Chess, Chips and Flowergirls.


Summary: Team Ten doesn't come home one night. (One-shot)

AN: … Boo?

Somewhere, a woman is weaving.
"Ino-chan, Asuma-sensei said he'd take us out for barbeque tonight." Chouji pauses only marginally to pop a bag of chips open. The rich, aromatic scent makes him smile reflexively, right until he sticks his hand in the bag. And then he's only and forever business. Munch, munch, munch, and Ino gives him a dirty look, steals the bag and pops a single chip (perfectly formed, with raised ridges) into her mouth. It crunches loudly as she chomps down on it.

Chouji pouts. But it wasn't, at least, the last chip. Because anyone who takes the last chip -even Ino but probably not Shikamaru- would have to pay dearly.

"I'm busy tonight, Chouji, sorry," Ino says offhandedly. She sees him as a nuisance, sort of, fat and ugly and someone she has to constantly look out for. But there are times when her teasing is a little more gentle and her tone a little more tactful and her smile a little less exasperated. Those moments are what will make them friends.

"Doing?" he mumbles around another mouthful of chips, having retrieved the bag from Ino with a ninja-fast swipe. She notes that he's never moved that fast on the battlefield, and snorts.

"Dad has me working an extra shift at the flower shop while mom's sick." She looks at her nails, feigns boredom. "Whatever, I'll come out with you guys some other time."

"Oh." Chouji says. He's busy digging into a piece of shortcake. To the casual observer, it seems like that is that. The two part ways, Ino kicking her feet and dragging her heels and bitching about having the onset of a totally severe migraine, Chouji busily stuffing his face.

But Chouji knows a little about flowers, too, and by the time Ino gets home, her father tells her with a smirk that someone else is filling her shift for tonight. Mystified, but knowing when not to ask question, Ino takes off towards the little hole-in-the-wall where she knows she'll find her team.

Somewhere, a woman is measuring off lengths of thread.
Ino decides that she likes her teammates. It happens abruptly, without much conscious consideration. She wakes up one morning and she no longer thinks of Chouji as a fatass and Shikamaru as a lazy bum. She thinks, well, Chouji's just a little overweight, and Shikamaru just knows how to appreciate the finer things in life, and she makes a mental note to kick the ass of anyone who disagrees with her. It's a matter of principle, she sniffs indignantly. They're her team, and her honor is what's on the line if she lets other people insult them.

At least, that's what she tells herself. She conveniently ignores the small print, where it's written that maybe she thinks Chouji is a great guy and maybe Shikamaru really is a genius.

So she decides, and things look up from there.

She fixes up the shop before she leaves for their training spot, dawdling a little because it'll be a cold day in Kaze no Hi if Shikamaru, Chouji or Asuma-sensei are there at the appointed time, and she arranges three flowers that she chooses at random. The arrangement is crap, but she ignores that oversight. A rose for herself, because a girl's gotta be tough, a pansy for Chouji, a daisy for Asuma and, with a certain vehemence, a stinkweed for Shikamaru. But she finds that one at the side of the road, instead of in her flower shop. She hands it to him when she arrives and he gives her a raised eyebrow and a shrug. But, even though it's ugly and smells horrible, she notes that he doesn't throw it away. At least, not while she's looking.

So she thinks that maybe the lazy asshole is learning something about women, and decides to go a little easier than normal on him during training.

Somewhere, a woman cuts the thread.
Shikamaru is having trouble breathing, and he knows exactly why. There's a shuriken in his shoulder, a kunai in his thigh, and yet none of the blood on his hands belongs to him.

Shikamaru isn't exactly afraid of death, but the tears he dashes angrily from his eyes aren't for him. He wants to scream at something, someone, anything or anyone,because right now the only thing he thinks he is capable of is screaming. His genius is gone, shattered, his mind is weak and he has enough sense to know that if he were his own enemy, he couldn't have done a surer job of ensuring his own death.

The tears that he hates to acknowledge are for what he knows he has to do. Has to die a second-rate death on a second-rate battlefield with his second-rate teammates but first-rate friends. The Hokage hadn't looked at him as she'd handed him the report. He thought he'd heard her gasp for air as if she were drowning after he closed the door, but it might have been a trick of his mind.

Search, destroy, and die. The message couldn't have been clearer if she'd scrawled it in blood. He'd gritted his teeth and tried to say no but an infallible sense of duty told him to take a hike. No one else could do it. No one else had the brains or the firepower or the sneaky, clever girlishness that would be required. And because he couldn't condemn another team that didn't have an Ino or a Shika or a Chou, Shikamaru swallowed his demons and let them fester like a cancer.

Because deep down, he thought that he could do it.

He couldn't have been more wrong.

Chouji thinks that Ino looks prettier than she ever has before. To him, the blood smudged on her face looks like the ink-brushes of an artisan, and the ragged way her hair falls around her face makes her seem like something heaven-sent.

But he can't hear what she's saying, and that puzzles him. He can't even focus on her lips, can barely feel her tiny, delicate hands as she pumps on his chest. When she kisses him (because it feels like a kiss, although he doesn't really think it is) he can taste salt on her lips.

Ino knows that Chouji is dying, but that doesn't stop her from trying to help him. She works at his heart and his lungs and frantically rips kunai and shuriken from his body, knowing she's doing more damage but valuing time over care.

She's telling him to hold on, that things will be all right, that Shikamaru will think of something, and he smiles slightly when he hears (sees, senses?) Shikamaru's name. It's like a magic balm, she thinks, because Shikamaru always thinks of something. She thinks of a flower arrangement and hates herself for knowing that the pansy is always the first to wither.

Shikamaru can't think of anything and it's tearing him apart. Ino is screaming at him like he wants to scream at himself, but he tries to ignore her and focuses instead on patching up the gouging, gaping hole in his leg. It hurts more than it should, and he thinks maybe he's pressing down too hard.

Chouji is dead.

And then he's crying, hoarse, wracking sobs that are surely going to get them discovered by an enemy ninja, and Ino stops her shrieking and clings to him and he clings to her and buries his face in her shoulder as her fingers clutch at his vest, his shirt, at him. When he comes up for air, he presses his cheek to hers.

The angle makes it easier for Shikamaru to see when Ino takes a dozen shuriken to her back, though the tears in his eyes make his vision blurry and he thinks he sees twenty-four instead of twelve. Everything is wrong. Shikamaru can't find his fairytales, his clouds. He can hardly find himself.

There is blood on his hands, yet none of it is his.

Kagemane no Jutsu can be used as a suicide technique.

Of course, no one will ever tell you that in as many words. But when the one who wields shadows has to die, he knows he can make his death count. He can hold off ten, twenty, thirty ninja just by keeping them still with the shadow-bind, and when his stamina runs out, they will kill him.

It's never a good death, never a clean death. He knows he's a coward and that he might beg before the end. He knows he's a wimp and that he might cry. But nothing will change the inevitability.

There is no Asuma-sensei to rescue him. No Ino to arrive late and tell him he's a moron for trying to do everything himself. There is no Chouji to trundle through the ranks and methodically slit the throat of any enemy ninja. Shikamaru wonders how his best friend could smile afterwards, or could look at himself in the mirror.

All the mirrors in his room are covered, and they have been since the first mission that made him hate himself.

Team Ten watches clouds together like they do everything else together. They pass around a bag of chips and a cigarette, in memory of their sensei. None of them have the heart to say they can't stand the taste, the smoke or the fact that it's the same brand that Asuma packed around for years.

They all know they could lie there, this way forever. Ino is curled up next to Chouji as the sun goes down because she complains of being cold. Shikamaru tells her dryly to remember a blanket next time and she shoots him a glare and says that Chouji is better than a blanket, anyways.

And then she tells him to come help keep her warm, too. He rolls his eyes and does as she says; because an Ino that hasn't gotten her way is not an Ino he wants to deal with.

They watch the sky as the sun goes down, and in the few remaining clouds, Chouji sees a bag of chips in the sky, Ino sees a unicorn and Shikamaru sees death.

When it boils right down to it, he hates watching clouds these days.

But he does it anyways, and he isn't sure why.

InoShikaChou doesn't come home one night.