Ino finished packing the last of her belongings. She placed the souvenirs she had bought for her family and friends on top of the clothes in her bag before closing it. Now ready to depart she took a last long look over the apartment.
She let out a deep sigh but smiled as she scanned her surroundings for the last time. The three months had come to an end. The Suna botanists were recreating the experiments she had trained them in at the greenhouse and the construction of the irrigation system was well under way. Ino knew she would never forget this place but had an inkling that she and Shikamaru might be back sometime soon as Gaara had been most pleased with the work they had accomplished. He had already hinted at a future collaboration.
Even if they were not chosen to return, Ino knew that she would only look back at these three months with happy memories. She had all but forgotten the incident with Kankurou and the dreadful situation she and Shikamaru had found themselves in. Shikamaru had found plenty of ways to help her forget- each evening, every morning and on several lazy afternoons. Ino had to wonder if there was any corner of the apartment that they had left 'unsoiled.' It was highly doubtful.
Yes, she would definitely miss this place; yet still a certain part of her was pleased to see this chapter of their new couple come to a close. They would be returning to Konoha and there they would share the news of the events that had transpired. Their relationship would be official and everyone would know that they were now together.
Ino's heart leapt at the idea. She figured that she or Shikamaru would look for an apartment once they returned or maybe they'd go looking together. Either way things wouldn't be much different than they were now. Except for missions they would continue to wake in each other's arms and that was all that really mattered in the end.
"You ready?" Shikamaru asked, throwing his bag over his shoulder and offering his hand as a sign of encouragement. "No regrets?" he added.
"Not a one," she answered with a strong squeeze.
She placed a quick but highly meaningful kiss on his lips and turned to exit the apartment, leading him out by the hand.
Shikamaru decided, with these being their last evenings alone, without having all of Konoha in their business, that they should stay in inns during the journey home. The kunoichi had squealed with delight at the news and jumped up to embrace him around the neck in true Ino-style. It didn't take much to get her pumped up he thought not realizing that, although it had never fazed him, she never really appreciated all the camping outdoors required on missions, not when there were nice warm, comfortable beds in the towns they travelled by. He simply thought that inns would be more practical for their nocturnal activities.
Thusly they proceeded over the next nine days which they would have stretched out into many more if the village was not awaiting their return at present. The final evening they splurged on a spa facility. Ino almost exploded with joy when he made that suggestion. He was making quick mental note of the things that pleased her and thought he was beginning to understand and pick up on a pattern. The warm springs were a delightful way to end their now over three month trip. Greatly relaxed and understanding that this would be the last inn they would be visiting, their love making took on a greater intensity that evening. Their bouts were long and loud- loud enough to create a nuisance for the neighbor in the next room, not that they thought about it or even cared.
The person staying in the next room did care however. He cared a lot. Not that he hadn't been faced with this situation on many occasions or hadn't himself been at the center of similar disturbances but this man was Kankurou and as he came to realize from the moans and screams that continued to amplify that the two people he wanted the least to run into ever again were at the source of the trouble, his blood boiled and he cursed his bad luck. Why couldn't he just be done with them? Yeah, he was traveling close to Konoha but only to buy time before he could return to his homeland with his tail tucked between his legs. He dreaded the humiliation he was going to be facing soon and he had even stopped in the Hidden Leaf Village two weeks back to request a favor of Temari which he thought would rectify or at least lessen the dreadful feeling. She had less than politely refused so he had decided to leave it at that and just wipe the couple clean out of his mind. That was his intention at least until he found himself in the same inn suffering their incessant lovemaking. Why had he hung around this close to Konoha? He should have high-tailed it out of Wind Country after speaking with his sister. Now he had Ino back in his head and going to complain to the manager and moving to another room on the other side of the building wasn't enough to remove the visions that now haunted him of what he had overheard.
The next morning Ino and Shikamaru sat out on the last leg of their journey back to the Village Hidden in the Leaves. They were little more than an hour from their destination when a thought came to Ino.
"There's a field just a few meters off that always has the prettiest lilies this time of year. I just have to get a bouquet for my mom."
"Ok, you go on," Shikamaru agreed, spotting a large rock on the side of the path that would be perfect to use to catch a few clouds. "I'll just wait for you here."
Ino dashed off, promising she wouldn't take too long. Shikamaru really didn't care how long she took. He hadn't had very much time to gaze up at the sky in quite awhile and the weather was gorgeous, just perfect for doing so. He lay back against the rock, his hands placed carefully behind his head, and was quietly admiring the strong contrast between the white fluffy clouds and the dark blue sky when everything suddenly turned black.
When he came to, Shikamaru realized that he had been gagged and bound to a tree not far from the path. Making the natural move to attempt to free himself, he discovered that these were no ordinary binds. This 'rope' was fashioned from chakra and the more he struggled the tighter its hold. There was no way he would be able to free his hands to form even the slightest sign. Furthermore, he had been placed where no one would be able to see him but he had been left with a very clear view. In fact, the view was almost too prominent as if his assailant wanted him to sit and suffer while others passed by or to witness something in particular, but what?
From his angle, Shikamaru could see Ino reappear from the woods. She was holding a beautiful bouquet of carefully picked lilies. He hoped that she would somehow be able to spot him but found it highly unlikely given the spot.
His heart sank as he saw her make her way not over to him but to the rock where he had originally been waiting when to his surprise he saw a figure stand to greet her. At first glance he expected to learn the identity of his assailant but took a double take when he realized that the person now standing clearly in view before her (even with his back turned) was definitely him! Someone had stolen his identity.
"Wow, I didn't have to go wake you. That's a first. I hope I wasn't too long," Ino spoke to the person she believed to be Shikamaru.
"Nothing you can't make up for," the fake shadow ninja smirked.
Ino acquiesced with a quick kiss to the lips assuming that was the payment he was requesting. It seemed a fair enough trade for his patience but when she pulled back he grabbed her quickly by the arms to pull her back in. Ino was surprised but somehow managed to shift her hand carrying the bouquet off to the side, preventing the flowers from becoming smashed between their bodies as she succumbed to Shikamaru's kiss.
Meanwhile, the real Shikamaru cringed, unable to react. Again he pulled and yanked trying to break free but the ropes only tightened further and now they were burning through his clothing and into his skin. The burns became quite painful and he had to let up his resistance for fear of being slashed to bits but it was nothing compared to the pain in his heart as he watched Ino kissing the fake him. Even if this mystery person resembled him physically she should have picked up on the differences in their chakra signatures. No ninja had the talent to totally transform into another. There were always discrepancies in the energy signals and given the intimate level of his relationship with Ino he expected her to notice the stand-in immediately.
As she kissed Shikamaru it took much less than strange chakra to tip Ino off that something was amiss. Everything about this man seemed wrong- the way he held her, the way he kissed and then when she tried to end the embrace and he insisted with a "Come on, baby" Ino knew there was no way she was kissing the man she loved. Ino had learned a lot of things about Shikamaru over the years and thousands more in just the past three months and one thing she knew for sure, he was not the 'hey, baby' type.
She jumped back quickly before he could bring her in close again.
"You're not Shikamaru!" she screamed. "Who are you and what have you done with him?" Her words were filled with vehemence. If this person had done anything, anything, to hurt him…
In a puff of smoke the fake Shikamaru was replaced by a very smug looking Kankurou. "So you figured me out? Too bad. We could have had some fun."
"Fun? F-fun? You jerk." Ino protested, practically stuttering as the flood of memories from her last encounter with the puppet master came back to mind. She threw the hardest punch she could, hoping it would land to break his nose, she was so furious.
He caught the jab easily in an open fist, having predicted she wouldn't take well to the revelation. Quickly he found himself caught in a scenario of déjà vu, something like the sparring they had practiced back in Suna but filled with bad intentions.
The match up was an interesting one. Kankurou, being a jounin, would have easily had the upper hand but he was without his puppets and this was a pure taijutsu match. In fact Kankurou was using no ninjutsu or weapons almost as if he needed to beat something out of his own system through the sheer force of his fists, as if the beautiful girl before him could serve as a makeshift punching bag for all of his ills and not just those which she had personally caused him.
The emotionally charged battle made him a bit clumsier and having sparred together Ino was better able to predict his movements. That wasn't however enough to save her from a few well placed blows and she knew that there was no way she could win in a battle of fists against such an advanced shinobi. She knew she had only one other weapon but didn't know how she could pull off that ninjutsu on her own.
Shikamaru watched the scene in horror but he knew that it could have been much worse. Ino was getting bashed pretty badly but he knew Kankurou wasn't the kind of enemy who would look to destroy Ino. He figured that the puppet master was acting out over his broken ego and that he would eventually tire, decide that he had proven his point and retreat. He would just have to watch the pitiful battle play itself out before his eyes. That was the feeling he had resigned himself to until he saw Ino do the unthinkable.
Ino refused to lose to Kankurou. Not only had he tried to violate her by posing as Shikamaru but she still did not know what he had done with her boyfriend and he refused to talk. He seemed to be amused knowing that he held the answer she seeked more than anything else but ignored just how far his silence was pushing her to the brink. The longer he held out the more certain she became that he had maimed Shikamaru or possibly even worse still. She had to know and end this fight.
The consequences she faced if she failed never entered her head as she jumped back a few meters and with the greatest of speed locked her fingers into the rectangle form necessary to perform a mind transfer jutsu. She had just one shot.
Shikamaru screamed at the top of his lungs but to no avail. The gag prevented him from stopping her from doing what he knew to be a huge tactical error. She should know by now that she was only to perform that jutsu in his presence after he had paralyzed the target and when he could watch over her soulless body. Why would she attempt it now? If she missed it could take her several minutes to return to her body and who knew what Kankurou would think to do given that kind of opening. The thought made Shikamaru's stomach turn. He felt as if he might throw up.
Fortunately, as the match had at present been without ninjutsu, Kankurou was not expecting the technique and Ino hit her mark.
She quickly found the information she was looking for in Kankurou's mind but had to stall a moment to figure out how she was going to get back out. It would take all of her talent and speed to return to her body, collect enough chakra in her knee and land it where he needed the lesson most and all that before he regained his senses and attacked first, in which case she didn't know what she would become. She knew that it would be a low blow in not just the literal meaning of the expression but couldn't figure out any other way to escape her predicament.
During the seconds she spent in his mind, Ino found that she was pummeled by other thoughts besides just those of Shikamaru's whereabouts and condition which she was delighted to know was not critical. What she read there surprised her greatly.
Ino had interacted a good deal with Kankurou before the incident at the party and had truly enjoyed his company. Despite the moody persona he put on, she knew he could be quite fun. She had truly considered him to be a good friend and that had made his actions all the more insufferable but even if they had grown to know each other some, she had never quite understood what made him tick. Someone of his rank and nobility should be happy. He had everything and could have had anyone. She never could figure out why he didn't have a steady girlfriend given as he was probably the best catch in Suna but this quick glimpse answered some of her burning questions and a part of her almost- almost- forgave him.
Yes, Kankurou probably should have been the happiest man in Wind Country. He had good looks, money and power. He had women falling at his heels. However none of that seemed to matter to him. He knew that none of those women saw him as Kankurou, a guy who could actually make you laugh or dry your tears, a man with enough dormant love in his heart to make the most hateful of shrews melt if he so choose to share that love. No, he realized at a very young age that friends were shallow and that no one cared so much about him as a person as they did his family name and rank.
Kankurou was a man who secretly suffered, living in the shadow of a father and brother, both Kazekages. He never had truly found his own identity sandwiched between an immensely talented older sister and a younger brother who, although feared and rejected, received enormous amounts of attention due to his difference. To make matters worse, that younger brother had become the leader of the village despite all that he had suffered before at the hands of its citizens, a title which Kankurou had felt would naturally be his as the elder, 'normal' brother, not to mention all the efforts he had put into his training and puppet creations while for Gaara with his Shukaku, strength and power had come effortlessly.
He had barely known his mother and despite how his uncle and many other family members blamed Gaara's birth for her death, somewhere deep inside he wondered if he hadn't played a part as well. It didn't take a mathematician to figure out that he was slightly less than nine months Temari's junior. He was living proof that breastfeeding is not a form of birth control and wondered just how much the strain of two closely placed births must have placed on his mother. In the pictures he had seen of her he had always found her to look frail and worn through the pasted on smiles. He was certainly the accidental, unnecessary birth. His parents already had Temari and they would go on to have another son.
His chosen jutsu had been a form of escape. It allowed him to lose himself in creativity while releasing his frustrations in the conception of evilly wicked puppets, the instruments of well thought out torture. The make-up was unnecessary but served as a mask for him to hide behind during this inner struggle and even those markings he changed often, never truly satisfied with the image they portrayed. Briefly said, Kankurou was a guy with issues but nothing that three or four years of intense therapy couldn't fix.
At least Ino was able to see that there was some saving grace in the boy but she still had to get out of his mind and out of this fight. She mentally prepared herself to make her fastest transfer and recovery ever.
She blinked to awaken her eyes to reality, trying to scramble to her feet as quickly as possible, when she saw a flash before her. She flinched to prepare for an incoming blow but it never came.
Startled she looked up to see what appeared to be the back of a young woman, across which was slung a metallic fan. It was Temari. Now Ino knew she was doomed.
Ino rose to her feet and prepared herself to fight the two Sand siblings. She knew she didn't stand a chance, especially not now that she had used a fair amount of chakra for the mind transfer technique and taijutsu with Kankurou hadn't been an easy affair. She was definitely feeling the fatigue but she would not go down without a fight.
However, Temari didn't turn to fight. She kept her eyes fixed on Kankurou as if to speak to him through her gaze alone. Only when she knew that he understood that this was the end did she turn to speak to Ino.
"I apologize for my brother's behavior," she said. "And I'll take care of things from here." She turned to take his arm and leave without further explanation.
"But how did you know to find him here?" Ino asked. Something still wasn't clear in her head.
Temari sighed and although she hadn't planned on prolonging her presence did figure that she owed the girl some kind of answer.
It turned out that Kankurou had come to visit Temari in Konoha with a very strange request just before the end of her stay. He had asked her to remain in the village a bit longer until Shikamaru and Ino returned and that she do her best to seduce the shadow ninja, that it might be interesting to make old rumors come true. However Temari was not one to need her brother's interference in her love life and she knew immediately that something was up. When she learned that this was his plot for revenge after having become a one and a half month outcast in his homeland, Temari wanted nothing to do with his scheme. She had no sympathy for his situation and had more self pride than to lower herself to such meaningless ends. Kankurou had left in a huff and she knew that having denied him satisfaction he risked making a completely idiotic move, just as he had. She had been on the lookout for their return for the past couple of days.
Ino thanked her kindly and watched as the two took off up into the trees. Kankurou had not even looked at Ino again before they left but Ino would have liked to make quick contact with his eyes. She knew she would confirm there the shimmer of sadness she had felt in his mind and hoped that he realized just how much his brother and sister cared, always covering for him and pulling him out of his own messes, to finally find some inner peace.
Ah, Shikamaru! Ino thought, and she ran to the place she had seen in Kankurou's mind.
"Are you ok?" she asked, removing the gag. Looking around she realized how he had been placed to witness the whole scene helplessly from this location. She felt badly for him and didn't know how she would have survived like that just having to watch him in a fight, unable to attempt a rescue. It was all rather cruel.
"Yeah, but I should be asking you that."
"I've been better," she replied realizing that she did look rather beat up and worn. "But that's not important. How do we get you untied? These aren't regular ropes."
"Look in my bag. You'll find Asuma's trench knives."
"Now infuse them with your chakra. Then they'll cut through the chakra strings."
Ino concentrated her chakra into the knuckle gadgets. This was the first time she had held them and as they cut through the ties with ease she couldn't help but smile at the thought of Asuma somehow looking out for them. She wondered what he would have thought to learn that his two polar opposite students had become lovers.
She began to help Shikamaru to his feet but noticed the deep cuts and burns along his torso and arms.
"Sit back down. Let me heal you some."
"No, really it's ok." Shikamaru was more than ready to leave this place, to erase what did and could have happened here from his mind. Never had the thought of the gates of Konoha seemed so welcoming and that is where they continued to make there way, without the long forgotten bouquet of lilies.
About 50 meters out from the gates of the Village Hidden in the Leaves, the couple paused. This was it; the moment where they would return to friends and family as boyfriend and girlfriend. Nothing would be the same as before.
Shikamaru held out his hand to Ino. "You ready?" he smiled. He said that a lot now.
In his grasp she knew that she was. She was very happy to see that he had no qualms entering the village hand in hand. It was the sign she needed to know that he was willing to let everyone know. They wouldn't be hiding behind pretense like Asuma and Kurenai had.
Sakura had spotted from the Hokage tower what she thought to be the forms of her friend Ino, and Shikamaru, approaching the village. She had been keeping an eye out expecting their return any day.
She excused herself and ran down to the gates to greet them. Ino had left her hanging for over three months. She was going to get the scoop as soon as she returned.
She leaned over to catch her breath from the run just in time to find them walking in.
Her eyes went wide to see them. "What the hell happened to you two?" she asked as soon as they were within conversation range.
"Well, we ended up in a little fight with…"
"No," Sakura cut Ino off. "I mean what the hell happened?" she asked again, motioning to their locked hands.
"Uh, well…" Ino paused, not sure how she should go into explaining their relationship in front of Shikamaru without making him nervous.
"Come on you two. Let me get you to the clinic. Looks like you need it." Then under her breath she whispered lowly to Ino: "You can fill me in there. I'm not letting you out of my sight until I've heard every juicy detail."
As they walked off Izumo turned to Kotetsu. "Man, did you see that?"
"Sure did and it looks like drinks are on you tonight."
"How's that?" Izumo questioned.
"Well you were the one dumb enough to put your money on heartbreak but, by the looks of those two, there was definitely bloodshed."
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _