Chapter 2

Yamanaka Ino loved gossip.

At least, that was the general perception most people had on her. All day long, she would chatter about the latest fashion, scandals and Uchiha Sasuke’s activities. At first glance, most people would deem her a ditzy blond, which would be true…if she weren’t a Yamanaka. The clan was known throughout the world for their mind techniques, and a prerequisite for learning such techniques is the ability to gather information. Information can come in many forms. Even the simplest and most mundane of gossip can be dissected and interpreted to provide more information about a situation. On advice from her father, Ino delved deeper, analyzing the meaning of events, of people’s words and body language; mapping out accurate information about anything and everything.

What turned up surprised her. She long held notions, along with plenty of other prepubescent girls, that Uchiha Sasuke was innately shy and just needed some love to cope with the Uchiha massacre. They admired his dedication to train, believing that he was aiming for the top. Given his aptitude for the shinobi arts, it was likely he would become their next Hokage. But once she observed Sasuke closer, she saw past his veneer of arrogance and discovered something far darker than just boyish coyness. The news about the massacre that floated about was more rumour than fact, but Ino managed to glean the fact that Sasuke’s own brother was the one to commit the heinous act.

Given his propensity to train to the bone, and his aloofness with regards to everyone, Ino reckoned the whole issue was consuming him inside out. He was obsessed with his brother; that much she could tell from his hero worship of the famous Uchiha Itachi back when things were simpler. As the old saying goes, there’s a fine line between love and hate. The intensity of those two emotions cannot be overlooked, and Ino was quite certain Sasuke’s love for his brother had been twisted to intense hate and inconsolable rage. As infatuated as the Yamanaka girl was with the brooding, handsome types like Sasuke, even she wouldn’t want to get involved with a guy that was on the revenge trail, out for blood of his most beloved and now despised person.

But Sakura, sweet innocent Sakura; she needed more than a few encouraging words. She needed competition to grow, flourish, prosper; and what better way than to incite a fight over a boy? Ino wasn’t proud that she was basically manipulating her friend, but it was for the betterment of the pink-haired girl. Ino had no qualms with that. Her father, ever watchful, didn’t protest her actions, which Ino took to mean that he silently approved of her method of guiding Sakura. After all, it did prompt the jade-eyed ninja-in-training to work harder, so much so that she topped the class regularly at paper tests, and was well on her way to becoming top kunoichi of the class chockfull of clan heirs and heiresses with far more private training than she had, being from a civilian background.

So, Yamanaka Ino was well on her way to becoming a very good mind reader and information gatherer in the mould of her father. Hence, when the gossip mill churned out information about a supposedly handsome blond heartthrob that just returned from a five year hiatus, it intrigued Ino. Given that it coincided with the timeframe during which their classmate Uzumaki Naruto disappeared, it made for some interesting thoughts. If it was Naruto, why did he leave for five years? What did he do away from Konoha? Was he still going to be a Konoha ninja?

Ino conducted some extensive research (i.e. grilling her father thoroughly), and was rewarded with an answer. According to the rumours circling in the higher rungs, Naruto was not away from Konoha; rather, he had been inducted into ANBU for some special training, including clan material that his grandfather was brought to Konoha to teach. However, circumstances decreed that the boy would have to go through the rank and file before he could officially join ANBU. Suspicions immediately rose in the sharp mind of Ino, and further questioning of Inoichi only brought a wry shrug and a proud smile from the father, glad his daughter had a sharp mind untainted by the fan girl persona she displayed outside of home.

Shikamaru was unable to provide any more information, but his brilliant mind had conjured up several scenarios. Among them were that Naruto was some kind of royalty and entering ANBU was to keep him from public eye and in safety; another was that he pulled strings with the Hokage. Ino severely doubted the possibility of either. If he were really royalty of that sort, then people like Hinata and Sasuke would require the same sort of extensive protection as well. Pulling strings with the Hokage was possible, but why would the Sandaime put someone in ANBU for special training? Wouldn’t training from the great Shinobi no Kami himself be a far more tantalizing prospect? Puzzled, Ino decided that her best course of action was to confront the mysterious person directly.

Nothing. She had absolutely no information about where the boy was. No one had a clue as to where he was staying, be it temporary or permanent lodgings. People only see him on the streets, ambling through the streets without a purpose. Sometimes, a young girl would accompany him, following him every step of the way. It piqued Ino’s interest something fierce, and she hadn’t been so obsessed with a single person since she first met Uchiha Sasuke, before he became a revenge-obsessed douche.

It was thus a complete surprise for Ino to find the said blond boy and his companion sitting comfortably in her home one day after school. The boy, although at Ino’s age, was clearly quite mature, holding a rather lengthy and serious conversation with Inoichi. Her father had invited her over to the coffee table, which she eagerly accepted. Introductions were made, and Ino paid particular attention. Triumph shone in her eyes when he revealed that he was indeed the Naruto of five years prior, and that he did remember the pretty blond Yamanaka. His sincere smile warmed Ino’s cheeks; she now knew what the gossipmongers were talking about when they said he was quite handsome.

The companion was known as Yuki Haku, his sworn servant. Naruto did not look amused at her declaration, which Ino took to mean that he didn’t like that introduction. Given how friendly and open he seemed when he spoke to Ino for that brief moment; she inferred that he regarded this Haku as a friend or even something more. Introductions out of the way, they all sat down, and Inoichi continued his conversation with Naruto, Haku sitting quietly beside her master. Ino tuned out their words, taking the opportunity to study the duo.

Haku was dressed in a non-traditional black kimono that reached only mid thigh in length. Ino had no doubt the voluminous sleeves hid plenty of weaponry, and probably the thin cerulean obi too, given how Haku did not carry any weapon pouches. White fingerless gloves covered her hands and forearms, and her neck was adorned with a black choker, decorated with a simple red spiral that appeared on every Konoha flak jacket. Tabi and geta on her feet completed the look. All in all, her alabaster skin, dark flowing hair and semi-formal dress made her look gorgeous and dangerous at the same time. Ino felt just a bit envious of how well the other girl had developed, but she comforted herself with the knowledge that Haku was a few years older than her.

Naruto’s clothes were far more utilitarian compared to Haku’s. Ino supposed that even girls like Haku wanted to dress up, though she suspected it was more for the benefit of Naruto than wanting to look pretty. The blond was dressed in the regulation black top and pants that most Chūnin and Jōnin wore, along with slim grey forearm guards and full-fingered black gloves. Shinobi sandals adorned his feet, and that was it. The only colours on his outfit came from his wild and spiky hair, a long ponytail that trailed to what Ino estimated as knee length. Wondering about the practicality of such a hairdo (completely ignoring her own luxuriously long hair), she also noted the presence of a dark grey coat with short sleeves draped on the couch arm, a red spiral once more proudly displayed on the back.

But such dull clothes made his eyes and hair stand out all the more, and Ino wondered if the Yondaime had been cloned. Barring the whisker marks, Naruto looked incredibly alike to the revered Hokage. It added to the mystery that was Uzumaki Naruto, one that seemed far more intriguing than Uchiha Sasuke ever was. Missing for five years, turning up looking like the Yondaime and with a loyal tagalong? Persistent rumours of being trained in ANBU, or training with his grandfather in clan techniques? Last she heard, Naruto had been an orphan!

“…Ino? Ino!” Inoichi chided gently, shaking Ino out of her reverie. The girl smiled sheepishly. “Yes, tousan?”

“I was just saying that since Naruto-san is entering the Academy in the same year as you are, maybe you two can have a friendly spar,” her father explained. “Maybe you two can even study together. After all, Naruto-san will be visiting regularly.”

Ino knitted her eyebrows. The only people to visit her father in such a personal manner were there for…a look of realization crossed Ino’s face, and she smiled sympathetically at the blond. Naruto returned the smile, but it was easy to see how brittle it was. Haku, as if sensing her master’s melancholy, shifted closer to him to provide her comforting presence.

“I…recently lost a loved one, and as I have not been in the Academy, I am not in regular contact with school counselors. Hokage-sama recommended me to Yamanaka-san here,” Naruto said carefully, keeping the emotions from his voice.

“In any case, it’s good to have the Uzumaki Ichizoku officially a part of Konohagakure, even if it is a clan of one now,” Inoichi smiled warmly, dispelling the awkward silence that had followed Naruto’s words. The smile turned into a mischievous grin as he turned to Ino. “Ino-chan, maybe you might want to consider helping the Uzumaki expand instead of the Uchiha, hmm?”

At Inoichi’s cheeky suggestion, Ino’s face turned crimson red from equal parts of anger and embarrassment. “TOUSAN!”

Naruto shrugged his shoulders helplessly as Ino glared at him, daring him to utter even a single word of agreement. In the background, no one noticed Haku frowning crossly at the young Yamanaka. She is not of childbearing age yet, nor does she seem particularly suited to Naruto-sama. In any case, Naruto-sama is not seeking any relationships at present moment. I would have to conduct further investigations before she can even begin to contemplate being with Naruto-sama.

Thankfully for everyone, Haku’s thoughts remained unheard.

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Nara Shikamaru cracked an eyelid open, groaning inaudibly as he did so. Lying underneath the cool shade of one of many trees that littered Konoha’s fields, he was accompanied by his best friend, Akimichi Chōji. The reason for his momentary distress was the sound of three people approaching the two Academy students that were relaxing in the lovely outdoors. Shikamaru didn’t dislike Ino, per say; she was a family and childhood friend after all. But the blond girl was a nuisance at times, when she wasn’t putting up her act of being an airhead, because then she’ll be pestering him about some obscure gossip rumour that she believed was essential to her understanding of the world.

Another blond and a tagalong, Shikamaru analysed quickly, his mind connecting the dots far quicker than most people could even register the presence of Ino’s newfound companions. Must be that rumoured kid and his servant or something. Seems like Ino found her target. How troublesome.

“Naruto-kun, Haku-san, those are my childhood friends, Nara Shikamaru and Akimichi Chōji,” Ino introduced, sparing the two newcomers her ditzy blond persona. It wouldn’t be good to scare the Uzumaki away, not after she had spent so much time searching for him in order to discover all his secrets. “Shikamaru, Chōji, this is Uzumaki Naruto and Yuki Haku.”

“Mmm,” Shikamaru grunted in acknowledgement, sighing as Naruto stretched a hand out in greeting. He raised his body profile a little to grasp the hand in a loose handshake, but did nothing more as he collapsed back down on the soft grass to gaze at the clouds. The Uzumaki didn’t so much as look aghast at the weak greeting; rather, he seemed rather amused by the entirety of it. “Ino-san, you did say Shikamaru-san is a Nara, yes? Lazy but brilliant, I’m guessing. And Chōji-san must be quite the powerful taijutsu practitioner.”

Chōji proffered his bag of chips to Naruto, a friendly smile perched on his chubby cheeks. “That’s nice of you, Naruto-san. So, what are you doing here?”

“He’s returned to Konoha after a long hiatus,” Ino replied promptly. Chōji paused in his feasting. “Hiatus? Where did you go, Naruto-san?”

Naruto smiled mysteriously. “I’m afraid that’s a secret I cannot reveal. But fear not, I’m joining the Konoha forces as a loyal shinobi. After all, a clan of two cannot very well stand alone in a world filled with perils.”

Shikamaru processed the information, wondering if Ino would signal him as surreptitiously as she could, to dig out the so-called secret from Naruto. But having heard all the stories about him being in ANBU and coached by his grandfather, the Nara had no doubt that it was a big secret, and any spillage of details would probably land everybody who knew in deep shit. For preteens their age, keeping secrets is far from an easy proposition. Even with the finest of etiquette training from their clans, kids are still prone to spouting out all sorts of secrets. For Naruto to be so blatant about keeping it mum, he was probably well aware of the ill effects of revealing his experiences.

Ino seemed to be content with that answer, which led Shikamaru for a loop. Then, he realised that the bright Yamanaka probably figured it out when she first met Naruto. “Tch. How about a game of shōgi?”

The Uzumaki acquiesced readily, and Shikamaru sat up to set up the board he carried around with him. As he did so with his practiced hand, he observed Haku tightly. The girl was meticulous in her positioning, never one step too far or too close to Naruto. She was always diagonally to his left, able to watch his back, and ready to serve his every beck and call. Her place on his left also served to subconsciously remind everyone that she was her right hand person, trusted to cover his weaker flank; another sign of her servitude. Judging by Naruto’s friendly demeanour, he wasn’t the type to induct Haku as his lifelong servant. As the girl seemed to be very dedicated to her task, Shikamaru surmised she was probably really obsessed with Naruto in some manner, and someone, likely the unknown grandfather, actively cultivated that obsession into utmost devotion.

Deeming any further thought into Haku’s thought processes to be far too troublesome, he turned his focus onto the game. It was not a quick game by any standards; his father usually schooled him far faster than Naruto had lost to him by. The blond presented a credible challenge no one bar his father had been thus far, and that despite a hash of somewhat haphazard moves. Shikamaru guessed the blond wasn’t much of a strategist; rather, he was a tactician, one that thrived in the heat of battle. Paired with the rumours that he had been taught the famous Uzumaki brand of fūinjutsu, the intelligent Nara made a strong mental note never to be on the opposite side of a battle with Naruto.

“Wow, that was a long game,” Chōji praised Naruto, digging into his umpteenth bag of potato chips. “No one’s ever dragged out a game of shōgi with Shikamaru that long before.”

“The famed Nara intelligence shines through,” Naruto remarked casually, admitting his inferiority in the IQ stakes. “That was a good game.”

“Say, Haku-san, what is it like to serve Naruto-kun here?” Ino asked, hoping to wriggle some details out of the quiet girl. The raven-haired retainer smiled softly, her eyes bright with unbridled admiration. “He is a very kind master. He cares greatly for my well being to the extent of ignoring his own, which humbles and honours me.”

“Haku,” Naruto warned, but went no further. The girl only smiled sweetly at her liege, before nodding respectfully at Ino. Shikamaru observed the exchange shrewdly, and wound up with one thought. That Haku chick is even crazier than Ino. This Naruto guy is proving to be seriously troublesome.

Chōji was far from dense either, and saw the obvious. Curious as any child, he blurted out. “So, do you follow him everywhere?”

“Yes, unless I have received outstanding orders from Naruto-sama not to do so, and only under extenuating circumstances that do not involve any physical or psychological trauma being inflicted upon him,” Haku answered proudly. “He does protest whenever I request to watch over him as he answers nature’s call, but I insist on being by his side everywhere else.”

Naruto could only palm his reddening face in embarrassment; something not shared by his servant who seemed unduly pleased at having revealed to others the extent of her fulfillment of her self-imposed doctrine. Ino blushed heavily at the implications. “You mean…you bathe and sleep together?”

The Uzumaki scion groaned, his ears turning crimson as well. Haku only frowned minutely, her head cocked to the side in slight befuddlement. “I thought I made it quite clear when I said I do not leave his side except under very specific circumstances.”

“Ino, don’t be so troublesome,” Shikamaru muttered tiredly, the conversation tiring him out despite his lack of participation in it. “We do communal bathing all the time. What’s the big deal?”

“But…” Ino protested weakly, only to be shushed by Haku’s deepening frown. “I do hope you realise that I do not bathe and sleep with Naruto-sama to fulfill some perverted fantasy of mine or his, though I would gladly serve him in that way if he requests for it. These activities are times when Naruto-sama’s guard is most lowered, and when he wishes to relax and rest. I need to be there to ensure that he is safe from opportunistic assassins waiting to strike.”

Naruto shot a weak glare at his friend cum self-appointed retainer, who only smiled innocently at him. Chōji could only gape at the amount of devotion Haku was showering upon Naruto, and Shikamaru noted that Ino, in spite of her obvious disapproval, seemed a touch jealous. The Nara wasn’t sure of what; the fact that Haku was bathing with and cuddling a guy (that he believed she wished was Sasuke) every night, or Naruto for having someone to pamper him like that. Shikamaru shook his head in sympathy for Naruto; he was happy to be left to his own thoughts instead of being babied and followed everywhere by a chick that didn’t understand the meaning of no, thank you very much.

“Oi, Ino, it’s just some old-fashioned stuff from before the time of the Hidden Villages. It’s the sort of tradition that some old school clans still stick to,” Shikamaru yawned, subtly acknowledging Naruto’s silent word of thanks for keeping the embarrassment to a minimum. “Haku-san was probably home schooled by her clan or something, right?”

“Precisely,” Naruto interjected before Haku could say another word. “Which reminds me. The Academy is already in its first semester. I would be much indebted if I can receive some help in catching up with the rest of the class. Will it be convenient if we set up a study group?”

“Of course! That’s a great idea!” Ino enthused, seeing the chance to drag more secrets out of the shroud that veiled Naruto’s recent past. “Shikamaru and Chōji will join too, right? And we can get poor Hinata-chan in. She always looks so lonely and scared in class.”

“That’s wonderful,” Naruto grinned. “Can you help me arrange for that, Ino-san? It’ll be much appreciated.”

“That’s no problem for the great Yamanaka Ino!” Ino thumbed her chest in false arrogance, before a pertinent question struck her. “Speaking of which, will Haku-san join us at the Academy?”

Naruto shook his head in the negative. “I’m sure she will insist on accompanying me, despite the multitude of capable Chūnin instructors that protect the school, but she will not graduate as a Konoha shinobi. She had declined that honour when Hokage-sama offered.”

“I am a tool to serve Naruto-sama, not Konoha,” Haku added firmly. “My allegiance lies with the Uzumaki Ichizoku, not Konohagakure.”

What a troublesome couple, Shikamaru thought.

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Chōji wasn’t as smart as his two childhood friends, Ino and Shikamaru, and the chubby boy acknowledged that fact freely. The famous Ino-Shika-Chō combination that their clans had refined to great effectiveness never called upon the ‘Chō’ of the team of provide the brains. He was the muscle, and proud of that. But Chōji was far from stupid, and being the heir of the great Akimichi clan, he had plenty of lessons in basic politics, to prepare him for his future leadership of the clan.

And the first lesson that any clan would instill into their heir would be to establish good relationships with other possibly important people. It’s tough to explain politics to children, no matter how precocious they are, but it’s not difficult to encourage children to make friends with their peers, building bridges that might be crucial to the clan in the future. And the best way to make friends, in Chōji’s humble opinion, was to eat together. Unsurprisingly, the Akimichi invited the Uzumaki duo to his home for dinner, coupled with his Yamanaka and Nara counterparts. Naruto graciously accepted, himself seeing it as an opportunity to get to know Konoha and her inhabitants better.

He was warmly welcomed into the Akimichi household by Chōji’s mother, who immediately dragged the startled blond to the dinner table and piling his plate up with all manners of delicious food. Having never had someone other than Haku to fuss over him (and she was far too reserved when dealing with her master), Naruto was having a bit of an adjustment issue. Thankfully, Akimichi Chōza was already at the table, and the man struck up a small conversation with the boy, granting him reprieve.

Compliments about his maturity quickly followed suit, and that thoroughly embarrassed Naruto, something that would have had the Sandaime reeling were he there to witness it all. As it was, Naruto only had a short debrief with the Hokage given that he was an emotional wreck at the point of their reunion, and Hiruzen had yet to glimpse the new Uzumaki Naruto. Chōji chipped into the conversation with the prior shōgi match with Shikamaru, and that induced another round of praise for the bemused Uzumaki. Kodenhiro was short on compliments; the man preferred to teach through constructive criticism. Naruto had plenty of motivation anyway, and there was just no need to express any form of approval.

“So, Naruto-kun, do you have any preferences for jutsu?” Chōza queried curiously. “I hear that your grandfather taught you fūinjutsu. Is that true?”

Naruto’s smile was brittle, but it held. He had no delusions regarding Kodenhiro’s passing, and was quite glad people didn’t dance around the topic, making it all the more painful. “I only picked up the basics. I have yet to reach the level where I can invent new seals. Most of the ones I use regularly have been vetted through quite thoroughly before I dare utilise them in whatever capacity I wish to do so. I also enjoy a tad of ninjutsu, although that is more of Haku’s specialty. I fear genjutsu is quite beyond me though.”

“You’re still young, and have plenty of time to learn,” Chōza remarked wisely. “Many shinobi fail to stop and smell the roses, and end up burnt out and useless. I feel Jiraiya-sama is the best example of a ninja who knows how to relax at the appropriate moments, though I don’t approve of his habits and vices.”

“So I have been told,” Naruto replied, his lips twitching upwards slightly just as Haku clenched her fists.

“Nevertheless, it’s quite impressive for one as young as you to use fūinjutsu as a viable way of battle,” Chōza commented. “I remember when I was your age, I was still lazing about with Shikaku and Inoichi, skipping classes and whatnot. I dare say Chōji is following in his father’s footsteps quite well, eh?”

“Tousan, I don’t skip class all the time,” Chōji answered with a hint of embarrassment. His father just laughed heartily, patting his rotund son on his back.

The doorbell rang, and soon after, they were joined by the ‘Ino’ and ‘Shika’ of both generations. Ino gave Naruto an enthusiastic greeting, while Shikamaru could only muster a weak wave. Naruto returned their salutations, and Haku nodded in deference, given her self-imposed caste was lower than everyone else’s. Inoichi and Shikaku greeted their old friend warmly, before the older Nara scrutinized the boy who so intrigued his son, despite Shikamaru’s weak protests that he was merely annoyed by the ‘troublesome blond’. Evidently, his intelligent son had not yet met a peer who was close to his level, and the young Nara was keen to discover what made the Uzumaki tick.

Small talk kept the dinner warm and friendly, an atmosphere Naruto and Haku both relished given their childhoods. Chōji was pleased that his overall plan of befriending the mysterious duo had worked well enough, and their presence was as natural as it had been when there was just the Ino-Shika-Chō trio. The only odd one out was Haku, given her subservient attitude, but Ino managed to wheedle out a girls-only outing from the reticent Yuki. It took a lot of persuasion and a near direct order from Naruto, but she relented in the end.

Given that the table was packed with shinobi, it wasn’t surprising that the topic moved on to more ninja matters. Inoichi and Chōza both had opportunities to talk to Naruto briefly about his fledging skills, but Shikaku didn’t, and as Jōnin commander, he had veiled instructions to extract some information from the blond about his abilities. “So, Naruto-san, do you think you could take a look at some of the arrays that my clan compound uses? It’s been quite a while since anyone had a good look at them.”

“If you don’t mind me having the opportunity to observe your defensive arrays, I don’t mind checking them for you, Nara-san,” Naruto smiled, a hint of cheekiness emerging from beneath his more serious veneer. “I can’t guarantee anything beyond simple repairs of malfunctioning seals, however.”

“Wow, you must be real smart to learn fūinjutsu,” Ino marveled, her own knowledge of the shinobi arts restricted to Academy material and the most basic of Yamanaka techniques. “No wonder you could take Shikamaru to the wire in shōgi.”

“I guess it’s in my blood,” the blond boy replied easily.

“Your blood?” Chōji enquired. “You mean your clan?”

Naruto nodded solemnly. “Yes. The Uzumaki Ichizoku was all but wiped out in the Second Shinobi World War due to my clan’s prowess in fūinjutsu. Ojisan…told me that I have more talent than he does, although he usually follows that up with a good thwack to the head to tell me to keep working, or I’ll never fulfill my potential.”

The somberness of Naruto’s words quieted the table, before Shikamaru pitched in to break the silence. “Tch, I guess Konoha will be relying on you a lot in the future then.”

“I wish I were really that good,” Naruto grinned. “But I’m an amateur at best. Jiraiya-sama will have to carry the burden of being Konoha’s premier repository of seal knowledge for the years to come. Besides, Konoha’s seal arrays are some of the most complex I’ve come across. Given their base designs and the timeframe of creation, I would probably peg that to Uzumaki influence, but still, there’s enough innovation in those seals to call them original works. So I doubt Konoha will need me at all.”

“That’s pretty humble of you, Naruto-kun,” Inoichi commented. “Most high level Jōnin don’t go beyond crafting exploding tags given the difficulty of understanding fūinjutsu. Beyond Jiraiya-sama and Kakashi, I don’t know of any Jōnin that has learnt beyond the most rudimentary of seals.”

“Thank you for the high praise,” Naruto blushed sheepishly. “I hope I can one day be as strong as the two legendary shinobi that you mentioned.”

“Sure you can!” Ino beamed. “You’re smarter and probably way ahead of most of the class. The Academy is going to be a breeze for you! I’ll like to see any one of the teachers make sense of the doodles that you geniuses call seals!”

A good hearty laugh was shared amongst the elders, while Naruto was embarrassed but pleased with the open compliments. “I’m only just good with seals. I’m far from a complete ninja, and that what it will take to thrive in our world. I’m sure there are plenty of talented shinobi in the Academy, including you, Chōji-san and Shikamaru-san.”

Ino preened at the praise. “Of course I’m talented! These two lazy bums however, I’ll be surprised if they can motivate themselves beyond eating and sleeping!”

Chōji declined to reply, given his mouth was still full of food, while Shikamaru slouched in his seat, muttering his favourite catchphrase. The older Ino-Shika-Chō burst into peals of laughter once more, which Naruto watched with a light longing. Shikaku recovered first, a light twitch of his lips betraying his lingering amusement. “Well then, it’s getting late and we ought to be going. C’mon Shikamaru, before your mom starts nagging at us again.”

Inoichi snickered unsympathetically as his old friend trundled out of the Akimichi household with son in tow, before nudging his daughter. Ino nodded once, before turning her attention to Naruto. “Hey Naruto-kun, where are you staying now?”

“Hokage-sama has arranged for me to stay in an apartment in the residential district after my old apartment was sold,” Naruto answered. “It was too small for more than one anyway.”

Ino grinned excitedly. “Can I come visit your house sometime? You’re going to need a woman’s touch to decorate, and I bet Haku-san is just going to agree with whatever you want, and that’s terrible for proper décor. Oh! Why not I just come over, check the place out, help you work out your interior, and go out with Haku-san? We can go buy whatever you need too! It’s settled! Give me your address, I’ll come by tomorrow!”

Naruto, flustered as he was by Ino’s rapid fire words, nodded dumbly as he scribbled down the address for his apartment. Holding up the paper almost triumphantly, Ino winked at her fellow blond. “See you tomorrow, stud!”

“What?” the Uzumaki spluttered as the girl skipped out of the Akimichi home, laughing as she did so. Inoichi chuckled, ruffling Naruto’s spiky hair. “Ino-chan’s been chasing Uchiha Sasuke for a while in a bid to motivate her friend Sakura-chan, and it’s grating on her nerves dealing with the boy, so forgive her if she’s a bit playful when a boy like you comes along and doesn’t treat her with disdain.”

“O-Oh,” Naruto fumbled with his words, clearly unused to dealing with the lightest of flirting. “Right. We have to go now. Judging by Ino-san’s expression, it’s going to be a long day tomorrow. Let’s go, Haku.”

The girl acquiesced silently, and with polite bows, they left the Akimichi to their devices. Inoichi shook his head as Chōza grinned widely. “Looks like your girl has a target of affection now, eh?”

“Don’t remind me,” Inoichi groaned. “I’ll die if I have to hear the crap spouted by Ino-chan when playing pretend fan girl for real.”

Chōza laughed as he patted his dejected friend on the back. “At least he looks mentally stable.”

“Small comfort.”

Chōji ate his post dinner snacks happily, blissfully unaware of the plight that his newfound friend was about to go through in short order.

<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>

Chapter 3 (Incomplete)

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