All that was stated in Part one is true in part three
In which there is a mission, secrets are hard to keep, and Chouji decides that cooking is easier then relationships.
All comments, criticism, and overripe fruit thrown at high volocities is much appreciated.
It was hot and muggy inside the greenhouse, even with a fan blasting at full power to loosen up the thick air. Ino sat on the marginally cool cement floor in shorts and a tank top, arms dirty to the elbow as she replanted a tray of morning glories into terra cotta pots.
Repotting was a dirty, tedious, tiring task even when the weather was moderately tolerant, but at the moment Ino didn't mind. It gave her a chance to be alone and make sense of the noise inside her head.
It had been barely three days since the beginning of her "obedient but depressed daughter" routine and her mother had decided, in classic thunder stealing fashion, to go about acting as though she were the one making a sacrifice by 'allowing' her daughter to marry 'below her station'. The melodrama combined with the indirect insult to Chouji was enough to make Ino want to gnaw on something in frustration. But the fact that her mother felt the need to counter Ino's actions was something she counted as a win for her side. She might be making some progress in this after all. Now if only her father would stop skulking around them like they were going to bite his head off then all would be well.
Oh but, Chouji-Ino scowled and crumbled up a clump of potting soil.
Chouji was avoiding her. Not that she'd had the chance to go actively looking for him, but when you work at the same place as someone and associate with the same people, four days without seeing them is highly suspicious; especially considering the situation. It was enough to make her wonder what Chouji's part in the whole fiasco was. If he was just an innocent bystander, then well and good, but he'd somehow done something - anything - to make their fathers think up this bright idea...
Her mouth curved in a toothy grin as she gave the soil an extra firm push around the base of a flower.
Was he ever going to regret it.
She had finished up the last of the morning glories and was reaching for a tray of violets when the chime of the doorbell stopped her. It came from the side door, so it was personal business and not a customer making a pick up.
Wiping dirt grains off her hands, Ino stood and crossed the gritty cement on bare feet. Inside, the shop was cooler than the green house, the lights low to save power since they were currently closed to walk-ins.
"Coming," she called out as she around went a display of nasturtiums to the narrow side door that led into the alley. Turning the tarnished brass handle, she opened the door enough to peer out through the crack.
A chuunin she knew only by appearance came to attention and held out a sealed scroll. "Yamanaka Ino, a mission from the Hokage," he said solemnly.
Ino made an annoyed sound in the back of her throat. Well, there went her day off. "Thanks," she said, pulling the door open all the way and accepting the scroll, "Anything big?"
He lifted one shoulder in an indifferent shrug. "Wouldn't know, I didn't read it. You're to start as soon as possible." He gave a polite bow and took off, a casual "good luck" left in his wake.
Ino muttered a farewell and kicked the door closed with her foot, already sliding her thumbnail under the wax seal. The details inside where crisp and to the point; she was to retrieve a statue containing a set of computer disks from a noblemen's house in a neighboring village. The statue's current owner didn't know what inside so it shouldn't be too heavily guarded, but she needed to act quickly. The estimated time for the mission was four days, with a note to call for assistance the moment it was needed.
Ino felt a little surge of excitement as she ran up the stairs to the small apartment she shared with her family. Though she had been looking forward to having the time off, this was the first time she'd had reason to leave the village in months. A shame she wouldn't have the chance to go shopping or sightseeing, but it would be nice to get away and focus on things purely work related. It might even help her mother get over herself.
Assuming something dangerous didn't happen to increase the woman's resolve to have her popping out babies within a year.
In her room, Ino pulled a pre-packed bag from under her bed and changed into her chuunin uniform. The pack contained all the weapons, medical supplies, nonperishable rations, clothes, fire starting kit, non-scented soap, and money she might need for her mission. All useful, but nothing so invaluable that she would hesitate to discard it should the need arise.
She spent a few more minutes locking up and leaving a note for her parents, then took off to the Eastern gates out of Konoha.
Secrets are tricky things in a ninja village.
Ninja are, after all, extremely good at discovering them. It's their profession and to many, their favorite pastime. It's not enough to be merely good at keeping secrets; you have to be good distracting from them, be cunning and glib with lies and partial truths to lead your enemy on false paths. Be closed mouthed and slip from your questioners like water, or speak with so many words that the facts are securely hidden in nonsense. Some shinobi are so used to hiding that even the most inane aspect of themselves was tucked away under layers of meaningless social niceties. The truth is also a tricky thing in a ninja village.
In the days before her mission, Ino had said nothing of the engagement to anyone other than Shikamaru. But also she hadn't tracked down and silenced all other bearers of the knowledge - namely, her parents and members of the Akimichi clan - nor had she spread any clever and misleading rumors to confuse the populous should word of the arrangement get out.
It simply hadn't occurred to her that anyone would care.
While certainly not stupid, Ino could be a little oblivious at times.
So when a chuunin rank lackey shared the interesting conversation he'd heard between Yamanaka Inoshi and Akimichi Chouji with his partner and roommate, and that partner passed it on to the one jounin that would interested in what Chouji was up to, who in turn mentioned it to his associates just as a certain pink-haired healer-in-training happened to be walking by the door...
Well, Ino only had herself to blame.
The mission turned out much easier than she expected. Not that it was a walk in the park either, but it didn't involve the extensive casing out, researching, infiltrations, and possible torture (of someone else, not her) she'd half expected it would.
One reason for that was because the client had provided a dearth of information on the layout of the house and the routines of its inhabitance. While perhaps a little more information than was strictly needed (among other things, Ino could have done without knowing that the client's now-former father-in-law liked to pee in the koi pond when he'd had one too many jars of sake), it did make planning her theft much less risky.
The second reason was a stroke of pure luck; the nobleman had chosen that day to take most of his household out on a hunting trip. This left the mansion with only a handful of attendants and guards.
The guards, however, turned out to better than decent; the best money can buy without hiring an actual ninja. Her worst moment had come after she had the statue in her hands and was attempting to become one with the ceiling above a bookcase while a previously off-duty guard wandered over to see what that shadow he saw earlier was.
She was able to distract him with a genjutsu and escape the other way while he was taking after the fleeting shape out of the corner of his eye. Once a safe distance from the mansion, she made a well-hidden cold-camp in the woods and slept for a few hours, comfortable in the thought that the fake-statue she left would fool them until at least sunrise.
Primary objective complete, Ino took her time getting back to Konoha. Partially to create a twisty, misleading path for any would be followers, and partially because the weather was pleasant and it was nice to be traveling alone for once. Because her fighting style and personal jutsu worked best with a team, it was uncommon for her to get solo missions and she wanted to enjoy it while she could.
Despite her dawdling, she made it back to Konohagakeru in the exact time allotted and returned the statue to the client, receiving much enthusiastic displays of gratitude in exchange. Ino lingered just long enough to sign off on the appropriate papers and receive her fee before heading toward home. As nice as it had been to get away for a while she was looking forward to meeting up with her family and enjoying a dinner that wasn't tough ninja rations.
She had left the main office and was distractedly tucking her payoff into one of her various vest pockets, when an arm shot out from the darkness of a doorway and dragged her inside.
Spatulas are generally inadequate for killing yourself with, but at this point, Chouji was willing to try anything.
The really frustrating part about the whole thing was that he knew all of Ino's favorite dishes. Just like he knew Shikamaru's and Asuma's and even, through a sequence of events that didn't bear repeating, that Sand-nin Kankuro's favorite foods. So it shouldn't be some great drama to prepare a dinner for her and their families.
But it was. It was a huge, gut tightening, cheek gnawing, considering suicide with an eggbeater and the herb pot on the windowsill, tragedy.
Because Ino didn't want to marry him.
Or maybe she did.
Chouji groaned and pulled the bread dough from its bowl, slapping it down onto the flour dusted counter and working it with strong fingers. The motion was relaxing, but too familiar to fully absorb his attention.
If becoming an Akimichi was the last thing Ino ever wanted in this lifetime - and it was, he knew it was - then the worst possible thing he could do was fix her favorite foods. It implied affection; showed that making a special and delicious dinner for her was important to him. That he would be a good husband who cared about her tastes and sought to fulfill them. Meals were meaningful like that.
So he would have to cook something ordinary. Chicken instead of glazed pork. Snow peas instead of the water chestnuts she so adored.
Yes, that was the way to do it. The sane way.
His full cheek was pulled in as he began chewing on the inside of it, the dough squishing pleasantly through his fingers.
If Ino did, impossibly and against all reason, want to be an Akimichi, want to be his wife...then making some plain, good-for-common-company dinner would break her heart. It would imply that he didn't care about her at all. A cold and heartless way to turn someone down. He couldn't do something like that his friend. Actually, even if her feelings weren't that strong, a meeting between two families seeking to arrange an engagement was still a significant event and she might be just as furious with him for going half-heartedly at it.
But if she hated the engagement, then she'd hate him for showing any kind of encouragement for it.
And if she liked the engagement, then she'd hate him for discouraging it.
And even if he somehow managed to pick the right choice, she might just hate him anyway for making assumptions about her feelings since he obviously never asked her opinion on the subject.
He released the dough long enough to grip the edge of the counter and begin beating his head on it.
Ino was supposed to be coming home from her mission today, so he only had a few more hours to sort this mess out and start with the cooking. Unless she was delayed, but the slightly hope that inspired made him wince with guilt. Begin delayed on a mission was a bad thing. Especially since so often "delayed" really meant "not coming home this time".
Letting go of his death grip on the counter, Chouji rolled the dough up into a sloppy ball and transferred it to a waiting metal tray. There he shaped it into a round mound and dragged a knife across the top to create a crosshatch.
Why couldn't the rest of life be as uncomplicated as cooking? This thinking business was painful. No wonder Shikamaru complained about it so much.
Chouji went still.
Shikamaru was brilliant. A genius. He could do anything. He could solve this problem. He could solve all the female related problems in the world.
Thus energized with hope, Chouji covered the dough with a clean dishcloth and set out to request that Shikamaru do just that.
"How could do this to me? After all we went through together, you had to go behind my back and - "
"Oh right, make this all about you! As if everything in my life has to have something to do with Sakura - "
" - get engaged before I've even had a steady boyfriend - "
"Our parents arranged it and we - "
" - you cheater that's the most underhanded way to - "
" - don't want to get married at all!"
"Oh yeah so like you can't tell them that and call the whole thing - "
"Don't deny it Ino-pig, you just want - "
"Don't you think I've tried! IT DOESN'T WORK!"
"...oh," Sakura's fury dissipated like a punched shadow clone, "Well, that's a problem. Why not?"
Ino let out a long sigh and rubbed above her eyebrow. "You know my parents. The more stubborn I get about something, the more determined they get to make me do it."
Sakura frowned and leaned against one of the empty desks. She looked very crisp and clean in her white, hoodless med-nin uniform, the only thing ruining the image was the messy braid her shoulder length hair was pulled back into. It'd never grown out as long as it had in her genin days and now spent most of its time tucked securely out of her way.
"I have to admit, I was surprised that it was Chouji," she said thoughtfully, folding her arms across her chest, "I always figured it'd be Shikamaru if anyone."
"What, the one that I'd marry or the one that my idiot father would engage me to? Actually, it would have been easier if it was Shikamaru," she admitted, taking the desk next to Sakura's, "He would have dealt with the whole mess in five minutes." Ino paused and added, "Or strung everyone along for months and then simply not shown up for the wedding."
"I don't know how you put up either of them," Sakura said dryly, wrinkling her nose to reconfirm her long established disapproval of the Nara and Akimichi boys.
Ino's glare became cold. "At least my boys don't try to kill each other or run away from the village at every given chance. Speaking of which, how are Naruto and Sasuke?"
"Ugh." Sakura threw her arms up into the air, making the sort expression one usually does when reminded of the pet dog you adore, but really wish would stop piddling on your shoes. "I don't even know. Sasuke's still in isolation from the last time he went missing and every time I try to talk to Naruto, he breaks into this long rant about some shirt he left at Sasuke's place and then runs away. I swear they never grew out of being twelve - hey! Don't change the subject you traitor!"
"This engagement nonsense had nothing to do with you and you need to stop making it your issue right now - "
"That's not even my point, Ino-pig," Sakura overrode the sharp words with a flick of her hand, "You should have told me about it yourself a week ago, then we could have already had this conversation."
Ino stood up from her lean with a frustrated growl and stomped from one end of the empty classroom to the other, as much working off her annoyance as trying to get her brain functioning right again.
"Look, I didn't want to spread it around," she said finally spinning around to confront her childhood friend, "It was family business and I'd hoped it would blow over in a few days and no one would even have to remember it." Some of the angry tension eased out of her with sigh and her words became soft and sincere. "I never intended to keep it from you."
Silence stretched between them for a long moment, as two sets of equally pale eyes regarded each other. Finally, Sakura smiled and hoisted herself up onto the desk, hands crossing over her knees.
"So, what have you tried so far?" she asked encouragingly, ready to bend her bright mind to the task.
Ino joined her and explained Shikamaru's "misery is me" plan and in what ways it had been working, or not working, by the time she'd left for her mission. Sakura protested the passive-aggressive of it initially - she never engaged in behavior like that, not at all - but had to agree that there were some advantages to it.
"The only problem," Sakura said after a break in the conversation, kicking her heels back, "Is that if your mother gets really determined about it, she might deliberately ignore how you're acting under the impression that its what's best for you. Or just to spite you."
Playing with the blackboard eraser she'd snatched off the teacher's desk, Ino let out a disgusted and decidedly unfeminine snort. "I told you that she's already playing the victim in this. Pretty big change from just about tearing father's head off for even suggesting it."
"Can I ask you something?" Sakura said in a tone that implied it was going to be something Ino wouldn't like, and continued without waiting for an answer, "How do you really feel about Chouji?"
"He's my friend," Ino replied without hesitation, "That's part of why this is so hard. I don't want to hurt his feelings."
"Because he might like you," Sakura said promptly, pastel colored brows rising meaningfully.
"Because he's my friend and I don't want him thinking that my not wanting to marry him means I hate him," Ino clarified with a frown. "I mean, if he encouraged this knowing I wasn't interested, I'll kick his ass, but if he didn't know, it could - "
"No, no, no, wait," Sakura interrupted, waving her hands around, "You want to protect his feelings if he just likes you as a friend. But if he loves you and wants to marry you, you'll show no mercy? That makes no sense, Ino-pig."
"That wasn't what I - its not - " Ino trailed off, feeling an uncomfortable surge of emotion at the thought of Chouji seriously being in love with her.
It wasn't an unpleasant thought, really. If anything, it was something of a given; she was pretty and he was male, so of course he found her attractive at least. But Chouji really wanting her - in the wanting-to-date way, the wanting-to-kiss way, the love-of-my-life way - made her stomach twist with nerves and her hands feel damp and clumsy. It was not something she ever wanted to deal with.
Because he was Chouji. Not anyone else she'd ever been attracted too, not the boys that flirted with her or followed her with hungry eyes - just Chouji.
She shook the moment off and dragged up her familiar mantle of righteous fury with the ease of long practice.
"Then if he'd felt that way, he should have told me about it ages ago! This is the worst possible way for me to find out, so now he's just gotta deal with my reaction to it!" She slammed down her foot like an indignant three year old and huffed dramatically.
Sakura shook her head in response and the conversation verged onto other subjects for a short while. As both of them had other duties for the rest of the day, it wasn't long before they were parting ways with several signed-in-blood promises to keep each other updated on events as they changed.
Ino was out the door and several yards from the building, before something occurred to her.
How the hell had Sakura found out?
The answer her mind supplied was immediate and the equivalent to tossing baking soda on a oil fire. Without a second thought, she was charging down the street straight toward the Nara clan household.
Half-way out his front door, Chouji had stopped and gone back for a little plastic box filled cookies his father had baked a few days ago. It didn't seem quite right to go demanding solutions from someone if you didn't bring them something to eat in compensation.
He didn't dawdle, but he didn't exactly rush going to meet up with his best friend. It seemed even less right to show up panting and desperate (like that last time he came over) than it did to show up without food.
Regardless, of all the things he'd readied himself for when he reached Shikamaru's house, the one thing that he hadn't even considered was to look up from his distracted contemplation of the street, to see Yamanaka Ino standing white faced and tight lipped almost directly across from him.
In that moment, Akimichi Chouji's entire life flashed before his eyes and his fear-numbed brain produced only one thought;
'Please don't let it hurt too much.'
Somewhere around that time, Shikamaru happened to look out one of the windows. After taking in the sight of the messy explosion about to occur less than twenty feet from his front door, he snuck out the back door and headed off for someplace safe to hide.
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