Tonight is the last night that I'm going to see Shikamaru.
Tonight, we're going to hold a farewell party at our house to wish him luck in his upcoming travel. The Hokage, Tsunade-sama, had chosen him as an emissary to a far-off country - I'm just not sure which (I never bothered to ask). It's an honor to be picked out of a village of powerful ninjas but, as usual, Shikamaru treated it with nothing but a mere "Mendokuse" and a reluctant nod. (He thinks almost everything is troublesome – almost because there are some things he likes to do, such as napping and being lazy.) He wasn't told how long he's going to stay so there was a lot of grumbling involved. He was told, though, that he is going to receive an allowance for every week he remains in that country. To me, that would be pretty exciting, but Shikamaru wasn't too keen on getting an allowance. You see, sometimes he doesn't know where to spend it, so he'll just buy another useless thing like that pig figurine he gave me for my birthday. It was meant to be an insult. I knew that so I slapped him the first time I got the chance. He didn't wince or get angry. He just absorbed it all in, all of the pain.
For the party, my mother and I grilled some mackerel and made some sushi. Dad was thinking of making kelp salad – because kelp is one of Shikamaru's favorite foods – but I refused. "Do you want to eat kelp salad, Dad?" I asked him. "I sure don't!" I know I snapped at him when I said that but I can't help it. I already apologized and he reassured me that's he's okay and that he's used to women getting pissed all of a sudden.
Choji suggested that we also cook yakiniku. I told him it's his favorite and not Shikamaru's. I snapped at him, again. Maybe I'm just feeling bad about things that happened in the past months…
The farewell party will be held in our backyard at night, when the stars shine the brightest. Naruto, Shino, Kiba, and the others who had spent considerable time with Shikamaru volunteered to arrange the tables and chairs. I would peek at them occasionally to see if they were making progress or just fooling around and destroying everything, but they weren't. All of them were solemnly doing their assigned jobs. Naruto was unnaturally quiet at that time. They were probably feeling pretty bad at not having Shikamaru around. After all, he was the brain of our generation. Everyone looked up to him, even the proudest guys.
I had the volunteers hang paper lanterns all over the trees to showcase one of Shikamaru's best tactics. He had once used lanterns in a fight against a Sound Five kunoichi named Tayuya. Well, I thought it is a smart move so I insisted on the decorations. It would also add some much needed illumination to the otherwise dismal parting.
- - - - -
I was the one who told Shikamaru about the farewell party. He was passing by our shop one day – he didn't stop as often as he did before. It was fortunate that Dad had me tend the shop.
"Hey!" I yelled from behind the counter. "Yo, Shikamaru!"
He stopped, looked inside, and waved.
"Come inside. I have something to say."
Before entering, I heard him mutter, "This better not be gossip…" In another situation, I probably would have given him a long, hard glare but as it stands, I couldn't. It would be terribly bad form. But, then again, he was used to my reactions.
"Well, Choji and I thought we'd bid you a proper goodbye by setting up a party for you. It's going to be held at our house on - -"
He held up his hand to stop me. "A what? A party?" He sighed. "Why'd you even bother?"
With that, grumbling as he went, Shikamaru left the shop. I had no idea if he wanted it or not. But, then again, I've always had a hard time deciphering his purposes. It was Choji who told me the next day that Shikamaru was alright with it, as long as it wasn't too rowdy.
- - - - -
The backyard was soon filled with people of different ages and ranks. Our friends were there. Even the shy Hinata was around, sitting in a corner with Sakura. Some of our senseis were also around. Kurenai-sensei, with her new born baby, was sitting beside Konohamaru and his two pals. Kakashi-sensei, who had "adopted" us, and Yamato-sensei were already at the long table, sampling the dishes. The Hokage also graced our little party with her presence.
Asuma-sensei would have wanted to come, too. In my heart, I hoped that he could, but that's no longer possible. He's already gone and, since his untimely demise, Shikamaru became a broken man. They had always been together, with their relationship from mentor-student moving to friend-friend. The two of them would spend the time playing Shogi in the Nara home. Shikamaru always won but Asuma-sensei would always smile. Often, Shikamaru would get bored because it's the same thing over and over again.
- - - - -
The party was about to begin, but Shikamaru still hasn't arrived. His mother, Nara Yoshino, had arrived sometime earlier with her husband, Shikaku (who looks very much like his son, in every freaking way). She said she had no idea where her idiot son went, but she assured us that he would come.
"It's his party, after all." She said, with a shrug. "Right, Shikaku?"
Thirty minutes later passed with no sign of his arrival. The students he taught at the Ninja Academy were beginning to get restless. Kurenai-sensei's baby started to cry. Choji was fidgeting with hunger. Yoshino was scolding her husband in the corner. Mom was running out of appetizers. I was getting pissed. We had gone through all this trouble just to give him a proper send-off party and he's not even showing up. What's up with that?
But, just as I was about to explode, Shikamaru arrived. He was wearing his usual get-up and his signature frown (or laid-back face, whatever). He came up to Mom and Dad first and apologized. Next, he patted Choji on the shoulder and told him to go eat. He went around the tables and said sorry for being late. Kakashi-sensei made a joke and he laughed, but it was not the kind of laugh I used to hear. Lastly, he came up to me and managed a half smile.
"Baka, where have you been?" I asked, still fuming with anger. I accused him of so many things but all he did was smile. "Quit smirking at me like that! You're dreadfully late and… And…" I couldn't think of anything else to say.
"Okay. Are you done?"
I nodded feebly.
"You could have started the party without me, you know?"
I was about to argue that it was his party but then he announced that the guests could start eating. I stared at him in disbelief.
"Hey! We prepared a little program - -"
"By 'we' you mean yourself, right?"
I ignored that and went on, "I'm supposed to say what's to be done!"
"Okay…" He said, long and smooth. "Then you tell them to stop lining up for food."
I gave up. He always had this knack for pissing me off.
- - - - -
Shikamaru didn't eat the food we prepared. As was natural, I hated him for it. He couldn't even imagine the hours we put in cleaning and grilling mackerel and rolling sushi the correct way. I thought, "What the hell?" He didn't even come to my mother, at least, to apologize. Mom and Dad just acted normally. They didn't even seem to notice it. Apparently, I was going to be alone in this. It had always been like that. I've always been the most sensitive in our family of three. Sakura would often tease me about it and blames it on my higher regard for Shikamaru. I always retorted that this was not the case, because it wasn't. But, now… I guess I'm no longer so sure.
- - - - -
After the dinner, Choji and Shikamaru asked me if they could drink sake inside the house. I was furious at first and glared at them like a real mother. Choji was about to apologize but his companion wouldn't, so he insisted on it also. Finally, after a little negotiation, I acquiesced. I showed them inside secretly, fearing punishment if my parents found out. My Dad would be stark mad if he found out; it's his sake, after all.
I left the two of them on the dining room and went into the kitchen to get their drinks. Shikamaru followed me. I intentionally banged stuff around while searching to show him just how pissed I was. As usual, he was not looking apologetic but was merely wearing a blank expression. I couldn't find the glasses or the bottle of wine. I turned around to face him.
"Why don't you just wait outside? I'll serve them when I find them."
"Eh? I'm not doing anything, Ino."
"I know…" I muttered, turning my back to him. "It just feels weird to have you sitting there with a blank expression and who knows what you're thinking behind my back."
He grunted. "Right. I swear I'm not thinking anything rude."
I opened a cupboard and found nothing. "I know that."
"Will you please just go outside, Shikamaru?"
"I don't want to. It's my party, right?"
"Fine. But it's my house, alright?"
He placed his hands on the table and studied his fingers. "I just wanted to watch you, that's all. Is something wrong with that?"
I rolled my eyes.
"You have a big kitchen." He commented as he looked at the ceiling. "It must be really nice to work here."
"It's so big I don't know where anything is."
He smiled furtively.
"So, you're leaving tomorrow?"
Shikamaru quickly regained his serious composure. "Yeah. You want me to leave that badly?"
"No. Just asking." I found two glasses but there was still no sign of the wine bottle. I could just holler and Dad would point out where it was, but that would raise an eyebrow and a lot of questions. "Sakura said you could have refused the job."
He shut his eyes and raised his legs up at the table. "Uh-huh."
"You were complaining about it so much. Why didn't you refuse?" I finally found Dad's secret stash. "Found it!"
"I wanted something to do." He opened his eyes and watched me as I poured the drinks. "I wanted to let things simmer down…"
I laughed bitterly. "So, it's me?"
"What you?" He yawned. "The reason? No, of course not. What made you think about that?"
I had a sudden impulse to place a third glass for myself. "No reason."
"You weren't supposed to bring it up again. I thought we agreed on that."
"Damn, Shikamaru! I know!" I turned around and looked at him angrily. "I was kidding there, okay?"
"For a minute, you sounded pretty serious."
"I'm sorry," I said, turning back to the glasses. "I lost my head there."
He stood up. "I'm going back to Choji. Since you went to all the trouble of finding those, why don't you add a little something? You know… A snack? Choji would want that."
I could argue that our teammate just ate but he wasn't there anymore. At least, I wasn't there anymore. My mind was away somewhere, remembering those days that, back then, seemed to be awful to me. Those things that I thought were the right decisions didn't turn out to be good at all. They just made us drift apart, farther than we had been before. There had always been a rift between us – I'm not going to hide that – but what he did and what I said just made it a lot bigger. The people around us, Choji included, decided to pretend it didn't happen, but it did. Sakura and some of my friends never brought it up, partly because they didn't know what really occurred and partly because it wasn't necessary. Re-opening a wound that never really healed hurt more than the time it was first injured.
These thoughts wandered in my mind as I fixed them a snack. I don't quite know what got into me. The question just seemed to pop right out of my mouth. I couldn't even say I joked with a straight face, because I know, deep inside, I was hoping that he'd say "yes." If the reason for his leaving was me, it would have been more bearable than knowing that I was no longer important, that something – or someone – had taken that place. I had pretty much convinced myself before that Sakura was right. Ever since the incident, I was more inclined to be sensitive to whatever he said or did. Ever since the incident, he was more inclined to avoid me or treat me like I was part of the damn background. It must have hurt him, probably, more than I would ever know.
"Your drinks…" I mumbled as I placed the glasses and the bottle on the table.
"You took such a long time, Ino." Choji grumbled. "I was so hungry."
"Man, you just ate!" Shikamaru said, good-naturedly. He smiled at his best friend. "Is it so hard to keep that diet regimen Ino gives you? You just need a bit of discipline, Choji. Right, Ino?" He looked at me. "Right?"
"R-right." I managed a weak laugh and slapped Choji's shoulder. I tried to act cheerful. "Yeah! You're getting bigger again. I'm going to have to rewrite your regimen again!" I laughed as I walked back to the kitchen. Feigning happiness was easier said than done.
- - - - -
As I left the room, I heard Choji ask Shikamaru what had happened at the kitchen.
"Nothing, man, nothing important." Was his reply.