Hey all!! Sorry for the cliffhanger!! ::grins sheepishly:: Again, I just want to thank everyone who reviewed this...it made me very happy!! Alrighty...on we go then...

Chapter 3: Lover

"Are you happy?" Ino asked Shikamaru as the two walked along one fall afternoon. She was enjoying this little outing with her former teammate a bit more than she was comfortable with, but she shrugged the odd feeling in the pit of her stomach off as nerves. Ino had always been a bit high-strung, so that explanation suited her just fine.

"Eh?" Shikamaru looked at his companion with a raised eyebrow. "Where did that come from?"

Ino decided to rephrase the question. "I mean...do you ever regret becoming a ninja?" She smiled. "I know how much you hate doing anything that makes you break into a sweat."

The other eyebrow joined the first. "And is that so bad? I'm a sedentary kind of person. I get all flustered when too many things are shoved in my face."

Ino snorted. "Flustered indeed." Her expression became serious. "Are you happy, though?"

Shikamaru did not answer right away. His gaze drifted off towards the trees with their changing leaves, trying to find the proper words to say. There were plenty of things that he wanted to tell the blonde girl by his side, but that did not necessarily mean he could. Truth be told, the question was much more complicated than he was sure Ino realized.

"There are days when I wake up and call myself all kinds of crazy for doing what I do...well, most days, actually..." Ino started to giggle at that, "but, despite all the whining and complaining, I guess I am happy. At least, as happy as a lazy guy stuck in a profession where he has to exert himself on a regular basis can be."

Ino could not resist the urge to probe a bit further. "And how are things in the romance department? I haven't seen you out and about with any girls at all."

Not like I care or anything if you are interested in a girl, she thought, twirling a piece of her hair around her finger.

Shikamaru felt his eye twitch. Of all subjects to bring up, you just had to pick the one that I was trying to stay away from.

"When have I had time to bother with love-stuff, huh?"

Besides, who would want you even if you did? His cynical self chimed.

"I haven't found anyone who's caught my attention, anyway."

Except for a certain girl with blonde hair and blue eyes who looks remarkably like the one you're talking to, the cynical voice pointed out.

Shikamaru ignored it.

"Oh," Ino said, an overwhelming sense of irritation springing up from out of nowhere. I don't interest him even a tiny bit? Why not? I'm pretty, and I have a killer figure! Is he blind? Humph!

"What about you?" Shikamaru shot back, feeling like the tables needed to be turned. "It's not as if you have an entourage of boyfriends at your beck and call." He crossed his arms and glared at Ino, who glared in turn.

"You're mean." She said, and though it was childish, stuck her tongue out at him.

The dark haired Chuunin laughed. "Let's face it, kid, we're both hopeless cases. You're too intimidating, and I'm too boring."

"Maybe we should just settle for each other then," Ino blurted before she thought about what she was saying.

For a fleeting moment, their eyes met, and Shikamaru's mouth began to quirk. "Now there's an idea. I can only imagine what a bloody union ours would be."

"Hey! I'm not that bad!" Ino protested, her hands on her hips, though she could not hold back her amusement for long. "All of our crockery would get broken," she said as an afterthought.

"Exactly my point. You'd break it on me."

"I suppose we could buy Tupperware. Plastic isn't dangerous."

And that was the end of that.

The topic drifted on to other things soon after, but Ino never did forget this particular conversation, nor was she like to. While it had been nothing but playful banter at the time, it grew to symbolize something much deeper the more often Ino recalled it. She had all but displayed her heart on her sleeve...

"He's been injured."

As her knees gave way, Ino sank to the ground, her eyes wide and unseeing.

No...no...NO! That can't be!

"How bad is it?" She whispered, barely able to force her vocal chords to produce sound.

"They were knife wounds, Ino ... He's been in surgery for the past hour, so we won't know for certain until he comes out."

The blonde girl nodded, and it was as if the world around her faded to grey. Everything was dark...she could sense nothing, feel nothing...

This isn't happening...it's all a joke...he's going to walk through that door any minute now and make fun of me for being so gullible...

But no matter how hard she tried, she could not make herself believe.

No...his mother wouldn't have come to see me if this was a joke. She's not the type of person to do something like that.

"I think he'd like it if you were there when he wakes, Ino. He's always been so fond of you." Mrs. Nara said, leaning down and offering the other girl her hand.

"He...he has?" Ino asked, reaching out her own hand when she could move.

Shikamaru's mother smiled. "Yes, he has. He did try to hide his feelings from everyone, but mothers can always see through such nonsense."

"You seem to be spending quite a bit of time with that hellion these days," Shikato observed shrewdly. He and his son sat at the kitchen table on a Saturday morning, one of those rare occasions in which Shikamaru had a day off. Of course, Shikato took advantage of his son's presence, as he was curious about certain developments that he sensed were happening.

Shikamaru did not appreciate the implications, though he could not stop the blush that slunk into his cheeks like a thief in the night.

"I don't know what you're talking about," he said quickly, and proceeded to do some serious analyzing of the contents on his breakfast plate.

"Oh, I think you do," Shikato said, not about to let the matter drop. A wolfish grin split his face. "You sly rascal. Like the rougher breed, eh?"

Shikamaru came close to choking on a bite of pancake. "WHAT?"

"Although I guess I've got no room to talk. Your mother isn't exactly a lamb, now is she?"

"I heard that!" Shikamaru's mother called from the sink, where she was washing dishes. She shook a spatula in her husband's direction. "It was your decision to marry me, I'll have you know."

"I won't be forgetting that anytime soon," Shikato muttered.

Before things could get any worse, Shikamaru chose to defend himself. "I can't help that Ino always seems to know exactly where I am! It's like she's got a radar that pinpoints my every move, and then she insists that I do stuff with her because, 'I'm bored,' or, 'there was nobody else around,' or, 'I don't know when I'll see you again, since you're on missions all the time.' What am I supposed to do? If I said no, she'd make my life miserable."

Shikato held his chin. "I suppose I hadn't thought of that," he conceded, though that answer did not coincide with his real opinion on the matter. That girl's got him wrapped around her little finger, he thought with mirth. And she's a Yamanaka, to top it all off. The future should be quite interesting...

Shikamaru's mother smiled to herself. She was thinking along the same lines as her husband, and she knew as well as he that her son was doing a poor job of concealing his true feelings. She glanced over towards the table, where Shikamaru was eating a bit faster than normal, most likely to escape from the table and the merciless questioning of his father. Shaking her head, she returned to her task, the smile not leaving her face.

The hospital was quiet, too quiet for comfort. The whitewashed walls seemed to close in on Ino as she fidgeted in the waiting room, her hands shaking and her heart banging against her chest with a ferocious force. She wanted nothing more than to burst into the room where Shikamaru lie and whisk him away to someplace less...imposing.

Like our woods, she thought. He loves being outside. He shouldn't be cooped up in here...

Shikamaru's parents emerged from his room then, and Ino looked up sharply.

"You can see him now," Shikato said, resting a hand on Ino's shoulder. "He's still sleeping, though."

Ino examined the two people who stood before her as she got to her feet, noting that they both appeared to be swaying from exhaustion. They need sleep, too.

"I'll stay here tonight," she offered. "Please...you should rest."

The Naras exchanged glances.

"That's very kind of you," Shikamaru's mother said with a wan smile. "Are you sure you wouldn't mind?"

"Not at all," Ino said quickly. She planned on remaining where she was whether they had said no or yes, anyway, but the selfish part of her wanted to be alone with Shikamaru. "I wouldn't be able to sleep at home even if I tried, so there's no reason for me not to."

"Thank you, Ino," Shikato said. "We'll come back early tomorrow morning, so you won't have to worry about being here too long."

That was the last thing on Ino's mind, but she did not mention it. She nodded instead, and watched as Shikamaru's parents explained the situation to a nurse, who said that she would prepare a cot for Ino next to the bed. A few minutes later, they were gone, and Ino, still trembling, walked into Shikamaru's room.

He lay with his eyes closed, one hand hanging over the side of the bed. As she came closer, she made out a few of the places where he had been stabbed: one on his right arm, another down the side of his neck. She'd learned on the way to the hospital that the rest were on his chest, near his heart. He had not been paying attention when the rebels attacked, and that mistake had almost cost him his life.

"You idiot," she scolded as she arranged herself next to him on the bed, grasping the hand that had fallen. "You stupid, stupid idiot! What were you thinking, huh? I told you to be careful!"

With her other hand, she brushed matted hair off of his forehead. The tie that held it up had been lost while he fought, and it was strange to see him without it. His brow furrowed at the touch, but his eyes remained closed. At that moment, Ino remembered the time at the riverbed, how she had been the one to sleep while Shikamaru watched over her. The way that I'm watching you now...

Ino leaned in close and touched her mouth to his.

Shikamaru's eyes cracked open.

When she pulled away, they were still open.

"I wasn't asleep," she whispered, her face inches from his.

As he was a bit disoriented from the effects of the surgery, it took Shikamaru a bit to realize that it was Ino who hovered over him, and his muddled brain was rather slow to process what she said.

"How did you know I was here?" He croaked.

Ino smiled and continued to stroke his hair. "Your mother came and got me."

"She did?"

Obviously. "Yes, she did."

"Where is she?"

"I told her and your father to go home and get some rest."

"Oh." Shikamaru's brain was beginning to function now, though there was still some confusion. "You weren't asleep?"

This is going to be a long night. "When you kissed me."

Shikamaru attempted to shift his position a bit without much success. Of course, Ino was not having that.

"Don't you dare," she ordered. "You've had surgery, so it's best to not move around."

Well that explains a lot, Shikamaru thought to himself. He looked down at his body and remembered his carelessness at the rebel camp with embarrassment.

"You're lucky to be alive," Ino said, trying to sound stern, though she was failing. The tears that pooled in her eyes more than gave herself away.

"I know," Shikamaru sighed. He noticed Ino's tears. Oh no...not that... "Don't cry...please, Ino. I'm okay...everything's fine."

Ino sniffled, but managed to hold the tears back. "You scared me," she whispered. "Do you have any idea how worried I was? Don't you ever go and do something like this again, is that clear?"

"Crystal," Shikamaru croaked. "I'm sorry."

"You'd better be."

His brain was now almost back to normal, and it was screaming at him. "Wait...you mean you weren't asleep when I kissed you?"

I thought I said that already... "No."

"You knew I was kissing you, but you let me?"

Wonderful observation. "Yes."

"Oh," he repeated. I sound like a broken record...

By this point, Ino had had enough. "So what are we going to do about this?"

"About what?"

For the love of...Ino closed her eyes for a moment, trying to get her temper under control. "You kissed me," she said slowly, as if speaking to a child, "and I kissed you. Don't you think that we have a situation here?"

Wow...that's true, isn't it? How troublesome... "Er...we could just...kiss each other," Shikamaru said awkwardly, "I mean, it's the only logical thing to do, right?"

"Right," Ino replied. "I was thinking that myself..." Oh stop talking and just do it!

Their lips met.

"I think I like that much better when we're both awake," Shikamaru said when they broke apart.

Ino giggled. "Me too." She gripped his hand a little tighter. "It looks like we may have to get that Tupperware, after all," she whispered, her heart in her eyes.

Shikamaru noticed, and he grinned, remembering the joke that was not a joke any longer. "It certainly seems that way, doesn't it?"

The tears fell. "Mm-hmm."

Shikamaru saw the cot by his bed, and he raised an eyebrow. "That thing can't be comfortable. Why don't you...sleep up here with me?"

Ino's heart started to pound a little faster. "I'd like that...if you want me to."

"I do."

Ino curled herself up next to him, his warmth enveloping her like a cloak.

"Would you sing me that song again? Please?" He added when she hesitated.

"Okay," Ino said, and began to sing softly into his ear, the sounds lulling him off to sleep.

Ino smiled.

FINISHED!! YAY!! I hope you all enjoyed it!