A/N: This is the sequel to my story Out of the Shadows. If you haven't read it, I strongly recommend you check it out before starting this story. If for some reason you don't like reading stories in the order they were written, here's the basic info you should know.

Team 10 started out just like in canon. However, their first C-rank mission ended in disaster, and the man they were supposed to protect died. Shikamaru felt that his laziness was to blame, and all three genin resolved that they would push themselves harder so that they would never repeat their failure. After developing some new techniques, most notably mind-to-mind communication thanks to Ino's Yamanaka training, they took on the Chunin Exams. Shikamaru was much more focused, which allowed him to figure out that Kabuto was a traitor. When Orochimaru began his invasion, the Hokage was prepared. As a result, the combined forces of Suna and Oto were routed, Orochimaru was defeated without killing the Third, and Kabuto was killed by Jiraiya.

Soon after the Invasion, Shikamaru was put in charge of retrieving Sasuke. Thanks to his leadership, the mission was successful and Sasuke was brought back to Konoha. Now, roughly two-thirds of the way into the Time Skip between Naruto and Shippuuden, Sasuke is back in Konoha, but he has no memories of his brother. In order to get Sasuke back to the village during the Sasuke Retrieval Arc, Ino had to erase his memory using one of the advanced techniques of her clan. Tsunade and others keep a close watch over him, and for now the last Uchiha gets to experience the freedom that comes with ignorance.

This story begins with Konoha enjoying a period of relative peace. Relations with Suna are better than they've ever been, and Orochimaru is keeping well out of sight since his earlier defeat and failure to snatch Sasuke. But just as it's always darkest right before dawn, even the sunniest of days must give way to night. And although the shinobi of Konoha don't know it, darkness is fast approaching.

Word of warning: this story might be different in tone from Out of the Shadows, simply because the characters are starting to get into those awkward mid-teen years. There will be much more teenage angst – I'm sure you know what I'm talking about, and if you don't, you will! For those of you who prefer action and espionage, bear with me. There will be plenty of both once the story gets rolling.

Finally, many thanks to my beta, ACoA! It's tough being my sister, and it's tough reading my first drafts, but she does both jobs without complaint – well, mostly :)

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto

Chapter 1: Uncomfortable Discoveries

Choji saw his opening and took it, dropping down and sweeping his leg with speed astonishing for someone his size. "Aha!" he crowed, exulting. His opponent was off-balance after the last exchange, completely at his mercy. There was no way she could-

Ino moved like a purple bolt of lightning, jumping up in time to avoid his attack. Before Choji could bring his leg around, Ino lashed out with her right knee, aiming for his head. He had to bend backward painfully, blessing the Akimichi craftsmen who could make armor flexible enough to allow such sudden and irregular motion. Contorted as he was, bent at the waist with his right leg still sweeping, Choji had no way to avoid Ino's follow-up kick. It struck him in the side, and even with his armor, it felt like getting stomped by a particularly angry horse. Ino channeled some chakra through her feet at the moment of impact, enough to send him skidding backward.

By the time he stopped sliding, Choji had both feet under him once again. He spun to set himself for Ino's next attack, expecting her to follow up her advantage with a frontal attack. Instead he saw her completing a set of hand seals, and had barely enough time to feel stupid before her genjutsu took hold. It was a straightforward sensory overload technique, swamping his brain with false signals from his eyes, ears, and pain receptors. Choji felt like he had been dipped in boiling lava, every nerve ending he possessed screaming in agony. His eardrums were splitting and he couldn't see a thing except blinding white light.

This was no subtle mind-control technique meant for manipulating an enemy into giving away information. Rather, it was a simple, yet effective tool for battlefield use, where disorienting an enemy for even a second could give you the necessary opportunity to end a fight. Choji would be damned if he was going to give Ino that opportunity.

Fighting against the pain that threatened to destroy his focus, Choji gathered a sizable amount of chakra. He lurched downward, coming into contact with the earth quickly, if not gracefully. "Earth Release: Ring of Destruction!"

He felt the drain on his chakra reserves as the technique began, though he could neither see nor hear the explosion of earth that must be happening around him. Choji moved immediately into a new set of seals, releasing his hold on his chakra so that he could dispel Ino's genjutsu. If he was lucky, his earth jutsu would keep Ino from attacking while he regained control of his senses. If he wasn't lucky… well, it wouldn't be the first time he'd lost during their sparring sessions.

Once Choji dispelled the genjutsu, the light disappeared and he could hear once again. He breathed an involuntary sigh of relief as the pain disappeared as well, his nerve endings no longer fooled by Ino's technique. Choji's earth jutsu had done its work well – he was standing on the only patch of grass left in a twenty-yard radius, the area around him looking like someone had dropped a crate full of explosive tags. However, there was no sign of Ino, and that was generally bad news for whichever fool had the bad luck to be fighting her.

Surveying his surroundings wasted valuable seconds, but no attack followed, and Choji turned full circle without catching any sign of Ino's presence. Training Ground Seven was a flat field with no trees or cover of any kind, so Choji guessed that Ino must be hiding in the wreckage he'd caused with his Earth Release technique. There were many pockets of earth that she could hide in, and a simple henge would make her indistinguishable from any of the large rocks that Choji had blasted from their resting place.

Wrong move, Ino, Choji thought, stifling a grin. He didn't need to be able to see her to flush her out of her hiding spot; that was the beauty of the upper-level Earth Release jutsu. When searching for a needle in a haystack, just blow the haystack all to hell. Even if you didn't find the needle afterward, you could be reasonably sure it was out of the fight.

Choji formed the same set of seals he'd used moments before, reaching down to touch the earth. His senses were on full alert, waiting for the reaction he knew was coming. Ino couldn't let him complete the technique without getting caught in it, so her only choice was to prevent him from casting it.

Just about… there! A boulder disappeared with a poof of smoke, replaced by Ino shooting forward at top speed. Choji nodded in satisfaction, dropping his pretense of using a jutsu and instead throwing the shuriken that he'd kept concealed in his fist.

They flew straight toward their target, yet Ino made no move to block them. Choji's fears were confirmed when his shuriken went through Ino without leaving a mark. Just a clone, then. Choji whirled on instinct, his arms coming up to block a blow that might or might not be coming. Thanks to his quick reaction time, he saw the real Ino a second before she came in range.

Choji should have been able to block in time, perhaps even counterattack. But then Ino's hair shifted in the wind, and was illuminated brilliantly by the sun. Time seemed to freeze as Ino soared through the air, her mouth open in a wordless, exulting cry, her eyes shining with savage joy. Choji's heart ached. She looked like an avenging goddess or a warrior angel, death and beauty inextricably mixed in one perfect form.

He was so stricken by the sight of her that he didn't bring his arms up in time. Ino's eyes widened slightly in surprise, but her forward momentum was too much to stop. Her foot caught him in the side of the jaw, and then Choji knew no more.

"…oji! Choji! Wake up!" The insistent voice wouldn't go away, and soon it was accompanied by a spray of cold water that brought Choji back to his senses. He jumped to his feet, panicked, before he realized that there was no threat near him. Just Ino. Which, now that he thought about it, was perhaps just as bad.

He turned to his teammate hesitantly, dreading the expression that he would probably see there… yeah, that one. The blond-haired Yamanaka was looking at Choji with the expression she'd often used on Naruto back in the Academy. It was the expression that meant, "are you completely stupid, or is today just a special occasion?" Choji felt his face burn.

"What happened?" Ino asked. "You had enough time to block. Did you pull a muscle or something?"

"No, nothing like that. I was just… distracted."

Ino frowned slightly. "You've been distracted for a while, it seems. You've been skipping out on practice sessions a lot, and you haven't been the same when we spar."

Of course not, Choji reflected with ironic despair. It's because I'm always sparring with you.

It was hard to say when Choji had first realized he was starting to see Ino as more than just a teammate. But if he had to guess, he would associate it with the changes his body had been undergoing during the past year. His parents told him that meant he was growing up, becoming a man. Choji supposed it was only natural that he'd started being attracted to girls, but it felt somehow… disloyal, or something, to be feeling that way about Ino.

She'd saved his life dozens of times already, and carried him back to the village – twice – when he was dying of chakra exhaustion. Choji knew Ino's mannerisms as well as he knew the back of his hand. He'd seen her laugh and cry, tremble with fear and shout in triumph. After all that, you'd think he could get over the fact that she was growing into a beautiful woman. She was turning fifteen in a few months, a little later than Choji and Shikamaru, and already the male population of Konoha turned their heads when she walked by.

But damn it, Choji should be better than that! He knew better than anyone except Shikamaru that Ino was more than her appearance. Yet for some reason, probably due to his traitorous hormones, Choji completely lost his focus whenever Ino was around. And as teammates, carrying out missions and training together, Ino was always around. That was what accounted for him seeming distracted these past few months – he was only glad that he'd managed to keep his confusing feelings hidden from his teammates. They'd worked so hard to become the team they were today, and he didn't want his awkward crush to ruin their bond. There was no way Ino thought of him in that way, so revealing his feelings would only burden her.

"I'm sorry I've been so out of it lately," Choji told Ino, aware that his long silence was only reinforcing the impression that he was acting weirdly. "I've been trying to develop a new food pill formula that refuses to work. The long hours in the lab must be getting to me."

True as far as it went, so Choji wasn't exactly lying to Ino. Just… not telling her the whole truth. Ino's face lit with enthusiasm, and Choji almost winced at the pang that shot through his chest. It wasn't fair for someone to be so beautiful!

"That's amazing, Choji!" Ino said. "Are you trying to reduce the effects on your body?"

Choji nodded. "Basically. Balancing the power threshold of each pill with the rate of muscle and tissue deterioration has always been the main issue when making food pills. But there isn't any way of stopping the process or reversing it – once an Akimichi eats the Chili Pepper pill, they either get to Tsunade in time or they die."

They fell silent for a second, remembering the Otogakure Invasion when Choji had sacrificed himself to stop Gaara's demon. Without Tsunade close at hand, Team Asuma would have been down to three members instead of four.

"So you think you can find a way to reverse that process?" Ino asked, her eyes shining. "That would be amazing! The Akimichi clan would be unstoppable!"

"Not quite… there's no way of getting around the damage to your body. That's the cost of using Akimichi techniques – the energy has to come from somewhere, and the only sources we can use are our own bodies. However, it might be possible to suspend the process of bodily deterioration, kind of like shutting down a machine so it doesn't use up energy while you transport it. If I could do that, then every Akimichi would have a chance for their teammates to bring them back for medical attention, before they wasted away after chakra exhaustion set in."

Ino was looking at him with a mixture of awe and annoyance. "Why didn't you tell me this before?" she demanded. "Now I understand why you've been skipping out on training. I wouldn't have been so annoyed with you!"

Choji felt more than a little guilty. He probably wouldn't have spent nearly so much time in the laboratories if it didn't mean that he could lose himself in chemical formulas and forget about his confusing new feelings towards his teammate.

"Don't get the wrong idea," he cautioned. "I'm not anywhere close to a breakthrough. Every time I think I've solved one issue, another crops up. Mother says that's normal for these pills, but also that I shouldn't expect any results for at least a few years."

Ino's face fell. "Years?! That's… that's a long time... Hey! I was pretty good at chemistry in the Academy, maybe I can help! I bet it wouldn't take me too long to catch up, especially since I can learn all the details straight from your mind. We could be churning out the new generation of ass-kicking food pills in a month!"

Choji had a terrifying vision of Ino seeing what was actually in his mind. All of his embarrassing thoughts completely open to her. Then the inevitable disgust, the betrayed and perhaps hurt expression she would wear as she told Choji that she expected this from other people, but not from him… Choji shuddered at the mere thought.

"No!" he shouted, almost involuntarily. "I don't want your help!"

Ino drew away as if he'd slapped her. "I… I'm sorry, I didn't think…"

"Of course you didn't," Choji burst out, panic supplying the words before he could think to hold them back. "You want to fix everybody's problems by rooting around in their mind. Did you ever think there might be some things people want to keep to themselves? If I wanted help, I'd ask for it!"

Choji expected Ino to get angry, to tell him off and say that he was being an ass. But Ino responded to his outburst with wounded dignity. "I'm sorry if I offended you. I really didn't mean to." It only made Choji feel worse.

Choji felt twenty kinds of stupid. How in hell had this conversation gone so wrong? He needed to get away and collect himself, before he ended up hurting Ino's feelings even more. "I'll… see you later," he said finally, before fleeing across the training area and back to Konoha.

oOoOo

Shikamaru couldn't repress a shiver when he entered the Hokage's study. Massive stacks of paper covered Tsunade's desk, tall and menacing, like ponderous columns flanking some ancient temple. Complaints from villagers, reports from Council meetings, and mission requests from all over the country – it was an indisputable fact that the Hokage had the toughest, most boring job in Konoha. Shikamaru knew of only one shinobi boneheaded enough to actually want this job, and it certainly wasn't Tsunade.

I wish Naruto the best of luck, Shikamaru thought wryly. But even if he does become Hokage, twenty ryou says he quits before the week is up.

It didn't make sense that the boy who only opened a scroll if it contained a jutsu wanted to take on a job that was at least ninety percent homework, but then, when had Naruto ever made sense? He was a law unto himself, and if he wanted to be Hokage, Shikamaru wouldn't stand in his way. He just hoped he could be there to see Naruto's expression when the truth sank in.

"Hokage-sama?" Shikamaru called out, scanning the room for any sign of her. She'd summoned him here, after all, so logically she should be here… somewhere.

A groggy voice replied, coming from the direction of the desk. "Wassat?" Shikamaru took a few steps to the left and the Hokage came into view – she had been partially hidden by a stack of papers. It was hard to say what Shikamaru noticed first: the empty sake bottle lying flat next to Tsunade's inkwell, or the thin rope of drool stretching from the left corner of her mouth down onto an outstretched scroll.

Shikamaru coughed politely. Tsunade raised her head, blinked blearily a few times, and swiped a hand across her face. "Ah, it's you, Shikamaru. You made good time."

"No problem at all, Hokage-sama. Ah… should I come back in a bit?"

Tsunade looked at him as if he was stupid. "What? Of course not. I haven't given you your assignment yet."

"I just thought you might want to… never mind." Shikamaru decided not to mention the ink marks that had rubbed onto the Hokage's face during her nap. No doubt she'd find out soon enough. "So what's going on? I assume it's not a mission, since Shizune said it wasn't urgent, and that I shouldn't bother Ino or Choji."

The Hokage knew by now that the members of Team Asuma preferred to work together, even though they were all chunin and capable of choosing their own teams. No one could argue that they didn't get the job done, either – Team Asuma had completed more missions in the last year than any other squad, and all had been successful. If the Hokage had a new mission for them, she would have told Shizune to alert Choji and Ino, and possibly Asuma as well, just so that they didn't waste time preparing to depart.

Tsunade patted her hair absent-mindedly; it was sticking up on the side she'd been sleeping on. "You're right, this isn't a mission. You've been summoned, actually. My predecessor wants to see you."

That was certainly interesting. Out of all the possibilities, this was not one that Shikamaru had foreseen. That didn't happen often, and Shikamaru didn't like the feeling very much. "What does the Third want me for?"

Tsunade grinned in a way that made Shikamaru feel as though he had a target painted on his flak jacket. "You'll just have to find out, won't you? The old man's waiting in the other room."

She picked up the empty bottle by her hand and gestured towards a wooden door on the other side of her study. "What are you waiting for? Get on with you, I've got… work to do." She glanced at the papers on her desk with deep disgust.

"Of course. Good luck, Hokage-sama."

And pleasant dreams, Shikamaru added inwardly with a suppressed smile. I just hope she doesn't drool on anything important.

Shikamaru knocked politely before entering. The side room was small, just wide enough for a table, some chairs, and bookshelves lining the walls. Seated at the table facing the door was Hiruzen Sarutobi, Third Hokage of Konohagakure. He had always seemed old to Shikamaru and the other students at the Academy, but lately he had aged even more. His fight against Orochimaru had taken an enormous toll on him, both physically and emotionally. Shikamaru had heard from his father that the Third Hokage had been poisoned in that fight, and it was only because of Jiraiya and Tsunade that he'd survived. But even though the old man was small and frail, his eyes still shone with a fire that was undimmed by age.

The corners of Sarutobi's mouth crinkled in a kind smile. "Shikamaru," he said warmly. "I'm glad you came. I've been meaning to talk to you for a while."

"Really?" Shikamaru blurted out, too surprised to be polite. "Why? …Hokage-sama," he added belatedly.

Sarutobi waved his hand. "No need for that. I'm not the Hokage anymore, and I have no need to be reminded of it. I'm just an old man with some advice for a bright youngster like yourself."

Shikamaru nodded politely, though he couldn't agree. Whatever Sarutobi Hiruzen might be, he wasn't "just an old man." The man once referred to as "The God of Shinobi" was anything but ordinary, no matter how old. "What advice would that be?" Shikamaru ventured. He was now extremely curious.

The former Hokage took a deep puff from his pipe, sending a few smoke rings lazily into the air. Shikamaru was reminded of his sensei, Asuma, who shared his father's love of tobacco. These days, though, Asuma was trying to quit. Kurenai wasn't a huge fan of the smell, and Asuma rarely did anything that his girlfriend disapproved of.

"Remember the final round of the Chunin Exams?" Sarutobi said at last.

"Vividly, sir. What with all those enemy shinobi running around trying to kill us, it's kind of hard to forget."

Sarutobi glared at him with mock disapproval, but with laughter in his eyes. "No, before that. When you were fighting Temari."

Shikamaru nodded hesitantly. Where was the Hokage going with this…

"I saw the finishing technique you used to end it," the Hokage said, gesturing with his pipe. "The whole world saw it – anyone watching the footage, that is. But I'll wager there were very few people who understood what happened."

Shikamaru thought back to the fight. It had been a bit… overdramatic. He'd captured Temari with his shadow, and then forced her to surrender by activating the fire technique he'd developed a few days before the Exams.

"I remember. Has there been some kind of fallout because of it, sir? I would have thought that by now, any political ramifications from humiliating the Kazekage's daughter would have died out."

Kami, he hoped so. Shikamaru wasn't sure how to characterize his strange relationship with Temari, but he knew for sure that he didn't want her people mad at him. He had been so sure the past was behind them, damn it!

The Hokage put his hands up in a placating gesture. "Slow down there, boy. Nothing like that. Relations between Suna and Konoha are better than they've ever been, and growing stronger. I'm not talking about anything political; rather, I want to know more about that technique of yours."

His technique? Why was that important? Shikamaru had used many techniques during the Tournament, so why did the Hokage want to know about this one? True, Shikamaru was rather proud of himself for inventing it, but it wasn't like the Hokage didn't know a thousand more potent techniques.

"Um… there's not much to say. I just activate a simple fire jutsu at the same time that I'm using Shadow Possession. The fire feeds on the chakra in my shadow, and I can send it anywhere as long as it's in my range. The only tricky part is forming the seal with one hand, but after I practiced a lot it wasn't too hard."

Sarutobi was following along, his eyes narrowed in concentration. "Yes… that makes sense… your shadow both sustains and restrains the fire, keeping it trapped while giving it life… remarkable." His eyes grew unfocused, no doubt seeing energy diagrams and structural patterns of chakra circulation. Shikamaru remembered that he was in the presence of the foremost expert on jutsu creation in the world.

After giving his head a little shake, Sarutobi seemed to come back to himself. "I don't know if you've already realized this or not," he said, wagging a finger at Shikamaru, "but what you did has always been thought to be impossible. You didn't just create a new jutsu, oh no… you merged your clan's bloodline with a different technique. Shadow Possession is a power that stems from your genetic make-up; it's not like the clone jutsu, which any Academy student can learn given enough time and study. But without any training whatsoever, you've managed to take a Fire Release jutsu and a bloodline technique and meld them."

Sarutobi gave a humble cough. "I've created many jutsu in my lifetime, as have many of Konoha's most powerful shinobi. But I've never seen anything like this before, and the potential is… quite intriguing, to put it mildly."

Shikamaru had never really thought about his Burning Shadow jutsu before – it had just sort of happened, coming to him one day in a flash of inspiration. Now that Sarutobi was pointing it out, he did see how strange it was for the Nara clan's Shadow Possession to integrate so seamlessly with another jutsu. If one such fusion was possible, what about others? What was to stop the shinobi of Konoha from augmenting clan techniques just as Shikamaru had done, to create new, more powerful jutsu? Kami, why hadn't he thought of this himself?

Sarutobi chuckled. "I think you're beginning to see my point. Merely learning a jutsu is hard enough – most shinobi only master a dozen or so techniques, with a few more that they use irregularly. Only rarely does a shinobi come along with the intelligence, creativity, and skill required to create new ones. Shikamaru, I knew from the moment I saw your technique in the Arena that with a little effort, you can build a legacy that will last for generations."

"You mean… you want me to make new jutsu?" The wheels were already turning in Shikamaru's head. He was itching to get started.

Sarutobi nodded. "That's exactly right. I want you to take a little time, maybe get temporary leave from missions outside the village, and start experimenting. Familiarize yourself with the techniques we use most in Konoha, and see if you can discover new combinations of or improvements on any of them. Start with your own abilities, of course, since that's where you've already succeeded."

There were very few things that captured Shikamaru's whole attention. Even though he gave everything he had on every mission, no matter how easy, there was only so much brainpower needed to outmaneuver bandits or low-level missing-nin. Creating jutsu, however… now there was a challenge guaranteed to keep him occupied.

"Thank you, Hokage-sama," Shikamaru said, completely forgetting that he wasn't supposed to call Sarutobi that. "I'll get started right away!"

Sarutobi laughed brightly. "Don't let this become an obsession, Shikamaru! You're still a chunin with duties to the village, and besides you have a lot of time ahead of you. Don't burn out trying to do everything at once. Anyway, that's everything I wanted to talk with you about, except to say, officially, that I am very impressed with what you've accomplished. And if I may say so, I am very proud as well. Asuma would say the same – you do him credit, as do your teammates."

Shikamaru bowed very low. "I'm honored by your confidence in me, and I won't let you down!"

Having gained Sarutobi's permission to depart, Shikamaru left the study without a backward glance, his mind springing into motion like a horse breaking from the starting line. What other techniques could he meld with his shadow? And what about his other yearmates? Maybe Kiba's Gatsuuga could combine with fire, too… if he trapped an enemy inside his spinning technique, the fire would suck out the oxygen so he wouldn't even have to hit someone to immobilize them…

Shikamaru was so absorbed that he didn't notice Tsunade get up from her desk and walk over to the side room where the Third Hokage was waiting. She sat down just as Shikamaru shut the door.

"How'd it go?" she asked curiously.

The former Hokage shook his head, bemused. "I don't think I've seen anyone that focused since Minato was developing Hiraishin. Tsunade, that boy is more than just a genius. He's a prodigy."

Tsunade favored her beloved teacher with a wry grin. "So Asuma keeps telling me. I'll keep my judgment in reserve, for now. I'll be impressed if he shows that the Burning Shadow jutsu wasn't a one-time thing."

"Oh, I think time will prove that it wasn't a fluke. You don't find a mind like Shikamaru's every generation. Mark my words: that boy will change the world before he's done."

oOoOo

Ino wanted to cry, or throw things, or maybe set off a few explosive tags to vent her feelings. But because she was fifteen now, almost an adult, such behavior would only make her feel worse about herself. So she kept it all in, merely punching her pillow a few times without much force. If she imagined that it was Choji's face, well… who would know?

Why was he acting so strange? He'd been growing distant from her lately, and she hated it. Today wasn't the first time Ino had sensed some new awkwardness between them, and she had no clue what to do about it. She wanted to shake Choji by the neck until he went back to the sweet, open, friendly boy that she had always relied on to have her back.

Choji wasn't so much of a boy anymore, though. He almost had his full growth, standing mere inches below his father, and he was already strong enough to take on any chunin in the village. Ino's father told her that people changed when they became adults, but aside from growing stronger, Ino wanted everything to stay the way it had been. They were a good team, damn it! In the past, they hadn't even needed Ino's telepathy to read each others' minds – they just knew instinctively where there teammates would attack next, or how they were feeling. Now Choji was sometimes moody and terse, which was completely unlike him, and Ino didn't know why! She worried that she was beginning to lose a friend, one that had been by her side for eight years. Over half her life!

"Ino!" Her father's voice floated up from downstairs. "Get down here, there's a new mission from the Hokage!"

Yes! Ino pumped her fist in the air, glad at the chance of some action. No matter what was eating Choji, he still focused on every mission. Maybe pounding some bad guys would put him in a better mood. "Coming!"

She threw on her flak jacket and belt pouch and ran downstairs, where her father was waiting in the kitchen. Inoichi laughed at his daughter's eagerness.

"What is it?" she cried. "A B-rank? Any bandits or missing-nin to track down?"

"You won't get to smash any skulls on this mission, Ino," her father said drily. Then his voice became more serious, alerting Ino that something was different. "Sasuke's back."

A rush of stinging cold like a spray of ocean water brought Ino to a full stop. Sasuke…

Ever since he recovered from his injuries after trying to defect, he'd been on a long-term training trip with Kakashi. Tsunade said he needed to get his full strength back, and once Sasuke had learned that Naruto was on a training trip with Jiraiya, he'd jumped at the chance to have extended training of his own. Now he was coming back, and Ino realized that she had no idea how much Sasuke knew about his lost memory. What had Kakashi told him?

"So he's back," she said, trying for nonchalance. "Why should I care?"

"Because the Hokage wants you to see how he's doing. That's your mission – checking up on Sasuke. Apparently his training was very intense, because he's in the hospital for the next few days receiving treatment. The Hokage wants to be sure that your mind-wipe still holds, and she's decided that you're the one to tell Sasuke the cover story."

Ino caught her breath. The cover story was what the Hokage had made up to explain to Sasuke why he had gaping holes in his memory. It contained as much truth as possible, but it made no mention of Itachi or the Uchiha Massacre.

"I have to do it?" her voice broke on the last syllable. She imagined standing in the hospital room, looking at the boy who had tried to kill her and her teammates, lying to him about what had happened… it made her shudder. "Why?"

"The Hokage has her reasons," Inoichi said sadly. "I should know – I demanded that she explain them to me, before I agreed to let you do this. And I told her that if you weren't up to it, she'd better back off."

Her father had such a fierce glower on his face that Ino had to laugh. If she asked, Inoichi would face down anyone to protect her, even Tsunade. Knowing that her father had her back gave Ino the courage she needed. "That's all right, Dad," she said reluctantly. "I think I understand. I was the one who took his memory, so it's only right that I'm the one to make sure he doesn't know the truth. I'm kind of responsible for him, in a way. My only question is how am I supposed to be sure that he isn't getting suspicious? I can tell him the cover story about Orochimaru and the Curse Seal, but without going into his head again there's no way of knowing if he's convinced."

Inoichi's look of pride made Ino a little happier, even though she still wasn't looking forward to lying to her teammate. I'm glad you're thinking ahead, Ino. The Hokage anticipated that, which is why this isn't a solo mission. You'll be working together with Hinata, who's there as a member of the pursuit team to offer her testimony. At the same time, her mission will be to observe Sasuke as he listens to your story. Members of the Hyuga clan can detect the smallest changes in facial features, and if Sasuke gets suspicious of your story, Hinata will notice. The Hokage will decide what to do if that happens."

"I didn't know that the Hyuga could do that," Ino said, interested. "They must make very good spies."

"The best. Even if they can't read minds, they are much better than we are at seeing when someone is uncomfortable, suspicious, or angry."

"I get it," Ino said, feeling tired and older than her years. "It's up to Hinata and me to make sure that Sasuke doesn't go all revenge-crazy and betray the village again. I can handle it, I just want to get it over with as soon as possible. Should I meet Hinata at the hospital?"

"Yes, I believe she's waiting there already. You can leave anytime. And Ino," her father added, coming over to give her a hug, "this is one of the hardest things we can do as shinobi. Deceiving our enemies is standard procedure, but deceiving our friends can be soul-shattering. Keep your head up, and know that what you do is for the greater good of the village."

"I know that," Ino replied. "I just hope that it's for Sasuke's greater good as well. If he ever finds out we lied to him about his brother, I worry that we'd be right back where we started."

Inoichi nodded gravely. "An astute observation. But trust the Hokage – she is aware of the danger, and she's planning for it. The best thing you can do is carry out your orders, and try to be a friend to Sasuke as much as possible."

Ino hugged her father one last time, putting off the mission for a few more seconds. "Hey," she exclaimed, as a completely unrelated thought made its way to the forefront of her mind. "You're really good at understanding why people act the way they do, right?"

Inoichi watched her warily. "I suppose… the human mind is my specialty, after all. Why?"

"Well, um…" she stammered, suddenly feeling shy. "Lately, Choji's been acting a little… weird. I mean, he actually yelled at me today! He's never done that before."

"Choji did?" Inoichi asked with a grin. "Wow, you must have done something really bad!"

"Hey, you're supposed to be on my side!" Ino protested. "I just offered to help him with the new food pills he's working on."

Inoichi raised one eyebrow skeptically. "That's all?"

"Yeah, I think… I mean, I said that it wouldn't take me long to learn enough to help, because I could learn what I needed to from his mind. That's when he yelled at me."

"Ah." A look of understanding spread across her father's face. "Ino, don't you think Choji is entitled to his privacy? Searching other peoples' minds is something we usually reserve for our enemies, or for extraordinary cases like Sasuke's. Not our allies."

"But we've always communicated mind-to-mind," Ino complained. "It's never been a problem before!"

"As I think I've told you before, people change. Choji's becoming a man now, and while he might not have minded you seeing his thoughts when he was a child, that could easily change. I can think of, ahem," Inoichi coughed, looking embarrassed, "several reasons why Choji might react negatively to the idea of you knowing what's in his thoughts. For example, what if he likes a kunoichi in the village? If you saw that in his mind, it would be an inexcusable invasion of his privacy. He would have every right to be angry."

Ino laughed in spite of herself. "Choji? Liking a girl? That's ridiculous, dad."

Inoichi smiled in a way that made Ino suspect he was humoring her. "Why's that? Do you think he likes boys?"

"What?! No! It's just… he's Choji." She threw her hands up in frustration. How could she explain that to her father? The thought of Choji mooning after some girl, like Naruto had run after Sakura (or, a treacherous inner voice said, like she used to run after Sasuke), well – it was just wrong. Choji was like a mountain, immovable and eternal, utterly dependable. How could a mountain have a crush? It was absurd.

Inoichi's expression was deadpan, but the small lines at the corners of his eyes suggested that he was laughing at her. Ino scowled. "I don't know if you've noticed this," Inoichi said, "maybe you've been too close to Choji to see it. But he's growing into quite the handsome young man. I don't doubt that many of Konoha's young women have noticed, and he's getting to be the age where he'll notice them noticing. Believe me, Ino, when I was his age, I wouldn't want my teammates seeing what I was thinking either."

Ino blushed a deep red at her father's tone. He was deliberately teasing her, and it was not funny!

Then Ino paused, wondering. Could it be true? Maybe Choji liked some girl, who didn't like him back – maybe she thought he was too chubby, even though he was clearly all muscle. Ino found herself growing quite angry at this hypothetical girl.

Whoever she is, she's not good enough for Choji!

"There's no way that's what's happening," Ino said stubbornly, not wanting to let her father see her doubts. "And even if it is, he'd better stop acting like such a dork. We've got missions to carry out, and we can't if he's ruining our teamwork with his moody bullshit."

"I'm not sure I understand you," Inoichi said after a moment, letting her cursing pass without comment. "I didn't think you were opposed to your teammates having romantic attachments. I mean, your sensei has been dating Kurenai practically before he met you, and I never heard you complain about that. I've even heard you hint that Shikamaru might be interested in Temari, and you said it was about the most romantic thing you'd ever heard."

"It's… it's not the same!" Ino cast about for a reason why it wasn't the same, but she couldn't think of one. Her father's expectant gaze only made her angrier, and finally she gave it up. "Gaah! I don't have time for this. If Choji wants to act like a donkey butt, it's none of my business. I have to go to the hospital and finish this stupid mission."

She stormed out, not saying goodbye to her father because she was still obscurely mad at him. She felt like he was laughing at her for some joke that she didn't understand. Slamming the door might have been a bit childish, but it definitely made her feel better.

Inoichi was left alone in the kitchen, a speculative gleam in his eyes. "So that's the way the wind blows, eh? I think Choza and I might need to have a little chat."

oOoOo

Ino found Hinata in the waiting room on the first floor of the hospital. Her friend waved at her, a thoughtful expression creasing her brow. Hinata looked worried, and Ino had to admit that she was, too. This would be the first time she'd seen Sasuke in over a year, and she had no idea how losing his memory had changed him. No one knew better than Ino that Sasuke deserved a second chance; after all, no one but Ino had ever seen Sasuke's darkest thoughts, seen the cycle of rage that had driven him away from his home. However, it was going to be truly difficult to see the innocent boy and not the homicidal traitor. Ino was glad to have Hinata along with her.

"Are you ready for this?" Ino asked Hinata. The Hyuga heir nodded confidently, reminding Ino just how much Hinata had grown. She was still a little shy, but these days she carried herself with poise and confidence. Whatever had happened between her and Neji on the Sasuke Retrieval mission had put some iron in her backbone. It was apparent to everyone, not just Hinata's teammates and friends. Rumor had it that she'd even faced down her father, Hiashi Hyuga, concerning his treatment of Neji. Looking at Hinata now, Ino found that she believed the rumor.

"I'm prepared," Hinata answered. She hefted a bouquet of flowers. "The Hokage told me that I'm there to wish Sasuke a speedy recovery, and to answer any questions he has about the retrieval mission. When you give him the cover story, I'm supposed to watch him for any signs of suspicion or disbelief. Since Sasuke is so used to having girls fawn over him, he probably won't think to suspect us of any duplicity."

Ino paused, the truth of that statement sinking in. Was that why Tsunade had sent them? …Of course it was. Ino felt like an idiot for not thinking of it before. Tsunade could have sent anyone to brief Sasuke; hell, she could have told him the story herself. But sending two girls his own age would put Sasuke off his guard, flatter his ego, and make him more receptive to the Hokage's version of the truth. Ino also realized that as far as Sasuke knew, she was still chasing after him like Sakura. Ino had never actually told Sasuke that she wasn't part of his fan club anymore, so Sasuke's scorn for her would lead him to underestimate her.

The Hokage was a truly crafty woman. Ino was willing to bet that Sakura had been sent to check up on Sasuke's physical wounds, just like Ino and Hinata were supposed to check on his mental and psychological well-being. Depending on how gullible Sasuke was, he might not think that Tsunade was keeping as close an eye on him as she actually was.

"We're both ready, then," Ino declared, "or as ready as we'll ever be. Let's go see Sasuke."

They headed up two flights of stairs after asking for directions from a medic-nin at the front desk. Sasuke was in a private room at the end of the hall. Hinata nodded to Ino one last time, giving silent encouragement, and then the two girls entered the room.

Sasuke was sitting up in bed, propped up by at least four oversized pillows. Even dressed in a hospital gown with IV tubing in his arm, it was clear that Sasuke had grown a lot during his training trip. He was still slender, but his muscles were more defined and he looked to have grown a few inches. He watched the two of them enter with sharp eyes, alert for sudden movement. Ino had a bad moment when she saw the black tomoe that formed Sasuke's Curse Seal peeking out from under his blue hospital gown – it was a short jump from seeing that Seal to remembering the monster it had turned Sasuke into. But she mastered her distaste and carried forward.

"They told me you were coming," Sasuke said, watching them both curiously. "You're supposed to tell me why I have these gaps in my memory. I don't understand why they picked you, though."

Ino's hackles rose instantly at the lack of respect his words implied. Look down on me, will you? You arrogant prick.

Hinata saw her flash of anger and jumped forward to keep her from doing something rash. "Um… Sasuke… I brought you these flowers from our garden at home. I, um… I hope the medics clear you soon so you can get out of the hospital."

Sasuke waved away the flowers with one hand, not even looking at Hinata. Ino realized that not even a mind-wipe was enough to change Sasuke's manners, not that she had expected it to. Honestly, how could she have ever thought his rudeness was attractive? Choji would never have disregarded someone like that.

Hinata blushed a deep red, and brought the flowers back to hide her face. Ino practically jumped out of her shoes when she saw, out of the corner of her eye, Hinata's byakugan activate.

You sneaky thing! You knew all along Sasuke wouldn't take the bouquet, so now you're using it to hide your eyes while you watch his reaction to the story!

Ino focused her attention back on Sasuke, ignoring Hinata's brilliant subterfuge. Sasuke pointed his finger at her. "Come on! I've waited a long time to figure out what happened, but all Kakashi ever said was that it wasn't his job to tell me, just to train me. Out with it!"

Ino sighed, mentally arranging all the parts of the cover story as laid out by Tsunade so many months ago. "I'll tell you. Just understand, a lot of this is going to seem kind of farfetched. But I'm telling you the truth, and if you want independent confirmation, the only other shinobi who were there when you lost your memory are Choji and Shikamaru. We briefed the Hokage and the Council, of course, but it was only the three of us who saw it first-hand. Well, us and an enemy of Konoha, and he's not really available to act as a witness."

Sasuke frowned, then motioned for her to go on with a small grunt. Ino cracked her knuckles. It was time to cut straight to the chase.

"You lost your memory because I erased it," she declared. She watched him for some reaction, but he gave nothing away. Nobody had ever said he was an idiot; missing memory and a Yamanaka nearby were two very big clues. So he'd figured out that much already.

"The reason I had to do that," she went on, "is that you were attempting to betray Konoha."

Sasuke's eyes lit up immediately, and Ino tensed. "I can't believe that," Sasuke said angrily. "I would never turn my back on my village! I'm the only Uchiha left, so it's up to me to serve Konoha in my family's name! There's just no way I could do that!"

Ino paid close attention to his words, but she could only hear sincerity. She hoped that Hinata was hearing the same. "It wasn't your fault, Sasuke," she said firmly. The hope that came back into his eyes twisted her stomach. "You know that Curse Seal on your shoulder?"

His hand went automatically to his shoulder, and he grimaced. "Yeah. Kakashi caught up with Jiraiya and the two of them spent a week tinkering with it. It hurt like a bitch. Why?"

"Do you remember how you got it?" Ino asked cautiously. Sasuke should still have some memories of Orochimaru, although any words that Orochimaru had said referring to Itachi would be wiped from his mind.

Sasuke nodded. "Yeah, that creepy snake-guy in the Forest of Death. He gave me the Curse Seal. Does it have something to do with why I tried to betray the village?"

"Yeah. That Curse Seal didn't just affect your chakra, it started to mess with your mind as well. When we finally caught up to you and I saw your mind, it was clear that the poison was already spreading. It had almost driven you mad. It was all part of his plan to bring you to his side. He was going to steal your body and use your sharingan to learn all of the world's jutsu."

It's almost true, Ino thought, trying to reassure herself. Tsunade told us about Orochimaru's plans, so I'm not lying about that. It's just that the poison wasn't all from the Curse Seal. You were still close to going mad, Sasuke. What I did was for the best.

"So Orochimaru had already started destroying my mind… and you made me forget?" Sasuke said, his voice quiet. Ino could tell his thoughts were turning inward, poking at the holes in his memory like a child with a loose tooth. He sounded surprisingly humble when, a second later, he whispered, "thanks."

Ino almost winced, his gratitude like a knifepoint digging at her guilt. "You're welcome. It was a close thing, though. The Retrieval Squad had to fight Orochimaru's goons the whole way, and then at the end you almost killed Naruto, Choji, Shikamaru, and me."

In the blink of an eye, Sasuke switched from humble to playful. He gave an unrepentant grin. "Honestly, I'm surprised you all managed to stop me. I must have been tired from thrashing that idiot Naruto. No offense, Ino, but you're not in my league. Shikamaru's pretty smart, but he's lazy as hell and Choji is slower than molasses. Are you sure Jiraiya or Kakashi didn't catch up in time to take me out?"

"Naruto's not-"

"Choji isn't-"

Hinata and Ino both burst out at the same time, then stopped when they realized they were yelling over each other. Ino stared at Hinata, who was looking back at her curiously.

Wait a second, Ino thought, a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. Why didn't I feel the need to defend Shikamaru or myself? Why just Choji?

It was Hinata staring back at her that supplied the answer. Hinata, who was usually shy except when it came to defending Naruto, the boy she… oh, Kami.

Now Ino understood why her father had been laughing at her before. Now she knew why the thought of Choji liking some other girl was so fundamentally wrong. The realization left her stunned. When had she started to feel this way about him?

Sasuke's obnoxious laughter brought Ino out of her increasingly dizzying spiral of thought. "I'm just joking, Hinata. I know Naruto is strong – I sparred with him a few times when Kakashi and I met up with him and Jiraiya, and he's learned some new tricks."

Sasuke grimaced and rubbed his stomach gingerly, as if remembering something particularly painful. Ino wasn't sure which was more unexpected, the admission of Naruto's skill or the fact that Sasuke had just made a joke. This was the first time that Sasuke had shown signs that he might have a sense of humor, even if Ino didn't think it was particularly funny. Was this due to his missing memory? Would the Ice-Prince begin to thaw out, now that his desire for vengeance was no longer his driving force?

Sasuke looked up at Ino, and a sly smile tugged at his mouth. "I really do thank you for keeping me from betraying the village. Even if you only did it to keep me around."

Was Sasuke being… flirtatious? If Ino had been even two years younger, hearing something like that from Sasuke might have made her faint like Hinata. Now it just made her pissed.

"Are you serious right now? Your comrades almost die to bring you back, and you have the nerve to turn it into a joke? I have news for you, Sasuke. The only one in this room who loves you is you. The next time you let some Curse Seal muddle your brain, see if we bring you back!"

She turned on her heel, too angry to reflect on the fact that a joking Sasuke was most likely preferable to an obsessed killer Sasuke. Hinata followed her out, the bouquet of flowers that she still held in front of her face serving to hide her quiet laughter. Sasuke watched them leave, mouth gaping, a dumbfounded expression on his face.

Ino was enraged as she stomped through the hospital corridors, but by the time she stepped outside, Sasuke was forgotten. Instead, a muscular chunin with spiky brown hair and glowing armor filled her thoughts. Ino wanted to shriek with frustration.

Why, of all the shinobi in the world, did she have to like Choji? And how in the world was she going to face him tomorrow in training?

oOoOo

Later that night, Choji stood at attention in the Hokage's study. Tsunade watched him curiously, her head cocked to one side.

"Let me get this straight. You want a solo mission?"

"That's right," Choji affirmed. "I'm worried that I've become too reliant on Shikamaru to give the orders. As a chunin I need to be able to operate independently."

"I've seen no proof that your performance has suffered," Tsunade replied. "Are you sure that's really what's worrying you?"

Choji tried not to squirm under her discerning gaze. "Yes, Hokage-sama."

She held his eyes a moment longer, then nodded. "All right. If you say this is what you need, I'll believe you. It just so happens there's a low B-rank in need of a shinobi with your skill level. There's a village near the border that's being plagued by bandits. It seems at least one of the bandits is a shinobi of some ability. If you want, I'll put you in charge. Pick your team and pound some bad guys."

Choji couldn't stifle a sigh of contentment. That was exactly what he was looking for. A straightforward mission, one which would give him some time to try and master his feelings. When he got back he could apologize to Ino, and do his best to make sure their team dynamic went back to normal.

"The mission may take a week or longer," Tsunade added as an afterthought. "The bandits know the land well, and you'll need to make sure that none of them escape. Are you all right with being away from the village for that long?"

The longer the better. I will conquer this.

All he said was, "Absolutely, Hokage-sama."

"Then so be it. You can choose your squad and leave in the morning."