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a long hard twenty-year summer vacation

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To them, their diagnostics sound more like a joke and less like an illness. Yamanaka Ino - EDNOS, starvation mixed with purging, which happens often enough to make her unfit for the anorexia criteria. Akimchi Chouji - extreme binge-eating. Nara Shikamaru - anorexia.

Unlike other patients in the recovery, they show absolutely no effort to get better. Ino is aggressive, bordering on hysterical, snapping at anyone who as much as looks at her; Chouji, on the other hand, keeps more or less politely deflecting all questions and remarks. Shikamaru simply doesn't bother to reply, sometimes opting for sarcasm. There's only one thing they have in common. All three of them claim the same: they don't belong there, they're absolutely alright and healthy, and they should be allowed to go home.

So, that's why group therapy quickly goes out of the window, and why Asuma comes in instead. He's met with disdain and distrust, but he doesn't care. It's not for the first time something like this happens. He's prepared.

"You," Asuma tells them, pointing at Chouji first, "emotional vulnerability. Insecurity, too. Blondie - perfectionism and self-hate. And you, the tired-looking one: learned helplessness, and possibly, depression."

"Touché," Shikamaru says, albeit sacrastically. He must admit, though: he's a little impressed - even intrigued, maybe. His own judgement on Ino and Chouji was about the same.

Chouji decides to stay silent. He is not impressed or intrigued at all.

Ino just rolls her eyes at all of them.

Asuma doesn't tell them anything alse than that, really: instead, he simply takes them out, for a walk through a big park nearby. The air is sweet, and the sunlight softly shines through the leaves. Spring warmth crawls through the concrete. All three of them are quiet at first, but eventually, they relax. Out of boredom, they begin to chat, varily testing out the waters of each other's personalities.

Asuma chimes in from time to time, mostly with a joke or a short story. They listen because Asuma has a way to make even the most mundane things interesting. He points out the different kinds of trees growing in the park, and he confesses that he always wanted to make flower crowns, but never knew how to. Would be a nice gift for his girlfriend, he says.

The kids are happy be outside after the time spent in the clinic, and they take the park in as if they want to remember it forever. Asuma quietly observes them through it all, lighting up one cigarette after the other. He notices that Chouji hates to step on flowers and that Ino enjoys picking them. He also notices that Shikamaru takes a liking to the shogi table under a birch tree, right next to a big water fountain. He practices by himself, claiming he's content alone. Asuma doesn't really believe him, though.

"Let's play a game together sometime," Asuma tells him on the way back. Shikamaru gives him a look. He doesn't agree, but he doesn't protest either, and that's enough for now.

It takes around three weeks for the three of them to grow closer. Ino has an explosive, assertive character, at sharp contrast with Shikamaru's and Chouji's lazy pragmatism. Their progress from strangers to reluctant friends is slow. First, they look for something to admire, trying to learn how to fill each other's blanks. As time passes, they find things to speak about, and then, at the very end, they finally start bonding with Asuma. They're lonely kids with eating disorders, locked up in a place where they don't want to be. Friendship is a way to cope.

When Ino shows Asuma how to make a flower crown, and when Shikamaru finally - and reluctantly - agrees to a game against him and Chouji (which they both promptly lose), Asuma decides that it's time for the next step.

"I'd like to own a restaurant," Chouji confesses. "Or just cook for the one my family has, really. It's fun to me." He hesitates, and then he chuckles, rubbing his belly. "I love food. As you can see, obviously."

(He's making fun of himself before anyone else can.)

They're sitting on the rooftop of the hospital building, legs dangling in the air. It's not safe, probably, but they both love it: Asuma comes here often, to smoke and to think, and Chouji is honored that Asuma let him on his little secret place. It brings them closer. Talking gets easier when you're looking down on the world, as if it's small and you're the one who's big. The wind up there makes you feel less alone.

"What do you love about food?" Asuma asks. It's a sincere question; no malice.

Chouji double-checks to make sure Asuma really isn't joking, and then he thinks. "Well, it brings people together. When someone is upset, food comforts them, doesn't it? The easiest way to tell someone you care about them is to give them something tasty to eat. And you really put yourself into the food you make. To cook is to create something amazing and unique. I like eating, because... when I'm sad, the food is there to make me happier. And if I'm happy, it's usually the reason for my happiness."

They stay silent for a while, watching the sun slowly set down.

"Chouji," Asuma finally says, "do you see food as love?"

"Love?" Chouji repeats. "Hm. I don't know. Hard to say."

Asuma puts the cigarete out, pressing the butt against the cold concerete. "Well, the words you used while describing food. Caring, happiness - isn't that exactly what love is about?"

"It might be so." Chouji smiles absentmindly, looking up at the clouds. "I guess you're right, then."

"Has it ever occured to you that food is not the only place where you can find love? There are many other things, many other people. And yourself, of course."

Chouji blinks. "Myself? What do you mean?"

Asuma leans over slightly, tapping Chouji on the shoulder. "I mean that you are the main source of love, Chouji. To others, and to yourself, too. It's not food; it's you."

Chouji thinks again, and then he blushes. It looks endearing, but Asuma knows: they're done talking for today. In the next days, they discuss the topic of love some more, and the rooftop becomes a common place for their meetings. It takes a while for Chouji to understand what exactly Asuma means, but when he finally does, he executes it very well. Step by step, Chouji starts to look at others a bit differently, and then, at himself. He begins to stand a little taller, and to smile a bit softer, too.

And after six weeks of therapy, or, as Ino calls it, imprisonment, they're finally allowed to have visitors.

Chouji's family is the first to arrive. Sakura, who introduces herself as "Ino's best friend", is second. She has bright pink hair and a clever, almost clinical stare. During her first visit, she and Ino fight so loudly that the whole clinic hears it. As it turns out, Sakura is the one who noticed that Ino's not eating, and she's the one who dragged her to the hospital after she saw Ino collapse in the school hallway. "Ratted me out," Ino tells Asuma through clenched teeth. Asuma says nothing. Ino is not ready to see: what Sakura did was out of love.

Sakura doesn’t get discouraged, though, and she stubbornly visits at least three times a week. Ino’s parents come too, but her mom can’t look at Ino without sobbing, so they leave soon. Sakura never cries - she keeps up her cheerful front, sneaking in flowers and books and scented candles, and she stays by Ino's side even when Ino breaks down over the smallest of things.

After one of such outbursts, Asuma stops Sakura just before she leaves. "Can we talk?"

Sakura is shorter than Ino; at the first glance, both girls seem like complete opposites. The biggest difference is obvious: unlike Ino, Sakura looks... alive. Living; radiant. She's the color she paints her dreams in. And Asuma imagines that Ino was once like that, too.

They stand in front of the clinic, Asuma shuffling through his pockets for a cigarette. Sakura sniffs and gives him one of her own, quirking a brow at his surprised stare.

"Being a med student is the most stressful choice that I ever made," she explains.

Asuma barks out in laughter.

"Eh," he says, leaning forward and allowing Sakura to light his cig. He studies her furrowed brows, and the little green tattoo on her forehead.

"You love her, don't you," he tells her then.

Sakura's finger slips on the lighter, almost breaking her nail. She shoves it in her pocket, looking Asuma straight in the eye.

"What kind of a question is that? Of course I do. She's my best friend."

"You know what i mean. You're in love with her. I didn't even say Ino's name, and still, when I said love, you knew exactly who was I talking about."

At first, Asuma expects her to lie, to try to prove him wrong, but - she doesn't. She just looks at him for a while. Then she sighs, puts a cig between her lips, and sits down on one of the steps leading to the clinic's door.

"Yeah. Alright. You've got me."

"And she doesn't know," Asuma continues, carefully weighing his words.

A scoff. "Of course not."

"You ever thought about telling her?"

"Well, what do you think?"

"You did," Asuma says, "but you've never gathered the courage to do so."

Sakura laughs, breathing out a small cloud of smoke. "Yeah."

Asuma sits down next to her.

"Sakura, I'm here solely in Ino's interest, and I'll be honest with you, since you've been honest with me. You're a med student, so you know you shouldn't hear what I'm about to tell you. Ever since Ino left the outpatient care, she hasn't gained any weight. In fact, as soon as we stop monitoring her every move, she starts losing. She refuses anyone's help, because she's firmly convinced that she doesn't need any. Now don't get me wrong: even though her case is serious, I'm sure that she can heal. Ino is everything but weak. She's a fighter. But if she had your support, your honesty, if you - not me, not the medical personnel, not her parents, but you, a person who she cares about, a person who she believes will always be honest with her - told her how you feel about her, maybe she would listen, and maybe her recovery would move at a faster pace."

As Asuma speaks, Sakura progressively shrinks smaller and smaller, slowly sinking into herself.

"I didn't know she's still losing weight," she whispers. It's strange to see such a strong girl in tears, not that Asuma minds. "God, I - I... I didn't know. I would do anything to help, so if you... if you think that telling her will... I must stop being selfish and... try."

Sakura looks up, her eyes wet and scared. "I hate her disorder so much. It's ruining her. It's gonna kill her. I just... I just wish she saw herself the way I do."

"She'll never know how you see her if you don't tell her," Asuma says and pats Sakura on the shoulder. "Think it through, okay?"

I wish she saw herself the way I do.

Sakura's words stay on his mind for a few days, and before the next session, he decides to try out something new.

"Ino, come here. Take this. I'd like you to draw your outline."

Ino stares down the pen in Asuma's hand. "This is stupid," she hisses. "I've heard about this. You're gonna make me draw my body and show me that I'm not as fat as I think I am, right? It's not gonna help me at all."

Asuma ignores her. "Come on. Do it. Chouji? Shikamaru? You do the same. Draw her."

"Huh?"

"You heard me. What are you waiting for? Here's the paper, and here are the pencils. Go wild."

They're a bit reculant at first, but finally, they oblige. Asuma's confidence is hard to resist.

"This is stupid," Ino repeats angrily, and what Asuma hears is: I'm afraid. She's scared that it will work, and that she'll have to acknowledge her mental illness. That she'll have to let go of it. That she'll have to begin her whole life anew. That she'll have to heal.

"Remember to draw it on a real-life scale," Asuma says, peeking over Shikamaru's shoulder. "Wow, Shikamaru. Ino is definitely taller than that."

When Ino hears that, she throws a pencil at Shikamaru's back.

After they're done, Asuma asks Ino to lay down on one of the blank papers. She squirms uncomfortably when Asuma raises his hand to trace her, so Chouji snatches the pen out of his palm.

"May I?" Chouji asks, and reculantly, Ino agrees. He's done quickly, his hand surprisingly fast and steady.

"Let's compare it," Asuma says, and so they do.

It's obvious which drawing is done by Ino right away. It's done in a haste, in rough, quick strokes, and it's apparent that the author was deeply uncomfortable during the whole drawing process. On the picture, she tried to give herself as little detail as possible, but still, the silhouette manages to look bulky. Huge. Clumsy.

"You ever look in the mirror?" Shikamaru asks in disbelief. "This looks nothing like you."

"Shut up," Ino hisses, but it's apparent that she's shaken too. All of the other three figures look pretty much the same: thay're all drawn differently, but the size and width stay rougly similar. The figures look... thin. Not emanciated, more on the average side, just how it's been since Ino's intake is monitored. They're nothing more than human silhouettes, plain and simple, with long waists and broad shoulders and delicate limbs: three girls, not the hulky creatures she drew herself as.

Ino turns around and runs out of the room, slamming the door shut behind her.

"No, let her go," Shikamaru says when he sees Chouji move after her. He catches Asuma's surprised look, so he tilts his head to the side, pretending to yawn. "We've done all we could here, eh?"

"We sure did," Asuma answers, studying Shikamaru's neutral expression.

In the evening, Sakura comes to visit her. That's when she confesses, too. She tells Ino everything: how much she admired Ino ever since they were kids, how restless and anxious and worried she was the whole time Ino was at the hospital, and that the truth or dare kiss Sakura gave to Ino in the eighth grade might've been a little staged. And that she was scared to lose Ino all along: first as a friend, if her feelings were not returned, and then in general, if Ino kept on losing weight.

They both cry, Ino holding Sakura the entire time she's there. When Sakura has to go, Ino doesn't let her, so Shikamaru sneaks Sakura outside a long time after the visitor hours end. For once, he doesn't complain.

"See you, lover girl," he says and shuts the backdoor on her face. Sakura doesn't even get to ask him: is she really that obvious, or are Shikamaru and Asuma the most observant people in the world?

(Both would be correct.)

Shikamaru's parents live too far away to visit on a weekly basis, but they skype him often. Shikamaru doesn't really talk that much during the calls, but he never misses any. When someone finally comes to visit him, it's been eight weeks since they've been staying at the clinic: both Chouji and Ino have made significant progress, and there's talk about discharging them soon.

Shikamaru, not as much, but Chouji and Ino try to not talk about it. They don't want Shikamaru to stay sick. All three of them are war-forged friends by now, dutifully fighting by each other's side, and the thought of one of them falling behind scares them senslesss.

On one sunny aftenoon, when they're all done with their daily weigh-ins and snacks and lunches, a group of jock-ish delinquents arrives to the clinic. One of them, the blonde one, winks at the receptionist, and asks to see Nara Shikamaru.

"Oh, honestly," Shikamaru groans when they pull him into a huge group hug. "I told you not to come."

"Like hell we wouldn't," Kiba grins. "Come on, show us around! I'm so curious. Is it gonna be spooky?"

"Kiba, it's disrespectful to have prejudices of mental institutions based on their horror tropes," Lee says. "But in all honesty, Shikamaru, I'm a little interested as well."

He's pretty much forced to introduce all four of them to Ino and Chouji, who come along, attracted to the noise.

So, that's how they meet Naruto, Kiba, Lee and Sasuke. "Shikamaru's friends are my friends," Naruto says, pulling both Ino and Chouji into a hug. Kiba and Lee nod vigorously, while Sasuke's expression shifts from neutral to annoyed. "Now, would y'all care for a drink?"

Shikamaru sighs instead of replying, helplessly watching Kiba pour clear liquid into six plastic cups.

"One's missing," Ino notes, carefully sniffing the cup. "Ew, that's strong." Nobody notices, but she's fighting the urge to count calories in the alcohol.

"I don't drink," Lee smiles sheepishly, and they leave it at that.

The outing is surprisingly fun. Shikamaru catches up on many things that couldn't be conveyed through text messages and calls, and Naruto finds out that the mysterious beauty his best friend Sakura has been crushing on is, in fact, Ino. Surprisingly, Sasuke gets along with Chouji the best, even though Sasuke confesses that he didn't really want to come and that Naruto is the one who dragged him along. When it's time to go, Kiba leaves the almost-empty vodka bottle on their table, urging the three of them to finish it, as he puts it, in his name. Naruto and Sasuke leave holding hands, and Lee waves them goodbye until they wave him back.

Shikamaru quietly calculates the mess everyone has made out of his room, until his gaze stops at Ino, who has quietly dozed off on his bed. He sighs and pours himself another one.

"Shikamaru," Chouji says thoughtfully, "are Naruto and Sasuke...?"

Shikamaru gives him a quick side eye before he shrugs. "Dating? Yeah."

"Oh," Chouji hums, reaching out for his own cup. "Good for them. It's not apparent at first, but I think they like each other very much."

Shikamaru almost chokes on his drink, spilling some on his already stained t-shirt.

He has never liked anyone and no one - to his knowledge - liked him, so he is absolutely content with the thought of living and dying alone. The idea of someone finding romance good for them shocks him. He looks at Chouji.

"If I was them, I would find it troublesome," Shikamaru confesses.

Chouji thinks for a bit, and then he shrugs. "Don't you find food troublesome, too?"

Shikamaru shrugs, too. "Hn. That's why I'm here, I guess." 

"Asuma told me that food is a certain kind of love," Chouji says. "Maybe it's not food you have trouble with, but love?"

Shikamaru doesn't answer, but Chouji doesn't press the issue further. They finish the bottle in silence. For a while, Shikamaru thinks whether he should just mimic Ino's decision and fall asleep, but Chouji's presence is too comfortable to miss out on.

"If you want to go to sleep, you should," Chouji says, as if he could hear Shikamaru's thoughts. "I'll be there. Just let me throw the bottle out so nobody finds out we've been drinking."

He doesn't, though, and they stay next to each other, backs pressed against the wall. Shikamaru closes his eyes, subconsciously matching his breathing with Chouji's. He thinks about love.

"You watch the clouds sometimes, don't you?" Chouji asks suddenly, voice quiet.

"Yeah."

"I know a place where you can see them really well," Chouji says. "I'll show you. I think you'll like it."

There's a pause, and then a slight smile. "Alright."

And with that, they both fall asleep.

The next day, their backs hurt like hell, but at the very least, Ino manages to wake up early enough to get rid of the empty bottles. She shakes them awake, chuckling at the sight of Shikamaru's head on Chouji's shoulder, and rushes to her own room, trying not to alert any of the nurses.

It's raining, so they decide to stay inside for the evening. Ino occupies the PC, happily clicking herself through the interwebs: until recently, her access to the internet was limited, because one of the nurses found Ino's post history. It tied in directly with her eating disorder.

Chouji watches the TV, flicking between the two food networks available, ignoring the homework pile resting next to him.

Shikamaru and Asuma play shogi, of course.

"You know, Shikamaru," Asuma says, "I've been thinking about you a lot."

"That's flattering," Shikamaru answers. "But also kinda weird of you to say, Asuma."

Asuma chuckles. "My move. Wait, no - here it goes. Okay, so: I think I finally have you figured out."

Shikamaru quirks a brow. "I'm listening."

"You're very smart," Asuma says. "You pretend not to care, but underneath all of that, you're bordering on neurotic and anxious. The indifference is just a front. I do think you have depression, though, so the indifference thing might not be fully under your control. I also think that you're not just anorectic, but also suicidal.

Shikamaru's hand hovers above the board. "What?"

"You're suicidal, Shikamaru," Asuma repeats gently, slowly moving Shikamaru's piece for him. "Isn't living really hard when you see world for what it is, but you're still unable to do anything about it? It must be way easier to cover yourself with apathy and pretend to be lazy and worthless. And maybe even convince yourself that you really are. Lazy and worthless. Isn't that what you would describe yourself as?"

Shikamaru opens his mouth and then closes it again, staring at the board.

"Seems I lost again," Asuma says quietly, patting Shikamaru on the shoulder. Then he gets up, gesturing Shikamaru to come with him. "Come on. There's someone I'd like you to meet."

"Don't be gone too long," Chouji murmurs.

They take the tram to the center of the town, both of them quiet. The wet concrete smells like late summer. Asuma leads Shikamaru up the stairs of an old office building, waiting for him to catch up.

On the third floor, he knocks on the first door to his right. It opens almost immediately. A small, raven-haired woman stares them both down, turning her attention to Asuma.

"You know you're here outside of my working hours, right?"

Asuma coughs awkwardly, gesturing to Shikamaru. "I, um. Yeah. Sorry. I brought Shikamaru."

"We can leave," Shikamaru offers.

"Shikamaru?" the woman asks, suddenly warming up. "Oh my! Nevermind what I said, come inside. Not you, Asuma, you stay! I swear to god, like clockwork. Go ahead, Shikamaru, take a seat."

The woman introduces herself as Kurenai, and she's, well, a psychiatrist.

"I know about what you're going through, Shikamaru," she says. "I'm here to help. I want to ask you a few questions, and in the future, I would also like to meet your parents. I might need to talk to them about your medication. Asuma has a serious suspicion you might suffer from depression."

Shikamaru sits down, narrowing his eyes at a dried-out flower crown sitting on the top of a cabinet behind her back. "Good god," he says. "You're Asuma's girlfriend."

Kurenai's whole face goes bright red at the remark. The session is a bit awkward afterward, but they still go through it. It turns out okay. At the end, he gets something prescribed, even.

"I'm gonna sell that for so much money," Shikamaru says on the way home, studying the meds up close.

Asuma gives him a well-earned glare.

(Shikamaru doesn't, of course. He takes it on time, never missing a single pill, because Chouji makes it his personal duty to watch over him. It could be annoying if it was anyone else, but like this, it isn't. It makes Shikamaru feel kind of loved.)

And that's about it. From here, it doesn't go downhill anymore: on the week twelve, they're all deemed recovered enough to leave. Chouji gets discharged first, and the four of them decide to celebrate it by splitting Chouji's favorite snack. Nobody complains: Chouji doesn't mind sharing, while Ino and Shikamaru don't mind eating. Not anymore, at least.

What they won wasn't a battle, but a war.

Ino is second to leave, and Shikamaru is the last. He and Asuma secretly share a goodbye smoke, Shikamaru coughing the entire time.

"Disgusting," he says, and Asuma barks in laughter. He gives Shikamaru his lighter to keep, and promises to beat him at Shogi sometime.

"You won't," Shikamaru says, and unfortunately, he's right.

The three of them stay friends, and, well, nothing changes much. Just the seasons, maybe. Ino and Sakura remain inseparable. Somewhere along the way, Shikamaru and Chouji realize they're in love. (Ino firmly refuses to believe them at first, accusing them of making up excuses just to hang out without her.) Together, the three of them still go to the park, recognizing all of the trees by names, and they treat themselves to brunches and picnics and dinners, sometimes homemade, sometimes bought, but always with love, with love, with love.

As winter comes by, Asuma dies, way too unexpectedly and way too soon. The cause of his passing is not talked about; too painful. But still - he has given the three of them enough to remember him by, and for that they're thankful. Even more importantly, he's given them enough to live on for. So - that's exactly what they do. They live on. For him, but most importantly, for themselves.

It's hard sometimes, especially during the winters, but they live on. They do.