The hospital was letting them go. It was a happy occasion. Yet when Ino saw them walk into the hospital lobby the gloom almost choked her.
There was something distant and harsh in the tilt of Sakura's chin, watchful. Something brittle in Naruto's eyes. Sasuke... harder to read, but not by much. Their eyes were a little puffy.
They walked well inside each other's personal space, reverse-triangle formation like they vaguely expected an attack. In the middle, a step back, in the safest position, was Naruto. Ino would have expected Sakura; instead, despite her arm in a cast from hand to elbow, she took the wide-open side, and left the wall to Sasuke. Kakashi-sensei was trailing behind them and kept throwing them little glances like he didn't know by which end to handle them, and, well, she was pretty sure he didn't.
When they were about to reach her, Ino called "Hey guys!" with a grin, and pretended she hadn't noticed. Sakura and Naruto smiled back, but it was the same mechanical response, the same vague 'oh, hell, she's going to be upbeat at us.'
She was glad she'd been warned about Naruto's eyes, because god that was weird. But Kiba's pupils were more obviously strange, with their total lack of visible irises; unless you were close you had to be looking for it to notice the shape of Naruto's.
"Hiya! So you're all free to go?" she asked, falling into step with Sakura.
Gee, how chatty. It felt a little strange when she realized she was being stonewalled by Sakura -- not even actively blocked out, just... Being kept at bay, emotionally speaking, like she was a stranger, an acquaintance at best, not supposed to be privy to the personal stuff.
She had known it happened sometimes when your friends hooked up, but for a second she was jealous that Naruto and Sasuke had taken her best friend away.
"Got anything planned?"
The three of them exchanged a quick look, like they hadn't even thought that far, but the same thing came from Sasuke and Sakura's mouths anyway.
"Training, I suppose."
Naruto blinked slowly and then nodded. "Yeah, yeah."
"Actually," Kakashi said, calm but unyielding, "I'm going to have to veto that."
Team Seven came to a halt and turned to him in blank disbelief. Kakashi stared them down, expressionless even past the mask.
"There will be no sparring and no ninjutsu practice today."
Ino would have expected Naruto to protest first, but while he looked frustrated and a little hurt, it was the flash of thwarted fury in Sakura's eyes that caught her flat-footed.
"Why the hell not?"
Kakashi's voice was low, made not to carry past the five of them, but he didn't pull his punch any more than that. "Because you're still not realizing you're off the battlefield. You're officially on leave until you can get that through your heads."
Sasuke's shoulders were stiff when he touched Sakura's arm to get her to settle down, and his voice bitter. "Are we allowed pushups?"
"Sixty minutes of exercise a day, to maintain fitness." And Kakashi had said 'sixty' because he meant 'and not one minute more.'
They'd forgotten she was there. Ino didn't really mind; it gave her the time to observe and analyze.
She knew why Kakashi was giving that order. They'd gotten hurt by a stronger enemy, but the wounds didn't matter, the rage at their own powerlessness did. If they were allowed to spar, it would get too serious and spiral out of control very quickly. Therefore, not allowed before they got their heads screwed on back straight.
As for fitness... A lot of ninjas Ino knew used excessive training as a form of self-abuse, a way to meld the society-condoned attempt to improve themselves with self-punishment for failing to measure up to impossible standards in the first place. If Sasuke's whole life wasn't an exercise in punishing himself for things that weren't his own damn fault, Ino didn't know what was, and Naruto binged on training like some did on chocolate when there was something he felt he had to master right now. She hadn't quite expected the same response out of Sakura; her friend had more sense than to think one manic burst of obsessive, brutal exercise would allow her to make up for years of trailing behind...
Which meant if no one did anything about their mental state before they started down that path, they'd quickly make that type of desperate session into a routine. And that kind of mindset... No.
So Ino grinned brightly, and she planted a fist on her hip, and steeled herself. "Well, good! Because I'll be damned if I came all the way to this godforsaken country and didn't get to spend a day at the beach, and you three are coming with me."
They stared at her. Over Sasuke's head, Kakashi's visible eyebrow furrowed. Do you know what you're doing? he seemed to ask. She flipped her hair. Of course she did.
"Now hurry up, hurry up! We'll miss the tide."
Ino had zero clue what on Earth the tide would do to make their beach experience all that different, and she didn't even remember whether it was currently high, low, or lopsided, but it gave her an excuse to slip her arm under Sakura's and pull her firmly toward the door.
"Ino-pig!" Sakura protested, but Ino was just glad she was using that stupid nickname again and so she only grinned harder as she dragged her out of the hospital.
Sasuke and Naruto trailed behind, Sasuke stalking like an angry tiger and Naruto dragging his feet. Kakashi didn't follow.
"Hey, might as well," Naruto said with a sigh as he stepped out in the street. "Hotel's gonna be too boring."
Sasuke and Sakura didn't counter that, and Ino considered it an argument won. But now she needed something else -- something more. Because on her own she wasn't going to manage to get very far.
When she caught sight of Shikamaru at the window of the big administrative building, it was an unexpected present. She waved wildly, beaming. "Oi, Shikamaru!"
He waved back somewhat, lifting a hand a few inches and no higher, taking them all in. Ino sneaked a quick meaningful look toward the members of Team Seven that she knew her teammate would catch. Shikamaru had higher clearance and knew more of the circumstances than she did; he'd get her meaning.
"We're going to the beach! Come with us."
"Some of us have jobs to do," he replied -- halfheartedly, which meant there was leeway to convince him otherwise. Ino knew all of Shika's responses by heart. This one was almost permission to bully him.
"They can spare you for a little bit," she retorted. "Just take your second lunch break or something. I'm not going back to Konoha without having spent some time at the beach!"
Shikamaru grumbled something under his breath, and Ino knew she had already won. Great! She seriously needed some support if she was going to do any good today.
Then Temari of the Sand appeared at the window beside him -- in the other angle, but the window was narrow so that wasn't exactly far away. "Oh yes, you're looking at the sky because you're so busy," she said with a healthy dose of sarcasm, and nodded her head in greeting at the little group down in the street.
Ino scowled briefly. Where did she come off manipulating Ino's teammate when Ino was already doing it? Ino didn't need help bending him to her whims.
"The beach, huh," Temari said, considering. "Alright, let's go."
"You weren't invited, you realize," Shikamaru told her, but it wasn't with any kind of seriousness, any actual rejection.
Temari smirked at him, perfectly sure of her welcome. "I'm inviting myself. Any of you mind?"
"Nah, the more the merrier," Naruto replied, though it seemed rather automatic to Ino's ears.
Shikamaru and Temari disappeared inside the building. Ino fumed in silence for a good ten seconds before telling herself that the important thing right now wasn't a stranger worming her way inside their group; the important was Sakura, Sasuke and Naruto's mental wellbeing, and if there was the slightest chance Temari would help distract them, then it was okay.
When the door opened, Ino was expecting Shikamaru and Temari, but instead it was a couple of Sand ANBU who walked out first, taking position to cover the street -- and then came out the Kazekage himself along with his sister and Ino's teammate.
"Naruto," he said quietly.
"... Hey, Gaara."
The way they looked at each other, Ino felt as if she was only privy to maybe one third of the real conversation.
Naruto managed a smile, and while it was real enough, it seemed a little pained and not enough happy and uncomplicated for Ino's peace of mind. Or Sasuke's; she could see him watching his teammate as well, his brow furrowed.
"Will the small cove by the northeast harbor work for your purposes?"
Ino blinked as Gaara addressed her, caught flatfooted. "Uhh -- I... suppose so?"
"Good," Gaara said briskly. "We will be coming as well."
"... Ah." Ino floundered for a second. "Sure! The more, the merrier and all that." Gaara only glanced at her like it hadn't been a question and he didn't have a clue why she bothered to keep talking about it.
The ANBUs zipped off without a word, and Ino grimaced faintly when she realized they would have an escort. Getting Sasuke to open up was going to be harder, not that she had ever counted on it being easy. No matter. Ino tossed her ponytail over her shoulder and started walking down the street with bold steps, pulling Sakura along. Behind her, Gaara and Shikamaru fell into step with Naruto, sandwiching him neatly.
"Hey, Uchiha," Temari said. "Nice day, huh?"
"It's going to rain."
Ino tried not to smirk.
The trip down to the cove wasn't too long, but it was singularly monosyllabic. Sakura wasn't talking much, and Sasuke wasn't talking at all. Neither Gaara nor Shikamaru seemed inclined to prod Naruto to speak, so he only exchanged a couple of platitudes with the both of them.
"Ta-dah!" Ino exclaimed when they reached the end of the winding path and got to the small cove. Cliffs blocked almost all the sides, and there were reefs in the water that meant no boat would risk it. The beach itself was unremarkable, strewn with drying seaweed and a bit steep for proper lounging. It really didn't matter right now. At least it was sunny. Sunlight was always relaxing.
"Okay! Shoes off, everyone." She took off her sandals and stepped onto the hot sand. She'd had to let Sakura's arm go, though, and her friend drifted back toward her teammates without even seeming to realize. Ino sighed. At least Temari was already undoing her ankle straps, and Shikamaru only grumbled something disparaging for appearances' sake as he bent over to do the same.
"This is such a waste of time," Sasuke growled quietly to his teammates. Sakura's eyelid twitched in shared annoyance.
Forehead-girl was supposed to be the smart one, Ino thought with frustration, so why wasn't she taking a step back from the situation and seeing what needed to be done? Argh.
"Shoes off, Sasuke-kun, or it'll be sand in your underwear," Ino sang playfully, giving Sasuke an encouraging smile.
"I'd like to see you try," he snapped.
--ahaha. Damn it. How come her special kunoichi techniques to defuse aggressiveness never worked on him? Come to think of it, no kunoichi technique ever worked on mister Uchiha. Sakura was deluding herself, the boy was gayer than a spring festival.
Ino had a flash of inspiration. "Gaara would help me, wouldn't you?" she said, smiling conspiratorially at him.
The Kazekage arched a nonexistent eyebrow at her in a clear 'I would?' manner. Ino's smile turned more stiff. Yes, yes he would. Curse them, why were they all so socially retarded?
But before she had to make good on her threat, Naruto nudged Sasuke with his elbow and sat on the sand to take off his. "Hey, may as well." He slipped his toes in the warm sand, surprise briefly crossing his face. "... This is pretty nice, actually."
"Well, of course," Ino replied, smug. It wouldn't distract him much, but it was something. At least he didn't seem to be stewing in rage from being forbidden to train like Sasuke still was. More like... resigned.
Ino found she didn't like resigned-Naruto very much. It was like dieting-Chouji; in theory it sounded like a good idea but in practice it was just very wrong.
Temari sat on the dune; Shikamaru flopped a couple of steps away from her, reclining against a convenient rock. Gaara walked slowly down to the water, scrutinizing the small cove for who knew what.
Sakura sighed, raked a hand through her hair -- it was kind of a mess, Ino noticed -- and sat down on the spot, though it was more of a slump than anything else. Her knee bumped Naruto's; he didn't look up. Sasuke was still standing a step behind, back straight and shoulders stiff.
Kakashi was right; in their minds they were still on the battleground.
"Any ANBU in the water?" Ino asked Gaara teasingly as he came back.
"Three," Gaara replied, making her blink. She'd been joking. Somewhat. She should have guessed. Ino opened her mouth, not knowing what she would answer yet, but Gaara looked straight past her. "Nine on the cliffs. Four of yours, five of mine. Out of earshot, so long as we don't shout. You can stand down, Uchiha."
Sasuke's jaw worked, but he didn't sit down until Gaara sat too, and when he did it was with stiff unwillingness.
It made almost a circle, a misshapen one -- Sasuke some distance on her left, and then Naruto, Sakura, Shikamaru against his rock facing Ino, and next to him Temari, and Gaara. Gaara was also keeping his distances. Ino felt a little isolated. How charming. She moved uphill, a little closer to the center, crossed her legs elegantly, and leaned back on her hand.
"Let's play a game."
All of Team Seven plus Gaara gave her an incredulous look, and Temari snorted like she'd said something accidentally amusing and vaguely ridiculous.
Shikamaru arched an eyebrow at her, but it was his 'interesting opening gambit' look, and that was all the encouragement Ino needed. "Why not," he said, crossing his hands behind his head.
"I'm not really in the mood to play, Ino-pig," Sakura said, mostly so Sasuke wouldn't have to bother snapping back something far less diplomatic.
Ino's eyes hardened. "Tough luck. Because we're drowning in emo right now. Don't worry, it won't be a very fun game for anyone involved."
Sakura stiffened, and this time Ino really felt like her best friend was seeing her. Ino stared back, challenging.
"The game. Share one thing you regret, and then one thing you're glad for. Anything you want. I'll start."
"No," Sasuke said, and moved to get back up.
"I'm glad you saved me again," Gaara said, looking straight at Naruto.
A strange expression passed on Sasuke's face, and then another, subtly different, slightly more like pain, when Naruto's hand reached blindly up to his wrist and tugged him back down without a word. Naruto and Gaara were still staring at each other.
Ino remembered to close her mouth. Okay, Gaara had stolen her turn, but nothing she could have said would have packed such a punch.
Naruto opened his mouth, though nothing came out for a few seconds. "Hell, it's not like I could have just not -- I -- it's not again anyway, it's -- "
"You don't get to tell Gaara what he's feeling thankful for," Temari said with a total absence of inflection. "I think we should rule that out."
"Agreed," Ino said, though it bugged her a little that she hadn't thought about it first. "No commenting. Gaara, it's still your turn. One thing you regret?"
Gaara tilted his head, gazing down at the beach sightlessly. "... Only one, hm."
"Don't worry, you'll probably have several turns," Temari said with unexpected gentleness. "Just say the first one that comes to mind?"
Gaara sifted beach sand through his fingers. Bits of broken seashell stayed caught on his palm. "I regret Masago protected me before I could protect him."
Sakura bit her lip and asked softly, like she didn't really want to know but still had to, "Who is Masago?"
"My secretary," Gaara said dispassionately. "Uchiha Itachi put him in a coma."
Ino winced. She leaned toward being glad that Gaara had come, but his total lack of tact was going to be a major hindrance.
Naruto looked pained. "Aw, hell, Gaara..."
"He'll wake up," Sasuke said brusquely. "I did. No lasting damage."
Gaara looked at him for a second, and then nodded slowly. "That's good. Thank you."
"...Mnh," Sasuke acknowledged with reluctance.
Ino breathed out as she realized her plan was going to work. So far there was half of the conversation she couldn't follow because she didn't know the events they were referring to, but it didn't matter; she wasn't the one who needed to go home feeling more understood.
But if she took over the following turn, then Sasuke would be next, and he wasn't ready yet. So she grinned at Shikamaru. "Your turn!"
"Aw, geez." He sighed, but didn't protest more than that. "I regret I didn't gather more info on the Akatsuki in general and that I didn't even think they might find the situation too tempting to pass up. I feel stupid."
He said it like it was a capital crime. Ino chuckled weakly. She should have known he would take it so seriously. At his side, Temari looked vaguely sympathetic and totally unsurprised.
"It's not your fault!" Naruto protested. "I mean how could you guess what a bunch of crazy psychos would do?"
"Naruto... I'm a tactical analyst. It's my job."
"But you can't analyze if you don't have the data," Ino said. "Unless you're psychic now, too."
"But I had the data. Some. Enough."
"Of course, if you're going to bring hindsight into it," Temari said, rolling her eyes. "Psychic isn't too far off."
Shikamaru arched an eyebrow at her. "What was that again about not questioning other people's answers?"
Temari snorted like his avoidance had won her the argument. Ino scowled a bit. She would have argued back that clearly it counted only for the 'grateful' part and completely sidetracked everyone. The revelation irritated her; she couldn't entirely keep it out of her voice. "What do you feel grateful for?"
Shikamaru gave her a strange, questioning look, but took over again without comment. "I'm grateful you lot didn't die... Because it would have been an inter-village political mess to sort out."
"Hey," Naruto protested, kicking sand at Shikamaru's leg. Shikamaru didn't even bother moving to dodge it.
"You skipped me," Temari drawled. "That better not become a habit. Anyway... I regret I couldn't keep Kankuro from landing in the hospital and Gaara from getting grabbed by psychos. He could have died and if he hasn't it's no thanks to me."
Her gaze was frank, sober, sincere. Pulling no punches. Ino was starting to wonder if she ever did.
"I am the Kazekage, not you," Gaara said with a little frown. "We've talked about it before."
"And my position hasn't changed," Temari said, a little quieter, a little wounded.
Ino didn't have a clue what they were arguing about -- though it wasn't much of an argument; Gaara wasn't willing to reconsider his stance or think twice about Temari's and that was pretty much it.
"... If you had been too much of a threat to them, you would be dead. I... would not like it."
Temari blinked quickly and looked down at her hands. Ino looked away, bothered. She didn't like seeing underneath Temari's bitch armor; it just seemed wrong.
"A good thing... Hm." Temari lifted her head, looked at Naruto, Sakura, Sasuke. "I owe you. All three of you." She gave them a faint smirk. "Usually I don't like owing people much, but for you I'll make an exception."
Sakura waved her hand to dismiss the idea, surprised. "Ah -- it's alright."
Naruto was blushing a little. "Hey, we're friends, right? There's no debts between friends."
"Sure there is," Shikamaru drawled. "Or else I'm never going to get my book back from Kiba."
Ino narrowed her eyes, suspicious. "Since when does Kiba read your books?"
Shikamaru pretended he was interested in some shapeless wisp of cloud and conveniently forgot to answer. Naruto looked away guiltily. "Uh, I have no idea either."
"... Oh, gross!"
Sasuke rolled his eyes in a drawn-out 'I am not even surprised but it's still pitiful' way. Temari snorted, with about the same feeling.
Ino pointed and said "Shikamaru, I can't believe you!", but inside she was grinning because they had all relaxed, even just a bit. She waited until Sakura's faint smile had subsided before nodding at her. "Hey, Forehead. Your turn."
Sakura started raking her fingers through the sand and making little piles. "... I regret that I keep being dead weight."
Ino opened her mouth to protest, on principle, a little shocked that Naruto and Sasuke weren't; but then Sakura looked up, and her eyes glinted in a sharp, diamond-hard way.
"It's never going to happen again."
Ino looked at her best friend, her oldest rival, and felt like Sasuke and Naruto had taken her away again. Because right now she knew without a doubt that Sakura had moved past her. Because Ino wasn't who Sakura was aiming for anymore, wasn't who she was measuring herself up against. They weren't rivals anymore in any way that counted.
It ached. She smiled, though, thin and approving, because if she didn't approve then she would be worthless as a friend too.
"Sasuke knows why I'm glad." Sakura rested her cheek on her knees and smiled at him, a little shaky. "I'm glad for you."
Once again Ino felt like she was accidentally overhearing some randomly chosen part of a private conversation, and even more when Sasuke's dark eyes softened.
It didn't last, though, and then he looked away, gazing inwards. "I'm not. I still feel like it's wrong."
Sakura looked a little sad. "It's not."
"It is." He breathed out slowly, straightened his shoulders, regret giving place to sober determination. "The other choice is worse, though, so that's it."
Naruto chuckled almost silently and his hand slid across the sand, curled around Sasuke's wrist. To Ino's surprise, Sasuke allowed it.
"You make everything so friggin' complicated."
"Yeah, well. Your turn."
It came to Ino at that moment that Naruto and Sasuke weren't just doing Sakura, but also each other. She should have been more politically correct or romantic or whatnot, but in her own mind she didn't have to, and Sasuke and Naruto were having sex with each other.
The bitch hadn't told her that. Ooh, she was going to get it. Though it explained a hell of a lot, like why she seemed to still feel insecure about having two hot boyfriends ready to share with another guy just so they could date her, and -- and it really wasn't the time and place to dwell on it, so Ino put a lid on it and let it simmer in a corner of her mind.
"I regret," Naruto said, and his hand fell away from Sasuke's wrist. Sasuke bumped the back of his hand against Naruto's fingers fake-accidentally, like he was telling him 'hey, why'd you let go' and a corner of her brain said 'oh yeah, definitely doing it.' Another part said 'this is love' and 'I didn't think Sasuke really could.'
"I regret," Naruto said again, a little choked up, like he didn't want them to know it hurt but it was too hard for him to do anything but a shitty job at hiding it.
Sakura's fingers wrapped around Naruto's other hand, that he held in a fist on his lap, and she leaned against his shoulder, waiting in silence.
"... I couldn't control him."
"What part of 'unbreakable sleep jutsu' do you have a problem with, moron?" Sasuke asked, almost conversationally.
"The unbreakable part," Naruto said with a laugh that sounded a little like there was a sob caught somewhere behind it.
Sasuke snorted. "You would. Idiot."
"Yes, it is expected of you," Gaara said, smiling faintly.
Naruto took a deep breath and threw himself into the rest before, Ino supposed, anyone could tell him it wasn't actually his fault. "I'm grateful to you all, for not being dead, and for being here, and you better not die. Ever."
"You're pretty sappy, Uzumaki," Temari commented with a teasing little smirk.
Naruto glared at her a bit. "No I'm not."
"Uh huh. Sure. You're a giant sap."
Naruto turned huge blue eyes to his female teammate. A little overplayed, not quite hiding the pain behind, but he was trying and Ino thought that was something. "Sakura-chan, she's being mean to me."
"My poor dear," Sakura said with fond mockery, and slipped her fingers in his hair to comb it away from his forehead. Naruto leaned into her hand for a second.
"If you're gonna fight her for my honor, can I watch?"
Unsurprisingly, Sakura rapped her knuckles on his skull, though it was so light Naruto only said "Ow!" out of habit.
Shikamaru was the one who interrupted them, quietly but determined. "Sasuke, your turn."
"I regret," Sasuke said, and then frowned like he was disappointed in himself for falling into the silly game pattern. "I'm still weak."
Ino sighed. The guy was shaping up to be one of the most lethal ninja of their generation, and he complained about being too weak. Someone here had a really skewed sense of perspective, and she didn't think it was her. "Another clause. Concrete things only! No general moping allowed." Sasuke glared at her. Aw damn, now he probably thought she was insulting him or something. She met his eyes, steady and serious. "Sasuke-kun, please."
"That's concrete enough for me. I'm too weak, what else is there to say?" he said. There was something raw in his voice that made Ino look away. "Next."
"One thing you feel good about," Sakura prompted him softly.
Sasuke closed his eyes. For a moment Ino thought he wasn't going to find anything to answer to that one either.
"... Marrying you," he said, so quiet she almost didn't hear it.
Aw, hell, and why was Ino getting teary-eyed so suddenly? She looked at Sakura; it would make her happy.
Sakura was smiling, sweet and soft and a little shaky. "I -- think I'll keep it for my next turn, hm?"
Naruto stretched his leg, getting sand up his pants leg, and nudged Sasuke's foot.
Ino could practically see the connection between the three of them, however subdued they were acting at the moment. She tactfully looked away, feeling a pang of envy. She hadn't even found a guy she could see herself with for more than a few months; and in the most unconventional way ever, Sakura had those two, who seemed determined to stay until death. So unfair.
"Okay, my turn," she said.
She thought about it for a second. Nothing she had to say was going to measure up, of course. It wasn't going to help them feel understood if she chose badly.
Anything related to that big second-test clusterfuck would probably come across as generic and canned, and also pretty stupid; there was no way she might have been around to help, or been able to do a thing had she been, and she knew it. Of course she worried for them, and of course she wished she could have helped, but she wished she would win the lottery and buy herself three shops' worth of trendy clothes too.
Missing Sakura would be strong enough, but it would probably come across as if Ino was trying to make her feel guilty.
She still needed something personal. Something that wouldn't paint her in a very flattering light, so that other people would feel free to do the same later on.
"I regret... That when my aunt eloped with that civilian and left Konoha, and my father worried himself sick over her, the only thing I cared about was that he wasn't paying attention to me. The guy she married was bad news, Dad knew it, Mom knew it, I should have known it, but it didn't really matter to me. I regret I made my dad feel like he couldn't talk about her with me, every time we got some secondhand news about how bad she had it."
She did regret it a bit; though she'd been a child, and jealousy and lack of maturity were to be expected.
"And I regret that when she finally got a divorce and came back to Konoha last year and she was too ashamed to come home, and I knew Dad couldn't bring himself to take the first step, I didn't try to meet her and bridge the gap. Now I have a cousin who's a Yamanaka in name only and he could have gotten seriously hurt or even died before I even got to know him."
"Oh." Sakura looked at Ino, biting her lip. "I didn't know you felt that bad about it."
That... was pretty much because Ino didn't. She felt a little dishonest for exaggerating so much. She did feel kind of bad about the situation, but she didn't obsess over it; she'd just decided to go and fix it. She gave Sakura a reassuring half-smile and continued.
"I'm glad that I got my passport approved so I could come here during the one-month gap to train the hell out of him," she said with a mildly evil smirk, making Sakura -- and Temari, how strange -- chuckle. "He's in the tournament next month and he better make the Yamanakas look good. He's got so many clan jutsu to learn! I swear, I don't know where to start."
Naruto blinked, and gave her a tentative smile. "I think we met him before the first test. He's a fun kid. In a team with Hinata's little sister, right? And... some guy. Yeah, he's friendly."
Ino grinned back. "Yes, he is kind of cute, for a brat. But he better be a hard worker too."
Shikamaru shrugged. "He's been in Konoha less than two years and he's already done with the Academy and on a team taking the Chuunin exam. I wouldn't worry about that."
Surprised, Ino beamed at him. "Hee! Yeah, you're right. He'll be fine. Okay, next. Gaara?"
It was pretty much the last spot of fun they had for a while.
Gaara regretted that no matter what he did, part of the village would still tell tales to their kids about Gaara of the Desert, who soaked his sand in the blood of children. "At least they've started saying I only do it if they misbehave," he added, strangely melancholic.
Temari hated that she couldn't change people's minds about how much Gaara had changed, how totally different he was. But she was happy that some -- more and more -- people were changing their mind on their own. Made her feel a little less cynical about the human race. A little.
Shikamaru regretted that he'd let himself fall into a routine and stopped stretching himself and now he wasn't meeting expectations.
Of course Team Seven trumped them all.
"I regret I didn't go to Tsunade-sama much sooner, without waiting for an excuse. I regret that for so long I was glad for low-grade exercises for my health instead of grabbing the opportunity for all it was worth. I'm glad she agreed to take me as an apprentice, though I still don't know why she bothered."
"I as good as killed them. That big healer guy and that kid. I'd been playing around with that kid. He had that funny attack with a weirdass name. And they're operating today and they're --not optimistic. I'm glad -- I'm glad, Sakura-chan told me, at least it was fast."
"I couldn't fight him off. I couldn't protect them. He just left because the jounin were coming. I'm not fucking glad, there's nothing to be glad about."
Sakura, Ino thought, would eventually be okay. She had decided on a course of action to fix her shortcomings and she was determined to see it through.
Naruto... Ino had no idea how on Earth he would have 'as good as' killed a kid, and she'd had to swallow a gasp and a 'No way!' But it was classified and need to know, and all she needed to know was how Naruto felt about what had happened -- not the facts themselves but how Naruto took them.
Sasuke's issues were more disturbing, because when he said "I'm not good enough for my brother," she wanted to say, 'well, of course. You're younger, he had five more years to train.' Then she realized Sasuke hadn't meant 'I'm not good enough to stand against him.' He meant 'I disappointed him.'
God, but he was fucked up. Ino felt the last remnants of her old crush die. Sasuke had a gorgeous face and an even better body, but he was such a mess, and she didn't know why it had taken her so long to realize how deep the fault lines ran.
But Sasuke had been fucked up for a good long while, and he wasn't that much worse off now than he'd been last week; he had long since learned to function around his damage, and a short discussion on a beach wouldn't make much of a dent. Ino nodded to herself and decided to concentrate on Naruto. The sooner he bounced back, the sooner Sasuke and Sakura's dark mood would lift.
"You're not arguing, Ino-pig."
Ino blinked and looked up at her best friend. Sakura watched her, a little wary, a little calculating. Naruto and Sasuke both looked stiff, their faces sporting unconvincing 'I don't care what you all think of what I just said' expressions. Ino knew a loaded question when she heard one. So did Shikamaru and the Sand siblings; they left the answer up to her.
"There's nothing to argue, is there? It's how you guys feel. No one can tell you that's wrong."
"You were, earlier," Naruto said.
Ino waved her hand in a dismissive way and smiled her understanding. "We weren't telling you that your feelings are wrong, just that if you're going to feel guilty it should be about things you really were responsible for, hm? You guys saved Gaara's life. You guys survived. Nothing that happened around those facts should make you feel guilty."
She let the silence settle; Naruto stared sightlessly at his feet as he thought about it.
"... And about those guys I ki -- hurt... You're not gonna tell me it's not my fault?"
Oh, god, he was going to break her heart if he kept looking at her with those eyes. It didn't matter how weird his pupils looked, after so long seeing them round, that face went right to her heartstrings. Ino moved on hands and knees, crawled closer just so she could put a hand on his knee and squeeze.
"Naruto, we weren't there. You're the only one who knows how big or how little a part you played. It's something you're going to need a little longer to untangle -- just don't get stuck on that feeling and never take a closer look, hm? It's okay to grieve and to regret. It's not okay to take more of the blame on yourself than you truly deserve. And if you really are guilty of something, then it's normal to feel guilty -- and then you have to find a way to atone." She paused for a second, letting the words make their way through. "Just sitting there allowing it to crush you is no help to anyone. Not you, not the people you wronged, not the people who love you. You know?"
She met Naruto's eyes for a moment, until he nodded slowly -- more acknowledgement that she had spoken than agreement, eyes already going unfocused as he considered her words. Then she sat back down; closer than she had been, but it was okay now.
Sakura gave her a trembling little smile, but it was Temari's thoughtful, weighing gaze that startled her. Shikamaru was smiling faintly. Ino huffed a little and flicked her bangs back behind her ear. What, did they all think she really was stupid?
Naruto still wasn't looking entirely convinced, but it didn't matter right now. He'd think on it. And he'd deal with the guilt faster if he had a strong support net of people by whom he felt valued, it was basic post-traumatic field care. So she squeezed his knee again and softened her voice. "We just love you, you know? We all do."
Gaara nodded slowly in agreement as Naruto's eyes filled with unshed tears.
"I wouldn't put it quite like that," Shikamaru drawled.
Temari smirked at him. "Not homoerotic enough for you?"
Naruto laughed -- a slightly too-thick, too-wet sound, but a laugh all the same. He rubbed at his face with his sleeve, fighting to get himself back under control. "Man, I don't wanna know about your homowhatever, Shikamaru."
Temari nodded, falsely commiserating. "You've got enough of that at home, huh."
Sasuke's eyelid twitched. Ino tried not to find it funny.
"Hey!" Naruto protested. "Shika just doesn't go there."
"... A fact for which I am truly grateful."
"You're just jealous you didn't grab him first," Sakura said to Shikamaru, squeezing Naruto's hand.
Ino sighed mournfully. "I don't know if Shikamaru is jealous, but I know I am. Those abs! If only I had seen Naruto shirtless before you snatched him up." She paused, thoughtfully tapped her lip with a finger. "Yes, I believe this will do as my regret for this turn."
Naruto started blushing.
"... Ino-pig, are you flirting with my boyfriend?"
Ino smirked at Sakura, slow and satisfied. "Oh, I wouldn't dare."
Sakura threw a fistful of sand at her. Instead of descending into immaturity with her, Ino dusted herself off and gave a disdainful little sniff, pretending she wasn't smirking. "Oh, really, Sakura."
Her best friend rolled her eyes and made a 'Just you wait, I'll get you for this' little grimace. "Gaara, it's your turn," Sakura said primly, ignoring her ostensibly. Ino smirked harder.
"Is it?" He blinked. "Hm. I don't know that I regret anything else. Nothing that's worth mentioning, at any rate."
"It doesn't matter if it's a little silly," Ino said. "You could say you regret that it's been too long since the last time you ate your favorite pastry, or something."
Gaara watched her in silence with his too-pale eyes for a couple of unnerving seconds, and then he smiled faintly. "I regret I don't like pastries."
Ino blinked, caught flat-footed. Had Gaara just tried to make a joke? She let out a chuckle, more out of surprise than amusement. Naruto snickered; Shikamaru snorted; Temari made a soft choking sound and started grinning.
"Heh." Temari smiled at her little brother, with a sincerity and lack of cynicism that surprised Ino all over again. "In that case, I'm glad, because that means I can give all my baking experiments to Kankuro. I regret that it's probably going to poison him," she added, ironic. "How terrible. At least he's already inside the hospital."
Shikamaru rolled his eyes. "I regret that I let myself be conned into coming here."
He paused, sobered up.
"No, not really. I suppose... I'm not very happy with how little I've been visiting Asuma-sensei since he and Kurenai-sensei had the kid. I should fix that. Stop saying 'I'm too busy' or 'They're not going to want visitors today' so often."
Ino gave him an understanding look. Of their team, Shikamaru had always been the closest to their teacher, and by far. While she liked Asuma-sensei just fine, and was glad they'd gotten him for a teacher, for Shikamaru he was more of a beloved uncle, almost a second father. She could tell what had happened, too, and how slowly the gap had widened -- a simple 'I shouldn't be selfish, I should let him concentrate more on his real family.'
Ino smiled faintly. Shikamaru didn't look like it, but he could be surprisingly sensitive in some ways.
"I'll remind you," she promised. "And if you get sidetracked again, I'll remind you more pointedly."
"Nag me, you mean." Shikamaru grimaced at her, pretending he minded.
"Nag you with kunai, even."
A rueful chuckle escaped from his throat. "That would be good, yeah. Thanks, Ino."
She waved it off, though the gratitude made her happy. The gratitude, and knowing she could read him so well, and knowing she could help, in her own way. Not as directly as some, not in a material, tangible way, but an important way even so.
She looked at the Team Seven trio; Naruto still depressed, but slowly unwinding into melancholy; Sakura leaning against his shoulder -- casually, not like she had found him in a blizzard and was trying to keep him from freezing anymore; Sasuke... well, still unreadable, but at least he wasn't scowling. A couple more turns, perhaps, some more emotional bonding, and then hopefully they could just goof off together. Goofing off was another good way to bond, and an even better way to release tension and negativity.
They were all looking at Sakura now, the whole group, getting used to the cycle, but Sakura was staring at the sand, as if chewing her words over.
"Sakura-chan? It's your--"
"I don't like the house."
Sasuke blinked, and Naruto opened his mouth to say something; but Sasuke nudged him and he swallowed his words. Sakura scratched her foot with a chipped nail, not looking at either of her teammates.
"I know I should have told you two, but I just... I don't like the house. It's good to live together, but -- I feel like we're camping. Like we're not living there -- we're just waiting." She took a deep breath and charged through the rest of her grievances, irritated and guilty. "And we can't knock down the wall between the upstairs bedrooms to make a decent-sized room because it's a load-bearing wall, and there's really not enough space to raise children in it, and the garden is ugly and the light is wrong, and -- and I just don't like it!"
She deflated, once again staring at her feet, pretending that her wriggling toes were of the utmost importance.
"... Oh." Naruto blinked. "I didn't know. I kinda -- I mean, it's bigger than my old apartment or Sasuke's, and I never had a garden before, so... I didn't think it was that bad." He paused. "But if you want to move, I'm game. I mean, it's just a house. Sasuke?"
Sasuke was, once again, brooding. Ino wasn't sure why, exactly. Houses, houses, what were his issues about -- oh, right. It had probably belonged to one of his dead relatives -- heck, no 'probably' about it. She knew it had to, by virtue of standing in the Uchiha district in the first place.
"I agree," he said suddenly. "It's someone else's home."
Naruto sighed. "Yeah but the whole district is someone else's home. And yours --"
Sakura kicked his ankle, but too late. Sasuke's jaw was already twitching.
"What about Uchiha's home?" Gaara inquired.
Sasuke gave him a flat, stony look. "I burned it down," he said in a tone that didn't invite commentary.
"Oh. Is that your regret for this turn?"
Sasuke scowled; Gaara had clearly overstepped his bounds. Being Gaara, he didn't seem to give a damn. Okay, Ino was definitely glad he'd come. Sasuke needed to learn to tolerate being pushed.
"No it's not."
"Renting is out?" Temari asked, in a matter-of-fact tone that was hard to take offense to, thought Sasuke obviously felt like the topic itself was doing that well enough. "There's only building from scratch left, then."
Ino grudgingly conceded the point. It had obviously not occurred to the members of Team Seven yet, considering the way they blinked.
"... It would be expensive, though," Naruto said slowly. "And it would take ages."
"Geeze, don't worry about that now," Shikamaru said, waving it off. "You've got plenty of time."
Ino quirked an eyebrow at him; she thought she recognized that calculating gleam in his eye. She would bet he was already trying to figure out how to arrange that. She'd leave it to him; he was better with concrete problems. The psychology was all hers.
"I regret I didn't notice," Naruto said with earnest apology. "We're gonna fix it, huh Sasuke?"
"Yeah, yeah." Sasuke rolled his eyes; "Same. Next."
Ino scoffed at Sasuke's blatant avoidance. But it didn't matter too much anymore; he didn't look as tightly wound now, just bored and annoyed that he would be forced to socialize. Naruto looked better, too, faced with a problem that was well in his ability to fix.
She would have liked to push them a little farther, but they would probably start balking really soon. Time to relax.
"I regret," she proclaimed sadly, "That I didn't buy that pretty dress when I could, because all that money went into buying you lot edible food at the hospital. It was Water Country exclusive fashion!"
Sakura huffed. "Well excuse me -- wait. How pretty are we talking?"
Ino started laughing. Shikamaru groaned. "Oh god. If you two are going to be girly, I'm done."
"Aw, Shikamaru! Come on."
"No, that's it, no more. I think I speak for everyone here."
Sasuke muttered a 'hear, hear' that made Ino do a double-take. Gaara nodded. Naruto jumped on his feet, startling everyone. "Yeah! Time to... Do something else. Like -- uh. Okay, we have this awesome beach..."
Temari gave the rocks poking out of the sand and the smelly seaweed a pointed look. "Uh huh?"
"There's no way we can't do something with it!"
Ino gave a falsely disappointed sigh. "Oh, fine. ...Oh, look, there's an empty bottle. We could use it to point --"
"Spin the Bottle?" Sakura asked with a vaguely horrified grimace. Gaara arched his... eyebrow ridge in question; Ino and Sakura both looked away and giggled nervously at the thought of having to explain it to him.
"No, no, just, I don't know -- we could play 'Say one good thing about someone else!' Wouldn't it be fun?"
"Oh ew! You and your feel-good schmoopy... feelingness," Naruto protested. "We should play a manly game."
"Like seeing who can dive from the cliffs without hitting a reef head first, you mean?" Ino retorted, rolling her eyes.
Naruto's face lit up. "Oh yeah!"
"The water's too shallow, no one would win," Gaara pointed out, making Naruto pout, cheeks puffed up.
Ino grumbled. "And if you want to play any game with seaweed, I'm done."
Temari gave her deep-throated chuckle and threw the boys a challenging look. "Of course, if we had to play that 'say one good thing' game, we would have to add rules. For example, you can't formulate it like 'I guess you're not quite as terminally stupid on days that don't end in Y'."
Sasuke looked like he had smelled something stinky, at least until he pointedly turned his head to stare at the sea. Naruto stepped down the slope to block Sasuke's view, tilted his head to peer at his expression -- and then he cracked up.
"Oh man. I take it back, it would be great."
"Shut up," Sasuke muttered. Sakura pressed her knuckles to her lips to hide her grin.
"But Sasu-kins has this handicap... How about he says it in his native language, and I translate for him?"
Sasuke threw him a dark glare. Naruto nodded like he had said something deep.
"That, for example, is 'geez, Naruto, thanks for the offer, you know I'm shy in public'."
Temari and Shikamaru were laughing, Gaara watching with faint amusement. Sasuke suddenly swept his leg out, leaning back on his hands, and kicked Naruto in the thigh, making him stumble back. Arms wheeling until he regained his balance, Naruto grinned at him and then gave a limp-wristed hand-flick.
"And this one is 'Stop embarrassing me, I'm going to blush! Oh my'."
Sasuke growled and rolled forward on his feet, using his momentum to slip under Naruto's guard and catch him with a shoulder in the stomach. He took a last couple of steps with Naruto thrown over his shoulder, laughing wheezily, and then he dumped him in the surf.
Naruto resurfaced, choking on the water and still laughing, and said he couldn't translate that in mixed company.
Ino was kind of sad, when the sun started going down, that they had to go. Even though her hair was a mess and she had sand in places no sand had any business being, and the tip of her nose was turning an unfashionable shade of well-done pink. They'd thrown sand and seaweed and a couple of crabs at each other; they'd all ended up getting dragged in the water, sometimes several times in a row. They'd swam, a little, between unpractical rocks, despite the lack of swimsuits and towels and the discomfort of air-drying. They'd horsed around. They'd had fun. They'd all grown a little closer.
Now they had to return to normal life and their current worries and even though she knew it was necessary she couldn't help but wish it could have waited a little while longer. That break would help, she was sure of it. But...
But, nothing. Ino sighed as she followed Temari up the sloping path, twisting saltwater out of her ponytail. Sakura and her boyfriends were on her heels, Shikamaru and Gaara bringing up the rear. Soon they would be back on the road, and then back to the village, and then --
They didn't even get that far, because where the path flattened before the road, Kakashi was waiting, inscrutable and vaguely sinister in his permanent black mask, an ominous square of paper in hand. For a second Ino was tempted to shove Team Seven back down the path before they could see him, hear what other bad news or reprimand he had to share.
Kakashi gave her a polite nod and an inquisitive look, and she reluctantly nodded back, a professional to another. Yes, they'd be fine. They could take it. Ino didn't like it, but they could.
"Naruto?" Kakashi called as the group came to a stop around him.
Naruto didn't hesitate more than a second before he came forward, shoulders tensing again. "...Yeah?"
She realized in a flash that Kakashi's eye wasn't distant -- tired, but not remote.
And then he softened. Smiled.
"The kid woke up."
Naruto stared at him for a couple of seconds, and then he made a funny little hiccupping noise. Then his teammates were standing at his sides, and Sasuke was pressing a hand between Naruto's shoulder blades as he buried his face in Sakura's neck.
Ino slipped her arm under Shikamaru's elbow so she could herd the rest of them
away; and when Gaara wouldn't come she hooked his arm, too, and grinned a wet,
relieved grin. Now, now she really believed they'd be okay. No, more
than okay. They'd be great.
[Chapter 9] [Chapter 10]