Letting Go

A Happy Bday ficcie for me

Made: 09/27 Done: 09/28


"Heh. I always thought my son had been born without buds in the tongue, but I feel I must eat my words." The older, rowdier version of her childhood friend and longtime teammate Nara Shikamaru gazed appreciatively at the willowy blonde woman dressed in a simple yet elegant white robe with a light blue sash. "His taste in women is… impressive."

Temari merely smiled politely. If she was uncomfortable with the attention she was receiving not for her combat skills but for her looks, she was not showing it.

Shikamaru coughed pointedly, silencing his father.

A small sad smile formed on her lips. She had always found it secretly amusing to listen to the strange repartee of the Nara father and son, with the senior displaying sure signs of second childhood and the junior showing signs of aging before his time. However, she could not find the energy tonight to even enjoy the bantering of the two. Just one look at the woman sitting right beside Shikamaru and she would be painfully reminded what the celebration among them was for.

Her eyes went to the bottles of beer in front of her. Without thinking, she reached for one of them and poured the drink generously in her glass.

Everyone was too absorbed in the merrymaking to notice her do that though. Or perhaps, they thought she was drinking to the happiness of the newly-engaged couple.

No matter. The minute the liquid touched her throat, she felt her whole body blaze. Coughing, she returned the glass on the table, all the while silently cursing that wretched poison. How men deal with that lethal stuff would be another mystery for her to solve one of these days in another lifetime.

She looked up, and was met by Shikamaru's withering gaze.

"Well?" he asked dryly.

"Well what?" she hissed. What was he doing, looking at her when he should be minding his own fiancée?

"How was the first plunge?" he continued, shaking his head.

"Terrific," she replied sarcastically. "My whole life was changed."

"You shouldn't drink," he scolded, although beneath its reproaching timbre laid a color of what she wanted to imagine—concern.

Her heart wrenched. It seemed like a lifetime ago when she used to ignore his silent caring ways because she thought it would be there for all eternity to stay. It was hers and hers alone, almost a birthright even. How was she to know that the time would come that something she deemed constant as a northern start could be taken away from her so abruptly?

Faking yet another one of her trademark snooty smirks, she said breezily, "Relax. I'm a capable adult."

"That is open to debate," the jounin replied in a somewhat resigned tone. Trying to argue with Yamanaka Ino was like squeezing lemonade out of a rock. He could try his darn hardest to voice reason in her mind, but like any average woman, she would rather be right than reasonable. "Geez, how troublesome."

She, on the other hand, closed her eyes and tried to resist the bullying of vertigo. In the darkness of her vision, she could vividly see the face of twelve-year-old Nara Shikamaru as he stood in front of her family's flower shop one fateful afternoon some years ago.

Ah, she could only remember it oh-so-well…

Twelve-year-old Nara Shikamaru pocketed his hands. "Well?"

Ignoring her pounding heartbeat, she defiantly met his gaze. "Well what?"

His demeanor spelled nonchalance, but she knew better; he couldn't even look at her straight in the eye. "What can you say about that?"

In her best haughty voice, she said, "Bon voyage?" The minute those words came out of her mouth and the fists of Shikamaru clenched tightly, regret flooded into her. But she refused to apologize; she was not about to let him know how much his news really affected her.

He was going away on a mission with his father to who-knows-where, his return indefinite. He dropped by that late afternoon just to say goodbye to her. And now, he was waiting for her reaction.

She could feel it in her heart—he wanted to hear her ask when he would be back, or even ask him not to go anymore. Ah, perhaps she wanted those very things too, but pride was too powerful an emotion; she was too overwhelmed by it to even notice the already-present longing for him even when he was yet to leave.

He looked up, hesitating a bit. A breath later, another question followed. "Is that all?"

Her heart pounded louder, especially when he finally turned his eyes at her, gazing searchingly at her face.

She knew what he was looking for—he was not merely looking for signs; he was trying to find hope as well for whatever his young heart was feeling at that moment.

Anguish, frustration, hidden affection… she could see them all clearly in his eyes naked of boredom for the first time since ages. The intense emotions shook her hard, shook her to her very core.

For Pete's sake, he was Nara Shikamaru: the lazy loser whose future plans consisted of closing the bedroom window he opened an hour ago. Emotional outbursts bore him, so what were emotions doing in his face, wildly flickering in every nuance of his face?

Surely those feelings weren't meant for her. He could not mean to say that all the while she had insulted him, made fun of him, and continuously downplayed his real abilities as to compare with Uchiha Sasuke's, he had cared for her. That was not characteristic of him.

Finally, she found her voice again. "That's all I want to say."

The crisp laughter of her father brought her back to reality. Forcibly opening her eyes, she turned her attention to the lively conversation between the two elders.

"…We thought all the while that Shikamaru was going to obey our ole boys' covenant that our children would get married someday…Ino and him, or Ino and Chouji. Now if that still wouldn't work, why, by all means, Chouji and Shika!" More laughter ensued.

How she wanted it very much if the floor chose to open and swallow her up whole, instead of listening to the merry exchanges and pretending to be happy when she was bleeding profusely inside. She willed herself not to look, not even glance, at Nara Shikamaru. She was only too afraid that he would see what tumult her emotions were feeling inside, and her fear was not unfounded. He could read her so well, even better than his own hand. All it would take is one look, and she knew he would know.

He mustn't.

She eyed Akimichi Chouji warily at the corner of her eyes. He had dropped by her house unexpectedly, but his intention was anything but that. By experience, she had learned that half the reason why he was still putting up with her insanely bossy attitude was that she had a good ole fully-stocked refrigerator—a rare phenomenon in the Akimichi household.

"No peanut butter?" he cried out after a thorough inspection of the fridge, his woe making it sound like she and her family had committed a capital crime against the Konoha village.

"Just dip your bread into the hot chocolate," she said in her most patient schoolteacher voice. What did he think of her house anyway, a free restaurant?

"Okie-dokie." He carried the whole loaf of white bread to the table and grabbed the chocolate powder jar along the way. Settling beside her on the kitchen table, he began to make his light munchies, a meal that could have been her one-week snacks.

"Oi, Ino?"

"Yeah?" She lifted her head slightly from the crook of her arms, expecting food trivia or rave reviews on the latest dish he tasted along his training with Asuma-sensei.

"Did you know," he paused in between dips and nibbles of the moist bread, "that Shikamaru is going home this week?"

A surprised gasp came out of her mouth. Blue eyes wide as saucers, she sat up erect, all the while her heart pounding frantically. "A-Are you sure?"

He was coming home; the boy who occupied her waking hours and dreams all of a sudden and never left since then, Nara Shikamaru, was going to come back.

She felt tears pooling up in her eyes. All those years that passed did not go into total waste. She had unconsciously begun to shed off her girlish ways and immaturity, and in the process, she had finally understood her folly that fateful afternoon she denied him her feelings and cheated herself too.

Of course she cared for him. She didn't know when she had started to, because it had never been a conscious act in the first place. She only knew security when he was around, reassurance when he was beside her, and yes, reason whenever he tells her that she was crossing certain lines already. And she only noted the presence of these things at his absence, which had already spanned to three years or so.

Being very young and very proud then, she refused to acknowledge how, aside from her father, it was only with Shikamaru that she could feel safest with. He was her fortress and her buoy, her lifesaver jacket and her pillar. His jaded impression of life and its events serve as a peculiar security blanket—that the things she feared like cockroaches, rejection, and the indiscernible future were things not big enough to warrant the loss of his easygoing ways, and more importantly, her Yamanaka Ino killer smirk. Even if meteors fall on earth today, all it will take to appease her fears is Shikamaru's careless shrug and his calm, "Here's what we'll do…" If he suggests using an umbrella to save themselves, she would believe him wholeheartedly.

Yes, she believed in him simply because she had trusted him her whole life unknowingly. In her most secret daydreams, she saw herself as an aged woman, with a silver-haired man in a pineapple hair cut holding her close, passing their remaining days this way. She had always thought that Nara Shikamaru was her own personal shadow that would always be there for her, beginning forever and ending in never.

Maturity taught her that what she once felt for Uchiha Sasuke was but fleeting fascination for the unreachable. But she did not want that after all—she wanted the familiar arms of the one who would catch her every time she falls from trying too hard to grasp the apex of her fancies.


"Oi, Ino!" Chouji snapped his fingers in front of her face, startling her back to reality. "I said Shikamaru's coming back—"

"I heard it the first time!" she snapped, cheeks reddening.

"Oh?" He looked at her critically. "So what do you think of his girl then?"

She felt like a bucket of ice fell on her. "W-What girl?"

"Temari. You weren't listening, were you—"

Chouji's accusing voice droned out into insignificance as she began to release her shock and grief in the only way the little girl in her knew.

"I-Ino…" The stout chuunin fell in guilty silence when his teammate began to sob painfully. Understanding at once her situation he had known practically all his life, he meekly guided her shaking body into his shoulders, comforting her in the best way his limited knowledge on women could. "I-Is it okay to say…I'm sorry?"

She responded with even harder crying, so he sighed softly. "My bad."

Gravity's urge for her to lie down in bed was growing more urgent every minute. She knew this was not the alcohol acting, but her tension. She rose unsteadily, successfully getting the attention of everyone else inside the room.

"Where are you going, sweetheart?" her father asked, frowning in curiosity.

Temari looked on, face as prim and blank as it had always been. But her deep-set eyes were trained on her intently.

Her heart fell. Why did she even let Chouji convince her into attending this get-together?

"You should go there tonight." Chouji had dropped by again in her flower shop, his hand occupied by a bag of chips—his best friend after Nara Shikamaru.

"Why should I?" she quietly asked as she tenderly cut the stem of the roses.

"Free food," he said matter-of-factly.

"I'm not that hungry."

"Yeah well… not NOW, but maybe later…"

She shook her head. "I'm on a diet."

"You're fine the way you look now, I assure you." His chubby fingers paused from digging into the chips pack. "I-I mean…"

A soft smile played on her lips when she noticed him turn red faintly. "I'm still not coming. But thanks for trying anyway."

He regained his composure. "But don't you want to see Shikamaru?"

With all her heart, she wanted to. He needed not know that though.

But the kind boy sensed her longing. "Go. Just for the peace of your mind, go see how he has been doing."

It sounded so easy and mature coming from him that morning, but now that she was here in the actual scene, playing the role of a mature woman coming into terms of accepting a man once hers who could never be her own again…she wanted nothing more than to return to her bed, curl up in a fetus position, and cry herself to sleep.

Suddenly, Shikamaru got up. "Let's get you some fresh air. It must be the alcohol."

She nodded mutely and allowed herself to be led by her former teammate out of the room.

"Well?" Shikamaru asked the moment they arrived in the balcony. His hands were pocketed casually at either side of his trousers.

"Well what?" If she would die today and be born into another lifetime, she knew she would immediately find his soul by mere exchange of these words.

"Something's bothering you," he said after a momentary hesitation. "So, spill."

"You're imagining things."

"My imagination's not this good." He leaned on the wall, gazing heavenwards. "It may have been years, but I am still pretty sure that I know those signs on your face." A wry smile broke on his face. "Yours now mean trouble."

"You see everything as trouble," she pointed out sardonically.

"That's where you're wrong," he rebutted softly, making her pause. "At some points of my life, I like to think that there were people I saw as worth it all."


"The trouble."

"Oh." A funny feeling fluttered within her. "W-Well…" She groped for words helplessly.

"What's the matter?" he asked quietly, searching her face for clues on her predicament.

Her larynx was battling against the tightening of her throat. Quickly, she clasped her hands together tightly to keep her attention away from the tears threatening to surface into the open.

She would not! She refused to cry, not in front of him.

"Geez, bottling it up inside would only hurt you in the long run!" When he received no response yet, he groaned out loud. "Since when had you started becoming a masochist? Kami-sama…"

She refused to reply still.

"I can't keep you from pain away then, and I still can't keep you away even now." He massaged his aching temples. "Why do I even try?" he muttered under his breath.

Why indeed? She at last lifted her gaze and looked at him forlornly. He was unmindful of her gaze, busy deliberating on her Issues.

When there was actually only one.

I love you and I realized it too late, that's my problem, her mind wanted to blurt out. Instead, she uttered, "I'm sorry."

"Hmm?" He glanced at her, startled by her speech, the first one she made with him in years that didn't carry her usual air of bravado.

"When I told you before you left that I had nothing else to say…" Her eyes shook slowly. "I was…I was lying."

He spoke after digesting silently what she just said. "Lying…"

"Yes." She steeled her nerves as Chouji's words echoed in her mind over and over again. Peace of mind, yes, what she would not give for those three little words that could set her free from the shackles of her mistakes quite unforgotten until now. "I was supposed to say something else."

His breathing was audible now. "Which is?" he asked a heartbeat later.

Her mouth formed the three words, and her voice was the only lacking element to express how she feels. However, at the last minute, a thought dawned into her. This made her pause.

"Ino?" he prompted.

Sadness flickered in her eyes before she exhaled deeply and smiled.

"A secret," she said lightly, and then leaned over to kiss his cheek: the quickest, most restrained way to show even a part of how she feels for him.

"We were starting to wonder whether you got lost in our own house," greeted Shikamaru's dad upon their reappearance.

Breaking into an apologetic smile which she hoped didn't look too artificial, she shrugged. "The beer's too powerful. I should succumb to raising the white flag for this evening."

Shikamaru's father smiled at her warmly. "You should go out with us once in a while in our drinking sprees so you can familiarize yourself with the wonders of alco—"

"Invite her when you can already afford to pay the bill instead of your usual freeloading," retorted the son, rolling his eyes.

She bit her lip. He was still the same old Shikamaru, with the same old mannerisms and the familiar level of acerbic wit. This she discovered the whole night she had subtly watched him and studied him, like an old perfume scent repackaged in a new bottle and label.

Yet she realized while talking with him by the balcony that the circumstances surrounding him were definitely not like before. Her gaze turned to Temari, who didn't even blink at their eye contact. There was no arrogance in those dark eyes though, and certainly no gloating.

It was that ancient link between female sensitivities that enabled her to discover that the woman knew what was in her heart. And she, too, felt she could read the other female's sentiments.

In understated hues, she saw compassion and sympathy. She also saw determination though.

Of course, Temari wouldn't give way to her, no matter how much the kunoichi empathizes with her.

She had her chance; she held his world—his heart— on the palm of her hand, and she let him slip away. And if she loves Shikamaru, really loves him, she should yield to that person who can love him and treat him far better than she could.

She owed it to the boy who taught her love beyond schoolgirl fantasies and romance.

For she never knew true love until she broke her own heart to see her loved one happy.

The newfound resolution, though difficult, filled her with strangely serene calmness, the first time she felt so, ever since that one auspicious afternoon some years ago.

Her eyes went to Shikamaru, who was now talking with Temari quietly. He may not be vocal about it, but she could see the intense emotion in his eyes.

He must really love her, she thought wistfully. And that could have been me beside him.

Suddenly, their eyes met, and for a second, locked mutedly, smoldering with emotions no longer proper to express without hurting someone else in the process.

And then smilingly, she said, "I better get going." She started to stand up when Shikamaru asked her all of a sudden.

"Will you be there at the wedding ceremony?"

She laughed airily. "If you will invite me."

"Then consider yourself invited."

"And consider me present there."

She was startled to find Chouji standing outside the house, strangely not eating—he was gazing at her worriedly.

"Are you okay?" he asked when she was within earshot distance.

"N-No," she confessed.

His eyes saddened.

And then she smiled bravely. "But I will be."

His eyes crinkled into a smile, as if lauding her. "I see."

She started to walk forward, with her friend trailing her behind. Yes, it hurt now, but she knew that at least she made the first step towards freedom.

Shikamaru would always be someone she holds dear, but he was a part of the past, like yesterday and the days that came before that.

Past mistakes couldn't be undone, but she still had her hand on the future.

"I'll make good next time," she promised herself.

"Next time in what?" Chouji asked curiously. She didn't notice that she had said that aloud.

Giving him her trademark confident Yamanaka Ino smile, she said, "Secret!"


the end