Disclaimer: Bah. I don't own Naruto. Or the song.

INSPIRED BY MY PREVIOUS STORY, "THE DAY THE ICE CUBE WAS MELTED," AND "ICEBREAKERS" BY SUPPI-CHAN. "ICEBREAKERS" IS A CARDCAPTOR SAKURA FANFICTION.

As a note, this story is a sequel to my previous story, "The Day the Ice Cube was Melted." It isn't necessary for you to read that, but there might be a couple references to it here and there.... FYI.

Nara Shikamaru was a remarkably smart being, as so many of us already know. He was lazy, yes, a slacker, yes, a bit of a pain in the ass at times, yes. But nonetheless, he was still an incredibly smart person, far smarter than anyone else his age.

He usually relied on his brain power to get him through the day, but on this particular day, he decided he didn't quite want to use his brain. Instead, he decided to use his instincts. And his instincts drove him to take a shortcut through the busy streets which were bustling with the citizens of Konoha.

He tended to walk down the streets with his arms stretched out, bent at the elbows, his hands clasping each other at the back of his head. Then, depending on his mood, he would either walk with his eyes closed or leave them open. Today, he decided to take the former.

The chill wind in the air caused him to shiver. Winter was nearing, and the spirit of the season was in the air. The smell of warm ramen drifted to his nose. His stomach reacted with an embarrasingly loud growl.

"Erk." He lazily opened one eye, pausing in his tracks and surveying the Ichiraku Noodle Bar. Would he eat alone tonight, again? He searched for the familiar orange jacket, but didn't find it. It seemed Naruto, for once, wasn't eating at the noodle bar tonight.

Then came the familiar swish of long blonde hair, happening so quickly that he barely had time to register it. Then he blinked. It wasn't like her to be eating out at Ichiraku, but then again, he wasn't apt to eat out either.

Ever since her failed attempt to become a Chuunin, she had steadily trained and trained and trained, not caring so much about her looks anymore. For some reason, she continued to keep her hair short. He had been convinced that after the Chuunin exams, she would have grown it long again, but she didn't. She had cut it every time it extended past her shoulder blades, for reasons that escaped him.

After spring, she grew it long again.

Shikamaru scratched his head, letting a sigh escape his lips. It seemed she hadn't seen him yet, so he contented himself with watching her back while he debated on what to do.

Her shoulders were slumped, the pride that only Ino could have had vanished, and her hair was out of its usual ponytail, hanging freely about her shoulders, slightly tangled.

He walked calmly towards her, plopping cheerfully down the stool next to her. She still didn't notice him, and he furrowed his brow.

"Hey? Ino?"

She raised her head slowly, face pale. When she saw him, she made a weak attempt to greet him. "Hey, Shikamaru."

Shikamaru arched an eyebrow, but didn't press. What happened to the energetic Ino he knew? What happened to the grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him until he felt so dizzy he could throw up? What happened to all the rants about how Sakura had stolen her beloved Sasuke-kun?

No, wait....that wasn't right. Momentarily, Shikamaru forgot about Ino in the present and concentrated on the past. Actually, she had stopped complaining about that weeks ago. He cursed himself mentally for not having noticed such a big change. The day Yamanaka Ino acknowledged defeat was the day pigs flew.

That didn't change the fact that she was presently sitting in front of him, face extremely pale and weak, eyes glazed and unfocused. She looked exacty like the opposite of what Ino usually did.

"Hey, are you okay?" All traces of lightheartedness left Shikamaru's voice; concern replaced it.

She waved his worry off with her hand. "Hai, hai, I'm just fine. Don't worry."

Shikamaru nodded warily, but he hadn't given up just yet. She was acting funny, and as much as she tried to deny it, he knew something was up. The only problem now was how to weasel it out of her. Ino was the kind of girl who could be extremely stubborn and thickheaded at times.

He racked his brain for a strategy, a way to corner her and leave her with no way out. Impulsively, he placed his elbows on the table, resting his chin in his hands. This was excruciatingly intricate; one wrong word and Ino could, quite literally, blow up.

Finally, he came up with something that just might work. He quickly turned his head.

"Hey, Ino --"

He stopped. Ino had shoved the bowl of ramen she'd been eating aside, and had laid her head on the counter, hands hanging limply by her side. Her eyes were closed, and her breathing had slowed down. She looked -- weak.

"Ahh..." Shikamaru scratched his head again. "Damn her, she fell asleep..."

He cast a glance around the Ichiraku Noodle Bar, starting when he realized that he and Ino were the only ones left, except for the cook. As the thought of what he'd have to do flitted through his head, he swore, both inside and out.

"Aw, shit...."

---

Needless to say, it had been quite awkward along the way to Ino's house. There were a number of reasons for that. One, he wasn't exactly sure where her house was, thus he circled round and round the neighborhood he was sure she lived in numerous times. When he passed an odd-shaped rock for the third time, he stomped his foot angrily, quite an un-Shikamaru thing to do.

"Urgh," he muttered, shifting the slumbering girl's weight from shoulder to shoulder. "You've gained weight..."

The truth was, he liked that he was with Ino. Rarely did he ever get to spend time with her, especially now that he was a Chuunin and she still remained a Genin. Sure, the fact that she was sleeping and weighing down him sort of erased the romance from the scene, but he was still with Ino, and that was all that mattered.

This was really forcing him to confront his feelings for her. Ino had always been...well, Ino. She hadn't been thrilled at the prospect of being on the same team with a slacker like him, and had proceeded to ramble on for a good half an hour -- Shikamaru hadn't really been paying attention, but he vaguely remembered the words "lazy idiot," "How the hell am I supposed to survive with you?!," and "I want my Sasuke-kun."

It had been a rocky friendship at first, but it had developed, ever so slowly, until they got used to each other's company, and learned to survive in each other's presence.

But no matter how close they'd gotten, he would -- could -- never replace the void in her heart that could only be filled by her beloved Sasuke-kun. That was that. He wasn't anything like Sasuke. He could never replace him. Ever.

He supposed he would always be the second choice. It wasn't like it was a new realization or anything; he'd always known that for a fact. She loved Sasuke, and she could barely stand him. They had blossomed into friends, yes, but nothing more. Sasuke would always be the one.

He would always be the second choice.

"Shikamaru? What are you thinking about?"

Shikamaru started, almost dropping the now fully-conscious girl. He shifted his head so he could shoot her a halfhearted glare. "You were awake the whole time?"

She stuck her tongue out at him. "Hai. Decided to take advantage of the situation."

Awkward silence. Then: "Well, do you mind getting off? My shoulders are about to break. You're no feather, you know."

She sighed. "All right."

He bent down lower so as to let her get off. She hopped off, wobbling slightly as she walked.

"Are you sure you're okay?" He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, trying not to seem too worried. "You looked like you had a fever."

"Hai, hai, I'm just fine."

"You don't look it," Shikamaru commented. They were walking side by side now, the white light radiating from the moon illuminating Ino's features. Strays of her blonde hair were coming undone from her ponytail, and she repetitively brushed them off in a gesture unlike her.

She shrugged. "Well, I can assure you, I feel it."

"Then why'd you fall asleep all of a sudden?" Shikamaru challenged.

"I was sleepy."

"Baaakaaa." He let the word escape his mouth in a teasing drawl, eyeing her with half concern, half casualness. "You shouldn't stay up so late then. It'll give ya wrinkles."

"Hmph." She flicked a strand off her face, swinging her ponytail -- what was left of it, anyhow -- around. "My genes make it impossible for me to get wrinkles." Little remnants of her pride remained, but they had faded considerably. The Ino he now faced was older and wiser, more familiar with the blows of life.

Shikamaru snorted. "Right." He stretched his arms, yawning widely. "...it must be at least midnight by now."

"Mm."

"Won't your folks mind?"

"Nah." Ino shook her head. "I've got nothing to do tomorrow, anyway. No reason to get up early."

Shikamaru said nothing, but the wheels in his head were turning. Back then, Ino would have had a reason to get up early. She would have woken up at six a.m. and trained, working to beat her eternal rival. Now, however, was a different story. She had lost Sasuke, and she had no reason to do so anymore.

He glanced up at the clear black sky. There was a full moon, and it stared down at him, radiating the light of loneliness. In the past, he had often stayed awake during those long, lonely nights, lying down on the soft grass, simply staring at the moon, no matter what shape it took. Full, half, crescent, it was all the same to him.

Tonight, however, he had someone to watch it with.

And the moon smiled down on him, happy that its companion wasn't alone on this night.

---

Two weeks later, he received the news that Ino had fallen sick. It traveled in the form of a blond ninja in an orange jacket, together with his companions, Sasuke and Sakura.

"Ino-chan's sick!" Sakura looked worried, she had even taken the "pig" out of her nickname for her supposed best friend. "She was asleep when we left her."

Shikamaru's ears perked up, but waved it off. "Ah, all you need is for her to see Uchiha's face and she'll be back to normal in no time." Trying to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

"...." Shikamaru didn't have to turn around to know that Sasuke was glaring at him. He smirked.

"If I were sick and I saw Sasuke's face, I'd throw up," Naruto offered, earning himself too a glare from Sasuke. Sakura was unusually silent, but there was a pink flush on her face.

"What does she have?" Shikamaru asked nonchalantly.

"Who?" Naruto asked cluelessly.

"Ino, you baka," Sakura snapped. She turned to Shikamaru. "She's got a fever, but she's sort of delirious." She shrugged. "It's nothing serious, but we thought we'd let you know."

"....what for?" Shikamaru asked. There was really no reason to let him know, was there? It wasn't like Ino was dying or anything like that.

"Ano....you're her friend, aren't you?" said Sakura slowly.

Friend. It was a tricky word, "friend." To be a "friend" to someone was to trust that person, to be content with that person, to love that person, to be happy with that person. To be a "friend" was to love that person, and to be loved back. To be a "friend" was to be able to talk freely with that person about everything. To be a "friend" was to be unafraid of what his or her reaction would be to whatever deep dark secret you had hidden inside of you.

To be a "friend" was to support your friend with all your heart, no matter what choices or decisions he or she had made.

Could he really call himself Ino's friend? Yes, he trusted Ino. Yes, he was content to be with her. Yes, he was happy with her. And yes, he loved her...

....but no, she didn't love him back.

.....no, he wasn't able to talk freely with her about everything.

.....no, he was afraid of what her reaction would be to his deep secret.

.....and no, he didn't support her decision regarding Sasuke.

It was simple, really. He had feelings for her, but she didn't feel the same way. He'd known her for quite some time now, and the time they'd spent together as a team had added to that. Her feelings for Sasuke were skin deep, and ever since she'd found out that she'd lost her chance with him, she hadn't been the same. She would never try to steal him away from Sakura. She wasn't that type of person. She'd accepted defeat graciously, but it was tearing her up inside.

And only he knew.

"....she's been asleep for the whole day so far," Sakura concluded, glancing at the watch on the corner of the wall. "And she seems to be pretty weak. You should visit her, Shikamaru-kun, you're one of her close friends too."

"Eh, maybe." Shikamaru shrugged carelessly, mentally posting a note in his head to visit Ino later on. "I don't see the point."

Sakura sighed. "Fine then. Let's go, you guys." And she walked away, Sasuke on one side, holding her hand with an unexpected emotion in his eyes. Sakura smiled lovingly at him, while Naruto hung back a few feet, being wise enough to know when he wasn't needed.

Shikamaru stretched, standing up and immediately meeting the gust of wind that blew straight at him. He yearned to lie back underneath the shade of the tree, but stuffed his hands in his pockets and went on his way.

---

Sasuke figured something was up, but he wasn't exactly the type of person who liked to pry into others' businesses. He felt that he had more than enough on his plate, what with his recent "melting" and his new relationship, and so he didn't have the energy to really pry into anybody else's business, even if he wanted to.

"Sasuke-kun?" There was something in Sakura's voice, something that should have tipped him off. It was a bit too sugary than he was accustomed to, but he decided to shrug it off. What could possibly happen?

"Mm?" he asked, an arm wrapped loosely around her waist. They were sitting -- rather, leaning against each other, really -- underneath the shade of a cherry blossom tree.

"Could you do something for me?"

"...." Sasuke loved his new girlfriend, and he would go to the ends of the earth and back just for her and no one else. Unfortunately for him, his girlfriend, besides having that power, also had quite a smart brain, and by the glint in her green eyes, it looked like she was coming up with something.

"Onegai?" She shifted in his grip, turning so that they were looking in each other's eyes. "Onegai, Sasuke-kun."

His insides squirmed. "...what is it?"

"Tell me you'll do it, first."

"Oh, Sakura-chan..."

"Onegai!" Sasuke inwardly groaned; there she went, using her goddamned puppy dog eyes again. He glanced around nervously. He really didn't want to do whatever Sakura had in mind for him....

"For me, Sasuke-kun?" She was using all of her cuteness on him, trying to entice him to do her bidding. "It won't be that bad, I swear."

Sasuke sighed. God. What happened to Uchiha Sasuke, the avenger? Here he was, wrapped around a pink-haired kunoichi's little finger.

"You swear it won't be that bad?"

"Hai!" She grinned widely.

"Eh..." He nodded helplessly. "Fine. What is it?"

His girlfriend's voice echoed loudly in his ears. "Ne, don't worry, Sasuke-kun, it's nothing very hard."

Mm-hmm. Sure. Following Shikamaru around to make sure he'd go visit Ino today wasn't hard.

Shikamaru was a very talented ninja, and he could sense chakra very easily. He had to conceal his more than he usually did because of that very fact. Not to mention that he could be doing something else more worthwhile. Maybe training. Or spending more time with Sakura-chan. But not following around this idiot.

Sasuke sighed. Very softly, of course, but he still sighed. He had been following him for at least an hour, and all he had done was walk around in circles, roving aimlessly around the forest. He vaguely recognized it as the neighborhood where Ino lived, but who knew?

"You can come out now."

Sasuke froze, trying to hide his chakra some more. There was no way that slacker could have sensed him... but then again, that was why Naruto existed, to prove the impossible was possible.

"I know you're there...."

Sasuke smiled grimly, acknowledging defeat. Silently and stealthily, he hopped down from the tree branch.

"....Sasuke."

"Not bad." Sasuke crossed his arms over his chest, a gesture he still hadn't given up on. "For a slacker."

Shikamaru laughed shortly. "Right. Mind telling me what you think you're doing here?"

"I don't want to be here, so don't start."

"The Uchiha Sasuke doing something he doesn't want to do?" Shikamaru's mouth dropped open in mock surprise. "That's a first. Love works wonders, doesn't it?"

"Shut up."

"Leave," Shikamaru suddenly said. "Stop following me around."

Sasuke, momentarily, was taken aback, but quickly got over it. "Just go to her house, why don't you." He eyed him with an even stare.

Shikamaru didn't miss a beat. "Whose house?"

"Her house." God, did that guy remind him of himself. Stubborn as a mule.

" 'Her'?" Shikamaru continued to act clueless.

"Don't be an idiot," snapped Sasuke, albeit it was amiable. "Go to her house."

"What for? She's head over heels in love with you, in case you haven't noticed. I'm just the second-rate guy."

Sasuke blinked. "So you're just gonna give up that easily? You are an idiot."

"No shit," snapped Shikamaru. "Only idiots fall in love with girls that are already in love with somebody else." * When Sasuke failed to give him a comeback, he went on. "It's true, you know. She never notices me, and all she cares about is the almighty Uchiha Sasuke, the god of the world. Don't try to say it isn't true. You know it is."

Sasuke stopped to think, and when the words came to him, he spoke. "I won't deny it. I know she likes me. But you can't just give up, you idiot. If you don't even try, you've already lost. You can't quit that easily."

"........"

"And you think idiots are the kind who fall in love with girls that are already in love with someone else? I think idiots are the kind who give up without even trying."

"Idiots are probably the kind of person who fall in love with the very same girl whom they called 'annoying' and said 'made them sick,' " was the quick retort.

"Shut up."

Sasuke surveyed the teen's eyes. They were filled with confusion, and he could sympathize -- hell, he could emphathize -- with him. "Don't be an idiot, Shikamaru. I'm warning you."

"Which kind?"

A half-smile appeared on the raven-haired teen's face. "You know which kind."

---

After answering the usual questions he usually received on the rare occasion that he went to Ino's house -- heck, he could only remember one time he'd actually dared to venture over there -- Shikamaru was finally given a moment to calm his nerves.

Her door currently faced him. It was a nice door, made out of good, strong wood. It was a dark brown, had a very plain design, and towered over him. It was nothing to be afraid of. The knob was a shiny one, and as Shikamaru very reluctantly placed his hand on it, he found out that it was cold, as well.

The prospect of visiting Ino at her house had never really been a thrilling one, but it was especially daunting at this particular moment. He didn't exactly know why, but he just felt scared.

He lingered helplessly outside her door, wishing with all his heart that he was anywhere, anywhere, but here. It seemed as if he was all alone in the world; like there was some fire-breathing monster that was killing off people and he had been the lucky one chosen to battle it all by himself.

His palms began to sweat, the doorknob growing more slippery and cooler by the second. His hand, stretched out over the knob, began to tremble.

Goddammit!

With a sudden burst of fury and resolution, he thrust open the door, resisting the urge to shout out, "I'm not afraid of you, dammit!" He almost slammed the door -- almost; he remembered just in time about the slumbering girl -- and breathed in and out slowly.

And he stopped.

He wasn't the mushy type of person, and he didn't like to waste his words on emotions such as love, but he was entranced.

He'd rarely seen Ino with her hair down, but it was down now, and it cascaded all around her, reaching down to the middle of her back. Thin strands framed her face, which were still pale. Sunlight streamed in from the small window in the corner, illuminating her face.

God, was she beautiful.

He quickly and forcefully shook his head, and slowly made his way to the foot of her bed. Evil thoughts -- evil thoughts, the kind of thoughts only Jiraiya would think of -- were floating through his mind. He tried, he really did, folks, but she looked so beautiful...

He slapped himself.

A little too loudly, maybe, but the point was, he needed to slap himself. And besides, Ino was still sound asleep, and no one else had heard, so he was techinically safe. And it did the job: the dirty thoughts finally escaped his mind.

He had known her for a long time, yes. They were on the same team, yes. They were friends -- sort of -- and their parents were friends, as well. But she had only seen him as a friend -- hell, she hadn't even seen him at all until very recently. She was in love with the Uchiha Sasuke, as was every other female shinobi in Konoha, and he stood no chance.

Shikamaru wasn't the kind of person who gave up very easily -- okay, well, maybe he was -- but that was because he usually knew enough to know when something is absolutely hopeless. And when something was hopeless, it was hopeless, and there was no point in hoping that something hopeless would suddenly turn hopeful.

Yamanaka Ino had always been a hopeless case for him, no matter how much he had hoped and hoped and hoped. She had given her heart away, and it was impossible to get it back. He couldn't do anything. She loved Sasuke, not him. You couldn't suddenly make someone fall in love with someone else. Once someone had decided to fall in love, it was extremely hard to fall out. He knew that very well.

"Shikamaru?" Her voice broke him out of his thoughts. "What are you doing here?"

He turned slowly to face her. Her eyes were tired, and it seemed she hadn't the strength to sit up, so he bent down closer to her. " 'Cause you're sick, I guess."

"Hontou ni?" She felt her forehead. "...hm, I guess it's kind of hot."

"You should be asleep, shouldn't you?" He reprimanded her lightly. "You won't get better by not getting any rest, you know."

She waved his comment off with a brush of her hand. "Don't worry about it, I'll get more sleep later. What about you? You don't look so well yourself."

"I'm fine. I don't have a fever, at least."

She stuck her tongue out at him. "Were you the only one that visited?"

"Nope. Sakura came. And Naruto. AndSasuke." Said very hurriedly, as if it would ease the pain.

A dark look overcame her features, and then she was back to the normal Ino he knew. "Ah. I guess I must have slept through their visit, ne?"

He wasn't used to having her pretend to be happy. The Ino he knew wore her emotions on an open sleeve. When she was happy, she smiled and laughed. When she was sad, she cried. When she was angry -- which was often -- she yelled and screamed and usually took it out on him or Chouji. Usually him, though.

"You don't have to pretend," he said, trying to keep his voice normal. She looked up at him, surprised. He went on. "I'm your friend, right, Ino?"

She nodded slowly.

"Then you can tell me about these things. You don't have to pretend to be happy when you're around me. If you're sad, then be sad. It's okay."

Her eyes widened for a moment, and then, she reached out and touched his hand.

"Arigatou."

He smiled briefly, then moved away.

"Shikamaru..."

He met her eyes, noting that there was still a hint of sadness in them. She would have to get over it herself, eventually, but in the meantime, he was there.

"...will you stay with me? Just for a little bit?"

He agreed.

---

The next day, he found himself over at her house again. There was an annoying and knowing smile on her father's lips, but he wisely chose to ignore it, and this time, opened Ino's door with no hesitation.

"You're back," she said, sounding slightly surprised.

"Aa," he answered. "You sound disappointed. Expecting someone else?"

She smiled. Time and life had certainly matured her. "No."

"Really." He made his way to the foot of her bed, wincing slightly at the creak of the mattress. "How are you feeling?"

"Better." She coughed slightly to make her point. "But not completely cured."

"Patience, patience," he said gently. Patience, after all, was one of his better points. "Look at me. I'm wishing to get sick so that I don't have to train. And I'm as healthy as a horse."

She laughed. "Why am I not surprised?"

Shikamaru decided to wallow in the silence for awhile, surveying her room closely for the first time. Funny, it was rather plain. He'd expected it to be adorned with Sasuke pictures all over, but the walls were empty, the shelves filled with random books. Her closet door was half open, and he was shocked to find it messy, with clothes scattered all over. A brush lay on her bedside table.

"Looking for something?"

He shook his head. "No..."

Ino was unusually silent, he decided, staring holes in her bedsheets. They were a light pink. Something was definitely bothering her, but there was really no right way to ask her what.

"He came by earlier this morning."

His head moved up out of its own accord, meeting her eyes. There was no need to ask who "he" was. "Alone?" he asked.

She shook her head. "No. With Sakura and Naruto."

"I see." There was really nothing to say at times like these. Shikamaru had a very smart brain, that was true, but he wasn't talented with words. He knew enough to have the gift of tact, but that was all.

He settled for gazing at her while her head was bent, her hair -- which was down again -- covering her face. Ino was a strong person, strong for a woman, strong as a human being, strong as a ninja. But there was a limit to her strength, as there was with everyone's strength.

At times like these, there was truly nothing he could say.

"I know you don't really like hearing me talk," Ino went on, sitting up and leaning against the headboard, "but I guess I just need to tell someone." A half-smile crossed her face. "It -- It hurts. I know you think I should give up on him, but I can't, I just can't. And -- And Sakura's been great about it...she hasn't said anything to hurt me on purpose, but I can't help but feel jealous. I know I shouldn't, she's my best friend, but..." She looked up, eyes filled with the saddest emotion, yet they were still devoid of tears. "I just..."

Shikamaru was frozen. Frozen, frozen, frozen. He felt a variety of emotions at the same time... Sympathy and empathy for the girl he had come to regard as his friend, sadness because she was sad, but most of all...

Jealousy. And anger.

Here he was, clearly hurting, but finding the time to visit her because he loved her. And she was completely and blissfully ignorant, and chose to worry about her own problems. Dammit! Why did he even bother? He was always, and always would be, the second-rate person in Yamanaka Ino's life. He would always, always be second...

He found himself inching closer to the teenage girl, head still bent and miserable. Shakily, he placed a hand around her trembling frame. He had to hand it to her; she wasn't crying. Just shaking.

He would always be the second choice, that he knew.

But for now, he was content.

---

Half an hour later, he sat there, watching Ino's slumbering face. There was an unexplainable feeling pulling at his heart, but he tried his best to ignore it. He clutched at his shirt, staring down at the floor.

It hurt.

He hated feeling so vulnerable, but he couldn't help it. It hurt, so much, and he was willing to do almost anything to get rid of the pain.

"Ino..." he said softly, watching her, making sure that he didn't wake her up. He hated to see her like this, so sad and afraid. But he had known, and he'd known that she'd known as well, that Sasuke and Sakura had always meant to be together, and Ino had only been a third wheel.

He supposed he wished that she would just acknowledge his presence, once in awhile. When it was just their Team 10, she'd talked to him often enough, but in the presence of Sasuke, he was as good as dirt.

It hurt.

"I know you love him." He was unconsciously aware that he was talking to no one, after all, the person he was supposedly talking to was asleep. "You always have, just like the other girls in Konoha. You gave him your heart, and now that you want it back, you can't have it back. It's been given away."

Funny, but that reminded him of his current situation.

"You said to me before that nobody really cares about you, except for your folks and Sakura. But you told me that you wanted someone to love you when you needed to be loved, and to hold you when you needed to be held..."

His hands crumpled up the blanket.

"And you told me that you believed that Sasuke was that person. But we both knew that when Sakura became part of his team, your belief was hopeless."

It occured to him that he was saying some overly sappy and mushy things, but this would probably be the only time he would ever say such things, so he went on.

"But you know what..."

Time seemed to stop for him. Ino was still peacefully asleep and angelic in his eyes.

"...someone does love you. He loves you a whole lot, even if he can't show it very well."

The pain seemed to intensify. The ticking of the clock in the corner echoed in his ears.

"He's always been there, every time you've gotten pissed off, or just haven't been feeling good."

Sunlight cast shadows on the wall.

"He knows that it's pointless. He knows that you'll never love him back, because you love Sasuke too much. He knows that, but he can't help it."

His hands balled into fists, his eyes burning holes into the floor.

"...because I do love you, Ino."

It was at that precise moment that Ino's eyes shot open, revealing very wide and flabbergasted eyes.

---

"And?"

Shikamaru wanted to deck him, or throw his steaming hot bowl of ramen at him. Either choice sounded good to him.

The Ichiraku Noodle Bar was their special little place, where they hung out during uneventful nights, and where they met at to discuss the finer points in life. At the moment, Shikamaru sat in the middle, with Sasuke on his right, Naruto on his left, and Chouji on the other side of Naruto.

He really had to hand it to Sasuke, a small voice in the back of his head stated. Chouji had been listening, but was too engrossed with the three bowls of ramen in front of him; Naruto had been listening too, and had already finished his bowl of ramen and was gaping in shock; Sasuke had also been listening, and was halfway through his bowl of ramen, sipping it oh-so-very calmly, with that same goddamned icicle expression on his face.

It pissed him off to no end.

"But -- but --" Naruto looked extremely confused and bewildered. "You -- Ino -- dammit, what the hell is going on here?!"

"Shikamaru likes Ino," Sasuke said calmly, taking another sip of his warm, hot ramen.

"Yeah -- but --"

"Do I have to spell everything out for you, idiot?" Sasuke raised his voice by a little; Chouji's slurping was growing a tad too loud. "He likes her. He was trying to work up the courage to tell her. Unfortunately, his timing was a little off..."

Shikamaru shot him a death glare. "I know that."

Sasuke shrugged indifferently, continuing to take slow, slow, sloooow sips of his ramen. Pork ramen, he believed it was. It almost seemed as if he were doing that just to annoy him.

"I think it was just too bad," Chouji said between mouthfuls, pushing aside his third bowl of ramen, now empty. "I mean, I knew Ino always liked you, Shikamaru, but she was thinking too much about Sasuke, and always forgot about you."

Sasuke deliberately avoided Shikamaru's eyes.

"But -- But --" Naruto still looked extremely confused.

"You're. Not. Helping." Shikamaru pushed away his hardly touched ramen -- interesting how he automatically gave it to Chouji, and how latter automatically ate it up without question -- and glared at his so-called "friends."

"Oh? Were we supposed to?" This was rare; traces of amusement played on the raven-haired boy's features.

Shikamaru sent him a death glare. "The one time I decide to actually ask you idiots for advice, all you do is calmly sit there, eating your ramen --" He was cut off by Naruto's continuous "But -- but -- but"s, " -- and to top it all of, the great Uchiha Sasuke decides to be sarcastic."

"Maa, maa.." Chouji had polished off Shikamaru's bowl of ramen. "It's Sasuke's way of being nice and offering advice."

"But -- but --" Naruto finally found the words to say. "Why did you leave?! You should've -- I dunno -- stayed there and told her more!"

All three men turned to face him with half-lidded eyes.

"You are an idiot."

Steam began emanating from Naruto's ears as he hopped off the stool and got in his "battle position." "I am not an idiot. I -- I'm stronger than you -- and -- and I can use Rasengan -- and --"

"What did happen next?" Sasuke wisely turned in his stool to face Shikamaru, and no one else. He knew very well that the thing that pissed Naruto off the most was to be denied acknowledgement. "After -- she woke up."

Shikamaru shot him a look of gratitude for his basic choice of words, but they didn't ease the pain. "She asked me to leave," he replied dully. "So I did."

There seemed to be no words that could be said. Sasuke ate his ramen silently, and Chouji stared sadly at his friend. Even Naruto's "but"s ceased, and the only sounds heard were the cooking sounds in the kitchen.

"So what now?" Naruto finally spoke something coherent and sensible.

Shikamaru narrowed his eyes, turning to face the blond ninja. "What do you mean, 'what now'?"

"Don't be an idiot." The familiar words struck a chord in him. "You're giving up?" Sasuke glared at him with ice-cold eyes.

"What else is there to do?" Shikamaru looked at the two incredulously. "She rejected me. There's nothing I can do!"

"All she needs is time," Chouji added wisely. "I got to know Ino when we were in Team 10. She just needs time to get over Sasuke."

"He's right, you know." Sasuke had gone back to eating his ramen. "Time's all she needs."

"Yeah!" Naruto piped up. "It's all Sasuke needed, and look at him now!"

By the slightly terrified look that came over Naruto's face, Shikamaru deduced that Sasuke had shot him his famous "red-eye death glare."

"Don't be an idiot," Sasuke repeated, although his voice held no traces of malice. "You love her."

Shikamaru watched him, mildly surprised at his concern for his well-being. But they had been in the same situation just a few months ago.

Time healed all wounds, didn't it? Maybe this was no exception.

"Aa." He finally nodded, although a bit exasperated. "I won't give up."

"Good." Sasuke tilted the bowl and drank up the rest of the soup. "Knew you weren't as dumb as you looked."

To this, Shikamaru turned around, gave Naruto the signal, and a moment later, the two of them were standing on top of the stools and singing loudly.

"Moshimo piano ga hiketa naraaaaaaaaaaaaa....." **

It would have been impossible to miss the bright red blush that had slithered over the raven-haired teen's cheeks.

---

When Naruto returned home that night, the first thing he did was dig through his so-called "floor" -- despite the fact that you couldn't see it very well -- and search frantically for the two CDs and the boombox Iruka-sensei had given him two years ago for his birthday.

Thud. Bam. Crack. Various artifacts made a variety of sounds as they were hurled against the floor. The bright orange boombox stood out among all of his possessions, and he hurriedly threw that -- gently, of course -- onto the bed. Now came the task of searching for the two CDs, which had been placed in a clear plastic case, he remembered, which didn't stick out too much.

"Where -- are --" Naruto threw down the roll of toilet paper he had just dug up furiously back to the ground. He still couldn't find it, and he was relying on his teacher's musical taste one last time.

He finally unearthed one of the two CDs underneath the monstrosity that lay beneath his bed. They were dusty from not having been used in quite some time -- he'd been pretty busy lately -- and he quickly blew it off and rubbed it against his shirt.

He then proceeded to place the CD inside the boombox, and pressed the play button. With that done, he set the boombox down on the floor and lay back on his pillow, listening.

Looking back on his reaction early that evening, he supposed he should have known better, and that he shouldn't have let his emotions get the best of him. But then again, his reaction had been tons better then than it had been when he'd first found out about "Sasuke having feelings." *** Shikamaru did deserve someone; and although he had never really thought about who it would be, he'd realized that Ino would be the best choice.

After all, if even Sasuke had been able to find happiness, then surely, Shikamaru would be able to, as well.

But as he brooded about it, more and more, this was a lot more complicated than Sasuke and Sakura's relationship. First of all, Sakura had already liked Sasuke, and he'd always been teetering on the edge of liking her back. Ino, on the other hand, wasn't teetering on the edge at all. She was obsessed, infatuated -- she loved Sasuke.

The other down side of things was that Shikamaru was one who usually gave up pretty easily. When it came to a one-on-one ninja battle, he was smart and cunning, and knew exactly how to go about it. When it came to emotions and feelings, like his current predicament, who knew how he would go about it.

Love was a frustratingly complicated web, Naruto realized, staring up at the white ceilings, blinking dazedly at this newfound realization. It took days, weeks, years...an amazing amount of time to build up that love, and yet it could be shattered in one, single moment...

Shikamaru was vulnerable, he thought. Vulnerable because he had allowed his feelings to show, allowed Ino to find out about those feelings, allowed himself to be hurt. Despite his wit and remarkable intelligence and talent as a ninja, he was still vulnerable.

Ino would be perfect for him. Naruto removed his Hitai-Ate headband and stared at the symbol in the middle of it. No one could ever live alone and truly be happy, that's what Sasuke had told him before. One needed to have someone, needed to have someone to rely on. Naruto had his gang of friends, and he was happy enough with that. But maybe Shikamaru needed more than that.

Maybe, he needed Ino.

It would really be a shame if Shikamaru ended up dying unhappy, Naruto thought, placing his forehead protector carefully on his bedside table. He was a good guy, even if he didn't always show it. Life was full of ups and downs, but surely, Shikamaru would be able to experience the up side of life.

After all, if even the "ice cube" was able to do so, then Shikamaru should be able to do so as well.

He just needed a little help.

---

When Sakura had first heard the news -- which had been the very next day, for she had heard from her friend the ramen cook that the boys had had 'a night out' -- that Shikamaru had accidentally blurted out his feelings to Ino, her first impulse was to run over to Ino's house and do her best to subtly tell her that Shikamaru was the one for her.

After being restrained by Sasuke -- which involved holding her back with all his strength without hurting her, of course, and calling upon Naruto to use his Kage Bunshin no Jutsu to pin her to the ground -- she compromised, saying she would give them a week to sort out their differences. After the period of seven full days had elapsed, then she would be free to do what she wanted.

Alas, her dear Sasuke-kun was a lot smarter than she gave him credit for.

On the night of the seventh day, he came knocking on her door. When she opened it with her usual wide smile and ecstatic greeting of "Sasuke-kun!", he thrust the sheaf of paper in her hands.

Her mouth dropped open. The thickness of the stack was at least three inches.

"Sasuke-kun?" she had asked, dumbfounded.

"What is it, Sakura-chan?" He stepped in the house, walked straight over to the kitchen table, set down the papers, and began digging through his pockets for a pen.

"Ano...what's that?"

"This?" He pointed questioningly to the stack of papers, and through closer inspection Sakura saw that it was full of Sasuke's handwriting. When she nodded, he deliberately turned his back to her. "Just a little contract."

"Contract?"

"Aa...a contract."

Sakura had pondered on this new piece of information for awhile, wondering if she should either smack her boyfriend upside the head or patiently wait for him to explain more.

"Well, you should probably get started, Sakura-chan," Sasuke said, pointing at the chair and at the papers. "It's a pretty long piece, and you shouldn't waste time."

"Sasuke-kun..."

"Mm?"

"What the hell is that?"

Sasuke sweatdropped; when Sakura wanted to know something, she wanted to know something. "It's a contract," he answered simply.

"I know that." Her hands flew to her hips. "What for?"

"For tomorrow."

"Tomorrow."

"Aa. Tomorrow."

Sakura crinkled her brow, extremely confused. What on earth was Sasuke talking about?! "Tomorrow..." she echoed slowly. "The eighth day. I'll be able to intervene. Right?"

He nodded. "Aa, that's right. And these --" he gestured to the papers. " -- are some ground rules."

"Ground rules?"

"For your interventions."

Sakura arched an eyebrow, staring defiantly at him. A year ago, she never would have dreamed of standing up to her beloved Sasuke-kun. A year ago, she would still have been like a puppy dog following him around, doing his bidding.

"What are you talking about?"

"Well..." Sasuke leaned against the table. "I don't want you to...do too much."

"What?"

"Sakura-chan..." Sasuke thought about what he was going to say. "...it wouldn't be right to force them to be together. You can't lock them up in a closet and not let them out until they swear they're in love and get married --"

"I wouldn't do that!" Sakura's lips twitched into a scowl.

Sasuke shot her a knowing look, which she defiantly ignored.

"Sakura-chan, come on.." He pleaded with the pink-haired kunoichi, the thought flitting through his mind that he was actually begging her to do something. "...just read through the contract..."

Her stubbornness melted away. Finally, she sighed and stuck out her tongue.

"Only for you, Sasuke-kun."

He smiled slightly as she sat down on the chair and began leafing through the stack of papers. The first line caught her attention.

"No locking them up in closets..." She glared at him. "...no using transformation to appear as Shikamaru or Ino... no blackmail or bribery...."

Deathly silence.

"No talks?"

"Your 'talks' are sort of intimidating," Sasuke admitted.

"Sasuke-kun..."

"...?"

"I'm not doing this."

"What? But it's not that bad!"

"I can't even talk to her!"

"You can talk to her, you just can't give her one of your talks."

"Big difference!" Sakura shot him a glare, green eyes emanating with flames. "Sasuke-kun, I promise, I won't force them, I won't lock them up, I won't --"

Sasuke, with the stealth that only he could possess, moved in front of her and placed a finger on her lips. When he saw the blush that spread across her face, he handed her the black pen, turned to the last page of the contract, and pointed to the dotted line.

"Sign."

Sakura, knowing when she was defeated, bowed her head and sighed sadly.

"Only for you, Sasuke-kun."

---

Chouji had been munching on a delicious bag of chips when he saw quite a remarkable, and unusual sight.

Ino and Shikamaru, talking.

Although he knew that his best friend certainly deserved some privacy, he couldn't help it. Munching silently, he crept over to them, hiding behind the trunk of a particularly large tree.

"Well?" Shikamaru's voice was rather gruff, and he repetitively looked up at the clouds with a longing look in his eyes.

"Have some patience." Ino's voice was a mixture of sadness, humor, and something else Chouji couldn't place his finger on. "You like looking at the clouds, don't you?"

There was a bit of uncomfortable silence. Then: "Aa. I do."

"...." Ino had a perplexed look on her face. She looked the same as she always did, with her hair put up in a ponytail, with the same black outfit. A small smile crossed his lips as he realized that the two of them made quite a cute couple, despite their differences. "Why are you like that?"

The mood had shifted, and Chouji didn't like it one bit. He continued to consume his chips at a rapid pace, but he was careful not to make his chewing too loud.

"...like what?"

"Like that." Her voice was something akin to sadness, like she was trying to understand something but couldn't. It held the frustrations of a little child wanting to learn how to talk, but his or her voice just wouldn't work. She bit her lip, staring down at the grass. "You always brush me off."

"Brush you off?" Shikamaru said quietly. "You must be confusing me with your dear Sasuke-kun."

Her eyes flashed angrily, and she turned to glare at him. "Don't talk about him like that!"

"You see what I mean?" Shikamaru's voice was deathly calm and quiet. "You say that you care about me and that you acknowledge me as a friend. But you love that guy, and he's not even your friend."

Ino furrowed her brow in anger. "But --"

"Listen. If Sasuke and I were drowning in the ocean and you came to us with a small boat, and you could only save one person, who would you save?"

"I ..." Ino trailed off helplessly. "Shikamaru, don't --"

"Answer me. We all know who it's going to be. I just want to hear it from your lips."

"...."

"Who?"

Ino stared furiously at the ground. "...Sasuke-kun."

"Mm." Shikamaru's face held no traces of jealousy or anger, just quiet defeat. He turned to walk away from her, giving them a full view of his back.

"Shikamaru?"

Her voice stopped him, and he paused.

"Did you...mean what you said? That afternoon?"

By the emotions swirling around in his friend's normally dull eyes, Chouji knew what he was going through. It was like hanging from the edge of a cliff, with your arms stretched high above your head, grasping at the ledge with all your strength, unwilling to fall off. At the same time, your strength was draining, and you just wanted to give up, and let go, and just forget about everything.

You wish you knew what to do, but you don't. For now, you hang onto the ledge, praying that the answer will come to you soon.

Hang on, and survive? Or let go, and fall?

"Aa." Shikamaru finally answered. "I did."

He let go, and fell.

---

She walked, a little bit more slowly than she usually did, head drooping.

When she finally stepped into her house, and closed the door, Sakura decided to come out of hiding. Something had definitely happened, for Ino would have sensed her chakra.

She knocked on the door.

"Hiya, Ino-pig-chan!" Sakura feigned cheerfulness, even adding her nickname for good measure. "How are you? I haven't seen you in awhile since you got sick, so I thought I'd drop by --"

Ino fell on her best friend's shoulders, eyes filling with tears.

"Oh.." A knowing tone was in Sakura's voice, and she tenderly put an arm around her friend's shoulders, and led her into the house, setting her on the couch. She searched for a box of tissues, and handed them to her. Ino took them silently, and blew her nose.

"Tell me," Sakura said softly.

So Ino did. She talked about how she had always loved Sasuke, always, and how Shikamaru could ease the pain of knowing that she had no future whatsoever with Sasuke.

She talked about the first time she had met Shikamaru, when their dads had introduced them to each other. She talked about how they had been stuck on the same team with each other.

She talked about their growing friendship, how they couldn't stand each other at first but how their relationship had slowly grown into a mutual respect.

She talked about how he'd "told" her, and how she'd felt when she heard it first.

And throughout it all, she never let a tear escape her eyes. They were filled with tears, but none fell down her cheek.

"It's okay to cry." Sakura finally spoke, breaking the silence. "Really. It's okay."

Ino froze, staring into her best friend's empathetic green eyes. They held all signs of friendship, worry, and concern. They held all the feelings she was feeling. Her eyes softened as she whispered soothing words.

"It was -- I don't know -- like my world just fell apart." Ino tugged at her long, blonde hair. "When he said it. His eyes, his face...they were filled with so much...love, and just knowing that that love was for me..." Ino bit her lip. It had been scary, absolutely terrifying, the amount of love she'd seen in his eyes. It had been frightening to know that it was all for her. Could she really bear all of that love?

"Then..." Sakura started slowly, carefully thinking about her next words. "...you don't love him?"

"I don't know," Ino answered helpessly. "God, Sakura-chan, I wish I knew, but --"

"You just need some time," said Sakura wisely. "Just time -- and silence," she added. "The silence always helps you to think."

Maybe it was just the knowing, the knowing that he was in love with her, the knowing that he loved her so much that it was terrifying, the knowing that he was willing to do anything for her because of his love... maybe it was the mere knowledge that got to her.

When the tears finally came, Sakura handed her best friend the box of tissues, and continued to watch knowingly, and calmly. The storm had landed, and it would take some time to fix the damage.

Most of all, though, patience was what was involved. When a storm came, the main thing you did was to hide in a safe place, and wait until the storm was over. Then, once everything was said and done, you prayed that the damage wasn't too great.

When someone was in love with you, you tended to act a little abnormal, maybe a little frightened of the fact that they had feelings for you. Most of it was fear. Fear that that someone would get to you, fear that you would slowly start to acknowledge their feelings, and eventually feel the same way.

Fear that you could lose their friendship.

She had never cried openly before. She had cried, of course, but never in front of someone. It happened unexpectedly, in the privacy of her own bedroom.

She sniffled, meeting her best friend's eyes. "Thank you so much, Sakura-chan."

"You should stop crying, Ino-pig-chan," Sakura replied cheerfully, placing her hands on her best friend's shoulders. "It really doesn't suit you."

"No," Ino agreed, forcing a smile on her face. "It doesn't."

---

In the end, Sakura solved Naruto's problem of finding a "theme song" for the future couple. It hadn't happened easily, of course, in the end, it took Naruto's unending jeers and horrible renditions of "Moshimo Piano ga Hiketa Nara" to convince her, plus a word put in from Sasuke.

She knocked on Naruto's door, and wasn't surprised to find Sasuke open it instead of Naruto, covered in dust from head to toe. She giggled.

"No luck?" she asked.

Sasuke sighed, shaking his head. "No." He ushered her in. "Oi, Naruto, have you found it yet?"

"NO!" came the loud reply. "Dammit, how'd this room get so dirty..."

The pink-haired kunoichi and the raven-haired shinobi sighed simultaneously as they watched the blond ninja rampage around his small bedroom, searching for his beloved CD. He'd found one of the two CDs Iruka-sensei had given him, but that one hadn't given him any particular songs he wanted to use. He had placed all of his hopes on the other CD, but the only problem was that he couldn't find it.

"So.." Sasuke turned to Sakura. "What brings you here?"

Sakura held out a CD proudly. It was an English CD, imported directly from one of the other villages -- she couldn't remember which one, but it had been rather expensive -- and through persistent listening and translating, she had found a song she thought would suit the couple.

The idea of a "theme song" struck her as dumb in the beginning, but Naruto wouldn't give up. He pleaded and pleaded and pleaded, and, as said, sung and sung and sung Sasuke and her "theme song" up to the point of where she was on the brink of sheer insanity.

"An English song?" Sasuke questioned, taking the CD from his girlfriend and examining it.

"Hai." Sakura nodded, handing him a folded piece of paper, where she had painstakingly translated the lyrics from English to understandable Japanese. "I thought they might work."

Sasuke nodded his approval. "Sounds good."

Sakura breathed a sigh of relief, collapsing against his chest. For a moment, they merely stood there, Sasuke's arm around her figure, silent.

"I talked to her yesterday." Her voice was muffled against his black shirt.

"Oh." Sasuke's insides squirmed slightly. He knew he had more than a little share of the blame, but it wasn't like he'd asked for the Yamanaka girl to like him.

"She's doing fine. She let it all out. She just needs a little more time."

"So you followed the rules of the contract?"

He felt her smile through his shirt, and she nodded. "Hai, I followed them."

"You know we can't matchmake."

A soft sigh. "I know."

There was silence for a while, and they both embraced it welcomingly. They needed time to think. They both had agreed that it wouldn't be right to do any matchmaking, besides giving them advice and being there when they needed them. But it was excruciatingly tricky, and this particular situation didn't help.

"Sasuke-kun?"

"Mm?"

"What do you think will happen next?"

"...I don't know," Sasuke answered honestly. "I don't know."

"Do you think -- Do you think they'll be all right?"

Sasuke tilted her head gently so that they were looking into each other's eyes. A rare, warm smile spread through the "ice cube's" lips.

"Aa...I have a feeling everything will be all right."

---

"But -- this is in English," Naruto stated, dumbfounded.

Sakura nodded.

"We don't understand English."

"I've got the translated lyrics. Here." Sakura held out the piece of paper.

"Well, yeah, but...when we play the song on the boombox...the song will still be in English."

"...your point is?"

"Well, Ino and Shikamaru won't be able to understand it."

"Naruto, how do you think I managed to translate the lyrics?"

Naruto bit his lip thoughtfully. "Oh! Didn't you take an English class?"

Sakura nodded, much like how you would nod to a little three-year-old. "And do you remember who was in my class?"

"....." Naruto paused, furrowing his brow. Sakura sent a "Help-me-please" look to Sasuke. "Oh! Ino!"

"Right, right..." Sakura nodded patiently. "And?"

Realization finally dawned on the blond ninja. "Shikamaru's dad forced him to take English lessons too!"

"Exactly. So both of them will be able to understand the song."

"......."

"Naruto?"

Finally, Naruto shrugged. "All right, then. As long as they can understand it, I guess it's okay."

Sakura breathed a sigh of relief, thanked him, and then flashed Sasuke a triumphant smile.

"Ne, Sakura-chan..."

Sakura turned back to Naruto, eyebrows raised. "...hai?"

"Would you teach me English?"

A look of pure horror flashed across the pink haired kunoichi's face.

---

It was no secret that Ino was fond of flowers, and liked to think about the hidden meanings of the blossoms. She liked to arrange flowers according to various topics and themes, but she didn't like to do it every single day. She had to be in a certain sort of mood. Not happy and ridiculously perky, but not completely miserable, either. It was somewhere in the middle, and it was as if something in her mind called to her, asking her to arrange different flowers.

Cuttings and stems buds of roses were scattered throughout her desk, illuminated only by the small table lamp. It was past midnight, she knew, but she couldn't sleep.

Love.

The word flew through her mind, and she found herself taking two red roses and arranging them next to each other. She paused to admire the effect. Roses were really beautiful, and elegant.

Innocence. If I wanted someone to love, I'd like someone who's got this innocent air around him...

Three white carnations joined the roses.

Someone wise. Someone who knows what to do at the right times.

She reached for an iris.

Someone who'll always be there for me. Someone who'll be the one constant in my life. Someone who will never, ever go away....

Purple lavender, placed next to the white carnations.

Someone simple. Someone who enjoys the simple things in life. Someone who won't ask for too much.

A violet, arranged precisely beside the deep red roses.

Someone whose love for me will last forever.

Her eyes roved around her desk, landing on the pink zinnias. She took five of them, and scattered them around, one next to the lavender, another next to the iris, another next to the carnations, and the last two next to the roses.

Someone who will be perfect..perfect just for me.

She reached for the single, blooming tulip, and placed it in the center of the other flowers.

If I were to love someone, I'd do everything I could to make him happy. The one thing I'd want to do is to love him, but the only thing is... I'm afraid to love.

The last two apricot blossoms of the season lay on the corner of her desk, and she added it to the small bouquet she had already prepared.

But if I were to get over that fear...I'd make sure to love him with all my heart.

A handful of daisies were scattered throughout the variety of flowers.

I'd be faithful to him, of course...

A small smile crept across her face as she added some forget-me-nots.

And I'd be as best a friend as I could be...

She took a pale rose gently, as it was the last one, and she added that to the bunch as well.

Of course, I'd be devoted to him.

The sunflower stood out against all of the flowers, a bright yellow among the paler colors. She took this and placed it among the apricot blossoms.

And I would tell him that I love him. When I'm ready. But I would, eventually.

She carefully placed a red tulip next to the daisies.

And just because, she decided to add some hydrangea to the bouquet as well.

And I would make sure he was happy.

Baby's breath.

Happiness...

It wasn't that she loved Sasuke. Sasuke and Sakura were together now, and she accepted that. It had hurt, and it had taken a long time to ease the pain, but gradually, without her ever noticing it, it had lessened, until finally, the pain had dwindled into nothing.

And it wasn't that she hated Shikamaru. She didn't.

It was, yet again, the knowing.

Only the knowing was what was stopping her. Knowing that he loved her so much, knowing that he had those feelings for her, knowing was what stopped her.

Knowing that he was challenging her feelings for Sasuke-kun.

The pain had eased, but the feelings still remained.

All of her life, she had lived in the same way. All of her life, she had claimed that she was in love with Sasuke. All of her life, she had claimed that he was the only one she wanted, and that one day, she would end up with him and lead a happy life.

She had been living in fear of going astray that path.

Ino was the type of person who believed in herself, and she believed that she was the right person for Sasuke-kun. She believed that she deserved him. She believed that if only they had spent more time together, they would have fallen in love, and she would be in Sakura's place right now.

She knew it was wrong to think in such a way, for Sakura had treated her with nothing but affection ever since, but it was the nature of a human being to go after things he or she could not acquire. Dreams were placed on a giant pole, towering high above your head, and it was your job to climb that pole, no matter how far up it went, until you reached the end and made your dream come true.

She had been climbing that pole all her life, but she had still yet to reach the top.

Sasuke-kun was an impossible dream now, that she knew. That knowledge tore at her heart, and for a moment, a searing pain flashed through her heart. Her head lowered.

Love was a funny thing. She thought she knew love. She thought she'd experienced it, every time she looked at Sasuke-kun. She thought she'd felt it, every time she watched him. She thought she'd felt it, every time she managed to talk to him.

Love worked in wondrous ways. You thought you knew exactly what it was, and you thought you knew how it worked, but it would surprise you at the most unexpected moments.

She remembered Shikamaru's eyes. The emotion they were filled with still scared her, to this point. They had been filled with such a tremendous amount of love that she couldn't help but be scared. She wished she was braver, but it was useless. He loved her, and he knew that, and now he knew that she knew.

But she didn't feel that way.

She loved Sasuke-kun.

There were times when the moment came to haunt her. It happened out of the blue, really. His voice would suddenly echo in her head, "...I do love you, Ino, I do..." and there was nothing she could do to stop it.

He loved her.

She realized that she couldn't make herself stop loving Sasuke-kun, much less could she make Shikamaru stop loving her. Love was a free monster, and it did whatever it pleased. You could only watch. No matter how hard you tried to go against it, you couldn't.

You couldn't stop love.

The sudden realization of that shocked her, and she suddenly started laughing. Soft laughter, followed by a river of tears. The bouquet of flowers grew blurry, as did the rest of the room.

You couldn't stop love.

She couldn't stop herself from loving Sasuke-kun, and she couldn't stop Shikamaru from loving her. Love was a thing to be given, but it was also something to be accepted.

There were many different types of love, and the more she thought about it, and how the past months had been, ever since spring, she finally figured out that she didn't love Sasuke anymore. When the pain had gone, so had the love.

No, the feeling that had consumed her ever since wasn't love.

It was jealousy.

Jealous that Sakura had fallen in love and had received love back.

Sasuke would always be her first love, but sometimes, second loves work best.

You couldn't stop love.

She hadn't tried to stop her love for Sasuke-kun. She had simply let it run its course, much like a sickness. You took some medicine, rested, and eventually got better again. Sasuke-kun hadn't been the one, as much as she had believed he would be, and so eventually, the love disappeared.

You couldn't stop love.

Shikamaru's love for her couldn't be stopped, no matter how much she wanted to stop it. The love he wanted to give was too much, too much for her to handle. It amazed her how he could give his love to her so easily, but how difficult it was for her to accept that love.

But love was something to be given and accepted, so for now, she accepted it.

---

Curiously enough, there was a bright orange boombox sticking out from the bottom of a bush, but Shikamaru chose to ignore it. He decided to concentrate on the clouds. Winter was probably his favorite season, for during winter, the sky was always covered with clouds, and it was fun, in his opinion, to watch the dark gray clouds move away from the lighter clouds, and to watch the lighter clouds chase the dark gray clouds.

Like the way he tried to chase Ino.

There were footsteps behind him, and he immediately knew who they belonged to. He closed his eyes for a brief moment, let out a soft sigh, and then turned his head just as she sat down next to him.

"Hi."

She smiled at him in reply, a true and genuine smile. He noticed, from the corner of his eye, that she clutched a bouquet of flowers. He arched an eyebrow, knowing that Ino only arranged flowers if in a certain mood.

"I thought I'd find you here," she said. There was something in her voice, some sort of strangled emotion.

He thought about not replying at all, but decided against it. "Aa. I guess you know me pretty well."

"I've never looked at the clouds before."

"You should." The words came out rather coldly, and he regretted it. "It's a nice way to kill some time."

"Hm." She glanced down at her bouquet, and then back at him.

There was something in the air, Shikamaru could feel it. Ino was acting strangely, and why had she even bothered to find him, anyway? She'd never joined him watching the clouds before, claiming that it was "stupid." Then again, he'd thought that her arranging flowers wasn't really a smart thing either, but he'd decided against saying that.

"I've been thinking."

Oh, thought Shikamaru knowingly, she's been thinking. Thinking about what? seemed like a nice thing to ask, but then again, he already knew. He closed his eyes again, counting slowly to ten mentally.

When he opened them again, he was faced with the bouquet of flowers.

"Flowers?" He couldn't keep the surprise out of his voice. Glancing quickly over the different flowers, he saw roses, lavender, carnations, a bright tulip...

"Hai." She nodded, a bit shyly, as she gestured for him to take it.

She was acting funny, but it didn't seem like there was any damage caused, so he warily took the bouquet in his hands, staring hard at the assortment of flowers.

Again, there was silence, and Shikamaru was content with the silence as he contemplated what had become of his so-called "life." Ino had never given him flowers before, so he really didn't know what to expect. Impulsively, he raised his head to look at the clouds. He had never wished so much as right now to be a cloud.

Finally, he broke the awkward silence. "Ino..."

She raised her head, and he met her eyes, which looked somewhat uncertain.

Shikamaru furrowed his brow. "What...What are you trying to say?"

She sighed, long and hard. "You know what? I don't even know myself."

"Oh." The bouquet was certainly beautiful, like it had all the right colors arranged in precisely the perfect order. She only arranged flowers when in a specific mood, but that specific mood came and went in the blink of an eye.

Ino was like a mystery to him, a swirling miasma of a million colors and emotions and seasons. On more than one occasion, he'd found himself lying in this very same spot, trying to figure her out, but he had given up quickly once the throbbing in his head began.

"I'm not really good at saying things." Her voice was purely honest, and she played with the blades of grass, still moist from the morning dew. "But I'll try."

His curiousity aroused, Shikamaru sat up, putting his weight on his elbows. "Go on."

"I was thinking last night. About love."

The topic seemed to be leading somewhere dangerous, but Shikamaru chose to risk it. "Aa. Love."

"And I was thinking about how I loved Sasuke-kun."

The word "loved" didn't go unnoticed, and a tiny spark of hope lit in Shikamaru. She seemed to be having difficulty saying such things, and he patiently waited.

"And I was arranging flowers. I was thinking about how I would like my future husband to be like...and what I would do for him to make him happy. That was the theme of the bouquet."

Shikamaru still had no idea where the conversation was going, so he kept silent, watching her. Her fingers moved through the grass.

"And I realized that Sasuke-kun was an old dream. I had dreams of him and me being together, but they were impossible. He loves Sakura-chan now, and they're both really happy together. And it would be wrong to break them up, and it would be wrong to keep them from being happy just because of my feelings. The more I thought about it, the more it felt like this feeling I was feeling for Sasuke-kun and Sakura-chan wasn't love."

She raised her head, staring at the clouds. Shikamaru admired the effect of the breeze blowing her hair.

"It was jealousy."

He stopped.

"I was jealous of Sakura-chan and Sasuke-kun because they had found each other. I was jealous of them because they were happy together, and I wasn't. I was still lonely, and I hadn't found anybody, and the person I thought I loved didn't love me back."

She stopped, eyes flickering in the direction of the bushes and the orange boombox. She frowned, but thought better of it, and turned back to the grass and clouds.

"Then I started thinking about you. How you told me how you felt, and the way you looked at me when you said it. It -- It -- It ... scared me..." She looked a little ashamed. "... how much love I saw in your eyes, and I just found it so hard to accept all of that love."

Shikamaru took this all in, still unsure of what to say. There were moments when it was just better to let the other person talk, and just to lend him or her your ears, and to listen.

"The more I thought about it, I figured it out. Love is a two-way street. You can give your love, but you also have to learn to accept the love that others give you. You can't stop love, and you have to learn to give and accept."

Shikamaru took this information in. "And?" he finally asked, dreading the answer.

"I decided...that I can accept your love." She finally looked him in the eye. "...because.... I think... I'm pretty sure... that I love you, too."

Shikamaru had dreamed of this moment quite a few times, but he'd never dreamed that it would happen like this, underneath the clouds, where he usually lay...

"...but I'm not really too good at loving someone, so just to give you fair warning..."

Shikamaru started to smile, and then pretty soon, he burst out laughing. There was a half-hurt, half-amused look on Ino's face, and he tentatively reached out to touch her hand.

"Sorry," he apologized meekly, grinning sheepishly. "It's just, I've thought of at least three hundred ways this moment could happen, and this wasn't like any of them."

"Oh?" Her eyes met his. "What were you expecting, a candlelit dinner under the stars?"

"Something like that." He grinned playfully at her.

That was when the music started, and knowing looks spread across their faces. The suspicious looking orange boombox had suddenly gotten closer to the two of them, and they began laughing all over again.

[ You see in a way
I have been drifting down a river
To nowhere
And you've given me nothing ]

The bouquet of flowers lay forgotten, a little distance away from the two of them. He slung an arm casually around her shoulders, pulling her closer to him.

"Now what?" she asked, burying her head in the space between his neck and shoulder.

"Now..." He allowed a rare and warm smile to cross his lips. "...we'll just sit here and look at the clouds."

[ But if you're ready to be my everything
If you're ready to see it through this time
And if you're ready for love then
This I will bring
But I'm not gonna wait for you forever this time
Ladayo ladadayo ladeeda... ]

-- owari: the end --

A/N~ Wow. Believe it or not, this story is about fourteen pages [thirteen and a half?] and that is just plain surprising. I never expected the story to go this far, and to go this deep. Anyway, this has been really fun to write, and I hope I get some nice reviews as some fruits of my labor.. [hint, hint!]

The verses are from Fefe Dobson's song, "Everything." The flowers correspond with her wishes, as in Ino wants someone who's simple, and she adds a violet, which signifies simplicity. The meanings are taken from this site:

* - "Only idiots fall in love with girls that are already in love with somebody else." It isn't the exact quote, but it is the same idea. Taken from Icebreakers, the ideal EriolxTomoyo story written by the amazingly talented Suppi-chan. During a conversation between the one Hiiragizawa Eriol and Li Syaoran.

** - "Moshimo piano ga hiketa naraaaaaa..." The title of Sasuke and Sakura's theme song, without the repition of "a" at the end. Reference to the prequel of this story, The Day the Ice Cube was Melted. Sung by Plastic Tree.

*** - "Sasuke having feelings." Another reference to my previous story... when Naruto discovers the impossible: Sasuke has feelings.

*breathes a sigh of relief* Okay, that was LONG. Now, do us all a favor and click the little "Submit Review" button and leave a nice, lengthy review for dear little me...