1. Whose woods these are
Taijutsu was the worst.
It was the only thing on the young girl's after she spun and kicked for the umpteenth time only to see training dummy still stand with its fake eyes taunting her. She wiped the sweat off her forehead and pinned back the stray strands of dark brown hair before calling over to the tree nearby.
"Hey, Shika-niisan. Do something here, I can't knock this thing over at all."
She was responded only by the chirping of insects that grew louder as the sun began to set. Sarutobi Kayoko sighed and walked over.
There, lying at the trunk of the tree was a man with his black hair tied in a ponytail.
"Stop sleeping! This is a serious problem here! Are you listening?"
The sight of the twelve year old's naturally crimson eyes glaring over him blocked his view of the clouds, prompting him to reply, "You'll do fine. Relax."
Kayoko incredulously watched her trainer get up and begin heading back towards the village center. She ran after him, "What does that mean? Relax? My test is tomorrow!"
You're going to pass, quit worrying. Taijutsu's not that important anyway." He casually waved it off.
"Then what do you do when you're facing an enemy and you don't have enough chakra left to do anything else but taijutsu?" She challenged.
He considered it for a moment before finally replying with a straight face, "Run."
"What?! Be serious! That's not what you'd really do!" She complained, hitting his arm with a fist as they entered the town of New Konohagakure.
"Well, I am a natural coward." He shrugged as he pulled out a lighter from his traditional green flak jacket and dangled a cigarette from his mouth. After drawing in a breath, he coughed and immediately tossed it aside—it was as if he was first-time smoker; only in reality, he made a daily routine out of it.
Kayoko snuck a glance to the taller man by her side whom has always been Shika-niisan to her since she learned how to talk. As always, he had his head characteristically tilted upwards in the slightest manner. It was the way his eyes tiredly observed the sky that caused her to wonder whether Nara Shikamaru really was as lazy as he made himself seem. Although he never talked much about his past, she liked to believe that he was really a great shinobi. After all, he was the first boy she had ever kissed (on the cheek of course; she was six, it was one of those childhood crush phases). And ever since he had easily jumped up the highest tree in the village to help carry her down (the consequence of her accepting an overambitious dare), she had been determined to wear a forehead protector like his. Their age difference (and his often nonchalant personality) made him more of a brother, but she still had this secret habit of imagining him as the father she had never personally met. Her mother told her that Shika-niisan was placed under her father's instruction as a genin, and she had seen enough of her father's old photographs to notice a sort of similarity between the two that she could not pinpoint.
She attempted to figure out what he saw in the clouds, as she had for several years. "Hey, Shika-niisan," She looked brightly towards the sky, "if I pass I can go on missions with you, right?"
Shikamaru looked at this girl with scarlet eyes that appeared as orange-gold in the light and slightly wavy, brown hair tied in a low ponytail; she could've been the spitting image of her mother, had it not been for the way she smiled and irately frowned with changing moods, which reminded him almost too much of her father. Whereas he had a shadow that stretched far behind him, she walked on a sunset lit ground that extended ahead.
He used to be like that. Once.
"You'll probably end up being with your team more." He responded,
A corner of her lip pulled down in slight disappointment. Another expression inherited from her father. "But what if I don't even like my team mates? I don't have to tied to them all the time, do I?"
"Why? Why do I have to be with you two? Why can't be tied to Sasuke-kun instead?"
"We'll be okay. Asuma-sensei said that we just have to stay tied together like this for two days, then we'll pass, Ino-chan." His friend chomped on a potato chip.
"Don't call me by first name, Akamichi." The blonde on his right snapped as the three of them walked (she stormed) out of the Academy ground with their hands tied together by their forehead protectors.
"But why not? We've known each other for a long time because of our parents. And now we're team mates too." The boy on his left asked with a full mouth, trying to manage eating out of a bag with the only free hand he had. No matter the situation, he had a snack and an affable outlook at hand.
"There is absolutely no point in this test!" She groaned in frustration.
Her sudden stop yanked the two boys back.
"Oh. My. God." The stricken look in her sky blue eyes seemed as if they saw something ominously horrible. "No...no. No. No. No. No!"
"What, Ino-chan? What's wrong?" The boy asked.
"Do all the teams go through the same test? Because if they do, that means Forehead and Sasuke-kun are tied. Together! Do you know what this means?!"
If he could face palm, he would. Unfortunately, being the one in the middle with both his hands tied, he could only look up at the clouds and wish he were in more peaceful places.
"My life sucks! It's all over! What if they spend so much time together that Sasuke-kun gets delusional and actually falls for her forehead? I'm doomed! I'm going to be a widow for life!"
Now she was wailing melodramatically. Telling her that regardless of whatever disturbing images were playing through her head, she was forgetting to add Naruto into the equation, was useless—she was lost in her own tirade.
"Could you just, be quiet for one minute, woman?" He finally said, after deciding that investing in asking her to shut up might yield better results than enduring her flame of complaints for hours.
"Well I actually want to do something about this, Nara!" She shot back.
He sighed through the headache caused by her screeching, "Just wait it out."
"Yeah, Ino-chan. This is supposed to be a team bonding test."
After wandering around for an hour, they finally collapsed on a patch of grass and watched the sun sink towards the horizon, covering the grass before them in a path of gold.
"Do you ever stop eating?" She tiredly asked the other boy.
Before his weight-sensitive childhood friend could respond, she turned to him, "And you." She searched for a complaint as she watched him lie nonchalantly on the ground. "Do you have any motivation at all?"
"Well, you're bossy, Ino-chan." The boy on his left offered in this sharing of personality traits.
"We really are going to be stuck together forever." The overweight member finally said the thought that had sunk in entire trio.
He sarcastically replied, "Great. It'll be like this, except without the forehead protectors."
"Well, it depends." The chuckle that escaped him raised her suspicions.
"What? What's so funny?" She eyed him dubiously.
"Tell me!" She elbowed him.
He responded, "Alright. I'll tell you...when you beat me at shogi."
As they approached a traditional home on the street and he walked on ahead, she whined. "What?! That's not fair! You know that I can't beat you at shogi"
"You came close yesterday." A woman appeared at the front door, her smile framed by long, wavy black hair.
"But that's because I cheated and Shika-niisan let me get away with it." Her daughter pointed out.
Yuuhi Kurenai laughed as her daughter took off her shoes and entered the home. "How was she today, Shikamaru-kun?"
"She'll do fine. She's just nervous." He replied.
"Hey, Shika-niisan, are you staying for dinner with us?" Kayoko peer over.
"No. Not tonight."
"Why not? I was going to take you on in shogi too..." She pouted.
"Weren't you too busy worrying about your exam?" He teased.
She turned and left the two adults standing at the doorway.
"Tomorrow is the big morning for you too, isn't it?" The older woman asked softly.
"Yeah. I guess so." He said, perhaps somewhat unexcitedly as he stuck his hands in his pockets.
She reassured him, maybe even with the same older-sisterly words she used last year, or the year before that, "You'll get the promotion. It would be ridiculous for the village council not to. You should've become a jonin a long time ago."
"Uh, yeah. Thanks." His eyes turned to a corner on the ground, avoiding her eyes just like he avoided the topic of conversation. When did looking forward become a problem for him?
After leaving the household, he walked down a relatively empty street enveloped in violet-evening, finding himself unable to keep his eyes directly ahead once again. Instead, he observed the buildings on the sides of the road with weariness suspended over his expression. Although the aftermath of the Fourth Shinobi War left the Konohagakure as acres of destruction, the two years' worth of both physical and governmental reconstruction was impressively efficient due to cooperation between the allied nations that bonded over the shared tragedies. The village that resulted was New Konogakure. Modeled after its pre-war counterpart, Yakiniku Q was still that the corner of the street, with the same sound of sizzling meat radiating from its entrance; next to it was still the small building that housed the Shogi Society filled with the sounds of playing pieces against wood. And then there was the Yamanaka Flower Shop, which he always passed en route to his small apartment with horrible rent.
They said that they used the same, old blueprints for New Konohagakure. Only there were still differences.
He knew that the barbeque shop no longer sells the same sweet-and-spicy sauce that his "big boned" best friend used to order in excess (which caused their sensei, who always paid, to cringe) because the only man who had the recipe moved to another village. The Shogi Society is filled with new faces that reminded him of the fact that he was very much 29 years old.
The flower shop didn't even sell flowers anymore. Instead, it stood abandoned, as it had been ever since the last surviving daughter of the family packed up her bags and ran off ten years ago. Now, it was the new generation of children's favorite haunt; he knew that the Academy students liked to have their test of courage after exam day in the building, believing that the ghost of a woman lurked about.
And this was the same place where everyone would go to buy bouquets—where a blonde kunoichi at the cashier stand would inform them on whether they should buy roses or carnations in her bossy, matter-of-fact voice.
All these little changes just kept building up. He wondered if there would be a day when this village would eventually become completely foreign woods.
His hand subconsciously reached for the earring stud pierced in his ear.
We regret to inform you that your application to become a jonin has been denied. We encourage you to try again next year.
The Konoha Village Council
Staring at the scroll delivered to him via delivery hawk, he tried to gauge his own emotions.
He wondered which he should be more concerned over: the fact that he was hardly surprised or the fact that he felt as bland as he did every morning.
"Still a no?" His chunin colleague asked when he noticed him walk into the instructor's room of the Academy.
He shrugged as he picked up the papers for the exam that he was assigned to proctor as the instructor of strategy class for Academy students. "It would've been a bother anyway. Too many missions."
"Those power hungry bastards. Probably all scared of that brain of yours overtaking them." Another teacher slapped him on the back in conciliation, "Wanna go for sake this evening?"
He considered the offer, but then remembered the overweight man who now worked at the sushi and sake shop as a bartender and replied:
"Nah, it's fine."
Once again, after watching the students leave school grounds in a wide range of moods (some high-fiving each other in confidence, others moping), he was walking the streets alone in the dark. He wondered if he could calculate the number of days he had repeated this routine. Of course, his days had changed slightly overtime.
The first time he received the scroll, he was greeted by a group of nine other ninja around his age. It was meant to be a surprise celebration party; his two team mates had the streamers all ready to throw at him. Instead, it turned into a consolation period.
Then the second time, they all drank for the first time to the promotion of four of his peers. But he opted out of the alcohol, hardly in the mood. And the third time, six of them had missions to fulfill as new jonin. By the seventh time, all of them were busy with their separate paths—all too preoccupied to look back at their crossroads except for him, who had nothing better to do, as the only one who was still a chunin.
And for some reason, he kept filling out another application for the next year.
He was about the pass the abandoned flower shop until a sudden shout and crash of a shattered pot interrupted the still night. Remembering that Academy students were probably in there, perhaps Kayoko included, he dashed towards the back door.
"Shi-shi-shi-kamaru-sensei!" A student clumsily ran into him, accompanied by a group of other boys. Perhaps it was the full moon that hung in the sky unadulterated by a single cloud, but their faces seemed drained of any color.
"Kojiro. Takumi. What's going on?"
"Gh-ghost! There's a cur-cursed gh-ghost in there!" One of them stammered before running off faster than he had ever run in training.
He was hardly one to believe in spirits. Not even when he was the boy's age. But he suspected that something was in there.
He swore and stealthily slipped into the building, using the shadows to his advantage. It appeared that the rooms were empty until he entered the greenhouse. Filled with pots of stiff, bare flower stems and dried leaves, crumbling from a decade without water, the area's expanse of open windows allowed it to be almost completely covered in moonlight. Noticing a lurking figure ahead, he hid behind the largest potted tree he could discern and made a quick hand sign, trying to manipulate a tiny source of shadow to stretch out.
His concentration broke along with the shadow the moment a kunai came close to nicking his cheek. When the blade shattered a pot across from him, he realized that it had an explosive tag attached to it.
He jumped out of the way, leaving him open to an army of more blades and throwing stars. Landing on the ground with a skid, he noticed from an angle of light that the weapons were aligned in pattern, connected by thin wire. A light blue chakra snaked at a rapid rate towards him.
As defensive reflex, he used the shadows of the kunai to similarly capture his anonymous opponent before the chakra rope could take its toll.
At hearing the complaining female voice cut through the air, he recognized the chakra technique. Walking out of the shrubbery and following the trail of weapons, he found himself standing face to face with an all too familiar woman, despite the ten years that had past.
Still stuck in his shadow justu and surrounded dirt spilling out of smashed pottery, she stood and stared at him with a clamped jaw. Silver light streaked off her long blonde hair as her blue eyes met his with a flicker of recognition.
And then they were in the still spotlight of the moon.
Finally, out of all the greetings he could've used, he mustered the only thought stuck in his throat.
This idea actually came to me when I had a spasm of Naruto nostalgia. I am in a phase of love for the original Konoha 12 and their friendships. It hit me that while Team 7 has the main characters, Team 10 has suffered their fair share of tragedies as well. So this is my tribute to InoShikaCho (and Asuma)—to their friendship that got them through the hardships they have endured, despite the fact that one would expect their relationship to be dysfunctional as hell based on their contrasting personalities.
The chapter titles and the title of the story itself are based off of Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening".
Thanks for reading! Of course, please review!