She met him in a park when they were six. She was a big girl now, or at least that's what she told her father when she asked to play at the park alone. Besides, she was going to the academy soon, and that almost made her a ninja. But when she saw the boy laying on the ground, black eyed, bloody nosed, she wished she had her father there to chase away the children that did this to him. But he wasn't there. "Be good," he'd told her. He had also told her not to get into trouble, but she was already standing between the little blond boy and the bullies by the time she remembered that. There were three of them, older than her, by maybe a year. She put her arms out wide, like a gate buckling under stress.
"Leave him alone." she told them. What would she do if they didn't? They looked at her, still excited from the near lynching of the poor boy behind her.
"What do you want to protect that thing for?" She didn't really hear him. It had probably been the one with a cut on his lip. He was standing the closest, after all. The leader? If so he'd be the one to speak up first. Her father had told her as much, in one of the stories about his missions he'd tell her before bed. He also had told her to show her resolve.
"Leave him alone."
But wasn't that when she was waiting for dinner? It didn't matter much. She stared him down, he looked more like a brute than a boy. You would have to be to gang up on a little boy like that she reasoned. She remember the crumpled kid behind her. They couldn't be more than a few months apart, and he wasn't even fighting back. But wasn't he? That cut came from somewhere. It could have been an accident, but no, the other two had marks as well. The leftmost one, a swollen cheek. Could she hurt them like that, if they decided to fight? She remembered the time her father screamed when she hugged him. "I'm sorry Ino, Daddy got kind of banged up at work today, so don't hug me too hard." His cheek was swollen too.
"Just get out the way."
"We're not supposed to hit girls." another one added. She knew she didn't have to move then. She wouldn't, unless they beat her down, and if they weren't willing to do that…
"Leave him alone." Her voice was just the same it had been before. She didn't know what else to say. But still, they seemed to be hesitating. No, they were looking past her now. She couldn't turn away though. If she moved, she might crumble like a clump of salt. She could only hear the rustle and groans behind her, as the boy started to move.
"Let's just go. We can get him later." The one on the right had said that, and he was shaking. Shaking from her? Well, she was going to the academy, and that made her almost a ninja. He had a right to be scared of her. Then she felt the wind blow against her cold and sweaty arms.
"Let's get out of here guys. I think I heard my Mom call us." She knew it was an excuse, but she'd take it. Her arms felt like they were going to snap off, but she held them there until they were out of sight. Until she was sure they wouldn't be coming back.
"Are they gone?" It was only a whimper, but it made her jump. Finally she turned, and fell to her knees. Gasping, panting, and dripping with sweat. But it was okay. She'd seen her father come home and collapse a lot of times after a hard mission. This had to be okay.
"Yeah." she said between breathes. "They're gone." He was on also on his knees, staring at the same ground she was. They stayed like that for a good long while. They could, until he spoke. "Thank you…"
"Ino." She finished for him. "Yamanaka Ino." She finally looked him the eye. Her father had told her that you should do that when you meet someone new. "And who are you?" It took awhile, but she had time.
"Uzumaki Naruto. I was just playing…" He looked so sad when he told her that. Was that how she looked when she dropped her plastic train down the well? That time, her father had just taken her back home. "A good meal will make you feel better. Your mom's cooking is magic like that." He could use some of that, and a band aide or two.
"Come on Naruto. We can go to my house, and have dinner."
"What?" No need to answer. She just grabbed his hand and pulled him up. Much lighter than she thought he'd be.
"It's late. We can go have eat, and my dad can bring us back to play."
"Is he nice?" Ino almost smacked him, but instead she smiled.
"Is he nice? He's the nicest coolest strongest person alive, and I'm going to be a great ninja just like him!" But all Naruto could think, was that she already was.