This is time between their loss and their vengeance. It takes seven days to translate grief into action. [ShikaIno, Chouji]
Warnings: Spoilers for chapters 328-342 or so.
Characters/Pairings: Chouji, ShikaIno
In Konoha, there is a three day grace period between the news of a death and a funeral. Shikamaru measures and metes out the time: three days for recovery (until the procession), four days for vengeance (one for each member of Team 10) and seven days for mourning.
The first night, it rains.
When wet darkness cradles the sad, lonely town of Konoha, Team 10 walks.
The three of them find themselves gravitating towards the training grounds they used to frequent years ago. Wet, rain-washed, sopping and dyed in darkness, they move together like insects towards light, all children of rain and of violence.
It is a funny thought, but Ino has brought flowers. There is no question of intent, but rather of suitability. Flowers are for the dead. Flowers are for Ino, spring and the colour of Kurenai's crimson lipstick. Flowers are not for Asuma, here or in the afterlife.
Their forms take on no clarity from near or afar in the water and darkness but remain lambent in the still, forest-laden hills of Konoha; their sleepy, mourning town. Ino makes an attempt the stem the raging silence, but her efforts are futile and her tongue comes up short. It is affirmation of the problem at hand: that the town is lonely, crying and there is nothing they can do about it, at least not with words. Cheap are the semantics of human speech and words are utterances, sounds, syllables emitted by vibrating vocal cords, undulating tongues. They have no capacity to encompass the emotions that compose this moment, of losing, of leaving behind and their cryptic ghostly tongues. Only the heart has ears.
And proximity brings the closest translation.
Knees touch, breaths mingle and they all sit in close but absent distance from each other, half-acknowledged like the presence of a limb or another bodily extremity. Always there, but always needed, and the fragility of this axiom is starkly beautiful in this muddy, dirty place.
Ino distractedly detaches the head of a flower, snaps it off the green stem viciously. The colour reminds her of blood, rushing through their veins loudly, and Asuma-sensei, now devoid of it. Chouji wonders why they are there, contemplates the hole beneath his heart, the gaping chasm of his stomach. It houses a void he can never fill, and the usual hunger is kept at bay. This is no time for eating, anyway. Shikamaru expertly twirls a limp cigarette between his fingers, thinking of brute force tactical moves learned through nights and nights of igo and shougi. His eyes are cloudy, brows are furrowed. When the rain dissipates the small, billowing puffs of grey smoke emitted from its tip, Shikamaru cups the cigarette in his hands and encourages cherry-red life from it like an Earth bound creator.
They see nothing, but there are more senses than that of sight. There are other things: the heady, acrid smoke emitted from a limp cigarette, the redness of crushed petals that litter the muddy ground around them-marking beautiful space-the feel of their teammates near, the sound of Asuma-sensei's last precious words. Team 10 understands the value of these things moreso than anyone in Konoha. They yearn to define it for the lay-people.
But the feeling has yet to be translated. Pain brings the scenery into sharp focus. The three sit in pensive, pregnant silence, waiting for the feeling to pass through their systems, to be excreted by pores, colons, bladders-just out of them and back into the entropic mess of the universe where it belongs. The conversion is not yet complete. Grief is a seven-step process.
All around is the vast, sleepy village and the dull pallor of washed out, half-hearted moonlight. In here, there are flower petals, the cherry-red glow of a cigarette, thick smoke that embraces their forms lovingly. And each other, suddenly in excessively sharp and grainy focus. Beautiful, embraced by cold darkness and tender rain, qualitatively older than the sum of all the years they have born witness to. Together, a fragile idea held together by threads of hair, forged by grief into winding ropes of durable hemp and tenuous spider silk: sticky, unbreakable. Its presence binds like a life-long promise, and the red petals caution trespassers.
/We here know now/, they seem to say.
This is getting ridiculous.
"Ino," Chouji asks carefully. "Aren't you tired?"
It's the second day and she's been at it for hours, viciously hurling kunai and shuriken at those three training posts as though they had the gall to have personally offended her. Racing vertically up a nearby tree to retrieve wayward, battered weaponry, she pushes off, turning into a graceful back-flip before touching the muddy ground.
"No," her answer is simple. She tosses again, and her aim is impeccable.
Shikamaru sits near them, cross-legged, and observes a shougi board with an involved, forehead-creasing contemplation neither of his teammates have suspected he was ever capable of. A questionable slip of the hand causes one of Ino's weapons to make its way near his seating place and he turns around at the sound, frowning around his cigarette bitterly and giving them a withering look before returning to silent contemplation.
His silence isn't what kills them; it's the uncharacteristic personal investment.
It's not all bad, Chouji supposes. The sun is high, and they've spent all these hours together from the first hint of dawn. No one has lost any limbs and they aren't bickering, but Ino attacks and Chouji eats because both know that there is very little likelihood that they will get the chance to avenge their captain.
The thought has lingered heavily over the trio all day long, and as much as he tries to deny it, Chouji cannot help but feel that it is intrinsically unfair. Shikamaru was a brilliant and dependable nin, and would have ranked on his own must-have list for any other mission. But this is not any other mission. This would be vengeance for Asuma's death and death was the greatest equalizer.
The frustration is apparent in Ino's agitated movements and she brutally trains herself to the ground. The field is now a pockmarked and uneven mess from her unending movement; fatigue catches up to her and she trips on a raised patch of earth. It's been hours and dirty, messy, hungry and tired, she thumps both fists to the ground, turns to Shikamaru and says: "Why aren't you saying anything?" like an accusation.
"Ino-" Chouji starts and Shikamaru doesn't turn at the sound of her voice. But he leans back and lies down, lighting a new cigarette before placing both arms behind his head as though obliging to her words.
"Hey Chouji," he says instead. "Your head is bleeding."
And it does the next day too, when they all return at the first instance of day. Chouji fingers his hairline, examining his digits and finding them stained dark red. He says: "Oh..." and thinks back carefully. These are old injuries from their last battle. "Yeah, the one on my leg keeps doing that too. Wonder why."
Nearby, Ino jumps into furious leaps and throws. Chouji watches her in a distracted way; her frustration is almost palpable in the air. He wonders why Shikamaru looks so unaffected.
Chouji cautions: "Has there been any word from Godaime-sama?"
Despite being a chronic procrastinator, Shikamaru really has accomplished all that was requested of him. Two days ago, he reported dutifully to the Godaime, spoke to a few connections regarding the funeral service. Yesterday, right before he came to meet them, he went and broke Kurenai's heart.
There's really nothing to say, so he doesn't say anything at all, rather contemplating blue sky with a look that is not resignation.
The sun dips perilously near the horizon when Chouji, ever the gentleman, helps Ino home. She nurses a mildly sprained ankle, a myriad of cuts and bruises and limps along in stubborn silence beside him. It is an unfair and uncontested truth that Shikamaru will be chosen for the mission, and they will likely not. The knowledge is converted into helpless, sad rage in Ino; as comprehension and tiredness in Chouji. But though this distinction means a lot of things, it does not divide them: though they shuffle along in silence, Ino's arm encircles Chouji's shoulders tightly in the semblance of a hug.
He wants to give some sort of verbal offering to cheapen the gravity of the moment, but is stumped for words to say. They linger at the base of his throat, slowly burning like heated coal; in suspended animation, painfully hot stasis.
Too many hours have passed like this; waveringly unsteady moments that seem unreal, unnatural. This isn't real time, just hours before conversion, missing days.
It goes without saying that something changes when the funeral is over, and Shikamaru disappears.
Chouji convalesces in a hospital bed because he hasn't stopped bleeding, nursing ailments that are considerably more serious than they originally thought they were. It is a cruel twist of fate that these wounds keep re-opening, days after the incident, like deliberate and physical proof of their loss.
Only Ino comes to visit, for each of the two subsequent nights.
"How are you feeling?" She asks, among other non-Ino-like niceties, just because she loves to talk. Just because she hates the silence.
He grins at her. He's been thinking, like she's been thinking, about a certain mission that at least one of them will embark on soon. "Anything from Godaime-sama?" He asks her, readying himself for her usual saucy retort.
She looks at him tiredly, because all the happenings of the past few days are catching up to her, yielding the efforts of raising a mental fort in vain. "I don't know," she says, with a sad pursing of her lips. "You should ask Shikamaru."
It might be because she accepts that they will not get the chance to go, and she's not angry because of jealousy or anything petty and simple and human like that. It's because she doesn't want to feel so powerless in light of everything that has happened, because she doesn't want this revenge to be taken from her, so that all she's left with are memories of Asuma-sensei and a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach telling her that she just wasn't good enough. But no matter, Chouji understands all this things with a perfect clarity her own mind has never known.
They fill the space with useless words. And although standard talking fare would usually consist of happier memories, cutesy travails from back when and so on as Team 10, Ino opts for the deviant route, cutting to the heart of it savagely. She wants to talk of Asuma's last words.
And Chouji doesn't mind this, because when the morning is an impending thing and one of his best friends are near, he really doesn't mind the memories at all. He tells her so, and she looks at him, light eyes troubled.
She tells him frankly: "But sunlight doesn't make the pain go away." And fiddles absently with the petals of one flower in a bouquet of twelve she has brought to place in his room. She ends up holding onto them since she has forgotten the vase.
"It doesn't matter. It brings the shadows too, but that's the point," he reaches for a grape, munches it thoughtfully. "I'd like to think that Sensei made a really big impact on my life, Ino. I look for his shadow wherever I go."
She pretends not to contemplate his words, but her thought process has always been a very evident and angry thing, consisting of approximately 95% frustration and an assorted medley of other emotions and she has never possessed, like she never will, a decent poker face.
Daylight looms in the near future and this moment is one before the sunrise, where dark grey wisps of smoke linger in the watercolour horizon like forgotten bits of lonely night. It's only the second story of the building, but at this hour, any proximity to the sky is blessed thing; the dawn creeps through all translucent surfaces thickly, floods floors with half-hearted light and possesses a sweet, sad sort of rapture. Daylight comes and disperses darkness whether or not she has the wherewithal to reach out her fingers and try to hold it all together, like the fraying bits of her wayward team. Daylight comes and Ino has the feeling that Chouji got the easy last words.
She sits beside his hospital bed in deliberation, sometimes reaching for his hand and uncharacteristically smoothing her fingers against the skin there. Sometimes she paces agitatedly, and then leaves for several hours. She shows up after episodes like this with haphazardly placed bandages on her hands and when he asks about it, shrugs, all slender shoulders and says: "smashing plates" like it's the most logical thing in the world.
The truth is, all three are considerably lighter than before. Asuma was their anchor and was released, heaved up unwillingly from where he embedded them to rocky crag and coral. To earth and its gravitational orbit. They are now unfettered, aimless things whom, without the gravity of grief, would have drifted away long since.
Ino has her anger and lashes out to hold on; throws plates to counteract the weightlessness, and send her back to earth.
On the sixth day, Shikamaru comes back.
He ambles lazily into the hospital room and lowers himself into a chair, blatantly ignoring the NO SMOKING sign and lighting himself a cigarette, reclining back as though he hasn't gone AWOL for the past few days and left his grieving teammates all alone. Ino glares daggers at him and Chouji suspects that not only has she been using his front door as a mark for her plate hurling, his room has also served as the graveyard for the shattered (and jagged) pieces of used projectiles. Shikamaru catches her glance and sighs, moving to push open the window beside him to air out the smoke. The epitome of consideration.
Emitting a noise that is a unique blend of angry, frustrated and wild animal, Ino thumps the bouquet onto the nightstand, stands up and leaves the room. Shikamaru watches her go mildly.
"So, how did she get the pieces into your room?" Chouji cautions lightheartedly.
Shikamaru gives him a look that is painfully dead-serious. "Window. I've been sleeping downstairs." A semi-grin around that cigarette, dangling from his skewed lips like a new appendage. "How are they feeding you? I hear hospital food's terrible." He eyes the red flowers on the table beside Chouji, turns his head towards the window.
Chouji gives him a reassuring smile. They speak of trivial things, enough to break the ice and reinstate an old sense of camaraderie that settles snugly around them like a blanket. Outside, no grief can distil the burgeoning call of a new season; it lingers sharply in the humid, sun-warmed air, all rain-stained forest baking in hot daylight. The atmosphere is light, contrasting the grim set of Shikamaru's dark eyes, the pensive inhalations of smoke and tar.
Understanding is something that takes effort, but if anyone of Team 10 were to achieve it, Chouji would be a prime candidate. It dawns on him that Shikamaru counteracts the weightlessness in a more lasting way, by weaving nets to hold them all down. Even if Ino does, Chouji doesn't wonder where his teammate has been these past few days.
"There's time," he suddenly tells his friend, unprompted, referring to the processing of their grief. Shikamaru doesn't even glance up in surprise. It's a valid thought, but one that he does not agree with. Time creates happenings, occurrences and shallow lines along the face and body, but it does not erase. They will have to do so themselves and he has given it time: six whole days worth.
He asks: "When are you okay to go?" Because Chouji's unexpected injuries might throw off his allotted time frame, but it's an acceptable diversion.
Chouji gives him a brilliant, toothy smile, and says: "I knew you wouldn't leave us behind" like it was the perfect answer to all the questions of the universe, missing time notwithstanding. Shikamaru doesn't answer, just gives his crooked, half-involved grin. Luckily for him, the healing process has gone well, and Chouji will be discharged tomorrow morning.
"Meet me at the training grounds, then," he tells him, before getting up to leave.
And Chouji will go, because while Ino uses inertia and Shikamaru uses entrapment, Chouji is weighted down by the strength of his bonds with the other two. And in the end, his is the surest method of all.
The room next to Chouji's is an old, unused staff room, stacked with various, unneeded things like withered, dying plants and board games for the ailing. Ino sits against the table and contemplates them for a moment, then decides to pull out the shougi board and arrange a haphazard game in the musty, sunlit room.
Shikamaru enters a little while later and she doesn't turn her head at his entrance.
"Since when do you know how to play?"
The question is light, sarcastic; out of the corner of her eye, she sees him raise an eyebrow at her, then pick up a dusty vase and examines it closely.
A beat passes and stubborn silence persists. Suddenly this is a contest of the obstinate (at least to Ino), and unfortunately, Shikamaru wins either way: her rare silence or her even rarer surrender.
The thought makes her so angry, she clutches tight fists at her sides, fingernails making perfect, new-moon indents in the skin there. In the face of adversity, Ino diverges from true form and, for once, doesn't opt for the bitchy route.
"Say," she says suddenly, truthfully. The light pours in through the windows and illuminates streams of dust motes carelessly suspended in the air. Caught in the spotlight, they dance. "Say you get chosen for this mission."
"And you get our revenge, and you come home and Chouji and I go back to dead end missions for Konoha, you go back to training school." Behind her hardened tone, she's alluding to their team, their axiom, because it really has never mattered more than now. It's funny how death changes all of these things. Over a week ago, if she had only seen the two of them once a month, it would have been plenty.
He continues contemplating the innocuous vase with a tired frown. Her fingers drum a staccato onto the dusty tabletop with increasing speed. She isn't being logical, of course. Ino has never been logical. But these days, Shikamaru is also finding rationality a rare commodity. Even though he knows nothing measurable has changed between the three of them, he can't deny that it hasn't. He feels it too; the half-digested pain and the comfort of knowing his teammates are there for him.
Ino continues, showing her masterful use of all decibel levels. It's quite an accomplishment, but volume notwithstanding, her tone is dead flat. "Say that happens and then everything else that follows, and then this is all over, right? This whole damn thing just falls apart." It's not fair that she should need something that is so fragile, so prone to decimation by the faintest of breaths. It's not fair that she should be the only one who apparently needs it so much. Her pitch is flat, but her fingers belie her frustration. They frantically beat an angry tattoo onto the table and Shikamaru finds the noise insanely grating.
"Ino," he says, moving over to where she sits, stiffly, over her game. It looks like she's managed to lose to herself, he notes with a touch of exasperation. Maybe not so full of surprises, then. The drumming doesn't stop. In the background, the faint pattering of rain is heard, despite the unfailing sunshine. In some countries, this is called ghost rain, but here it makes no difference, because there are always ghosts. He grinds out his cigarette and says again: "Ino", giving her ample warning and time to cease and desist, but she never really has been inclined towards taking orders and taps those fingers as though she had never heard him.
"Ino!" He grabs her wrist, and she stands up with surprise; outraged and looking at him thoughtfully. It's too late, contact has already been made. She takes a sudden step closer, invading personal space, but it's okay because her teammates are appended to her core and a part of her like any other limb or extremity. Shikamaru catches a glimpse of the faint sheen of sweat along the rim of her upper lip right before she moves forward to kiss him.
She guides them and they move backwards, in space and not time-because this would never have happened before this whole sordid mess and will likely never happen again-until she's pressed against the warm wall and inches from his face. He's looking at her with a sick, sad sort of disbelief, like he knows what they're doing and why they're doing and why they shouldn't be doing it.
He places a knee between her legs, not high enough to intrude, but so she understands where this is going and why. His face is soft when she reaches out to stroke it; his hands are calloused when he raises her skirt. Through it all, they shed nothing, rather shifting clothing and fabric for needed exposure but keep it all contained, like the way they deal with their sadness.
The room is too hot, /stifling/. And the ratio of legroom far too much: they cannot occupy enough space, despite the fact that she reaches upwards and runs her pale arms down the length of those white walls, kicks out and knocks over her shougi game on its table. Shikamaru's presence is a weighty and surprisingly welcome one against her own and she watches him in panting, contemplative ecstasy; his eyes rove hotly upward from her half-clothed chest and then close with such delicacy and anguish, she feels almost delirious with grief.
Or sex. Here, both are interchangeable.
Rain kills the interference and magnifies all things: their breathing sounds so, so heavy in the stillness, their friction burns them harshly. Ino's eyelashes rub loudly against the skin of Shikamaru's cheek; make noises that are equal parts rasp and softness, like a chain smoker's throaty song. And their heartbeats sound a thumping, metrical beat; their cadence unified and sounding as one.
She hooks a leg up over his hip and pulls him closer; savours the heady grunt he emits in turn.
There is nothing here, just an overturned game of shougi, four rain-stained wooden walls and two people who are sharing something heavy and terrible like sadness, like grief: two commodities that exist in such excess that they have no real value, like sand, like water. At least not in this room.
But their sadness has its merits; there is enough to bundle up in heavy burlap sacks and anchor them here, because Ino searches for direction and Shikamaru searches for heroes, and they both are and kept where they have not tread for a long time past.
He lowers his face, presses his forehead against hers and moves in slow, delicately drawn out strokes, eyes fixed upon her lips but seeing ghosts in the periphery: of Asuma-sensei contemplatively smoking his ever-present cigarette and distractedly nudging a shougi piece with his toe. Through the wall that grinds mercilessly against her back, Chouji lies immobile in his bed, heavy bandages muffling the sounds of hot grief through the wood. But they do nothing to help the dreams, where he is between them and runs hands over skin, equal parts soft and callous, all belonging to the writhing, despairing mess that is team 10.
Their clothes are heavy and the heat is overwhelming now, their pace hot and frantic. Shikamaru's hands never touch her, they brace himself against the wall for leverage, hold her up unfailingly; it goes to show that this is not an act in which they participate for the sake of it. Nothing possessed by Team 10 finds life as words, but rather action. Ino and Shikamaru translate grief into kinetic energy: giving off heat in friction, emanating sadness like chemical vapours. In a moment of coital tenderness, she places a hand on his cheek, her back raw from chafing against the wall, and watches his face as she clenches around him tightly. He knits his eyebrows over closed eyes and comes, uncharacteristically pressing a chaste kiss against her temple as he does so.
When it's over, the moment winds down around them, like the pause between songs where the music lacks and for the first time, you realise it was ever there at all.
He lights a cigarette, tells her: "Meet me at the training grounds tomorrow," and she finally understands that he never meant to leave without them in the first place. She rearranges her rumpled garments and leaves like nothing happened. And this is true, because really, nothing happened here at all.
Once vengeance takes a tangible form in their minds, forged from thick grief that has festered for many days since; the three of them leave Konoha, beautiful, older, reckless with abandon.
In the end, determination is a concept of weightier essence than grief, and theirs is inimitable: a tempered blend of duty and direction that is all parts Asuma-sensei, learnt through his patented brand of teaching that was always equal parts strict and kind. Shikamaru exudes all facets of this education when he tosses that kunai, entombing Hidan and bridging those few steps between him and a lightness that he has not admitted he's yearned for.
There are others, but all you need to know is that two men and one woman leave the battlefield that day, caked in drying blood that is mostly not their own and wearing tight, grim expressions borne only by those who must let go. Three bloody trails of footprints mark their path back to Konoha, soon to be erased for reasons of stealth by lagging members of the squad.
"Don't ever forget that you were once team 10."
His words, and all senses react. The scent of acrid smoke. The taste of metallic blood. The feeling of warm spring air and brilliant sunlight caking blood and ash to skin. All fading to dull light, enveloped by time and action. Their burden is lighter and there are no ghosts anymore.
That evening, the three gravitate to that training field once more. They sit out there all night, until dawn light creeps, purple and tinged with darkness, towards their fingers, wrapped around handfuls of grass, knitted behind heads, dipped into bags of candy.
"We know you're not really sleeping, Shikamaru," Ino says softly to her teammate. She's half-sitting in the soft grass, back propped up against one of those training posts and head resting against Chouji's warm shoulder, light eyes trained on the lambent horizon and the growing proof of day.
"You're not snoring," Chouji adds, a light and cheeky smile audibly filling up his voice. Ino laughs; a beautiful, glittery sound that possesses a lightness he hasn't felt from her in ages.
For a beat, Shikamaru considers the watercolour sky before breaking into a delirious grin, all furrowed eyebrows and closed eyes like the one he gave Kurenai that very day. Chouji catches the expression and mirrors it twofold; Ino presses her cheek into Chouji's shoulder and places a slender arm along Shikamaru's stomach.
They're not moving, but their hearts beat fervently, fingers drum against grassy slopes, smooth cheeks crease in smiles. The three are light, unfettered, persuaded into motion by the breeze, moving on, growing up. All around are tendrils of brilliant light, dyeing the Konohan landscape a beautiful and bloody red, jumpstarting stilled shadows to life and causing them to skitter away frantically.
"Don't ever forget that you were once team 10," Asuma had told them.
For the first time in seven days and eight nights, his words jar stalled time back into action. It moves them out of these missing days, calls life from their hearts and breaks their inertia.
They all know it's something they'll never forget.