Disclaimer: Naruto does not belong to me

Yes, it's been a YEAR since I last updated and all I can say is THANK YOU so so much to everyone who stuck with me and continued to send their support! I really mean that and I'm sincerely grateful for your patience and encouragement.

I haven't written any fan fics during this time and only just started reading them again so this chapter might be a bit short. I've been trying to get back into anime/j-culture mode while writing this - OH, on that note, Absolute Boyfriend, anybody? The live-action j-drama series of this is airing right now and it's...addictive. PLUS PLUS PLUS - the main character is so gorgeous he almost makes me melt all over my computer.

But anyways, please enjoy!


Chapter 9

By now however, Ino was glad that she had never been sent on a mission to Suna for an entirely different reason.


An aggravated scream tried to claw its way out of her dry throat. Ino scanned her surroundings; this sadistic nightmare of a terrain blared back at her mockingly, not even having the decency to provide her with some sort of plant or structure on which to lash out her frustration. Endless miles upon miles of plain tan desert greeted her in return, the acrid scent of sand mercilessly stinging her eyes as well as her nose. Not to mention the blasted sun which seemed to be present twenty-four hours a day and ten times as hot as it did in Konoha. Given the amount of supplies the Godaime had requested, the journey back took more than double the time it did coming and her skin felt like coarse sandpaper that had been lit on fire.

Her teammate glanced over at her from his position slumped on a small rock nearby. Shikamaru took a swig of tepid water from his canteen, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

"We're almost home, Ino."

His attempt to console her went unchecked; if anything, it seemed to anger her even more. Brilliant blue eyes snapped at him.

"I know that! What do you think I am, stupid?"

He slanted her a wary look before standing again and stretching. The trek was hard on those who did not travel to Suna often; Shikamaru could understand how the relentless sun and heat could quickly change from merely uncomfortable to unbearable. Especially given the fact that this was Yamanaka Ino they were talking about. Although she was not nearly as fussy about staying clean as she had been in her younger years, Ino had the comparative fortune of generally being sent on missions to the Water Country, a veritable paradise of babbling brooks and uncomplicated terrain. A mind unfettered by unnecessary concerns was an essential factor in the success of those who used mind techniques and missions were assigned accordingly.

He stared intently at her for several long heartbeats before sighing. The sound was weary, confused and she hardened her heart to it.

"I thought you weren't mad anymore."

Ino swallowed past the lump in her throat.

"I wasn't."

"…but you are now?"

The silence stretched out between them, thicker and more stifling than any desert air. Hefting the pack on his back once again, Shikamaru wordlessly set off again, pausing only to double check that his teammate was following behind.

As the wind whistled shrilly in his ears, the shinobi allowed his mind to wander back over the past couple of days.

Their departure from Suna had been confusing. Ino had been acting strange ever since she woke up, silently packing her gear and exiting their room before he could even begin to figure out what she was fuming over. And she had remained resolutely quiet throughout the entire morning as well, only offering up the required formalities to Gaara before heading outside to wait for him in the courtyard. Both Temari and Kankuro had lifted an inquiring eyebrow and he had shrugged nonchalantly, preferring not to share the details of his personal life, especially when he had no idea what was going on either.

The silence had dragged on for the better part of the day, until the chilly night air had crept in again, making it feel as though the irritating particles of sand stinging their faces had suddenly morphed into shards of ice. At that point, Shikamaru figured Ino just snapped and he had been forced to bear with her screeches of frustration ever since.

Well, I guess a complaining Ino is better than a quiet one. At least I know how to respond then.

Not that Shikamaru had not tried to fix the situation. She had seemed fine the day before, cheerfully exchanging barbs with Kankuro while the four of them had wandered through Suna, and he had been pleasantly grateful that Tenten's girl-thing or whatever it was had seemed to work. Her inexplicable switch in mood always unnerved the normally placid jounin like nothing else did and his initial, cautious ventures were met with a disturbingly closed off glare. It had…upset him but from all his years of knowing Ino, Shikamaru knew it was best to just let her get it out of her system. So he had simply focused on getting her back to Konoha as quickly as possible, all the while keeping a watchful eye on her chakra levels so that he could provide her with a brief rest without her having to ask for it.

Sometimes, just sometimes, Shikamaru wondered she even noticed.

Nature provided a grateful distraction from such morose thoughts in the form of a chattering squirrel; Konoha's huge gate loomed ahead, their path home wide and clear. Just behind him, Ino wondered if he was slowing down or she was hurrying up.

"Ino, wh…"

"Let's just report back to the Godaime and then go home, okay? I'm exhausted."

She could feel him staring after her as she dropped down past him, her ponytail swinging through the air as her footsteps sped up. The two guards at the gate lifted a hand in greeting as the pair entered the village.

"Shikamaru, Ino-san! You're back early!"

"Yeah, mission went well!"

She flashed them a brilliant smile as she strode determinedly towards the Hokage's Tower. At that moment, Ino was actually glad that Shikamaru did not try to catch up with her or else he would have caught the way the corner of her lips just barely trembled with the effort.

The debriefing was a blur. Ino had taken note of the Hokage's faint look of disappointment as she stood next to Shikamaru, his voice fading into the background as he muttered short answers to Tsunade's questions. She had hightailed it out of there, ignoring Kiba's teasing wolf-whistle as she strode past him on the way down the tower steps. Her mind was focused on one thing and one thing only:

Putting distance between herself and Shikamaru.

The sun beat down on her once again as she lay there in one of the meadows just beyond the further training grounds, strong but not nearly as forceful as in Suna. The memory of her conversation with Gaara floated up around the girl, his affirmation of her realization rustling the long blades of grass between her fingers. The image of him pleasuring himself was burned into her mind.

He doesn't want me.

Temari. She was skilled, sharp, sexy. All those fabulous words that started with 's'. Which, coincidentally enough, included Shikamaru.

Ino felt as though she had never hated anyone more.

Ever since that day when their respective parents had introduced their only child to each other, Yamanaka Ino had been the only girl in Nara Shikamaru's life. The only female other than his mother that he had truly accepted; she had become used to it, expected it, secretly reveled in it. Never mind the fact that he constantly referred to her as troublesome or darkly muttered that her nagging/whining/complaining/demanding was the bane of his otherwise peaceful existence. Ino was a permanent fixture, someone who was indisputably instrumental in shaping him into the person he was today, and for that reason, her position in his life should have been irreplaceable.

Turns out though, even your most steadfast convictions can be flipped on its head and then trampled into dust.

That other blonde had somehow managed to worm her way in, her blunt sarcasm and challenging glances effortlessly wringing those half-smirks out of him that Ino had previously believed to belong solely to her, and even then were only sparingly handed out on rare occasions. It was an easy camaraderie that baffled what Ino knew of Shikamaru's personality, a niche the woman had somehow discovered and firmly planted herself in despite the distance between the two villages.

"You're not allowed to."

Her whisper trickled out like filmy oil and dissipated into the wind. Ino wondered randomly if it would now spread throughout all of Konoha, the uncertainty and what she knew was jealousy poisoning the minds of all the villagers until an epidemic was declared and then she herself would be brought before the Godaime and the Council as a traitor who threw the village into social unrest.

Ino scoffed in her head. Now she was just being ridiculous.

"Not allowed to what?"

The richly woven voice had always struck her as oddly melodious for someone like him. She did not bother opening her eyes; besides, all that white was probably blinding in the sunlight.

"Hey, Neji."


There was no soft rustling of fabric settling down beside her and after several long moments, she finally cracked open one eye to peer up at him warily. He was merely looking down at her as she lay there stretched out amidst a riot of overgrown wildflowers, her loosened ponytail glinting before disappearing among the thick rainbow of colours. She met his eyes steadily, a pale hand breaking off a flower and twirling it absently.

"Picturesque, right?"

His contemplative gaze did not change at her sardonic comment even as he acquiesced to the silent request to sit down. He lowered himself gracefully, his posture impeccable even in relaxation.

"Your mission went well?"

"Obviously. I can still do a shitty little C-class mission without screwing it up, you know."

The bitterness in her tone was a little too evident even to her own ears but Ino figured it was too late to try and backtrack now; it went without saying that the Hyuuga had picked it up the moment it left her lips so there was no point trying to pretend that she had not said it.

"I know."

Grimacing, she tossed away her plaything and shut her eyes again. It was odd how it was rarely completely dark even beneath eyelids. Dancing shadows marred what could have soothing and Ino found herself willing them to go away.

"What are you doing here? Actually, how did you even know I was here?"

"I saw you."

"Right, Byakugan. Stupid question."

This time, there was a gentle rustle as the shinobi beside her shifted slightly. Ino sighed, turning her head to face him as she gave up on getting rid of the shadows.

"Were you looking for me?"

"Tell me about your mission."

It was odd to say that pure white could soften but staring up at him, she could only describe it as such. If it had been anybody else, snapping at them would have been her automatic response but in return for the concern he was openly demonstrating, Ino allowed him to see the tiredness creep into her eyes.

The words came out on a whisper, barely audible to herself over the slow pounding of her heartbeat in her head.

"Would you ever settle for second best, Neji?"

He had turned away as she started speaking, his gaze resting on the mountains in the horizon and she was grateful for his sparing her the embarrassment of having someone witness her insecurities, rare as they were.


"Huh, I didn't think I did either."

A bird flew overhead, lazy in its movements. His response was likewise slow in coming, the Hyuuga contemplating her words as she waited patiently. When he had first accepted her friendship, it was this particular aspect of Yamanaka Ino that had interested him the most. As expected, the blonde was not the type to hesitate in speaking her mind; direct and blunt, she had seemed simple enough to understand. But it had not taken Neji long to realize that, perhaps not surprisingly given her specialty, she had a gift for intertwining the everyday with deeper thoughts. Superficially banal remarks could take on an entirely different meaning with a single, knowing look, yet, in the very next instant, leave you unsure of whether you were simply imagining her mocking laughter in your head when she shrieked about something silly.

Not for the first time, the belief that this kunoichi was almost tailor-made for the ANBU Torture and Interrogation Forces crossed his mind.

"'A shinobi must trust his instincts.'"

His tone was as dry as the manual he quoted. Ino felt a grin rising unbidden to the surface and chucked a handful of flowers at him ruefully. She wondered at how easy it was for him to understand when it seemed as though she was bashing her head against a huge-ass stone cloud when it came to another genius.

"You're kind, Neji."

His smirk said it all.


The sound of laughter washed away any remaining residue in the air. For the moment.


A/N: Before anyone complains, this is most definitely a Shika-Ino fic so no worries! I just needed someone for Ino to vent to and it sort of works into the plot anyways.

I'll see how the ideas form in my head but I'll try to update more frequently in any case. IT WILL NOT BE ANOTHER YEAR BEFORE I UPDATE LOL!!

So, as always, thank you for reading and reviewing! Please don't hesitate to tell me if there's anything you don't like cuz after such a long hiatus, I wouldn't be surprised if my writing sucks