Ino turned around in front of her full length mirror, checking to see if her outfit needed any adjusting. She smiled, then turned back to face the polished glass, tilting her head to make her white-blond fringe sweep across her face. Her smile disappeared as she reached for the hairbrush. Just one more quick stroke, and it would be perfect…
As she left her house, Ino couldn't help but feel slightly embarrassed at what had just taken place in the privacy of her own room. True, this was far from the first time she had checked her appearance over and over again, or smiled at her own reflection to test the effect it might have on a boy.
When she had been mooning over Sasuke Uchiha, she would undergo the same ritual every morning before going to the Academy, hoping that somehow today would be the day when he would finally look her way. It made her cringe and laugh at the same time, thinking back on it – surely that couldn't have really been her, that dopey teenager who had fallen for the handsome, tortured guy without knowing the first thing about him. The memories of it were like the scenes from a movie about someone else's life.
Ino sighed as she made her way down the street that led to the eastern side of Konoha. Sasuke Uchiha – she'd almost been afraid, when he'd come back, that she'd be prey to his charm again, but now that she'd seen him, she was hard-pressed to remember why she had adored him so fervently in the first place. Asides from his looks, there was nothing in such a man that could please her – nothing in him that could possibly compare to…
She shook the thought away. Not yet – it was too early, and too scary. It was so overwhelming sometimes that she made sure to breach the subject in her mind with delicacy, and patience, like a flower that hadn't quite opened its petals yet. If she thought about it all at once, it made her breath catch and her stomach tightened and her legs grew so weak she could hardly walk.
There was something familiar about the feeling, but never had it felt so uncontrollable, so out of proportion. And the twenty minutes she spent in front of the mirror getting ready – that too was familiar. But it was more serious now, somehow.
And unsurprisingly, it was also considerably more frustrating not to get the effect out of it that she wanted.
Ino frowned as she made her way up the slope, where the houses were fewer. The sun was beating down relentlessly on the village, and she carefully wiped the sweat off her forehead.
It was silly, of course. He'd seen her in far worse a state than this. He'd seen her tired, and dirty, and cold, covered in blood, bruised from head to toe, in the fury of battle, racked with sobs at her dying sensei's side, at his side…
Perhaps that had been the starting point, she thought - the unshakable sensation that if he died, her life would be meaningless. How had it come to that? she wondered.
It wasn't just a moment – it was all of them, threads crisscrossing inside her until it was simply impossible to pick them apart. His laugh, his courage, his concerned frown when friends went out to battle, the hundreds of jokes and arguments and little gestures of attention they'd shared…
There had been more of these than usual, before the final battle. Choji had seemed particularly concerned with her wellbeing and safety, and it had sparked some questions inside of her that she had quickly pushed away. Choji was… well, he was Choji. Loud, imposing, loyal, fiercely strong… Always starved for more, whether it be food or the pleasures of life… He was her teammate. Her friend.
And yet when night fell and they gathered around the fire for a few hours of rest, Ino started to crave his presence, going so far as to wonder, in a corner of her mind, what it would be like to fall sleep with his arms around her.
Curious, the way things happened, Ino told herself as Choji's house came into view. Strange, the way bonds worked. Why had her feelings for Shikamaru never taken the same route? Objectively, he was better looking, and if anything had happened to him, it would've been a terrible blow… But somehow she didn't feel like she needed him.
And what was more, Choji also needed her now.
He wasn't in a good mood that day. Her mother was constantly fretting around him and it wasn't helping at all, as far as Ino could tell.
"He has been a bit hungrier lately," she told Ino, wringing her hands. "I've been cooking all his favorite dishes for him…"
"Mother, please," Choji grunted, moving his shoulder where his arm was attached. "Goddamn cramps…"
"It'll get better," Ino said, placing herself behind him to rub the sore muscles gently.
Choji's mother gave a little squeak and hastily retreated out of the room under the pretext of some grocery shopping. Ino couldn't help but suppress a giggle.
"You always tell me it'll get better," Choji said, "but I still can't control it all that well, and it hurts."
"You just need to be patient," she replied, for what felt like the hundredth time. "Your body will get used to it."
"Well, even if it does…" He gave a great sigh. "Shikamaru offered to train with me the other day but… I just can't keep up with him. What good am I if I can't train with my teammate?"
Ino sat back, something like a pinpoint prickling her heart. "You can train with me," she said quietly.
Choji didn't seem to have noticed her reaction. "Yes, but it's just not the same. Shikamaru and I, we go back so far…"
She gave a little snort, gathering her knees to her chest. "Then maybe you should ask him to help you with your daily exercises."
He glanced over his shoulder and turned to face her. "Why, are you getting tired of it?"
"That's not what I meant," she shot back, annoyed. "Good grief, what is with you today?"
"Nothing, it's just…" He paused for a second, looking at her. Was it her imagination, or was he leaning slightly forward? All her irritation melted away as her heart started to hammer against her chest. This was it, then, if he made a move… she wouldn't deny him, far from it…
Choji shook his head and stood up brutally. "Nevermind."
Ino watched as he paced the room, at loss for what to say. It was never easy to cheer Choji up when he was in a bad mood, but this was the first time he reacted like this.
"Tell me what's wrong," she demanded.
"Everything's wrong," he growled. "I can't do anything worthwhile in this state, and you all are simply going to move on without me…"
"That's not true, and you know it!"
"How can it be any other way? Soon you'll be jonins, and while you're away, I'll be stuck here, with this ridiculous arm of mine."
"Choji!" she exclaimed, standing up herself. "There is nothing ridiculous about you! You – you're a hero for Konoha."
He shrugged his shoulders. "Some hero. Wounded, useless… and fat."
Ino stared at him wide-eyed. This was the first time Choji had even pronounced the word, and now it didn't even fit him anymore.
"You're not fat," she said. "You're… you're…"
Solid. Tough. Majestic.
"What, big-boned? Come on, Ino, you can be honest with me."
"Honest? All right, I'll be honest with you," she shot back, her anger flaring up. "Choji, you're being a pain in the ass. I came all the way up here to see you, and all you do is complain and feel sorry for yourself, like you don't even care about the people who love you!"
"It's too hard!" he cried. "It's just too hard. I feel like… I feel like you're doing it out of pity, or…"
She walked over to him, placing a hand on his arm, wondering if he could still feel it. "How can you believe such a thing?" she asked, her voice strangled with emotion. "What am I going to have to do for you finally open your eyes?" She gave a little laugh. "I suppose it's my fault, after being so preoccupied with my looks all these years… It figures you wouldn't guess I was doing it for you."
Choji had fallen very still, and very silent. Ino bit her lower lip. There was no turning back now. The moment was like the fragile balance between two weighs on a scale, and it could fall either way.
He turned around slowly, and the look in his eyes was something she hadn't seen in weeks. Appetite. Yet his gaze wasn't greedy or ravenous – it was warm and intense and enveloped her whole, as if he would satisfy himself with simply gazing at her, and taking in every detail.
Ino took a step forward, her breath hitching dangerously. She summoned some of her ancient confidence to soothe her nerves. He was a man, and she wanted him, the equation was as simple as that.
"If I kiss you now," she asked, glancing at him from beneath her lashes, "you won't think it's out of pity, will you?"
Choji held out his hand – the real one, she could feel his fingers trembling – and stroked her fringe away from her face. Desire was riveting her body into place, but Ino had to move, lest she go mad with frustration. She had been waiting too long for this – the sensation of his lips on hers, and her lithe, supple body meshing so well with the rock-hard muscles of his own. He gripped her back and she writhed against him, willing to be engulfed in his arms. They were safe, just the two of them – invulnerable.
"Ino," Choji said in a raspy voice as they broke away for air. "Ino, I'm in love with you."
She decided the best reply she could give him was to kiss him again. There would be time enough to tell him she felt the same once this thirst was quenched.
They fell back against the wall, oblivious to the small table they had knocked over on the way. Ino wondered, in a corner of her mind, when would be a reasonable time to find a more private place to continue, but a sound coming from the door brought her thoughts to a halt.
They froze into place. Ino was already thinking of a way to explain this to Mrs Akimichi, but someone else was standing at the doorstep.
It wasn't often that something left Shikamaru speechless. Then again, what could he be expected to say after walking in on them in such a position? Ino was mortified. This was not the way she had envisioned the Team Asuma reunion.
Choji cleared his throat. "Listen, Shikamaru – I, um, we…"
Shikamaru rolled his eyes and threw his hands up. "Forget it, man. This is way beyond what my mind can handle."
After he was gone, both of them stood in silence, too embarrassed to move or speak. Ino made a face. Shikamaru had completely ruined the mood, and they would have to start all over again. Did Choji even remember what he had told her between their feverish kisses?
Much to her surprise, he took her hand in his. "That was awkward as hell, but… he'll get over it sooner or later, right?"
Ino grinned. There wouldn't be any extra time needed after all, but even so, practice could wait until the afternoon.