Stumbling Blind 1. Little Angels

bgm- "I Sit Away", Boyz II Men

She looked at herself in the mirror, swinging her legs as she sat. She didn't know why she was wearing her nice clothes, but Papa said to put it on, so she did. The door to her room slid open and she watched her father's reflection as his head came into view.

"You ready, Princess?" He went over and knelt next to his daughter.

"Un."

He grinned at her. "You look beautiful."

Ino blushed. "Thank you, Papa." She slid to her feet and smoothed out her dress. "Papa?"

"Yes, Princess?"

"Where are we going?"

"We're going to see your godfather."

"Godfather?" She asked, holding her father's arm like the little lady she was. "What's that?"

"Your godfather is my best friend." He looked down at her, blonde bangs unhindered by his bandanna and falling into his face. "He and I have been through a lot together and he's a very important person to me. And I want him to be important to you, too."

Ino wrinkled her nose. "I already have a Papa."

"He'll take care of you and Mama if anything happens to me."

"Nuh-uh! Papa's the strongest ninja in the world! Stronger than Hokage- sama!" She insisted with wide shakes of her head.

"I know, Princess." He humored. "Besides, he has his own little boy that I'm a godfather of."

The shocked expression on the eight-year-olds face was priceless. "A boy?" She nearly shrieked. "I dun wanna live with a boy!"

He gave her a confused grin. "What do you mean?"

"You're his godfather, right? So you have to take care of him! I don't wanna live with a boy! They're icky!"

Her father had to look away to keep from laughing. "His father is still around." He gave her an askew glance. "Are all boys icky?"

"Yes!"

"Even me?"

"You're not a boy."

"I'm not?"

"You're Papa and I'll do anything for Papa." She nodded as if that were the most profound thing in the history of time.

"You're absolutely right, Princess." They walked down the stairs into the back of the flower shop and to where Ino's mother was working the counter. "Give Mama a hug, Princess."

"Mama!" She ran to the older woman and wrapped her arms around a leg. "Papa's taking me to see my godfather and a icky boy." She pouted. Her mother just raised her eyes to her father.

He shrugged. "It's about time, I figured."

"All right." She knelt and fixed Ino's hair. "You be nice, okay? I've heard he's a quiet boy and he doesn't have a mother, so don't be mean."

She cocked her head to the side, bangs in her face before her mother brushed them aside. "How come?"

She stopped and looked at Ino for a moment. "A lot of reasons, sweetie. Just be good, okay?" She kissed her forehead.

"We'll be back for dinner." Her husband promised, kissing his wife goodbye.

"I'll be waiting." She waved them off with a smile.

~*~*~*~

"Yamanaka!"

"Nara!" The two men wrapped each other in pounding hugs, grinning widely. "It's good to see you again!"

"Always a pleasure."

The blonde suddenly peered around. "That's a new one." He said, eyes on the scar that ran near the other's eye.

"That," he fingered it, mainly out of habit, "was a close call." But he grinned. "How's the business going?"

"Pretty well. Still making more money than working jounin."

"Can't say the benefits exactly equal out the hazards of military." He agreed. "Little lady running the store?"

"That 'little lady' can still your-"

The dark haired man cleared his throat.

"Er, right. Sorry." He grinned sheepishly.

"And here I thought we'd have to worry about /my/ mouth." He looked down at Ino. "So she's the one?"

"Yup. My princess, my pride and joy. Ino, this is your godfather."

Ino shrank back behind her father. 'Godfather? He doesn't look like a Papa at all! He looks mean and scary!'

He knelt down. "You're twelve, aren't you?" She nodded, mostly out of fear. "You're a fine lookin' young lady. Your parents should be very proud." She blushed, fear dispelled slightly. He saw something glint at her throat. "Is that your mom's locket?"

"Un!" She nodded. He didn't seem so bad after all. She took the locket from under her blouse and held it up, the chain wrapped twice around her small neck. "Mama told me to give it to someone important to me!"

"Someone important, huh?" He stood up. "Do you have an idea who?"

Ino pouted. "I wanted to give it to Papa, but Mama said I'll find someone more important."

He nodded sagely. "Good idea. Your dad's a good man, but," he grinned wickedly at his friend, "you might not want someone too much like him."

Yamanaka glared. "Ixnay, Nara."

Ino looked up. "What does he mean, Papa?"

"Pretty boys tend to get ahead of themselves." He said in a non-discreet whisper. Ino's father shot him a sharp look, but the other just looked innocent. "Yes?"

The blonde huffed and looked down at Ino. "Nothing important, Princess." But Ino's eyes strayed to the scarred man as he mouthed 'knife point wedding' and pointed at her father. She just looked confused and the other man looked back around at his friend.

Nara, once again, had a perfectly innocent and normal face. Not believing that look for a second, Ino's father asked, "Your boy?"

"Right, right. Of course. This," he pulled a little boy out from behind his leg, "is my son, Shikamaru. Shika, this is your godfather and his little girl. Say hi, boy."

He just smiled shyly. The way he tried to hide behind his father's leg reminded Ino of Sakura.

'But Sakura's cuter and she's not a icky boy.' She decided. She made a face at him and turned her nose away.

"C'mon," Ino's father said. "Let's have lunch, shall we?" He shot his friend a look. "No ramen."

"There goes my afternoon."

~*~*~*~

It was a fairly nice restaurant. Family oriented, but not expensive. The fathers talked expressively together, leaving the children to entertain themselves. Ino prayed no one from her class saw her or they might think that she- ugh -/liked/ boys.

'But,' she decided, 'if I have to be miserable, I'll make sure he is, too.'

"Hey," she said. "Hey!" He looked at her from where he was boredly staring out the window. "My mama says that you don't have a Mama."

"No..." He said softly.

"Well, where is she?" Shikamaru shrugged. "You don't know?"

"Dad doesn't know. He says she left so she could be in a happier place." He ducked his head. "I don't know why we didn't go, too."

Ino sniffed. "I bet your mama's dead." Shikamaru shot his head up. "My papa said that my pet bird went to a happier place, but when I asked my sensei if it was true, she said it died. Because they put it in the ground. My grandpa's in the ground, too because he died. But they say he's in a happier place. So your mama probably is, too."

His dark eyes narrowed at her. "My mom's not dead."

"I bet she is." Ino insisted in his all-knowing voice.

"I know what dead is, but Mom left. Dad wouldn't lie because he's waiting for her to come back."

"Nuh-uh."

"Che." Shikamaru looked away. "A stupid girl wouldn't understand."

Ino's jaw dropped. "What?"

"I said a stupid girl wouldn't understand."

Snarling, Ino slid down in her seat and kicked Shikamaru in the shins.

"Ow! Why'd you kick me?"

"I'm not a-"

"Ino!"

She whirled around, trying to defend herself against the judge and jury known as 'Papa'. "But he called me stupid girl!"

"It doesn't matter! You don't hit others unless you have to!"

"I /did/ have to!" But at the narrowing of her father's eyes, she shrank back.

"Shikamaru...." The dark haired man growled. "Did you call her that?"

He looked away, knowing better than to lie to his father. "Yes, Dad."

"Why?"

When he looked up at Ino, she realized that once he opened his mouth, she was going to be in /big/ trouble. Instead, Shikamaru looked down at the table.

"Because she doesn't know anything."

His father snarled and clonked his fist against Shikamaru's head. "Don't be rude, boy." His voice was a low growl, almost inaudible. "Don't assume about anyone, especially someone you don't know. It makes you look dumb. Now apologize."

She thought it was odd that Shikamaru's shoulders tensed slightly at the word 'dumb'. But, with a deep breath, he said, "I'm sorry I called you stupid." And she was dumbstruck.

"Well?" Her father prompted.

"Um.... I'm sorry, too." She shyly looked at the table. "For.... you know."

"Un...."

The two adults looked at their children with a slight measure of amusement. "Well," the blonde said, looking at the menu. "It seems like we'll have a nice, peaceful lunch. Shall we eat?"

~*~*~*~

The two children didn't speak much to each other after that, but Ino immensely enjoyed being with her godfather. She couldn't help but think it was funny the way he kept getting her father mad at him. The two had even gotten into a playful scuffle and Ino cheered for them both. Shikamaru, though, kept to himself the entire time and Ino decided that she didn't like him. Of course, she didn't understand why he didn't tell on her for being mean and she was thankful that he didn't....

'But boring people are boring.' She decided. 'Especially when they're boys.'

But, as the families were about to spilt up, a jounin caught up to them, scroll in hand. "Nara!" He called. The man turned around, frown on his face as he recognized the messenger.

"What is it?"

"Sencho wants to see you. He says it's important."

He scowled. "It's my day off."

"He says it's important." The other repeated.

He looked at the others. Yamanaka shrugged. "Group leader's orders take precedence...." He said lamely.

"Yeah, I know.... What is it?" He asked the jounin.

"It's a new mission. They need your shadow talent."

"Great...." Looking down at his son, he knelt. "Hey, Shika."

It was obvious in his eyes the boy knew what he was going to say. "Yeah, Dad?"

"I'm gonna take you home, okay? Finish your homework and I'll be back later."

"I already did my homework." He muttered.

"Oh...." Uncomfortably he looked away. Years of leaving at a moment's notice never made these sorts of situations any easier. Especially when the boy began to show signs of becoming reclusive. "Well, just...." he frowned, "I'll be back as soon as I can."

Shikamaru looked up at his father with hurt eyes. "You said you'd spend the day with me...." he said quietly.

With a growl, the older man ducked his head. "I know, boy, I wanted to. But...."

"Oi, Nara." He looked up at his friend. "He can stay with us until you get back."

Shikamaru looked over at him in surprise and his father looked hopeful. "You sure?"

"No worries."

With a wide grin, he ruffled his son's hair. "There, you get some company. Be good, okay?"

"Okay, Dad."

"C'mon, Shikamaru." Ino's father held out his hand. Uncertainly, the young boy reached out and took hold. When he looked back, his father and the jounin had already disappeared. Quietly, he turned and followed his godfather back to his home.

~*~*~*~

Ino, protesting having a boy in her home, decided she'd rather spend her time with her mother, even if it was spent working in the shop. Her father, however, tried all he could to have Shikamaru open up a little bit.

He wasn't really getting anywhere, either. For ten minutes, after his bedding was set up, he just sat at one of the windows and stared out into the sky. He didn't think he ever seen a boy so young act so solitary. Nara said his boy was very mature and smart for his age, but it was said with a bitterness in it.

He obviously didn't mature because he wanted it. It was because he was always alone.

"Hey, Shikamaru." The tall blonde sat next to him. "Do you want to play a game?" The boy shrugged. "C'mon, you play Go?"

"No."

"Here, I'll teach you how." He went over to one of the cupboards and brought out the wooden playing board. "Ino and my wife thinks it's a boring game." He gave Shikamaru a quick wink. "It's because they're girls."

He was pleased when Shikamaru grinned a bit.

"Maybe you'll like it." He set out the pieces, explaining the rules to the young boy. To his surprise, Shikamaru quickly caught on to the game, though he was still far from being a challenge. He watched the child as he studied the board. "Shikamaru...."

"Yes?"

He tried not to sound cruel. "You get left alone a lot, don't you?"

Softly, Shikamaru flickered his eyes up, then back at the black and white pieces. "Yes."

"Don't you ever get upset?"

"It's his job. I know he can't help it."

"I know." Yamanaka nodded. "I used to work with him, I used to get called away a lot, too. But," he asked gently, "don't you get upset? Ino always complained whenever I left."

He hunched over slightly. "....There's no point." Because he had no one to complain to.

"You can always come over here if you ever get lonely."

Shikamaru shook his head. "I don't get lonely anymore. I'm used to it."

"Don't you have any friends to stay with?"

"No."

His complete focus was turned on the small boy. "No one ever gets used to being alone. No one can survive being alone."

"I'm not alone." Shikamaru whispered. "I have Dad." When he's there....

"He worries about you, you know. Being left alone all the time. He hates it, he thinks it's his fault that you seem so withdrawn."

There was a long pause. "It's not Dad's fault Mom left." He said before he slid out of his seat. "I'm going to sleep. Good night." The man winced at the flatness of his voice, but said nothing as the other left.

Leaning back, he let out a huff. "Damn, Nara. Your kid is a piece of work...."

~*~*~*~

There was a letter under the door to the flower shop the next morning. It was from Shikamaru's father just before he left on his mission. It said that it would take him a couple days to get back and how much he appreciated their help. Yamanaka just ruffled Shikamaru's hair and laughed.

"I always wanted to have another man around the house. Even for a little while."

"Papa!" Ino pouted. "You said I wouldn't have ta live with a boy!"

"It's only for a few days, Princess."

"But.... you have to take him to class!"

"Yeah, so?"

She scowled. "So that means that you have to take /both/ of us to our classes! I don't wanna be seen with a boy! My friends will think I like him or something."

He knelt and patted her head, humor on his face. "Don't worry, Princess. It'll only be once or twice." She huffed, but said nothing else.

But, things didn't go so well when they got back. Supposedly the children were doing their homework while Ino's parents worked in the shop. But when her mother went up the stairs....

"That's mine too! Don't touch it!"

Shikamaru scowled at Ino. "What /isn't/ yours?"

"Everything is mine!" She was nearly on the verge of shouting. "This is my home so everything is mine!"

"It's your parents' stuff."

"No!" Ino insisted. "It's mine and you can't touch it!"

He rolled his eyes, trying to keep his patience. "Then where do I do my homework?"

"In /your/ home!"

Her mother finally made her presence known. "What's going on here?"

Ino pointed at Shikamaru. "He's trying to use my stuff without permission!"

"I just wanna do my homework." He grumbled in defense.

"Do it somewhere else!"

"Ino," her mother tried to reason, "where is he supposed to go?"

"His home." She repeated with force.

"Honey, he has no one at home."

"It's not /my/ fault everyone left him. No one likes a dumb boy."

Shikamaru grew stiff at the comment and before either children could react, her mother scored a sharp hit across her daughter's cheek.

"Don't you ever say that again." She said, trembling in rage. Ino looked up, hurt. Her parents had never hit her face before. And never had she been disciplined in front of others. "Don't dare talk like that again. Shikamaru's father is a good man and he'd never just leave him. Apologize to him."

Ino looked up at her mother's steeled eyes, refusing to relent. Her lower lips trembled and she finally shouted out, "No! He's stupid and he's ugly and I hate him!" She ran into her room and slammed the door, throwing things occasionally just to remind her mother that she was mad.

The older woman looked at the boy. "I'm sorry, Shikamaru. Ino's just not used to having someone else around."

But he shook his head. "It's okay. Some people were meant to be alone." He picked up his homework and made a spot in the corner. Ino's mother just felt like crying for him.

Not long after, Ino's father went to the girl's room. She was more of a daddy's girl, always listened to him whenever there was something she didn't understand. It wasn't because she didn't like her mother, she just wanted to be as strong and respected as her father was.

"Ino, Princess." He called softly as he opened the door. "Can I come in?"

"Un...." She sniffled, curled on her bed.

"Princess, why did you say that to him?" Her father asked as he sat next to her.

"Because he /is/ a stupid boy." She grumbled. But her defense seemed weak- even to her -against the steady calm of her father.

"Why do you call him that? Has he been mean to you?"

"....No." She admitted lamely.

"Then why are you mean to him?"

"Because he deserves it."

"Deserves it how?"

She glared at her father. "You don't care. You'll take his side because you're a boy, too!"

He gave her a gentle smile. "I thought I was Papa."

"You are, but you're also a boy. So you'll take his side."

"Ino," he said softly, "I'm not taking anyone's side. I just don't understand why you're mean to him. I didn't raise my little girl like that, did I?"

"No, Papa." She shook her head.

"Then why does he deserve it? He has it very hard you know."

"Why do /we/ have to take care of him?"

"He doesn't have anyone. You know that."

"But he /likes/ being alone!" She insisted.

"I doubt that."

"But he does! He doesn't know how to appreciate having a family because he's always alone!"

"Ino." He said with gentle force, expression hard. "He doesn't want to be alone. No one does."

"And how do you know?" There were little tears in her eyes, face flushed from her anger.

"Because he's just like his father. And I know his father better than anyone." He rested against the wall, legs extended. With an open hand, he coaxed Ino to him, half holding her in his lap. "Nara and I have been friends since the academy, since we were genin. He helped me through so much, he may not seem very serious and maybe a bit too lazy, but I never knew anyone as loyal or dependable as him." He squeezed her gently. "He helped me get through the.... misunderstanding between your mama's family and me. Shikamaru's only a day older than you, you know."

Ino blinked in surprise. "Really?"

"Yup." He smiled. "He loved his wife so much. Almost as much as I love your mama."

"Then why did she leave? She did really leave, right?"

"Yes, she left." The smile left and he looked down. "There were a lot of reasons why."

"Did she stop loving them?"

"No, that wasn't it...." He tried to think of a way to explain it so she'd understand. "She was just.... restless. She didn't want to stay in this village, just being the wife of a jounin. She wanted to do something for herself and she didn't feel she could do it here."

"And she left because of that?"

"Nara had responsibilities here. And he already had a good paying job. There was no point in taking Shikamaru with her."

Ino pouted. "How old was he?"

"He was about.... Two years old, I believe. It broke Nara up when his wife left." He held Ino tightly. "I don't think I'd be able to do as well as he did if either you or your mama left me."

"I wouldn't be happy if you or Mama left, either."

Her father smiled sadly at her. "Think how he feels. His mama left him, he barely sees his papa because he has to work a lot for both of them. Think about how sad and alone he feels. And think about how much it hurts when someone says that the reason why he's alone is because no one likes him."

"....." Ino frowned, dwelling on her father's words, wishing that she could take her own back. "I'm sorry, Papa."

"I'm not the one you hurt, Ino." He said softly. "Go apologize to Shikamaru."

"Okay."

The little boy was by the window again, his unofficial reserved seat of the house. He waited patiently as Ino's mother cooked in the small kitchen. Ino stood by the door and cleared her throat. At the sound, Shikamaru turned and looked at her.

Then turned right back to the window.

She frowned, confused. Behind her was her father and at her inquiring look, he gave her a supportive smile and a nod. Taking a deep breath, she went over to the dark haired boy. He didn't pay her any attention, just looked out the window. She stepped in front of him and his gaze went to a different patch of sky. Anywhere she moved, his eyes just went elsewhere.

Finally, her temper snapped. "Will you look at me?"

"Why?" His eyes still didn't fall on her.

"Because I wanna say I'm sorry and I can't do that unless you look at me!" There was a moment and then Shikamaru slowly turned to look at her, somewhat surprised. At his dark eyes, her courage faltered and she felt unbelievably shy. "So, um...." She blushed and looked away. "I'm sorry."

"....okay." He said slowly. Ino blinked.

"That's it?"

He shrugged. "Yeah, I guess."

Incredulously she asked, "You forgave me?"

Shikamaru looked confused. "Yeah...."

"Just like that?"

"Do you want me to still be upset?"

"Well, no, just...." She couldn't think of any reason.

"Look," Shikamaru crossed his arms, brow furrowed, "you're sorry. I'm used to it so I don't care. So don't worry."

"You're used to it?" She gaped. "People make fun of you?"

He shrugged. "Some kids in my class."

"Why?"

"Because I don't have a Mom. And Dad's out most of the time." He shrugged. "And I don't have any friends."

"You don't?"

"No. No one really does like me."

"That's not true!" The force of her words took her by surprise. "Your papa does! That's why he always comes back!" Ino didn't think she ever said words with that much conviction before. "And Papa and Mama like you! So don't say no one does or else.... Or else I'll hurt you for calling Mama and Papa liars!"

He sat there, shocked, looking at Ino. Then, slowly, the corners of his mouth softened into an odd sort of smile. "You're a strange girl." He said, but she took no insult. Instead, she beamed, same wide grin on her face that always made Sakura smile.

"Maybe. But it's better than being plain."

And for the first time since she met him, Shikamaru laughed.

~*~*~*~

It was three days later when Shikamaru's father finally returned. Ino's father escorted him up from the flower shop, the two talking and laughing up the stairs. Shikamaru was already on his feet, recognizing his father's deep voice at an instant.

"Dad!" He ran towards the tall, stopping just short of him. His father never was much for public affection and the last thing Shikamaru wanted was to appear overly anxious or joyous that his dad had arrived.

"Shika!" He dispelled all of the boy's thoughts by sweeping him into a huge bear hug. "How's my boy been? Not been causing trouble, have you?"

"Your boy is something, Nara." Ino's father said. "He's been a great kid."

"Don't ever be afraid to stop by, even for a minute." His wife said, greeting the dark haired man with a quick hug. "It's been so long!"

"I'd love to stay, but I gotta take the boy back home so he can give me a foot rub, eh?" He ruffled his son's hair.

Shikamaru wrinkled his nose. "Dad~!"

"I'm kidding, boy." He shook his friend's hand. "Thank you so much for looking after him, Yamanaka. You don't know how much I appreciate it."

"It was a pleasure, Nara. If you ever leave for a while again, we'll be willing to watch over him."

"Ino, honey." Her mother went to where Ino sat in a nearby chair, scroll in front of her. "Aren't you going to say goodbye?"

"Shikamaru!" The little girl called out as he and his father turned to leave. At the sound of his name, he looked over his shoulder. "If you smile a bit more," she said importantly, "I might like you, too."

He blinked. Then blushed. He turned back to his father, shy smile obvious, even from behind. "U-Un."

~*~*~*~

A/N:

I love talking to some of my friends. We come up with some of the strangest ideas. One of which being Ino's dad isn't the most.... 'traditional' men around. Meaning, he knocked up Ino's mom and got into /BIG/ trouble with his inlaws. Shikamaru's dad just sort of struck me as a smooth talker for some reason and we hypothosized that he managed to calm down Ino's mom's family enough to get a shotgun (or a knife point) wedding^__________^

In the case of Shikamaru's family, since there really wasn't any background on his mother, I had it that she left when he was around two years old. However, in chapter 172, his dad said something about his mom that I didn't understand and I already had everything planned out so.... *cries* I didn't mean to have something conflict! Oh, the pains of being anal retentive!

But, anyway, I'm assuming that the shinobi are more like the military of Konoha and that it's a large militaristic village. But, obviously there's some civilians living there (the owner of the ichiraku, being one) and the shinobi that retire have to do something, so Ino's dad is a retired ninja who runs a family business. And, built up from personal experience, he'd probably be getting more money than someone working in the military.

Even given money to pay for food, housing and not having to deal with electricity and water bills, I'm sure shinobi don't get paid very much and so, also from personal experience, a single father with a relatively high rank on the enlisted side gets paid barely enough to live comfortably with kids. Forgiving the fact that I have a brother and I made Shikamaru a single child.....

Also, like my own father, Shikamaru's had to work a lot, mainly odd hours and never really saw him a lot. They also seem to have the kind of relationship I have with my dad, comfortable and able to speak freely but with a sort of distance due to the parent being away most of the time.

Anyway, Ino and Shikamaru are around 8 in this fic and it's pretty much the first time they (can recall) met. And because I can never remember their fathers' names, I just had them call each other by their last names which is has most guys refer to each other, anyway. Unless their close, but.....^^;; But, enough of that. I don't think author's notes are generally supposed to be this long so I'll stop rambling :P