Author's note: This ShikaxIno piece was written especially for the Valentine's Day contest over at the shikaino LiveJournal community (I'm known as fatedbliss over there). It's a tad overloaded on the angst component, so beware of very-very-emo Ino. Hope you like it anyway, and constructive feedback is most welcome. –grin-

Edit: Thank you Luna Forest for the kind review and correction. –hits self– Must have been half-asleep to confuse Akatsuki with Orochimaru.


p e t a l burial

x x x

It's been a little over four months since Daddy passed away on that S-rank mission (but he didn't, he didn't, really) and here I am, at another party. This one is large and loud as usual, and three hours before I was already fussing over my hair and clothes in front of that Shikamaru, no less. It's nerve-grating how he always wants to know where I am, who I'm with, as if he has every right to know. I thank the heavens I shook him off earlier; I don't really know what he might do if he finds I'm here and I don't want to know.

And so here I am, at yet another party, with the sort of people without sparklingly-clean reputations, the sort of people who woudln't be caught dead hanging around people with sparklingly-clean reputations and vice versa. There is the headache-inducing music that drums on until you become so numb you can't feel that stabbing in your brain anymore. There are the drinks, which I avoid like crazy - but no one seems able to believe that. I guess I can't blame them because sometimes I behave like I'm drunk, on purpose, no less. But I don't like alcohol. Getting drunk, spilling your heart out, slobbering (or in some cases, throwing up) all over someone's lap and basically being a major nuisance or embarassment is just not my cup of tea. I don't understand why anybody would want to get drunk.

And I don't like these parties either, though people would believe me even less for this. I don't really like them, the dancing, the music, everything. But they're just a way for me to lose myself. The easiest way.

"Oh, so your mom is the local florist? And you help out over there?" The nearest guy flashes a grin at me, shaking his glass so that the ice cubes within make that jumping, jiggling sound. He's large and all buffed up, just the kind of guy he thinks girls like (but if so, then I am an exception), and I realize I've forgotten his name. "She mind if I pop over sometime?"

I cajole him in return, all smiles. "Sure, but it'd be silly if you bought me flowers, wouldn't it? I'd be taking something that was already mine in the first place."

"Ah." He leans closer, lightly brushing me. My skin prickles but I don't turn away and I keep my smile turned on. "What should I let you take, then?"

I think I remember his name now. Yoshinobu Masuo. He doesn't give me a good feeling and he's been onto me this whole evening. But I let him. Yes, I like flirting. I like leading them on. I am irresistable and I know it. Flirting gives me a sense of power because it's something I can actually claim for myself to be good at. Flirting helps me to feel not-so-bad because I am really such a powerless individual otherwise. And I don't mean just physically, either.

I don't answer Yoshinobu Masuo, because the pair of us have been moving leisurely through crowds of people in Michiki's sprawling home, and just when I round the corner I have the pleasure of running into someone I've had no end of seeing since I was five? six? years old. Akimichi Chouji turns pale when he sees me and immediately turns in the other direction, but I grab him by his collar.

"What are you doing here?" I fairly shriek into his face. Chouji winces at the sound of my voice.

"Passing through, Ino..."

"I mean, what are you doing here? Where is Nara Shikamaru?" Of course he's here if his best bud is.

Chouji blanches. "He isn't here," he says, and I know for sure that he is. What does he think he's up to, turning up to destroy my evening? Somehow, I don't want Shikamaru to know I'm here. I don't want Shikamaru to find me here. I don't know why. I decide that I am going to give Shikamaru a piece of my mind for disrespecting my privacy, for poking his nose where it shouldn't be.

"Where is he?" I demand.

"Like I said, not here," Chouji replies.

Chouji's expressions give everything away, but I know how tight-lipped he can be. I give up and begin marching towards the nearest doorway. Chouji swoops in my direction. "Don't go over!" he tells me and I roll my eyes at how stupid he can be sometimes. So that's where the idiot is. I march on and for some reason, that nosy prick Yoshinobu Masuo is on my heels.

"Oh, Ino," Chouji says as I reach the doorway, almost pleadingly, "he's in... a bad way."

"What do you mean, in a bad way?" And then I see him. Them.

x x x

He's half-slumped over a table, and stacked up in front of him are three drained glasses. There is one last one that has toppled over and is lying near the edge of a table. Someone has her head tucked neatly along his shoulder, and her hair is the shade of pink.

He lifts a half-full glass to his lips, downs it, and bangs it back down on the table with such force that the toppled glass rolls right off the table. For a few moments I have been simply standing there as Chouji groans upon my discovery. I have felt as though I were only watching a movie that had a cast closely resembling people around me, that was completely fictional and unrelated to me in any way. The jarring sound of shattering glass jerks me right back into sudden, swooping, hurting reality.

My insides writh with wrath, fury, anger... every type of anger-word you can think of. I start towards them, but they don't even see me. My best friend - ex-best friend now, for sure - and my... I don't know. Who is Shikamaru to me? 'Friend' seems too trite - 'childhood friend' only brushes the surface' - 'potential lover'?

...What?

"God," Shikamaru suddenly says, every syllable drawn vehemently, drunkenly, "I just... I... hate her."

I stop.

"I... hate her! With her, "Oh, I'm so talented," and "Oh, I'm so pretty," and... "Ooh, I smell so good."

My insides turn to ice.

He's talking about me. Me.

I'm hearing and seeing things, right? It isn't Shikamaru who's sitting there. Shikamaru's too freaking smart to get himself drunk like that. Shikamaru isn't fooling around with his... childhood friend's best friend. Shikamaru isn't saying he hates this, well, childhood friend.

A faint crunch of broken glass under my feet, and a memory flashes through my mind - Shikamaru taking his first glass of alcohol under my prodding, and already he is almost senseless, and in a sec his best bud drags him out by his feet before he 'starts babbling stuff he says he doesn't want you to hear', according to Chouji - you referring to me...

I start wishing for that sound of glass to be muted, so that it doesn't keep jarring me to reality, so that I can keep watching this scene with indifference. Because sometimes indifference is what you give to something you find so far-fetched and ridiculous. Or perhaps I'd have rolled my eyes. Perhaps I'd even find it all funny. I don't necessarily give one of those ladylike tinkling laughter, you know. I can guffaw. Like this, bwa-ha-ha, ha-ha.

He turns his head slightly, and finally he sees me. Our gazes meet and as his brow furrows in his struggle to focus on the sight of me, two sensations intrude upon me; one, a new, weary realization spreading through my body; two, another choking and overwhelming sensation. I recognize the first fully now because I sometimes have heard its callings from that locked cellar within my heart, and I've never allowed the cloth to fly off the trapdoor until now.

I begin to understand what that second sensation is as Shikamaru stumbles to his feet and Sakura's head lolls almost limblessly to her left in half-sleep. It is fear. Chouji grasps at my arm but I scream at him, "Leave me alone!" I'm out of that blasted room in lightning-speed, galloping down the hallway in long, swift strides. It's funny how that Yoshinobu Masuo doesn't want to leave me alone. He comes down after me.

x x x

"Hey, Ino, are you alright?"

Damn that pesky busybody, what a mundane question to ask. I want to slap that reply in his face but there are throngs of human beings crowding in on us on all four sides. I want to leave as soon as possible and it's taking a bloody long time for me to push and shove my way through. Finally I make it outdoors, half-stumbling into the blessed, cool darkness of the night. I'm surprised that no one has been throwing me dirty looks for my shoving. They make way at the sight of my face. What's on it? I start wondering irritably.

"There're tears all over your face, Ino," Yoshinobu Masuo answers in a semi-philosophical tone, as if on cue to my mental query. I feel like beating him up for his brainlessness but at that moment I reach my fingers to my face and I realize he's totally right. Something inside me breaks then and I drop into brittleness and softness to weep freely. Yoshinobu Masuo's hand is suddenly on my back in a semi-reassuring way. It is too close for comfort but I am too lost in this painful and frustrating flood of tears to bother.

"Let's take a walk," the guy suggests, and I comply in silence. He steers me away with that hand still on my back.

We walk for quite a while before I finally plug my tears. We're venturing further and further from the party venue, which is exactly what I want since I don't particularly desire anyone, especially not certain you-know-whos, coming after me. Yoshinobu Masuo breaks the silence by asking about the apparently-drunk man in the room, which I take to mean my so-called 'childhood friend', and I tell him so.

"You must be in love with him," he says in a matter-of-fact tone.

I scream back at him, "I'm not! I'm not..." His words hit me with full force and it is then that there new weary realization of something just now sinks into me in completeness. To my utter shame, the floodgates burst open once more.

So there it is, the plain truth that has been lying there all along. I am in love with a lazy ass who shows indifference to anything you want him to look at and who on the other hand deems it his responsibility to nose into your social life when you don't want him to. I am in love with an average-looking childhood friend who's been hovering around for the past decade in so. I am in love with someone who doesn't love me back. I am in love with someone who doesn't even like me, much less love me back.

It is so sad it's almost funny. Almost.

Yoshinobu Masuo takes advantage of this opportunity while I am sobbing all over again to put his arms around me and hold me close to him. I lean in, pathetically desperate for any source of comfort. His face leans closer towards mine and fleetingly I'm reminded of my favourite romantic fantasy, that whole 'kissing-away-your tears' thing. But immediately I realize how totally absurd and wrong this is. I don't even know this Yoshinobu Masuo. And just as the alarm bells all simultaneously begin going off in my head, Yoshinobu Masuo's lips press right into my neck.

I put my hands on his chest and try to push myself away from him, but that effort only traps my arms as he tightens his grip around me. He is fairly crushing me against him. Horror wells up anew in me as his hands begin grasping roughly and painfully at areas of my body I have never, no, not for all my harmless - harmless flirting, let any member of the opposite gender touch in any way. I begin to scream and to bite, scratching with my longish nails, but he gets rougher with every heightened attempt of mine to get away, too.

Yoshinobu Masuo is pushing me onto the ground and for the first time I realize how helpless I am. We are extremely far away from everyone else. I bite as hard as I can on his arm and he hits me. My mind whirls into a flurry of stricken images and thoughts and emotions. If only Yoshinobu Masuo was as mindless as I'd imagined him to be. I am so stupid, ending up with the same fate as those mindless girls who'd allowed themselves to be entrapped in the same situation. I am so stupid, thinking myself competent enough with my ninja skills and being unable to fight off just this man. My whole career is destroyed, I am ruined and there is no way I am going to become this town's number one kunoichi. Where is everyone? Why hasn't anyone come to save me yet? Why hasn't that someone come to save me yet?

If you come this once, just this once, and don't leave me here to be destroyed, I can go away. I can go away and grant your wish and leave you forever in peace. I won't make you do things you don't want to do. I won't ever shake you awake just to stare at something you have no interest for and then shake you away when you try to get closer. Just rescue me, this once, and you can continue to hate me but in peace. Just rescue me and I won't give you a reason to ever hate me again.

I think my mind shoots into overdrive and he has pulled my top loose and I'm shouting myself hoarse and then I think I am rescued, because I hear running footsteps and Yoshinobu Masuo gives a curse, gets himself off me and sprints away. There is shouting all around and there are people running toward me as I sit up, and when I don't see him among them I am so glad that my unloosed hair falls around and enshrouds my face like a curtain.

x x x

After Daddy died (he didn't, you know), Mummy goes on trying to pretend that nothing has changed. She copes by immersing herself in her role as the local florist and trying to ignore me as much as she can because I am so much like Daddy, both appearance and character-wise. I guess it works quite nicely for her because she isn't sitting around in her room moping from daybreak to day-end and staring at nothing in particular. She goes on talking to her flowers and her customers with that huge, blinding, plastic smile on her face.

Plastic though it is, Mummy seems so much more well-off than me. I have been feeling, well, terrible since that fateful night where two nightmares happened one after the other. I can't seem to shake myself out of this black mood. I've tried ways and means to convince myself that I'm not so bad-off; a failed love and an almost-rape can't be compared to that homeless kid down the street, or that family which was wiped out by enemy shinobi, or that girl who did get raped. C'mon, this isn't the end of the world.

But somehow, I feel like it is. And that makes me hate myself even more.

I don't even think Mummy even knows that I've almost been raped. She still goes on barely talking to me, and if she does she talks in an absent manner. I wonder how fast word has gone around. It's been a few days and no one has stopped by to give me curious gazes of mustered sympathy yet. Yes, I've been down to the shop more than once, mainly to try out Mummy's self-remedy more than anything else.

"Hello. You say you want something to brighten up your room? Ah. How about sunflowers? They really stand out, don't they? Sunflowers are happy flowers. Did you know that in some places they mean longevity?"

There, like that. Yes. Just put the smile on and the quaver-in-your-voice off and you'll be okay. But something tells me I've been putting a mask over my face for far too long. Self-deception simply doesn't work on myself anymore.

"How about tulips? They're always just right, aren't they? You don't want anything too bright or too boring, you look for tulips. They're neither to plain or classy. They mean perfect love, did you know that? Perfect love. Perfect... love."

Perfect love? What is perfect love? There is no such thing as perfect love. When we locked gazes in that room stinking of alcohol I didn't feel angry anymore. I was more scared than I had ever been in my whole life. I realized that I was in love with a Nara Shikamaru since forever and I probably loved him with all my heart and soul too and comprehension of that sort of feeling scared me shitless.

I still am.

I throw down the flowers and hurry back upstairs to our apartment, ignoring Mummy's absent - yes, even then - shoutings at my negligence and bad attitude towards a customer. I've fled the shop just like that more than once already, especially if I see someone like Chouji or Shikamaru heading this way.

Today it's Sakura's turn. I've been waiting for her to turn up all week. It's too late to turn and run now, since Mummy has gone off on an errand and left the shop in my charge. So my ex-best friend marches up and looks me squarely in the eye. "We need to talk," she tells me, and I almost laugh.

"Oh, we do?"

She clears her throat. "It's about last Thursday."

"What about it?"

She gives me one wary Ino-can-you-not-make-it-so-difficult-for-me look, and continues. "That night, Ino, Shikamaru and I, we weren't..."

"I'm busy now, can you leave?"

"Ino, hear me out...-"

"Can you leave?" I pick up the broom from a corner of the shop and begin brandishing at her. A thought enters my mind that I must look comically like a blond version of the classic witch, what with that broom and my black clothes and all. Sakura, the budding young medical ninja with the sweet pink hair must look so victimized. backs away and I know that she does not want to create a scene, or maybe she understands that she's making it ten times more painful for me now. I don't know, but I don't want to see her either.

She does, but not before turning to toss those carefully-chosen words at me, "If you don't believe me, at least believe Shikamaru!" It's one of those movie one-liners again. You hear it all the time. And it's Shikamaru all the time, too. I am so tired now that I slump onto the floor. It's so troublesome, this... this everything.

And I am scared of being touched by anyone now.

If you know what I mean.

x x x

Nara Shikamaru turns up right on cue the following day. Except that he hasn't come to my flower-shop asking to see me as everyone else does. Once again he's shown his disrespect for privacy of any sort in Konoha (I don't care how unfair this statement is, by the way) and turned up in my room, of all places. I really don't understand how he's come to accomplish this feat, since my door is barred and everything, but, well, you soon come to accept that nothing's really impossible for someone with an IQ of 200.

So there he sits, right on my bed which I never bother to make any more, right in the middle of that cold room which I've recently emptied of all its baskets and flowers. I take one look at him and then step back out of my room to shut the door again. Too late; Shikamaru's too fast for me. The door swings open and he grabs my wrist, wrenching me roughly into the room again. It slams shut. I scream as though I've stepped into a pile of hot coals and Shikamaru drops my hand as though it is a pile of hot coals. I back up against the wall as Shikamaru presses his back to the door to bar my only means of escape, his eyes bewildered at my behaviour.

"Get out," I find myself speaking. Come on, Yamanaka Ino, lose that quaver! You did it with Haruno Sakura; how difficult is it to be cool and calm in front of Shikamaru? "Get out, or... or... I'll scream rape."

Shikamaru flinches at that word. He puts his hands in his pockets and doesn't budge an inch from his position. "Scream all you want. I'm not moving."

"Get out!" My voice rises.

Shikamaru walks over and I press myself further into the wall. He reaches out to put a hand on my shoulder as though that one touch can put everything right. He starts speaking in that firm, authoritative, I'm-oh-so-right tone, "I think it's about time you put a stop to all this -"

You know how people are not okay and how people who are okay think that they can make everything okay by simply saying some meaningless words of encouragement and inspiration? "It's okay! You did your best! You can make it! I have faith in you! " That's the brainless soft approach. The brainless hard approach is the one where they think they understand you and they try to brutally kick your gears into motion, into normal-life mode, all over again. These okay people don't realize that you've probably already said these meaningless words to yourself before, and they didn't work then.

What right does Shikamaru have to take that sort of tone with me? My temper goes up a few hundred notches.

"Let go of me and GET OUT!" Shikamaru lifts his hand off my shoulder and takes his hand back, his brow furrowed. I take that cloudy expression in his dark eyes to be pity and I become a volcano, unstoppable in its fury and unpredictability.

"You're the one person I don't want to see! You were the cause of everything! It was all your fault!"

I don't know why I'm saying these stupid, childish things. I really don't. Maybe I mean them. Maybe I don't. Maybe...

"When I screamed for help, I waited for you to rescue me. I waited so long for you to come and rescue me... But you didn't turn up... Because of you, I ran out with a bastard with all these tears on my face, looking pathetic; because of you, I nearly got raped; because of you, I've been sitting here in my room for days blanked-out like a shitty hermit..."

Shikamaru doesn't say anything. Maybe he can't say anything the way I cannot seem to stop saying everything.

"Everything happened because of you, Shikamaru! Everything... God, I just..." I give a choked hiccup and then go on. "I hate you, Shikamaru! I hate you..."

"Ino, calm down. You need to calm down -"

If possible, I get angrier still. I continue to scream at him. It's those silly meaningless phrases again. Do you do it on purpose, Nara Shikamaru? Or do you just have nothing else to say? Why do you never have anything to say?

It's as though everything that I've been keeping cooped up within me for the past few days - no, past few months are all released into Shikamaru in a matter of seconds. But I can't help it. I realize how ridiculous this all is, how ridiculous I am behaving. I am not not being rational at all, but then what am I supposed to be?

"My father died, my father DIED, Shikamaru! And where were you? Where were you? Where were you when I needed you to be there most?"

We stare at each other. I am starting to cry again. I am a frightful sight. My shoulders are heaving. My fists are clenched at my sides and my nails (I painted them black-and-blue with Chouji's old paints, and I left them long) are digging painfully into my palm. My head throbs with the impact of my own words. I find myself hoping that they are hurting him as much as they are hurting myself.

Well, so I guess they have. Shikamaru's eyes are sad, so sad. So I search deep inside for some kind of satisfaction at this, but I only feel pain. I realize how futile this is. It is not revenge that I want to have on Shikamaru, even though he came too late, even though he was necking (or something) with my girlfriend, even though he doesn't know that I love him. Then it takes my breath away, his next few words...

"Ino... you never gave me a chance to be there."

Oh, damn you, Shikamaru. You're right. As always.

I break down. I collapse in a heap on my own bedroom floor and slowly, slowly, he comes toward me. I whisper to him tremblingly.

"I'm scared."

"Scared how?" he asks quietly, his voice unwavering, his gaze unwavering, in order that I might finally, finally lean on him.

And I do. I tell him everything. I tell him that I am scared that one day he might just go away, the way Asano-san and Daddy did. I tell him that I thought if I didn't let him be around, it would hurt less in the end. I tell Shikamaru that I am ashamed of myself. I tell him that I just don't want him to see the broken, ugly me.

Then I finally keep silent and so it is his turn to say everything.

"I don't think you're ugly at all, Ino. And I'm not just, well, speaking in terms of physical appearance. 'Broken' or not, you're still you, you're still Ino, Yamanaka Ino. You and I, we've known each other forever... Dammit, I'm not good at saying these things. I guess I just want to say... you can depend on me. I don't mind, and that's an understatement. Because... well, because."

It's amazing, it's amazing how Shikamaru was born with a brain like his and still can't phrase his thoughts into sentences fluently enough. It's amazing how I'm hearing Shikamaru as I've never heard him before. Perhaps it is because Shikamaru doesn't usually say much. No. It's probably because I never allow him to say much. I wonder what he's really trying to tell me. What's this new feeling?

His speech doesn't sound very romantic. Oh, I know. I know what's that feeling now, that feeling that I've already forgotten and that's why it feels new. (Funny, isn't it, calling it a 'feeling that feels new'?)

It's hope.

x x x

We sit there against the peach-and-pastel-green of my wallpaper for a long time without a single word passing between us. After his 'speech' I have buried my face in my arms so that he doesn't have to be treated to a view of my red, pinched, tear-splotched voice. It takes a long while before I am not hiccuping every two seconds, before my breathing becomes steady again. We sit there listening to the small noises that drift around outside my little room. The birds that migrate here during the summer, the sounds of my falsely-cheery Mommy tending to the customers, the sounds of her wrapping flowers in paper, a paper aeroplane whizzing past my window from an aspiring toddler shinobi.

When we are together like this, silent, while outside the rest of Konoha continues to produce these everyday-sounds, it feels like we are in our own world.

I finally lift my head and immediately Shikamaru's gaze transfers from that world outside the window to me.

I say, in a low, almost-abashed (it annoys me, you know) voice, "How can you say you know me when you think 'Oh, I'm so talented' and 'Oh, I'm so pretty' and 'Ooh, I smell so nice' is all there is to me?"

Shikamaru looks taken aback. I bet he has expected me to say anything but this. But something in his face, near the side of his mouth, relaxes.

"I could say the same things right back at you, Ino. Do you think you really know me if you're idiot enough to believe me when I said I hated you?"

Ha. Oh, you win, Shikamaru. Once again, I find that I am short on words, and not just because I cannot think of a clever enough comeback.

Shikamaru looks me directly in the eye. "Ino, Sakura and I... we were drunk. When you're drunk, you say and do stupid things that you'd never mean if you were aware, you know? Yes, even if you're me... Lame excuse, I know, but that day was... the day Sasuke left and never came back. You told me Sakura could never quite get over it. I could tell she hadn't. That day, she couldn't run to you because you were never quite around anymore... You know."

I know. I know. Sakura is so silly. It's been over four years now, and she still hasn't gotten over someone who never gave her the time of the day, who turned traitor and gave himself over to Orochimaru. She becomes miserable everytime his 'anniversary' approaches; it's all so absurd. But I know I'm no longer in any position to berate her, for I am equally absurd to think that dances and parties and boys are tantamount to washing away my grief. I must be absurd to carry on worsening my grief with these useless devices, so much so that I am suddenly a stranger to my own best friend, just like those boys, one after another, were all strangers to me. I must be even more absurd to shut Shikamaru out and turn him away, time after time, again and again.

"And I... I was angry. You were hitting on those guys and they were hitting on you. I didn't know whether you know what you were doing, and whether you did it on purpose to make me mad, because anyway, I fell right for it. Do you know, Ino, that you've been driving me completely crazy for months and months? No, years?"

No. I didn't know.

Much to my annoyance, tiny tears spring to my eyes again.

"...I don't understand why anyone would be idiot enough to get drunk..."

Shikamaru touches me and this time I do not flinch. I lean forward so that my forehead presses into the base of his neck. He puts his arms around me, pulling me closer, and I can almost hear the 'click' sound of the final piece put into place in a jigsaw puzzle in that embrace. Something turns right over inside me in that moment, and finally I know that I will come to the end of this black wave, that I will be able to see a future that will become good and better and even better still.

fin.