Once More With Feeling
By Aoi Kami Sarah
The rain hadn't let up for the last 48 hours. It was getting dark and far colder than it had been during the day. Two shapes blurred through the undergrowth not making a sound.
"Make Camp," the team leader signed to his subordinate.
"Really Where," she signed back. If it were possible to lace hand signals with sarcasm, she succeeded. There wasn't a good place to camp that wasn't soaking wet in sight. He pointed to the south and signed "Mountains 5 Miles." They pressed on.
Indeed, five miles to the south, a small mountain range came into view and its foothills were riddled with caves. She heaved an exhausted sigh and sat down inside one of them on a fairly dry patch of moss. "How much further?" she asked quietly.
"Another 100 miles to the border," he companion answered. He busied himself with his pouch, rummaging for something.
"So we can relax," she advised. He scoffed. "What? You nervous? I doubt we're being followed."
Another snort. "Trust me," he drawled. "I'm the most relaxed person you'll ever meet." He pulled a roll of gauze and alcohol from his pack and handed it to her. She was looking out at the rain through the mouth of the cave and obviously not thinking about the five inch laceration on her upper arm. "Temari," he called softly and waved the bandage at her.
"Oh, sorry. Spacing out. Must be tired." She remembered how careful he had been. He had made certain the mission they just completed was successful and that they both made it out alive. He showed a concern that she had never seen from any other Chuunin Captain. "Thanks, Nara," she said and as she reached for the bandage, their fingers touched.
Late the following after noon the Yamanaka flower shop was closing up for the day. A girl with a long brown braid waited outside. She pushed her braid over her shoulder and looked at her watch. She smiled as her friend emerged, locking the shop door behind her.
"Where's Hinata?" Ino asked.
"Mission," Tenten replied simply.
"Please say Naruto opted to bail on us!"
"Yup. Don't worry. No mopy Hinata-less Naruto tonight."
"Oh Hallelujah. Wanna call Sakura and Lee and see what they're doing?" she asked and they started walking.
"Lee's out on a mission and Sakura started her residency last night, remember?"
"Oh yeah…" Ino smacked her fist into her palm. "We should go over and bug her later!"
"And maybe bring her some take out?" Tenten suggested.
"Nah." Ino grinned. "Let's get ice cream and eat it in front of her while she runs around like a crazy person."
Tenten laughed but it was short-lived. "Oh, Ino. Don't look now, but…" She nodded her head in the direction she was looking in. Both women stopped walking and watched.
Walking down the busy street in front of them heading for the administrative center was Nara Shikamaru and a certain Kunoichi who looked distinctly out of place. Her hair was arranged differently and her clothes were more revealing than those worn by the average girl from Konoha. "Looks like he found someone else, too."
Ino narrowed her eyes at their backs. It had been 10 years since she last saw her, but she recognized Temari. "Isn't that the Sand bitch that beat the living shit out of you at that Chuunin prelim?" Ino snapped.
Tenten frowned. "I could take her now," she snarled and subconsciously felt for her concealed weapons.
"If she's been on a mission with Shikamaru," Ino whispered, "I don't think so."
"Come on, Ino. Kiba and Neji are waiting," Tenten urged, seeing that her friend's stare was more piercing than her own.
"I'm coming," Ino huffed, throwing her nose in the air.
The administrative building was as busy at six in the afternoon as it was at any hour of the day. Temari shuffled her papers around, her freshly stamped passport ready to allow her to return home to the Hidden Sand. "Well," she said. "Nice working with you, Nara."
"Same here." Shikamaru put his hands behind his head and stretched.
"Thanks for the… bandage," she said with a grin.
"My pleasure," he answered and turned to walk down the hall. "Take care."
"Same to you." Temari nodded and saw herself out of the building.
Shikamaru took a deep breath and walked slowly down the stairs to the first floor waiting room. Shinobi were scattered around, most seated on couches talking to each other or looking over their reports before handing them in.
"Oi! Shikamaru!!" his best friend's voice boomed from across the room, turning several heads. "You just get back?!"
"Hey, Chouji," he answered, completely unfazed. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and crossed the room. "Yeah, just go back."
"You guess? It's a yes or no question you lazy bastard!" Chouji laughed and clapped his hand on Shikamaru's back. "Come on, let's go get a drink," he urged and they headed out to the bar.
"So," Chouji began, a pitcher of beer and no glass sitting in front of him. The two friends were seated across from each other at a table. "How was working with you-know-who?"
Shikamaru took a long sip off of his own beer and rolled his eyes. "It was fine," he muttered.
Chouji leaned closer and squinted at him. "Fine? You were freaking out about this mission when you found out who you were paired with!"
"Yeah, yeah. I know. It went really smoothly given the circumstances," he dead panned. "We survived."
"You mean you didn't kill each other!" Chouji laughed loudly and downed half the pitcher.
"How you been?" Shikamaru asked.
Chouji grinned. "Fuggin' great," he admitted. "Went on a date last night."
"No shit?" He was happy both for his friend and to have the attention taken off of himself. "Who is she?"
"Cute little Chuunin named Misora. You know, she sings down at the Silver Shuriken on Fridays."
"The red head?"
"No shit…" he smiled. "That is fuggin'great." They clinked aluminum can to plastic pitcher and relaxed.
"You know what would be really great?" Chouji asked looking off at a shinobi throwing darts on the far wall. "If we could get InoShikaChou back together."
Shikamaru let out a long breath and squirmed a little bit in his seat. "Yeah, well. Don't get your hopes up."
"She's with Kiba nowadays and I…" Shikamaru's lips curled up slightly.
"You what?" Chouji asked innocently.
"Well," he said and leaned across the table. "Let's just say that if Ino found out about the details of my mission she'd never speak to me again."
Chouji's eyebrows arched with interest. "Oh?" Rather than answer, Shikamaru took a sip of beer. Chouji put his elbows on the table and leaned in. "You and her…?" he whispered.
"You dog!!!" Heads turned. "Man, how was she?"
Blushing, Shikamaru brought his beer up again and muttered, "amazing."
"Yeah. I mean, maybe it was the circumstances or the environment or…"
"Maybe it was the hot Suna Kunoichi action!"
Chouji laughed. "Yeah, Ino would kill you."
Shikamaru leaned back and put his arms over the back of the bench. "Why? She hates me. Why should she care what I do? I don't care that she's… seeing Kiba."
"Sure you don't," he too leaned back and put his hands on the table.
Shikamaru shrugged. "I don't fucking care," he said nonchalantly.
"Have you talked to her recently?"
"No, have you?"
"No, but…" Shikamaru rolled his eyes at him. "But. We've been friends since we were 12. That's more than 10 years, Shikamaru. It's not right, not speaking anymore just because…"
"This isn't just a disagreement, Chouji."
"I know that!" When Shikamaru looked off into the distance, Chouji slapped the table. "If I had a lover's quarrel with you I wouldn't write you off as my friend, forever!" That got his attention, and the attention of a half a dozen bar patrons. "We have something special, the three of us. We were a Genin team and our folks were on a team together. We work really well together, we get along, and hell, Shikamaru, you two were made for each other!"
Shikamaru deflated. His shoulders drooped and he gave his friend a questioning glance. "That may or may not be true, but there's no way once Yamanaka Ino gets something in her head she'll ever change her mind."
"She's too stubborn to give it a second chance and you're too lazy to try."
"It's not just that…" Shikamaru argued. "I've thought about it. And every time I get the notion to talk to her, I get angry."
"Angry?" Chouji blinked at him.
"Yeah. I feel hurt and angry so I think 'this sucks' and don't do anything. I'm much better off this way, I assure you." He finished off his beer.
Chouji folded his arms and stared at him for a moment. "You've got to talk to her. Either that or you'll go on feeling shitty forever. Let's have dinner. Just the three of us, like old times! I'll leave you guys alone for a while and you can talk!"
"Please, Shikamaru. Just give it a chance. You still care about her, don't you?" His eyes avoided Chouji's. "Don't you?" He grumbled something like 'yes'. "Fine. Tomorrow night. I'll ask Ino. And I won't take no for an answer, even if I have to drag her there!"
The following evening found InoShikaChou out for Korean BBQ, as Chouji had wanted, 'just like old times'. Ino directed most of her conversation to the group or to Chouji. Chouji tried to keep his end of the conversation at a minimum, but Shikamaru was almost silent and hardly ate. After ten helpings of beef the waiter came over and said that Chouji had a messenger bird waiting for him. He excused himself and bid them good night.
The former lovers sat across the table from each other. Shikamaru played with his Bi Bim Bop and tapped his finger on the table. Ino stared at him. He stared at his food.
"I'm obviously boring you," she stated and slid out of the booth.
In a panic, Shikamaru dropped his chopsticks and reached out for her. "No, wait! I… Please don't go."
Ino folded her arms and pouted at him. "Why should I stay?"
"This was Chouji's idea. If only for him, I need to talk to you. Please."
Slowly, she slid back in and put her elbows on the table. "Ok. Talk."
Shikamaru fidgeted. "Chouji doesn't want us to fall apart, the InoShikaChou."
"Chouji, Chouji!" she huffed. "What do you want, Shikamaru?"
He swallowed. "I want… I don't want us to not be friends. When we broke up we promised that we'd stay friends. I don't think I've been very good at keeping that promise."
Ino softened a little. "No, you haven't. You said that and then never talked to me again. This is the first time I've heard you say more than 'hey' to me in a long time."
He looked up. "I'm sorry."
"Why am I sorry?" he asked.
"No, dumbass, why did you stop talking to me?"
"I…" He picked up his chopsticks again and pushed some food around. Ino smacked his hand and they clattered into the dish. He looked up in surprise.
"Why!?" she asked crossly.
"It hurts too much."
Ino leaned back in the booth and stared at him. "What?"
Shikamaru straightened up a little and tried to return her stare. "I thought there was something I could have done that I wasn't able to do to keep it together. I was disappointed in myself for not trying and letting things get to the point of breakup. I was angry with myself for that and I was sad that you were gone. I've been staying away from you because it hurts and I've been trying to find comfort where I can get it, including in Temari who I fucked while I was on my mission the other day. There. That's everything."
Ino blinked at him.
"I know, I'm a dumbass. I should have acted when I had the chance and I blew it. Now you really have a reason to never talk to me again." He got up and threw some money on the table. "I'm sure you'll be much happier with Kiba."
Ino sat dumbstruck and watched him leave.
It was almost nine o'clock. The bar crowd was just filtering through the dinner crowd. Shikamaru walked down the street to his apartment, his hands dug deep into his pockets. His brain whirled. "What the fuck was I thinking, telling her all that? Jesus Tap-dancing Christ I'm stupid when it comes to women. That's it. I'm never getting into another relationship ever again for as long as I live!" he grumbled to himself.
"Don't be a dumbass."
He stopped in his tracks and looked over his shoulder. Ino tilted her head to the side, but didn't quite smile. She walked around and faced him.
"I should slap you for Temari, but since we're not together I don't have that right," she cooed. "I had no idea how you felt. I thought that you were mad at me and never wanted to talk to me again for hurting you." His mouth opened. "Ah, ah, ah. I'm not done yet," she asserted. "I'm sorry for my silence." He tried to speak again but she held up her hand. "Are you still sad that we're apart?" she asked innocently.
His brows came together. "Yeah…" he whispered.
She took a deep breath. "I know you said you don't want to be in another relationship again for as long as you live," she quoted him. "But wanna give this one another try?"
He bowed his head and sighed in relief. "Chouji's gonna be really happy."
"Chouji, Chouji," Ino whispered with a soft smile. "What about you, Shikamaru?"