Disclaimer: Naruto does not belong to me
YEAAAH - finallyreached the last chapter! This has been a fantastic venture and I wanted to thank everyone who has read this and especially everyone who has taken the time and effort in sending me a review. I really do appreciate all your comments and suggestions and hopefully, my writing will become better and better over time.
"Ino, what happened to you?"
Sakura gasped, taking in the bedraggled appearance of her childhood friend.
Blood soaked her from head to toe, dying the tangled strands of pale blonde hair a gruesome red and dripping thickly off the torn edges of her clothing. The kunoichi was soaked in it, almost as if she had waded through a sea of blood and guts, the darker splotches of which the other girl wisely chose to ignore. How much of it was Ino's, Sakura had no idea. Unseeing eyes turned in her direction, the blue clouded over with something that tore at Sakura's heart simply to see.
Her voice was hoarse as she slid the lifeless body off her shoulder and held it out to Sakura like an offering. Yelling for other medics to help her hoist the body onto a stretcher, Sakura glanced back anxiously at her friend as the team carried Nara Shikamaru quickly into the emergency room.
There was no way someone of Ino's size could have possibly carried Shikamaru all the way back to Konoha under ordinary circumstances. She must have been running on pure adrenaline.
The pink-haired girl kept her voice low and calm, trying to reach out to the other as she stood staring mutely down the hallway the team had disappeared.
"Ino, you need to get yourself checked for injuries. I'll inform Tsunade-sama that the two of you have arrived back; she's going to have to be here to heal Shikamaru anyways."
His name seemed to shake her out of her reverie a bit.
Sakura tentatively grasped hold of Ino's shoulders, unheeding of the cold slide of blood under her fingers. Up close, the rank stench of the congealing fluid was overwhelming, repulsive in its familiarity.
"Come on, Ino. Come with me."
She started to maneuver the girl away when, all of a sudden, Ino started shrieking and fighting her off.
"No! Let go of me! Shika…"
Ino collapsed suddenly as exhaustion overtook her. Gently pulling her friend up and depositing her in the wheelchair a waiting medic was holding out, Sakura hurried off towards the Hokage's office.
This was not going to be good.
Hospitals are not a pleasant place to be.
Consider a haunted house. People generally think it's haunted because there's a ghost in it, right? And usually there's a ghost in it because someone died in there. So shouldn't hospitals be the most haunted place ever? People die there every day, especially in a ninja village like Konoha where shinobi are nothing more than an endless stream of replaceable tools that reach the end of their useful lives quickly and without warning.
Ino hated hospitals.
She hated waking up to a stark, sterile room with bandages wrapped tightly around her like a coffin and the look of concern on her family's faces. She hated visiting friends who struggled to pretend that they were fine and that their broken limbs or scarred flesh were all part of the job. But most of all, she hated coming in and seeing her future. Hated seeing the damaged bodies, the sobbing families and the meaningless, gleaming plaque in the foyer commemorating the names of shinobi the villagers neither knew, nor really cared about.
And yet, Ino was here. Had been here for every minute of the past two weeks. She ate the food her mother left her, washed in the adjoining washroom and slept in the hard wooden chair next to Shikamaru's bed. During this time, she had talked to him, watched as the nurses and doctors checked him daily and simply sat staring at his healing face as he lay there unconscious.
Ino had done a lot of thinking. She had plenty of time to do so. In these circumstances, you might expect her to be thinking about Shikamaru. Well, yes and no. When someone says they're thinking about someone, they usually mean they were thinking of memories involving that person or daydreaming about scenarios involving that person.
Ino did neither. She was thinking about the type of person he was. Then she thought about the type of person she was.
Tsunade-sama had worked on the shinobi for the entire night, various higher-level medics rushing through the corridors as they fought to save the village's genius strategist. Ino had awoken to the stern face of the Godaime, who had assured them that Nara Shikamaru was in stable condition and that the major wounds had been healed. All he needed now was lots of bed rest.
The underlying message came across loud and clear. She was the one who had ruined the mission and in addition to doing so, had placed the life of her teammate on the line. No doubt a disciplinary review would be held for her actions as soon as everything here got settled. Ino found that she didn't really care. It was her fault. She deserved all the blame they could throw at her.
Her mother had visited just this morning, bringing by some food and clean clothes. In the first few days, they had tried to persuade her to rest at home, that the Naras would tell her right away when Shikamaru woke up. Ino had said nothing. She had not argued but she had not moved either. And so they had let her be.
She now sat staring at the neatly wrapped bento box sitting on top of the side table. Her mother had made scallion onigiri, just like she had requested. And Ino smiled.
Let's take a page from Ino's ninjutsu book and go inside her head for a moment.
Have you ever wondered what a person's mind looks like? In Shikamaru's case, it might be a complex shogi board with millions of paths all leading to a set destination. The paths would be forever twisting, forever changing and a person could get lost in there if they weren't careful. Or a genius. In Ino's case, it might look something like a huge room with many doors. Some doors might be locked, some might lead to other doors and some, like the one we are about to open, might be small and dusty from long-time disuse.
Images are flickering before us like an old-fashioned movie reel and we curiously turn the sound up.
We see a younger Ino sitting at her kitchen table, determinedly molding a lump of rice that her mother had warned her was too big but Ino chose to ignore. All the while, she is chattering away about how she'd be a better wife than Sakura for Sasuke-kun because she's not only beautiful and skilled, but a great cook as well. Her mother is standing nearby, listening quietly as she wipes the dishes dry.
The girl pauses mid-sentence. Her mother looked strangely serious.
"Do you know what I think is the happiest type of marriage?"
She shrugs, somewhat surprised at the sudden question and a bit embarrassed about having such a conversation with her mother. The older woman smiles, setting down the towel in her hands.
"I think it's when you love him 99.9 percent and he loves you 100 percent. That way, instead of spending the rest of your life chasing after him, you'll always have the feeling of being loved."
Ino nods slowly. That made sense but why bring it up here? Her mother watches as she sprinkles the finishing sesame seeds on her rather misshapen riceballs and carefully places them in a lunch box.
"Are those for Uchiha Sasuke, dear? You spent an awful lot of time trying to get them right."
Now, just to clarify, this woman was smart. She had to be in order to handle every single one of Inoshi's messes. She remembered exactly who Ino had yelled she was going grocery shopping for early this morning.
"They're for Shikamaru, remember? He likes scallion onigiri best and said the ones you made for me tasted okay the other day."
"Oh, that's right. Did he ask you to make it for him or is there some sort of special occasion today?"
For once, our girl seems to be at a loss for words. Perhaps she was.
"No…I just felt like it. I like making him happy."
Right at this moment, the images we're watching flickers for a bit. You might wonder if it was because her subconscious had been urging her to stop and consider what she had just said, or if it was because some surge of emotions had accompanied these words. Whatever the case might be, we're going to leave the fading scenes of her anxiously handing the box to the boy and the focusing in of her mind on his secretly pleased expression.
There are other interesting things to listen in on right now.
The softly murmured sound made its way through her drowsiness.
Ino lifted her head and blinked wearily at the bright light streaming through the half-open blinds. Every muscle in her body was aching and it wasn't until she registered the feel of a warm, solid hand clasped in her own that the memories of where she was and what had happened hit her.
Ino jumped up, leaning eagerly over the body on the hospital bed.
"Shikamaru! You're awake!"
And he was indeed. Shikamaru smiled faintly up at her, grimacing as the movement caused a sharp pain from his still-swollen eye. Squealing, Ino flung herself on top of him, sobbing and laughing at the same time.
"Oh, Shika! I'm so glad you're awake! Should I call a nurse? I should, right?"
"Ow, damnit Ino! That hurts!"
"What? Oh, sorry!"
Pulling back marginally, the girl grinned sheepishly down at him, the tears flowing freely down her flushed cheeks and dripping on to him. Instead of wiping his face though, Shikamaru reached up a bandaged hand and tenderly tucked a stray blonde strand behind her ear. His voice was infinitely gentle.
"Don't cry, Ino. I'm okay now."
She shook her head furiously. Catching hold of his hand, she pressed it against her face.
"I'm so sorry, Shikamaru."
Her words were hushed and came out in a rush of self-loathing, despite the finger he placed against her lips to stop her.
"It's all my fault. I was so stupid – I thought I was strong enough and deliberately disobeyed your orders. It's my fault you're lying here all hurt and…I thought you were dead, Shika! I thought they killed you! I was so scared…"
It came out as a forceful exhalation. Ino snapped her mouth shut, watching with glistening eyes as he weakly grasped her other hand and lifted it to rest on his bandaged chest.
"It's not your fault. Don't ever say that, Ino. It was just a mistake and I'm fine now. Stop thinking about it."
The scowl that creased his forehead warned her not to pursue the subject further and for once, Ino obeyed. Brushing the tears from her face, she smiled down at him, taking in the beloved features of the man who had stood by her side her entire life.
The sunlight lit up her cloud of pale hair like a halo and reflected off her eyes. Eyes that had always searched for him, seeking him out amidst the crowds. Maybe they had been so all along but he had been looking away for so long that he forgot to look back. Even geniuses slip up once in a while.
Shikamaru sucked in a much needed breath, every sense painfully aware of how close she was and how she was looking at him. The hand on his chest squeezed his own a second before she bent down and pressed her lips against his softly.
Opening eyes he had not realized he had closed, Shikamaru found that his mind was unnervingly blank.
His voice sounded like a hoarse croak in his ears and he winced inwardly. The girl did not seem to mind however. Instead, she settled herself against him, carefully resting most of her weight on the bed while she continued to smile shyly down at him.
"Thank you, Shika. But don't you ever dare do anything like that again. Because if you do, then I'd be forced to jump in and save you."
Amused by his adorably puzzled expression, Ino caught his mouth for another slow kiss. This time, Shikamaru had enough presence of mind to respond. Their tongues traced each others' hesitatingly at first, before dipping in to what felt like home. When she finally pulled back, it was only to whisper smilingly against his lips.
"I would die for you too, Shikamaru."
And as Ino rested her head close to his on his pillow and her breathing relaxed into the pattern of sleep, Shikamaru smiled. Dropping a lingering kiss on her forehead, he allowed himself to drift off with her by his side.
This was the position in which both sets of parents discovered them a few hours later. The men grinned goofily, shooting each other the thumbs-up in a manner that was disturbingly reminiscent of Gai and his student. They kept this up for a while until their wives got sick of it and kicked them out of the room before quietly leaving and shutting the door behind them.
Inoshi and Shikato had seen it coming all along. They had seen the invisible ribbon that had linked the two chubby arms reaching out to each other that night in the delivery ward. They had rejoiced as that ribbon grew brighter and thicker with each passing year. They had watched when mistakes, self-doubt and death had tried futilely to sever that link. And, if their lives were blessed, they would continue to watch it grow ever stronger in the years to come.
And so we'll leave them now, as they stand gloating and cheering each other on in the quiet hallway just outside the door. Because we know how the story goes.
We know what Ino was trying to say and rest assured, Shikamaru knew it too.
A/N: Ahhh...happy endings truly are better than anything. My last multi-chp fic hada sad ending so I've been busy making up for it via this fic and my one-shots. Oh, and if you haven't already, please do check out my latest ShikaIno one-shot 'Telling you Without Words' - my first attempt at Shika smut...very very mild smut, that is.
Am hard at work on my Ino x Neji fic right now but in the meantime, I HIGHLY HIGHLY recommend 'Of Arranged Marriages and Butterbeers' by Fred's bride (also on my favourites list). It's a Harry Potter fic about Hermione x Fred Wesley and it is truly fascinating. A bit dark and hard to stomach at times, but huge potential.