Author's Notes: So, this is something a little different than my usual work, but I just finished reading chapter 328 of Naruto and this story just sprouted in my mind as though it had already been planted. I just wanted it out there. I guess there's also hints of ShikaIno…if you tilt your head and squint. Hard.
Warning: Major, major spoiler alert for the most recent chapters of the manga!
Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto and I am making no profit from this fan story.
Dedicated to Team 10 and the awesomeness that was Sarutobi Asuma.
One, Two, and Three
The sky was so blue that it hurt to look at, and so she kept her eyes lowered stubbornly to the small tuft of grass at her feet. It was a little patch of green in the brown dirt of their favorite training field; a little spot of life in a world that too often seemed so void of any.
The sound of someone calling her name had her head jerking up, dangling strip of blond hair getting caught in the warm breeze. On the other side of the field stood the two friends who had been with her since day one of her ninja career…the two men who were, even after a year of being Chuunin, still very much her boys.
Chouji remained smiling as he happily munched on a half-empty bag of chips – baked, she noted with some surprise – while Shikamaru watched her with a half-bored, half-irritated expression. "We said we'd actually get some training done today," the Nara son went on. "You were going to get in my head and spar with Chouji, remember?"
"Y-yeah." Her voice sounded hollow, even to her. She couldn't remember being this fuzzy-headed since her fight against Sakura during their first Chuunin exam. And the thing was…she'd been this way for weeks. Months. "I'm coming," she shouted to her teammates.
And the sky was so blue…and the sun was so warm…
"It's been awhile since Ino has practiced her mind-control jutsu with either of us," Chouji was saying as she approached. He rolled up the bag and carefully tucked it into his pouch, taking out a couple of dull shuriken at the same time.
"Not since we were Genin," Shikamaru nodded and turned to her with an expectant look. "You ready?"
Ino lay back on a nearby knoll with more grass than the rest of the field. For a moment, she forgot about them and stared up at the passing, wispy clouds as they so liked to do…although she couldn't remember seeing them cloud-watching for a long time now. She raised a hand. "Ready."
"So am I."
Taking Shikamaru's cue, she closed her eyes and made the required seal. There was that flash and that odd pulling sensation she had never fully adjusted to – like someone had yanked her down to the bottom of a river – and then she was looking out of eyes higher than her own, directly in front of the Akimichi. Glancing to her right, she could see herself, head rolled to the side and hands limp atop her flat stomach. She was still, as motionless as—
Rain and tears.
"Okay, go ahead, Chouji," she said with Shikamaru's voice. She could faintly feel Shikamaru's discomfort at being out of sync with his own consciousness, and she nearly smiled. There were times Shikamaru managed to be cute, and one was when he was disgruntled.
Chouji spread his feet into a ready stance. Ino concentrated the chakra necessary to properly perform the Nara family's shadow manipulation jutsu. With the smallest of smirks she couldn't resist, she sharpened spikes from Shikamaru's own shadow and started them toward Chouji.
Over the years, Chouji had become quick with his expansion jutsu. Within seconds, he was twice his normal size and perfectly rounded. And rolling at thirty miles per hour toward Shikamaru's body.
Intimidated, Ino thought fast. She didn't want to harm Chouji, so she flattened the shadows again and prepared to shape them into something dull and safe.
Except that this wasn't her specific jutsu, and she realized that she didn't know how. So it made sense that Chouji got to her before she got to him, and it was thanks to her long legs and a far jump that she managed to dodge the "big-boned" shinobi.
Panting, Ino ran her tongue over her – Shikamaru's – lips to relieve them from their dryness. She felt Shikamaru's brief embarrassment but couldn't focus on it or risk getting bowled over. Chouji had circled back and was heading straight for her. She reactivated the seal and was about to prepare a counterattack when she suddenly went stock-still.
Chouji couldn't react in time, and there was a startled, voiceless cry coming from Shikamaru but Ino still remained motionless. In the end, Chouji ended up knocking Shikamaru's body against a tree. The jolt sent Ino's mind back to her own body.
Shikamaru sat up, rubbing his head with a wince as Chouji returned to his original form and brushed himself off. "What the hell, Ino?"
"Yeah," added Chouji, "what happened there?"
Both faces were wiped clean of their irritation as they heard with undeniable clarity the sound of their female teammate sobbing, and she wasn't such a tenderhead that her tears were caused by the bump to the skull. She had curled up on her side, burying her face in her arms. The fishnet on her elbows visibly shook as she trembled, and dusty dirt smeared the side of her fist as she gave one quick pound to the ground close to her body.
Smoke and blood.
Both of them ran, but Shikamaru was fastest and arrived first beside her. "I'm here, Ino," he said urgently, crouching down.
Chouji joined him and gave her shoulder a rub. "What's wrong?" he asked, but he spoke in a tone that indicted that he already knew what the problem was.
Ino took in a shuddering gasp and rolled onto her back again at her friends' coaxing. Her eyes, when opened, were like two pinpoints of pain that she aimed at Shikamaru. "When…" She shook her head and, reaching for him, hauled herself up by the collar of his vest. Shikamaru was pulled down very close to her face and she watched him closely, even accusatorily. "When did you start smoking the same cigarettes Asuma-sensei used?"
Chouji heard the hurt in her voice from harmful memories, but a wave of surprise distracted him from his empathy. "Or started smoking at all?"
Shikamaru's eyes had gone wide at Ino's words, but he relaxed them again at Chouji's. "I don't smoke."
Ino's pale eyebrows lowered. "I tasted it on your mouth!"
"Were you offended?" When Ino's grip on him tightened warningly, he took her by the wrists and cautiously pried her off of him. "I don't smoke," he repeated, louder this time. "Not really."
Chouji crossed, his arms, his spiky red-brown hair waving in a strong gust of wind. "You either do or you don't, Shikamaru."
The strategist looked between them with the same calculating stare he used in battle. "You know…that day. He didn't use up all his cigarettes." Ino started, her hands finally loosening, but Shikamaru didn't let go of her. Instead, his hold seemed to strengthen. "There were six left. So every month…every month since that day, I smoke one for him." His eyes rose to meet Chouji's. "I don't like them, and I guess it's just as well 'cause I had the last one this morning."
"They're all gone now."
Chouji sat on the ground beside them and placed a pudgy arm over Ino's shaking shoulders. "I thought you were better now, Ino."
She had thought so too, and that was what had made her so upset. "Asuma-sensei… It's not like he was someone you get over too easily," she replied as she scrubbed at her eyes with the back of her hand. "Sometimes I miss him so much."
Chouji smiled wistfully. Shikamaru nodded.
"And sometimes," Ino went on as a fevered glint came to her eyes, "you're so much like him, Shikamaru. I look at you and I see Asuma-sensei and then I think I'll fall apart at that very moment." Her lips formed a trembling smile. "I can't though…because he told me to take care of you two."
A moment passed. Then, "It's been six months," offered Chouji. "Ino…if you wanted to cry now, just to get it out…I think it would be okay."
She sent him a look of genuine surprise, which slowly morphed into a look of deep thankfulness. Tilting her headback, she squinted up into the sky. "The clouds…are pretty thin today." Her tense shoulders suddenly dropped. "They kind of look like…smoke."
Ino fell forward in a fit of sobs, pressed tight against Shikamaru's chest. Shikamaru automatically massaged her purple-clad back, looking at Chouji over her head. Chouji said nothing but also directed his gaze to the sight overhead. Shikamaru glanced up and thought it odd; Ino could cry, and Chouji could cloud-watch, and he…he could taste cigarettes. While all of them thought of the man who had made them what they were – shinobi, kunoichi, ninja, friends.
"Asuma-sensei." Shikamaru felt Ino's tears run over his fingers. "He was a joy-giver, don't you think? Ino?"
Her voice was slow in coming, and when it did, it was muffled by his vest. "I was happy with him. And you guys."
"Me too," chimed Chouji. "Asuma-sensei was never too late for us."
Shikamaru envied his friend for being able to say such lighthearted words. But the truth was, Chouji hadn't seen what he had seen and what Ino had possibly seen from being inside his mind. Chouji hadn't seen the battle with demons and the head that talked and the way Asuma had fought. So Chouji was the only one at liberty to stay quiet. And smile.
On a bright, sunny day like that, it seemed to take one with tears, two with silence, and three to grieve.