Written for Week #2 of the NarutoLoveFest on deviantart, and was part of a team effort.

One of my artist teammates created the loveliest piece of fanart to go with this story, the link for which I'll be putting up in my profile - Check it out and give her some love for her hard work!

Prompt: hardships
Warnings:
mild language

Disclaimer: Naruto belongs to Kishimoto. I am merely playing in the sandbox he has created. I am most definitely not receiving any monetary compensation for my child's play.


.

. ~ * ~ .
{ hairpin }
. ~ * ~ .
.

.

.

.

.

.

.

Izumo twirled a kunai around his finger and then, with a quick flick of his wrist, he let it fly. The sharp metal dug deep into the makeshift target, a hand-drawn circle on one of the shack's inner walls, and made a satisfying thunk. Guard duty, while vital for the safety of the village, was one of the most boring tasks a chuunin could get assigned to. And it seemed like he and his partner received this particular assignment more than their fair share. With a groan, the shinobi rose and retrieved the weapon. He had just settled back into his seat when Kotetsu elbowed him sharply.

"What the hell was that for? I didn't-" Izumo paused mid-rebuke to let out a low whistle. "Well, well. Don't you two look beautiful?"

"That's an understatement," Kotetsu chimed in with a smirk. "Have trouble on your mission?"

The large shinobi at the receiving desk looked as though he was about to drop where he stood. His eyes, bloodshot and glazed over, struggled to stay open, and his knees trembled slightly. In his arms he held his sleeping teammate, a pretty blonde girl, and though he was obviously exhausted, he did not set her down or wake her. Mud covered the front of them, dark splotches of half-dried grit, and every single piece of their clothing was rife with small rips, tears, or holes. The teammates also had a spattering of minor injuries - the man had a decided limp and both had abrasions and bruises marring their skin in colorful variety. Overall, they made for a rather comical sight.

"It's quite a story, actually," Chouji replied. Then he shook his head and laughed, the sound weary but pleasant. "You see, it all started with this hairpin..."

.

. ~ * ~ .
{ nineteen hours earlier }
. ~ * ~ .

"So, you're a kunoichi," the man spat out with incredulity, looking past Chouji to lock onto Ino. "I should have known."

Chouji froze, pushing Ino behind him. He heard her huff impatiently and he couldn't help but agree with the sentiment. The mission, a simple item retrieval, had gone so well up to that point. In fact, Ino - with a pretty bit of flirting, some sensual body contact, and a strong sedative - had already completed the task. He'd tagged along as back-up, just in case her mark was more dangerous than the reconnaissance suggested, but she'd handled the operation with practiced ease. All they'd had left to do was bring the confiscated scroll back to the hokage, but their cover had been blown.

Ino placed her hand on his back and gently tapped out a code - Get rid of him?

Chouji shook his head. It would be easiest way to deal with the man, sure. And it wasn't like he was above getting his hands dirty when the situation called for it. But this man was a civilian, a rich idiot who had just happened to buy a black market ninjutsu scroll to use as home decor. It wasn't worth killing him over. Something less drastic would serve just as well, so Chouji filtered his chakra through his right arm, enlarging and extending it, and brought it forward with intent of merely knocking him out.

"Guards!" the man bellowed as he dodged Chouji's initial blow. "Guards! Seize them!"

"Dammit, Chouji," Ino whispered as the courtyard filled with nearly one-hundred armed men, swords drawn and ready for battle. "You just had to wear your hitai-ate, didn't you? Now we have to do this the hard way."

"If we didn't have to come back for your hairpin, my hitai-ate wouldn't have even mattered," Chouji muttered.

"For your information, that hairpin cost me nearly a month's worth of pay!" Ino exclaimed, arms thrown up in frustration. "You couldn't very well expect me to leave it behind."

"I could've bought you a new one, you know."

The hard lines around her eyes softened. "Chouji-"

"Look, we've got other things to deal with now," he interrupted, his cheeks faintly pink. "Let's just get out of here."

"Yeah, okay," she conceded with a glance to the quickly setting sun. "What's the plan?"

"I'm going to steamroll us a path." Chouji gestured to her outfit, the elegant kimono and impractical shoes she favored when her seduction skills were called for. "Just make sure you keep up."

"The day I can't keep up with you," - Ino crossed her arms, her smirk arrogant - "is the day I retire."

.

. ~ * ~ .
{ twelve hours earlier }
. ~ * ~ .

"Damn, those guys were persistent," Ino griped.

She bent forward, leaning her hands on her knees, and took a couple deep breaths. When she rose again to full height, the woman stretched and her back popped loudly, the vertebra shifting back into their proper places. With a sigh, she fixed her hair as best she could with her fingers, using the wretched hairpin to secure what loose strands she could. Then she looked down. Her pretty lavender outfit no longer looked serviceable for anything other than a sieve, the material punctured with numerous tiny holes and stained with the faint splatter of blood. She sighed again, louder and heavy with frustration.

She'd had many close calls throughout the night. The soldiers may have been mostly unskilled, content to brandish their weapons with force rather than subtlety, but the horde used their few advantages well. They'd swarmed the two shinobi and had it not been for Chouji, his particular set of skills useful in suppressing a crowd, they surely would have been captured on the spot. Relief had flooded her heart as they made their escape through a hole in the castle's wall. But it didn't last.

Their enemies kept coming in waves, some on horseback to match their chakra-fueled swiftness, others with tracking hounds so they wouldn't pass their by their targets without detecting them. A few well-timed explosion tags and smoke bombs would have rendered those tactics ineffective, of course, leaving Ino and Chouji to go on their merry way. Unfortunately, their supply pack had been the first casualty of the battle. They'd left it behind at their original rendezvous point, expecting to pick it back up after they retrieved her misplaced item, but in the ensuing chaos it had been forgotten. Without it, they'd been left to do things the hard way. After trudging through miles of the cold currents of a nearby river, they had crawled through the thick underbrush of an immense thicket patch. It had been a miserable handful of hours, but it worked and they finally lost their pursuers.

"Chouji?" she said, looking over at her partner. He matched her in appearance - bruised and skinned knuckles, battle-torn clothing, and weary eyes - though he had the addition of a limp. Ino gestured to his leg. "You okay?"

"It's not broken, so I'll be fine," he replied. "You?"

"Nothing seriously wounded but my pride." Ino smirked. "And that can be soothed with a day of shopping."

Chouji laughed heartily at her response. "Well, we don't have our supplies and there's no inn nearby. I suppose we should just get you to the village, huh? If nothing else happens, we can be there by morning for you to tend to your wounds with expensive shoes."

"Sounds like a plan," Ino agreed. "And of course we'll be there - we're nearly in Konoha territory. What else could happen?"

.

. ~ * ~ .
{ four hours earlier }
. ~ * ~ .

The skies broke open and the rain began to fall. The early autumn, when the weather was usually mild and cool, had been her favorite time to take missions, but after the events of the past few hours, Ino decided to amend her opinion.

It was the absolute worst.

The brisk air whipped across her skin, driving the freezing moisture closer to her skin and soaking not only her kimono, but her undergarments as well. She could feel the chill settle in the tip of her nose and her bare hands, her legs and toes, and the sensation made her shiver. Her body, already tired and beaten from their earlier adventures, refused to take anymore abuse and began to shut down. Her eyes drooped and her thoughts grew fuzzy, making it a struggle to stay awake. The control she had over her chakra, what little she had left, wavered. Without her chakra to stabilize her, Ino slipped on the slick branch under her feet and fell from the thinning canopy. The ground rushed forward to meet her and Ino had just enough of her faculties left to brace for impact before she lost consciousness.

. ~ * ~ .

"Ino, are you alright? Come on," a voice insisted, "answer me! Ino!"

"Chouji?" she called through her confused thoughts. The lack of pain surprised her, as did the softness of the ground. "What happened?"

"Thank Kami," he whispered, ignoring her question. Then louder he said, "Are you hurt?"

"No," she drawled out, slow and hesitant as her brain started to make sense of the situation. "I don't think so. I was falling, but... Did you- did you catch me?"

"Not exactly. I tried, but when I realized I couldn't reach you in time and make a safe landing," - Chouji sat up, releasing her from his hold - "I decided to cushion your fall instead."

"You should've just let me fall on my face." Ino sighed and rolled onto her back, letting the mud smear into the fabric of her ruined kimono. "It's what I deserve."

"Ino-"

"No, Chouji. This whole debacle was my fault and I was mean enough to try to blame it on you." She closed her eyes and tried to swallow down the emotions - frustration, guilt, helplessness - that stuck heavy to the back of her throat. "I'm tired and I'm can't keep up anymore. Just let me sleep in this mud like the pig that I am."

"You've decided to retire?"

"Yep," Ino replied, choking on the single syllable. "Can't keep up."

Chouji gave her a curious look and stood up. "I'm heading home. So, what do you want? For me to leave you here?" When Ino remained silent, Chouji shook his head and spoke again. "Sorry, but that doesn't really work for me." Then he bent down and gathered her into his arms.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" she asked, surprise lending a screechy quality to her voice.

"Well, the way I figure it," Chouji began, a cheeky smile spreading across his lips, "what better way to keep up with me than to be in my arms."

Warmth began to fill Ino's heart and it radiated outwards to every cell, pushing out the negative emotions that had threatened to overwhelm her. "Chouji Akimichi, are you finally flirting with me?"

"Yep," he bravely replied, though she could feel the slight tremor that went through him as he confirmed it. "Now shut up and get some sleep."

Ino leaned up and kissed his blushing cheek. "Yes, dear."

. ~ * ~ .

And later, just before sleep completely claimed her, Ino heard him whisper to himself.

.

.

.

.

.

"Did she say finally?"

. ~ * ~ .