Title: Slow Burn
Chapter: 01 Resolve
Author/Artist: Killaurey
Disclaimer: Naruto doesn't belong to me. It's Kishimoto's and I just play with it. AU immediately after the Sasuke Retrieval Arc. Part 1 of ? Ino-centric.

PLEASE NOTE: In later chapters this story becomes OC heavy (due to being in a different country for an international exam). If you do not like OCs in any capacity then this probably isn't the story for you.

Moonlight glimmered on the plants in the heated greenhouse, one of the greenhouses where her family grew flowers all year around, and Ino was careful not to disturb the silence of the place as she unlocked the door and let herself in.

The warmer air was like a slap to her face and she shivered. Finding the stool that her father kept here for doing repairs—he liked being surrounded by plants while he worked—Ino set it in the middle of one of the rows and sat down. She liked it here, at night. There was a quiet power to the sleeping place and more than anything she found that soothing right now.

Shaking her head and hugging her knees to her chest, heels balancing on the edge of the stool, Ino stared up through the glass roof of the greenhouse at the stars. She could barely see them. Her mother didn't like it when she went to the greenhouses at night. Said she was better off getting a full night's rest.

Well, there were times when Ino didn't care about what her mother said.

This was one of those times. For her, the greenhouses always had been the best place to think and right now she needed that. Ino would deal with the scolding she would get in the morning.

Chouji was in the hospital—no one sure if he'd make it or not—and the surety that had it not been for Tsunade-sama's presence he'd already be dead was cheap consolation. She wanted to see him with her own eyes. Shikamaru was still there; they'd kicked her out.

No matter that she was their teammate. She hadn't been on the mission and therefore under the confidentiality laws that all shinobi were required to abide by... she wasn't allowed to be there. She wasn't allowed to wait for news. It hurt. Ino knew Shikamaru would tell her about Chouji's condition. He always told her what she wanted to know when it was just the two of them, but that didn't change the fact that she had wanted, still wanted, to be waiting in the hall for news herself. Second-hand news wasn't the same. Ino wondered if he'd tell her about...

No. Ino bit her lip and blinked rapidly. She wouldn't ask him about that.

After all, she had all the pieces.

It had filtered down—some through the grapevine (Konoha shinobi were terrible gossips) and some from Sakura, who'd looked worse than Ino felt now. It had filtered down: Uchiha Sasuke had left for Oto and Tsunade-sama hadn't the shinobi to spare to send a higher ranked team after him.

So she had picked Shikamaru, who was no more than a wet-behind-the-ears rookie Chuunin and made him leader. Told him to pick the strongest Konoha Genin and go.

He hadn't picked her. That hurt. A choking, bitter anger that made her eyes water and her arms tremble yet didn't stop the hollow ache in her chest. He'd picked Chouji who'd done no better in the Exam than she had.

And now Chouji was in the hospital.

So was Hinata's cousin, and Kiba. Rock Lee had been checked back in with a severe scolding for running off before being properly rehabilitated. Naruto was in the hospital - rumor had it that he was barely clinging to life.

But Ino could see why he'd picked the others—even Rock who'd gone without permission. They were strong. Anyone could see that. It was obvious.

Ino knew why he hadn't picked her. There was no need to ask him.

She was weak. Too little chakra, too few combat ninjutsu. Not strong enough, not fast enough. Not good enough. That was all there was to it. So simple, yet the realization burned like bile in the back of her throat. Swiping furiously at her watering eyes, Ino nearly missed the quiet sound of the glass door opening behind her.

"Ino?" It was Shikamaru, sounding three parts exhausted and one part concerned.

She made sure her face was dry before turning to face him. In the near dark he might not notice. If he did, then well, maybe he'd think it was over Chouji.

"What is it?" She couldn't see his face clearly, but long familiarity with his features letting her know when he frowned at her flat tone.

"Chouji's surgery was a success."

Climbing to her feet, she pasted on a smile, kunoichi lessons letting her keep it looking real—even while she didn't feel it. Ino had always been good at the traditional kunoichi arts. "That's great! He'll be okay then?" She hadn't known that he'd needed surgery. Hadn't had the clearance to know that. That hurt too. Shouldn't a teammate know that?

Shikamaru rubbed his face wearily, fighting back a yawn and doing it badly. "Hokage-sama thinks so. Says he'll wake up in a few days."

"You should get some rest," Ino told him, tugging on his arm more gently than she would have had it been any other day. "We can go see him in the morning. You're exhausted."

Keeping up a line of similarly concerned chatter she got him out of the greenhouse and half the way to his house before he managed to shake her off with a half-hearted grumble and the promise to meet up with her in the morning.

Ino watched him walk off. The smile on her face didn't fade until she was sure he was out of sight. Then she turned and deliberately walked in the opposite direction. Never mind that it wasn't where her house was.

She wasn't the exhausted one. Ino knew she could go without a bit of sleep.

It was like a slow burn. An anger that she could use. Tight in her throat, her heart, her head. She was weak.

Well, she could fix that. Starting now, right now, she'd fix that.

Reaching the training ground that Team 10 used, Ino tied her hair back securely, and began to stretch. When she was warmed up she ran laps around the area until she was panting and her legs felt weak. Then, as the sky started turning pink, she began working on the basic Taijutsu forms that she'd been taught at the Academy. She'd have to figure out a proper schedule later, but right now it felt good, so good, just to move.

She wouldn't let herself be weak again. A fire burned in her mind. Slow, but deep. Anger that she couldn't, wouldn't lash out with. Anger at herself, at Shikamaru, at Hokage-sama. She'd turn that anger into motivation. Use it to push herself past her limits.

So that next time Shikamaru would ask for her.

Slow burn.

It would be her way as a ninja.

R&R, please!