The door shuts behind Ino, and she stands rooted in front of it, barely inside the room, staring.
That doesn't look anything like Chouji.
Or rather, it does, too much. It's Chouji but it's all wrong. He's so thin, so very thin- he might weigh less than she does now, and Ino hates every word she ever said against his weight- and pale, and he looks frail. His face is drawn (that face in which she can see all his bone structure, and the spirals on his cheeks look wrong when you can see his cheekbones) and strained even in sleep.
It's only now that Ino realizes that every time Chouji looks at her, there's gentleness in his face.
She's alone in the room with him and has no idea what to do. Ino- Ino, who could harangue a brick wall into falling over just to shut her up- cannot speak, can't find words to express what she's feeling, can't process this enough to even know what she's feeling.
This is worse than seeing Sakura getting the crap beaten out of her in the Forest of Death. Ino doesn't know why it should be. She hardly even knows Chouji, and it's only now that she sees that as something to regret.
Suddenly she remembers that Shikamaru is his best friend, and it occurs to her to wonder how much worse this must be for him- Shikamaru, the genius, whose best friend might die trying to bring Sasuke back.
Sasuke seems so insignificant now.
This is the thought that frees her feet, and Ino approaches the bed. She stares down into Chouji's face, that familiar stranger's face, and her hand finds his atop the covers.
"Chouji." she whispers, and is surprised that her voice is so hoarse.
She remembers the first meal they ate as a team; she'd only gone along because she'd lost Sasuke and begrudged it the whole time. It's only now that she remembers Chouji shared his lunch with her, that he smiled. It's only now that she realizes he and Shikamaru didn't have to invite her along, that her company might have been less than pleasant for them, and only now that she realizes it was Chouji who did the inviting.
It's only now that she realizes she enjoyed it.
"Oh, Chouji…" she whispers again, and lets the tears fall.
It's only now that she realizes he and Shikamaru are her boys. It is in this moment they actually become the second Ino- Shika- Chou trio, because this is what it takes to teach Ino what a team really is, what camaraderie is worth.
A/N: Something that popped into my head after seeing clips from Chouji's fight in the Sasuke Retrieval mission in an AMV. Because I haven't seen the actual episodes in a while, some details might be a little off.