Come Back To Me

Business was slow at the flower shop yet again, as it had been for the last few months. Normally Ino enjoyed days such as this, the lack of customers allowing her time to putter with flower arrangements and daydream. With a whimsical smile, Ino recalled the times she spent behind the counter, fantasizing about a certain dark haired shinobi who was virtually unattainable, and who was ultimately responsible for the estrangement of her and her best friend, Sakura. Time had since mended their relationship, thankfully.

Ino sighed. She had been so naïve then, just a silly little girl with a silly little crush. Even though the love of her life had always been standing right next to her, her heart had been too foolish to realize it. Or rather, she had been too afraid to admit to herself that she was truly in love with someone other than Sasuke, someone whom she had known since they began at the Academy, someone she had cried on, screamed at, and made an idiot of herself in front of. He knew every aspect of her personality and could read her like a book, often striking to her very core with his shrewd comments and observations about her behavior.

Ino squeezed her eyes shut, fighting back tears that threatened to spill over. He had left nearly two months ago on a mission with a few other Jounins, and she hadn't received any correspondence from him since. For all she knew, he could be lying dead or injured somewhere, leaving her with a feeling of dread that she could do nothing but dwell on, especially now with nothing to keep her otherwise occupied. She remembered the last conversation that they had shared before he departed, her heart constricting.

"I don't know how long I'll be away," Shikamaru said, his hand scratching at the nape of his neck, a nervous tick he'd had since childhood. The corners of Ino's mouth turned up as she watched him: that little tick appeared more and more often now than it ever did, especially when they were alone together.

Shikamaru had surprised her that morning with a blanket draped over his shoulder and a picnic basket in hand. Ino had nearly closed the door in his face, hardly believing that this was the Shikamaru she knew so well. His laziness was somewhat of a legend among the Leaf, after all, and it seemed...abnormal that he would take the time to do something as troublesome as taking her on a picnic. Shikamaru had to persuade her that he was not pulling her leg and that he just wanted to talk a little before he left. He ended up leading her to a small grove of cherry blossom trees, and they now they sat on the blanket underneath one such tree, eating from the contents of the basket. To her shock, Ino discovered that Shikamaru had not only made the food himself, but was an incredibly talented cook. His personality, she noted with glee, had undergone some renovations since earlier days.

"Who's going with you?" Ino asked, trying to sound calm.

"Naruto, Kiba and Akamaru, Kakashi, and Lee."

Ino's eyes widened. "Naruto? This must be serious if the Hokage needs to be along." Her hands, needing to be doing something, toyed with the edge of the blanket.

Shikamaru didn't answer right away, but instead reached out and grabbed one of her hands. "It's just as a precaution. We aren't really sure what we're up against. Gaara has been doing his best to get us information, but he can't do much without risking his cover being blown." The Sand-nin had since become a spy for the Leaf, the leader of a network formed by himself and the Hokage.

Ino looked down. "Oh," she said dumbly, mentally kicking herself. Oh? That's the best you can do?

Shikamaru's grip on her hand tightened ever so slightly, causing Ino to lift her face, the jounin's dark brown eyes meeting and holding her crystal blue ones. "Don't worry, Ino. We'll take care of everything. I promise." He looked like he wanted to say more, but remained silent.

Now's your chance! You've always had plenty to say to him before, idiot! The tiny blonde's mind screamed at her. Tell him that you love him. Do it now, or you'll regret it! But the words wouldn't come. She just couldn't bring herself say what needed to be said. It was the fear of rejection that held her back, fear that she would get her heart broken. And so she let him walk away, the disappointment that was barely evident in his face like a knife through her heart. She could only watch helplessly as Shikamaru, along with the Hokage and the rest of their comrades, departed an hour later. Ino stood upon a hilltop, staying there long after she could no longer glimpse their retreating backs, tears streaming unchecked down her face.

"Why couldn't I say anything?" She asked herself angrily. She didn't notice that Sakura had entered the shop, and was looking at her with concern. Ino, the pink haired girl noticed, looked terrible, her face drawn and tired, huge black circles underneath her eyes. "Have you been sleeping at all, Ino-pig? Making yourself sick isn't going to do much good for anyone."

The blonde snapped out of her haze, immediately falling back into the old banter. "Maybe you should keep your overly large forehead out of other people's business, Sakura-chan."

The two young women stared at each other, holding in laughter. The battle was lost, however, and they erupted into giggles, Ino rushing around the corner and throwing her arms around Sakura. "Do I look that bad?" She asked.

"Like hell," Sakura replied, smiling. "Now come on. I just talked to your mom, and she's going to take over for a bit. You need some air, I think." Sakura linked her arm through Ino's and dragged her out of the shop. They walked for a bit, stopping briefly to eat. A while later, they found themselves at the same hill where Ino had watched Shikamaru leave. The wind whipping her hair loose from its bun, Ino turned her face to the sky, watching the sunset. The carvings of the previous Hokage loomed in the distance, their stone faces keeping a solemn vigil over the village.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Sakura said, as she stood next to Ino. "I always love coming here at this time. It's very peaceful."

"How can you be so calm?" Ino burst out, unable to hold back any longer. "Naruto is out there facing who knows what, and Shikamaru..." She couldn't finish the sentence. A storm of weeping came upon her, and she sat hard on the grass, her head in her hands.

Wordlessly Sakura joined her friend, putting an arm about Ino's trembling shoulders.

"I'm not calm, Ino. Far from it, actually. But what can I do? Naruto is the Hokage, and his duty is to the Leaf first, not to me. I can scream at him till I'm red in the face, but it still doesn't change anything. He does what he has to, and I deal with it the best I can. The key is keeping busy so that I don't have time to think about what he's getting himself into." Sakura paused for a moment. "You regret not telling him, don't you?" She asked quietly.

Ino lifted her tearstained face. "Every day." She rested her head against Sakura's shoulder, fresh tears spilling from her eyes. "And that's what kills me! I had the perfect opportunity, and I screwed up! If anything happens to him, Sakura, I'll die. I...I need that lazy, stupid..." Again, words failed her. She closed her eyes, and Sakura silently watched the last remnants of the sun dip beneath the clouds. They stayed that way from some time until Sakura noticed movement in the distance. She squinted, and made out four figures slowly moving towards the spot where she and Ino sat. Naruto's golden hair stood out clearly among the others and he seemed to be supporting someone who was favoring his right leg. Gently shaking Ino awake, Sakura motioned with her eyes for the blonde girl to look.
A bit disoriented, Ino blinked a few times and followed Sakura's lead, seeing the figures coming closer. She made out Sakura's former sensei Kakashi, Lee, Kiba...and there was Naruto, his arm around someone with a limp and untidy black hair, hair that was normally tied back out of his face...

Without thinking, Ino jumped up and ran, nearly falling as she sped down the hill. Before he even realized what hit him, Ino barreled into Shikamaru and flung her arms around his neck. The force of the impact coupled with Shikamaru's injury was enough to send him into the grass, Ino landing squarely on top of him.

"Missed me that much, eh?" Shikamaru managed once he got his breath back. Ino was mortified.

"Oh I'm sorry! I didn't mean to...oh God, I didn't hurt you did I?" Her eyes went to his leg. "What happened? I didn't make it worse, did I? Oh Shika, I'm so sorry! I wasn't using my head-"

A large hand clamped over her mouth. "Ino, cool it. I'm fine, really," Shikamaru wheezed, laughing. "Just-don't do that again without warning me first, okay?" He smiled a peculiar little smile. "As much as I enjoy having you on top of me, I think I should sit up right now."

Ino blushed crimson and hastily pulled herself off of Shikamaru. The jounin made a few feeble attempts to rise, but Ino wouldn't have it.

"Don't you dare," she scolded, moving behind him and gently supporting his weight as she moved him into a sitting position. That done, she sat on her knees facing him, willing herself to be calm and collected. She was not going to cry in front of him. One look at his simple, mud-spattered face however, and the tears fell.

Oh dear, Shikamaru thought, panicking. She's crying. How...troublesome. What am I supposed to do? I HATE it when girls cry. It's unfair! Messes up my thought processes...

"Ino! What's the matter? We're all safe! Nothing happened!"

That only made Ino's tears fall harder, which heightened Shikamaru's distress. His experience with females was marginal at best, but this particular female caused him enough stress to last a lifetime. By some strange twist of fate, this girl, no, this woman had managed to burrow her way so deeply into his heart that he spent most of his free time thinking about her. It was irritating, really. He could see flashes of his father in himself, and the thought made him ill. I'm going to be completely whipped, and there's nothing I can do about it. Sighing, he reached out and took Ino into his arms, gently stroking her hair.

"You're being silly. Everything's fine now," He said softly.

"No it isn't!" Ino burst out, sobbing. "Do you have ANY idea how scared I was? I haven't been sleeping! I thought I'd never see you again!" A fresh batch of tears followed, and it was a while before Ino could say anything coherent. " idiot! I hate you!" Ino clutched at his vest, now soaked with her tears, and Shikamaru was baffled. Oh good lord. Not one of these...what the hell have I gotten myself into?

"You do, eh? Peculiar way of showing it, Ino. I'd have expected you to smack me or something equally unpleasant."

Ino's tears ceased, her temper beginning to flare. Never mind that Shikamaru just made a very accurate assessment of her current behavior. He didn't need to be snide about it. "My, what a wonderful idea. I think I may just have to do that."

Shikamaru's eyes widened. "I was joking...seriously. You really don't have to."

Ino glared at him. "Then you shouldn't have said anything."

"No," Shikamaru quickly agreed. "You're right. I'll just keep my mouth shut." Anything to head off an explosion- his thoughts were cut off by a pair of lips that glued themselves to his. Recovering from the shock, he allowed his eyes to close and returned Ino's kiss. I think I just might be able to get used to this.

When they pulled away from each other, Ino was smiling shyly. "I-I wanted to say something before you left. To tell you...that-that I love you, but I was afraid that you wouldn't want me."

There was a lot of information in those few statements for Shikamaru to process, foremost being the l-word. He seemed to be stuck on that one. She loves me. She loves ME. Me...Shikamaru... His mind was a veritable jumble of thoughts, and he felt very giddy all of a sudden. Once he moved past the l-word, he tackled the last statement. I was afraid that you wouldn't want me...wait...WHAT? Wouldn't WANT her? What the hell is she talking about?

"Are you flaming MAD? Why wouldn't I want you? God...I wanted to admit my feelings to you on that picnic, but something told me not to. I should have. complement me, Ino. We work well together. I know you just about as well as you know me." He laughed a bit sheepishly, the nervous tick showing up again. "I know I'm not very romantic and all, and I'm trying to put what I want into words...but I think I'm sounding stupid."

"No you aren't. Not at all." She reached out and brushed aside a few stray pieces of his hair, noting absently that he looked remarkably sexy with it all messy. I think I'll have to encourage him to leave it down more often.

Shikamaru was feeling a bit nervous, as Ino was staring at him looking as if she had every intention of, well, eating him. "Er,'re..."

Ino realized her folly and blushed. "Sorry! It's just...I like your hair down. A lot, actually. And...the rest of you is awfully nice too..." The hungry look returned to her eyes, and Shikamaru felt very much like a cornered deer. She closed in on him again, kissing him for all she was worth. I can DEFINITLEY get used to this, Shikamaru thought, smiling through the kiss.

Unbeknownst to the new lovers, an audience had formed at the top of the hill, and upon the latest kiss started up the catcalls and raucous cheering that forced Ino and Shikamaru apart, a rosy blush on each of their faces. "Well," Ino said, raising her eyebrows, "I guess we won't have to skirt around, will we?"

Shikamaru laughed. "No, I don't think so." He looked pointedly at her. "Now that we have all this settled you will marry me, won't you? I think we know each other well enough to skip all this 'dating' nonsense. Unless you really want to, of course, but-"

Ino threw herself at him, lavishing kisses all over his face. That was answer enough.

Sakura grinned wolfishly at the sight of her best friend all over Shikamaru. "I think there's going to be a wedding soon," She said as she burrowed deeper into her husband's embrace. "I love weddings. They're so romantic. Well, when you aren't getting cake shoved in your face, at least."

Naruto laughed uproariously. "If you don't recall, you were the little imp who initiated the entire cake shoving incident, my dear. I was perfectly willing to do things normally."

"Oh hush," Sakura said, giggling. "You did look absolutely adorable with cake all over though."

The 6th Hokage pouted, mock indignant. "And I don't now?" He sighed tragically. "I went through so much trouble to look good for you, too." He motioned to his clothing, which was spattered with dirt and grime; the rest of him wasn't much better.

"Of course," she replied gravely, a wicked twinkle in her eye. "I appreciate the effort. Very thoughtful."

"I love you," Naruto said, laughing.

"I know." Sakura went up on tiptoe, kissing Naruto lightly, before wrinkling her nose. "What in the hell have you been rolling around in? You smell horrible!"

"Don't ask."
Sakura raised an eyebrow. "Maybe that's a good idea. I don't think I want to know."

"You always were a smart girl," Naruto replied, patting her cheek fondly.