Finally ready with the next chapter! Took me much, much longer than I had intended. Struggled a lot with this chapter for some reason, which will likely be evident in a few hiccups here and there. Despite that it's a new record in length as it's over 10k!

Anyway, hope you will like it. Let me know what you think in any case!

I don't own Naruto.

Enjoy!


Chapter 8: Bonding

The two blondes entered the ramen stand and instantly Naruto yelled out to the owner and his daughter. "Oi, old man! Ayame-neechan! I'm back!"

Ayame come out from the back and her eyes widened slightly as a bright smile formed on her lips. "Naruto-kun! Welcome back. My you've really grown!" she exclaimed happily as she leaned over the counter to get a closer look at him. She looked over her shoulder briefly. "Dad! Look who it is!" she yelled before turning back to the blond. "So how have you been? It's been really quiet here with you gone so long."

He rubbed the back of his neck as he sat down on one of the stool, grinning slightly as she shrugged. "I've been fine, Nee-chan. How about you and the old man? Come up with any new ramen yet?" he finished excited at the prospect of trying out new ramen dishes.

Ino just quietly sat down next to Naruto as the two interacted amicably with each other, a soft smile on her face. These people always seemed to put Naruto in a really good mood, she noticed. She looked up to see the owner, Teuchi, walk out from the back with a wide smile upon seeing Naruto. "Well if it isn't our most favourite costumer! You look strong, Naruto." he said as he stood before the two of them. "So what'll it be, hmm? Got plenty of catching up to do with all the ramen you've missed out on!" he laughed.

"Miso pork!" Naruto yelled out instantly, his grin widening as she rocked in his chair like a little child. "And keep 'em coming too, I'm starving!"

She groaned out at the thought of his tasteless table manners she'd be subjected to, again. Why did she even suggest going to get something to eat together? "I'll have a Miso pork too, Teuchi-san." she said calmly, trying to ignore the look of shock she received from Naruto at that. The two stand owners nodded and began preparing their food in the meantime.

"Since when did you stop eating vegetable stuff exclusively?" 'If eating at all, that is..' he muttered the last words to himself with a cough, looking curiously at Ino waiting for a response.

Narrowing her eyes at Naruto for a moment before answering him. She was certain she heard him muttering some sort of insult or the like under his breathe. Deciding to just let it go she simply gave him a rather sheepish grin. "Tsunade-sama kind of.. Beat my dieting habits out of me shortly after she accepted me as he apprentice." she said as a shudder ran down her spine. The first few months of her training on Tsunade had been downright torture for her back then. "Quite literally.. I might add." she continued with a cough.

The blond just broke out laughing at the mental image Ino provided for him. One hand holding his stomach while the other smacked onto the counter a few times. "Haha, must've been hell for someone like you!" he spoke in a brief moment of control before bursting out in laughter again.

"Someone like me?" she asked in a sweet voice, with an innocent smile on her face. "Whatever do you mean by that, Naruto?"

His laughter stopped in an instant as he gulped once. He didn't know why, by that sweet tone just spoke of impending doom to him. He straightened up a little and decided to answer her more seriously. "Someone akin to a figure and diet obsessed fangirl as you were then?" he said and instantly smacked his palm across his face. That was definitely not going to go over well he figured while bracing himself for what followed.

She blinked at him and sat there stunned for a moment. Those were the exact words Tsunade had said to her three years ago, something she begrudgingly agreed on when looking back now. She sighed and turned back to the counter. "..Can't believe you hit the nail on the head so accurately." she muttered out loudly enough for him to hear.

"Huh?" he said, looking up in surprise a the lack of physical retribution from his words. Cocking his head as he stared at her curiously, her words only now sinking in. "What do you mean? You're not angry?" he asked a little unsure.

Chuckling lightly with a shake of her head before propping her head up on her right fist with a soft smile. "More so at myself than you if I were, really. It took some time, but I agree with that being a..painfully accurate description of the kind of kunoichi I was back then." she said calmly, though Naruto didn't miss the mocking tone in her voice when she referred to her younger self as a kunoichi.

Scratching the back of his head he chuckled back at her. "Wow you've really changed, Ino. Other than having gotten so much stronger, I mean!" he said with a large smile. Just then two steaming hot bowls of ramen were placed before the two of them. Naruto instantly twisted himself to turn to the dish with stars in his eyes. "Oooooh my sweet sweet Ichiraku ramen.. how I missed you!" he spoke loudly as he grabbed his chopsticks and began to attack his dish. "Itadakimasu!"

"And you keep making me shift from thinking you have changed.. to realizing you're still the same idiot.." Ino sighed with a palm slowly dragging down her face. Bowing her head in thanks to Ayame followed with a much quieter "Itadakimasu.." before she too began to enjoy her meal. Trying her best to ignore the loud slurps and disgusting sounds that...seemed to not be there at all. She looked over to see Naruto devouring his dish with gusto, but with a seemingly practiced expertise he was wolfing it down -without- the usual slurping sounds and what not. She sweatdropped lightly at that. '..Point proven' she mused, finally turning to her bowl of ramen to gracefully eat her food.

He swallowed the ramen in his mouth and turned to Ino with a cocked head. "Sorry, what did you say?"

"Nothing.. nothing.. just enjoy your food.." Ino sighed out between bites. She figured it'd be unlikely for her to have any kind of conversation with the addict until he had at the very least two bowls in his system. Naruto just nodded swiftly at her and turned his full attention back to his food. Soon enough he put his chopsticks down and grabbed the bowl with his hands, putting it to his mouth to drink the remainder of the broth down.

"Aaaahhh, as delicious as I remember! Seconds pl-.. You're the best Ayame-neechan, thank you!" he said as the second bowl was put before him in the midst of his sentence, which he attacked with renewed vigor.

Ayame giggled into her hand. "You're welcome, Naruto-kun. We figured you'd be needing more than just one. Just don't forget about your lovely companion here, hmm?" she finished with a wink to Ino who just smiled back at her with a knowing smirk. 'Too late for that'

Naruto was completely ignoring the two as he continued to devour his second bowl of ramen at frightening speed. After eventually slamming the empty bowl back down he wiped his mouth with a content sigh. "Keep 'em coming!" he yelled with a wide grin. However as the third bowl was put before him he began eating it at a much slower pace, while still much faster than any normal person.

Ino raised an eyebrow at this development and snickered to herself. She really didn't know what to think at this point. Finishing her own meal with a delighted sigh before placing her chopsticks down over the bowl. "Thank you for the food Ayame-san, delicious as always." she said with a light bow of her head, smiling at her before turning to her fellow blond. Hoping the slowed pace of eating indicated he was capable of conversation by now. "So.. Naruto.. You were holding back against me, weren't you?"

He blinked and swallowed his ramen before looking over to Ino in surprise. He noticed the glint in her eyes and sighed, bowing his head a little. "Y-yeah.. Kinda."

The blonde Tokubetsu Jonin chuckled at this and just smirked, folding her hands under her chin. "Figured as much.. Why? I thought you were eager to show everyone how much you've grown?" she asked with a slowly rising right eyebrow.

"Well.. I still got to show plenty, didn't I?" he said with a sheepish chuckle. "Besides.. I didn't want to risk serious injuries on you." he added before turning back to his ramen. Nerves began to interfere with his desire to eat however as he felt the air around him drop several degrees.

"I'm not so weak and frail as I was three years ago, damn it!" Ino snapped at him, turning her gaze away from him with a tick mark throbbing on her forehead.

Naruto sighed deeply and lifted the bowl up to his lips, gulping down the broth despite the sudden mood, feeling it to be a shame to let it cool off. Setting the bowl back down her turned to Ino, who seemed even more agitated at having been ignored. He sighed again before adapting a more serious look on his face. "I didn't mean to say you're weak, Ino. Honestly, you really surprised me with how much stronger you've gotten. Your expertise at taijutsu along with your speed makes you really hard to fight without being serious."

Ino's eyes widened as she looked over to Naruto, surprised by his serious tone and even a serious look on his face. Ayame raised an eyebrow from behind the counter as well as she glanced over her shoulder at the pair upon hearing Naruto speak in such a serious tone. Before Ino could say anything, however, Naruto continued speaking. "It's just that.. Aside from the occasional mission Ero-sennin had me do, my only real sparring 'partner' was him. Against Ero-sennin I can just freely throw anything and everything at him, and know he can easily take it.." he paused for a moment as he sweatdropped a little himself before speaking again, scratching the back of his head. "I'm not sure how much of what I've been throwing at him can be as easily swatted aside by anyone other than him. So yeah.. I kinda feared I might go way overboard and ended up taking too some silly tactics in our fight instead.."

Ino gawked at him, both eyebrows high on her forehead as she processed his words in her thoughts slowly. She briefly glanced over to Ayame who looked as surprised as her, but quickly adapted a soft smile and nodded once before going back to work. Blinking once she finally collected her thoughts as she peered at Naruto with an inspecting gaze. "That.. Actually made a whole lot of sense.. Sorry for snapping at you, and thank you.. I guess. Though that makes me wonder. How strong are you -really- then?"

Pondering it for a moment Naruto closed his eyes as he tried to recall Jiraiya's description of his level to Tsunade. "Well.. Ero-sennin mentioned to Baa-chan that I was at High Chunin, Mid Jonin level. Held back only by inexperience and.." he sighed and hung his head. "Mentally not being a Jonin."

Laughter sounded from the ramen stand as not only Ino broke out laughing, but Ayame seemed to hear as well if the muffled giggling sound into the hand covering her mouth was any indication. "Hahaha, I really have to agree with Jiraiya-sama on that! With all that stupid crap you pulled in our spar!" she exclaimed with a cheerful voice, ignoring Naruto's pouting face. Her eyes filled with amusement as she watched him cross his arms and turn away with a huff, grumbling something about cruel women.

"Pff! What makes you Jonin material then, huh? I'm stronger than you!" he said in a childish voice, pouting while trying to ignore the women's laughter.

Taking a few moments to reign in her laughter she smiled at her fellow blond, her eyes still twinkling with amusement. "Tokubetsu Jonin, Naruto.. There's a difference. And a fairly big one in my case, I reckon."

Naruto shrugged his shoulders once with another huff coming from him, muttering loud enough for Ino to hear. "Still a Jonin though.." he then turned to Ino with narrowed eyes. "How -did- you become a Jonin anyhow?"

She raised an eyebrow and just stared at him incredulously for a moment. "Really? I've been honored to be the apprentice of none other than Senju Tsunade-sama. By far the best in the field of Medical Ninjutsu.. And you're seriously asking me how I got my promotion to Tokubetsu Jonin?"

Blinking a few times before it dawned on him suddenly. He chuckled quietly as a blush formed on his cheeks. "Got me there, Ino.." he said sheepishly. "Hmm.. Guess you must be a pretty awesome Medic nin then, right? To be promoted past Chunin for it."

"Actually.. It wasn't -just- my skill in Medical Ninjutsu that got me promoted." Ino started with a proud smile on her lips. She still remembered the day of her promotion well. While Tsunade wasn't above handing some praise to her directly, it was not in abundance. And that day, she had heard nothing but from her master. Looking back at Naruto to see she still had his full attention, she continued. "As I'm sure you had figured already, I've focused on improving my Taijutsu as much as I could on the side of my medic training with Tsunade-sama."

Naruto was nodding swiftly at her a few times, giving her his full attention as she explained. Most likely eager to find out what it takes to be promoted, she figured. Chuckling inwardly at him. "Reason for me focusing on Taijutsu as much as I have is, for one, to preserve chakra. I don't have the largest of chakra pools, and Medical Jutsu's take a lot of it. So if I'm to tend to wounds and such, I can't go and fling my chakra into an endless streak of jutsu like you can. So I trained to become more capable of defending myself with a focus on keeping my chakra output to a minimum, Taijutsu felt like the best answer to that, for me. After all, everyone knows that Lee can't mold chakra. But he's still an incredible fighter, with just his Taijutsu."

"Plus.. In taking up a form of Taijutsu that puts emphasis on -evading- enemy attacks, I can prevent myself from getting badly hurt. After all, can't tend to my team's injuries if I become incapacitated myself. Sure, I supposedly could still be capable of healing myself first. But that'd mean I'd have less chakra left to aid my team and friends, which as I said.. I don't have in sheer abundance like you have for example." she finished her explanation and was surprised to see that Naruto seemed to fully understand what she told him as he just nodded once and took on a thinking pose. Cocking her head a little she waited curiously for his response. She noticed from the corner of her eyes that Ayame was listening to the both of them with rapt attention as well, as there were no other costumers currently.

Rubbing his chin for a moment he pondered on Ino's words. "So.." he began, turning to the blonde. "You trained to defend and fend for yourself in a particular style that focuses on dodging and evading before offense in order to avoid situations where you can't perform your main role as a Medic nin? Instead of just support, you can take an active part in a fight while taking care to, ideally, remain unharmed yourself and have chakra left to tend to possible injuries your team has sustained?" he droned on seemingly more to himself than to Ino as he was still in his thinking pose and hardly even looking at Ino.

Ino blinked and slightly gawked at his surprisingly accurate analysis. That's twice now in a short amount of time that he hit the nail on the head almost perfectly. A smile slowly began to form as her surprise faded to the back of her mind. The ramen girl seemed impressed with the blond as well as she stared at him with awe clear in her eyes. 'Probably first time he showed a shred of intelligence in here..' she mused with a short giggle in her head.

"That why Baa-chan promoted you? Because you trained in a way that improved your capacity as Medic nin when out on missions?"

Naruto's voice broke her out of her musings and she chuckled, shaking her head a little. "Really.. Where did that idiot from before go? Acting all smart and all. But yes, that is essentially it. A Medic nin that's suited for front-line combat situations is not very common as most aren't really that capable fighters. After having me gain more field experience through a series of missions she eventually decided to promote me to my current rank of Tokubetsu Jonin. That was about two months ago now."

A soft chuckling came from behind the counter as Ayame leaned over it a little with a twinkle in her eyes. "Oh yes, I remember that day Ino. You and your team came here to celebrate. That team-mate of yours almost ate more than Naruto-kun tends to, even though he kept complaining he'd still have preferred to celebrate with BBQ." she said cheerfully. She hadn't minded his constant complaints at all, as the boy did compliment the ramen more than once during their time here.

Naruto was just staring at Ino in shock, slowly pointing a shaking finger up at her. His seriousness crushed by Ayame with that tidbit of information it seemed. "Y-you.. Wanted to celebrate w-with.. Ramen?!"

Ino pinched the bridge of her nose with a deep sigh, grumbling darkly to herself before sending a glare at Ayame for mentioning that. Taking a deep breathe to calm herself she rubbed her temples. "Yes, I chose to celebrate by treating everyone to ramen instead of BBQ which had become tradition for us. I figured it'd be less disgusting watching Chouji eat ramen. Plus I was paying, so it was the cheaper option! So stop looking at me like that! It means nothing." she half snapped at him while crossing her arms, averting her eyes from both of them with a light hue of pink on her cheeks.

"I can vouch for her on that, Naruto-kun. She definitely did not come here at least once a week for the past two and a half years or so.." Ayame said with a subtle grin on her lips. The way these two interacted with each other just made it far too tempting for her to tease them a little.

A tick mark appeared on Ino's forehead and both her eyes and lips twitched slightly. Trying her hardest not to honor the jab with any response while fighting the blush coloring her cheeks. So she had grown to somewhat like the food from this particular ramen stand, so what?

He nearly dropped off his seat as he roared out in laughter, both his hands holding his stomach as he bellowed out in glee. Only interrupted by the occasional heaving for air. The idea of the most diet-obsessed girl he knows having seemingly grown a liking to ramen was too much for him. Completely oblivious to Ino's growing ire he tried to straighten himself and turned to her. "Haha, y-!" before he could even utter a single word he found himself on the receiving end of the back of Ino's left fist. Sending him flying out his seat and right out from the ramen stand, his body dragging across the ground a little before coming to a halt. His head spinning from the blow as he lay on the ground in a daze.

Ino turned her back to the blond while crossing her legs and propped her head up on her right fist. Her left hand tapping on the counter as the vein on her forehead bobbed in agitation still. Looking up to see Ayame grinning sheepishly at her. Despite her agitation her voice remained surprisingly calm. "Hurt me deep, Ayame.. Just know I hate you."

"Well at least you dropped the formality to me. No need for the fa├žade any more now, hmm?" Ayame countered with a chuckle.

"Really hate you.."

Leaning over the counter she cheekily poked Ino's cheek with a snicker. "Consider ourselves even now." she said with a wink to which Ino puffed and looked away before muttering. "..Well played."

Naruto stumbled back into the stand, rubbing his head with a groan of pain. Slowly wandering back to his seat. "Ugh.. The hell happened? One moment I was laughing, the next.. all went black.."

Sending Ayame a glare to cut off any more witty remark from her friend she turned to Naruto with a deadpan look. "Call it justice for being rude to a lady."

"Ladies don't retort to violence.."

"What's that, idiot?" she snapped.

"N-nothing, nothing!" he quickly said and raised his hands in front of his chest in a self-disarming manner. Glancing to Ayame he noticed she was grinning in amusement. He knew she was always cheerful and nice, but he couldn't remember her sporting such a mischievous grin before. Looking at Ino he cocked his head, his gaze shifting between the two once. ".. Did I miss something?"

"*Sigh* Obviously. Seeing as Ayame.." Ino glared at her briefly. "..already ran her mouth off, I'll just say it before she gets more fun on my account.. Yes, I've gotten to like an occasional bowl of ramen. And yes I've been coming here rather frequently. Though lately that's been more cause I enjoy chatting with Ayame than anything else." she said matter of factly.

"Just giving my dear gossip queen a taste of her own medicine, is all."

"Sure.. Embarrass me first, then be all sweet to me.."

Glancing between the two some more Naruto couldn't help but wonder just how much he had missed in the past three years. "I.. See, I guess. Doesn't explain how you.." he said, pointing at Ino accusingly. "..started liking ramen though."

"I never really disliked ramen, per say. I disliked the fact it was.." she paused for a moment, sighing softly with her head hanging down a little. ".. it was 'unhealthy and bad for my diet'.." she shuddered. "Glad Tsunade-sama..'helped'..me get past that."

Naruto nodded once with a big grin. "Yeah, makes sense I guess. You can't really not like ramen after all! It's the king of foods! Speaking of which.. How about another bowl for me, Ayame-neechan?!"

"You're hopeless, you know that right?" Ino asked as she sweatdropped at him. Ayame just nodded with a smile and looked over her shoulder to the door leading to the kitchen. "Dad, another one for Naruto-kun!"

"About time!"

He was practically bouncing in his seat waiting for only his fourth bowl still. He was much too distracted with their conversations to think of ordering his next bowl. Thinking to what they were discussing earlier made him remember something that had popped to his mind before Ayame joined their conversation. "So Ino.. Being a Tokubetsu Jonin now, does that mean you can actually legitimately boss your team around like you did three years ago?"

Her eyes narrowed at him with a little twitch of her right eye. She did not enjoy that insinuation of his, even if aside from the not so subtle insult it was still a valid question. Deciding to just let it slide, for now, she nodded once. "Technically, yes. Provided we're not on a mission with Asuma-sensei or another Jonin I -could- hand out all the orders and pull rank whenever I'd like. But.. For us, Shika's still the team captain despite me now outranking him. After all, he's the strategical genius. Not me. Unless it's about anything medical related of course, then even Asuma-sensei has no say in the matter." she said with a cheerful, almost sing-song voice at the end causing Naruto to sweatdrop. 'Almost thought she was less bossy.. Hah, what a joke.' he thought to himself.

"Wait.. You three don't always go on missions with Asuma-sensei? I thought you were a team?" he asked. Just then a steaming bowl of ramen was placed before him by Ayame. Sending her a grateful grin he eagerly began eating again, though at a much slower pace as he occasionally glanced at Ino indicating he was in fact still paying attention to their conversation.

Shaking her head once. "Of course not. Since all three of us are no longer Genin we're no longer an official team. Surely even you know that once you become Chunin you begin taking missions with other teams and the like, right? Though, admittedly, the three of us are still put on the same team quite often. We -are- the second generation of the Ino-Shika-Cho formation after all!"

Swallowing a mouth full of ramen he nodded at her in understanding. That did make sense he figured. "What about everyone else?" he asked before turning back to his food.

Tapping her chin a few times in thought as she pondered on the subject a moment. "Actually.. now that I think of it, most of our age group are still kept together most of the time. Hinata, Shino and Kiba are still going on mission together mostly. Though that's not surprising as they're practically -the- best potential set up to become an elite tracking team. Neji and Lee's team did become an official four-man cell with Gai-sensei too. Typically named 'Team Gai'."

His eyes sparked in recognition for a moment as he lifted the bowl into his hands and drank down the broth before putting the empty bowl back on the counter with a grin. "Another one please.."

Chuckling softly to the blond Ayame nodded and turned around to help her father out back, leaving the two to their conversation. For now.

"Speaking of Fuzzy Brows.. I know I asked it earlier during out match, but did you train with them these three years? You moved just like them a few times, plus.. Bushy-Brow sensei is -the- Taijutsu expert.." he asked as he turned back to Ino, not missing the groan erupting from her.

She sighed out and shuddered once at the memory. "Once again right on the mark, Naruto.. Fine. Yes, I trained with Gai-sensei and his little mini-me.. After I had a good grasp of the essentials of Medical Ninjutsu and Tsunade-sama was satisfied with her..physical conditioning..of me.." another shudder shot down her body. The Hokage had definitely not been gentle with her, specially the first few months. "Anyhow.. After that was done, I started thinking of how to become the best Medic nin I could be. I spoke to Tsunade-sama about wanting to learn Taijutsu, and listed my reasons which I mentioned earlier. That was the first time she openly admitted she was proud of me as her apprentice too. She began teaching her form of Taijutsu to me but.." she smiled sheepishly as she began scratching her neck in a very Naruto like manner. "It felt too.. Brutish, for me. I had a hard time feeling comfortable fighting like that. So eventually.. She told, no ordered, me to go seek help from Gai-sensei. I'm really grateful for his help, and that of Lee's, but.. I prefer to keep that part of my training blocked out from my memories if possible.." she finished with a deep sigh, her head hanging down a little in defeat.

He nodded at her, only taking his eyes off of her once as he turned briefly to Ayame to thank her for his new bowl of ramen. Nodding again as he began eating his ramen, his right eye still gazing to Ino as she explained how she had ended up training with the two spandex wearing Taijutsu experts. A wide grin formed on his lips as she had finished. "Wow.. That's very unyouthful of you to say, Ino.."

For a brief moment fear filled Ino's eyes at those words, looking around her swiftly before she realized it was Naruto who had said that. She definitely did not want those two morons whining and pouting at her! She turned to Naruto who still grinned widely before reaching out, grabbing his collar roughly and dragging him close to her and away from his precious ramen. "I swear on my father's name.. If you dare start talking like those two, I'll develop a Medical Jutsu just for you to remove all taste buds from your tongue so you can NEVER taste your precious ramen again. Clear, Uzumaki?!"

Eyes wide as saucers and his jaw nearly touching the ground he meekly nodded at her in utter shock at what she had just threatened him with. Trembling all over he quickly shot back to his spot and turned his full attention to his ramen with a nervous glance to Ino every now and then. 'E-Evil woman..' he muttered to himself.

Ayame in the mean time had broken out laughing, supporting herself on the counter with one hand as the other was clutching her stomach. That was most likely the most terrifying threat Naruto had ever heard coming his way. Judging by the look on his face, it was definitely the most horrifying thing he could imagine ever happening. Trying to reign in her amusement a little she turned to Ino, who sat with a smug grin across her face and her arms crossed. "Th-That was cruel.. Ino..! Hahah!"

"Pfah, was being nice. Bad enough I had to endure those two. I'll go back to being a shallow dieting girl before I suffer a third idiot spouting that youth nonsense." Ino said with a huff, ignoring the flinch from Naruto as he quietly ate his ramen. Savoring the heavenly taste of it. "Besides.. It's gotten him to actually eat at a human pace, too." she added with a snicker. Hearing Naruto mutter something under her breathe she raised an eyebrow. "What's that now, idiot?"

"I said I'm gonna tell Baa-chan you're threatening me with evil Medic jutsu.." he repeated a her with a whiny pout, quickly returning back to his ramen before angering the blonde again.

Ino's grin instantly vanished as she paled at those words, eyes widening in horror. 'Noooooo...' Leaning over to Naruto she insistently started poking his right arm. "Please don't! Do you have any idea how out of her mind angry she gets at misuse of Medic jutsu?! Please don't tell her! I won't destroy your taste buds, promise!" she pleaded, cold sweat running down the back of her head. This all caused Ayame to burst out into a new fit of giggles.

Naruto just blinked a few times, staring at Ino as if she'd grown a second head. It took him several moments to realize what had spooked Ino. He chuckled before a small grin formed on his lips. "What? You're not scared of the old hag are you?"

Her eyes narrowed and she snarled lowly. "Would you be if I told her you kept calling her an old hag?" That had the desired effect as now Naruto began paling as well. He shot up and held out his hand to the special Jonin. "T-truce?" he asked quickly. Nodding at him, Ino shook his hand with a snicker. "Truce. No telling Tsunade-sama on each other for anything.."

"Haha.. Y-you two.. A-Are ridiculous.. Hahah!"

"Ooh, we are are we? Then how about we tell Teuchi-san of how his daughter is mocking some of his most loyal costumers, hmm?" Ino said, turning to the still laughing Ayame with a sly grin. Naruto just looked on as Ayame's laughing came to an abrupt halt. Ino leaned forward a little. "Wouldn't that be a good idea, A-ya-me-chan..?" she said sweetly.

While she didn't pale like the two blondes had at each other's threats, she definitely felt a shiver shoot down her spine at the thought of her father lecturing her. She leaned over the counter quickly with her hand held out to both of them. "Truce."

"I thought as much!" Ino said as she chuckled, shaking Ayame's hand before all three began laughing.


After staying for another hour in the ramen stand the two blondes said their goodbyes to Ayame before walking out the stand. They had spent their time with idle banter while Naruto made sure to devour a couple bowls of ramen more as Ino and Ayame were engaged in girl talk with one another. He had been wondering on how those two had gotten to be such seemingly good friends, seeing them talk so freely with each other.

As they walked down the streets he couldn't help but look around him at all the passing people with growing confusion. It just hit him that it seemed much more had changed in the past three years than he was aware of at first. Or maybe it was starting to change before already but he had failed to notice it? Ino noticed his almost jittery way of looking all around himself and turned her head to him with curiosity burning in her eyes. "What's wrong? Looking for someone?"

"Huh?" he uttered, being snapped out of his thoughts by the blonde before her words sunk in. "Oh.. Just, I don't know. It's strange but somehow it seems like no one's..glaring at me..like they used to. Surely they recognize me, right? Haven't changed -that- much, have I?" he asked Ino while going back to looking around himself. Returning the occasional polite nod to him with a small smile forming on his lips.

She blinked her eyes once and cast a quick glance across the streets to see what he was talking about. Chuckling softly she smiled and prodded his arm gently. "Of course they know who you are. You're none other than Jiraiya-sama's hand-picked student, after all."

"But that's now what I mea-" "I know.. But that's what they're seeing by the looks of it, don't you agree?" Ino said, interrupting him mid-sentence as she gave him a knowing look. She couldn't help but smile as she saw the realization sparking in Naruto's eyes at the meaning of her words. His smile grew slightly and he nodded once with a slightly bowed head, surprising Ino with his rather mild reaction. Until he looked up at her with a gleam in his eyes that could only be described at happiness. "I guess so..!" he said cheerfully, going back to glancing around.

Ino was glad he looked away again as it allowed her a brief moment to fight back a subtle pinkish hue that formed on her lips when she met his beaming eyes just now. Taking a short breathe while shaking her head lightly. 'The heck was that..' she muttered to herself.

"Thanks.. Ino.." Naruto said quietly, a little more subdued as he just smiled at her. She returned the smile and nodded her head at him. "You're welcome, Naruto."

He nodded back before looking at where they were going, and then into the opposite direction where his home was. Pondering for a moment he turned back to Ino curiously. "So.. Where are we going anyhow?"

Looking at him with her right eyebrow arching up a little. "Ehm.. No where in particular? You sorta just followed me when we left Ichiraku's." she said, bursting out giggling at his dumbfounded look as his jaw dropped. Reigning in her amusement she seemed to think of something for a moment. "Now that you mention it though.. I guess going somewhere a bit more..private would do. There's still a number of things I'd like to talk to you about.. one on one.." she said more seriously, not really making any eye contact as she seemed deep in thought.

The blonde Genin blinked at the sudden serious tone to her voice, craning his neck at her before he shrugged his shoulders. She'd tell him when they were alone he figured, whatever it was she wanted to talk about. "Sure, I guess.." He looked back down the road before his gaze trailed up a little, something apparently having caught his eye. "I know just the place! Come on!" he said, snapping her out from her musings as he picked up the pace a little while sending her a grin over his shoulder. "I know just the place where no one generally ever comes."

She sighed inwardly once at him before nodding and following Naruto quickly. Curious as to where exactly they were going, which was a welcomed distraction from the subject she had been thinking about.


The sun had just started setting, casting a subtle orange glow over the village of Konoha. The two blondes slowly walked along the edge of the Hokage Monument, with the former taking in the spectacular view the sunset granted from so high. Ino was taking in the sight for several moments before turning to Naruto with a bright smile. "Wow, this place is amazing. Never thought the view from up the Hokage Monument was this beautiful." she spoke cheerfully, her eyes beaming as she looked back over the village.

Scratching the back of his head a little he joined Ino in enjoying the view while chuckling. "I know. I used to come here all the time when I wanted to be alone. You know.. Get away from the stares and all. Often sat down for hours on the Yondaime's head, just thinking." he said in a slightly more sullen tone.

"Then.. Why'd you bring me here? Kinda sounded this spot is rather special to you.."

Naruto just shrugged once, not thinking anything of it as he glanced over to the blonde Jonin. "I don't really mind showing you. Besides, you already know my deepest secret.. Makes this one seem rather silly to want to keep to myself."

Gawking at him for a brief moment, she eventually just snickered to herself and nodded. Her right hand moving to flick her index finger across the side of Naruto's head. "Heh, insightful idiot.." she said with a soft voice, winking at him.

He just muttered something under his breathe about not being an idiot and mean, loudmouth gossip queens. After several minutes of silence he looked back to Ino. "So.. What did you want to talk about, Ino?"

A deep sigh sounded from the blonde's lips as she sat herself down, motioning for Naruto to sit down as well. "A few things, mostly related to one another really.. I don't really know how much Jiraiya-sama has told you about things that happened in the past three years, but you do know what happened five months ago..right?" she asked, a little uncertain about the breaching the subject.

"Five months ago? What exactly are you talking ab-..oh wait..right.." Naruto said, letting out a deep sigh at the end as he looked down to the ground. "Yeah.. I know what..he..did.."

The way he nearly spat out that word made her look at him in surprise. She couldn't disagree with him, she felt quite similar about it after all, but she was not expecting such a tone from Naruto. "I see. Then you know he's officially a wanted Missing-Nin now, I assume?"

Nodded lightly once, his right hand clenching around his knee as he thought back to when he first heard it from Jiraiya five months ago. "Low-mid A-rank Missing-Nin.. He must've gotten really strong to get such a high ranking in the bingo book.." he muttered loud enough for Ino to hear. "When Ero-sennin first told me I wasn't sure what to think of it, hadn't been thinking about it for ages. He also told me that with this, he now had no place to return to here in Konoha." he chuckled lightly once, idly gazing over the village with a sullen look in his eyes. "I snapped at him, then stopped talking to him for almost a week. I wanted to save my judgement of Sasuke till I could look him in the eye again, but.. Guess that wasn't going to happen."

"Sounds somewhat similar to how I reacted. The not knowing what to think part, that is. I didn't throw a hissy fit at my master for speaking the truth. I can understand, though I bet Jiraiya-sama wasn't pleased?"

"He wasn't, no. But he gave me my space during that time and just waited for when I was willing to talk about it. He accepted it when I, somewhat begrudgingly, agreed with him.. That bastard really went too far to possibly be allowed back as a Shinobi of Konoha." he sighed out in defeat. He had secretly been hoping there was still a chance to make the Uchiha see reason. But he had practically made himself an enemy to Konoha now, which had been a bitter pill to swallow.

Ino gently placed her hand on Naruto's upper arm, offering him a small smile. "Tsunade-sama will be glad to hear that, I wager. She was rather worried you might gotten it in your head that there was still a chance. Actually, I'm a bit relieved myself as well."

"A.. Chance? Heh, if only. I thought about it nonstop that week, trying to think of any way of somehow making everything right and get him to return. But.. That's just impossible. He -killed- three Leaf Shinobi, and severely wounded a fourth, when the squad came across him on a mission. No way that can just be..made right again..right?" he asked, looking up to Ino with a sliver of doubt in his eyes still.

"No, there's not." she replied curtly, surprising the blond. "I already lost all respect for him when he left three years ago and I.. Ahem.. frolicked around in your head a little to find out what happened.." she looked away a little, not to proud of her misconduct back then. Though she hadn't felt regret for it. "When Tsunade-sama let me read the report of the surviving Chunin from the squad that encountered Sasuke, I was shocked. But thinking of what I've seen in your memories.. it really shouldn't have been that surprising.."

They both fell silent after that with a nod of agreement to each other, lost to their own thoughts. Remembering the day they learned of the first sighting of Sasuke since he had abandoned the village. He had come across a squad of four Chunin, who were on their way back to the village from a low B-rank mission. After a brief, but heated, argument from the squad captain with a barely responsive Sasuke the captain ordered his team to subdue and capture the Uchiha. The resulting fight was relatively short as the raven-haired boy easily evaded all of their attacks with his Sharingan and made quick work of the Chunin with his sword and advanced usage of his Chidori.

According to the report of the only surviving team member of that encounter the Uchiha had spoken few words, but all lingering on the border of treason. He held no reservations against them in battle, which was evident by the count of three deaths. The fourth only survived because Sasuke had deemed them too weak to take more of his time. He wanted to test his strength against them, but said he was thoroughly disappointed and left. Leaving the only survivor a bloody mess amidst his fallen comrades, to be found by a group of traveling merchants who had saved his life with their limited knowledge of first aid. The merchants were on their way to Konoha, and took the wounded man with them as well as the fallen Chunin after having covered them up respectfully.

The news of what had happened to the group of Chunin had a great impact amongst the population of Konoha. Where the Uchiha was 'just' a runaway in the eyes of more than a few, it had become more than obvious it was much worse than that. Not a week later Sasuke was officially listed as a Missing-Nin of Konoha, given a low A-rank classification along with an 'Engage with caution' warning.

The shock had been strongest amongst the youths that had been dubbed 'The Konoha Ten'. It was, after all, their former class-mate or peer that had been placed in the bingo book, labeling him their enemy. While most of them had lost their respect for Sasuke during and after the failed retrieval mission, it still made them feel uneasy to think of him as an enemy. Kiba and, surprisingly, Shikamaru had been the most outspoken figures on their judgement of the Uchiha for his deeds. Both Neji and Shino had quickly agreed with them, while the rest remained more impassive about the subject. Not one of them argued against it, however.

It had been entirely different for Naruto. After he snapped at Jiraiya he withdrew himself to his thoughts for several days. While he was thoroughly shocked about it at first, and angry at Jiraiya for his remark, there had been a myriad going through him. Regret and guilt came after his anger at Jiraiya had faded a little. If he had been stronger back then, trained as seriously as he had been with Jiraiya the past two and a half years he might have been able to stop Sasuke. Dragged him back to Konoha and with that preventing him from killing three fellow Leaf Shinobi.

Sadness came after that when he finally accepted that his master was right. If Sasuke really did do what the report had said, he would no doubt end up being listed as an official Missing-Nin now. Meaning there was no way for him to somehow get him to come back to Konoha with him, as he simply had no place there anymore. That led to a return of his anger, but this time at his former team-mate for having fallen so far into his own darkness that he was willing to take the lives of Shinobi of Konoha. That anger eventually faded and formed his resolve and his determination.

"I'm still gonna drag his sorry ass back, you know.." he said in a low voice, making Ino look up from her own thoughts in surprise.

"You can't be serious! He-" she began but was cut off as Naruto raised his hand at her while sighing deeply. "I know.. That's why I have to, before that idiot does even more harm.. It's my fault he got away in the first place, so it's only right I bring him back so he can atone for his actions. Even if..that means he'll likely be trialled a traitor."

She gawked at him for a moment, not really sure what to say. Did he really blame himself for what happened? She sighed out and hung her head a little, of course he did. Looking up to him she was about to speak up but again got cut off by his voice.

"Besides.. I still have that promise to keep to you.." he started, a little uncertain as he looked away. "Even though there's been absolutely no sign of her at all.. Best method of getting Sakura to come back, is to drag Sasuke back..right..?"

Her eyes went wide at his words, shimmering slightly with unshed tears as she quickly averted her eyes from him. Sakura's absence had been really painful in the past three years. As disappointed as she was of her best friend, she couldn't bring herself to hate her for even a second. She had tried not to think of the pink haired girl, but specially the first year she failed at that more often than not. At least with Sasuke they knew were, or with who at the very least, he was. And that he was alive. There had been nothing to hint to Sakura's whereabouts at all, or even that she were still alive in the first place.

"N-Naruto.. How do you.. even k-know she's..alive?" she stuttered out, sniffing once as she brought her knees up under her chin and wrapped her arms around them.

The blond shrugged once and stared out into nowhere as he shifted uncomfortably. "Still that same feeling I had just after she left.. She's alive, somewhere.. She's smart, and more capable than she may have seemed. I just know she's.. with him."

"B-but if she's really with Sasuke.." she started but felt at a loss for words, not sure what she was thinking even. She looked over to her fellow blond from the corner of her eyes while biting down on her lower lip lightly. "He killed three fellow Shinobi, Naruto.. She can't seriously be ignoring that, can she..?"

"Hmm.." Naruto hummed out as he shifted again, deep in thought of his other runaway team-mate. He eventually looked to Ino with a sullen smile. "Doubt she knows.. Which is for the best, I guess.. Maybe she'll come to see reason when she finds that out.."

"Tsunade-sama still won't be kind to her.."

"No.. But if Sakura had nothing to do with what that bastard did, and might do.. She could still come back home. Even if she'll be on probation for quite a while, things might.. I dunno, remotely go back to normal..?"

A small smile broke out on her lips at his optimism, she was glad that part of him hadn't changed. "Heh.. That'd be nice.. Thank you, Naruto.." she said softly, looking him deep in his eyes.

He smiled back at her and gave her a thumbs up. "No problem, Ino. I never break my promises, remember? Besides.." he said as he quickly averted his eyes, a light blush on his cheeks. "I kinda owe you that much at least.."

Blinking once she cocked her head and raised her right brow, curiosity sparkling in her eyes. "Huh? What could you possibly owe me for? What could I have possibly done for you to be indebted to me?"

Shifting once again Naruto just kept his head turned from Ino, finding the tree line in the distance very interesting for some reason. "Accepting me. Despite having the..Kyuubi.. sealed in me. You're the only one of our age group that knows, and you didn't hate me for it.. Still seeing me, for me. So yeah, I feel like I owe you.. Big time."

She listened closely to his words and only nodded once with a smile, prodding him with her index finger again. "You don't owe me anything for that, idiot." she said, her voice carrying something Naruto couldn't really put hit finger around. It somehow made it not feel like an insult, at all. "I'd say it's not a big deal, but.. Obviously it is. Still, nothing you owe me for Naruto. Consider it us being even after all the times I was such a bitch to you, hmm?" she asked with a light snicker in her voice.

"Hey you're not a bitch!" Naruto said almost instantly as he turned back to her finally. Though his expression became slightly more sheepish shortly after. "At least not when you're trying to be nice.."

Ino smacked the palm of her right hand across her face as she sweatdropped. "Ugh.. You just contradicted your own protest against my statement.. You're hopeless." she groaned out before chuckling quietly.

Crossing his arms with a puff, Naruto looked away pouting. "Hmpf, fine. You're a bitch, happy? Oww!" he grunted in pain as he felt a lump forming on the back of his head. Looking back to Ino who now sat with her arms crossed as well, though a light smirk could be seen curving her lips.

"Ass.."

He sighed and hung his head in defeat, rubbing the sore spot where Ino's fist connected with his skill. 'Ero-sennin's right.. I'll never understand women..'

After several minutes of silence and looking over the village as lights emerges from the houses, the sun had almost fully set and several stars were already visible in the sky.

"So, what do you think the verdict will be tomorrow?" Ino said after some time, breaking their silence.

The Genin shrugged once and looked up at the sky. "I really don't know.. I guess we'll just have to wait and see. We're kinda lacking at least one person to form a team again, provided Kakashi-sensei and me will still be on the same team."

She nodded once. "What about the Chunin Exams though? You never did answer Shika yesterday. Will you ask Tsunade-sama to be put on a Genin team for it?" she asked, drawing his attention away from the stars and to her instead as he shook his head.

"Doubt Baa-chan would allow me. Or otherwise Ero-sennin will tell her not to let me enter the Exams, I bet." he said in a calm voice which surprised her. The fact he thought they would prevent him from taking the Exams was surprising enough, but what shocked her was how calm he was about it.

"Why would they do that? And.. Why are you so fine with that? Yesterday you looked really put off about being the last Genin amongst us."

"Yeah, that sucks alright.. But that doesn't mean I'm the weakest of the group!" he said with a big grin. "Also, it wouldn't really be fair. I don't like sounding too arrogant, but I'd like be way way ahead of the rest of the Genin if I'd enter."

Chuckling softly in agreement. "True, though I don't think it's so arrogant to say it. You did train with Jiraiya-sama for three years after all. But still, even if it would be kind of unfair.. That's not a reason to keep you from advancing to Chunin." she said with a small frown on her face. She felt it to be more unfair to ban him from the exams than to other Genin if he did enter.

Shaking his head again, his eyes hardened a little before looking away. "That's not why they won't let me enter. They probably don't want me openly show-boating my skills to any who wishes to see. And I kinda agree, I suppose."

"Huh? Why not?"

"What if a member, or spy or whatever, from Akatsuki would be amongst the crowd to gather information on my skills?" Naruto retorted simply, though his unease was easily seen.

"I.. Almost forgot about them. You're right, entering wouldn't be wise. Too big a risk." she said, biting her lower lip in frustration that she forgot about the group after her fellow blonde. "Can't believe I didn't think of that. Akatsuki.. Do you think we'll be ready for them? I can't imagine how powerful they must be."

Naruto looked at her in surprise, jaw dropping slightly. "W-we..? What do you mean by that?"

A frown formed on her face as she glared at him, poking him hard in the chest as she leaned a little closer. "You didn't seriously think you were on your own against them, did you? Tsunade-sama didn't push me as hard as she did, -I- didn't push myself so hard, for nothing! Hell, the others might not know about it yet but they will -all- fight for you, you idiot!" she said sharply, repeatedly poking him in the chest.

His eyes were wide as he listened to Ino's outburst. Did she even realize what she was insinuating just now? Fighting even a single S-rank Missing-Nin was sure to be a life and death situation. "B-but.." he started, but was instantly cut off by Ino.

"No buts! No matter what you may think, you're one of us! Our class-mate, our friend. Part of the Konoha Ten! And what about Jiraiya-sama? Or Kakashi-sensei? They'll definitely fight to protect you too! And Tsunade-sama as well!" Ino panted once from her yelling, taking a moment to regain her composure as she leaned back again from him, but never breaking the eye contact. Her anger slowly faded as she saw Naruto processing her words with a dumbfounded look on his face. He eventually turned away to avert his eyes, but she spotted a light trembling of his lower lip. She spoke again, but in a much softer voice. "You're not alone anymore, Naruto.. You know that."

A meek nod was his only response as he kept his eyes tightly shut. He had intended on fighting the Akatsuki by himself, to keep everyone from harm. But he couldn't deny the fact that Ino's declaration filled him with a warmth. Trembling lightly as he found his determination growing only stronger. He would definitely protect everyone, with the knowledge of them having his back in return. A small, genuine small curved his lips as he tilted his head to Ino slightly. "T-thank you, Ino.."

Smiling softly at him she put her hand on his head before giving it a light push, giggling. "You're welcome, idiot." she said before pushing herself up to her feet, stretching herself out after sitting on the stone ground for so long.

He looked up at her as he noticed her getting up, only to find himself inadvertently staring at the stretching form of his fellow blonde. Suddenly the words of Jiraiya came rushing back to him from when she entered the Hokage's office the day before. "Grown into a fine looking young woman" echoed through his head for a moment before he blinked and shook his head slightly and looked away quickly with a pink hue on his cheeks. 'Damn it, I'm not like Ero-sennin!'

Ino had not missed the blond's staring at her body, but didn't show it. She giggled inwardly as he caught himself in his own staring and looked away with a blush. It surprised her a little how she did not feel insulted by it at all. Then again, it wasn't a perverted leer like his master had given her a day before. Plus he quickly looked away embarrassed when he realized what he was doing. 'At least he's got good taste' she mused with a sly grin. "It's getting kinda late.. Better get home and get a good night's sleep. I'm sure Tsunade-sama will have something to do for me after given us her verdict." she said calmly, not waiting for Naruto's response as she walked behind him before a sudden urge caused her to lean down. Her left hand on his shoulder and her lips closer to his ear than strictly necessary for a whisper. "See you tomorrow.. Perv.." she whispered in a semi-husky voice before jumping off, not giving him a chance to react to her.

Turning around to Ino as she moved behind him, his entire body froze as she leaned down over him and places her hand on his shoulder. Gulping once as he felt his breathe hitching in his throat for some reason. His eyes widening at her whispered words while a shudder crashed down through his spine at the realization of being caught staring. He remained in his frozen state for several moments longer before he realized Ino had already left, his cheeks burning a deep scarlet that could rival Hinata's. He turned around to where the blonde had jumped off to, a dumbfounded look still on his face. 'W-what.. The hell was that..?'