Title: Green Apple Elixir and Sugared Vanilla
Pairings: Naruto/Ino, mentions of others (het and yaoi)
Summary: In which everyone in Konoha has relationship problems, and Naruto and Ino may just turn out to be the most well-adjusted of them all.
Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Kishimoto Masashi.

Note: This is one of my oldest stories, so the style is a little inconsistent. It has its moments, I like to think, but you be your own judge. Also, I make fun of the characters, but you should already know this.

Green Apple Elixir and Sugared Vanilla


Shikamaru sighed for the umpteenth time that evening, trying his best to protect his hearing from the sounds of angry shouting coming from his left. He briefly wondered if perhaps he had done something very bad in a past life–something along the line of child porn and drug smuggling–to deserve his current fate, but then decided it was too troublesome to dwell upon.


For a small woman, Yamanaka Ino certainly packed a powerful pair of lungs. Shikamaru felt sure that any normal person would have run out of breath at least half an hour ago. Then again, no normal person could possibly retain that volume and not wind up losing their voice for the next three days.

Still, something must have really gotten to her this time. Having been Ino's teammate for over five years and her friend even longer (to his deep, deep regret), Shikamaru was all too familiar with her mood swings, which mostly consisted of a) angry, b) angrier, and c) homicidally furious. Whereas most women when upset would lock themselves in their room and maybe eat a tub of Rocky Road ice cream, Ino got violent, and when she got violent she tended to throw things at innocent bystanders. Like himself, for instance. It reminded him of his mother. And Temari. Just why did he always surround himself with such terrifying females anyway? Shikamaru suddenly wondered if maybe there was the possibility that he was into dominatrix, and quickly abandoned the thought for fear of developing horrible sexual problems and ending up someday having to pay strange women to spank him.

Hands firmly planted over his ears, Shikamaru loudly raised his voice, hoping against hope to be heard above Ino's tirade of rage.

"What is the problem this time?"

Whatever it was, he deduced, had better be important. The intensity of Ino's anger indicated that the cause of her strife was quite extraordinary, much bigger than say PMS or the time she'd run out of conditioner and had reduced Asuma to a bundle of quivering nerves.

By some stroke of luck, Ino heard him and clamped her mouth shut in a middle of a rather colorful string of epithets. Shikamaru removed his hands, and was surprised by the silence that reigned in the restaurant. Knowing Ino, he predicted it wouldn't last long, and cursed himself for always being right when he didn't cover his ears in time to avoid the next bout of shouted words.

"WHAT IS THE PROBLEM? THAT FOREHEAD GIRL SAKURA, THAT'S WHAT!" Ino's face was scrunched up in anger, giving her the appearance not unlike that of a dried prune. "Sakura and Sasuke-kun," at this her voice softened a little, only to flare up almost instantly, "GOT TOGETHER YESTERDAY, AND SHE HAD THE NERVE TO BRAG ABOUT IT ALL OVER THE VILLAGE!"

She finally stopped for breath, panting and rather red in the face, at which opportunity Shikamaru took the time to blink. Well, that certainly explained it. That also explained the uncharacteristically depressed looking Naruto who seemed to be drowning himself in ramen on Shikamaru's right. Chouji–bless his kind heart–was at the moment trying to console the despondent blond without much success.

"Come on, Naruto," the Akimichi boy said soothingly, "it can't honestly be all that bad."

Naruto raised his head dejectedly, his pose that of a Strong Man Overcome With Emotion. The effect was altogether ruined by the fact that he still had strands of noodle sticking out of his mouth.

"She asked me to help pick out his birthday present, Chouji," wailed Naruto. "His birthday present! I didn't think she even knew when my birthday was, and she asked me to pick out a gift for the bastard!" At this, his face crumpled, and he dove headfirst into the bowl of ramen again.

Shikamaru had had enough. "Both of you are pathetic!" Turning from one blonde idiot to the other, he snapped: "Ino! You have been nursing this obsession for over seven years now, and during this time, has Sasuke ever so much as looked in your direction? And you, Naruto! Stop trying to eat yourself to death! Only women do that!"

A long pause followed Shikamaru's outburst, in which both blondes gaped at him with open mouths and Chouji attempted to hide himself under the table. Then everything exploded into chaos.

"But Shikamaru, you don't unders…"


"QUIET!" Shikamaru shouted, finally at the end of his patience and having to employ the special voice he usually reserved for leading A-Class missions. It seemed to work, as both Naruto and Ino fell silent and stared at him in shock.

"That's it! This is more troublesome than it's worth," Shikamaru announced, pulling the still shaking Chouji from his hiding place. "You two can sort out your relationship problems by yourselves, but Chouji and I are getting out of here before I lose my mind."

Dragging the grateful Akimichi by the end of his muffler, the genius stormed out of the restaurant, garnering many wild looks from the other horrified patrons. Only when he had walked two blocks did it occur to him that it might not have been the best idea to leave the two loudmouths alone together when they were both clearly agitated. Once again, Shikamaru heaved a sigh to the heavens. Being a Good Samaritan was hard.


"That Shikamaru! He thinks he knows everything," Ino seethed, balling her hands into fists. Beside her, Naruto nodded fervently, wincing a bit as he accidentally jostled his overstuffed stomach.

They had both been kicked out on the street when the restaurant had run of ramen and the manager had subsequently been bombarded by complaints about a girl who kept throwing chopsticks at everyone. Still preoccupied by the injustice of teammates who randomly hooked up and couldn't grasp the concept of sympathy to save their lives, the blondes had unknowingly fallen into steps, and, still lamenting their cruel fates, they made off together in the general direction of Ino's house.

Throwing herself down onto a nearby park bench, Ino crossed her arms and hissed angrily. Not to be outdone, Naruto followed suit. They sat in silent for a moment, glaring daggers at passing pedestrians who squeaked nervously and tried to stay as far away from the two deranged teenagers as possible.

"It's not even really about them, you know," Ino spoke up at last. "I mean, here I thought Sakura and I were friends again. She could've at least talked to me about it before she told the entire freaking village!" She stopped, and then added rather wistfully: "I would've, if it'd been me."

"I know what you mean," Naruto sighed mournfully, sagging against the backrest. "I've always known Sakura-chan doesn't like me like that, but couldn't she have been a bit more…" he faltered, fishing around for words.

"Sensitive?" Ino offered, nodding sympathetically.

"Yeah! After all that trouble I went through to bring Sasuke back. And Sasuke-bastard's not much better. He didn't even say anything about it, like it didn't matter to him or something," Naruto continued, his ire quickly returning at the thought of his rival.

"Well, at least you seem to be dealing with it better than poor Lee," Ino scoffed. "He's been bawling his lungs out over at Gai-sensei's ever since the news broke. Kept saying something about his Spring Time of Youth being blighted before its time."

They both shuddered at the thought, and then fell silent again, staring glumly at the ground. Then Ino had an idea.

"Hey, I know something that'd make this much better," she exclaimed, jumping to her feet. "Wait here!"

Naruto stared after her retreating figure in surprise, not knowing what to make of the cryptic parting words. He was still pondering this when she came running back, brandishing something in her hands.

"Look," Ino said proudly, thrusting the 'something' into Naruto's face. It was a bottle of wine.

"Green Apple Elixir?" Naruto squawked indignantly, taking in the label. "But that's… a chick drink! Can't you girls even get some proper sake to satisfy your destructive, alcoholic urge?"

In a surprising display of patience, Ino resisted her destructive, alcoholic urge to smack her companion upside the head.

"My dad doesn't keep sake at home!" she protested.
"And besides, the liquor content in this is pretty high too. And it doesn't taste half bad."

Naruto didn't seem convinced.

"Here," Ino said, uncapping the bottle and holding it out to him.

Taking the bottle, Naruto carefully took a small sip, and was surprised to learn that she was right. "Tastes kinda like apple cider," he admitted, taking a longer swig and offering the bottle to Ino.

"Told you so," Ino said, rolling her eyes and settling down beside him on the bench.

"Here's to the newest couple in Konoha, and their imminent future of sexual frustration," she declared, upending the bottle expertly and drinking deep. Naruto whistled, clearly impressed, and then broke out into a peal of hysterical laughter. Ino felt the corners of her lips tug up ever so slightly.

The night was looking better already.


'Green Apple Elixir', Naruto discovered, was a very, very, very wonderful thing. Three fourths of a bottle later, his world had turned into a warm, fuzzy place full of nice colorful objects, which filled him with such glee that he'd nearly forgotten all about Sakura-chan and that bastard Sasuke. Ino, who he vaguely suspected had drunk at least twice as much as he had, was rather giggly and possibly swaying to some rhythm in her head. Her usually sharp grey eyes were strangely unfocused, and her shoulder kept bumping into Naruto's.

"So," Ino slurred, trying to cross her arms and ended up nearly falling off the bench, "I've…hic… decided to stop pursuing Sasuke-kun!"

"Hear, hear," rejoined Naruto. "Never figured out what you gals saw in that asshole anyway."

"Hey," snapped Ino. "Don't ...hic… talk about Sasuke-kun like that. He's still the …hic… black-haired sex god who will…hic… be the father of my children."

Naruto made an effort to understand her logic, and failed spectacularly. "But I thought you just said you were going to stop going after him?" He asked bewilderedly.

"Right!" said Ino, pumping her fist viciously into the air and narrowly missing Naruto's nose. "That's because he's…hic… with that large forehead…hic. That artful minx …hic… seducing Sasuke-kun with her… vixen wiles…"

"Bet he makes an awful boyfriend anyway," Naruto muttered into the bottle. "I mean, can you imagine them ever having a conversation?"

"Oh, Sasuke-kun," Ino whined, clasping her hands before her in a cruel but accurate impression of Sakura. "We never…hic… talk about our feelings anymore!"

"Hn," said Naruto. He tried to will his face to imitate Sasuke's Dark Avenger Look™, but in his mellow drunken state only managed to appear constipated.

Ino jumped onto the bench, somehow avoiding falling on her face. A chuunin who had the misfortune to pass by at that very moment was treated to the sight of Ino standing on the park bench, swishing coquettishly, and cooing to Naruto in a syrupy voice: "Darling, I have…hic… a headache. Why don't we…hic… just cuddle tonight?" The mentally scarred man walked off quickly, muttering something about 'kids these days' and 'losing all will to live'.

Ino giggled wildly, losing her balance and stumbling over her own feet. Naruto just managed to reach out and catch her before she hit her head against the backrest and delivered herself a concussion. He was fairly alarmed when she buried her face into the juncture of his neck and shoulder, and proceeded to nuzzle against him.

"Hmm," Ino mumbled into Naruto's shirt, "you smell nice, Naruto-kun…"

This had the effect of sending Naruto's eyes rolling backward into their sockets. The situation was going in all sorts of wrong directions. He tried to dislodge her without success. Ino's hair was pushing dangerously close to his nostrils, and he could detect a faint scent not unlike sugared vanilla. Bad thought, he told himself, and tried harder to push Ino off of him, determined not to accidentally touch her breasts.

"Um, Ino," Naruto said weakly, "would you mind sitting up now? You're kinda lying on me."

"Naruto-kuuuun," Ino mewled softly, and Naruto experienced a moment of blinding terror when she looked up and pressed her face closer and closer to his.

And vomited into his lap.


Yamanaka Inoichi considered himself a reasonable man. He was a competent ninja, had lived his life strictly following the shinobi code of conduct (that night in the hotel room with Shikaku twenty years ago didn't count), and had married a sweet and beautiful woman who had given him a sweet and beautiful daughter whom he treasured very much. He was kind to animals, respectful to the elderly, and sometimes gave to charities. In short, Inoichi considered himself a very reasonable man, whom the fates had nothing to hold against.

That was until he opened his front door late one Friday night in his nightclothes to find his sweet and beautiful daughter very drunk and very unconscious, supported by an equally drunk and nearly as unconscious Uzumaki Naruto.

"Um, Yamanaka-san?" the boy whimpered. "I can explain."

The bloodcurdling scream of Yamanaka Inoichi, Konohagakure's reasonable man, could be heard in the next village.


A few days later, once Naruto had finally been released from his full body cast, he was strolling along the streets of Konoha observing the preparations for the upcoming Spring Festival and generally minding his own business when he heard someone call out his name.

He turned around to see Ino standing in front of her family's flower shop, waving at him enthusiastically, and briefly contemplated the possibility of taking off as fast as he could in the opposite direction. Finally deeming this behavior beneath the dignity of a future Hokage, Naruto reluctantly waved back and slowly walked towards her.

"Hey, Ino," he mumbled by way of greeting, eyes darting left and right to ensure her father was nowhere in sight.

"Hey yourself," Ino beamed, seemingly oblivious to Naruto's paranoia. She quickly took in his appearance, her eyes going wide for a moment, and squealed: "I like the change of look! You look pretty good in non-orange clothes!"

Naruto stared at her blankly. It was true he wasn't wearing his trademark jumpsuit–the vomit stain had been impossible to wash out–but he hadn't noticed anything else different about his appearance. All he had done was dig out a washed-out pair of jeans and an old white T-shirt from the bottom of his wardrobe, and thrown them on haphazardly before leaving the house. He allowed himself a quiet moment to properly mourn the loss of his favorite outfit, tragic victim of a girl's inability to hold her liquor.

"You want to come inside and hang out a bit?" Ino asked, already untying the strings of her work apron. "I was just about to take a break."

Naruto, who had spent the majority of his childhood without the presence of a mother figure, had never properly learned how to say 'no' to a woman, and thus, was quickly ushered into the backroom of the Yamanaka Flower Shop against his better judgment. Later, he would console himself with the thought that at least he had had the presence of mind to make a better judgment, even if he hadn't followed it.
Pulling together two wooden crates, Ino settled onto one and motioned for Naruto to take the other. She fumbled in her skirt pocket for a moment and produced a crumpled packet of cigarettes from its depth.

"Want a smoke?" She offered one to Naruto, quickly lighting her own.

Naruto raised his eyebrow at her. "Did you steal that from your dad too?"

"No, from Asuma," Ino said, smirking like the cat who ate the canary. "He's got so many of these lying around he'd never notice if one went missing anyway. You're going to take one or not?"

Succumbing to peers pressure, Naruto reached for a cigarette. Ino leaned over to light it for him, and watched as he took a tentative drag and promptly choked on the smoke.

"Geez, you're such a lightweight," she said, shaking her head and thumping him on the back.

"Shut up," snapped Naruto, master of repartee. He sucked on his cigarette again, trying to retain the smoke in his lungs. It burned its way down his chest, but the sensation was surprisingly not unpleasant.

"You'll get used to it," Ino said encouragingly. "It took me awhile too at first."

Naruto saw her flash him a small smile, and quickly looked away. He could feel his cheeks burning for some reason. The vague scent of sugared vanilla mingled with the acrid tobacco smoke, and he wondered confusedly where he'd smelled that before.


Half a pack of Asuma's cigarettes later, Naruto's eyes were beginning to sting, and the conversation had taken a distinct nosedive into the gutter.

"So, have you ever had sex?" Ino asked in a voice that was almost too carefully casual.

"Wh…what?" Naruto answered eloquently.

"You heard me," she said. "Well? Have you?"

"That's none of your business," he said, congratulating himself for once again having come up with such a witty reply.

"I'll take that as a 'no' then," Ino smirked, blowing smoke into his face.

Feeling his male pride deeply insulted, Naruto disregarded all propriety and retorted: "What about you then?"

Her smirk just widened.

"No way," he exclaimed in disbelief, then blurted out before he could stop himself: "With whom?"

"Tut, tut," Ino said, "a girl doesn't kiss and tell."

Naruto scowled, folding his arms against his chest. So that was how she was going to be. Well, fine with him.

"Alright," Ino placated, laughing at his put-out expression. "I'll tell you. It was Shikamaru."

Naruto stared agape. "Are you serious? Shikamaru?" Then he burst out laughing.

"What!" Ino seemed offended. "What's wrong with Shikamaru?"

"No…nothing," Naruto managed to croak, and then resumed his uncontrollable laughing fit. He sobered up quickly at the faintly murderous look on Ino's face. "I mean, I've just always thought you'd get more done dating your hand than Shikamaru."

Ino considered this for a moment, and then burst out laughing as well. "Actually, he wasn't bad. I mean, I've always half-suspected that the reason he and that Sand kunoichi of his always fight so much is so that they can have make-up sex afterwards."
"If you say so," Naruto shrugged. "Although, I really thought you would have done better. I mean, it's you!"

It was Ino's turn to raise her eyebrow. "Am I really that attractive, Naruto-kun?"

Naruto felt himself blushing again, and cursed his lack of social grace. How did Sasuke-bastard manage to keep that icy look on his face all the time when he had girls flinging themselves at him left and right?

"And who do you deem worthy of a beauty such as myself?" Ino teased.

"I don't know," Naruto confessed. "Someone more good-looking, maybe? Obviously not Sasuke… What do you think about Neji?"

"Hyuuga Neji?" Ino echoed. "Are you kidding me? He's almost asexual!"

Naruto nearly choked on his cigarette again, but passed it off as a manly cough.

"Actually, forget that," Ino said. "I think he's got a thing for his cousin."

"Hinata?" Naruto asked in evident disbelief. "He hates her! He's always picking fights with her and stuff."

"That doesn't mean anything," scoffed Ino. "I mean, you and Sasuke-kun used to fight all the time, and when me and the girls were compiling a list of guys who were possibly gay, you two were our most likely candidates."

"Wh...what?" Naruto croaked weakly, feeling like a broken record. "You thought me… and Sasuke-bastard… you thought we were GAY? GAY TOGETHER?"

"Most hot guys turn out to be gay," Ino said indifferently, waving off his indignation. "Couldn't hurt to be too careful. Actually, I still have doubts about Sasuke-kun sometimes, all things considered."

"That still doesn't explain why you thought I might be gay," Naruto bellowed. "And since when am I 'hot'?"

"Well, have you looked at yourself in a mirror recently?" Ino asked oh-so-innocently.

Naruto's face colored wildly. "I'm definitely not gay," he insisted.

"Oh yeah?" Ino challenged, daintily placing a hand on his thigh. "Why don't you prove it?"

If it were at all possible, Naruto's blush deepened. He hesitated for a moment, deliberating his choices. But when he was just about to move away and laugh it off as a poor joke, the blond saw the smug look in Ino's eyes, and felt the irresistible call of his one-true-love, Competition.

Grabbing Ino's shoulders, Naruto pulled her into him so that their lips literally smashed against one another. As far as kisses went, it wasn't exactly smooth, and their noses clashed rather painfully. Before Ino's shock had had time to wear off, however, Naruto decided to try something with his tongue that he'd read about in one of Jiraiya's books (he'd picked up the thing out of pure boredom, he insisted).

The result was mind-shattering. Ino moaned into his mouth, squirming a little beneath his hands, the effect of which immediately sent his mind into La La Land. In his dazed condition, Naruto barely registered Ino shifting her body so that their position was more comfortable. All his traitorous brain seemed capable of producing was a feeble 'More tongue, so good'.

He was busying himself with the top button of her blouse ("So that's where the vanilla smell was coming from.") when they were suddenly interrupted by the opening of the backroom door and a timid voice asking:

"Ino, are you in here? I didn't see you out front and I just really needed to…"

Their lips separated so abruptly, it hurt. Naruto and Ino turned towards the source of disruption to see a stricken-faced Sakura staring at them in horror. Before either had had the chance to react, the pink-haired girl had swiftly turned on her heels and run out of the room.

Ino and Naruto looked at each other for a very long second, and then both scrambled to get off one another and rushed for the door so quickly that their knees bumped and Naruto nearly tripped over the threshold in his mad dash. Ino, gifted with more grace and agility, managed to catch up with Sakura before the other girl had left the shop and, grabbing her friend by the shoulders, spun her around to face them.

Both blondes were shocked to see the pink-haired girl's tear-stained face. Before Ino could say anything, Sakura had let out a heart-broken wail and flung herself into her arms.


Ten minutes and a box of tissue later, Sakura was still sobbing wildly into Ino's shoulder, and Naruto had taken to fluttering about comfortingly, although, Ino noticed, the coward was touching her far more than he was their distraught friend.

Another five minutes had passed before Sakura regained enough composure to speak.

"He… Sasuke-kun… broke up with me!" She sniffed.

An identical expression of astonishment passed over Ino's and Naruto's faces.

"He did what! But you guys have only been together for what, a week?"

"No, it's less than that. More like five days."
"Really? I thought it was three..."

They shut their mouths quickly as Sakura's cries of grief resumed their fervor.

Rubbing her friend's back in what she hoped was a soothing manner, Ino gently asked the crying girl: "What happened?"

"He… he said I made him… weak," Sakura hiccupped despondently. "Said that he's… found someone else… someone who can… make him stronger."

"That asshole!" Naruto snarled angrily. "I'll kill him."

"Not if I get to him first," Ino grimly informed him. To Sakura, she said: "Come on, Sakura. Let's go into the kitchen and I'll make you some tea. You like Earl Grey, right?"

More minutes and three steaming cups of Earl Grey later, Sakura appeared almost calm, though her face was still deathly pale and threatened to leak into tears at any second.

"I don't understand what went wrong," the pink-haired girl whispered sadly. "He agreed to go out with me last week (at this both Naruto and Ino rolled their eyes internally: if only they could forget), and seemed alright about it. And then today I was just asking if he'd like to go to the matsuri with me, and he… he just…" Her voice broke, and she buried her face in her hands.

Naruto and Ino exchanged a look. They'd both known Sasuke long enough to not be surprised at this development, beyond the initial shock, but neither had the heart to inform Sakura that she had simply made a bad choice.

"Well," Naruto began, speaking slowly as if the words pained him, "you shouldn't be so sad, Sakura-chan. I mean, you can do better than that cold-hearted bastard," he winced as Sakura's wail grew more distraught. "Anyway, there's always…"

Ino raised her eyebrow questioningly. Was he going to say 'me'?

Naruto cleared his throat loudly and tried again: "There's always Fuzzy Brows. He really likes you, Sakura-chan! He was really upset when you got with Sasuke."

Ino hid her smile into her tea cup. So the old dog had learned a new trick after all.

Sakura still looked distressed, so Ino escorted Naruto out of the room and quickly whispered to him:

"I'm going to talk to her for a bit, and see if I can cheer her up. You go find Sasuke-kun and straighten this out with him," she paused, glancing back into the kitchen where Sakura sat staring tearfully at her cold tea. "I really don't see any chance of getting them back together, but we should at least find out who this 'other person' is, and why Sasuke-kun would just up and dump Sakura without warning like that."

Naruto nodded in affirmation. He turned to leave, but was stopped in his track by Ino's warning hand on his arm.

"Naruto, promise me you won't hurt him."

Naruto hesitated for a second, then sighed in defeat and said: "I promise I won't hurt him." Too much, he added silently to himself.

"Good," Ino nodded, "because I don't think Sakura would appreciate that. Whatever answer you get out of him, tell me tomorrow at the matsuri, 'kay?"

Naruto grinned slyly at her words. "Is that a date, Ino-chan?"

Ino just swatted her hand at him, but as he was turning away, he saw that she too was smiling.


Finding Sasuke turned out to be more difficult than Naruto had expected. By the following afternoon, the blond was at a complete loss as to where his former teammate could be. He'd checked all the usual haunts: Sasuke's apartment, the training ground, even the long abandoned Uchiha compound, but had yet to uncover the location of the dark-haired boy.

Just when he was ready to give up, Naruto thought he'd caught sight of a dark blue shirt marked with the gratuitous Uchiha clan symbol disappearing into the shadows of the trees near the deserted training ground. Heaving a massive sigh of relief, Naruto took off in the direction said shirt had gone, and came upon a small clearing ensconced by trees, from which whispered voices could be heard. One of the voices, he noted, was unmistakably the deep monotone of his former teammate.

Hiding behind a large oak, Naruto utilized every ounce of stealth his ninja education had to offer to eavesdrop on the Uchiha's conversation. Whoever it was in that clearing with Sasuke must be the mysterious 'other' for whom the Uchiha had forsaken Sakura-chan (he almost made a furious noise at the thought, and had to clamp a hand tightly over his mouth to avoid blowing his cover).

"I don't care what you think. I want this, and I will have it," Sasuke was whispering in what Naruto supposed was his best come-hither voice. "You're the only one who can make me strong, the only one who can help me achieve my goal."

Such a lady-killer that Sasuke was, Naruto snickered to himself. Did he really think any girl in her right mind would fall for that? Honestly, hadn't Sasuke ever heard of sweet talk? Perhaps this could be the day Naruto had secretly waited for, when the Uchiha's aristocratic good looks would finally fail to bewitch a female into behaving like a raving twelve-year-old.

"I don't think you understand, Sasuke. I'm not right for you," came the mysterious voice, and Naruto's eyebrows made a commendable effort of jumping off his face. That voice was definitely way too deep to belong to a girl, he thought urgently. Could Ino have been right after all?

Gathering up his courage, Naruto inched his face around the tree trunk behind which he was hiding, and sneaked a glance at the two people in the clearing.

Sasuke's back was facing Naruto, immediately recognizable by the red and white emblem on his shirt. The Uchiha's body was blocking the other person–whom he had pressed up against a tree, the aggressive bugger–from view. Cocking his head to one side, Naruto tried to squint through the darkness to make out the features of the mysterious person. Just a little more, and there! Now he could see.

That hair.

That mask.

That lazy eye.


The two powerful engines known as Reality and Naruto's Deep Unshakable Belief in the World collided and exploded in a shower of debris. Desperately, he chanted the following mantra to himself in an attempt to regain composure: 'I am a tough-as-nails shinobi. I am not going to break down and cry and have Sasuke-bastard come over to murder me and bury my body under this tree.'

Then Sasuke raised one knee to force Kakashi's legs apart, while one of his hands reached up to pull down the older man's mask so that he could press their lips together… and Naruto, tough-as-nails shinobi that he was, hightailed out of there like the apocalypse was upon him.


Ino was annoyed.

This in itself was not highly unusual. However, it sufficed to say that on this night of the Spring Festival, Yamanaka Ino had reached a level of irritability that she had never before thought possible.

The source of her annoyance, namely one Uzumaki Naruto, was nowhere in sight. Ino huffed most annoyedly, and decided that she should never have trusted such an important task to a blonde idiot, no matter how good his intention (or his tongue) was.

To escape from her worsening mood, Ino tried to get her teammates to commiserate with her.

They were predictably useless.

Shikamaru, it appeared, had just returned from another blow-out fight with his not-girlfriend Temari, and was currently pretending not to care that the Sand kunoichi had once again packed her bags and left for Sunagakure, while simultaneous trying to drown himself in his tea. Chouji was attempting to cheer up his best friend, but kept getting distracted by the barbecue menu.

Ino sighed to herself. At least she had managed to procure Sakura a rebound date. She felt the slightest twinge of guilt on Rock Lee's behalf, but brushed it off by reassuring herself that the older boy had known perfectly well what he had been getting into. That Lee, Ino thought indulgently, was truly worth his weight in gold. If anyone were able to cheer Sakura up, it'd have to be him. Now if only that blonde buffoon would get here so she could throttle him for his tardiness.

Two minutes later, Ino was viciously tackled by a blur wearing navy blue yukata. She looked up to find herself face-to-face with the very buffoon whose death by suffocation she'd just been plotting. Before she could speak, Naruto had covered her mouth with his hand and whispered urgently into her ear:

"We need to talk. In private."

Ino nodded imperceptibly and, casting one last glance at Shikamaru and Chouji, followed Naruto out of the restaurant.


"You have got to be joking!"

Naruto solemnly shook his head, his expression that of a man whose carefully constructed world had just crumbled around him.

Ino sat down very slowly on the ground, not caring that she was probably soiling her pretty kimono. For a moment, neither of them spoke.

"Wow," Ino was the first to break the silence, "who knew Sasuke-kun had such complicated issues about authority figures?"

"Authority figures?" snorted Naruto. "Kakashi-sensei could hardly be called an authority figure."

"You know what I mean," Ino snapped. For some reason, her mind was suddenly filled with images of Kakashi walking around in army boots and leather, whipping a half-naked Sasuke into submission. Whoa, that was hot.

"That actually explains a lot," said Ino, shaking her head to clear herself of the hentai thoughts. "All that crap with his brother, and Orochimaru."

Naruto just looked pained. Then he sighed deeply (Ino noted they'd all been sighing more often in the last couple of days; was Shikamaru beginning to rub off on them?) and said philosophically:

"You know, Ino, you and me might just turn out to be the most normal people around here."

Ino almost laughed at that. Then she looked around, and saw Lee swearing to run five hundred laps around Konoha if he should fail to catch Sakura a gold fish (and was that a genuine smile she thought she'd seen on the pink-haired girl's face?). She saw a ruffled Hinata trying to placate a furious Neji, who'd been about to Kaiten a shooting booth for their crooked ways that had prevented him from winning a prize for his cousin. She saw Shikamaru with his face down on the table and a worried Chouji dividing his attention between his depressed friend and the serious conversation he was having with the waiter. Finally, her gaze rested on Naruto, and she realized that he was absolutely right.

"Want to go check out the booths before they start the fireworks?" Naruto asked, his usual brass confidence conspicuously absent from his voice.

"Yeah," she smiled at him. "I'm sure Shikamaru and Chouji won't notice us gone."


"You know," Ino mused, "at this very moment, Sasuke-kun could be stripping down Kakashi-sensei and pushing him down onto a bed."

Naruto looked appropriately horrified. "Eww, Ino. That's my teacher and my rival you're talking about. I seriously didn't need to hear that."

"Sliding his tongue down your teacher's chest and rubbing against his…" Ino continued, biting the insides of her mouth to keep from laughing at his stricken expression.

"La la la la la, I can't hear you," Naruto sang loudly, stuffing his fingers into his ears.

Ino couldn't retain her laughter any longer. "You just make it so easy, Naruto."

"Everyday you make me die a little more inside," he informed her, shaking his head in mock disapproval.

"So, want to go get drunk and make out again?" She asked, and laughed again as Naruto blanched visibly.

The fireworks exploded above their heads, painting the sky with patches of colorful light.

Ino didn't know what happened then, but as Naruto lifted his head to gaze at the sky, she sort of looked at the way his shaggy golden bangs fell into the deep blue of his eyes, and found herself suddenly without breath. But that was alright, because in a moment her courage had returned, and she had leaned over on the tips of her toes to kiss him ever so softly on those very nice lips of his that she still remembered from the day before.

Naruto's eyes widened in shock. "I..Ino?" he asked in a broken voice, as if he didn't trust himself to speak.

Ino ran ahead into the crowd so that he wouldn't see her blush. Then she looked back at him over her shoulder, and beckoned to him with a smile.

"Come on, Naruto," she said. "I'll bet I can kick your ass at ring toss."

For a long moment, he didn't reply. And then: "You, kick my ass? I'll show you the skill of the Great Uzumaki, and then you'll have to buy me ramen for a month!"

Ino released the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding, and let out another peal of laughter. Naruto was loud and obnoxious, and she was fairly certain her father would have a mild heart attack, but in this world full of heartaches and unconventional relationships, a girl could do with something normal.