"What are you doing here?" That was the first question that formed in Yamanaka Ino's lips when she opened the door of the Chuunin headquarters and nearly collided with no other than Sand nin, Temari.
It didn't occur to her that perhaps the Godaime had asked the kunoichi to accomplish some missions under the supervision of the rookie Chuunin, or that she was bringing an important diplomatic message from the Sand village. Almost instantly, alarm bells rung inside her in red alert status. Instantly, she sensed that it was about the boy who was also her purpose for dropping by all of a sudden that fateful lunch time.
Perhaps it could be just an overreaction on her part. But then again, when it comes to Nara Shikamaru whom she knew practically since forever, there was always this nine point nine out of ten percent possibility that she was right. Call it a woman's instinct or whatever lingo it was named in psychology books, but she immediately knew that the kunoichi did not drop by here with purely business intentions or diplomatic transactions in mind.
On the other hand, Temari was slightly taken aback by the girl's sudden arrival. She was not counting on this—all that she had in mind when she went to Konoha was to drop by the Chuunin office and check if the Fifth Hokage has a new mission in mind for her. And if ever she does find Nara Shikamaru in the office as well, she could casually invite him out for lunch.
How was she to know that she would finally meet face-to-face the hazel blue-eyed girl that used to be just a prominent figure in her conversations with the shadow master?
Looking at the girl though, she knew that even if she had not heard personally the narration of the Chuunin regarding this Yamanaka Ino, she would still be able to guess what role this lass plays in his life. There was something about the haughty look in her eyes, as if it was an everyday fact in life that she visits Shikamaru at lunch, carrying a small pack of cloth-wrapped home culinary goodness. The tone of her voice was anything but friendly—in fact, it was more hostile than the way a cat would react to a dog. Her question had a ring of possessiveness into it too, although not verbally overt.
It would have been vintage Temari to think of all those things in the span of a few seconds of quietly studying the girl standing before her with hands on hips. But then, it was not like her to feel something within her feel pinched at the same time too.
Call it woman's instinct, or whatever those psychologists term it, but she knew at once that Yamanaka Ino was more than 'a special childhood friend' that the shadow jutsu practitioner would talk about with much fondness.
"I said, what are you doing here?" snapped Ino, guising her forming insecurities and uncertatinties within her through her legendary temper. Normally, people could only cower when she puts on her snappy attitude. However, this Sand kunoichi merely gazed at her calmly, and whatever the ninja was thinking, she couldn't read. Just like Nara Shikamaru in his pensive or meditative moments, where she had to admit that the depth of his intellect could actually be more than what she vocally credits him for.
Something snapped within Ino's heart. Yes, now she knew what struck her when she saw the kunoichi! Her demeanor reminded her too much of Shika!
The unruffled boredom in the cold, hard eyes of the woman, as well as the controlled grim smile on her face…it committed into her memory the times when she could only stand aside uselessly as she watched her childhood friend make some of the most difficult decisions he had to have as team leader of his fellow genins, and then mourn for those that result to awful losses. She had seen the rawest expression of suffering and self-blame in his face, contained in that stony profile with eyes opaque from exhaust of emotions which his superior IQ had not prepared him for.
How many times did she think of coming up to him and telling him that not all things were consequences of mistakes, and that it was wrong to take the burden of mistakes all by himself? And how many times did she stop short of touching his hand, afraid of how he would react if she does so?
Watching him slowly deteriorate hurt even more than when she finally accepted that Sakura deserves her childhood fantasy more, especially when he became the representation of a pillar to her, a fortress unbreakable by circumstances because breaking down was too troublesome for him.
He made her understand some of life's harshest lessons by telling it gently, and one of them was learning how to let go.
Uchiha Sasuke was a piece of her dream, but Nara Shikamaru was her anchor to reality. He was the one who helped her get by after coming into terms with her feelings for Sasuke, telling her that the story of Yamanaka Ino mustn't come to an end when she lost her dream.
"At least you woke up. Your eyes are now wide open. Shouldn't that be something to thank for?" she remembered him saying in his usual Shikamaru-shrugging-carelessly manner, but the sympathy in his eyes were undeniable.
Nara Shikamaru was strong, not because he was sturdy, but because like the bamboo, he knew how to take the gusts of wind well and bend down to it reverently instead of fighting stubbornly against it. That was when she realized that all these years that they had been together, she had been admiring him secretly for so long!
And it silently devastated her those times that she watched him self-destruct. She hated herself for not being able to guide his fragmented soul…for not being strong enough or brave enough.
And just when they all thought that he was going to break down, entered a certain woman that goes by the name Temari.
Ino's eyes scanned the woman up and down, understanding finally that she had now met in person the troublesome, pushy woman who, in his words, 'kicked my arse and shoved to my face what a crybaby I was all this time'.
Temari. The Sand Village's pride, the daughter of the Kazekage that truly carries a force to reckon: beauty, brains, and battle skills still unmatched by any other woman and even most men in the Hidden Village of Sand. That certain troublesome woman.
Ino bit her lower lip. She couldn't blame Shikamaru for admiring her—her cool seemed to be made of stuff tougher than the usual ice, and her eyes seem to taunt her; she couldn't help but feel that even thoughts could be read by those cruelly blank eyes.
In a way, she seemed so intimidatingly powerful that she could only watch the significant part of her self-esteem fly away. Her father may call her the princess of the world of leaves, but the woman standing before her was like a warrior princess, veteran of sandstorms and quicksands.
Her hold on the lunchbox tightened, fear coiling within her and threatening to break her already tightening chest.
That was how Temari could describe the girl matching stares with her. The eyes transparently told her of insecurities, but then, there was still determination to not give in to them and flee. Great amount of it in fact, that she had to suppress the laughter within her.
Yamanaka Ino had no right to feel insecure. Taking in her appearance, the Sand kunoichi grudgingly acknowledged that she was gifted in that field. And according to Shikamaru's talks, she specializes on a jutsu that invades the body and takes control of it, so she must be able combat-wise too. Her self-confidence says pretty much about her level of intelligence, although not that impressive. She also heard that the Yamanaka family was one of the upper-class working families that, although not as wealthy as the Hyuuga clan, were still financially stable.
All in all, she was an example of a person who has an ocean, but still want a deep well in the desert. She had everything a person could ever ask for, but she still finds it lacking.
This pissed her off silently. Why fate gives bountiful blessing to people who didn't know how to count was beyond her comprehension. The girl before her looked so classy that she couldn't help but think spitefully if the girl even experienced what real life was beyond her one-way adoration for the Uchiha looker and the need to stay afloat in her competition with Haruno Sakura.
However, the question just rebounded on her. For all her pride of living her years ahead of what ordinary circumstances could have called for, there was still a part of her that secretly wishes that she was born in a different family, for a different purpose…anything but to be a tool. She disliked almost everything about herself—about how the Kazekage was able to manipulate her and Kankuro to do his bidding with no questions, and to exist like pawns in a game of chess, all shaped and placed according to strategies that were formulated by someone else's cerebral electrical waves and impulses. It was sickening, the thought of how empty her life was now that she was not as useful anymore to her village. With the death of her father and no one telling her what to do, she was at lost as to why else she should live.
Fortunately for her, there was her little brother, estranged in many ways, and yet fondness would still surge within her whenever she would talk to him. He could be coldly polite at times, even distant, but she was still trying to reach out to him. She still held her hopes in secret cherishing: that someday, he would call her 'onee-san'. For now, his occasional tries to start a conversation when not necessary and his willingness to listen to her when she speaks would suffice. Her wishes would take time, but she was willing to wait and make up for lost time with him.
Taking care of Gaara was the first task she did beyond the call of duty. And as a shinobi aiming to be the perfect weapon to her village, she had promised herself that it would also be the last. Obedience and loyalty to a shinobi's undertaking was the primary priority of a ninja, and emotions are not healthy sentiments for a good ninja to entertain.
But once more, she wavered from her mission. The wind mistress of Sand could not defend herself from a boy who achieves his nirvana lying down on the grass, uncaring if he was staining his Chuunin jacket that she and the rest of the genins hoped to wear too, and look up at the clouds lazily.
Admiring the man who forced her on a checkmate position in their finals match was not puzzling. After all, she had to give credit to where it's due: his strategies were impressive, the brains behind it even more so. The look on his face when he told her and everyone else that he was forfeiting wasn't arrogance at all. She felt that he paid her the highest compliment she ever received in her whole life when he told her that he thought of over two hundred moves to defeat her, but to no avail. It made up for her embarrassment that he was able to lead her exactly where he wanted her to be when all this time she thought she was in control.
He taught her humility and respect, and then admiration.
When they met again some time after the unexpected ending of the Chuunin exams, he taught her how to care. For when she saw him sitting under his favorite shade, his aura declaring that he was in danger of losing the very substance of the Nara Shikamaru she had learned to respect more than any man she had encountered was made of, she suddenly interfered, Yes, interfered. Something apathetic people like herself usually do not do. She remembered very well how he refused to talk to her until she started to insult him and his manliness, until finally, his chauvinistic attitude was touched.
"At least even if women cry, they move on," she bantered. "Men do not cry, but they don't move on either."
"Which would serve me just fine," he said. "Things would be better if I chose to stay put under this tree and had not taken that stupid exam."
"Then everyone else will move forward without you," she said. And then she smiled mockingly. "The girl you defeated in the prelims…and yes, me too…we would move ahead of you."
And she realized that no other feeling would compare to how she did when he slowly looked up, his haggard face hinting a ray of the old Nara Shikamaru then."I will never let a woman get ahead of me so easily."
And with his face slowly rising to meet the sky, she was held in captivated awe when tears started to trickle down his cheeks. Perhaps, that was what they call tears of joy because she had never seen one such happy person crying. She was used to crying in pain, in anger, or in sorrow.
But here he was crying with a smile. Only someone like Nara Shikamaru could do that and make perfect sense to her.
From then on, they had been close mission teammates. Slowly she learned to be more attuned of the general attitudes and convictions of this boy who defeated her in the exam match. For instance, his laziness she had learned to tolerate as his own wait-and-see method in dealing with the missions. On the other hand, his apparent lack of interest with missions was equated with him finding the matter not interesting enough to warrant his full and undivided attention. She of all people knew that when he does decide to act dedicated, he could become a dangerous adversary, and an insurmountable obstacle. No matter how hard and long he denies it, she knew that he was already marked a fighter in her own book.
Yet she wasn't able to keep her high regard for him in a mere professional level.
As she got to spend more and more days with him, she had started to get used with company. She had started to ask questions about him, and started to wonder about him beyond the usual name-jutsu-battle-stats point.
She would also celebrate silently when he would suddenly feel the urge to talk, almost the way how her little brother feels the need to have someone to talk to. His idle stories would always contain one name though, one that would eventually hint to her that even before she thought of even trying, his heart was already stolen away.
Once more, she gazed at Ino quietly, now not feeling mad, but envious. A girl that had everything in the world except the knowledge that she does.
Her train of thoughts was derailed by the sound of a door opening.
Nara Shikamaru did a double take when he saw the two girls waiting for him in the receiving room of the Chuunin office. Behind him was Choji, cheerfully eating away his fifth pack of chips.
"Uh…" His eyes darted back and forth, unsure whether the tension in the air he was feeling was actually NOT imaginary at all.
The two girls looked at each other, and then at the same time, spoke. "Have you eaten lunch?"
The shadow master sweatdropped, and then massaged his nape, cheeks hinting scarlet. "Geez, you came all the way here just to ask? How troublesome. The office does have a phone, you know?"
Ino's eyes went to Temari when she realized that indeed, her hunch on the feelings of the Sand nin regarding Shikamaru was not official business only. Now it was time to give the Sand people a taste of Yamanaka Ino style of competition that gave the Haruno cherryblossom quite a fight.
Temari gazed back at her, now smiling too. Her suspicions on the role of Yamanaka Ino in the Chuunin's life were confirmed. But as far as the go-getter in her goes, she was willing to give the leading lady a big fight.
The exchange of glances only made Shikamaru more uncomfortable. "Did I…no, I -know- I missed something here."
Choji nodded as he looked at the ladies too. "Don't we always?"
A Tale of Two Lunch Invitations
For Attorney. Long ago in TFTP's tagboard, you asked me for shikatem. I couldn't write a straight fic for them though (old habits die hard, and I am used to ShikaIno ;;) Oh well, it's the thought that counts, right?