Summary: Life is normal until a mission goes wrong. A friend is lost but is she gone? Naruto will have to adjust to changes in his life. Will his friends be a help or make it worse (NaruSaku?, NaruIno?)

Insert obligatory disclaimer about not owning Naruto etc here

A/N: This is my first fic ever. I'll say straight up - I'm not a writer (engineering type, hah), but having spare time over the last weekend and this idea, I decided I just had to put it into words. I may rewrite certain sections in the future, too. I suppose this is best classified as adventure/drama now. Perhaps with some angst in the beginning. As the story progresses, I hope to add some humor and if I really decide to get writing - more solid romance/fluff to add to the mix. Just a note, I don't wish to spoil the direction this is going. This may seem dark at first, but I will try to gradually make it lighter. I wanted to try to capture the emotions of what I picture the characters would feel at the events in this fic. Yes I realize some things may move 'fast' - oh well. I don't know how long this will be in total. I have about 6-7 chapters laid out currently, and those end in a position where it would be easy to produce more if I decide to keep going at that point. I have enough content in mind to make it quite a fairly long story, so we'll see whether I have the attention span to go past the original 8-10ish I plan to write for sure :p

Just some notes, as far as pairings - most of the character interaction pairing wise is Naru/Ino and Naru/Saku, but not in a way you'd expect... Read and find out! Any romance as I said earlier would not come until later if I decide to keep going.

One last note, this is post time skip after the Sasuke retrieval mission - assume manga accuracy to that point then plot diverts. Don't expect major roles from many characters either - I plan to focus on a few on at the present.

The mid morning sun cast down golden rays across the quiet village of Konoha. Golden leaves fluttered about the cool autumn wind on this Saturday morning. Little activity was in the streets as Naruto eagerly bounded across the rooftops toward the hokage tower. He had woken up early, donning his orange and black jumpsuit, and no sooner had he secured his headband than he had bounded out the door. The excitable ninja had a mission this morning!

Two weeks had passed since he saw Sasuke, his cold expression and voice burned into his memory. The Hokage had made it painfully clear he was not to bother her for a mission for the duration of those weeks. What's worse, his team mate, crush, and friend Sakura had insisted he relax his effort to train after their failed mission. While he wouldn't complain she was voluntarily seeking him out to speak to him regularly, he wished it was under different circumstances. All he wanted to do was to get stronger, so he could fulfill his dreams and promises, yet she had thwarted his training several times whenever he started to get serious. Her ploys ranged from requests to help her move into her new apartment she was sharing with Ino, to the occasional lunch as friends, and once, she even had hauled him forcibly to a gathering of the Konoha 11.

The hyperactive blond youth liked spending time with Sakura, but he truly hated going any extended duration without action. Naruto let out a deep sigh of relief, knowing in a few hours he'd be on hopefully a B or A rank mission. His fantasies played out in his mind. Maybe he'd get to save another princess, or defend a country against armies. Better yet, maybe there's been word on the whereabouts of some Akatsuki. His brow furrowed at the thought of the organization he thought of as his ultimate nemesis. Leaping from another rooftop, he landed on the soft dirt road that lead straight to the Hokage tower. The jinchuuriki collected his thoughts on Akatsuki and approached the stairs of the tower for the long climb upward. Almost everything bad that had happened to him and his friends over the last 3 years was a result of Akatsuki it seemed, although not always directly. He couldn't place his finger on why his pink haired crush seemed so protective over him recently. Since that mission to rescue Gaara, she constantly checked up on him even after he had failed her again on the mission to get Sasuke.. He shook his head at the developing headache, a telltale sign he was thinking too hard again - besides, life is much better when played by ear he decided upon reaching the top of the stairs.

Arriving at the door to the Hokage's office, the jinchuuriki inhaled a deep breath. Before he could think twice, he burst through the door, screaming, "Tsunade-bachan!" He instantly regretted his choice of words as not one, but two fists collided into him knocking him into the wall. Rubbing his swollen cheek, he cautiously looked up to see the Godaime Hokage looming over him, with an irate Ino next to her.

"Oi, Naruto, when will you learn some manners? Haven't you ever heard of knocking? And seriously, show some respect for Tsunade-sama!" berated the young blonde kunoichi. Naruto noted she was dressed in her skimpy purple and mesh two piece skirt-shirt combo, with her pale blonde hair obscuring the right half of her face with a long pony tail cascading down her mid back. Naruto trailed his eyes from her figure back to the Hokage, taking note of the violent gleam in her baby blue eyes.

Tsunade moved back to her desk, plopping into her chair with the grace unbecoming of a kunoichi of her station, before glaring daggers at the source of her recent frustration. Naruto nervously scratched at the back of his head, not sure why he was the victim of that glare.

"I suppose you're here to bother me about a mission, eh brat?" He nodded eagerly, as he brushed off his clothes. "Well then, I have just the thing. This is a C rank mission..." Naruto let his face drop as she continued. "You can accompany Ino here to a request received to investigate and help out with a request from a small village near the border of Fire Country. It requires a medical ninja, Ino is more than qualified for these mission specs. It should be a quick mission, I expect you'll be back in two days if all goes well."

Naruto counted to three, then yelled, "What!! First you give me only a C-rank mission, and then I'm stuck with Ino? At least send Sakura if they need a medical ninja! She's way ---" He was interrupted as a fist sent him colliding into the floor.

"Way what?! Better? Tsunade-sama already said I met the requirements, excuse me if my hair isn't pink." Ino huffed, looking at the Hokage who wore a slight amused smile. "Tsunade-sama, can't you send someone with me other than Naruto, or better yet let me go alone?"

The Hokage shook her head, "I will not send any newer chunin on a mission by themselves. Besides, Naruto the genin wants a mission, and you're the only one available for a day. Seeing as he needs a chunin to lead him, and you need a partner it works out. Besides, I have a feeling both of your talents will be a great help to this mission, just as I planned."

Naruto muttered under his breath, "You just put me with her since she was already in your office when I came in."

Tsunade growled, "What was that brat? That's beside the point. Uzumaki Naruto, Yamanaka Ino, here's your mission details, now go."

Both the young blondes sighed, knowing when it was pointless to discuss further with the female sannin, and left the office.

Hours later, the two blonde leaf shinobi glided about the treetops toward their destination. The afternoon sun bathed the treetops in a bright light. Neither had said a word more than necessary to each other since they had left the Hokage's office, despite being the two 'loudest' shinobi of their generation. Naruto didn't know how to break the silence with Ino. It's not that he didn't like her; he knew she was friendly in her own right, an able ninja, and well, he had to admit she was one of the most attractive girls he knew. The problem was, he didn't really know her. His experiences with Ino were verbal scuffles usually with Sakura present, or a handful of missions where there was virtually no non mission related conversation that didn't involve her opinion on what figures of women men preferred. He still counted her among his friends, whether she knew it or not (he did have a feeling she returned it, despite the fact they quarreled about nearly everything). He supposed he'd learn a thing or two about his unwilling partner, if anything on this mission.

Ino must have been thinking of him in a similar fashion, as he noticed he was the target of her scrutinizing gaze. He loosened his shoulders between jumps, as she broke the silence, her voice laced with sarcasm, "You know Naruto, I may not be as 'good' as your Sakura-chan, but I don't have cooties."

Naruto's deep blue eyes held a mischievous glint as they met her cold blue pupil-less eyes, which she had fixed on him with an indignant stare. "Are you sure? I only just got allowed back on missions, I wouldn't want to get something of yours that was contagious."

"Why you---" Ino's tirade was cut off by a loud snap. Both young shinobi reflexively snapped their heads toward the sound, and quickly jumped in alternate directions as a handful of kunai thudded into the wood of a large tree that marked their previous positions. Ino dived toward the underbrush, using the thick foliage to conceal herself, as Naruto summoned a group of clones that quickly jumped toward where the kunai had materialized from.

Naruto glanced to where Ino disappeared to, deciding she was fine at the moment. Upon sensing an enemy, he threw his own barrage of projectiles. Before they reached their mark, he jumped after them seeing them thunk into a puff of smoke. A replacement.. He gathered chakra to his legs, instinctively jumping backward, as a volley of shuriken flew toward him. Locating the enemy, he deduced he was up against at least two, possibly three. With his clones in position, he again threw two more kunai where he suspected his assailants were. This time, he saw one nin jump aside, while the other deflected his throw. Confirming their location, his clones then launched an assault from behind as he prepared to hold their attention from ahead.

While he engaged these two opponents, he heard the sounds of kunai colliding, quickly deducing Ino had her own opponent. Moments flew by, as he clashed with one of the enemies. It seemed his opponents were genin or chunin, he wasn't sure - they were fast enough to be chunin for sure, but didn't seem to display any special jutsus. Finally one of his clones scored a hit, its kunai lodged in the spine of an attacker. He proceeded to quickly incapacitate the other. A strangled cry of "Naruto!" caused him to freeze for a moment, summon more clones, before quickly jump to where he thought Ino was.

While his clones engaged his previous opponent, he blocked an incoming kunai and glanced to a panting Ino, gripping a bleeding shoulder. He looked about for the opponent, while hovering over her protectively. "Naruto, be careful, this one is at least a Jounin. He's very fast, and I don't know how, but he can change the direction of his throws mid air, chakra strings perhaps." She commented, while her hand started to glow green to stop her bleeding. Naruto nodded, and sensed that his clones had finished the other assailant. Then feeling them all dispelled at once, he decided that explained the brief lapse of attacks on him and Ino.

Naruto was soon blocking incoming projectiles left and right. Damn this seems worse than fighting Tenten. He quickly summoned a small army of shadow clones, effectively using them as a human shield for him. Ino stood up, and scanned where they were coming from. She pulled out several explosive tags wrapped around kunai, and threw them in a circle around them. Naruto then taking advantage of the explosions spread out with his clones, grabbing discarded shurikens and kunai and launching them into the brush. A dark blur dashed onto the branches above. There he is!

After a series of hand signs the enemy shinobi, materialized a small rain of short harpoon like projectiles that launched toward them. The clones hit by the barrage did not even deter the spears, as they blanketed the ground. Ino sensing an opening, jumped into the air and threw another explosive tagged-kunai toward the assailant. It was then she realized her mistake. Time seemed to slow down, as the seconds dragged on. The figure on the branch vanished as a clone upon the impact of her attack, when Naruto sensed a presence behind Ino. Shit! Must help her!. He poured chakra into his legs and jumped in an attempt to push Ino out of the way, shouting a warning. Her eyes widened, as she attempted to twist in midair. Another volley of the sharp thin spears came flying toward her, while she had no way to dodge. Naruto intercepted them, but to no avail, he groaned in pain as three sharp metal poles hit him. One had impaled him just below the shoulder, where another hit him in the lower left thigh. The last one tore at the side of his abdomen, ripping his jacket as it proceeded plunging into Ino. She screamed as she slammed against the tree, the pole passing through her landing below.

"INO!!!" Naruto roared, feeling his anger rise as a blast of red chakra enveloped him. The two poles in him shot out with great force, as his wounds quickly began to close. He rocketed toward the attacker quickly forming a rasengan. The enemy didn't expect such a display of speed and power after hitting an enemy with his technique, and was ill prepared to receive such an attack. The rasengan brutally ripped the jounin's gut to shreds as he slammed into another tree. Naruto quickly jumped down to Ino.

"Oh god Ino, I'm so sorry" he gathered her in his arms, looking at the gaping wound, bleeding profusely. "Hang on Ino, I'll get you back, believe it! Don't die!"

The pale blonde kunoichi coughed and sputtered, a small trail of her blood trickling from her lips as he helped her sit upright, falling against his chest. "I'm sorry for being weak Naruto... It wasn't your fault."

"Ino! Listen, don't talk like that!" Tears were forming at his eyes, her breathing becoming more and more labored. "I'm going to get you back I promise."

"Thank you.." she gasped out. Naruto held her tightly, watching as her lips curved into a serene smile, while her icy blue eyes began to glaze over. Naruto was shocked to say the least, having never been in this situation. He burst into tears as watched her lifeless blue eyes staring unblinkingly into the sun. All the memories he had of Ino and a torrent of emotions rocked through his mind. He didn't notice her hands curl up into a curious hand sign as she went totally limp against his chest.

All I'll say at this point is, this isn't a deathfic, read and find out!