Title: Strange Kind of Sanity
Author: Runespoor
Rating: PG-13
Summary: post-345/346/347. Ino and Team Seven. Sanity and loyalty and departures. Actually, it's really just an excuse to get Ino and Naruto and Sakura as working partners.

Pairings: mention of TemaShika, AsuKure. Subtext: anything goes, with a strong option on NaruSakuSasu and InoSaku.


Sometimes, Ino wondered about Team Seven's sanity.

Not as often as she wondered about her own, though.

Yamanaka Ino, at age fifteen, had come to the conclusion that she was completely off her rocker. It didn't please her in the slightest, but it was alas the only thing that could possibly account for her current ailment.

Leaping through the forest, tree-branch-trunk-force-your-lunch-back-down-your-stomach-wish-you-had-wrapped-the-chest-bandages-a-little-more-tightly-this-morning-and-repeat, trying to keep up with both her partners, was definitely one of these occasions.

Ignoring the protests of her screaming muscles, she accelerated. Time was against them, as was space, but frankly what wasn't against them these days?

They knew that most likely they weren't being followed, or at any rate not being followed by people against whom they wouldn't hold more chances than a snowball in Suna; as Naruto had pointed out, if Jiraiya was seriously on their track he'd just use a toad and the flight would be over before they knew it.

Of course there were also ANBU and rescue teams of any sort, and as a preventive measure Sakura had taken to use genjutsu to cover their presence. Ino did her half of the work, because too much genjutsu gave Sakura headaches – very typical of Forehead-girl, Ino had remarked when this particularity had been mentioned to her.

That was primarily the situation.

That was also exactly why Ino was convinced she was certifiably insane.

Which didn't do, because as a member of Team Ten, Ino had a duty toward sanity.

Team Ten had prided themselves since That Chuunin Exam on being sane, and average, and annoyingly well-balanced. Before that, it used to be that this normality had grated on Ino's nerves, who was born for greatness and who would probably sweep genius Uchiha Sasuke off his feet if given the chance (and would smile nastily at Haruno Sakura when she did, too).

Why did she have to get stuck with the dump? Shikamaru might think only 'Naruto's team' was weaker than they were, Ino knew they were by far the worst – hey, Team Seven had Sasuke and even Ino lost to Sasuke.

Then, after witnessing Those Events, she changed her mind. Normal was good.

Normal meant your family wasn't trying to kill you, or had laws regulating what you could and couldn't do, you weren't cursed with unfortunate eyebrows and an evil fashion sense, you didn't have bugs living inside your body, and, most of all, you didn't flip out and betray the freaking village and – worse, much worse, though Ino kept her opinion to herself because she knew it wouldn't be widely accepted, your team.

Normal meant you didn't devote your very life to getting back one who was, quite clearly, out of his mind and very very dead inside.

Normal also meant not getting trained by a Sannin, but Ino had made chuunin before Sakura anyway, and she was well on her way to getting into ANBU by the time she was twenty, and the price was a bit too much anyway.

So Ino had planned on being both normal and great, and she had a history of getting what she wanted. It should really have been no trouble.

Except it had been.

And – as usual – it was entirely Sakura's fault.

And Naruto's.

But mostly Sakura's, because if Ino hadn't heard Sakura's name, and her voice, she'd never have got involved in the skirmish and she wouldn't be fleeing 7/7 at top speed from her home village.

Ino, after all, was not a straight fight specialist.

She was perfectly able to hold her own – and more than that, she did become a chuunin, in Cloud-organised exams, and only six months after her first try – against most chuunin and the occasional jounin, but her definite areas of specialisation were more the underhand kind of destruction, so to say. She could create havoc absolutely anywhere, provided she could grab a body and then hop minds between her enemies, but that did ask for more surprise effect and preparation on her part than the typical facing-down.

But she also had a history of getting involved in fights she couldn't possibly think she was going to win when Sakura was concerned.

It happened like this:

Ino was passing through the outskirts of Konoha for a walk, because Shikamaru had got on her nerves more than usual and she'd needed to calm down after she'd punched the living daylights out of him.

She was still fuming. After all this time, he should know better than asking if it was her time of the month or something.

And they called him a genius.

After a while she'd finally relented and given in to Chouji's pleas that she didn't bash the stupid's skull in – though it was thick enough that he wouldn't even feel it, probably. Now she felt she needed the walk.

The whole thing was made worse by the fact that she was on her period. Of course.

The weather was nice, better for a walk than for training, really, warm and sunny and all, and Ino had felt her moodiness slip away. Whenever she felt she was getting carried away, she reminded herself of Shikamaru's drawl, and her anger came back full force every time.

After a while she'd discarded the sulkiness but not the anger, and she was plotting how to Get Shika Back Good This Time, wondering if involving Temari might not implode in her face – Temari was a bit of a wild card where girl issues were concerned. Ino wasn't sure Temari wouldn't laugh in her face if she tried to recruit her in her vengeance plan, and not telling her meant that if either Temari or Shikamaru realised something was amiss, Ino wouldn't be able to get a peaceful night of sleep for fear of retaliation.

She was perhaps not paying as much attention to her surroundings as she should have, but really.

So, anyway, one moment she heard a great big shattering sound, a hundred meters away, and the next Naruto's voice was shouting, "Sakura-chan!"

So how did Ino react? Well, obviously she had to run and see what it was about, and then she should have gone back to the village and get help if needed, and let the higher-ups know about whatever it was should it be warranted.

Only Ino wasn't really thinking one hundred percent straight at that time, because Naruto's tone had been totally unsuited for a spar or even a minor incident, and Ino was exactly the type of girl whose every thought left the brain of when she thought people she cared about were in danger.

It was a reflex no amount of training, emotional or otherwise, had been able to erase, but that was maybe because Ino only went at it half-heartedly at best.

Logically she knew she'd be more of help if she stayed cooler, and ultimately that a good ninja shouldn't ever lose control over her emotions, but deep down she couldn't help but doubt it. She wanted to be sure she wasn't going to be too late, and no waiting-for-the-opportune-moment would ensure that.

Beside, Ino wasn't going to be good. She was going to be great.

If the Third and Fourth Hokage found it okay to sacrifice themselves for their village, then who'd dare tell her she shouldn't take the same risks for her friends?

Thus Ino rushed into the scene and attacked the closest person she knew for sure wasn't Sakura or Naruto due to his dark hair with a flying kick to the head that would've made Lee twinkle and beam if he could have seen it, and burst into a long-winded exclamation about the Passion of Youth, and would've dispelled the rumours that 'Ino sucked at taijutsu and so sucked as a shinobi' once and for all.

After a few dumbfounded seconds during which everyone stared at her and she stared back, Ino realised she'd just laid one Raidou-san out cold, that there were two other persons aside from Naruto and Sakura who were both Konoha compatriots, and that she really had no idea what was going on except that it was probably bad.

She would definitely have started snarking and demanding an explanation in the most stylish, classy and I-saved-your-neck-didn't-you-notice-(peons) way she knew, had one of the remaining opponents (with-a-question-mark) (his name momentarily eluded her) not chosen to take advantage of the sudden lack of focus and played the most foolproof strategy of ninja history, attack-the-medic-nin. Sakura.

Ino let go of the questions. One might say her body moved on its own.

A few minutes later Ino was healing her various scrapes and wounds and feeling rather justified in her gloating still when Naruto blurted out, "Damn, Ino! What was that all about?"

Ino glared at him. With his arm in a sling which he hadn't used during the whole skirmish.

"Excuse me?"

She was about to detail what she meant, but Sakura cut her short.

"That's not what he meant, Ino."

The absence of suffix effectively stopped Ino in whatever retort she might have lashed. She felt her eyes narrowing.

"We fought fellow Leaf-nins and you helped us." Sakura started biting on her lip. "Hm, we could knock you out – when you wake up you'll just have to explain why you helped out – and why the fuck did you help out anyway? – and you should get off easily enough. Naruto, what do you think?"

The other blond nodded, a small frown on his brow. "Yeah, we could do that."

Ino's eyebrows were up to her hairline – which admittedly wasn't as high as Sakura's – and her hands were braced in front of her, getting ready for an attack.

"Okay, mind telling me what the hell is going on here?... Like you could take me out so easily," she added as a second-thought with a knowing, sympathetic, condescending nod, though she was well aware that if they teamed up against her, in a straight fight, the best of her abilities would be nowhere near enough.

Sakura hesitated.

Naruto sent a glance in the direction of the village. "We need to get going, Sakura-chan," he said tersely.

"I know that!" Sakura snapped. "But unless you're suggesting we either kidnap her or fight her—we don't have the time for this," she interrupted herself in her mounting anger, with a surprisingly calm tone. It was another proof that things were grave indeed, when Sakura acted as if there were literally two sets of thoughts running through her head.

Ino took a deep breath to quell her nervousness.

"What. Is. Going. On."

So long as she stayed angry, she wouldn't be afraid.

Naruto and Sakura exchanged a look that Ino didn't like in the slightest.

It was a look that had years of a-common-goal behind it. Ino knew because Chouji and Shikamaru sometimes shared one of those, though theirs were based on the fact that they were guys and were suffering Ino's very femaleness. Ino could see through it perfectly well.

She chose not to call them on it – most of the time – because she wasn't quite as big a bitch as the rumour-mill had it, and she did like companionable afternoons with her team, from times to times. It was relaxing. Watching the clouds with Shika, chattering about girl things and smile secretly when the two boys just looked at each other.

Part of their team dynamic.

This one, Ino wasn't familiar with, but the fact that it went between Sakura and Naruto was enough to make her stomach clench with worry.

Because Sakura and Naruto had spent two and a half years apart, and they shouldn't be able to understand one another so well without words.

They didn't even have a prior bond to justify this closeness, to make it acceptable; before they became genin, Sakura hated Naruto, didn't she? So it wasn't even as if, say, Chouji and Shikamaru hadn't ended up on the same team; they'd still be able to get one another, they'd been best friends long before they formed Team Ten.

There was only one thing that could link Sakura and Naruto.

"We're leaving," Sakura finally dropped, looking back at Ino. "We're going to the Sound."

Ino swallowed. She tried to smile, but even she knew it looked fake.

"It's not a mission, is it?"

Of course it wasn't. She didn't even need to hear the answer. Of course it wasn't, why else would they fight Konoha-nins and leave them on the ground – healed, but unconscious and unlikely to wake up before a few hours after Sakura's ministrations – unless they weren't supposed to?

There was a lump in her throat.

Sakura looked pained. "No," she said softly. "It's really, really not."

During the eerie silence that followed, Ino thought about everything that had happened since she'd stood with Shikamaru and Chouji in front of three freakishly strong Sound-nins in the Forest of Death, and she'd ordered Sakura to let it go, Forehead, and the look on Sakura's face (and no-one would get to Sakura as long as Ino was there).

She looked down at the three shinobi who had tried to prevent the two from leaving, two jounin and one chuunin, and admired distantly the differences between this and Sasuke's leaving of the Leaf.

"What happened?" she asked.

Sakura licked her lips.

"You know how Jiraiya-sama left the village yesterday?"

Ino nodded. That, she knew.

She hadn't thought it was anything to worry about, though; especially not when she had her own team problems. They hadn't been assigned a new team leader – or captain, or whatever – and Ino could only hope they wouldn't. Working with someone for one mission or two, or even every one of them would be fine; but not if it was made official, not if they weren't Team Asuma anymore.

It'd be easier in a few months, when Kurenai's child was born. Sarutobi Kurenai.

That sounded so weird.

Asuma-sensei had never seemed to give a thought about getting married – hey, they weren't even living together – and now Asuma was dead, Kurenai got a post-mortem marriage. It was more or less customary in a shinobi village, especially when the woman was pregnant, but it still gave Ino the creeps.

She hoped fervently she'd never have to do the same thing.

(On a side note: when Shikamaru told Chouji and her that Asuma had whispered his child's existence into Shika's ear, he assuaged doubts she didn't even know she had about how Kurenai had stopped the contraceptives without telling Asuma.)

Looking back, it was obvious that there must have been a pretty serious reason behind the Sannin's sudden departure.

"Well, I-I got into Tsunade-shishou's restricted files." Sakura paused.

Ino raised an eyebrow. What else is new? On the side where he was kicking stones, Naruto snorted.

"More restricted than usual," Sakura amended.

There was a mess of contradictory emotions whirling on her face, too fast for Ino.

"There was word about Sasuke," Naruto said, shortly and grimly.

After two lifetimes of silence, Ino could speak again. "About Sasuke…" she echoed dumbly.

She felt as if the two of them, Naruto and Sakura, were shrouded in something that went far beyond her. Far beyond the luxuriant Konoha landscape surrounding them, far beyond the sunny weather and plump cheerful clouds.

Something twisted in her gut when she realised uncomfortably how outside of her reach they were – how plainly they didn't care.

Or maybe how little they cared, with the scraps of concern that weren't taken by the goal they'd spent almost three years pursuing. Looking at them, Ino was filled with the disquieting foreboding that they were taut like weapons – bright with hope and pain, taut like chakra-threads about to snap.

Wow, she'd never have guessed she could do melodramatic so well.

In front of her, Sakura curtly nodded. "Him and Orochimaru. Something about the soul-transfer." Her lips were almost white, Ino noted.

Then she gaped, registering what she'd been told. She wanted to protest. But you told me Orochimaru wouldn't be able to do the jutsu for three years! It hadn't been three years since Sasuke had left the village! Even if Ino had been able to get her dates mixed up so badly, surely Naruto and Sakura would've grown restless if the three-year limit was anywhere near up.

Like they were now, a small voice whispered at the back of her mind.


But then it'd have been preventive.

"We don't know who's – in charge," Sakura continued. She looked down and away as she hesitated on the last words, her voice trembling a little, but then she looked up straight in at Ino, her eyes slightly narrowed in determination. "It wasn't stated in the reports, but just that there was a report proves that it happened."

A muffled sound – half growling, half choking – came from Naruto's side. Ino glanced his way. He couldn't be taking this well.

Hell, she wasn't taking this well and she wasn't anywhere as involved with the Uchiha as they were, right?

On some level, it was his fault that Shikamaru's first mission had failed and that he still took to guilt so badly, that Chouji had almost died.

And even if Ino accepted that he hadn't been the one fighting them then – wasn't even aware of it at the time, given how he was unconscious in a bucket (and as a side note, Ino had heard of a lot of ridiculous things over the years, but that one still stole the cake) – and even since Sakura had convinced her Sasuke mostly needed help, possibly in the form of a serious beating, she'd never be able to forgive him for the rest.

Because Shika and Chouji were her team, and in some ways were pretty much her brothers – not all ways obviously, because sometimes when she looked at Chouji what she was feeling was definitely not sisterly sensations and necessitated a cold shower or two, which was stupid – but Sakura was her best friend.

And for that – Sakura, and the whole mess with his team – Sasuke was definitely the one to blame.

He was the one who'd knocked Sakura out and who'd made her cry again and again and again in front of the five boys who were to bring him back, until Sakura never cried anymore when Ino would've wanted nothing else than to be able to comfort her.

She wasn't stupid; she knew Sakura still cried, but nowhere where other people could see her now, because she thought they'd look down on her for it – for being emotional and thirteen and a girl and weak.

Ino had been the first – way back when chuunin exams were things that happened to other people and Sasuke was a glaring boy who never just walked when he could run and whom Ino had originally noticed because he was piggy-backing on the single most attractive coolest aloof-yet-gentle impossibly PERFECT boy Ino had ever seen.

(Her jaw had dropped and she'd felt a sudden warmth spreading all the way down to her toes, she'd violently shivered, and she'd accidentally broken the vase she was holding.

To make a couple of very long weeks short, she got over him because her knees went weak whenever she merely thought of approaching him, and she blushed and went mute and hid behind the closest grown-up when he got into the vicinity and her heart thumped madly in her chest and Sasuke – his little brother who was in her class – alternatively scowled at her, whimsically grabbed his older brother's hand, and looked like a kicked puppy when said older brother ignored him.

Itachi was too impressive, and Sasuke, she found after watching him, was incredibly cute as well, plus he was in her class and he knew she existed.

Potentially he could see her as more than the-six-year-old-who-is-always-hiding-behind-her-father-when-I-cross-the-street Itachi undoubtedly thought she was – Ino knew he had to register her existence somehow, because she'd managed to learn he was a genius since she'd fell in love-at-first-sight with him, and a ninja genius would never let something like that elude him.

It was a great plan. Then she'd realised every other girl had a crush on Uchiha Sasuke, and concluded that the best way to win his favours was to become the most prominent among them.)

It was only years later, after her team had made it back from the fight against Akatsuki and after Ino had got that the reason behind Naruto's training and drive was Sasuke, just like it was for Sakura – when the tangled mess of badness that was Team Seven dawned upon Ino, that she started thinking that maybe she should've done things otherwise.

That maybe if she'd persevered in her original interactions with Sasuke, as a rival for his brother's attention and as a rival in class, rather than becoming Fangirl #1 and just accepting that he was better than her in ninjutsu because he was a genius like his brother, if she'd driven him mad like she'd done with Sakura after they broke they friendship up – then maybe things would've been different.

Maybe she'd be in Naruto's place now. Maybe she'd be the teammate Sasuke had tried to kill, and then hadn't, and couldn't dismiss quite so easily.

Maybe if Sasuke had had an aggressively in his face rival before graduating from the Academy, he wouldn't have been so removed, so soon.

The sad thing was that while she could imagine herself in that position, and while she could imagine Sasuke's reactions, she couldn't possibly picture Sakura and Naruto. Once their link with Sasuke was removed, they seemed to fit nowhere.

The persons they were wouldn't even exist.

Sakura'd still be a too-sweet, unassertive spineless pseudo-wimp of a girl, and maybe she'd have even given up on being a kunoichi – maybe Ino'd have lost contact with her, if she'd entered a rivalry with Sasuke.

Maybe she'd be married.

Yamada or Inoue or Random-Name-From-"Hi-I'm-Not-A-Ninja-What's-A-Pretty-Girl-(And-A-Sucky-Fighter)-Like-You-Doing-In-Such-A-Harsh-Life-Let's-Have-Babies"-Dom Sakura.

As for Naruto…

Ino found – hi scales-falling-down-eyes have a nice day bye – that there just was no Naruto without Sasuke. Just…Blank. Utter, total nothingness. The idea of Naruto just needed a Sasuke; a rival-slash-best-friend-he-says-slash-weird-weird-thing.

It was the biggest thing she knew she'd never forgive Sasuke.

How there'd be no Haruno Sakura or Uzumaki Naruto without him.

She looked at them more closely.

They reminded her of a tapestry fraying around the edges. This was bad.

Ino was a normal girl; she didn't have a bloodline and yet she came from a ninja clan, she hadn't been rejected by her peers or by the whole village as a kid. Once upon a time she'd been unrivalled among the kunoichi her age, and maybe she stood slightly out because of her blond hair and her loud attitude, but she'd never looked like much. She'd never been special.

Except that she had Sakura for a best friend.

For all Sasuke was a comrade (she'd go with it if it made Sakura happy), she really was upset for Sakura and Naruto. And okay, also a little for Sasuke, who was an asshole alright but didn't deserve that.

She took a breath.

"I'm coming with you."

"What? No!" Sakura exclaimed.

Naruto looked at her as if he thought she was mad-crazy-mad, which Ino ignored, and continued looking at her with an expression that was becoming less shocked and more considering with every second.

"I'm coming," Ino repeated.

"You can't," Sakura shot back.

Naruto was still watching her, Ino saw out of the corner of her eye. She didn't pay particular attention to him, though, because she was busy trying to mulishly stare Sakura down.

"I'm going to."

"You're going to stay here and tell the Hokage that you stupidly leaped to help us before you'd realised what was going on, and then we knocked you out."

Ino smirked.

"Suppose you and the boy wonder over there do manage to get to Otogakure without blowing yourselves up. Suppose you find yourself right in front of Otogakure's wide open welcoming doors. Do you suppose you'll be able to help yourself and not rush in what'd obviously a trap?"

Sakura bristled, but she didn't retort, and Ino knew she'd marked a point. She almost grinned, knowing her friend had understood what she'd left unsaid perfectly.

Since when has either of you been able to resort to logic when Sasuke's concerned?

Even if Naruto lost his head less now and if Sakura was the analytical type, you only needed to hear half the gossip in Konoha to know that Sasuke was Naruto's weakness, and Ino knew it was also the case for Sakura.

"And even if you do, who's going to infiltrate the place for you? Pink hair? Whisker marks?" Sakura recoiled, and Ino felt her lips curl into a smirk again. She was winning. Her tone was so heavy with sarcasm even Shikamaru would've winced, had it been directed at him. "Wow, no-one's going to recognise you at all. You'll fit right in. Seriously, Forehead-Girl, you think that Oto's going to overlook how you're going to come crashing into their hideout as soon as you learn about it?"

She almost felt bad when Naruto looked away and turned to the side. Almost.

"We'll find a way," Sakura said with absolute confidence. "And anyway, he's our teammate. It's our job to take care of him."

Ino refrained from shooting that so far they'd done a crappy job of it. It was annoying to be arguing over something she had no intention of letting go, but of course Sakura couldn't agree to things before she'd made them as complicated as possible. Naruto wasn't getting involved; she wasn't sure if she should be grateful or not.

She chose another angle.

"You remember I'm a Yamanaka? …Take me to Sasuke, and I'll tell you whose mind is moving his body."

Her hands balled into fists at her side, her nails digging in her palms, when Sakura and Naruto looked at one another. She didn't dare breathing. They'd let her come now. She wouldn't hold them back; not only that, her abilities would be a great help in their mission.

At the same time, Ino wondered why it hurt that she was going to come with them for Sasuke's sake, and neither for herself nor for the two of them. Sasuke came first.

"We're… sorry, Ino," Naruto said slowly. His gaze was fixed on Sakura. "You can't come."

"Thank you for your offer," Sakura muttered. She'd dropped her eyes from Naruto and she wasn't looking at Ino either.


She took in the finality, resounding in their voices, shadowing their stances. Eyes wide, she stared.


Something snapped.

"And you think I'm going to let you knock me out like that?" she asked incredulously. "You think I'm just going to accept that? Well, what if I won't? Then what? Are you going to fight me?"

Naruto visibly winced. "No, it's not—" he began.

She turned a withering look towards him. "Are you going to tell me I'll just be in your way? It's not my place, maybe?"

"Look, Ino, you don't underst—" Naruto abruptly cut himself off, colour draining from his face.

"I don't understand? What's there to not understand? That you're going to get yourselves killed? When Naruto can't use his arm?" Her voice rose to a screech. "WHY DO YOU THINK I WANT TO BE THERE, YOU MORONS?"

Sakura was shaking her head. "No, we—"

"And you!" Ino whipped her head to snap at her, her hair swishing. "Do you think I'm just going to let you go? That I'd be able to live with myself even if you do fight me and you do knock me out, that I'm not going to follow you once I wake up?"

"I'm trying to protect you!" Sakura protested.


Sakura stopped, stricken.

"I'm coming with you. I'm able to help and I will help so don't even try to stop me. I'm coming."

For a few seconds they were silent.

"Sakura-chan… She's got a point."

"I know," Sakura whispered; she still looked shaken, though she was looking at Ino again. "But – what about your team? Shouldn't you – be with them?"

"Aren't they going to follow us?" Naruto asked with a raised eyebrow.

Ino closed her eyes and swallowed the knot in her throat. Chouji, Shikamaru… (Don't lose to Sakura… Either in ninjutsu or in love…) She pressed her lips together to forbid any sob to wreck through her. Don't cry. Don't fucking dare crying.

When she opened her eyes again, after only a moment, she found both Sakura and Naruto still regarding her, their expressions serious, waiting. Without a trace of concern, though. They trusted her to take the right decision, she realised with a flash of insight that caught her unguarded. They expected her to know her team.

She wanted to cry again, for everything that had gone so wrong with Team Seven, and for her own team whom she didn't feel so great abandoning, but it was Sakura. If Ino could help Sakura, then she'd always do it, no matter the price.

It was moronic, she inwardly raged, suddenly furious, because nowadays she could promise Asuma she wouldn't let herself be surpassed by Sakura and she wouldn't give up training or anything all she wanted, that didn't change the fact that Sakura was stronger and Ino knew it. Stronger, and brittle.

But where she'd trust her teammates to take care of themselves and where she'd be able to turn her back on the fighting zone to find a better attacking angle for her own techniques, she wouldn't if Sakura was there.

It was pathetic, she thought with scorn.

Senseless and pathetic, which was somehow even worse.

…So why did it feel like the only domain in which she could still try to equal Sakura was loyalty? Even if it made no sense? Because what Sakura felt for Sasuke – and Ino had no idea what it was, none; you don't go so far for a crush, and was Sakura in love with Sasuke (in love? the word almost choked her) – was nothing like what bonded Ino to Sakura, nothing.

It was team against friendship and love (a jolt for a word she hadn't planned on using) against rivalry and even then there were so many things that didn't fit, such as Sakura's increasing closeness with Naruto which Ino felt so excluded from she had no idea what it could be, if Naruto was getting to be Sakura's best friend or if Sakura was falling in love with him, if they were siblings-in-team (Shikamaru and her?) and it always all went back to Sasuke, Sasuke, Sasuke.

And Ino would probably have done for her teammates what Sakura was doing for Sasuke, except that neither Chouji nor Shika would've done something like that, ever.

Shikamaru always planned for his team as a whole and the idea of Chouji betraying Konoha for Orochimaru was the most cracked-up piece of crack she'd heard in ever. And that was counting the 'Iruka-sensei dresses up as a dominatrix on his days off' thing and the 'Kyuubi didn't actually die on that day' crap.

(And god, sure Naruto was annoying as hell, but couldn't people give him a break? She didn't even know if that bullshit was more heinous or just plain preposterous, and she was nowhere near as fond of him as Sakura, but even she had been offended on his behalf. The nerve of some people. Oh, so he'd pulled a prank on the man half a decade ago, and that civilian couldn't let go? She'd been speechless for a good ten seconds. Then she'd made sure he'd never want to badmouth Naruto so vilely again.)

If she'd been in Sasuke's team… Well, obviously it hadn't happened so she couldn't know for sure, but she didn't think she'd have gone as far as Sakura. Try to help him, to save him, sure; but devote her life, her whole being, to him? Not freaking likely.

And if it'd been Sakura…

In a heartbeat.

If it'd been Sakura putting Chouji at death's door and Shikamaru through hell, yeah, Ino would've done exactly what Sakura was doing. Training to get stronger and save her and kick her ass.

…Thank god Naruto was ready to do that for Sasuke as well. Otherwise Ino would've really doubted her sanity. (Why ever did she compare herself more readily to Sakura-to-Sasuke than Naruto-to-Sasuke anyway?)

Trying to steel herself, she shook her head.

"No. Once they learn what happened, they – they won't go against Godaime-sama's orders. So long as she gives them something to do with themselves, and so long as I'm not dead-" she expected them to flinch, to acknowledge somehow the sheer craziness of what they were getting into, but they didn't seem perturbed at all "-they won't try to leave."

So long as we aren't around; so long as they don't know exactly how to catch up with us; so long as they don't hear about Sasuke acting up. So long as Tsunade-sama doesn't get them with a third and fourth member to run behind us.

And wasn't Team Seven conveniently leaving half of its members in Konoha?... She couldn't believe it'd taken her so long to notice his absence.

"By the way, what happened to Sai?"

She was curious. The dark-haired boy had been inseparable from the two of them recently.

A quick smile crossed Sakura's face. "He agreed to stay behind. I have honestly no idea what he'll tell the Council when they ask him about us, but…" She shrugged.

"We trust him to thoroughly confuse the issue," Naruto explained with a grin.


"We can't stay here," Sakura reminded them.

Ino nodded, trying to pretend her heart wasn't ramming madly in her chest and she was in no way reeling. An hour ago she was with her team, with nothing more urgent on her mind than not permanently mutilating Shikamaru. Get a grip.

She looked around briefly to regain her composure (she hated feeling that clumsy; where was her confidence when she felt like using it?); her eyes fell on the unconscious trio, suddenly reminding her of something she needed to make sure.

"They know where you're going, right?"

Because if Shikamaru and Chouji thought she'd vanished and they had no idea where to or how or why, there was no predicting what they'd do.

"Everyone'll know where we're going," Sakura said tiredly, without looking back from the limit of the newly-formed gap among the trees, where she was now standing, her back to the village.

Ino paused. Of course; once word got back to the Hokage, anyone who knew about the events in Sound would be able to articulate Sakura and Naruto's disappearing act.

Naruto's teeth gleamed into a harsh grin.

Sasuke first.

She shook her head elegantly, shedding the tension and hesitation as her hair rippled, before following her pink-haired friend into the branches while Naruto leaped past her and Ino started, not having expected it. But of course neither Naruto nor Sakura would want to waste time. It was then Ino realised their hurry to get away from Konoha's outskirts was much less due to fear of getting caught, as she'd originally thought, and actually revolved around their goal.

She should have known.

Sasuke first.

But then – she reflected – she was also there, with them; and for her Sasuke definitely didn't come first. It was just as well; they needed someone to make sure they'd be alive to enjoy the afterward of having saved him. And they couldn't do that if they put Sasuke's life above their own. Particularly Sakura, who had none of Naruto's weird recuperative powers, prodigy medic-nin or not.

And that was how Yamanaka Ino volunteered to become a missing-nin.

She, personally, blamed Sakura.