AN: Guys! You're awesome. I just checked my inbox (after a loooong time) and story stats. Really?! Over 15 followers and so many checked the new chapter as soon as it was up! Awww...thanks guys! Cakes and cookies for everyone! ^_^
Ino slowly blinked. There was a blurry figure over her. It slowly cleared into Neji's face.
"Neji." she croaked.
Neji smiled. "You're awake. How are you feeling?"
"Like crap." Ino turned her head to the side. Tenten was lying down unconscious beside her, a shinobi in the Sand Village's uniform healing her. Further along was a wounded Sakura being treated by another medic nin.
"W-what happened?" She looked back at Neji. "Why is Sakura here?" Her eyes widened in horror. "Aya Miyakuzi! The girls–"
"–are fine." Neji gave Tenten a warm look. "Tenten did well."
"I-I don't understand. Why was Itachi after Aya?"
Neji's lips tightened. "We don't know. That is something we will need to investigate quickly."
"Sasuke's appearance. Did I hallucinate that? Naruto, Kakashi, Gaara and Shika–" her voice broke off.
"It was an S-rank mission. The recovery of the Uchiha brothers." Neji answered her silent question.
Ino gasped. Then immediately cringed in pain. She tried to sit up propping her elbows on the ground, forgetting about her recently healed shoulder. Neji cradled her back before she fell back on the dirt.
"Slowly." Neji murmured. Ino nodded gratefully and offered him a small smile.
She surveyed the once pristine clearing. A couple of craters lay in front of her. The oak trees that were shredded probably from explosions and the impacts dealt out by the shinobi combatants. There were patches of burnt ground and bushes reduced to ashes. She saw Gaara surrounded by his guard even though he didn't seem to need them. A muddy Kakashi with a bruised Naruto glowering at a bloody Sasuke. Sasuke was actually encased in a strange glowing gel. He looked like he was suspended in amber with his face frozen and his body immobile. Four shinobi were in position around the jelly like substance encasing Sasuke, performing the seals to secure the prison transport device. At least she assumed that was what it was.
A flash of dark hair drew her gaze. Shikamaru. Their eyes met and held. How long had he been looking at her? Ino was suddenly conscious of Neji's supporting arm around her back. Her eyes hungrily drank in his form. He looked leaner and more muscular. His loose hair had gotten longer, almost all the way to the middle of his back. He had a bruised lip and a bleeding cut high on his right cheek. His expression looked forbidding though. He looked so unapproachable.
"Shika–" Ino began to call out.
Shikamaru looked away and walked off.
Ino deflated. She felt Neji's silent gaze. "So, what's gonna happen now?" Ino asked quietly.
There was a pause before Neji answered. "Seeing as our missions seem to have overlapped, I have consulted Kakashi and we have sent a message ahead to the village informing the Godaime of what has happened here. Within an hour we will move to a safer location away from the city before we set up camp. We will wait there until the reinforcements arrive."
Neji glanced over to the cluster of girls sitting by the stream. "We have requested for jounin-level shinobi considering Itachi Uchiha's interest in Aya Miyakuzi. It is probable that we will take her and the other women to Konoha instead until we have more information on the Akatsuki's interest with her. It will be safer for them all."
His gaze turned reflective. "It is interesting to find out what having Aya Miyakuzi will bring to Uchiha. Nami no Kuni is a peaceful country with no hidden shinobi village and at first glance, would hold no interest for the Akatsuki."
Ino pushed off with her good arm to stand. Neji's arm tightened around her waist and they stood up together. "I should check on her. She must be confused and frightened by all that's happened."
"Hn. I'll stay here for a while." Neji said, letting go of Ino. His gaze was on Tenten.
Ino nodded at Neji's direction and walked towards the cluster of girls. Two shinobi unknown to her were standing guard. Upon seeing her, a few of the girls started sobbing, among them little Aya Miyakuzi. She did what she can to comfort the girls but her mind stayed troubled.
What would Akatsuki want with this girl? Ino regarded Aya with disquiet. Everything Neji pointed out was true. The Land of Waves was a rich country but had no shinobi. Konoha is allied with them and they'd usually turn to Konoha if they need military assistance. Such was the case with the recovery of the daimyo's grand niece.
She leaned over the stream and splashed her face with water. She cupped her hands and drank her fill as well. Combing her fingers through her hair she pulled the blond mess into a high ponytail. Ino wiped a hand over her face and stood up.
Her gaze turned distant. Even with all the dangerous uproars she couldn't let go of Shikamaru's appearance. So, this is why he disappeared. Thinking about the treacherous mission he was on she bit her lip in worry. Maybe now is not the time to talk to him about that last night of the festival.
She searched for his familiar figure and spied him leaning against one of the last few standing trees, his arms crossed against his chest with his head down, his loose hair covering his face.
Ino found herself walking in his direction. She couldn't help herself. After weeks of not seeing him it was impossible for her to stay away now that he was within reach.
Finally, she was standing in front of him. The wind chose that moment to gust strongly around them. Her hair flew upwards and tangled with his.
"Hello, Shikamaru." Ino said quietly, her fingers untangling her hair from his. His hand came up and covered hers. For a second, they stood frozen like that. Then, he pulled away.
"Hello, Ino." Shikamaru answered just as quietly. He looked at her, his eyes crinkling lazily. "Fancy meeting you here."
Ino caught her breath in her throat. She didn't realized how terribly she missed that familiar smile. Out of nowhere, her fist came up and punched him on the arm.
"OW! What's that for?!"
Surprised herself, Ino just muttered, "For leaving without warning, jerk."
Shikamaru rubbed the area she hit. "I don't see what's the big deal. You look just fine to me."
The implication in his tone couldn't be missed.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Ino bristled.
Shikamaru jerked his head. "Nothing. I didn't mean anything by it. I'm just glad you're ok."
Ino softened. "Oh." She suddenly felt tears about to overflow. "Damn." she muttered, swiftly turning away. She rubbed her eyes roughly.
"What's this? Tears for little ol' me?" Shikamaru's teasing voice floated behind her.
"Shut it." she muttered back.
"Hey, Ino." She felt his hands land on her shoulders, gently turning her around. "It's okay."
Ino stood with her head bowed, her arms on her side. "Itachi and Sasuke Uchiha. Are you crazy?!" she railed. "Two of the most dangerous missing nin and you go chasing after them. I cannot believe you left without telling us. Without telling me. Anything could have happened. You'd definitely gotten hurt. Or worse. You could have died! You–mnphf!"
The rest of her words were muffled as Shikamaru crushed her to his chest, his arms tightening around her. "Gomen."
Her fists hit him once, twice on the back before her hands stilled. Her fists opened and her hands pressed on his back. She buried her face in his shirt, dampening it with the last of her tears.
"Gomen." He repeated gently.
They stood hugging each other. Just glad to be alive. To know the other was well.
After a while, Ino reluctantly extricated herself. She looked up at him silently, her eyes red.
"Yeah, I seem to be saying sorry to you a lot, huh?" Shikamaru smiled deprecatingly.
A sense of deja vu invaded her. She didn't want a repeat of that painful encounter.
"Don't." Ino interrupted. "Just don't."
She cupped his jaw, her touch butterfly light against the cut on his cheek. "I'm too happy to see you."
He covered her hand and pulled it down. "I'm happy to see you, too. You should head back to Neji." Shikamaru dropped her hand, "He might get upset."
"Huh–what?" Ino shook her head confusedly. "Why would Neji be upset?"
"Oy! Shikamaru!" Naruto voice burst the bubble around them.
Shikamaru looked over her shoulder. "Haaai. I'll be there in a sec." He turned back to Ino. "You should pack up. We'll be leaving soon." Then he turned and walked away leaving behind a dumbfounded Ino.
She looked around and found Neji a short distance away, her pack in his hand and Tenten held carefully behind his back.
She hurried towards him and took her bag. "Is Tenten okay?"
Neji shifted Tenten to a better position, her head cradled in the bend of his shoulder and neck. "Yes. But, the medic only took care of the worst of her injuries. She will require more attention once we reach our destination. I will take care of her for now. The Sand shinobi will assist us in transporting the women."
Nodding her assent Ino took off with the rest of the Sand shinobi assigned to the rescued girls. The two combined teams abandoned the decimated clearing and started their trek back home.
"All right then." Ino turned brightly at the girls before her. "We've set up these tents for everyone. We'll rest here while we wait for more of our friends."
"By friends, do you mean shinobi?" asked one girl curiously.
"Hai!" Ino's smile brightened further. "Just a few more of our friends who'll join us in our journey back home."
"To Nami no Kuni?"
"Errr…no. We're heading to Konoha instead."
"Um…why?" "Yeah, I thought we were going to the Land of the Waves." "I was looking forward to doing some shopping, you know." "Uhuh…"
As the babble of voices rose Ino wondered how such frightened girls who'd gone through so much trauma could bounce back so easily and already be thinking about shopping trips.
"It will be safer for everybody to go to Konoha. The danger is not yet past." Neji's calm voice cut through the chatter easily. His gaze landed on each of the girls present. "Please get some rest. Our fellow shinobi will be here soon and you will need energy for the last trek to Konoha."
"Eh, Neji." Ino leaned in close and raised her hand to hide her lips. "Shouldn't we all eat first? It's going to be at least a couple of hours for the reinforcements to get here."
WIthout blinking, Neji continued. "First, we will prepare a short repast in a few minutes. Please stay here for now."
Ino helped Neji unpack their bags. As soon as they arrived she took a quick break to change into her usual uniform. The cheongsam was already torn beyond repair anyway.
She set aside a few packets of food and dried venison as well as two canteens of water freshly replenished from a nearby river. Hunting game would take too long so they settled on picking enough berries and fruits from the surrounding area.
With the camp more or less settled temporarily, everybody decided to join in the meal with Neji and Ino. Tenten had finally awoken and was resting beside the campfire. They were within Konoha territory already and felt that starting a fire would be safe enough.
"Here. Have some water." Neji crouched gracefully besides Tenten's bedroll. He held out the canteen at her.
"Thanks, Neji." She drank greedily. "So, what happened?"
After Neji brought her up to speed on the events that occurred while she was knocked out, Tenten glanced around her wonderingly. She saw a huge wrapped bundle with a wooden seal secured with braided ropes on its front and was guarded from four sides by shinobi unknown to her.
"I take it that contains Sasuke?" she asked, her eyebrow raised.
"Wow. Such security measures. I don't recognize the seal used to secure him."
"It is an unusual spell. A time delayer of sorts. It holds him in suspension inside the amber-like substance. Once it hardened, another seal was called forth hence the bandages covering it and the ropes around it. It was created especially for the Uchiha brothers. It is unfortunate but Itachi Uchiha escaped before the recovery team reached him."
"Shit." Tenten muttered.
"Well, it fits perfectly. It is a shitty thing to be in." She leaned over and tried to reach for a slice of smoked venison.
Neji lifted the tin plate and held it out to her silently.
"Thanks." She started munching on a juicy chunk. "So, how's Ino?" she asked casually.
"She seems glad to see Nara Shikamaru."
"You're ok with that?"
"Why should I be concerned about it? They are friends and teammates after all."
Tenten paused chewing. Slowly she resumed eating. "Sure. Sure." She swallowed and immediately began coughing.
Neji gave her back a quick pounding and held out the canteen of water once more. "Tenten, do not overextend yourself. Chew more slowly."
She gulped down the water and sighed. "I'm suddenly missing Lee."
"Yes. Lee would be of great help to us now." Neji said contemplatively. "His skills with taijutsu would have assisted us considerably with our skirmish at the auction. Not to mention Itachi Uchiha."
"I meant his bedside manner." Tenten mumbled.
"Nothing." She continued eating in silence while Neji looked on.
Ino smiled as she looked at the pair across the campfire. It was surprising to see Neji acting so troubled over his teammate. His distress when she stayed unconscious even after all her wounds were treated was palpable. Now he hovered so protectively over her. He had eschewed eating until after he had taken care of Tenten's needs not that Tenten seems to be aware of that.
Ino leaned over and rested her chin against her knees, her arms wrapped around her legs. Sitting there looking at the couple across from her she can't help but smile ruefully. Her gaze traveled to the faces ringing the camp.
There was Sakura, her expression heavy and eyes puffy from crying. She noticed she kept her back to the bundle that contained Sasuke. She wondered sadly what happened to them after she collapsed. She heard snippets of how Sakura got hurt so bad that the medic nin took a long time to heal her.
There was Naruto beside her but also subdued. He kept poking the fire and normally, Ino expected Sakura to berate Naruto over his behavior but she just ignored him and sat there not eating her food. Kakashi was trying to engage Naruto in conversation to no avail.
Given their success in recovering a former and yet still beloved teammate, you'd think they'd look for cheerful. Ino's gaze drifted to the case enclosing Sasuke. She could only hope being with people who loved and cared for him will help him return a semblance of his old cocky self. His older brother though….
Ino shivered at the memory of those glowing eyes. How could the Godaime think sending out Shikamaru even with Kakashi in tow and an alliance with the Sand nin would be enough to capture one of the Akatsuki?
She always looked up to the Godiame and trusted in her good judgement but after their encounter with the rogue non she couldn't help that touch of anger at Tsunade-sama for putting Shikamaru on this mission.
Jarred out of her reverie, Ino twisted her head and looked up at Temari's smiling face.
"Hey, Temari." She went back to staring at the fire.
Ino felt the other girl settle down beside her. "Aren't you eating?"
"In a bit." Ino picked up her canteen and drank some water.
"What a day, huh?" Temari started. She leaned back on her elbows. "Haaaa. I'm beat."
Ino looked at the Sand nin curiously.
"We've been chasing after those Uchihas for too long and still we only got one of them." She gestured at Sasuke. "We figured we covered our tracks pretty well. Maybe good enough for the younger one but apparently not the older Uchiha. Should have foreseen that, what with Itachi's reputation and all."
"Yeah." Ino slumped. "He was a great Konoha shinobi. Or so I've heard. Earlier today certainly proved that." She shivered again. "Can't believe the Godaime sent you out against them."
"We-ell." Temari paused. "Someone had to do it. That's why we formed the alliance for this mission. We knew what we were up against. Konoha was somewhat shorthanded but the opportunity was too good to miss. Gaara shouldn't have come. Him being the Kage and all but he just had to go support his best bud, Naruto."
Temari chuckled. "You should have seen the hue and cry at the council meeting."
Ino smiled at that. "I could imagine."
"So…." Temari's voice trailed off.
"Yeah?" Ino inquired.
"Shikamaru sure is a good leader."
Ino burst in laughter. "Is that what you really wanted to say?" she asked after her laughter subsided.
"Nah. Not really." Temari gave her a look. "Are you guys okay now?"
Ino kept quiet.
"Just saying. Shikamaru's a great guy. He is a good leader. He also has it bad for you."
At this, Ino jerked in surprise. Her head whipped around to stare at Temari.
Temari rubber the back of her neck and fluffed her hair self-consciously. "I mean–hmmn….maybe I shouldn't have said that last part. Not my business after all."
"No, wait!" Ino grabbed hold of Temari's arm. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?"
Ino bent closer. "Tell me, Temari."
"We-ell. He didn't really say it or anything. It's just that I know the guy, you know? He's like one my brothers." Temari looked off into space. "He was really down when we left for the mission and while we chased after the Uchihas he was really singleminded about it. Like he was trying to escape something. Then, when we got to that clearing and he saw you lying on the ground like that. Seriously, you looked so pitiful. Like a broken china doll, and all."
Ino waved this away, impatient to hear the rest. "And so?"
"Well, he immediately went for you. It's like he completely forgot we had both Itachi and Sasuke right in front of us. WIthin reach and all. His eyes were all for you."
"Frankly, he was completely useless to us until he became certain you were still breathing." Temari continued bluntly. "By then of course we had our hands full with a rampaging Sasuke and Itachi was long gone."
Ino leaned back. "Oh." She pondered on what Temari said, her heart beginning to pound in hope.
"So, what do you make of it?" Temari asked curiously.
Ino's eyes searched the campfire looking for a familiar silhouette. When she found him her back straightened. "Maybe, I'm not too late." she whispered.
"Eh?" Temari leaned in closer.
"Ino stood up rubbing her suddenly damp palms on her tights. "Thanks, Temari."
Temari shot off a cocky salute. "Gambatte."
Shikamaru purposely kept his distance from the camp. He focused on going over the events of the past few hours, analyzing what they did and how Itachi managed to detect their presence. It was a habit of his. This exercise of over analyzing a mission once it was completed. He felt the bite of failure already eating at him. At least, it kept his thoughts from wandering to Ino... His face darkened. Think about the mission.
On the one hand they have Sasuke. On the other, they totally lost the upper hand with Itachi. Now that Itachi was aware that his case was active and that Konoha shinobi are after him he would probably go into hiding or at least distance himself away from Konoha territory.
Shikamaru shook his head. What was he thinking? Itachi wouldn't hide. He had once boldly entered Konoha and nearly kidnapped Naruto. If not for Jiraiya-sama….Knowing he was being targeting by Konoha shinobi would just probably amuse him.
He focused on the woman standing before him. "Ino."
"Can we walk for a bit?"
He looked up at the sky. Judging by the position of the stars they still had half an hour before the reserve team arrived.
"We should stay close to camp." he said.
They walked through the forest in silence. Shikamaru kept his hands in his pockets and breathed deeply. "What's this about?"
Ino felt a wave of uncertainty nearly overwhelm her. "Ano…"
Shikamaru gazed down at her broodingly. "Spit it out, Ino."
"Well if you're gonna be like that–" Ino snapped. She abruptly stopped and let out a small chuckle. "It's always gonna be like this between us, isn't it?"
"What do you mean?" Shikamaru asked warily. Being this close to her was bringing up all sorts of unwelcome memories. Painful memories. He shut down that train of thought quickly.
"Pushing and pulling. Snapping at each other." Ino answered ruefully.
They stood silently for a long moment.
"I don't know what you want me to say." Shikamaru finally muttered. He rubbed the back of his neck and glanced into the distance. "If this is about what happened before..." his voice trailed off.
Shikamaru looked up at the sky and squeezed his eyes shut. He let out a sigh. "Nothing's changed, Ino. I'm glad you're safe. That's all."
Shikamaru took a step back. "If there's nothing else, we should head back. Neji will worry about you."
"Why do you keep bringing up Neji?"
Shikmaru stopped. Was she really going to make me say it? he thought bleakly.
"Because you're together." His voice leaden, he continued. "I wish you every happiness." His lips tightened as he said that. It was a lie. He didn't want her happy to be with another guy. He wanted to be that guy. The hopelessness in that thought bit at him painfully. Wishing her happiness with another guy ate at him like acid.
He began walking again.
"I'm not, you know. In a relationship with him, I mean." Ino's voice called out to him.
Shikamaru froze. "Oh."
But then, nothing's changed between us. I'm still in love with her. And she….she will never see me as anything more than the guy who was bothersome to her. Eyes pained, he schooled his expression to one of unconcern.
He faced Ino. "I'm sorry to hear that. I know how much he means to you." Every word was practically bitten off.
Ino gazed at him searchingly. "You left before I could tell you." she said softly.
She stepped closer until she was only a hairs breath away from him. She looked at him for a long moment, memorizing his features. The minute changes wrought by the terrible burden of this mission. She saw the pain in his eyes even though he was trying to keep his face so stoic.
She cradled his face in her hands and pulled his head closer. She saw his eyes widen.
Ino leaned her forehead against his and closed her eyes, trusting in her heart.
"I love you."
She felt the tears threaten to fall and she squeezed her eyes close tighter. Ino bit her trembling lip.
"I love you, Shikamaru." she whispered. "So much."
Then the tears began to fall.
For a long crystalline moment the forest held its breath. A calm quiet fell on them.
Then, she felt warm hands cover her own. She opened her eyes and leaned back to look at the face before her. His eyes aren't full of pain anymore. Ino thought wonderingly.
Shikamaru bent closer, his eyes intense. "I love you too, Ino."
His lips met hers. Her lips parted. The gentle kiss quickly turned fierce. Ino wrapped her arms around his neck, her fingers tangling in his silky hair. She felt Shikamaru wrap his arms around her. His arms tightened and lifted her higher against his chest.
They stayed locked in that embrace for what felt like an eternity. A warm glow spread over Ino. When they broke apart, Shikamaru spun around, laughing. Her feet went flying.
Ino clutched him tighter. "Hey!"
Shikamaru kissed her again. She felt herself sink into the kiss. The pleasure spreading all over her. Her heart was pounding crazily and her fingertips were tingling.
When Shikamaru finally put her down she was out of breath. He kept his arms tightly around her as he gazed at her face. He raised a hand and rubbed her bee-stung lips. She looked up at him and did the same.
"I love you, Ino." Shikamaru whispered. "It feels like I've come home."
"I love you too, Shikamaru." Ino whispered back. "Welcome home."