Warning: I don't know, humorous angst? Friendship? Lonely people? OOCness? Also, a heads up, this isn't supposed to be the most romantic, sensual thing you've ever read in your life. In fact, half way thru it's kind of angsty friendship with implied feelings but no one acting on anything because the friendship is too valued. You can relate with this, because more than half of you have probably been in a similar situation.

Disclaimer: * place fancy disclaimer here *

AU Future canon. It was originally not going to be AUish, but, well, crap happened in the manga that made me... cry. T_T


He finds her outside the abandoned mansion, sitting on the old, worn-out steps, clad in her indigo kimono, the tears falling freely and silently from her lovely blue eyes.

He had noticed her leave. But then again, Naruto has always noticed people.

She's about fifty or so yards from the main household, where all their friends were bound to be drinking, and laughing, and celebrating. Feeling his gaze on her figure, her eyes turn to him, and the differently hued blues of their irises clash. She mildly notes how pretty his eyes are – large, with thick, vibrant lashes – and they bare so much emotion, so much love and care. He is like an open book (contents much like her own), and she sniffles slightly when he comes closer, confused by his sudden appearance.

He sits right next to her, their thighs brushing against each other, and she dwells a little on how beautifully the color of her kimono seems against the deep orange of his own. Running a hand through her pale locks – she had let them down for the night – she chokes up a bit before turning fully to him, her eyes red and puffy, mascara trailing down her porcelain cheeks in two greyish rivulets. "It's hard," she breathes out, jaw quivering, trembling at how absolutely weak her voice sounds in the vastness of the Uchiha compound.

"I know," he replies quietly, and the look on his face is the same one she had seen in the mirror every day for the past week having woken up.

A look of terrified hope.

The lingering sadness of the air surrounding them makes her shiver, and he subconsciously wraps her in his arms, pressing her against his strong chest. A hand leaves her back, only to stroke her fine hair, and she realizes how much she needs this.

The comfort she had never found with another.

Sometime during their peaceful embrace her head falls to his thighs, his rough, but slender fingers continuing to slide though her freed tresses. She breathes deep, closing her doe eyes. Some of her hair cascades to the ground, but she finds herself, for once, not caring.

"I thought it would be easier," she starts, voice quaking.

But she feels safe with him. Because Naruto understands.

Naruto has always understood people.

She fishes for her next words, and he patiently awaits her monologue, neither disinterested nor angered by her time consuming thoughts.

And then her words flood the surroundings.

"Different," she begins once more, though this time she knows how the words will form, will stumble from her rosy lips. The catcalls and drunken screeches (who in hell would give Lee, of all people, alcohol?) she hears do not deter her, and she pays them little heed as she continues. "I thought I would have matured. I would no longer burden anyone. With Sasuke-k-" Here she pauses on impulse, swallowing back the title she had long granted her childhood crush in an attempt to free herself from the past. "-Sasuke's comeback, I realize that a part of my childhood is still with me, that I still care, and I hate that, because moving on is what's best. Sakura loves him," she cries out, her best friend's name sounding almost bitter in her ears, and the sorrowful frustration of her own is unmistakable. "So why can't I stop?!" This wail is louder than her previous words, and she is almost ashamed of herself, howling out her problems to the one person who has always had it worse, but she can't stop,and it's slowly killing her inside. "The feelings," she murmurs in the reticence, "they're still there. But I don't want them, Naruto. I've never wanted them," she whispers.


The soft tremor of his voice snaps her out of her misery, only to recognize his own.

They were two halves of a whole.

And God, was it pitiful.

She turns her head so that they inevitably make eye contact once more, and he hesitantly takes back the hand that had caressed her platinum blonde locks for quite the while now. She misses the comfort the small gesture had brought with it, but quickly turned curious. "Why do you love her?" she asks, albeit it comes out far more girlish than she had intended.

The look in his eyes, one filled with dark amusement, is one she knows all too well. She's seen it, pacing by the windowed shops, eying her own reflection.

He doesn't spell it out, his reasons for loving her, and why he's loved her for so long, but she sees them anyway, in those deep cerulean eyes of his.

She wonders what Sakura truly has to offer to him, before a hand – long and feminine; she sees it is her own – glides gracefully through the air, and she finds herself gently stroking Uzumaki Naruto's marred cheek, as if the action might ease his pain.

She stumbles into him a week or so later, groceries in hand and clad in simple civilian clothing.

And, quite literally, she had stumbled into him.

He grabs whatever was soon to kiss the ground below her feet, while gently holding her still with a hand on her slim waist. Placing the almost-fallen-but-not-quite veggies and fruits in her large paper bags, he grins at her. Suddenly his touch feels like fire, scorching her milky skin through her lavender shirt.

Strangely, it was a good feeling.

"Naruto," she acknowledges with a friendly smile, thanking him and pushing back thoughts of the previous time they had seen each other, so broken and frail.

"Ino," he, too, says, and she realizes that she likes the way her name tumbles from his mouth.

It has a nice ring to it, one she hasn't appreciated before.

He proceeds to take her bags, despite her not asking, and they start walking to her residence, making small talk along the way.

They are too similar for polite chit chat, she muses with disdain.

"I'm sorry." She doesn't know what surprises her more, the fact that someone spoke those serious words randomly in the midst of their seemingly innocent conversation, or that it was she who spoke those words. That apology. So sincere.

Ino Yamanaka never apologizes.


He looks as stricken as she by the suddenness of it all, but then that look is replaced by his usual cheeky grin. It's contagious, and she finds herself smiling as well.

Naruto has a beautiful smile.

"There is nothing to be sorry for," he states rather slowly, and she notices his inky blue gaze eying her appreciatively.

Oddly, she doesn't seem to mind.

Naruto soon begins to babble about random things, like how the village is almost fully repaired, or his latest spar with Kiba. (She notes how he leaves out any mentions of Sasuke or Sakura.) Ino listens attentively, grasping at his every word because Naruto is an eloquent story teller, and she's so engrossed in his voice that when he asks her a simple question, she is taken aback.

"What was that, Naruto?" she finds herself saying, and in all honesty, she quite enjoys the way his name rolls off her tongue.

He gives her a playful pout, and she in turn beams at him. "I asked you if you wanted to do this-" he gestures to the two of the them with a free index finger and the bobbing of his golden locks, "-again some time."

The upward curving of her lips intensifies. "I'd like that," she proclaims, and she apprehends how those words ring true.

When they stop by her house, he dutifully gives her back the heavy load of foods, and she takes great care in grabbing them, noticing – not for the first time – the sizzle when their fingers brush against each other. Naruto seems oblivious to the fact though, and she doesn't want to spoil the mood, so she shoves the thought far behind, into the back of her consciousness.

"Till next time," he calls out.

She gives a brief "mhmm" in contentful agreement before striding inside.

Naruto isn't so bad after all, she thinks with a soft curving of her mouth.

He hears a rather powerful knocking, and wonders who in their right mind would be banging against his door at three a.m. in morning.

The neighbors would surely complain, and he moans at the thought of dealing with their whines the next day. Shuffling quickly to the door, he yawns as he unlocks it, hand near his lips. His arm drops with his mouth, and his eyes bulge out in sheer shock.

On the other side of the entrance stands – and not quite as elegantly as she usually does, he thinks – Ino, disarrayed and dirty and oh my God how much blood was she sporting actually hers?

He quickly ushers her inside as she mumbles (pretty incoherently) something about a mission. Rather hastily he leads her to the bathroom, turning on the hot water and pulling the turquoise shower curtain to the side. Naruto then sits her down on the closed toilet seat behind her, both arms worriedly holding at her waist, as he demands she remain there, before marching out for a moment's worth.

Ino doesn't mind, she's too tired to even care.

He stumbles back into the bathroom, a small green basket in his arms. Inside is some women's shampoo and conditioner (which didn't surprise her as much as she thought it would), shaving cream, a brand new razor, a bar of soap, along with some unisex body wash and a white loofah. They lay upon some small face towels that she sees poking through the gaps of the basket. Naruto gently sets the container on the corner of his sink, then grabs something to the left of the tap furthest from Ino, and puts it in along with the other supplies.

He proceeds to fall to his knees in front of Ino, his large hands roaming her body as he rambles (probably to keep her from fainting on him) nonstop. "Sorry about the face wash – Jiraya once gave me a bath set for girls in case I ever had one over, but it didn't include anything for the face," he explains with a sorrowful expression at the mention of his former mentor as he starts peeling off her shinobi fishnet accessories. "I didn't think you'd want all the extra crap, so I only brought you the necessities." That would justify the feminine hair products and what she had once thought to be unisex body wash, she muses tiredly.

She stands when he seems to be done, tripping over her own feet into his awaiting arms. He pushes her gently from his torso, helping her wiggle out of the remnants of her ninja wear, seeming more worried rather than shy about the idea of a practically naked woman not a foot away from him.

He grabs the basket, sets it in an inner corner of the tub, and stops the hot water running into the bathtub, already more than half way filled. As he instructs her how to use the shower, he spares her one last concerned look, before hugging her unclothed body (hurriedly, too) tightly, and striding out the door.

She soaks in the bath for ten or so minutes, letting her hair drop out of its usual ponytail and allowing the dried blood clinging to her body to liquify once more. The water glows a somewhat dark burgundy tint, thanks to the dirt too, no doubt, and she knows it is time for her to drain the water and start the shower.

When she is done washing the filth off her figure and out of her hair and wounds, she turns off the water, stepping out of the tub carefully and gripping onto the curtain with one hand for support. She smiles genuinely when she finds a large, orange towel where she previously sat, beneath one of Uzumaki's shirts and a pair of – no doubt the smallest he could find – boxers. The blonde giggles slightly, despite her fatigue, and rushingly dries and clothes herself.

As she carries herself out, Naruto believes his heart is hammering against his ribcage just a tad too harshly. Then he remembers her injuries, and any not-so-innocent thoughts rush from his being. Ino seems quite startled that he is still awake, and he points to the medical box on his coffee table with a heartbreaking smile plastered on his visage.

He addresses her wounds (she has only enough chakra to remain conscious, and even that is slipping slowly), and when she regards how precise and careful he is, her eyes warm. They manage to make small talk about this and that, nothing too important, to mainly ensure she stays awake long enough for her wounds to be taken care of. "I... I didn't know what my parents would say if they saw me like this... and the thought of them having to wake up anyway if I went to the hospital wasn't all that pleasant either..." she mutters, and after a nanosecond, completes what she wishes to say, "Thank you, Naruto. For everything."

He nods as though he understands what it's like to have worried parents, before he grasps that Ino, his beautiful companion, is already fast asleep.

Picking her up from the couch carefully, he grins, sauntering off into the direction of his room.

Ino awakes to a pounding in her head and a numbness coursing through her petite form. Remembering the previous night, she painfully rises. Her throat is dry, her lips chappy, and she's practically made of bandages. Some of the blood has seeped from her deepest wounds, blotches of red not only on her, but on her clothes and the bedsheets as well.

He's at her side in a flash, a glass of water in one hand and pain killers in the other. She takes them greedily, shooting her fellow blond a grateful look. He chuckles at her actions good naturedly, not bothered at all at her bleeding on his things, and helps her up after she swallows her handful of pills.

When they make it to his kitchen, he sits her down, placing a bowl of hot oatmeal in front of her, along with a spoon, a glass of water... and an apricot.

"Sorry," he begins sheepishly. "They were the only things I found that were neither expired nor ramen."

She doesn't mind though, only slightly curious as to why Naruto, of all people, would have a supply of fruits that weren't rotten or stale. Digging in after breathing out 'itadakimasu', her eyes wander, taking in her surroundings. Only slightly bewildered at how tidy the room was (it was Naruto, for Pete's sake, though it wasn't like she knew much about him), she looks up when he plops down across from her, a bowl of hot, steaming noodle soup in his hands.

Ino blanches, dropping the silverware in her hand. The sound seems unusually screechy in the silence, and Naruto glances at her as if she's about to pass out. "You and I," she says with determination, "Are going food shopping after this."

Naruto is, amusingly, whiter than a sheet of paper, and she smirks at his reaction.

Somewhere along the line, a friendship like no other was born.

"What about Hinata?" she presses after a while, grabbing a hold of her beer and chugging it like there was no tomorrow.

He gives her a painful look, flinching at her blatant forwardness, before replying, as always. "I can't. You know why. She seems a lot happier now, with Kiba."

The music pushes against her flesh, and she knows the hangover tomorrow will kill her. Maybe. Nodding as if she approved of his decision and Hinata's new lifestyle, she glares at the pile of empty beer bottles spread out on the table in front of her.

Seriously, why is it so hard to get a medic drunk?

Naruto, as if noting her dismay (and probably having his own frustrations, considering how quickly the Kyuubi neutralizes poisons) strolls off to get them stronger drinks.

In the duration of his leave, Ino thinks, staring blankly into space as she does so. When she had told Naruto to give Hinata a chance, she hadn't thought it'd end so terribly. A good thing Inuzuka thought ahead and helped make the break up as painless as possible. Ino doesn't know what she would have done if Hinata had ended up majorly heartbroken. Then she snickers as another memory pops up. Even after two years since his return, Sakura found it difficult to get Sasuke to talk.

Naruto comes back with a tray of drinks, and Ino turns giddy when she recognizes how hardcore some of the crap he brings along is.

"What are we celebrating again?" she inquires as her fingers coil around some brandy.

"My becoming the Hokage soon?" he confusedly replies, brows furrowed in union.

"Oh. Right," she recalls, completely unperturbed that the guy across from her would soon be the most powerful being in the village (hell, the country). "When does the transaction end?" she quires, genuinely interested.

"In half a year. I think. Obaa-chan plans on teaching me the trade while the paperwork and all that goes through." He grins as the excited words fly out.

"I can already see it," she proclaims dramatically, one arm waving in the air in a semi-circular motion, "Naruto Uzumaki, twenty years old, youngest Hokage in the nation."

Her words make him pout like a lost puppy. "Gaara was what, fourteen or fifteen when he became Kazekage?" he asks rhetorically, and the look he's giving her makes her think he's the cutest thing she's ever seen.

Instead of pouncing him though, she merely rolls her eyes and clasps their hands together. "So? He's all the way in the Wind Nation. You're the strongest and youngest soon-to-be Hokage here."

He brightens up like a light bulb as her words sink in. "You really think so?"

"What?" is her smart reply, because Naruto's just lost her completely, and she's struggling to keep up with the hyperactive blond before her.

"That I'm the strongest shinobi?" he fills in all too happily, and she gives him a disbelieving, 'you must be really dumb' look in turn.

"Uh. Duh. Naruto."

If she thought he was happy before, he was glowing radiantly now, practically bouncing on his cushioned seat. "That's overkill, Naruto," she teases after a while, and he smirks at her, that glint that's been bugging her evident in his large azure eyes.

She decides it isn't worth her while as she takes the brandy bottle and presses it to her lips.

"You wanna dance?"

The banging on her door won't cease to exist and she rubs her temples in hopes of being calm enough not to kill the person at the other end of her door. A wave of something akin to déjà vu hits her, but she shoos off the thought. It would be a damn waste of energy to castrate the person bothering her, and she would have difficulties falling back asleep if that were to be the case.

As she reaches for the handle she stiffs a yawn, noting that the flimsy fabric of her night shirt doesn't appear to be right. The entrance opens with a small bang as she fixes her top, then drags her head up to view the person responsible for waking her up from quite the nice sleep.

Ino's jaw drops as she suddenly feels very, very awake.

The Hokage looks at her expectantly. "I need to talk to you."

She relents after blinking a few times, just to make sure she isn't still dreaming. "Come in, Naruto," she calmly welcomes, moving her body out of the way so he could step in. "I'll go make some coffee."

He fidgets as she asks him the first question that comes to mind. "What was so urgent that you woke up in the middle of the night and decided to run to my apartment, just so you could talk to me?"

The Hokage visibly gulps, brushing the bangs from his eyes several times with his long digits, and she's honestly never seen Naruto so, well, uncomfortably nervous.

Yamanaka inwardly sighs, pointing to the cup of coffee on her table and gesturing for him to sit down and make himself comfy. Taking her own mug in hand, she sets herself down, her free fingers curling around his own, giving them a tight, reassuring squeeze. "What is it, Naruto?"

"The Kyuubi," he murmurs hastily, almost incoherently. "I want to talk to you about the Kyuubi," he adds after a second thought, just to make sure there would be no misunderstandings.

She breathes deep. This is certainly a change of pace, and if she wasn't awake then, her senses are definitely hypersensitive now. "What brought this on?"

"I just realized that I never fully explained everything. And I thought... with us being close now and all, that you deserved to know the full truth. In detail."

Ino rummages through her thick locks, knowing that this could very well take up the rest of the night. "Well, shoot."

She finds herself captivated as the words fall gracelessly from his tongue, his voice filled with unmistakable emotion. The tale is a simple, but heart wrenching one.

He speaks of his childhood. Loneliness. Hatred. Worthlessness. Not knowing why. The abuse and the misunderstandings. Feeling like trash on the side walk. Iruka-sensei. Why he used to fool around. His fake smiles. Coming home daily to empty silence. The ignorance and confusion. Civilians' heartless glares. He was meant to be treated as a hero. That did not stop him from being treated like scum. All he wanted was recognition, all he got was spiteful words in his face.

Life suddenly grows deeper in meaning as his eloquent voice continues to ring in her ears, the sentences chosen to represent his past clear and infinitely breathtaking.

She finds herself understanding, acknowledging his past pain, in her own way. As a child, she merely did what the other girls her age had done: ignore Naruto Uzumaki. Though they might have done it out of loathing or parental disapproval, she didn't. It wasn't because she thought him stupid or annoying, she just wasn't all that interested in class clowns. He was the class prankster, not the thoughtful, mysterious boys she was attracted to. But that didn't stop her from seeing it. That sad look in his sapphire blue eyes. The one he tended to hide so well.

Because even clowns cried. Deep inside.

As more words slip from his pink lips, she finds herself taking back everything negative she had ever thought about the blond. He is kind, caring, honest, trustworthy. Strong, strategically smart, funny, good with people. Helpful, energetic, positive, one who never gives up. It would take forever, she assumes, to list all of his good personality traits.

And he is quite handsome, too, she adds absentmindedly to the list forming in her head after a moment's worth.

She's proud of him, the undeniable respect evident in her sky-blue eyes.

His eyes trail her form throughout his story, and he is relieved that he had chosen to tell her.

She doesn't look at him any differently. Doesn't profoundly apologize for things she had no control over – and back in the past, too. After Sakura had found out, she tried to hide that look in her bright green irises – that looks of absolute pity and guilt. He hated that look. Loathed it more than the looks the villagers had given him, all those years ago. Ino, on the other hand, appears deep in thought, and the way she views him seems to be no different than the way she eyed him before – save, of course, for the hot, lingering gaze she spares him every now and again. He's thankful for Ino.

And in the back of his mind, he hopes that look is exactly what he assumes it to be, because he finds himself falling for the blonde before him – hard.

When the brunette shows up at the barbeque shop Ino visits often, complete with ANBU mask and outfit, Ino knows something's up. She can feel it in her bones. TenTen relays to Ino that she's wanted at the Hokage's at two p.m. sharp, ninja gear ready and the likes. When she hears those words slip out, precisely and emotionlessly, she immediately gives Choji, Shikamaru, and (as of lately) Temari a brief nod, slams her share for the food, and stands up.

The weapons specialist shunshins just as Ino leaves.

She shunshins straight into Uzumaki Naruto's office at 1:59. He seems unfazed as he stamps one last document, placing it in a pile on the right of his desk. Grinning at her, his eyes scan her from head to toe. Her feet are covered in black ankle length high-heeled ninja sandals, her knees and elbows seen through mesh bands. Black spandex shorts, which only went down to her mid-thigh, define the muscles of her legs, and her deep purple skirt, gashed in the middle, rests neatly on her hips, an inch or so longer than her shorts. Her top follows the same design as the one back in her chunin age, though slightly shorter, and the first five or so buttons are undone – only to show her black, skin tight, choker-styled hitai-ate. Hair done in her usual high ponytail, with bangs covering the right side of her face, Ino Yamanaka looks as lovely as ever.

Which is why he hates to have her go.

"Your mission is S-ranked. Solo. Here." He hands her the file of info as he speaks. "There's a somewhat small force of rebels that have been kidnapping genin of the Sand – and you knowhow rare genins are in the Sand – in a village on the outskirts of the nation. As far as Gaara and his personal council and shinobi are concerned, this practically deserted village has no affiliations, and at most, houses about thirty rebels, give or take. More than half should be high chunin, a few will be around jounin level, and an even smaller portion are probably high jounin. The chance of their leaders – two or three in number – being A-ranked or S-ranked is extremely high. So far, about seven genin have been taken. We've no clue what their living conditions are; if they're still living, that is. Gaara's already sent two jounin, only to find their dead bodies two days later at the gate of the village, in body bags. He can't risk anymore shinobi over there. The village will be looking out for Sand ninjas. So he asked me personally if I could send a one man group with... peculiar abilities."

"Which is where I come in," she cuts him in between sentences, eying the missing persons' stats. "Naruto, all of these kids – they're orphans," she points out. Genin orphans with absolutely no possible living family members, nor anyone to come home to. Easy targets. Very easy targets.

"Yes. I want you to find all there is to know about this group. Names, faces, ranks, plans, take your pick. Gaara wants to know the names of the individuals connected to this case. When you're done gathering the information, kill them all. If any of the kidnapped genin are still breathing, break them out and bring them back to Suna as soon as they can walk. If you think you can manage to kill all rebels except one, for interrogation purposes, go ahead. But after everything is secured, contact Gaara so his people can look for any hidden info in the village. Come back as soon as possible." He implores the last part, because he wants Ino back. He wants her safe, and he wants her here.

Ino is his other half, even if neither of them know.

"I'll leave in an hour," she swears, ready to shunshin out of his office straight into her apartment for any extra necessities she might need on her trip.

"Be careful," he calls out, voice heavily laced with concern for her well being.

"I will."

She leaps from the village gates straight into the cast greenery of the forest, quick as light and as soundless as a mute mouse. Her legs keep her going for the rest of the day, and well into the moonless night, and she only rests for a good four hours before she moves yet again. Cutting a day or so off the usual travel time, she arrives at Suna's gate, flashes the gatekeepers her papers, and heads straight for the Kazekage's tower.

Sabaku no Gaara is still the gorgeous redhead that she knows him to be, with those deep turquoise eyes and pale complexion. Twenty-two years old and startlingly powerful.

He gives her coordinates, directions, and any measly knowledge he can scrap from villagers – both civilians and shinobi – and previous cases concerning her targets. She settles for a two hour break after they finish their meeting – enough time to eat, use the restroom, shower, and replenish any lost percentage of chakra by sleep – before leaving again.

Twenty or so feet from the village, she finds a scout. She snorts inwardly at the irony of the situation at hand – after all, this short brunet boy is supposed to be on the look out for people like her, not the other way around. Before the kid can blink, she's taken over his body, and hers drops dead. Cracking her neck, she takes five seconds to adjust to this body, and then leaps to her own, deciding to drag it back into the village.

While Ino carries herself across the field of desert sand (which is oddly surrounded by trees), she glimpses at the boy's memories. He only seems to know about half the people in their raid group by name and face, but he knows all there is about the alliance's future goals and plans, as well as where the kidnapped genin are. She files anything relevant into her photographic memory before picking off how the boy talks and handles himself.

Acting like others was such a bitch.

About halfway through the deserted streets (with the exception of a few, everyone was at some meeting) she runs into her prisoner's best friend, and just as she's about to hide (for fear of ruining her act), the best friend calls out, "Who's the blondie?"

"Some Konoha ninja," Ino states without missing a beat, "Can you believe it? Sand jounin pop up dead, so they decide to send a Konoha shinobi." She rolled her eyes for effect. "Found her a couple yards from us. Before she knew what was going on – BAM. And she's out cold."

Best Friend laughs. "We should take her to one of the cells before she wakes up, and tell the superiors when they're done with their meeting," he suggests.

"Can you pick up her legs then?"

Best Friend does just that, and hoots. "Damn. She's got a nice ass."



When they dump her body in the cellar, Ino takes her chance. The loud cracking of Best Friend's broken neck awakens the other prisoners, and they scramble like lost puppies to the bars of their cells just to see what had occurred. Ino grabs a hold of the dead body so it doesn't fall, before setting it as gently and soundlessly as possible on the cold granite floor.

Taking the keys in her hands, she unlocks her own cell first, pulling her body out, before dispelling her jutsu and killing her former prisoner without hesitation. The prisoners eye her warily, but as she unlocks their cells, stating her purpose for being there, and asking them questions about the village, they begin to believe her every word. As she opens the last cell, a young girl pulls on the hem of her top, eying her mournfully. "She's dead, Onee-sama."

"So it seems."

Feeding the genin and then leading them out of the village carefully was an interesting job, Ino muses as she finds another temporary target for her body possession jutsu. This one is a woman, high jounin, with dark hair and even darker eyes. Extracting as much new information as possible while inside the girl's body, she takes a kunai from the woman's pouch, and stabs her cleanly in the chest, at a specific spot that would give Ino just enough time to let go of the brunette's body before she dies, and Ino dies with her. The meeting adjourns in ten or so minutes, and Ino finds herself preparing for the chaos that she plans to create.

For some reason, she wants this mission to differentiate from her previous ones.

She believes Naruto would be proud.

The streets fill with rebel ninjas, but she has yet to see the S-ranked nin who is responsible for ordering the kidnaps, the murders, and the interrogations of the genin and jounin, as well as anyone who ever had the terrible luck of stumbling upon their little hideout.

Ino Yamanaka counts 23 shinobi before casting her mind body disturbance technique. She has surpassed her father in these many terms, and she stiffs the pride swelling in her belly – having gotten this far – as lifeless bodies drop, one by one.

Killing off the superior and rendering his A-ranked bodyguard unconscious long enough to stalk back into the Sand Village is just a tad bit harder.

Hours later she trips into the village, an almost-dead-but-not-quite body hanging on her back. Practically falling into the Kazekage's office, she grins when she notes the look on the redhead's face.

Ino slams the body on the cold stoned floor, gives Gaara a polite bow, and, wobbling on her heels, leaves.

She's going home, and nothing can stop her.

Days later she collapses at the gates of Konoha from chakra exhaustion and her unattended wounds. She welcomes the oblivion with both arms outstretched.

It's good to be home, she thinks as her lids rise to the familiar pasty ceiling of the hospital. Moving even a finger is borderline impossible, but she doesn't mind – she's alive, she's home, and she's yet to let Naruto down. There is a shrieking noise behind her door, and she winces involuntarily as it attacks her eardrums, still far too sensitive to the world outside her consciousness.

Someone pulls her gently up, setting her against the headboard of her bed, and she calms under their loving touch.

Naruto – the Hokage, she chides herself – has decided to visit her sick bed.

As he presses his lips to her forehead, the pain ceases to exist.

It must be love.

He waltzes into her apartment silently, and she groans when she feels his familiar chakra presence, before slipping out of bed and pacing through the hallway. Usually Naruto's midnight visits are expected, certainly nothing like this sudden one, but nonetheless she gulps down the threats piling up in her throat and plans to show him the hospitality only she is capable of in the midst of the early morning.

"Kurama wants to talk to you," he blurts out when her figure is finally seen.

She manages an audible "huh?", then proceeds to walk into the kitchen like an old lady.


Coffee is her current best friend, not the loudmouthed brat following her around like a lost puppy.

The Hokage decides to ramble on. "He's been bugging me forever now and..."

"You have terrible timing, you know that, Naruto?" She notices her boar ANBU mask sitting idly on the sofa in her living room. Better move it one of these days.

"I'm sorry, Ino-chan! It's just, he won't let me sleep anymore."

Ino snorts. "Should have thought about that before you exposed my super mega-awesome mind powers to Fox-chan."

Naruto pouts, proceeds with his puppy dog eyes, and Ino finds herself saying yes a million and a half times. That look should be illegal is her last thought as she activates her Shintenshin no Jutsu, slipping easily into Naruto's mind and catching her own falling body with his arms. Placing her body carefully next to the boar mask, she probes for the connection that will lead her to the Kyuubi, unsurprised when she finds it quickly and efficiently, as if it was purposely granted.

Ino blinks and notices that she's in a dark, cold and lonely place, more so a sewer than a chamber to hold the Nine-Tailed Fox. The ground ripples beneath her feet and at once she looks down. She's standing in a pool of water, and it quietly pushes away from her calves into an outward direction, as if scared by her sudden coming. Taking a couple hesitant steps, her eyes follow upward, slowly, until she comes face to face with the one and only Kyuubi.

"Well, this is certainly enlightening." His booming voice is low and prideful, and the fox seems a lot more inviting to her than the first time he came in contact with Naruto. "I assumed it would take the brat a lot more effort to get you to agree."

She shrugs. At this point, being even slightly disturbed by the demon fox and the ki pouring out of his physical form flies out of her mind. "He gave me the look." Walking straight towards him, she stops at his cage, eying it with curiosity.

Kurama snorts, muttering, "I don't think anyone's ever defeated that look."

"It's on my bucket list." She mumbles, a hand to her chin, trying to decipher the technique used to have sealed the fox in front of her. "You know, for a giant demon fox, you look really nice." And he does, for an animal at least, with his shiny, thick fur (it appears soft, though Ino has yet to test this theory) and majestic structure.

Sai would love to paint him, she muses with a soft smile.

"You flatter me."

"Not so much flattery as the plain truth. And why is it so depressing here?" She asks, wondering if she would be able to fit between the bars of his cell. "I could make it a forest or whatever, but too much green reminds me of Lee..."

He laughs at her attitude, motioning for her to close the distance between them. "Come closer."

"I don't think I can fit between those bars."

He howls in amusement yet again, and in the blink of an eye she is standing so close to him she can feel his breath on her skin. Inside his cell it is just slightly warmer, a little more hostile, and a lot smaller that the vastness outside. "The seal has never been the same since Naruto and I reconciled," he explains, and she nods dumbly.

"Can I climb on your back?" To this the tailed beast shows his white canines and beacons for her to do as she likes. When she finally reaches the top she nuzzles into his coat, conjuring up a book she thinks he will enjoy.

And then she reads to him, clearly, precisely, beautifully, and Kurama thinks she is the best thing that has ever happened to his container.

He kisses her slowly, so, so slowly, that she finds herself begging for more.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. It wasn't supposed to be like this. It wasn't supposed to be like this.

And yet she could care less; he's touching her with his gentle hands, pressing against her with his defined body, his tongue dancing with hers in a way that no other has been able to. It's hard to breathe because every time she tries all she seems to smell is him, him him him, and he smells like the endless waves, the bark of trees, the wilderness of foxes, and when she senses that her knees go weak. He is overpowering, his touch magnetic, the feeling of his skin against hers enticing. His hands run up and down her back and waist, caressing the smooth skin like only he is able to. Her lids are shut tightly, hands lost in the spikes of his blond hair.

Her own hair tumbles from its ponytail, and she can feel Naruto grin against her lips, before one of his large hands reaches up and entangles in her platinum locks. They are back to touching, and holding, and kissing, and tangling their bodies within seconds, and this is so right that she's not sure how she would react if they stopped at that moment.

She lets him pick her up, and he's grasping her by the legs, taking her through the corridor and inside the darkness of his room. Throwing her on the mattress, he eyes her hungrily, his irises blinking into a passionate crimson shade. She cannot help but blush at the intensity of his gaze, caught up in pools of red that seemed so loving, so lusting.

Ino strokes his cheek, and they are lost in each other once more.

The beauty and the beast make love in the presence of shadows.

Days pass, and she continues to mull over the current situation.

They do not talk. They do not see each other. They do not touch. The fact that she's not sure which of them initiated this lack of contact drives her crazy, and she can't help but assume that it is all her fault. It has always been her fault.

After all, she's wanted the Uchiha for the longest time, and he's loved Haruno just as long.

She wants (wanted) Sasuke. He wanted (wants) Sakura. She sees Uchiha in him, he sees Sakura in her.

They weren't meant to be together.

The system had broken.

It's her first call for a mission in weeks, and she gladly answers it. Staying locked in her apartment is too depressing, and the probability of Naruto being the one assigning her mission is slim to none (they were avoiding each other, after all).

She is comfortable in her skin for the first time since that night as Shikamaru permits her inside, but the surprise at seeing Naruto face to face showers her features in shocking confusion. He bids her awkwardly to come closer with a stupid, hesitant grin playing on his lips, but she remains put for a moment longer.

She is not ready for this. She is not ready for this. She is not ready for this at all. Her legs move of their own accord as her appearance remains stupefied, and Naruto's smile quickly dissipates. Ino's heart shatters as the image invades her corneas, and it replays over and over and over beneath her eyelids as she takes in a deep, shaky breath, closing her eyes to prevent the tears from cascading down.

"I'm sorry."

Shikamaru is lost for the first time in his life, but he is quietly dismissed before he can possible analyze the oddity of their current confrontation.

Yamanaka replies with a soft "I'm sorry I'm not her" as Shikamaru silently closes the door from the other side.

She trusts him enough not to eavesdrop.

Naruto eyes her strangely, and for a second she feels bare before him. "Who are you talking about?"

His gaze is set and she swallows the lump building in her throat. "Sakura." The name tumbles from her lips hoarsely.

He stands, grand and demure, as if the density of the air managed to amplify tenfold while her words took root. "I love you."

Her eyes flash open. "What?"

"I love you."

And within a second she's in his arms, and they're laughing and crying and screaming how much they love each other.

They were each other's half.

Together, they were a whole.

To my lovely confused or slightly curious readers that actually picked up on the lacking fact concerning Ino's mission: it is implied that if she grants Gaara with one of the highest ranking officer in the raid squad, who is totally not dead, Gaara and his interrogators can extract the information from his dying brain cells themselves. But if it makes anyone feel any better, you can also assume that she wrote up a report about everything she learned after she got out of the hospital.

If the time/age range in the specific sections isn't even slightly implied, I'm generally going by year. So every section would be a year after the previous, unless the sections hint at time.

Happy Holidays guys!

Review! I implore you.