"But why do they need you?" Chouji asked. He and Shikamaru were sitting together underneath a large tree in one of Konoha's parks. Chouji was, a little more specifically, eating chips a few feet upwind of Shikamaru, to avoid the cigarette smoke.
Shikamaru's answering groan of annoyance was a familiar one. "Because Temari and I get along, probably. I guess they figure that if the ambassador from Konoha to Suna already gets along with their counterpart, then everything on the whole will go smoother. I don't really think it's that simple, since I'm going to be in Suna full-time, while she's going back and forth to Konoha, so it's not like we'll be seeing each other any more or less than before anyway. Arguing against it is more trouble than it's worth, though."
Chouji mulled the thought over. "It does make some sense."
"It's troublesome, is what it is." Shikamaru muttered. "I don't want to travel to Suna for months at a time. It's unbearably hot and the sand gets everywhere."
"I was going to say that at least you'll get to see Temari more, but you already explained why nothing's changing on that front." Chouji ate another potato chip as he thought about the situation, and then asked, "You need an escort, right?"
"Yeah. Temari's a Jounin so she can travel alone, but since I'm still Chuunin…" Shikamaru made a face.
"Does it have to be a Jounin escort?" Chouji asked. "Because if you can get another Chuunin to go with you, then Ino or I could do it, right?"
Shikamaru tilted his head. "Probably. I'd really prefer not to go with Ino, because that woman is even more troublesome than my mother," (Chouji thought that wasn't really fair to either woman) "But have you there would probably make the trip less annoying."
"And you wouldn't be stuck with only stuffy politicians and your girlfriend's scary little brothers for company." Chouji said.
"I'll see if Hokage-sama's willing to let you be my escort or protective detail or whatever we're calling it now."
Chouji had been to Suna before, but it was only ever for a week or two on short missions. Now, he was looking down at a mission scroll for a four-month mission that was essentially "play nice with the Suna nin and try to spin things so that Konoha comes out on top no matter what, brats."
(Tsunade had worded it almost exactly like that, and Chouji frequently go the feeling that, as the old woman got ready to dump the hat on Kakashi, she somehow cared even less about decorum and professionalism than before.)
"Ugh, seriously, I can't believe you two are going to be gone for months." Ino complained behind him as he filled out what few papers he had left at the gates. "I mean, I do love girl time. but who am I supposed to hang out with when Sakura-chan and Hinata and TenTen are busy?"
Chouji shrugged, trying to ignore the knot of anxiety in his stomach that had nothing to do with the mission. "Anko and Kurenai?"
He could practically feel Ino's pout as she huffed out a breath. The thought of it made the knot in his stomach tighten. "Yeah, but they're teachers, not friends. It's weird."
"I guess." Chouji fidgeted with his armor for a few seconds, saw Shikamaru and Temari talking to each other just outside the gates, probably waiting for him, and then took a deep breath. He turned to face his teammate of five years. "Hey, Ino?"
"Yeah?" She had a hand on her hip and looked like she was maybe about to scold him for something. "You better not forget to hug me before you go, by the way."
Chouji's train of thought was only slightly derailed. His dialogue was definitely dragged off into other territory, though. "I… what? I mean, sure, I'd be happy to, but you didn't make Shika hug you."
"That's because he smells like cigarette smoke, and it's gross. It keeps getting in my hair." She wrinkled her nose. "Anyway, what did you want to say?"
Right. Here goes. Chouji took a deep breath, and—
"When I get back from Suna, would you maybe go on a date with me?"
Ino's eyes widened a little. "Um…"
('Speechless and gobsmacked Ino' was a rare sight. Chouji normally would have enjoyed seeing her like this, if only for how unlikely it usually was, but now wasn't really the time.)
Her normal attitude reasserted itself almost immediately, though with the tiniest bit of shakiness that only years of knowing her let Chouji see. Her confidence was a mask, this time. "Well, come back and I'll have an answer for you then, yeah?"
That… wasn't the answer he was hoping for. He wilted a little internally, and he thought he could maybe see a hint of awkwardness around Ino, too. "Yeah, okay."
"Hug?" Ino asked before he could leave, looking as though she wasn't sure this was a good idea, but wasn't going to take back her earlier request either; she was even holding her arms out demandingly. Even for such a simple thing, Ino tended to be stubborn.
"Hug." Chouji nodded and stepped forward, engulfing Ino's tiny frame in his arms. She always felt so small and breakable when they were near each other, and he had to remind himself that he'd seen her break men without touching them before.
(Without jutsu, once or twice. Anko was a better teacher than anyone had hoped, and Ino was nothing if not an avid learner of how to break a shinobi down.)
"You two stay safe, okay?" Ino demanded as she pulled back, and patted Chouji on the shoulder. "I won't be there to look after you boys, and Temari doesn't deserve to be forced to take the extra workload."
Temari laughed in the background, and Chouji could feel an exasperated grin making its way back onto his face. "It's just a diplomatic mission to Suna. Safe as can be outside the village."
"Safer than some D-ranks, too." Shikamaru muttered, just enough to be heard. Louder, he called for Chouji. "Come on, we have to go."
"Stay out of trouble," Ino insisted.
"I'll try," Chouji promised.
Suna wasn't terrible, but it was warmer than Konoha, and while it definitely wasn't as humid, the sheer, impossible heat of the day was a bit of a problem. More specifically, it was a problem in direct concerns to his heavy armor and
"Yeah, sparring and fighting in Suna usually happens at night." Kankuro told him when Chouji asked him about how to deal with the temperature swings. "You have a lot of people with circadian rhythms that are just shifted over to wake up at three or four in the morning, and other people who only go to bed that late. We can get other stuff done during the day, but it's just a lot safer to do any kind of physical training at night if you want to avoid heat stroke, and don't have access to air-conditioned facilities."
"That said," He continued, "If you want to leave your stuff with me for a few days, I can work some cooling seals into the fabric to make sure you don't have trouble with the heat even when you aren't training, since you aren't as well-adjusted to it as we are."
Chouji was torn.
On the one hand, he wanted to be comfortable while in Suna, and it was an allied village, so he ostensibly didn't need to worry about being sabotaged or backstabbed by Kankuro. On the other hand, they were shinobi, and it wasn't like sneaking listening devices and spying seals into a person's clothing was a new trick.
"I'll get back to you on that." He finally said. "I'm not really comfortable with using seals when I don't know them that well myself, you know?"
Kankuro gave him a look like he knew exactly what the real issue was, but shrugged and nodded. "Well, I'm in the village regularly since I have to work on my puppets between missions, and Gaara keeps giving me administrative duties when Temari isn't here."
"I'll keep that in mind, Kankuro."
(After discussing it with Shikamaru, he did end up taking up Kankuro on his offer.)
(It had some… interesting effects.)
The thing was, for as long as Chouji wore the armor, everyone knew who he was. Shikamaru was a familiar enough face in Suna that the local shinobi usually recognized him, even if he wasn't wearing his hitai-ate, but that didn't mean much for Chouji. He was instantly recognizable as an Akimichi to anyone in Konoha, both in and out of uniform, but in Suna…
Well, apparently, the people here had been told that they could recognize him by his large stature and armor. This wasn't exactly wrong when he was on duty, because his clan did have a pretty distinctive armor and they were fairly tall and big-boned, but apparently the facial tattoos and the girth that didn't include muscle had gone unremarked. The fact that he wasn't wearing his headband only exacerbated the confusion.
(Chouji was trying to keep himself unencumbered during the day. The cloth against his forehead was usually comforting, but its weight in Suna only lent itself to more sweating.)
Still, he was recognized sometimes.
Chouji looked up from the meal that he was enjoying on his own, and into the eyes of a Suna kunoichi. Recent chuunin, by the look of it, with a plain but pretty face. The most memorable part of her look was actually the lock of hair that was pressed down between her eyes by the fabric holding her hair in place; Chouji was a little curious as to how it didn't make the bridge of her nose itch, since he'd seen people wear their hair like that before and never bothered to ask. She had an open, charming smile on her face, and was leaning forward with her hands tucked behind her back in a way that civilians would find cute.
For a ninja, of course, it was a bit more threatening, with the implication of hidden weaponry in the obscured hands, but there was enough crossover between shinobi and civilian culture in most countries to understand the intended meaning from context, anyway.
"I'm sorry, I don't believe we've met." Chouji called a smile up onto his own face and stood, giving a shallow bow. The Suna kunoichi seemed a little flustered at that, and returned the bow. Chouji… didn't think he'd seen a lot of bowing here, outside of official functions. Maybe it was just less of a cultural norm in Suna than it was in Konoha? "You were right, though. I'm Akimichi Chouji."
"Sari," the girl told him, "Er, do you mind if I join you for lunch?"
Chouji thought about it for a second, but honestly? It wasn't like he had much else to do than mingle, since Shikamaru was busy doing official diplomatic lunches or something. "I'd be happy for some company. Take a seat?"
Sari gave him another grin.
"So, any hints as to how you recognized me?" Chouji asked as he went back to his rice and Sari began to read through the menu.
"I heard that one of the war heroes was coming along with Nara-san this time, an Akimichi. I saw you around the Kazekage tower in uniform once or twice, and I recognized the tattoos." Sari shrugged. "Plus, you look like you're not totally used to the heat yet."
"Well, you're not wrong," Chouji told her, "It's definitely a lot warmer than in Konoha."
"And I end up feeling like I'm freezing whenever I go to Konoha," Sari admitted, "Which isn't exactly often, but it's enough to get some experience with the weather… and the air conditioning."
"The air conditioning?" Chouji blinked in mild confusion. "What's wrong with the air conditioning?"
"It's always turned up way past what's comfortable," Sari informed him, "Like, even when the temperature outside is normal, the insides of all the buildings are freezing. I always have to bring a sweater or something."
"Well, I can't say I've ever noticed," Chouji said, "But I'll take your word for it."
"May I take your order?" A waiter interrupted the conversation, coming to Sari's side.
"Pickle soup, please," Sari said. "I'm in the mood for something refreshing."
(Chouji had already tried the pickle soup a few days ago; while not his favorite, it was definitely good.)
"So, how are you liking Suna so far?" Sari asked. She leaned forward to plant both elbows on the table and put her chin in her hands. She seemed genuinely interested. "I've already kind of insulted your village, so feel free to be honest!"
"It's pretty nice, though I'm having some trouble finding food I recognize. I never know if something's going to give me trouble or not." He smiled at her. "And I can eat a lot of things, but there's always something, right? What would you suggest?"
Sari launched into a description of her favorite restaurant in Suna, and also of something called 'falafel.'
"I thought you still liked Gaara, though." Matsuri said, confusion written over her face. Matsuri had been promoted to Chuunin at the same time as Sari, just months after the fourth war, and the two had gotten an apartment together as soon as they could afford it on their new salaries.
"Yeah, but you've been spending a lot of time with him, and…" Sari debated continuing, but then shrugged mentally and plowed full steam ahead. "Besides, he asked me what kind of food you like and when you're free, so I'm pretty sure that means he's interested in you, and I'm not getting in the way of something like that."
Matsuri's face was coloring in red. She managed to squeak out, "Really?"
Sari nodded. "I mean, when we didn't know who he liked, let alone if one of us could ever end up on his radar like that, it didn't really matter? But if there's reciprocated feelings involved… I mean, I still like him, but not enough to try to ruin your chances."
"You're sure you're okay with this?" Matsuri asked, seemingly recovering from the surprise that was her crush apparently liking her back.
"I'll move on, and besides," Sari turned around and flopped down on her bed. "I wasn't lying about Akimichi-san. He is really nice, and, like… kind of a great catch, besides."
"Of course!" Sari sat up and gave her best friend a look. "He's a war hero, a clan heir, on his way to Jounin, has a great personality… I mean, I don't know him very well yet, and he's a foreigner so that could make things awkward if anything ever lasts long enough for him to go home and make it long distance, but other than that, what's not to like?"
Matsuri shrugged. "I was mostly banking on the whole 'you literally met him today' thing."
"Which can be rectified!" Sari protested. "Come on, back me up here. I'm not planning on marrying the guy, he's just… a nice dude I happened to meet that I can see myself getting along with in the long-term, and that my parents would probably approve of."
"Ah, yes, parents." Matsuri winced. "Always a hurdle. They won't mind he's from Konoha?"
Sari shrugged. "The Kazekage's own sister is dating a Konoha nin. I'm pretty sure they're used to the idea of it, at least. And if they're not, then hopefully the other stuff might weigh it out?"
"Hopefully," Matsuri agreed. "So you're going to see him again soon?"
"—and she had the gall to call me a prissy princess playing at being a ninja!" Ino finished relating to Sakura with infuriated gusto.
Sakura raised an eyebrow. "So you…"
"She's down in Torture and Interrogation, of course." Ino sniffed. "That's what you get for deciding to go nukenin, and if Ibiki lets me use her for a subject to learn the trade, then she only got what was coming to her."
"Okay, Ino-chan." Sakura snorted into her drink. "You know, people would probably stop saying this sort of thing if you stopped critiquing their outfits mid-battle."
"If I have the skill to both fight and criticize their fashion choices, why not?" Ino huffed. "Are you going to finish that?"
Sakura looked down at her dango, and then straight back into Ino's eyes. "If you try to steal my sweets, I'm pinning your hand to the table with a kunai."
"That's disgusting and unhygienic." Ino told her, voice flat. "You'd get blood all over the table."
"You're not worried about the injury?"
"Pffft," Ino waved the question off. "You're the best medic on the continent save for Tsunade-sama herself and maybe Shizune-senpai. I'll be fine."
"I'm glad you have that much confidence in my skills." Sakura nodded solemnly and took a bite of her dango. Not bothering to swallow, she started a new line of inquiry. "So, what happened with Chouji at the gate last week?"
Ino's face, thus far playful and energetic, fell flat. With a groan, she dropped her head onto the table, consciously avoiding the areas that would result in getting food in her hair. "I don't even know, Sakura-chan."
"Bad? Good? Weird? I don't know. He asked me out." Ino let her head roll to the side and looked up at Sakura through one eye. "I've known him since we were kids, and he's never really expressed interest before, and I have no idea how I feel about the idea."
"Getting asked out by someone you've mostly considered a friend is always weird." Sakura grimaced. "Or someone you think you'd like to keep as a friend but have no idea how to go about explaining that in a way that they'd understand."
"I can't seem to decide on how I feel about him, and he doesn't seem to understand that some space might help me come to a decision. Anyway," Sakura bit off the final piece of dango and pointed at Ino with the now-empty skewer, "This conversation isn't about me. It's about you. Stop trying to deflect and tell me what's going on with you and Chouji."
"That was basically it," Ino admitted, lifting herself back into a normal sitting position and propping her head up with one hand. "I told him I'd have an answer when he came back."
Sakura winced. "Ouch."
Ino shrugged, looking uncomfortable. "I mean… he kind of just sprung it on me, you know? I wasn't… I'm not trying to hurt him, but I definitely didn't have the time to come up with an answer, especially when he was about to go on a four-month-mission. I felt…"
"Like you were being put on the spot?" Sakura offered.
"Basically." Ino mumbled, slumping back down to the table and burying her face in her arms. "I don't want to lose him as a friend, but I'm not sure how I feel about him in that way, and that makes everything weird."
"Okay," Sakura shrugged, "And which way do you think you're leaning on the issue now?"
"I don't know," Ino moaned. "I just wish he'd asked me out in a letter from Suna or something instead. It would have been so much easier to respond without hurting him, or making a fool of myself, or promising something I'd end up regretting."
"Whereas this way, you only got the last one in?" Sakura asked.
"I mean, making sure I don't promise something I might regret is the most important one to me, on this front, so yeah." Ino looked just the tiniest bit miserable, so Sakura waved down a waiter and asked for more dango.
"Well, here's my suggestion," Sakura said as they waited. "We are going to eat so much dango that the sugar rush and following crash nearly kills us, and then we are going to go to a training ground so you can vent your frustration by training."
"Obviously the healthiest method to deal with it." Ino said with a sarcastic drawl, but there was a smirk making its way back onto her face.
"Obviously." Sakura nodded.
Ino was lucky to have a friend like Sakura.