Naruto let out a long yawn as he sat up in his bed. The rays of the sun forced themselves into his room through the partly opened window. The morning breeze smelling of dew delicately played with the silk curtains he had purchased the other week. Pulling another yawn, he went to watch the rosy sky. “It’s going to be a hot day again,” he said. He went to his calendar and crossed out the fourth day of his suspension.
There was still some leftover ramen from last night nestled inside the clay bowl Teuchi had insisted he take to celebrate his thousandth visit to Ramen Ichiraku. Only soggy noodles remained, but it would do for breakfast. He put it inside his microwave. The rolled up, slightly drenched Daily Konoha newspaper protruded out the door trap. As usual, he made a cup of chocolate and read the paper in his living room while waiting for his ramen.
Loud knocks came from the door, starling him. There was some kind of urgency to them. Frowning, he set down his cup and newspaper and went to get it. Whoever it was seemed to be in a hurry. “I’m coming! Geez. Don’t destroy my door.” His frown deepened when he saw who it was. “Ino?”
“I’m sorry for barging in so early in the morning, but I need your help, Naruto.”
“Can I come in?”
Naruto noticed her luggage. “What’s the luggage all about?”
“Could we talk inside?”
“You can tell me here. I’m under surveillance. I’m not allowed to let anyone inside.”
“Naruto, I really need your help. Please.”
“I can call Sakura if—”
“No, no! Not Sakura!”
Naruto raised an eyebrow.
Ino looked at her feet. “I don’t want to bother her.”
“So it’s okay if it’s me.”
“No. It’s not like that. I’m…hey, why are you like that? Why are you acting cold towards me? I’m your former classmate!”
“Keep it down!” a voice from another unit chided.
“You’re going to get me in trouble,” Naruto said. “Go home.” He started closing the door.
“Wait, wait! Stop!” Ino said. “At least let me explain!”
Naruto turned and crossed his arms. “Okay.”
She filled her lungs with air and exhaled. “I’m sorry. I know that I hurt you awhile back, but it was just a joke! We just wanted to have some fun. Please forgive me.”
“What joke? I don’t remember anything like that.”
She blushed from neck to ears. Looking away, she said, “T-the one where I asked you for a k-k-kiss.”
“That one? No, I don’t mind that a bit.”
“What? I was the one who asked you. Weren’t you even a bit flustered?”
“I knew you were faking it because it was you. Let’s cut to the chase, Ino. My doubts are not because you treat me that way.”
Ino flinched. For a time she could not say anything. Then finally, she said, “Naruto, I ran away from home.”
Naruto’s eyes widened. “What?”
She did not dare to shift away her gaze. “I ran away.”
Naruto put his palm on his forehead and sighed. “Okay, come inside.”
Ino said, “I’m really sorry.”
Ino blushed while she stood beside the door. All the courage she had mustered awhile ago had been drained upon entering Naruto’s apartment. She couldn’t even look at him.
“What are you standing there for? Take a seat. I’ll get you something to drink.”
Head bowed, Ino slowly went to the couch. She put her large bag beside her feet.
Placing the cup of chocolate on the center table, Naruto sat across Ino. “Okay. I want a full explanation.”
Ino took a swift glance at Naruto and saw how serious his face was. She gulped. “My mom wants me to go to a marriage interview. I know that you’re thinking that I can easily brush the guy off, but my mom seemed to be set about getting me married to that guy. I told her that I didn’t want to go, but she insisted that I should. Naruto, you know who I like. I still love Sasuke and he’s the one I want to marry.”
“Why don’t you tell her that?”
“She won’t accept it. She already knows that I like Sasuke, and I think that the marriage interview is her way to keep me away from him. You know what reputation Sasuke has. Mom won’t even let me see him.”
“Does Shikamaru or Choji know about this?”
“No. I went to you because I know Mom would not think I’d ask you for help.”
Naruto sighed. “Can’t be helped. I still don’t approve of your running away, but I think your mother is wrong here. We need to formulate a plan to stop this marriage interview from happening.”
Ino sipped from her cup of chocolate, mustering another bout of courage. Then after a full minute, she said, “May I stay here, Naruto?”
A beat. “Say that again?”
“May I stay here?”
“You want to stay here?”
Naruto stared at her, and then he looked at the rim of his cup, thinking hard. Minutes passed by without anyone making a sound.
“Do you understand what you’re asking?” Naruto said.
“Y-yes.” She blushed and looked away.
Naruto watched her for a time. Do you, now? He sighed. “You’re pretty serious about this, huh?”
“I would not have run away if I was not.”
Naruto rested his head on the backrest. He stayed like that for a couple of minutes.
“Oh, okay,” he said, finally. “I’ll let you stay. But keep in mind that this is only temporary. We need to sort things out and think of a way to solve your problem.”
“Thank you so much, Naruto! And sorry for imposing on you.”
He stood up, collecting the now empty cups from the table.
“Naruto, please don’t tell anyone about this.”
“I think it’s a must, given the situation,” he said, smiling. “Don’t worry. I promise I’ll keep this to myself.”
“Naruto, one more thing.” Ino’s face reddened. “If ever you feel like, you know, like you want some company…” She glanced up. “I cannot give up everything, but I may be able to do something for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t make me spell it out! Geez!”
“You mean some kind of payment?” Naruto laughed. “That’s a tempting offer coming from you.” Ino stiffened, her shoulders jumping slightly. “But no thanks. Sasuke and you might be as well husband and wife in the future. I don’t want things to get awkward around us. Besides, it’s hard to get my hopes up knowing that it is coming from you, right?”
When Naruto was out of earshot, Ino sighed. That’s a relief. Why the heck did I say that in the first place? What if he accepted? What would you do, you silly girl! It’s just fortunate that he’s not the type. Ino caught herself. She glanced at Naruto over her shoulder. “Naruto, you might be too kind for your own good,” she mumbled.
Naruto stowed the cups into the wall cabinets. Turning around, he remembered his ramen. The noodles had become so soggy it was more like porridge now. He put it inside a disposable lunch box, deciding that he would eat it on the way to the market.
As he wiped his hands on the hand cloth by the refrigerator, he said, “I’ll be out for a bit. Help yourself to my room.”
“When you say it like that, it sounds a little pervy,” Ino muttered.
“I didn’t say anything.”
“I think I heard—”
“You were saying?” Ino cut in. The smile on her face was stiff.
With a shrug, Naruto went on. “You can use my closet. It’s still wide enough for your things.”
“When I come back, let’s talk about our sleeping arrangement.” He started for the door.
“Wait, Naruto! You don’t have to change anything for me.” Ino looked around, anxiously. “This couch, this can be my bed. As for my clothes, I can just keep them inside my bag.”
“I think it’s hardly the time to get embarrassed after all that.”
“What? What’s that supposed to mean?”
Naruto smiled. “Starting today we’ll be living under the same roof. Let’s not start getting awkward now, shall we?”
“That’s not what I’m trying to say!”
“Make yourself at home. Back in a jiffy.” And Naruto left.
“Dummy!” she said, furiously blushing.
What should I do? Ino slumped hard on the couch. Am I not making a big mistake? Should I ask another friend? No! My mom will find me easily if I do that. No matter where you look at it, this is the best decision.
She found Naruto’s room easily, being the only room upstairs.
“Sorry for intruding,” she said, looking around. She could hardly believe that it was a guy’s room. The only other person she knew who was this neat was Shikamaru. The bed was fixed, the window curtained. Nothing was scattered on the floor—so much unlike Choji’s room where once she had had to burn the pig’s discarded underwear to recover from being grossed out.
She went to Naruto’s study desk and stared at Team 7′s group picture. Sasuke is so cool even when pouting. And Sakura…well, Sakura will be Sakura. Naruto, what kind of face is that? She remembered the time when she and Sakura had fought over Sasuke almost every day. I thought that I would get over him as I grew older. It turned out I was wrong. Rather than fading, my feelings for him became much deeper.
She opened Naruto’s closet and found only nine kinds of clothing in it: two pairs of jeans, three shirts, and the rest were T-shirts. Not even a formal wear? Dummy, this is why no one pays attention to you; you don’t care about your appearance. And here I thought you looked better when you got back from your three-year training. Not able to help her curiosity, she pulled a t-shirt to her nose. Well, at least you know how to wash them properly.
She started to put her clothes inside the closet.
Now with nothing to do, she sat on the bed and rubbed the soft fabric of the mattress. Her trepidation was being overcome by her lack of sleep. Damning it all with an exhale, she dived into the bed. She half expected to smell sweat, but could only chuckle when she smelled the lemony fragrance of detergent. Are you actually a clean freak? She laughed. There was so much she was discovering about Naruto. Sorry for imposing too much, but I will borrow your bed for awhile. She had been sure she would not be able to fall asleep that easily, but the coziness of the room, the clean smell, the light breeze, and the softness of Naruto’s bed took over and knocked her out.
Eating the soggy noodles from the disposable lunch box in his hand, Naruto enjoyed the slow and gradual proceedings of Konoha as it woke up from sleep.
“Look who’s on cloud nine today,” a woman said.
“Cloud nine your butt. Can’t you see how soggy this has become?” Naruto said. The woman he was talking to was tall, had her long, black hair in a ponytail, and wore a porcelain cat mask—an ANBU.
“I’m not talking about the noodles. But if you ask me, you should be throwing that already.”
“I don’t want to waste food.” Naruto chewed and gulped. “You’re here too early, by the way. I haven’t gotten around doing my report yet.”
“I’m not here to collect your report. Let’s go over Teuchi-san’s place. I’d like to talk to you about something.”
Naruto noticed the hard tone in her voice. “Something wrong?”
“Come on,” she said.
They went to the Ichiraku Ramen Shop which was still deserted. Teuchi saw the ANBU and Naruto. Seeing the noodles, he immediately went to take it from Naruto. “Let me take care of this, Naruto-kun. Ayame, two servings of Tonkotsu! Eiko-san, please go ahead and use the backroom.”
“Thank you, Teuchi-san. And while you’re at it, I’d like an additional slice of roasted belly and a plate of gyoza.”
Halfway through their ramen bowls, Naruto paused to get a gyoza. “Let me hear it.”
Eiko, her pretty face bare now, slurped hurriedly. “Haha, sorry.” She cleared her throat. “I saw you and Yamanaka-san this morning. And I just happen to know that she ran away from home. I don’t want to get involved, but I want to warn you as a friend. Her mother is a powerful person.”
Naruto pushed a mouthful of noodles into his mouth, chewed, and gulped. “I know that. I’ll be careful.”
“Yamanaka-san has dispatched a search party to find her daughter. It’d be better if you told her to stay indoors at all times.”
“But don’t worry. Inoichi-san is trying to do something about it. Though it’s for her daughter, an ANBU search party is going overboard.”
“What the heck? ANBU?”
Eiko nodded and went back to her ramen. No one talked for awhile.
“Naruto, when the time comes, I advise you to hand over Yamanaka-san without resistance. With your suspension and all, your forehead protector might get revoked.”
“But Ino is—”
“I know. But this is her mother we’re talking about. If this whole thing ballooned up to something serious, you’d be at the losing end.”
Naruto’s clear blue eyes stared into Eiko’s. “I appreciate your concern, but I just can’t abandon her.”
“You can tell her father.”
“I can’t do that. I made a promise to her.”
“I know you’re upset, but I got this, okay,” he said. “Trust me.”
“She doesn’t deserve your kindness!” Eiko said, hitting the table with her fist. The bowls jumped from the jolt and some soup splattered over the table.
Naruto watched her, startled.
Realizing how embarrassing her reaction was, she put on her mask, but she could not hide her tomato-red face before Naruto got a glimpse of it. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.” She stood up.
Naruto, with a wicked grin, said, “Are you concerned for my safety that bad?”
“I’m not, you idiot!”
Without warning, he reached out and pinched her right forefinger. Her face grew hot from the gentle pressure he was exerting. Luckily, she had put her mask back on. She thought she had already gotten over it, but she could not stop from pulling her finger away as if burned. “You pervert!”
“Calm down. Do you remember that day when I’d gotten really pissed at you?” The memory in question was the day she had got bitten by a deadly snake because she did not listen to Naruto and still tried to get her hands on the Amagama herb. Naruto had been glaring at her the whole time he sucked out the venom from the fang holes on her forefinger. It had been one pleasurable experience, though she had almost died.
“You’ve already done something similar to what I’m trying to do now. What you felt strongly that day for me is the same as what I feel for Ino now.” Naruto stood in front of her and pried her mask off. “I got this, okay—hey, you’re all red!”
Before she died of embarrassment, she slapped him. “I understand, you pervert!” She took her mask from Naruto’s grasp and put it back on. “Do as you please. For all I know, what you really feel strongly now is doing ecchi stuff to Yamanaka-san.”
“Hey, that was uncalled for!”
Without breaking stride, Eiko said. “The best thing you can do today is get a clue, you moron. Turn in your report on time. I can only make up things so much. I don’t want Tsunade-sama asking questions I can’t dodge.”
She felt a hand grab hers from behind. She did not even feel his movements.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Good luck. Teuchi-san, Naruto’s treating me!” she called out. She was gone before he could even begin to protest.