A/N: Obviously this is fanfiction, so the majority of the characters aren't of my creation, blah blah disclaimer blah. This is mainly a Shikamaru fic, although the following pairings show up, later on: Naruto/Hinata, Shika/Temari, Shika/Ino, Sakura/Lee, Neji/TenTen, and Chouji/OC. It's going to span roughly ten years of Shikamaru's life. Rated PG-13 because it'll have some mild expletives and some sexual references later, although nothing graphic. You won't have to worry about that for a few chapters, though. I'll most likely be uploading 2-3 times a week for at least nine weeks (although I'll be taking a week-long break in the middle of September). That gives you a sense of how long this thing is going to be. However, the chapters are short, so it shouldn't be too painful. Anyhow, if you like it, I'd love to read your review. If you think I've made mistakes that need to be fixed, please let me know!

He fell back in the grass with a sigh, closing his eyes and feeling his muscles unwind. The breeze rippled the stalks of grass around him, tickling his skin as it passed over him. The only sounds that reached his ears were of the wind and plants rustling, with perhaps a distant bird or two chirping at the edges of his perception. This was good silence, silence without void, unlike the silence of battle, where the only noises a person heard were the panicked responses of the body. Shikamaru definitely didn't appreciate the silence of ninja battle.

Lying on the grass felt like heaven to him. Sure, the ground of his favorite hillside was lumpy and always dug into his back, but it was a far better sensation than that of bark pressed against his body as he hid from an enemy. He had been frightened on his last mission. The tips of his fingers ached from the memory of adrenaline coursing through his capillaries as he fought the warriors from the Sound. He still didn't know how they had all made it back alive. Of course, Sasuke and Naruto almost hadn't survived, and Neji and Chouji wouldn't have, either, had jounin not been on their tail. Shikamaru would always be grateful to the people who had saved his closest friend.

The terror of the mission was subsiding now, but he could still feel the damage. Nobody had come through it unscathed. He had actually sustained the least damage physically, but he couldn't help but feel that if he had been a better leader they would have sustained fewer injuries. Part of him knew this line of thinking was illogical, but there it was. What really shamed him was that his plans would have failed completely had the Sand ninja not shown up.

He sighed again as he watched the afternoon clouds roll by in the sky. It had been startling, being responsible for the lives of his friends, being forced to fight such incredibly strong opponents, and being saved by such a strange girl. Temari was strong, there was no doubt about it. She had to be a couple of years older than he was, and she was talented. Smart, too, although not as smart as he was. It had been so embarrassing to be rescued by her, but it would have been worse to die. Things worked out, in his opinion. That's why he never really worried about anything. It was simply too troublesome. Inefficiencies were always troublesome.

"Hey," he heard a voice say beside him, and he turned his head to see a pair of sandaled feet.

"Hey," he replied, and turned his gaze back to the sky. He didn't want to miss the sunset.

"How's it going?" the voice asked again, uncharacteristically soft. Of course, it was how he liked best to hear it. It wasn't loud or snotty like the usual tone of her voice, and it had a smoother quality than Temari's.

"Fine," he grunted, taking a deep breath and shifting in his chuunin jacket, settling more deeply into the grass.

"We haven't had a chance to talk since you got back."

His eyebrow seemed to raise of its own accord. Great, now he had to actually talk to her, and just when he was enjoying the sky. "You're right, Ino, we haven't. It can wait, can't it?"

He heard her sigh. "I just wanted to thank you for coming back alive. I'm happy Chouji will be okay, too."

"Yeah," was all he had to say to that.

She shifted uncomfortably for a moment, then sat down next to him. "You know, I never knew what you did with all your spare time. Is this your favorite thing to do?"

Shikamaru smiled. "Yeah, it is."

She rolled onto her side and he turned his head, meeting her cerulean eyes. "What do you think about?" she asked softly.

He studied her face for a moment, searching it for hidden motivations, but he found none. Before him was Ino distilled, quiet, true, and real. A chuckle almost found its way out of his throat, but he wasn't eager to have raging Ino pouncing on him. Temari was scary enough, and he didn't even know her; the thought of angry Ino was the stuff of nightmares. Still, this was a side to Ino he really hadn't seen before, and he didn't want to lose it so quickly. "I think about lots of things. I think about the future, about the past," he murmured. "I think about my friends. I look at the clouds and think how great they've got it."

"Why? What about them is so great?"

"They don't have to be anywhere. They just go where the winds take them. When it's time to rain, they rain, and when it's time to disappear, they just do it. No worries, no pressure. Nobody really expects much from them."

Ino was silent for a while, her eyes looking into his. She was so close that he could actually see reflections of his face in her irises. Didn't she have any sense of personal space? Not that he minded too terribly, really. It wasn't like she smelled bad or anything. Actually, quite the opposite.

Finally she rolled onto her back, folding her arms behind her head. "Hey, that one kind of looks like a rabbit," she said, pointing, then falling silent. He was watching her, not the sky. A few moments later she pointed again. "And there's a castle."

Shikamaru finally took his eyes from her and looked at the clouds also. "Yup," he agreed. "You're good at this."

She turned her face to him, beaming. Her real, brilliant smile made him realize how many fake smiles she usually gave people. He thought about that for a little while, then decided that he actually got more than his fair share of genuine smiles. Ino was pretty, with her fine, pale skin and hair, but she was also natural and artless, lying in the grass with him, watching the sky.

"Look!" she exclaimed, sitting up and pointing. He followed her lead, clasping his wrists and looping his arms around his legs. The sky was filled with colored light, bouncing off the clouds and painting everything. He looked at her and a small smile crept over his face. She grinned back, another genuine smile. "It's beautiful. The light's making everything look softer."

"Yeah," he whispered, watching her hair turn gold, then red in the rays of the setting sun. A blanket of purple covered them, giving fuzzy edges to the trees, and finally night fell. They lay side by side in the grass until the stars came out and the crickets began to chirp in the bushes. Shikamaru couldn't remember the last time he'd felt so contented. He enjoyed being alone, but it had been nice to share the beautiful evening with someone, especially someone who was a friend. Ino had been good company.

A flash of light caught the corner of his eye, and he turned his head, raising an arm to point. "Look," he murmured, watching for another shooting star, and suddenly something soft and warm pushed up against him. He glanced over in surprise and saw Ino, fast asleep, cuddling up against his side. Her face was flawless in slumber, gentle beyond compare. Being only thirteen, Shikamaru thought girls were especially troublesome, especially Ino, especially right at that moment, but he didn't make any effort to move away and even had the decency to blush as the beating of his heart sped up a little. He wouldn't have thought it would have made a difference, being touched by a girl, but suddenly his evening had become even better.

"Okay, just a little longer, and then I'll take you home," he whispered to the night, and turned his gaze back to the stars.