Chapter Sixteen: Turnabout, Pt. 3

Author's Note: Yes, it's been a good long while since I last updated this story. Simply put, the past year and a half has been extremely full for me. Nonetheless, it's been nice to get back to working on this one. And now (at long last) here's the end of the chapter!

Nearby Shikamaru stirred numbly in the dirt, straining under an unexpected onset of paralysis. It was strange that the power of words alone could have such a draining effect, but it was as he listened to Ino's complaints that he'd been overcome by an overwhelming heaviness that, by tirade's end, caused him to feel like he was being pressed into the very earth. Even as he saw Ino taking Naruto's arm, watched her leaning against his side and being led away into the darkening woods, Shikamaru could not summon the wherewithal to push himself up off the ground - his limbs had become useless rubber.

And all because of the sound of Ino's voice looping ceaselessly through his head:

Bored... Cold... Indifferent...

Shikamaru cringed at the feeling that something inside was shriveling up. He wanted to defend himself from the litany of offenses but couldn't: he knew that all of Ino's assertions were true. Worse, he had never tried to hide or soften his shortcomings for anyone, least of all her. And he'd never really taken them all that seriously before now.

Perhaps the root of the trouble was in the double-bind created by his unique personality: his natural apathy protected him from caring much about what others thought, but likewise prevented him from caring more when he ought to have. Ever pragmatic, Shikamaru had reasoned that he'd simply been born that way - so if people didn't like his attitude, that was their problem. It wasn't worth the time or effort to try befriending such obtuse people anyway. He knew he had decent points, too, and the people that mattered most to him up until now had always been able to discern that... for the most part.

Rude... Sarcastic... Dismissive...

But now that irritating inner voice was chiming in, mercilessly reminding Shikamaru that even all the better qualities he claimed to possess had their dark sides. His brilliance was hampered by laziness. His wisdom was undermined by his whining. He was astute, but apathetic. He was as frequently mean as he was kind. Even his easygoing passivity could be twisted into willful obstinacy when it suited his needs, as his mother well knew.

Darkest of all, however, was the flip side to Shikamaru's strong sense of fair play and decency, and the one thing he truly hated admitting about himself: that when pushed to it, there was a part of his heart that could be as ruthlessly hard and unforgivingly cold as ice.

And what could he ever say in his defense to Ino or to anyone else about that?

Ah, but you already know what she thinks about you, thought Shikamaru, and it was in many ways far kinder than what he felt he deserved. Nevertheless he clenched his fist reflexively, bracing himself for the worst as the vocal loop reached its conclusion:


A hopeless gloom settled inside him. Damn, he thought, recollecting all the truly awful things he'd said about Ino, especially in the last few days. He sighed dejectedly, feeling the last of his strength ebbing out of his arms. I really have been such a stupid jerk with her. Man, I wish I could go take it all back. If only I could tell her...

... If only?

At that moment, a strange sensation overcame Shikamaru - a stirring from deep within, almost as if some internal switch had been flipped. Then he felt a pulsing heat begin flowing through his veins, and in his head he clearly heard the sound of his father's voice:

Well what of it, son? What are you going to do now? asked Shikaku humorlessly. Your plans have all failed and your goal is beyond reach - and there you are groveling with self-pity in the dirt like a worm. It makes me wonder, Shikamaru. After all this time, are you really a man... or a coward?

Shikamaru tensed, recalling the first time he'd heard those words during that painful scene in the hospital after his failed mission. It had been a harsh dressing down, doubly so for having occurred in the presence of a girl, but he'd undeniably grown much as a result of it. Still, it was galling to hear the accusation repeated. Anger rose up within him, but one tempered with humility - he was at least that much of a man now to face up to his own shortcomings.

Yeah... I guess I've certainly been acting like a coward, admitted Shikamaru bitterly. Running scared like a stupid, idiotic fool.

The Shikaku in his mind now appeared to be wearing a thin smile. But even if that's so, is it also therefore true that you're nothing more than this?

Shikamaru felt his back stiffen. The feeling of dejected anger flared into a defiant burn. No, he thought resolutely. I am not just a coward.

Then answer me one last thing, Shikamaru. When all is said and done, are you okay with letting it all end like this?

He felt something like fire blazing through his system, and then the paralysis left him. Spitting dirt from his mouth, Shikamaru rose to his feet. As he beat the dust off his vest, he gazed down the pathway that Ino had disappeared into, his mouth set in a firm line.

"Hell no," he finally muttered. "I'm not okay with this."

"... Shikamaru?"

He gave a start, having forgotten that Sakura was still there. Glancing down, Shikamaru saw that she was still crouching on the ground, eyeing him uncertainly. He gave her a curt nod.

"You were right earlier, Sakura. This is no time to be running away. And I'm through with being stupid - what about you?"

"Wha- what are you talking about?" she snapped, instantly defensive.

Shikamaru briefly raised his brows, and then gave Sakura a long, pitying kind of look. Then with an exasperated shake of his head, he kneeled down to level a hard gaze at her.

"Look, it's okay to be afraid, but you need to be honest about your true feelings and not keep calling it something else. Or flatly ignore what's right in front of your face."

"I don't know what you're talking about!" insisted Sakura, refusing to meet his eyes.

Sighing, Shikamaru straightened up again. "Whatever. Look - do what you want. But there's someplace I need to be now. So... see you around, Haruno."

He turned to leave, but was brought up short by Sakura's next outburst. "What do you possibly think you can accomplish now, Shikamaru? Didn't you see them? Don't you get it? They're together now - it's already too late!" He noted the hopeless tone to her voice. "If you go now all you'll do is wind up making a complete ass of yourself!"

Shikamaru stood quietly for a moment, the gears of his brain whirling as he considered her words. But he no longer felt the weighty despair from before. Instead something extremely unexpected sprang to mind - it was one of those bizarre, ludicrous things Asuma had once "instructed" him in, which he had found utterly asinine at the time:

Sixth Rule of Combat Dating

He who hesitates is lost.

He smirked, finally understanding the wisdom of those words.

"You're right, Sakura. Maybe it's already too late, maybe I'll only wind up making an ass of myself - but then again, maybe I won't. You never know." He flashed her a wry smile. "After all, I'm pretty good at figuring my way out of those kind of impossible situations."

Sakura gaped wordlessly, staring at him with all the undisguised astonishment of someone who has just witnessed their friend spontaneously sprouting a second head. Seeing her expression, Shikamaru was considering being sarcastic when another thought struck him. There was something else he really ought to say now, a topic he'd often pondered about but had never seriously imagined bringing up with Sakura:

"Another thing. This doesn't have any bearing on anything that's happened today, but I'm going to say it anyway. I don't know everything about your personal history with Ino. Frankly, I don't understand your style of friendship any better than Naruto's and Sasuke's relationship, but that's besides the point. But having been her teammate for so long, I do know this much about Ino: she's not the kind who can sit back and do nothing when her friends are being hurt."

The confused look on Sakura's face at Shikamaru's choice of topic turned somber. "I know that," she said.

"When we were in the Forest of Death - that time when you were getting near beat to death by those psychotic Sound ninjas - you remember that it was Ino who made the decision to get in their way. She couldn't just stand by and watch you get killed."

"Yeah, I know," said Sakura again, somewhat reluctantly, which in turn irritated Shikamaru. He shot her a stern look.

"What I'm trying to say is that during all that time when you and she were fighting over Sasuke, she never really hated you. Even though she really liked Sasuke, she still missed being your friend even more." His voice went hard. "Don't you think you could at least give her some more credit for putting you and your friendship above her own feelings?"

For a few moments Sakura merely stared at him, causing Shikamaru to wonder if she was about to explode in anger. But when she finally opened her mouth, there was no heat in her voice.

"Shikamaru, why are you telling me these things? Why are you defending her?"

His mouth curved wryly. He didn't know how to explain his feelings on the matter. He didn't even know if he really wanted to try explaining it - at least not out loud to the wrong person. But here at least was one thing he could truthfully admit:

"Maybe all I'm saying is... it's easy to be wrong about someone when you're too busy being self-righteously self-centered."

With a final nod to Sakura's shocked face, Shikamaru turned away. As he began to lope down the path, he turned his thoughts towards Ino, and naturally felt a return of anxiety. But he could also feel the strange, indefinable fire still coursing through his body, firming his resolve with each stride. Picturing her in his mind with single-minded determination, he broke into a run.

I was wrong about a lot of things, Ino. Wrong about you - and wrong about me, too. You're not the person I've been pegging you as, and likewise I'm not the jerk you've pegged me for. And I'm not going to let you reject me out of hand solely based on what you think I am. I don't know if it will make a difference, if it really is too late now, but...

Picking up speed, he fairly flew over the wood-lined path.

I'm not giving you up without a fight!

Sakura stared at Shikamaru's retreating back, momentarily silenced by his parting words. Although she knew he had been including himself in that reproach, the words still managed to sting her in that peculiar way only an unpleasant truth could. Moreover, there was something surreal about Shikamaru's entire demeanor during the past five minutes that had left her feeling wrong-footed. She could hardly believe her ears - was Nara Shikamaru seriously going to risk making a fool of himself in front of Ino and Naruto? What had gotten into him?

Maybe Ino had been right all those years ago - perhaps he did have a passionate side after all.

Nevertheless even as Sakura wondered over this, the stunned feeling wore off, and she began to feel the stirrings of indignant denial.

He called me self-centered? Me? Why that... rude JERK! What the heck is he talking about? I'm not self-centered! And even if I was, I'm certainly not as self-centered as... as INO! And in any case, I wouldn't be SELF-RIGHTEOUS about it!

But even as she defended herself, Sakura couldn't shake off the unsettling notion that perhaps she was protesting too vigorously. Feeling disgruntled, she instead turned her back on pathway, determined to head home and put this entire mess out of her mind.

I don't care anymore. I'm sick of all this - and it's nothing to me what those two do together. I have Sasuke to think about. Naruto is on his own. If he's going to be stupid enough to fall for Ino, then he'd better not come crying to me if -

She was at the point of leaping across the canal when she noticed something stuck in the reeds. A flash of blue and yellow in the corner of her eye...

Naruto's boutonniere!

Sakura hesitated, her angry face melting into a softer one. Then she kneeled down to scoop up the waterlogged sprig. Twisting it slowly in her hand, she rewound the last scene on the bank, rehearing the accusing words that had been spoken against her. That had been unpleasantly disturbing, given that she had never before heard Naruto say anything negative against her. But nothing had driven in so hard as remembering the profoundly sad expression on his face when he had deliberately dropped the boutonniere into the water.

Why did you do that, Naruto? What were you thinking about?

Certain that he hadn't caught on to the fact that it was bugged, Sakura felt her heart start to thump painfully.

It couldn't have been because of me... because I gave it to you... could it?

At this uncomfortable thought, Sakura impulsively pressed the ruined boutonniere against her cheek and sighed. Then glancing back down at the canal, she inadvertently caught her reflection in the water - and froze.

For almost a whole minute she sat blinking at it, her heart racing wildly.

Look at my face...

Suddenly she forced a laugh and wrenched her eyes away.

"No way! Sakura, you're just over-thinking things!" she declared loudly, determined to drown out the troubling thoughts that were flooding into her mind. "Naruto probably just got tired of wearing it - that's all! It has nothing to do with you."

Reassured that she was on her way to conquering the inner battle, Sakura paused to reflect on her last conversation with Shikamaru. Another doubt entered her head:

It's okay to be afraid, but you need to be honest about your true feelings and not keep calling it something else.

Her stomach tightened as the vision of Naruto returned. Then she scowled and pointed down at the water, as if to angrily ward off this latest attack.

"Afraid? Me? As if! That jerk Nara - he actually thinks I need to be more honest with my feelings? I'm always honest about my feelings!"

As she glared challengingly down at her reflection, Sakura reached out and poked the surface of the water. She watched with satisfaction as the image dissolved into ripples, but within a few moments the frowning face had reformed itself. Mystified, Sakura was leaning in further to inspect this when, to her utter shock, the reflection broke into a wide smirk. Then a loud, distinctive voice spoke clearly in her head:

So... is this a private conversation, Sakura, or can any Inner Psyche butt in?

End Note: More Sakura to come... poor girl! Wish me luck on writing this. ;)