I was delightfully surprised to find people enjoying my other fic, Pssst! so much. This story follows kind of the same formula where one character realizes that their team mates have a thing for one another. I think I'll be doing more of those, actually.
"Double bacon cheeseburger." Chouji's mouth watered at the mere thought of it.
Ino grabbed the top of his menu and pulled it down firmly. "No."
"It's loaded with fat and calories and all sorts of unhealthy crap you don't need in your arteries!"
Shikamaru tried to inconspicuously lower his menu, so that Ino wouldn't see what he had been eyeing, and focused on a tree outside, whose branches swayed in the wind. It was getting dark out and it looked like a storm was on its way. Evidently after dinner they'd have to find shelter as soon as possible. Their current mission objective had them moving every few hours, just to be safe.
"I saw that Shikamaru," Ino narrowed her eyes. "Don't you think you're getting that rack of ribs and the cheesy fried potato skins, either."
Shikamaru grumbled into his menu. "Fine, let's pick out something healthy before Ino blows a casket, and then we can finally order dinner! I'm getting hungrier by the minute."
"That's because you haven't been eating well," Ino snapped, eyeing her best friend sitting next to her. Chouji rolled his eyes, knowing the storm outside wasn't the only one brewing. "You do look a bit thinner. Even thinner than before."
"You do too," Shikamaru shot back defensively. "And don't deny it; I know you haven't had much of an appetite either."
"Well, being a ninja can be just a tad stressful on a person," Ino huffed.
At this point Chouji was starting to drift away from their exchange and think about more important things, such as food. And food. He barely registered the rest of the conversation as his eyes ran down the menu. It was a shame he couldn't just order everything on it like he did at home- unfortunately, they were on a mission and they couldn't afford to have him using the rest of their meager funds to satisfy his never ending appetite. Usually it wasn't a problem- Chouji always made sure to bring enough snacks but an unfortunate accident involving a creak had taken care of his own private food supply. So now here he was, stuck in some dinky diner, faced with one of the most important decisions of his life: picking only ONE item on the menu to have for dinner.
"Don't go blaming it on being a ninja," Shikamaru said, glaring dangerously. "You signed up for this kind of profession. If you can't handle it, than you're better off just running your parents' flower shop."
Ino rolled her eyes. "All I'm saying is, you need to eat better and more often."
"Okay, fine, me too."
Shikamaru went back to perusing his menu and Ino set hers down on the table, her baked salmon and salad already picked out. She still seemed a bit irritated at Shikamaru, for some reason that Chouji couldn't fathom. But she was a girl, after all. Their panties always seemed to be in perpetual twists. It wasn't even confined to the "time of the month", contrary to popular belief. It was just how they were.
"I was just making sure you knew I was worried," Ino grunted under her breath. Shikamaru looked up from his menu, surprised.
"What are you worried about?"
She shrugged. "You. Not taking care of yourself."
Shikamaru's face twisted into another glare. "I'm not a child."
"I'm not saying you are! It's just that I worry all this stress is wearing you thin - "
"Wearing us thin!"
"I'm not - "
"Yes you are!"
A vein in her neck began to pop out, a characteristic Chouji had noticed many times. Ino was often angry, after all. "I saw you last night, sneaking out of the inn to just sit down outside, smoking those damn cigarettes! Chouji and I are able to sleep, and you're not!"
"That's a lie and you know it. I can tell when you're awake, and sometimes you're up all night! You're just better at hiding it than I am!"
Chouji buried his nose deeper in his menu, their voices getting farther and farther away. These little fights of theirs had been getting more and more frequent as the days went by. At first Chouji thought it was just the result of frustration in the aftermath of Asuma-sensei's death. They were all still pretty shaken up about the event. It was the first time any of them had experienced such a loss after all, and Shikamaru in particular, had always been quite close to their former sensei. But now, Chouji was beginning to wonder.
They weren't snapping at each other over dumb things like they used to always do. Their arguments were always about how the other wasn't taking good enough care of themselves and how they were worried or some other deep issues that Chouji didn't care about, especially over the dinner table. Also, Shikamaru and Ino have started looking at each other oddly, and then quickly look away when they caught each other staring. There was some kind of tension between the two of them, so much so that Chouji wondered if they had had some massive fight between them.
"Filet of fish and garden vegetables," Chouji muttered to himself as Ino scolded Shikamaru. Something about Shikamaru going out of his way to look out for she and Chouji when he himself also needed to be taken care of.
The Akimichi couldn't help but scowl at the picture of the fish and vegetables. No way, not that. It would be like two disgusting foodstuffs fighting for the title of "Most Disgusting Taste in Chouji's Mouth". It was so wrong. If one was going to have something unnecessarily healthy like fish, the side dish should be something good, like an order of fries or something else wholesome and satisfying. Or, if the side was going to be gross like mixed vegetables, the main dish should be something edible, like a double bacon cheeseburger. Medium rare with extra onions.
"Cheeseburger…" Chouji mumbled as his eyes wandered longingly over to the burger listings. Damn their unavailability due to fat and calories. He barely registered Shikamaru yelling at Ino about how if anything happened to them, it would be his fault since he was their team leader and therefore it was his job to look out for her and Chouji.
He concluded it would be a big N-O to the fish and vegetables. Two wrong foods in one meal? Outrageous. Chouji's eyes scanned over to the next page of the menu, which boasted an all-day breakfast.
"Pancakes?" Chouji wondered. He did love pancakes, but he highly doubted whether or not it would satisfy him enough. Then again, it took a lot for Chouji to be truly full. In the background, Ino countered whatever Shikamaru had said with something about them knowing what they were getting into and it wasn't Shikamaru's decision or sole responsibility to baby-sit them.
Chouji's eyes widened when he realized that he wouldn't have to get just pancakes. With pancakes, Chouji would be allowed a choice of two sides. Naturally, those two sides would have to balance out the meal. Pancakes were sweet and soft. He needed something different for the two sides. Perhaps some crispy slices of bacon for his meat craving, and the fruit cup for the juiciness and well, health reasons, he supposed. Yeah, that sounded all right. Pancakes alone just weren't enough. It needed to be balanced perfectly with the other good tastes, for a little variety.
Chouji grinned to himself. He really was an expert at food. It was too bad life just wasn't as simple. Or delicious.
He stopped to look up briefly as Shikamaru angrily told Ino that he needed his two best friends, and if something happened to them he would just fall apart and he couldn't allow that to happen. Chouji blinked, and then shrugged off their argument once again.
His eyes wandered back to the bloody fattening and high-calorie Death burger. No, no that was off limits. Ino said so. Though right then she wasn't really saying anything except that it wasn't only Shikamaru that needed them, but them that needed Shikamaru as well. Love in friendship was mentioned somewhere, though Chouji barely heard it as he looked over to the pastas.
"Spaghetti and meatballs?" he thought for a moment. Chouji really did love the dish, it was just that it was so messy. He never was much of a talent when it came to using fine motor skills during a meal, and since they had lost their extra clothes in the creek accident a while back on this week long mission in Rain Country, he wasn't willing to take that chance. Even he did not want to wander the streets splattered with marinara sauce.
If there ever was a messier food than spaghetti, Chouji had never seen it. One had to twirl the fork in the noodles just right so that one caught a certain amount. One could never get just one noodle. A single noodle would just slide back off the fork and splash in the sauce, which meant doom for your clean clothing and perhaps even the clothing of the person next to you. No, you had to get a whole bunch so that they twisted around each other. It formed a tight braid that held each noodle fast onto the fork so that none fell. Strength in numbers didn't just apply to people, after all.
Chouji knitted his eyebrows. Okay, maybe some parts of life were as simple as food. Oh, keen observation by Akimichi Chouji, Food Expert! Ah well, no matter, onwards to the dessert, perhaps?
Suddenly Shikamaru and Ino fell silent. Chouji looked up, alarmed at the sudden loss of background noise. They weren't saying anything, just looking at each other with unreadable expressions. He sighed. A staring competition? Now?
Maybe he would just order the damn double bacon cheeseburger. Ino and her health obsession seemed to be occupied right then, anyway. Maybe he could call the big curly-haired waitress whose name tag read "Flo" over and whisper his order in her ear. That wasn't too odd of a behaviour, was it?
But was what he wanted, damn it. It was just the right thing to do. A double bacon cheeseburger, with a side of lovely golden fries. Yes, it was two very fattening foods and yes, he would probably die of a heart attack by the time he hit twenty, but it was good. It worked hand in hand, running through his mouth in perfect harmony.
What is the point of living life if you have so many restrictions holding you back? Life was meant to enjoy, not live cowering under a blanket of health food rubbish! He was a shinobi for crying out loud! He had to stare death in the face all the time, so why shouldn't he be allowed to indulge? What was living if you didn't pull down your pants and slide on the ice? The heavenly taste and experience of the cheeseburger was well worth the risk for congestive heart failure.
So, in short, Chouji decided to screw it all and get the cheeseburger. Take that, you artery bastards!
"You could die!" Shikamaru nearly shouted. Chouji finally put down his menu, having made his decision, and stared at his two best friends like they had just arrived. Ino winced and Shikamaru looked regretfully up at her. "I mean, I just don't want…"
"Let me ask you something, Shikamaru." Ino had lowered her voice to nearly a whisper. "Is a life living in fear and alienating the one you love better than dying satisfied like Asuma-sensei, knowing you got all you could from your life?"
Shikamaru stared at her and she stared at him. Chouji stared at the both of them, completely at a loss as to what the hell was going on.
"Come on, Shikamaru. Would you rather die with the one you love by your side or would you rather live alone, too afraid and cowardly to take that one risk?"
Chouji noted her repeated use of the word "one". Somehow, he figured they weren't talking about all three of them anymore.
Shikamaru placed his hand on the table tentatively, sliding it towards Ino's but stopping halfway.
Ino moved her hand forward as well so that their fingertips were touching.
"The risk," Ino said again. "Is it worth it, or not? Are you willing to take it?"
Chouji looked down at the picture of the vastly unhealthy cheeseburger. It was then that their conversation finally clicked in his brain. He knew what was going on. Chouji waited in silence for Shikamaru's answer. Gamble, or just throw it all away?
Before he knew it, Shikamaru's hand covered Ino's and they both leaned forward. Just like that, they were kissing. Ino's eyes, were squeezed shut as if she were afraid opening them would make it all disappear like a dream. Shikamaru's were closed as well, his brow knitted in confidence. Chouji had never seen Shikamaru more positive of anything in all the years of knowing him. When Shikamaru's other hand wandered behind her and buried itself in her thick, blonde hair, Ino relaxed. Her eyes didn't open, but it was obvious she was no longer afraid, and neither was he.
They were kissing. Shikamaru and Ino were kissing!
Oh my God! Chouji's mind screamed frantically. He was sure his face was bright red and he was beginning to sweat profusely. Shikamaru and Ino. Ino and Shikamaru. Wait, hadn't it always been Ino-Shika-Cho? Except now it was more like, Ino-Shika. Their two names danced in his head like a cracked-out tango, moving around and around until Chouji felt the beginnings of a headache.
What surprised Chouji the most, though, was that the headache never came. The initial shock died down and was quickly replaced by something odd. Was it content? Satisfaction? Maybe he was just hungry.
"So I guess you both decided it's worth it then, huh?" Chouji said finally.
The two of them broke the kiss and shot away from each other, thoroughly embarrassed.
"Chouji - "
"I - we - I…"
Chouji shook his head. He wasn't sad, and this wasn't wrong. In fact, nothing seemed more right than the two of them together. Except, well, one thing.
He grinned at his two best friends then shot an especially defiant look at Ino before waving Flo The Waitress over to their booth.
"I'm ordering my damn cheeseburger."