Categories > Anime/Manga > Naruto > Stumbling Blind

The Sasuke Issue

by Virgo 0 reviews

Because it has to be dealt with.

Category: Naruto - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Angst, Drama - Characters:  Ino, Shikamaru - Warnings: [!!!] - Published: 2005-05-08 - Updated: 2005-05-08 - 8160 words

Stumbling Blind
10. The Sasuke Issue

bgm- "Blurry", Puddle of Mudd

They stood in front of the Hokage, three weary, three weak. The moment they stepped back into Konoha, ANBU had appeared behind them, silently taking Sasuke from Naruto's numb hands and Akamaru from Kiba's torn arms. The dark hard boy had wanted to follow them, wanted to make sure his beloved partner would be all right, but Shikamaru had stopped him.

"We have to report to Hokage-sama, first." He said calmly, hand firm on his shoulder. "It'll give the doctors time to heal Akamaru."

Kiba didn't say anything, but his eyes became resigned. There was something inside Shikamaru he respected, something he would follow him blindly for. Reluctantly, he nodded his head, the three trudging slowly to Tsunade's office.

The village let them pass in an eerie silence.


"Ino! Ino!"

She knew that voice anywhere, looking up to find Sakura flagging her down. There was a desperate look in her expression.

"Sakura? What's wrong?" She took a couple steps toward the other girl, just short of holding her upright as she bent double, trying to catch her breath.

"The-The team....." Sakura managed to let out, "they came back....! They brought..... brought back Sasuke-kun!"

"The team?" Ino's breath froze in her chest. "Shikamaru-"

A trembling hand on her arm stopped any other thought. "They say," Sakura said quietly, "only three of the five came back."


Her face was grim, but she looked upon them with unabashed respect.

"You've completed your primary objective." Tsunade's hands stacked already even papers. "And you've managed to fend off all Orochimaru's ninja. You have my undying gratitude and respect. If there's anything I can do for you....." Her voice trailed off as her hands slowly stilled.

Shikamaru knew what was going through her mind. "You know what happened to Chouji and Neji." It wasn't a question.

"Un." The Hokage's hands clenched around her robe on the arm rests of her chair. She was determined not to swivel away from their faces. "A jounin team became available sometime after you had left. I sent them out as back up. They recovered the two Sound Nin as well as your two team members."

He felt Naruto stiffen next to him, Kiba, on the other side, was tense and tried not to fidget. Shikamaru remained at rigged attention and begged himself not to show that he already knew.

"Hyuuga Neji is in intensive care." She said calmly. "He's expected to pull through, though he's lost a lot blood. Akamichi Chouji was declared dead on site."

Shikamaru thought he felt something break on both sides of him, the other two boys' stances tittering on shock. His mouth was suddenly dry and brain grasping for something to keep from shorting out, he said, "I know."


Sakura and Ino raced to the admin building. The boys had to be debriefed, they knew, and hopped they'd be able to catch them.

They weren't the only ones with that idea- Hinata and Rock Lee were already there. No doubt the other teams' members wouldn't be too far behind. Hinata had put her jacket over Kiba who sat at her feet, looking shellshock. However, she and Lee stood off to the sides, a rapt, morbid look on their faces.

It was then Ino heard Naruto's voice.

"What the hell did you mean 'I know'!? HUH? What the fuck did you know!?" A small crowd was gathering and Ino pushed her way forward. Between shoulders, she could see Naruto's hand was wrapped around the collar of Shikamaru's flak, the other was balled up tight enough to make his dark hand burn white at the knuckles.

His only response came flat on a neutral expression. "I knew." Shikamaru said simply, hands limp at his side. They both looked like they barely survived hell. And, from Naruto's expression, it didn't look like Shikamaru would be able to brag that fact for too much longer.

"HOW did you know?" He was loud enough to bring out the entire admin building, what few shinobi were able to, out around them.

As best he could, Shikamaru shrugged. "I just did."

The blonde's voice was little more than a growl from his throat. Ino thought she could see the marks on his cheeks grow darker and larger. "When did you find out? How come you didn't tell us?"

"....." An odd emotion came over Shikamaru's face and passed, just like shadows.

"TELL ME!" There were tears on Naruto's face now, clutching to Shikamaru more for support than for a threat. "Why didn't you tell us!?" He fell against the chuunin, head rocking against Shikamaru's chest as he sobbed quietly. "Why didn't you tell us Chouji died?"

Someone gasped next to Ino, it must have been Sakura.

Ino took a faltering step forward. "Shikamaru....?"

He looked up at the girl, expression pensive but his eyes were afraid.

"Chouji.... Is he really..... Did he.....?"

The boy's expression steeled and he gripped Naruto's shoulders, pushing him away. He had to leave. He couldn't stay there and face the questions and accusations. His heart couldn't bear it.

She wouldn't let him walk away. "Shikamaru!" Ino tried to keep the falter out of her voice, but she trembled inside. "Is Chouji really...." She couldn't even bring herself to say it.

Shikamaru didn't look at her, or anyone. He kept his dark gaze trained ahead, willing himself to not see the people around them, willing them to not see him crack.

"Ah." His voice was a little too deep, a little too raw. He had to get away.

".....I-It can't be....." Her voice quivered and Shikamaru heard someone give a soft cry and someone fell to their knees.

Don't look, he told himself. If you look now, if you try to comfort her, you'll just break. And you won't be able to stop.

"What the hell is wrong with you!?" His jaw clenched, Naruto had snapped into another fury. "Say something, dammit! He was your friend, wasn't he? He looked up to you! He trusted you! He fuckin' believed in you and you're just going to walk away!? You're just going to leave us to deal with it like this/? He stayed behind for /you and you're just going to give him a fucking cold shoulder like he never-"

He was cut off by a harsh arm on his wrist, nails pinching his skin. "That's /enough/, Naruto!" Ino shook him harshly, her eyes overcome with emotion, face twisted in pain and rage. "Chouji is Shikamaru's best friend! They've looked out for each other since they met! Don't you DARE say Shikamaru never cared about him! Don't you DARE think this isn't hurting him!" The tears streamed down her cheeks, but she was too caught up in the roar of her emotions. "You've never done a thing for Chouji! You've never seen what Shikamaru's gone through for him- for both of us! Don't you DARE presume anything!"

"Ino! Naruto!" Their names were harsh and sharp, cut short through the short bite of teeth. Shikamaru looked at them over his shoulder, the tears he fought so hard to hide tracing down a cheek. "That's enough." And for a moment, Naruto saw him and saw someone else and saw the same deep-seated regret and self-loathing.

The moment passed and Shikamaru walked away, trying desperately to hold together the pieces that kept slipping through his fingers.

Ino followed him, a shadow ten steps behind as she struggled to catch up to him. It wasn't more than two blocks away that she found him, curled in an alley, his barricade broken and trying to contain his wails within his shaking arms.

The only thing Ino knew how to do was be at his side, trying to put him back together once more.


The sun was bright at Chouji's funeral. There wasn't a large turnout, asides from the other genin and a handful of chuunin and jounin, too many were still out on missions. Chouji's father was one of them. His mother declined having a messenger sent to tell him, not wanting to distract him.

Shikamaru had tossed his flak into his closet. He wasn't going to insult his friend by wearing it (it was his order that got him killed, after all), he didn't want to touch it ever again. Chouji's family didn't blame him for his death- they had told him outright. They knew the dangers of being a ninja, most knew it intimately- losing close friends and family, scares of too many close calls. They had even asked him to do a eulogy for him. He declined automatically.

Even if they didn't blame him, he blamed himself.

Shikato had tried to put it in perspective for him, but, as he spoke, he came to realize- painfully -that he really had no connection to his son at all. He knew what he was feeling- the same feelings anyone else would go through -and he knew the boy blamed himself, but he didn't know what was going through Shikamaru's head. He didn't know his thoughts, or what words would help. And in the end, Shikato merely babbled to a stop and not even then would the child look at him with those haunted eyes he had seen reflected back in the mirror for years.

He pulled his son close, trying not to weep as Shikamaru just sat there, locked inside himself.

Shikato told Ino, before the service began, that she was the only one that had a chance to bring him out. "You and Chouji mean so much to him. He needs something stable in his life right now, someone insisting that this wasn't because of him. Right now, you're the only one that he'll honestly listen to, the only one whose opinions he'll seriously consider." He smiled self-incriminatingly. "To him, I'm just the father that was never there."

As Chouji's mother spoke, her words tear strung, Ino reached over softly, taking Shikamaru's hand in hers. She tried to give him an encouraging squeeze, tried to get him to even glance at her, but his gaze fell unmoving on the ground, staring at a point too far for her to see.

Ever since he stopped crying against her shoulders in the alley, he rarely spoke, didn't seem to have any life in him whatsoever. Everything he did was on automatic, mind where no one could touch it.

In a way- and Ino cursed herself for thinking this -she was jealous. By all rights, she was his girlfriend, and just recently so. Yet all his thoughts were on someone else. Right now, to him, no one else mattered, no one else was there but Chouji and the memory that his friend's death was by his order.

She wondered if he'd feel more- if not just as -lost if she had died. She hated herself for the thought.

The ceremony ended and Ino pulled Shikamaru to the line to offer their prayers and condolences, but Shikamaru slipped from her grasp and walked away.


Ino was looking through one of the more ragged photo albums her parents kept, flipping through it and taking out a couple pictures she thought were really good. That held a good sense of their friendship. That showed them how they really were.

She remembered, flipping back to when she was a tiny girl, their parents used to take them places. Hers. Shikamaru's. Chouji's. Their fathers were in the same team, after all. They were best friends, even after they each moved on. And sometimes- she traced the chubby cheeks of some two year-old boy -their fathers would take their children to see each other.

Going through latter photos, she saw less and less of the two boys that would've been her teammates. That would've been the ones she would never doubt. When Shikamaru's mother left. And Chouji's older brother dropped out and his parents started arguing. And Ino's father retired. They all just faded away, then. And suddenly, years later, she had to know them all over again.

She took that photo out and placed it in the small pile. Idly she wondered where she'd find frames for all of them.

A hand dropped on her head. Looking up, she saw her father.

"Yes, Papa?" She asked.

"You have a guest."



Slowly, Ino blinked. "Sakura?"


The damn knocking again.... Sasuke scowled, deepening as he realized he was trying to hide under his covers. God, he had enough of this. Hiding and hurting and waiting and just wanting to be left alone. He didn't care anymore is someone wanted to give him power. He didn't even care if they were offering Itachi's head on a platter. He just /wanted/ to /be/ /ALONE/, dammit! The door knocked again.

"WHAT?" He growled.

The door opened and closed quietly and a slender girl strode next to his bed. Looking up at her, he recognized her as that Ino girl- the one that Sakura used to be friends with, the one that kept hanging off his neck. Sasuke scowled again. If she tried to touch him, he thought he might lose it.

But her pale blue eyes were like stone. And he might as well have been looking into an ice cube because his own stubborn anger reflected icily back at him.

Slowly, with careful precision and a steady voice, Ino said, "You made Sakura cry."

He snorted. "And?"

"You're a bastard."

Sasuke's teeth clicked as his jaw twitched. This was going somewhere he couldn't foresee.

"Don't you have any feelings whatsoever?"


Ino's chest tightened. "Someone's dead because of you. My friend and teammate is dead because you were so stupid and so selfish. The others are hurt and it's your fault. You made Sakura cry because she cares about you and she worried about you and she would've left to find you herself and you don't even care!"

"I have other things to worry about."

"No you don't!" She busted out. "You don't because you can't even bring yourself to care about anything! Nothing matters to you! People don't matter to you! Someone who isn't moved by the death of a kid on them, by the tears of a girl that really cares for them- if that can't effect you, nothing can!"

Sasuke smirked darkly at her. "So what, then? Am I not human?"

"You're an asshole. That's what you are."

"Coming from the girl that would jump me any chance she got."

"There are things I like about you. There will always be things I like about you. But after this, after all that and you still don't care," she glowered at him, "I can't respect you." Turning self-righteously on her heel, she pivoted back out into the door.

Sasuke snorted and turned back to his sheets, hoping he wouldn't be bothered again.


"He's out."

"Out? Out where?"

His father shook his head. "Probably at the shrine again. He's been going there every chance he gets." Stirring the spoon in his tea, he gave a bitter smirk. "They always do, the first time."


There was a knock at the door again. This time light, mannerly and more than a little cold. His dark eyes turned to watch as it opened. And closed. And the vase of flowers that was purposefully placed on the table by his bed.

With the high-born dignity of princess in the presence of a beast, Ino sat primly in her seat, eyes cold as she addressed him. "Good morning, Sasuke- kun."

"What do you want?"

"I'm here because Sakura isn't."

He sneered. "What a surprise."

She abandoned her high horse and glared. "Don't think I'm doing this for you. I'm doing this for her. Because she's afraid of you. She's afraid she'll cry in front of you again and that you'll think she's weak."

"She is weak."

"She stood up for you and she protected you more times than I can count. And all you can do is just walk away and ignore everyone and everything she's done for you. You're the one that's weak. Can't even see what's in front of you."

"A nitwit."

The glare darkened. "We can do this with civilized small talk or I can make it rough on you."

It was returned with easy skill. "And how can you make it 'rough' on me?"

Ino grinned a sadistic little grin and crossed her legs, her entire face suddenly brightened, happy in her evil. "I had such a great dream last night and it really sucked because Mom just had to wake me up because we can't trust Papa to cook. I swear, no matter what we teach him, he always forgets the moment he hears it. Actually, I think he does it on purpose so we don't make him cook, but we try to teach him anyway. But anyway, the dream was so cool because it had this new store downtown- I say it's new because we don't have it in real life, but in the dream it was there for a long time. It had this really pretty dress and a bunch of nice jewelry that I really liked-"

As Ino kept rattling on, getting more animated and laying it thicker as she went, Sasuke bore it as stoically as he could, inwardly groaning and wanting to hide under his pillow.


It was frightening how she could suddenly predict him like this, now. Not because she knew he wouldn't be doing anything, not because she knew he would just be lazing around, but because she had found him right where she knew she would. The marker with Chouji's name on it, back against the tall, etched stone and plucking idly at the grass. With a sigh, his head dropped to his chest, watching as he pulled apart a piece of grass, string by string.

Hesitantly, Ino cleared her throat.

"There you are!" She tried to keep her voice light. "I've been looking for you."


Her heart dropped at the lack of response. Having no other idea in her head, Ino went to the marker and knelt, praying for Chouji's soul's rest and placed a small wreath of dogwood and orange blossoms against the stone.

It was then Shikamaru noticed the other bouquet held in her hands.

Feeling his eyes on her, Ino looked at the boy, then at the flowers. A little self-conscious, she shifted them in the crook of her arm. "I'm taking them to the hospital. Do you want to come with me?"

"....Who for?" He asked quietly, but somehow it still made Ino jump.


Shikamaru's eyes narrowed. "Sasuke."


He pushed himself to his feet, scowling at Ino. "Stay away from him."


"It's not a good idea."

"It's just Sasuke." Came the reply. Her hands were clenched, preparing to go into Boss mode at a moment's notice.

"He's trouble."

"You think everyone's trouble."

"No. Everyone's trouble/some/. He's just trouble."

Ino narrowed her eyes. "What sort of sense does that make?"

He turned to her fully, expression frighteningly serious. "He's dangerous, Ino. By all rights, he's considered a traitor. If you go to him now, you'll just get yourself mixed up in all of this."

Bringing herself to full height, she sneered in his face. "How can you say that? Sasuke is the greatest ninja of our generation! We don't know that he left willingly. He could've been kidnapped!"

His flat, drilling look drained her thoughts.

"No." Shikamaru said simply. "He wasn't."


"He doesn't like you, you know." She felt a bit silly saying that, but something made her feel like it had to be said. She sat curled in the chair while Sasuke picked idly at his food.


"He doesn't like me talking to you."

"Then why do you?" It sounded more like a demand.

"Because. You're easier to talk to."

That seemed absurd and Sasuke's lips curled at the end. It had a cruel look to it.

"People don't normally say that."

"I wouldn't, either." Ino brought her legs in close, resting her chin on her knees. "But right now, you are."

Slowly, Sasuke turned to look at her. For the first time, Ino got a glimpse of that seal at the soft junction of his neck and shoulder. For the first time, she could see the cursed power struggling in its dormancy.

"You shouldn't be here." Ino nodded in agreement, but she didn't move. "You should be with him."

"I would, but...." she hugged her knees tighter, "Shikamaru scares me now. I don't know why, but he does, somehow. He has that tired, far away look in his eyes and all he does anymore is spend time with Chouji. He thinks it's his fault, but it's not. He wants to blame you, but he doesn't."

"Because you like me." Maybe it could've been a question.

"It can't be...." But she tried to curl up, all the same.

"You shouldn't be here."


"Why won't you come with me?"

"Why should I?" The incense was lit, but still Shikamaru thumbed the lighter. He didn't seem conscious of doing it.

Ino frowned at his back. "Then don't get upset that I see him."

For the first time that day, Shikamaru looked at her over his shoulder. It almost seemed like a glare. "Why do you always have to see him?"

"He needs someone, Shikamaru." She wanted to reach over and- because she felt comfort in contact -denied the urge to grab onto his hand. "He needs me."

"Why you?" She could tell that he was getting annoyed by this. More annoyed than he should have been. Than she would've liked him to be. She understood, though.

"Because everyone else is too afraid of him."

The muscles in his jaw moved slightly. "I don't want you around him."

"No one else wants to be around him either. So of course it has to be me." She forced herself not to look away. "Not even Sakura can bring herself to see him. It hurts her too much." Ino smiled sadly. "She always was too kind-hearted."

Shikamaru just snorted.

"Would you just knock it off!" She suddenly exploded. "Can't you understand that he needs someone to care, right now? Can't you even-"

"You know what?" He got to his feet, arms crossed, eyes set and harsh. "It doesn't matter anymore. You want to be with him, then be with him."


"You chose your side," he tried to keep from snarling and failed utterly, "fine/. I can deal with that. Never have you listened to me when it's something important. /Not /once/ do you ever bother listening to someone else! /FINE/. Go see your precious Sasuke. Leave me the hell alone."

Jamming clenched fists into his pockets, he shuffled right passed her. No pause, no goodbye. As if she didn't exist.


"It really hurt, watching him walk away like that. Back then, when I never noticed him before, I wonder if it hurt that much. Even when he liked me and I never said anything to him." Her voice was light, braiding the pliable, long-stemmed daisies together because she had nothing else to do. "I used to think I got used to it because you never noticed me, but then I thought, 'I made you acknowledge me, even if it was because you were annoyed with me, you still knew I was alive'. I never even gave Shikamaru that courtesy before. And yet," she gave the flowers an encouraging nudge, "he still cared about me.

"It's sort of sad, in a way. I have everything a girl could want in a guy and I'm still going back to you. Even if I don't feel so strongly for you anymore." Sasuke still didn't turn to her, but she knew he was listening. Even if he wasn't, she probably would still tell him. "Ever since I discovered him- the feelings he brought out of me, the feelings he gave to me -my crush on you just.... stopped. I still care, of course, a part of me will always still care. But, in my mind, Shikamaru comes first. And you...." She smiled sadly. "You're there as a memory. A perfect memory of a perfect guy who I can't touch, who I'll know as nothing more than my first crush, the guy I'll always admire. Because I don't know how long it will be until you've left for good.

"But Shikamaru's always there. And I know he'll always be there. It's that reassurance that makes me want to be with him. Except now. Now he won't look at me, just because I want to try to help you. Is that- Am I being foolish? Am I being selfish? Because I want you both to be happy?"

For the first time in days, Sasuke turned to look at her, so many dark thoughts swimming in his weary eyes and Ino was afraid about what words would come out of his mouth.

But he said, "No. There's nothing wrong with wanting people to be happy."


An assistant let him in after he announced the boy's arrival. He barely gave him a nod of acknowledgement- given out of custom drilled in years ago -before he stepped into the Hokage's office.

"Ah, Nara-kun." Tsunade motioned to the chair in front of her desk. "Have a seat." Her eyes darkened slightly. "Still not wearing your flak?"

He flickered a look at her for a moment. "No."

"You haven't been taking care of yourself, either." She commented idly, clinically listing what ailing health she readily saw.

Shikamaru didn't even have the energy to half-ass a scowl. "What did you summon me for?" Then, he added belatedly, "Hokage-sama?"

"Just to talk."

He raised an eyebrow at her.

"You know, I remember your dad, such a punk back then. Whenever he wasn't falling asleep and being a lazy ass, he was always causing trouble." She cupped a round cheek. "I wonder what happened to make you."

"Is there a point to this?" He grumbled. "Or is it just idle chitchat?"

"Why? Do you have more moping you want to get to?"

His body went rigged.

"Nara-kun, really." Her expression softened. "I know how it is. Losing someone important to you is hard. It never gets easier the more it happens. And you can't stop yourself from getting close to others. It's something you knew would happen. Death is something we as ninja walk with. I'm sorry you had to deal with this. I'm sorry this happened on your first mission. Thinking you could have done or said something different, made a different decision and he'd still be here."

"I know this." He said quietly. "I know people die. I knew if I made it far enough, I'd be making a decision where I'd lose someone. I know others made the same choice. But.... it wasn't even my decision, he chose it himself. I wouldn't have let him, but he wanted us to go." Shikamaru clenched his fists. "He's always so much stronger than I am."

Tsunade watched him for a moment. Then she let out a soft sigh. "If that's so, then why are you running away from it?" Shikamaru jerked his head back to glare at her. Seeing she had his attention, she reached into a draw and brought out a foreign looking bottle, square bottomed and intricately carved. She took the stopper from the top and brought out two tumblers. "Care to join me? The Nara family always bred strong drinkers."

She didn't wait for an answer, pouring a good inch of amber liquid into a glass and slid it across the desk to him. "What is it?" He asked, hooking a finger over the rim and bringing it closer.

"Whiskey. Good stuff. Expensive as hell, so you better enjoy." She downed her own tumbler in one go. "Ah! That always put things in a better perspective!"

Shikamaru gave her a dubious look, but slugged back his. He grimaced at the burn, putting the tumbler back on the desk. Before he could move back, Tsunade had grabbed his hand.

"Nara-kun." She said softly. "I wasn't much older than you when I lost my first precious person. My little brother, so full of life, so happy." She smiled slightly. "He wanted to become the next Hokage. It hurt so much because he always said he wanted to protect the village and everyone in it- everyone important to him. I just wanted to protect him from the world." She ran a thumb over his knuckles. "The next important person I lost was the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. He got hurt during a mission and died in my hands. Died as I was trying to save him. His blood was all over me, I couldn't take it." Her eyes shimmered with the memories. "It hurt. Both times I wanted to die. I couldn't fight anymore. I'd freeze at the sight of blood."


"But they did what was important to them. They did what they thought was right. Even if they gave their lives for it, it was something they believed in, something they thought was worth dying for." Her hands tightened around his fingers. "If that's the case, maybe I can think they died happy. And if your friend chose to die, then he thought that this mission was worth his life. It was worth it to make sure everyone else pulled through. With the thought that he was helping you, someone important to him, I'm sure he died happy."

"....." His fingers curled in her hand, giving her fingertips a slight squeeze. Shikamaru's shoulders were trembling and Tsunade smiled slightly. Because it meant that he was still feeling, that he hadn't completely closed himself off.

"Don't run away any more, Nara-kun. It took me years to finally realize how much I was hurting their memories because I wouldn't do anything, just letting my life pass by because I was too afraid. Because I was abandoning them. Don't make that mistake."

"He knew." Shikamaru said quietly. "He knew I didn't want to be a chuunin. He knew I never wanted attention brought to me, that I didn't want people to depend on me like that. He was the only one that ever really understood me and I knew everything about him." His eyes began to sting, teeth gritting against the hitch in his voice. "It hurts so much, knowing that I don't have anyone with that same connection now."

"What about your father?" She asked. "I've heard you have a girlfriend, don't you? What about her?"

Shikamaru's hand tightened almost painfully against hers as he bowed his head, wanting only a moment of connection.


There was a bare knock on his door, just enough to give warning that they were coming in. Sasuke's eyes narrowed, knowing it wasn't that annoying girl behind that knock. Were it Sakura again, hers would've been polite and hesitant and neither Kakashi nor Naruto would even bother, just bursting into the room like they owned it.

The door eased open with a little push and- to his surprise -Shikamaru sauntered in, a half-echo of his old self. He knew the chuunin (chuunin? Shikamaru? Ha! He still couldn't believe it!) had changed because of the mission to recover him, but he hadn't expected Shikamaru to seem so.... empty. He could see the hollows in his eyes, though there was a sort of determination in them, trying to break through.

Sasuke turned away, trying to keep the bemused look off his face. Ino didn't have to worry, he thought, he'll pull through without a problem. Not one she'd have to worry about, anyway.

"I'm surprised to see you here." He said after a length. It was odd for him to start a conversation, but Shikamaru obviously wasn't going to begin it.

He shrugged. "Well, I guess even the great Uchiha Sasuke isn't the type to get girls to visit in a hospital. Though it may just be because you make them cry when they do." He couldn't quite keep the sneer out of his voice.

"Funny," came the low retort, "your girl visits me."

The thin smirk fell from his lips abruptly. Sasuke wondered in the silence the reason for this visit. To try to make him feel guilty? To make him feel like it was his responsibility that a genin was dead and another permanently injured?

Softly, Shikamaru said, "She's not my girl."

"Isn't she?"

He looked away. "Not anymore."

Sasuke couldn't help quirking up an eyebrow. "Oh? That was rather quick."

The muscles in his jaw clenched. "I figured you'd already know, what with all the time she spends with you."

"Feh." Shikamaru's eyes flickered up to Sasuke's dark grin. "You broke up with her because she hangs around me? I figured you were more open minded than that."

He glared darkly. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"I knew she liked me, you knew she liked me. And both of you knew I knew. And yet, somehow, you still decided to be a happy little couple, even with the worry in the back of your head because I was still around. You could've just let me go, you know. I'm sure everyone would understand, it being your first mission and all."

"Are you going to say something or are you just going to yap?"

"Ino got over me a long time ago, she's not the problem. You are because you're too insecure. You don't think you can measure up to her image of me." Sasuke snorted, ignoring the way Shikamaru's jaw worked, as if trying to convince himself not to charge at the other boy. Sasuke had to admit, he was surprised at how much even the mere subject of that girl was affecting Shikamaru. "I'd like to suggest that you hurry up and fix this thing up, though." He gave the chuunin a grin- nothing sinister, just a wiry humored grin. "But I suppose I deserve her yaking my ear off about you. I'm pretty sure you've had enough of her going on about me."

Shikamaru's eye twitched. "What?"

"That's all she does. She comes here and she talks about you. Annoying as hell. But she's doing what she thinks is right and then you give her an ultimatum. I don't like having to deal with other people's problems, but it seems to me like you're the bad guy, here."

"She thinks you need someone."

"She wants me to be happy. She wants you to be happy, too."

Shikamaru's jaw clenched.

"You don't care?"

Quietly, the other boy said, "She made her choice."

"And you're just going to throw her away, even though she cares about you?" Sasuke's smirk took a slightly more ironic shade. "I think you've just become the new asshole."

"What?" His eye twitched.

"Because you're not moved by the fact that you hurt someone that obviously cares about you a lot. That makes you an asshole."

"Funny, coming from you."

"That's why you're the new one."

There was a pause. Then a sharp quirk of Shikamaru's lip. "That's got pissed Ino written all over it."

"For good reason." Silence reigned again. Sasuke looked at the clock. "She comes by in half an hour. Stay or go, you're choice."

He raised his dark eyes to the clock in thought. ".....I'd better leave." At Sasuke's raised eyebrow, he added, "I'll be back later."


It had been three days since Sasuke had begun acting odd. As if he knew something Ino didn't and wouldn't say anything no matter how she pressed. But, she thought with a sigh, that's Sasuke-kun for you. She shifted the fruit basket she brought. Her mother had finally told her to stop with the flowers or the girl would have to start paying for them. "There's only so many freebies we can give out, even to our own daughter."

"Ah, Ino-san."

The girl in question stopped. "Huh?"

"You're here to visit Sasuke-san, aren't you? He's been moved. He's now in room 125, down that corridor." The nurse said, pointing down another wing.

Ino blinked, confused. "Oh. Okay, thank you." She smiled brightly. But, as she walked towards the room, she wondered about the sudden change.

Approaching the room, she reached toward the door, reading the name 'Uchiha Sasuke' on the wooden placard. Directly underneath it was the name of the other occupant: 'Hyuuga Neji'. Ino's eyes widened and she could make out sounds from inside the room. And it sounded like a scuffle.

Without another thought, she slammed the door wide open, prepared for the worst.

A ball beaned her in the head.

"Oh, shit."

A strangled sound managed to make its way through Ino's throat as she clutched her aching forehead, glaring bloody death at the perpetrator.

Naruto's eyes were wide. "It was him." He jabbed a finger in Kiba's direction.

"It was-"he withered under the girl's murderous look, "okay, maybe it was me....."

Neji scowled at the two, wishing his bed was closer to them so he could smack them both. "We can't even trust you with something as simple as a ball."

"It bounces. You should've known better than to trust idiots with something that bounces." Sasuke replied. He moved a shogi piece set up on the table between his and Neji's beds.

That brought Ino back to the right frame of mind. In wide-eyed surprise, she looked around the room. Not only were Sasuke and Neji suddenly roommates, but Kiba and Naruto- who had been wrestling for dominance over the bouncy ball prior -were arguing in the corner until Lee prodded them with one of his crutches. And when that didn't work, he whacked them both over the head with it.

"Wh...." Ino managed to ask, "What are you guys doing here?"

"Just hanging out." Naruto grinned at her. "Hey, make sure we don't lose that thing, all right?"

"Yeah, I want to give that to Akamaru for a get well gift."

"Don't give it to that mutt!"

"He's not a mutt, Dead Last."


"Would you two shut /UP/!" Neji and Sasuke glared at them simultaneously. Scowling, they turned back to their game. Ino shook her head and picked up the ball, noticing that the shogi board was taken out of Shikamaru's front room. The thought stuck in her head.

"Is Shikamaru here?"

"He's over there." Lee jerked a thumb toward the corner by the beds. Ino blinked, unable to see anyone.



He pointed again and Ino craned her head to see. Indeed, she did see Shikamaru. Sprawled on the floor, asleep.

She looked at the others, incredulous. "What is he doing on the floor?"


She glared at Kiba. "I can see that. Why is he on the floor?"

He shrugged. "There's only two beds and the chairs ain't that comfortable."

"Besides," Lee said, "he said it was the only place where the ball didn't seem to go.

"Oh? Were you two idiots throwing stuff at him?"

"Not purposefully!" The two so called 'idiots' protested. "Er, well, not entirely purposefully."

One of Ino's fine eyebrows lifted. "So what would happen if he got hit again?"

"Um, he'd probably get pissed and beat us. He said he had rough training yesterday."

"Hn." Naruto, Kiba and Lee saw her blank look and worried, wondering what was going on in her head. She whammed the ball against the wall, nailing the sleeping boy square in the back.

There was a momentary tensing of the shoulders-

"Wouldya knock it OFF!!" Everyone dove for frantic cover, the ball careening through the room like a rocket. Shikamaru scrubbed his face, the epitome of calm in the storm of an out of control rubber missile.

The room settled as the ball- beginning to tire -smacked into Kiba's ass and bounced to a standstill. Ino cautiously peered from around the corner of the bed.

"Shikamaru, are you all right?"

He looked at the wide-eyed girl from between his fingers. "....What are you doing here?"

("God /damn/! My ass!" Kiba moaned)

"I was here to see Sasuke-kun, but the nurse told me his room moved."

"Yeah, two days ago."

(Naruto could barely breath, he was laughing so hard.)

("Hey, shut up, man!")

"Really?" Ino's brow furrowed. He seemed awfully.... not glacial-like for only two days. But, as she watched the two boys over their game, the determined set in their faces may have said something completely different. "But," she asked again, "are you okay?"

("I said shut up!")

He waved it off. "Just tired." And he winced. "And sore as hell."

(Naruto finally calmed down enough to be able to see and noticed Kiba's eyes had flickered to the ball. His own eyes widened. "Oh no you don't.")

"Training that tough?"

"Actually, I think most of it is from those guys." He glared at the others just as Kiba and Naruto dove for the deadly bouncy ball. Naruto's hand wrapped around it first and Kiba was doing everything in his power to tear it away from him. In a desperate act of keep away, the blonde threw the ball against a table. It ricocheted into Sasuke's head.

Eye twitching violently, the dark haired boy turned and GLARED.

Knowing his life was suddenly about to end, Naruto attempted a misdirection. "He did it!"

Kiba snarled at him. "Dude, that was all you."


"Sa-Sasuke, you're supposed to stay in bed. Sasuke..... Sasu-HELP!"

"God damn...." Shikamaru pushed himself to his feet. "You guys couldn't be any noisier if you tried." He went to the door, turning Ino around. "Come on."

"Ooooo, gonna spend some 'quality time' with your girl?" Kiba drawled between a sharp-toothed grin.

"That just means I have a life." He scowled right back. "Instead of hanging around here with nothing better to do."

The other boy thought about that for a minute. Then looked up at Lee and Neji, both looking as if they wanted to hurt Shikamaru for the comment, but knowing he was right. Kiba cursed. "Shut up." Half-hearted, he threw the ball at the chuunin, but the door slid closed before it came close. The ball bounced off and crashed into the shougi board.

"Dammit, KIBA!"


On the other side of the door, Shikamaru's scowled deepened at the sound of scattering pieces. "They better not break my game." He grumbled.


"Hm?" He turned to Ino. And promptly tried not to blush.

She looked up at him, open admiration in her eyes. "Did you do this?"

He shrugged vaguely. "Yeah, sort of."

"How come?"

"I guess even a guy like Sasuke deserves to be happy."

"I-I thought you didn't like him."

Shikamaru let out a huff. "He has no common sense and he's singularly obsessive. Can't say I like him much, no. But he does need someone right now. He needs people to help him get through the pain." He lowered his eyes. "I've been happy- close as I can get, anyway -so many times in my life. Dad, Chouji, you, you've made my life worth living. Sasuke had that taken from him, he doesn't have anyone to live for, anymore. And the memory of his family, it's too tainted with hate and revenge for him to live on with. Even if he doesn't want anyone to get close, I figure someone's bound to. Might as well get him used to it." He suddenly shrugged, a bitter look on his face. "Do you know how hard it is keeping those guys from trying to kill each other? It's a pain in the ass."

Ino laughed, wrapping Shikamaru into a tight hug. "I knew you'd understand. In your own way, I knew you cared." Clutching his jacket tightly, she stayed close to him, ear pressed against his chest, listening to the steady hammer of his heartbeat. A minute went by and Shikamaru shifted in her arms. One hand went up to her shoulder as he shifted to get a look at her thoughtful expression.

"Hey, Ino?" He gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze, trying to get her attention.

"Shikamaru." She said quietly. "Maybe we could ask the doctors if they could go on a picnic. You could get the boys set up, and me and the other girls could make a big lunch for all of us." Ino tilted her chin up to him. "And maybe we all could be happy for a little while."

He merely smiled down at her, thumb light against her cheek. "Whatever you think is best."



This should be the last really dark, sort of depressing chapter in the rest of this series. It should be, anyway, unless the other ones don't go as planned o.O;; But then, I have to be in the right mood to get really dark (which i was for most of this, obviously), if not, I'll add little stupid things to lighten it up a bit^^;;

As you can tell, the chapter title is somewhat misleading. It wasn't that Ino still had a crush on Sasuke, it's just that Shikamaru was being insecure and is vulnerable at the moment with Chouji's death. More of his insecurity will be shown later.

/Yes/, I think Chouji died, I'm sorry. That entire thing with the butterfly just gave off that vibe. No, I don't think Neji died, not because I like him ranks as one of her least favorite characters. I foresee a very rough fight with Kiba and Akamaru, especially with Akamaru, even though they're my second favorites (the first is permanently reserve for Shikamaru^^), I'm betting cute little Akamaru will get severely hurt. I hope it doesn't happen, but I wouldn't be surprised. hasn't been looking up recently, bad girl^^;; With the appearance of.... er, that guy that was on the hospital bed^^;; doesn't remember his name, I'm really doubting that they'd bring back Sasuke, but I got tired of waiting and said 'fuck it!' and am claiming that they did. If none of these things happen, then yes, yes this is an AU. So there XP

Did I make Naruto too emotional? He's very passionate about life and hates people that are cold or takes it for granted, especially when the one who died is close to the one who's cold (i.e., Haku and Zabuza), so it doesn't seem too surprising to me that he would burst out like that. I hope I'm not wrong with that, but I'm sure I'm not too far off^^;; And, for those of you that didn't catch the reference, the person Shikamaru reminded him in 'that moment' was, indeed, Zabuza loves ZabuHaku- more tragic than Romeo and Juliet And.... Yes, Sasuke is a little OOC (maybe even a lot), but dammit! It had to get done and I'm infinitely sorry about that! You don't know how much I cursed myself typing down words that seemed OOC, even if it had to be said!

But, anyway, their first and biggest crux in their relationship has been overcome. Now let's see what other sorts of fun we can have with them, ne? ^-^
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