Wings of a Butterfly
Rating: K+ for minor cussing
Pairing: Ino x ? (though if you've searched this you'll know), Shikamaru x Temari if you squint
Warnings: May contain spoilers for those who haven't yet seen up to (and just after) the Sasuke Retrieval Arc. Also, possibly some spoilers for during the time-skip.
Summary: Memories are really just snapshots that the mind takes and stores away. Who better to analyse their snapshots than a Yamanaka? But she may reach a conclusion she hadn't otherwise considered…
Disclaimer: I cannot hope to place a claim on Kishimoto Masashi's fine masterpiece (a.k.a. Naruto); any characters, buildings, jutsu or bushes you may see are just borrowed for my own guilty little pleasures. This is a fan-related work only, is not being produced for any profits, and bears no relation with the future of Naruto. This pairing may/may not be canon, but I like to think it is.
Looking back, as she stepped up to the target with a kunai loosely held in her right hand, Yamanaka Ino wasn't quite sure when she had got over her childish infatuation with a certain Uchiha Sasuke. What she did know, however, was that it was definitely after graduation from the Academy. When she realised that she, like all the other misguided pre-teenage girls, had failed to see past the pretty face and that brooding, serious, angsty exterior he presented. It was soon after that she realised – she had been just as shallow as her façade portrayed.
Yeah, just as the Nara clan hid their intelligence beneath all that laziness, and the Akimichi caught enemies off guard with their deceptive size, the Yamanaka clan had perfected the masks necessary for disguising their natural cunning. Hmm… maybe Naruto had some Yamanaka blood in him – after all, nobody who was an orphan with no one to take care of him could come through the hand he'd been dealt and still smile through it all- and he had blond hair and blue eyes! Evidence for her case that he was really from a long lost branch-off from the Yamanaka clan: definitely. But then again, this was Naruto she was thinking about. But… argh, she was getting sidetracked now.
Oh, yeah, sure: she had kept on pretending. For Sakura's sake, 'cause without someone to measure herself against she would fall back into the timid shell of her childhood. Ino had always seen the other girl as her best friend, even a little sister; and Ino wanted her to blossom as quickly as possible. Sakura blooms were the prettiest flowers of them all, anyway.
Ino was even less sure of just when her heart – even though she was certain it was quite safe from any probable thief – was stolen by another member of the Rookie Nine. Being a Yamanaka, though, meant that she was naturally suspicious of… well, change in general. Not only that but her feelings, unsurprisingly scorned and denied, would jeopardise her attempts to help Sakura with her 'Uchiha problem', as she put it.
So she shut them away, not knowing what else to do with them. Not only that but she definitely didn't want the object of her affections to realise.
After a series of incidents that almost – almost being the key word – lead to her secret leaking out – much to her internal mortification – Ino decided that around her team it was 'common sense' to play it safe. So for their benefit, she started acting as if outwardly she had a crush on Sasuke, while privately her feelings were more orientated towards… Kiba.
Hey, she was low on inspiration at the time! Besides, Akamaru was just adorable, while his master was: crude… brash… loud… Okay, all minus points so far. But he just had to have a good heart underneath it all. Didn't he?
It seemed to satisfy Ino's boys though. Shikamaru had immediately declared it troublesome and focused on his game of shogi, which he was winning as usual; Asuma-sensei had given her a knowing smirk and a wink. But Chouji's eyes hadn't left her for a while after that 'confession', and when she realised it was hard to keep from blushing long enough to turn away. Moments after she had she heard a barely audible sigh, muffled by the crinkle as he opened a packet of potato chips – and she wondered if she had hurt him…
She finally acknowledged her feelings during the second stage of the Chuunin Exam. Team 10 had set up temporary camp near the river that ran through the Forest of Death, with a small campfire surrounded by a ring of stones, their scroll guarded by a series of complex traps Shikamaru had set up with some persuasion from Ino (namely, being threatened with castration, not getting any food, and a dozen other 'incentives' to get off his ass and help – her favourite was that she'd get Sasuke to use a Katon jutsu on Shikamaru's favourite cloud-watching spot. She even had a backup plan – if Sasuke refused to co-operate she'd obtain a bucket of oil and Asuma-sensei's cigarette lighter. Then blame it all on said Uchiha. The resulting entertainment would be priceless!)
The boys were now setting up another sequence of traps around their campsite, while she prepared a scant meal of whatever she could find – fish and some edible vegetation she had stumbled across. Just another day for the loser team, Team 10, stranded in the middle of a forest and surrounded by potential enemies: perfectly (ab)normal…
Then it hit her. Hard as if she'd been flattened with Chouji's Nikudan Sensha (1). The realisation caused her eyes to widen and instinctively she released the kunai, hurling it at her target. These feelings weren't just a stupid, childish crush: she genuinely liked him, and as she thought of his smiling face a crimson flush to creep up her cheeks. 'Hell, I might even love him!'
No! Bad, bad thoughts!
She growled and tried to tell herself that it was just wrong, wrong, wrong to fall in love with a guy who was practically her brother.
Thunk. Another bull's-eye. She picked another kunai and threw it at her target…
A guy who she'd known most her life. A comrade. Her best friend out of all of the guys!
Thunk. Two inches from the centre. She was losing her concentration now. Angrily she grabbed a handful of shuriken and prepared to throw them instead, snarling viciously, imagining it to be an Oto-nin standing in front of her, brandishing a kunai, about to attack her precious people; and then his face broke through and settled in front of her previous image, causing her to recheck and throw them wrong…
Someone she didn't even deserve! He was kind, thoughtful of others' feelings, patient with her; while she was always such a bitch to him, insulting him all the time – he probably hated her but was just too damn kind to actually say it!
Only one had hit the target, to her anger and frustration. "Damn it!"
"Time to call it a day, Ino," drawled a voice from behind her, and the kunoichi spun and came practically face to face with Asuma-sensei, who thankfully wasn't smoking a cigarette at that moment in time. She growled something under her breath and went to retrieve her weapons, but was stopped by a hand that laid itself firmly on her shoulder. "What's bothering you, Ino?"
She stopped herself moments before blurting out the awful truth, and instead settled for another thing that had been irking her for some time. "Shikamaru and Chouji are always leaving me behind! I pretend that I'm stronger than them… but on missions, I'm always the one who has to be protected! I can't even use my Shintenshin no Jutsu (2) without having to rely on one of them to protect me!"
"And what's wrong with them protecting you? They care about you more than they let on." Asuma reached into a pocket and pulled out one of his foul cigarettes, his eyes saying that he knew there was something she was hiding. "Especially Chouji – I've seen the way he looks at you sometimes…" Ino blinked, her mind shutting down at his not-so-subtle hinting as she realised what he was trying to tell her. With a sigh when she made no comeback Asuma, taking a long drag on his cigarette, turned to leave, pausing only to call over his shoulder, "If you want to get stronger so badly, just go and ask your 'tou-san if he can teach you another technique… Well, ja ne (3), Ino."
"…Eh?" came her intelligent response, only to realise that Asuma-sensei had already left. Cursing him, she turned and yanked her weapons from the poor, abused tree. "Baka-sensei didn't even tell me where they'd really gone- Ah!"
She put her hand against the tree trunk to steady herself, and slowly she turned to face the direction her heart was screaming in. A butterfly fluttered across her vision. A blue butterfly, with a unique patterning she had never seen before – and for the team-mate of a boy that the delicate creatures seemed to be drawn to, that was saying a lot.
"Chouji…" she breathed, or maybe she only thought it. The butterfly fluttered around her again, alighting on her trembling hand before flitting a short distance away, seemingly beckoning her to follow it. She hesitated, but when another wave of dread washed over her the blonde kunoichi ran after the fragile blue spectre that fluttered ahead, always in front of the blonde girl.
'Kami… what if something's happened to him? Or Shikamaru… or any of them?!' All she knew was that a group of the Konoha 12 (ALL of them boys, she noticed while mentally calling Shikamaru sexist, among other things) had left the village early the morning before on a 'top-secret retrieval mission'… except it soon became common knowledge that Uchiha Sasuke had gone missing the previous night, and the rumours soon spread that a team comprised mostly of genin had been sent on the mission to retrieve him. For once the young Yamanaka was sceptical of all the whispers she had overheard flying around, though it would explain the absence of her team-mates…
A throng had gathered by the village gates, and among them she could see the distinctive pineapple hairstyle of one of the Nara clan males. At a guess Shikaku, judging by her father standing next to him and… wait, if they were there then where was Chouza…?
Ino dodged through the crowd. Her breathing quick and eyes wide, she dimly registered the gasps of shock that rippled out from around her as the adults surrounding her on all sides caught sight of something or someone. Up ahead a man shouted for the mass of ninja and civilians alike to move out of the way, and shocked into obedience they parted to allow the medic teams to pass. She vaguely recognised the first boy being taken past as Hyuuga Neji – he looked close to death, his normally pristine clothing soaked with blood and his hair matted, tangled, a green mark visible on his forehead that she vaguely remembered from the Chuunin Exams – but the second was no-one she recognised… until his head fell to the side and she saw the all-too familiar red spirals on the boy's cheeks.
'Chouji? No… no! That doesn't look anything like Chouji! This has to be some kind of sick joke- I won't believe it, I won't! It can't be him…'
The ANBU members on guard duty started to disperse the throng, and still shocked by what they had seen none dared to question them. Eventually only Ino and the original Ino-Shika-Chou formation remained, the youngest of the group trembling with anger and frustration. All this – all this suffering and pain – just to bring back one boy! She felt nauseous, sick to her core at the thought of how far the village was prepared to go – just to have its precious last Uchiha back!
She couldn't help it, the tear that threatened to slip from her control and announce its presence to anyone who passed by. Rather than let anyone see, she ran. To a place where nobody would be at this time, a place where she could let go… the place where it all began.
It was her father who found her, cheeks tearstained and eyes puffy from crying, curled up as small as she could on a balcony jutting from the side of the Academy. He perched on the railing, wanting to comfort his only daughter but also recognising her need for personal space. Sensing somebody nearby she uncurled slightly and glanced up at him through red-rimmed eyes, before looking away again – perhaps ashamed of her tears.
"T-This was the place where we… kinda first accepted that we were the next Ino-Shika-Chou. We had lunch here that day," she whispered, then laughed softly and wiped her tears away. "Do you remember, 'tou-san? I'd forgotten my bento in the morning, I was in such a rush, and… Chouji and Shikamaru shared theirs with me. They didn't even complain once – well, Shikamaru probably wanted to… but it would've been too troublesome, don't you think?"
Not giving him time to make a comment the young blonde genin smiled slightly and held out a hand in front of her, as if letting something the older Yamanaka couldn't see land there. "I was pretty ungrateful back then, I think. I just took them for granted, while… while wishing I was on Uchiha's team." Inoichi couldn't fail to notice how the 'Uchiha survivor' had been further relegated in his daughter's mind; she practically spat out his name as if it left behind a sour taste in her mouth. "It was the Chuunin Exams when I realised I needed them, just like they needed me…"
Inoichi chucked slightly – though inwardly he was vaguely disturbed at the way in which she was intently staring at the patch of air above her hand – and sat down on the bench next to her. "Took Shikaku, Chouza and me longer than that. Shikaku's even lazier than his son, and we often couldn't even find him for training; and in comparison to Chouza at his age Chouji's a lightweight. If you think you three've had it hard as a team, you should've seen us – we barely tolerated each other during training and only worked together in combat situations. It wasn't until Chouza almost died from taking the green and yellow pills that we became a proper team."
"'Tou-san, what do you mean… the pills?" Her eyes strayed from whatever she was studying to his face, quizzical and somewhat apprehensive.
"They're very dangerous… Chouji probably used them in his fight, judging from his condition. Each one gives the consumer an enormous power boost, but he suffers as a result." He curbed his tongue before he could blurt out that all those who consumed the final pill usually died – Ino was worried enough about her team-mate as it was.
"Come on, we'd best get you home. You can check up on him tomorrow."
The young Yamanaka was too emotionally and physically tired to argue back and obediently trailed her father back towards their shop, her mind constantly fixed on a single person.
'You'd better be okay, Chouji!'
Ino fiddled with the flowers she had brought, trying to arrange them so that if- when Chouji woke he would definitely notice them. It wasn't the type of bouquet she'd usually arrange; since not only had she used the special symbolism each bloom stood for, she had chosen only those that she knew butterflies were attracted to. Satisfied at last the blonde genin stepped up to the door and gave a strained, false smile to the nurse outside the door, who misread and responded in kind, albeit her smile was more cheerful.
"Remember, only ten minutes. I'm not supposed to let anyone except family in."
"I won't take too long."
The Yamanaka twisted the handle and stepped inside, repeating a single phrase under her breath as if it were a mantra: "A shinobi does not show emotion under any circumstances… A shinobi does not show emotion under any circumstances… Oh, kami!"
Seeing him close up like this just made the pain intensify. Before she had only caught a fleeting glimpse of his skeletal figure, but up close she could actually see how tautly his skin was stretched across his cheekbones, how it made his clan markings distort into spirals that threatened to disappear. His torso was swathed in bandages and from the little skin left uncovered she could see the bones half-protruding from under his skin. She remembered with a rush of guilt the time when she'd said that no-one would like him if he continued to disregard his weight – even though that was a blatant lie from the inside – and said that maybe more girls would like him if he lost some of those excess pounds. That was before Shikamaru had tried to explain to her that it was important the Akimichi ate such large amounts: to prevent what any ninja feared, chakra exhaustion. She'd fallen into even deeper self-loathing after that… but she was wasting time, just standing here like this. Before the bouquet slipped from her nerveless fingers Ino placed it in a plain, simple vase at his bedside, before sitting in the only chair, her heart fluttering like a bird trying to break free of its bonds.
"I was only joking when I said you needed a diet, you know that Chouji? Jeez, you look like a wreck!" Trying to make light of the situation only caused another painful wrenching in her heart and she unconsciously grimaced at the sensation, before replacing it with a false grin. "I suppose we'll have to take you out for barbeque once you're out of here. Baka-sensei's paying!"
No response came from the comatose boy, not that she was expecting one. She frowned slightly and rested her head in her hands, continuing on a more serious note. "I hear you managed to defeat your opponent, Chou; Shika-kun told me that you sacrificed yourself for the rest of them. You mightn't have succeeded in the mission but you guys did manage one success – he's promised that he won't fail again. Guess he'll have to start training, eh? Can't have him getting left behind."
Partly to reassure herself, partly to make sure he really there, Ino took one of his hands in hers and stared long and hard at his face. 'He's so cold. He's never usually this cold – why, oh why did it have to be him?' "You'd better wake up soon, Chou. The team's nothing without you – I know that for certain. You're what holds us together. Kami, if you could hear me you'd probably agree I'm sounding pretty cliché at the moment, huh?"
If she had any knowledge about hospital equipment she would have noticed how one of the machines was showing there was higher brain activity than there had been when she came in; when his hand moved slightly around hers she thought that perhaps he was waking up, but a look at his still face convinced her otherwise. Glancing up at the clock she realised that she had almost used up her ten minutes; some part of her tried to weigh up the pros and cons of trying to stay longer. Deciding that if she tried to do that she might be barred from visiting again, she mumbled a small goodbye and stood to leave, but found herself unwilling to walk away like this. In a surge of inspiration she leant over him and placed a feather-soft kiss on his cold lips, not really thinking about her actions, before walking towards the door. The butterfly followed and fluttered beside her; hand hovering over the handle Ino glanced back briefly and smiled- properly this time.
"You'd better be awake next time, Chouji-kun. After all, I'm not really sure I like talking to myself!"
As she passed the nurse she gave a couple words of thanks, before heading towards where she knew their lazy counterpart would be. It was halfway there that she realised just what she had done back there- and the bottom dropped out from her previously organised world as a crimson flush threatened to announce its presence.
Deciding to postpone meeting Shikamaru for a little while longer the blonde scurried in another direction entirely, wanting to figure out what had possessed her to take such a drastic action before seeing her other team-mate.
The lazy ninja opened one eye and grunted something meant to be a greeting before settling back in the grass around him. A moment later Ino realised that he was not alone in the field- except for her presence, of course- a few feet away from the teen sat another blonde, who met her eyes and shrugged. "I've been trying to get a response out of Mr. Crybaby for the past hour. Doesn't want to do anything except mope around."
Ino managed a grin and sat next to the Suna nin, flicking her hair away from her eyes. "Guess he doesn't want to know that I visited Chouji today then…"
"Hokage-sama said that he wasn't to have any visitors," interrupted Shikamaru, both eyes open now and staring at the only female on his team. His brow was furrowed in his familiar trademark scowl – had anyone even told him that smiling used less facial muscles? it'd be less effort than frowning the whole time – and his dark eyes unwavering in their intensity, though at one point she felt as if he noticed the butterfly circling her head. Ino shrugged flippantly and said, "It's a woman thing. We're naturally manipulative. You might be able to get ten minutes though- if you get there before the current nurse ends her shift!"
"Troublesome." The pineapple-haired nin stood and stuck both hands in his pockets, slouching off with a half-hearted farewell to the two girls. Temari raised an incredulous eyebrow and turned to the younger girl in something nearing- admiration?
"You'll have to teach me how to do that."
"It's nothing really. You just need a big enough incentive to override his chronic laziness."
There was a moment of silence as the other kunoichi mulled something over, before eventually asking, "Threats good enough?"
"Usually… Hey, Temari-san, what were you doing up here with him anyway?" Ino was honestly intrigued by this, since it was usually just Chouji who had the patience to stick with Shikamaru when he was cloud watching.
"Trying to hold a conversation. It got a bit one-sided after the first three minutes though." She made an irritated sound and muttered, "Probably too troublesome to bother. He'll never have any girls like him at this rate." (The Yamanaka could've sworn she saw a tint of pink on the Suna kunoichi's cheeks, and it was definitely no trick of the light.)
Once again the two girls lapsed into a comfortable silence, basking in the evening sunlight. Temari started to polish her fan until it gleamed in the dim half-light, while the other girl was content with watching the butterfly continue to flutter around her in circles. Eventually the question burning in Ino's mind became too intense to ignore and she turned to the other with a slight frown. "Temari-san, have you ever…kissed a guy?"
She seemed mildly surprised at the sudden question, pausing in her ritual polishing and glancing over at the questioning gaze of the younger blonde. "Not quite yet, but I'm working on it." A smirk flitted across her face as she reversed the question back on the questioner. "Have you?"
"…Kinda…" She fought to keep the blush down but failed abysmally, hoping that the other girl would lose interest and give up on the subject. Apparently, though, 'Temari' and 'give up' didn't belong in the same language.
"Kinda have or kinda haven't?"
The eyebrow rose again – Ino decided it was a sign of the older girl planning. "Ssooo… who was the lucky guy? Anyone I know?"
"I'm not answering!"
The triumphant smirk that the older shinobi was currently wearing was merely an indication that she had finally figured it out; Ino wanted to do nothing more than crawl away into some small hole somewhere and die of this embarrassment, though the more malicious part of the platinum-blonde's mind was already plotting revenge.
It was the chuunin exams- again. Except this time there were some fundamental changes: the absence of Shikamaru, for one (Ino was uncertain to count that as bane or blessing, since it was without him they realised just how much they needed his brains), and his being replaced with Sakura for the purposes of the exam; and the fact that each of the temporary team had improved by miles since they had last taken the exam. They had waited one and a half years before stepping back up to the challenge of the exams, this time held in Kumogakure, and to Ino's annoyance Chouji was now taller than her by a couple of inches at least. She cast a side-long glance in the direction of said team-mate, and barely kept a smile from her face…
"Even if you did have the nerve to go get fat again," she muttered under her breath, a grin tugging at the corners of her lips, and the only boy on the team twitched in his sleep. The number of people who knew about her feelings was up to two now – Temari and Sakura had both worked it out without much trouble, but then again both were quite intelligent. And she was praying that that was as far as the knowledge would spread since both girls had sworn to secrecy. Sakura she had no worries about, really: it was Temari who would probably let it slip by accident in front of several people from Konoha- in front of Chouji as well, no doubt.
"Ino-pig, your watch is over. Go get some sleep."
"Whatever you say, billboard-brow." The blonde smirked and casually waved as she sauntered over to where her other team-mate lay. She was more than used to these situations by now, the playful banter with her best-friend turned rival turned best-friend again, and the pretending to ignore each other that would then ensue. Normally they would've been somewhat apprehensive about being so relaxed in the second stage of the exam, but having agreed to a truce with Team 8, who were camped just out of sight of them, they were able to rest more easily since at the slightest sound of an intruder the sentries would alert the rest of their teams. It was beneficial for all of them, really…
"Just go to sleep already – we'll leave you behind if you're too tired tomorrow."
"Hai, hai…" With a weary sigh the girl curled up a short distance away from the object of her affections and let her eyes close, relinquishing her grasp on consciousness to slip into the world of dreams.
Somehow, in the night both she and Chouji had ended up shifting positions so that she was resting on his chest, and one of his arms had wrapped around her to keep the chill of the night air away. Neither could figure out how they had manoeuvred into such a situation- the only one who could've told them, Sakura, discovered she had selective hearing when it came to Ino's ranting; and the count was up to five (six including the boy himself; seven if you counted Akamaru). No doubt it would increase as soon as they returned to the village – Kiba never could keep his mouth shut.
But all in all, it wasn't a bad start to their 'official' relationship, Ino decided as she sat in the barbeque restaurant with her boys, celebrating their promotion to chuunin. She was in 'her' seat, the one next to Chouji just as she always had been, and as the team chatted aimlessly her hand found Chouji's under the table, and they shared a quick smile.
Yes, it was definitely a good thing.