as much as having such a title as Village Expert fluffed her ego, Ino did not particularly care for trying to impart her knowledge of ikebana to snotty little kunoichi in training.
Man, how had Suzume-sensei put up with her and Sakura and Ami and the rest?
Thankfully, a fairly comprehensive (and cruel) exam had left her rowdier morning crowd occupied for the duration of the class period. With a spring in her step, Ino sauntered to the faculty office to stow the test papers and maybe see what it was her supervisor required. Rolling her eyes, Ino had a fair guess as to what he wanted to discuss, especially in light of the morning's... revelations. Making short work of filing away the exams, Ino made her way past the conspicuously empty office to stand before Umino Iruka's desk.
At first the older man didn't seem to notice her, and Ino made a mental note to increase her training. Apparently teaching too long dulled your senses, something Ino would not appreciate once she was back in the field. Iruka rubbed the scar running across his nose absently as he pored over the scroll sitting on his desk.
Finally tired of waiting, Ino decided to clear her throat. Not looking up, Iruka motioned at a chair and said, "Pull up a seat, Ino. I'll just be just another moment."
"I guess this couldn't wait until after lunch?" she asked as she sat down.
"Maybe it could've," the dark haired man said, smiling as he continued his reading. "But I don't think it would have had nearly the impact."
"Ah! All done!" Iruka said, rolling the scroll shut with a flick of his wrist. Seemingly ignoring Ino's query, he shuffled the papers and scrolls on his desk for a moment, clearing off a small area between the two ninja. Suddenly, Ino saw him duck beneath his desk. Ino leaned forward to better see what the heck was going on when her supervisor popped back up, only this time holding out a large plastic bag. "Here we go!" he exclaimed, settling into the task of opening the bag.
Ino was only somewhat surprised to see two plastic bowls of carry-out ramen, tightly sealed to prevent spills. With more reverence than she felt necessary, the man removed the lids and set a bowl in front of each of them. With a raised eyebrow, Ino watched Iruka inhale the aroma of his own ramen and sigh contentedly.
With a smile, Iruka looked up at Ino and pointed to her bowl. "That," he said with a nod, "is the Bowl of Ramen Present, Ino."
Ino shot him a sardonic look before staring at the ramen. A small sniff told her it was pork ramen, with an egg thrown in for variety. She could see the green onion shavings and the purple spiraled naruto. The steam wafting from the soup combined with the hearty broth obscured her view of the noodles that lay waiting. A sharp lurch in her stomach reminded Ino that her own, considerably healthier lunch sat abandoned in her desk drawer.
"Oh is it?" Ino asked, a half-smirk on her face. "Just looks like regular take-out to me."
"There is NOTHING regular about Ichiraku take-out, Ino," Iruka said gravely, spearing her with a sharp look. Ino fidgeted in her seat for a moment, wondering just how fervent ramen aficionados were about their favorite food. Then his face broke into a grin and he scooped a portion of noodles with his chopsticks, clearly relishing his meal.
"Mmmmm! Nothing like a hot bowl of ramen," he said, eyes closed in delight. At Ino's unintelligible grumble, he opened one and smiled. "Did you know," he began, "that I used to hate ramen?"
"No," Ino admitted, surprised.
"Oh yeah," Iruka said taking another quick bite. "I never really liked salty noodles much, but then again, I never really liked Naruto much either. Both just kinda grew on me over time, ya know?"
At this new information, Ino frowned. "I thought you and Naruto had always been close," she said. "I mean, I know he was a major pain in the ass at the academy, but I saw you guys together a lot even then."
"Heh, oh we spent a lot of time together, all right," Iruka said, shaking his head. "But for... certain reasons, you could say, I didn't feel comfortable around him. He just brought up... a lot of bad memories, I suppose."
Ino nodded quietly. Having fought alongside Konohagakure's loudest ninja more than a few times, his furry, red secret had been outed for a long time. However, she could understand her former teacher's hesitation at mentioning it directly. Curious, she asked, "Then how did you guys get so close?"
"Well," Iruka said, tapping his bowl as he thought back. "It was after one of Naruto's pranks. I think it was the one with where he coated every roll of toilet paper in the school with white pepper oil."
"I remember that one!" Ino laughed. "Oh man, Suzume-sensei and Mizuki-sensei couldn't sit right for days!"
"Yes," Iruka said, rolling his eyes. "Trust me, I remember all too vividly. Anyway, I'd been at the end of my patience. I'd even arranged to speak with the Third Hokage about getting Naruto expelled. Or at least handing out a harsher punishment than just cleaning up the school grounds, you know? Do you know what he said to me?"
"No, what'd he say?"
"He said, 'Perhaps you should give him a little incentive, Iruka-kun. I hear he likes ramen.' THAT'S what he told me," Iruka said, grinning.
"The little twerp incapacitated half the school and he told you to take him to dinner?" Ino asked, incredulous. "What'd you do?"
"I said 'Thanks' and left," Iruka said. "And as soon as I was out of earshot, I started swearing and cursing him and his ancestors. I may have called him everything but the son of a motherless goat."
"Whoa," Ino said. The image of the Third Hokage had been of this old, grandfatherly man who never seemed to have an unkind word within him. Logically she knew the Third had to have been a very effective ninja, but she couldn't just reconcile that against the images in her mind. For Iruka of all people to be pissed enough to burst into profanity at anyone, much less the Third, seemed impossible.
"I know. The Third had been very understanding when I lost my parents," Iruka continued. "So I was just floored when he told me that. But after cooling down a little and thinking about it, what he'd said made a lot of sense. Hell, at that point, I wasn't above using a little bribery.
"So, the next day, as soon as he'd finished replacing all of the kunai target dummies in the training field, I sucked up my pride and told Naruto he'd done a pretty good job," Iruka said. "And then I asked him if he wanted to get some ramen with me."
"And that was the start of your new friendship?" Ino asked, smirking at having cut off the syrupy ending to Iruka's story.
"No," Iruka said, pausing to take another bite of his cooling ramen. "That was when he flipped me off and told me to take my pity and fuck off."
Ino gagged, choking on her own air. "WHAT?!"
"Even as an eight year-old, Naruto always had mouth on him," Iruka said ruefully. "Needless to say, I didn't take it well. Here I was, offering to treat him to dinner even after he'd been such a pain in the ass. Literally. I don't think I'd ever wanted to kill someone more than I wanted to kill Naruto right at that very moment."
"Amazing how he brings that out in people, huh?" Ino said, grinning. "So what'd you guys do?"
"Well, I ended up picking him up by his ankles and I drug him to Ichiraku's," Iruka said. "I told him if he didn't at least have one bowl, I'd tie him up and then eat ten bowls of the stuff in front of him. And probably kick him in the shins. I'm not sure about that part, though, I was pretty livid at the time. But he sat and he ate with me and we didn't kill each other.
"After that, though, it got easier," Iruka said with a soft smile. "And we've just been doing that ever since. Even though he's a jounin now (my god, how did that happen?) and doing missions all over Fire Country, we still catch up over a bowl of ramen or two. I mean, I'm just an academy stiff now and he's still working on becoming Hokage, but no matter how much time or distance is between us, ramen kinda helps bridge that gap over and over again."
Ino nodded mutely, as she watched him wrap up his narrative and tuck into his noodles once again. Her stomach, forgotten during the nostalgic remembrance, rumbled again at its depleted state. Ino flicked her eyes back towards the large bowl setting before her. Idly she wondered if she could acquire a taste and familiarity for ramen as well. With that thought in mind, Ino excused herself.
Eating her lunch, Ino couldn't help but find it somehow... lacking.
The sake bottle made a hollow thudding sound as Ino set it back onto the bar. Idly, Ino noted the faint sloshing sound from within the ceramic bottle and nodded in the surety that she had drunk enough not be tipsy, but still take the edge off her day. An instinctive glance around the restaurant reassured the kunoichi that there were few patrons around to spoil her alone time, and none for very long.
Looking at her newly replenished saucer of rice wine, Ino sighed and tried to put the day's revelations behind her. Quick mental arithmetic let the blonde know she still had two more drinks ahead of her before encountering any serious motor response delays.
Ino immediately knocked that count down to one when her cup started to look too much like a bowl.
How the hell was she supposed to know the entirety of Naruto's emotional development was tied together by strands of white ramen noodles? Ino knew the hyperactive blonde consumed the stuff like mad, but who placed that kind of importance on a single food item?
Huffing, Ino leaned against the bar and glared at her drink, as though it were the root of her day's stress. Okay, so eating ramen held a little more significance than she first thought. She could accept that. No, really. But good grief, Ino certainly didn't need some kind of organized guilt trip about it!
"This has to be forehead girl's doing," Ino muttered. "Visited by ramen. Ha! I'll give her a visitation all right."
Before she could elaborate upon those words, either aloud or only in thought, a sharp clattering speared her attention. With wide blue eyes, Ino watched a dark, ornate bowl settle next to her hands. Geometric patterns crawled across the bowl's heavily lacquered circumference, catching only the barest glimmers of the sparse lighting. The inside glazing must have been markedly darker, for when Ino looked at the empty hollow, she couldn't readily see the bottom.
After realizing she'd lost herself in examination, Ino directed her eyes at the shinobi now standing next to her. Coal black cloak and matching raven hair seemed to swallow light, even with the smattering of dirt and what could have been dried blood. Equally dark eyes set in a put-upon expression offered no hostility, but no warmth either.
"Bowl of Ramen Future," Uchiha Sasuke said, his words slow and sonorous, but slightly clipped. As though he were educating a small child.
Ino stared at the ninja, thunderstruck, when his ANBU uniform momentarily became visible as he helped himself to a saucer of her sake. Scrunching up his face after drinking, he shook his head clear and stared back at Ino. Finally, Yamanaka Ino found her words again.
"Just eat the goddamned noodles, Yamanaka," Sasuke said, narrowing his eyes. He paused for a moment to roll some stiffness from his left shoulder. Sighing, he continued, "I don't like that crap much either, but I eat it anyway. It makes him happy and it's not like he asks for much. Fuck, you should have figured this out by now."
Only an exasperated growl told Ino that Sasuke had left. Not even the faint rustling of his cloak could be heard. Draining the sake bottle, Ino prepared her last drink of the evening despite the freshness of dusk. Raising the wine to her lips, she cast a reproachful glance back at the purported Bowl of Ramen Future.
Ino blinked for a moment. She had actually been prepared for another lengthy and somewhat depressing series of anecdotes about her would-be suitor and his passion for ramen. Instead, she'd gotten Uchiha Sasuke actually bothering to speak to someone who wasn't a part of Team 7, if only to tell her to stop being childish. Ino wasn't sure which part of that sentence was more ridiculous.
In a way, though, Sasuke's short statements spoke volumes. Not everyone had forgiven him for his little training sabbatical in Otogakure. Naruto had probably been the first to forgive his sorry butt, and more than likely drug the last Uchiha off to Ichiraku's for a bowl of ramen. Hell, Tsunade probably figured eternal friendship with the demon vessel was punishment enough.
Ino smiled as she re-examined the bowl sitting before her, pondering its emptiness. Why would a future bowl of ramen be barren? Was it from having been drained of food in the company of a good friend and a precious person? Or maybe having never been filled at all? Ino stared at the bowl as time marched onward and her sake cooled under her lips.
At last, Ino consumed her wine in one swallow and left the restaurant. She left with her coinage in the bowl for the bartender and a small, knowing smile on her face.
"-then I said to him, 'Hey! Jackass! I got yer ultimate defense right here!' right before I summoned the toad boss on top of him! And he was like, 'Oi! I'm hurtin'!' and I was like, 'Hell yeah you are!' and then he just passed out like I'd stiffed him with Chouji's barbecue tab or somethin'!"
Ino stood outside the entrance to the Ichiraku ramen stand. Strings of lanterns cast ripe, tinted luminance giving the small eatery a gentle radiance. Hand caressing the parlor curtain, she smiled at the boisterous storytelling from within. Already Ino could see with her mind's eye the animated gestures and wild body language that no doubt accompanied the tale.
With a deep, cleansing breath, Ino set her shoulders and pushed her way into the ramen stand.
Sitting just to her right was her target, his back turned to Ino as he alternated between devouring his food of choice and regaling Umino Iruka with a harrowing and hilarious epic of how Naruto defeated a bunch of ninja lizard men. Or something. Iruka, for his part, seemed content to merely slurp his noodles and nod where he deemed appropriate. Until, that was, the school administrator looked up and saw Ino standing next to bar watching the two of them.
"Ano," Iruka said, setting his chopsticks across his ramen bowl. Scratching the back of his head, near the high topknot, he said, "I just remembered something from earlier. I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to run, Naruto."
"Sensei!" Naruto exclaimed, whining as he slumped on his stool. "You're just trying to stick with me your food bills again!"
"Me sticking YOU with the bill?" Iruka asked derisively and supplied a small bop to the blonde's head. His gaze flicked over to Ino just long enough to drop a sly wink before he continued, "I think with all those high paying missions you've been taking lately you can spare enough for a bowl or two extra."
"First I get stuck with Ero-Sennin's brothel bills," Naruto muttered as he fished out his small toad wallet. "Now I'm getting your ramen bills, Iruka-sensei. Next thing you know I'll be getting Kakashi-sensei's porn bills, too."
"Hey, at least ramen is cheaper than brothel girls and porn, right?" Iruka said with an affectionate tousling of Naruto's hair.
"Actually, I wouldn't know, Iruka-sensei," Naruto retorted with a grin. "How much do YOU spend on brothel girls and porn, eh?"
The brotherly head-rub transformed itself into a violent fist, almost sending the demon vessel's head into his ramen. Iruka stood behind the blonde, shaking and red-faced in embarrassment -- partly from Naruto's accusations, and partly that the blonde had actually gotten the better of him in a battle of wits. Iruka couldn't fathom which was more damning at the moment.
"SenSEI!" Naruto complained, rubbing his head. "I thought you used to have a sense of humor!"
"I had to pawn it to pay for your ramen," Iruka said, pinching the bridge of his nose. With a parting smile, he patted Naruto on the shoulder. "We'll catch up tomorrow or something, all right?"
"Sure! Then I can tell you about those killer praying mantises with the samurai swords and eyes on their stomachs I fought in Earth Country," Naruto said before excitedly digging back into his ramen. "Even Shino said they were freaky!"
"I'll bet he did," Iruka agreed as he left. As he held up the entrance curtain, Iruka turned back to give Ino a slight nod. The blonde kunoichi rolled her eyes and gave him a shrug, which only seemed to amuse the man more. Flashing a toothy grin, he left the two younger ninjas alone.
Finding no more distractions or excuses, Ino calmly sidled onto the stool next Naruto and cleared her throat. Scanning the small, one-page menu before her, Ino heard more than saw Naruto choke on his ramen for a minute. Her peripheral vision was acute enough, however, to catch him spinning around wildly to verify his surroundings.
"Ino?" he asked, sounding almost distressed.
"So," she said, smiling at his antics as her eyes glided from the menu to Naruto. "What's good here?"
Naruto's confused frown only lasted for about a second, before dissolving into a wide and radiant grin. Cheekily, he responded, "The company."
Ino couldn't help but flush for a moment, before being caught up in his enthusiasm as Naruto immediately launched into telling her about his personal favorite ramen varieties. As Naruto expounded on how picking one's ramen was not unlike crafting a signature jutsu, Ino marveled at his passion for all things noodly. When Teuchi returned to the front of his shop, Ino placed her order with grim, unflinching support from her companion.
Minutes later, the ramen chef set down their bowls with a small flourish. And there the two sat, Ino developing a taste for ramen while Naruto beamed at his important people, new and old.
Unable to contain his own joy at obtaining yet another customer for life, Teuchi said, "Ramen bless us, everyone!"
"Don't push it, old man," Ino said around her half-slurped noodles, her rebuke tempered somewhat by the grin stretching her cheeks.
Happy holidays, folks! I hope this tickles your funnybone and lifts your spirits! Kaara, I hope this meets your request for touching upon "A Christmas Carol" without dipping into Emo or Woobie-lands.
Many thanks goes to Random1377 for his continual support and ridicule during the authoring of his story.