The young chuunin made his way through the rain and cautiously approached the door. He still didn't know quite what he was going to say but he was running out of time and needed to say something. It had come down to a 'now or maybe never' situation. He rapped lightly on the door and was relieved when the person he wanted to see opened the door.
Ino had been quietly thumbing through a magazine when she was startled by the tapping. Who would be out in weather like this, she thought. Tossing her reading aside, she went to open the door. Before she could even get his name out of her mouth, surprised to see that it was him standing on her porch, Shikamaru had cut her off. "Ino, can you come outside?" She was about to refuse, mention the weather and ask if he wouldn't prefer to come inside where it was warm and dry but the serious manner of his voice alerted her that this might be something he needed to share with her in private. "Just let me get my shoes on."
"You have an umbrella?" He nodded and she shot a quick "Mom, Dad, I'll be right back" behind her shoulder as she darted out the door before they could inquire as to where and why.
Three full minutes had passed with the couple tucked beneath a large black umbrella, trying to stay dry despite the drops which appeared only to be growing stronger. Shikamara had not spoken a word so Ino felt it was up to her to break the silence after she glanced over at him, noticing the undeniable worry line that knitted his brow. "Is there something wrong, Shikamaru? Is there a mission?"
She had definitely hit the nail on the head. What was troubling him was a mission but not one that he needed to tell her to get ready for. After a long sigh he replied, "I guess you could say that's it but it's a bit more complicated than that."
He appeared to not to want to continue so Ino pursued, "Do we have a really dangerous mission this time? ... Akatsuki, again?" she added, although she somehow doubted that what she was asking could be the cause for his bad humor. There was no mission he couldn't have mentioned in front of her parents and even more importantly they only rarely went on missions together anymore. Shikamaru was unofficially on a team composed of Genma, Kotetsu, and Izumo. Team 10 had all but been disbanded after the death of their sensei, Asuma, and the strengths of each had sent them off in different directions. Shikamaru was working in the Tactical Intelligence Division and Ino was working in the Interrogations Department. They would sometimes still meet up for investigations and the odd mission here and there but most of their meetings were just to socialize, often with Chouji, to reminisce and secure the strong bonds they had formed as Genin, lest they should ever forget and neither wanted that.
Another minute of silence passed before Shikamaru came to a halt and Ino realized that they had made a beeline to Shikamaru's house. "Will you come in so we can talk? It will be better than out here in this god-awful rain."
Ino nodded and followed him into the house she knew so well. It had almost become like a second home to her and so she felt no discomfort staying after Shikamaru called out "Mom, Dad, I'm back," more as a means to make sure that they weren't there than to announce his return and discovered that they were alone.
"Looks like they're not here. Sit down and I'll make us some tea."
Ino sat herself at the kotatsu, growing more and more curious as to what kind of mission could merit so much mystery.
Shikamaru returned a few minutes later with two cups of steaming tea. Ino accepted hers gladly and prodded him to begin explaining. "So what's this mystery mission?"
"Well it's not so much a mission as a diplomatic action and it doesn't involve you, just me."
"Yeah. It seems that with the growing threats posed by Akatsuki and especially Pein who are looking to destroy all of the hidden shinobi villages in their quest for power, Lady Tsunade and the Kazekage have been working out a more formal ambassadorship to reinforce the friendship between our two villages and bring insight that will help each to grow stronger and better able to face these and other growing threats. I've been chosen as the 'lucky' ambassador."
"That sounds like an excellent opportunity. That doesn't explain why you're so glum."
"It's a three month mission, possibly longer if it's a success."
"Three months!!!" she protested. Now she could see a clear and immediate danger. Her stomach began to tighten into a knot as she saw the image of Shikamaru in the constant presence of Temari for a whole three months. Not that she thought he would know that she would be bothered by the idea. Ino had never openly expressed what she felt for the young man, knowing that love was a taboo subject in their world, even more so when that person was a member of your team, someone who you counted on to protect your very life. Emotions were just more baggage out in the field and she would not be the one to jeopardize what they had spent years on forming even if now she should feel safer about those feelings with Team Ten pretty much out of action.
Temari had already been to Konoha on a few occasions to help organize the now co-sponsored Chuunin exams and the rumor mill had offered hints of a possible love connection between her and Shikamaru. Ino knew that the rumors were false but she also knew that they were pretty good friends, having fought together on a couple of occasions. Temari had even stuck around to make sure everyone was alright after the disastrous failure of the mission to bring back Sasuke, but three months! Who knew what could transpire with him gone for that long? It's not like he had anyone waiting for him back home.
Ino knew immediately why she didn't want him to go but what were his reasons?
Shikamaru searched Ino's face for even the slightest sign of disapproval. He had to know if she'd care. Did it matter to her that he'd have to report his decision to Lady Tsunade tomorrow?
The Hokage had given him a choice, sort of. She didn't necessarily have to send him but he was the one person from Konoha that the people of Suna trusted most and he was best suited to the mission having seen the village on a few occasions and working in the Tactical Intelligence Division. Saying no wasn't really an option. Even if she had suggested there were other options, Shikamaru knew that another candidate would spend the full three months simply trying to convince the Suna officials of his or her legitimacy. Furthermore, refusing a mission was just not something you could do and still be taken seriously as a shinobi. His refusal could be deemed as a snubbing by the Suna authorities and possibly hinder future diplomatic affairs. No, he couldn't refuse on the grounds that he didn't want to be away from the girl he knew he cared about possibly more than anything in the world for three painful months, especially given that he'd never even shared those feelings with said girl.
He was left with no choice but to tell her how he felt this afternoon, to see if there was even a shimmer of hope, before leaving only to return to find her perhaps in the arms of another.
Scrutinizing her face, he perked up slightly at what appeared to be the lines of disapproval.
Ino stared down into her tea hoping it would lend her the courage to tell him just how much she didn't want him to leave but not wishing to scare him with a confession. She took a deep swallow of her own saliva, set down the cup, looked up and was about to start when Shikamaru did likewise. Their crossed words collided and they both gave off a slightly embarrassed grin.
"You go ahead," said Shikamaru.
"No, you first, for once," offered Ino, inwardly pleased by her quick save to avoid being the first to speak.
Shikamaru took a deep breath and in 'an all in one go effort' reached out to place his hand on hers. "You know, the mission's not a problem but I really will miss you."
There. He had set the bait and began to retract his hand when he felt the sharp tug of Ino's hand pulling it back.
"I really don't want you to leave for so long either. I mean, three months, it's just too long," she complained.
"So it bothers you if I take this mission?" he pushed, a gleam returning to his eye.
"Yeah, even though I know it shouldn't. It's not really my place to have an opinion about your missions. It's not like I'm your girlfriend or your mother or anything," she quickly explained, releasing his hand as she realized the nature of the gesture given the context.
He was disappointed that she had released his hand but reassured her, "Well no matter how you place yourself in my life, I for one am happy to know that you'll miss me." His bad mood had almost dissipated. At least their conversation was taking a turn for the positive. "The mission might not be so bad if I know you're back here pining away for me," he said jokingly, although it felt like one of the most truthful things he'd ever said.
She knew she would be and could only muster a slight smirk to acquiesce.
The room fell silent again. Each now knew that the other cared at least a bit more than what their casual friendship had led to believe and that with neither one having made any confessions which might have been too embarrassing. However, neither knew the full extent of the other's feelings so the atmosphere remained shrouded in doubt. At least the seed had been planted. They would just have to ride out the next months on the shred of hope that had just transpired here this afternoon that there might be something more.
Ino's tea was beginning to cool and she knew she should be heading home soon before her parents would begin to question her whereabouts. However she didn't want to end her visit on such a sour note so she opted to make a bit of small talk to clear the air.
Realizing she didn't even know when he'd be leaving, she asked.
"I have to check in with Lady Tsunade tomorrow. There's no set date for when I must set out but I must arrive in Suna on the first of next month. If I make good time, say three days, then I can leave in a week at the latest."
"So what exactly will you have to do in Suna?" she asked, more for the small talk than that she really cared. One week seemed so close.
"Well, the idea is to secure the village as much as possible. It was only after Deidara breached the village's security that they realized just how open they were to attack despite an already elaborate system. Bringing in some new eyes on the situation will help them to locate vulnerable spots which they might not have noticed before. Spots that some of their missing nins won't know about, like Sasori did. Of course I won't have access to all their information. I am still a visitor from another nation but as we are on good terms and need to consolidate our friendship, we are looking to exchange some of our basic knowledge." He looked over, she seemed to still be listening. He knew he was being uncharacteristically talkative in hopes of keeping her there with him for as long as she would willingly stay. He loved having her company, her undivided attention, no matter how briefly.
"Another part of my job," he continued, "will be to help plan survival strategies for the citizens in case of a long term siege. You know that they're primarily nomadic, relying on herds of grazing animals for their sustenance but if the city ends up in a lock down all of those people still have to eat and feed their animals. So we'll be working on an irrigation system that will allow them to grow more plants. You remember when Kankuro was poisoned? Well they realized that they need to boost their greenhouse stocks of medicinal herbs, too. So basically it's one big safety and security project that I'll be working on."
He looked over at her. She was staring, thinking hard into the distance as if something he had said had struck home.
"I'm boring you. I didn't mean to go on and on," he said but she stopped him short.
"So you mean you're going over to be a strategist and a botanist?"
"Well not a botanist but I'm sure I'll be working with a lot of botanists. That's almost half the work right there."
"Botanists like me?" she suggested, her lips curling up for the first time into a genuine smile. A smile that was the clue he finally needed for one and one to add up. It was so obvious and so perfect that it hit him in the chest like a ton of bricks. His heart skipped a beat. Why hadn't he thought of it before? He could be so dull at times. He had been so busy thinking of all the strategists he would have liked to call on to take his place that not once had it occurred to him what a powerful tool someone with a knowledge of plants could be and if anyone knew plants it was Ino.
"My god, Ino. I need you on this mission. If I ask you to go with me, will you come?"
"Is that an invitation?" she chuckled.
He had to admit that hadn't come out the way he wanted it to. Why was he still beating around the bush like she'd say 'no?' She had said how much she would miss him. This would be the perfect chance for them to spend some time together if that's what she really wanted. Time together not spent under the ever curious eyes of their Konoha camarades and family members. Three months on a mission that didn't even pose any threats. They would actually get to relax at the end of each day, not spend the time recuperating chakra, healing wounds, or sitting on pins and needles to stay alert every second of every day for the smallest signs of enemy activity.
"Ok, I'll rephrase that. Ino, will you please join me on this mission?"
"I would love to but don't you have to get Lady Tsunade's permission first?"
"Don't worry about her. I'll have her convinced in no time. I've already thought of two hundred good arguments she can't say 'no' to." (Really, he had.) "Speaking of which, I don't want to run you out of here but I want to catch her in her office now before it's too late. No point in waiting to tell her tomorrow, now that my mind's made up."
Ino had to admit she had never seen him so geared up for as long as she had known him. It made her happy to see him acting on feeling for once. He was always so low key. That was one of the reasons she never could tell what he might have actually thought of her. Seeing this new side of him reassured her that he truly did enjoy her company.
He scooted her out of the door and they hastily made their way back through the day's last drops of rain, not even thinking to take an umbrella this time.
Taking leave of Ino in front of her house he said, "Better start packing. We leave tomorrow." With that he turned to run in the direction of the Hokage's tower.
Tomorrow, Ino thought, standing there in a daze. What happened to leaving in a week?