True Love Is...
Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto
Rating: K through T, depending
Story notes: This series is a collection of unrelated ficlets and one-shots about love, hate, and everything in between. The pairing changes with every chapter, so ideally there should be something everyone can enjoy by the end of it. I take pairing requests and upload the chapters Tumblr, but I'll update the content here sometime after the original posting. If you decide to request a pairing, please only do so through Tumblr. The rules of submission are posted in my Tumblr blog. Links can all be found in my profile here. Lastly, this fic doesn't take away any writing time from my other stuff. By the time I post anything here, it's already been on Tumblr for weeks. Enjoy!
"True love is quitting because she asks him to."
Comments: I posted this originally for Shikamaru's and Ino's birthdays.
The first time Yuuhi Kurenai witnessed Shikamaru lighting up a cigarette, she immediately lost track of what she'd been saying as a cloak of sadness hung around her. He didn't look at her as he popped open the lighter—his lighter—and roasted the end of the cigarette until it caught flame. Crimson eyes watched, entranced, as the first inhale made the tiny embers flare with life. Then came the smoke, pale and wraithlike, curling toward the heavens as Shikamaru leaned his head against the wall.
"You know, smoking's bad for you," she commented.
He took another long drag of the cigarette, making a face as the smoke swirled around his lungs before escaping in translucent white ribbons. He hid it well, but she could tell he was forcing himself not to cough.
"I know," he said, voice a bit raspy.
Kurenai brought a hand to her swollen belly. Second hand smoke was bad for the baby, she knew. That fact alone kept her from marching right up to the boy and yanking the cigarette from his mouth.
"It doesn't suit you," she said instead.
Shikamaru continued to watch the sky as he inhaled again. There were no clouds today, and still his eyes searched for something.
"I know," he said.
Not for the first time since they'd told her what happened, Kurenai wished that it had been her instead of Asuma.
It started the night after they took their revenge. Ino was a wreck, the anger that fueled her up until this point suddenly gone, with nothing there to take its place. Why? They got what they wanted. They achieved what they'd set out to accomplish and no one got hurt. Why couldn't they be satisfied with this?
He wasn't coming back.
No matter what, he was never coming back.
Chouji was typically broken hearted, in a way that was normal and expected when a loved one is lost. Ino felt only emptiness after all the rage, at herself for not being able to save Asuma and at Hidan and Kakuzu for shattering this precious sanctuary. And Shikamaru, well, he was the worst of them.
She'd known him all their lives, longer even than she'd known Chouji. They'd always been close, but never like he was with Chouji. She could never be The Best Friend or The Right-Hand Man. She was always both near and far from Shikamaru, but it was okay. There were things he only shared with her, never with anyone else. Ino didn't require long winded explanations or details like Chouji did.
When he showed up at her window that night with death in his eyes, she didn't need an explanation then either. She just opened the window and admitted him. His hair was damp, she remembered. It had been storming that night. It was enough to mask the smell of tobacco on him, but she didn't say anything about it.
He just stood there, unseeing and immovable, dripping rainwater on her carpet. Wordlessly, Ino guided him to her bed where she sat him down. Carefully, as though he might shatter should she make any sudden moves, she peeled his wet clothing away. First came the Chuunin flak vest, which fell to the floor with a sopping squelch. Next were his sandals, then the long-sleeved shirt and mesh undergarment. All the while, he just sat there in silence. Ino retrieved a towel from her bathroom to dry him off.
After his stony front, she was surprised to feel his hand grasp her wrist as she tried to get him dry. "Stop," he commanded. "Just stop."
Tired blue eyes stared down at him. His voice was so soft and exhausted that she would have pegged him for a man ten years older than he was if she didn't know him. She thought her heart couldn't take anymore, not after what they'd been through with Hidan and Kakuzu that day, but looking at him now made her fall to pieces all over again. Sinking down beside him, Ino guided him into a prostrate position on the bed, their faces only inches apart.
"You're supposed to be the strong one," she said.
She wanted to cry so badly, but she'd already cried enough tears to last her a lifetime. Under the soft glow of moonbeams, his dark eyes seemed kinder than they had in days. An arm found its way around her waist, tentative and childlike.
"Just for tonight," he said, voice cracking. "Please, Ino."
She lost the ability to breathe momentarily as she watched this boy squeeze his eyes closed and pull her close, tears staining her neck. This boy, who had always carried the weight of his world and hers on his shoulders, never asking for the responsibility but taking it in stride, broke down. She held him to her, wishing for strength she wasn't sure she possessed.
"For as long as you need," she said, closing her own eyes to the world.
Shikamaru cried and Ino didn't let go. They didn't sleep that night.
Over the next few months things went back to some semblance of normality. Shikamaru lead their Chuunin team as a newly minted Jounin. Kurenai's daughter, Asuka, was born and welcomed with more than love and support than any child could ever ask for. Chouji and Ino hadn't seen Shikamaru smile the way he did when he first held the little girl since before Asuma died. It gave them hope that life goes on, and there will always be something precious to hold onto.
Life without Asuma was still worth living.
But still, a dark shadow hung over the former Team 10. No matter how much time passed, Ino knew she would never forget the sight of Asuma, burned and bleeding, as Hidan cackled in his reaper's mask. When he wasn't working, Shikamaru was quieter than he used to be, and Chouji was starting to get worried. Even though things had shifted between Shikamaru and herself, Ino knew there was something wrong. It followed them like a ghost, never giving them a moment's peace.
Shikamaru had taken up smoking, much to everyone's dismay. But no one ever said anything to him about it. They knew why he'd started, and that subject was off limits.
"Hey, Shikamaru," Chouji said one day while the three of them were sharing lunch.
"Mm?" He was in the middle of chewing.
Chouji concentrated on flipping the small strips of meat over the grill, allocating equal attention to each one until they were grilled to perfection. He didn't look up when he said, "You should quit smoking."
Ino froze just before lifting a slice of bell pepper to her mouth. She felt as though someone had smacked her hard in the back and knocked the wind out of her. Shikamaru continued chewing as though nothing was amiss.
"It's disgusting," Chouji added.
Shikamaru finally put down his chopsticks and swallowed. "It's none of your business."
Blue eyes flickered between the two boys she'd grown up with as they locked gazes and stared each other down. Ino dared not speak.
"You know damn well it is," Chouji countered. "This has gone on long enough."
Shikamaru's eyes narrowed dangerously, and Ino was suddenly very worried. He rarely ever got worked up about something, much less grew angry. And she could count on one hand the number of times he'd ever really fought with Chouji.
"We're not having this conversation," Shikamaru said dismissively.
Chouji snarled under his breath. "Then when. When are we gonna talk about this?"
Ino decided she better intervene before they both raised their voices. "Boys, calm down. This is a res—"
"No, I'm sick of this crap," Chouji interrupted her, glaring at Shikamaru. "Asuma-sensei wouldn't want to see you like this—"
Shikamaru slammed a hand on the table. Chopsticks rolled off the table and clattered to the ground. Dipping sauce sloshed in its shallow bowls. Ino gasped.
"Don't fucking say that," Shikamaru said, his tone dangerously soft. "You don't know what Asuma-sensei would want because he's dead."
"Shikamaru!" Ino said, shocked. He never spoke to Chouji or her like that.
"I know he wouldn't want you turning out like this," Chouji said. "You're wasting away. Did my best friend died that day too? 'Cause I don't see him anywhere."
Shikamaru stood up abruptly and stepped out of their booth. "Forget this."
He marched out of there before Ino could stop him.
"Let him go," Chouji said.
Ino turned to look at her friend. "This is not okay, Chouji. He's not okay."
"I know," he said, running a hand through unruly red hair. "None of us are. But this... I'm really worried about him."
Her expression fell. "I am too," she said, sitting back down.
"Can't we do something? I want to help him."
Ino just shook her head. What could they do?
"Can't you do something?" he pressed. "Ever since that day you guys got a lot closer, right?"
Ino's eyes widened. "We're not really together, Chouji. It's more like..." she trailed off. What was this? "It's complicated."
Chouji didn't do well with 'complicated'. "Whatever's going on, you have a different relationship with him than I do. Things are different now. If I can't get through to him, then you have to. Asuma-sensei wouldn't want it like this, I know he wouldn't."
Ino stared down at her half-empty plate, the leftovers already gone cold. "Yeah, I don't think he would either."
"Listen, I've got a long mission coming up. Maybe..." He sighed. "Maybe it'll help if I'm gone for a bit."
"Chouji, don't say that. Your friendship with Shikamaru's stronger than some stupid fight."
He shook his head. "I'm not good with this kind of thing. Just...promise me you'll talk to him?"
Chouji didn't get serious very often, but when he did people listened. He'd grown up so much since that fateful day. They all had, and it wasn't all for the best.
"Yeah," she said finally. "I promise."
She didn't see him for the next four days. Shikamaru had always liked having time to himself to think, and Ino wasn't about to deny him that. But it was time to broach the subject again.
"You here to scream at me again?"
She found him lounging under his favorite tree at their old training grounds. A cigarette hung limply from his mouth. Ino drew up close to him and sat down.
He released a smoky breath and turned to look at her askance.
"I'm here to get you off your lazy ass."
He grunted but made no move to stand. It was all the prompting Ino needed to grab his hand and tug.
"Not now, Ino."
Her calm quickly dissipated. "Yes, now. I'm not waiting anymore."
They locked gazes and an unspoken understanding passed between them. She was not going to leave him alone so easily. She'd promised him that night months ago, and Ino was not the type to go back on her word. He sighed threw his cigarette on the ground, snuffing it with a sandaled foot as he stood up. She didn't release his hand as she dragged him along behind her.
"Where are we going?" he asked after several minutes.
Ino rounded a corner and their intended destination came into view. "To visit Asuma-sensei."
Seeing the ominous black obelisk ahead, he tried to pull back on her hand, and Ino was forced to stop. "No."
Ino was quickly losing her patience with him. "You haven't been here once since the funeral."
"Maybe because I don't want to be here." He forcefully yanked his hand from hers.
Anger and sadness and frustration welled up within her. She wanted to scream at him after all. Didn't he realize that she and Chouji missed Asuma as much as he did? Didn't he understand that he wasn't alone in this? But the look in his eyes gave her pause.
"You're afraid," she accused. "You're afraid to face him."
"I don't need to see some stone to remember that he's dead, Ino."
"No," she agreed. "You need to see it to remember that he's still with us."
Not having expected that, Shikamaru wasn't prepared to protest when she reached for his hand again. He let her lead him to the memorial in silence.
"Sarutobi Asuma," Ino said, tracing their late teacher's name with her fingers.
The carving was rough-hewn but beautifully rendered. Tears welled in her eyes but she held them back. Asuma had always said Ino's smile could light up a room. The memory made her want to smile now.
Shikamaru was trying to light another cigarette, all but ignoring Ino and the memorial stone. The lighter sparked but the cigarette wouldn't catch, much to his annoyance. "Damn troublesome thing," he muttered.
Ino gave him no warning as she slowly reached up and closed a hand over the lighter. It popped closed with a click, and Shikamaru looked up at her finally. He looked lost, much like he had that first night in the storm when he sought her out. The urge to cry threatened to overwhelm her again, but she pushed it back with a shaky smile. He'd asked her to be strong in his place that night, and she'd promised she would for as long as he needed. Delicate but determined fingers plucked the unlit cigarette from between his lips and pocketed it.
"Talk to him," she said quietly. "He'll listen."
Shikamaru stared at her, unseeing, for several tense moments. He looked so uncharacteristically shaken, so unlike the strong, level-headed shinobi she knew and loved. But no one can carry the weight of the world alone forever. She squeezed his hand.
"I'm right here with you," she said, smiling. "I'm not going anywhere."
After a long moment, he turned dark eyes on the obsidian gravestone and approached their teacher's final resting place. Ino let him pull away, but she hovered just a few feet behind him in case he needed her support. With a slump of his shoulders, Shikamaru glared at Asuma's carved name. It was nearly half an hour before he said anything at all.
"I'm so mad at you," he said finally. "You've got such a beautiful family here, and you just left them."
Ino hugged herself. Shikamaru had a lot to say. Sometimes he would allude to anger or sadness when it was just the two of them shrouded in darkness and soft sheets, but he always caught himself. He never wanted to face those feelings, because it would mean letting them go. To him, they were all he had left of Asuma.
"You were supposed to be stronger than that," he went on, clenching his fists. "And you just gave up. You fucking left them behind."
He was starting to raise his voice a little, and Ino looked down. She didn't want to intrude on this moment, but she knew she couldn't leave Shikamaru alone right now. Not like this.
Sniffling sounds alerted her that he was crying.
"What kind of man are you? They need you, damnit! I'm not enough. I'm not her father, and I'm not what she needs."
Ino squeezed her eyes shut. She suspected that Shikamaru felt especially guilty when it came to Asuka, but he never really let on. She couldn't justify it before, but hearing him voice it aloud now made it all the more real and raw. She wanted to reach for him.
"You said the king is the next generation, but what kind of king grows up without a father?"
It was like he was waiting for an answer to his questions, some kind of divine revelation or understanding that would alleviate the burning guilt and anger. None came.
"We need you too," he said, now more softly. "Chouji and Ino... I need you too. Why did you have to die?"
Ino covered her mouth with her hands, unable to hold back her tears anymore. All this time Shikamaru put on a tough front for them, for Kurenai and Asuka, for everyone. He was the strong one, the one they could depend on, their anchor. But even he needed help sometimes, someone he could depend on. Ino would always be there to pull him up when he fell, even if Asuma no longer was.
"I'm lost," Shikamaru whispered. "I'm so lost."
She drew up beside him then and slipped her hand in his. He immediately gripped her tight, eyes closed and cheeks wet with tears. She couldn't say how long they just stood there together, remembering and wishing they could forget. The sun was beginning to set when Shikamaru finally released her hand.
"Come on," she said as he rubbed his face with a sleeve to get rid of the sticky feeling of dried tears. "Let's get some food or something."
He didn't protest as she led him away from the memorial and back to her apartment. Not a word passed between them as Ino busied herself in the kitchen throwing together whatever leftovers she had lying around. When she turned around to retrieve a spatula, Shikamaru was standing in the doorway sans flak vest. She froze.
Closing the distance to her, he gripped her upper arms in a gentle but firm hold. Dark eyes searched hers for something, but she couldn't begin to guess what it was. "Ino, I..."
She smiled sadly and raised a hand to touch his lips. "Maybe you're lost right now," she said softly. "But Chouji and I are here to pull you back when you're ready."
He lowered his head until their foreheads were touching. "I don't want to be lost anymore."
Instead of answering, she closed the distance between them with a kiss. He responded instantly, pulling her close as she walked them backwards out of the kitchen. His hands found her hair, ripping the tie out and releasing flowing blonde tresses. All thoughts of dinner were abandoned as they collapsed on her bed and drowned in each other, the world around them blissfully forgotten.
"Alright Asuka-chan, I'm going to teach you how to braid your hair, okay?" Ino said.
The small child seemed to ignore her until Ino pulled out her ponytail and let her hair down. At the sight of the bright gold cascade, Asuka immediately lit up and pulled on it with stubby fingers. Ino never let anyone play with her hair, but for this little girl she'd endure all the tangles that came with it. "Here we go, see?" she said, trying to keep the girl's attention as she attempted to weave a thick braid in her hair.
Kurenai looked on with a smile. "I don't think I've seen Asuka-chan take to anyone like she has to Ino."
Shikamaru smirked. "Yeah."
Kurenai studied the younger shinobi who would one day bear the responsibility of training her daughter. Something was different about him. "You stopped smoking."
Ino laughed suddenly when Asuka tried to yank on some of her hair, inadvertently messing up the already poorly done braid.
"I did," he said, watching them.
Kurenai looked between him and Ino playing with her daughter a few yards away. She knew something had changed between them, but having a child kept her too busy to follow such things closely. Now she wished she'd paid more attention. "Why did you stop?"
"Because she asked me to."
"You're gonna be so far ahead of all the other kunoichi when you get to the academy," Ino said. "Look at what a great job you did!"
Ino's hair was turning into a rat's nest of tangles, but Asuka clapped her hands together in glee. Looking at the younger blonde she could see it. They'd all been hit hard by Asuma's death, but it seemed that even in the wake of seemingly insurmountable tragedy, life could go on.
"He would be happy for you, Shikamaru," she said, meaning every word.
Shikamaru sighed, a small smile threatening to bloom. "I know."