Title: Looking In (On the Outside)
Rating: G
Words: 8700
Summary: Ino's never been good at doing nothing. Being ordered to do nothing doesn't make it any easier. (Minor InoNaru.)
Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto. Kishi does.
Notes: This fic fills starsonfire's prompt for Wishlist 2012. It also fills the "group support" square on my Hurt/Comfort Bingo card, the "Permission" square on my Cotton Candy Bingo card, and the "holidayfic" square on my Trope Bingo card. Unbeta'd.

Report to Meeting Room I-B5-13 at 04:00 hours.

That is everything the note said. Just that and a spiral etched in scarlet ink underneath it.

Ino nearly dies (okay, that's an exaggeration) when the carrier pigeon wakes her up to give it to her. Even now, sitting in the designated meeting room, Ino controls her urge to fidget only through sheer force of will.

Her ponytail spills nearly to the ground and looks particularly tempting but, if there's anything Ino has, it's determination. She doesn't play with it. Excitement and trepidation pulse on her tongue, in the back of her throat, like a half-melted candy.

She knows what this is.

Oh, she doesn't know the content of the mission they'll give her—but she knows what it means.

Already, she's passed the first three ANBU trials. This is the last.

Overhead, the light is harsh an unrelenting, just a bulb without a shade. The room holds three chairs and a table, all in the same burnished steel. The chair is cold and uncomfortable, designed to encourage people not to linger.

(Though, really, who would in a room like this?)

Ino resists another fidget and thinks, her eyes narrowing. The last trial will be the hardest. Her strength, her ability to think on her feet, her breadth of jutsu and general knowledge have already been tested. (She passed with flying colours.)

The last trial, though, will deal with a flaw.

While Ino prefers to believe she doesn't have any—and, if anyone had the nerve to ask, she'd tell them just that—but it's not true and she knows it. She wonders which flaw they'll pick.

Behind her, the door opens, just about stopping her heart as her nerves lurch unsteadily. She manages not to jump and is pleased by her control. The door closes as she recognizes the chakra signature of the person who, even now, walks around the table with big, rolling strides.

Morino Ibiki.

She swallows while hoping he won't notice and knowing that he does. It is right there in his thoughts.

He seats himself and sets a slim folder and an equally slender mission scroll on the table. Then he crosses his arms and regards her steadily. Ino meets his gaze, though it takes more effort than it should, since her attention is split between him and the mission scroll.

"Yamanaka Ino," he says pleasantly. "You already know what the purpose of this mission is."

She dips her chin, not looking away from him. Ino strives for serenity, or at least the appearance of it. If it fools him, she can't tell. Not even his thoughts give it away, which impresses her against her will.

"You're good at what you do," he continues. "Your results for the trials are excellent—but you need to be better."

Ino doesn't like hearing that. She never has liked hearing that.

He smiles faintly. It isn't reassuring.

But then, she doesn't think it is meant to be.

"Good," he says, of her silence. "The flaw you will be confronting is this: your lack of detachment."

Her eyes widen.

"Shinobi of Konoha are supposed to, are encouraged to, form strong bonds with their comrades." Morino's dark eyes bore into her. "ANBU must be prepared for those bonds to be severed at any time."

Ino feels sick. She knows that, if it comes down to it, that she has no problems dying for her village. But this is different.

Ino loves the village.

But her friends are her anchor. The idea of severing those bonds is much harder to consider than, say, cutting off her arms.

Morino nods slowly, like he can read her mind even though she's the one with that ability. He picks up the mission scroll and tosses it at her.

She catches it.

"This is your mission. You're to watch, learn, and report. Do nothing." His voice is cheerful, like he hasn't just demanded the impossible from her.

Ino cracks the seal on the scroll and reads it quickly. She reads it a second and third time more slowly. "This isn't funny," she says.

"Who said we're trying to be funny?" Morino asks, sounding genuinely curious. "Can you do this mission?"

Can she? Ino wonders.

Her gaze drifts back down to the scroll as she reads the words over for the fourth time. For the first time, she doubts her ability to pass this trial. Do nothing. She's never been good at that.

Which is, of course, why they're targeting it. A flaw.

At least I won't be spying on my dad. It's small consolation.

In the end, though, there's only one response. "I can do this," she says.

He looks at her. Judging. Evaluating. "Are you sure?"

Ino's temper bristles and she forcibly restrains it. "Yes," she says steadily, "I'm sure. I want this. Do you want me to beg?"

"ANBU only beg when the mission requires it."

There's a flash of humour across his face. It's a joke. It's the truth.

It's both.

"What's the timeline?" Ino asks.

"You start in thirty minutes. Duration is a week. You're to report to me at this time every day."

Ino sets the scroll down. He tucks it away. That's okay because she's got it memorized and it's better to not carry it around anyway. "Anything else?"

"Get to work, Yamanaka."

She stands, bows with her hands flat on her thighs, and then disappears in a swirl of leaves and smoke.

The first order of business looks a lot like any other day. She gets up, like she hasn't already been up, and heads out for breakfast because cooking is just not a thing she likes doing, though she can. Breakfast is bought and eaten as she walks through Konoha's streets. The air is cool but not particularly cold.

Konoha doesn't get super cold very often.

As she walks, she unravels her mind's shields. Not all of them but enough that she can feel the hum of minds around her. Then she goes looking for the minds she's supposed to watch. Finding Sakura is like slipping on an old glove; easy and comfortable. Even if Sakura notices her presence in the back of her mind, she's not likely to think much of it-this is old news to them.

It had been Sakura that had been Ino's partner back when Ino had first begun learning how to read minds instead of just take them over, way back in the Academy.

Naruto is just as easy to find. Not because she knows his mind but because the other mind he carries with him radiates power outwards. Looking for Naruto is like looking for the sun. Touching Naruto's mind is as dangerous as reaching for it.

Ino is very careful not to rouse the attention of the demon that Naruto hosts. She leaves only the faintest trace on Naruto, like the sort that a routine mind-sweep of the village would leave, and tells herself that will be enough. She hopes it will be. She'll make it be.

Hatake is harder to find. Not due to anything he's done but because of her own antipathy towards him. (She has never forgiven him for the lack of attention he gave to Sakura. Sakura is bright and beautiful and powerful now and none of it is because of him. Ino spitefully thinks that serves him right.)

Detangling her lack of interest in his mind from her need to track him takes her a few minutes, during which she stands, leaning against the railing on one of Konoha's many bridges. Anyone who sees her will hopefully think she's just enjoying the view. Ino barely notices it.

There. Hatake is at the memorial stone. She leaves a proper hook for her to find him again and gets out quickly.

The last person is even worse to find than Hatake and, again, it's all down to her own issues with him. She wishes she was looking for Sai. Or even Yamato-Tenzou-whatever he calls himself this week. They both have damn strange minds but she doesn't hate either of them.

She hates Uchiha Sasuke and deeply resents that he's back in the village at all. She resents even more that she's forced to watch him for a week.

Eventually, she gives up trying to find him from afar and begins making her way closer to the Uchiha District. The spice market is near there-she angles her approach to make it look like she's heading there, all the while walking at an easy pace.

But the mission wants Hatake Kakashi's original Team Seven under observation. So it had to be Uchiha Sasuke rather than Sai or Tenzou so she's just going to have to deal.

That doesn't mean she has to like it-but then, they never asked for that.

Once she's closer to the Uchiha District, finding Sasuke is much easier. Ino makes a face as she sips from a bottle of fruit juice and makes note to work on her weakness. Even if she hates someone, she should be able to find them anywhere in the village.

Ino mulls over the fact that she can find enemy nin much easier than Sasuke for a moment (perhaps because her hatred of Sasuke is personal rather than impersonal) before reluctantly tucking the speculation away for the moment.

She's got things to get done. Sasuke's mind is sharp edges, grief-ridden and guilt stricken.

(She's surprised he actually means what he said about being sorry, not that saying sorry changes anything. He can't go back in time and take away the pain he's caused people she loves-she'll never forgive him.)

As Sasuke eats breakfast, Ino casually takes a walk and winds up under a nearby tree, a book in her lap and to all appearances, settles in for a good, long read. It's an old favourite, so if someone asks her about the story, she can answer truthfully about what's been happening.

But most of her attention is on her link to Sasuke's mind.

It takes Ino three hours to decide he's utterly boring.

She stretches and sighs. Listening to his constantly brooding thoughts is tiresome-does anything make him happy?-and she's never had much patience for other people being over-wrought. His thoughts grate. It appalls her that he thinks constantly of his wrong-doings.

Like, really, if he's going to concern himself with them so much, she thinks he ought to be doing something to make it better. Just because she won't ever forgive him doesn't mean other people won't, if he makes the effort.

But he's not making the effort and that just adds to her irritation.

Making sure that her thought-line is secure, Ino gets up, stretches the kinks out of her back, and heads off to the hospital for her shift. She can keep a thought (or five) on him easily now that contact's been established. And she'll be more use in the hospital.

"You seem distracted today," Sakura says, hours later, as they take a five minute break from paperwork before starting their rounds. They're in different departments today which means these five minutes might be all they see of each other. "Everything okay?"

Ino laughs and leads back in her chair. "I'm good," she says honestly. "Dad's up to his eyebrows in cross-breeding trials for new poisons."

They're two utterly unrelated statements that are both true. It's not her fault when Sakura accepts them like they're related.

"I'm sure he'll be fine," Sakura says. "And if he's not, we'll fix him up so that he's good as new."

They both know that Yamanaka Inoichi has more experience with botanical poisons than either of them-he's probably forgotten more than they've ever learned about it, even though Ino tries to keep up with his research.

If anything does happen, he'll probably be dead before they even know.

Ino still finds it comforting that Sakura offers her support. Even though Ino has only mentioned it to distract Sakura from the real reason she's not fully with it today.

"Right," she says. "I'll hold you to that. Just see if I don't."

Sakura just laughs and they part to go about their days.

It takes Ino twenty-four hours to realize that she's actually feeling sorry for Sasuke. His droning monotone of relentless depression and self-flagellation is extremely hard to bear. And Ino doesn't want to feel sorry for him.

But it's a hard won realization that she does.

She doesn't trust him. She doesn't even like him.

But there's something lonely and empty about his expression (even though it burns with a longing so fierce that it's scorches) when he watches children with their parents, all of them out shopping for the holidays that she can't deny.

Watching him (and she is, through the glass, while picking up a few presents herself and clutching a hot chocolate) and listening to his thoughts, makes it hard to ignore the absolute desolation he feels. When Naruto breezes by, twenty minutes later (and she's in another shop, nowhere near him, but still listening) Ino finds herself smiling slightly when Sasuke's mental 'tone' goes up several notches even as he berates Naruto for being obnoxiously loud.

She cannot stand Uchiha Sasuke.

But she doesn't really like having to carry around the knowledge that he is painfully, brutally alone in her head-well, not after a few minutes of absolutely justified vindictive pleasure at his pain.

It's an ugly part of her but, like the rest of her flaws, she owns up to it in the privacy of her own mind. (Only her clan, after all, could pry-and she can keep them out.)

Ino twirls a bit of hair around one finger, picks out a few bits and bobs she thinks her friends will like, and wonders what to do about Sasuke.

She's been told not to do anything. Just listen, just watch.

Ino is grimly amused because, yeah, she knows why they're picking on this flaw: she's never been good at keeping her nose out of things.

It just sucks that it's because of him. Ino weighs her options, listening to Naruto babble to Sasuke about some new jutsu, and resolves to keep to her orders. It's just Sasuke, after all. He doesn't really matter.

(Ino ignores the fact that she has to tell herself he doesn't matter means that she's lying to herself.)

Dropping off her presents at home, she heads out again to find Chouji and Shikamaru. Only Sakura and her father are easier to find than her team and she tracks them down easily. She takes a seat at their table without fuss and announces, "I need a cause."

"Uh oh," Shikamaru says, darkly amused. "You're getting antsy about not having a person to improve?"

Chouji looks uneasy. "I still don't like making people into projects, Ino."

"Noted," she says brightly, stealing Shikamaru's drink and ignoring his half-voiced protest. "And yeah, something like that. Either of you heard anything?"

True to his word, Chouji is unwilling to offer much and looks vaguely pained by the fact that Shikamaru willingly debates with her the merits of picking one down on their luck shinobi over another. He doesn't like that her altruistic tendencies are planned.

Ino doesn't see what the problem is-either way, she'll be making someone's life better and isn't that worth a little calculation beforehand?

But even debating with Shikamaru about various projects, Ino can never quite forget about Sasuke's plight.

Which totally sucks.

She does, eventually, wind up narrowing her options for a project down to a few, however. Which gives her something to mull over while trying not to think about Sasuke.

Not that it really helps, but Ino isn't the sort to just give up that easily.

When midnight strikes (she's still awake; shinobi never keep regular hours) she lets go of her thread to his mind with considerable relief and casts out a line to track down Hatake Kakashi.

It isn't hard to find him, not when she knows where his apartment is. He isn't much for social activity and this time of year only makes him shy away from it even more.

She's known that much for years.

The first (and last) Christmas that Team Seven had celebrated together hadn't… well, been together.

Ino still remembers inviting Sakura to join her team at the fancy restaurant they'd booked reservations at and the way Sakura's smile had been like glass—pretty but brittle, as she realized that teams, but not hers, were enjoying the holiday together.

(They hadn't even been speaking then, not really, but Ino hadn't been able to not invite her. To this day, she is still surprised that Sakura had accepted.)

After that, Ino had told her dad, who'd nodded and patted her shoulder and said she'd done the right thing.

He hadn't told her, but rather told Shikamaru's dad, that he thought Hatake was a terrible sensei. Ino hadn't been supposed to hear that, but she had, and she hadn't forgotten it.

Time had only proven her father more than right about it. He was a terrible sensei.

But after that holiday, after Sakura with her terrible forced smile, Ino had done some scouting of her own. She knows where Hatake lived. She knows where he hangs out with friends. She knows of his truly appalling amount of time spent at the memorial stone.

Ino can find him. And does—just as easily as breathing.

Slipping into the back of his thoughts, Ino is unsurprised to find he is still awake. (After all, she is.) She keeps her presence minimized and her thoughts inside her own head and after listening to him read terrible porn for an hour goes to bed.

There is more to Hatake than porn, of course, and while he reads it nearly constantly, Ino is bemused to realize that, over the next few days, he actually thinks about it much less than he reads it.

And he reads it for the stories ending happily, not just for the sex.

That is the most pleasant discovery about him.

The rest is pretty dismal. Hatake wanders through life in a haze of guilt and sorrow and pain that, while he hides it admirably from the outside, aside from his predilection towards being late for everything and anything, is terribly, horribly handled from the inside.

While Ino tends the shop, freeing up her dad to work on emergency holiday orders (both poison and floral alike) without having to hire a Genin team, she marvels that someone so broken appears mostly functional.

He doesn't inspire pity in her, the way Sasuke (still) does.

Ino doubts he'd have been pleased to know that she regards him more as a test subject under observation.

The thought makes her laugh and Ino pretends that it was something she read, just in case anyone noticed (someone always notices) and thinks to ask (which is far more unlikely).

No, he wouldn't like that at all.

Because physically watching Hatake isn't something she thinks she can do-not for long, and not easily-Ino's mental tag on him is much stronger than it was on Sasuke. She knows that's a risk, since he's more than experienced enough to be able to detect her, if he thinks to try and look, since bloodline limits rarely play nicely with one another, but between the fact that his bloodline limit was given, not born, and the fact that he has no reason to suspect her of rifling through his thoughts, Ino deems it worth the risk.

If he senses anything, anyway, he's likely to go to her dad. And her dad will ask her and Ino can just claim to have been practicing her village-wide scans and, oops, so sorry for disturbing you, Hatake-sensei.

It's a pretty good excuse.

She likes it because it's even plausible. One-on-one scans are nearly impossible to detect. Village-wide ones are much easier to feel.

Individual tags are more complicated. Ino can tag anyone she wants and leave the tag for her to find them later, no problem, no one will ever notice.

But using the tag ups the risk.

Oh well. Her excuses in place, Ino carries on with her work. Ostensibly rearranging some of the flowers and helping customers when they ask for her to do so, most of her attention is on Hatake's mind.

Ino mulls over the fact that Naruto's dad is hotter in person than he'd ever seemed in the pictures in the history books. She rolls her eyes at Hatake's mushy feelings for Rin and Obito, though they make her smile despite herself.

His thoughts give her insight into the inner workings of Team Seven and it irks her to know that, even now, Sakura is the least in his thoughts. Sasuke dominates them, because Hatake has no way to cope with the pain that his student's betrayal and then subsequent return have given him. Naruto is only a little more complex. Less pain, more guilt, and an unwilling, uncertain pride that Naruto has managed to flourish.

No thanks to you, Ino's thoughts finish and she is unsurprised when Hatake doesn't argue, not even with himself, about the thought. It's identical to the ones he's thought before, there's no way to tell that it doesn't belong to him, if he's not already suspicious.

She winnows through his mind for thoughts of Sakura and hates him a little more for how little he thinks about her and the fact that when he does, he's never sure what to think.

Ino wants to stomp up to him and tell him about all the ways that Sakura is brilliant and amazing and strong but doesn't.

It would be too hard to explain why she feels the need to do so.

He's fond of Sakura, in the way that Ino is fond of cherry tomatoes, and regards Sakura as generally a decent companion. He does admit that she's the steadiest of the three.

But he doesn't prefer her. He doesn't dwell on her.

Sakura's place in his life is as ephemeral as moonlight through a sheer curtain. Thought of now and then and then forgotten.

Listening to that makes Ino re-evaluate her thoughts. If listening in on Sasuke has made her feel sorry for him (and she does) listening to Hatake only makes her loathe him, and her opinion of him has never been high to begin with.

Even though it ignores and destroys her own tentative schedule, Ino leaves his mind early, disengaging his mind from hers. If she had to listen to him any longer, she thinks she might hurt him, which would jeopardize the mission.

Because this is still a mission. Worse, it's a test of her self-control. Ino grits her teeth, stomps down on the urge to go beat the tar out of him, and plans to carry on.

In the end, Ino tosses a coin. Heads for Naruto, tails for Sakura.

It lands heads.

Naruto it is, which Ino doesn't mind. She already knows him: powerful, not that bright (though brighter than he acts, which surprises her every time she realizes it even though it shouldn't because isn't her mask built on the same principals?), and slavishly devoted to his friends.

Ino likes him, honestly.

Because of that, though, she's not blind to the fact that he's thoughtless, careless, and should never be in charge of people less durable than him. He is a one-man team, not a captain. Genin under his control would either get to do nothing, as he'd be the one fielding all the danger, or they would die, when Naruto forgot to keep an eye on him.

He's lucky that Sakura and Sasuke and Hatake are strong enough to keep up with him.

Ino knows she can't.

She can out-think him, out-plot him, out-sneak him. Her chakra is strong and her skills are exemplary.

But she just doesn't have the sheer power needed to keep up with him in the field.

Sakura does. Sasuke does. Hatake falls behind but he always catches up-his experience evening out the power imbalance.

If she wanted to, she could waste time by being envious, but Ino knows her own talents and pushes them to their limit instead of dwelling on what she can't have. She's gotten good at that lesson, the moment she'd realized that Sakura would far-outstrip her in the medical arts.

(There were so many good reasons to know some medical jutsu. Ino was glad she did. But back when she'd first decided to learn, her primary goal had been Sakura and wanting to catch up to her.

These days, Ino is glad she's found better reasons.)

Ino slides very, very carefully into the back of Naruto's mind. Far more carefully than she'd treated the entrance into Hatake's mind and definitely more carefully than she'd slid into Sasuke's mind. The reason isn't that Naruto will notice her, though him doing so, in an unusual turn of events wouldn't shock her, but the real reason has to do with his passenger.

She really, really doesn't want to be obliterated by the Kyuubi.

The demon fox is a frothing, red-hot swirl of chakra and rage and burns around Naruto, even when it can't be seen. In the depths of Naruto's mind, it's even worse and Ino can feel the sentience against her mind, like a pulse.

Being out-classed by Naruto is irritating and aggravating even though Ino has worked hard to get where she is and enjoys her missions and her life far more than she thinks she'd enjoy Naruto's. Being out-classed by the Kyuubi doesn't bother her one whit because the Kyuubi is inhuman and terrible and horribly, horribly dangerous.

Even with her thoughts tightly safe-guarded against the Kyuubi's power, Ino is careful to keep Naruto's mind between her and it as much as possible.

When she's settled and, she deems, reasonably safe, Ino begins sifting through Naruto's mind cautiously. His thoughts, like himself, are bold, brash, and unfettered. The lack of organization is appalling, though Ino supposes she should be grateful since that will make it harder for the Kyuubi to notice her, and Naruto's thoughts blare uncomfortably loud.

Like he's always shouting, only in his own mind, there's no one to hear him.

(Except the Kyuubi, but Ino prefers not to think about that. How often does the Kyuubi answer?)

Mostly, what strikes her the hardest is how lonely Naruto is. It's different, from Sasuke, whose loneliness is all wrapped up in guilt and the (true) belief that he needs to atone. It's different from Hatake's loneliness which is wound tight around misery and choked by grief.

Ino tries to remember a time when she's thought Naruto looked lonely and comes up with nothing. But then, she admits, she never paid that much attention to him.

Digging around a bit more provides her with more context. Like Sasuke, Naruto wants a family more than anything else—more, even, than being Hokage, which surprises her a bit.

While she left Hatake's mind quickly and Sasuke's mind out of boredom, Ino lingers in the back of Naruto's mind for a few days, keeping careful tabs on him and avoiding his passenger.

When she leaves him, she leaves reluctantly. Her schedule is in tatters, now, after leaving Hatake early and staying late in Naruto's mind. She'll have to wing it, going forward. (But Ino has always been good at making it up as she goes along.)

Ino does not (yet) love him. She is honest enough to admit (privately) that she could come to do so. It's unsettling.

Leaving Naruto puts in her a thoughtful mood that she sets aside after a few hours of time to herself. She'll have to consider it later, after her mission. Ino collapses backwards on her bed, stares up at her ceiling, and then reaches out with her mind.

Sliding into Sakura's mind is like pulling on an old glove. Ino knows Sakura's mind the way she only knows two others. (Hers and her father's.)

Unfortunately, she is also familiar with Sakura's pain.

'T' stands for a lot of things in Ino's life. Right now, though, she thinks that it definitely means 'T is for torture'.

Sakura's pain bubbles and writhes against her mind and Ino begins the careful process of building a barrier between it and her. She could put one up faster, but past experience has shown that Sakura will notice that, thanks to the secondary personality-defense mechanism she has guarding her mind.

Slow and steady is the only way to work around that. Triggering Inner Sakura is something Ino is keen to avoid. No longer can Inner Sakura defeat her as easily as she had, way back in the Chuunin exams, but it would be a hassle—one that she wants to avoid.

The sun is rising when she feels Sakura's mind shift, becoming aware, as Sakura wakes up. Ino smiles, her shield well entrenched now, and falls asleep, exhausted.

When she wakes up, it's just after nine, and Sakura's upset thrums in the back of her mind like an open wound.

Part of it, Ino knows, is that she's simply more sensitive to Sakura's pain than she is to most. That knowledge doesn't help as she goes through her morning routines, carefully trying to work her way through the pain to see what's upsetting Sakura now.

It turns out to be the same old thing as always: her family.

(Ino hates Sakura's family.)

It's just another chapter of the same fight Ino has been helping Sakura with since they were both little more than toddlers. They don't like her job, they don't like her boyfriends, they don't like her life choices or her friends or anything about Sakura's life that she's decided.

Ino doesn't understand why Sakura hasn't cut them out of her life. They're poison, pure and simple.

But maybe that's why Sakura hasn't cut them out of her life. Ino stretches and rolls over, rubbing sleep from her eyes and then reaching for her hairbrush. There are some poisons that, once they're in your system, are very hard to get out.

She can't actually force Sakura to detox herself. Not when it comes to her family.

(No matter how much she wants to.)

She tosses her hair up into a ponytail, adds a clip to make it look like she put effort into it, and goes to wash her face and get ready for the day. All the while, Ino gently peels back the layers of Sakura's pain, and tries to figure out what's wrong this time.

It doesn't take long for Ino to find the source of Sakura's latest pain because of her family: a fight, over the upcoming Christmas dinner. They don't want her to invite her team and she, of course, wants to.

Ino winces as she eats her breakfast, replaying the conversation, and grimacing. Once she's done eating, she disappears in a puff of smoke and leaves. She lands on top of the hospital. The ANBU on guard don't react to her presence beyond a quick look over. She's a known quantity.

She ignores them and traces Sakura's signature. Sakura doesn't have work today, but she's in the hospital. Not hurt, no, there's no one in her family that could physically hurt her—but it doesn't surprise Ino when she tracks Sakura to the research and records library.

"Hey," she says, flinging herself in a chair beside Sakura. Sakura doesn't look up at her, but Ino can see that she looks pale and puffy-eyed from crying. "You want to talk, Forehead?"

"No," Sakura replies, her voice sounding clogged. "I'd really rather not."

Ino is far past the stage where she can be Sakura's salvation. She can be her friend, her rival, her shoulder to cry on, and the one she watches chick flicks with. No longer, though, can she swoop down, ribbon in hand, and save Sakura that way, with something so small and simple but large.

Sakura has grown strong, which means she has to save herself these days.

But that doesn't mean Ino can't help.

"Okay," she says, twisting around to hook one of her legs over the arm rest of the chair, and reaching out to brush Sakura's hair gently. "Want me to talk about it?"

"Stay out of my mind," Sakura says, leaning into the touch.

"Bit late for that," Ino says lightly. "Are you sure you don't want to talk?"

Sakura is silent for a few moments. Ino listens to the pulse of her mind, petting Sakura's hair gently, and wishing she had a magic cure all. She's not even sure if she should be here-her mission parameters stated no interfering.

Was this interfering? Probably. But Sakura was her best friend and she'd have helped anyway, even if she hadn't been lurking in Sakura's mind for a mission. Ino would have known Sakura was hurting anyway.

The real question was if this counted as interfering with her own mission (was she self-sabotaging?) and Ino couldn't make that judgement call. Morino-san and the Hokage would have to determine that.

"I don't know what to do." Sakura leans a little harder into her touch.

"You know what I think about them," Ino says, tilting her head to study the ceiling. "But let's not cover that ground again, huh?"

If she does, Ino's pretty sure that Sakura will start crying. Ino would rather prevent that.

Sakura studies her suspiciously. "What ground will we be covering then?"

The nice thing about Sakura, she thinks, is that Sakura just copes with the fact that Ino will, and does, rummage through her mind at will. Truthfully, it's easier to read minds than it is to not read them. Ino keeps that bit of knowledge to herself, since it makes people uneasy.

"So your family doesn't want your team at their dinner," she says, watching out of the corner of her eye as Sakura flinches. Ino plays a little more with Sakura's hair. "But how about holding your own dinner for your team? It's not like any of them are going to have plans, right?"

Harsh, but true. Ino would say it even if she hadn't spent the last few days in Team 7's minds.

Sakura chews on her lower lip, an old bad habit that comes back every now and again. "Yamato-taichou and Sai are out of the village."

"So?" Ino says. "Hold a celebration with just Hatake, Uchiha, and Naruto. You can hold another dinner in the New Year for everyone. That'd give you more time to plan it, anyway, right?"

"Maybe," Sakura says noncommittally. "Let me think about it."


Ino absently listens in on the circles and trails blazed by Sakura's thoughts, her eyes on the walls and shelves of medical records. Sakura, with her clearance is allowed to be in here. Ino isn't, though she's not concerned about that. If they get caught, Sakura will cover for her, and Ino has no interest-alright, not much interest-in the files.

She's an excellent field medic and a useful channel in an emergency. That's as far as her medical skills and ambitions go.

"There's not much time," Sakura says finally. "I'm not sure I could get anything really set up. I haven't even decorated my place yet."

"Do you own decorations?" Ino asks.

Sakura purses her lips thoughtfully. "I think so?" she says. "I'd have to look to make sure. But even with that…"

"Do you have presents for them?"

"Of course I do!" Sakura says indignantly. "That's totally different from decorations."

"Sure is," Ino says, smiling. "That's the most important thing. If you want help decorating, though, I've got the day."

"And you already know that I do too." Sakura sighs. "Do you… I mean… do you think they'll come?"

Ino thinks about Kakashi's guilt, Sasuke's self-loathing, and Naruto's loneliness. She thinks about Sakura's pain. "I think they'll be delighted to, Forehead."

"Shut up, Pig."

"What? You asked!"

Sakura shoves at her, laughing, and Ino is glad to see it. "Will you help me?"

"Always," Ino says honestly.

She hopes it doesn't screw up her mission, since this is definitely interference, but it's the truth that this mission doesn't mean more to her than Sakura does.

There are missions that might, she knows, but she prefers to not think about that.

(That's a flaw she'll face at a later date, she promises herself.)

Sakura takes a deep breath, straightens her shoulders, and stands. "Okay," she says, "I need to wash my face. Then we're going to decorate. Or should we send out the invitations first? There's not much time…"

Ino stands, stretching with lazy grace. "No offense, but they'd probably come if you gave them fifteen minutes notice."

Sakura doesn't smile. "Did you want an invitation, Ino?"

"What? No," she says. "We've already got a day for us planned, remember? You'd better remember because the tickets weren't cheap. Besides, if you're doing a team thing, it should be a team thing. I know I'm awesome and all, but I'm not part of your team."

"Are you sure?"

Ino gauges the conflicting urges in the back of Sakura's mind-part of her wants Ino there, just in case no one else shows, part of her agrees that it should be a team thing, part of her doesn't want to hurt Ino's feelings-and smiles. "I'll be fine," she says. "Seriously. Make it a team thing. Enjoy your team, okay?"

"Right," Sakura says, nodding and looking happier. "But you're still helping me decorate."

"That's because you have no design sense," Ino says flippantly.

Salvation these days looks a lot like Christmas garlands and tinsel and bows. It looks like the tree they hang with lights and baubles and like the gingerbread man stamps they stick on the invitations and on themselves.

It smells like cinnamon and cloves and peppermint.

When decorating is done, they sit on Sakura's couch and survey the apartment.

"Wow," Sakura says.

"Told you I had good ideas."

Sakura elbows her.

"Hey! Don't jostle my hot chocolate."

"If you drop it, you're a disgrace to ninja everywhere."

"Says the girl whose sensei got nailed with a chalkboard eraser on his first day," Ino says, blowing on her (unspilled) drink. Tendrils of steam circle upwards. "And he was already a legend."

"That's different."

"Uh huh, right." Ino leans over and steals one of Sakura's mini-marshmallows.

Sakura smacks her hand. "Cut that out!"

"You have more, if you really need them," Ino protests.

"I want to save them for the dinner," Sakura insists. "Do you think I should deliver the invitations personally?"

"I can do it," Ino says. "If you don't want to."

"Oh god," Sakura says, "can you imagine Kakashi-sensei's face if you gave him an invitation to anything?"

They look at each other and burst out laughing.

"No," Sakura decides. "I'll do it. Thank you for helping me, though. Want to plan the menu with me?"

Ino glances at the time. "If I can stay over."

Sakura just waves one hand. "My couch is yours. Or my bed. Whichever you feel like co-opting. I think I've still got some of your clothing here from the last time you stayed over. Clothes horse."

"Guilty as charged."

The night ends in laughter, food, and a great deal more good cheer than the day had started with.

(Even if she fails her mission, this is worth it.)

Using Sakura's lemon-scented hand soap makes Ino wrinkle her nose. It reminds her of hospitals and blood and pain. She knows that Sakura associates it with safety, peace, and happy times in cheery rooms and so, when she leaves the bathroom, she says nothing about it.

There's nothing really that she could say, in any case.

"What are you doing today?" Sakura asks as Ino slides into a seat at the kitchen table.

"I haven't decided yet," she says, though she has. "You?"

"I've got work," Sakura says. "And invitations to hand out. Are you sure you don't want one?"

Ino rolls her eyes. "I told you. No."

"Okay." Sakura pours a cup of coffee. "I just had to ask."

"You already did. Coffee me, instead." Ino smiles winsomely and Sakura lobs a sugar packet at her face. She bats it away and it lands on the table, where Ino picks it up and debates the merits of tossing it back at Sakura.

Nah, I want coffee more.

After coffee, and breakfast, they leave to go their separate ways-Sakura, to the hospital, and Ino to the training grounds. She spends the morning sweating buckets, pushing herself to the limits, and keeping a (mind's) eye on Team Seven.

Sakura having a party to plan gives her something to do that means her thoughts aren't aimlessly circling around her pain. Ino enjoys that.

To her surprise, she enjoys listening in as the other members of Team Seven are invited to the party. Feeling their thoughts light up, become unstuck, like wheels pulled from mud, is strangely pleasing.

She loathes Hatake, will never forgive Sasuke, and hasn't decided what to do about the feelings she could develop for Naruto.

It still makes her happy to listen to their gloom slide away to be replaced by incredulity, surprise, and a tentative sort of excitement.

Because it is a mission, Ino is careful to keep her nose out of the rest of the party planning, though there's not much to be done. She makes herself scarce when Sakura thinks of roping her into helping her pick up the food.

She doesn't feel guilty about it, since guilt isn't her style, but she feels irritated that she can't help, and by the time that she makes her way to meet up with Chouji and Shikamaru, she's fighting off a sulk-unsuccessfully.

"You're in a bad mood," Chouji says mildly.

"It's nothing," she says.

Shikamaru snorts. "It's never nothing with you. Give us some credit, won't you?"

He has a point.

Ino ignores it. "It's nothing that has anything to do with you guys."

"Better," Shikamaru says. "But can you stop taking it out on us?"

She elbows him.

Chouji smiles, though he hides it, as Shikamaru doubles over, swearing. "Have you picked out a new project?" Chouji asks while Shikamaru is occupied with breathing.

Since Chouji disapproves of her habit of turning people into projects, Ino knows he's only asking to either warn the poor bastard of her intentions or to turn the conversation into something less likely to leave Shikamaru wheezing.

"No," she says, leaning back and studying the sky. It's very blue today, and the wind is cool, refreshing. "I don't think I'm going to pick one for a while."

The problem is, she hasn't decided who to pick. Naruto is more appealing as a challenge, but if she wants to date him-and she thinks she might-then turning him into a project is a bad move.

Trying to rehabilitate Uchiha Sasuke into a normal human being would be a satisfying challenge, but Ino isn't sure she could do it without killing him. Or having him kill her. In a one-on-one fight, it's hard to say which of them would win.

He's more powerful than she is. Ino believes she's cleverer.

It would probably turn out that half the village would show up to stop them before they killed each other. Ino contemplates that it's probably not worth the hassle.

But it's tempting.

She won't be able to pick a new project until she's decided either way about the very last Uchiha.

"Ino?" Chouji's voice brings her out of her thoughts.

She blinks. "Mm?"

"I asked why you weren't picking someone," Chouji says. "But we lost you for a minute there."

"Just a lot of stuff on my mind," she says dismissively. "And… I don't know. There's someone that might do, but I'm not really feeling it."

"I still think that Masuo holds the best possibilities for you," Shikamaru says dryly.

"Except, hello, boring," Ino retorts, gladly taking the bait.

"That's one of the things you can fix," he points out, and Chouji sighs.

They wind up haggling over Masuo's good- and bad- points until it's time to call it a night.

Shikamaru walks her home, even though she doesn't need him to. It's nice. Ino clasps her hands behind her back, while Shikamaru, his hands shoved in his pockets, meanders along beside her.

"He's right," Shikamaru says. "You have been in a bad mood all day."

She slants a glance at him. Unlike Chouji, Shikamaru is terrible at dropping something she doesn't want to talk about. It's so rude.

(It's a bad habit that they share.)

"I'm not in a bad mood right this second," she says companionably.

"You could be," he points out.

She shrugs a little. "Just being, oh, I don't know-a bit of a fool about something, I guess."

"Is the world ending?" he murmurs.

"Oh shut up," Ino says, hooking her arm through his. "It's my thing. I'm dealing."

"It'd be a total pain," he says, making no move to shake her off of him, "but can we help?"

"I don't think so," she says, smiling slightly. "I think this is a me-thing only. And don't think I didn't notice you volunteering Chouji without his permission. He told you to stop doing that."

Shikamaru smiles. "Actually," he drawls, "I believe he told you that. Besides, if you needed help, of course he'd be there."

"Like I ever need help," Ino scoffs.

He just shakes his head. "If you need it—"

"I know," she interrupts, "I've got it. But I don't need it right now, okay?"

His dark eyes study her thoughtfully. Ino tries not to squirm. Other than her father, Shikamaru is probably the best at reading her. Sakura has her own way of knowing her, but Shikamaru has advantages that Sakura doesn't, when it comes to her.

(There are some things that only growing up in diapers around can teach.)

"Alright," he says slowly, though it is clear that he doesn't like it.

"It's just a mood, honestly," she says. "I don't know why it matters right now. I mood all over the place."

"That's a terrible way to use that word," he notes.

She shrugs.

They stop outside of the flower shop. She lets go of his arm and looks at him. "Hey," Ino says, "don't worry that big brain of yours about me. I'm doing okay, got it?"

He tilts his head back. "I still think Masuo would suit you best."

"Mmm, maybe," she says noncommittally.

"Who do you have in mind?"

"None of your business," she says with determined cheerfulness. "What do you think about Naruto?"

He raises his eyebrows. "In what way?"

Ino shrugs. Innocently. "Pick one?"

Shikamaru looks suspicious. "You don't want to make him a project, do you?"

"What? No way. This is… something else." Smooth, Ino.

"I'll think about it," he says, and fades into the shadows.

Ino leads against her front door and laughs softly. He'll think about it? What does that even mean? Either way, it leaves her in a good mood, which is better than a bad one, since her time is pretty much up.

Just four more hours, she thinks wistfully, and I'll know if I fucked myself over or not.

Ino hates waiting.

She hates being wrong even more, and she has no way to tell if she's done wrong or right. It felt right, which helps, but was it? According to her mission?

The few hours of sleep she snatches (following the theory that sleeping would make the time pass faster) is fragmented and she wakes with a foreboding feeling of doom hanging over her head.

It's stupid. Really stupid. She tells her feelings just how stupid they're being while getting dressed, and eating breakfast, and all the way until she's back in Meeting Room I-B5-13.

Waiting in the meeting room is interminable, even worse than it was back before the mission when all she had to do was wait and see what flaw they'd pick at. Now she waits, idly picking tangles out of her hair (and being wishful for a hairbrush), and wonders if she's failed.

If Ino regards her own performance critically, she's not sure. She didn't directly interfere.

But it wasn't like she sat back and did nothing either.

Morino Ibiki walks-no, that's not right, he doesn't walk anywhere-looms into the room and Ino automatically straightens in her uncomfortable chair.

Then she has to get up and stand because, behind him, comes Tsunade, the Hokage, and Ino's heart starts to pound.

Either she's really screwed up, or she's passed.

Tsunade-sama takes the other seat in the room, Morino setting a file down in front of his Hokage and then retreating to lean against the wall. He is both a guard and an observer, Ino thinks, though she knows there's not many people who could take the Hokage in a straight fight.

It is Morino that speaks for the recorder. "It is currently 04:07, 12/25. Meeting Room I-B5-13. In attendance: Morino Ibiki, Head of Torture and Interrogation (Ninja Registration No: 010913), the Tsunade-sama, the Godaime Hokage (Ninja Registration No: 002302), and Yamanaka Ino, Jounin (Ninja Registration No: 012604). This is a debriefing. Yamanaka-san, report."

Nerves threaten to swamp her for a split second before, like always, her ego saves her. Ino loves her ego almost as much as it loves her. (They're awesome.)

Her chin goes up, her hands clasp behind her back, and she begins speaking.

Ino is unflinching with herself as she details her week of observing but doing nothing. Her voice coolly professional; an echo of her father's voice. Because this is an examination, Ino is unstinting in her detailing of each step.

She is unflinching in describing her actions in helping Sakura. Whether or not they judge her negatively for it, if it means a fail, then Ino will accept it.

Helping Sakura made her feel better. Ino would have done it anyway, no matter the circumstances.

Finally, now that she's speaking, Ino feels at ease about her decision. She would do it all over again, exactly this way.

When she's done, she waits, slightly breathless for their response.

Hokage-sama is smiling slightly, but Ino has seen Tsunade fling people out of windows while wearing that same smile, so she doesn't let it reassure her. (Much.) Morino Ibiki is much harder to read.

Ino stays out of their minds as a matter of professional courtesy, given the setting.

"Tell me," Morino says, "why do you think the Hokage assigned you this mission?"

Her eyes flick to Tsunade-sama, then back to Morino. She shrugs, deliberately casual. Off-handed. "Who can say why Hokage-sama does anything?"

Morino Ibiki does something terrifying: he smiles.

"Ino?" her dad calls. "Are you coming down? It's just about time to head over to Shikaku's place."

"Coming!" she replies, her voice turning the word into a carol. She studies herself in the mirror carefully, flicking off a few imaginary pieces of lint. Her arm stings, and she carefully adjusts her shirt to make sure that nothing shows.

(ANBU tattoos must heal naturally.)

While she bounces down the stairs, bag of presents slung over one shoulder, Ino peers into Sakura's mind and when she greets her father at the bottom of them, her smile isn't just for him.

It's for Team Seven too.

All four of them are together. They look like they're having a good time. Ino is so, so glad for Sakura.

(And for Naruto. And even a bit for Sasuke.)

Christmas is lovely, and she's looking forward to the coming night, but truthfully Ino is looking forward to the coming year more.

I'm going to fix Sasuke, she thinks, as her dad drops a scarf on her head and she laughs at him, and I'm going to see if I can really love Naruto.

And I'm going to kick ass in ANBU!

She can't wait to see what comes next.