2. Fill up with Snow
They stood there in awkward silence, a few meters apart—a seemingly small distance that disguised the years outstretched between them. He still had the same natural slouch in his tall stature and expression on his face that made him look constantly tired. She still wore her hair with a long bang covering one eye and stood with a hand on her hip, impatient as always. Everything was the same.
Only everything was different.
"And here I thought I was going to be raped or something. It's just you, Shikamaru." She replied casually.
"Um...Well yeah." The years of lost contact left him unsure of how to respond to her flippant remark.
"So, how long do you plan on keeping me in this damned shadow jutsu?"
"Oh. Right. Sorry." Realizing that his hands were still in position, he relaxed and allowed his arms to fall back to his side. The shadow receded.
She knelt down to pick the pieces of broken pottery back up. Bright red welled up on one of her fingers after she cut it against a sharp edge. She paused to stare at it for a moment, as if remembering something. Then, almost too suddenly, she ignored it. Without giving him even a glance, she muttered:
"Damned idiots. Having the nerve to trespass and then running off screaming like kids."
"Well, they were kids."
He wondered if he should also tell her that they did this every year. And the ghost stories surrounding the place.
"Here." He ripped off a strip of cloth bandage and offered to help with her minor cut.
"Thanks." She grabbed it from him, opting to wrap it herself instead.
Conversation starting had never been his forte, since he was typically too lazy to bother with feeling uncomfortable. But tonight, he was dependent on the woman next to him, hoping that she would break through silence as easily as she used to nag him about the littlest things.
But there were no "How are you?"s. Or "What's happened over these years?"s.
He cleared his throat, "Um. So, you're back."
The stupidity of his words hit him after he spoke, which was a millisecond far too late.
"Are you just visiting?" He carefully asked.
A tuft of her blonde-turned-silver-in-the-moonlight hair puffed upwards from a casual snort. "Oh no, I'm staying for a while."
"What about your job?"
"I quit." Before he could say anything else, she almost too quickly continued, "It was too stressful anyway. The med-nins up there are so uptight. Nothing fun about it."
Perhaps his memories had skewed his perception, but he wondered if her breezy attitude had always made her seem distant. The blonde in his recollections had constantly asked their sensei whether he and Kurenai-sensei were dating, and stalked Uchiha Sasuke just to find out that he hated tomatoes.
But there was nothing inquisitive about this woman before him. So he offered:
"A lot of people over here switched job too. Sakura's a village ambassador now. I think Hinata's stepping down from being head of the Hyuga clan for a while. Uh, and Kiba quit—
"Yeah, it's been a long time, right?" She cut him off.
He looked up, trying to read from her expression whether he truly was the only buried in snow, frozen in times past.
That was when he noticed the scar on her ear from a closed piercing.
The problem with midnight was that everything was still.
Yamanaka Ino restlessly lied on her bed after spending an hour sweeping the grey and dead flower petals. Surprisingly enough, she could still identify each of the withered blossoms, including the cosmos that she received on her 16th birthday from her father—
She decided to clean the household upstairs as well. Only she saw the old tea set on the table and started thinking about her mother's chrysanthemum tea. And then she remembered weekend afternoons not paying attention to the retellings of her father's missions that she should've listened to.
So she threw the teapot out the window and heard it shatter in concert with an alley cat's hiss. Then she tossed the heirloom flower vase. And her mother's old dresses. And hair brushes.
And when that didn't work, she rearranged all the furniture.
By the time she was done, she was exhausted as anyone would be at four in the morning without sleep. And once again, she tried sleeping.
But then she could feel all the photograph eyes watching her. Although she had stored the frames deep underneath her sock drawer, in which anything that went in never found its way out, familiarity allowed the pictures to materialize. The bossy teenaged girl in chastising a peer her age in mid-yawn, the overweight boy trying to act as a diplomat, and the older man grinning at the antics—they were all there, surrounding her, never leaving her alone.
In that moment, she truly considered heading to the Taiyougakure again, just as she had done a decade ago. As the capital village, joint created by the Five Great Shinobi Nations who strove for maximum, cooperative peace after the devastating war, it was much more busy at night. With larger businesses and an amalgam of citizens from different nations, there was always something to distract her, even when she wasn't on duty as a medical ninja.
But who was she kidding? She couldn't go back there.
She sat up, got dressed, and headed towards the nearest bar. She refused to watch her life fill with heavy snow of memories long gone and leave her without room to breathe.
If time wouldn't move, then she would.
The smell of alcohol never sat well with him. Being the bland person that he was, he could never stand any beverage other than water. Juice was too sweet, tea was too bitter, and in this case, sake was too strong.
He stared at the clear liquid in the cup, trying to muster the motivation to bring it to his lips. Instead, he managed to greet the bartender.
"Oh, hey Shikamaru."
Both pretended that they had just noticed each other upon chance.
For some reason, he could not bring himself to look Akamichi Chouji in the eyes. It wasn't that he had probably gained more weight. Or that his round face seemed paler. It was just that he never knew his forehead was that wide.
Who knew that the lack of a forehead protector could change a person's appearance that much?
"How's it going?" Chouji asked, able to recall that the best friend he once had lacked the talent of starting conversation. But then again, he wasn't comfortable either.
Chouji was well aware that he was wearing an extra fifteen pounds and a restaurant uniform. Yet he replied with a smile, "Great." And switched the topic, "How are the students?"
He noticed the tired look on Shikamaru's face and suddenly caught himself, "I mean, if you're still a—
"I am. It's not a big deal." Shikamaru cut him off.
Separated by a countertop, they were opposite bulbs of an hourglass laid on its side, sand sitting still on both ends. They secretly wondered what happened to chips underneath cumulus clouds and easy grins while ditching practice.
Finally, Chouji spoke, "Well, you must be busy, though." He tried a laugh, "You never show up here."
Shikamaru mused over the man's words, playing them over in his mind. He had to ask himself whether the tone was meant to sound like an accusation. One for passing by the sushi and sake shop every evening without stopping by to visit. One for days turn into months turn into years since he had tried talking to the man who was once the boy he ditched tag for. One for doing all this knowingly, for he just could not bear to see that forehead and confirm change.
"It's alright. Not nearly as busy as they used to be." Shikamaru started, trying to find words that could mend time, "The team missions and all... they used to be such a bother."
Chouji's hands paused in the middle of wiping a glass.
"Remember that lord we escorted?"
He set the glass down, confirmed of his suspicions for his old team mate's sudden visit. "That was a long time ago. But I'm just a bartender now."
"You also happen to be a jonin." Shikamaru pointed out.
"Shikamaru. I'm not a shinobi anymore. I stopped taking missions years ago." He tried his most affable smile.
But despite the years that have passed between them, Shikamaru can still see a hint of the steely barrier that Chouji's expression had set. Staring at his hands on the counter, he quietly mentioned,
"That's great. How is she?" Chouji asked. It could've been as if he were asking about some distant relative he had never met.
"Fine. I guess. And you?" He forgot that he had already asked the last part. Or maybe he just wanted to try asking one more time.
"Fine. No, great." The bartender smiled with a face weathered by worn confidence and lost boyhood brazenness as he repeated his empty lie,
"We have a slight problem here."
Shikamaru, along with a group of chunin instructors, looked up from the paperwork and files spread out over the tabletop as a duo entered the Academy conference room. Application pictures of the students who had recently passed their exams were sorted in groups of three.
"What?" He asked.
The young jonin with spiky brown hair scratched his head, "Well, we're short a jonin."
"Wait, I thought we had all of them set."
"We did," The jonin, no older than twenty five, replied, "but one of them dropped out last minute."
Accompanying him was another ninja with characteristically prominent eyebrows, who explained, "Hinata-san just stepped down from her position as head of the Hyuuga clan due to her...uh, circumstances. She won't be in duty for at least nine months, so Hanabi-san has taken her position and can no longer act as a jonin advisor."
Shikamaru remembered recent rumors about Hinata and noted it yet as another proof of his age.
"Well, Lee, for now you're still getting Umino, Shiranui, and Uzuki." And Konohamaru, you're taking Inuzuka, Hyuuga, and Kurama."
He sighed in annoyance at this sudden wrench in plans, "Now we just need to find jonin for Sarutobi, Kamizuki, and Hagane."
"Don't worry we already found one for you guys." Lee reassured.
Shikamaru looked at his green jumpsuit underneath the flak jacket. If there was anything he could at least count on, it was Rock Lee's attire. Which did not say much and was hardly reassuring at all.
"Who is it?"
"Yamanaka Ino!" Lee proudly announced, "Did you know that she just came back yesterday?"
It took an incredible amount of effort for Shikamaru not to knock the table full of all his early morning paperwork over.
What the hell.
It was the only thought entangled in his mind as he accompanied Kayoko down the street, after passing by the empty Yamanaka Flower Shop and catching a hint of long blonde hair behind the entrance of the bar.
"Hey, Shika-niisan, did you hear me?"
"Huh? Yeah." He absentmindedly replied.
The girl glared, "Fine. What did I say?"
"You were asking how you should wear something or whatever."
She sighed, exasperated, "It was my forehead protector. And I solved that problem myself five minutes ago!"
He finally took his eyes off the crowd around them and looked at her, "Oh, really?"
The swirl insignia gleamed in the last second of daylight, with the band wrapped around her left arm.
After the sun completely set, the lanterns from nearby business shops illuminated her grin, "See? Does it look familiar?"
The smile on his face felt wrong, an expression of pride twisted with a sense of shame that burned from the metal protector on his arm—it was a pain similar to that of a scab; dull and browned from time, a scar that hardly drew attention anymore but bled the moment it was picked.
He wondered if the day will ever come, when this girl will no longer have to look up to talk to him, when she will walk ahead of him and all he will be able to see is her back.
"So, as I was saying, are you going stay over our place this time?"
"Uh, no. I'm busy." He said as the traditional house came into view. He nodded in greeting to the woman at the door.
"Again? How am I ever going to beat you at shogi if you never give me a chance to play against you?" She whined, "I'm never going to hear any of your stories."
"Sorry. Another time." He gave a distracted smile and left.
He rarely had a sense of direction or urgency, but tonight he knew exactly where he was going. Instead of taking his time, he walked right into the bar and confronted the customer at the counter.
"What the hell." He finally was able to say.
"Hey Shikamaru." The woman turned from her drink, "What's up?"
"Why the hell did you apply to be Kayoko's jonin instructor?"
"Who the fuck is Kayoko?"
He looked at her, incredulous. She had been there at the 1st birthday of their sensei's daughter. "Sarutobi Kayoko. Asuma-sensei's daughter."
"Oh her? I forgot about her."
"Oh who cares, I have my own life too. It's not like I'm supposed obsess over everything in the past like you do."
He wondered if this was supposed to be a blatant insult. Frustrated, he gritted, "Anyway, just drop out. I can find another jonin."
"Why? Because you can't trust me?"
He noted her slightly unfocused blue eyes, "No, it's not that. It's just—that's not the point. Why are you so set on being a sensei?"
"Why are you so against it?"
"What's your problem?"
Even if the alcohol was blurring her vision, she could still feel his eyes on the drink in her hand, trying to read into something deeper. She snapped, "What's yours?"
"Ino..." He started.
But she knew that tone. It meant seriousness, sincerity—all the things she did not want. And so she sneered, "Oh, I get it. Little Shikamaru is jealous."
It took him aback, "Wait, what?"
"You can't bear the fact that I'm the one who's going to be teaching Sarutobi. Me, not you, even though you were the one who used to say shit like 'I'm going to fucking awesome mentor to Asuma's kid'. But now I'm the jonin and you're still a chunin at the fucking Academy, where all your students just leave you in the goddamned dust once they graduate."
Tonight was certainly a night of firsts, for never had he felt anger of this intensity seize him. Sure, Ino had always been critical. She was a female, like all others, who ruthlessly nagged at his faults. But today, her breezy, devil-may-care attitude pricked something new inside of him.
He was pissed to no ends.
"You know what? This is bullshit. Talk to me when you're not drunk."
And he left, without denying a single thing she had said.
Alone, slouched over the counter, she took one last swig at her sake before slammimg it down, "Fuck you. I don't have any problems. My life's fucking fine." She waved her hand for another drink.
The hefty bartender hesitated before pouring another cup and sliding it over. When he had first noticed the blonde woman earlier this evening, he made it his goal to look down as much as possible so that she would not recognize him. It was odd, how one conversation could strip away all the convincing himself of satisfaction he had done, leaving him bare with self-consciousness. But after eavesdropping on the argument between her and the tall man with a black ponytail, he realized that his worrying was unwarranted; the woman was too intoxicated to be attentive to her surroundings.
He watched her flirt with another man at the counter, batting her eyelashes and laughing loudly in slurred words. She left with the stranger with a smile on her face. On a cursory level, she could've been the same, eager 17 year old who used to check her complexion in a compact mirror whenever she noticed a boy that caught her eye. Only he knew that the expression was laden with goodbyes to shadow tag training in the sunset and farewells to bickering during summer-cricket evenings on the way home from missions.
He knew that expression well. It was one that scared the man who stormed out of the shop. And one that stared at him in every reflection.
Taiyougakure means "village hidden by the sun". I chose "sun" because it's the center of our solar system...which I guess could tie it back to being the "center" or capital of the Five Shinobi Nations. But if that only makes sense to me (which seems to happen often with a lot of things), consider the name arbitrary.
Mention of the other Konoha 12 is probably bound to show up in my other future fics; I plan on making written tributes for the other teams as well. So yes, if any of you caught it, you will most likely hear about how Hinata's "circumstances" came about...in another fiction coming to soon to your computer screens (you can consider this blatant advertising for future projects).
All the Academy students mentioned towards the end do indeed carry the surnames of canon characters (it took a lot of Narutopedia scouring to determine them), although I can't promise that I'll be able to bring up all of them.
As always, I appreciate any and all reviews!