Written as part of Chev's challenge, "Any ninja that has ever said 'I love you' eventually has to say 'good-bye'." And Chouji needs some attention because he's awesome and cool and gets so little attention. And team ten needs more love, too.
Written in a few hours, beta'd by Iamzuul and Chev. Much love to them.
As always, comments and criticisms are greatly appreciated.
Chouji hadn't ever expected to be the last one. If you'd have asked him five years ago, a year ago, he would have smiled and looked away, changed the subject. Chouji didn't like to think about things such as this. Ninja weren't expected long lives, didn't allow themselves the fantasy of one.
But that didn't mean they had to think about the fact.
So, he decided not to. Decided that life was too short anyway and he would concentrate on living, not on how long he had to live. Perhaps it was because he'd already faced death in the face before, at the tender age of twelve. Perhaps it was because he'd seen enough death already—no jounin at the age of twenty-five could go without a few bad missions and even worse memories.
Perhaps it was, as he looked at the stone monument and read the names to himself, over and over and over again, that he didn't ever want to think about the fact that he could live and they would die.
Ino had been to first to die. Even the most resourceful and powerful of kunoichi couldn't stop the degeneration of her own body during childbirth. And while she had tried—Gods, how she had tried—even with Tsunade there, they knew she wouldn't last. To her credit, she never cried out once, even when she'd lost so much blood her eyes were blank. Which was good, he supposed, because she never had to see her baby, born dead, lying in Tsunade's arms. Although, he realized, it didn't matter if she was blind or not, by then.
He would never forget the look on his friend's face when she realized she'd finally lost.
A few months later, a new name on the monument. The one person, besides his father, Chouji looked up to and respected more than any other adult. One of the greatest and most skilled teachers in all of Konoha. But, even the most skilled of teachers couldn't always be on the lookout, couldn't always be prepared. Asuma left the world the same way he lived in it—in charge, collected and not afraid to tell you when you'd screwed up. The missing nins learned that the hard way. Outnumbered and outside his own country, they were told their teacher had done his duty as a Konoha shinobi and that they should be proud. But his body had been brought back wrapped in a shroud and no one had been able to see him.
Chouji and Shikamaru had been twenty-two then, the former the newest member of the Konoha jounin and excited to tell his sensei over some dango.
His name was carved besides Ino's, just two new shinobi to add to an ever-growing list.
His fingers traced the names gently, gliding over the chiseled characters as he said each name quietly. Yamanaka Ino. Sarutobi Asuma. The names flowed easily, familiarly, until he reached the next name and it caught in his throat, harsh and gutteral and pained.
The last member of team ten, and the one Chouji had never, ever expected to—never wanted to—outlive. The genius strategist of Konoha, the laziest ninja he'd ever known but the most dedicated when it mattered. His best friend since they were children, and the only person who had never thought he wasn't capable of anything because of his appearance.
They'd barely managed to recover his body. Naruto and Chouji had been the first to arrive at the scene, deep in the desert where no one would ever find them. The chubby ninja had been lucky to be with Naruto and his keen sense of smell, or else he was sure they would have passed the site by entirely. As it was, they were almost too late to save the blond Sand-nin, half-dead and slumped over Shikamaru's still body. The sight of Temari nearly defeated had been enough to give the two young men pause, the presence of fifteen chuunin and jounin level ninja, all dead, even more.
They'd been ambushed, the older woman told them later after they'd returned to Sunagakure, her wounds tended and Shikamaru properly prepared for the return trip to Konohagakure. They'd managed to hold off the first wave of chuunin level, but the jounin made things more difficult. One had managed to get a hit to her head before she gutted him with her fan, but she wasn't sure what happened after that—she'd heard a shout and then pain flared through her back before she managed to catch herself, using the fan as support. And then Shikamaru was there, standing with his back to her, his face turned so she could see his profile, enough to notice the blood running from his forehead. A number of kunai protruded from his back, but he stood tall, a shadow for each enemy attached to his own. And while he held the enemy back, she'd hauled herself to her feet, blasted them away with her wind, and they'd both fallen back to the ground.
That was how they'd found them.
She didn't say anything else, and from the look on her face as she caught sight of Shikamaru's body, she wasn't about to.
Chouji didn't attend the main funeral. He watched from far away, hidden, until everyone left. In the silence of the evening he made his way to the monument, traced his fingers over the newly carved name, and sat still and silent.
Kakashi found him there the next morning, the masked jounin giving him a knowing look before he stood beside him, just as silent, and watched the monument with him.
He wondered what it was they were waiting for.
The next dawn found Chouji sitting before the monument, and the dawn after that, always silent, never alone. He never asked Kakashi why he came every morning, didn't need to.
Before he left, he always ran his hands along the names, memorizing their feel, because he couldn't touch them anymore, so he had to make due with this instead. Kakashi never touched the monument, but then, Chouji thought that after a while, he wouldn't feel the need to anymore, either.
When Chouji is given his own genin team, he sits them down, all four of them before the monument, and he asks them if there is anyone they care about. They look at him funny, as though they don't quite understand what it is he's asking them. The little dark haired girl raises her hand politely and tells him that, of course they have people they care about, but that she doesn't understand why it is he asks.
Chouji looks at her and smiles, then stands and directs them to stand as well. It's time for training.
The same girl meets up with him after they're finished, waiting politely, although he can tell from the way she sways back and forth that she's anxious to leave. He smiles at her in that same way he always has, although now the smile is a little older, a little sadder, and doesn't quite reach his eyes.
He's twenty-eight and more tired than he thinks someone his age should feel.
"Why did you ask us that? And why in front of the monument?" she asks, voice strong despite the way she sways shyly.
"Why do you think?" he asks back quietly.
"A lesson for us," she replies, then stops swaying. "I just don't know why."
He smiles at her again and then nods his head towards town. "If you can figure it out by tomorrow, I'll take you all out to eat for dangos. How's that sound?"
She visibly brightens and then bows, a quick "Thank you, sensei!" rushing past her lips as she in turn rushes past him. Chouji shakes his head at youth today, then makes his way back to town, passing by the monument on his way. He usually doesn't visit during this time of the day, but today he has something to share, and it's been a while since he talked with them.
"I'm gonna let them know," he says quietly, standing before the names, hands at his sides. He doesn't run his hands along the carved surface anymore. "I'm gonna let them know that goodbyes don't mean you never cared.
"And that every ninja who ever says 'I love you,' will eventually have to say 'Goodbye'."