Disclaimer: Naruto and all its characters belong to Masashi Kishimoto.

The lights flicker, dim, dimmer, until, at last, they are no more than a spark.

Ino Yamanaka was not expecting to be called into the Hokage's office that morning. Today was one of her rare days off, both from the typical obligations of her duty as a shinobi and from her work at her parent's shop. She had returned only two days ago from a particularly grueling mission, but she had already filed the report and there was little more to be said about the matter.

So, when the missive came, she could already tell that something was not right.

She made her way carefully down the hallway to the Hokage's office, passing a sea of somber faces as she did. They all wore the same expression of grim determination. A few caught her gaze sympathetically before looking away.

That was not a good sign. Her pace quickened instinctively.

It was only when she had almost reached the office that she began to get an idea of the extent of the problem. Just outside the Hokage's door stood a familiar quivering figure, his wide face blanched sheet white. As Ino approached, Chouji raised his eyes to meet hers. His typical genial familiarity all but gone, replaced by quiet fear. When she raised a questioning eyebrow, he gave no response, merely shook his head and looked away, too ashamed to hold her gaze.

That simply confirmed it. Ino practically burst through the door of the Hokage's office.

Tsunade was hunched over her desk, her head pressed between her palms. In front of her laid a single sheet of paper, what looked to be a mission report. She didn't look up as Ino entered the room.

"Come in, and close the door behind you." Tsunade said, beckoning her forward with a fatigued gesture. Ino did as she was told, shutting the door with a resounding click.

When Tsunade finally looked up, Ino almost didn't recognize her. The Hokage always appeared somewhat frazzled – it was a hazard of the job – but Ino had never seen her look so… despairing. Worry was etched deep into the lines of her face, furrowing her forehead and wrinkling her mouth where it was pursed in consternation.


Tsunade gazed at her, assessing.

"Ino… your work with the Interrogation Unit. How has it been going?"

Ino wasn't sure how that had any relevance to this situation, but she wasn't about to question the Hokage.

"It's been going well, Tsunade-sama. Ibiki-san says I have a lot of potential, and that, with practice, I'll soon be up to my father's level."

The admission was painful, even if it was true. Ino's first few weeks of training in the Interrogation Division had been more difficult than she liked to admit. Every facet of the Interrogation building and the job itself stood as a stark reminder of her father, and the gaping absence his death had left in her life.

"Good, good…" Tsunade looked away from her again, her eyes flickering down to the paper on her desk. When she didn't look up after a few moments, Ino ventured to take a step forward.

"Tsunade-sama… if you don't mind my asking… why have you called me here?"

Tsunade looked up at her question, almost as if she were only just noticing her presence. After a few moments of silent consideration, Tsunade stood up.

"Follow me."

The room was one Ino had never seen before. Buried deep in the heart of the Konoha Hospital, it was large and virtually empty, with vast white walls that gave it the air of a holding cell.

Tsunade turned to her assistant, Shizune.

"Tell them to bring him."

Ino was growing more anxious by the second. Tsunade still had mentioned nothing about the other member of Team Ten, and her questions about Ino's recent training didn't make sense. Was Tsunade about to have her perform an interrogation? While she had been diligent in her training, she was sure there were other people who were much more qualified to handle such a task. And if it was an interrogation, why in the world would they conduct it in the hospital of all places?

Ino was given little time to consider the question – Shizune returned within moments, and all of Ino's reservations fell away the instant she realized who Tsunade meant by "him".

If nothing else, the untamable dark hair was instantly recognizable. At first, Ino wasn't sure what to think. But when she really looked at him, she saw it and the panic was so overwhelming that she almost couldn't breathe.

Physically, everything appeared to be fine. His skin was, perhaps, a shade paler than usual, but otherwise, he had no outward injuries, and looked to be in perfect health.

It was his eyes. They were wrong.

His eyes were open, but he saw nothing. Gone were the calculating black beads with their fathomless depths. They were glazed over, utterly devoid of any form of awareness.

Ino shot forward, a cry escaping her lips, but Tsunade's strong hand closed around her upper arm, anchoring her in place. Ino fought against her grip, but it was to no avail – it was rock solid.

"Ino, I need you to be calm."

"But…" Ino refused to give up her struggle. Why would Tsunade not just let her go to him? "What happened to him? Who did this? We've got to do something, we can't just—"

"Ino." The authoritative force of Tsunade's voice was enough to make Ino stop thrashing.

"What happened?" The words came out softly, broken, barely more than a whisper.

"We don't know. Chouji has reported to us that he was captured by some enemy-nin, but by the time the team was able to rescue him, he was already in this state."

"Is he…" Ino found herself unable to finish the sentence.

"He is alive." Tsunade emphasized the word, and Ino relaxed in her grip. "But his mind is… badly damage. We have no idea what they did to him."

Slowly, rationality returned. The pieces were beginning to click together in Ino's head; she was no Shikamaru, but she was smart enough to put two and two together.

"You want me to figure out what's wrong."

Tsunade didn't look at her, but her face said enough.

"I was hesitant to ask, because I know he is your teammate, and it is an emotional matter for you." Tsunade gazed at him as she spoke, watched as the two medics that had accompanied him in eased him into a sitting position on the floor. "But the truth is, you are the only one who can do this. We need the skills you to possess if we can even remotely hope to retrieve him."

"I… are you sure?"

"I have to be." Tsunade frowned grimly. "We need him, Ino. You and Chouji know that better than anyone."

Ino could not deny the truth in that. Shikamaru was the Leaf's best strategist, a true genius, even if he was lazy.

"What if I…"

"If you fail, you fail. I know I am asking much of you. And none of us know the extent of the damage. It may be that you will not even be able to penetrate the outermost layer. And, of course, if it is an issue of your own safety, you are to get out as quickly as possible. I will not lose two valuable shinobi in the effort to save one."

Ino swallowed dryly.

"How soon?"

Tsunade looked at her gravely.

"As soon as you feel you are ready."

In the darkness, a candle sparks to life. For one brief shining instant, it glows, but then is extinguished.

He is returned to darkness.

A/N: Hello, dearies!

I've been itching to write a new ShikaIno for quite some time now, and this little plot idea practically bashed me over the head a few days ago. I've become increasingly fascinated by the Yamanaka clan's jutsu, and I wanted to write a ShikaIno that played with that a little. So here goes!

I realize this first chapter is rather short, but the following chapters are going to be much longer. This is just a bit of a teaser for the story to come.

Also, just to address this before I get started, though I do plan to write this with ShikaIno as the main pairing, it is going to be very Ino-centric for the majority of the narrative. So if you don't get a lot of ShikaIno immediately, don't be surprised.

Anyway, hope you all are intrigued, and I'd love to hear your thoughts!