The first time I met her I was five years old. My parents had been invited to a dinner party her parents were throwing. I was forced into my best clothes and dragged out of the house by my mother. "You have got to get out more Shikamaru! If you lay in the grass all day like that you'll sprout roots and have to live in a pot!" Of course, I wasn't buying it for a seconded. Adults are always saying things like that to stop you from doing things. It was just another mind game to them, like one of these days you'll turn into Ramen or go to sleep or the boogeyman will get you. But this isn't about my mom. "I hear that Inoichi has a kid your age. Maybe you two can play together."

I groaned, "This is such a drag."

"What was that?"

"This is it, Hon." my father interrupted, saving me from being chewed out by my mother. He rang the door bell and put a hand on my shoulder with a look of anticipation mingling with pride. I was about to find out why. The door opened and a tall dark blond man answer.

"Shikaku!"

"Inoichi! It's been to long. You remember my wife, of course."

"It's great to see you again, Inoichi." My mom said with a smile, forgetting I'd given her lip... For the moment.

"You look lovely as ever!"

"And this is my SON, Shikamaru."

Inoichi flinched as a blond girl with big teal eyes peered around his leg. I flinched too. Back then I'd been afraid of girls. Not older woman but girls my own age. If my father wasn't gripping my shoulder so tightly I'd have bolted. "Daddy! Who's at the door?"

"This is... My daughter, Ino. Ino this is Daddy's friend Shikaku Nara and his family." She smiled at me and I gulped. I assume that my father knew of Inoichi's daughter and I know he was more than aware of my phobia of girls. It seemed to be an on running joke that Inoichi had a girl. I never learned exactly why. But again my story is running off track.

Ino's hair was short back then and she wore a mint green dress. You'd think her being the cutest girl I'd ever seen would have helped my fears but, sadly it only made them worse. My eyes shot to the ground. I knew nothing of females, other than my mom, but I assumed just because one was touchy and manipulative didn't necessarily mean that all woman were that way. I would learn better but not that night. I was the pushed in the house by my father and shoved onto the couch. The adult talked until dinner where I was set at a small table off to the side with Ino. Choji's parents were there but Choji was off at his grandparents. I was alone with a girl I'd never met before. It was a drag. Until Ino started talking. She liked flowers, and talked about all different kinds. What they were suppose to symbolize, where they grew, the varieties and colors. She really knew her stuff and I was amazed how smart she was. Not that I thought girls were dumb. I just didn't expect her to know so much. I was still nervous but it wasn't because she was a girl anymore. It was because the more I listened to her, the more I liked her. She didn't force me to talk when she'd pause. Instead she waited to see if I was ready to talk, and when she saw I wasn't she'd continue. I liked listening to her talk. She spoke with surprising precision, with an extra accent on the t's and f's. I noticed little things like that. Not just about her speech but about her. She bit the inside of her lip when she was thinking of the name of a flower, there were six freckles on her neck, she drummed her right hand, starting with the index finger, from left to right, a motion I could not replicate with her accuracy and frequency. She was the first girl I ever sat down and talked to. I wanted to cement her in my memory, just as she was at that moment. Sitting at the kids table, eating macaroni, and explaining the parts of a flower. And I did. When I close my eyes I can recall her in detail. Everything we talked about was a blur, save one bit, "Do you think I'm like a flower, Shikamaru?"

I jumped, because it was the first direct question she'd asked me. I flushed and sputter something incoherent. Then I managed a few words, "Really? You- You wanna know what I think?" She nodded earnestly, and I took a deep breath. Ino was to brave and tough to be a flower, "I think... You're more like the sun." She tilted her head to the side, I elaborated, "You help the flowers bloom."

"So, I'm not like a flower. I won't bloom into something beautiful."

I saw her look of disappointment and I panicked. "That's not it all, Ino! Come on, I'll show you." I grabbed her hand and, while the grown ups were talking over dessert, took her out the back door, in earnest to prove that wasn't true at all. The hour was getting late and the sun was setting over the village casting a warm orange light across the land in a beautiful sunset. "You see?" But she just gapped at it, confused. "You glow, Ino. And that light you have makes other want to shine too." Ino turned red, and looked at the sunset. "Why be a flower when you shine so brightly on your own?"

"So, if I'm like the sun, what are you?"

I thought about it. At that moment I felt lighter than air. Like if let go of her hand I'd float away. She smiled at me and I knew then and there. "A cloud." So I could always float by her side.

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The day I was assigned to Ino's team was a pretty good day. The sky was filled with fluffy clouds and I sat next to her. So, she was complaining about us being uncool? It really didn't matter to me. I watched the clouds go by and listened to her. I still liked listening to her talk, you see. Her speech was animated and filled with life, unlike my monotone. Asuma let out a puff of cigarette smoke and looked at us, "So, what are some of your dreams?"

Ino stopped ranting to raise an eyebrow, "Dreams?"

"You know, your goals, aspirations, ambitions, plans, desires..."

I sighed, "You're a regular thesaurus, aren't you?"

Choji raised his hand, I think it had a hot dog in it, because if I recall correctly he got some mustard on Ino's shirt while she was fuming and not paying attention, but Choji wanted to answer first, "Okay you, what are your goals?"

"Barbequed pork for lunch."

Asuma blinked and looked at the rest of us, "Anyone with a more long term plan?"

Ino stood up, "My goal is to steal the heart of Sasuke Uchiha right out from under billboard-brows nose." Asuma looked to me for an explanation but I shrugged.

He sighed, deciding it was time to move on, "Well kid, what about you?"

"I plan on being an ordinary ninja, marrying an ordinary woman, having a couple kids, maybe one boy and one girl, then retiring at a decent age and growing old with my ordinary old lady.."

Asuma stared at me, long and hard, "Wow, don't set your sights to high there kid. Wouldn't want you to be disappointed." I looked at Ino and she was staring down at me as if my existence offended her.

Choji gave me a thumbs up, "Way to dream big, man."

"What if you can't be that?" Ino asked, intently. "What if you just aren't ordinary?"

I laughed, and they all stared at me, "That's funny." My laughter subsided and I smirked, still thoroughly amused by what she'd said, "Okay, I'll bite. If I can't be ordinary..." I thought about it. If I couldn't have ordinary... I looked at Ino, If I could have her..."Then I'd want to be strong. So I can protect the one who is precious to me."

Asuma grinned, "Now THAT's a little more realistic." I frowned, unsure whether he was serious or not.

Ino gave him a suspicious look, "Why do you care about our goals?"

"If I don't know what you're striving for I can't teach you what you need to get there, can I?"

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After Asuma died I was hurting pretty badly. There was a constant wait on my chest. I rarely smiled anymore and I shut out the world. Even Ino. I knew she was hurting too, and I pushed her away. I didn't want her to see how torn up I was. But of course, someone like Ino is hard to keep behind the walls you build around yourself. Ino found me out by the training grounds sitting under a tree staring up at the sky, as always. She just stood a ways off for awhile, then, slowly approached me.. And smiled, "Hey."

"Hey." My reply sounded causal, uninterested. I wasn't.

'Haven't seen you around much..."

"Been busy." Same I-don't-want-to-be-bothered tone.

"Been thinkin' about Asuma?" And she struck a nerve. I close my eyes to steady myself. "Do you want to-"

"No, I don't.

In reality, I did. Someone like me is always seeking someone to pry them open. No one WANTS to be a Human Clam, it just happens and one day we look up and realize we're all alone because of it. Ino waited to see if I'd go on. When she realized I wasn't, she knelt next to me, facing my side, "You know you can talk to me about anything, Shikamaru. Maybe I could-"

"No, you can't."

"Shikamaru-"

"Please, Ino... Don't... Not now." The tears I thought had dried up had returned, and were threatening to spill from my eyes. I hid them in the shadows so she couldn't see.

"Well, if you ever need someone to lean on..." Her voice trailed off as I sniffed loudly. Her smile was soft and kind. She got up on her knee caps put her arms around my neck and shoulders, as I cried. She made soothing noise and told me it was alright; she sounded an awful lot like a mom. Except around my mom I felt some need to be strong. Ino tore down the defenses I worked so hard to build with a whisper and tender embrace. The kind understanding in her voice reminded me of that first time I met her. She shined through and warmed my soul like a prayer. And I never wanted to let her go. I cried into her chest and through my sobs, heard the sound of her heart beat mix with mine. For a few minutes we were in our own little world. My eyes were red and puffy but I decided, if anyone asked I could say I was testing smoke bombs and my goggles flew off. I pulled away and Ino frowned, "Will you be alright Shikamaru?"

"I'll be alright... As long as you stay with me awhile." There was that smile again. She nodded and I laced my fingers with hers. She sat in the grass next to me and rested her head on my shoulder. "You know? Asuma was like an older brother to me. Someone I could look up to and depend on, unlike my father." She nodded. She may even have felt the same way, but she kept silent, letting me finish, "I always thought I was stronger than this. That in the face of sorrow I could set my jaw and be a man. But hell, who needs to be a man anyway?" Ino let out a surprised laugh and for a moment I thought I heard Asuma's deep chuckle on the breeze. So I wasn't much of a man. As strong as I am, I'll never be as tough as her.