It was hard, Inoichi decided, to be a father. It was hard to support the head just so, and it was even harder not to scream when the baby screamed. It was hard to get the milk the right temperature, and it was hard to change the diapers right, and it was hard to get sleep at night.
It was hardest, though, to not be scared.
It was hard to not be scared when Ino was screaming her face red. It was harder when Ino was too sick to scream herself red. It was hard not to be scared when Ino had a raspy breath, and harder when Ino had a cough.
It was hard not to be scared.
It was hardest when Riko got sick. It was hardest when Inoichi sat in the hospital waiting room, watching Ino color pictures. It was hardest when Chouza came to get Ino, when Inoichi slept in Riko's room. It was hardest when Riko coughed all night, and Inoichi was lulled to sleep by her wispy breaths and the beeps of the machines. It was hardest when Riko stopped coughing, because you can't cough when you aren't breathing. It was hardest when Inoichi went to get Ino from Chouza's home.
It was very hard, not to be scared.
For the first few weeks, Inoichi was scared to fall asleep. He sat up in Ino's room, listening to her breathe. He kept her inside, made her sit in the living room and color pictures, just so he could watch her, and listen to her breathe. He held her hand when they went for groceries, and held her hand when they went into the backyard.
It was very, very hard.
They ran out of money; Inoichi wondered when they actually had money. The hospital bills took what was left, and there wasn't anything left for house payments. He made their last can of soup, buttered the last heel of bread, and watched Ino eat. Afterwards, he buttoned her in her coat, and they walked across the street. They walked down two blocks, and turned left. Walked another block. Chouza wasn't home, and so they turned around, and walked the other way. Three blocks straight, then four blocks right. He carried Ino most of the way.
They lived with Shikaku's family for almost two weeks, and with Chouza's family for another three. They moved to Riko's mother's house, and Inoichi left Ino there for three months. Eleven missions later, he went back to Riko's mother's house, and he picked up Ino. He carried her, still sleeping, to a little apartment above a bookshop somewhere between Shikaku's house and Chouza's.
He bought the bookshop.
It didn't do so well.
He began selling other things. Odds and ends at first; coffee tables and crystal vases. Toys and ribbons and senbon. Teacups, picture books, uniforms. He sold himself.
He came home from the mission, a little banged up, a little world-weary, and he carried Ino home from Chouza's. He came home from another mission, and he was too tired to carry Ino home from Shikaku's. He came home from another mission, and Riko's mother brought Ino to see him at the hospital. He walked home with her a few weeks later, and when they got home he swept out the shop.
The shop wasn't doing so well.
He couldn't sell anything.
He sold flowers. They were cheap, and easy to come by. He took Ino out past the village walls, and they picked flowers until her hands were green and she smelled like grass. Riko's mother helped him arrange the flowers, and sometimes someone would come by, and have a spot of pity. He almost sold enough flowers to pay the rent on the shop. He took a few missions, and they even had enough for food.
Chouza bought flowers. Shikaku bought flowers, too, for his wife. Inoichi picked flowers with Ino, then left for missions, and came home a few days later, bloody and stinking of death. He opened the shop, swept the floors, and sold a few flowers, then left on another mission. The flowershop did a little better. Ino turned three, and there was enough money to buy her a toy.
The flowershop did better. Inoichi wondered if it was pity. He didn't much care.
He quit missions, after a while. He was too scared of dying, of leaving Ino alone. He began working in the flowershop, and the flowershop became his life. Inoichi was still scared, of everything. He kept Ino in the room with him, made her sit at the counter, coloring, as he worked in the shop. He held her hand while they walked to Chouza's or Shikaku's, and he watched her breathe while she was sleeping. He was as scared of Ino leaving him as he was of leaving her.
He wondered when he'd become such a coward.
Shikaku called him a flowershop boy one day. Inoichi wondered if he'd finally found his place in life.
When Ino was seven, Inoichi enrolled her in the Academy. He hadn't planned on it, but Chouza's boy and Shikaku's boy were already attending classes. Inoichi walked Ino to the school, and he walked her home, too. For a year, then two, he walked her to and from school. When she was nine, though, Ino hotly informed him that she could walk herself, and she didn't need him holding her hand. Inoichi sat at the counter of the flowershop the entire day, staring at the door, waiting for Ino to come home.
He was scared.
He didn't know if he'd ever been that scared before in his life.
It was hard, to be a father.
Ino walked to and from the Academy for the next two years, then graduated. Inoichi watched her put on her hitai-ate, and he took her out for ice-cream, along with Chouza's family, and Shikaku's. When Ino finally fell asleep that night, her hitai-ate carefully placed on her nightstand, Inoichi sat in the living room, staring out the window. His life had just fallen inside out, upside down.
Her first mission outside the village, Inoichi went and got drunk with Shikaku. Her second mission, he went with Chouza. Her third mission, he made tea at home, and drank it in the flowershop downstairs. By her fourth mission, or maybe it was her fifth, he was walking into the mission room, pulling on his handguards.
It was hard, at first, to be on missions again. He'd spent seven years at home, working in a flowershop. Ino didn't need him now, though, not like she used to, and it was harder, sitting at home, waiting to hear from her. It was frightening.
It was easy, Inoichi discovered, to run away. It was hard to be scared when you were fighting for your own life.
The chuunin exams came and went, and Inoichi never said how grateful he was that Ino didn't make it past the preliminaries of the third round, but he thought Chouza understood. That time, he and Chouza got Shikaku drunk, and Inoichi thought that maybe his friends understood how scared he was to be a father.
Ino was a chuunin by the time she was fifteen. Inoichi took her out to eat, and he bought her a present. Ino was home less and less after that, and so Inoichi was home less and less. Ino became a jounin, and Inoichi was gone for months at a time.
Ino went into the ANBU, and Inoichi was gone for half a year.
Inoichi came home one day, tired of running away. He stumbled into the apartment above the flowershop, and it was dusty. He wiped dust from the table, and grabbed a broom. He swept the flowershop, and threw out all the dead flowers. He washed the windows, and he flipped the sign from closed to open.
Ino stopped by a few days later, and Inoichi touched her hair. She smiled at him, a flash of quick youth, and then she was gone, on another mission, don't wait up. Inoichi watched her walk down the street, and then he went back up to the apartment.
He made the last can of soup, but there was no butter to scrape onto any bread. He ate some of the soup, then poured the rest down the sink. He pulled on his jacket, buttoned it, and left the apartment. Inoichi stood in the street for a long time. Chouza found him there, and Shikaku found Chouza and Inoichi there, too. They drank together, sitting on the edge of the street, somewhere between Chouza's apartment and Shikaku's.
Inoichi said he was scared, said he was always scared. He said he was scared of Ino, scared for Ino. Scared Ino was going to die, scared he was going to die. Said he hadn't been this scared since Riko died, and he was so scared of being a father, so scared he'd fucked up, and now Ino was fucked up, because of him. Said he was scared to be home, said he was scared to leave. Said he was scared of everything, and sometimes he just wished it was like it was years ago, when Riko was smiling and touching her stomach and saying, 'here, feel, can't you feel her kick?'
And God, Inoichi hadn't ever been so scared, in all his life, but he felt like he'd always been scared.
Chouza touched Inoichi's shoulder, and Shikaku said it was because Inoichi was a flowershop boy, that's why Inoichi was so scared.
Inoichi felt like he'd found where he'd belong.
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