True Love Is…

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.

"True love is growing up."

Pairing: NaruIno

Story Notes: This was requested anonymously, and it's become a new favorite ship for me. Everyone go check out the amazing fanart by Chii for this chapter (link in my profile under the Update section). She is a beautiful artist, wow. Happy holidays! Enjoy this newest installment!

As children, Yamanaka Ino and Uzumaki Naruto lived in two very different worlds. She was the class ace, the perfect balance of delicate femininity and powerhouse potential. He was the class clown, the unfortunate combination of persistent prankster and tenacious moron. At opposite ends of the spectrum, they had little reason to associate, much less become friends. But, as luck would have it, some things were simply meant to be.

"Huh? What's she doin' here? We can't bring a girl to do a man's job!" Naruto complained to Shikamaru.

Ino flushed red with anger at the other blonde's words. It wasn't like she wanted to be here, but Chouji and Shikamaru had dragged her along, and she had nowhere else to be with Sakura on a family vacation besides. "Oh yeah?" She marched right up to Naruto and pointed her finger in face. "Anything boys can do, I can do better!"

Naruto blinked, momentarily stunned, before collecting his bearings and mirroring' Ino's peeved expression. "Prove it! Prove you're man enough to play with the big boys!"

Not one to back down in the face of a challenge, especially from some boy, of all people, Ino crossed her little arms and turned up her nose. "Fine! You and me, Naruto. But don't cry when I win."

Shikamaru pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. "I knew this would be a bad idea."

"Nah, it'll be fun! Ino's tough!" Chouji said with a smile.

Kiba, who'd been ignoring everyone in favor of scratching Akamaru's belly, suddenly perked up. "Hey! I got it! Aw man, this is gonna be so good!"

"What, what?" Naruto said, turning to the other boy.

Kiba snickered, clearly pleased with himself as he wallowed in the self-satisfaction that came with conjuring up a new best prank ever. Motioning to their group of co-conspirators, Kiba gathered everyone into a huddle. Ino looked none too pleased about being squished between a bunch of grimy boys, but she held her tongue. She had a prank to pull off better than Naruto, after all.

"Okay, here's what we're gonna do..."

Kiba launched into an explanation of his brilliant idea, and halfway through Ino gasped.

"No way! There's no way we can do something like that. We'll get in so much trouble!"

Naruto smirked, clearly having expected this kind of reaction from the class goody two shoes. "Whatsamatter? You scared?"

Predictably, Ino's face twisted into an expression of indignant female offense. "Nuh-uh! I just don't want to get in trouble, which we will if we go through with this dumb idea."

"You only get in trouble if you get caught," Kiba said sagely, and Akamaru barked for good measure.

"So whaddaya say, Ino? Think you got what it takes to beat me and not get caught?" Naruto goaded.

Ino looked between Kiba and Naruto, grinning like idiots, Chouji, who was nodding encouragingly, and finally Shikamaru giving her the evil eye. Never let it be said that Yamanaka Ino was one to shy away from a good challenge, especially when it meant beating a boy at as his own game. "I'm in."

"Oh no," Shikamaru lamented.

"All right!" Chouji cheered.

"Sweet! Let the prank begin!" Kiba said triumphantly.

And that was how Ino found herself squashed uncomfortably next to Naruto half an hour later on the roof of a grocery store baking under the summer sun. And man did Naruto sweat a lot.

"You stink," she said.

"Heh, speak for yourself," he shot back. "Move the bucket to the right a little more."

Ino rolled her eyes. "Don't tell me what to do." She moved the bucket as per his instructions anyway.

A few minutes passed as the pair peeked wide blue eyes over the edge of the scaffolding, searching through the small crowd of passersby below. Kiba and Chouji were strategically positioned below for distraction purposes when the target arrived, while Shikamaru was tasked with keeping a lookout for said target. Of course, Ino knew that meant he was probably shirking his responsibilities and staring into space instead of paying attention. Hence her feeling the need to keep a strict lookout of her own. Really, boys were so unreliable.

"Hey, there he is!" Naruto hissed, scooting forward a little.

Ino peered in the direction he was indicating, but shoved him hard when she saw his folly. "That's a girl, idiot. And she looks way older than him, anyway."

"Huh? You sure?" Naruto squinted through his unruly bangs for a better look, but relented after a moment. "Oh, yeah she's definitely wearing a dress. Haha, my bad!"

"Seriously," Ino grumbled.

More uneventful waiting passed, and Ino caught an unfortunate whiff something fierce on a wayward breeze. "Ugh, what is that?"

"My special sauce," Naruto said, grinning.

"Ew, I'm sorry I asked," she said, scooting farther away from the bucket.

Unfortunately, putting distance between the bucket and herself meant encroaching on Naruto's side of the narrow roof space.

"Hey! Stop hoggin' the roof, Ino!"

"I'm not hogging anything! You're the one who picked this stupid roof in the first place—"

She was promptly cut off from further squawking when Naruto's hand clamped over her mouth. "Shh! I just got the high-sign from Kiba. That's him, that's him!"

Ino immediately forgot her annoyance as the moment of truth approached. Suddenly, she and Naruto became deathly serious as they prepared for this prank to end all pranks that would go down in Academy history. And she would prove that even in this, class priss could let loose and have a little fun.

"Ready? On my count," Naruto whispered.

"Hey, why should you get to count?" Ino countered, even as she prepared the string that would send their prank straight to the history books.

"Fine, we'll both count. Happy?" he relented, blue eyes trained on their fast approaching target.

"One," Ino said.

"Two," Naruto added, scooting forward as two sets of increasingly widening blue eyes followed the head of their unsuspecting target.

"Three!" Ino squealed.

They pushed the bucked over the edge, spilling its sticky, putrid contents into the bustling crowd below. Ino gasped and Naruto burst out laughing as the unfortunate target shrieked and looked up to see them through the muck running down his face.

"What the—Yamanaka Ino?!"

"Oh my god," Ino breathed, pale.

"Oh my god! We got him good!" Naruto whooped.

"Naruto!" She punched him in the shoulder. "That's not Neji. It's his uncle, Hiashi. As in, the head of the Hyuuga Clan!"

Naruto stopped his personal victory dance and blinked, confused. "The Hyuuga Clan?"

"Uzumaki Naruto!" a very livid, not to mention rancid, Hiashi shouted, pointing up at the pair. "Get down here this instant! Both of you!"

"Oh crap!" Naruto said, scrambling to his feet.

Ino was right behind him, the fear of death coursing through her at the thought of Hyuuga Hiashi out for her blood. Her father was going to kill her when he found out.

"Come on, let's get outta here!" Naruto said, not waiting for Ino's response and simply grabbing her hand and yanking her along.

"Hey!" she shouted, but Naruto had already led them to the other side of the roof to the fire escape, where they made a hasty retreat to a back alley.

Unfortunately, Hyuuga Hiashi was a Jounin and in possession of the Byakugan, so they were kind of screwed.

"Stop! You're both in a world of trouble!" he shouted as he rounded the alley to their location, mysterious ooze dripping off him.

"I don't think so. Ino, run!" Naruto said, dragging her along.

"W-What about the others—?"

"Who cares! I don't wanna die yet!"

Ino was a good kunoichi with good grades and good friends and good parents. She was an example to her classmates and peers of how a good girl should act. But as she found herself being pulled along by Naruto at high speed through the winding back alleys of Konoha she'd never known existed, much less would ever be able to navigate alone, she decided that right now she'd rather run for her life than face the consequences of their prank like a good girl should.

After running for what seemed like miles and suffering a few scrapes and trips here and there, Naruto finally led them to what looked like a deserted street under the awning of a pharmacy. They stopped to catch their breaths and calm their racing nerves.

"That...was way...too close," Ino panted.

"Yeah," Naruto said between labored breaths, looking back the way they came to make sure they'd really lost the irate Hyuuga Clan leader. "But man, did you see his face? He was so pissed!"

"Yeah, I got that part," Ino grumbled, righting herself. "Oh man, I'm gonna be in so much trouble."

"Pssh, whatever! We didn't get caught, so who cares?" Naruto said, folding his arms behind his head in a casual stance. "Besides, I think this was way better than pranking Neji. That guy's gonna have to go to his big meetings smelling like my socks!"

In spite of herself, Ino could not help but laugh. And not just any laugh; this was the kind of laugh that made her sides ache and lose her balance, the kind that brought tears to her eyes. Naruto laughed with her, and they sank to the ground together gasping for breath all over again.

"He's gonna smell like that for a week!" Ino managed between mindless giggles.

"Oh man, he might have to cut his stinky hair off!" Naruto wheezed.

They calmed down after a while and settled for smiling contentedly at each other, basking in the aftermath of what was undoubtedly the most hardcore prank ever pulled off in the history of Konoha.

"Hey, Ino."


"You're pretty cool. Uh, for a girl," he appended, embarrassed that he'd nearly put her on the same level as the men.

Ino narrowed suspicious blue eyes at her partner in crime. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Naruto backed up and lifted his hands in a placating gesture. "No, no, I just meant, uh... None of the other girls would ever pull a prank with me, so, well, I guess that makes you pretty cool?"

Ino had not been expecting the sincerity in his tone and she paused, looking him over for a moment. Her parents weren't like the others who told her to stay away from Naruto, that he was dangerous, but she'd heard from some of her friends that they weren't allowed to talk to him. After the past few hours spent together with the blonde boy, she didn't see what the big deal was.

She grinned. "I guess you're pretty cool too. For a class clown."

Naruto broke into a bright smile. "Eat your heart out."

"There you are!"

The blonde duo turned in fright at the sound of that voice. Sure enough, Hyuuga Hiashi had caught up to them and, to their mutual panic, had brought several members of his clan with him.

"Time to go!" Naruto said, reaching for Ino's hand.

They raced back into the maze of alleys, Hyuuga hot on their tails. And even though Ino knew in the back of her mind that she'd be in the doghouse for the rest of her life after this, she couldn't help but laugh and laugh as they jumped and dodged the angry adults.

As teenagers, Yamanaka Ino and Uzumaki Naruto were the unfortunate victims of a war quickly spinning out of control. But before everything went to hell and their friends and family began to die all around them, there was a brief celebration for the demon who'd saved the village.

"Naruto!" Ino shouted through the crowd of villagers.

He turned left and right, trying to pinpoint the familiar feminine voice among the sea of strangers-turned-supporters in the wake of his defeat of Pein. With Konoha decimated, the villagers were left to rebuild from the ground up. But even in such trying times of scarcity, they found time to lay down their shovels and hammers and be thankful that they were all alive and together. Tonight was the first celebration for shinobi and civilians alike to mingle and relax and finally be happy, if only for a few hours.

"Ino?" the blonde Jinchuuriki said, incredulous. "Wow, is that really you?"

Ino drew up to him, her simple violet sundress fluttering behind her as she came to a stop. "Gee, don't look so disappointed to see me."

He immediately adopted a deer in the headlights look and scrambled to placate her. "No, no! That's not what I meant, haha! I, uh, it's just—"

He abruptly cut himself off when she flung herself bodily against him in a surprisingly crushing hug. "Hey..."

"Thank you, Naruto," she said softly.

Naruto smiled sadly and returned the embrace, knowing that his victory was a bittersweet one. Nagato hadn't really been the enemy, simply misguided. It still bothered him to think that someone with such similar ideals could have strayed so far down the wrong path.

Ino pulled away and, where he was sure he'd see tears, instead she was smiling brilliantly as though the sight of him were the best thing she'd seen in months. "Come on! Let's go get some drinks and have fun. You haven't been back for so long!"

"Uh, okay," he said, a little dazed.

He and Ino had always been friends since they were kids, but she'd been closer to Sakura than to him. With his solo training with Jiraiya and later at Mt. Myoboku, Naruto hadn't had much time to spend with the rest of the Konoha 11 other than Sakura. Ever since Sasuke had left, things were never the same.

But he followed her without complaint, letting her pull him along by the hand away from the stiff Konoha Elders who wanted to talk politics and empty formalities in the wake of his victory, away from the scornful eyes of those who'd never learned to accept him as anything other than a monster now forced to interact with him or face public disdain. As though a an impenetrable shield had formed around him, Naruto gripped Ino's hand firmly in his own and let her lead him to wherever her heart desired. As it turned out, her heart desired a drink.

"It's a party, after all," she said, smirking as she handed him a beer.

Naruto grinned, relaxing slightly. "Yeah, I guess it is."

He savored the crisp, cool flavor of the drink as the sounds of the crowd around him faded into the background and the exhaustion finally caught up to him. It felt good to have a moment of peace and feel the weight of his accomplishment, heavy and painful as the fight to win it.

"You okay?" Ino asked, studying him carefully.

Naruto looked up at her, startled. "Huh? Oh, yeah. Just...tired, I guess."

She watched him for a moment longer before smiling a little. "Sakura volunteered to watch over Lady Tsunade tonight so Shizune could take a break. But Shikamaru and the others are probably waiting for us at the buffet so—"

"No, it's okay. It's not... I know Sakura's busy, it's just..." he trailed off, looking down to hide the sudden disappointment.

Ino waited for him to finish his thought, but it never came. It was just what? He'd loved Sakura for as long as he could remember, but she'd never loved him. At least, not as more than a teammate and dear friend. He'd hated that for so long. He'd even resented Sasuke for stealing her love, like it was some material prize that could be owned by another person.


Naruto ran a hand through his unruly blonde hair, wishing this would just stop. He hadn't thought about this all night, not for days, months even. Not with the calamity of Akatuski and Jiraiya's death and Pein and suddenly becoming a hero.

Like I had any choice in the matter.

Was this the price of the recognition he craved? And at the end of the day, he still didn't get the girl.

"I'm fine," he said finally, masking his inner turmoil the only way he knew how—with a hundred watt smile.

Ino stared at him for a moment, expression blank. She didn't know Naruto like Sakura did. Maybe she never would. But she did know a liar when she saw one. Quiet down enough, and it was easy to pick out the things people whispered to themselves when they thought no one was listening.

"No, you're not."

Naruto's smile faltered. "...What?"

"You're not fine," she repeated, narrowing her eyes as she confirmed the hypothesis. "And you look like shit. Have you even slept since the fight?"


"Bullshit. You wish you looked half as good as me," he said, hiding his bewilderment behind a smirk.

Ino rolled her eyes. "All these years and you're still as dense as a doorknob sometimes."


"Come on," she said, ignoring his outburst and taking his hand again to lead him out of the crowd. "Change of plans."

"Where are we—"

"Hurry up!"

She dragged him out of the tent and broke into a run, drinks forgotten as she tore through the razed village and Naruto dashed after her. They ran and ran, and at some point she started laughing and he couldn't help but laugh with her, previous troubles left behind in their mad dash. It became a game as they raced to the ends of the destroyed village, up a hill, and finally to the edge of the treeline. They skidded to a halt, out of breath and panting, but from exertion or laughter he couldn't tell.

"You're," Ino panted. "You' slow!"

"You...had a head...start!"

Ino crossed her arms in an attempt to make herself look more put together and mature. "No way. You're like, the strongest ninja for miles, and I just beat you!"

"What!" Naruto pulled himself up and jutted his lower lip out from years of habit. "That's such crap! And you cheated!"

Ino smiled then, completely out of the blue, and Naruto was once again thrown for a loop. "Feel any better?"

Naruto blinked at her, taking in her tousled appearance. Only just now did he notice that her hair was down, out of its customary ponytail. Decked in a soft purple that brought her eyes and flushed cheeks, he let himself think that Yamanaka Ino was pretty.

Very pretty.

"Yeah, I guess," he said, suddenly feeling embarrassed about this thought. This was Sakura's best friend and what the hell?

She peered at him suspiciously, and he wondered if he was really that bad at masking his emotions. He'd never been as good at it as Sasuke had been.

"You've been weird since you came back from facing Pein's true form," she said. "I thought you'd be happy you won. Everyone else is."

Naruto frowned. "I'm happy everyone's safe, it's just..." He paused, trying to search for the right words. "I'm not... I don't know how—"

"Stop," Ino cut him off. "I can see for myself, if you let me."


"Like this." She performed a few practiced hand seals and promptly rested her open palm atop his head.

"Ino, what's—"

Naruto never finished his thought as images of the conversation he'd had with Nagato came rushing back, as though he was watching a recording of the incident. All over again, he felt himself coming to the realization that "good" and "evil" are never absolute, that he was never the golden boy and Nagato was never the filth he'd thought he was purging for the good of everyone. They were the same, two sides of the same coin. Konan was there, and suddenly Nagato was coughing up blood as his body gave out in the wake of the Shinra Tensei. Watching him die all over again felt like a punch to the gut.

The tears he'd cried then returned to him now as Ino's chakra left him and Nagato's memory with it.

"What was that?" he said, trying to wipe away his tears. "What did you do?"

Gentle hands found his, tugging gently and exposing his tear-stained face under the light of the moon. When they locked eyes, Naruto thought for a moment he was seeing Sakura.

But she wasn't Sakura.

"I'm so sorry," she said softly, "that you had to be the one to defeat him."

It was a rare situation that could render Uzumaki Naruto speechless, but she'd done it almost effortlessly. Blue eyes softened behind unshed tears as he watched her. No, she wasn't Sakura, but that was okay. She was here with him, listening, and that was more than he could have asked for.

"Thanks, Ino. I...needed to hear that."

Months later, when Obito and Madara were finally eliminated and Naruto trudged back to what was left of Konoha with only about half the comrades he'd left to fight with, he finally understood something of the ways of men. People grow, change, twist and mend and break all over again, leaving the scorned Madaras and the jaded Obitos of the world. But they also bloom and rise to the occasion, fighting and sacrificing for the greatest good of all—family, friends, and a peace Naruto would stake his life on to ensure.

So when Yamanaka Ino, who'd lost her father and her teacher and too many friends to name to Akatsuki's war for peace, greeted him with a bright smile on her face like she always did because she knew he needed others to smile when he no longer had the energy, Naruto decided that growing up wasn't just about loss and tragedy and rejection. They were a part of it, yes, but he would never have to go through them alone again.

If he could spend the rest of his days under the aegis of that smile, he would.

As adults, Yamanaka Ino and Uzumaki Naruto led fairly quiet lives when they weren't yelling over each other.

"You can't use this copy," Ino said, holding it out between thumb and forefinger as though afraid of contamination.

"Huh? Why not? I signed it, didn't I?" Naruto countered.

"You can't because you spilled ponzu all over it!"

"Bullshit. That looks like a pen exploded."

"Naruto, it smells like lunch. No way, you have to do it again."

"Seriously? That took me like four hours to finish! You're supposed to be helping me get through this paperwork more efficiently."

"I'm trying, but you just had to have your lunch delivered when Sakura specifically told you it was a bad idea. This is your own fault, Lord Hokage."

Naruto grinned and leaned close to Ino's face. "Say that again, nice and slow."

Ino sputtered and tried to push him away, but Naruto knew her trick and quickly trapped her between his arms. "This is so not the time, you pervert," she hissed.

"Ooh, I like it when you talk dirty," he said, leaning in to kiss her.

She turned and he landed on her cheek, deflating slightly.

"Oh come on, Ino," he said, reaching up to release her ponytail. "I've been working all day—"

"Yeah, and do I need to remind you why? You promised you would get through everything so we can go—"

"I know, I know," he said, voice muffled and warm against her now loose hair. "I promised, so I'll finish."

Ino relaxed and smiled a little, bringing a hand up and around his neck. He sensed her relenting and pulled back to look her in the eye. "So how about a short break? This office is soundproofed, you know."

Ino rolled her eyes. "Nice try. Get back to work. There will be plenty of time for that later."

"Aw, just a quick break?"

Ino was about to reject him again, but suddenly thought better of it and kissed him instead. Naruto was taken completely by surprise at her sudden change of heart and tried to deepen the kiss, but she pulled back after a moment.

"You can have the rest when you're done."

Naruto's mouth fell open in mock outrage. "Are you trying to give me blue balls?"

Ino smirked and patted his shoulder. "I'll see you later. You better not be late."

He sank back into his wide chair, pouting like a schoolboy. "Yeah yeah, I'll be there. Jeez."

It took the better part of the night and Shikamaru's and Shizune's help, but somehow the Sixth Hokage was able to get through all the outstanding contracts, visas, and mission requests for that week. After a short power nap and a shower, followed by enough food to feed a small family, Naruto was changed and ready to go. He stood before a full-length mirror, a frown on his face as he tried to get comfortable in the formal Hokage attire. Honestly, he thought it was a bit much for the occasion. It wasn't like Ino would care—

"Are you ready to go?"

Naruto caught Sai's reflection in the mirror, his usual fake smile plastered in place and looking completely ridiculous in a formal black dress suit. Naruto snickered against his better judgement. "You look like a butler."

"And you look like a girl in that dress," Sai replied easily.

Naruto's expression immediately soured. "You know, this one day you could try not being an asshole."

"I could," Sai agreed, though Naruto suspected he wouldn't actually go through with it.

"So how does she look?" Naruto asked as they made their way outside.

Sai thought about this for a minute before saying, "Better than you do. Maybe less girly, actually."

The remainder of their walk took barely any time at all as Sai took off at a run and Naruto chased him, Rasengan blazing blue and bright. Needless to say, Sakura was not pleased to see the Hokage playing a game of chase with a high-ranking ANBU on a day like this.

"Get up there and shut up," she hissed, nudging him toward the gazebo. "I'll handle Sai."

Naruto grinned. "Thanks, Sakura. You're the best!"

"Tell me something I don't know. Now hurry up, the music's starting."

Naruto blinked and turned to see the largest crowd he'd ever seen gathered together in neat rows of white painted chairs. The daimyo of the great countries had travelled from afar to be here for this momentous occasion. Mifune and some of his samurai guards even made the trip from the snowy Land of Iron, and Naruto thought it was strange to see them dressed for warm weather. The Mizukage, Tsuchikage, and Raikage and their entourages sat together, but at Naruto's insistence Gaara and his siblings were ensconced between the remaining members of the Konoha 11. It was only appropriate, Naruto had argued against the formalities Gaara generally insisted upon, that the Sand siblings be treated the way any of his closest friends ought to be. Naruto remembered that he hadn't seen Gaara look so happy since the day Chiyo brought him back to life.

Lee gave Naruto a thumbs-up from his place next to Tenten, and Kiba shot him a cheesy grin. It meant so much to have them all here for his big day, but looking at them all Naruto couldn't help but think on the faces of the ones who weren't. They were gone, but he wouldn't forget them. Not a single one.

The music picked up and everyone turned away from Naruto. Gripping his oversized Hokage hat between his fingers, Naruto squinted beyond the crowd and suddenly became quite nervous. In a swath of white and gold, Ino appeared in the distance and glided toward the gazebo. All thoughts of not getting enough sleep and the many pairs of eyes gawking at him vanished as the sight of her snatched his attention. She had a knack for that, he reflected. It had always been hard to ignore her, not that he'd ever much tried.

She was before him in an instant, blue eyes alight with the smile he'd fallen in love with longer ago than he probably knew. "Hi."

Against his better judgment, Naruto blushed like a tomato, the weight of this suddenly hitting him like a hailstorm. "I..."

In his nervousness, he dropped his hat with muffled thud as it hit the grass beneath them. A few laughs resounded, as well as a "go get 'em, tiger!" from somewhere in the Kumo section. Ino picked up his hat without hesitation.

"Clumsy idiot," she said, laughter on her lips. Before he could even remember to breathe, she placed the hat on his head, adjusting the back veil to fall neatly upon his shoulders. When she finished Naruto found his voice.

"You're beautiful."

Ino smiled and took his hand. "You clean up pretty good too, Lord Hokage."

A goofy grin made its way onto Naruto's face, and he decided right then and there that having to finish all his work before this was totally worth it.

"Lord Hokage, shall we begin?" said the visiting monk from the Fire Temple.

"Hell yeah," Naruto said a little too loudly.

The ceremony went by quickly, and Naruto barely heard a word the bald guy in the frumpy robe said; he was too distracted by the woman standing next to him who'd actually agreed to all this.

I'm the luckiest son of a bitch this side of Wind Country.

He squeezed Ino's hand, heavy with the shiny new ring he'd surprised her with. The memory made him chuckle. They'd been planting a fresh batch of petunias. Naruto didn't know much about gardening, but he loved how simple and relaxing it was. After everything that had happened in his teenage years, he found he was happy with some peace and quiet whenever he could get his hands on it. Needless to say, the petunia planting was cut short with the onslaught of rain, Ino's colorfully vented frustrations with the weather, and Naruto's subsequent instigation of a mud fight. She'd resisted at first, as she always did, but eventually she got serious and dragged him through the dirt, literally. Filthy and surrounded by ruined petunias and fertilizer, Naruto fished out the ring he'd been carrying around for weeks and asked her to marry him right then and there.

Her shocked silence made him second guess this rash proposal and start to apologize, but she kissed him through the rain and mud and he finally shut up.

Ino turned to look at him but she didn't squeeze his hand back. To Naruto's sudden worry, she had tears in her eyes.

"Hey, what's wrong?" he whispered. He knew he shouldn't have relaxed so soon. She could still reneg on this whole deal—

"It's just..." she whispered, so softly not even the monk had noticed.


Icy blue meet cerulean, and Naruto saw the anguish wracking at her soul there. "I...I wish my dad could have been here."

Time seemed to stop as memories of that awful day flashed before Naruto's eyes. To the very end, Inoichi had done everything he could to save the shinobi alliance, and Ino had fought on bravely in the face of her tragic loss. Swallowing hard, Naruto realized there was probably nothing he could ever say or do to make that up to her.

Forgetting the ceremony and the thoughts of their onlookers, he pulled her to him in a fierce hug without warning. His hat came loose and toppled to the ground again, but he didn't care.

"Naruto," she said against his shoulder, clearly worried about this disruption in the ceremony.

"He's here," Naruto whispered. "They all are. Can't you see them?"

For a moment, as the breeze tickled the flowers in Ino's hair and she looked at the many smiling faces here for them, she almost could.

She pulled back and looked him in the eye, and in that moment Naruto wondered if this is what she'd always looked like, raw and rending and beautiful, and he'd been a fool never to see it all those years ago.

She managed a small laugh, a sad, tinkling sound, before saying, "I don't deserve you."

"Sure you do. Know why?"


Naruto leaned in close until their foreheads touched. "My mom would have loved you."

Amazingly, the rest of the ceremony went off without a hitch until Oonoki shouted for Naruto to kiss the bride already, and he wasn't getting any younger. The Hokage didn't need to be told twice as he swept his new wife off her feet in a show of bravado she outwardly disdained but secretly loved.

When Sakura commented hours later at the reception party, amidst the drunken cheering as Kakashi and Darui attempted to entertain the guests with a grandiose display of colorful electric fireworks, that she'd never expected Yamanaka Ino to fall for Uzumaki Naruto, Ino just laughed.

"You're telling me."

"So what happened? I mean, I think I know better than most people what a great guy Naruto is, but we were on a team together."

Ino nodded, pensive. "I guess... He's always been that one person to lift everyone else up on his shoulders, you know? And after that fight with Pein, I just wondered, who's lifting him up?"

Sakura watched her best friend quietly, inwardly stunned that things had turned out like this, but suddenly not surprised.

Ino smirked suddenly. "Or maybe it was Hiashi's hair that brought us together."

Sakura burst out laughing, recalling that particular incident from their childhood in which she'd been completely amazed at Ino's audacity, consequences be damned. If she remembered correctly, Ino had been forced to deliver a formal apology to the Hyuuga clan and clean the flower shop for a month as punishment. But it had been worth it, the blonde insisted.

"I'm happy for you," Sakura said finally. "I really am."

"Thanks, Forehead," Ino said.

In the distance, Naruto was gesticulating wildly to Oonoki and A while Konohamaru looked on, shaking his head. After more vigorous hand movements, Konohamaru slumped and finally poofed. A cloud of smoke cleared and a scantily clad woman stood where Konohamaru had been seconds before. Oonoki and A nearly tripped over each other, but Mei appeared suddenly and punched "Konohamaru" clear across the room, where he immediately transformed back into his (now bruised) self. Naruto laughed wildly and Mei turned a poisonous glare on him.

Ino watched the scene unfold, a faraway look in her eyes. Laughing lightly she said, "I'm really happy."