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All The Roads We Have To Walk

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. ~ {oOo} ~ .

"Ino." The woman tilted her head and pushed back a couple stray pieces of pink hair, keeping them out of her eyes so she could better glare at her friend. "Ino? Earth to Ino?"

The kunoichi in question raised a single eyebrow in response and gave a non-committal, "Hmm?"

"Seriously, have you heard a word that I've said?" Sakura took a long draught from her bottle and leaned back farther in the dark booth, shaking her head lightly.

"Yeah, yeah. It was Kakashi this and Kakashi that," – the blonde, her voice lilting in sarcastic sing-song, waved a dismissive hand towards Sakura – "and oh-I-hope-Kakashi-gives-it-to-me-hot-and-hard real soon."

"Hey, Pig! I never–"

"I was reading between the lines, of course." Ino snorted with mock derision. "Anyone can see that you're chomping at the bit to get your slutty little hands on his hot body."

"In the interest of our long-standing friendship, I'm going to forget I heard that." Sakura covered her agitation with a saccharin smile. "So, how have you been?"

The girl narrowed her blue eyes in warning. "Fine."

"Ino, it's been six months. You really need to–"

"I don't want to talk about it," Ino retorted sharply, her tone insisting that her friend drop the subject.

"Fine. You're not ready to talk, so we won't talk." Sakura huffed in exasperation, though her verdant eyes flashed with thinly veiled empathy. "Let's just drink then."

Ino sighed, downed the last of the now-lukewarm liquid left in her bottle, and walked out without another word, leaving her friend with the bill and a worried expression.



. ~ {oOo} ~ .

The fourth shinobi war left the village of Konoha much changed. While it did not suffer the heavy casualties that some of the other villages had, most of their personnel killed in action had been highly specialized jounin or department heads. And much to the despair of many, the hokage had also been among those lost. The village and its citizens found themselves suddenly without their guidepost.

Tsunade's burden was laid to rest on the shoulders of one much too young for the task. The final act of the reanimated hokage, before Orochimaru released them to eternal rest, had been to name Konoha's next leader. Naruto, after receiving the blessing of his predecessors, accepted the position with more humility than anyone had previously thought possible, promising to surround himself with those that could help him lead the village with wisdom and diligence.

Naruto started his term with shinobi ranks in disarray and gaping holes to fill, but his determination to be true to himself and his promises left him undaunted. As such, his first few weeks of peace were spent not in much deserved rest, but rather the extensive reorganization of the military infrastructure. The man knew that there were changes to be made, lives and systems to be brought back into functioning order. And Naruto knew that he had to be the one to set the example for others to follow.

He chose to honor the dead by learning to stand on his own two feet again.

And he hoped that the shinobi under him, those whose lives he had suddenly become responsible for, would follow his example.



. ~ {oOo} ~ .

Somehow during those first few months of the near constant reshuffling of personnel, Team 10 had managed to stay intact. Very few teams could say the same. Some groups had been disassembled due to reassignment and promotion; it was time for the younger generation to take up the mantle of leadership and teaching. But more teams had been broken apart by painful necessity than by positive change. Injury and death were not a respecter of persons, not in the context of war, and had touched nearly all squads in some form. Most considered the current Ino-Shika-Cho to be extremely lucky, as they had left the battlefield physically unscathed for the most part – just a few minor flesh wounds for their troubles. But apparently few remembered that the loss which the three shinobi had sustained was much worse. Emotional scars took much longer to heal, if indeed they ever did.

They lost a sensei, for the second heart-crushing time, and two fathers before the end.

That was not the kind of luck anyone wanted.

Upon returning to the village, Ino quickly realized that she wanted out.

It was irrational, she knew, but the girl wished to be released. Seeing her teammates day in and day out - during training, on missions, practically at every damn meal – was the hardest thing. Everything about her boys reminded her of everything she wanted to forget. And though she wanted to forget, to move on like nothing had happened, Ino hated that the consistency of life after her world shattered looked so much like it had before.

She had lost her father, much like her mother years before, and the world didn't even pause for it.

Ino drifted aimlessly for a couple of weeks in her own contradictory mind, hating the overwhelming sorrow that she struggled to hold at arms' length, before she hardened and went into a kind of survival mode that many in her line of work learn to cloak themselves in. Denial was easier for her to deal with. It always had been. So instead of confronting her grief, the life and death left behind by the war, Ino hid inside herself and walled up her heart.

She would, the girl decided, sacrifice every lovely emotion to keep the pain away. And when Ino followed through with her resolve, she did so with a lethality that only a kunoichi could muster. Her waking hours were filled with a numbing defiance against any and all, whether it was person or circumstance, that attempted to make her feel.

Her only regret was that she held no control over her dreams.

. ~ O ~ .

"Shikamaru! Chouji!" The girl holds a hand over her brows, shielding her eyes from the sun and spring winds. Blonde hair whips around her face like an angry halo as she stomps her foot and forces the air from her lungs shrilly. "I know you guys are out here!"

A large, masculine hand raises up a few meters ahead of her, half hidden in the long grass and wildflowers, and motions her over. Ino rushes to the place designated, hands on her hips, and clicks her tongue impatiently. She leans over the two friends, one face round and genial, the other holding the faint trace of a scowl on his lips.

"Oi, woman, you're blocking my view," Shikamaru drawls out, his eyes narrowing in frustration.

"Sorry," she replies, her tone completely unapologetic, "but Lady Tsunade sent me to retrieve you. Something about new strategies to go over. We'll be going to battle soon, you know."

Shikamaru languidly rises and brushes off his pants, taking a last wistful look at the sky before leaving in the direction that Ino had come from. He shrugs and throws his response over his shoulder. "Yeah."

Ino settles on her back into the impression that her teammate left behind, still warm from him occupying it most of the afternoon, and turns to Chouji with a small smile. "It's kind of surreal, huh? Going to war at our age, I mean."

"Yeah." Chouji, his eyes still firmly on the clouds, walks his fingers across the space between them and brushes her hand. His thumb plays with the pulse point on the underside of her wrist, an absent-minded yet gentle motion. "Ino, can I ask you something?"

The girl rolls onto her hip, bringing her front nearly flush to his side, and nods. "Of course."

"When this is all over…" he starts, twining her hand in his larger calloused one, but then hesitates for a moment. His forehead wrinkles in thought and Ino isn't sure he will continue, so she nudges him with a pointed finger on her free hand. "When this war is finished, where do you see yourself?"

"In Konoha, of course." Ino speaks flippantly, as if she was teasing a small child.

Chouji pins her with an annoyed stare. "That's not what I meant and you know it."

"Yes, I know." Ino giggles a bit, causing him to blush. "But you didn't ask the question you really wanted me to answer."

"I didn't?" His voice lightly challenges her, but he looks away sheepishly as he realizes that his subtle attempt at digging has been revealed.

"Uh-uh." The girl wags her finger in silly admonition, before raising herself onto her elbow to whisper in his ear. "You wanted to ask me who I saw myself with."

Chouji turns his body, bringing his chest in contact with hers, and whispers back. "Well then, let me try this again, since you caught onto my deception so easily."

Then he draws himself up, hovering over her that masculine way that makes her feel perfectly safe and terribly threatened all in the same breath. His lips descend slowly until they make contact with hers and it is the sweetest thing Ino has ever felt.

. ~ O ~ .

Ino awoke with a start, unsettled by the images that her unconscious had brought back to surface, and slapped her cheeks roughly. The physical shock of the action helped to bring her back to reality and away from the memories that she wanted to bury. Her hands came away from her face damp and in self-disgust, she wiped them on the soft fabric of her nightgown. Frustrated, she flung the tangled mess of sheets off of her body and briskly made her way to the bathroom.

A long, hot shower always helped her regain control of her wayward emotions.

And she was going to need that control to get through another day.

After toweling off, Ino rummaged through her dresser for her undergarments, roughly shoving a small, velvet box to the back of the open drawer. That wasn't something she wanted to think about either, so she shimmied the silky fabric up her legs and moved to retrieve her uniform from the closet.

Once fully clothed, both bodily and mentally, Ino left her lonely apartment and headed to the training grounds.



. ~ {oOo} ~ .

The mid-morning session went off without a hitch, Ino going through the motions on auto-pilot. Years of working with the boys had made their teamwork seamless, even on the occasion that one of them wasn't fully engaged. But it wasn't the occupation that bothered Ino anyway. She'd be training regardless of what team she was assigned to.

No, it was her teammates themselves that were the problem. They knew her too well on a personal level. They asked prying questions, gave meaningful looks, and in general, concerned themselves way too much with her inner workings for her current liking.

How could she forget everything if they were always trying to bring it up?

Just their mere presence was sometimes more than she could handle, more than she wanted to handle. And she couldn't escape. When she avoided them, it was even worse. They would seek her out at her home, her sanctuary, and badger her, trying to get to the bottom of whatever her problem was. They just couldn't see that her only problem was the feelings that they brought up in her, the feelings that she was trying so hard to assassinate.

So Ino went to training every day that Shikamaru called a session, went to their standing post-exercise meals, and went on all the missions assigned to her. But she always remained aloof, disconnected, in every way but that which was absolutely required.

Today was no different for the girl. Shikamaru and Chouji ate and conversed with brotherly ease over their barbeque while Ino twirled her hair in boredom, adding clipped responses when spoken to directly. It was her new normal and while she didn't necessarily enjoy it, she felt it was for the best. It was close enough to her behavior from before that the boys mostly left her alone, but detached enough that she didn't have to worry about a breach of her defenses. It was an impasse of sorts and Ino was fine with it.

Her friends weren't and had, evidently, reached the end of their patience with her. A warm, familiar hand reached across the table and closed over her own, the first tangible contact they'd had in months, with the exception of sparring. "Ino?"

"Chouji?" The blonde withdrew her hand quickly and raised an impassive eyebrow at the man.

"Ino, we're worried–"

"No, Chouji," she spat out in a low, harsh whisper, trying her best not to cause a scene in the middle of the restaurant, "don't start."

The dark eyes of her other companion surveyed her shrewdly. "Ino, I think it's time."

"Time for what, Shikamaru?" Anger flushed her pretty features and her eyes flashed dangerously. Ino paused and tried to compose herself. Letting go, even to the rising wrath building in her chest, would open up the gateways to other things, things she did not want to feel. After a couple long, steadying breaths, she continued. "What is this? An intervention?"

Chouji put his hands in the air slowly, a placating gesture that did little to ease the tension settling over the table. "Ino, you just need to listen."

She stood abruptly and rounded on them, her voice laced with cold, quiet disdain. "No, dammit, I don't."

Then, before either man could react further, Ino turned on her heel and left.

She reached the street and a sudden compulsion caused the girl to begin to run – run the many blocks to her apartment, run through both crowded streets and dark alleyways without a care for appearances, run until her chest heaved and her legs burned and she nearly collapsed on her doorstep – and when she was finished, everything, even the recently provoked rage, had been burned up.

Ino dropped onto her bed and folded in on herself, her knees tucked neatly under her chin as she drifted off to sleep.

. ~ O ~ .

Ino stands in the middle of the battlefield and for a brief moment is completely alone, the chaos of the raging tides ceasing to exist. Her blood is pounding and boiling through her veins, but confusion washes over her. How can that be when she knows that there is nothing but an empty cavity where her heart used to reside?

Her lungs burn and she forces herself to take in a breath, shallow and shuddering, as terrible reality comes back into focus. The girl hears a low wailing, like the soft keening of an injured animal, and it frightens her. Her reaction is sharpened when she becomes aware that the sound is her own sobbing. Looking to her right, Ino sees Shikamaru, his face lined with grim determination, hands already coming into position for his counter strategy. She wishes that she could muster some of that, instead of breaking down when her skills are most needed. But she's weak and she knows it all too well, so the kunoichi continues her lament and searches deep within her hidden recesses for something she's not even sure she has.

A rain of wooden spikes is cast out by their adversary, honed with deadly intent, but she is too beside herself to recognize the coming danger. Her dark-haired teammate leaps nimbly away from the onslaught, and Ino has just enough time to see his movement and feel fear.

Because it is too late for any action on her part.

A pair of work-roughened hands, unnaturally enlarged and attached to pair of equally elongated arms, pulls her out of harm's way and into a desperate embrace.

"Ino, snap out of it!" The man's voice is trembling in her ear, the tenor of it filled with anxiety. "Your dad wouldn't want this. Not right now."

She uses her hands as leverage against his massive chest and leans back to see his face. Chouji's eyes are lit with worry as his still-enlarged hands curl around her protectively. It is only then that she remembers exactly where she is and what they are supposed to be doing. A dawning realization hits her in the chest with hurtful force.

He left his post to protect her.

Her last words with her father come back to the surface of her mind and suddenly, she hates herself. She wants to escape her own skin as guilt and near-crippling pain crash in opposition to drown her, to crush her in a sea of unwanted emotion.

Only now does she fully understand her father's parting words. Only now does she recognize the qualities, the character, he wants her to cultivate. And only now does she realize how utterly self-centered she is.

All that time wasted on frivolous vanity and a shallow form of love.

The thought that her head was filled with him, the Uchiha, during the last conversation she would ever have with her father, is enough to shake Ino to her core.

Chouji doesn't understand the conflict he sees in her saline blue eyes, but he tries to comfort her anyway. He leans in, his hitae-ite pressing lightly into her sweaty forehead, and murmurs gently, "I won't let you be alone. I promised him."

Ino's head jerks back slightly, eyes wide in surprise, and she knows that this is what her father meant. This is the kind of love, warm and reciprocal, he had imagined for her and hoped that she would find.

But she will not give in. Because she also knows that somewhere deep inside her it has always been Chouji and she has just been running away. Because she is afraid, and always has been, of what she knows.

He is too good for her.

And so now, Ino decides to run away again, this time for reasons too complicated to put to properly into words. She doesn't deserve him and so she will push him away first. She knows without a doubt that he will put himself in jeopardy to protect her, sacrifice his very life if need be, if she voices her feelings now. And she can't abide by that. She has lost too much already and the pain is crippling and she can't, can't, can't bear to feel that kind of sorrow ever again.

So Ino hardens herself for the moment and pushes herself out of his grasp. She forces her legs and voice to steady, then mentally cuts the tie between. "Let me go, Chouji. I have a job to do."

He does as she asks without hesitation, baffled by the coldness in her demeanor.



. ~ {oOo} ~ .

"I wasn't sure you'd make it tonight," Sakura commented dryly from around the glass raised to her lips, carefully watching for the blonde's reaction.

Ino crossed her arms, refusing to sit down, and narrowed her eyes. "What exactly is that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing." In responding, she decided to go for nonchalance, but something in her face gave her away. Sakura had never been that great at deception, after all. But she tried again anyway. "I just wasn't sure you'd be up for company."

"You've been talking to them."

Sakura sighed deeply and, realizing that honesty was required, fessed up. "Yeah."

"I'm not doing this with you too, Sakura. We had a pact, remember?" Ice filled Ino's voice as her cadence clipped in a steady, dispassionate beat. "We only talk when we are ready to. No pressure."

"I know, Ino. I know." Sakura rubbed a set of chapped knuckles across her temples in frustration. "But what you're doing isn't healthy."

"Oh, hell no," Ino spat. "I did not force you before you were ready and you damn well better not attempt to do that to me."

"For crying out loud!" Grabbing her friend by the wrist, Sakura forced Ino to sit down. "I don't want you to say anything. I just want you to listen."

"What if I don't want to?"

"Stop being so childish," Sakura reproved. "You made me listen to you about Kakashi, you know."

"Fine. But don't expect me to talk," the blonde retorted sullenly.

Sakura sighed heavily, again, when Ino flipped her long ponytail for good measure. "Do you remember what you told me then? When I was unsure of my feelings for him? You said that if the war has taught us anything, it's that peace and happiness are hard to find, that life is a fleeting thing. You told me not to give up on chance to live the life I actually wanted to."

"I remember." Ino's answer was soft, subdued.

Sakura reached her hand across the table, eyes trained on Ino's, and placed it gently over her friend's. "Don't you think it's time you took your own advice?"



. ~ {oOo} ~ .

The sun was quickly setting, the fast encroaching darkness making an already difficult situation even more so. Ino listened to the rough panting just to her left, coming from where she knew Chouji was positioned, and the soft rustling to her right where Shikamaru was working on a quick field dressing for a wound inflicted to the back of one of his calves. They were hidden for the moment, behind a massive fallen oak, but would not remain that way for long.

The mission should have been pretty straight forward. Naruto received intelligence from the Suna liaison that a cell of rogue ninja – four deserters who had refused to fight in the war – had crossed the border into the Land of Fire. It was supposed to be a quick restrain and detain endeavor, perfect for their team's skills in suppression, but it had turned out to be much more involved than that.

The original cell, composed of low-level chuunin, cowardly and only just barely competent in their skills, had been taken over by a band of war criminals, bringing their total number to ten shinobi. The new additions, unaccounted for by the reconnaissance reports, were of an unsavory sort. They were the kind that used the building trust of the alliance as a way to get close to former enemies, now allies, and slit their throats as they slept. Rather than be brought up on charges, they had fled after the war and began to prey on unsuspecting travelers and ninja alike.

For this particular mission, it had been agreed upon to attack in the late afternoon, when shadows were long and to their advantage. But Shikamaru had not planned for the extra time it would take to dispatch that many. Chouji had been dipping into chakra reserves that he did not have, trying desperately to ease the burden on his best friend, to little result. Between the two men, they had managed to incapacitate five of the enemy's forces, but that still left them with half. Ino, unable to lock on to any of the targets due to the combination of low visibility and their superior speed, had yet to bring anyone down. But just as Shikamaru had forbidden Chouji the use of his pills, he had forbidden Ino the use of her signature jutsu, claiming that her defenseless body would be too much of a liability. That had left her in the unenviable role of a decoy.

And as time prolonged without a new strategy from her team leader, Ino decided that she'd had enough.

With a glance over her shoulder, the kunoichi made sure that the Nara was still in deep thought before she struck. It took but a moment for her to find a target, the newly risen moon reflecting briefly in her opponent's eyes. In her periphery, Ino saw comprehension flicker in Chouji's features. But he was too late and her body crumpled to the forest floor in a graceless heap.

In her hijacked body, Ino moved stealthily among the trees, removing the tanto from the sheath on her hip. As she wove through the dense undergrowth and tightly knit trees, Ino stepped with deadly purpose. The kunoichi already knew where each of her targets were located, using the time she'd waited on Shikamaru to do her own reconnaissance, and she refused to let a single one go free.

Ino slit each throat and wondered at how easy it all was.

She'd been expecting more of a struggle.

Then she walked back to her boys, her hands held up in surrender. Chouji wrapped a suffocating hand around the man's body, allowing her to end the jutsu, and tried not to look at the blood soaked palms of her borrowed vessel. The six surviving marks were roped together and made to march to the nearby village for detainment. The trip was spent in silence.

It wasn't until they entered the hotel room that Shikamaru broke it.

"What the hell were you thinking?" His voice was low and deceptively placid, but the slight shake of his hands indicated the depth of his anger. "You could have jeopardized the whole mission."

Ino inspected her nails and responded with detached disregard. "But I didn't. In fact, I finished it."

"No, you didn't. You killed them, Ino." He turned his dark gaze on her fully, wanting to see something of remorse or regret in her expression. Neither were present, so he pulled at his black hair in displeasure.

"So what?" The chill in her voice caused both men to gasp.

"Dammit, Ino! That wasn't the mission."

Shikamaru rarely ever raised his voice and the shock of it being directed at her hit Ino intensely. It, combined with other confrontations she had been forced to endure recently, was enough to shake her well-guarded defenses, her emotions beginning to bleed out despite her best efforts. The blonde's face went red and her voice rose to an uncomfortable octave. "I don't care!"

"Yes, you do." Chouji's whisper reverberated through the room. "The problem is that you care too much."

Ino looked at the brawny man with an incredulous stare. "Excuse me?"

"This isn't you, Ino. You only kill when the mission requires it or in self-defense." As Chouji spoke, he closed the distance and wrapped his fingers gently under her elbows. "I know you. And this is not you."

"No!" A storm began to wage within her heart and Ino had to remember to breathe before she could speak again. "You don't know me. Not anymore."

"Yes, I do. And it's time to grieve." Chouji lightly grasped her chin when she turned away from him, forcing her troubled eyes back into his line of sight. "You're so afraid of the pain that you're locking everything away. Your father wouldn't have wanted this."

A sharp crack rang through the air as Ino's open palm met his face with great force. "How dare you! You don't get to tell me anything about what my father would have wanted! He was my father, not yours!"

"I still know that he would have hated to see you like this!" The Akimichi shook with a fierceness that Ino had never seen on him outside of the battlefield and she took an instinctive step back. He followed her as she retreated into the wall at her back, desperately trying to escape his presence, but he did not relent. "You should be honoring his sacrifice by living, really living, not by walking around like one of the deceased!"

"You. Don't. Get to. Tell. Me. That!" Ino punctuated each word with a punch to his chest and Shikamaru moved to step in. A raised hand and determined head shake from Chouji stopped him, allowing the girl to continue her abuse. Her slight frame began to shake with unreleased sobs. "Your dad is still alive!"

"I know." Chouji gathered her close, tucking her safely into his chest. "I know."

Her fingers balled up into tight fists, clinging to the crimson fabric of his shirt, and the tears finally came.

It wasn't until much later – after she had cried herself to exhaustion in his arms and he had helped her to bed, leaving her alone in her dingy rented room – that Ino remembered that Chouji lost his father once, too. Then the guilt of what she said to him, and of all she had done during the post-war peace, seeped into her fast-approaching sleep and she dreamt of fathers and sons and daughters and the paths that lead to forgiveness.

In the morning, Ino chose to stop running.



. ~ {oOo} ~ .

"So, are you finally done avoiding me?"

Ino held her head high as she slid into the seat across from her best friend, huffing softly in mock annoyance. "Yes, I am, as a matter of fact."

"Good." Sakura's lips curled up into a saucy grin as she handed the blonde a bottle. "So, how was your week?"

"Oh, the normal," Ino replied, her voice light and confident in spite of her discomfort. "Killed some rogue-nin. Pissed off Shika. Let Chouji hold me while I bawled my eyes out."

Green eyes perked up with blatant interest. "I see. Does that mean you took your advice like I told you to?"

"Nope." Ino looked down her nose at Sakura with expression clearly marking her disdain for the idea. "But I suppose I may have been persuaded to talk a bit."

"Really?" It's not a question, but rather a sarcastic prod instead.

"Okay, fine. I had a meltdown." The blonde shook her head at her friend's gaping mouth. "Don't look at me like that, Sakura. I am capable of admitting my faults."

"I know. It's just that you so rarely do. I feel like I should be doing something to commemorate the occasion."


"So," Sakura started cautiously, "are you doing okay now?"

"Nothing's going to happen overnight, but I feel a lot better. It was time, after all." A blush tinted Ino's cheeks a pretty rose color at the admission, but she forced herself not to look away from her friend. This honest confrontation was something that Ino knew she needed now, a part of her healing process. "I have something I want to show you."

With a shaky hand, Ino rummaged through her purse for a few brief moments. After a minute or so, and a few murmured obscenities, she found the item and placed it on the table. Sakura inhaled sharply and moved to lift the small box, but stopped to give her friend an inquisitive look. Ino nodded, giving the girl the permission she wanted, and Sakura followed through with her intent, opening it.




"Oh, Ino!"

"I know."

"Is this?"


"And it's from?"

"Again, yes."


"Just after the final battle. He'd been planning to do it sometime anyway, when the time was right, but,"
– Ino faltered for a moment, her words tight in her throat – "
but he promised my dad he'd take care of me. So he ended up rushing things a bit instead."

"I can't believe you never told me this." Sakura leaned forward, resting her chin on her steepled hands. "What did you say?"

"I didn't say anything."
Blue eyes darted away, trying to obscure the guilt they held.
"I just handed it back. But he made me take it. Told me to wait for a while before I made my decision."

"And have you?"

Her blonde head bobbed in affirmation and a watery smile slid across her lips.
"I just don't know how to make it right. It's been so long."

"You love him."








"I love him."



. ~ {oOo} ~ .




Okay, this is it, girl. You can do this.

All you have to do is put one foot in front of the other.

And then repeat the action.

It's time to live...




Ino is nervous – really, truly, honestly nervous for the first time in years. It's not fear because she knows that there is nothing to be afraid of; over the past year, she has faced the things that cause her dread and she has conquered them all. But she doesn't have time to properly contemplate the state of her mind or emotions. Instead she is swept along by a strong, steady hand to meet her fate.

Her feet set down on the start of the path and she takes a deep breath. A pair of dark eyes search hers, confirming without any spoken words that she is indeed ready to start her journey. Content with what he sees, Shikamaru smirks, a small knowing expression, and leads her through the elegant wrought-iron archway into a vast field of rolling grass and wildflowers.

The woman's hand delicately shakes where it holds onto his arm, her neatly manicured nails digging into the fabric of his sleeve, but it stills when she meets his gaze and the end of the path. All anxiety leaves her then, and she suddenly wishes she could throw propriety to the wayside and run to him. She chooses not to though, partly because her shoes would never allow it, but also because this is a part of her road, too. Her friends, those who stepped up and became her family when she had need of one, are all here as witness to her joy and she will do it properly for them.

For him.

And for herself.

She finally reaches the end of the pathway and when her teammate slips her hand into that of another, beautiful relief seeps into her, working its way to the depths of her marrow. The ceremony is little more than a blur for Ino because all she can see is him, and the entwining safety of his large, familiar hands is her only anchor to the world at that moment. She feels as if she could fly away, she is so contentedly happy.

And when the vows are complete, he kisses her, a promise that is both tender and warm, filled with a lifetime's worth of love. Tingles run from the crown of her head to the tips of her toes and it flares her desire for him, but that can wait until later – after the celebration is over and the all guests have gone home – because she knows the best part is nearing its fruition.

Still hand-in-hand, the couple turns to face their guests and the announcement comes from the lips of the hokage, Naruto, in enthusiastic proclamation.








It is my pleasure to present Mr. and Mrs. Chouji Akimichi.




. ~ oO ~ {The End} ~ Oo ~ .