Osu no Atama, or Bull's Head, is a tavern in downtown Konoha. Squeezed between a clothing shop and a betting station, the place is inconspicuous enough, unless one is looking for it. The only sign that the pub is there is a grubby, medium-sized sign shaped like a bull's head, hastily adorned with bright red paint, with the shop's name written on it. Underneath that is a wooden door with a huge handle. The price is affordable (one mug of beer is priced as low as one tomato) and the waitresses amenable, thus a lot of low level thugs and freeters frequent it. Some shinobi also go there, more for the price than for the taste. Young people are not advised to enter the establishment, although most "professional" drinkers say that they had their first drink there.
The tavern consists of one long, rectangular room with wooden walls and an earthen floor. The bar is located on the right side, with six stools laid side by side for customers. Behind the bar stands the bartender, with his or her assortment of bottled drinks and cheap snacks. The rest of the room is composed of tables and chairs, scattered all around to accommodate the volume of customers. Inside, the smell is musty with sweat, drink, and cigarette smoke.
On this particular warm night, a tall, slim lady, garbed in purple, entered through the wooden door. While women are not an uncommon sight in these parts of the village, fashionable and elegant women are lacking, due to the area's infamous slime-festered walkways. So, it must have caused quite a commotion inside when the said lady sat on one of the stools in the bar without first checking whether the seat was dressed in gunk or not. She placed her elbows on the bar, without so much as a single glance, and placed her head in her hands, as if she was distressed. A few males offered sympathetic gazes. The female bartender - thin body, sagging shoulders, slick black hair, golden yellow eyes that seemed to see in the dark, an oval face with multiple piercings - approached her, notepad and pen in hand.
"What will it be tonight?"
"Oh, Tsukiko. I didn't think you would be here tonight," Ino sat up straight, placing her hands on her lap. "The usual stuff."
The bartender grinned, showing off a sparkling line of jagged teeth. "I'm always here. Cocktail?"
"Yes," she sighed. "Gin with lime, and lots of ice."
"Right," Tsukiko added a period, as a final flourish. "Will be right back. Enjoy the night."
The bartender walked a few paces back and began concocting the drink, mixing different liquids together to achieve that tangy flavor everyone seemed to love. Meanwhile, Ino sat, stiff as a board, in her stool. She was not uncomfortable - even with the malicious glances thrown her way; she was just edgy tonight.
"Here you go," Tsukiko slid a glass in her direction and winked. "How many would you like?"
Ino laughed. "I'll raise my hand if I want another one."
"All right. I'll be here."
Tsukiko began wiping beer mugs, until they shone. Ino sighed and began sipping her cocktail. It wasn't anything fancy, but the taste soothed her. It was so familiar, and so simple - not complicated, like the ones they serve during society parties. Those were the real thing, they say, but, somehow, she liked Tsukiko's cocktails better.
"Hey," a man sat on the stool to her right, mug in hand. He waved it in her direction. The musty smell of beverage that has been left inside a dank cellar for too long assailed her nostrils. "I never thought I'd see you here."
"Shut up," she muttered, frankly annoyed at her former teammate's antics. "Keep that away from me."
"Should you even be drinking?" he said. "You just gave birth."
"I know my limits."
"Still the fancy one, eh?" Shikamaru lifted one eyebrow. "But you're here, and this place isn't even near fancy."
He placed the mug on the bar. "So, what brings Mrs. Yoshida here?" he asked, with a hint of ugly sarcasm.
"You actually want to talk?"
"Alcohol," he shrugged. "I guess."
"I'm just trying to get a break. The baby has been crying all day. One more second there and my ears will bleed," she drank the last of her cocktail. Raised her hand to ask for one more. "Troublesome business, really."
"From one noisy place to another? You sure are odd," he asked for a refill when the bartender came forward with Ino's order. "How's the kid?"
"Kimiko? She's doing fine."
"And how is he taking it?"
"Well enough," she sighed. "He just got home."
A moment of silence. Shikamaru sipped his second mug slowly. Ino was taking her time with the small glass of cocktail. The tavern's other clientele paid them no mind. There were the usual fare: blue-collar workers, gang members, and those who have nothing better to do. On one corner sat a group of old drunkards, loudly discussing the orders of the day - which equated to how many whores they were able to pick up that afternoon. There were some shinobi around, but they hardly recognized the two; the place was not exactly brightly lit.
Shikamaru was halfway into his drink when Ino spoke up.
"Kimiko," she looked at him, intently. "She could have been your daughter. You have not gone to see her, but she has black hair, dark-colored eyes, and your mouth. She likes to be outside a lot, especially when there are clouds about. Also, she-"
He held up a hand and swung an irritated glance at her. "She isn't, is she?"
"Good heavens," Ino smirked, and then laughed. "No! How is that even possible?"
"Good," he resumed drinking. "I don't want the Yoshidas or the Yamanakas barreling on my door in the middle of the night carrying pitchforks and torches."
He said it as if it was the most normal thing in the world. He did always say things in an off-hand manner. Ino slouched in the stool, and mixed her drink with her right index finger. Shikamaru watched her.
"I washed my hands," she said, nonchalantly.
He nodded, a slight gesture, and resumed drinking. Tsukiko walked toward them, refilled both of their drinks and engaged in small talk with Ino. The noise level inside the tavern increased, as the night's patrons rushed in, carrying wads of cash with them. Some men even dared to sit beside Ino and check her out. Tsukiko would shoot them a look and off they would go, looking for another empty seat. Shikamaru shook his head.
"Still as troublesome as ever, I see," he teased. "You still dress provocatively."
"Provocative?" she waved her hand to show him her tight-fitting, purple dress. "I don't see it."
"You just got used to seeing yourself," he muttered. "Women..."
"What was that? I didn't catch that last-?"
"I said I always liked the way you dressed."
Ino was about to say something, but she decided against it. She opted, instead, to listen to what else he had to say. The din inside the tavern had increased, and it was always possible she had misheard.
Shikamaru finished his fourth mug, and ordered another one. "That's what Ryuunosuke told you, too?"
"No, he said he loved me. That's all."
He sighed. "Love him back?"
Ino shrugged her shoulders, and then drank her cocktail. She ordered another one. Tsukiko came forward quickly, carrying a fresh glass. When she set it down, the ice cubes clicked, a slightly happy, slightly sad sound.
When the bartender left, Shikamaru watched her reaction. "If you didn't love him, why did you agree to marry him?"
"Because," she pushed the glass away. "I found in him what I couldn't find in... any other man."
He was almost afraid to ask. He said in a hoarse whisper: "What was that?"
She bit her lip, refused to look at him, fearing the emotion in those unreadable eyes. "A secure future for my children."
"How troublesome," he sneered. "And what is that supposed to mean?"
Ino considered the question. Before, she didn't know if she could really tell the meaning of those words, and now, she didn't know if it was already too late to tell.
"I was afraid," she said, her hands clasped in her lap. "That they would grow up in a family devastated by death. I didn't want it to happen to my children."
Shikamaru knew very well what she was talking about. About six or seven years ago, their sensei, Asuma Sarutobi, was killed during a mission. He, Ino, and Choji had avenged him rightly, but it could never erase the fact that their sensei left his wife and son forever. It was painful to see the child asking for his father, while Kurenai explained the reason why he was gone. The child would almost always cry. Several years later, it's still the same. The hole left by death can never be fully patched up.
"I'm a shinobi. You know what our job is like. We risk our lives in every mission we are given. The idea of death does not leave us; it's always beside us. True, we may refuse to accept a mission but," she held the glass tightly. "What happens to our family? They have nothing to eat, because we have no money to give them." She shook her head, mournfully. "It's never really the same. Whether you like it or not, it's all the same. I didn't want my children to experience that. At least, with Ryuunosuke, I have some kind of security."
Her eyes, when she looked at him, were pleading and sorrowful, as if they begged him to understand. He turned away, merely drank his beer. It was starting to taste funny.
"I was an idiot to refuse," she continued. "Now, I think, I know better."
"We were all idiots back then, one way or another," he said, putting the mug down. "We simply did not understand... each other, very much."
"Regrets," Ino replied, smiling.
"Yeah," he laughed. "It could have been us, but it just was not meant to be, huh?"
She joined in the laughter, "I guess so."
"I was an idiot to believe that you would marry me."
By this time, they were both acting horribly inebriated. The other customers simply ignored them, pushing them into the "noisy drunkards" category.
"No," Ino said, slamming one fist on the table. "You weren't! I was the idiotic one."
"No, I was too stupid to make that offer."
"Of course not! You're smart, skilled, and brave. You can always find the solution to anything. You were great!"
He flicked her another irritated glance, "Then why didn't you marry me?" he turned away, glumly. "Because I wasn't good enough. Stupid, idiotic me."
Ino lapsed into silence, replaced her hands on her lap and clasped them tightly. She looked at her cocktail glass, grabbed it, and downed it in one swoop. She raised her hand to ask for another. Tsukiko came, rather begrudgingly, muttering that she never had so much liquor in one sitting. Ino ignored her, started sipping her drink. It was a mistake to come here, to dig open the wounds of the not-so-distant past. Burying it didn't do any good, anyway. It will always be there, whether she wanted it to be or not. So, she decided.
"Ryuunosuke," she began, although her speech was beginning to sound slurred. "He's a merchant. His family owns hundreds of hectares of land outside Konoha. As the Yoshida heir, it is his utmost responsibility to visit the tenants, to see how they are doing, and, maybe, to solve a few neighborly squabbles. Sometimes, he's gone for weeks, even months. He won't even send us word," she trembled. Got hold of herself. Continued. "He doesn't..." Pause. "Come to me often."
"Tch." Shikamaru nearly choked on his drink. "How troublesome," he sputtered. "Are you seriously suggesting-?"
"No!" Ino added quickly. "Of course not!"
He nodded, rather drunkenly, and gazed off, watched his beer swirling around the mug. Ino reached out, held his hand; he did not push her away.
"I'm just saying," her voice was a whisper now. "I miss us."
They both looked at each other, eyes hungry for the other's touch. A decade of longing filled their hearts, longing that could no longer be quenched, but could never be completely gone. He looked at her soft lips, and she, too, looked at his. Although they both knew of what was supposed to come after, they did not, because they could not. Circumstances dictated so; things were different now.
Author's Note: Hiya! I hope you like the story, as much as I enjoyed writing it. I haven't written an InoShika fic in more than a year. I am not updated with the events in the manga. Nevertheless, I don't own anything, and I probably never will. :)