Chouji wasn't sure how or why the tradition had started. It might have happened after Ino had gotten kicked out of her parents' house one night for bringing home a bottle of sake, never mind that she was already twenty, or maybe it was when Shikamaru had decided that cooking himself dinner was too troublesome.
Whatever the reason, Ino and Shikamaru had both stumbled into Chouji's little house on the outskirts of the Akimichi compound at seven in the evening, demanding food.
"We're having onigiri," Ino declared, folding her arms across her ample- Chouji winced at the thought; she was his teammate- chest and cocking one hip to the side in a seductive pose. Shikamaru didn't even look up from where he was sprawled on the couch, waving a hand,
"Whatever, just give me something to eat, okay?"
Chouji stared in bafflement at his former teammates. Sure, they were Ino-Shika-Cho, who had been renowned throughout Konoha for having the best teamwork of any genin team before or since, but still, waltzing into his house and demanding that he cook for them?
Ino draped herself along his side, trailing a finger down the side of his face and tracing his spiral tattoos. "Please, Chouji? I'll share my sake," she cooed, shaking the bottle in his face. Chouji rolled his eyes skyward. ' How do they always remember how much I love sake?'
"Okay, fine," he said, turning to enter the most important room in any Akimichi residence: the kitchen. "And I can feel you two smirking back there!" he hollered, reaching for his favorite apron and tying it around his waist as he began pulling pots out from the polished chestnut-wood cabinets.
Chouji stared, no, gaped at the mess his second bedroom had become. His strawberry-print wallpaper had been stripped fro the walls and lay crumpled in a sad pile on the floor, the windows flung open and white curtains fluttering in the rare summer breeze.
"Wha- What did you do?" His voice cracked embarrassingly as he dragged his eyes up to glare at Shikamaru, lying unconcernedly on the bed sans shirt. Shikamaru lifted one shoulder in the barest hint of a shrug.
"It was too girly, so I changed it."
"Well, yeah, but it's my house, damn it! You can't just change my stuff like that…" he trailed off, already accepting the inevitable. His voice was flat.
"You're moving in, aren't you?"
Shikamaru looked at him, his lips curling into one of those slow, heart-stoppingly sexy grins. "Just think of it this way, Chouji," his best friend- now roommate?- advised, "You'll save on electricity bills." Chouji wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. He decided crying was unmanly, so laughed instead as he began wading through the piles of wallpaper to punch Shikamaru in the gut.
He then offered his coughing friend a glass of water.
It was the polite thing to do, after all.
And somehow, having Shikamaru there became normal, and then fun, and now Chouji couldn't live without Shikamaru in his house, without the late night drunk-fests and random games of shogi, without Shikamaru's bitching and whining and shrieking when a spider got in the shower.
It was, fittingly, a dark and rainy night when Ino showed up on his doorstep looking like a wet cat- but an exceptionally sexy one, 'cause rain with those form-fitting dresses she wore equaled 'mmm…', the good kind of 'mmm…' that you could only get from ramen from Ichiraku's or dark chocolate cake from Hidden Mist Village.
Chouji opened the door and ushered her inside, taking the towel Shikamaru offered and handing it to Ino with a courtly bow.
"My savior," she said with a tired grin, ruffling his hair. Chouji smiled bashfully, "Prithee, fair maiden, that I may offer you some sustenance of the kitchens of Akimichi?" Shikamaru wandered past and flicked his ear,
"Don't mar the works of the ancients, Chouji. The First Hokage is probably spinning in his grave right now. Oh, wait, what's that?" He cupped a hand to his ear and faked an expression of thoughtfulness.
"Why, yes! His corpse has hit the vaunted 2,000 RPM!"
"Oh, shut up," Chouji grumbled, grabbing a pair of sweatpants and a ratty T-shirt from the coat closet and tossing them to Ino, before heading for the kitchen. He slid the apron on and placed his hands on his hips, chewing on his bottom lip as he considered the ingredients he had in his pantry and freezer.
Well, he had the ingredients to make that dinner. He bit his lip, sweat springing to life on his brow. He hadn't planned on making it for another year or so, enough to start a relationship with them before taking this biggest of steps, but he and Shikamaru had lived in the same house for a year now, wrestled shirtless on the floor for the remote, and did all sorts of frankly gay things. Not to mention Ino had always, even when they were genin, slept cuddled between their sleeping bags with her head tucked under Chouji's chin. And considering how often Ino crashed in his bed and ran her fingers through his hair and planted random kisses on his cheek, not to mention she was dating a total dipshit, maybe, just maybe, they'd both accept the dinner.
Chouji finished checking the roasts, the deep, rich smell wafting from the kitchen throughout the house, the double-fudge-frosting-triple-chocolate-chip-cake, the green beans with bacon-bits, and the stuffed baked potatoes, and went into the living room where Ino was sprawled on the couch, her head resting in Shikamaru's lap as his roommate's hands absently carded through her long blonde hair.
He sank into his favorite armchair with a sigh, patting his belly in consolation. 'You'll get fed soon, I promise.'
"So Ino, not that I mind, but how come you showed up here?" Shikamaru and Ino shared a glance before Ino nodded slowly, closing her eyes.
"Ino's fiancé dropped the engagement," Shikamaru said. Chouji sighed inaudibly. ' Oh, Ino,' he thought, weary, 'You can never find someone that treats you like they should, can you?' He got up, grunting, and sat down on the floor beside the couch, placing a consoling hand on Ino's shoulder.
To his credit, he only rocked back a few inches when he found himself with an armload of hysterically crying girl. Ino was all awkward elbows and knees and warm tears on his shoulder, her deceptively thin arms locked as tight as a steel trap around his waist.
"Oh, Chouji, the dickhead said I was too needy and that I wasn't pretty enough and I'm too expensive…!" Over her head, Shikamaru and Chouji's eyes met in silent agreement. Kaji Ashinoda was going to die.
The oven beeped, forcing Chouji to disentangle himself from Ino's grip. He was sure that there was some octopus back in Ino's ancestry, she was that hard to get away from! Once onto his feet, he made it into the kitchen in time to prevent the roast from burning.
Shikamaru heaved himself to his feet, feeling his over-full stomach protest vehemently against any form of locomotion at all.
"Well, I'm off to visit my whipped father and his mistress," he said, after burping. Ino wrinkled her face and flipped one perfectly manicured, beautifully slender finger in his direction.
"Next time, warn me before you decide to blow your stomach gas in my face, birdbrain." Chouji finished licking his fork free of fudge frosting and intervened.
"Ino, apologize. Shikamaru, you too." Shikamaru mumbled his apology, accepted Ino's, and let his fingers flicker into the seals for teleportation. He appeared in the foyer, stepping over his mother's favored stag, who lay in the doorway to the living room. His father was occupied with attempting to patch up a hole in the wall made by the stag's antlers, but grunted a greeting before kicking the wall in frustration.
"Hello, father, mother," he said, accepting a hug and a kiss on the cheek from his mother. She pulled him to the couch and pushed him down, bustling away for the tea set. His father's scarred face turned to him.
"How's life at Chouji's?" Shikamaru smiled blissfully at the memory of the meal, "It is quiet. Dinner was particularly nice."
"Oh, really? What did you have?" He sat up as his mother arrived, accepting the cup of tea pushed into his hands and sipping it. Perfect, as always. His mother's talent for tea hadn't faded with age. Perhaps that was why his parents were still together.
"Roast pig with apple-sake marinade, stuffed potatoes with sour cream, green beans with bacon bits, and chocolate cake."
The tray shattered on the floor. 'What-' he leaped for his mother, whose face was as pale as ivory, and maneuvered her onto the couch, turning to his father, who stood with his mouth half-open, paintbrush dripping globs of butter-yellow onto the floor. ' Oh, shit.'
Struggling for calm, he said, "I assume this meal was somehow important?" His fingers curled into fists. Whatever this news was, it was not going to be good. Perhaps the apple juice and sake in the marinade reacted in some poisonous manner? His father cleared his throat, put the paintbrush back in the bucket, and sat on the couch beside his mother.
"Sit down, Shikamaru." Reluctantly, he did so, picking up the tea and draining it in an attempt to calm his nerves.
"Did Chouji never tell you about this meal?" He shook his head. "It's just a regular dinner." His mother jerked, a small, hiccupping laugh escaping her. 'Apparently not.' His father sighed, "It seems Chouza has been remiss," and turned to his mother.
"Should we tell him?" She shrugged. "What else can we do?" Shikamaru worried at the inside of his lip, his fingers trembling on the cup.
"You see, dear," his mother said, "each part of that meal has a very particular, special significance. The apples and the sake, for example, represent the bitterness and the sweetness in every relationship. The potatoes with sour cream represent the spiritually filling quality of the relationship, and the cake is…" she coughed delicately, "the richness of the- oh God, this is so embarrassing- physical aspect of the relationship."
Shikamaru's throat worked frantically, but somehow he couldn't force any words out to confirm or deny the conclusion he was rapidly arriving at much faster than he wanted to.
"As I'm sure you've realized by now," his mother said, smiling sympathetically, "That meal was the Akimichi way of asking for your hand in marriage."
"But- but-" he could think of nothing to say. Was Ino going through this insanity too? Wait- Ino. "But Ino ate it too!" he said triumphantly, pointing at them. "And he can't marry both of us!" His parents shared a Look.
"He can, can't he?" Shikamaru suddenly felt very, very tired. "Ummm… Technically, yes," his father temporized. "You see, the Akimichi clan has a very high death rate. Their lifespan, due to their unique style of fighting, is shortened to thirty years or so on average. Also, their children are born oversized, and the rate of death in Akimichi women was very high before the birth of medical jutsu. So in the olden times, Akimichi males often had more than one wife, just in case. However, this is no longer the case, but the exception to the two-partner rule is still in the law books."
Shikamaru set his cup down and buried his face in his hands. "'m not gay," he muttered feebly. His father let out a short, barking laugh. "Shikamaru, for someone of your intellect, I'm surprised. You're so deep in the closet that you're finding presents! And no, you're probably bisexual."
His head shot up, but his mother cut his tirade off neatly, "How many twenty-year old men wrestle shirtless on the floor for the television remote at a family dinner, Shikamaru? Not to mention that you got drunk one night and made out with Ino."
"I thought I told her to never mention that!" His voice squeaked with outrage. His mother sighed and gave him a sad, tired smile. "You're our son, Shika. We always knew you and Chouji had a special relationship, and don't you see that Chouji's marriage proposal to both of you is simply the logical outgrowth of Ino-Shika-Cho? You and Ino are the only ones he trusts not to reject him."
"Are you actually encouraging me to enter into a bisexual threesome!"
"No!" his father snapped. "We're encouraging you to do what makes you happy, and if being married to Chouji and Ino is what that is, than stop whining and do it!" Shikamaru closed his eyes against their faces, feeling his fingers go into the square position he always did when he thought.
He and Ino… It was a strange thought, but he understood it. She was the only one beside Chouji who could make him laugh, and the only one he wouldn't kill for stealing his shogi set, as she'd done so many times before. Not to mention she was a beautiful woman inside and out, and any relationship she had with Chouji and him- God, that sounded so weird- would be better than whatever relationships she could have with anyone else, especially since she tended to attract abusive dipshits. He sighed. He had resigned himself to never getting a chance with her, but now, due to Chouji, he had one.
Okay, so a relationship with Ino had potential.
Chouji was the more difficult one to categorize. He was Shikamaru's oldest friend, the only one Shikamaru trusted to be truly weak and vulnerable in the presence of, he was Shikamaru's cloud-gazing companion and live-in chef and argument partner over what to watch on television, and did he really want to spoil that? Sure, he and Shikamaru lived together, and he made a really great pillow, and he was really cute when he did that smile where his face crinkled and his eyes disappeared in the folds of his face-
"Oh, for God's sake," he groaned, "I'm really bisexual, aren't I?"
His parents, gravely and with much solemnity, nodded.
Ino stood at the gate to the Akimichi compound, shifting her weight from one leg to the other. When her father had found out what Chouji had made for them…
Well, the results, to put it lightly, were not pretty. Thirty-three bellows of 'polyamory is sick and I will not allow my only child to engage in it!', ten broken flowerpots and one of their beautiful variegated roses burnt with a fire jutsu later, Ino had jerked the ring given to her by Kaji off her finger and thrown it in his face, cut him to pieces with a few well-placed sentences, and bellowed that she was marrying Chouji and Shikamaru, damn it, and if he couldn't accept that then she was no longer a member of the family.
Now she wasn't sure if she regretted that or not. She loved Shikamaru and Chouji, sure, but it was only teammate love, right? The kind of love you got from saving each other's lives on a constant basis, anyway, not from wanting to have mad hot sex with them.
Well, okay. Shikamaru was an amazing kisser, slow and through and patient, as if there was nothing in the world that was more important than her, and she'd be lying if she said she wasn't curious about how that carried over into the bedroom.
And really, being with her teammates around the table at Chouji's house was the only time she felt like that, like they saw her and loved her for her bitchiness and cynicism and flinging bits of food at them when they said something she didn't like, like they…
Loved her in the way she wanted. Her fingers went to touch the engagement ring, and she sighed when it wasn't there. Just like everything else.
She looked up at the lights of Chouji's house, yellow and friendly in the darkness. No… that wasn't everything.
There was Ino-Shika-Cho, the genin team of old, who moved and thought and breathed and lived as one being, one creation, one unit, and life, and death-
Shikamaru came up beside her, his thin face uncharacteristically furrowed, and wasn't that weird, that she thought of that little wrinkle between his brows that he got when he was worried as 'furrowed?' He glanced at her, all skinny and awkward and-
And, oh God, she loved him, and loved Chouji, too, Chouji with those beautiful blue wings that only they could see, Chouji with his stupid pink apron and the way he coughed all night and wouldn't let them sleep, Chouji and his ever-present chips and the house that always smelled, somehow, of baking, who was always there, substantial and real as earth.
"Your parents told you too?" Her voice was soft, almost too quiet. Shikamaru nodded, jamming his hands in his pocket in that quiet way he had when he was nervous.
"Yeah. Troublesome. What-" he paused, "What are you going to do?" She shrugged. "I'm going to say yes." And slowly, afraid to see the expression on his face, she peered out from under her lashes, only to find him smiling that strange little smile of his that he got when something happened the way he expected.
"I am, too." She crossed the distance between them and settled her hands on his too-thin hips, feeling his shadow-cold fingers dance up her spine to wind themselves in her hair, and she tilted her head and he tilted his and they were kissing and it was glory, glory, glory, and she almost expected the skies to open up and angels to descend playing their kitschy little harps or whatnot.
Their teeth clacked together, and maybe it wasn't the same smooth, through kiss they had had before, but this was real, this was Shikamaru unmasked and himself and she as herself and soon Chouji as himself-
They broke apart, their hands clutching the other's, and she smiled, disentangling her hand and tucking a strand of hair behind his ear. "Let's go to Chouji's." They turned and walked up the path together to where the welcoming, cheerfully red-painted door waited, and Shikamaru got out his key and they went inside.
Chouji was asleep in his armchair, fingers knitted across his belly and mouth open in a snore. But like all shinobi, he woke as they came into the room, blinking as he saw them.
"Shikamaru? Ino? Oh, I didn't tell you what the dinner was- God, I'm so sorry and you don't have to say anything if you don't want to-" he was babbling, blushing so hotly that the tattoos on his face weren't even showing anymore.
Ino knelt on one side of the armchair and kissed him on the cheek, muttered against his skin, "Damn right," and moved to his mouth. Chouji, unsurprisingly, tasted of food and spicy chips and barbeque, but it was such a right taste, so Chouji, that it was perfect and tasted like the best of wines. She closed her eyes as she pulled away, savoring the taste, and opened them again, taking one large, callused hand in hers and watching Shikamaru do the same.
"We're Ino-Shika-Cho, Chouji. I can't think of anything more fitting to that than marrying you and Shikamaru."
"Troublesome," he muttered, but seeing Chouji's stricken expression, quickly amended, "Yes."
"Now," Ino said, brisk and businesslike as ever, "Is there any of that chocolate cake left over?"