It should have been easy for Ino to stop caring if a man who was pursuing her suddenly thought it more convenient to give up on her. This had been the story of her life since she had been promoted to Jounin, because this was what she had always wanted. Men were distractions to her dream. Speed bumps on the road leading to her goal to be…
To be what?
To be better than Sakura.
To be better in her career.
To be the pride of her family.
These had been her goals. It was strange, because somewhere along the way, she could have sworn she had stopped competing with Sakura. Somewhere along the way, she had risen above and beyond her mentor's expectations. And somewhere along the way, she had matured enough to realize that she had always been the pride of her family.
So, she was starting to wonder what she was really trying her best for, because right now, she was suddenly filled with a strange feeling that she had just turned down probably one of the best things that had ever come her way since the war.
Ino allowed her head to fall forward on the table of Yakiniku-Q, her forehead slamming on the hard surface with a loud thud. She had not seen Gaara for two whole days since their sudden awkward parting in the memorial yesterday, and had it not been for the presence of Temari and Kankurou in the Village, she would have thought that he had returned to the Sand without saying goodbye. She didn't even know why it bothered her that much. It just did. She had tried to look for him, but she knew that when a shinobi did not want to be found, there was no use in looking for him. In the end she had just given up on it completely.
At one point last night, the disappointment in not seeing Gaara had turned to anger, to denial then back to anger. When she woke up that morning, though, the energy she had spent on getting mad at him had simmered down to plain resignation. She wanted – needed – to talk to him, especially since his five-day visa expired tomorrow and he would be bound for the Sand.
She had tried to ask Naruto for help, but for some reason Naruto had managed to pretend that he was too busy to know where Gaara was.
"He's you're guest," Naruto had said to her, all the while keeping his eyes on the many, many scrolls on his desk. "Try to keep him out of trouble, okay?"
Ino groaned against the table as she curled her arms around her head in despair. She did not understand why it was affecting her so much; she was used to ending relationships even before they began. This wasn't supposed to be any different.
"Ino. Are you still alive?"
Ino slowly raised her head and saw Chouji staring down at her skeptically, in one hand a plate of beef briskets while his other hand held his chopsticks gingerly.
"Chouji," she said dully as she returned her face back on the table, feeling sick. "You shouldn't have bothered asking me out today. I'm not good company right now."
"Nonsense! You're always good company to me, Ino. Since you don't eat too much when we go out for barbeque. Which leaves more for me!" Chouji said cheerfully.
Ino's head snapped up and gave Chouji a piercing glare, which the Akimichi conveniently ignored, too busy cooking his meat. "What do you want from me, Chouji? There are other things I can use my time on than eat meat."
That had Chouji pausing from his task, those tilted eyes of his training onto Ino sharply. "Other things? Like what?"
"Like…" Ino frowned, propping her elbows on the table and resting her chin on her palms. "Like… other things."
"Like looking all over the village for him?" Chouji suggested innocently. He usually was prudent when it came to these kinds of things. It was strange to have him ask her this question straight out.
Ino felt her face turn red. She looked away. "Yeah, something like that."
"And did you find him?" he asked.
Ino bit her lip, shook her head.
"I thought so," Chouji said as he resumed the task of peppering up his meal. "Since, you know, you weren't really looking hard enough."
Ino's frown deepened. That was not true. She had tried her best to find him. Well… okay, so she might have given up half-way through, but that was because Gaara did not look like he wanted to be found.
"Ino," Chouji suddenly said, snapping her out of her thoughts.
"Huh?" Ino murmured absently and she returned her gaze back to Chouji.
"I worry about you. When Team Asuma started going on their separate ways, everything started to get too busy to catch up on each other, except for these rare moments when we get to eat out together. But hearing about you makes me… worry." Chouji deposited his plate on an empty spot to his right and poked at the meat sizzling on the grill in front of him, those pudgy cheeks defined by those pink swirls pulled back by the small smile he had on his lips.
Having Chouji talk like this was all new to Ino. Her teammate had always been the passive one in the group, and most of the time needed a good shove to get him moving. That was why having him this straightforward at saying he was 'worried' about her made her wonder if she really did anything to make him ask her out for a meal just to talk to her.
Ino gave him an uncertain smile. "Chouji. You don't need to worry about me. I'm fine."
Chouji shook his head slightly, flipping the meat one by one with his chopsticks. "Of course I would worry. You overwork, you seldom get days off. And lately you're acting… strange."
"Strange?" Ino let out a hollow laugh and she self-consciously brushed away her bangs from her face. "I'm not acting strange."
Chouji glanced at her quickly before returning his attention to his food. After a moment of silence, she said, "Gaara-san seemed like a nice guy to me. I was wondering why things wouldn't work out the way he wanted it."
Ino blinked. Why wouldn't things work out? In retrospect, things weren't as complicated as they appeared to be. He liked her. She liked him. But of course, everything boiled down to her. Gaara had been nothing but sincere towards her. It was just her pride and her stubborn, stubborn personality that was hindering everything from falling into place. But as expected from her, she immediately jumped to the defensive.
"I tried to look for him. I think he didn't want to see me," Ino offered.
Chouji shook his head again. "He walked around the village as a normal guest would for the past two days. He went to have lunch with me twice. He was around the Academy to address the students yesterday. He was in the hospital to give his regards to Sakura last night. He didn't look like someone who was hiding from you."
Ino did not know what to say. While it was in her nature to raise her walls and try to shift the questions to anyone who tried to back her into a corner, it was hard to get mad at Chouji, simply because Chouji never did anything unless he knew it was going to benefit others; that was just how he was. That, and because he had caught onto her.
Chouji started transferring his cooked meat onto a fresh plate. "I've seen you do this before. I think that's about a couple of years ago."
Ino groaned inwardly, suddenly feeling sick. She knew where this conversation was going.
"I think his name was Wa… err… Watanabe Shun?"
"Watatsuma Shun," Ino corrected.
"Yeah, him. I forget. He's that tall one from Ibiki-san's squad. The one with the nice dimples? You remember him?"
Ino wanted to disappear then and there. How could she forget about him? She covered her eyes with a hand.
Watatsuma Shun had been a nice guy. He had been Ino's training buddy in Ibiki's squad for three whole months, and Sakura had said that she honestly thought he had loved Ino sincerely. That time, Ino had been too absorbed in a new form of mental interrogation designed specially for the Yamanaka clan that she had outright rejected the man even before he could tell her his feelings. After that rejection, working with the man had been… difficult. In the end, Ino thought that for the sake of their careers (because it was just that; all about her career), she had tried to apologize to him. She had claimed that she was trying hard to look for him in the village, all the while unconsciously finding where he was so she could avoid him better. After a few months, she had never gotten by with apologizing, and Watatsuma Shun was transferred to a different department by his own request. Ino hadn't given a care.
Because Ino was Ino.
Chouji stuffed two pieces of brisket into his mouth, watched her with steady eyes as he chewed. "You've been avoiding him without even knowing it. Running away by instinct. It's always been like this with you. I'm honestly not surprised to see you doing this again."
Ino peeked from behind her fingers. Chouji had caught onto her. She wasn't at all baffled to know that he was right, though.
Chouji did not look like he was done yet. He smiled, this time putting down his chopsticks; a very rare display for him. "Gaara-san was crushed. He had always struck me as immune to these things. But he honestly looked… sad."
Ino hid back behind her hands. "God. Oh, God."
"Ino," Chouji said. "Look here."
Ino complied, and she lowered her hands onto the table. Chouji was smiling at her knowingly.
"You are a wonderful kunoichi, but I'll have you know that it isn't pride that makes a kunoichi, or a shinobi, great. It's what's here, inside," Chouji said, pressing his right hand over his chest.
Ino suddenly felt her own hand traveling to her own chest, pressing her fingers gingerly over her heart. It was beating relatively fast, and she couldn't help but bite her lip as Chouji reached over to her free hand, gripping it tightly.
"Stop running," he said. "Stop pretending like you don't care. Okay?"
Ino felt her breath hitch in her throat as she gave Chouji's hand a squeeze. She did not know what it was with her teammate that made her insides dance in realization. She had been running, lying to herself, denying facts because of her pride. And right now, as she looked down at the table, at her hands in Chouji's, she suddenly started feeling utterly ashamed.
Chouji's smiled widened. "You like him, don't you?"
Ino blinked at her teammate. And for that split second, when she felt time stop for a brief moment, she didn't know if she wanted to laugh or cry. She nodded. "I think… I think I could actually be in love with him."
And in a blink of an eye, even before Ino could react, Shikamaru was leaning at the door frame, arms crossed over his chest, his always bored expression on his face. "Well, if you really think that way, then I suggest you hurry."
Chouji let go of Ino's hand and turned to his best friend. "Shikamaru. What's wrong?"
Shikamaru pinned his glare at Ino, then said, "Right now, Gaara's headed for the gates."
Ino was on her feet in an instant nearly knocking her chair backwards.
Chouji's eyes widened. "You mean – ? But isn't he supposed to leave tomorrow?"
Ino didn't bother to hear his conclusion. She did not have time for anything else. If she did not act now, if she still insisted on letting her pride get in the way with probably the most wonderful thing that's ever happened to her, then Gaara would leave the village, and that would be that. She was out of Yakiniku-Q in a heartbeat, her legs as if acting on their own will as she braced herself for a leap against a wall, bounced agilely over a fence and onto the roof of the restaurant.
Her heart was in her throat as she made her way through the rooftops of the houses in Konoha, headed straight for the main gates of the village. Now that she had just realized – and was willing to admit that she loved him – she was not about to let him go like this.
If you think you can get away after making me fall in love with you, you pervert, well you've got another thing coming, Ino thought to herself as she leaped over the chimney of a random household. You'd better take responsibility on what you've made me into, or I'll kill you.
Of course, that was an empty threat. Killing him was the least of her problems. She didn't even know if she was going to make it to the gates before he left, and she was too much of an ideal Kunoichi to know that she would not be able to follow him outside the gates without the official papers from the Hokage to dismiss her. That was unless she was willing to go rogue in the name of love.
She shook her head roughly. This was not the time to think of stupid things.
It took her a good four and a half minutes to get from one side of the village to the other. She could have gotten there faster had it not been for the route she chose, just in case Gaara was still making his way to the exit. Unfortunately for her, he wasn't anywhere along the road.
And the moment she paused on top of the roof of one of the tea shops near the gates, she immediately understood why.
Gaara was already talking to Konohamaru, who was on gate duty again that day.
She did not know what made the anger bubble up in her gut as she watched Gaara's tall form standing casually as he gestured at Konohamaru about something she could not hear. How dare he leave without saying goodbye to her! How dare he make her feel this way only to give up half-way! Well… okay so she was partly to blame. Playing hard-to-get wasn't her best trait. But even before she could catch herself, she was already bracing herself back on the roof and leaping into the air with a fierce battle cry.
She did not know exactly what had happened after. One moment she was in mid-air, the next she was falling like a hot stone towards the earth, straight for Gaara.
Gaara raised his head up too late, a look of shock marring his face a few seconds before Ino tackled him to the ground with so much force that they ended up rolling on the ground several times before they hit a large tree, which stopped them from rolling away any further.
Ino had him right where she wanted him; right under her. She had his hips straddled between her legs, both hands gripping the collar of his shirt in case he did anything funny.
"Ino-nee!" Konohamaru was suddenly beside them, looking absolutely scandalized and unsure of what to do. "Why are you assaulting the Kazekage?!"
Ino ignored the boy, her eyes seeing nothing except the man who was right under her. Gaara stared back at her with stoic, almost emotionless eyes. For some reason, his calmness annoyed her. She shook him roughly. "So you think you can get away from me, after all the things you made me do? You think you can get away with fondling my ass, taking a bath with me and sleeping with me and pretend like it was all nothing?" she roared.
That was when Konohamaru started to get the hint. His hands flew to his ears. "I didn't hear anything. I don't know what you're talking about. I'm too young and too innocent to know what you're talking about." He hurried away from them, taking refuge behind the desk at the foot of the large gates of the village.
Ino barely noticed him. She shook Gaara again. "Why are you doing this to me?"
Gaara opened his mouth to speak. "What am I doing to you, exactly?" he asked, looking absolutely unperturbed that he had just been tackled by a mad kunoichi that fell from the rooftops.
Ino snarled at him. "Don't play dumb! You're being unfair to me. You said you'd give me five days! I have until tomorrow to make up my mind!"
Gaara blinked, gently gripping her wrists with his big hands. "What are you talking about?"
Ino gritted her teeth. She could not believe this guy! "You wanted a chance. I gave it to you! I was this close to coming up with a decision in the memorial, and you vanished from right in front of me."
"And you avoided me for two days," Gaara drawled, unfazed. "All the while thinking I was avoiding you."
Ino swallowed hard. So he was right about that. She scowled even more. "That doesn't matter. I'm here right now."
"And why are you here?" Gaara asked.
"To stop you. And… " Ino felt the strength in her hands leave her immediately, and she looked away. "And to tell you that, yeah. I… think… I kinda… you know…"
Gaara took this opportunity to sit up, propping his back against the tree behind him. He peered up at her face. "What?" he asked expectantly.
Ino touched her face self-consciously, suddenly feeling warm. She gave him a narrow-eyed gaze. "That I think I… like you, too." Okay, so maybe she wasn't ready to tell him that she was madly in love with him. Not yet.
For a split-second, Gaara's teal eyes widened in disbelief, and the hands gripping her wrists tightened almost painfully. "You… so you accept?"
Ino's face grew warmer still. She nodded wordlessly.
Gaara blinked, titled his head to the side. "You came all this way to tell me that?"
Ino nodded again.
Gaara's hand was on her face, gently stroking her cheek with a thumb. There was a small smile tugging at his lips. "You were in such a hurry…"
It was then did Ino's actions started to come back to her. Jumping from the roof. Tackling Gaara. She leaned forward, resting her forehead on his shoulder to hide her face from his. "I thought I wouldn't make it."
Gaara paused for a moment, then, "Make it for what?"
"Make it in time to stop you from leaving, what else?"
There was another long pause, then, "But… I wasn't planning on leaving…"
Ino suddenly felt an uncomfortable chill in her spine and she slowly, almost painfully sat back to gaze at Gaara at arms' length. "You… weren't?"
Gaara nodded. "Yes."
Ino looked over her shoulder towards the desk where Konohamaru pretended to read the traffic report. When he saw Ino looking, he sank lower in his chair. Ino returned her gaze back to Gaara. "But you… you were headed for the gates... "
"I was going to renew my five-day visa because I thought I was running out of time," Gaara explained. He watched her fidget on his lap.
"But Shikamaru said – " Ino's words were lost to her when realization hit her like a ton of bricks. Now that she looked at it, Gaara was in his casual slacks and a loose white shirt. Not his travel-clothes. Damn it. Kankurou and Temari weren't even with him!
She'd been had.
She slapped her forehead, feeling like a complete idiot. "I can't believe I fell for that…"
Gaara's nonexistent eyebrows furrowed, unsure of what was happening. "What's wrong? You haven't changed your mind, have you?"
Ino wiped her face with her hand, cast him a hesitant look, then shook her head. "No. It's nothing."
Gaara looked unconvinced, but he nodded. Then he smiled. "So. You like me."
Ino felt her cheek twitch slightly and she tried to scramble off of Gaara's lap. Gaara wouldn't let her. Ino was suddenly aware that they were in the middle Konoha's busiest road, and she was straddling the Kazekage very indecently as if no one could just walk past and see them.
"W-we should continue this talk somewhere else," Ino suggested. Preferably with her not in this position.
"Not until you let me hear it again."
Ino let out an awkward squawk when Gaara pulled her against his chest. "Tell me you love me," he cooed.
Ino blinked, opened her mouth to speak, paused then said, "I never said I love you. I said I like you. Those are two different things."
Gaara's smile widened a fraction. "Wonderful. I extended my visa for another week. Do you think that would be enough to get you to fall in love with me?"
Ino stared at him in disbelief, slapped him on the chest gently, then sneered. "I'd like to see you try."
"Done," Gaara said quickly.
And the next thing had Ino reeling. Because one moment she was thinking about making fun of his confidence, the next he had his hands on either side of her face and his lips were on hers in a gentle kiss that nearly melted her insides.
And a few forevers after, she was opening her eyes she did not even know she had closed, trying to catch her breath as Gaara pulled away from her, watching her with smoky, unfocused eyes, his mouth half-open.
It took Ino a while to get pull herself together. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. "I think it might be enough…"
Gaara snapped out of his own reverie. "What is? The kiss?"
Ino shook her head. "A week to get me to fall in love with you." Damn, the man kissed like a pro…
Gaara gave her a knowing smirk.
Ino grabbed his collar roughly, pulled him towards her so close his nose brushed hers. She will have to make sure Chouji and Shikamaru didn't try to butt in any further and tell Gaara that Ino was already helplessly in love with him. "If you're lucky, that is."
Gaara's arms were around her waist in a loose hug. "I would like you to know that I'm very, very lucky."
Of course, Ino didn't believe him a bit.
A/N: It's finally done! I was having trouble writing this chapter after having such a depressing turn of events on the manga, but I finally got it out.
Anyway, thank you for all the GaaIno shippers who read, reviewed, favorited and followed the story until now! This was my second GaaIno story and I enjoyed very much writing it, as you have all been amazing to me! One of these days, when I get more inspiration, I'd like to write more about this couple, and I hope that I get to hear from you guys again.
Until my next muse!