It's been a while since I've posted anything on this site. I'm still in school, so my time is limited in what I can write. I wrote this a few years ago but never got around to posting it. It's still not finished, but I can do at least this much. Not all chapters will be this long, but they haven't been divided yet, so I'm not positive what the average will be. I haven't taken an English class in six years, so any constructive criticism is welcome.

Full Summary: When Ino discovers Shikamaru doesn't think she is strong enough to rely on, she accepts a mission to leave Konoha and gain enough strength that he has to acknowledge her. But with that strength comes a cost, one that Ino may not be willing to pay. The story has supporting cast from xxxHoLiC and Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle, but since they aren't main players in this story, I did not label it as a crossover.

To Be Strong

The crisp, cool air, the pure snow that fell from the sky, the ice-skating contests, Yamanaka Ino loved it all. In her opinion, winter was the best season of all, even if she did have to dress in heavy layers of clothing. Sure, spring was nice, too, since all the flowers bloomed, but the pollen always made her allergies act up. She was amazed that she could work in her parents' flower shop when they needed her, though she felt like dying of a massive migraine when she finished up for the night. This morning the first snow fell, and she woke up to a winter wonderland. Outside her window she could already hear the neighborhood children playing in the snow before classes began. Sitting up in bed, she unlatched her window and opened it, allowing the cold breeze to caress her skin. She closed her eyes, enjoying the feel of winter.

At length she swung her legs out from underneath her warm comforter and stood, stretching. No one will make me get up, so I have to make myself, she thought as she glided over to her closet. At eighteen years old, she had been living alone for two years, but she would still wake up on occasion to find her parents making themselves at home in her apartment and doing the same things they had been doing when she still lived with them. Sometimes her mother would come over just to wake her up, which annoyed Ino to no end, especially when she came home late from a mission and had been looking forward to sleeping in.

The phone rang, and Ino muttered under her breath as she pulled her shirt over her head and fixed it so it fit the way she wanted before picking up. "Hello?" she said, running a brush through her platinum hair.

"Ino!" Sakura's voice squealed at the other end.

Ino jerked the phone away from her ear with a hiss. "Hi, Sakura," she said when she regained some of her hearing. "Why are you calling me at," she glanced at her clock, "seven-thirty in the morning?"

"Did you forget?" Sakura sounded incredulous. "The results are in today!"

The blond kunoichi gasped. "That's right!" Today the results of the Jounin exam were posted, and as much as Ino wanted to run and see if she made it, she was also afraid. For the past two years she had tried to obtain the Jounin rank, and each time she failed. Maybe, just maybe, this time would be different.

"Ino? Ino, are you still there?"

"Yeah, I'm here. I'll meet you in a few minutes." She hung up and rushed through her morning ritual of freshening up, then grabbed a plum as she ran out the door. The snow stuck to her coat and her hair as she ran to the building where the Hokage resided.

As she ran past Sakura's house, her friend joined her. Glancing over she saw her friend wearing an identical expression to her own. "Do you think we passed?" Sakura asked.

Unlike Ino, this was Sakura's second time attempting the Jounin exam. Even when their teammates tried to convince her, she refused, saying that she wanted to focus on her Medic-nin skills before trying for the Jounin status. Now she and Ino were the only ones left from their class who were still Chuunin. "I hope so," answered Ino. I feel good about this one. Please let me pass.

"They only raise a few Chuunin to Jounin," said Sakura, "but I think Shishou will let a few more get promoted this time. She's been complaining that we don't have enough Jounin to take the new Genin out for training. Now she's making all the Jounin take on a team unless they're out on a dangerous mission right now or are going soon."

Ino knew her friend was babbling to keep from exploding, so she didn't pay much attention to what she was saying. At the pace they were going, she wouldn't be able to keep talking for long.

She was right. By the time they arrived at the Hokage's office they were both out of breath, and Sakura was wheezing. They entered the heated interior of the building and stopped to warm up and catch their breath. Sakura pushed back her hood, revealing a flushed face from the exertion of running and also from the cold wind. Sakura did not like winter at all, Ino knew. Her friend preferred spring and summer because of the warm weather. "You okay?" asked Ino. "Your nose could rival Rudolph's for brightness. Maybe Santa Claus will hire you to pull his sleigh instead."

Sakura squeaked and covered her red nose with a mittened hand. "You know I don't do well in the cold," she muttered. "Let's go see where Shishou posted the results."

Since Sakura knew this place better than she did, Ino followed her through hallways and doors leading to more hallways until they reached a billboard that was already surrounded by people of all ages. Ino recognized some of them as other participants in the exam, so they must have arrived at the right place. At her side, Sakura made a small sound and hugged herself. "I'm afraid to look," she said.

"Me too," Ino responded. I don't want to look for my name and not find it again.

They stood behind the crowd for a few minutes just shifting their weight and listening to the sounds of disappointment and jubilation around them. Giving herself a shake, Sakura looked past the crowd to the board that everyone was staring at and said, "I can't wait anymore. Want me to look for you?"

Ino nodded, and her friend pushed her way into the crowd to the names up front. Patience and Ino didn't tend to keep the same company, but now she wasn't in a hurry for her friend to return. We've both known failure, so now it's time we learned success.

A familiar squeal came from somewhere in the crowd, and Ino smiled. So she made it. Good for her. Now all that's left is my turn.

Because Ino had been more familiar with the exam than Sakura, she felt a small amount of relief in knowing that her friend had passed. If Sakura could pass after only trying twice, surely Ino passed as well. Now she couldn't wait to see Sakura so she could confirm what Ino felt would be a favorable outcome. However, when her friend rejoined her, Sakura's face didn't reflect any of the joy that her earlier squeal had. Now Ino was concerned. Maybe I was wrong. I thought she passed… "Well, did you find you name?" she asked. "Did you pass?"

Sakura nodded, her expression remaining sad and…pitying? "I passed," she said.

"Good for you! Did you find mine?"

Her pink-haired friend's eyes definitely held pity. "I'm so sorry, Ino," she said. "I looked three times at the lists. Your name wasn't on there."

Ino felt the ground drop beneath her feet. "What?"

"I'm so sorry." Sakura looked like she was about to cry, which didn't make sense. She passed, after all. Why would she cry because her best friend hadn't passed the test for the third year in a row?

"Let me see." The blonde pushed people out of her way to get to the list. The number of names on it, though longer than in previous years, was short; only twenty Chuunin made it to the Jounin level. There near the top of the list sat Haruno Sakura's name, but no matter how long she looked, Yamanaka Ino never appeared anywhere. Her heart sank, and her legs followed, much to the annoyance of everyone else crowded around. "I…I failed. Again."

From behind, hands pulled her up and away from the other people. "Let's get out of here," said Sakura, the one responsible for getting her away from the list. "Come on, we'll go get something to eat."

How could this happen again? I prepared for that exam all year, and I still failed. What am I missing? Not even the snow and cold could bring her out of her stupor. She could hear Sakura talking to her, but her mind wouldn't wrap around the words and give them meaning. Sakura passed, but she hadn't? Sakura hadn't done as much training as she had; what had happened?

An absence of the cold brought Ino out of her circular thoughts. She found herself sitting opposite Sakura at one of the new salad restaurants that just opened a few months ago close to the Hokage Tower. Seeing that Ino wasn't in a state to do anything for herself, Sakura had removed her outer coat and placed it on the back of her chair for her. "The menu looks good so far," Sakura said as she leafed through it. "They import these from the Water Country, but I've heard that these are the best salads around." She handed Ino a menu. "See for yourself."

Ino did as she was told, but the words swam around on the page. Sakura noticed that she still wasn't able to concentrate. "If you want, I can talk to Shishou and see if she'll go over it again."

The blonde desperately wanted to say yes, but they both knew how that would end. "No, it wouldn't be fair to the other contestants," she said, shaking her head. She would never agree to do something like that anyway.

The rest of the day Sakura tried to keep her mind off her failure, but Ino couldn't get past it. She couldn't even get into shopping, and Sakura took her to her favorite shops! Last year, they both had failed, but they were able to pick themselves up and vow to try again by the end of the day. "Sakura, why didn't I pass?" she asked as her hand lifted a purse up for a closer inspection, though her eyes didn't register what it was seeing. "What qualities am I missing?"

The pink-haired kunoichi frowned. "I don't know," she replied.

"I'm dedicated. I know I don't have much physical strength compared to some other shinobi, but my teammates could still rely on me. I know they relied on me, and I pulled my weight when we were out on missions."

"I know that, Ino," Sakura assured her. "Maybe you tripped or made a minor mistake and they took off too many points."

Store after store, Sakura and Ino went through the same conversation. The blonde couldn't get past her newest failure, and Sakura didn't know what to say to make her feel better. She didn't know if there was any way to make her better save getting Hokage-sama to change her mind.

Night had almost fallen when Sakura walked Ino back to her apartment. "Do you want me to stay with you tonight?" asked Sakura as Ino looked for her house key. "I don't need to do anything early tomorrow unless Shishou calls me for something."

"No, I'll be fine." Ino managed a weak smile. "Just let me get over the shock, and I'll be good as new tomorrow."

"If you're sure…" Sakura didn't look convinced.

Waving her hand as if to blow away evil spirits floating around, the blonde kunoichi pulled up a brighter smile than before to assure Sakura that she spoke the truth. "I'm sure. Don't let me drag you down; I know you want to celebrate with Naruto, Sai, and Kyle." Dr. Rondart Kyle was Sakura's new paramour; she had rescued him on a mission a few months ago, and when she returned to Konoha, he had come with her and never left. Naruto and Rock Lee weren't fond of him, and their dislike grew even more when Kyle and Sakura moved in together, but no one else had a problem with the mild-mannered doctor. The doctor tried getting to know Sakura's teammates better, but Naruto would have none of that, going out of his way to avoid the man.

Sakura grinned. "I haven't seen Naruto or Sai much since they got promoted, but now maybe Shishou will put us on the same missions again."

Ino watched her friend wave good-bye, then entered her apartment, trying to drown her jealousy. She didn't even have a man she was interested in, and both Shikamaru and Chouji had achieved Jounin status a long time ago. Because she was still Chuunin, she didn't ever see them anymore except if they met by chance grocery shopping or they passed one another on the streets. The only time she saw both of them at the same time occurred twice a year, and it happened like clockwork. Half an hour after Sakura left, her doorbell rang. Sure enough, Shikamaru and Chouji stood on her front doorstep. Yes, each time she failed the exam, they would come to her apartment and take her out, much like Sakura had done earlier, but they wouldn't go shopping.

"Let's go to Yakiniku Q," said Chouji. He always believed that eating barbeque would cheer up even the gloomiest day, and Ino had started to believe that, even if it was just because she got to see her Genin team again.

The three of them set off on their quest for barbeque, Chouji leading the way followed by Ino, leaving Shikamaru to silently bring up the rear. Neither of them said anything about the Jounin results, but she knew that they knew; they wouldn't be here to comfort her otherwise. Instead, Chouji talked on and on about his new recipes, both the successful ones and the ones that made him unable to eat anything for days, a true tragedy. With each story her mood lifted until her previous jealousy of Sakura had dissipated. The stories continued while they sat at their usual spot and waited for the meat to cook, and the two of them would even get their genius friend to tell a story or two. He always gave in when Ino used her puppy eyes.

When the meat was cooked enough, they paused the talking to eat. However, the silence didn't last. After Chouji swallowed his fifth slice of barbeque, he looked at Ino and asked, "So, how has life been treating you?"

Ino paused, remembering earlier that morning. "Except for failing again, I'm fine," she said, her voice more subdued than it had been a few minutes before. "I guess I'm the only one left of the Rookie Nine that's still in the village and still a Chuunin."

"Don't worry about it, Ino," Shikamaru said as he picked up another slice of meat with his chopsticks. "You'll get there eventually."

"Yeah," agreed Chouji. "I failed the first two times I tried it."

"But this is my fifth time. You got it on your third try, Chouji, and Shikamaru got it on his first try." She sighed and loosened her death grip on her chopsticks before she broke them and got splinters in her hand. "It's just that I trained for this ever since I failed last time, and I have nothing to show for it. No matter what I do, it's not good enough."

She missed the glare that Shikamaru sent at Chouji for bringing her to this state again. "Um, I'm sure that Hokage-sama will promote you next time," Chouji said. "She might only be able to promote a few Chuunin, and you were the next person in line."

"It doesn't matter," Shikamaru cut in. "You're still Ino, and you'll stay that way whether you're a Chuunin or a Jounin."

Chouji vigorously nodded his agreement, and Ino smiled at her two former teammates. "Thanks, guys," she said, biting down on another piece of meat. It meant a lot to her, especially since Shikamaru, the laziest ninja in existence, and Chouji were going out of their way to make her feel better. They could have been relaxing on one of their rare days off, but instead they were here with her. It gave her a warm feeling inside that she didn't have very often since Asuma died and the other two went their separate ways.

They stayed at their table, just talking, even after the meat had long since disappeared. Most of the time was spent reminiscing when they were still a team, and a wave of nostalgia hit Ino. She did love her teammates; they were special to her, and she missed them. Even if Asuma was already gone, she at least had them, even if she didn't see them very often. Chouji finished another one of his cooking stories that didn't end with a success, and the mistake was so uncharacteristic of Chouji that even Shikamaru laughed with them at Chouji's expense. Ino smiled at the two boys sitting across the table from her. Yes, she did miss them and their times here with Asuma. It was the perfect pick-me-up for her awful day earlier. Sakura tried, and while Ino did appreciate her effort, she couldn't get beyond that she had failed while Sakura passed, and nothing Sakura could have done would have made her feel better.

When it was closing time, they left and walked back to Ino's apartment complex. She linked arms with them, much to Shikamaru's dismay, and skipped along with them. Shikamaru was a drag, but at least Chouji humored her and kept pace. They arrived at her door before too long, and she let go of their arms. "Thanks for today, guys," she said, and she meant it. "I don't know what I would've done without you two."

"Tch," muttered Shikamaru, "you're so troublesome, Ino."

The slender shadow-user turned to leave, but Chouji grabbed his arm and said, "Shikamaru and I have a break tomorrow. Why don't we hang out then?"

Both Shikamaru and Ino looked at him, Ino pleased and Shikamaru unpleasantly surprised. "I'd love that!" Ino exclaimed, but then caught sight of Shikamaru's face. "Unless you have something else planned already." It wasn't like her to be so considerate of others, but she wasn't the same as she had been three years ago, and she had learned some manners. Besides, for all she knew, he could have planned to spend the day with his Significant Other, though it seemed too troublesome for him to be in a relationship with someone.

Shikamaru sighed and scratched his head. "I was going to catch up on lost sleep tomorrow, but I guess that's not going to happen now."

"Nope," answered Chouji, a cheerful smile on his face. He turned back to Ino. "We'll come pick you up tomorrow morning. Have a good night."

She watched them leave, Shikamaru sauntering away while Chouji bounced. It was his hair; every time Chouji took a step, his thick hair lifted into the air and came back down, only to jump back up, and it made him look like he was bouncing down the sidewalk. Shikamaru's slow gait juxtaposed Chouji's bounce and made them seem as different as night and day. Shaking her head, she smiled and closed the door.

A loud knocking on her front door woke Ino. "Go away," she muttered and turned over. However, the incessant knocking didn't cease, so she threw on a bathrobe over her pajamas and opened the door to reveal Chouji wearing his civilian clothes. "Why are you here so early?" she asked as she covered her eyes to keep the sun from entering them.

"It's eight-thirty," he said. "I told you I'd be here in the morning."

"You said 'we'," she muttered, though she allowed him to enter. "Where's Shikamaru?"

"He didn't answer the door, so he probably isn't awake yet. We'll get him after you're ready."

She left him in the kitchen while she went to get dressed. When she came back, she found a delicious-smelling meal awaiting her. "Sorry, I couldn't help myself," her chubby friend said as he flipped a pancake over in a pan.

"It's fine," she assured him. There goes this week's diet, along with the past month's. "You are going to help me eat this, right?"

"Of course."

On the table sat enough food to feed Ino for the next few days, but she knew that none of it would still be there when they were finished. She helped herself to a small amount of eggs and would have stopped there except so much remained. After failing to restrain herself, she put a slice of regular and Canadian bacon on her plate and tried not to think that she was a cannibal; her name did mean pig, after all, and Sakura made sure to point that out on a frequent basis. And she did have a weakness for bacon; if only it wasn't so fattening!

"Are we going to get Shikamaru after this?" she asked. "Or are we stopping in the middle of eating so he can help?"

Chouji chuckled and added a layer of strawberry jam to his buttered toast. "He wouldn't wake up, so we'll get him after this. It's his fault he didn't get up in time to eat with us, but I did make him something." He nodded to a basket, which Ino recognized as one of the few that sat on the top of her cabinets. "It's only right. If I don't take this to him, he won't eat."

"Do you usually make breakfast for him?" She kept her tone neutral.

"No, I don't have time," her friend laughed. "When I find myself in Konoha at the same time as him, I try to bring him something. He forgets to feed himself, you know. Thinks it's too troublesome to cook for himself, or even pick up the phone and order take-out. But he's always so busy that I've only been able to bring him a few meals."

"He thinks everything's troublesome." So they can still find time to see each other. Ino knew they made time to see her, too, but she had a feeling that Chouji meant more times than that. A lot more times, if she wasn't mistaken. She knew they had been drifting apart from her, but she thought that it had been the same for them also.


She realized that Chouji had said something, and with difficulty she pushed aside this new revelation for further pondering for a later time. She wouldn't let it ruin today, at least. "I'm sorry," she apologized. "Can you repeat that?"

"I said that the ponds have frozen enough that it's safe for skating. Did you want to go by there today?"

Her face lit up. "I didn't know it was that cold yet."

"It had a little help from a few visiting ninja from the Hidden Mist village, and I know you love ice-skating. This is your day, and we'll do what you want, no matter how much Shikamaru complains."

"Thank you."

Ino looked down in surprise when her fork scraped nothing off her plate. Nothing of her breakfast remained, and the rest of the table was just as empty. "Did we really eat all that?" she asked. "It was full a few minutes ago."

Chouji smiled. "We finished it. You ate three plates of eggs, two slices of toast, five pieces of bacon and four slices of Canadian bacon."

The kunoichi gasped. "I ate all that?" She was horrified, but the fullness in her stomach told her that he wasn't lying. There goes my last year of dieting.

Her childhood friend found this hilarious. "You should see your face!" he chortled. "You'll look good with more meat on your bones."

"I have to work this off!" she cried. "Chouji, we're doing a lot of walking today!"

He groaned, but he did say that this was her day. After helping wash up the used dishes he watched Ino settle the basket in the crook of her arm, then followed her out the door to Shikamaru's apartment. The snow floated down, and Ino resisted the urge to play in the snowbanks like a small child. Besides, Shikamaru's food would get cold, and it wouldn't do to waste Chouji's cooking.

Because Ino had never been to Shikamaru's place, she had to follow Chouji. To her surprise it was close to where she lived, but she had never known that because she'd never seen him near that area, even in their infrequent run-ins. They arrived at the door a little past nine, and Ino knocked three times. Each knock was loud enough to wake the dead, but they received no response from the other side. Ino frowned. "Shikamaru!" she called and knocked again. "It's time to go! Shikamaru!"

He still didn't answer. Turning to Chouji, Ino said, "We'll have to go in a different way. Wait here."

Handing the basket over, she slid around and walked to the other side of the building. "Hey, Ino!" she heard Chouji call after her, but she ignored it.

I'm glad he's too lazy to get a second-story apartment, she thought as she eyed the window and balcony above his. Makes my job easier.

Leaping over the rail that surrounded the small, concrete balcony, she felt under the rug right by the door, wincing at how dirty it was, and pulled the key out of the pouch that attached it to the rug. For a genius, he had little imagination when it came to mundane things. His parents' house key was hidden in the same exact spot and in the same way. Maybe old habits die hard, or else it was too troublesome to think of a more creative way of hiding a key. Unlocking the door took no time, and she slipped inside. "Wow, not bad," she said as she looked around.

He had moved at the same time she did, but as he had already been a Jounin for two years prior, she and Shikamaru had fallen out of contact, so all she knew was that he had moved, not where. No moving boxes lay around the floor, so someone must have helped him move and gotten rid of the boxes for him; there's no way he did that on his own. The rooms had little furnishings, but since a bachelor lived here, it didn't surprise her. A few pictures hung on the walls, but those had to be the work of his mother. The place didn't have a lived-in feel, though that was probably because he didn't come home often. Hokage-sama sent him out on more and more missions, and she knew that he was out of Konoha more often than he wasn't.

The apartment was small, and the front door was only a little ways from the back. Ino crossed the distance between the two and unlocked the door so Chouji could come inside out of the cold. As soon as the door opened, her chubby teammate bustled in and sat down in one of Shikamaru's few chairs. "C-c-could you put this on the t-table?" he asked, his teeth chattering. He extended the shaking hand that held the breakfast basket.

"Sure," she said. "Are you okay?"

He nodded. "I'll be f-fine," he assured her. "I just need to warm up first."

"Okay, you stay there, and I'll find Shikamaru."

Unlike a house, an apartment only had a few rooms that a sleeping person could be. And since only one person lived here, she found what she was looking for in the master bedroom. Buried beneath a pile of blankets, the only part of him that was visible was his hair. "Shikamaru," Ino said. "Come on, it's time to get up."

Not a sound came from the bed. "Wake up," she repeated. Walking over to the bed, she sat down next to him and shook his arm. He moaned and shifted, but he didn't remove the covers or make any other motion that looked like he was moving.

"Don't make me make you get up."

No response, and she sighed. "You brought this on yourself." Gripping the edge of the blankets, she pulled them off her friend.

Ino could see all the muscles in his torso contract as the cold air touched his bare skin. His eyes snapped open, and he gasped. "Ino!" he hissed as he tried to bury himself in the covers he could reach.

"You do need to get up," she told him. "Chouji and I are waiting for you, and Chouji even made you breakfast. You'd better hurry before it gets too cold to eat."

He grumbled under his breath and glared at her, but he relinquished his place on the bed and stood. His muscles shuddered as the cold replaced the heat of the blankets. "You haven't been eating right," said Ino, studying him. "I can see your bones."

Shikamaru paused in the act of scratching his head and looked over his shoulder at her. "You're one to talk," he said. His voice was still rough from sleep. "Do you mind waiting with Chouji? I need to get dressed."

"You may want to think of a quick shower, too," she pointed out as she passed him on her way to the door. She didn't hear him reply, but then again, he probably didn't say anything. He wouldn't even be half-awake until he had showered and left the house; the cold seemed to give him some more life.

Chouji looked up as she entered the living room. "He'll be out soon," she informed him as she sat down on his couch. "Who helped him move?"

"His family and I did," he answered. From behind she could hear the clink of silverware against the counter. "It didn't take long, but his mother made him take everything out of the boxes that day because you know he would've just left them unpacked if she didn't."

"That's true," agreed Ino. "Why didn't you call me? I'd have helped you two move."

She looked over the back of the couch to Chouji, but he was busy taking food out of the basket and setting it on the table. "I went over to your house, but your parents said that you were out on a mission."

"Oh." Ino settled back on the couch. So they didn't forget about me. With this revelation, her suppressed jealousy evaporated.

They both looked over at Shikamaru's door when it creaked, and Shikamaru stumbled out. His slightly red skin still steamed from the hot shower, and it made him look like he had a cloud of fog following him. He didn't acknowledge either one of them beyond a grunt of recognition when they greeted him and sat down at the table. "So you ready to walk all day?" asked Ino as she joined the other two in the kitchen.

Shikamaru glared at her as he chewed on a piece of toast, or he would have if he'd been awake enough to register what she said. The most he could manage was a sleepy-eyed glance that had little of the intelligence he usually displayed. However, he didn't fuss at her, so she took that as a good sign.

Several times Shikamaru tried to leave the table, but Chouji wouldn't let him move until all the food was gone. Sometime during this exchange Shikamaru woke up enough that he started arguing, but he wasn't going to win against Chouji and Ino. She agreed with her chubby friend that the genius wasn't eating enough, and so the two of them forced him to finish everything. When he finished the last bite of egg, Shikamaru dropped his fork and glared at the two of them. "Happy now?" he said around his food.

They nodded, grinning. Rare was the day that someone could win anything against Shikamaru, but his health was something that his friends weren't going to budge on. "Okay, let's go!" said Ino, taking dirty dishes and putting them in the sink. "We can wash these later."

Shikamaru opened his mouth to argue, but then closed it again without saying anything. Pleased that no one was going to fight about it, Ino led them to the door and waited impatiently for them to finish bundling up against the cold. In her mind, Shikamaru didn't have to take so long locking the house; no one in their right mind robbed a shinobi, and it wasn't like he had anything of value inside that Spartan house of his. When he slid the key back out of the lock and into his pocket, Ino grabbed his arm and started dragging him across the snowy sidewalk. "What's the hurry?" he protested, resisting her pulling. "We have all day, so slow down!"

"Come on, I want to see the ice skating!" Ino replied and went ahead.

Chouji chuckled at her childish excitement. "It's the same every year," he said. "You can never win when it comes to this, Shikamaru."

The other man grumbled under his breath, but neither Ino nor Chouji heard anything coherent. As they made their way to where the ice skating ponds were, Ino looked around. Already the thick layer of snow on the main paths around Konoha had been salted, and many snow and ice sculptures adorned the front areas of shops and homes. Large canine prints in the snow by the trees gave evidence of Kiba and Akamaru's earlier practice in the park. He and Ino were kindred spirits; they both loved winter, and sometimes he would accompany her on some of her winter outings when she didn't have anyone else to go with.

In the center of the park the large pond had frozen over, and already many citizens of Konoha, both shinobi and civilians alike, skated around. The beginners stayed closer to the sides while the more daring, experienced skaters did fancy turns in the center. Ino's eyes took in the whole scene, mesmerized especially by the fancy footwork of the inner pond's performers. At her side she heard Chouji comment, "You know, Ino, since you like skating so much, wouldn't it be nice to learn how to do it yourself?"

"No, I just like watching," she murmured, never taking her eyes off the skaters. When she had been younger, before she even graduated from the Academy, her father had taken her skating. She had been so excited, putting on her shoes and watching as Sakura took her first steps onto the frozen water. When Ino got on the ice, she had made the mistake of trying to walk instead of glide, and she fell backwards. Everything after that went downhill, and Sakura fared no better. By the time they had finished, both had vowed to never go on the ice again for so long as they lived. However, even if Ino had proven to be an ice-skating dunce, it did nothing to lessen her appreciation of watching someone else do a good job. Shikamaru and Chouji didn't know about her ice-skating mishap, and she had no intention of ever enlightening them.

The rest of the day the three friends wandered around, drifting along until something caught Ino's fancy, and once they stopped when Chouji saw someone making a meal using common, cold-weather plants as the main ingredients. Many vendors had come and set up tents around the park to sell their wares to the passersby, so Ino had much to keep her occupied, and her former teammates trailed after her no matter where she went.

The vendors had some items that couldn't be found in retail shops, and out here the prices were open to negotiation. Ino loved to haggle, and she spent a few minutes whittling down the prices of items that she wanted. The process bored Shikamaru and Chouji, so they wandered away while she was busy, but she would always find them again a few minutes after she left the vendors, who accused her of cheating them out of money needed to buy someone some shoes or another necessity of life. She saw some blankets on display at one stall and stopped. Taking off one glove, she felt the nearest one and smiled at the softness. Even though it had been in the snow for hours already, the folds were still warm. The bright blue and green jewel-tones would go well in her room.

Looking up to see what her teammates were doing, she saw Shikamaru and Chouji talking near another rack of blankets. Seeing them next to the blankets reminded Ino of this morning when she had pulled the covers off Shikamaru's bed. The blanket right beneath the top bedspread had seen better days, and the colors had faded, but she recognized it as the one she had given him for his birthday right before he qualified for Jounin status. That year he had royally pissed her off, and she wasn't going to get him anything, but her mother had forced her to get him something. It wasn't like he wanted anything from her, but her mother insisted, and he ended up with a large, green blanket. He told her it was too troublesome to put it on the bed, which didn't help her mood; it was just a blanket, for crying out loud! How hard was it to pull off the top comforter, put on a new blanket, then replace the top? So she did it for him, and he must not have changed it ever since. Lazy bum. It wasn't even meant to be put on the bed; those blankets had been made specifically for shinobi going out on missions, so they were more durable than the average blanket.

Sighing, she let go of the blanket and wandered over to her teammates; she didn't need a new one, and even though it felt soft, it was heavy, and she didn't want to carry it around the rest of the day.

"Hey, guys," she said. "You find something?"

Chouji shook his head. "Let's get something to eat. The sun's going down, we haven't eaten since two, and my chips are gone." He held up an empty chip bag as proof.

"I'm fine with that as long as they have salad," answered Ino.

They started off, leaving Shikamaru to trail after them. Ino didn't know where to go, but Chouji looked like he did, so she followed his lead, and they all ended up at one of the Italian restaurants in the civilian part of Konoha. It wasn't as close as some of the other restaurants to the shinobi side, so Ino hadn't come to this place before.

The inside had lots of greenery for ambience. Seeing an ivy plant, Ino walked over to inspect it while the boys made the reservation. The ivy wasn't real, and Ino could see the stitches in the leaves, but she supposed that it looked real enough to someone who didn't know anything about plants and didn't look too close.

Throughout dinner they talked about topics that hadn't previously been covered, like how families were doing. The Nara deer farm was thriving, though Shikaku was worried about a few of the does. The Akimichi family was busy with missions, but Chouji still found time to visit them every once in a while. The Yamanaka Flower Shop flourished, though now was the dead season since not many people wanted cold-weather flowers. A few special orders required a shipment from a warmer country, but they should be in within the next week.

Despite the bright lights of the city, the stars shone bright enough to make themselves known. Glancing up at the sky, Ino smiled. Yesterday's gloominess had all but disappeared, and she spent the day doing nothing work-related. Life would start again tomorrow, but today was still hers. However, her body was getting tired, and she felt her energy slipping away.

The other two knew that their day was winding down, and they walked back toward Shikamaru's house. The Nara groaned at the thought of breakfast's dishes still waiting on him, but he declined Ino's offer to help clean up. "You don't know where anything is, and it's more trouble than it's worth to direct you," he said.

They stopped at his front door. Ino smiled and said, "Thanks for coming with me today," she said. "We never see each other anymore."

Chouji returned her smile. "We enjoyed today, didn't we, Shikamaru?"

The other man made a sound that the others took for agreement. "I…guess I'll see you around sometime," Ino said as she left to head back to her apartment.

Without the sun, the air had a sharp bite to it, but Ino didn't mind. Today was a good day. She did have good teammates, former teammates. If only she could become a Jounin, then they could work together, and then she could see them more often. A new layer of snow lay on the sidewalk, and Ino kicked up small patches of it before the salt could melt it.

A thought shot through her mind when she had gone a few blocks away. I forgot my basket. The basket Chouji had borrowed from her still sat on Shikamaru's kitchen table. She stopped. I could just pick it up later, but I don't know when he'll be back or leave for a mission. He won't remember to give it back later. I guess I'd better turn around.

She hurried back to Shikamaru's apartment. Chouji was still there when she left, but she figured that once he left, Shikamaru would go to bed, and it would be too late to get her basket. As she walked up the steps to the front door, she heard Chouji's voice. "At least she feels better now."

His voice didn't originate from the inside, so he and Shikamaru were out on the back balcony. She started walking around, then stopped. They're talking about me, she realized.

Now Shikamaru spoke. "How could she not? We did whatever she wanted, and I didn't complain."

"Much," Chouji corrected him.

Ino knew she shouldn't eavesdrop, but she didn't want to barge in on them now. Instead, she stayed near the side of the apartment and stopped close enough that she could smell Shikamaru's cigarette smoke and hear Chouji's chip bag crinkle as his hand searched for another chip.

"Admit it, you were glad to spend time with her again," said Chouji.

Shikamaru grunted. "She's so troublesome." But he didn't refute the statement.

"I don't understand why Tsunade-sama won't elevate her to Jounin status," Chouji murmured. "I've heard that she's made some progress as a medic ninja, and Sakura said that she's been practicing her ninjutsu, genjutsu, and taijutsu. Ino hates taijutsu, but Sakura said that she's been working on that the most."

The genius sighed. "Chouji, you know why. Ino tries, but she isn't a strong kunoichi."

Ino stifled a gasp. His comment felt like a sharp kunai bursting her earlier bubble of happiness. Chouji entertained similar feelings. "Ino has been trying, and Tsunade-sama knows that. She'll only keep improving."

"Once she's a Jounin, she may not be given enough time to improve. You know how busy we've been. If Ino isn't ready for a mission, then her first could also be her last, and that could be the end for her teammates, too. Hokage-sama can't afford to promote someone who isn't ready for the responsibility."

"I know Ino's not the strongest fighter we have-"

"Ino's skills haven't been refined to the Jounin requirements. I've seen the files on just about every single shinobi in Konoha, and Ino is one of the weakest kunoichi."

"That's harsh, even for you," Chouji admonished him. "What would Ino say if she heard you say that?"

"It's not an opinion; it's what the files say." The genius let out a long breath, probably releasing cancerous smoke from his abused lungs. "I know as well as you do that she's trying, but Ino wasn't meant to be in the front lines. Her skills are better suited elsewhere. You remember going on missions with her."

Ino was in shock. She knew that she wasn't the best kunoichi, but she hadn't died yet, and that meant something in the shinobi way of life; the stupid ones died early, and the ones that survived got stronger. How could he say that about me? I know he isn't one to mince his words, but I'm not weak! I may not be up to his or Chouji's strength, but I've helped on my missions.

However, Shikamaru didn't lie if someone's life was on the line, and part of the reason Ino felt his words pierce through her soul was she herself had entertained these same thoughts from time to time. Sakura had shot down these thoughts when she gave voice to them, but when Shikamaru said it, she felt like her world collapsed. Her chest felt constricted, and she could feel tears burning her eyes.

Chouji crunched on another chip. "When the three of us were assigned together for missions, Ino didn't do much fighting, but her skills don't lie in taijutsu. She'd end up getting in the way unless we took out the strongest fighters first. But she's a genjutsu user, and that was years ago."

"Chouji, we couldn't rely on her as a team member; that was a problem. You can't deny that."

A heavy sigh, then a hesitant answer. "No, I can't."

Unable to make herself listen to any more, Ino retreated without a sound. When she was several feet away, she broke into a run and didn't stop until she reached her apartment. She fumbled for her key and shoved it into the door with trembling hands. Falling through the door, she locked the door and slid to the floor. In the safety of her own home, she stopped suppressing her feelings and drew her knees to her chest, sobbing. My own teammates didn't believe in me, she cried. The groundwork of her world had just been shattered.

The revelation had ruined her wonderful day. The rock that she had always believed in had turned to sand under her, leaving her without a solid foundation. If only she hadn't gone back for the basket, she could still believe that someone believed in her. Without that rock, she was drowning, and all she could do was sob.