The ringing in her ears was so loud that it was perfectly possible she had been hearing things and she dared not do any sudden movements for fear of the famous black veil curtaining her vision any moment now.

Another quite certain sign that she was about to black out was that she was very much aware of the impossible rate at which her heart was beating and that was a rare occurrence in and of itself—she was one of the calmest people alive. (Or so she liked to think. Boisterousness of character and inner calm are two very different things, so make no mistake in thinking otherwise.)

Though she could just as well be going insane because she had hallucinated in a very much realistic way that the question "Would you like to move in with me?" had come out of Naruto's mouth and that was just one of those things that only come true in one's wildest dreams.

Wasn't it?

There was no way he could've seriously asked her that, right?

You don't just move in with someone you consider only a friend, correct? Even if they're your best friend. Especially when they're of the opposite gender. It was unconventional because it looked weird and it would be awkward.

Then again, when she considered the thought in all seriousness, Naruto wasn't ever exactly a conventional guy abiding by the rules and regulations, written or not, of normal human society.

Okay, assume that the query wasn't just a figment of her sickly twisted imagination.

What of it? Could she seriously agree to an offer like that?

"Sure," a voice that was her own and yet at the same time nothing like it said, breaking the tension that was beginning to get tangible enough to slice through with a knife.

Obviously, after he had popped such a question at her out of the blue like that (because there was no longer room for any doubt that he had asked just what she'd heard him ask in the very distant land that her mind was in right that instant) and not hearing a peep from her for such a long time, he had assumed that she would blow him off without another thought, so hearing her actually concede made him breathe a sigh of relief.

Heh—give it some thought and then kindly decline his proposition – now there's a better thought than the course of action she had chosen, she thought sourly.

But it was somehow difficult to begrudge herself her temporary dementia in agreeing to an offer like that when the guy was grinning so brilliantly, the light of his smile yet again illuminating the darkness that had surrounded her in the past days, casting away the shadows of her doubts like a magical charm. How was it possible for one person to have such an effect on another, just like that?

She'd always believed that to bring such serenity to one's garbled mind, the other needed to have a deep relationship with one. She would have never thought that someone she barely knew would be able to save her, a small bit at a time, from herself, from the torment and the darkness of her mind and soul. He didn't even know he was doing it, she was sure, he didn't even know her but he wanted to help. He wanted to save everyone who needed saving because it was just who he was.

And what did she do?

She started deluding herself that she was special, that he'd find her special some day, realize that she had been, was and always would be better than Sakura in any way imaginable. She fantasized that he would see the tiny little light that shone beyond all the darkness inside her, the small fire of the flame that was purely Ino that had once burnt with dazzling brightness, that he would make it burn, blindingly brilliant, once again.

She'd become a shallow, shallow girl.

"So you're really going to move in? You're seriously moving in with me in my new flat?"

He fired those questions off one after the other with only slight alterations of phrasing and she wondered whether she was meant to answer any of them or not. But she gave a shaky little smile and a nod—the best she could do considering the shock in which she was herself—and that proved to be the wrong thing to do—or maybe not, depending on the point of view—because her repeated affirmation seemed to excite him even further.

"That's so great! I've never had a roommate before so I can't guarantee that you'll like living with me,"

There was no need for his guarantee—as it was she knew it would end up as a living hell for her.

"But I'll do my best to be someone you'd be glad to come home to and not to make too much of a fuss or mess!"

Idiot… the problem was that she'd look forward to coming back to the flat she shared with him too much … No matter how big of a mess he made, it would be impossible to make a greater disarray than that of her mind…

"So I'll go tell the landlord that there will be two of us on his hands now that you've decided to move in with me!"

Did he think it solidified her decision if he repeated it over and over again? If he shoved her idiocy right in her face over and over again?

There was no way for him to know that she'd been out of her mind when she'd agreed, the logical part of her argued but she ignored it—any girl who agreed to an offer like that coming from a guy had to be off her rocker! Didn't he know that? How could he not understand that? How could anyone be so antisocial not to know something like that?

Then again she was the one who agreed. What did that make her?

"You can pack up your stuff and move any time you like, so, you know, you'll get no pressure from me," even though he'd rather she moved in soon, before she collapsed from whatever she was forcing herself through, he thought darkly. "Whenever you feel like it, just say the word and I'll come help you carry your stuff, alright?"

She gave a dull nod, her eyes slightly mismatched in her deep thought trance.

Naruto grinned widely and stood up.

"I'll take my leave now then—I have to inform the landlord, after all, and I'll have to move the empty boxes that I discarded as useful garbage in what will be your room once you move in." He gave a sheepish little laugh—like the soft chime of a thousand bells—and turned on his heel, waving at her over his shoulder. "Well then, till later then, Ino-chan!"

And he was gone.

But her anxiety was not.

What the hell was she thinking, agreeing to live with him?

She could have gone on her self-destructive tirade for a long, long time but, some minutes after he'd left, she noticed that she was all alone in the wide open field and the wind was picking up.

The last thing she needed in a state as pathetically weakened was a cold. That would be just a tad too much.

So, with vexingly wobbly lower extremities, she picked herself up and walked with stiff steps the beaten path to the village that she knew all too well. She didn't feel anymore, her thoughts were running a thousand miles per hour but all of them seemed to reach her from a very distant place and not quite successfully so all she could hear of them was a dull echo.

Ino plodded on, about as conscious of her motion as a soulless outer shell, towards Konohagakure.

She might have moved her legs, one after the other, one after the other, for seconds, minutes or even days. She had lost all sense of orientation along with her temporary loss of sanity it seemed and when she finally came to partially, she was in the middle of a bustling street of Konoha.

Ino caught snatches of conversations as she passed by people—happy people, anxious people, lovey-dovey people, annoying people. She had no desire to listen to them, to be among them. Not one of them cared about her predicament, not one of them had a solution to her problem.

When had she come to be such a sociopath? Was it because she hadn't had any decent sleep in days? Or was it because she was being irritable lately, what with things not going the ways she wanted? Could she really have become petty enough to begrudge others because of her own mistakes and faults?

How disappointing she'd become…

She knew that moping wouldn't accomplish anything. She knew it well. What else was there to do besides mope though? She could keep fighting for the things she wanted, just as Asuma-sensei had instructed her with his last words. But what would that amount to? Her nightmares hadn't stopped even when she fought them off, she wouldn't have Naruto even if she tore Sakura to shreds in front of his very eyes.

…She wouldn't be able to pull her soul out of the dark deep ditch it had fallen into just by believing in herself.

Something in her had broken.



Could it be repaired?

Could it be replaced?

When would she be able to be herself again?

She was tired of being this angsty wimpy little girl. What did she have to do to free herself of the chains she'd put around herself? Why had she done it in the first place?

For the first time in her life, Ino couldn't find the answer to a question within herself.

Had she lost herself so completely that she could no longer even seek out the remnants of the previous her within her?

How pathetic can you get?

She was tired of being somebody else.

She was tired of her mind jabbing insults at her at any given chance.

Most of all, she was tired of herself.

All she wanted was to sleep. Sleep peacefully and deeply, and should she dream, to have a pleasant dream for once in years' time, one that would not have her tangled up in sheets, filthy with the cold sweat that had broken all over her body from the dreadful nightly vision that she'd had.

She wanted freedom.

Why was she not allowing herself to have it?

Was it that important to cling to one person, to one last straw, to a tiny ray of hope?

Why was she so desperate to be saved? Was she that scared of the dark enveloping her?

Maybe what she needed to do was stay in the quiet of the night, with all the lights out, awake all night and see that there was nothing scary about the darkness. Either that or fry her remaining brain cells with fear so there wouldn't be enough of Ino left to be petrified of inexistent monsters.

Her poison could be her cure for all she knew.

Maybe she should try that first thing she got back. Before going to live with Naruto because he'd go all worried and annoying on her, telling her that this was not the answer.

What did he know?

He wasn't certainly the one wallowing in self-pity over not ever being able to win over the affections of the one he desires most.

No… He did the mature thing and kept trying, kept hoping.

Ino? Ino was tired of trying, tired of hoping. She was so exhausted of being disappointed all the time. Her heart could take no more disappointment, no more betrayal, no more grief. All she needed was to lock herself away in her thoughts and just let this ghost of herself deal with the tediousness that her life had turned into.

Would anyone notice if she disappeared completely?

"Ino?" An uncertain voice roused her from her delirium, forcing her eyes to focus on the person blocking her path.

Sakura. It was Sakura standing in front of her, looking marginally distressed, her brows furrowed in what she guessed was worry.

Huh… Sakura, eh? About the second to last person she wanted to see right then.

The sane part of her mind told her that the medic was her friend, that she was concerned about her well-being which was why she had sought her out, stopped her when she'd seen the zombie she'd turned into.

But the domineering part of her, the one shrouded in darkness and delusion too thick to be broken by any voice of reason, shouted angrily that this was the reason for her unhappiness, the one who was robbing her of her light, the one who was stealing away the only person who could save her.

Her most hateful enemy. Her most hateful rival. The person whose existence meant only misery for Ino.

Was that how a friend was supposed to think of her best friend?

Horrifyingly, the question didn't even make it to Ino's conscience—it was discarded too quickly to do so.

She had discredited it completely.

She was utterly demented.

The pink-haired abomination, though, proved to have perseverance. Her brows drew together tighter and she made a look as though she was in pain. Heh, serves her right—maybe Ino would be able to welcome her to her world of pain soon? Maybe then they could be 'friends' again.

How laughable.

Who'd been the one to break their friendship?

Wasn't it the very person who was hypocritically wondering how to offer her condolences for her sanity right then?

To think that this stupid crybaby would have thought Ino shallow enough back then to break their friendship over a boy, even if it was Uchiha Sasuke of all people.

She shuddered involuntarily at the thought of him—no, she shouldn't think of that guy, she didn't want to have a hysteric fit in a public place.

Even if Ino had been mature enough not to throw tantrums at Sakura over a guy before, she didn't consider herself above such things anymore.

Sakura had betrayed her trust once. It would never be whole again. It would never be the same as back then again. And so this gave Ino right to behave however she pleased with the second apprentice of the Godaime.

Yes, Ino had certainly kissed her beloved logic good-bye that day.

"Would you mind having a cup of coffee with me?" The pink-haired girl asked, biting her lower lip after saying that. Huh… Did she think she was being cute? Did she even realize that this kind of thing might work on Naruto but her act wasn't getting through to her? "You look like you could use one to freshen up."

Peh… Keep making puns about how god-awful she must look, Pinky, and she might decide against the good tone of the truce and slap some sense into that airy head of yours.

Hm. Then again, a cup of coffee did sound nice, even though she'd have the displeasure of sharing it with Forehead Girl here. She'd certainly make it taste really sour no matter how many sugar cubes Ino dropped into the cup…

Oh well, might as well go to just shut her up and keep her away from herself for some time.

"Sure." Again, this voice, disembodied and vacuous. Ino hated it.

What's more surprising though, Billboard Brow seemed to notice it too—the change of demeanor obvious in her voice. What would you know—she wasn't as dense as Ino had initially thought her to be then.

And that's as much credit and attention as she was willing to give the bubble-gum hair-coloured atrocity. She deserved no more as far as Ino was concerned.

If the blonde had been herself, would she have wondered how much time it would take for this venom-spewing vice on her mind to let her loose?

They made their way towards their favorite café in suffocating silence, not once broken by either of them. Sakura didn't know what to say, for the first time the two had known each other, and Ino didn't care about saying anything in the first place.

She was just letting Sakura tag along with her out of the generosity of her heart, after all. She saw no need to keep her entertained while at it too.

Her companion gave her a shaky smile once they were inside, where the wind couldn't ruffle their hair and bite their sensitive skin, and asked conversationally, "Which table would you like, Ino?"

"I don't care."

The Hokage's apprentice cringed at the scathing tone of her once-rival—had she done anything wrong to make Ino so angry with her?

She made a quick recovery though, plastering that wavering unconvincing smile on her face again. It was painful to look at—so pathetic.

"Then, let's just sit here?" She chose the table closest to them and Ino barely bit back a snort.

Oh, could it be she was making pretty little Sakura-chan uncomfortable?

Well, good.

And sit they did, although the medic wasn't sure if her friend was with her mentally at all, staring out through the window right next to her as though in a daze.

Throughout the first few minutes of their stay and while they ordered, it was blatantly obvious to Sakura that she was being given the cold shoulder though she had no clue as to why.

Was Ino angry with her for something she'd done? But how could she, when Sakura hadn't even been around her, what with her out of town mission and all?

Or was that actually the problem, that she hadn't done anything whatsoever?

Of course, Sakura had been one of the first people to learn of the Yamanakas' death. Naturally, her first question when she heard the news was to ask where Ino was and how she was doing. She'd gotten the scare of a lifetime that her buddy had passed away and she'd just let it happen, hadn't even been able to say all the things she wanted to.

Relief was an understatement for describing the emotion that had seized all of her when Tsunade-sama told her Ino was quite fine physically but that she'd need some time to recover from such a great loss.

And Sakura had understood, even though she had no way of knowing what her comrade could possibly be going through because she had never lost a dear family member, although Sasuke could probably count as such…

She hadn't run to Ino's place immediately upon hearing what had happened because she didn't want her friend to think she was fussing over her. She knew the blonde didn't appreciate that kind of concern, that she'd find it annoying. Even though there was the slight off-chance that she might have been forgiven, because Ino knew she was a fussy girl to begin with.

But she'd chosen to give her some space instead. Give her space to cope with the shock and then gently take her hand afterwards and guide her back to the world of the living once she was done saying good-bye to those who had passed on so Ino would know her feelings regarding the matter, so she'd know she cared.

How had it come to this, sitting on the same table and acting like the other didn't exist?

How had it come to such estrangement instead of their hearts once more growing closer together, mending past mistakes?

Had Sakura made a great misjudgment?

Had Sakura not been a good enough friend to Ino?

Such thoughts made unwanted tears well in her eyes and that wouldn't do. She was supposed to keep a clear head and help Ino, not have Ino helping her.

Besides, the blonde youth didn't seem in the mood to have a crying girl at her hands in the first place.

The pink-haired adolescent was walking on very thin ice there. One wrong step and she'd sink into waters cold enough to make her heart freeze. And it definitely didn't help that Ino hadn't once looked at her face since seeing her on the street.

Why didn't they teach at the academy how to handle a touchy moody friend instead of all that useless blather about self-preservation and whatnot?

But it was not in Sakura's character to just let such things go without trying so she pushed on, despite the discouragement, whether intentional or not, she was receiving from Ino.

"Naruto's been worried about you, you know." She began carefully, studying her fellow's expression for any and every reaction that would show on it. A shadow flickered in the azure eyes but it was gone before she could identify the emotion it stood for. Still she pushed on. "Now that I finally meet you myself I can see his reasons for being concerned. Are you really alright, Ino?"

Her tone was coaxing, soothing, calm. It annoyed the daylights out of Ino. If she was so eager to please, then why didn't the pink monster just disappear from her life? Things would be a whole lot easier without her and her unnecessary, feigned concern.

"What are you talking about, Forehead Girl? I'm fine." Her companion was obviously too caught up in the drama she thought the two of them were starring in to mind the insulting name. She snorted, disgruntled, into her cup after taking a sip from it. "Please—stop making that absolutely pathetic expression, would you? It doesn't suit you very well."

"Did I do something to set you off, Ino?" she couldn't help but ask. The light eyebrow quirked slightly upwards, an irritated twitch that resurfaced every now and then that Ino made a mental note to rid herself of. "Just tell me what it is and I'll try to make it up to you."

Another unlady-like grunt from her interlocutor—though she could hardly classify as such with her one-worded or biting responses—while she shifted further away from Sakura in her seat. It felt like being poked in the side with something really pointy and hard, to have the person who she'd considered almost a family member to feel the need to put more physical distance between them to feel more comfortable.

She suddenly felt so lonely, even though the two of them were still sitting at the same table.

Desperation seized Sakura's heart in a firm grip. Fear crept in her brain. Was she losing her, just this instant? Was she letting Ino slip away between her fingers? What was this uneasy feeling of being unwelcome in her presence? Why was she forced to believe that she was somewhere she didn't belong?

Just what in the world was going on there?

"Please don't turn your back on me, Ino! At least give me a chance to explain!"

The ivory-skinned heavy eye lids contracted once, narrowing the azure eyes' gaze for a single second.

"Explain?" the hollow voice that Ino was convinced was not hers reiterated. "What's there to explain?"

"I'm sorry I wasn't there when you lost your parents!" A tiny flicker of recognition crossed the cornflower blue gaze. "I wanted to give you space because I know how much they meant to you and anything I could have said back then would have only angered you. I didn't think that you'd be angrier that I wasn't even there. I'm really sorry, Ino, so please don't be like this anymore."

Don't be this hateful person anymore—she didn't say it but Ino heard it regardless. Rather she saw it, in the emerald orbs that were once the only thing she needed to believe in, their possessor the only person she considered a friend.

A dark look came over the blonde's features and cast ugly shadows to her once brilliant gaze. It scared Sakura. She'd never seen that kind of expression before—so genuinely resentful, so distant and cold…

"Do not bring my parents into this, Sakura!" She slammed the cup she had just finished drinking onto its small plate, rage burning in her lackluster eyes.

The other girl was taken aback.

"If it's not about that then… what's wrong, Ino? Don't you trust me enough to tell me? I thought we were friends." The little manipulative bitch would not win her over with her poor acting. She wasn't convinced at all and she didn't even feel any pity for her. All she wanted to do was crush her so she would be able to be happy again.

"Yeah… I thought so too, Sakura." The platinum haired girl collected her things and got up from the table, walking away from the shell-shocked medic. "I guess we all make mistakes in our judgement of others every now and then, huh?"

And with that she left without a backwards glance, leaving a shaking and sobbing Haruno in her wake.

She should've felt accomplished.

She should've felt content that she'd achieved the purpose of her journey to the coffee house with Sakura.

She should've been glad that she had crumpled her when she'd had the idiocy to put down all her guards, to expose herself to the point hurting her would be a child's play if she only wished for it.

Instead, she felt like the most horrible person in existence.

A creature as low as her shouldn't even be considered a person.

She'd torn down a friend who had only meant well, who had been concerned about her and her well-being, even if she had chosen the wrong way to deal with it.

She was the worst.

She felt even hollower after the coffee cup than she had been before it.

There was a gaping hole inside her chest and its only purpose was to destroy everything it could. First Ino, then her friends.

She hated that. She hated herself too.

She needed sleep. Sleep would reinforce her, even if it was nightmare infested because she wouldn't give in to her nightly horrors anymore, and it would give her the strength to tell Sakura what was really wrong, why she had truly been so cold to her.

She needed something, but it wasn't sleep.

She didn't know what it was, didn't care enough to search for it.

So, instead, she just took the route for her flat, determined on curing whatever was wrong with her because the Ino she had become she couldn't live with, couldn't bear to share a body with.

This wasn't her, she was very much certain.

But if it wasn't, who was it then?

Naruto had been about to enjoy cup ramen for lunch after a job well done of convincing the landlord that whether it was one or two people didn't make any difference. He was quite pleased with himself because he'd managed to assure the elderly man that Ino would actually be a good influence on him and would make him into a better tenant with her presence. He had been amazed when the guy consented—though reluctantly—and allowed their move in with each other.

It was an occasion worthy of celebration!

Although he would have eaten steaming cup ramen even if the meeting hadn't gone well. But that was just besides the point.

He was about to dig into the tempting bowl of heavenly goodness when there was a knock to his door.

The blonde face faulted. People nowadays had the worst timing.

"Come in, it's open!" he yelled anyway, preparing a second bowl for whoever was coming to visit him in his new flat that he would soon be sharing with Ino-chan—even though he wasn't one much for sharing food, he didn't want to be considered a bad host by anyone.

He heard the door creak open hesitantly then click closed the next moment while he was putting the ramen in the microwave oven. When he turned around, the shock of pink hair caught his attention instantly and the complementary grin whenever he saw the girl that was visiting him resurfaced.

"Sakura-chan! Welcome! What brings you here?" He asked cheerfully, gesturing her to a chair across the table from him.

And that was the first moment he actually had a chance to really look at his guest.

She looked a mess.

He wasn't an expert but judging by the redness and puffiness of her eyes she had probably been crying before coming to him.

His good mood evaporated immediately to be replaced with alarm.

"Sakura-chan, what's wrong? Did something happen?" He was at her side in a breath, crouching next to her seated slumped form.

When the emerald orbs turned to him for the first time that day, Naruto felt a sharp pang of pain shoot at his heart and pierce his very soul at the look that his long-time teammate was giving him. He put a much larger hand over hers and squeezed reassuringly—she wasn't alone anymore, she didn't need to shoulder whatever was burdening her on her own.

"She hates me." She said it in such a low and meek voice had he not been standing just beside her he probably would have not heard her.

His brows drew together in confusion.

"Who does?"

"Ino." There was a definite hollowness in her voice and the despair was easy to see on her face. It tore at his insides to see ever strong Sakura in such a state.

"What could have given you that kind of idea, Sakura-chan? There's no way such a thing could be true!" After all, he'd just been with Ino a few hours ago and she had seemed fine. And, besides, there's no way she would have helped him with the girl's birthday present if she hated her, right?

The mere thought of Ino and Sakura being on bad enough terms to consider either of them hating the other was preposterous. It couldn't fit inside Naruto's head. He refused to believe it possible.

"I was just with her. I can tell she hates me." The emptiness of her gaze was soul-scaring.

"Did she actually say that?" A barely discernible shake of the pink tresses of her fringe was all the answer he got to his query. "Then how can you be so sure? Don't be so pessimistic, Sakura-chan—I'm sure that Ino must have just had a bad day!"

But if she had indeed had a bad day, whose fault was that when he was the person she'd parted ways with before encountering her long-time friend? The notion clouded his already dampened mood.

"She didn't need to say it. She knew I had my defenses lowered, that I would take whatever she said or did to heart, so she behaved like that on purpose; she wanted me to know she didn't think anything of me anymore. She just wanted to get rid of me." Her jaw tightened at that confession, her jade eyes hardening. "I was nothing but a nuisance to her. I was worried but she didn't want to hear it. I wanted to make it up to her but she didn't want me anywhere near her. I was vulnerable and she used it against me. She hates me and she won't even tell me where I went wrong."

Whether she was crucifying herself over what happened or she focused on hating her once closest fellow kunoichi, Naruto couldn't be sure and didn't even want to know. He wouldn't let it last either way.

"I'm sure this is all just a big misunderstanding, Sakura-chan; please don't do this to yourself."

He gave her hand another squeeze that gained the girl's attention. Her eyes narrowed and she looked like she was about to lash out at him—for not understanding her situation or for not being any real help at all—but he beat her to the next word.

"I know Ino can be harsh at times but there must be a reason for it, so don't give up on her. She's been withering those past few days and if you turn your back on her now she might lose herself completely. She's just not herself and she doesn't know what she's saying, she doesn't mean a word of it, I'm sure, so, please, please don't give her up so easily!"

But his teammate wouldn't relent that quickly.

"Mourning doesn't justify purposefully wanting to make others suffer as well, Naruto," she seethed and he knew that it was not his face she was seeing when she said that. "She's my best friend but I won't stand for her walking all over me to make herself feel better!"

"I'm not asking you to!" he parried, although that was exactly what he was doing. "Just… keep trying to get through to her, okay? If you don't want to do it for her, do it for me, please?"

The young woman glared at him but the absolutely pitiful expression he was making was already achieving its goal. She could feel herself softening at him. She snorted and crossed her arms in a last attempt to have things her way.

"Why are you so stubborn about this? Since when do you care what goes on between Ino and me?" she demanded somewhat imperiously, somewhat petulantly.

The youth smiled gently at her and stood up to fetch the ramen bowl from the microwave, where it had been left forgotten when the object of his affections had walked into the kitchenette in such a distressed state.

"Because she let me get closer to her and actually know her and now we're friends." The light in his eyes dimmed a bit—or was it just her imagination playing tricks on her?—as he said, "That and I can understand what she's going through right now and I know that the only cure for it is not alienating yourself from the people who worry about you."

Sakura blinked a few times, nonplussed.

"I don't get what you're saying, Naruto," she admitted, cocking an eyebrow at the boy in question. He mirrored her, his own brow rising in surprise.

"She hasn't told you about her problem?" he asked cryptically, only puzzling the girl further. Her eyes narrowed irascibly again.

"Stop talking riddles and get to the point already, will you? What kind of problem could she possibly have, except the one with her sucky personality?" Her temper was starting to flare and it was easy to see, but he wasn't about to be intimidated by just that.

"Her phobia?" he prompted cautiously, but Sakura's expression was just as vexed as before, no recognition sparking on her face.

And it dawned on him. Ino hadn't told Sakura about her fear of the dark. The attitude of the Fifth's apprentice was also conviction enough that his fellow blonde had been right in her judgement.

"Eh? Phobia? What kind of phobia could Ino, of all people, have? I know about the calories counting thing but I don't think that classifies as a phobia in the medical sense of the word." She looked contemplative at once but nothing seemed to spring to mind.

"Ah, you think so?" He laughed sheepishly and she could tell that it was a forced laugh, as was the smile he had pasted on his face. "Nevermind then!"

The pink-haired successor of Tsunade growled irritably.

"That's not what you were going to say—I can easily tell it isn't. Spit it out already, Naruto—I hate this kind of games you play!" She slammed her hand on the table and it would have probably made any other person besides the seasoned Kyuubi vessel in front of her flinch. As it was, he didn't even look remotely phased by her outburst.

Now that was just great. First Ino blew her off, then Naruto was being all secretive and playing the good guy, not giving her potentially crucial information on her friend's well-fare. She was intri—ahem, concerned, was that so hard for his thick head to understand?

"I'm sorry, Sakura-chan, but if Ino hasn't told you already, you'll have to ask her yourself. I don't betray people's trust."

Well wasn't he a ray of fucking sunshine?

But she wouldn't begrudge him the fact that he was doing the honorable thing and keeping whatever secret Ino had told him to himself, even though he'd just been on the verge of spilling it if she'd only played her cards better, she fumed to herself.

The realization hit her like a ton of bricks to the head.

Ah… So that's why Naruto knew and she did not.

That's why she gave her the cold shoulder and not Naruto.

No wonder she hadn't known something was wrong with Ino—if she'd been in her stead, she wouldn't have told herself either.

And all along Sakura had thought that she'd matured over the years, and things had changed.

Well, this only went to prove that some things needed effort to be uprooted.

And the pink-haired medic wasn't someone afraid of a little hard work.

She'd make sure that when she was done dealing with herself, she'd become a person worthy of others' trust, someone who believed unconditionally in people who are precious to them.

And she'd get back at Ino for not coming to her when she needed to talk to someone who'd understand, for not believing in her, and for bashing her when she knew it would hurt the most.

"Here, I made this for you," Naruto said and the next moment a bowl of steaming ramen was placed on the table in front of her.

She grimaced and looked up at the guy.

"It's ramen," she told him obviously, as if he didn't already know. He chortled.

"I know and it's great! Try it!"

"I'm on a diet—I'm not going to eat it," the girl announced, steadfast in her decision. Her teammate groaned.

"Oh, come on, Sakura-chan, it's just one bowl of ramen."

"Exactly—it's a whole bowl of ramen. I'm not having it so you can eat it yourself. I know you want to." She smirked devilishly and he tried not to look into the statement too much for things that weren't in it. Instead, he insisted on his point, even though he really did want her portion for himself as well.

But ramen always tasted better when shared with someone, so he stood his ground.

"Come on, Sakura-chan, it's just ramen! Ramen's not even all that nutritious! It's just like soup!" He was defiling the qualities of his most favourite dish but if it made his companion eat with him, he was sure he would be forgiven by the Ramen gods. Some day… hopefully…

"Ramen has noodles, Naruto. Noodles are practically bread and bread is bad for the waistline." She pushed the bowl away from herself demonstratively. "So you can keep your precious liquid bread to yourself and I'll just keep up with my healthy vegetable-only diet." She nodded to herself, as though she had won a battle of some sort and the young man across from her on the table sweat dropped while pulling the shamed ramen bowl closer to himself.

"Alright, alright, if you're that averse to it," he muttered disdainfully. "Geez, Sakura-chan, you sound so much like Ino when it comes to ramen."

He didn't say it on purpose to manipulate her into doing what he wanted. Honestly, he didn't. He hadn't even considered that such a statement in the current situation that the two girls were in—what with Sakura's reborn antagonism and all—would spur his teammate into doing the complete opposite of what her blonde counterpart had done.

But still it accomplished what his cajoling hadn't been able to.

A fire burnt bright ablaze in her jade orbs and an ugly sneer twisted her features.

"Give me that!" she snapped, prying the bowl from his hands and digging in with way too much vigour.

Naruto laughed as he watched her, splitting his own chopsticks and starting to eat soon after her.

Ino couldn't see anything—the darkness had free reign inside her room and mind. Her whole body was stock still, as though in preparation to be struck by some invisible force. She was laying back-first on her bed but by the arrest in which her lungs had gone she might as well have been lying with her head buried in her pillow, choking the life out of her slowly but surely.

This was her punishment and her salvation. This was the only way to freedom.


She thrashed about in the sticky covers, a prisoner in her own home, to her own mind. She didn't make a sound but violent tremors had seized hold of her long, long ago, when the sun had first set upon her room. There wasn't a single light in the room she'd drawn the curtains to. There was nothing but her and the dark inside her heart.

No corporate monster approached her, not one living nightmare came at her. The night was warm but she felt freezing cold, beads of sweat rolling down the sides of her face and making her eyes, opened as wide as they went in the dark so she'd be able to catch even the faintest of movements should it come to that, stinging her vision and making her insides constrict in immaterial pain.

When had this begun?

Since when had she become this weak-willed, jittery person?

Wasn't she supposed to be the strong one?

Wasn't her psyche supposed to be better than this, stronger than it, above such pettiness?

She'd become redundant as a friend, redundant as a denizen of the village, and redundant as a human being.

She was just a bunch of nerves now, fried and strained, pitiable and pathetic.

She had no worth anymore, with no more fight left in her.

She shuddered and maybe she had closed her eyes because the red she saw beyond them was too vivid for her to have caught it in the darkness of the premise. It jolted her awake with a rough jerk and hitched her already ragged breathing. Her mind ran a thousand miles per hour as her head snapped back and forth, looking for the source of her distress.

When she realized that there was only impenetrable darkness all around her, she calmed somewhat, still anxious and on edge but lay back down, face turned towards the white ceiling she couldn't see.

And to think that all she wanted was to have some sleep

When she finally drifted off, it was to a fitful sleep, just as uneasy as her state when she was awake, filled with nightmares of blood red orbs with three commas in them following her every move, calculating when the best time to take her life would be.

But at least she didn't wake up again until morning.

And that was a quite optimistic place to start the day.

She went to work the next day but her mind and heart were so much not into it that even her boss saw it and dismissed her at lunch. Well, that only went to show that she'd become redundant as a shinobi too—oh, joy.

Having nothing to do with herself, she just resorted to roaming the village aimlessly, missing Sakura, who marched straight for her work place with the intention of demanding what the hell was going on, just by a few seconds.

Her eyes were drooping and her face and muscles felt completely stiff. She felt like a rusting mechanic gadget and she didn't appreciate it.

All those restless nights were going to get her fired soon if she didn't pull herself together so she might as well start trying harder.

She went straight for the training grounds with solely that thought in mind. Yamanaka Ino was not about to become the victim of imaginary monsters, however petrifying they might appear to her jumbled head.

She stretched her limbs and was just about to begin the real training when she heard a rustle in the thicket behind her.

Spinning quickly on her heel in alarm, kunai at the ready, she dropped her fighting stance when she saw that it was only coyly smirking Sakura who had her all worked up. She snorted, turning her back at the girl—sure, she felt sorry for what she'd done yesterday but not sorry enough to go and apologize to her.

"Ah, if it isn't dearest Forehead Girl. Do tell, Forehead, what brings you here to the mere mortal training ground? You here to show off your supreme sniveling powers?"

A vein popped into visibility on the medic's forehead and her hands clenched into white-knuckled fists.

'Patience,' the Fifth's pupil reminded herself. 'Be patient, Sakura, she doesn't know what she's saying, those are the words he used, right? She doesn't know what she's saying; right.' She nodded in approval to herself and leant against a tree next to the place Ino was doing her stretches.

"I heard you're moving in with Naruto."

Ino whole body froze, all her processes receding into stasis for a moment she thought lasted an eternity. She didn't know how she was supposed to react, what she was supposed to say to that.

Luckily for her, Sakura took care of her replying problem right away.

"Intriguing that I had to hear that from him first considering that I went to you before his place." Her brows narrowed over her eyes and a dark look swept over her. "Were you ever going to tell me?"

If she hadn't had too much dignity, the blonde girl might have been sweating bullets at that point. Was she ever going to tell her—what was that supposed to mean? It couldn't be that Sakura was starting to take interest in her life-long teammate… could it?

The prospect made her heart constrict.

"What's it to you?" Again, that voice. It was despicable and it wasn't hers but at least it was strong and indifferent, it did not betray her. Unlike the girl who stood to her side, it did not betray her.

Sakura's throat emitted a low growl that gathered Ino's attention enough to pause her stretching exercises.

"How am I supposed to have confidence that if anything's wrong you'll tell me if you don't even tell me the most basic things, like your change of address, Ino?" Her voice had risen a notch and the volume grated on the recipient's already roughed up nerves but the fact her fears hadn't come true made her ease up a tiny bit. Sakura still didn't care. She wasn't interested. She didn't care.

Should she really be feeling this relief? She was lower than low now for sure. To wish misfortune upon the pink-haired abortion was one thing but upon poor, hopeful, innocent Naruto? She was a horrible, horrible person.

"Will you at least look at me when I'm talking to you?" the girl finally snapped, stepping up to her childhood role model, turning her roughly so they ended up face to face.

Had she not seen the very same vacuity up close yesterday, she might have gasped. Instead, she just gritted her teeth and strengthened her hold on the other's wrist, hoping that it might bruise.

"If you want me to apologize for yesterday, fine, you have my sorry for my crappy mood." It was just like her, to twist her own emotion, to hide the sincerity of her words behind the severity of her tone—when would she be free from this? "And I'm so sorry that you had to hear from Naruto that we're moving in together but there is nothing more to discus. For all I know you might be blind or just that stupid but I'm trying to train here."

Her tone stung and it stung hard. Didn't know what she was saying? Like hell she didn't! She knew perfectly well and she did it on purpose, was a bitch to the person who fretted over her on purpose. Was that how you treat your friends, Sakura wondered angrily. She wasn't about to let up though.

"What are you so afraid of, Ino? Why are you trying to shove me away?"

She might have halted her tries to free her limb from the other's grasp if she hadn't known that it would be a dead give away.

Why was she trying to shove her away, the garbled part of her mind pondered briefly, not caring long enough to hear the explanation.

Because she was becoming this… this gruesome person who recognized neither friend nor foe before striking. Because Yamanaka Ino was lost to the darkness and she'd probably never come around again…

"Well, it's certainly obvious that it's not you I'm afraid of, isn't it?" she said testily, wrenching her wrist free of Sakura's hold.

"Naruto mentioned something about a phobia that I've heard nothing about." This time, she couldn't help looking horrified. He'd told her about her greatest weakness? He, whom she had confided in, whom she had trusted in, had given away the only thing she didn't want to tell Sakura?

Her ire bubbled once again, her emotions easy to swing in her trance-like state of awareness. Sakura was quick to recover too though.

"Don't make such a scary expression, Miss Secrecy. He told me about it, not what it was. Calm down a bit, won't you?" With her anger submerging completely her thoughts became once again unreadable to her fellow kunoichi.

So Naruto hadn't betrayed her.

Of course he wouldn't—he was her light; he'd never betray her. Not the way Sakura had, never the way Sakura had.

"Will you tell me why you're so angry with me?" The full-time working medic demanded imperiously, a malevolent glint in her eye. "I want to know what made me fall from favour with you—I have a right to know."

"You have no right to anything, Forehead Girl. Leave." She turned her back to the other girl, platinum pencil-straight hair swishing importantly behind her the way a cape would if she had one.

"No, I won't." The bubble-gum hair-coloured adolescent announced, crossing her arms over her chest stubbornly. The azure eyes of her companion flashed dangerously when she looked at her.

"Stop pushing me, Billboard Brow, because I'm quite close to resorting to physical force to remove you from my sight."

"Try me then—I've long ago become stronger than you and that way, when you're tired and you can't go anywhere once I'm done with you, you'll have no other choice than to answer me or at least listen to what I have to say!"

Both girls gritted their teeth, anger boiling in their veins, both tempers quick to flare at a challenge.

"So you want to fight me? I'm not as weak as I was on the first Chuunin exam when we tied, Sakura-chan—don't think that we'll finish equally this time!" Ino taunted, her hand subconsciously going to her kunai pouch.

"If fighting you and beating your sorry ass is what's necessary to get you to take me seriously once again, then fine, so be it, let's fight!" Her emerald eyes narrowed again and a sly smile stretched her face in an unbecoming way. "You wanted to train, correct? There is no better training than striving to beat an opponent stronger than you, wouldn't you agree?"

"You're all talk, Sakura, and I'll show you that once you're laying face-first on the ground before my feet."

They fell into battle ready stances, neither ready to make the first move for fear of it deciding the whole battle in an unfavorable for them manner.

And, as far as Ino's mind went, it was in overdrive, more alive than it had been for quite a while.

Sakura's strengths were her precise use of chakra in the right time, her monstrous strength, her ability of instantly spotting a genjutsu and her medic jutsu, her opponent analyzed calmly.

She had no idea how the girl would do as far as stamina went though, and she had no clue what her element was or even if she knew.

So she'd have to give it a try and find out.

When both of them charged towards one another, the battle had been given an official unvoiced start.

Naturally, after charging right in, Sakura had thrown a punch with a bit of her chakra channeled in. And, naturally, it had been dodged because otherwise she doubted that the match would've gone on for a long time afterwards.

And, when she saw Ino's supple movements, the way she could gracefully bend her body this way and that, swaying away mockingly from Sakura's attacks, the pink-haired girl couldn't help but wonder how long it had actually been since she'd seen Ino in action.

It was just like her to throw herself into a mess head-first, without really considering the situation too well first when it came to her blonde counterpart, but, for the first time in a long while, Sakura felt that maybe she had underestimated an opponent greatly.

If she hadn't known about Ino taking up flexibility exercises to heart, how much else was there about her fighting style that she didn't know? For an instance, did she still use her Mind Switch bloodline technique?

She'd been so arrogant, not interested in anyone else's growth but her own, completely ignoring everyone else but her teammates as far as nindou went.

But she was given no time to wallow in her lapse in judgement for when she wasn't throwing chakra-charged punches or kicks, Ino was onto her with her precisely aimed for certain spots attacks of her own, her bendable extremities a huge advantage to her assaults.

For a while, all they did was try to hit and then parry the next blow thrown at them from the other and it was becoming like a dance in a vicious circle and it was getting them nowhere, or so Sakura believed, so she put her back into it a little more and made a few Clones of herself to distract Ino and then strike her down, just like she'd done all those years ago.

But when the time to hit came, her punch was evaded as the other kunoichi doubled over backwards, leering widely at her opponent. It was impossible to retract her limb in time to dodge the swift kick to her jaw that followed, Sakura realized and Ino had seen through her tactic from the start.

Stumbling a step back, the medic growled lowly to herself, nursing her jaw. She'd have to use some of the new tricks that she had learnt if she wanted this fight to have the outcome she desired.

When Ino came in close enough to attack her again, the girl ducked a roundhouse kick aimed for her neck and slammed her chakra powered fist in the ground, making it crack and crumble under the blonde's feet. She lost her balance as foreseen and Sakura used her temporary disorientation to slam her foot into the girl's chest, sending her flying backwards.

"Shannaro!" the girl standing on her feet triumphed, shaking her fist suggestively at her opponent who had slammed hard into a tree trunk on the far end of the training ground.

Luck was on Sakura's side that day, she decided. If Ino had been a long range fighter, things would've been really hard to deal with…

Ino rubbed away roughly the small trail of blood that was trickling from the side of her mouth. Sakura sure kicked hard for someone who had been tugging pitifully on her arm just the day before.

But that kick had served to show Ino that she may have the upper hand in stamina and her constant attacks to the other girl had proved she was the more technical and the faster one.

She grabbed a few kunai and wrapped exploding tags around their hilts so they wouldn't be too conspicuous and she threw them—it seemed—at Sakura which she dodged effortlessly. The girl had been about to complain that her blonde friend wasn't taking their fight seriously when a blur ran past her and slammed an open palm in her stomach, sending her hurling back towards the tree trunk in which the kunai had embedded themselves.

With a strangled groan, the girl doubled over for a bit and when she looked up and noticed the exploding tags already burning away with the chakra infused in them, it was too late to jump away far enough to dodge them. But, channeling chakra to her feet, she managed to bounce away just in time for the several explosions only to make her feet suffer some minor damage.

As she was breathing a tiny sigh of relief of avoiding a cunningly planned trap, she saw something sharp and steely fly at her with her peripheral vision and Sakura barely managed to duck her head in time not to lose one of her eyes but, when she did, another kunai stabbed her upper thigh with painful force.

Moaning, she removed the object from her leg, looking with blazing eyes at the opponent but she didn't seem to have done anything—just running towards her in the meanwhile.

Had she wrapped the exploding tags to the kunai like that as to make sure that the knives would fly at her after the explosion? Where did she learn that?

Ino ran at her, throwing swift punch after long-legged kick, forcing Sakura back into defensive, rendering her unable to prepare any attacks on her own.

But when her fist finally connected with the other girl's midriff, "Sakura" exploded in smoke to be replaced by the telltale log. The blonde gasped and looked around for her counterpart but her ankle had already been caught by the other young woman and a cool, chakra-glowing hand made contact with her upper thigh, just the spot where her kunai had dug into Sakura's after the explosion.

She jumped away, as though scalded although she hadn't felt any pain at the contact, but at the attempted sudden movement, her leg that had been tampered with gave away and it took all her concentration not to fall on her face just then.

The pink-haired medic ninja stood up from the rubble of her first surprise attack where she'd hidden herself and watched as Ino tried to force her limb to move.

"It's useless trying to wake it up—I used my medic jutsu on it. This way we're still on equal footing, even after you pulled that explosion stunt."

But her companion didn't seem interested in listening what she had to say on the matter.

Instead, she just lifted a hand to Sakura's view which, in front of the med nin's very eyes, glowed with healing chakra. Cursing under her breath, Sakura charged her own arm too to heal her wounded leg as well because she knew if Ino healed herself first, she'd be at a great handicap and hard-pressed to win this showdown.

And Sakura wasn't one of the people who took losing well, so she avoided it at all costs whenever possible.

When they collided again, the pink-haired girl did her best to parry her rival's hits with one hand only, using her other to reach into her pouch and throw a kunai with an exploding tag on it.

It slammed into the ground harmlessly but the detonation made Ino jump back, putting some space between the two females. She swore when she noticed her visibility was limited thanks to the tag—was it custom made or something? Regular tags didn't make that much of a smoke screen. So then the pink atrocity still had some hope left that she'd win.

Before she could change course she was forced back onto the broken earth where Sakura's fist had destroyed the forest floor and the next kunai hurtled through the smoke cloud—how could she aim through that?—seemed to detonate some exploding tags left among the chunks of greenery beneath her.

It was like hellfire—wherever she tried to escape, another tag exploded and brought about a coughing fit for her with it.

When she finally got out, her eyes were teary and her clothes ripped and smoked beyond recognition. And the bitch dared look smug about herself! That stupid copycat!

"You're not the only one who can come up with plans for traps as she goes along, you know," that irritating voice of her nemesis came to her as the smoke cleared completely, leaving just the two of them standing on the two sides of the large crater that was all which was left from Sakura's little game.

She'd pay for that, Ino promised herself as she rubbed her eyes clear of the stinging sensation but instead of helping, the action only put more soot in her eyes, blinding her temporarily.

Not being enough of a fool just to stand around when the opponent was so obviously vulnerable, the pink-haired apprentice of the Hokage jumped into action, uprooting a small tree and swinging it around to sweep her antagonist away with it. After she swung, though, only a log appeared and she growled low in her chest, making as if to discard the unneeded tree.

But as she let go, she saw movement just out of the corner of her eyes, in her blind spot.

Ino had hidden in the tree when she'd swung it—the whole eye rubbing thing had probably been a ploy in the first place—and ran its length while Sakura wasn't looking, throwing a kick with all her weight into it but her plan had collapsed into itself the moment the recipient of her attack had noticed her—Sakura caught her foot before it could collide with her body and grinned malevolently, freeing one of her hands and channeling chakra to it, preparing to bring Ino's knee out of commission.

When she touched the kneecap though, "Ino" burst into a cloud a smoke to be replaced by yet another log.

'Shit, I looked away for too long, where is she?' thought Sakura frantically as she turned about to scan her surroundings but she was given no time to react. All she saw was a balled fist flying straight at her face before it connected with her jaw and sent her in freefall backwards, her body scraping the ground as she slid roughly against it.

Ino straightened, a very thin sheen of sweat coating her forehead as she scrutinized the straightening Sakura, assessing her next possible move.

The lying girl, on the other hand, had a hard time coping with the fact she'd actually let her guard down enough not to notice a Replacement when encountering one.

And that punch—it hadn't been chakra enhanced, like hers always were, but it hurt like hell. To think that Ino, who'd looked like a walking corpse, would have enough energy to hit like that.

She pushed herself back to her feet quickly, the breath knocked out of her from that last attack she'd received. There were nasty scratches all over her body but so was Ino, so she didn't feel the need to heal that. Besides, using energy for healing made her attack power in storage also drop—she couldn't allow that.

Damn… Maybe she should take a leaf out of the Fifth's book and start storing some chakra for later use—that would prove very handy in a fight, even if not used for the Genesis of Rebirth.

"I say we stop the warming up now and get to the real fight, what would you say, Forehead Girl?" Ino yelled across the clearing, tightening the binds around her waist, upper arms and lower legs. Sakura flinched and was thankful for the space between them because it made her temporary weakness impossible for the other girl to see.

"Stop bragging and just do your worst, Pig!"

Sakura had chakra control to boost her speed but Ino had the upper hand in that department because of her lighter weight and much more supple form. Obviously, she was better when it came to stamina and she still had the fact of her opponent having no clue what she might do next on her side.

Now was the time for a mind-boggling swift attack that would decide the end to the match.

So, crouching slightly, Ino's hands flew deftly into a few seals the other couldn't have possibly discerned and raced off, the dust she roused in her wake the only clue as to her exact trek.

The pink-haired girl found it difficult not to feel panicked. She could barely even see Ino now, dashing in a circle around her, almost to the point of wondering if there was only one of Ino in the first place. But it was impossible that she knew the Shadow Replication… right?

The girl didn't get to muse over that thought much longer because the hypnotizing haze that was the running Ino jumped up at her, a kunai in her mouth that she attacked with.

A sense of déjà vu washed over Sakura and she had to fight down the memories of the Mist Nin, Momochi Zabuza, who she had seen use this kind of technique before, to keep a clear head into the current showdown.

She barely had time to draw a kunai from her own pouch to protect herself from the onslaught and she missed the several hand signs that Ino made before retreating to surrounding Sakura in a tornado-like circle of a flurry of leaves and grass. The pink-haired medic cringed, wondering if she was perhaps about to get a taste of the Secondary Lotus from someone other than the eccentric Lee and whether the fast pace at which her opponent was spinning around her was the reason for the feeling of slight nausea that was rising in her.

She got her act together in time to see Ino leap up at her from the side this time, but much higher and the seals she made she could now see clearly. And maybe she had intentionally done them slower, so Sakura could recognize the final one, the peculiar Tiger seal.

The Hokage's student had never put too much thought in exercising her element because she had medic ninjutsu which, in the right hands, was suited for both offence and defense, so she hadn't paid much attention to other people's elements either. She was just about to learn how big a mistake that would prove to be.

For all she knew it was perfectly possible for Ino's to be Fire.

"Fire Release: Phoenix Fire Technique!" the unmistakable voice of Ino announced, and, sure enough, white-hot flames that would reduce anything to ashes upon touch came from her mouth and went towards her opponent.

But Sakura wasn't about to just stand there and let herself be incinerated. She plunged her arm deep into the soil beneath her and grabbed a large chunk of earth behind which she hid as a shield.

Had the pink-haired adolescent not been so bent on avoiding the flames and had actually let some of them graze her even the slightest, she would've been sure to notice that it was only an illusion cast by the still running Ino, whose forte was genjutsu so realistic it messed with your mind—her other greatest talent.

So the medic waited for the flames to recede to attack on her own but, oddly, they didn't flag for far too many seconds on end and Sakura was about to peer over the edge of the large piece of earth she was hiding behind to see what was happening beyond but then another Ino sprung from the flurry at her once more, another Fire technique at the ready and there was little else Sakura could do than cast a film of protective chakra all over her body to shield her from the flames as Ino bellowed,

"Fire Release: Grand Fire Ball Technique!"

The shield was working really well. Sakura couldn't feel a thing from the hellfire that was surrounding her and soon, the onslaught of flames would stop and she'd be able to slam her fist in the ground and put an abrupt stop to Ino's constant running that dizzied her and would put an end to this silly match when it was obvious who was stronger.

Her internal alarms all went off on the same time when she felt something was coming and she leapt up to avoid whatever had caused all her ninja senses to go awry but the pair of hands that broke the surface of the forest floor she had just been standing on were too fast—they caught her in mid-flight and toppled her back to the ground when catching her ankles in their vice-like grip.

Ino's form did not rise from the place her hands had reached out beneath Sakura and the girl could see her, all of Ino but her hands, thrust deep within the ground several feet away from her, looking predatorily at her writhing form, fighting for her balance again with the blonde's appendages who protruded eerily from the ground.

What the hell was going on? Not just one but two elements? That was very improbable. Very few people had the capability of mastering an element in each hand and thus far she only knew Sasuke, Kakashi-sensei and Yamato-taichou to be capable of such a feat at all. One element was more than enough to the regular ninja, and most people had their hands full with it as it was.

And here she was, that Ino, using Earth Element techniques on her.

Ino's face in the distance was slightly blurry when Sakura looked up again to see if she was gloating already… and that's when it hit her.

Looking straight ahead with a smug grin of her own, the Haruno daughter placed her hands in the ram seal in front of her before the now horrified blonde's very eyes and said coolly, "Release!" to dispel the genjutsu that had been cast on her.

She was getting rusty if she hadn't recognized the illusion right away. Had she been fighting only weaklings lately for the qualities of her skills to drop like that?

"Where are you looking, Forehead? I'm right here," a smooth, even voice taunted her and panic seized the girl's whole body when she recognized the source of the voice being right behind her but didn't get a chance to turn.

Tiny but steely firm little cords were wound around her body and, at a tug from Ino's nimble fingers, Sakura's body, ensnared in the trap while being shown that illusion, slammed into a tree trunk, bound to it with the ninja wires. They dug deep into the medic's tender flesh, and as she struggled hard to free herself of them, soon become soaked with her crimson blood.

And there, in front of her, stood the slightly worse for wear Ino, cords in her mouth and hands as she tightened the hold as far as it went, causing her antagonist as much discomfort as possible. Once satisfied, she lowered her arm warmer to her wrist to protect her own skin, wrapping the cord around the material to free her hands to make hand seals.

"Right where I wanted you…" she said barely above a whisper, the look in her eyes positively evil, the promise of much more pain to come looming above the bound girl. She thrashed about some more but it was all for naught—Ino had the ends to those threads and there was hardly a chance she would let go that easily.

The light-haired girl made a few hand signs that her counterpart did not recognize but was certain how they were oriented, and then her whole body went limp in the wires' clutch.

There was only darkness all around her and it made navigation difficult. She wasn't sure whether she was dreaming or if she was awake but the pain from the friction with the cords from a little while ago was all gone, only the feeling of blissful ignorance remained.

The idyll was shattered to thousands of tiny pieces the next moment when she heard a voice penetrate her very mind, not taking the time for a detour through her ears to say,

"Did you know, Sakura, how powerful a tool the mind can be when in the right hands?"

Panic bathed her whole body in its ice-cold waters, making her temporary blindness that much more frustrating when knowing the game was still on and she couldn't even see a damn thing!

The previous feeling of bliss was replaced by excruciating pain—a kind that she had never before experienced. She moaned in anguish and made to clutch her head but her hands wouldn't obey her mind's orders.

"Damn it," she cursed in a strangled gasp, wriggling out of whatever it was that had a hold on her but nothing seemed to work on it.

And then her sight was back and this purple-dark red nothingness she assumed was her mind and the ropes around her middle that obstructed any movement of any part of her body were probably another technique of Ino's whom she couldn't see in front of her like she had been able to on the Chuunin exam all those years ago.

If the projection of the blonde's intrusion of her body wasn't with her—her inner self, so to say—where was she?

"The hell are those things? They're annoying!" Inner Sakura muttered, frustrated, desperately trying to free herself.

"It's useless trying to remove them, you double-minded freak—it's a technique I made with you in mind, so what happened at our first Chuunin exam may never happen again." There it was again, that eerily soulless yet definitely Ino voice and it was somewhere within her and that gave her the creeps more than anything else in the world could have in that moment.

She was inside her mind.

The mind was in control of practically everything in her—from regulating her bodily processes to deluding her that she was experiencing hellish torture should Ino only wish for her to believe she was.

Sakura had always disapproved of the Yamanaka bloodline techniques. If one delved too deep into an opponent's head, they might cause some permanent damage. The prospect of just what she had always feared happening to her scared the medic senseless and she struggled against the ropes with renewed vigour.

"Shannaro!" she yelled, summoning as much will-power as she could from the darkest recesses of her mind and she could see the ropes loosening but then her power began to ebb away, slowly, bit by bit but she felt it, felt her force retreat somewhere, though she had no idea where. "What the—?"

"If you're wondering, I'm messing up your chakra control, Forehead Girl. Very soon, it will be like you're just a regular girl, because you'll have no reserves to use any of your ninja techniques. I think that pretty much decides who wins and who loses, right?"

Trapped inside her mind, Sakura wriggled futilely against her bounds.

All the chakra she had avoided using she had thrown at her opponent almost all in a breath. She'd taken control over the other girl's body and after capturing her physically, gone on and imprisoned her mentally as well. Now she was busy sealing all of her tenketsu points by sheer will alone, and while it was a formidable technique it also demanded a lot of concentration and chakra—both she and her antagonist had to be perfectly still for it to work because otherwise her mind would lose track of the tenketsu she'd closed and it would be a half-done job with doubtful results.

That was why she had pulled such an exaggerated trick to capture Sakura. She no longer needed her soul to leave her body but she had to close her eyes to disregard her surroundings and focus instead on her bound prey's loss of chakra. If something went wrong, that moment of unawareness was more than enough to have her lose important momentum in leading.

She closed them off, one after another, after another, rendering the pink-haired abomination powerless with every tenketsu that she took out of commission but the pig-headedly stubborn creature did not cease to struggle against her hold on her. Couldn't she just get the point and admit to defeat already?

Ino could feel that her mind-bind was fine but there was distinct cracking of twigs and popping of something on the ground, halting her actions for a little while, she saw that Sakura's legs were acting solely on instinct—the drive never to lose to anyone, least of all Ino—and she was uprooting the tree, using her body's position as leverage.

"No way, you're not supposed to do that!" the blonde hissed, incredulous, that her perfected offense had once again been breached, even though the other girl barely had anything but her physical strength left and that would have been the next thing she took care of.

"Shannaro!" growled Sakura's mouth of which her sparring partner had temporarily lost control in her shock but, as the tree's roots came out one after another, Ino's concentration homed in on the threateningly rising girl's body, disconnecting for the time being as many muscles in all her limbs from her mind's command, leaving 'ticking bombs' as well in her wake that would cause the joints to dysfunction should they be overexerted.

And then Sakura stood, tall, tree dripping with the soil that had covered its base, the pink-haired young woman's body bent slightly over the weight of it, an absolutely demented look in her eyes as she swung, the giant trunk following her suit, the wires still attached to Ino's wrist dragging her off-balance and making her a perfect prey to the upper part of the wooden boulder.

There was horrible, blinding pain in her head and her whole body felt heavy. Her platinum hair was dirtied beyond recognition. But most importantly, she could barely feel her body below the neck. She had gone completely numb, the exhilaration of the battle in front of her wearing off on her and the tiredness that had been all she could feel once again resurfacing in the focus of her mind.

But she had to push on, she was so close to winning, she couldn't allow herself to lose now, even though a large tree had just slammed into her full force.

When she moved, something made a sickening crack. Still, she took step after step, wincing at every trudge towards her opponent who was equally as bloodied and foggy minded as her, both breathing hard and ragged, both searching for the last bit of energy within them to make this their win.

Sakura was at her limit. All she had left with her that wasn't tampered with enough to be completely useless was her physical strength and she could feel even that leaving her with every following second. That accursed Ino must have caused a chain-reaction of overwhelming exhaustion to burst in her when she freed herself with the last of her presence in her body and the more time she took to take the next swing at the blonde, the less power she had to use against her.

Ino, on the other hand, felt like a rag but still had a considerable bit of chakra in her. If she managed to stay conscious enough in the fight to channel it to her feet in the final jump she'd do at her opponent, the momentum would be more than enough to swiftly knock the other out and that would be the decisive hit. She had enough chakra to win. She had more than enough will-power to make her body, bent on not cooperating with her, to stand and strike.

She could win. She could prove herself better than Sakura. She would be able to say that she was stronger this time. Anyone looking in on the fight from the side now would be able to say that Ino was stronger. It would be so obvious, so evident, there would be no question this time.

Sakura rose and Ino did as well. They gasped for breath for a second, then two, both their right hands curling into fists, Sakura's glowing with shaky chakra, barely existent, as she ran for her counterpart and Ino's arm pulled as far back as it went, both their left feet touched the ground at the same time, running the same distance, then parting with the green floor for a miniscule moment in time when their arms extended…

Then a pair of loud collisions of knuckles against flesh, jaws tender, both bodies in flight backwards, both girls exhausted, neither ready to go on any further.

Déjà vu.

Two simultaneous thumps of large things resounded across the clearing, not loud enough to chase away the birds in the tree crowns.

They lay on their backs, panting for breath, two pairs of unseeing eyes staring upwards towards the sunny heavens above. And they stood like that; still save for the rapid rising and falling of their chests, silent but for the loud ragged breaths that escaped their mouths.

"You held back," Sakura pointed out suddenly, breaking the silence, her voice ringing much more powerful than it should in Ino's ears.

And she had. Ino had had the chakra to knock the other girl out. It was within her grasp to prove once and for all who was stronger, to seal this chapter, to finish with this.

But she hadn't used it.

"You held back and I didn't," said the pink-haired youth sprawled on the ground, her eyes squinting slightly in dejection.

They had tied, again, but Sakura felt like she hadn't an ounce of energy left in her and Ino probably did. They had tied for the second time in their second serious fight like this but this time only because Ino had held back.

"Why did you pull your punch?"

And there was only silence in answer to her query. Not because the blonde was being stubborn—she didn't have the energy to even be headstrong anymore—but because she had no idea what to say herself.

Why had she pulled her punch? Why hadn't she been able to just knock the other girl out for good? Wasn't that what she wanted? Wasn't that she aimed to prove?

Did she have scruples? Did she feel like it would be better to leave Sakura to believe that she was still weaker, even if other people would be able to tell her that there was still hope since they have tied? Holding back in such moments was the same as acting condescending, pulling your punches just out of pity. It was that that she wanted Sakura to believe, was it not?

"Hey, Ino…" The girl pulled her from her thoughts again, her voice gentle and weak. It wavered, as though she was just about to cry. Ino was glad she couldn't see her. She was the one who wanted to cry. "What happened to us?"

'Team 7 did,' was on the tip of the blonde's tongue but she somehow just couldn't bring herself to say it out loud.

She gave a long suffering sigh and closed her eyes, feeling acutely all the aching places over her body. So tired

"I don't know, Sakura… I don't know…" the half-conscious part of her said and the wind blew, rustling the leaves of the trees above them.

"Why are you angry with me, Ino?" The question drifted to the almost passed out adolescent through the thick fog that was enveloping her head and her hazy mind barely registered it and that an answer was expected of her.

She heard Sakura shift and the next moment she was looming above her, her arm that supported her weight shaking violently. But it was the look on her face that sent a pang of guilt up the lying girl's spine.

What could she say to that?

Why was she angry?

Was she angry?

She was just stressed and she had taken it out on her friend who had been the most convenient person at the time.

What was stressing her?

Could she really say it?

There was no way she was telling Sakura about her temporary loss of coherence of thought.

It would be a cold day in Hell before Ino said her suspicions aloud, especially to anyone but the guy himself. He would be the first person to know if she ever decided to make it an outspoken fact or no one else but she would ever know.

She was rescued from having to evade the question or, worse, lie to her best friend when someone made their way over to them. She looked up, pain shooting over her entire body from the effort, but the jolt she got from seeing who was standing before the two of them was much more powerful.

Naruto stood there, a gentle smile on his face as he watched them, lying and broken on the ground, pretty faces smudged with grime, sweat and blood. His hands were jammed into his pockets; his figure slightly slouched back as he observed their confusedly blinking expressions.

"Did you work out your differences?" He asked good-naturedly, his smile turning into a knowing grin. "Whoever said fighting doesn't solve problems must have been a weak wuss afraid of getting a little dirty."

"And since when did you turn into such a philosopher, eh?" asked Sakura above her, a dubious smirk on her face as Naruto approached their fallen forms.

Suddenly, Ino didn't want him to come closer. She didn't want to be shown again that he cared more about Sakura than her, even when both of them were equally roughed up. She didn't want to see him go to her side first, see how she was before checking on her, didn't want to be rejected in yet another way. She had had enough disappointment in one day. She was at her limit and she wasn't sure she wouldn't burst if she tried to force another one on her already weakened mentality.

She just wanted to fast forward to the next day, when all she'd have to worry about would be the wounds all over her body and the chakra depletion, when her mind would be too numb with pain to worry over her mental issues.

She just wanted to rest because she was exhausted

So, she surrendered herself completely to her pain, promptly passing out from the overwhelming of emotions and the adrenaline leaving her system completely.

And her wish was granted—she didn't get to see Naruto rush to her side, didn't see him and Sakura huddling over her, fussing over her reason for fainting, didn't feel Sakura raise her upper body with shaking limbs giving out from severe muscle abuse, didn't feel Naruto's overlarge for her much smaller shoulders top envelop her whole torso, didn't sense him scooping her up as carefully as he could, lifting her limp form from the ground and offering only words of apology and encouragement at the struggling to rise Sakura.

Would she have wanted to know this if she knew it would happen? Would it make any difference at all?

Maybe that had been her goal when taking up Sakura on that spar.

She had just wanted a worthy opponent who she knew wouldn't go easy on her, who would burn her out completely to the point of utter chakra depletion, muscle failure and blacking out. She had needed someone on whom to use her mind control techniques so her own head would be peaceful when she surrendered to the darkness this time. In order to make sure there would be no nightmares, she needed to be exhausted not only mentally from all the torture she'd been putting herself through but physically as well.

The rest she got after passing out was the best she had had in days.

And just how pathetic was that?

She stirred from her dreamless sleep and found herself wrapped in an overlarge male jacket, in a bed she didn't recognize, next to a very familiar face.

Next to her lay Sakura, still fast asleep, drained from their fight.

As quietly as she could, she shrugged the jacket off and, wincing because of the jabs of pain that shot throughout her entire being at the movement, she slid noiselessly off the bed and out of the room, the bedroom door clicking closed beneath her fingers meant to muffle the sound further.

When she turned around, she saw Naruto, lying asleep on the couch, mouth hanging open widely, snoring the evening away.

She sighed and turned on her heel and, limping slightly, made her exit from the apartment that she was soon to share with her fellow blonde.

A couple of days later found all her possessions in her own flat packed in cardboard boxes, ready for moving. She surveyed the abode critically, wondering if she'd be able to leave all her fears and discomfort behind with this old place, the pain of the memories and the suffering of her troubled mind.

After her fight with Sakura she had reverted back to the awfully uneventful days and horrible nightly visions but she paid them no heed anymore. She woke with a start each day, her mind frantic, her heartbeat even more so, but her face drawn into an indifferent, passive façade, pretending that everything was fine. After all, she was good at it—pretending.

She could pretend for Sakura she was alright. She could plaster a plastic smile on her face and hope to fool everyone that she was fine. She could turn to make-up or even genjutsu—though what a total waste of chakra daily that would be—to conceal the traces of her restless nights. She could use that odd new voice and mask it with false cheeriness because she was Yamanaka Ino and things always went her way when she wanted them to.

She made her way downstairs, where Naruto and Sakura were waiting for her to come and tell them when she was ready so they could all get the boxes to their new place together, so she wouldn't have to break her back over the moving alone.

After exploding like that in their fight, the pink-haired kunoichi of Team Seven had switched back to the meek sweetness and reassuring smiles, as though mimicking Naruto's behaviour. Ino didn't care enough to get irritated over other people's feigned humbleness. It wouldn't be fair of her in the first place either, because, hey, she was feigning smiles and laughs herself.

She found the two teammates, laughing together at some inside joke she wasn't privy to and, upon her arrival, turned their grinning faces to her which she met with a grin on her own, one that stretched her facial muscles painfully, then she gestured them to come with her.

It displeased her beyond belief to leave the two of them alone together. Her overactive imagination conjured up horrible scenarios of what could be going on behind her back, even though she knew that kind of thing wouldn't happen and, even if it did, she would know, if anything because of the look that would surely be on the blonde goof's face.

She knew she was being needlessly paranoid and obsessive over something, someone, that wasn't even hers but she couldn't stop it for some reason. She tried to strangle those feelings, the grotesque envy that boiled in the pit of her gut whenever she saw the pink-haired girl talk to her future roommate. She buried the feelings but they just came back to haunt her, just like her nightmares did.

She still didn't have the answer, didn't have a clue to the cure, but she moved out of her apartment with her two most precious people at her sides and, even in her distraught state, she hoped that she'd be able to heal, some time, and be the person that she'd raised herself to be.

Ino had always prized her quality in packing and unpacking her things quite quickly. She might be dubbed a vain girl by her peers for her looks and the amount of time they believed her to spend in front of the mirror but she didn't much care for the arrangements of her clothes on the hangers, the disarray in which her weapons may lie in her cupboard and it was easy to unload her bags once she arrived at her new abode.

It looked homely and pleasant but her room, once again, held the distinct feeling of remote coldness and discomfort.

The bed was comfy and the covers were soft but the thorns in her side were still there, ever present, making her very aware that changing the location didn't change her mindset, however she wished it were that way.

That night, her first as the blonde demon vessel's roomie, her new sheets were just as soaked with her sweat as the ones in her old home had been, the crimson of the overbearing orbs just as bright and the monsters inside her mind just as vivid.

She woke up with a jerk of her whole upper half, small rivers trickling down the sides of her face, droplet after droplet falling on the white covers around her.

Haziness around her head finally dispersing and mind finally landing on solid ground, Ino sighed deeply, exhaustion puncturing her every cell as she did so. She'd give an arm and a leg for that freedom she so longed for but she had the sneaking suspicion that crippling herself would do nothing to release her from the torment of her mentality.

She shuffled out of the bed, her feet numb enough not to care for slippers, pads slapping barely audible against the floorboards beneath them.

The girl had in mind to roam about the apartment for a bit and then to try to sleep again but she saw the television set in the living room casting its bright colourful light on the furniture and moved to look at the couch from the side.

Sure enough, Naruto stood there, a steaming cup in his hand, another placed on the coffee table in front of him and his other hand grabbing industrial quantities of crackers that he threw in his mouth piece by piece.

Her brows knitted in confusion when he turned his unreadable expression to her.

"Couldn't sleep?" he asked and she found the answer too obvious to indulge the query with a retort and he seemed to be fine with that decision of hers, because he continued. "Neither could I—sit over here; it's a really nice sofa!"

She padded towards him and sat at his side, her mind not completely with her as she did so, but then again she was starting to grow accustomed to the feeling of being out of it. She fidgeted for a bit, finding a comfortable spot but that was a bit of a feat, considering she had cramps all over her body from not resting well for more than a week.

A hand extended, the one that had been busy with crackers—which were now within her reach too, she noted—and the second steaming cup was in its clutch, looking absolutely tempting with its inviting warmth. Seeing no excuse not to accept it, Ino took the proffered beverage, a little sigh of content escaping her after gulping down the refreshing liquid which made the heat it emitted spread all inside her from her stomach.

"Hot chocolate does wonders for fried nerves, doesn't it?" her companion questioned rhetorically and she nodded dumbly, nothing intelligent to say coming to mind.

The next time she was brought out from her reverie was to have a large shirt draped over her exposed shoulders. She shot a questioning look at her friend who smiled back.

"It gets cold here in the nights, so you'd be wise to resort to more layers of clothing."

She didn't say anything to that, and they relapsed in companionable silence once more.

"You knew, didn't you?" she broke the stillness between them after staring blankly at the constantly changing pictures on the television for a while.

He could have pretended he didn't know what she was talking about but instead he just nodded and took a gulp of his own hot chocolate.

"Even your co-workers know, Ino. Someone had to do something about it." He paused, looking at her out of the corner of his brilliant cerulean eye. "Are you resentful that my offer to live together has an ulterior motive?"

She thought about it for enough time to make him feel uneasy about what she'd say next but the smile—the tiny but very much real smile—she broke into cast all his fears away in the bat of an eyelash.

"No—I'm grateful for the ulterior motive," she admitted truthfully, taking another sip of her drink. After all, if it wasn't for his so-called 'ulterior motive', he wouldn't have asked her move in with him. And, while that might be painful in many ways—having to see Sakura more often, seeing the two of them enjoying themselves together and all that—she wouldn't trade places with anyone for the world.

She relaxed against the cushiony backrest of the couch, sinking into the warmth her own body emitted, Naruto's shirt keeping said warmth from fleeing her. After a minute, the prickly feeling on the back of her head made her acutely aware of the gaze on her.

Ino turned and met her roommate's gaze with her own, both equally intense.

"What?" she asked neutrally, unsure how to react to such attention in her inadequate state.

Naruto laughed lightly and she was almost reduced to a shivering puddle on the sofa from the sound of his carefree voice.

"Nothing; I was just savoring the sight of the first genuine smile you've shown me in weeks."

For once she was glad for the cover of the darkness because it obstructed her deep blush from his piercing eyes. Self-conscious still, she took a bit too large a gulp and it took all her will-power to swallow decently before she had the chance to break into a coughing fit that would've been a bit too conspicuous after hearing something like that.

And she felt lighter at heart, safer and calmer at once. She wanted the feeling to last. She wanted to be herself again so she would be able to smile at him all the time, to reciprocate his constant cheerfulness, not to give his endearing grin a reason to fall from his face.

She'd hated herself for the feelings that he begot in her but maybe instead she should've just embraced them and cherished them, not forcing them further, turning them into fantasies that would most probably never come true.

She'd hated Sakura for something she was not responsible for, something the pink-haired girl hadn't even wished for, as Ino remembered were her exact words back in the day. She'd been a fool to blame others for her misfortune, for her unhappiness because she was the only one in charge of her life and moods, she was the only one standing between herself and her freedom.

She was the one torturing herself. And why? What for? Over silly desires and childishly petulant feats? How could her mind scream so selfishly 'Love me instead!' when even she didn't like what she had become? She was a hypocrite and a shallow, shallow girl.

She'd had a little taste of Naruto's kindness and taken it too much to heart, became greedy for more and to be the only recipient of it, to be a most special person for him so he'd treat her better than anyone else, so he'd make her feel good about herself.

How self-centered and horrible she'd been.

How childish and completely immature her reasons had been—she was disgusted with herself at the sudden revelation.

She had been angry at Sakura for being the object of his affections but her friend was doing the right thing, not giving Naruto any reason to hold onto any false hope, not giving him any straws to hold onto in desperation. Would she have been able to do the thing if she was in her shoes?

She had acted like a spoilt brat, throwing tantrums over things that were not in her power to control, beyond her reach to change. And she was glad now that they were because she might have made a grave mistake.

She had held back in her fight with Sakura because she didn't want to end their friendship—did the other girl know that? She hadn't beaten her completely and unconditionally because that would mean the end of an era to her, it would truly seal a chapter in her life as far as Ino was concerned and she didn't want that—did Sakura know this? She didn't want to lose her closest girlfriend because she'd been her support and her emotional crutch so many times before and losing her now would feel like a part of her would die with the loss of a friend too.

She had been angry with Sakura because she hadn't been there with her to hold her hand after her parents passed away because she had needed her dearly at that time, missed her terribly, thought that she'd never get any kindness from anyone, not the way her parents had showered her with it. And Sakura, her voice of reason, had been nowhere to be found, nowhere to be seen to tell her that no, life didn't end when your folks died, that she would go on and that she would be happy again some day, and that Sakura would be by her side through it all—sadness, pain and happiness too, because that's what friends were for.

She had been resentful because Sakura hadn't seen the darkness in her enveloping her being until she became someone she hated. She hadn't been there to see her sink in her sorrowful emotions, drowning in grief and fear. She'd complained to herself for not having her best buddy at her side when she needed her, when her presence would make a difference and had turned on her in an attempt to soothe her raging spirit.

She had held onto Naruto for dear life, fooling herself that he was the solution to all her problems, that he would ride in on a tall horse and save her from herself.

Instead, she should've realized that he could only show her path that she had to walk herself; that she was the only one who could save her from herself because what was happening in her mind was her entire fault, all her doing, all in her power to stop or not.

Once, she had been sharp and strong enough to know that on her own, to reach that conclusion herself but what remained with her that night on the sofa was only a shadow of her old self.

And she would make sure to revive the old Ino, to make the fire inside her burn bright once again, bright enough to cast away the darkness inside her that had taken control of her life for just a week and almost had her make atrocious mistakes that she'd wonder afterwards how to fix.

She needed to move on, grow up and face the world.

She looked to her side, with newfound resolution in her eyes, as Naruto stretched and yawned widely, finding a more comfortable position for his limbs.

"Stay as long as you wish, Ino-chan, and make yourself at home, 'kay?" he told her off-handily, his eyes bleary with sleep as he relaxed back.

Ino stared at him for a second longer; downing her cup in a gulp and placing it gently back onto the coffee table and shifting closer to the male's larger form until their sides were touching. A puzzled expression was etched onto his sharp features when she placed her blond head on the crook of his neck, eyes forward to the television set that was still on.

"Would you mind if I stay like this for a while?" Being so close to him had a cleansing effect on her very soul. "It's nice this way."

She felt only the slow rise and fall of his broad ribcage for a while as he debated her question over in his mind, and she almost asleep by the time he decided to retort.

"Sure, Ino-chan, if you're fine with it."

Her feelings hadn't changed between the time she self-consciously avoided even his gaze and when she boldly announced she'd use him as a pillow and her decision to pull herself together on her own would not make them diminish—not in the slightest. The only thing that had changed in those past few minutes was her perception of them, and the way she dealt with her emotions on the matter.

She would learn to appreciate what she had instead of selfishly wanting more and more. She would become the person she believed she was and she would no longer be ashamed to look in the mirror or to hold her head up high.

Ino had already made the first and most important step to solving her problem.

The rest was hard work and some of her roommate's one of a kind purifying quality.

She'd make living together with her crush, with whom she was on strictly friendly terms, the best thing she'd ever decided to do!

About 17,500 words in twenty-eight Word pages, people, congratulations on reading them all! Officially the longest chapter thus far, this is. (laughs) And they're now even proof-read. Took me quite a while, for which I profusely apologize but with monstrously huge chapters like these there are recuperation periods when one needs not to even look at the thing for a while before getting back to writing it. That and school started, so I'm constantly going back and forth across the country and that's quite muse slaughtering. Another thing that I'm selfishly going to ask you to overlook is to horrible quality and shabbiness of the development. I did my best to stitch it together well but it didn't come out as I planned it to. So far, the longest and most dissatisfying chapter on this story but, oh well, everyone has these days, right? And if I don't update now, I have no clue when I will, so it will have to be left at that, sorry again.

Before you complain about the angstiness and how out of character Ino was in this chapter, I'll stop you and tell you that it was purely intentional. It was supposed to show that Ino has hit rock bottom in this chapter and there's nowhere else for her to go from there but up. I couldn't convey exactly how very tired of it she was but do your best to imagine, right? (winks) So, no worries, next chapter will not have that much melodrama, so you can breathe a sigh of relief.

And another thing—since quite a number of people complained that there is not enough ninja-ness in this story and it lacked some fight, (and frankly, I thought those of you who pointed it out were absolutely correct) this chapter is an attempt of mine to make up for the lack of action. It sucks and it's horrible but it's as good as it gets with me—that's why I avoid fight scenes, because I'm terrible at writing them. I love watching them, I love reading them but I can't write them. It's just the way it is.

Also, I noticed that I'm not turning much attention to Naruto's character development. My sincerest apologies to anyone who noticed that as well and was bothered by it. Hopefully next chapters, since they would be focusing more on Naruto the way I have planned them for now, will make up for that too. Did Sakura get enough screen time attention? Do you like her the way I made her? Because, sincerely, since this chapter, I think I myself like her a bit more.

You should know by now that I'm quite averse to using Japanese words in my chapters, since I'm writing in English. But I couldn't fish for a translation to "Shannaro" as good as the original so I left it at that. Hope that you guys don't mind it too much, or my jutsu translations. (laughs sheepishly)

Has anyone noticed why the chapters are so huge? I'll give you a hint—notice the chapter titles, although this one is more of an interlude one than anything, although a very important interlude it is. You guessed it—it's all the stages Naruto and Ino will go through before getting together. So, look out for the chapter titles—they'll give you a clue what might go on in the chapter. (winks)

Sorry for the long note and please do tell something. It really set me off seeing that there are a hundred people who care enough to watch this story for updates but not quite enough to even say a fucking word about it. I'm not going to stop writing or make the updates rarer just because of that, but don't be selfish, readers. I spend quite a large amount of time writing for you; can't you spend a tiny amount of yours to give me your opinion on what I've written? It's just rude, the way I see it is right now.

On a brighter note, next chapter should delve more into the amusing side of life and why exactly do boys and girls not share apartments except if they're dating.

So stay tuned and see the range of experiences this story will give you before its completion!

Anyway, enough ranting from me! Feedback is love!