The Art Of Love.
Fandom: Naruto [manga.
Genre: Angst. Full of annnnnngst. But with a happy ending. So kinda epic fail angst.
Summary: Prompt: "There were certain unchangeable rules for Team 10: Ino was the one who went out and got the good stuff. Chouji was the one who went out and got the bad stuff. Shikamaru was the one who stayed, and got only what came to him."
Warnings: Grievous spoilers, masturbation, and mentions of promiscuity.
Pairings/Characters: Shikamaru/Chouji, Ino/Chouji, Temari/Shikamaru, Temari/Ino. Lol, dat's a lots.
Author's Note: Thanks to Twitch, who epic-beta'd this twice for me (even the horrible parts that I wrote at 2 AM while full of mould spores); and to Thad, who helped me work out some plot kinks (Thad relieves many of my kinks) (ooh, did you catch that? A treble entendre at least. Man, I'm good).
Disclaimer: Not mine. I've checked.
THE ART OF LOVE.
There were certain unchangeable rules for Team 10: Ino was the one who went out and got the good stuff. Chouji was the one who went out and got the bad stuff. Shikamaru was the one who stayed, and got only what came to him.
Staying in Konoha: it was almost like safety; it was almost like cowardice. It almost made sense. To do work that he hated doing, for the sake of simplicity and that rare moment of blissful inaction, was the sort of thing that passed, just barely, as a typically Shikamaru thing to do. Under a little scrutiny, it held up.
Nara Shikamaru, underachiever extraordinaire, graded every paper early and handed them back on time; he walked in the woods outside Konoha twice a week and played shougi with himself on nights when he couldn't sleep. When he could sleep, he rose early. He never dreamed.
Temari found the folder of his students' work: essays on the legacy of one of the five Hokage. " 'What I Did On My Summer Vacation,' " she laughed, leaning on her fan and flipping through. "They've all picked the Yondaime Hokage, I see," she added. "And his legacy . . . ?"
They had all picked Yondaime Hokage, and his legacy was apparently an endless ream of paper full of misspelled and possibly nonexistent words. Shikamaru went through with his red pen, slashing half-heartedly at the sophomoric errors in front of him, wondering for the hundredth time what had possessed him to take this job when he could have taken field command.
He could have taken field command.
He shared a flat with Ino and Chouji, even though they weren't always operating as a team anymore--a natural evolution from a bedridden Chouji to a nervous Ino to a resigned Shikamaru, to a generalised "Why not?" from all three. After Asuma's death, they had clung together, afraid and unsure and just a little bit angry. Now . . .
Ino's room was mostly empty these days, especially at night, when she was made remarkably conspicuous by her absence. The bathroom was free; the house was quiet. But sometimes she would come home, because she was angry, or drunk, or because she had dared herself to; and it was on those nights, when the flat was crowded with things unsaid, that Shikamaru lay awake with his eyes tightly closed, one side of his body barraged by the noise of her headboard against the wall--bam! bam! bam!--and the little noises that he half-hoped were voluntary, made just to annoy.
But then there was champagne misplaced in a juice jar, a hot afternoon, and Ino's late-evening return, alone. And this time, Shikamaru couldn't sleep and wouldn't touch his shougi set, because the noises, tiny and polite and restrained, and the inevitable slamming of the headboard came from the wrong room.
Affection is separate from love; the trick is to discover exactly how to measure the warmth of the one against the heat of the other. And then, of course, desire must come into the picture at some point, but when, and what is it triggered by?
Loving a friend, as Shikamaru sees it, is at the very best a double-edged sword: the prospect of rejection almost less frightening than the prospect of acceptance, the only difference a slight change in the sick, twisting feeling in the stomach. Regardless of all efforts to distance oneself, the problem mingles with one's skin and becomes like sandpaper, leaving one always raw, always on edge.
When Shikamaru met Chouji, there was an immediate, unspoken understanding: if you're staying, don't ask of me what I can't give. But sometimes what can be given changes faster than can be understood.
In the morning, Ino bolted, and Chouji stayed in bed. Shikamaru got up and made breakfast for himself. By the time Chouji got up, the dishes were washed and put away, and Shikamaru was halfway out the door.
"Shikamaru?" Chouji blinked in the midday light streaming through the window.
"Morning," said Shikamaru, leaning down to put on his shoes.
"I have to go. I'm late." He straightened up. "I'll see you this evening, Chouji."
Shikamaru closed the door behind him.
The essence of romance for ninja, as they had learned in their special boys-only class at the academy, was that it, by and large, does not exist. Those who spend every second of their lives fighting for their continued survival and that of their colleagues have no time or energy to spare on the intricacies of emotion.
Which was perfectly sensible, thought Shikamaru, watching impassively as Temari set her fan against the wall and backed him up against the desk. There was no need for all that drama.
She pressed her lips to his neck, and he let her, even as Naruto's words rang in his mind--Are you guys going out or something?--and their adamant refusal.
No, of course
not. No. No fraternising.
And her tongue was hot against his skin.
The art of satisfaction, he'd learned, was largely based upon one's own skill. No specific instructions had been given here; presumably the instructors had had confidence in young boys' creativity or, failing that, base instincts.
It seemed, at first, like such a waste of energy: the tension, the build, the release, and, of course, the tedious clean-up . . . but the pure, unsullied relaxing effect of it was addictive. So he closed his eyes and tried. And with every twist and thrust and squeeze he fought a losing battle with his mind and his mouth, 'til at the very last second there came a tiny, whispered half-noise, that charred and abrasive opening-like-a-flower syllable:
The art of
sexuality, he'd learned, was threefold:
"Self-protection in reference to what?" someone had asked with a snicker, silenced with a frown.
Shinobi must never show emotion. Shinobi must place assignments above all else in life. Protection of Konohagakure was (repeated over and over and over again) the number-one, the only priority.
The art of love didn't enter the game.
After that first time, Chouji's room was silent at night, the bed unslept in by sunrise. Chouji would come in at five in the morning, make coffee, and fall asleep in an armchair in the living room. He had been on a walk, he'd say when woken, his cheeks sagging and gray, his eyes half-closed as if in pain. Sometimes he looked as though he'd been hit; sometimes he looked as though he'd been crying. It was hard to decide which was worse.
Despite himself, Shikamaru found himself hating Ino, to an almost physically painful extent. Whatever had happened surely wasn't her fault, but he couldn't look at her without a switch in him flipping, turning on what felt like heartburn, but manifested itself as silent, violent fury. He kept away from her, and from Chouji, and holed up at the school for days on end.
Until Ino came to him, jaw (as always) set and locked, and punched him in the mouth.
He could have taken field command.
No. He couldn't. Because when he took command, things went wrong. He wouldn't be responsible for
--a broken boy, arms by his sides in a posture of abnormal stillness, thin and foreign and sure to die there, on the white sheets on the sterile hospital bed--
for the things that happened.
Ino, with tears welling up in the corners of her eyes that she stubbornly refused to let fall, said to him:
If you can be happy, goddamnit, do it!
And she wouldn't listen when he said he didn't know what she meant, and she wouldn't stop when he told her to, and he knew she would hit him again. So he left her standing outside the academy, arms rigid and by her sides, and walked home alone.
When he opened the front door, Chouji was curled up in his favourite armchair, head drooping, feet tucked up under him, covered in a worn floral blanket (a woman's touch); he was drooling a bit. By the time the door closed, he was awake and sitting up.
"What are you doing?" asked Shikamaru.
Chouji smiled, a little wryly. "Always to the point, aren't you, Shikamaru?"
"Some would say blunt."
Chouji sighed. "Doesn't everyone?"
Shikamaru sat down. "No," he said. "Not everyone." And he noticed, with the remarkable insight that only years of shared space can create, how quickly Chouji blinked and looked away.
With a sudden start, Chouji brought a hand to his own lip, eyes half-shut as if he was looking into blinding light. "What happened to your mouth?" he said quietly, looking everywhere but Shikamaru's eyes.
"Ino," Shikamaru replied, sighing, then inhaling quickly again. He could taste tension like steel in the air, and he realised that Ino had never told him what to say.
Chouji started to speak--to apologise (again), to say it was his fault (again), to add one more item to his list of things to berate himself for--but Shikamaru held up a hand. "Shh. I'm thinking."
There was a familiar smell that lingered in the stale air of their home: the smell of fresh-cut flowers, and of those pressed and preserved for the coming months. Shikamaru fancied that he could see it, too, floating in the air between them, like specks of dust in the sun from the open window.
"Do you smell that?" he said, closing his eyes. "What is that?"
"That's how Ino smells."
Shikamaru opened his eyes to see Chouji reddening; the blush, he knew, would travel from Chouji's cheeks to the tips of his ears, the roots of his hair, the neckline of his shirt. He had always assumed that his own investigative spirit was responsible for his urge to know how far its boundaries went. Now he just smiled at the lengths to which he could believe the improbable.
"I think," he said, "that she must sell perfume as well as flowers, because sometimes Temari smells just like this." Without looking up, he placed a hand on Chouji's cheek in time to feel the blood drain away. "Or maybe it's just a woman smell," he continued. "I don't smell that way, do I?"
"No, you--" Chouji stopped, looking confused.
Shikamaru smiled, the corners of his mouth tilting just slightly as he let his head fall to the side. "It's hard to think about, isn't it?" he said, and kissed the corners of Chouji's mouth, once on each side.
It was Chouji, in the end, who caught his mouth and told him sternly, with a flush creeping down his chest and relief in his eyes, to stop being so troublesome.
Ino, who smelled of flowers, who always walked with a spring in her step, and who cried the least and the hardest of the three of them, made her way down to Shikamaru's office. Sitting behind his desk, feet up, fan against the wall, was Temari of the Sand, curiously considering a package of cigarettes. She looked up with surprise at Ino, standing in the doorway.
"Oh. You're the Yamanaka girl . . . Ino. Do you know if Shikamaru will be in this afternoon?"
Ino looked down, smiling at Temari's brisk attitude in an effort to hold herself steady. "No, I don't think so," she said. "He's busy today." She began gathering up loose paperwork and assorted other detritus, holding them carefully against her chest. She held out a hand for the cigarettes.
Temari looked up, smiling ruefully. "Busy, huh?"
There was a look in her eyes, an unfathomable attitude of knowing that seemed part of her very presence, as if she'd seen it all and more; it rooted Ino to the spot. She nodded, paralysed and mute.
Temari shook her head with a sigh, looking supremely unsurprised, then looked Ino up and down, cocking her head almost calculatingly. "You're taking that to him?" she said, though it wasn't quite a question.
With a gentle squeeze of her hand, Temari handed her the package of cigarettes. "Can I walk with you?" she asked.
The art of love, as Shikamaru learned at the academy, leaves casualties behind. In this way, it is similar to the art of war. But, because wounds of the heart take longer to heal, one's losses may weigh more heavily, while one's victories bring greater pleasure.
Ino came home, this time bringing with her the scent of cactus flowers carried on the desert wind. Chouji brought Shikamaru out, except for the days when they stayed in. And, when Shikamaru wasn't teaching, Chouji wasn't training, and Ino wasn't at the shop, they were together. In balance.