Summary: When Nara Shikamaru finally pulls his head out of those clouds of his that he loves to watch aimlessly crawl by, he finds Yamanaka Ino curled up under his favorite cloud-watching spot, crying. How will the Chuunin comfort his last teammate in the time of her need? Character death…Shika x Ino

Watch With Me

"Ino."

"…hey, Pineapple-Head…" Shikamaru could only watch in silence as his teammate struggle to hold in her tears behind her big blue eyes. What else could he do? His 'genius' brain held no answers to this dilemma. He normally would have proclaimed this 'troublesome' years earlier. But this was different. He knew Yamanaka Ino wasn't bawling her pretty eyes out because Sakura's insults hurt her, nor was she upset about anything petty.

Dark eyes warily dropped to her pale, trembling hands where she clasped an object between her fingers. Ignoring the sharp prick to his heart, he knelt down and examined it.

"Chouji's earrings." He muttered, his own hand absent-mindedly retracting to touch the long, worn scarf he wore around his neck. Ino nodded mutely, fingers still tracing the contours of their teammate's jewelry.

"He wore them all the time, huh?" Shikamaru shifted so he was leaning against the tree Ino was in.

"Yeah." Her voice was wobbly, soft, and so vulnerable that it made Shikamaru want to gather her into his arms and whisper sweet nothings into her ear until she calmed. But Shikamaru was Shikamaru, the Number One Laziest Ninja, so he did nothing but stand there. Somehow, though, it seemed like it was enough.

"Shikamaru…?" Ino ventured, after a long bout of silence.

"Mm?"

"…I…I'm…sorry." Curiously, he tilted his head backwards to see an upside-down Ino cover her face with her hands, dropping the earrings onto her lap.

"What do you mean?—H-hey, don't cry, Ino," Shikamaru said, frowning. He hopped up onto the branch next to her, and leaned over awkwardly to pat her shoulder. Looking through the trees and up to the gray sky, Shikamaru felt his own wave of grief pass over him.

Forcing a laugh, Shikamaru said, "Besides, Chouji wouldn't want to see you…crying. Remember what he said?" Feeling Ino's back jump under his hand, which was tracing designs soothingly onto her back, Shikamaru continued. "He said, 'Hey, Ino. Don't do that. You were made to smile, Ino. Come on, smile for me.'" He shook his head. "It always worked. He could always make you smile, even when he was just standing there."

His speech did nothing to calm her. In fact, it only seemed to make Ino cry harder. Shikamaru frowned, silently pleading toward the heavens for help.

"I can't make you feel any better, can I?" Shikamaru asked her gently, his eyes darker with pain and grief. "But Ino, I-I want you to know…" Her tear-streaked face tilted upwards, and blue met black.

"Mendokuse," Shikamaru muttered, running a hand roughly through his dirty and matted hair. He hadn't had a chance to change after he got home from an A-rank mission, since he found a frantic note from Ino that said, 'Come find me, Shikamaru'. And so he had come, the note clutched in his hand, and found her crying under his favorite cloud-watching spot. Why?

Because of the newly engraved name on the KIA memorial stone. If Shikamaru closed his eyes, he could still remember his best-friend's face on the day of his fateful mission…

Flashback

'Oi, Shikamaru!' The Shadow ninja slowed his pace, swiveling his torso slightly to greet his puffing friend. 'Where are you going in such a hurry? Your cloud-watching spot?'

'Aa.'

'I see. Can…can I talk to you before I leave for my mission?' Shikamaru stopped, his face turning from easy casualness to worry.

'Come on, then.' Chouji's eyes widened.

'You're taking me to—'

'I told you to come, didn't I?'

'But you never let me come before!'

'This is different.'

'Oh.' Chouji followed Shikamaru into the secret clearing. He stood, hesitating, as Shikamaru yawned and stretched before lying down on his back, looking like the picture of content.

'Well? What are you still standing there for, Chouji? Watch with me.' Chouji broke into his disarmingly sweet smile as the two lay there side by side.

End Flashback

Shikamaru cursed himself again for his lack of understanding. Chouji had obviously wanted to tell him something, but he had sort of brushed him off. What instinctual feeling made him do that? Those eyes…those eyes had been pleading with him. The guilt ripped at his insides, and nothing provided him the answer he was looking for.

He jumped off the tree before settling himself on his familiar slope under the tree Ino was balled up in. Opening his eyes to follow the cloud pattern, he looked slightly farther back to look at her.

"Ino."

"Yeah?"

"…come on. Watch with me." Sniffling, Ino complied, securing herself comfortably under his arm, which was crooked protectively around her. She gave a contented sigh as her tears dried on her face.

"Shika, look. I can see Chouji's face up in the clouds." Her voice was childlike, still soft as she directed his gaze up.

"They're just clouds, Ino." Even as he said this, he began to see the outline of their teammate, still grinning happily as ever down at them.

"But he's smiling at us. Hi, Chouji!" Ino gave a small wave, and to their amazement, a small portion of the cloud broke off to form a hand, waving slightly as it went.

"He's really up there, isn't he?" Shikamaru shook his head, giving a small smile of his own. His eyes started watering as his eyes met Chouji's. Hey, Shikamaru, the cloud seemed to say, I see you're still on your lazy ass, as usual. Shikamaru laughed in a desperate sort of way, his grief finally finding its vent. As he laughed with Chouji, he finally felt the weight of his best friend's death leave him, and only a small pang remained.

"What's so funny, Shika?" Ino demanded; looking slightly miffed that she was left out.

"Nothing, really. It's just another day with tubby up there…I miss him." He added on an afterthought. Ino squeezed his hand.

"Me too." Together, as the sky streaked pink and orange as the sun began to set, they had their own conversations with Akimichi Chouji, their fallen comrade and friend.

As the sun melted into the moon, and the clouds faded into stars, the last of Team 10 still watched, with the stars twinkling down at them, as bright as Chouji's smile. And under the guidance of Chouji's kind gaze, a pair of young hearts bonded quietly.

Ino slowly lifted her head from Shikamaru's chest, feeling a tender smile blossom across her face as she felt her heart curiously clench at the sight of his face, framed with wisps of dark hair and smudges of dirt.

"Shika…" Ino whispered, reaching forward to grip his warm hand. He instinctively brought her closer, closing his hand over Ino's.

"Mm?"

"…he's not really gone, is he?"

"Course not. He's with us constantly, just like Asuma is."

"Asuma-sensei and Chouji…" Ino sighed, burying her face back into his comforting chest. "Both of them are d…well, you know. But you'll be with me…right, Shika?" She watched his closed eyes open half-way and peer at her with clouded emotions swirling in his usually unreadable dark orbs.

"Always, Ino," Shikamaru said. He unhooked her pale arms from his waist long enough to stand up. Looking down at her, he smiled softly, cherishing the precious moments like this he had with her.

Looking up at Shikamaru, Ino felt that strange clenching once more as she was struck with a sudden thought: He looks just like a guardian angel. She took his hand, allowing him to pull her up against him in another hug. My guardian angel.

Up in the clouds, Chouji sighed contentedly and glanced up at his ex-sensei, who was characteristically holding his customary cigarette. Asuma grinned, clapping the young man on the back.

"Well, looks like our work here is done now…eh, 'Chouji'?"

Chouji, or rather, Cupid, silently tucked his pouch of kunai back into his pockets, grinning cheekily, albeit rather sadly. "Yeah…it's a shame, though. I kinda liked belonging somewhere for once. It was…nice." He set his wistful gaze back at the couple, both sporting invisible kunai in their hearts.

"I know…but Kami-sama wishes us to go elsewhere…perhaps we will meet up with them again someday."

That statement flooded Chouji with a warm feeling, and he stood, casting one last look before disappearing into the clouds with Asuma by his side.

See you later, guys, he thought, this isn't a goodbye.

For whatever miracle, Nara Shikamaru and Yamanaka Ino heard him, and both thought, 'No, it definitely isn't.'