Ino furrowed her eyebrows and stayed silent, trying to erase any thoughts of Nara Shikamaru from her mind. If she thought about what they were asking, she would blush, and if she blushed, the other three would be all over her before she could say 'save me'. Maybe if I avoid it long enough, they'll just get tired of waiting and skip my turn…

"Take your time, Pig. We've got all night," Sakura said, snickering.

Damn it.

Ino whimpered internally. She could lie….but no. The rules of Merit, Demerit were absolute, and even aside from that, Ino didn't lie. Period. No matter who was hurt by it. No matter if she was the one who would be hurt the most.

No, she would just have to do it. She decided to get it over with quickly. She sat up straight, blew her bangs out of her eyes, and crossed her arms. Just say it, Ino.

"Okay. You want to know what I like about Shikamaru? Fine. I like his attitude about life. I like that he doesn't let anything get to him. I like his hair. I like his eyes. I like that he's always one step ahead of everything. I like the way he treats his friends. I like that he's not afraid to give up. I like that I can trust him to stand still when everything else is shaking. I like how he knows how I'm feeling even when I don't know how to say it. I like that he never gets too angry when I yell at him or complain. I like…I like…" Ino paused, breathing slightly heavier and balling her fists.

"...yes?" Hinata pushed gently.

"I like HIM!" Ino burst out, before gasping and covering her mouth with her hand.

Tenten, Hinata, and Sakura gaped before slow grins spread across their faces. Tenten latched onto Ino's arm. "Oh, Ino, you mean you're in looooove with Nara-sama?"

"I can't believe you didn't tell us, Ino, I thought we were your best friends," Hinata said, pretending to cry.

Ino wanted to die. She could feel a hot blush creeping over her cheeks. "You are my best—I didn't know—it's not like I—"

"I knew this would happen one day," Sakura said quietly, a genuine smile on her face. The other three quieted.

"What do you mean, you knew?" Ino asked.

"You guys just…fit."

Ino opened her mouth, but no sound came out. She had never planned to say she loved Shikamaru; where had that come from? He was such a…..lazyass? Hottie? Hot lazyass?

Letting out an exasperated sigh, Ino lay down on the ground with a 'thud'. She closed her eyes and tried to breathe evenly.

"What's wrong, Ino?" Tenten asked, moving to lie next to her. Sakura and Hinata moved closer also.

"I don't know," she replied quietly. "Just…me and Shikamaru? We're so…"

"Perfect?" Hinata finished. "You just said yourself that you're in love with him."

Ino opened her eyes. "Yeah, but I didn't...know I was. I just realized now, for the first time."

"I mean, it was bound to happen sooner or later, Pig," Sakura said. "You guys have been together all your lives…you grew up together. You're almost as comfortable around him as you are around us. To be honest, I thought you'd have fallen for him a long time ago. Especially since he's gotten so hot lately." She grinned as Ino's blush returned full force.

"I agree, Ino. You were on the same squad and everything for so many years…you can't tell me you never even had a little crush on him," Tenten said, pulling Ino into a sitting position.

Ino ran her fingers through her ponytail. "I don't know. Maybe I did. It's just…I don't know what love feels like. I mean, now I do. But after the whole—after the whole Sasuke thing, around the Chuunin exams, I just…didn't want to get hurt again. If I ever—when I ever—felt something for Shikamaru, I probably just convinced myself it was nothing."

Hinata placed her arm comfortingly across Ino's shoulders. "But I guess it was just…meant to be, at the risk of sounding really cliché. Maybe it's like you've been sort of in love with him your whole life, and all of a sudden you're realizing just how much he means to you."

"He's always meant a ton to me," Ino said, laying her head on Hinata's shoulder. "Just…Shikamaru." She shook her head slowly, looking awed and amused and scared all in one.

"I think there's a great chance he likes you too, Ino," Sakura said.

Ino suddenly felt a strange urge to cry. "Yeah, right. Why would he?" He probably thinks I'm so annoying. Or 'troublesome', I guess he'd say…

"Are you kidding me, Ino?" Tenten said incredulously. "Have you seen the way he looks at you?" Ino sat up, startled. "He looks…alive, when you're around. Happy. It's like you're the sun, or something."

Ino's eyes softened for a second, but she shook her head quickly. "You don't understand. I'm not the kind of girl Shikamaru wants. I'm not, and I know that. He wants someone quiet, and compromising, and soft, and pretty—"

"You're beautiful," Sakura interjected angrily.

Ino half-shook her head, "He wants someone reliable and normal. He wants someone normal, and I've lost count of how many people I've killed in front of him." She held back a dry sob.

"Forget normal. Ino, you're the kind of girl that Shikamaru needs. And we can all see what you mean to him," Tenten said.

"He tries for you, Pig. He worries about you, he tries to protect you, he feels you—you can get to him, and he loves you for it," Sakura said.

"I can't know that for sure," Ino replied.

"He would die for you," Hinata said quietly. "I don't need the Byakugan to see that."

Ino just smiled weakly in response. Sakura, Hinata, and Tenten engulfed her in a warm hug. A single tear spilled out of her eye, and wiping it away with a laugh, she said, "Thanks, you guys. I mean it. You guys really mean everything to me."

They smiled warmly, and Tenten said, "And on that note, it's our turn for merits."

"I'll go first!" Sakura said. "I like that Shikamaru is quiet, because it makes me feel really relaxed. I think his shadow jutsus kick ass, and I have yet to fail a mission with him. I like how he comes off as pretty tough but is actually really nice. He's a good guy, and I'd say pretty worthy of my little Pig."

"I think Shikamaru is great because he never seems to get flustered. Also, have you guys ever sat next to him during meetings? He always makes these very funny and clever comments under his breath that you only hear if you're right next to him. I like that he doesn't try to be too flashy and that he wants people to take him as he is, or not at all. And now that I know Ino-chan likes him, I like him even more!" Hinata said, giggling.

"Well, you guys pretty much covered it, but I guess I can add that I like how honest he is. Oh, yeah, and I like that he's good with kids. Sometimes I see him talking to the Academy kids, and he's always really nice to them, like a cool older brother. I like that a lot. And, I have to say this, but that kid has gotten seriously hot lately," Tenten said.

"Agree," Sakura and Hinata said, giggling.

"Double agree," Ino said, her blush slightly flaring up. "Anyway, I guess it's time for his demerits…"

Everyone got up and stretched, sitting down in comfortable places.

When everyone was ready, Sakura said, "Okay. Demerits. Ten bucks to the first person who comes up with something besides, 'he's lazy'!"

I just messed with the end of this chapter a little bit, since I didn't like it before. The next one's coming. I've been busy, but I'm getting there~