So guess who finally got off her lazy butt?
Give Me All Your Love
She woke just as the sunrise splayed dull orange highlights on the white blanket. His breath was a gentle rhythm on her bare skin, inciting little bumps to rise out of their depths. A stiffness marred her movements, similar in pain but different in area. They were easily ignored, a skill requiring a strong will and lots of experience (which, as a ninja, she had). She turned her attention to the strong jaw line obscuring her view, prickling with short stubble that she knew was ticklish and yet erotic when rubbed against her skin.
Her eyes blinked to stall the tears, flickering up and watching Shikamaru's serene face above hers. Ino didn't move for a moment, struck by the gravity of what this meant, looking up into his sleeping face, feeling the heavy weight of his arm draped over her waist. Because although she had woken up to the one thing she'd love more than anything to see, Shikamaru was going to wake up and see something he wanted nothing more than to forget.
Her lower lip quivered, but she bit the sobs back, breathing deeply through her nose to dissipate the building tears. Lying here, in his arms, Ino wished it had happened differently. What they did together; what they shared, Ino wished it wasn't a mistake. She wished that she wasn't a mistake.
Her fingers traced the stubble of his jaw, and he leaned closer to her hand whilst still snoring softly. There were bags under his eyes, though fainter than yesterday when he had almost knocked the door down to talk to her. Recently, Shikamaru had been promoted to jounin and he started performing more A-ranks and S-ranks. His genius, elevating him to a higher status than normal for a newbie jounin, made him extremely desirable for high-risk missions.
But that was irrelevant to Ino as she brushed back some of his hair. Right now, all she knew was that he was tired and he needed rest. He needed oblivion and peace and silence. More than anyone, a Yamanaka knew how dangerous stress was on the mind, what horrible repercussions it had for the everyday person, let alone a genius like her Shikamaru.
'Her' Shikamaru? Ino smiled bitterly, reminding her brain that this particular Nara belonged to the same person who tore out a chunk of his heart. He was going to hurt for a while, she knew. He'd hide it with his apathy and laziness, but Ino knew his heart would bleed for months while it tried to heal itself. And even when the wound was all closed up, there was going to be a horrible, thick, jagged scar in its place. A reminder. A reminder of his mistakes.
And then he was going to look at her, at Ino, and that scar would throb angrily. It was going to remind him, threatening to re-open, his heart was going to remind him, "Remember what you did to her? Remember how you used her for your own selfishness?" even though Ino was going to deny it with everything she had. Because she wasn't going to let herself be his mistake; Ino was going to fight with everything she had to be that something right in his life.
Taking a slow, deep breath, Ino rose from her stagnant position on her side and stared down at her teammate. A silent bubble of laughter popped in her sternum.
"Sakura is going to kill me," she giggled, running a hand through her loose hair. And to think, just the other day she told the roseate she wasn't going to do anything stupid.
Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, the blonde kunoichi disentangled herself from the bed and from Shikamaru, quietly gathering clothes for her morning shower. Waking so early in the morning, Ino figured she'd be able to start making breakfast just in time for Asuma to get out of bed. The little tyke usually woke up before her, so it would be a nice change of pace, she supposed.
Throwing a robe over her nude body, Ino started for the door but took one last indulgent moment and turned around, running her gaze over the sleeping genius. His black hair was unbound, contrasted messily over the white pillows. An arm poked out of the sheets, the faint white lines of his scars almost seeming to glow red in the sunrise. Ino hesitated with her hand on the doorknob, lingering for one last second before shaking her head and stepping out into the hallway.
The sun blared bright orange behind his closed eyes, and Shikamaru groaned as he shifted in bed. It was so warm and comfy and he didn't feel like getting up just yet. So the shadow user dozed for a few minutes, trying to get his bearings because he noticed the bed felt distinctly different from his one at home. In fact, he didn't remember getting into bed last night, but supposed that was because he was a little busy getting dumped by Temari—
Jolting into a sitting position, Shikamaru's eyes darted to his left, expecting to see the figure of his blonde teammate but finding ruffled sheets instead. A light purple post-it was stuck to the pillow and Shikamaru's dark eyes snapped over the words like lightning.
I'm not mad.
He groaned, but this time in anger at himself, burying his face in his hands. If the Nara needed proof that what happened last night wasn't a dream, then he found it.
Of all the stupid, idiotic things he could have done, it had to be this. Sleeping with his own teammate was bad already, but it also had to be on the terms that he was emotionally unstable and seeking comfort. And when someone had sex with you because you were reeling from a recent breakup, then it was a special kind of sex. More accurately, it was pity sex.
Because, you know, it's not as if he wasn't already pathetic enough.
Running a hand through his loose black hair, Shikamaru glanced over at the innocent-looking post-it stuck to the pillow and swiped it. His dark eyes scrutinized the little piece of paper with careful precision, trying to figure out from her neat handwriting if his blonde teammate was only trying to ease his own guilt. It would definitely be an Ino thing to do, he mused. If it was something stupid and trivial, she would rail at him for hours, pulling his ear and punching his shoulder to get her point across. But something serious? She clammed up like an oyster and safe-guarded the pearl like a mad woman. Although, Shikamaru knew Ino had always been a bit mad, so that's not too surprising. (It made him wonder if she stole the 'mad' part of his 'mad genius'.)
Sighing but fighting back the urge to mumble his all-time favourite word, Shikamaru crumpled the post-it in his hand and flung it into the trashcan on the other side of the room. He let himself wallow in his own self-pity for a few minutes before getting out of bed and pulling his clothes on, tying his hair in its customary ponytail. When he stepped out of the room, grim-faced and ready to confront Ino, a black blur barrelled into his leg. Shikamaru couldn't help the little grin that lightened over his face when the black blur, Asuma, peered happily up at him.
"Shii-nii-san!" he exclaimed.
"Hey 'Suma," Shikamaru replied, ruffling his hair. The two-year old squirmed under his hand, but was still smiling happily as he tugged on his idol's pant leg.
"Kitchen!" he crowed demandingly, and the lazy genius chuckled, sweeping the toddler into the crook of his arm. Asuma wound his chubby arms as best he could around Shikamaru's neck, kicking his feet and shouting, "Kitchen! Kitchen!" over and over again.
"Hai, hai," Shikamaru acquiesced, sauntering through the doorway of said kitchen. Ino was standing in front of the stove, humming to herself as she flipped a frying pan full of scrambled eggs. She already knew they were there, as any good ninja would, but merely continued to hum and cook. Asuma wriggled out of his human carrier and scrambled onto a seat, beaming in his 'No-nee-chan's direction, waiting for the yummy food.
"Eggs!" he exclaimed, and Ino turned, laughing.
"Yep, eggs!" she confirmed, scooping some onto the plate in front of the toddler. Shikamaru stood awkwardly in the doorway, wondering what her reaction to him was going to be. Although Ino said she 'wasn't mad', Shikamaru often learned that his hypotheses towards his blonde teammate were almost always wrong. She was an unpredictable mass of sunshine and blue skies, kind of like Naruto. The two of them were practically the only ninja on the planet still able to surprise him.
"Shikamaru!" Ino said suddenly, making him jump. There was a stern look on her face, her foot tapping the tiled floor. "Are you going to stand there like a dummy or sit down and eat? I went through the trouble of making you coffee, so you better drink it!" Shikamaru blinked once, and then ambled lazily over to his seat on the table, where there was a steaming cup of coffee sitting in front of his plate of bacon and eggs. Ino sniffed with satisfaction as he plopped onto his chair and took a large gulp of his bitter beverage. The scalding hot temperature didn't bother him as much as Ino's attitude.
She was acting normal, something Shikamaru knew was possible, but unlikely. He had expected her to be cold towards him, or at least apathetic because he had taken advantage of her. There were times when Ino was the quintessential independent woman, a feminist in all her slim glory. She had huge beef with the image of a woman as a possession, and often complained that shinobi didn't have to do seduction missions like kunoichi. It was actually because of her that Shikamaru was sent on his first seduction mission about a year ago. (Troublesome.)
If nothing else, Shikamaru would at least expect her to act nicer, as if to cushion the blow of Temari and his break-up. She would be all mother-hen-y and grating on his every nerve with her un-Ino-ness. Instead, he gets this; a normal Ino. The Ino that dotes on her 'little Su-kun' and smashes her fist in his face every chance she gets. And sitting there, jabbing eggs down his throat and watching Ino pour herself a glass of orange juice while wearing a plain white apron, Shikamaru wasn't sure how he felt about it.
"I didn't know you could be so domestic," Shikamaru commented randomly as Ino sat down. She shot him a glare, stabbing her eggs with her fork.
"Unlike some people, I'm actually a motivated and hard-working person," she said haughtily, tossing her hair back. Shikamaru grinned behind his hand, choosing to remain silent and take another bite of her home-cooked breakfast. She was sneaking him surreptitious glances, and he thought for a moment that it was about what they did last night. But her blue eyes kept darting down to his plate, and he tried not to grin again.
"Not bad, Ino. You're a pretty good cook," he said, having cleared his plate. Shikamaru leaned back in his chair, taking a sip of his coffee. Ino seemed to puff with pride, attacking her own plate with gusto.
"Yeah, yeah!" Asuma exclaimed. "'No-nee-chan good!" Ino beamed at his compliment, stuffing a slice of bacon into her mouth. Shikamaru was glad that she had gotten over her whole diet thing from when they were twelve. Her body was toned with muscles and curvy with maturity. He was actually surprised that she wasn't going out every weekend with a date; she could definitely do it. But then Shikamaru remembered the moment on the hill, a couple of days ago.
Shit. She already loved someone, and she still slept with him? He hoped she wasn't doing that because of Asuma-sensei's dying wish. Ino tended to blow things like that out of proportion. But at the same time, Shikamaru knew that a part of him was feeling smug because she didn't care enough about this secret love interest to put him above her teammates. As much as Shikamaru knew Ino could have a hundred guys at her feet with the snap of a finger, he also knew that him and Chouji would crush every. single. one of them.
"I done!" Asuma exclaimed, almost falling off his chair in his mad dash towards the living room. Ino sighed at his enthusiasm for his favourite TV show, taking their empty plates and dumping them in the sink where she began to wash them. Shikamaru observed her as she did, waiting to hear the TV turn on in the other room before standing up, hovering behind his teammate as she worked. There was a slight tensing of her shoulders when she sensed him there, but otherwise Ino looked quite relaxed.
The two clan heirs stood like that for a few minutes, the sound of the rushing water flowing over them. Ino was never a very patient person, but Shikamaru found himself the impatient one this time, waiting for her to say something. She remained strangely silent, and so the lazy genius didn't even realize his mouth had opened in anxiety until he said, "I'm sorry."
Ino tensed sharply; rigidly. "Don't," she murmured, her hands resuming scrubbing the plates. "I said I'm not mad." Shikamaru scoffed.
"Yeah, right. And I'm not a genius." Ino slammed her wet, soapy hand on the edge of the sink, whirling around to face him with narrowed eyes.
"I mean it," she bit out, trembling slightly. "I'm not mad, and don't you dare assume that you know what I'm thinking, Shikamaru." His shoulders slumped further down, showing he was disgruntled. Despite being a genius, Shikamaru never knew what she was thinking anyways, but that didn't mean he couldn't guess. Though one would think after knowing her for so many years…
"I'm not assuming anything," Shikamaru countered. "I just wanted to… to say sorry. About last night." Ino winced, and she sharply turned back around to the sink. He was surprised at her reaction (as always), thinking she was going to scoff at the ridiculousness of his statement, or at least agree with him vehemently and demand compensation of some kind. Instead, all he got was the silent treatment and a cold shoulder. How curious…
"Just go watch Asuma. I don't want him to break anything when he starts acting out his favourite characters or something," she said, head bent over the sink. Shikamaru didn't move, observing her carefully. Her blonde hair was draped over one shoulder, the nape of her neck privy to all, and he found himself reaching out to touch the little red marks marring her pale skin. She shivered at the touch and then jerked away from it. Shikamaru irrationally wished she hadn't moved.
"Was I rough?" he asked, his voice low. Ino was trembling again, but she didn't turn around to answer him.
"You don't remember?" she replied, her voice almost mocking, almost accusing. Shikamaru shrugged, even though he knew she wouldn't be able to see the gesture.
"It's something of a blur," he lied. He was a genius; remembering things was what made him a formidable shinobi. So of course he remembered how she gasped wantonly against him, twisting her fingers into the sheets, arching her chest against his. Her touch was curiously absent from his body, their attention lathered onto the pillow, the bed sheets, or the mattress; anything but him. It was as if touching him would make it personal, like there was a consequence to her mutual reciprocation.
And yet... when he sank into her, when she smiled against his tears falling on her cheeks, he felt her touch more greatly than he ever had before.
"Too bad then. I'm not going to remind you," she said firmly, drying her hands off with a towel. His eyes narrowed, but he didn't argue. He couldn't, not when Kurenai walked in through the front door, her voice echoing through the house.
The two of them looked in the direction of the door that led to the living room. A second later, Kurenai walked into the kitchen, holding her baby in her arms. She was sweaty and tired, but unmistakably happy as she held her little boy. "Good morning," she greeted, not at all surprised that Shikamaru was here. The genjutsu master probably thought that he had dropped by or something, as was normal for the members of Team Ten to do no matter if Kurenai was on a mission or not. But if the mother noticed the tension in the air, she didn't give any indication she did.
"Morning," Shikamaru and Ino both chorused.
"Thanks for staying with Asuma while I was gone," she thanked them, and they both shrugged it off. Kurenai grinned at their responses, setting her son on the floor. "I'm going to go take a shower. You can leave if you want." Ino jumped at the chance to leave, eager to get away from the house and from her and Shikamaru's conversation. She ripped off the apron, throwing it over Shikamaru`s head.
"Thanks, Kurenai-san! I'll see you later, Su-kun," she said, waving goodbye and jogging out the door. Shikamaru tore the kitchen accessory off his head, ready to chase after her when Kurenai pinned him with a peculiar gaze.
"Is she okay?" the jounin asked. He froze almost imperceptibly, but knew that it wouldn't be imperceptible if a ninja was the one watching. The red-eyed woman didn't seem to want to call him out on it, as Kurenai was never a sort of prying person, so he just shrugged nonchalantly so she would drop the subject. She did, allowing him to brush past her and head for the door, where he knew Ino was long gone from. (She was the fastest kunoichi in their group, second to Lee but on par with Sasuke).
Shikamaru ruffled Asuma's hair as he left, shutting the door behind him and looking up at the clouds. They were floating lazily by, but he strangely found no interest in them as his eyes turned to the purple dot weaving through the rooftops.
He remembered a long time ago, so long ago he was sure Ino didn't remember, about the first time they met. Logically, it would have happened through his parents and hers since the old men had been friends since their genin days. In actuality, their meeting was completely coincidental, a sudden tumbling of arms and legs and grass and dirt. She had tripped over his four year old body lying on the grass, disrupting his cloud time.
"Ouch," he mumbled, too lazy to react more intensely. If Ino was anything like her fifteen year old self, she would have screamed at him for being stupid enough to get in her way. But this Ino was four years old and crying on top of that.
"S-sorry," she sniffled, burying her face in his chest. Shikamaru knew that his father was a naturally chivalrous person, which was a trait he inherited (unfortunately). So it was because of this instinctive chivalry he held that instead of pushing her away and scowling about 'cooties', Shikamaru just awkwardly patted little Ino's short hair in comfort.
"S'ok," he mumbled for lack of a better comforting phrase, stifling a sigh when she burst into tears, soaking his shirt with her salty bodily fluids. Her tiny hands fisted on his chest and she didn't move for a long while, clinging to the person who finally decided to offer her a modicum of sympathy. Shikamaru thought it was mildly troublesome, having a stranger crying on him, but was grateful that at least she wasn't blocking his view of the clouds.
When his new cloud-watching buddy (sarcasm) finally stopped crying so loudly and lifted her head to peer at him, Shikamaru had already counted fifty-seven clouds that floated by. Thirteen of them had no discernible image, but five resembled geometric shapes and he swore one of them looked like his mother screaming at his dad—
"What are you doing?"
Shikamaru tried not to sigh in annoyance.
"Watching the clouds," he muttered. The-person-he-would-come-to-know-as-Ino slid off his chest, landing on the grassy floor beside him. Unlike her older counterpart, she was not at all concerned about grass stains and dirt coating her clothes, and so simply sat beside the lazing Nara boy, blinking curiously down at him. Her earlier distress seemed to be completely forgotten as she angled her face towards the sky, tracking the progress of the clouds.
"Why?" she asked in her cherub, four-year old voice that most people found absolutely adorable. Shikamaru just wished it was gone and he wouldn't have to hear it again; it was disrupting the peace and quiet of his cloud-watching time. But that was apparently not going to happen when Ino stubbornly remained seated beside him, nudging him again. "Ne, why?" she asked again, wondering if perhaps he didn't hear her the first time.
Shikamaru grunted at the jabbing finger on his side, muttering, "Because I can," just to placate her. She didn't look very placated, just curious as she lay down beside her new friend, blinking up at the sky that was the same colour as her eyes.
They stayed like that for a long while, two pairs of wide, innocent eyes getting lost in the fluffy white clouds. It was only when the sky started to darken and the sun began to set that Shikamaru sat up, grumbling and yawning. "Getting late; we should go," he told her. Her eyes flickered over to him, before darting back to the sky washed in red and gold.
"Not yet," she implored of him. "I wanna see the stars."
He was a bit surprised at her response, wondering if her parents were okay with it. I mean, as smart as Shikamaru was, he was still only four years old. If they didn't hurry, then his mom would start panicking and his dad would come and find him and then he'd get scolded by both parents, one on the way home and the other at the house itself. But there was a peculiar look on the girl's face, one that spoke of something deeper than just a simple rebellious action. So, sighing a bit as if to prepare for his approaching reprimand, Shikamaru flopped back down on the grass and waited for the day to fade to night.
It was only when the night was mottled with little blinking lights that Shikamaru and Ino finally got up, ready to head home. As the boy genius predicted, his dad had come to the hill looking for him, a stern expression on his face. What he didn't predict was the expression fading when he caught sight of his son's blonde companion, twisting to one of sympathy and comfort. And it was then that Shikamaru was introduced to Yamanaka Ino, the daughter of Yamanaka Hana, a woman whose funeral was held earlier that day.
Chouji hovered over the smoking grill, the scent of deliciously cooking meat wafting to his nose. His eyes were trained on the especially juicy one in the far corner, his chopsticks ready and waiting to snatch it up. Beside him, Shikamaru lazily lifted his chopsticks to eat, his eyes trained stubbornly on their female teammate across the table. She was fussing over the fourth member of the table, little Asuma who had gotten rice all over his chubby cheeks.
"More!" Asuma said after his cheeks were wiped. Chouji thought it was kind of useless doing that, granted he was just going to get more rice on his face. He decided not to mention it while watching Ino smile in this… way as she cleaned her Su-kun's cheeks with a napkin. It was a sweet and nice smile and Chouji wanted it to stay on her face.
"What do you say?" Ino asked, and Asuma smiled widely.
"Please!" he answered. Ino smiled giddily and kissed him on the forehead, gushing praises. She leant out to pick up a piece of meat, only to be stopped by Chouji's chopsticks.
"Not that one," he told her. That was going to be hard to chew. He moved her chopsticks to the one he had been eyeing earlier and Ino smiled in thanks and picked it up, snipping it into small pieces with the scissors the waitress gave her. Shikamaru gave him a look (he probably knew Chouji wanted that piece) but simply went back to eating. Chouji smiled sunnily when Asuma looked at him and beamed, showing his perfectly square baby teeth.
"Good!" he exclaimed. Of course it was good; Chouji had an excellent eye for food. As it was, he simply patted the little boy on the head and went to pick up the second-best piece of meat on the grill, which he supposed was now the best piece. Ino cleaned off her greasy fingers with a moist napkin and dug into her pouch for a few ryo.
"I have to go," she told them, kissing Asuma on the forehead as he munched on the bite-sized pieces of beef. Shikamaru eyed her suspiciously while she stood up, depositing her share of the bill on the table.
"Where are you going?" he asked. Chouji was kind of surprised that Shikamaru asked in the first place, looking over at him. There was a stubborn set in his jaw, like he was trying not to grind his teeth. It was an expression Chouji saw many a time on Ino's face, and wondered if somehow his teammates had decided to switch facial expressions for the day. Shikamaru was often the one with the exasperated look, and yet Ino was the one wearing it now.
"To the flower shop. I have a shift in five minutes," she answered rather nonchalantly. Shikamaru, placated by her answer, turned back to the steaming slabs of meat roasting on the grill. Ino grinned and rolled her eyes at him, amused at his suspicion. "I'll see you guys later, okay?" Chouji waved as she left the restaurant, her long ponytail swinging gently behind her. He waited a few seconds, to make sure she wasn't coming back, before turning to Shikamaru.
"What was that about?" he asked. Shikamaru tensed.
"What was what about?" the lazy genius countered, feigning obliviousness. If Chouji was Ino, he'd have rolled his eyes. As it was, the larger ninja simply shook his head and went back to his yakiniku. He toyed with the idea of pushing the topic, but Asuma was making a bit of a mess on the other side of the table. Chouji switched seats, taking Ino's abandoned one and using a napkin to clean the child's cherub cheeks.
"Fank you Cho-nii-san!" Asuma exclaimed, grinning up at his pseudo-older brother. Chouji patted his head, smiling softly. The young kid went back to eating, his chin level with the table and his arms barely able to reach over the table. To help him, Chouji lifted Asuma onto his lap, using his body as a booster seat. Asuma was delighted with the new perspective granted to him, ignoring his food and reaching for the smoke of the grill. Chouji stopped him before he could burn himself, not noticing his friend smirking at him from across the table.
"You'd make a good dad, Chouji," Shikamaru said. Startled, Chouji looked up at the strategist.
"What? N-no, I wouldn't," he protested, his cheeks flushed pink. Asuma, curious as to the colour staining his 'Cho-nii-san's' cheeks, reached up and patted his face. The action only resulted in darkening the colour.
"Yeah, you would," Shikamaru assured. "Asuma loves you." Chouji fidgeted in embarrassment.
"W-well, Asuma loves you too. I guess that means you'd make a good dad too, yeah?" He nodded, as if satisfied with his assessment. Shikamaru grimaced and shook his head. Him? A father? He didn't think so. Kids were so troublesome; Asuma was enough of a handful for him.
"Shii-nii-san, Cho-nii-san," Asuma spoke up, blinking cutely at his two pseudo-older brothers. "Who my daddy?"
They both froze.
"A-Asuma-kun," Chouji stuttered, at a loss for what to say. Desperate, he turned to Shikamaru for guidance, but the genius was speechless as well, his face wracked with sorrow and guilt. Asuma, confused, looked up at Chouji.
"Cho-nii-san? Why Shii-nii-san sad?" he asked in his cherub voice, in his oh-so-innocent tone. "Why Cho-nii-san cry?" He reached up with his baby hands, patting his Cho-nii-san's cheeks to clear away the tears. When the tears continued to fall, and Asuma realized that his Cho-nii-san was very, very sad, he began to cry as well. "Waahh!"
"No, Asuma-kun, don't cry!" Chouji panicked, unsure what to do. Ino was usually the one who dealt with Asuma in his emotional states. Shikamaru wasn't any help either, looking rather anxious on the other side of the table. It seemed that neither of them were built for fatherhood yet, and Kurenai knew it quite well as she advanced on them, having come to pick Asuma up from their monthly yakiniku lunches. (It was a way for them to feel closer to her husband, the older kunoichi supposed.)
"Asuma-kun," Kurenai cooed softly, quieting his cries and wiping away his tears in that way only a mother could do to her child. He sniffled, hugging her tightly. "What's wrong?" she asked softly, kissing his forehead. "Does your tummy hurt?" Asuma shook his head, still clinging to his mom as he looked up at her.
"Shii-nii-san and Cho-nii-san sad," he told her, rubbing his eyes. "Make me sad too."
Kurenai looked to the two shinobi for answers, and they both tensed up. Shikamaru's gaze quickly transferred to his plate, while Chouji cleared his throat and quickly rubbed away his tears. "He... he asked about..." Chouji stammered, shifting nervously, hesitating. His lips clamped shut, as if to say the name – to mention him – was taboo. Even after all these years, his death was a topic of intense vulnerability. But Kurenai understood.
She smiled, smoothing her hand over her son's dark hair that was so much like his father's. "Would you like to see him?" she asked, holding his small hands in hers. "Would you like to say hello to your daddy?"
A beautiful smile spread over Asuma's face, contrasting the shocked ones behind him. He jumped for joy, cheering in excitement. "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!" he yelled, attracting the attention of other customers. Kurenai hushed him, but could not stop the beaming smile on his face as he jittered excitedly. It made Shikamaru's heart sink down to his stomach, and he almost snapped the chopsticks in his hand. He wondered how Kurenai could look so serene as she paid for Asuma's portion of the meal, before taking his hand and guiding him out the restaurant.
"Bye Cho-nii-san! Bye Shii-ni-san! I go see daddy now!" he said, waving goodbye to them as he and his mother left. It left the two ninja to look at each other, a sombre mood falling unto their corner of the room.
"Should we...?" Chouji asked, his silent question immediately understood to his best friend. Shikamaru shook his head, his hands quivering lightly. The barbeque was hot with fire, the meat still sizzling on the grill. Around them, families and friends chattered, their conversations blending into white noise.
"No," Shikamaru spoke quietly. "This is... something we should leave to Kurenai-san."
Chouji could only nod.
Ino hummed as she alternated between skipping, hopping, and walking towards the flower shop. It was not a lie when she told her teammates she had a shift at the shop, but it didn't start for at least another half an hour. Truthfully, she felt a bit stifled in the restaurant, what with Shikamaru's glare trained permanently on her face. It seemed he had not eased up on that ridiculous notion in his head to apologize to her every chance he got. Not to mention, he treated her a bit more carefully than before, as if she was micro-milliseconds away from exploding in his face, which she wasn't.
"Stupid Shikamaru," she grumbled, her hands cushioning her head as she looked up at the clouds. "Go back to being lazy and stop chasing me around." Because if he didn't stop, she was going to start hoping again. She couldn't start hoping again; it almost killed her the first time. It pushed her into this complicated situation, this estranged friendship that was slowly wearing her down.
Ino sighed, looking back down and dropping her arms. How did this even start, this annoying feeling that she had for her oldest friend? How did any of it start?
A giggle made her turn her head, and she watched in amusement as Naruto gestured wildly, knocking over a salt shaker as Hinata doubled over in laughter. He appeared very flustered over his 'uncool' action, picking the shaker up off the floor and rubbing the back of his head sheepishly. Hinata wiped the laughing tears from the corner of her eyes, smiling gently at him. He was calmed by her soft look, reaching out to grab her hand. Their fingers entwined beneath the table, and Ino's heart swelled.
That was love. That simple, tiny act of affection.
"Hey Ino!" Naruto called, waving to catch her attention. The two of them smiled at her where she stood numbly in the street. Ino hadn't realized she stopped walking, and waved back, starting towards them sitting on the patio of a local coffee shop she, Hinata, and Sakura often frequented. Ino supposed Hinata was trying to expand her boyfriend's horizon of places to eat.
"Hi guys!" she greeted cheerfully, the mask to hide her sadness falling flawlessly into place. "On a date?" The teasing tone of her voice made them blush, causing her own grin to widen. They were so adorably shy as they nodded.
"I'm going to go get another cookie," Naruto said abruptly, an embarrassed but determined look on his face as he stood up, marching inside the store. Ino laughed at his exit, winking at Hinata who simply smiled.
"He's surprisingly shy about this whole thing," Ino remarked as the Hyuuga heiress played with her fingers.
"Naruto-kun is not sure how he should act, I think," she said, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. "He is so used to giving his love to others that he does not know how to accept it when it is given to him." Ino mulled silently over Hinata's words, not surprised at the girl's insight, but not necessarily expecting it either.
"So you don't think he loves you?" Ino asked her, stealing Naruto's seat. Hinata smiled and laughed quietly.
"Naruto loves everyone," she replied, looking past Ino to the inside of the store, where Naruto was waiting patiently behind a line of people. He turned to look at her, and she waved briefly. His reciprocated wave was a little more enthusiastic than hers, making the two girls laugh as he accidentally smacked into an old woman. They watched in silence as he apologized to her profusely. The kindly old woman took it in stride, patting his cheek to reassure him she was not hurt.
Ino looked back at Hinata, who was smiling softly at the old woman's acceptance and kindness to the person she loved. The quiet girl was dressed in her usual blue jacket, which Ino knew covered the scar that rested over her torso, received from the leader of Akatsuki himself. The courage it must have taken for such a gentle person to face such a terrifyingly powerful man...
"How did you ever do it?" Ino asked suddenly, catching Hinata's attention. "How did you survive all those years without giving up on him?"
Hinata thought about it, her eyes flickering to the side as a breeze swept through the patio, her long hair dancing to its silent melody. "It is not so much surviving," Hinata pondered, "as it is to simply love him." She blushed and smiled shyly at Ino, scratching her cheek, a habit she no doubt picked up from her boyfriend. "Ah, what I mean is that I do not love him because I wish to be loved in return. I always believed I did not have a chance, but that never bothered me; his happiness is what matters."
His happiness is what matters.
"Yeah," Ino smiled, "you're right."
He jolted up from the ground, eyes widened as Ino stood menacingly over him. She kicked him in the leg, which he did not expect even though he heard her footsteps trekking up the hill. She had seemed so calm and subdued towards him the past few weeks that the reversion back to her normal self was... well... abnormal. But he was not a man to complain, so he simply grimaced and rubbed the impending bruise on his calf.
"What Ino?" he asked brusquely, lying back down on the grass. The sun was setting, casting pinks and purples across the sky. Ino looked magnificent against the sunset, her blue eyes almost like a remnant of the bright, blue sky, stubbornly refusing to follow its brethren to rest. She hovered over him, a frown etched on her face as she glared. She nudged his foot.
"It's been two weeks," she reminded, and Shikamaru bit the inside of his mouth. Here we go: she was going to demand an apology from him, and not one of the spoken kind. I want this and that and the other thing, and they better be high-class and expensive, nothing cheap! Oh, do this for me, Shikamaru. What? You don't want to? Even after I let you ravish my beautiful body? Do you know how many men would cut off their left arm just to spend one night with me? You ungrateful lazy bum!
He sighed heavily. "I said I was sorry, Ino," he told her, his dark eyes flickering to the side. Looking at her was too difficult when he apologized, since his mind would bring up the images of that night, her pale blonde hair spread under him, his fingers wrapped around the silken strands. But he could never remember the way her face looked, if her sky blue eyes were darkened with lust or pity. He wondered if it was because of the tears that gathered in his eyes, if they blurred his vision.
Ino kicked him again.
"I don't care about that, you stupid bum!" she yelled at him. "I meant Temari! Te-Ma-Ri!"
Shikamaru sat up, looking at her with confusion. "What about her?" he asked, his heart panging gently from the mention of her name. Ino growled, slapping her hand against her forehead and sliding it down her face.
"Men," she cursed, rolling her eyes. Ino smacked him in the head, drawing out a yelp. "What do you mean, 'what about her'? Don't you want her back?" She kicked him in the shin this time, another bruise forming. He scrambled back, keeping his legs out of her range, tired of being assaulted by his teammate.
"I... but she broke up with me!" he defended. "What's the use of trying to get back together with her if she doesn't even want me?" Sullenly, he scowled down at the grass, his chin cushioned in his palm.
"Of course she wants you back," Ino scoffed, crossing her arms. "Temari's just mad because you guys are so far away from each other. Long-distance relationships are—"
"—Troublesome," Shikamaru finished, looking up at her. He was no longer scowling, but there was a pout on his face. Ino grinned.
"Yeah, troublesome." She crouched down in front of him, her arms wrapped around her legs. His head turned to the side, avoiding her piercing gaze. "Don't you want her back?" she asked, almost whispered. Shikamaru tensed, fingers curling in the grass. He did want her back, but he was still not sure she wanted him back as well. Ino could see it in the emotions that played through his eyes. No matter how dark it was, Ino could always see the emotions that ran across the obsidian of his gaze, hiding his incredibly bright mind.
Shikamaru was not replying, and Ino didn't feel like prodding him. She unwrapped her arms from around her legs and let herself fall back onto the grass, looking up to the black sky. The stars were starting to come out, making her smile. They were so beautiful, a dotted starry sky that stretched farther than her eyes could see. It reminded her of a blanket she had as a child, the way her mother tucked her into it at night. She loved the stars.
There was the sound of shuffling, and Ino didn't need to turn her head to know that Shikamaru was lying beside her, also looking up into the night sky. She didn't know he enjoyed stargazing as well, since he usually was asleep by this time, having come home from a 'gruelling' day of cloud-watching. The two of them were silent, simply basking in the quiet, the soft rustle of the trees as another breeze passed. Ino's arms were spread out, and she wondered if Shikamaru's hand was close enough to her that if she spread them a bit more, she could touch him.
"Why do you care?" he asked, suddenly, from beside her. Her finger twitched, brushing against a piece of grass. It tickled, and she rubbed her fingers to make the feeling go away. The achy feeling in her chest stayed though, and Ino knew it wouldn't go away no matter how much she rubbed it.
"Why wouldn't I care?" she asked breezily, as if to brush it off. Shikamaru, for all of his two hundred plus IQ, could not find an answer to that, and so he did not say anything at all. They fell into another silence, this time somewhat strained. Ino ignored it, as she was so good at doing, but Shikamaru shifted nervously at the feeling as it swirled around them. He wondered when she had become so stone-cold, and when he had turned so empathic. Usually it was the other way around.
The stars twinkled above them, now speckled all across the night sky, some brighter than others. Shikamaru didn't know much about stars, although he could point out the North Star (good for navigation on missions) and the Big Dipper. Beside him, Ino lay quiet, but he knew that if she wanted to she could name all the constellations in the sky, and then some. She often did it on missions when they couldn't sleep, making a fuss in the morning about how they had fallen asleep while she was talking. Shikamaru knew the blonde wasn't truly angry though, since the whole point of naming constellations was to lull them to sleep.
He smirked slightly in the dark. Ino was always doing things in such a roundabout troublesome way. This was why women in general were troublesome; they were never direct about what they wanted. He supposed it was no different now, stargazing with Ino as she avoided his question. It made him realize that, although they had stargazed together plenty of times, it was always on a mission and always with Chouji (and Asuma-sensei when he was still alive).
This was... only the second time they've looked at the stars together, on this hill where they first met.
Has it really been fourteen years?
"We should get going," Shikamaru told her, though he made no move to get up. There was no father to scold him when he got back home too late, since he lived in his own apartment. A part of him still felt like saying it though, and he knew it was connected to that memory of the first time they met. She was so small then; they both were. It was astounding to him how much they grew, how little they understood as children; even him, intelligent as he was as a toddler.
Ino was not moving, so he shifted, beginning to lift himself off the ground. He only got partway to sitting up when there was the slightest brush of something against his hand, making him pause. Shikamaru looked down to see what it was, although he already had an idea. And, not surprisingly, he was right.
It was her fingers, gently curled upon the grass, just a whisper away from his hand. She did not turn to look at him, keeping her shadowed blue eyes on the ceiling of speckled lights above them. He wondered for a moment if he had only imagined the brush of her hand against his, but when he turned away and started to get up again, her fingers tucked loosely into his palm.
"Ino?" He turned back to her, and this time she was looking at him, her eyes softly pleading.
"Just a bit more," she whispered, and the words struck at his heart. It was that night, that memory; the first time they met all over again.
He couldn't bring himself to say no.
Ino smiled when he laid back down, her hands still gently caressing the callused skin of his palm. She traced the fortune lines on his palm, her fingers cold. Without even thinking about it, Shikamaru enfolded her fingers in his hand, the warmth of his body seeping into her chilled one. Ino jerked a bit at the firm contact, her head briefly glancing over to him. Her fingers wiggled once, but otherwise she didn't protest.
"You know," Ino said, her voice quiet but loud enough to gain his attention, "I used to stargaze a lot as a kid." Shikamaru shifted, turning to look at her as she smiled up at the sky. "I don't remember it, but dad told me my mother loved to stargaze, and she wanted her daughter to love it too so she took me out every night to look at the stars." Her head turned down, and they locked eyes. Her smile was haunting in the moonlight, and Shikamaru was struck by how sadly her eyes shone.
"Do you remember when we first met?" he blurted out softly, in a hushed tone. Ino grinned.
"Yeah. I tripped over you on this hill when we were four." Shikamaru smirked.
"Troublesome then, troublesome now. Some things don't change, huh?"
"What was that?" Ino demanded, sitting up, a teasing glint taking over the sadness. "Take that back, you lazy bum!" she laughed, leaning over to thump him with her fist. He caught her wrist and quickly rolled over, trapping her beneath him. "Shikamaru!" she laughed again, her other wrist also caught in his other hand. "Let me go!"
"Nah, I'm good with not being maimed today," he drawled, his strength easily overpowering hers, keeping her locked underneath him. It didn't help that Ino was bursting into giggles, the pitter-patter of her laughter stealing the breath from her body. She half-heartedly tried to wrench her arms away, but he was steadfast and pinned them to the floor.
"You big bully," she giggled.
"You started it," he countered, and she stuck her tongue out at him. Shikamaru let her go, easing back into a sitting position. Ino sat up, the last of the giggles leaving her as she pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms loosely around her legs. The lazy genius played with a few blades of grass, a bit embarrassed at their play-fighting. Ino was content, smoothing her mussed hair back, combing the locks of her hair with her fingers. He watched her, the rhythmic tug and pull of her tangled hair straightening out. "Why do you care?" he asked again, and this time he knew she would tell him the truth.
Ino looked over at him, the smile gone from her lips. She continued to comb her hair, releasing it from its confinement. It fell around her like waves, a thick mass of silk that tickled as it skimmed against her bare skin. "I want you to be happy," she replied, and he felt the sincerity of her words. It made the guilt rear up again.
She winced. "Please don't say that."
Shikamaru's eyes slanted downwards in confusion and slight irritation. "But I am sorry," he repeated. Ino's hands dropped from her hair, and she sighed, locking eyes with him. Defeat seemed to slump her shoulders, regret shimmered in her gaze.
"But I'm not."
His confusion was quickly swept away by the light touch of her lips on his.