"What? No way! They're getting married?"

Chouji nodded. "After all, they've been dating for two years."

"Yeah, I know," said Ino. She laughed. "We should've all seen it coming, huh?"

She looked at her flowers and her laugh kind of trailed off.

Her stomach tightened and she couldn't help but think,

I think I want to throw up.

:::

When she was a little girl, she always thought, "God, why did my dad's friends' sons have to be so lame."

Why couldn't she be childhood friends with someone like, oh say, Sasuke?

No. She got Shikamaru and Chouji instead. Shikamaru, who had a bored, lazy expression most of the times and whose only interest consisted of playing shouji (postively the most POINTLESS board game ever). Chouji, who liked to eat way too much for his own good and whose only interest is... well, food.

Ino had a lot of friends, 'course. All the other girls liked her because she was pretty and funny and wore the cutest clothes. But... well...

Because of the fact that their dads were all best friends, Shikamaru, Chouji, and Ino had to hang out with each other a lot. Just the three of them, while the dads talked over the barbeque or played cards or whatever.

On such occasions, Shikamaru and Chouji would usually just sit side by side in comfortable silence. The two didn't talk very much, but they seemed to enjoy each other's company. Both of them were similar in the fact that they didn't feel they had to do anything in order to be happy. They just... sat and thought about things (especially Shikamaru).

Ino, on the other hand, liked loudness. She liked exciting things. She needed to be active and doing something. She needed to talk and have fun.

Needless to say, she wasn't very fond of her "friends." She already felt annoyed enough because they were guys and she was a girl and that enough made her sort of the odd one out (and Ino hated feeling like the odd one out). She felt even more annoyed when they either ignored her attempts to spice things up or refused to be... a little more exciting to be around.

Their little quality times together always ended with her stomping her foot in frustration and yelling, "I give up! You guys are just stupid!" and stalking off angrily. Then she'd snap, "I heard that!" whenever Shikamaru sighed or muttered something like "Women are troublesome" to Chouji.

And continue to march off with a pout.

That was the essence of Ino's childhood.

:::

The year she turned 12 and graduated from the Academy - finally! - she looked forward eagerly to the prospect of three-people teams.

She had a feeling she would be on the same team with Sasuke. She HAD to be! She prayed and wished with all her heart and since she wanted it so much, she figured Kami would HAVE to pity her earnest desire and grant her the opportunity to be with Sasuke 24/7.

She was very pissed and jealous when she found out Sakura would be on the same team with Sasuke. Sakura had once been her friend but was now her rival in love after declaring that she, too, was in love with Sasuke. For the briefest moment Ino had felt hurt that Sakura would end their friendship over something like that, but Ino wasn't one to mope or feel sad. She wouldn't lose to Sakura. Ino never lost. She knew that despite Sakura's advantage, Ino would still eventually win over Sasuke's affections with her good looks and vivacious charm.

Anyway. Ino was disappointed that she wasn't on the same team with Sasuke.

But she was even MORE dismayed and shocked (in a bad way) to find she had Chouji and Shikamaru for her partners!

It was like God was playing a cruel joke on her. Just when the three of them have been growing apart (or more like, Chouji and Shikmaru have continued to remain good friends but she just stopped hanging out with them), something like this trapped them together again!

Ino felt like those two were like cheese or peanut butter - anything equally sticky and annoying - she couldn't get off.

Plus the whole InoShikaCho joke. God, it really gets on your nerves after a while.

(Ino would never forgive her father for naming her after himself. Like, "boar?" So not pretty. How unfair is it that Sakura gets to be named after a flower?)

:::

Before she knew it though, she was hanging out with them again. Not just for team practice, but also for trips to the restaurant for BBQ and the occasional trek to Shikamaru's cloud-watching spot (one-sided on the part of Ino, though... Shikamaru always said Ino was too loud and disrupted his cloud-watching time whenever she was there.)

In her defense, it was probably because of - you know - how they were a team. It was just natural that you'd form a bond with your teammates. Watching each other's backs, fighting a common enemy, cheesy stuff like that.

Ino began to use the words "we." She smiled when she heard the words "Team 10." She bossed Shikamaru and Chouji around, just for the heck of it, during training and wrinkled her nose in distaste at Asuma's smoking fetish.

Her favorite part, though, had to be snapping at Shikamaru for being so goddamn lazy.

:::

Asuma-sensei. Ino, to this day, still felt that slight twinge of pain in her chest when she remembered him and his cigarettes.

Yet, his death made her feel more than ever the weight of her team. Before, she felt like they were stuck to her like unpleasant glue. Now, she felt like if she wasn't chained to them at the arms and legs, she was going to lose control and fly off to some place strange and foreign.

Take care of them, he had told her.

As she cried and saw Chouji cry, and saw Shikamaru cry, she silently plead: please, sensei, watch over them and don't ever take them away from me.

:::

Of course, back then she meant, "Don't kill them." Some ghosts did that, you know. They missed their loved ones so much they pulled them to the underworld, or the next life, or whatever, along with them so they wouldn't feel so lonely.

But now - now -

Well. Shikamaru wasn't dead. But he was still being taken away from her.

"It's not like you guys won't be friends anymore..." said Sakura hesitantly. "I mean, he's still your teammate and your best friend, you know? MarryingTemari won't change that."

"Yeah," agreed Ino. She tipped back her head, tasting the last few drops of the sake in her cup. "Yeah... mrnreagh."

"There, there. Are you feeling better now? Should I call Sai over?"

"Sakura, we broke up two weeks ago."

"What!" Sakura coughed as her drink went up her nose. "Why? You never told me!"

"Because he told me he's gay."

"He- he is?"

"Yeah, he has the hots for Naruto."

Sakura frowned. "Ino, are you sure this isn't the sake talking..."

Ino shook her head - the whole room was spinning. "Shikamaru's just a lazy bum. You know? He's so boring and never says anything interesting and I cannot understand what's so fun about cloud-watching and shouji. God! He annoys me so much. Lucky Temari wants him."

She got up and stumbled. "Be careful!" yelped Sakura as Ino crashed into the wall.

"I'm - hic - his friend. I'm happy for him. Yeah. He better name one of his kids after me."

She made it to the door, and then it opened before she could touch it.

"Ino...?"

Shikamaru stood there, eyeing her skeptically. "Oh geez, you've been drinking again? Your breath really stinks."

Ino grabbed his shoulders. "I... I just want to say... congrats."

Then she threw up all over his clothes.

:::

Two weeks ago, Ino was in her flower shop, wiping the counters and humming a tune to herself. Business was slow.

The door opened and Sai entered. "Hey, let's go eat. I'm starving."

"Hell yeah, me too. Hold on, let me take my apron off." Ino turned around and went into the back room. She passed the window that looked out over the street, thinking about sushi.

She caught a glimpse of something, then automatically stopped and looked again.

It was Shikamaru and Temari. They were walking to somewhere, probaby just came from lunch since Temari was still carrying a drink in her hand. She was laughing about something and gestured with her hands as she spoke.

Shikamaru was smiling.

Smiling.

Ino was so not used to seeing that expression on his face that she stared extra hard to make sure it was the same guy she knew for the last eighteen years.

"Ino? C'mon, what's taking so long?"

Sai came to see what she was looking at. He looked at Shikamaru, then at Ino. "What...?"

"Sorry, Sai." Ino took a deep breath. "I - I don't feel good. I have to go home."

They broke up three days later.

:::

Ino still doesn't know when exactly Shikamaru began to date Temari. She didn't get the details from the source. She found out from Sakura who heard from Tenten who said Lee saw those two holding hands during one of his morning Burning-Flames-of-Youth runs around the village.

Ino went eagerly to confront Shikamaru. "Why didn't you tell me!" she laughed, swatting at his arm as soon as she found him lying, where else, at his favorite cloud-watching spot. "All this time I thought you were either gay or asexual. Seriously. Who knew that ever since you fought Temari at the Chuunin exam you've been deep in looooooove!"

Shikamaru rolled his eyes. "You're loud."

Ino flopped down on the grass beside him. "Come on, don't lie to me. You're blushing, aren't you? Aren't you?"

He ignored her, which Ino knew was typical-Shikamaru response. Staring up at the clouds, she couldn't help but continue to giggle. She had expected Chouji to find a girlfriend before Shikamaru did.

How weird did things turn out!

"Shut up already."

Ino blinked up at Shikamaru, who had suddenly sat up. The meaning of his words wasn't at all anything new, it was the way he said it. Fast and abrupt, and - was it her imagination? A little angry?

He was looking at her, but because the sun was behind him she just saw a black silhouette. "What!" said Ino, taken aback and very offended at his tone.

She shielded her eyes but Shikamaru had already turned away. "Nothing," he said quietly. "I should go. See you."

He left her staring, bewildered, at his retreating back.

:::

Wedding day.

"I'm not going," Ino told Sakura the day before. "Tell them I have the flu." Sakura had nodded, and Ino had a feeling she wasn't fooled by the lie or the tissues and blankets one bit. Thankfully, Sakura didn't say anything and left her with a simple, "Feel better."

Now it was the morning. Ino sat on her bed, trying not to think about what day it was.

She didn't move, dazed, wondering if she could just sit like this for the rest of her life. It didn't seem so bad.

A knock came on the door. Actually, more like a pounding. "Go away!" shouted Ino, immediately diving into her pillow. "I'm sick!"

"Ino, stop being so stupid!"

It was Chouji. Ino, startled and slightly touched (she knew Chouji had to care an awful lot in order to march to her apartment up four flights of stairs), said more softly, "Go away, please, Chouji."

"Ino, do you remember the steak?"

She had been determined not to say one more word, but this was so out of the blue she blurted, "What steak?"

"The steak that I ate that time when I wanted to give up my diet?"

"Oh... yeah." A few months ago, Chouji, who had always been comfortable with his size, wanted to ask out a pretty waitress at the BBQ place and got motivated to start losing weight. Ino, very pleased to help, made him go on a strict regimen of dieting and exercise. She watched him like a hawk and barked instructions in his ear. A good coach, she was. But came one night when she spotted Chouji eating a steak behind her back. She yelled about self-control for a few minutes, then noticed that instead of looking scared as usual, Chouji just silently sat slumped in his seat. When Ino quieted down and asked him what's wrong, he mumbled, "Forget about this. I can't do it. Being thin doesn't suit me anyway."

Chouji's voice outside the door brought Ino out of her mental flashback. "Do you remember what you said to me?"

"You stupid idiot?" Ino smiled a little.

"No, after that."

She leaned against her pillow, remembering. "If you give up now, nothing's going to change..."

"'You can't get what you want unless you put up a fight,'" continued Chouji. "'So suck it up and think about what's important to you. And go after it. Because it's never too late.'"

"I didn't say that last part," said Ino.

"That's what I'm saying to you! Ino, don't deny it, ok, I know you like Shikamaru. As in more than a friend. So why are you just sitting around and pitying yourself on his wedding day? That's not like the Ino I know."

"But - it is too late, Chouji! He loves her. I saw it, I know. I - I want him to be happy."

"Do you think you're ever going to be happy with this regret hanging over you? Look, if he really loves her, he's not going to be hurt or affected by what you say."

"But things will be awkward between us. And he may not be hurt but I - "

"Are you afraid of a little pain, is that it? Ino, if you're just letting everything go without even trying anything you're going to hurt like you are now, for years and years. That's the worst kind of pain."

Ino was quiet.

"Come on," said Chouji slowly. "Ino, you know you don't want to think 'What if' for the rest of your life. It's your choice, but - if you stay in that room like a coward, you're disappointing me and the Ino you used to be."

No answer.

Chouji sighed and turned to go -

The door banged open, nearly knocking him over, and Ino stood there, breathless.

"Where's the wedding?"