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“your body is a museum of natural disasters. can you grasp how stunning that is”~Rupi Kaur

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It is easier to ignore the concept of destiny–karma, especially when she could sort through the many different meanings given to petals. Flowers didn't grow with the purpose of replacing sentences. No living man had ever stopped to ask a daisy if it felt innocent. And who decided that an amaryllis should represent beauty?

And often meanings changed, sometimes contrary to what was once believed. People are so fickle and that's what makes everyone so easy to figure out. There was no such thing as luck or fate. Ino made her mind up about it the day Sasuke revealed that he wasn't who she thought he was– rather who everyone had expected him to be.

Calla lilies.

As she passes under the flickering of lights and closing shutters, Calla lilies struck her to be worthiest of the most beautiful title. Their bell shape reminds her of a cup, and the child in her would daydream about filling its insides with stars.

Ino smiles mournfully at her childhood. She's huddling home with an armful of things that won't let her forget that somewhere along the way she lost her sense of fun. Milk, bread, and a bag of bananas. She hasn't learned how to properly shop for a meal. Part of her doesn't want to because it would indicate just how old she's getting.

Home isn't far, but she is feeling the day on her calves. Standing for hours and faking a smile as women picked over flowers for their weddings took a chunk out of her. Not only is she nearing the middle of her twenties, but she hasn’t ever been in love.

"Ino, you're too beautiful to be single."

"A man would be lucky to have you."

"What–you're single!? I bet you're secretly crazy!"

All of the statements and the variations of them had never been a lie. She knows she is too beautiful to settle. If he doesn't have perfect teeth then why should he have the privilege to enjoy her perfect smile? And yes, she has never denied being somewhat insane. Particular is more befitting of her personality. What she doesn't understand is why she is met with such disapproval. She knows what she wants and if waiting for years, kissing a bunch of frogs would lead her to her prince then it will be worth it. All women should be that way and to hell with anyone that deems it vain.

Her sandal snags a protruding edge of the pavement and she stumbles. The milk carton slips from her arms, exploding on impact with a stress-inducing pop. She loses her bananas to the dirty curb as well, and a moment from earlier that morning replays itself in her conscience as she ogles the catastrophe seeping between her toes.

Carnations. They never sell well because they are assumed to be too common.

"White carnations are symbolic of love. They're prettier than white roses if you ask me and far less cliché," Ino had suggested with an eagerness.

"But they look so cheap– like those yellow weeds that grow in the summer," the bride-to-be sneered and her wrinkly mother agreed. Further encouragement to give the carnations a chance was promptly struck down with viciousness. The bride had decided on a gross amount of white and pale pink roses.

Ino scrambles to pick up what she can salvage– two bananas and her loaf of bread still neatly wrapped. She couldn't fault that woman and her mother though. Never settle for what you don't really want.  Even if it's ridiculous. That's what her father used to say and she wonders if he ever realized just how deep she has carved it in her heart.

"Ya know littering is a fine?" A familiar voice clucks at her but she is too busy staring at the milk veining its way through the cement.

"I'm not littering. I stubbed my toe." She pinches at the soiled paper bag, the drops of milk spluttering against the squashed bananas. Her brightly painted toe nails are sticky from the waste.

"Well what happened to all that stealth, Ino?"

Ino doesn't have to look at Shikamaru's face. She can hear the smile in his voice.

"I guess not everyone can sit on their ass all day and still be you, right?" With a sigh of defeat, she drops the bag back onto the ground.

"I don't sit on my ass all day. Work smart not hard."

She was wrong, he isn't exactly smiling– but his lips are pulled back in a smug frown. A cigarette peeking from behind his ear. Ino doesn't give him a reply. She simply feigns an attractive leer, her nostrils flaring sweetly.

"It's been a while," he starts when the silence becomes too awkward.

"Well we aren't exactly friends."

"Were we ever really, Ino?" He rasps her name, but there's a vastness on his tongue. She really looks at him. The nocturnal light above them only illuminates half of his body. The right side of his face is an endless shadow. His uniform looks worn. The hem of his vest is frayed.

"Not really. No. Especially now. Our fathers would be disappointed." To her surprise it isn't that hard to admit. Another silence emphasizes the space and time between them. Ino cradles her loaf of bread and the surviving bananas. Shikamaru reaches for the cigarette behind his ear. Death was supposed to bring people together, but the prospect of picking up where their families left off is painful to consider. Or perhaps she has been projecting her own insecurities onto Shikamaru and Choji.

"I take that back. We were once friends." Her stomach growls.

"Not very good ones." Shikamaru lights his cigarette and quietly observes her. He has always had this intense gaze– never subtle about his ability to dissect the tiniest shift in one's posture.

"Stop trying to read my mind!" Ino snaps at him but she also becomes hyper aware of how she stands.

"Don't flatter yourself. There's not much going on up there anyway..." He laughs and she starts to walk away.

"Goodnight, Shikamaru." Ino huffs as her stomach twists itself, but Shikamaru stands in front of her with his hands up in surrender. The bread squishes in half when she bumps into his chest.

"Hey. Heeey. Let's start over." His eyes are still heavy tools digging into her. She looks at his forehead instead. A lump forms in her throat because he would soon realize that she's still too weak of an opponent even as he relinquishes the upper hand.

"When was our last real conversation?" The cigarette wobbles between his lips.

"Three seconds ago," she replies tersely.

"Ino...humor me a little less," he inhales.

"I don't know, Shikamaru."

"Exactly." He plucks the cigarette from his mouth and a waterfall of smoke spills from his nostrils. She drags her eyes to his and feels herself float into their darkness. Above them, speckles of stars, paper lamps, streetlights, and the occasional nosy civilian peeking out of a bright window.

"Let me walk you home." He slides the cigarette back into his mouth, slowly blinking down at her. Patient. She's only ever remembered him this way. Even-tempered and never in a hurry. Ino could stand there, not answer him for an hour, and he would still anticipate a yes or no. She licks her lips and shrugs.

"Fine. Whatever." Ino gently shoves a hand in his hard chest.

"Gotta make sure you don't litter."

"So you're not concerned about my safety?"

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Walking her home had turned into a wrong turn in the heat of a disagreement. Her flushed cheeks and his sly demeanor led them to that familiar ramen shop. Where memories rose from the aroma of the broth. Ino doesn't talk when she eats and Shikamaru smiles as she shovels the noodles into her mouth.

What he doesn't know is that she hasn't eaten in a while. She hasn't felt like it and she wants to retain her petite waist. The ramen fills her with a warmth she had been missing– giving her heartburn that makes her dizzy when she tries to burp.

"You're not going to get any yourself?" She licks the corner of her mouth and looks at him. His amused glare reminds her to straighten herself. Ino clears her throat and slaps a hand against her chest.

"You haven't been eating."

Ino doesn't know if she should react to the audacity of his voice or be mad at the truth. All of her wit fizzles out like old fireworks. She could say what he expects or she could completely surprise him and lose the battle.

"I haven't had the time." She sucks in a breath and settles down her chopsticks.

"You work in a flower shop and there won't be a holiday for some time now." Shikamaru lights another cigarette. She scowls.

"People like summer weddings," she cants, narrowing her piercing blue eyes.

"This place is small. You can count the weddings for the rest of the year on one hand." Shikamaru coughed.

"How would you know?" She leans in and jabs a finger in his arm.

"The answers are always in plain sight, Ino. It's just a matter of how hard you're looking." He blows smoke in her face and she heaves.

x

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And he walks her home in complete silence. Shikamaru finds himself starving for words but the way she casts her eyes down forces him to suppress his melancholy. His heart is squeezing away at the death of their fathers and he wants to ask her if she's been able to sleep at night. He sleeps but not well. Mourning has been quite the process for him. It is strange knowing everything else but the mystery of where his father went. It haunts him like a complicated math problem. There's an answer but it's hidden under all the numbers. But numbers are infinite.

Shikamaru isn't scared of dying but he's scared of not knowing what void he'd become trapped in when the time comes.

They make it to the stairs that lead to her front door.

"Thank you..." Ino clears her throat. She's felt the heaviness of their empty walk. He follows her up the steps with an unawareness.

"No problem. I felt bad watching you try to salvage those bananas." His voice has thinned out but Ino assumes he's just tired.

She gives him a real smile and he forgets the snotty little girl that used to disgust him.

"It's very gentlemanly of you–stacking up on all your good karma." Her pony tail splits across her shoulders as she digs around in her bag for keys.

"I'm always a gentleman." He adjusts his vests.

"Since when?" She shoves her keys into the lock and the door clicks open.

"Hey...Ino..."He begins but she's distracted by the light switch when she steps inside. Ino hums a soft 'shit' when the light doesn't come on and stumbles into the darkness of her apartment.

"Shikamaruuu." She whines and tosses her bag against something unstable. Ino's house smells like a burnt out candle. It's an old lingering sweetness like candy.

"Shut the door behind you," she calls to him from a distant dark room.

Shikamaru nudges the door shut with his foot, hands buried deep in his pockets. An anxiousness swells in his chest as he scans the darkness. The kitchen window is open, moonlight sprinkles in and along the sink faucet. Drips of water like tiny diamonds peck against a dirty bowl. From what he can make out, Ino is surprisingly tidy. Every window sill is shadowed by vases of varying size and flowers twisting into each other.

"Change my light bulb for me, Shika." Ino appears from a dimly lit space that he assumes is her bedroom. He can tell that she's barefoot as the balls of her feet pound against the wooden floor.

"That's what you got arms for." He sighs and she's like an apparition before him. Her eyes so blue that they absorb the faint moonlight creeping through the mini blinds.

"You're useless." She huffs and scatters about for something to stand on.

"You're troublesome and lazy." He's quick with his response.

Ino stops searching and floats toward him.

"Yet you still ended up spending your money on me. So who wins?" She jabs a finger in his chest and twists it like a dagger.

"Nobody wins." He says with a little more emotion and grabs her wrist. They say nothing for some time. She allows him to peel away her touch and their hands drop.

"My mom's a little upset that you don't come by anymore." Shikamaru's voice is small.

"Well..." There really isn't an excuse and she quickly closes her mouth. Ino silently thanks the higher powers that be for the blanket of darkness. He can't easily see her guilt. Maybe he felt it in the timbre of her voice but all that matters is that he can't see her as a criminal.

"I mean I understand why you haven't, Ino." It's so dark and he doesn't know how to escape to the couch or a different corner, but he dips from her blue hazy stare. It's upsetting that he can still see her eyes in the dark.

"No no. You don't have to understand. I haven't been a good person lately." She folds her arms.

"Not seeing my mom doesn't make you a bad person." He stops himself from stubbing a toe.

"But it does and I'm not a very good person at all."

"Says who?" Shikamaru is louder in the dark– or her mind is playing tricks.

"Says you. All the time."

"No I don't!"

"You do though. You always have. If you don't say it then it's how you look at me."

"Look at you like what!?" Shikamaru's hand finds the back of a chair and he slumps in it like a depressed flower without sunlight.

"Shikamaru, don't be obtuse!" She knows where to go and steps towards him. Clumsily grazing her hip against a table, she finds him in the looming shadows.

"Do you even know what that means!?" He slides his face into his palm.

"There it is! Whatever look you've got is the look I'm talking about!" She stumbles in front of him.

"I probably look tortured." He breathes a half-hearted laugh.

"Well, Shikamaru." The way she drags each syllable stirs him. He groans at his heightening sense of sound and rubs the bridge of his nose.

"If you're not going to help me change my light bulb then you're free to leave."

"Well I'm not going to help you change your stupid light bulb..." He slams his hands down on the arms of the chair before rising and Ino grabs him by his vest.

"You're such a jerk. Why are you such an asshole?" Her voice cracks. He swallows the urgency to call her stupid, but in what little he could make out of her face something in him knew better.

"I wouldn't be a jerk if you weren't such a vacant person." And that feels wrong to say but it's the best he can do. Ino doesn't let go of him and through the thick veil of night they stare at each other.  She makes a small noise as if she is about to speak, but decides against it. Ino lets go of him, her fingers running down the front pockets of his uniform vest.

"I'm not vacant." She whispers.

"Then who are you really, Ino?"

She's never been asked that before.

Marigold. It's the flower of pain. Thick and vibrant. Gorgeous and easy to look at but underneath all of its petals there's untouched despair.

"You tell me." Would it make her a coward if she admitted to not really knowing? Shikamaru is smart enough to see through her. She thinks sullenly– maybe he already knows and is patronizing her.

"Ino, I can't tell you who you are."

The light suddenly flickers on and her gaze dawns on him. A million things come to fruition as he beams back at her. His heart skips a beat when he understands that she's looking for an answer, but he's lost in how pretty she is. Ino has always been pretty but he doesn't know why it hits him like an aftertaste this time.

"You know everything else." She pleads. If he had to choose the most attractive part of her body it would be how her full lips anchor the entirety of her appeal.

"You're lonely." Shikamaru feels himself drifting into her growing sadness. "You always have been but it's only getting worse the older you get."

"You're right." She doesn't look away. He's the ship and her irises are the ocean, anticipating to devour him into her cold depths.

"I don't have to be right." He reaches and brushes back her bangs, running his hand through her scalp. The gesture loosens the hold of her pony tail, she draws herself into him and Shikamaru has practiced with enough women to know. He tangles his arms around the curve of her back and she raises herself to steal his soul. Ino catches his gasp in her mouth and Shikamaru is washed in a dizziness. In all of the years of their forced proximity he has never entertained the thought of kissing her. He wonders if he should've. It probably would have saved him from the shock of her tongue tracing his bottom lip.

She thinks deeply– he smells like smoke. The way his hands slide beneath her top, spilling her breasts, she can tell he's going to be a mistake, but what is one mistake compared to a closet of them?

They messily undress each other and there's a high that comes with picking away at their familiarities. What they thought they knew unwinds with the discovery of how wide she can crack her hips and the river of his abdomen against her palms.

Shikamaru kisses like he's broken many hearts and Ino is different in that she's had her heart broken many times.

"How often do you do this, Shikamaru?" It's a strange question to ask, but she loves confrontation.

"If I told you we might not get too far." He smiles against her lips, creeping his hands at the sharp curve of her hip bone.

"You think I'm jealous?" Ino pulls away and feigns a glower.

"I know you're jealous."

Ino is the type of girl that will make a man wait. She likes the idea of falling in love. Normally he doesn't go for the good-girl but she's different. All of her feels like home. Ino isn't a box to fill with his proclivities.

"Only a little bit." She doesn't want to understand what compels her to shake free from their knot and show him her back. Ino rests her hands against the coldness of her wooden table. Mirroring a vast valley of flourishing opportunity, she sprawls and bends herself like a wind kissed dandelion. Brushing aside unopened letters and bright pink pens. She arches her back like a sharp wave, raising her hips.

"How often do you do this, Ino?" All those years of not paying close attention to her collapse at his feet. He then accepts the epiphany that he's looked away on purpose. Her allure commands his vulnerability.

"Not often." Combing her fingers through her hair, she leers over a well defined shoulder. Her lips stop at a short simper.

Home calls. Time stops and makes the reproach of his own heart gentle. Little thumps like bubbles rising to top. Shikamaru reaches his hands for her hips, his fingers extending along her soft skin. Under the hotness of his touch she presses herself against his erection.

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Chapter Text

Asphodel–six feet of regrets beneath the ground. Ino licks her lips and her secret stings her neck. The storefront bell chimes and she jumps from the bouquet of lilies. Instantly, her fingers crawl to touch the swollen hickey. Usually she greets with a prayer-like script that had been beaten into her at an early age, but for the past two days, Ino hasn't been able to properly form sentences. Hellos remind her of Shikamaru's smile under a cape of smoke. Goodbyes conjure up the wobbliness of the morning after.

The shower water is neither hot nor cold enough. She still feels him all over and inside. No matter how hard she scrubs between her fingers, the anticipation of his tongue is still there. There isn't an inch of her that hasn't been tainted and she can't help but feel like everyone else can see just how badly he has blemished her soul.

Ino wipes her damp hands along her skirt and chirps a tart 'Good Morning'.

The door slaps shut and the bell whistles again. Ino reties her hair, steps around the tall assortment of flowers, and her mouth breaks apart for more pleasantries until she meets the crystal glower of her patron.

They don't immediately pass niceties. Ino waits for Sakura to say something first. For one, she hasn't been able to gather up the rest of her soul to spit anything witty, and two, her thighs brushing together still has her dizzy. Sakura isn't as keen as Shikamaru, but she has always been able to sniff out Ino's insecurities.

Sakura's lips curl into a self-assured smile and she bends over to inhale a pot of yellow roses.

"Good morning to you too, Ino. "Sakura gently pinches a petal. Another wordless pull of minutes pass before Ino clears her throat.

"What's the occasion? If you don't mind me asking." Ino is sincere in her interest but hopes it's not another wedding. She can't stomach another persnickety bride and the cruel little girl that sits heavy in her chest doesn't want to be happy for Sakura.

Sakura stands up straight and crosses her arms. She tilts her head to the side and blinks five times, pale wisps of her bangs catch in her lashes. Her eyes roam from pinks, to blues, and greens that fade to yellow. Ino huffs and then Sakura clasps her hands at her cheeks.

"It's for one of my patients..."

Ino wonders if Sakura is intentionally avoiding eye contact. All of her well memorized quirks were lost to time. She can't remember what love or disappointment looks like in Sakura. Every smile looks the same.

"Oh...well..." Ino places her hands on her hips.

"He's got this thing for one of the medics– he's too ashamed to say anything himself." Sakura blows a strand of hair from her face.

Ino chokes on her own surprise and the butterflies in her stomach collapse.

"What does that have to do with you? Still haven't learned to mind your business?" She retorts but Sakura only shrugs. Her smile deepens and reveals the two dimples Ino had coveted for years.

"You've never been compelled to just do something nice for someone?" Sakura looks at her with pretty bewilderment. It's a completely defenseless stare. Glassy and vulnerable–the kind of look she supposed men liked falling for. It causes Ino's heart to skip a beat or two.

Sakura as a little girl fiddling away with origami birds dawns on her but it's a quick punch of nostalgia.

"Depends," Ino quips and rolls a shoulder.

"Well when you do, doesn't it just make you feel good?" Sakura always has subtle ways at making her feel bad. If it isn't the patronizing lightness in her eyes, it's the nerve of her smile.

Ino can't recall the last nice thing she has done, so her already tattered spirit shrinks before Sakura. Little does she know, Sakura is oblivious to her vicious train of thought.

"What do you suggest? For a man who's in love?" Sakura turns her attention back to the canopies of twisting vines and volume of overflowing vases. Ino's heart crawls into her throat.

"Um...well there are roses." She stands closer to her childhood friend and gestures.

"Roses are cliché." Sakura whines playfully.

"Honestly." Ino doesn't resist the urge to smile and hooks her arm with Sakura's, leading her to the copiousness of red carnations.

Ino's dislike for Sakura has blurred and warped itself like paranoia. She wants to ask Sakura, as she personally wraps her a bouquet with thin ribbons, if she felt the same way. Their history isn't vitriol.

But Ino sips from the glittery golden cup of her pride. She also fears that it's become one-sided, and no one ever wants to admit that they've been wrong. Especially for the vast majority of their life.

It's strange that she can't figure out how to say 'Bye' to Sakura. Someone who is more than an acquaintance. She can't find a perfect balance between authenticity and reservation, so she says nothing when Sakura murmurs a sweet 'Thank You'. Sakura notices her peculiar show of affection in her limp wave, but doesn't take it to heart.

Is there really enough time for redemption? Will time allow her to live long enough in this world to fix what her soul had set onto Sakura?

Ino drops her eyes into her wet palms. There's a clipped leaf stuck to her thumb and dust of petals along the counter.

Maybe. Right now she isn't ready. Life has already shirked too many responsibilities on her. She's not prepared to mend spoiled relationships. Is it bad if she never grows into the type of person she should be?

The bell rings and the door gently slips shut.

"Hey you!" Sakura's laughter is muffled.

Ino lifts her attention from her hands and leans over the counter to see if she recognizes the potential patron. At the crux of squinting through the narrow parts of leaves and sunflowers, she hears Shikamaru before she can see him. She almost cuts her wrists against the sharp edge of the counter as she drops back on her feet.

The bell rings twice and the door swings open. He wheezes something nice to Sakura on his way in and Ino's fingers curl to fists.

"We're closed!" Her jaws are swollen.

"The sign says otherwise." He holds out his arms and shrugs. The door pitters to a close behind him and the bell gives a slight hum. Shikamaru takes four steps and Ino points at him, stabbing her finger in the air.

"Nope! No loitering! Get out!"

"Ino..." Shikamaru dares to sound reasonable and suddenly her hickey feels like a battle wound. She reaches under the counter for an empty flower pot and chucks it at his feet. Ino wouldn't have missed if he wasn't so sharp in his movements.

"What. The. Hell..." He breathes a shy away from laughter and raises his hands with petty arrest. Shikamaru chews his bottom lip as he scans the broken bits around his feet.

"You know, Ino...women usually ask me to stay." And he isn't sure if he should be enthralled or terrified by her passionate display of affection.

"Shikamaru, please leave." Her voice hitches.

"Is this how you treat all of your customers?" He scoots a jagged piece with his foot and steadies towards her.

"Be real. You're not here to make me money."

"You don't know that. I like to buy flowers for pretty girls."

On a normal day, she would have a mouthful of poison for him, but he holds that indignant part of her captive. Out of all the people in the world that she should desire...

"It wasn't supposed to be this way." She can't look at him as he walks behind the counter.

"What way is it supposed to be?" He has his hands in his pocket.

"What do you want from me, Shikamaru?"

And such a simple question befuddles him. He doesn't show his sudden witlessness, but it constricts his throat. What is he doing here? He thinks to himself.

"I just thought about you is all." In truth, she's been on his mind ever since. The way she buries herself beneath a pillow when she sleeps has haunted him. It's the last thing he remembers before this very moment. Shikamaru's eyes fall to her mouth as she slowly turns her head to gaze at him. He recalls her drowsy moans when he barely touched her.

Shikamaru's eyes widen with discovery.

Ino wants to vocally express herself but what's the point when he can read the slightest shift of her eyes? She can't lie and running only validates what hasn't been said. Shikamaru is the wrong person in every way she can conceive. She's never been able to make sense of the cat and mouse analogy. A mouse is as good as dead once it's gained the attention of a hungry cat.

"That's funny. You haven't thought much about me in years." Ino tilts her head. Shikamaru doesn't have an answer for it.

"Now that we've had sex I just cross your mind now?" She wrinkles her lips and cuts him a sweeping gander.

"Yea. Something like that..." He says with tempered intensity.

"How many girls has that worked on?" Her entire body is on fire, a mixture of unchecked rage and ardor. If she weren't so starved for the flavors of his bad habit, she'd burst into tears.

"Zero." His lips are drenched with conviction.

There's that moment before two people realize that they're on the edge of consuming each other. Shikamaru removes his hands from his pockets and Ino wants to be that one and only girl. Their bodies are acquaintances and their hearts are strangers. History doesn't mean a damn thing in adulthood. Picking scabs on hot cement can't be compared to taking various parts of each other in their mouths. It's different and dangerous. Worse than beating each other up with sticks. Band-aids can't hold a broken heart together.

Ino's body tells him that she isn't going to make the first move– and he's an idiot if he ever thinks she will. Shikamaru yields to Ino because that's the only way he can have her.

He reaches for her, his hands sliding behind her neck as they collide into a messy kiss. Ino's lower back presses against the edge of the counter, she gasps and in response, he brings his hands down to roll up her skirt. Shikamaru cups the softness of her ass and lifts her on top of the counter.

As he drinks away the remains of her sanity, she tangles her quivering legs around him.

"I want you inside of me." She sings into his mouth.

"I know." Shikamaru finds ways to needle at her demands. He anticipates slipping inside of her but not in the way she wants. Ino attempts to anchor him down with her but he's chosen the path of his hands. He frees himself from the trap of her lips and she liquefies along the counter. Her fingers tip over a cheap vase. The crescendo of its ruin like a mighty orgasm.

Shikamaru descends between her legs, dragging his tongue down her thigh. She's not wearing any underwear and it causes him to break his string of fluttery kisses with a smile. Ino's toes curl at the heat of his breath at her lower lips.

"Are you always this prepared, Ino?" He breathes before sliding his tongue against her clit.

"Shut. Up." She's loses at the sound of her name and expires at the motion of his mouth. With an arch of her back, she attempts to flee from the cataclysm between her legs, but Shikamaru's hands bar down on her hips.

Here lies the death of her frigidness. She can no longer hide behind walls of ice. There can never be an honest rejection from her. He sips and swallows all the ways she can say 'No'. From here and into the future, Shikamaru has her like a knife wedged deeply into flesh.

They can never take a step back.

Ino cries an ugly prayer, but there's no god here. She closes her eyes and carries her hands to hide her face from the thought of angels peering down at her pleasurable misdeed.

Shikamaru plunges his tongue into the pulse of her walls. She scatters his name– let's it hang like  forbidden fruit in an empty garden.

When he's satisfied, he pulls away and she suspires at the immediate coldness that follows after. Ino sits up with shaky arms. Numb between her legs, she opens her mouth to speak but Shikamaru drags her into another kiss.

"Why did you stop?" She likes the way she tastes.

"I've got somewhere to be." His voice drips like honey into her mouth.

"It's not more important than me." Ino challenges him.

"But it is– a good employee doesn't fuck around on the job." He smothers her with a final kiss that incites her with faltering rage.

"Shikamaru..." She coolly demands him but he drags the back of his hand against his lips and walks away.

"I really like being in good graces with your mom." His feet crunch the shattered flower pot. Ino viciously slides from the countertop and follows after him, the slickness of her thighs rubbing together in her approach.

"She's not here!" Ino grabs him by the wrist as his other hand presses the door open. The bell whistles.

"I'll just see you later!" His gives her a toothy smile and plays up her craziness.

A mouthful of swears rolls in her throat but as if the devil himself had become sickened by her undoing, she spots her mother sauntering up the pathway with bags from the market.

"How late is later?" Her stare is pointed.

"Whenever I wake up from my nap." He pulls away from her, going out of his way to strike a conversation with his second mother.

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"You're awfully quiet." Choji coughs with a mouthful of pork. Shikamaru hasn't touched his plate. He watches the smoke flutter to the colorful ceiling and sinks back into the booth's cushion. The weight of Ino still sits on his hips.

"When do I ever have much to say?" Shikamaru ashes the cigarette into his untouched tea.

"You're not the only one that's good at social cues, Nara." Choji points his chopsticks at him, closing one eye as if Shikamaru's heart is the target.

"You don't say?" Shikamaru rolls his eyes.

"You don't wanna be here," Choji says pragmatically, stabs another piece of pork and shovels it into his mouth.

"Damn. You got me..." Shikamaru brings the cigarette to his lips and inhales dramatically.

"You ain't have to come. It wouldn't have hurt my feelings!" Choji laughs over the clatter of dishes and toppling bottles of sake.

"Nowhere else better to be, my friend."

They share a moment of silence. Choji stops picking at his food and squints as he thinks about just how much he doesn't know about Shikamaru in the passing years. There hasn't been enough time to simply, and the time they can afford they spend it drunk.

"How's Temari?" It's the first thing that comes to mind. Shikamaru suppresses his initial reaction and hides his scowl under a swirling cloud of smoke. He gathers a distant pensive look.

"I'm sure she's fine." He retorts gently, popping his jaw.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means that I'm pretty positive that she's ok."

"You're shit at being passive aggressive."

A waitress drops an entire meal but Choji keeps his eyes pinned on Shikamaru, stuffing his face with a roll.

"We aren't together anymore. It's been a while." Shikamaru gives a heavy shrug. He feels like he's lying. It hasn't stopped feeling surreal.

"What happened?"

Shikamaru drops the rest of his cigarette into his tea cup, leans against the table with his elbows, and holds up his index fingers– he presses them together.

"Sometimes, people just grooooow apart." He separates his fingers, reflecting dilapidating unity.

Choji's throat rolls as he swallows. The humor in Shikamaru's face is colorless and he feels bad for him. What a shitty way to cope with real things–Choji muses.

"Damn." It's all he can say. He picks up another roll.

"Damn." Shikamaru echoes, finally picking up his chopsticks.

It didn't feel right to spill his guts about what happened with Temari. In truth, Shikamaru hasn't really processed their break-up. They didn't spiral into cruel words nor end with bitterness. Sometimes, in the middle of cold showers, he remembers her mouth around him in the morning. There are dates like pockets of freckles at his wrist. He's spent more time searching for her in other women than forgetting, but they have all failed in comparison. Until two nights ago when he found himself not wanting to brush away Ino's toes from his calves. She's been the first he's held throughout the night after Temari.

Shikamaru slides the sliced pork into his mouth. Chews slowly and muddles What Next?

"Have you talked to Ino?" Choji accidentally reads his mind.

"I talked to her mom."

Shikamaru tells half-truths because he sucks at lying. Revealing a little bit of the truth is better than acknowledging the weight of water.

When he tries to leave, Choji tempts him with a shot. A single glass always turns into a dozen, but when Choji is not convinced that Shikamaru has burned away enough of himself, six more glasses roll across the table. It's a game he always lets Choji win.

'Unwind.' His friend always says in the middle of their fourth shot. Little does Choji know, Shikamaru is looser than he lets on.

When Shikamaru finally escapes from their sweaty stupor, he makes a point to say good-bye. It's a good habit he's picked up since the war. The only good habit to come out of the madness. Choji hesitates because he's used to Shikamaru disappearing like a magician.

"Later?" Choji's face is pink with a boyish giddiness.

"Absolutely." Shikamaru wobbles three steps back.

They drift apart into the early morning streets and 'later' dawns on Shikamaru. He mouths a silent 'fuck' and brings his hands to cup his ears– to hush up the ringing of the morning birds.

But as he continues to search for home, he realizes the significance of Ino in his drunken thoughts.

"Damn..." Shikamaru rasps at the glowing epiphany of what he missed out on.

Unwind. Choji has said many times. Shikamaru stops walking as the sun peeks above a blurry building. Beaming on his face, it feels like the dip of Ino's spine against his cheeks.

Unwind. Unwind. Unwind.

Shikamaru Nara hazily watches the sunrise. Stares straight into its swollen brightness and it spots his vision with stars.

Unwind.

There's a knot in his chest.

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She can't stop rubbing her knees together, curling and uncurling her toes. How long has it been? A full day has gone by and she hasn't seen Shikamaru. Her eyes jump from her vague reflection in the glass of orange juice to the clock on her mother's wall.

"Ino?" Sai has called her name three times.

"Ino?!" Her mother joins him and Ino plummets from the clouds.

"Yes!" She snaps from the fall.

To break her morning haze, she snatches up the glass and takes a long gulp. She gags a little from at the taste of mouthwash mixing with the citric acid.

"She didn't sleep well last night." Sai looks at her like he always does. Curiously with longing. As if she has been exactly what he's searched for. A month ago, she liked being the object of his desire, but today it dries her throat with guilt. There's no more of herself to give to him. Shikamaru had greedily eaten all of her essence and taken the seeds with him.

It's been a month and she should be happy that he's back in one piece, but what she thought was 'love' had been destroyed within seconds.

'You probably shouldn't do it if you have to think about. And if you have to think about it, it's probably not good for you.' In the words of her father. Ino didn't stop to think about whether she should or shouldn't let Shikamaru gut her. Yet she's spent many nights contemplating the nature of her intimacy with Sai.

Ino nibbles on a piece of bacon to distract herself from the daydream of her father twisting and turning in his grave.

"Maybe she will sleep better now that you're back." Her mother adores Sai. Probably more than she ever has. Ino crosses her legs and Sai slips a hand on her thigh. It's not the same anymore and she has to fight the urge to move away.

Sai is worse than Shikamaru when it comes to understanding body language. Ino unravels herself. Maybe it's good that she hasn't heard from Shikamaru. She can jump out this window of opportunity and fix herself.

"Yea. A month is a long time." She gives Sai a plain smile.

"Have you fallen back into your old bad habits?" Sai sees the vastness of her eyes– he reads that she's not focused. It's even more obvious when she hesitates.

"Mhm. Are you gonna beat them back out of me?" She anxiously takes another sip of orange juice, batting her lashes. Sai is perplexed but catches on the moment her mother strangles on her coffee.

"Ino! Mind your manners!" Her mother gently slaps her on the knuckles.

When Sai looks away and her mother carries on with existing in her own head, Ino burns out like a candle. Slumping a little in her seat, her stomach loses its appetite.

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A month is a long time to be away from someone, but it only took minutes to strangle the life out of everything they'd work so hard for. On paper, Sai is perfect. God had truly sculpted a masterpiece, but art can be soulless– nice to look at but shallow. With his smile, if looks could kill, his hands would be sanguine with the hearts of a hundred women.

It's not real though. There are times when his smile feels nice, sometimes it unfolds warmth, but she often wonders– how much is the feeling simply projected? Sai's eyes are shiny blades. Sleek in the reflection of whoever dares to stare into him.

Ino hasn't gained any comfort from not knowing how he really feels or if he feels anything at all. She's only won his hands soothing her ego.

On paper, at a first glimpse, Sai is perfect but if one takes time to read in between the lines, he's terrifying.

His 'I love yous' feel like sand spilling from her fingers.

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"So we're just supposed to pick up from where we left off?" Underneath her smirk, the foundation of her morals is crumbling. Her mother walks ahead of them as they ascend the crowds of bright kimonos and floating confetti.

"That's what I had hoped for." The wind splits his bangs. Ino hangs on him like she always does but her hold is tighter than usual. He grimaces and it brings about an absent prettiness in his eyes.

"You get to vanish into the wilderness for a month and I'm supposed to stay the same?" She whispers loud enough for him to hear.

"I didn't vanish into the 'wilderness'...and you seem the same. Dramatic– is that the word? You're still very dramatic." He looks down at her.

There's no use in starting an argument with him. He never responds the way she wants him to, bursting with romantic distress. Whenever she attempts to sink her teeth and gnaw at a layer of his skin, he barely flinches.

So that's how you feel, Ino? It's become an insufferable mantra. She hates it.

"Is that how you feel, Sai? I'm still dramatic?" They stop together. The crowd steps around them like ants avoiding a puddle of water. Sai narrows his eyes at her, searching for the proper answer. He's kissed her enough to notice trick questions.

"Yea. That's how I feel. Should I feel different?"

There's a gust of glitter and the paper lanterns rattle in the breeze. When she doesn't say anything, the light in his eyes shift.

"Does that rash on your neck feel any better?" He asks her. The color of her skin deepens.

Ino truly doesn't believe in fate or any type of luck, but she feels some secret force trying to end her with awful coincidences.

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Shikamaru hates crowds of people. He can't think straight and his trained eye doesn't allow him to enjoy frivolity. People have a tendency to wear their souls like jewelry or tell on themselves within seconds of starting a vapid conversation. The noise is grating on two hours of sleep and a blood bubbling headache.

He usually doesn't bother with the seasonal festivals, but summer was his father's favorite. It didn't seem right to deprive his mother of such a trivial joy. Time hasn't been good to either of them.

As his mother sifts through a table of beaded jewelry, he recollects the many times his father expressed his unending love for her.

Does love stop at death? Another question that he squanders his wits on. There's no answer.

'Life is a mystery, Shikamaru.'

'It doesn't have to be.'

"When was the last time you bought me something nice?" Yoshino drawls. When Shikamaru doesn't readily reply, she cuts him a sideways gander, and slaps him with her fan.

"Damn it. I don't know, Ma. A long ass time." He scratches the back of his neck. She looks at him pensively, curling her upper lip. Yoshino wrinkles her nose whenever she sizes him up. His cracked lips give away his hangover.

She's had little to say since Shikaku's death so he waits for the sting of her words. Accepting her harshness would re-establish a sense of normalcy. When she opens her mouth, his heart lurches. He hopes every word is heavy with her usual venom. He hopes she's so vicious it cures his hangover.

"How 's Temari?"

And that isn't what he had prepared himself for. Shikamaru reveals his annoyance with the drop of his shoulders. He knows he shouldn't be surprised. When you integrate someone into your life and suddenly they disappear, it's natural for anyone to be curious. Shikamaru's memories seem so distant but when he's reminded of her, he recalls the last time he had kissed her. It feels like a residual haunting. Five even knocks on his skull. Then he gets a dull heart-ache.

"She's fine." The second time he's had to say so and it hurts his throat.

"Shikamaru..." Yoshino stands under his nose and jabs a finger in his chest. "What did you do?"

"I didn't do anything." He raises his hands in surrender.

"I bet that's the problem! You don't do enough. You didn't stop her? Did you?"

He didn't, but not in the way that she accuses him.

"Life is so short, Shikamaru." These days she says his name with little belief. Where a waterfall ends, his mother became the river that gives life to the land. "You can't just give up on people. Even when they tell you to. Because you never really know..."

The weather is warm but the air between them is stifled with grief. Life keeps moving. It beats around in blaring color.

"I want grandchildren." It's not the first time she's said so.

"I know."

"I'm scared you're too stubborn and lazy to make any." She turns to a table of handmade tacky knickknacks.

"If you say so." He rolls his eyes so hard it gives him a mini migraine.

"I don't know what she saw in you anyway."

He follows his mother's idle stroll down the creative displays of food and what the pretentious deemed 'art'. It all looks like a bunch of nicely painted junk to him.

"To tell ya the truth, I don't know either."

Life has a funny way of shifting people in the right direction. Someone moves too quickly and bumps his shoulder, which leads his attention cutting through a parting in the sea of bodies. He hasn't asked for a sign, but Sai bending to touch Ino's face is shining symbolism of his bad decisions. It hurts because he doesn't make mistakes often.

Shikamaru subdues a knee-jerk reaction. The alcohol still pinches at his common sense.

"I'm thirsty," Yoshino whines.

"I'll get you something," he says distantly.

Sai leaves to search for Ino's mother and she can finally breathe. Metaphorical bricks topple from her shoulders. She feels light for a moment then closes her eyes. The delicious smell of spices does little to comfort her awful sense of humor. Ino realizes how alone she is despite being surrounded by so many familiar faces.

"Ino." Shikamaru's breath tickles the side of her face. She has to catch herself from fainting with fear, lust, and anxiety.

"You look like hell." In a matter of seconds, she rebuilds her defenses.

"So when were you going to tell me?"

"Tell you what?" She bites.

"Are you seeing Sai?" His inflection is that of a smothered shout. Both of their eyes darken with doubt. Ino's soul escapes her first and she has the nerve to take her time with an answer. Licking her lips and crossing her arms, she steps closer to him. Her eyes shifting from his lazy scowl and the curious glares at their obvious disagreement.

"No. I'm not. It's not like that anymore." Ino's guilt is small, but she can't bring herself to look at him directly.

Shikamaru feels his bones stiffen at the sense of wrongness. He feels betrayed by his own body.

"I don't believe you." He's speaking to his heart as well. All of his mistakes he can count on one had.

"You don't have to believe me, but you're not going to act like I tricked you into fucking me." She crudely whispers.

Disbelief is ugly on him. The tip of his nose burns red. She wonders what he looks like when he discovers love– if it's twice the hotness as his lips on her breasts. With the way disappointment breaks his cool, she comes to terms with never knowing. It's not something she needs to know.

This could be her chance to free herself from the noose he has hung around her neck.

"What do you want from me?" She gives him a weak laugh.

"Nothing." Shikamaru retorts sharply. It cuts through her but she's not exactly sure why.

Ino opens and closes her mouth because it's not a satisfying answer, but Sai appears with her mother who shrieks Shikamaru's name as if she hadn't seen him twenty-four hours ago.

Shikamaru's eyes are glassy yet resilient. His frown vanishes as quickly as he had shown his distaste. Ino retains her vexation and looks away.

With the same odd charm that wiggled her out of her panties, Shikamaru swallows her mother up in a mindless conversation. She knows him well enough to gather that it's on purpose.

Ino strangles away her swears, snatching at Sai's hand and tugging him away. He makes a noise but its drowned out by the thunder of her profane thoughts. There aren't enough awful words in her vocabulary to curse Shikamaru nor bottles of wine to help her forget that she'd been a puddle beneath him. She shoves through the crowd until she is sure that she can't feel Shikamaru's presence.

"Are you ok?" Sai stops abruptly and jerks her arm. It damn near starts the flood of tears she's been holding back since he'd arrived this morning. Ino hesitates, dropping her hold on his hand. A minute passes before she faces him. It's a good thing Sai can only touch the surface. As she beholds his openness, she sees her reflection–the guise of a criminal.

And Ino resists the truth the only way she knows how, avoiding it until she can't handle the punishment of her internal isolation. Can she really take a secret to the grave? How many secrets did they bury with her father? She could use all of that missing wisdom.

She hastily curls her arms under Sai's and breaks him into a kiss. It's the most affection she has shown him since this morning– since the last time they had sex. Two months ago.

To her silent horror, it doesn't feel like anything at all. Even when he recovers from the shock and reciprocates.

All of the happiness that rolls around–streamers, candy, and fake gold evades them.

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Shikamaru wonders why his bouts with love are always bitter. He hangs out of his old bedroom window and burns through his last five cigarettes. One after another until his throat feels dry.

"Here's the sad thing about death, Shikamaru. You think about all that time you spent ignoring or talking over the problems. Every day, a moment you've long forgotten wakes you up from your sleep or deprives you of feeling good about anything else." Yoshino had said to him before vanishing into the dark hallway.

All that time he wasted combating Shikaku holds a candle to his blissful ignorance. Being comfortable is just as dangerous as doing nothing at all.

'Don't be complacent.' Shikaku presses him from the afterlife, but for the first time, as the stars blink back at him, the memory isn't so cold.

As he ashes his last cigarette, watching the orange sparks float in the wind, he thinks about every small thing he's done to upset everyone close to him. Daydreaming in the middle of Temari's dilemmas, ghosting his mother when she stabs him with criticism, not being as open as he could be with Choji, and avoiding the truth when his father teased him. Behind every 'I'm kidding' there is a little honesty.

Shikamaru drops his cigarette butt into an empty flower pot. His mother's failed attempt at adding beauty into their empty world.

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Ino has never been in love before.

The shafts of moonlight reveal the apprehensive rolls of her stomach as Sai floats above her. As he thumbs the corner of her wet eyes, she unravels her legs from his waist. All of her limbs pooling under and around him like a tipped glass of water.

"Sai, what does love mean to you?" She asks him absently. He takes a moment that feels like an eternity, but the clock on her wall tells a five-minute story.

"It's completeness." He finally answers.

"Do I complete you?" She builds a trap so that she can escape.

"I think you do. Do I complete you?"

"A month is a long time." Ino says desperately.

She ignores her years of discipline when it comes to being elusive. There is doubt in her statement because she fears that maybe she still has it wrong. A month is a long time but so is forever. Sai pulls his fingers from the tangle of her hair and rolls on his back. The bed shakes and it's the ocean between them.

If she were truly a deplorable person, she would take his hand and trace over all the missed marks. She doesn't turn to look at his face in the darkness, but she knows his expression has remained dazed. There is a slight part of his lips as he breathes and he's arched a brow.

When does an inclination become just as dire as oxygen?

When does desire stop feeling like a dream? Does it ever?

Ino doesn't ask him to leave. There's enough room in her bed to muddle over their muddy waters. Sai continues to stare into the void of her ceiling and Ino rolls into her unclean sheets.

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Nigella. Her mind raises a war with her heart.  Between the electricity of her conscience and the war drum pounding of her heart, there is an answer. She doesn't find it in her sleep. When she wakes up, Sai is gone and the higher power doesn't leave a sign within the early morning shadows on her wall.

All that Ino is left with is her gumption. She swings her legs from under the sheets and presses her toes onto the cold wooden floor.

'What do you want?' Ino silently asks herself. She sprawls her fingers through the wrinkled sheets, smoothing out the lines.

The truth can set a soul free.

Ino finally stands, shrugging off an ounce of her ego. Shikamaru has been on her mind too much for comfort. Ignoring him was like depriving herself of water.

'It's ok to be reckless once in a while.' She remembers.

When she is sure that there is no trace of Sai, she sets off without combing her hair, almost tumbling down the brick stairs of her apartment.

Instant gratification is her ultimate hubris, but good has come out of her demanding anxiety. If she failed, she would suck it up and move on to the next mistake.

Shikamaru is no one to be scared of.

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Ino has never believed in good luck. Life has always been a series of predictable consequences and how she's dealt with them. It soon hits her as she sprints through the breakfast rush that not only does she not know where she's going, but she's starving.

She looks like a mad woman as she slows into a stop and takes in all of the food she's been missing out on.

Today is the day to be reckless. She could sacrifice one day.

 

When had she started denying herself happiness? There are a good handful of factors. Ino watches familiar faces dip in and out of shops. Most of them are smiling. Some of them stuff their faces gleefully.

Ino exhales and moves on from her quick bereavement. She opens her eyes to witness the beauty of chance. Betwixt two unparallel bodies, she spots Shikamaru– they both spot each other as if neither really had control of time. He stops chewing on his roll and she sees his hesitation ten feet away. Shikamaru takes his finger, shoves the rest of the bread into his mouth and turns on his heels.

 As he starts a pace, Ino charges after him.

"Shikamaru!" The sweetness is forced but her desperation doesn't fall on deaf ears. It pierces through him so he stops. A chunk of bread hangs in his throat.

Ino says his name again and reaches out for his arm.

"What?" He swallows hard until the bread drags down.

"We need to talk!"

"There's nothing to talk about." Shikamaru continues to walk but Ino doesn't peel away from him.

"You're going to have to talk to me eventually so why not now?"

"You've got ten minutes."

Ino steps in front of him and jabs her knuckles into his chest. Reminiscent of their childhood, she glares up at him. Her lips are wrinkled with internal dissatisfaction. Shikamaru screws up when he matches her glower. In her line of fire, he doesn't feel the need to weasel his way out of the mess they have created.

He rubs his chest because her soft punch hurt his soul.

"What is it, Ino?" He licks away the crumbs at the edge of his mouth.

Ino stands straight, shaking the unkempt tumble of her hair bangs. She knew she needed his attention but she hadn't planned the big 'what next'.

Shikamaru is no one to be scared of.

"Do you ever recall the taste of something from your childhood? It's really good but you can't remember what exactly you had eaten?"

"No. I remember everything...that makes no sense." But he's charmed by her slipped attempt at being deep.

"Well I don't remember everything... I just remember feelings." Her shoulders drop in defeat. She second guesses herself and brings her eyes to her toes. The polish is chipped.

Shikamaru knows what she wants to say, but he wants to see if she can achieve it on her own. He had tossed a coin. Heads, she would continue to ignore him. Tails, she'd be unable to deny their chemistry and allow it to drive her insane.

The coin never landed on a side. It had rolled into the dark depths of a storm drain.

"I can't stop thinking about you and I don't know what that means."

"You know what it means, Ino..."

The way he ridicules her inspires petty contemplation to reject the idea of falling into perfect sync.

"What does it mean? Since you know every damn thing."

"What about Sai?" He counters her.

"What about him?"

She wipes away the dried sleep from her eyes, her face molded into a frown.

There's a lot that could be said but he prefers mystery when it comes to emotions.

"Then what do you suggest, Ino?"

She wants to yell at him for shifting the burden, but today is a 'not so Ino' day.

"We try it out!" It shoots out of her like a million flying stars.

"Try what out?" Shikamaru remains monotonous. His lips curl into a smile.

"You being less of an asshole to me."

He settles with that answer. It feels right enough.

Chapter Text

"What are you thinking about?"

In all of their years of knowing each other, Shikamaru had never noticed the way Ino glowers off into space. It's a look filled with contempt, and he swears if she stares out the window for another hour, she'll melt the glass.

"None of your business." Her brows knit and she shoves the red popsicle further into her mouth.

The fan buzzes through their silence. Shikamaru's throat tightens at her terseness. She gives him a sideways glance. The stained red corners of her mouth dip downwards as she pulls the popsicle back. It runs down the length of her arm and drips along her sweaty thigh.

"Why do you care?" Her tone softens but her gaze isn't any less intense.

"Why do you have an attitude?" Shikamaru rolls onto his side, wiping the sweat from his upper lip.

"Because my armpits are sticky!" She whines but it thunders out of her like a kitten's growl.

Ino tosses her hair over her shoulders with the gust of the rickety fan. Noon burns into the bedroom, reigniting the argument from last night. Her skin is still flushed from his fingers and his breath still smells like her undertaking.

Shikamaru can never properly articulate how her efforts to slight him are bothersome. It either doesn't work or she digs so deep, that it stuns him speechless. He lets her win each and every time because it's easier than her crying. He'd argue that war is easier than dealing with Ino's dejection.

"Why don't we just go to your place?" She licks the stick clean with a bright red tongue.

"Because...." Shikamaru uses his elbow to flatten a pillow. "Then we would have to get dressed."

At that, she flicks her tongue around her lips in a somewhat titillating manner. Her eyes are still sopped with discontent. Ino wrinkles her nose at him and his smile touches the corners of his eyes.

She wiggles in the stool, hunching her back and dipping her face into the fan's weak blasts of air.

"Whaatt iiifff I'mmm tiiired oooofff seeeeinnng yoooou naakkeedd?" The blades slice her words into a metallic hum.

Shikamaru arches a brow and drops his attention between her legs.

"I can think of thirty reasons why that can never ever happen."

"Don't be so sure of yourself, Shikamaru." She straightens her back and folds her legs.

They don't keep up with the time that passes. An armful of minutes is wasted before she truly smiles and it's quite the achievement. There are only so many jokes he can tell before she either explodes into laughter or shuns him into a silence.

Today, he succeeds with little effort.

Today, Ino chooses to be infatuated with him.

With enough looks of longing, when the heat stops being a burden on her skin, she decides that burning in his arms is worth the discomfort. Ino drags her tongue along the sweaty curve of his collarbone and Shikamaru submits.

But unbeknownst to her, as she straddles him into an airless seduction–he is the one who wins whenever she reciprocates the smallest of affections.

Today is rare in that he hits the jackpot. Usually it's much harder.

"This isn't very romantic." She kisses away the line of sweat on his top lip.

"In theory, there's nothing romantic about fucking."

Ino allows days to pass between them speaking. Sometimes it feels like a game, but he's keen enough to know that she's unsure about him for a reason he has yet to figure out. Part of him doesn't want to know why. The wait is always worth it when she finally cuts herself open for him to enter. The feeling is so different he thinks it could be an illness. It's one thing to want someone like air, but it's another thing to desire that they sink you to the bottom of whatever pit they reside in.

Shikamaru has waited for days, squirming mindlessly in meetings. He has missed important details– but in his truth, no detail is more important than Ino smiling against his thighs.

"So that's what we are doing–just fucking?" Ino lifts her head, red staining her chin. Her mouth tastes like frozen cherries. Shikamaru's smile shortens because he doesn't know what to say. They've been hot and cold for three weeks all at her doing.

"What do you think we are doing, Ino?" Maybe he's too soon in claiming a victory.

If Shikamaru had it his way, there wouldn't need to be answers for anything. Doubt wouldn't have room to thrive.

But Ino has always liked it the hard way.

Ino doesn't say anything. She continues to busy her mind with the taste of his sweat and their sleep. Shikamaru doesn't ask again because once she vanishes, she's gone, and whatever is growing in his chest has yet to fully surface.

The feeling is so different and the first night seemed like a prophecy for the many more to come.

It's too soon to diagnose himself.

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Ino had already mapped her life out at the age of twelve. Death hadn't been on the list of things to combat and she had intended to be married by now. There is nothing more terrifying than plans going awry. She loses sleep over it. Her mother does so as well. In each other's company, without an audience, they are zombies, coexisting with a malignant melancholy. Depression feels too dramatic but it's a suppressive feeling. Shikamaru has served as a distraction from it.

'People aren't meant to be cures.' Her father whispers from the undiscovered depths of the universe.

"No. They aren't," Ino says to her reflection with a mouthful of toothpaste.

Shikamaru wasn't in any of her plans but he had arrived a stinging pain in her throat. He isn't Sai. Not nearly as perfect. Not in looks nor the way he rolls words from his tongue, but Shikamaru has a wholeness about himself. He's a complete body of work filled to max capacity.

Yet it still feels like betrayal to herself and she gags the toothpaste into the sink. The back of her throat still tingles from the tip of his dick–a nagging ghost from three days ago.

Shikamaru isn't the one. She knew it. She's known it since she was a small girl. He isn't what she's been looking for.

Betrayal shouldn't feel good though. It feels too good to stop.

It's nice to feel seen.

'Fucking' is too grim of a word. It's more than that.

Ino cups water in her palm and gargles the remaining minty residue as she thinks of what to really call their circumstance.

Conscious Lust. Incredibly aware bouts of lust.

But that's not quite right either. It feels dishonest.

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"Has it gotten easier, Shikamaru?" Ino sits on the toilet.

"What do you mean?" He knows what she means but he's learned how to ebb her into vulnerability. Shikamaru feigns ignorance and shoves his big toe in the tub faucet, sinking further into soapy water that's gone cold.

"Death." She stretches her panties at her ankles.

"Nope." And he's not sure if he's prepared for the conversation despite his longing to have it.

"It creeps up on me at the strangest times."

"Like you peeing?"

 Ino doesn't laugh at him. She's been sitting on the toilet for five minutes.

"Sometimes I think I'm ok–it can feel like a habit at times. Like scratching behind my ear..."

"Yea."

"But then other times it hits me and I feel bad for ever feeling like I'm ok."

He's ashamed for finding her sadness so appealing, but it's the second time in his life he's ever seen her not on edge. Shikamaru sits up from the bath water and leans over the edge. Ino can't bring herself to look back at him. The thing about difficult people is that they require unjust amounts of patience and sacrificing. Ino's sadness fills the bathroom to the ceiling and there isn't enough space for Shikamaru's tired thoughts. He rests his chin on his wet knuckles, sorting through his wisdom but he falls short.

"Do you think it's going to be like that for the rest of my life?" She keeps her focus on the tile floor.

"I think so."

"You think so? Shikamaru, you're supposed to know everything." The disappointment is real.

"I can tell you about the human condition but I don't have the answers to life." Shikamaru's jaws tighten.

Just as he thought that she was opening up, Ino stands and tugs her panties up her legs. What's worse– it's better to let her walk away. Her face twists itself into annoyance. It's hard to not feel like it's his fault, especially when he knows it's all of her doing, but difficult people demand sacrifice.

Shikamaru rolls his eyes, holds his breath for a ridiculous amount of time before he rises from the tub to follow her. He doesn't let the water out. He doesn't reach for a towel. Shikamaru steps from the fluorescent light and peers into the shadows of his bedroom. Ino has wrapped herself in his sheets and her foot dangles off the side of the bed.

He says her name–she mumbles incoherently.

"Life isn't going to get any easier from here." He shivers as water drips down his spine.

Ino peeks her head from the covers, her bangs falling around her face.

"And you didn't flush the toilet."

"I'm sorry." She whispers but it's an apology for everything else. He walks towards the bed, her eyes following him, widening into glistening pools of hopelessness.

"Are you crying?" He immediately regrets calling her out but Ino surprises him tonight. She nods her head, exploding into a fury of tears.

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When words become cumbersome, they end up in a perfect knot. The loose ends consisting of untouched feelings. Ino's heart swims in doubt and Shikamaru has already reached the light at the end of the tunnel. As she dreams against his back, squishing her cheeks against him, he thinks about all the instances in his life that led him here. He thinks further into his future and winces at the thought of her not being there even if their little 'thing' falls apart.

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Shikamaru leans back against the counter as Ino sweeps up the day's dust. The drop of her ponytail has been snagged in the knot of her apron all evening, but he hasn't had the heart to say anything. Ino has been in a daze for the past two weeks– unattainable even when she's squirming beneath his kisses. If she wanted to tell him what was wrong, she would've said so, but she's been stingy with her soul for a while even though he's been adamant about standing his ground and going to war with all of her internal conflictions.

"You know what I learned a long time ago that still sticks with me?" He starts.

Ino stops sweeping to glare at him, tilting her head. She chews on her top lip and her lashes flutter with curiosity. Surrounded by the explosion of petals, she becomes the apparition of a moody oil painting. Dusk drains the windows of color– holding their reflection and the many twisting flowers.

"Once a goose chooses its mate, it's for a lifetime." Shikamaru scratches the tip of his nose.

"I think I've heard that before." Ino busies herself again with sweeping.

"I wonder what their method is."

"What do you mean?"

"How do they figure it out?"

Ino releases a light laugh, shaking her head as she drags the broom towards the door.

"Do you think it's as simple as choosing who has the shiniest feathers?" Shikamaru coughs.

"Who knows? Humans sure as hell can't figure it out and if you of all people can't find the answer then maybe we are doomed." Ino locks the shop's front door.

"Do you believe in soulmates, Ino?"

She hesitates, her fingers tightening around the broomstick. Shikamaru's eyes intensify. She feels them burning right through her. If she were simple, she'd melt.

"Not really but I could be wrong. I'm not a goose. Do you?"

"I would like to believe in them." Shikamaru doesn't take his eyes off of her–he doesn't miss how she freezes in time. His hands remember how she feels when she goes still like a lost doe. She catches her breath and his heart throbs. He's sure that his palpitations have pierced the veil of the universe. The mood, the air between them dips into a pit so thick– they both smother.

"Did you think Temari was your soulmate?" Ino derails. She sets the broom in a corner and begins to untie her apron.

"I did." He knows the answer isn't going to satisfy her but he's not in the business of lying.

Ino suppresses a cruel cackle. Doesn't do a damn thing to hide her smugness. Messy in all of her endeavors, she burns him with a glower that stirs sparks beneath his skin.

"What if she is the one, Shikamaru?" Ino strides toward him and tosses her apron over the counter.

The thickness doesn't fold. They are both choking on the ghostly tides of their longing. There is no word yet to properly place them.

Shikamaru doesn't yield to her fighting words.

"What if you're making a huge mistake? Nothing good comes out of seesawing between women."

"Why are you so insecure?" He shoots back. The vibrations ripple through him like a building on fire.

Ino gives Shikamaru the reaction he wants by lifting a hand to strike him, but he catches her wrist and arrests her into a powerless embrace. He knows better as her equal–she's allowing him to spear her. If she really wanted to hurt him, she would've gone through with a purposeful attack.

"Do you really want to hear the details, Ino? To answer the nagging voices in your head, yes I did love her and yes you're not my first in anything." That being said, he had decided the fourth time he buried himself inside of Ino that he was content with her being his last.

Her anger spreads, starting at the tip of her ears and blooming at the apples of her cheeks.

"But where am I now?"

He wants to ask her if she knows what it's like to feel as if her existence had been made for another person– if she believes in the possibility of being forged from the stars to complete the end of someone's beginning...

Ino doesn't break their nearing stare.

"I don't know. You tell me, Shikamaru." She bites, pressing her tongue against the roof of her mouth.

"I'm here with you." And Temari hasn't crossed his mind up until this moment.

"For how long?" Ino's heart drops into her stomach. For how long can she continue to make herself sick? Shikamaru's eyes dizzy her.

"I don't know." He really doesn't. Neither of them do. "For however long you'll have me."

She looks behind to stare at the forgotten vase of tulips. A customer had forgotten to pick them up or thought better against their proclamation of love.

"That's a huge burden to put on me. I'm only human." And definitely not a goose.

"I don't think it is. What are we, Ino?"

"You are you and I am me." She squeezes her eyes shut, inhaling the menthol wisp of words.

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Ino doesn't believe in destiny, but the way Shikamaru stares at her when she gets dressed makes her question her system of beliefs– or lack of.  He reads her like a book printed in tiny font, over a thousand pages. Absorbing every detail. Mentally noting the tiny clues that give away her next move.

She sometimes battles accepting he's like that with everyone.

"You have nice legs." He chews on his thumb nail.

"I know." She poses, sliding her skirt up her thigh and revealing the lace of her panties.

"Your nice legs are gonna make us late."

"Choji can wait." She doesn't want to admit that she feels bad for not extending the branch of friendship.

"If you hurry up, you won't have to be there so long."

"I don't want to go. Period."

"It's not like he's a stranger. This isn't a first impression."

"I feel like you are both conspiring against me."

Shikamaru gets up from her bed, walks toward her with an arched brow and crinkled lips. He buries his hands in his pockets as he lowers his chin.

"For what reason would we conspire against you?"

Ino doesn't have an answer that would satisfy him. If she were completely honest, she would admit to all of her principles flipping against her existence. The butterflies won't stop. She's sure her heart is close to combusting.

"Not everyone is out to get you. No one really cares that much." Shikamaru huffs.

She wants to believe him. It's sound advice but she likes her defenses. They keep her feelings intact.

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They share an umbrella on the way to meet Choji. Ino wonders how juvenile they must look so close together. She widens the space by a few hairs so that the warm rain slides down her bare shoulders.

Who was the last person she had shared an umbrella with?

When was her last real conversation with her mother?

Ino stares ahead and cringes whenever her toes are assaulted by a puddle. All she thinks is how there's a reason she's avoided Choji for so long, why she hasn't stopped by Yoshino's for dinner, and why she's unable to skin herself for Shikamaru. She sneaks a glance at him– his mouth is slightly curved with contentment. Her eyes travel the sharpness of his nose, beholding the thickness of his lashes. They are longer than hers. Shikamaru has never been cute, Ino grimaces at the tiny stubble at his chin, but she can't quite place the electric attraction. When their skin touches, her vanity crawls away.

It's like slipping into an ugly dress but it clings to all of the right places. Despite the many prettier ones, this one, ugly in color, fits the best.

She doesn't realize how far she's stepped from Shikamaru until he wraps an arm around her waist. Her cheek collides against his shoulder.

"What's wrong?"

She wants to say– You're leading me down an unwanted path.

But Ino flounders, becoming lost in the terrifying depths of his stare. She shrinks because Shikamaru's soul consists of an amazing assemblage that she can never obtain. They stop walking. He waits and his eyes widen.

Ino opens her mouth, twisting her tongue. Fear bubbles up in her throat. She's either undeserving of him or being punished.

What's the point in planning for the future if it's already a constellation in the sky.

She decides to protest against the feelings that poison her gut and drags his arm from her waist. Ino tells herself that there is no such thing as soulmates. Love is practical. Love, if desperate enough, can be quantified.

And she is desperate to escape whatever pleasurable hell he's dragged her into.

"You know how I feel about PDA." Ino mutters and looks away from the hurt that breaks his calm.

"It's been a month and some weeks." There's a different kind of desperation in his voice that she chooses to ignore.

"There's people around."

"And?"

The rain shifts from a mist to fat droplets pounding against the umbrella.

"Annnnnd– I don't like it!" Because it feels too real.

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They arrive at odds–off balance with each other. After Shikamaru, Ino slides into the booth, twisting her pale fingers through her damp ponytail, not once looking up to greet Choji properly. Shikamaru speaks first but Choji doesn't miss the strain tugging at his friend's smile.

"No excuses, right?"

"You already know–every time you feel compelled to apologize you gotta drown it with a shot."

Ino notices how easily they fall in sync. Has it always been that way? She can't remember.

"For making me wait, you should pick up the bill." Choji scoffs and Shikamaru winces with fake pain.

"I don't know about all that, Choji."

Ino shifts further away from Shikamaru, picking at her split ends. Her cheeks burn a bright red and her conscience validates why she shouldn't have come. She doesn't belong. They only have history in common. Maybe if she sits still enough she will become a ghost, absorbed by the clinks of dishes and the pulse of conversation.

"How long you plan on not speaking, Ino?" Choji leans over the table, tenting his chubby fingers.

Ino narrows her eyes at him before shifting her attention to Shikamaru, who looks equally unforgiving. He holds her glare for a wordless moment then bites the inside of his jaw, turning his attention back to Choji.

She wants to scream at him for being a completely different person. She wants to flip the table for the soft betrayal.

"You didn't speak either." Ino sits upright, folding her hands in her lap.

"Communication works both ways, guys." Shikamaru flips through the menu as if he hasn't been here many times.

"I've missed you too, Ino darling." Choji's smugness saws through her cool, but Ino keeps from shaking.

The waitress appears in an air of magic. Ino doesn't order anything. Her appetite isn't tangible.

"Shikamaru, what did you have to sacrifice to get her to come?"

There's something like static between Choji and Shikamaru. The way they respond to each other, finishing sentences, smirking about things she's either missed out on or deliberately ignored for years.

Shikamaru releases a light laugh but Ino cuts him off.

"Don't talk about me as if I'm not sitting right here." She whispers loud enough for both of them to hear.

"You haven't said anything for the past fifteen minutes. You might as well not be here." Choji sinks into the cushioned seat, folding his arms over his large chest, looking all too amused for her liking.

"It's starting to look like my sanity is the price I've paid and four naps. I'm definitely going to need four naps after this." Shikamaru whistles. Ino props an elbow on the table and fully turns to face him.

"Your sanity?" Her words sit between her teeth. They share a look that exposes secrets. Shikamaru clenches his jaws at her bitterness. She repeats herself with deadly emphasis.

"Don't be so dramatic, Ino." Shikamaru turns away from her again.

"I'm just curious about this loss of your sanity. You said it." She whips her head around, pretending to be interested in their surroundings.

"You promised to leave your hurt feelings at home." It spills from him and it's too scattered to gather back up and swallow.

"I feel like there's a lot of context that I'm missing. Is this a lover's quarrel?" Choji clears his throat.

"Negative." Ino clicks her tongue. Shikamaru's face says otherwise. He puts on a pensive stare at nothing that's too familiar for Choji to miss. It's not exactly a pout– Shikamaru's too even-tempered for that. There's so much space between them that it looks on purpose.

"You sure do sound like a married couple." Choji scratches at the surface. The corners of his lips tug into a smirk.

"Never in a zillion years." Ino huffs.

The little cool Shikamaru has been clinging to vanishes. Choji stops watching his friend and scans the floor for their waitress.

"That's how you really feel, Ino?" Shikamaru sizzles.

"That's exactly how I feel. Never. Ever." She doesn't look at him.

The food arrives but Shikamaru loses his appetite. Ino sits defiantly still. Like a wildflower sprouting from the cracks of cement. Their first night haunts him and he suddenly feels too small for his uniform.

"That's funny, Ino. That's funny and you're full of shit." He stabs his chopsticks in his food.

"You can think that." She stares at Choji.

"I know that for a fact because it's not the same tune you were singing to last night. Or the night before that."

Her skin burns but she's too stubborn to break Choji's wide-eyed stare. If she looks at Shikamaru, she knows she will combust.

"You're spot on, Choji my guy. We've been sleeping with each other for a month. How else do you think I convinced her to come here?"

Satisfaction lightens Choji's face and it's not from the food.

"Shikamaru." She breathes. A cross between anger and distress. Sadness is somewhere in the middle.

"Damn. So that's where you been all this time? Ino, you've been holding him hostage?" Choji fails at taming the fire. His voice is the wind that rolls the flame into a wildness. Ino slams her hands on the table and the restaurant deadens.

She stands, searching for something inside of herself to hurt him, but there was nothing. He had managed to steal the desire to be brutal in one sweeping blow at her trust. Ino resolves to say nothing at all. She takes his umbrella and leaves, not looking back–unable to meet the attention of anyone on her way out.

Shikamaru's food sits in his mouth. He can't bring himself to swallow.

"I don't want any part of what you've gotten yourself into." Choji grimaces at his own words as he acknowledges Shikamaru's visible suffering. Shikamaru washes down the food with a drink and refuses to touch any more of his plate.

"A month?" Choji mutters.

"And some weeks." Shikamaru chimes distantly.

"I mean, that's not a long time– but I can imagine dealing with her feels like a century of headaches."

Shikamaru doesn't respond. It's been the exact opposite, despite their many disagreements.

"I'm shocked you expected more out of her."

"She's not that bad, Choji."

"She's not that bad right now because you're boning her." Choji shovels down a fat chunk of meat.

They sit in an agonizing silence for twenty minutes before Choji pipes up again.

"I'm amazed it hadn't happened sooner."

Shikamaru snorts, attempting to eat his now cold food.

"You knew who she was before you got involved. Better than anyone else. Better than me."

"Isn't it funny how your mood can completely change the taste of food?" Shikamaru's tone is unintentionally clipped. It's a silent request to move on and Choji receives it with all of his charm.

They don't mention Ino again but her presence lingers with the tang of spices. She's still around them in spirit, at least for Shikamaru– so deep in his skin that he could never really wash her away. A month isn't a long time to absorb someone into your life, but it's felt so much longer. The more he drinks, the harder he thinks about her.

Choji doesn't bother to ask what has he magically come to see in her. His friend looks at him with disappointment, as if he's forgotten the years of her sizzling bitchiness. Ino isn't a difficult code to crack if anyone paid close attention. Her anger is nothing but hot air to hide how small she feels. She knows it doesn't take a microscope to see her insecurities, so she becomes unattainable. Every inch of her is a mile he can take to heart. Even if he has to pry it out of her.

Shikamaru takes one last shot before coming to terms with Choji's disapproval. He's ok with the world never understanding why he deals with her. If everyone got the chance to experience the softness of her sadness sliding down their throat, they'd want it for themselves too. Ino's vulnerability is his secret and he takes pride in having an answer that isn't universally known.

"So you're not going to ask me why?" Shikamaru gives Choji one last time to probe him before he seals himself off completely.

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The cloudy sky bleaches the sunrays milky white.

Even with every window open, she cannot cool off. Flowers are supposed to heal but she feels worse surrounded by their carefree colors. To only need sunlight and water to sustain beauty, to be unaware of everything else that makes life terrible–Ino inhales the humid air, sprawled on the cool hardwood floor naked. A fat leaf twists from the flower pot on her windowsill, shaping a shadow against the ceiling, hovering over her face.

Ino closes her eyes, dragging an ice cube down the curve of her nose before sliding it into her mouth.

If only she could adopt the habits of flowers. Pretty until winter. Dying over and over again, but more beautiful each and every time. The ice numbs her mouth as she ruminates over the day.

Who is Shikamaru to her? She searches for a hole in her daydreams and there's not one big enough to fit him.

What is she doing? What void is he filling? Ino rolls the shrinking ice along her tongue. Her teeth begin to ache from the chill.

More importantly, why does he feel so good?

Ino drags her eyes to the window. The glass shakes from the wind and rain.

'Why are you so vacant?'

 She's been holding on to tears since she made it back. She's been telling herself it's not worth it. If she's been so vacant then why has he stuck around?

Why are her feelings so hurt? Why this? Why that? Where are all the answers? There's some vital information she missed out on as a child– something her mother forgot to instill in her.

Four knocks at the door. She knows it's Shikamaru. It's his own special knock. Ino considers ignoring him for good but he knocks again with a little more passion. Her heart lurches. She sits up, yanking her pale pink robe from the couch. Her footsteps feel like she's treading through water. Fingers curling around the lock, one last time she entertains telling him off.

But she wants him just as bad as she wants him to vanish.

Ino opens the door, crunching down on the ice cube. The wind washes through her robe and the loose strands of her hair. Shikamaru looks as though he has survived a very bad shipwreck.

"You took the umbrella." His voice is hoarse. He doesn't make any sudden movements.

"I did and what are you gonna do about it?" Ino tuts.

Shikamaru balances himself with both hands against the doorway. His muscles expanding in his fishnet sleeves as he leans in. Ino doesn't move. Their eyes anchor each other in place. He smells like the earth and sake.

"Nothing." He rasps, licking the rain from his lips. Rain soaks the front of her robe.

"You're soaking wet." She says plainly, swallowing the remaining traces of ice.

"Thanks to you."

"I'm sorry." She wonders if he realizes how hard he's frowning.

"No, you're not." He drops his arms from the doorway.

"I am." She steps out the way for him, but he half turns on his way inside, catching her face in his hand. Her skin is almost as wet as his with sweat. It feels better outside than it does in her apartment. If their tension fails to suffocate them, it would be the doing of the stuffy air.

The door slips closed from her languid shove. He reels her in with an ease only demons possessed. Shikamaru folds her bottom lip with his thumb.

"Sorry for what?" His eyes are too intense so she shuts hers.

"For being vacant."

The answer is more surprising than the apology. Shikamaru swallows. His mouth feels like cotton. Her name sits on his tongue but words cannot suffice. He drops his hand to her neck. With both hands, Ino grabs him by the collar of his vest. They crumble into a series of feathery kisses and Ino's back collides against the door. He lifts her right leg around his waist, slipping his hand from her neck between her legs.

"You're dripping a puddle on my floor." Ino murmurs into his mouth. He teases with one finger before penetrating her with two.

"You're dripping too." His laugh scatters when her walls loosen around his fingers. She digs her nails into his shoulders and he paces her into complete submission.

When he stops she gently bites down on his bottom lip. Her hands falling from his shoulders to the zipper of his pants. Shikamaru slinks his arms out of his vest, devouring the remains of her soul with one last kiss. He sighs when her fingers finally reach his dick. Ino turns around and presses herself against the door. Balancing on the tips of her toes and curving her back. Despite the sweltering heat, the door feels cold against her nipples.

Shikamaru lifts the silk fabric of her robe and angles himself, dragging the head of his dick between her ass cheeks before slipping inside of her. He doesn't ease his way. Ino takes the shape of him in one hard thrust and she strangles a whimper. Taking the air between clenched teeth. Pressing her face against the door, her palms flatten.

He runs a hand up her back, fingers creeping under the heavy folds of her robe. Her skin shimmers with sweat and his tongue feels as if he's consumed a glassful of sand. The dimples in her lower back, how her muscles and flesh respond to the swing of his hips– it's foreboding like fake diamonds. And he's not sure if it's the mixed alcohol or his better judgment.

Ino doesn't make her playful noises this time. The air that she doesn't choke on sounds like painful attempts at not saying his name. As if she knew just how much power he had given her in such a short amount of time. Ino knows where his hard line is and how to divide him in two. It's never been more apparent now.

She bites down on her tongue when he mercilessly buries himself so deep, he reaches her cervix. The noise she does make, with the growl of her nails against the door, isn't satisfying enough and it doesn't compare to an apology.

Ino strategically hides her face behind the twisting tangles of her hair. Sucking strands into her mouth whenever he pushes too hard inside of her. Her toes begin to hurt from supporting the weight of their sex. Her face aches but whenever he pulls out, daring her to not say his name, she swallows the spit she's been holding under her tongue.

He thinks over and over again–'I could really love you.'

His face burns when he recalls a moment of her innocence. From his memories, Ino looks at him with sad eyes. Her mouth moves, but he doesn't remember her declaration verbatim. It was the first time she admitted to being lonely.

Shikamaru pulls out of Ino and presses the head of his dick against her slick back. He strokes himself until he orgasms. Semen drips between his fingers and Ino expires at the warmth of it on her skin.

They are still for a moment. Wary of each other. The first move is always the hardest. It shouldn't be, but it is for them. Ino feels the change in his demeanor–like how moonflowers knew to open at night. Shikamaru withdraws from her slightly. Shuddering from the fierceness of his orgasm.

"Ino." If a tree falls in a forest and there's no one around, does it still make a noise?

She's distant from him. Her head throbs. Her walls pulsate. Ino turns around, feebly, with her eyes still closed. Her robe falls and wrinkles around her hips as she rests her back against the door. His semen glues the silk to her skin.

He says her name again with more command.

"Shikamaru." Her voice sounds like crumbling bricks.

He knows why she doesn't open her eyes. She's hoping to seep into the walls or evaporate entirely.

Shikamaru steps forward and reaches for her hips, tugging her into dizzying proximity. A soft cry escapes her. She bares her teeth and lifts her hands to his chest, forming tiny fists. His shirt is still damp. Not only does he smell like a pot of soil littered with cigarette ashes– his familiar scent rises from the layers of bad habits, her sweat...

"I can't lie to myself." He doesn't know how she manages to not make herself sick. Shikamaru has never been able to understand unnecessary dishonesty. He's aware that if he stops to look in a mirror he wouldn't recognize himself. Choji's words feel like judgment he didn't think he'd fall under.

It's so easy. He resists the urge to shake her.

"I'm not you." It feels like the final nail in a coffin.

When his hold on her tightens into a real embrace, Ino drowns out the raging screams of her ego. A numbness takes over her. The lethargy after a war.

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Her mother hadn't lied when she told her that intimacy complicated everything. You can't run as fast as you want. It's one of the few things she recalls her mother ever being right about. Ino's legs are sticky from sweat and her dwindling arousal. She sits across from Shikamaru, running the brim of a glass against her lips, the ice sloshing back and forth.  He lightly taps his scarred knuckles against the table. She's just now noticing how beaten up his hands look. Ino drags her eyes up his arm, stopping at his neck where she had planted two fresh hickeys.

Everything surfaces at once. Dead bodies washing up on the shore.

"Do you want this to continue, Shikamaru?" She interrupts the hum of the ceiling fan.

He stops staring off into space, stops pecking his knuckles at the table and sits up.

"What do you think I want?" Shikamaru still doesn't bring himself to look at her. He sinks his face into his palms, balancing his elbows against his knees.

Ino's hold on her glass tightens. The perspiration slips between the gaps of her fingers. She hasn't taken a sip of water. It's just comforting to hold– gives her a sense of security.

"You want me." She starts.

"And how much do I want you?" He hisses as if he's reached his capacity. Ino blanches.

"I don't know." She lies.

He scowls at her between his fingers, jaws flexing.

"I'm not you. I'm not in your head." She tries to summon the punch of her usual snarl, but he had single-handedly obliterated her finesse. Fucked it right out of her until she saw stars falling from the sky. He had effortlessly destroyed her pleasure threshold, smoothed it out into a hair thin line from pain, as if he were digging for something that a map had led him to.

"Ok." Shaking his head, he sits up and stands on his feet. He smells like stale cigarettes when he passes her. As much as she hates the way it stains the tips of his fingers, it's his own scent. When he kisses her, it's just as bad as second hand smoking. She has developed her own oral fixation.

Shikamaru vanishes into her bedroom in a fit of swears. She listens to him fumble around for his clothes.

Ino is stuck in her seat. Her heart screams to be free of its prison, but she's too busy compartmentalizing her mess of feelings.

Sakura had asked her once why she was so cold. A month before they officially stopped talking. When bras and boys began to matter. Ino had simply asked her why her forehead was so big. She would never admit to anyone other than Shikamaru that it sucked losing a friend like that.

Cold is such a harsh word. Her mother is the cold one and the last person she wanted to be compared to. For years she's been telling herself that she isn't cold, crazy, difficult, or rude. She's just unwilling to settle.

Shikamaru reappears from the darkness of her bedroom, zipping his pants. The way his form shifts in his shirt quickens the speed of her heartbeat. His shredded cuticles are a nervous tick he's acquired after the war. At first, it bothered her but she likes the way they feel when they hold hands in private.

Ino says his name quietly but he carries on looking for his vest.

Sakura has forgiven her. It's clear in how casual she becomes when they are in the same room. The war had stolen her ability to feel confident in the future, but it hadn't taken away her pride. Ino hasn't budged since she cut her hair.

Ino gets up to approach Shikamaru as he slides his arms into his vest. She stands under him having no idea how to start redemption. He refuses to look at her. She's glad he doesn't because his anger feels wrong. If he gazed at her directly with such darkness she'd expire.

"I'm never been good at much, Shikamaru..."

"You're right. You have this tendency to destroy things that aren't even in your way." He steps around her. Ino reaches out to stop him, but her fingers slide along his arms.

"Could you just wait and give me a minute to explain myself?" She says softly. Shikamaru stops for a moment, shedding all traces of his emotions. His lips have fallen into a straight line. Worn out indifference pales him.

"Last time you asked me to wait, my life stopped for a month that I can't get back." He says with an evenness that spears her.

"You don't really feel that way." Ino glowers. That pain before she feels a nauseating swell of tears throbs in her throat.

"Not yesterday. Maybe not immediately right now but I will tomorrow."

He only stops for her to prove him wrong. Despite being sincere in his exhaustion with her, he wants to know if they've shared a mutual desperation for each other. He's felt it, but actions have always spoken louder than words.

'You teach people how to treat you.'

But Ino fails him for the last time. She stands there and dares him to leave like he won't do it. It's her way of begging but he's tired of being a conventional man for her. If she can't say it out loud with no audience, then it's not worth the trouble.

Shikamaru leaves. He doesn't slam the door either. She prefers that he had. It would've made combating her feelings much easier. She could've gone to bed with false hatred for him.

Had he done it purposely so that she wouldn't? She suddenly realizes how deep he had planted himself inside of her. To be so precise in her unhealthy language...

The atmosphere goes cold but the air conditioning is still broken.

For the first time, after Sasuke, after Sai, Ino confronts the possibility of soulmates. He's gone but she still smells his cheap cigarettes.

They argued about killing his lungs in style but he is too pragmatic to spend extra money on a prettier box of cigarettes.

'They all feel the same.' He had said to her.

The conversation sticks out because Shikamaru doesn't feel like the rest.

'But they don't all taste the same.' She had countered him.

'They achieve the same goal though.'

'Your death. Right?'

'Mhmm.'

 

Ino regains feeling in her legs. Her own weight brings her to her knees. Something worse than loneliness eats away at her ego. It's violent in the undertaking of her soul. She feels it spread like a disease. The only part of her fighting against it is her pounding heart. She can hear it thudding in her ears.

She can't bring herself to hate him. There's not a weapon to forge against him. She's never been in love before but if it feels nearly as horrible as this small mistake, then she's fine with never finding it. For the time being, she will be sure to avoid it.

The pressure she puts on her fingertips breaks a nail and that sends her into an upheaval of sobs.

 

 

Chapter Text

"Us."

"Me and you."

Memories were such awful things. Shikamaru thumbs out a cigarette and swears up the last puff of smoke.

"I. Us. Me. You. Everyone else in between."

When Ino had admitted to never being in love, he remembered a very specific feeling of excitement. It wasn't like the climax of perfecting a technique. The feeling was very much like a piñata exploding in his chest– a piñata filled with fireworks, comets plummeting the moon.

Them.

He could've been her first. He thinks, miserably and as reasonably as a talking mule, that he 'is' her first. In spite of how much she fought him– Shikamaru still wants her. It's lessened over the weeks and it's become more like a nagging force. A 'clean your room' or 'sort your laundry' type of nagging. But what he feels now isn't new. As he scowls at the sand-filled cracks in the floor, he understands that this too shall pass. 

He takes a deep breath– his father had once told him that vulnerability is what makes a person genuine, but Shikamaru can't help but feel like the advice is misleading. Vulnerability had done nothing but leave him with a bunch of one night stands. First, it started with searching for Temari in other women. Now, it's expanded into something much darker. This he concludes to be hopelessness. As pathetic as it sounds, he feels it more than the nicotine and lights another cigarette.

"I quit..." Naruto tosses the stack of papers across the table and then buries his beet red face in his sweaty palms.

"That's not how anything works, Naruto." Gaara collects the documents, correcting the spin of the bottle before it ruins his days' worth of hard work.

The white-noise of their back and forth further separates Shikamaru from his tangible body. He sees himself among them. The wall clock thumps instead of tics, the after-scent of their dinner still lingers within the empty bowls. Naruto wheezes a laugh at something that perplexes Gaara. There are also the shadows created by the flower pots, overflowing with exotic plants that only grow in the Land of Wind. Again, Ino spindles her way into his awareness. Life has gone on. Shikamaru makes a noise in the back of his throat. When he breathes, his muscles expand in his shirt.

"Blah blah blah..." Naruto waves a hand of dismissal in Gaara's face. "Can we talk about the things that make us happy instead of all this boring shinobi shit?"

Shikamaru coughs, considering that Naruto had imposed himself on his business trip.

"Shinobi shit...? Really?" Shikamaru ashes his cigarette into one of the bowls.

"I said it! Shinobi shit!" Naruto slams his hand on the table.

"Shinobi shit..." Gaara hums into his glass of water.

There's a collective sigh of yearning and all of them feel guilty for being so idle in their lives. Each of them have dealt differently with the slipperiness of their time in this world. With the cigarette between his lips, Shikamaru attempts to sort through the intricacies of the piling paperwork, but Naruto beats a fist into his chest and wails.

"I've also got some good news!" He slurps on air.

Gaara is genuinely interested. Shikamaru wants to shed his old skin for new.

"I FINALLY proposed to Hinata!"

"Please tell me she said no..." Shikamaru exhales.

The energy in the room shifts with Naruto's mood. As if he's sucked all of the shimmering enthusiasm from the stars through the windows, and his shoulders slump. His whole body slouches as he suppresses the varying harmonies of his laughter.

"Really? You two haven't been together that long?" Gaara sinks back into his seat and mirrors Naruto's giddiness.

"When two people love each other...what's the point in waiting!?" Naruto melts into a puddle, an interesting mix of inebriation and slobbery bitter-sweetness. The way he slurs his truth zips through Shikamaru like lightning.

"Can't argue with that, right?" Gaara really looks at Shikamaru for the first time this entire evening.

"Well aren't you a very reasonable dude." Shikamaru says to Naruto but doesn't avert his gaze from Gaara's. The table between them is the weight of their history, their brotherhood. Naruto is too drunk to feel the awkwardness that settles. He simply plucks the bottle of sake by its neck and downs it like water.

"You ever just look at someone–look at the sky and feel this incredible epiphany? Like everything makes sense and is going to be ok?" Naruto chokes on a gulp.

"I think it's funny. You ignored her for the vast majority of your life." Shikamaru finally looks away from Gaara. He looks at Naruto's watery eyes. It amazes him for a moment how Naruto is capable of abandoning his pride. He's always been so quick at opening himself and he never seems to mind when people pick a little piece of him for themselves.

"Yea. Yea. I don't deserve her." Naruto resolves quickly.

"I think you deserve her more than anyone." Gaara reaches to slap his friend on the back.

"I don't though. It's really shitty realizing that the cure to your existential crisis has been staring you in the face the entire time. God, if there really is one, has literally dangled this girl in front of me for so many years. I don't think a wedding is enough. There aren't even enough apologies. I feel guilty for being so stupid." Naruto huffs and all the glitter he has stolen from the midnight sky disperses back into the universe. He hides his face in his folded arms and mumbles, rather piously 'I'm such a dumbass.'

Inwardly, Shikamaru echoes the sentiment, unaware that his face has wrinkled into a gut punched frown. He flicks the ash from his cigarette a little too hard and loses his grip. The cigarette tumbles into the bowl and the food residue sizzles.

"That was almost you, Shikamaru." Gaara's voice clips the silence.

"What do ya mean?" Shikamaru knows damn well what he means, but he feigns ignorance in all of his decisions, resting his elbow on the table and chewing his thumbnail.

"I was really looking forward to us being in-laws."

"You miss me or something, Gaara?"

Naruto groans incoherently until his breathing settles to drunk snores.

"I miss you as much as Temari does." Gaara shrugs.

"I'm gonna wager that's not a whole lot." And if the opposite were true, Shikamaru doesn't want to be privy to it. He wouldn't be able to stomach the guilt. Then, he would have to confront the bottomless pit of women he had entertained himself with.

"She misses you enough, but she's too stubborn to be depressed about it."

"I'm glad." Shikamaru says with more aggression than he means.

"How have you been?" Gaara's expression is of neutral blankness, but Shikamaru can't help but recollect the many times he had witnessed the side-effect of his pillaging for the sake of Temari. Sometimes, it was like watching the rain snuff out a fire and he'd feel less guilty, but there were times where he had watched them lose parts of their happiness. He's only ever cared once but only because he had made her cry. It feels as if Gaara stares at him with the same disappointment. Like he can see all of the lives Shikamaru had interrupted to purge himself of his sister.

"Underwhelmed." Shikamaru says with a lot of wind. He concludes that Ino has been his punishment.

"Aren't we all?" Gaara drops his attention back on Naruto and cracks a short smile.

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When it rains, it pours. Buckets and tubs – a tsunami pounds against her window.

Denial is quite the process. After she had picked herself up from the floor, she decided that she didn't need Shikamaru. She never really wanted him in the first place. He had just happened in her life like any normal accident.

For three days she wore a convincing enough smile. A week and another thunderstorm later, that smile has become heavy. She storms into her bathroom, and when she finds the toilet seat down, she becomes disappointed. When she reaches in the cabinet for a cup, her hands always reach for two. As she sits at her table, shoveling dry cereal into her mouth, she gapes at the empty chair. It had only been a month and he had sewn himself so neatly into her daily routine. That chair looks too lonely and she refuses to sit in it.

All of it feels wrong yet her decision had been so clear. What remains of him is his toothbrush– his ass never really lived here. But here feels like an awful black hole without him. After three complete weeks and one sad Monday, time stops. Her alarm screams at her but Ino lies face-down in her pillow. She hasn't left her apartment all weekend. There have been knocks on her door but she lacks the ability to care. Who she thought she was and where she was trying to go become a cloudy mess of doubts. It is so strange having to rebuild a routine that doesn't revolve around Shikamaru. Her house is too tidy. The smell of smoke doesn't linger.

For an hour, she fingers herself until her stomach hurts, until she's so dizzy and sweaty she wants to vomit. This is not how you 'not want' someone– not wanting him shouldn't inspire feelings of disharmony.

Another day passes and someone knocks on her door so violently, she leaps from her pillows. With misplaced anger, she staggers into her living room, whipping her robe around her body as if it were a towel, like a proper insane woman.

Ino's fingers are shaky as she removes the chain and turns the lock.

"What the fuck!" She huffs when she yanks it open. The blinds have been down in Shikamaru's absence, subconsciously she's trying to murder her flowers. The sun stings her eyes. Her vision refocuses until she can rightly absorb Sakura's confusion and concern.

"What. The. FUCK!" Ino smothers her scream behind clenched teeth.

"Your mom is worried. You haven't been at the shop and you won't come to the door." Sakura snorts.

"But here I am. At the door."

"What the fuck, Ino?" Sakura swears like a toddler. Unnatural and forced.

They stand in silence for a while glaring at each other. Sakura looks around Ino and notices the slouch of the un-watered plants. In the distance, the alarm clock screeches for relief.

As a woman, Sakura recognizes that Ino is experiencing a crisis, but she had talked to Sai the other day and he seemed fine. As an old friend, Sakura is compelled to stand there. Ino hasn't been her favorite person for the past few years but she sees herself in the haziness of Ino's angry distress. Ino Yamanaka cares about appearances above all things. A fine-tuned Ino would never answer the door half naked smelling like sweat.

"When was the last time you brushed your teeth?" Sakura unfolds her arms, hanging her head to the side and Ino bursts into tears.

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The clicks of the ceiling fan make up for Sakura's quietness. Ino sits across from her in a daze, staring at her chipped fingernail polish. Sakura clears her throat three times, but Ino remains drowsily removed, her face hidden under the messy waves of her hair.

"Why haven't you spoken to your mother?" Sakura pipes up.

"There's nothing to talk about." Ino says immediately with a low-lidded glare.

"Why haven't you talked to Sai?" Sakura has an idea but doesn't know how to be direct about her curiosity. Sai had been honest about their break-up yet he hadn't broadcasted it to the world. Whenever Ino's name is mentioned, he never recoils but his eyes become a smoother black. Half of Sakura is nosey. The other half is concerned. When she had asked him what happened, Sai simply shook his head, as if he genuinely had no idea. And Sakura believed what he couldn't seem to say.

It was like Ino to disregard things that bored her.

"Sai doesn't understand me." Ino's resentment for Sakura grows a little by the minute.

"Well, Ino...you never give anyone a chance to get to know you." Sakura rebuts.

Ino's apartment smells like it's been deprived of sunlight.

"Maybe if you weren't so cold..." Sakura starts again but Ino shakes her head violently.

"I'm not cold. Damn it, Sakura." Ino massages the bridge of her nose. "Did you come over just to ridicule me?"

"No. Your mother is distressed and I volunteered, because I have the misfortune of caring a lot about things that don't have anything to do with me." Sakura crosses her legs, resting her elbows on the table.

"I'm not cold." Ino repeats herself with less edge.

"You can be. It pushes people away."

"It's not my fault that people don't have spines. I know what I want and people don't like it. They want me to be complacent." Ino's vision waters.

"Or maybe we all just want you to be happy." Sakura stops chewing on her bottom lip.

There's a moment of silence much like a funeral's. Ino gazes at Sakura through a teary-eyed film. Her hold on her robe loosens as she feels the weight of her soul tugging her downwards. Ino slouches in her seat. The last time she had been happy was the day before the dinner with Choji.

"You and Sai should talk about it. Clearly it's upsetting you." Sakura reaches for Ino's hand across the table. "You only get one life, Ino."

Ino gapes at Sakura. She blinks three times before a tear slides down her cheek. A single tear will be the last of her mourning for Shikamaru. Life is too short.

"Sai loves you–" Sakura sighs and it takes all of Ino not to ask 'how could you possibly know?' The sad truth is Ino doesn't know a damn thing about what it's supposed to feel like either.

"Ok" is all Ino can really say. In many ways, it's a resignation to defeat.

Her father had once boasted to Shikaku, "My daughter will grow to be the woman that starves oceans."

And she believed it to be true the majority of her life. Her mother wouldn't allow her to believe otherwise. Yet this moment challenges that prophecy.

"Ok?" Sakura does that weird familiar thing– she lowers her head, pinches her lips together, and bats her eyelashes. Ino unhooks their fingers but doesn't destroy the intimacy of their skin touching. And she thinks– look how pretty you are, Sakura.

"Ok." Ino un-strangles her voice.

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"Be like water, Shikamaru."

If he didn't hear it enough from his mother, his father used it as a weapon whenever he caught a temper.

"But I'd rather be a mountain." Shikamaru would argue for the sake of being the contrarian.

"But rivers soften mountains." Or something like that. Many variations of it.

Shikamaru had always wondered why it mattered. Why do old people talk in riddles? Twenty- odd-something isn't old, but now he can grasp the necessity of metaphors. That sense of urgency he had in his adolescence is gone.

"Gaara can't come..." Naruto hangs over the windowsill, stuffing his face with a chocolate bar.

"Can't come where?" Shikamaru had stopped listening thirty minutes ago.

"To my engagement party." Naruto huffs at the clouds.

Shikamaru hesitates. He glares at the clock on the wall then drops his attention on the scuffed up floor. When he shifts to say anything to Naruto, the grit crunches under his sandal.

"There's always the wedding." Shikamaru sighs.

Naruto takes a deep breath, holds it, then blows away his frustration. The candy wrapper crunches in his fist as he stretches.

"Yea but I want him to be involved in everything."

"Well that's not possible."

"I know it's not but impossible things have never made me less of an optimist."

Shikamaru stops a short grunt. Gaara is running an hour late for their next consulting before they depart.

"Kankuro asked about you."

"No shit?" With little enthusiasm, Shikamaru takes it upon himself to flop into Gaara's designated 'boss man' seat.

"So you're just not gonna say hi?" Naruto beams at him.

"For what?" Shikamaru drums his fingers on the desk.

Like a fish, Naruto opens and closes his mouth before puffing his cheeks. Thirty emotions wrinkle his features. His blue eyes darken then lighten then pale. Shikamaru simply purses his lips.

"What do you mean for what? Temari's family is your family. I don't remember you being such a sour butthole."

"Sour. Butthole." Shikamaru clicks his tongue, bringing his hands to his chest and tenting his fingers. "How very scientific of you."

"I'm being gravely serious." Naruto still clenches the chocolate candy wrapper.

"Well, Naruto. There's this thing called time and it erodes things. Like relationships. You follow?"

"I'm just beside myself. Is falling out of love that drastic? Geeze. Is this what emotional terrorism is?" Naruto runs his stubby fingers through his hair. His eyes widen upon the horrid realization of the actual factuals of life.

"Don't go blaming me for your cold feet." Shikamaru whistles.

"No. See. I'm not like you, Shikamaru."

"Not many people are."

Fifteen more minutes without Gaara, they stop speaking. Naruto, still visibly petrified, leans his back against the wall, sinking somewhat– sinking the ship of his gleefulness. Shikamaru feels bad, fleetingly so. It's not his fault that Naruto inserted his own happiness in his lacking love life.

"Why does everyone assume it's my fault?" Shikamaru allows the thought to surface.

Naruto shrugs and drops completely onto the floor with his legs sprawled. Ten more minutes pass them and the sun sits in the middle of the sky.

"Because, it's usually always our fault, Shikamaru. This love stuff is easy for women."

"I disagree."

"What if I'm an asshole like you and just wake up out of love with Hinata?"

"Why are you projecting your fears on me so hard? We are two completely different people." Shikamaru shifts his weight on the arm of Gaara's chair, narrowing his eyes at Naruto. "Love is great, but not all of us get it right the first time. Some of us have to get it wrong fifty more times."

Naruto's face softens, but his straightened lips don't shave off the mild resentment.

"Let me be happy for you in peace." Shikamaru's tone gives away a brief glimpse of his regrets, but Naruto is too late in receiving the hidden message. As he lifts his head to speak, Gaara steps into his office with a gaze of listlessness and wanderlust. Time had truly gotten away from all of them.

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Cyclamen–  she declares war on her body and she's never felt more human. Ino stands in Sai's doorway, lost for words. If she were any good at being poetic, she'd craft a tome of her mistakes. When she looks at him, she only sees the past of not too long ago.

An hour later, he doesn't look any more forgiving, but she reminds herself that Sai always looks inscrutable. In her memory he's only ever thrived on his beauty, which he is entirely unaware of.

Cyclamen are poisonous. Ino's hurt feelings have always been like a virus. A woman who starves oceans, poisons the rivers, destroys dynasties with a never-ending drought.

An hour and fifteen minutes more, she remembers how much she worshipped the deep curve of his cupid's bow.

"Why do you deserve me, Sai?" She asks tersely. Her limbs are stiffer than cement. She feels her heart shrinking, but she convinces herself that this is how it should've been all along.

Sai's hair hasn't dried from his shower. He blinks at her, digging his tongue against his jaw as he thinks, his eyes don't leave her– as a man that discovers woman first and fire second. They both observe each other as strangers by soul but disgustingly familiar by flesh.

He rises from his seat, approaching her with sedated desire. When he reaches her, he gently takes her by the throat in that intimate old way that used to feel like romance. Shikamaru had stolen the pulse of her arousal.

Sai bends down to brush his lips against hers and she figures out, in the throes of their confused longing, that he too is recollecting all of what she had destroyed in such a short amount of time. It takes the strength of all the women that made her to not erupt into any more tears.

"Do you believe in soulmates?" His hands leave her neck and settle on her hips.

No. Yes. Maybe. I could– she muses. "Yes." She lies to him. It's an unspoken, I can try to believe.

"That's why." He speaks on his own fairytale, but Ino suspects that maybe she has been the problem the entire time. Being difficult and searching for things she had no real concept of.

"How do you know, Sai?" She slowly unravels. Bit by bit. Every second feels like their ship is sinking.

"I just do. I don't want anyone else."

Ino's silence means she consents to his ideas. Her unwillingness to fight anymore welcomes a full kiss. Like clockwork, for all the distance she had wedged between them, their clothes are at their ankles like they never really broke the habit of 'making love' to each other.

They are so well acquainted, that it lacks excitement. Despite that, it's the first time she's ever felt his sincerity. There isn't a shadow of doubt that Sai loves her. In his own way that is.

He holds her down not only with his strong arms, but with his eyes and they aren't empty. Her wisdom warns her that it's her ego attempting to fix the sadness that has made her sick in Shikamaru's definite absence. But she shoves sensibility into the corner of her thoughts better off unattended.

Three deep, all-consuming thrusts in, she gives herself permission to move on and with Sai's way of having sex with her. Without the hot-bloodedness, the certainty of her orgasm, and too much safety.

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Sai claims to have missed her. He said, rather poetically, that her absence has been just as natural as an erupting volcano. His feelings the lava and his heart the earthquake that started it all. She took it as sign that he was trying and maybe she wouldn't have his looks only to sustain their happiness.

As Sai zips his pants, Ino gazes up at him, rubbing her thumb along her bottom lip.

"We're running late." She re-fastens the buttons on her sundress.

"Time is only a concept, Ino." Instead of rising, he flops back into the mattress. He rubs his face with his hands, blinking away the blurriness of his temperament. Ino pushes herself from her knees, the hem of her dress is bunched in panties. She crawls on top of him and begins to button up his shirt.

"An old concept deeply ingrained in today's society." She smoothes out the wrinkles done by her hands.

"When have you ever been punctual?" He places his hands on her hips and squeezes. "You're anxious."

"I am not." Ino's voice shrinks. Where she had smoothed out the wrinkles, she grips his shirt again, creating new lines.

"You are."

It has been a month since she's last seen Shikamaru.

"I'm not." She says more pointedly. Shikamaru doesn't like social gatherings– she tells herself.

Troublesome. Ino frowns distantly.

"If you say so." Sai carefully rolls her off of him.

And they are terribly late by an hour and twenty minutes. Unbuttoning, unzipping, buttoning, then zipping became quite the obstacle. Ino thinks it's possible to be fucked into a state of amnesia, and for the past week and a few days, it seems to have worked. The thought of Shikamaru only presents itself at the strong possibility that if he isn't at the pre-engagement party, then he will most definitely be at the real event.

Her determination has never been limited though. If she wants to forget, she will by any means necessary. If she didn't learn anything else during her training, she knew how to be resilient.

"We don't have to stay for the entire thing if you don't want to." Sai whispered in her ear, but she feels it's too late as they stand in front of Naruto's door.

"Do you not want to stay?" Ino squeezes his hand. Her pale blue sundress sucks the air out of her when she moves too quick.

"If it means little to you, it means little to me." Is all he says, a subtle declaration of his worship, and he brings her hand to his lips and kisses each of her tainted fingers. Ritualistically, neither of them had washed their hands.

And Ino thinks that this is what she originally had anticipated for the rest of her life. Dirty hands like dirty secrets. Beautiful children. Sai's unending approval.

She can't remember why she stopped wanting it. She's determined to never remember.

The day the gap in her desires grew too big, she allowed a storm to sweep her into a month's worth of nights she can't take back. And it's jarring not regretting any of it either.

When the door opens she takes a deep breath.

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Asuma occurs to him as he simmers over not being able to smoke inside of Naruto's apartment. As he snaps open a soda can, from his memories, Asuma scolds him for being too young to speed up his eventual death.

"But you smoke all the time."

"Listen to your elders."

"But you're not elderly."

That was such a small bubble of happiness.

Shikamaru takes a long sip to wash down his growing agitation. Naruto buzzes in his ear about something and Lee aggressively disagrees with him. It doesn't resort to an actual altercation because Kiba is too good of a sport to allow drunken rivalry to ruin Hinata's day.

And he realizes, being the fly on the wall, he hasn't really had a conversation with anyone since he's been here. It's normal for him to be taciturn but the normal feels disturbing. He figures that maybe he shouldn't have come.

Shikamaru catches the chill after someone walks over his metaphorical grave.

"What do you think, Shikamaru?" Sakura appears beside him.

"I think nothing but good things." He suppresses a belch.

She hums in response, tapping her chin with a finger. Their attention falls on a flustered Hinata assisting Kiba with a hilariously tipsy Naruto.

"It's not even noon." Shikamaru mutters before taking a long swig of his flat cola.

"He insisted. I quote, 'I can't deal with all those stuffy rich folks while sober,'and you know Hinata..." Sakura leans in to gently whisper and they both make a noise of agreement. Hinata hasn't the heart to deprive Naruto of what he wants. She's accidentally a people pleaser.

"I guess this is what happiness looks like." Sakura said after a pause in their small talk.

"Like I'd always imagined." Shikamaru derides, but Sakura doesn't miss his acrid sarcasm. She is stunned for a moment. Their eyes meet and he winks at her.

"How's Temari?"

He had never noticed how round Sakura's face is. With her hair pulled back, her cheeks remind him of cotton candy. A minute passes before he realizes he's visibly caught off guard by her question.

"She's great."

"That's good to hear." Sakura smiles at him warmly.

The room's attention shifts when there's a knock at the front door. Naruto manages to escape from Hinata to welcome 'his guests'– he stammered to say four times before reaching the door knob with the grace of an elated monkey.

"How is Sasuke?" Shikamaru looks down at Sakura. She scratches behind her ear, blinking four times before gazing back at him.

"I think he's fine."

"Love is a strange thing, right?" He nudges her with an elbow.

"Splendid and strange." Her smile fades but only for a moment. In the mix of Naruto's silliness and everyone else's enjoyment, they both see Sai before Ino. Sakura's demeanor shifts without strain.

The perfect assessment of his environment is a finished puzzle missing one piece. Possibly lost forever or hidden on purpose to avoid a devastating absolution. One long throated swig, he finishes his drink and crushes the can– it's as reactionary as he will allow himself.

The polarity of their souls won't allow them to shut off that tiny part of their brain that gets them high off of dopamine. Before Ino sees Shikamaru at her peripheral, the turnings wheels of her chakra feel him like a very strange occurrence of deja vu.

Shikamaru's mind isn't as weak to her as his body. His face holds an elusive candidness that only Ino can read when she mistakenly catches his glare–a lesser bug caught in a spider's web. There's an effortlessness to his glower. His features don't wrinkle nor darken at the sight of her but there's no trace of forgiveness. And she knows exactly, in the instance that he scratches the side of his neck with his pinky, that they are still stuck in their last contemptible hour together.

Ino doesn't crush herself under his glare. She turns away before anyone notices the cracks in their boundaries.

"So you took my advice?" Sakura slips beside her, snaking their arms together.

Ino hesitates but her train of thought stays on the rails. She rubs the corner of her eye, her long pink nail grazes her water line.

"Advice?" She doesn't mean for it to sound condescending. Sakura winces and Ino quickly changes her tune. "Yeah yeah yeah. A rare occurrence. Right?"

Sakura's mouth widens to speak but Naruto tackles them both in a headlock.

For an hour they endure their hyper awareness of each other. Between two cups of alcohol, Ino tries her hardest to avoid the direction she feels him in. Sai whispers something to her, squeezes her shoulders and vanishes. She gives Hinata a rather empty praise but the bride-to-be receives it as if it had been the nicest thing she had heard all morning.

And the idle conversation isn't enough. She manages to stay alert, nodding on cue whenever Sakura says "Do you see what I mean?" or "Isn't that crazy?" and "Doesn't Hinata look so happy?"

It takes thirty angels on the shoulder to keep her from rolling her eyes.

There's a collective silence– that awkward moment when everyone stops talking at the same time unintentionally. She feels like there is a small chance that she has created the sudden stiffness in her head, because she feels it like a ton of bricks crushing her body.

Lee says something that wakes everyone from the lull of conversations, save for Ino who stares into her empty cup until Sai touches her. She comes to the epiphany that this is very real and not some abstract dream.

"Oh my god, please shut your dumb mouth..." Naruto hiccups but Lee flings an arm around his shoulder.

"Some people spend their entire life on a journey..." Lee's face burns scarlet. "Some of us will not reach that pique point of happiness or find that person we are meant to be with forever. Naruto, when I see you and Hinata, I see a completed version of happiness. That kind of happiness that all the adults seemed obsessed with as a kid."

"Geeze. Don't get so sappy. It's making my stomach hurt. Hinata make him stop." Naruto's eyes shimmer like puddles. Extending a wobbly arm at his fiancé, he fails at an attempt to escape and Lee anchors him in space.

"I am not being sappy! I am being incredibly insightful! This hurts my soul!" Years of unscathed sentiments and unbroken dreams regarding love, Lee beats them out of his chest until he reaches a misty-eyed blindness.

As pitiful of a sight that it is, there's not a hint of collective embarrassment. Ino sucks in her cheeks, looks to Sai to see if he too is suppressing a laugh, but he's silently expressive. For a sullen minute, she feels inherently broken for wanting to spit up in her cup.

From Sakura, to Shino, to Kiba– Ino is the odd man out. Curiosity murders her when she looks to Shikamaru. Their eyes meet, their attention sticks. They see each other completely without interruption.

"The quest for love leaves most of us dry, empty, wastelands of pessimism– but you Naruto have conquered!" Lee balls a fist.

Shikamaru quirks a brow and Ino knows it means more than one thing. She clears her throat and continues to smother her judgment.

He's honest with himself about the climate of their situation. There is amusement to be had in having something so intimate in common with Sai. And to witness Sai's moon-eyed obliviousness to Ino's shallow breathing. Immediately, Shikamaru wants to feel bad but he reasons that he's only human and should be allowed to feel envy. There's nothing criminal in feeling jilted.

Lee's speech turns into a mess of incoherent dribbling. He begins to sob so hard, it starts to sound like he's coughing up his lungs.

"How I wish to be smitten in the throes of passion!" Lee chokes and Shikamaru takes it upon himself to save the moment. If he stood by any longer, projecting bitterness where it ought to not be, he'd put himself in a shit mood for the rest of the week. In one sweeping motion, he takes a half empty class off the coffee table and slaps an arm around Lee. Naruto breaks a little under his added weight.

"To add on that– I had a sudden memory that I think perfectly relates to you guys, Naruto..." And Shikmaru lifts his chin at Hinata. "Me and Ino had this conversation not too long ago– about whether or not soulmates are real."

Ino bites on the rim of her cup. Sai looks down at her curiously. He doesn't miss the color rising on her skin.

"And, as you all know, I pride myself on being a reasonable person. My initial belief was 'No'. There could be no such thing as soulmates. In theory, on paper, it sounds nice but in practice it's really dumb or naive to think that there's one person made specifically for you. Thinking about it– that at the moment you were conceived or born– the universe has put together your spiritual equal." Shikamaru pauses, realizing that there is no end to the mental path he is taking. The cup makes his fingers sticky.

"Lee you said when we were kids, that all of the grown-ups were obsessed with love and I can't help but think about my parents. It just seemed like a lot of compromise at the time but now I understand having experienced a long-term relationship. When I think about Kurenai and my mom and their unwillingness to move on, I see the bigger picture and I think we all do right now."

If there was ever a time where Ino hated him, this moment eclipses that one. And it's not a senseless hate– it's a wordless rundown of her insecurities. Every vulnerable moment she had given him replays itself in blaring color with heightened senses. He sees right through her shifting emotions and it's evident that he cares enough that he's willing to bruise her feelings in a room filled with unsuspecting witnesses.

It takes everything in her not to say to him– 'Pettiness is a weakness.' But...

Ino might be difficult, crass, sometimes unfeeling, but she's never been an idiot. Shikamaru only resorts to emotional warfare because it's her preferred language of fluency. She squeezes the plastic cup and it crackles.

Unbeknownst to them, half of it, Ino willingly chooses to be ignorant to, Sai gathers an awareness and becomes the bystander caught in their cross fire.

"Geese mate for a lifetime. How they figure it out? None of us really know, or maybe the answer is out there and I'm too jaded to dig deeper. There's only so much knowledge you can acquire before you start preferring wisdom. If geese can penetrate the mysteries of the soul or whatever then maybe there's hope for all of us." Shikamaru lifts the cup and inspects the insides. He doesn't recall who the drink belongs to, so he shrugs.

"Hinata, I think it's great that you've found your goose." He finishes with that, encouraging everyone to salute with their cups before gulping the questionable contents of his down. Lee erupts into violent tears and drags Shikamaru and Naruto down to their knees. Naruto spills his drink on his freshly pressed pants.

"That's a sentiment I can get behind." Sai says to Ino as he plucks her cup from her hands and finishes it for her.

"I guess." She mutters too distantly for his liking.

"You're not okay." He sighs after an unsettling pause.

"Are any of us ever okay, Sai?" Ino stops glaring at Shikamaru and turns to him. Her voice causes him to flush a little.

"Are you jealous? Do you want me to propose to you?" He blinks, mildly joking. She has to remind herself that his dryness is just who he is and who she isn't. It hurts for only a bit. Her eyes fill up with what he can only see as her typical moodiness.

'You're like a Rubik's cube' sits on his tongue but she shakes her head and walks away before he can express the confusion of his fondness for her.

And he thinks, as she walks toward Sakura– how many times has he actually apologized without receiving a smidgen of forgiveness.

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Shikamaru has never been a liar to himself nor anyone. Never has he been compelled to conceal the truth either. He realizes that coming had been a gross underestimation of his grievances. He knew Ino was invited. He didn't have to come, but he doesn't believe in running from tiny battles. What use is he as a shinobi if he can't face what might as well had been a bad breakup? He laughs at himself. Not even his separation from Temari put him this far out of spirits.

But he wasn't going to deny that all at once, like the sudden pang of a headache, he had begun to miss the slow peel of her lips when she speaks, the shape they form around glass cups and his fingers.

As he scrubs away the suds on his hands, Shikamaru holds his eyes on Naruto's bristly toothbrush leaning against Hinata's. The sink is a romantic clutter of things that belong to Hinata and he grimaces at how desperately he had tried to occupy the empty spaces in Ino's life. The water runs between his fingers, barely suppressing the sounds of everyone else's contentment on the other side of the door. He wonders how long he can sit in here before anyone realizes he's missing.

The knob turns. He doesn't jump when the door creaks open. Some deeper part of him knows it's Ino before he sees her peering at him in the mirror. He turns off the faucet and she shuts the door behind her with a hushed click.

"How would you explain it if someone saw you?" There was a point where he knew everything he would say to her if they were even within close proximity again. That everything leaves him like a good dream he can't quite hold on to.

"It's no one else's business." She says adamantly. He turns around and leans against the sink. Beyond them, Naruto's laughter sounds like its trapped in a glass jar. Ino's eyes roam his face, re-exploring everything she missed, hoping that nothing has changed. Her aggravation with him shortens to steady breathing.

"I think its Sai's business." He had read in a book a long time ago about karmic connections. If past lives are real, then he and Ino have done this a hundred lifetimes.

"Pettiness is a cheap tactic and you know that."

"You came in here to hurt my feelings..." His Adam's apple rolls. He keeps his mouth open to say more but he can only breathe.

"You started it." She fumbles with her hands because she can't put together a perfect necklace of words. "You started everything."

"Then what does that make you? A masochist?" He can't seem to reconcile with how much he wants her against his common sense. She doesn't argue with him because she can't. Arguing with him would do nothing but choke the air out of them. Ino doesn't know how to stop and Shikamaru never wants her to when she's within arm's reach.

"What?" He sighs. This time, he doesn't expect what he wants to hear.

Like always, she never has anything to say. Ino's arms hang at her sides but it's not quite a sign of surrender.

"You know– I thought losing dad would be the end of my disappointment, but..." Shikamaru is unable to look at her. "You never cease to amaze me."

"Shikamaru, you're someone that I care about." Why does it feel like she's breathing fire?

"I guess I am." He moves for the silver knob but Ino steps between his arms.

Her breath hitches when her back collides against the door. She begs with his name. For what? She's doesn't want to figure out the details so she acts purely on gumption. Her dress tightens on her skin and she creates a phantom asphyxiation.

Shikamaru betrays himself for a fleeting three minutes. For three painful minutes he allows her to start a kiss at his chin. She stretches her body until her lips reach the corner of his mouth. When she tucks her hands under his shirt, he brings them back down into the happiness of other's surrounding them–more specifically Hinata's things littering Naruto's bathroom.

"This looks bad." Shikamaru moves briskly for the door knob and this time, manages to escape.

The universe is kind to them. No one notices their blight on the celebration.

Lee has caused a ruckus loud enough to disturb the dead.

Shikamaru decides to leave, only giving a short good-bye to Sakura. His apology is drowned out by the shrieking of Lee's tears muffled in Hinata's lap. And it's better this way because he gets a windless feeling as if he's been punched in the stomach.

When he reaches the cool air of outside, he digs into a pocket for his pack of cigarettes but it's empty.

He figures this is as kind as karma gets.

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The engagement party was what everyone had anticipated for it to be. The Hyuga's did nothing half assed, but Ino had been too caught up in her head to fully appreciate the food. Her stomach is full but she can't remember the taste of anything specific. If she wasn't staring off into space, until her vision blurred with white crystals and glitter, then Sai was stuffing her face with samples he didn't have a palate for.

"You look like a depressed frog." Sai had said to her. It's the only thing she recalls clearly from the entire event aside from Shikamaru not being there– which was the best and worst thing about the evening.

She comes out of her state of numbness when she realizes that she is still wearing her heels. Sai lifts her foot in his lap and gives her a very expressive look of amazement. Ino stares back, shifting her weight on a pillow, waiting for him to tell her just how sad she looks.

"You didn't enjoy yourself at all." He unhooks the strap at her ankles with slow affection.

"No. I did not, but all that matters is that Naruto is happy."

"Do you really think they are soulmates?" Sai rubs his thumb against her big toe.

"Who knows?" Ino's stare is blank. She sees Sai but can't quite recognize him nor his bedroom. It's like staring at a brick wall, trying to find the pattern in the cement that holds the bricks together, but some bricks are shorter than others and that ruins the neat formation. She can only start over and over again with aimless hope.

Sai presses his thumb against the protruding bones when she curls her toes. His blood reddens the skin under his fingernail.

"Are geese really monogamous?" He asks after a long empty silence.

"If Shikamaru says so, then it's true. He knows everything. He always has." Ino's breath stops in her throat.

"No one knows everything."

"Shikamaru definitely knows everything." She gives away a lot of sadness. Sai catches all of it and his face blanches. From the tips of her toes, past her ankles, traveling up to her knees– her bones and tendons stiffen. He hopes that it's just in his head, but he's trained and touched enough dead bodies to know what withdrawal feels like. When she drags her foot from his hand, it feels like she's taking away his right to love her.

"You two had a disagreement." The statement beats down his rational wall of thinking. Sai becomes completely human. Ino's eyes widen.

"Why do you say that?"

He hesitates because she doesn't ask 'who'.

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Shikamaru takes a deep breath. He holds the air in his chest, closes his eyes until his body tells him that he can't disappear this way. Self-imploding bitterness is just part of the process and he's endured much worse.

When he opens his eyes, Choji is staring back at him equally somber.

"Well, we have been here before." Choji slides his menu away.

Shikamaru doesn't readily respond to the statement. He watches Choji's fingers press against the table. Today their favorite spot isn't crammed with people. The mood is incidentally more intimate than Shikamaru had wanted.

"C'mon it can't be that bad." Choji starts and Shikamaru cringes.

"Unfortunately..." It is that bad. Should he reach heaven, he will be sure to ask god why hurt feelings feel like bleeding out on a battlefield. Shikamaru closes his mouth and sucks in his jaws.

"We haven't seen each other in a while." Choji takes a sip from his glass of water– he's turning a new leaf. No more excessive drinking for sport. Shikamaru snorts because he's given it three days to last. If he's a bad friend, maybe only a couple of hours.

"Yea yea. I know. Last time you saw me I was in a bad mood."

"There are tons of prettier and nicer girls than Ino."

The problem is that none of them are Ino. He doesn't want another version of her nor the polar opposite. At this point in time, the idea of anyone else, he can only imagine as an insult to his senses.

"Look at you not wasting any time. Went right for the jugular." Shikamaru slouches in his seat.

"I'm just saying, Shikamaru..."

It always takes twenty minutes to pass before the waitress slides them their food. Never a minute too early or too late. If Choji isn't truly adamant about being sober, then three more plates will replace the one he's about to shove his face into and the night will carry on like always.

They'd both leave drunk with hot faced intentions to see each other the next day.

But it never happens because Shikamaru takes missions mindlessly. It stopped being a challenge to push himself. His absence has become a necessity to boredom or a means to see just how long he can cheat death. He's just waiting on the right mistake. Something that can properly jilt him.

Everything about Konoha has become tediously familiar. He feels like the blood pumping epicenter of it all because he doubts anyone else can see just how ingrained their lifestyle is. Nothing changes unless someone dies.

"Fucking adulthood." Ino chimes from the wasteland of his conscience.

"I'm about to disappoint you." Shikamaru drops his chopsticks and gently raps a fist against the table. Choji struggles to swallow a mouthful. Reaching for his glass, he glares at Shikamaru attentively.

For the first time in his life, he regrets not being destructive. He knows that if he loved Ino any less, he would've stayed in Naruto's bathroom with her for much longer.

That perfect mistake– he's been grasping for it but he can't seem to shut off that rational part of himself. He wants to emulate all of her turbulent ways of feeling and soundlessness.

"I don't want anyone else." And it's a very absolute feeling.

Choji sits up straight. Shikamaru never says things that he doesn't mean. For Choji, the declaration is terrifying.

"It's supposed to feel that way." Because he sure as hell doesn't want anyone else besides Karui.

"I've never felt this way."

Temari was a tower in the process of toppling.  Ino has stolen something he can't readily take back without a war within himself. It's not time. No one can hold time. It's a corporeal impulse that won't allow him to exist harmoniously without her.

Choji only decides to believe him when he can't decipher his friend's frown. It's not an expression he's familiar with. Shikamaru had stopped looking at him directly. He has been peering through him, the walls, everything stopped existing. His attention is nowhere.

The noise rises or perhaps, Choji wonders, Shikamaru's sadness has penetrated the atmosphere. The universe hurries to correct the bad energy that seeps from him. His face darkens, but he picks back up his chopsticks and proceeds to eat. Dragging his eyes from the distance of nothingness to the sweating glasses of water. 

"Sorry I haven't been much of a friend." Shikamaru mumbles.

Choji can't exactly process how witnessing his friend's heartbreak has affected him. It's great to be assured that Shikamaru Nara has never been too stubborn to feel real things, but it also leaves him with a sense of hopelessness. If Shikamaru can be this broken, how exactly is he going to feel the day Karui decides he isn't worth a grain of sand? If she ever does...

"Damn it, Shikamaru..." Choji shovels down huge cuts of beef.

.

Time softens people. Or rather happiness does. When Sai touches Naruto or Sakura, he can feel a difference in them. Even though Sakura is silent about her discontentment with the state of Sasuke, she still manages to be vulnerable. It's in her eyes when she's caught staring off into the sky.

Sai understands that only he can recognize emotions as tangible things. He likens them to building blocks. And he's aware that he is the result of a broken foundation. His blocks were destroyed before he could develop a sense of self.

Sometimes, being sorely different feels like isolation. Ino tells him that isolation and sadness are two different things, but he's pretty sure that they are comparable. For that, he doesn't fault Ino for huffing when it takes him too long to answer a 'trick' question.

He and Sakura fall behind Naruto when they enter the restaurant.

"Geeze I'm starving!" Naruto announces to no one with his hands on his hips.

"When people are hungry they stop at restaurants, Naruto." Sai hiccups.

The statement falls on deaf ears. Naruto begins to step around tables for a waitress.

"Are you really all that hungry?" Sakura pinches Sai's sleeve.

"No, but I wanted to do something nice for you two."

"Naruto is never gonna turn down food."

"Which is why I suggested it. He never turns down anything free." Sai tries a smile that's surprisingly easy to handle.

"Holy shit!" Naruto screams from a booth. Sakura grimaces but Sai doesn't flinch. He flags them down, creating a wild spectacle of gestures. "It's a party of five! Look who I found!"

Naruto wiggles himself next to Shikamaru and nudges him with an elbow. "You're an asshole you know that? I might have been plastered but I was gonna find out that you were a no show at the Hyugas. Haven't seen ya since! Can you believe this jerk, Choji?"

Shikamaru manages a terse smirk, rolling his eyes so hard he gives himself a migraine.

"Don't feel bad, Naruto. He rarely hangs out with me either." Choji looks defeated after finishing his plate.

"ShikaCho without Ino!" Sakura squishes herself next to Naruto. Shikamaru scoffs as Naruto scoots closer, but when Sai sits next to Choji he completely deflates. Their eyes meet for a moment. Yet instantly, Shikamaru commands his attention back down to his unfinished plate.

"Yeah. I haven't seen all three of you together in eons." Naruto looks between Sakura and Choji.

"Naruto. I don't think you understand the definition of eons." Sai crosses his arms. A feeling he can't quite place rises from his chest.

"When was the last time you guys talked to her?" Naruto flaps a hand at Sai. "Wait...how is, Ino?"

"Don't ask us. Ask, Sai." Shikamaru digs his chopsticks into his noodles.

"How is Ino, Sai?" Naruto's face brightens.

Choji glances at Shikamaru who keeps his eyes lowered. In this moment, Choji realizes he's one of the few people who can differentiate between Shikamaru's indifference and sulkiness. He clenches his teeth together and cringes.

"Ino is just Ino." Sai seems to say to everyone but his attention hangs on Shikamaru.

"God these waitresses move like molasses!" Naruto rubs his stomach.

"Shikamaru?" Sai rests his elbows on the table. When Shikamaru swallows, he loses all traces of his surliness. He licks the corner of his lips and stifles a burp.

"Hmm?" Shikamaru's brows furrow.

"How long have you been having sex with Ino?" Sai's tone is unfeeling, but Shikamaru receives the question like an underhanded blow. His initial reaction is hidden when he fakes a cough.

Sakura retches a gasp, sits upright in her seat and looks directly at Sai.

"What?" Naruto's smile hardens with disbelief.

They all fall silent, save for the growing business of the establishment. Shikamaru clears his throat and continues to eat.

"What exactly has she told you, Sai?" Shikamaru knows the answering is nothing.

"She hasn't told me anything. You know her just as much as I do. She's not the most forthcoming person." Sai becomes acquainted with a slight sense of irritation.

"No. She's not." Shikamaru slowly chews his food. Choji kicks him under the table.

"I was hoping that you'd be different."

"I haven't had sex with her in two months." Shikamaru isn't sure if he should be put off by Sai's matter-of-factness or feel a greater version of guilt.

Sai presses his lips in a straight line. He knows that torture isn't always fruitful when it comes to obtaining information, but some wicked part of him wants to know everything.

"Do you still want Ino?" Sai asks him after another long pause.

"As much as she wants me." Shikamaru stops eating. "Which isn't a whole lot if she's with you. Right?"

"Are you in love with Ino?"

If Shikamaru could saw off a limb for Sai's silence, if that was what it took to satisfy his morbid curiosity, then he'd gladly give both of his legs. But that's clearly not what Sai wants. What Sai wants isn't clear to begin with.

Shikaku didn't raise a liar.

"I am." Shikamaru shouldn't have hesitated when the answer is so simple. He loses his appetite, his usual demeanor– he surrenders to Sai his undivided attention.

"What does that feel like to you, Shikamaru?" Sai leans against the table. His expression turns from blank to glowering desperation. He searches Shikamaru's face for something he can bring back to Ino and perfect.

Sakura releases a joyless sigh, opens her mouth to interject...

"It feels like hell." It's a violent inclination that he can't nurse away.

"What does that mean?" Sai digs his nails into the table.

"I think you know what I mean." Shikamaru's voice shakes. "If you really know her as much as I do then you already know."

They only see each other.

A heaviness crawls into Shikamaru's gut, anchoring him so that he doesn't dissolve into an unthinking idiot. He feels his frustration rising to his temples.

"I see." Sai hasn't broken character from the moment he sat down. The huffy waitress arrives and as if nothing borderline tumultuous had sprung between them, he turns to smile at her and politely asks for a menu.

All eyes are on Shikamaru, but he can't tear his line of sight away from Sai. He curls and uncurls his fingers unable to focus on anything but escaping the wall and Naruto's shoulders.

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Chapter Text

She's in one of those weird moods, where she feels everything but it's not enough to sink her into sadness, nor anger. Ino sits on her windowsill, stretching, folding her legs out onto a chair. The electrical wires cut through the skyline– they've always reminded her of veins. In a way, that's what they are.

Most would argue that they made the village aesthetically unappealing but she's always liked them dangling above her head.

Security. That's exactly what she is feeling.

And relief.

Staring down at the winding pathway that leads to her apartment, Ino balances the sliced orange between her teeth. Her eyes jump to the clock on the kitchen stove. Three hours have gone by and Sai is unusually late.

She inhales, bites down, sucks a little harder on the orange.

This is unlike Sai. Ino gets a phantom feeling of wrongness but she's too fine to dwell on it. Perhaps he has gotten sucked into a conversation and has busied himself with absorbing every detail. Sai remembers everything because he's discovered that people like it when you show that you've listened to them.

Sai remembers important dates like they are extensions of himself that he had personally folded and put away for later.

The further down this rabbit hole of Sai's quirks, the stranger it is that another thirty minutes goes by.

Ino starts to chew on her fourth sliced orange when she peers out her window again. This time she finds Sai stepping around two old ladies carrying bags of fruit. His walk is quicker than his normal pace. Something is visibly on his mind. From two stories up, she can see concern spreading across his face. It darkens when he gets closer to the steps.

Sai's version of concern is a hard look ahead of himself, doesn't look anywhere else– aware of his surroundings but doesn't take them in with precision. He's explained that frustration makes everything blurry but the thing he's frustrated at.

"Tunnel vision, Sai. It's called tunnel vision." Ino had told him.

She watches Sai sprint up the steps, prompting her to jump from the windowsill. In the swiftness of her motion, she slams her ankle against the edge of the chair but doesn't feel the pain until she's standing four feet away from her front door.

The lock clicks. She plucks the orange her mouth. The knob turns. Ino's toes pop when she curls them against the floor.

Sai opens the door and a warm blast of summer air enters with him. He looks at her as if he's surprised that she's here...in her own apartment. Like he's missed something fundamental. It's not the same dissatisfied look she noticed from the window, but it's not the way he usually looks at her.

He grimaces, painfully as if he's trying to focus on her.

"Ino," he says.

Completely thrown off by his stiffness, she winds up her shoulders. His name is stuck in her throat. Her brows and lips wrinkle.

Sai shuts and locks the door behind him, then proceeds to walk right past her. His attention tumbling from what she imagines is her blurry presence to what's in front of him. Which is exactly nothing in particular or nothing as important as her.

He smells like outside.

"What took you so long?" Naturally, she follows him into the bathroom. She notices the hairs on the back of his neck are curled– and this observation leads her to the realization that he has been sweating. Profusely.

Sai doesn't respond. Unzipping his pants, he stands in front of the toilet, tilting his head back and his shoulders slump as he relieves himself.

Ino leans into the doorway. Her temper rising. That fineness evaporates.

"Sai." Her tone is punctuated with impatience. Sai slightly turns his head. His bangs cling to his forehead.

Slowly, he parts his lips. Thinking for a moment as his face smoothens out to his familiar blankness.

"Shikamaru is in love with you." He wants to ask her if she knew this already, but finds it to be a futile question. People don't fall 'in' love without a specific course of action. Love doesn't happen without some form of instigation. There's no possible way that Ino could be oblivious– but she's been a bottomless bowl of surprises lately.

Ino gapes at him. They don't say anything for a suffocating while. She stares at him until he reaches down to flush the toilet.

"That's stupid. Where did you hear that?" She says with disbelief, but it's so slight he gets the sense that it's not disbelief in the statement itself.

"From his own mouth. What better source?"

Ino immediately reveals the truth in Sai's notions of instigation. He's the wrong person to lie to. He's spent too much of his time observing which parts of her body turn red first in the face of adversity. Ino's entire body loosens and he believes that if he weren't there, she'd collapse into a puddle of her unspoken feelings. She changes color.

"That's stupid!" Ino sputters. When she swallows, her jaws twitch.

"Why would he lie? Someone whose always right I'd imagine wouldn't have the inclination to lie."

Ino throws up her hands and storms away from the doorway. She huffs a hardened 'No'. Sai's throat constricts around words strangely tinted with trepidation. Nothing has ever bothered him so–this troubleshim beyond his natural sense of reasoning. It feels like assault. His slumbering, unfound passion begins to eat away his coolness. He's a step behind her, his pants still unzipped.

"He hates me. That's why he told you that. Because he hates me and wants me to be miserable!" Ino absently digs through the pile of clean clothes on her bed, mixing them with her dirty laundry. Simply so she can hold on to something soft.

"Then what did you do to him?" Sai stands beside her, eyes darting from the tossed clothes to her frantic hands. Ino doesn't say anything. She continues to dig through and sort her bras. Sai says her name twice before grabbing her arm.

Ino's gaze trails up her toned arm, following his very visible veins. She can't look at him directly so she stares at the center of his forehead.

"I haven't done anything." She whispers.

"Nobody hates as a pastime. Hatred is provoked, Ino." Sai's voice is desperate. If anyone in the world has the right to be confused by very simple feelings, it should be him.

Ino stops rolling a pair of her panties around her wrists.  There's really nothing she can say or should say. Sai isn't a liar. Ino lies to herself often but not to other people– she just withholds the full truth. Sai's hold on her tightens. Ino confronts him with her eyes. She feels the beginning of tears in the back of her throat. A sharp pain tingles her nostrils. A fire spreads through her nasal cavity.

"What do you want me to say?" She strangles. Her mouth waters, words melting along her tongue.

He blinks but his expression doesn't change. The AC shuts on and the vents rattle, filling the apartment with cool air.

The corner of Sai's mouth twitches.

"Do you love him too? Or hate him about as much as he hates you? They both seem the same."

"That's not a fair question." She inhales the wet burn of her nose. One tear defeats her resistance and her mouth fills with spit.

"Do you love me?" The darkest thing about Sai is how he never shifts. It's the best and the worst thing about him. "That's a fair question."

It doesn't take long for her entire face to turn red.

"Say you hate me if that's easier." He digs his thumb into her elbow, but it doesn't hurt. Sai would never hurt her. Not intentionally. At some point, she had stopped holding back her tears. He missed the catalyst to her tipping point, too stuck in his own head, searching for signs of anything else.

Naruto had taught him a thing or two about hope, but staring at Ino long enough, he found none.

"I don't feel anything." Ino's watery voice builds up to an incredulous short laugh. It's a very sad, ugly, dejected laugh.

Sai lets go of her arm. It's neither of the answers he has been hoping for. It's much worse. He doesn't move for a moment. They both stand next to each other. Ino has stretched her underwear wringing them around her hands. The fabric pops.

"I've loved you for a long time. There's not an ounce of hatred inside of me, but maybe that's why it's not enough."Is all he says to her as he lowers his head.

At once, Sai understands what Shikamaru meant. It's not internally catastrophic as an epiphany– what matters is what he doesn't feel. He doesn't feel good at all. A spell of ice freezes his body.

Ino stops facing him, turning her head towards her wide open windows. She drowns out all sound, unable to notice the sunset.

All of her endings have been terribly sad. Each and every single one. It's made her less of a sore loser.

At some point, Ino stops crying, crashing back into reality. She loosens her death grip on her underwear and Sai sits on her mountain of clothes. He gapes at her, his lids slowly rising and falling without an inclination to console her– not having the faintest idea how to soothe himself.

The sky is no longer orange, but a very dark purple.

Sinking next to him, Ino wipes her nose along her bare arm then gently dabs the destroyed panties at the corners of her eyes.

"All of my time knowing you, I don't think you've ever been satisfied." Sai's voice is unnaturally hoarse.

She doesn't open her mouth for a few passing minutes. He isn't wrong in his observation. She figures her unhappiness is potent enough to be a tangible thing. It would be off putting to ask him what form her virulent spirit has taken outside of her body.

When she finds the desire to speak her words don't budge. Ino licks her lips, in an attempt to articulate herself but again she only breathes. That's all she can do.

Sai starts to brush the strands of hair from her face out of habit. He takes a tangled lock and tucks it behind her ear, dropping his hand to cup the nape of her neck.

"I'm going to make an executive decision for you." Sai squeezes the space where her shoulders meet her neck.

Ino's eyes follow his movements as he stands.

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Everyone has their own special method of healing.

Isolation is Ino's course of action. While her body is present, her mind is not. Her nerves can't be stimulated by physical touch. Her brain doesn't receive the signals of survival. Gripping the slippery stems of roses, she pricks her fingers as she wraps them in paper. She squeezes her hands against the thorns hard enough to draw blood but she doesn't mentally accept pain.

"Ino, if you frown any harder you will get wrinkles." Not even her mother's low, patronizing tone can break her trance. At this, she questions if it's normal to feel lonely in the presence of a parent.

And how exactly have they stepped around each other without acknowledging the rift in their relationship?

Ino brings her thumb to her lips and sucks away the blood, then her index finger. Eyes flashing from the disarray of cut up tissue paper and clipped stems, she glances at her mother absently.

"What?" Ino mumbles with her finger between her lips.

For a moment, Ino is completely transparent and just as fast as her mother catches a glimpse of it, she immediately carries on away from her daughter– as if the piercing realization of neglected sorrow makes her ill.

Suddenly, Ino's isolation feels less self-inflicted. She watches her mother glide across the shop, dismissing her with a slight wave of the hand.

"I need you to run an errand when you're done sulking about nothing."

Standing straight, Ino drops her hands to her sides. Instead of asking 'what' she keeps her mouth shut and stares across the counter.

"Today is Yoshino and Shikaku's anniversary." Her mother hovers over an assortment of succulents, placing her hands on her hips– she observes them rather distantly.

"Oh." Ino's tone changes slightly. Her stomach flips and her skin tingles. A dizzying warm sensation rises to her temples. Shikamaru infiltrates her conscience. Ino begins to wring her hands, lowering her attention to her sandals. She's standing on a litter of petals.

Her mother places a tiny pot of succulents on the counter, scoots them in front of her.

"Why can't you take it yourself?" It sounds sharper than Ino intends for it to.

"I think she'd get a kick out of seeing you. She's always asking about you, Ino. Somehow you always manage to disappear whenever people want you."

Ino thinks a selfish, bad thought but washes it back with the spit filling her mouth.

"Sure." She straightens her back and proceeds to untie her apron.

Space has done a number on Ino's emotional well being. Too much free time is like a punch to her throat. In the early mornings, when she wakes up alone– that's when the crippling realization of her unhappiness settles. When she asks for guidance, her father's voice is white noise.

Too many years have gone by to expect the emotional work from her mother. It had always been her father's soundness that kept her grounded.

Ino tosses the apron on the counter and scoops up the potted succulent. Before she heads for the door she stops to stare at her mother as she sweeps the floor.

"Mom?"

Lifting her head, she stops sweeping. Her eyes widen as a silent 'yes'.

"Why don't we ever talk?" Ino holds the succulent close to her chest.

"What do you mean? We always talk."

"No. I mean really, really talk?"

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Shikamaru's bitterness has evolved into directionless anger. On a good day, it is his determination to forget what it feels like to be too involved. He thinks to himself every morning, 'At least I wake up in the morning without a knot in my stomach.'

For a while every moment spent alone he felt a strange sense of guilt. Like he had been depriving his body of water. His head just couldn't fight the intrusion that had been Ino's occupancy.

It takes a habit fourteen days to die. Fourteen days have long passed and it's much easier. The thoughts are still there but less intrusive. If his mind is too occupied with anything but Ino, he is able to function. Though he might move hastily, talk faster, and tap his foot while waiting in long lines, he can focus.

So Shikamaru fills his free time with mindless chores and favors.

Today he troubles himself with the task of grocery shopping for his mother, which he usually does but not with today's enthusiasm.

He thumbs the last of his cigarette into the street, cradling the brown paper bag of goods in his other arm. The symptoms of his good mood beat the sweltering midday heat. Shikamaru feels nothing but wellness. Resilient wellness. Black lungs, throbbing gums, a sour taste in the back of his mouth, but well nonetheless.

That is until he lifts his head from digging in his pockets for the keys to his mother's front door. Ino appears, suddenly and he damns himself for dropping his guard. Wellness. It leaves him like a bad friend. Shikamaru stops five feet away from Ino.

They stare at each other for what could go on an eternity if they didn't have 'better things to do'. This is where he should say 'hello stranger' but everything about her is past familiarity. And she would say something cruel about his yellowing teeth to hide the fact that she has missed him.

They can't say anything because their self-resentment quells the tenderness that caused them to desire each other.

Ino holds up the succulent, nervously drumming her fingers along the pot. "Happy anniversary..." She hums sheepishly, looking directly at his forehead. "My mom thought it would be a nice gift."

Shikamaru shrugs, sucking up his bad feelings, before stepping up to unlock the door.

"Do you have anything nice planned for her?" As much as she wants to set herself on fire, jump his bones, or crawl into a hole and weep, she can't quite stop that part of herself that likes to goad him into some kind of confrontation. It also overcompensates for the intense anxiety that bubbles the acid in her stomach.

He clicks the lock, pushes himself inside and doesn't say a word.

"Nothing planned?" Ino squeaks as she steps behind him. Nothing. He won't say anything. She follows him into the kitchen.

Shikamaru busies himself with putting away the groceries in his weird OCD habit of setting things in order. Ino sets the pot on the counter and observes him like a wild animal in its natural habitat. When he moves from the pantry to the fridge, she makes a point to stand in his line vision. Their eyes meet twice. Each time is somewhat deafening to the noise outside the window and their hearts punching against their ribcages and muscles.

"What kind of son are you?" She's oblivious to the bite in her tone. Ino would surrender to the slightest hiss between his teeth. Anything. So she says anything. This doesn't get him to look at her though.

She folds her arms over her chest as he bends into the fridge. Removing and adding and rearranging and doing everything but acknowledging her.

"This isn't how you treat a guest bearing a gift." She says sharply and he slaps the fridge shut. The force is slight but it doesn't go unnoticed.

He makes it look easy but it's nowhere near easy to ignore her. It takes the vast majority of his strength, mental meditation to not give in to impulse. He's got fifty impulses itching to claw out of him and reach for her. With his foresight, none of them end with good results. Shikamaru forgets the carton of eggs and that's where he sets his attention.

"So you're in love with me?"

And he fails. He squeezes the sides of the carton and several eggs crack. Her words freeze him, obliterating the coolness of his unresolved feelings– issues with her. The yolk seeps through his fingers, splattered on his knuckles. A coward turns away and this he is not. Shikamaru gives her exactly what she wants with the sole intent to punish her. How to go about punishing her without physical touch evades him, so his ears burn scarlet. He grinds his teeth.

Ino doesn't flinch nor grimace. Her skin reddens. Out of anger and spite and sadness and grief. She resists the urge to tell him she hates him simply to contradict the universe but it's a lie she can't move herself to speak.

"Someone told me that you're in love me." She reiterates. His glower melts to subtle pain.

Shikamaru wishes he didn't know any better. He has just as many reasons to dislike her as he does to love her.

"Stop it." He says flatly, lifeless, depleted. His hold on the carton loosens. Because he loves her he can't bring himself to speak spitefully. That doesn't mean he will fail ungracefully.

As Ino begins to speak, Yoshino manifests from around the corner. Shikamaru stops holding his breath and slips back into the comfort of his own skin.

The conversation between Ino and Yoshino is one sided noise. Something something about Ino's mother and the past is all her brain can manage to juggle. Ino gives three cursory head nods and a tight lipped hum to a question she has no answer to. Her attention swings from Yoshino's mouth to the back of Shikamaru's neck. She pinches the web between her middle and index finger.

"What happened to my eggs?" Yoshino's heel is slippery from the yolk. She takes two steps back and she grimaces at her son.

Shikamaru closes a cabinet, shrugging, scratching the bridge of his nose with his pinky finger– the pinky that's missing a nail from a battle he refuses to talk about. Ino's ears pop as she swallows.

"I broke 'em." He says as if he's simply telling the time.

"Go buy me some more." Yoshino huffs.

There's an awkward silence. Shikamaru smiles to himself, smugly. Ino imagines his thoughts and hears them in his voice.

"Absolutely." And he strides from the kitchen as if nothing had transpired between them.

Yoshino doesn't speak again until the door slaps shut.

"He hasn't been the same since Temari dumped him." She steps out of the puddle of yolk and broken shells. Ino holds a hand on her stomach to suppress a gag.

"They were engaged you know­– did you know? You two haven't been close in long time."

"I didn't know. He's always been kinda private about stuff like that." Immediately Ino feels bad, takes it personally. The thought of it feels like betrayal and she blanches with disappointment. There's much about Temari they had both gone out of their way not to talk about.

Yoshino wrinkles her nose because she notices. She cradles a roll of paper towels, cants her head as she thinks.

Ino wonders if the pause in their conversation gave it away. The petty part of herself hopes so.

"I found one of my flower pots filled with cigarette butts. You would think, as prideful as he is, he'd be over it by now. If disappointment doesn't kill him that garbage habit definitely will." Yoshino rips a piece from the roll.

"I've told him that. Not verbatim but almost." Ino's voice is small.

"He listens. Just doesn't care."

It takes a lot to not be entirely honest with Yoshino. Yoshino looks as if she's ready to hear what Ino allows to expand in her chest. But it's not the right thing to do.

"I think he cares." Ino drops her arms at her sides. "He's just stubborn."

Smiling, Yoshino bends on her knees and begins to wipe up the yolk.

Ino feels much like an intruder instead of family. The distant memories in the Nara household don't feel as though they belong to her. Like she had picked them up somewhere along the way and stored them for later use. Tiny facts that she shouldn't be privy to. Ammo to use against Shikamaru's vulnerability.

Intimacy seems to destroy more than it heals.

"I shouldn't stay long. I have to help my mom close the shop."

Yoshino looks up, a thought visible on her face, but whatever it is that she is thinking she doesn't express it.

"Sure. Sure. You're not some little kid anymore. You have things to do."

"Always coming and going yeah." Ino manages to smile, albeit a weak one.

When she leaves she takes the long way back, the direction Shikamaru had been walking in, hoping she can steal more of his attention even if it's forced silence. The insistence grows inside of her, becoming a need that has supplemented her ability to focus.

The long way back to the shop is fruitless and she realizes that maybe he took his long way back to avoid her. It's something he would do.

Ino has to poke the fire until the village goes up into flames, but if Shikamaru truly wanted nothing to do with her, he would've hurt her feelings enough to keep her from trying. His ability to forgive is his best and worst trait.

She stops walking three buildings down from the flower shop and begins to wring her hands. Bodies move around her, their energies collapsing around her invisible barrier.

Immediately she realizes that her father had missed out on the most important lesson. After all those years of mastering the reins of her ego, she never learned from either of her parents how to properly apologize.

Home doesn't feel a few feet away. It feels absent and Ino becomes out of place amongst the familiar faces. For a moment she fears that they can see every bad thing she's done and every missed opportunity due to the incredible height of her pride.

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Shikamaru purposely returns home two hours later than Yoshino had expected. The verbal assault would be well worth avoiding any sort of proximity with Ino. In those two hours he had gone through half his box of cigarettes.

The kitchen smells like bleach. Between the fridge and the trashcan the mop still soaks in the bucket, the source of the smell. Every inch of the countertops are spotless. Suds remain around the faucet. The sink is still slick with water. Yoshino had always been a minimalist. Decorations are clutter. Pictures made the walls ugly.

'Our house looks and smells like a hospital.'

But she kept the succulent on the kitchen table. Of course she would. Why he thought she'd throw it out is beyond him. She didn't raise him to be spiteful...

Shikamaru sets the bag on the table. Drops his keys, cigarettes, loose ryo, lint, wads of crumpled receipts, a half melted stick of gum, all discarded things next to the flower pot.

He has always figured that people who are bitter after failed relationships were weak. Only an idiot would allow their entire perspective to be shifted by one mistake.

'Well look now', Shikamaru thinks to himself. Almost aloud. 'You're actually a huge moron.'

To be that person isn't the worst part. It's really the feeling of being torn apart. He wants to feel better but feeling better requires eradicating the lost time. Shikamaru won't betray himself with a lie. He will be a masochist until something else interrupts his head space. Savor what he has until it loses it flavor like chewing gum.

Shikamaru accepts that what he feels for Ino can never be replicated, but there are pretty enough distractions and there is no such thing as too many miles between them.

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Chapter Text

“Everything in the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born. But before prehistory there was the prehistory of prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes.”  ~ Clarice Lispector

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Silence, in a way, is the universe holding its breath. In moments of silence, people make wishes, pray, ruin themselves with addictions, become well acquainted with their loneliness... among other things. And when you finally decide to speak, everything manifests itself and the universe breathes with conversation.

Sharp pains spread like roots in Ino's lower abdomen and she bleeds like the universe has inflicted its punishment. It's stupid to think 'for what' because Ino suffers for many things. If it is not her vanity, then surely it must be the cruel way she dodges intimacy. As she ties her apron around her waist she recognizes why she let Sai cover her in his fingerprints. Sai's intimacy was thinner than paper—methodical like a scalpel down the center of a cadaver's torso.

A cramp causes her to groan. She switches on the lights in the back of the shop and all the flowers greet her with their colors. We've been waiting, they say. The headlights buzz and no longer is it silent.

Anemone.

Ino's mother steps from behind her, combing her fingers through a bundle of white carnations, specifically picked by Hinata for her wedding.

"Oh, Ino..." she sighs. Ino recognizes this particular sigh and sucks air through her teeth. "When are you ever going to get married?"

"Are you in that big of a hurry?" Ino fastens her ponytail in a high bun.

"Life is so short, " her mother says with conviction. Ino pauses, abandoning her arms at her side.

"More reason to not sell myself off to some unappreciative asshole, right?"

"Sai is a gentleman."

"Sai is a robot."

"You're impossible to make happy." Her mother wraps the carnations in ribbons, doesn't look up.

"Well children are direct reflections of their parents. I think I get that terrible trait from you." Ino says glibly, stunned.

Childhood has a blinding effect on children. A dark thought presents itself. As Ino watches her mother, she has the thought that she is happy that her father died before her perceptiveness. She stops seeing her mother. The veil is snatched off and reveals the widowed Mrs. Yamanaka and what generations of rotten tough love could do a family.

Ino presses her tongue against her teeth because the insult is minor, but she does wonder about the things she missed regarding her father.

She follows her mother to the front of the shop. The white carnations hang over her arm, curling around her bony elbow. Age, stress, grief, and unspoken things crease the skin around the corner of her mother's eyes. Ino sees that her mother is human.

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It's hard not to envy Hinata's happiness. Her face brightens with excitement when she meets Ino's distant stare, doesn't seem offended when Ino delays her smile. That's what makes Hinata so likeable as a woman–she's willing to pretend that she is always so oblivious.

Ino stands beside her mother while Hinata and Hanabi observe the pale carnations.

"They look so plain." Hanabi pinches a petal.

Defeat causes Ino's mouth to feel dry. A very quick sensation of being split in two stills her.

"That's what makes them so great." Her mother starts. "Believe it or not, most of our brides think they are too cheap."

"You would like carnations. Looking at anything else would be a waste of time." Ino interjects absently. She doesn't hold her eyes anywhere in particular.

"They are cheap." Hanabi rests her hands on her hips.

"Only because they aren't in fashion." Ino mutters, air quoting.

Hinata has the ability to hide herself in plain sight. Everyone around her talks, but she observes under a hood of muted interest. Sai had said that if she weren't a Hyuuga, she'd specialize in taking apart timepieces for a living. Hinata gathers the flowers into her arms and Ino's mother smiles. They both smile and Ino cruelly thinks that maybe she is the wrong kind of daughter for not being like Hinata.

The feeling worsens when the flowers seem perfect against the color of her skin and the depthless cloudiness of her eyes. Simple women are happy girlfriends. Happy girlfriends never want anything in return, which makes them uncomplicated wives.

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The pink gladiolus droops around Kurenai's face. She cranes her neck, combing through the leaves and stems to get a better look at Ino.

"And what are these suppose to mean?" Kurenai's house smells like her perfume. It always has. Ino doesn't understand why she always expects it not to. Kurenai hasn't changed much at all but everything around her has.

"They represent resilience and strength." Ino has a moment of clarity–survival doesn't necessarily mean sharpen your edges.

Kurenai's face brightens and she continues to be the prettiest person Ino knows. She feels undeserving of her smile, but Ino also acknowledges that she sees Kurenai through a rose-tinted lens. The toys scattered on the floor don't readily speak mother nor does sink filled with unwashed cups point to the stress of loneliness.

Are you lonely? Ino wonders. If so, you make it look easy.

"Can I tell you a secret?" Kurenai searches for a vase but ends up filling a glass pitcher with water.

Ino follows her in and out of the kitchen, through the short hallway and to the crammed family room. Ino notices a blanket and pillows strewn along the couch. Initially she thinks Kurenai must sleep here but why not her bed?

"You think so highly of me still...,I don't know if I should be proud or embarrassed." Kurenai says after the long pause.

"What do you mean?" Ino stands by the open window, propping an elbow on the sill.

Kurenai sits on the arm of her couch, sticks out her bottom lip as she thinks, appearing much younger than she is.

"You know when you become an adult, all of your superiors, even your parents stop being voices of authority and just become people."

"Yea." Ino chews the inside of her jaw. The AC shuts on and the house hums, a door creaks gently.

"I have this small fear, well, I dislike the idea of Mirai no longer seeing me as mom, but I know it's going to happen. I was your age when it happened to me."

"I don't really know what to say to that." Ino regrets being honest the moment Kurenai visibly deflates, sliding from the arm of the couch into the pillows.

"Woman to woman, Ino...", Kurenai rubs the side of her face, "...It doesn't get any worse from here but it also doesn't get much better."

"I don't know if I enjoy your fatalistic side." Ino smiles weakly.

"That shows me that you still hold me to that same childhood standard."

"Is that a bad thing?"

"No." Kurenai says softly.

"If I'm going to be completely honest, I don't feel much like a woman anyway." Ino stands away from the window, stepping over a pile of plastic building blocks.

"I guess that depends on your definition of womanhood." Eyes widening, Kurenai seems to wait for her to say something profound.

"I don't think I have one." Not one that feels correct. What she thought she knew hasn't been working. Her mother is dissatisfied enough for the both of them.

Kurenai begins to speak but the front door's lock clicks and she abandons the conversation. Ino drops into a chair feeling some relief.

"Look who's home!" Kurenai rises from the couch, leaving her somberness in the sunken space of the cushions.

"I think I exhausted her..." Shikamaru's voice alone dictates how Ino will feel for the next three hours. The emptiness of her stomach expands. She sits up and watches him pass a sleeping Mirai to her mother.

"That means less work for me." Kurenai closes the door behind him. "You got back just in time to see Ino before she leaves."

Shikamaru catches himself mid-frown, but he doesn't quite straighten his lips. Ino doesn't smile or speak. It's physically impossible.

Mirai stirs and Kurenai's motherly priorities make her oblivious to their silence. She vanishes somewhere inside of the house and Mirai begins to cry.

He stands for exactly three minutes before deciding that it would be rude to just leave and that he should at least sit and wait to say bye. Ino unfolds her legs to leave but when he sits across from her, her heart wills her to stay.

They both share a glance before quickly averting their attention to empty spaces. Ino folds her hands in her lap. She never realizes how much she misses him until they are within close proximity of each other. It's not exactly his physical presence that she wants. She just misses his effort.

"I really took for granted your manners." Ino's jokes never feel funny. They are always patronizing even when she's not trying. He flares his nostrils at her statement.

"You still don't have any manners." Shikamaru makes his signature disgruntled face.

"Well what do you want me to say?" She shrugs.

"It's what I don't want you to say really. Can we not argue here or now or ever again? Please?" He folds his arms and lays his head against the back of the couch.

Mirai cries harder.

Ino weighs her eyes on him but his are tightly shut.

"Shikamaru, I don't think Kurenai is happy. I mean. She's not unhappy, but she's not happy, happy."

"I know."

"I don't think she sleeps in her bed."

"I know." He stiffens.

"We all lost a lot, but I couldn't imagine losing what they had."

"You don't believe in soulmates."

"Shikamaru..." Her throat tightens. "You act like I'm allergic to change."

"You have yet to prove me wrong."

"I'm sorry."

"For what?" He lowers his chin and looks at her differently. It makes her skin hot.

"You know what."

Shikamaru hesitates, gracefully infuriated. Grinding his teeth, his cheeks turn red.

"I want to hear you say it." He quiets his tone, meditating so that he doesn't burst.

"I'm sorry for hurting you."

In the present moment, it doesn't feel like enough. Kurenai reappears before he can respond.

"Kids are great when you can just return them!" She floats between them to close the blinds.

He gets up a little too fast and his head swims.

"I should get going."

Kurenai whips her head around. "Wait! Wait! I haven't been in the same room with you two in forever."

Ino holds her head down, staring down at the spots of sunlight on the floor boards.

"I can come by later." He genuinely smiles.

"Ino will you come by again later? And you should bring Choji!" Not even Kurenai's excitement can saw through their tension.

Ino gapes at Kurenai then Shikamaru. What she should say can't move past her tongue. Even if she meant to say anything at all, Shikamaru sweetly forces a farewell that doesn't give Kurenai the time to persuade him.

"I feel like I missed something?" Kurenai holds out her hands, gesturing at Ino for an explanation.

Ino shakes her head.

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She can't outrun the burn of consequence. Everyone and everything remind her of the hole she has allowed to grow inside of herself. Her confidence is of little value if she cannot think straight. This is exactly what she has been trying to avoid but it also speaks volumes that Sai, in no capacity, has never made her feel this way.

"Ino!" Sakura disturbs her train of thought.

"Sakura..." Ino almost knocks over a shelf of wine.

"My conscience wouldn't allow me not to speak." Sakura holds a box of cereal under an arm and grips a two-liter soda.

"I wouldn't have held it against you." Ino rubs the back of her neck.

Sakura leans in and squints, the corner of her mouth twitching.

"What?"

"You have no idea, do you? That's so unlike you..."

"Maybe I'm experiencing some personal growth. I'm never the same person I was five minutes ago." Ino pretends to scan the different bottles of wine.

"Sai didn't tell you?"

"I haven't talked to Sai in two weeks. As you do when you're not a couple anymore."

"So he dumped you and didn't tell you?"

"What, Sakura? What is it that you know that I should know? Otherwise you're being nosey."

 

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As it was expected, between Choji and Shikamaru, Ino never showed up later. Shikamaru is thankful for it, though he knew she wouldn't, there's always the possibility. Kurenai doesn't show that it hurts her feelings, but she mentions her absence three times. It horrifies her that neither of them could give her a clear reason as to why Ino's presence is so scarce.

"I think I'm going to propose to Karui." Choji cleans his teeth with a toothpick.

"Oh really?" Kurenai stops shuffling a deck of cards.

"Yup."

"Better sooner than later, before she realizes what a loser you are." Shikamaru nods approvingly.

"She already knows I'm a loser–that makes you a loser by association." Choji smiles.

"Geeze, I'm getting so old. Well I'm happy if you're happy." Kurenai lets loose a very long sigh.

"Shikamaru, I now understand what your old man meant. We really aren't any good without women. At least I'm not. You should probably avoid them for another three years. I think you're cursed."

"Oh noooo! Shikamaru, do you have bad taste in women?" Kurenai breaks the deck in half, tapping them against the table.

"I might."

"Man, you really do."

"You honestly don't know the half of it." Shikamaru smirks.

"Temari was a nice girl. Tough, but nice." Kurenai blows a strand of hair from her face.

"Temari was fine. It's everything after. Honestly, the little I do know is appalling." Choji slaps Shikamaru's back.

"Choji, you should tell me since he's clearly not going to! I feel left out."

"No. Please no. I want you to still think I'm harmless and swell."

Kurenai sets the cards down, folds her arms on the table and looks at him with one eye closed, lips wrinkling as she looks him up and down. "Whatever you do, don't turn into Kakashi."

"He's Hokage. Why wouldn't I want to be Kakashi?" Shikamaru reaches for his glass of water. Choji nods in agreement.

"Don't get hung up on one girl. Sometimes we have to court a bunch of mistakes before we get it right." She pinches his elbow. "Funny story, I told Asuma no for a long time."

"Why?" Shikamaru and Choji ask simultaneously.

"Why not?" She jokingly counters but their sincere disbelief doesn't amuse her for too long. Kurenai holds up her hands to show that no blood stains her fingers. Not all crimes are dirty. However, the guilt of wasting so much time has sunken deep within her bones. When she moves too fast, her ankles pop and this is how her body condemns her.

"Sometimes our mental just doesn't catch up with our bodies fast enough. Fast company doesn't help either." She rests a cheek in her hand.

"That's way too cryptic for me... and sounds like a bad excuse." Choji grumbles and she smiles.

"Makes perfect sense to me." Shikamaru has been holding onto his now empty glass.

"All we have is hope and time, right?" The tip of Kurenai's nose is red.

A moment happens. It's empty but doesn't require them to fill it. A long stretch of undeclared time. Kurenai begins to shuffle the cards again. They haven't agreed on any game–she fiddles because her hands should always be doing something when she isn't cleaning vomit or wiping away tears.

It's safe to observe that Choji is the happiest person at the table.

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"Remember when we were kids...?" Sakura loves to talk about the past. It's almost like she loves to revisit old things to spite Ino.

"No. I don't remember." Ino remembers everything. What she isn't sure of? If she genuinely likes Sakura's company. For now, she doesn't mind that Sakura takes up space in her apartment. Maybe tomorrow.

Always evolving and changing her mind, her life has felt like an uncomfortable hallucination. She's either entirely herself or unrecognizable. Like now. Does Ino Yamanaka truly like this adult Sakura or is this remnants of a dream? Could the hour be distorted by some childhood memory?

Ino has to remember everything because she is prone to full circles.

Sakura closes her mouth, wrinkles her lips but she is not surprised. She's learned to never be surprised with Ino.

"Remember that time we tried to make our own garden?"

"Yeah and nothing grew." Ino untwists the cap of her red nail polish.

"I was so mad. I'm still mad because you're supposed to have a green thumb."

Ino is supposed to be many things: confident, decisive, unwilling to settle, evolving and....?  She hasn't worn red nails in a long time. It never seemed to match but she is a different person every five, ten, fifteen minutes.

"I think you just don't like responsibility." Sakura watches Ino paint her thumb.

"That's not true at all!" Ino paints her cuticles.

"If it weren't true then Sai would not have felt the need to ruin everyone's evening and that garden would've grown and..."

"Puh-lease, Sakura. You know you enjoyed that shit show for what it was. Everyone likes a little drama." Ino can't believe herself but she pretends that it doesn't bother her. She somewhat speaks with her teeth clenched and keeps her eyes on her red nails, but her attention is everywhere.

"And we would be better friends..." Sakura folds her hands in her lap and she drops her gaze on her knees.

The outside air blows through the window, the curtains rise and billow around the potted plants. Ino's apartment smells like soil and sugary scented body lotion–a charming fusion of spring and candy that reminds Sakura of pink lemonade.

"Do you really think I thrive on your shortcomings?" Sakura whispers loudly.

Ino takes a moment to respond because, truth be told, she has no rebuttal. It angers her that Sakura has read her mind and it angers her how ridiculous it sounds outside of her head. She could say yes just to be antagonistic and no is simultaneously true and false.

"You really shouldn't think the worst of people, Ino. Not everyone is stupid or out to get you." Sakura rises, but she waits for Ino to say something. People have been doing this lately. Waiting for Ino to either tell the truth or lie to make them feel better–anything.

"I know." Ino looks up at her childhood friend.

"Sasuke says he's going to take me on a mission."

"Oh?"

"Yea. I'm telling you because I want to have a real conversation."

A memory of Sakura crying projects itself. Their roles had reversed. Sakura used to be that unhappy person and Ino used to have all the answers.

'Don't worry, Sakura. We've got this together.'

"I'm happy for you." Ino doesn't wish to know the state of their romance. She knows it's tragic but if a romantic mission can make Sakura happy (temporarily before she finds something else to be upset about), then who is Ino to judge?

Sakura nods but keeps her chin lowered, waiting for something else. There isn't anything else, but it takes her three minutes to realize this.

"I guess I should get going. Later right?" Sakura gathers her bags of groceries.

Ino stands to help her. "Yea yea. Sure."

It clicks then–why Sakura can't divorce herself from the past. She has to remember the small good things in order to excuse the big bad things. Seeing people for who they are is what Ino excels at, one of the few things she gets right. Understanding everyone else but herself.

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A flower pulled from the soil typically takes a week to die. The moment it's cut, in a way, it's already dead. It's just a matter of slowing down the process of decay. A room full of dead flowers to celebrate the sealed fate of two soulmates.

Ino can't decide if she actually likes weddings. She stands in the middle of the chaos, twisting and untwisting a ring, that her father had given her a long time ago, on her middle finger. Her mother floats from table to table with vases. Each vase is different but doesn't stray from the theme of white.

It's nice to see carnations in fashion. Hinata couldn't have picked a better flower. Mrs. Yamanaka's wide brimmed hat is pinned with white carnations. The ribbon slips over her shoulders as she sets another table with flowers and candles.

The wedding planner whispers something to Ino's mother that blanches her face. In that moment, Mrs. Yamanaka looks very human. She turns to look at her daughter with a dissatisfied expression that's not quite a frown. It's like staring into her own reflection at seven o'clock in the morning. The wedding planner walks away and Ino just knows, it's knowledge that had been instilled in her the day she got her first heartbeat, that she should fix whatever mistake her mother had made to make up for her little patience. Ino walks to stand by her mother.

"They can't find the bridal party bouquets." She doesn't look at Ino as she lights a candle.

"Anywhere?" Ino chews the inside of her jaw.

"Nowhere."

Without saying much of anything else, Ino strides away to search for the missing bundles of dead flowers. Her heels crunch on a wad of plastic, but she doesn't stop. As she slaps a thick ribbon from falling on her face, stepping under a ladder, Ino wonders when the hype will infect her. She makes a mental note, to play a game with herself–she will take a shot for every person that cries.

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"Don't you hate that feeling you get when you clearly have done something but don't remember doing it at all?" Shikamaru stares into the midday sky.

"Like knowing you locked the front door but not being able to remember actually doing it?" Karui picks a leaf from her hair.

"Yea. That exactly." He hasn't had a cigarette all morning, doesn't want his good clothes to smell like tobacco nor his mother to leer at him the entire event.

Choji impatiently cracks his knuckles and as if they are invisibly linked together, Karui pops her toes. It's the sixth time they've concurrently expressed, without awareness, that they are now a unit. One cannot exist without the other and they've achieved this level of intimacy without sucking each other's faces off in public or holding hands. It's funny to watch their relationship flourish without a trace of romance.

Karui rubs her arms and puts all of her weight on one hip but she never stands too far away. They are more like inseparable friends than two people who share a bed and swap spit.

Choji often says she's like a habit and when Shikamaru rebutted that people shouldn't feel like habits, he lifted a finger and mimicked Shikamaru's way of powerfully saying a whole lot of nothing to make a point–"Waking up every morning and brushing your teeth is a habit right...?"

A fact that Shikamaru couldn't argue, to which he had replied. "Yes."

"And if you don't brush your teeth, your mouth will rot right?"

"Of course...so..."

"So it's a habit that we like having because it makes us healthy. You do brush your teeth everyday...right?"

Eventually it made sense. It only took a while to sink in because Shikamaru isn't used to his philosophy being challenged.

Is Karui the habit itself or the toothbrush?

The wedding guests stand around for what feels like an eternity. It's that pocket of time after the ceremony but before the reception were people shovel napkin food in their mouths. It's an isolating feeling for Shikamaru. He's not unhappy but he isn't exactly ecstatic about being here.

This will be the start of many more weddings and 'happy' news. He sees it ahead of him–a very long period of time doing things alone. For as long as their unfinished arguments and unresolved tension (be it sexual or mental) can penetrate his conscience, Shikamaru will continue to dodge anything that feels a little bit like vulnerability.

Choji interrupts his 'melancholic meditation' with a sharp nudge in his side.

One bad memory fades like an old filmstrip and he's back in the unconcerned real world.

Among the many everyday faces, Temari is the stranger. She's not a skeleton stepping from his closest, he stopped feeling that strongly a while ago. Shikamaru doesn't feel anything, at least not right away. Not as she approaches them. He feels more grounded in reality if anything, like he's trained many years for this eventual circumstance.

Temari's smile is foreign but he understands that she hardly uses the muscles in her face. It's why she barely has laugh lines. To see her smile at all, unprovoked, it's like only knowing someone entirely through gossip and not firsthand experience.

Choji and Karui are warmer than he can ever pretend to be.

God is good to him though. The reception starts and saves him from the awkward judgment of Karui and Choji as they are swept away by their impatience. Like bees flocking to their hive, the small talk disperses and the long hallway feels less dense. Temari lingers behind with Shikamaru, as he had expected.

No one would notice because it's not their day.

"I'm mad at you." But Temari says it in a way that hints to questioning her own logic.

"It must be," he shrugs his shoulders, gesturing at nothing in particular,"Something I didn't do?"

"So you're admitting that you're guilty? That sure as hell wasn't an apology." Temari is still attractive to him, especially in a dress. Sliding his hands back into his pockets, he humors her by saying nothing.

"You just left. Didn't drop by at all..."

"I was on duty and if you really wanted to see me, communication works both ways."

"If you wanted to see me then you would've made the effort." Temari's frown warps her entire face.

"I never not want to see you."

"You were there for a week, Shikamaru."

At this point, neither of them understands exactly why they are arguing at Naruto's wedding. It occurs to Shikamaru that a wedding is a perfect place for a body to go missing.

"I'm sorry." He means it, but not like he used to.

Temari knows he's not a liar so really, there is no way she can prolong the conversation.

"You hold the nastiest of grudges, Temari." He gives her the chance to win so that she can have a better day, despite that it just isn't hers to claim.

"Believe it or not, you do too. You don't think you do, but you most definitely do." She says nothing else. She waits for him to counter her but he doesn't and when she realizes that he won't make her feel better, she storms towards the reception.

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Usually, Ino knows how to conduct herself in a room filled with people, but she is a fish swimming in a bowl, observing the blurry outside world. She imagines a candle toppling over and setting a table on fire.

"Well this isn't anything like you." Sai startles her and she chokes on her wine. It takes three minutes for her to gather herself. If only Sai were like normal people–angry and scorned.  Ino resists the urge to ask him why the hell is he bothering, but he just can't help himself. Sai's brain doesn't understand things like antipathy. Let alone nihilism.

"What do you mean?" Ino quips.

"You're typically sociable is all."

"And you're typically anti-social."

It takes a minute for Sai to deconstruct whether she is joking or making a serious observation. When the invisible light bulb flickers on, he smiles and nods in agreement.

This prompts her to participate in a rolled dice of interactions, because it would be rude not to. Just because she should do it doesn't mean it is required that she be herself one hundred percent.

By chance, she is able to steal another glass of wine and becomes just as ornamental to the gathering as the decorations pinned to the wall. She slips out into the Hyuuga garden and it is shockingly colder outside than it is inside. The sun took all of its warmth behind the red-orange clouds.

But she's not alone. To the left of her, Shikamaru is crouched near a bush, in the middle of lighting a cigarette.

He gives her an expressionless look over his shoulder, sliding the cigarette into his mouth. Ino falters, tripping over the wrong step of her heel. The wine sloshes onto her dress, sprinkling on her toes. She mumbles a soft 'shit'.

Shikamaru exhales a cloud of smoke that swirls around the sides of his face. Ino inflates her cheeks, not exactly sure if she should be mortified by her now ruined dress or the bad timing they both seem to have.

"I don't think they'd appreciate cigarette butts in their garden." She sniffs.

"Then I will just put it in my pocket." His voice surprises her.

"Tacky. So very tacky." She clicks her tongue.

"You know what else is tacky? Not wearing a bra." Shikamaru winces at her, sticking out his bottom lip and inhales the smoke up his nose. Ino pauses and looks down where the wine had soaked into her chest. Indeed, her nipples are very visible.

"And it's been like that for a while." He says dryly.

"Should I be flattered or horrified that you've been watching me?"

"I haven't been watching you. Your nipples have been watching me and the whole damn wedding."

Ino sucks in a breath and grinds her teeth. The apples of her cheeks color bright red. She has never been able to decipher when he's telling the truth or joking.

"You're trying to rile me up." She takes a sip from her glass.

"What's the benefit in that? You're always riled up or on edge and losing your shit..."

Clearly, something is bothering him. It's brief but he gives her a glimpse of a tiny emotion when he scowls. She knows this particular scowl.

"Well, I guess it wouldn't hurt if I vanished then. No one would notice" is all she can think to say.

"No, they wouldn't." In this way he reveals that he had been joking about her leering nipples.

"We could hide a dead body here in this garden. They'd never know."

Shikamaru makes a small noise and she sees the ghost of a smile, but its short. He lets go when he puts out his cigarette and stands.

"I wouldn't trust you to hide a dead body." He puts the rest of the cigarette in his pocket.

"You know I can keep a secret."

"It's not that. You're just bad at lying and really bad at being inconspicuous."

"Pft. You're really bad at..." Ino drawls, wrinkling her nose as she thinks of something imperfect about him. There isn't a thing. "You're just really bad and unfunny.

"You're just difficult... for the sake of being difficult." This time, Shikamaru doesn't reach to massage the space between his brows. He stares straight ahead as if he can see beyond the garden and clean through the universe–because they have done this since they were children.

"I think you just dislike me. Still. Even after being under my clothes." Ino throws her head back to chug her wine.

"I don't dislike you and you know this. Now you're just being facetious."

Shikamaru's hard tone momentarily quiets her.

"Maybe." She stares into her empty wine flute, shrugging. What really is there to say to someone you used to sleep with? He hasn't directly looked at her and this causes her to feel bad. She can't quite look at him for too long either without wanting to run.

"For what though? It's just me." The space between his words emphasize the lost time and the pain comes from how hard he looks at nothing.

Ino could say something severe. She has all the ammo in the world to ruin his day, but she closes her mouth and decides to surprise him for the sake of being honest. There's not much anyone can say to someone they used to sleep with but there's only one way to admit fault to someone who loves you.

She parts her lips to spite the way she has been for many damn years, but he speaks first.

"Can we at least just be friends?" He turns and their eyes meet with equal perceptiveness, but Ino's sentiment dies in her chest before it reaches her throat. Her sense of fight collapses.

No. She screams in her head, shattering the walls that held together all of her unrealized hopes.

"Let's just put this all behind us and move on. It's stupid and avoiding you is even dumber and our moms are friends..."

And he says more things but Ino stops listening. She watches his mouth and all else fails to bring her back.

"... Ok?" He holds out his hand like they are distant acquaintances forming a truce. Ino almost drops her glass. Her skin turns icy.

She thinks to just tell him but the gesture destroys her and for the very first time, he doesn't seem to notice that it's not quite what she wants. Or if he does, he has little to no interest in solving what she desires.

Ino reluctantly takes his hand. If she had never been taught how to be indestructible, she would've crumbled at the familiarity of their skin touching. When he breaks their handshake, there's the sensation of something stuck in her windpipe.

"We're cool?" His stare becomes vacant, unlike all the times he's ever been sad.

And she believes what she sees. Shikamaru has never been a liar.

"Sure... yes." Ino lets him walk away. No shuriken to the back. No venom. Complete surrender.

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Shikamaru stares at the ceiling of his old bedroom, hand cupping his mouth, inhaling the smoke-like smell on his fingers. Surrounding his bed are boxes. Some full and some are empty. With every finished book, there typically is a resolution. Shikamaru's last chapter ends with him moving out of his apartment and back in with his mother. His apartment never felt like his home. It was a stationary point of safety that he dumped money into. In a way, it was only symbolic of his adulthood, but the older he gets, the more he realizes that owning a money hole and being alone for the sake of being alone isn't exactly as fulfilling as he had hoped.

Expectations are definitely dream killers.

It isn't healthy to blame Ino for his sudden dissatisfaction. An itty bitty part of himself has always been hard to please, but she had set off a domino effect of reactions to his current situation. He is fatherless which means that half of him is gone. The world doesn't ask him to pretend that this isn't a fact but it upsets him that everyone around has adopted an 'Okay-ness'.

Save for Ino, but a warm body can't be the salve to individual sorrow.

Shikamaru sits up in his twin-sized bed to scowl out of his window.

Maybe he should apologize to Ino for mistaking her as a way out of his head.

Truth be told, what Temari had said to him has bothered him sleepless.

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Magnified by the window, the sun warms the left side of Ino's body as she reorganizes a display of sunflowers. Mundane activities help a lot. If she keeps herself busy she won't have to think about Sasuke taking Sakura on a mission. How does Sakura manage to squeeze a romantic escape out of Sasuke? Maybe they are secretly getting married. She winces. Why does she care?

Coupling isn't a merit to success. She could buy her own damn house and fill it up with her own furniture. Instead of the perfect man she will have the perfect cat.

"You're going to be a terribad housewife. That tasted like sugary mud." Shikamaru had spat out the cookies she made. Everyone else seemed to have liked them. She remembers how he smeared the crumbs and his spit on his sleeve. They were only eleven.

"You would know what mud tastes like, dirt eater," She protested.

"At least I know what a cookie is s'posed to taste like."

Ino's bang falls in her face and she pins it back to her scalp with a bobby pin. Mundane activities also welcome unwanted memories. She stops and observes her red nails against the dull color of the wooden crate. Soil collected around her finger nail, darkening the thin skin of her cuticle.

Ten minutes, and during that while, she becomes a peppier version of herself.

The shop's door opens and the uneventful bustle of outside floats in. The bell rings and the door shuts and the quiet of indoors is sealed shut. Ino takes a moment to breathe. She stands from her crouched position and wipes her hands on her sides.

Peppy Ino's smile has enough shine to feed the flowers, but her lips crinkle when she faces Shikamaru who imitates her bewilderment. They both look lost for a very brief time. Ino speaks first.

"I was just thinking about you." Her smile is now crooked–actually between a smile and the pinched look of smelling something.

"Good things I hope." He takes his hands from his pockets.

"Bad things." She says too readily in jest.

"That shouldn't surprise me." Shikamaru folds his arms.

Uncertainty is wedged between them. It always has been.

"You have always been my personal antagonist." She thinks he was specifically made for that reason. Neither a hero nor villain can exist without each other.

Ino lowers her head as she reaches to stroke a sunflower. She hasn't been able to unlearn their carnal openness. Her body reminds her with an explosion of warmth in her stomach.

"I never mean to be." He finally says.

"I know you don't, Shikamaru."

"I meant what I said at the wedding..."

Ino lifts her head to look at him directly.

"... and... Ino, I accept your apology."

"That makes me happy. I've missed you in that casual way that friends miss each other." Much more than that. It's unquantifiable and senseless.

He hesitates. Shikamaru rarely hesitates. Her heart climbs in her throat.

"I was just moving all of my shit into boxes and realized life is too short to hold on to grudges."

"Moving? Where are you going?"

"Barely down the street..."

Before Ino can question him any further, a regular patron shrills a 'good morning'. Though the village is small, there are names that escape him. Like pictures of strangers in the background of a personal photograph. Ino's thoughts are stunted and she stumbles away from him to deal with her customer.

Their conversation, or lack of, hangs in the air like an abandoned riddle. He tightens a hand into a fist.

With all of her flaws, Ino isn't bad with people. She's succinct but not in a cold way. Her first love is herself and second comes her knowledge of flowers and third is her desire to please people–which is her best and worst trait.

For a split second, maybe two, Ino steals an apologetic glance.

Shikamaru realizes that if he were meant to be in her life, he would be her second or third. He's not selfish enough to demand to be her first. There's no room for anyone and there never has been.

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Ino thinks about Sakura and Sasuke more than she wants to. She wonders if Sakura's unrelenting need to try so hard for so long had been driven by a predetermined future. Sasuke lacked the vision for it, perhaps he still does, but Sakura wakes up every morning knowing where her heart should be–because it's already spread out in front of her. Not in order, she's working on organizing it, but it's all there waiting for her to make it right. That kind of certainty about anything is a power worth envying.

Ino wakes up, brushes her teeth, spends fifteen minutes deciding on what pair of panties she should wear, and then spends fifteen more minutes indecisive about breakfast. Then it hits her as she stuffs her face with a slice of bread.

The echoing of a snap in the dark rattles in her head.

She doesn't bother to prepare herself a proper meal. Ino hops into her sandals, swallowing the hard lump of bread.

As she heads out the door, she thinks to herself–does having your mind made up always feel this satisfying?

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"I think I know a thing that you don't." Choji pulls the sucker from his mouth. His tongue is bright blue.

Making a humming noise, Shikamaru presses a strip of tape down on a box filled with plastic bowls. You can never have too many plastic bowls.

 "Synchronicity. Do you know what that is?" Choji smacks his tongue.

Shikamaru drops the box on the floor, stretches his mouth into a frown and tilts his head to the side. He knows what synchronicity is but sometimes he finds amusement in pretending to learn something new. Choji is one of the best storytellers–he can make a lie sound scientifically proven.

"It's the happenstance..." Choji shoves the blueberry sucker back into his mouth.

"Happenstance is synonymous with coincidence," Shikamaru says pointing a finger.

"A series of happenstances that loosely relate to each other. Like waking up at seven in the morning and drawing the number seven card."

"Many coinkydinks. Gotchu."

"Can I feel like the smart one for once?" Choji continues to busy himself with boxing the canned foods.

Shikamaru doesn't respond. They work in a complete silence only old friends can obtain.

The doorbell disrupts their happy, content quiet. Shikamaru sets down the roll of tape, rubbing his eye as he approaches the door.

He opens the front door and Ino greets him with a bag full of chips and off-brand soda. His guts turn before his ears turn red.

"Oh great, you're still moving! I bear gifts." Her smile is more confident than her tone.

Shikamaru still doesn't know how to look at her and not feel strange. If his brain isn't remembering what she looks like without her clothes on, then he focuses on the fluffiness of her cheeks.

Without an invitation, not that she's ever needed one, Ino ducks under his arm and steps around him. Shikamaru stands in place for a short while as he absorbs what could transpire. She could argue with Choji or this could be a perfectly awkward occurrence where neither of them speaks to each other.

Enough time has passed for them to be strangers. Ageing does this to people and it can't be helped.

Choji balks at her.

"Oh geeze." He fakes a sneeze.

Ino holds the bag of junk-food close to her chest, takes a seat in a metal folding chair, stares back at Choji with natural determination. All three of them slip back into a routine, but it's like a favorite shirt that doesn't fit anymore. Shikamaru closes the door behind him and watches them.

Ino wiggles her foot. Choji wrinkles the corners of his nose.

"Stranger." Choji regards her with a slight nod, biting down on the rest of his sucker and swallows all of the tiny pieces.

"Neighbor." Ino snorts.

"Guys!" Shikamaru claps his hands between them.

Choji stomps a foot and slaps a hand down on his thigh, holding his breath, turning his head to the side.  The gesture hurts Shikamaru's feelings–it feels like he has broken a promise they never made. Being seen as weak is one thing, there's no shame in sometimes falling short. However, being a disappointment is a different level of pain that has no remedy but to be better.

Shikamaru doesn't know how to be better about Ino. He would feel the same way about Choji, so he sinks to his knees with a watery laugh, folding his arms across his chest. His laugh melts into a long uncertain sigh.

Not tearing her eyes from Choji, Ino rummages through the plastic bag for the barbeque flavored chips. Choji doesn't blink as she tosses the bag in his lap.

"Water under the bridge?" She says this without a smile.

Pulling the white stem from his mouth, he fists the bag with his stubby fingers, thinking for a few minutes that feel like a very long time.

"No." Choji pops the bag open, releasing the sour smell.

Shikamaru's shoulders sag, but oddly enough, being the anchor is normal. It occurs to him that he has been everyone's catalyst in some shape or form.

"You know, most thieves are people you've let into your house numerous times, right?" Choji starts, stuffing a handful of chips into his mouth.

Ino doesn't twitch. She listens without a rebuttal. Shikamaru winces at the slick sound of Choji's tongue smacking against the roof of his mouth.

"Would you forgive said thief for returning what they took from your house?" He swallows.

"I don't know. Maybe. Eventually." Ino uncrosses her legs.

"Would you still invite them over for dinner?"

"Probably not."

"There's my answer." Choji ham-fists more chips into his mouth with punctuated crunches.

"Time solves everything." Shikamaru mumbles loud enough for them to hear.

"Now is not the time to be stubborn, Shikamaru. Your optimism always shows up at the worst time." Choji shakes his head.

Ino continues to gaze at Choji without emotion. Her brows furrow but she shows no visible signs of aggravation.

"Why a thief, Choji? She hasn't stolen anything. That's so morbid." Shikamaru stands and Choji stands with him.

"She stole your time. Ok, she's not a thief but she definitely knows how to squander away valuable resources." Choji finishes the bag of chips, crumples it in a fist and says to her, "Ino, you're a professional time waster."

"Ok. Yea. I am."  Ino beats Shikamaru to speaking first.

Children playfully scream outside. The growing energy of three souls suck a draft from the open window. A lot of history is crammed inside of Shikamaru's apartment. They have enough memories to fill each room to the ceiling.

Ino begins to cry, but not in her usual loud way of expressing her feelings.

"It's not my fault that you've never taken the time to understand me." She wipes away a tear with the back of her hand. The tone of her voice is well contained."You never have."

"You're an asshole and being one doesn't make you multifaceted nor hard to understand." He waves a hand in disbelief.

"Choji..." Shikamaru sinks his face into a palm, pressing his fingers against an eyelid.

"No! She's been an asshole for years and for what? Just because she pretended to be your girlfriend for a short amount of time doesn't absolve her of the bullshit."

"Well what is it that you want me to do about it?" Ino shrugs her shoulders.

"Just tell me why a 'fatty' like me should take time out of his day to unpack what makes you the way you are when you have never offered that to me?" Choji stops with the bag of chips, his cheeks turning a faint red. This is exactly what he has wanted but now he's not entirely sure what to do with her tears.

Ino opens her mouth but she has nothing to say.

"I guess we will never know. Clearly me and you aren't Sai." Choji says to Shikamaru. "And even he got the short end of the stick so I guess Ino is only in solidarity with her selfishness. That's quite the appetite to have for yourself."

With that, Choji claps all of the air out of the bag, crumbles it up into his fist and frowns, slowly shaking his head.

"Better to have a huge gut than a huge head. That's what dad used to tell me." Again, he speaks to Shikamaru.

They had not only been mourning the dead, but also mourning the time it has taken to adapt to change. Not the small things like their bones expanding and becoming taller. Simply the nature of life falling apart, rebuilding itself.

"Choji, we were kids." Shikamaru quietly protests, unable to bring himself to look at either of them.

"And now we are adults. You only became valuable when she realized she could take from you and even then, that wasn't enough. Are any of us enough for Ino? She didn't even want to have dinner with me. You told me so. The last human conversation I've had with her was at the memorial. You know how long that is between then and now? I wasn't good enough for a thirty-minute meal?" Choji rises from the metal chair.

"So I'm not capable of change?" Ino looks at him directly.

Choji looks from her to the surrounding boxes, the displaced plastic bags, "I never said that."

Shikamaru's stomach fills with butterflies. The kind of fluttering you get after narrowly escaping an explosion.

"Then I'm sorry for causing you to feel that deeply." She doesn't hesitate.

Choji nods his head three times, tightening his fist on the potato chip bag.

And they collapse into a long pause. Not a silence. Silence tells of absence and they are all very present.

"I'll be by tomorrow, Shikamaru. Y'all can have your quality time." Choji manages to say without bitterness. He states it as if it were a necessary fact–that they needed quality time in order for the rest of the day to carry on without chaos. He thinks, it's only appropriate that he remove himself, since he has been excluded from their relationship from the very beginning.

Shikamaru moves to stop him but Choji holds to his word. He always has and doesn't let whatever Shikamaru might say reel him back in.

"I didn't know he felt that way." Ino says two minutes after Choji closes the door.

Shikamaru stands beside her, reaching to place a hand on her shoulder but deciding against it. In one confused motion he drops his hand back at his side.

"Did you know?" she asks him.

"I did, but I never figured that you'd care."

The statement hurts her because she knows it's not a lie. She hadn't cared before. In the process of neglecting her sadness, she neglected everyone else.

"Please don't cry anymore, Ino. My honesty isn't meant to hurt you." He takes the bag of snacks from her hand and sits it on top of a box.

"But somehow it always does."

"Then stop running from the truth and just own your mistakes." he says softly.

Ino tilts her head back to meet his eyes. He has that constipated look he gets whenever he is frustrated, but it doesn't make her laugh today or make her want to challenge him. Shikamaru stares back until he feels a rising sense of anticipation. His expression softens and he blushes like a small boy.

"Stop running. It's not..." He swallows then looks away, "It's not that hard."

She accepts this advice. Before her last tear can reach her chin, she tugs him into an innocent embrace, pressing her face into his chest, inhales then exhales the tension that made her head hurt. Shikamaru falters despite his intuition. He waits until his head becomes clear, forcing himself to better calculate the nature of her hug before he returns the gesture. He pulls her closer and she tightens her arms around his torso.

It takes a moment for him to relax. He moves his hand from the small of her back and feels the clasp of her bra under the fabric of her shirt. His whole body responds like a man still in love.

"Let's go eat." he mutters.

"All we do is eat." Well... all they did was eat.

"Yes, but its universal knowledge that food makes you happier. It's the safest means of  having fun."

"Not exactly. You can still choke on a chicken bone. Worse, go into anaphylactic shock." Muffled voice, her lips move against his chest.

"Ino..."

"Don't you need to finish moving?"

"It can wait."

"Can it really?" She slightly pulls away.

"It can wait," he says again.

Ino recognizes the funny glint in his eyes and remembers the first time ever noticing it.

"Only if you pay for it since it isn't my idea." She doesn't smile. Her heart threatens to punch out of her chest.

"I always pay." Every single time.

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They've been here before. More than once. In a solitude that happens as often as an eclipse. They could never purposely replicate the aura. It just happens to be and is and will be.

Contemplating if she should finish the bowl or leave half, Ino pokes at the ramen with her chopsticks. This time it's not her lack of an appetite. It's everything in the universe that has conspired to work against and for her. Shikamaru eats just as slowly, watching her from his peripheral.

"Why is it always ramen?" Ino takes a swig of sake.

"Because ramen is cheap." He burps.

"So I'm a cheap date now, huh?"

"This isn't a date."

Ino falls silent, shovels ramen into her mouth and drinks more of her sake. Her lips spread into a frown because the saltiness doesn't mix well with the alcohol. Hell erupts in her stomach.

"No. This isn't a date." She nods.

Shikamaru clears his throat. There isn't anything for them to talk about–nothing worth mentioning. He, at least, has already said everything he felt she needed to know, so he decides on an, "Are you ok?"

Ino slurps a noodle, reaching to wipe saliva from her chin. Her brows pinch together.

"Am I ok?"

"Yes. That's what I asked."

Ino sets down her chopsticks, squints at him. Shikamaru finishes his cup of sake.

"No. I'm not."

"What's wrong?"

"You're doing that thing, Shikamaru." And she turns her head away from him.

"What thing?"

"You ask questions you already know the answers to."

He quirks a brow but turns to order another drink. In the time they spend not speaking, he thinks hard.

"I can assume what is wrong, but one can never know with you."

"Apparently I'm not that complex." Ino shoves the bowl away.

"Yea, but you're also not transparent." Which is something he's underestimated about her. Sometimes she's as easy as reading a book and the next moment it's like finding a constellation.

Time unfolds outside of their tight bubble. Shikamaru starts another glass and Ino says, to pacify the tension that's always been there, "Ramen and alcohol. A recipe for disaster."

"And diarrhea." Shikamaru quips, realizing that at some point they'd gotten much closer than either had anticipated. Ino's shampoo wafts whenever she turns to scan their surroundings. It's the shampoo they shared for that pocket of time they 'lived' together.

"You would know." She presses her fingers against her chin.

"Hm."

"You know everything."

"Not everything." Shikamaru looks down at his empty bowl, scratches behind his ear with a finger.

"Yea-huh, you do. You always have." Ino focuses on his tanned knuckles. Some of his skin has dried and begun to peel.

"I'm still unsure if you've ever truly acknowledged just how much I care about you." It was meant to stay a private thought, but he proceeds to drink as if he had intended to say it. Shikamaru gazes at her and to his surprise, she doesn't shy away from his honesty. She holds his stare.

Ino licks away the remaining saltiness of her lips. All of her turns pink.

"How much do you?" It's a stupid question but maybe if he could start from the beginning then they could possibly meet at the finish line together.

"So have we hit an impasse?" His slow blinks tantalize her. In an attempt to cool down her anxiety, she straightens her spine in the backless stool, accidentally brushing their knees together.

"Have we?" Her voice breaks.

"It's up to you. It always has been, Ino."

The immature part of herself hesitates. Shikamaru is no one to be scared of. Now, she understands that it's her own shadow she fears. Is she more like her father or mother? Can she be whole in the absence of one?

"You just like to force me to say what you already know." Ino lowers her voice.

"I wouldn't ask if I knew and if I knew I probably wouldn't be sitting here waiting for a different answer." The silly thing about it is, Shikamaru thought he had stopped wanting an answer but...

Ino has always been the type to receive epiphanies like a ton of bricks falling from the sky.

"Do you care about me?" He gives her no time to breathe.

"I always have." It's that easy.

"Really?" He sits on the edge of his seat, not smiling but not cold. "Because it hasn't felt like it."

"In different stages, yes." She tries to remember the exact point in time it became blurry enough for them to get here. Was it inevitable? If by the will of some god, she were given the chance to convince her twelve-year-old self, would she be able to?

"You hurt me, Ino." The statement stands in the present.

"I hurt everyone apparently. Even myself." She stares at her half-eaten bowl.

"Fucking hell." Shikamaru's voice rumbles as he exhales. He shovels more ramen into his mouth. "Different stages, yea?"

"I'm being honest."

"Yea. I know you are and I just sound like an old stray dog stuck in the rain." He sets down his chopsticks and massages the bridge of his nose.

"No, you don't." Ino looks at him. She reaches out to fold her soft hand over his calloused fingers. Time ebbs forward and she sees Shikamaru clearly for the first time. Every version of him. Shikamaru searches her face long enough to feel everything again.

Once he is sure that it is ok to feel safe, he gives himself back to her and Ino leans in to kiss him with all of her body. Sliding to the edge of her seat, she closes the gap between them and he catches her with an arm.

"You're a better kisser than Sai." She pecks his cupid's bow.

"That's not funny." His says dizzily, like it shouldn't have happened, but it did and the butterflies in his stomach make him incapable of rejecting her.

"But it's true." She kisses him again with more passion.

"We're in public, Ino."

The thought of pulling away becomes pure insanity.

"When has that ever mattered to you?"

And then it ceases to exist as an option.

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Chapter Text

Shikamaru realizes that he has achieved peak adulthood as he finds his own boredom unbearable. The older he gets, the dirtier he wants his hands. Or perhaps the past few months have changed him. He's not yet unrecognizable to himself, simply he feels that difference like night and day.

He doesn't quite know how to broach his current predicament to Kakashi without sounding ungrateful, or whiny, or worst of all egotistical.

"So..." Kakashi slightly sings, knowingly in a way that's discomforting– as if he is still that child with a lot of basic questions.

Shikamaru clenches his jaws, dropping all traces of his perpetual coolness. He takes a deep breath through his nostrils.

"I feel stagnant." It might as well have taken all the wind out of him to say so.

"And whose fault is that?" Kakashi folds his fingers on his chest as he leans back in his big chair.

Shikamaru thinks of everything that has grown like moss on his soul. A pain crawls into his throat. He doesn't want to nod in agreement, so he presses his lips together, staring pointedly back at his superior.

"Honestly, Shikamaru, It's never too late to set bigger goals for yourself. Where do you see yourself in five years?" Kakashi doesn't move, acutely aware that his straightforwardness has threatened Shikamaru's newly acquired maturity. He doesn't shrink like a child but neither is he ready to dry-swallow the truth, even if he's been aware of his fault for some time now.

"I have no idea." Shikamaru responds tersely.

"Well, at least you've finished the first step towards progress. You've addressed the issue. Stagnancy." Kakashi's chair creaks as he fixes his posture.

Two minutes pass before either of them speak. A bird thumps against the glass window.

"It's easier to just keep yourself busy, but not everyone has been given the gift of limitless capability. It just boils down to how much you understand your worth." Kakashi props an elbow on the arm of his chair, and presses his cheek against his knuckles. All resilient and cool and unbothered, but still very great in presence.

"Sure." Shikamaru clams up.

"And to be honest I don't see a hunger in you, but you can't have an appetite for a thing you've never tasted."

"Yea."

"Yea. That's all you have to say, kid?" Kakashi's eyes widen.

"I'm absorbing your wisdom, sir." Shikamaru replies flatly.

Kakashi's brows wrinkle and he frowns with his stare.

"I get it. You can't understand desire when you're lost. I have common sense." Shikamaru loosens himself.

There's no reason to challenge him.

"Common sense is what you do have. You aren't completely hopeless since you're vocalizing your dissatisfaction, despite your inarticulacy." Kakashi sighs.

The same bird dives against the window again, with enough force to drive Shikamaru's attention away from Kakashi. He turns in his seat to observe the crack-free glass. Fingerprint-like smudges stain the surface. The sky is crowded with formless clouds.

"Have you considered Anbu?" Kakashi sits upright and brings himself closer to the desk.

Shikamaru faces him with a grimace. His mouth widening into a deep frown. "No."

"Why not? I think it's up to your speed."

"I'm not exactly partial to murdering for the sake of murdering."

"Whether you have a weak stomach or not isn't what separates Anbu from jounin," Kakashi says incredulously.

Shikamaru has no rebuttal. He scratches the back of his neck, sagging his shoulders. There's never been a moment when someone's judgment made him light headed.

"Why Anbu?"

"Because I have a job for you. I don't think anyone else is as capable and thorough as you. You rarely make mistakes."

"What you're saying is you think I'm good at taking orders."

"Better than most. And when you do make mistakes your cleanup is effortless." Kakashi points a finger at him.

"No." Shikamaru doesn't falter. A job means that shit isn't alright, and shit has been fine for a while. He doesn't believe he is fully capable of handling another shit storm. Jounin aren't in the dark for the most part, but he likes not being familiar with the back end of politics.

"I'm not asking for an answer right now. I just want you to think about it. I could be wrong, but like you, that's hardly ever the case."

"No."

"Think about it. I know where your head is. I've been there. Asuma isn't here. Neither is Shikaku, but we were raised to be shinobi. Killing is just as much as a chuunin's business as it is an Anbu operative's. Death is a constant visitor to the dinner table..."

"It's not about Asuma or my dad."

"It is. It's about everything you've experienced that has shaped your perspective. I don't think either of them would want you to stifle yourself over fear. If it's not fear then it's uncertainty. You're single with no family to come home to. It's the best time to take advantage of the skills you sleep on."

"You put it that way and it sounds fucking morbid."

"Everything we do is morbid." Kakashi states gravely and Shikamaru can't argue with him.

Realistically, he is not morally superior to Anbu. Their society as a whole isn't.

"I rest my case. I'm not going to force you to do anything you don't want to." Kakashi stands and this concludes the conversation. Shikamaru doesn't rise immediately. He swims in his head.

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And the daze doesn't wear off an hour later. Shikamaru doesn't mingle with his peers after Kakashi's weekly summoning of the active shinobis. He silently melts away in a corner, redefining his earlier intentions. Sure, he was bored with what felt like, to him, menial tasks but isn't it a good thing that work hasn't been dirty in the past few years?

What exactly is he hungry for?

"Why do you look so dejected?" Naruto startles him. Typically nobody startles him. He steps out of the traffic of his headspace and blinks at Naruto, who holds two cans of ginger ale.

"Why are you staring so hard at me?" Shikamaru wasn't completely not himself.

"Don't flatter yourself. You're definitely not my type. You're way too ugly." Naruto shoves a can into Shikamaru's chest. Hinata isn't ugly. Far from it. Shikamaru takes the can but stares at it for a long while before popping it open.

"Is it Ino?" Whispering, Naruto looks to his left and right.

Naruto has been good about not mentioning Ino. Shikamaru sees it when he sweats that the curiosity is murdering him on the inside. The fact that he hasn't asked at all, until now, must mean that Hinata is a special and good influence. It could very well mean that his loyalty is with Sai.

"Not at all." Shikamaru gives him an ugly smug smile.

"Then what?"

"I must really look bothered."

"You do and it's making me uncomfortable." Naruto takes a huge gulp, his face contorting as he swallows.

Shikamaru scans the hallway, contemplating if he should mention it to anyone at all. Let alone Naruto.

"Can you keep a secret?" Shikamaru leans forward.

"Oh my god! Yeees! Absolutely!" Naruto's cheeks burn red and his blue eyes sparkle in amazement. "You have secrets, Shikamaru? I mean...two timing with Ino was a secret."

Shikamaru lowers his head, pursing his lips and sighing. He peels his back from the wall.

"Suddenly I've changed my mind." Shikamaru begins to walk away with one hand in his pocket.

"Oh c'mon!" Naruto hisses between his teeth and stomps after him. "I don't blame you! Obviously I'm spoken for and very very very faithful..."

"Obviously..." Shikamaru drawls.

"But I'd imagine Ino is insanely hard to say no to!" Naruto grossly slurps from the can.

"How perceptive of you, Naruto...She your type?" Shikamaru doesn't stop walking and Naruto doesn't stop following.

"She's everybody's type!"

"Not too ugly, yea?" Shikamaru takes his first sip of ginger ale.

"Definitely not. I'm married but women haven't stopped being beautiful!"

Shikamaru's ego causes him to hesitate, but what is one to do with an indigestible conundrum? It's pivotal moments in his life like this when he misses his father. So not only is the problem too fat to swallow, but he gets a pain in his throat that reaches his temples. His mouth starts to water.

When they've reached an unoccupied section of the hallway, Shikamaru stops at a window sill and Naruto clumsily stumbles beside him. Before speaking, Shikamaru sweeps his eyes down the echoing hall one last time. The dull ache of his temples becomes a mild migraine.

"Would you go through with Anbu recruitment?" Shikamaru doesn't exactly whisper but his voice is low. All the spirit in Naruto's face blanches. He lowers the ginger ale from his lips, losing that glow about him that people often mistake as callowness. Naruto doesn't break eye contact, but his fading smile reveals thoughtfulness.

"I mean...it's not exactly something I've thought about." Naruto's forehead crinkles as he lowers his chin.

"Yea. Me neither."

"Kakashi offered it to you...?" It's more a statement than a question. Naruto doesn't expect a direct answer. A stiff but affirmative nod suffices.

They share a brief moment of silence before Naruto straightens his neck, "What did you say?"

"No. Clearly." Shikamaru sits his can on the window sill.

"Why!?"

"What do you mean why? Is that something you'd wanna do to yourself?"

"Well...no, but Kakashi wouldn't ask you to do anything you're not capable of. The fact that he asked in and of itself is a compliment." Naruto folds his arms.

"I'm just not interested in becoming a glutton for punishment."

"Hell, how do you not exhaust yourself being so passive, Shikamaru?"

"I don't think not wanting to shorten your life expectancy is being passive."

"Sucks that you've realized too late that you just might be in the wrong profession...granted it's not like you had much of a choice." Naruto effortlessly crushes the empty can, unfolding his arms, observing the crushed aluminum, and it's folded yellow design.

Shikamaru loses the desire to finish his ginger ale. He tenses up as he muddles over the sentiment.

"You've always done the bare minimum, but somehow your bare minimum always sets the bar higher. I guess I just can't empathize with not wanting to be your absolute best self– can't relate." Naruto shakes his head and then scowls a bit. "Shikamaru, do you think you've just capped?"

"What do you mean?" Shikamaru is the one a little bereft of words this time.

"Is this..." Naruto gestures wildly at Shikamaru "...as good as it gets? How are we supposed to change the world together if this is your stopping point?"

There's a genuine intensity to Naruto's disbelief. At the moment, Shikamaru can't tell if it's a disgusted disbelief or a crushed belief in something more. He would hate to admit it, but Shikamaru hasn't given himself time to think that far. After the war, something stopped, but maybe nothing had ever started.

"I don't know." Is what he says to Naruto.

"Figure it the fuck out." And Naruto wouldn't hear any more of it even if Shikamaru had more to say.

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The day he decides to pay his respects to the dead is the day the sky chooses to be cloudy. The universe is somehow, just has to be, keen to the small choices he has been making. From putting on his shoes to taking the long way to the cemetery versus the short one. It's a late summery grey humidness and his black T-shirt absorbs his sweat. Kakashi's proposal still sits in the back of his as if the mere suggestion had been a curse.

Though he immediately rejected the idea, the shiftlessness of his life has been devoured by the corporal change of his curiosity. As a boy, he could not have been convinced that he would reach a point in his life where this, who is now, would feel so drastically unhappy doing what felt like absolutely nothing. Temari had been right in her accusation before they called off the engagement. Shikamaru did not want anything extraordinary to become of his life. He couldn't understand why it bothered her then, but now it's a strong taste in his mouth that no amount of toothpaste can scrub off his tongue.

It's been a week and he's thought a lot about Anbu. The thought alone already subjects him to feeling isolated.

Ino is stiff beside him with armful of pink hydrangeas. Very present and warm. As silent as the sky before the storm. A whole person isn't enough nor is this stretch of land occupied by ghosts. They stand over Asuma's gravestone– not exactly speechless. For they both share hope that the universe allows the dead to hear thoughts.

"When was the last time you were here?" Shikamaru only speaks to break the unsettling quiet.

"Don't make me answer that." She sniffs.

"I'm not judging you for it." He sighs.

"I know you're not, Shikamaru."

"Isn't it kinda stupid that our entire lives we've been preparing to die– but we got no crash courses on grieving?" Shikamaru reads the date under Asuma's name over and over, as if it would change every time he blinked.

She turns her head to look at him, focusing on the shape of his nose. Instead of speaking, she brings the flowers closer to her chest.

"Survival is supposed to be the reward I guess." He continues.

"Death isn't exactly punishment." She clears her throat.

He stops staring at the imaginary point on Asuma's headstone, takes a good look at her– a really long look that sends him many years back. Ino travels in time with him, more a victim than a passenger to his broken-heartedness. It materializes so clearly for her but she feels a vicious stab of guilt.

"Thank you for coming." His eyes are glassy. She's not only seen this look before, but has been the direct cause of it many times. It's only different today because the sky doesn't cast any shadows. There's no shimmer, just a poignant dullness that's somehow harder to stomach.

"Don't thank me." Ino weakly protests.

He massages the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes.

There isn't more that needs to be said. Any form of politeness is futile. The crazy thing about death is when much time has gone by, it becomes more of a disappointing fact than it is a strong invasive presence. Like forgetting to shut the stove off or misplacing a spare set of keys. Important but not exactly intrusive. At least for the majority of the time after many, many years. Ino bends down to rest a few hydrangeas on Asuma's headstone.

"Dad next?" Shikamaru drops his hand to his side, exhaling as if he had just thrown ten punches in the air.

Ino gives him a slight over the shoulder nod.

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Happiness cannot be quantified. He could find it for a month, but he always ends up realizing that he's pretending. A layer to what he's been ignoring under the surface.

Ino pours him a glass of lemonade. Not even the most harmless act of intimacy made him feel better. He supposes he had used it all up along the way.

Life lesson number three hundred and fifty-six: It is, in fact, possible to squander away contentment.

Were things ever looking up though? He can't recall.

"You're quiet." Ino states the obvious.

"When do I ever have a lot to say?" He's never been much of a talker.

"It's not the 'I have nothing to say' type of quiet." She sits the lemonade in front of him. He doesn't argue with her, because he's never been one to lie about his feelings. However, this time, what he is feeling is too personal for anyone to compartmentalize for him.

It's a touch of sadness tangled up in this need to jump out of his skin. There's not a word for suicidal without the desire to die. It's not exactly self sabotage either.

"I'm fine. It's just a different kind of day." He takes the glass. Ino doesn't take her eyes off of Shikamaru. She sits across from him at her tiny table.

A touch of lightning zips across the sky. Thunder follows shortly after. As her thoughts chase the thunder, she watches him finish the lemonade. Ten minutes have gone by, but she can't come up with anything– and really what right did she have to say anything at all?

He sits the glass down with a quiet thump. Licking the corners of his mouth, he folds his arms across his chest, sinks a little lower in the seat.

"I feel incomplete. I think I've felt this way for a long time." His knees brush against hers.

"Why do you think that?" Ino almost jumps from her seat with anticipation. Maybe she won't have to blame herself.

"There's only so much growth you experience sorta skirting by? Does it make sense?"

"You haven't been 'skirting by' though, Shikamaru."

"I think about how dad is dead. I've been engaged once, I've capped at jounin. Before now and in between I have nothing to show for 'progress'. I couldn't even be engaged right. I think dad would be more disappointed than mom."

"Being engaged is not measure of success. You've never showed an interest in anything outside of jounin anyway." Ino grimaces at the thought of anyone being with Shikamaru other than herself.

"Ino, that's not the point."

"Other than being sad, what is your point?"

He doesn't want to articulate himself, he'd much rather just feel it.

"I have somewhere I need to be. Thank you for spending time with me." He says mechanically. It startles a strange hotness at the back of her mouth. Completely shattering her stoicism, it takes a lot not to cry on impact.

Shikamaru gets up to leave. Ino rises and follows him to her door. She can't beat the vulnerability out of him. Once he's made up his mind, he's uncompromising. And she most definitely is not his girlfriend and has never been a fiancé.

The goodbye is an even colder exchange. She doesn't even get a hug.

After he's gone, her apartment has never felt colder.

Ino walks back to the table to put his glass in the sink, but when her fingers touch where his mouth had been, her legs freeze.

She remembers buying a second chair specifically for him. It doesn't match the table nor the other chair. It's his specific spot in her home.

It thunders but rain never falls. The storm passes over.

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Where the bird had flown into the window, the smudge remains. It occurs to Shikamaru, days later, that it could've broken it's neck and died in the brambles below the Hokage's office.

"I'll do it." Shikamaru doesn't take a seat.

"I knew you would." Kakashi stares back at him brightly.

"I have nothing else better to do."

"We won't allow that kind of speech. It's ok to acknowledge that you're tired of not challenging yourself. Later you will find it empowering. Being blunt is not the same as being honest."

Kakashi walks from around his desk.

Shikamaru doesn't argue with him. He's irritated by the simplicity of Kakashi's logic. The corner of his mouth twitches.

"When can I start?"

"Eight weeks." Kakashi sifts through his personal file cabinet.

"Eight weeks!?"

"If I'm being honest, eight weeks isn't long enough for the required training."

"Why eight whole weeks?" Shikamaru falls into the soft chair. The cushions sigh under him. His anxiety strengthens.

"Now don't go spitting a million questions at me. Training is eight weeks and there's a possibility that you'll give up in the middle of it. I don't think you will, but...I can't ignore the many outcomes. There's still a lot I can't disclose to you." Kakashi pulls a folder, keeping his back turned as he flips through its contents.

"I was raised to be a murder machine and I've still got more training..." Shikamaru laughs in disbelief. "There's only so many ways you can mangle a body, Kakashi. Blood is blood. Sometimes it gets everywhere."

Kakashi slightly turns to glance at him. "You know an awful damn lot of nothing, Shikamaru. I'm genuinely surprised."

Shikamaru closes his mouth. Kakashi doesn't engage him for a moment. After slipping the folder back into the file cabinet, Kakashi returns to his desk empty handed.

Instead of sitting down, he chooses to stand, pressing his knuckles against the surface. The softness of his usual expression fades. He gives Shikamaru a solemn look, narrowing his eyes.

"For eight weeks you won't have any agency over yourself. Don't make important commitments after today. When you're summoned, always be punctual. You will understand why time will be significant to your proctors, who will eventually become your peers." Kakashi sits on that note.

"I'm an adult." Shikamaru frowns.

"Yes you are. I like that you're already overestimating yourself. Makes me feel good." Kakashi's broad smile wrinkles the corners of his eyes. "Be back in my office in two days."

Two days is an easy wait.

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Or so he thought.

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A lot can be accomplished in two days. In the middle of hanging his laundry on a clothesline, the strong smell of fabric softener awakens something inside of Shikamaru. He recalls a childhood memory as if it had happened the day before yesterday.

The first time he had ever failed at anything– no matter how diligently he had watered his plant, it never grew. Reliving it, it's ridiculous that such a trivial moment had traumatized him. The precursor to experiencing loss, failure came first, and then things became pointless.

Things seemed to always go wrong whenever he tries.

It took two days to deconstruct years.

Who would've thought that out of all the messy people in his life, that Shikamaru Nara would be the one with 'letting go' issues. As he attempts to hook a sheet in a clothes pin, the wind causes it to billow around his face. Maybe it's genetic, inherited from his mother who refuses to buy a dryer.

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Sakura's apartment is a crammed shoebox. Purposefully modest, its size is meaningful. Sakura had somehow figured out how to ascend the flesh. She doesn't desire materials without sentiment. Clearly, one who doesn't mindlessly consume doesn't demand much from anyone else. Ino had always written it off as Sakura not understanding her self-worth, but that is nowhere near the truth, despite how much Ino wanted that to be the case.

"Where do you see yourself five years from now?" Sakura shuts a window with a hard thud.

"If I'm honest, will you judge me?" Ino feeds Sakura's goldfish.

There's a brief pause as Sakura wanders from the window into her bathroom.

"No? I'm not in any place to judge anyone, Ino." Sakura's voice echoes.

"I always say that when I'm about to judge."

Sakura slams a drawer closed and makes a small squeak. "Good thing we aren't one in the same, yea?"

The last streaks of sunlight cut through the mini blinds. With a plastic neon green cup, Ino waters Sakura's neglected plant.

"I just want to be happy." Ino answers after a while of staring down into the potted soil, until the texture regained a moisturized grittiness.

"Well– how do you measure your happiness?"

That answer used to be easy, but she hadn't given herself space to really undress it all. Sometimes, it hits her like a pungent smell, but more often than not, something else replaces her anxiety.

"Is it bad that I don't have an answer?"

Sakura leans outside of her bathroom, tendrils of bright hair fall around one side of her face.

"No," she replies with a smile, "sometimes it's more like a chase."

Leaning against the window, Ino smiles at the sentiment.

"You're so positive." She always has been.

"What's the other option? Being dead on the inside?" Sakura hums and drops something hard but tiny into the bowl of her sink. Then chaos erupts and the sound of bottles and jewelry tumbles around.

Ino anchors her attention out onto the darkening pavement. She's never considered chasing happiness. She's always assumed it's just supposed to happen. A street lamp flickers but the bulb pops into tiny sparkles of glass. Like that! An instant explosion of heat that startles her soul straight from her body.

"What if it's too late and I'm dead on the inside?" Ino inhales the evening air, takes it all in her chest.

"You should volunteer! Help me do medic type stuff."

"I don't think I can handle people bleeding from every orifice as a hobby."

"When you witness other people going through rough times, it makes you wonder why you ever spent time sweating the things you can't control."

Though she isn't entirely partial to the idea, she can see herself beside Sakura. Unlearning and relearning.

"Hell, Sakura..."

"What?"

"That's not a bad idea...but my mom." Her mom has never really needed her emotional support. Sakura shuts off the light in her bathroom and closes the door behind her.

"Your mom is fine. Damaged, but fine. We all are."

It could be much worse.

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Ino always opens the shop. It gives her enough time to enjoy the mushiness of her early morning brain. Nothing is cumbersome when you're barely awake. Her body just moves on its own. Sakura's offer is even brighter the next day. It would force her muscles to remember new things, instead of how to properly hold a broom against a dustpan.

"I'm dead on the inside." She mutters to herself as she empties the dustpan into a bin.

She experiences the sound of her rustling about outside of herself.

"When did I become so boring?"

Ino rolls up the blinds and the hot sunlight feels like a second warm shower to start the day. Her eyes hurt, but in a good way that makes her feel less like a vessel. All of her is there and not as scattered as she fears it has been. At least for the moment.

When her vision rights itself against the sunrise, she focuses on a very familiar silhouette.

Shikamaru stands on the other side of the window very awake. The way the sun glows around his form, it looks like he's come back from a magical death.

They gape at each other. He mostly looks perplexed, liked he's forgotten why he had come or if he shouldn't have. Shikamaru rarely expresses a distinct emotion. After a minute he gestures for her to open the door with a fuck-it-all grimace.

"What are you doing up this early!?" She lets him in.

"Why are you so loud this early?" He retorts flatly, rubbing his face.

Ino slams the door with a fake air of trepidation. "You stormed off and didn't apologize."

"I was in a bad mood."

"You're always in a bad mood." It occurs to Ino that there isn't a cause for an apology. Instead of falling for the trap she had accidentally set, Shikamaru doesn't 'bicker' back. He only sighs, stretching his arms with wide yawn.

"Can I be completely transparent with you?" He asks, but when is he not transparent?

"So now you wanna have a heart to heart. What if I don't feel like talking today?" She locks the door.

"It's nothing heavy." He stands beside the new rack of greeting cards her mother had ordered a month ago.

"Good 'cause I'm running on an empty stomach." Orange juice and toothpaste don't count.

Shikamaru either has the power to make her whole body feel like nothing but air on the inside or can make her so solid, her heart thumps as if it's buried an unfathomable amount of feet beneath the ground– and not inside her ribcage underneath all her muscle.

"If someone gave you the opportunity to alter your life right now, would you do it?" He covers his mouth with a hand as he chews the inside of his jaw.

Ino gives him a pinched frown, "What's the consequence?"

"That's the catch. You don't know the consequences."

"Are you not already happy?"

He puffs his cheeks, breathing between his fingers. Shikamaru rolls his eyes hard enough to give himself a headache.

"I'm not gonna answer that." He rubs his face.

"You don't gotta answer it. Only mildly miserable people want to alter their lives." She would know.

"I never said I wanted to alter my life. I simply asked you for an unbiased opinion, Ino."

"Whatever it is then do it, but if a part of you isn't broken then why go off fixing it...or 'altering' it?" She air quotes with her fingers, sticking out her bottom lip. "What did Choji say? Did you ask him?"

"But I am broken, Ino," he says with a lot of defeat.

His shoulders sag. The amount of times he says her name is always different. Each time conveys a certain emotion. Not clearly, but undeniably evident to her ears. It's something only she can recognize– magnifies how particular they are when it comes to each other.

He stops looking like the man she has swapped and mingled body fluids with. Sex not only complicated dynamics but deformed them. Intimacy added a grosser layer.

Shikamaru looks like who he had been before they had ruined whatever normalcy they had in their interactions. The wholesomeness of sharing ramen, politely conversing about the weather under a streetlight, asking her where she had been all this time– way before their teeth pierced each other's skin.

"Then fix yourself" is what she says with a lot of pain, but necessary sternness she'd learn from her mother.

"That's funny coming from you."

"What's funny is that you asked me of all people." She walks past him, angry that he had lied about the conversation not being heavy, but it was like dry-swallowing an entire bottle of fat pills.

"I asked you because you're the only person in my life who isn't..." He follows her behind the counter.

"Isn't what!?" She kneels beside two boxes, shuffling them around mindlessly until she finds the box cutter she had misplaced the other day. You always find things when you're not searching for them.

"You're the only person in my life who is everything but also nothing." It makes more sense in his head.

"What does that even mean!?" She stabs the blade into the box and slits the tape in half.

"One moment you're one thing, then next, you can easily decide not to be that thing anymore. I don't know. I sound dumb." He leans against the counter and hides his face in the palms of his hands.

"You're not dumb...You're other things but definitely not that. I'm fickle, that's not something to aspire to." She huffs.

"I'd much rather be fickle than always so sure of myself. Pride can make you look stupid."

Ino rises, tossing the dull box cutter on the countertop. She folds her arms. "Then you wouldn't be you and we wouldn't be here and we wouldn't have gone and done a lot of other things that led up to now. That's more important than you feeling sorry for yourself for no reason."

Shikamaru swallows and his ears no longer feel like there's cotton inside of his head. Then he bites his bottom lip, his chin wrinkling.

"I just wanna be different. Shut myself off, reboot, start over." His eyes never stray from Ino's engulfing bright stare.

"There's nothing stopping you."

"Then right now this is just me fessing up to not being perfect...I guess."

"No one has ever told you that you had to be, Shika. And if that's seriously how you feel then we've all failed you."

And that statement emancipates him. He never knew he needed to hear it. Or maybe he has, but it was never a clear necessity.

"How many graves did you have to rob to get all this wisdom?" He smiles at her.

"Not one." She shakes her head with a laugh.

"The day you start making sense means something dark is afoot."

"Don't you have somewhere to be? You always come and go as soon as I start enjoying your company." Ino spins her hair into a tangled bun, squinting down at a smudge on the floor, pretending to not feel liquidy. Her tone drops three notches.

"I do." Shikamaru observes the short strands of hair at the nape of her neck.

Unbeknownst to one another, they have a strong feeling that it would be a long time before they spoke so candidly again. Shikamaru wants to express this feeling but it's damning if he does. It's like wishing for the worst to come.

Ino smoothens her top, turning her head, he notes the way the tendon in her neck shifts under her skin as she turns her head away from him.

I love you– if he's ever thought it before, it wasn't so loud inside of himself the last time.

"Then you better hurry up." She snatches open a drawer and fishes out her apron.

Instead of leaving it all alone, he doesn't allow her to unfold the apron. He fills up the small space that separates them. He takes her in a strong embrace. It startles her at first but eventually her limbs turn into silly putty, molding herself around the command of his body.

"It's too early for this." She mumbles softly against the damp skin of his neck. The taste of his body wash gets in her mouth.

He wants to explain to her the depth of his feelings though he fears it won't change anything. It can't fix the time he spent ignoring that the higher power had always intended for them to be together. Probably not an infinite amount, but definite. Expressing how in love he is won't erase the pain that's bled into other areas of his being.

If she had enough power to contribute to this spiraling sense of desperation, then it's best to keep it to himself. It's not like it's going anywhere any time soon and it hasn't grown too big for him to carry around with the rest of his turmoil.

He's been here before. All over again.

"I think I want to be different too." Ino tilts her head back to get a better look at him.

Shikamaru moves his hands from her back to sprawl his fingers around the sides of her face.

"You can't be too different. You're head is still too big for your body."

"And you're still kinda ugly. A bit less ugly but ugly nevertheless." Her inflection is watery. She smiles under the pressure of his thumbs.

Ino is beautiful because no one can hold her for too long. She's awful because she's unaware that it's not because no one has enough room to contain her– she just loves the idea of absolute free-will. Through the lens of diabolical determination for incompleteness. Coming full circle wouldn't leave room for the 'what if' that could save her from an invisible mistake. This is how Shikamaru perceives her.

They don't have a definition for what they are anymore.

"You've got an obligation, right?" She mutters.

Shikamaru catapults himself into the vibrant blue of her gaze. The kiss he gives her is different than the ones that came before. It doesn't match the many she has instigated either.

It's not wet. She retains her breath. There's only the softness of their lips locked. Without romance but not lacking in feeling. She relaxes into the tenderness and wraps her arms around his torso.

At the very moment they peel their lips away, the front door clicks but they are deafened by a nauseating bitter sweetness.

"I'll see you later." Shikamaru releases her.

"How late is later?" Ino's arms loosen but she's not ready to let him go.

The shop door swings open, the wind-chimes are enough to break apart the thickness of their moment soon swallowed up into the past- a thing that happened a few minutes ago but felt like a bygone forever-ago.

"Later." He manages to squeeze out of his throat. No commitments. And he breaks away from her.

Mrs. Yamanaka witnesses the tail end of the clearly obvious. She gawks at them with misty-eyed curiosity.

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Running away can be good for the soul. Running is good for learning how to breathe.

"You won't be receiving any intelligence during your training," Kakashi steps into the elevator behind Shikamaru, "so you can always back out if you can't handle it."

"No offense, sir, but I think I've been through the worst. A man who is ready to die learns to never be surprised by the worst." Shikamaru can't exactly remember if he heard that from Choza or Asuma.

The absolute worst was losing his father.

"Hm." Kakashi breathes and his mask sinks into his nostrils. "Are you really prepared to die?"

"It's a symptom of what we've been brought up doing, no?" The doors shut and the button panel lights up.

"I think you're conflating preparedness with emotional vacancy. The latter you don't have. No man with a fruitful life just accepts dying in the face of death." Kakashi folds his arms in his sleeves. The bell pings each passing floor.

Shikamaru doesn't have a rebuttal. He sticks out his bottom lip and rolls his eyes. There isn't exactly tension cramming the elevator. The air is just stuffy with expectations. He is doubtful but he would never admit it to the Hokage.

"Keep this in mind..." Kakashi extends an index finger into the air then gently taps it against the side of his head, " This is a choice. Not an order. No one will keep you from bailing."

They finally reach the last floor and the doors slide open with a depressed sigh. When Shikamaru doesn't readily step from the elevator, Kakashi presses the button that stalls the doors from closing.

"How many people fail?" Shikamaru takes a deep breath.

"One out of every four."

"That doesn't make me feel any better."

"I was under the assumption that you were fine, Shikamaru."

With that, Shikamaru steps out of the elevator with his fists shoved deep in his pockets, nails painfully digging into his palms.

"I am fine." He shakes his head.

"Alright then. The last door on your left it is then."

Kakashi releases the button and the doors quietly shut, possibly ending the last real conversation he will have in a long time. He stares down the pristine white hallways. It's desolate enough that his own thoughts echo down the corridor.

He puts one foot forward, after the last step he would obtain a level of privacy unnatural to typical humans. This is what his life has been leading up to, he supposes. He wants to believe that this won't alter him too much. There should be more than enough of him to take back home to his mother. Standing outside of the door, he curses himself for thinking so morbidly.

He licks his lips with a dry tongue, sliding one hand from his pocket. The skin between his fingers is cracked. The unforeseeable state of his future is more terrifying than eight weeks of not entirely belonging to himself.

And it's not like he had much of a choice in the beginning anyway.

He turns the knob but, of course, the door is locked, but he's not waiting for long. The lock clicks and whoever stands on the other side cracks it open without a greeting.

Shikamaru stares at the slightly parted door. This is his choice, but choices often leave lifelong consequences. Massaging his chest with a hand, he nudges the door open with his foot.

On the other side, the light is much brighter. A clean fluorescent glow bleaches the walls, the floor. The tiles extend outside of the room, but inside the humming light fixtures give it a glassy shimmer. Like a morgue that's been thoroughly cleaned.

Sai sits at a table in the middle of the room, he rises with a blank expression, setting a brightly colored paperback face down. Two glasses and a pitcher are the only semblance of decoration.

Many questions turn over in Shikamaru's head but they won't be answered. He is to remain in the dark until he has completed the eight weeks.

"I have answers." Sai's voice surprises him, like piercing a dream.

"I thought..."

"Just take a seat." Sai kicks the metal chair around with his ankle, then scoots it on the opposite side of the table. "Sit," he says with a little more command.

Shikamaru does what he is told, readily, ill-prepared all the same, ill-equipped mentally for what could transpire in the next ten minutes. Sai props himself of the edge of the table, folding his arms.

People who are unreadable have always made Shikamaru uncomfortable. Sai's fettered attitude never sat well. He wonders how Ino ever managed to coexist with such iciness.

He knows he shouldn't judge Sai so cruelly. It might not be iciness at the surface. Just well sorted logic. Emotions and logic rarely mix well together.

"Kakashi thought it would be appropriate for me to be your proctor." Sai's eyes don't reflect the light. The darkness of his stare engulfs Shikamaru's overworked ability to think.

"I thought you didn't miss this kind of work." Shikamaru recalls Naruto saying so.

"Times have changed," Sai says prophetically. "I never missed it. It's never been an identity. Identity requires emotional labor."

Sai extends an arm across the table for the pitcher of water and begins to pour Shikamaru a glass.

"But...I'm glad to be here." Sai's brows wrinkle together as he thinks of something. Even with a clear expression, Shikamaru can't figure what would cause him to ponder so.

"Glad. Yea. That's the word I want to use." He hands Shikamaru the glass.

"You're passive?" Shikamaru receives it, perplexed by the generous gesture. The back of his ears grow hot thinking about the obviousness of his anxiety.

"Passive. Maybe." Sai pushes himself from the table and walks around to where the chair had once been.

A cold moment of silence follows after. Shikamaru's sweaty hands slip around the glass as he throws his head back, downing it like it's air.

"How is Ino?" Sai doesn't blink.

"More or less the same." Shikamaru isn't startled by the question. The normal social barriers between them had not only been destroyed before hand but have no place now, considering that they are on the path of becoming equals.

"Do you still love her?"

"In the friendliest way possible." Shikamaru wipes his lips with the back of his hand.

Since the moment he had stepped inside, Sai has watched Shikamaru with a hawkish attentiveness. It breaks briefly when he looks down at his hand, drumming his fingers. A quirk that makes him more human than robotic.

"So tell me about yourself, Shikamaru Nara. What do you plan to personally achieve through all this?" Sai asks with a rare show of emotional perceptiveness. "How do we share the same friends but lack a relationship?"

A tiny thump of pain starts at the back of Shikamaru's neck. He raises a hand to rub the spot, wincing.

"Would I lose credibility if I admitted to being a victim of my whims?" Shikamaru manages a small laugh.

"No." Sai doesn't laugh with him.

"Then...I have no real answer. I'm betting I won't have one until the very end." Shikamaru clears his throat.

"That's a good thing. It means you won't expect too much of yourself. When you fail, your disappointment will have less of an effect on your mental."

"You already think I'm gonna fail?" Shikamaru's brows wrinkle. The warm pain trickles down his spine, his head feels heavy on his neck.

"Are you naive enough to think you will always succeed?" Sai's expression doesn't change. It's not an insult, Shikamaru reminds himself. An insult necessitates cruel intent. He can't respond. This could be his very first test. There's a possibility that this conversation has a script with a predetermined answer: 1, 2, or 3.

Shikamaru shifts in his chair, unable to feel his back side. The room is so white that he doubts his blurring vision. The only color to latch onto is Sai, but Sai's form doesn't warp. He's too close.

"Failure builds character," Sai says after a while.

"I don't fail often."

"How old are you?"

"23." Shikamaru hunches forward, propping his elbows on the table. Suddenly he breaks into a cold sweat. The spaces wear heat collects sting; the crook in his arm, his pits, the back of his legs, where the skin folds. Even the corners of his nose.

"You've got time. Statistically forty more years." Sai's tone stays the same.

They are quiet, save for Shikamaru's breathing. The table shakes as Sai pushes himself upright. His footsteps are a hard pounding outside of Shikamaru's foggy consciousness. Sai says something but it's a mutter lost in the very bright white.

A few minutes pass and Sai nudges Shikamaru with another glass.

"Do you need another glass?" His voice sounds like he's on the opposite end of a tunnel. The lights around his head faintly shadowing his pale features.

Shikamaru stares at the warbling shape of the glass– it makes complete sense then.

Forty more years isn't a long time, but he realizes he won't have to wait at all. It will only take a few more seconds and that excess of forty years will drop off like dead weight.

At this point, he only knows it is Sai before him because it is a fact. Not because he can properly access his bone structure or the gait of his walk. Shikamaru buries his head in the crook of his arm, succumbing to the muscle melting migraine.

Sai kneels beside him...and mutters something. It's not clear, Sai could be screaming at him and he wouldn't have the senses to know.

Shikamaru fails a test for the first time. Accidentally. That's the last thought he has before the glistening white turns purple to black.

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Chapter Text

"...time was not passing...it was turning in a circle..." ~ Gabriel García Márquez

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"Shikamaru Nara."

He had failed his first test. This is the first thought that he has regaining consciousness.

If he were to be asked what it's like to break a winning streak, he'd say—liberating.

"Age, twenty three. Height...one hundred seventy six centimeters..." Sai's voice is accompanied by a sharp click of a pen cap.

If Shikamaru's mouth weren't dry, he would've laughed. Instead, he coughs so hard, it's like trying to upchuck razor blades hung in his throat. His entire body aches. It hurts to swallow his spit.

They are still in the white room, or in a white room if not the same one.

"Hm...you have a birthday next week." Sai flips through a yellow folder. He sets the pen down. "The first day of fall. I bet your mom thinks you're close to a special blessing."

Shikamaru picks the crust from his eye. Both of his arms are bandaged with gauze, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Clearly, he had been stuck with needles.

"All moms are supposed to feel that way." It's even painful to talk. The sound of his own croaky voice causes him to wince.

"I wouldn't know." Sai pulls out a piece of paper and places it face down on the table.

The brightness of the room begins to look less like a puddle reflecting light, Sai's figure no longer an abstract shape, but hardening into a solid form. Like always, he's free of any expression. A pause in conversation, if that's what the exchange could be called, goes on for what feel like thirty minutes.

Thirty minutes of Sai licking the tips of his fingers as he flips down another page. Thirty minutes of the scratchy sound the ball of a pen makes against thick paper.

Thirty minutes of Shikamaru enduring a full bladder. He sits up to stretch but two heavy hands rest on his shoulders. They don't force him down—the incentive to move just dies quickly.

"I can't fucking pee?" Shikamaru looks up at the shinobi in a bird mask.

"Of course you can." Sai pulls a clear plastic cup from seemingly nowhere and tips it to roll across the table. It lands on the floor instead of Shikamaru's lap.

"All your blood work came back fine." Sai finally closes the folder.

"How long have I been out?"

Sai doesn't respond. He rests his elbows on the table, laces his fingers together and rests his chin on his knuckles. Looking ahead but nowhere in particular. He is thinking.

"Did I need to be drugged for a physical exam?" Shikamaru struggles to find his voice.

"No, but that was your fault. You broke an important rule. Never trust a familiar face no matter how many times it has smiled at you or asked you about your day." Sai points an accusing finger at him.

Shikamaru can't recall ever seeing Sai smile. He's certain he isn't capable of it.

"How long have I..." Shikamaru strangles.

"Here are the rules, Shikamaru. You listen and talk less. You're here to learn. There is no equal exchange." Sai releases a long sigh. If sound could be perceived by the naked eye, his tone would tumble to the floor and break into itty bitty pieces of impersonal resentment.

Sai's voice is loud, but he speaks so softly.

"We are not equals. Even after the eight weeks. You are not his equal." Sai nods his head at the shinobi, his grip still iron clad on Shikamaru's shoulder.

"So I need you to act as a pupil would—with eagerness and respect. Are we clear?" He pauses.

Shikamaru inhales. He curls his toes in his sandals. His hesitation doesn't come from doubt. It's his instinct to challenge. Something Asuma told him to get a hold of—it's possible to know everything and absolutely nothing at the same time.

Not every truth is a weapon forged against your body.

Shikamaru nods his head. "Sure."

"Good." Sai smiles at him for the first time. He stands from the table and the chair hisses against the floor. Sai picks up his pen again and re-opens the folder, considering another thought.

"What you're signing up for isn't a duty. It's more than that. You are working under no obligation. Each of us have our own personal goals. We aren't a brotherhood, but we exclusively operate under a mutual understanding that we are all trying to be the strongest version of ourselves. There is no such thing as completeness. We are always evolving."

"A collective of individuals." Shikamaru says matter-of-factly.

"You're speaking out of turn." Sai retorts mechanically.

And the masked shinobi struck Shikamaru with a powerful, yet subdued blow to the head. Not hard enough to give him a concussion, but strong enough that Shikamaru wets himself from shock.

His head fills up with static ringing.

"The next eight weeks are going to be about your endurance and discipline. When a superior summons you, you are expected to answer. Under no circumstance are you allowed to 'take a day off'. If you are summoned and do not follow procedure, that's an immediate termination from training. Tardiness is unacceptable."

It's difficult for Shikamaru to conceive the 'best' version of himself sitting in a puddle of his own urine. The warmth is startling as it trickles down his leg—his brain has yet to process how cold the room had been. He shudders.

Sai spins the pen in his hand as he walks around the table, not seeming to mind the urine pooling around his sandals.

"No one here wants to see you fail."

Shikamaru overcomes the dizziness of his discomfort. Clenching his jaws, he holds Sai's patronizing stare. He frowns so hard, he worsens his throbbing headache, entire face still on fire as if the fist is perfectly nestled against his temple. Held in place. The ridges of the knuckles pressing against his skull, a detail he can't nod off. This pain is specific and he will be sure to remember it until he dies.

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Nothing smells worse than cooked hair. Ino thought she hated the loud smell of coffee in the morning. Her hair sizzling makes her think otherwise. She frees a tuft from the wand, the curl unravels and bounces around her cheek.

Later—it's a hard rock in her throat. A whole day had gone by, still pending at ten in the morning. She wonders what he does so often that eats up his time. Living with him, she knew that he didn't live chaotically.

For someone so lazy and unmotivated, Shikamaru woke up and went through the same routine. Rarely breaking it. He never missed any of his three meals. Whenever he left, he made a point to come home no later than an hour after sunset.

Ino damn near burns her ear off bringing the wand too close to her scalp. She flinches. Half of her hair spirals around her shoulders, the rest she pins back with bright blue clips.

After an hour, she finishes curling all of her hair. As she looks at her reflection in the vanity, a memory tingles the inside of her thighs. Some days she gets the gumption to tell Shikamaru every pressing thought, but it never comes out when they are face to face. Saying so would make it an absolute truth and not a wet daydream.

It's like saying 'I love you' in the middle of an orgasm.

It shouldn't count.

Ino looks at the clock and hisses a series of 'damn it's' under her breath. Her mother had asked her to be at the Akimichi house no later than 10:30 a.m.

11:00 a.m. becomes 11:30 a.m.

After a while she just stops watching the time.

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No sugar.

No salt.

No sex.

Not even one cigarette a day to suppress his appetite.

Shikamaru has a strong, pitiful feeling that these restrictions weren't temporary. Sai had called it a 'light fast'.

Give up something worn out for something new—he had said. What did Sai know about letting go?

"You look like shit." Choji stands over his bed. The sunlight burns Shikamaru's lids until he begins to see purple and orange spots, but he's too exhausted to roll under his covers.

"State the obvious...so I know it's real." Even his jaw hurts when he talks. What kind of punch lingers for so long but doesn't take you under?

Choji rolls up the blinds and nudges the window open. The fresh air extends Shikamaru's suffering. Freshly cut grass, the humidity lifting the scent of fabric softener from the vents, a painfully loud vibrating sound from god knows where...reminding him of the electric hum the hair clippers made against his scalp. His skull hasn't stopped rattling.

A head full of imaginary bees, Shikamaru opens one eye to observe Choji.

"I want to ask..." Choji sits down a plate of food.

"Don't ask." Shikamaru gags at the pungency. Whatever he had ingested hadn't worn off. Then he wonders if they had pumped him up with more drugs while he was blacked out.

Choji shuts his mouth, wheeling Shikamaru's old chair around. The plastic wheels squeak as he sits.

"I don't know how to feel about you getting into mess without me..."

"Mess? I just don't feel well. It's like food poisoning without the bubble guts." Shikamaru grumbles, using his sheets to wipe the sweat from his brows. For an hour he had battled with being extremely hot or cold. Kicking the sheets back then later rolling himself back up for the sensation of pressure.

"Your mom thinks that but I know better."

At that, Shikamaru really frowns.

Choji flips open the lid of the plastic container and helps himself to Shikamaru's supposed lunch. Both of them glaring.

"What are you accusing me of?" Shikamaru clears his throat.

"You never waste no time..." Choji licks his fingers, dipping and swirling his pinky in the side of sauce.

"You're saying a whole lot of nothing. I can't fix it if you don't tell me whats wrong." Shikamaru shoves back the covers to sit up right. Mindfully tugging his sleeves down to hide the bandages. He gives Choji a stern look.

"I don't know what I'm trying to say." Choji leans back, biting the food under his nails.

"Figure it the hell out. You've got five minutes or I'm pretending you never said a damn thing." Shikamaru throws a pillow at him with the little strength he has in his arms.

It takes him exactly five minutes. Choji closes the lid shut, swiveling side to side with a foot propped on a knee.

"It just feels like you've been leaving me out for the past couple of years."

"Out of what?" Shikamaru rubs his neck.

"Everything. It's like as soon as you got engaged to Temari, you just up and went—now you just come and go. We don't talk."

"You know everything about me, Choji..."

"Everything you want me to know."

There are certain things that no one needs to know. Shikamaru doesn't want to spend his time talking about the girls he slept with nor the drugs he used to combat his sleep deprivation. He's made progress now. The two bad habits he keeps now—telling the truth and smoking more than five cigarettes a day.

"There's just been times that I've needed you but you're always in a hurry or too busy."

He doesn't remember Choji ever being so sentimental.

"I'm here now." Shikamaru's tongue feels like paper in his mouth.

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She could run the entire way, but the dress is so tight, it's hard to breathe. Her stomach expands and the fabric feels as though it's going to tear. And if she runs, she'll sweat her curls into a pitiful state of limpness.

Tip-toeing on the hot pavement, she slides her feet into her white heels.

Along the way, she fantasizes. What if Shikamaru turned a corner right now? Would her anger vanish...or double?

There are better things she could be worrying about. Like what exactly does she expect of herself in the next five years?

Stumbling over a crack, she picks the hem of her dress from her panties.

If she were her mother, she'd be persistent in her anger as well. If you beat a dog hard enough, it will learn a new trick.

Ino's new trick is detaching herself from physical stimulus. Lighting the weight of her body so, that if the wind blows in the right direction, her soul will float into the sky.

But today, she keeps her feet planted on the surface. There's a destination today. If she survives she can melt into the comfort of her pillows later.

'Later...'

Ino sucks in her bottom lip.

Why make a promise you can't make good on?

She never made promises she couldn't keep.

A light blow of wind frees her bangs from the hairpin she had struggled with. She stops in front of a shop window to readjust it in place. Where she wants all of it to go, her hair is too thick and the bobby pin is too small to hold it.

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Karui is pregnant.

Choji's face loses color.

The Akimichi's aren't known for being conventional but they are the dictionary definition of traditionalists. They do things the right way, through their own methods, but never scandalous.

"You want to marry her so what's the big deal, Cho?" Shikamaru rubs his thumb along his brow.

"Yes, but not sooner than I had anticipated."

"Do you feel like you've made a mistake?

Choji pauses, bottom lip hanging low. He sniffs a fake sniffle as he reconciles with himself. Shikamaru's eyes widen.

"You're going to judge me."

"I won't." He's confident that he knows where Choji's heart is at.

"If I can't tell mom, then it's a mistake."

Shikamaru believes Choji is not giving his mother enough credit, but he keeps this thought to himself. Not everyone has a mom like Yoshino.

It takes all of Shikamaru to stand from his bed, but he's resilient. All in one piece and not dead. He looks down at Choji and releases a watery sigh.

The warmth of the sunlight lightens the walls of his bedroom. His bedroom glows or his eyes are still tired.

Shikamaru doesn't know what to say and Choji expects him to know an answer that hasn't been there to begin with.

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Ino tries to look on the bright side. Her mother will at least be pleased with her presentation. It will show that she cares somewhat. It doesn't matter that she is rotten on the inside. As long as her skin is still soft and smells nice, no one will suspect that something has gone amiss.

She stands outside the Akimichi gate, lacing and unlacing her fingers. Overcome by a sudden bout of anxiety. These people aren't strangers but she feels as if she is making a first impression.

The positive of it all is that the purpose of this gathering is for Kurenai. Kurenai will have to shoulder the burden of all the sad looks and questions. Ino will endure a small percentage of it.

"Ino— why are you just out here by yourself?"

She looks to her side.

Kiba is a face she hadn't expected to see. She takes a step away from the gate, the heat rising from her stomach to her face. If the wind strikes her the wrong way, she'll hunch over and vomit.

But she keeps her composure. Akamaru runs up to her legs, pressing his tongue to her skin, dragging it up to her knee cap. His saliva mixing with the coat of her moisturizer causes a gooey sensation against her skin.

Carrying a bag, Kiba stops beside her, chewing on a stick of beef jerky.

"I just wasn't ready to go inside, is all," She says as if it is a completely rational statement.

Kiba smiles crookedly at her, but doesn't say anything for a moment. She gets the feeling that he is at a loss for words.

"I mean, it is kinda depressing. I'm betting my life Kurenai hates it but...she doesn't have it in her to reject them." He speaks solemnly. "We can both use five more minutes."

Ino doesn't smile when he laughs awkwardly. She just stands beside him with her hands folded.

The conversation stops abruptly. They've never had much to say to each other. Some paths never cross, no matter how small the village is. Akamaru sits between them thumping his tail on the concrete.

Kiba looks up at the sky, full of clouds.

"Last time I saw you, it was at the wedding."

"I barely remember that day..."

"Yea me neither. It went as fast as it came." He lightly chews on the remains of his jerky. "It wasn't meant for 'us' to remember anyway."

Another pause. It becomes obvious that he's grasping for words. He opens his mouth but closes it three times. Akamaru makes a noise that sounds like a complaint.

"Ok, I'm pressing the button now!" Kiba announces.

"Ok." Ino mutters.

The button doesn't sound off a buzz nor a polite bell. It's silent, aside from the click it makes when Kiba removes the pressure of his finger.

Two seconds and the gate opens. Neither of them make sudden movements. Kiba's leg twitches but he waits. Biting down on her tongue, Ino resists the urge to snap at him. She has yet to declutter her mental head space.

"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." He breathes and makes the first step.

Ino watches Akamaru follow him to the front door. She steps inside the gate but doesn't move any further.

She needs ten more minutes.

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The Akimichi house is hysterical with forced happiness. People have their own methods of coping. Sometimes, when those sad people come together, it's a colorful catastrophe of distraught personalities. There is too much food for any normal person to consume. All of it for the sake of poor Kurenai, who needs nothing, therefore she never asks for anything. But people give regardless. And Kurenai takes because she'd rather carry the burden of her low spirits than to lower someone else's.

The Allied Mothers Force refused to dissolve itself. There's always been a thread that had sewn them all together but it never needed a name. The war had given them an unsolvable purpose. Kurenai is expected to participate in their journey to figuring the nothing out.

"Ino, you've grown to be such a beautiful woman!" Mrs. Akimichi shoves a hot roll of bread into Ino's mouth. It's rude to turn down food in the Akimichi house. Ino struggles to eat it with a smile. It's her third roll in the past thirty minutes. She swallows it dry.

"Send your single sons her way—I want at least five grandkids." Ino's mother passes a wiggling Mirai to Hinata, who struggles like her arms are noodles. Ino catches herself scowling into space as she chews the bread. It stops having a distinct taste.

"I swear—every time I see you you're trying to auction her off!" Yoshino protests loudly, freeing Hinata of the struggling Mirai. It's been like a game of hot potato.

"Ino, what are you doing with yourself? Are you still single?" Mrs. Akimichi curls her lips into a frown. Yoshino rolls her eyes and sits Mirai on her knees. Kurenai absently eats at a plate.

Hinata gives Ino a passive expression. Ino swallows the last of the roll and scans all of their faces, waiting on answer, save for Yoshino who looks a lot like Shikamaru when he's agitated.

Her heart flutters. Hesitation parts her lips but moves no words. She and Shikamaru haven't had sex in a while, not since they've agreed to be 'friends' but they still fall into the routine of doing things as if they are a unit. He still kisses her like he means it. She means it too.

"Of course she is. She couldn't keep up with Sai!" Mrs. Yamanaka sips from a cup. She had either forgotten catching Ino in Shikamaru's arms or is truly committed to pretending it never happened.

Ino doesn't say a word. The world isn't going to allow her to forget Sai.

"Sai is such a nice young man—not hard on the eyes at all." Kurenai takes Mirai back from Yoshino.

"All I ask is for Ino to get some priorities or find the most eligible man to settle down with. It's the least she can do since she won't be carrying the Yamanaka name. Is it wrong to want the best for my daughter?"

"Give it a rest. She's not even in her mid twenties. Kiba are you single?" Yoshino slides her plate away and it doesn't go unnoticed by Mrs. Akimichi.

Kiba is clearly only there for Kurenai's moral support and to be Hinata's security blanket. He'd eaten in silence. Mirai has somehow escaped Kurenai's grasp and rolls on the floor with Akamaru, who also does not go unfed.

"Last time I checked I was." He says with a crumby mouthful. Hinata innocently glares at him like it's surprising news.

"See—he isn't worried about all this marriage mumbo jumbo!" Yoshino waves a hand in the air.

"Isn't Shikamaru engaged?" Mrs. Yamanaka arches a brow.

"Not anymore for the better. He's moody and shiftless. Stumbles home at all hours of the night. He came in this morning stomping loud through the house...said he doesn't feel well." Yoshino begrudgingly accepts another plate of food. Mrs. Akimichi makes her rounds like feeding people into a coma is her life's mission.

"If he eats all that I sent him he will feel better in no time!" Mrs. Akimichi interjects.

"Is he ok?" It's the most Ino has spoken.

"He has no other option but to be ok. He can't lay around my house all damn day." Giving a light shrug, Yoshino slides a cut of meat into her mouth.

"My point is..." Mrs. Yamanaka continues, "Ino doesn't volunteer. When was the last time you've taken up your duty as a kunoichi?"

Ino keeps her attention on her plate, swirling her chopsticks around in her food. Her face stolid. A tinge of red blooms at her cheeks.

"She hasn't contributed anything to the community. I don't have a son..."

"You don't need a son..." Kurenai interjects.

Ino drops her chopsticks and curls her hands into fists. No matter where she goes, she is the center of attention. Negative or positive. It's always been this way but she can't endure it today. There's no will in her to fight it.

Mrs. Yamanaka carries on, but Ino pushes herself away from the table.

The conversation deadens to a cleared throat and a cough.

It seems that no matter what Ino does or does not do, she'll always be at fault for something. Eating but never getting full. Expecting and not getting what she asks for.

Such is the cycle of her gluttony.

As she fiercely struts down the hall, the bottoms of her feet slapping against the hardwood floor, Ino notices the distant sound of something cracking inside of herself. It isn't her heart. It's the frame that had been supporting the image of her worldview. How she has perceived herself, the 'perfection' she had inherited from generations of beautiful women, the blood of men with fists strong enough to punch a hole in the Earth.

She makes it to the front door, a door she has gone in and out of many times, shoves her feet into her heels. In a fit, she kicks the other shoes into disorder.

"Ino..." Hinata stands at the first step of two like a sad apparition—in a white dress where the fabric bunches around her décolletage.

Saying nothing, Ino fastens the buckles of the straps.

"No one is judging you." Hinata says clearly.

Ino stomps her toes in place and brushes the long sweep of curls from her shoulder.

"I don't care if you do or don't."

Hinata takes the blow because they've endured the same training for the same amount of years.

Ino doesn't waste another moment inside the Akimichi house.

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Choji leaves disappointed—his energy eats up the willfulness that Shikamaru has managed to salvage after pissing himself.

There is no right answer for something so natural. Choji's anger confuses him. A thing so simple, a by-product of happiness shouldn't make a man forlorn.

Maybe Choji doesn't see himself as a man and that's what terrifies him.

Shikamaru criticizes his terrible way of thinking himself into a bad mood. He'd know the answer if he had been paying attention, like Choji had stated. Yet Shikamaru doesn't consider himself a man either. He just exists and his veins are prominent in his arms.

A part of him has died. He stepped out of the Hokage's office a different person. The progression is rapid, he feels it like he's falling and his guts have risen to his throat.

How should he exist now that he isn't the same person from forty-two hours ago?

As he places a pain pill on his tongue, the doorbell rings. This could mean that Choji has gotten over his hurt feelings and is ready to forgive him.

Walking out of the kitchen, he swallows the pill without water.

He can't foresee the next twenty-four hours.

Ino presses the doorbell three more times with her thumb. Shikamaru takes his time regardless of the time of day, but Ino shoves her thumb hard against the button one more time in hopes that the vibration will pick up her desperation.

He takes his time to unlock the door. The click sound the knob makes as it turns instigates a tornado of butterflies in her stomach. She's never felt so sick for attention from one person.

The never-coming 'later' had incensed her.

Shikamaru opens the door, a target for her agony. She wants to hurt him, opening her mouth wide, but the words stop as she takes in the prominence of his ears without the thickness of his hair. He hasn't looked this way since he was seven.

He puts one hand over her mouth and the other behind her neck, guiding her inside. Ino wraps both hands around his wrist, huffs into his palm and kicks the door shut with her foot.

"Please do me a favor..." His voice is hoarse.

Ino nods slowly,a strand of golden hair trapped in her lashes, held in place by the clumps of mascara. She looks as if she has been crying, or trying not to.

"Keep it to yourself."

She hums into his hand, glowering. He waits a minute, until her eyes narrow into sharp slits. The pressure of his hand turns her face pink.

His skin roughly passing over her lips, he frees her. Two spaces between his fingers wet with her saliva. Cracking her lips into a smile, she tips his chin back with her hand, observing his face like she doesn't already know which angles are soft or hard.

"Your forehead looks so relaxed." Ino whispers.

He sighs through clenched teeth.

All that anger she has saved for him loses its solid form. It melts to a soft consistency. Loosening her neck but still warm in her chest. He removes her hand from his face.

"You're not funny." He huffs.

Ino kicks off her shoes and follows him into the living room. "I wasn't trying to be!"

Shikamaru mimics the pitch of her voice with a vocal fry. He throws himself down on the couch with too much of his weight, grimacing.

Ino stands over him. Quietly staring. Sullen. Shikamaru stares back up at her, folding an arm over his head.

"I'm sorry." She mutters. The short sleeves of her dress sit crookedly on her shoulders.

"No you're not," He says unemotionally.

That sounds like a challenge.

Shikamaru's expression doesn't change. He drops his foot to the floor with a hard thud. As he stretches, his shirt crawls up his abdomen. It's been a while since she's last seen his belly button.

The monstrosity of her feelings has crawled from such a deep place, she can only imagine that it had been sitting and waiting for years. Growing in size. She can't recall nurturing it. She had always imagined that love would be something you could determine for yourself. As simple as picking a box of cereal from the store shelf.

But that isn't the case at all.

It happens so abruptly. Even when she doesn't mean to, the ugly part of her soul that wants to only devour, it thirst and does not relent. Lust and gluttony become very indistinguishable.

Ino hikes up her dress and straddles him. His instant reaction is to grab her thighs, but before he can say anything, Ino inhales his breath and consumes any attempt to persuade her otherwise. Not that he really can.

He can only squeeze out her name and it's weak—she laps up the syllables and they slide down her throat. His hands run up the smoothness of her thighs, stopping at her hips, applying pressure at the defined curve of her bones with his fingertips.

Ino pulls away from his mouth and looks down at him. Her fingers grabbing at the fly of his pants.

She means to say something, because he glares at her in way that can be confused as pain. His look is dark, and she knows him well enough to recognize his conflicting thoughts. She blames herself.

Ino takes his hands and drags them above her hips, under her dress, up to her ribcage. The seams pop as she tugs it over her head, completely splitting the zipper on the side open. She can never wear it again. All the breath she's been holding frees itself and the feelings she's been dragging around for some time. Her hair musses to one side, the curls flatten.

Shikamaru brings his hands higher, sweeping over the path of her ribs. Not breaking eye contact, Ino slips her fingers inside of his pants and tugs them down enough to release his erection.

At this point, Shikamaru accepts defeat. He isn't disciplined, that cup of emotions overflows and wastes itself everywhere. Leaking out of all facets of his life. He tugs her panties to the side, abandoning the possibility of a consequence. He will just have to figure it out later.

She bends down to kiss him, burying her hands under his shirt. Rediscovering the definition of his muscles like a map she hasn't studied a million times already. He pushes himself inside of her and she sighs a noise into his mouth.

Ino starts with a slow rise and fall, to savor every minute it takes to reach her orgasm. The gradual climb is where she ought to pour all of her feelings, and she does. Meticulously because it's been a while. Where she places her hands matter—how she purposely doesn't take all of him until he raises his hips to meet hers.

As her feelings creep from their hiding place, they drag along the jagged frustration she cannot articulate. Its upsurge cuts her from the inside. Shikamaru rolls his hips against hers, his tongue absorbing the uproot of her exasperation.

If you suck on something long enough, your jaws will begin to ache.

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Skin tastes like salt. Shikamaru wonders if that counts. He leans his head back and stares up at the ceiling fan. Pants still unbuttoned and an erection that persists even after an orgasm. He might not be as disciplined as he has hoped, but he had enough control to release himself against her stomach.

She didn't wipe it away either, which he found repulsively amusing. Ino slides back into her dress and sits next to him, managing to still look effortlessly stunning. She looks straight ahead into the shallow dimness of the living room.

"I'm going to have to burn this couch now." It's the first thing he says.

"Don't be dumb. You were most likely conceived on this couch." Ino brushes all her hair back with her fingers. The fabric hangs loose where it should be snug. The zipper had seen its last day, permanently flapping open. She slumps her arms and throws her head back next to his.

Shikamaru can't stop frowning. The muscles in his face won't allow him to relax. For four reasons—the most important one being his inability to smoke a cigarette.

"Shit." He says to himself, rubbing his face with his hands.

Ino watches him around the untidy fluff of her hair heaping around her face and neck. Her heart feels thirty pounds lighter.

"Shit? Am I a lousy lay now or something?" She dead pans.

Shikamaru hunches forward, sitting his elbows on his knees, pulling and massaging the skin on his face. Then he runs his hands through his short hair and scratches his scalp.

"No. It just shouldn't have happened."

"Why not?" She slightly raises her voice.

A sigh vibrates out of him, but other than that they share only space. No words. As their knees touch he sort of shudders. The heat of her skin ripples through him like a second climax.

"Whatever happened to later?" She drawls as she straightens the hem of her ruined dress.

He peaks at her over his shoulder. It takes him a minute to piece it together.

"I've been busy on duty, Ino."

"It's not like you've been outside the village—you're not that damn busy." She crosses her legs, thighs still unnecessarily wet.

"What would you know?" he rasps.

She sits up and her hair drapes around her arms, "Because I just know!"

Shikamaru contemplates the next thing to say, but his mind can't unhook itself from the vow he had taken. The simple principle of doing something you promised not to do in the dark—he sweats.

He resolves to keep his tongue pressed against the ridges at the roof of his mouth. His erection finally kills itself. Ino watches him intently with watery eyes, face ironed into a smooth frown.

"Sai made time for me and he wasn't committed to anything other than his self perseveration." She's not sure why she tells him this. It just comes out of her like the clap of thunder before a storm.

The statement isn't entirely true. Even if it were only ninety percent fabricated, it burns him up. Now she has his undivided attention.

"Didn't he leave you?" It was what he had been told.

A lump rolls down her throat. In this moment, Ino finds out that her strength is not immense. Only a fake substance that she had dug up from the bloodied soil, caked onto her body and called skin.

Sai did leave her, but her heart had never settled itself next to his.

This is the first time Shikamaru has ever shattered her—the emphasis in his 'you' sticks itself to every empty corner of her self conscience.

But her hurt feelings don't foam up in her mouth. Ino gets up, almost stumbling but she catches herself.

"What difference does that make?" She meekly asks of him.

Shikamaru stands above her eye level. Ino takes a step back as if he were about to strike her down with something blunter than a fist. She suddenly feels the urgency to protect the parts of her heart that are still soft and untouched.

Her body language tells him not to answer it. Ino has never shied away from him. It takes everything not to say something just so she can respond in the way that's familiar.

Ino quickly collects herself and swings away from him with all of her hair. She moves entirely too damn fast for his heart. It can't catch up with that part of his brain that forms sentences.

She's already at the door snatching up her white heels, a whole seven feet away before he pulls her name out of his wind pipe.

"I didn't mean it that way." He doesn't know what he meant. Sai is a nonfactor in the context of 'them'.

Ino hurls one of her shoes in his direction. He catches it in one hand.

She wipes the beginning of her tears with the tips of her fingers, but all of that preserved misery rises like bile in the back of her throat. Gripping her other shoe, she unravels into the kind of sob that pushes all the air from the lungs. It's the kind of cry that empties the subconscious.

Shikamaru tosses her shoe on the couch then approaches her, but Ino lunges the second shoe right at his chest. He doesn't catch it this time, the impact startles him. Physically, it does not hurt but it stirs up a feeling of anxiousness.

Unable to wrap his head around her fury, he can't shake his speech to form an apology.

Ino slams the door in his face, stepping back out into the world shoeless. She leaves him to ponder this distinct taste of fear. He is losing and regaining simultaneously at rapid speed.

Shikamaru throws his hands up and lets out a gusty suspire.

What is he to do with two of the most important people in his life angry with him?

He drops down to scoop up her heel by the strap. Another breath to realign his emotional well-being. He no longer sweats because he is agitated, but he is hungry for food of substance.

Then he falls over and sits on the floor like a child. The sunlight burns through the windows and stretches his silhouette across the floor. For all the shadows he could manipulate, something about his had always been terrifying.

Temari had told him it's because he cannot recognize himself.

Shikamaru observes the worn bottoms of the shoe and fathoms all the pain they'd caused Ino's ankles and calves.

A crawling sensation tickles his right arm, the one where they had stuck him with the most needles. Shikamaru tosses the shoe indignantly away from him and rolls back his shirt sleeve. Barely the size of a button, a shiny black bug journeys down his forearm.

He smashes it with his palm.

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Chapter Text

Ino has always taken the role as an adversary in his life. Since she was five, if he had to pick a starting point. The worst about it is that she does it without trying hard. It's just a skill she has sharpened over time. And then she dropped off the face of the earth for a year and a half. Well—it took him a year and a half to realize she hadn't been present.

It feels wrong to touch things in his mom's house without washing his hands. There's no possible way of Yoshino ever figuring out that he's touched the walls with dried semen on his hands, but he won't be able to comfortably watch her reach for the door knobs.

Shikamaru scrubs his hands with soap then again with dish washing liquid between his fingers. If bleach didn't burn, he'd dip his hands in that too. He shuts off the sink, watches the suds swirl down the drain.

He comes to recognize an error in his way of thinking. After all this time, maybe he and Choji hadn't given her enough credit. They had missed something in the middle of making themselves feel better.

'No commitments.' Kakashi reminds him.

Shikamaru had lied to him though. It's probably the first lie he's ever told in his adulthood.

He observes his arm and peels off the gauze. Tiny dried clusters made his skin red.

"What the fuck did they do to me?" Shikamaru asks no one.

The years, months, days, minutes to seconds he spent doing any and everything cause him to fall apart. Shikamaru thinks over and over again until his chest tightens— What have I gotten myself into?

He violently throws up into the sink. His stomach is empty but he heaves like he's infected with a virus. It's just clear acid that collects around the drain, mixed in with bubbles of his saliva.

The front door opens and he shuts on the faucet. Shikamaru does his best to compose himself, using the sleeve of his shirt to wipe away the tears a body makes when the throat and nasal cavity is on fire.

"I thought you didn't feel well?" Yoshino stands in the doorway. She looks so much smaller than she normallyl does to him. He's not all that tall to begin with. It must be the dizziness of not eating a proper meal.

"I don't." He rubs a trail of snot on his wrist.

Yoshino glares at him with all the love he's been missing for a while. It can't be mistaken for anything else. She throws her bag on the counter and snaps for him to take a seat at the table.

"Did you eat what I sent you?"

"Choji ate it." Shikamaru sits.

"Shika...I really don't get your unhealthy habits." She begins to rummage through the fridge. "You might as well eat gravel for all the cigarettes you smoke."

"I just don't have the appetite."

"Because you sit in your room and mope like you don't have anything to live for."

Shikamaru shuts his mouth. Is that what he looks like to her? He rubs his chin.

"I don't mope."

"Don't argue with me. What do you have an appetite for?" She looks at him sideways.

No sugar or salt. Shikamaru folds his arms and considers his options.

Yoshino stands away from the fridge, propping her elbow against the door, one hand on her hip.

"Rice." He fakes a smile.

"That's it!?" She sucks her teeth.

"That's it."

She doesn't challenge him, just frowns and makes it her mission to satisfy her only child.

"Did I miss anything?" He wouldn't have gone even if his body felt up to it. With all of the focus he has, multiple conversations in one small room make him irritable. Most of all, he doesn't want to participate in a pity party thrown for Kurenai. It not only reminds him that Asuma isn't alive, it makes him feel like a failure for not being able to prevent it.

"Nothing you would've found interesting." She takes a pot from the cabinet.

The rice cooker he bought her sits on top of the fridge still in its box.

He holds down the need to throw up again. His mouth fills up with spit.

"When was the last time you talked to Ino?" Yoshino does everything the old fashioned way: a pot and water. Technology imposed too much on her particular need of doing things the way she had been taught. She scoffed at rice cooker like he had insulted her enough to be disowned.

"Not too long ago." A half truth, not exactly a lie. He realizes his fly is still unzipped and corrects it under the table.

"It's a wonder she hasn't run off and changed her name—Chiharu has her whole hand down her throat." Yoshino rinses the rice through a seive.

Shikamaru doesn't know how to respond. Ino rarely complains about her parents, even as a child. She always zooms in and complains about everything else that offends her.

"And you don't have your hand down my throat?" He teases.

"I'm proud of you no matter what you choose to do or not to do." Yoshino dumps the rice in the pot and sits it on the stove. "Just don't go off and die."

"That's nice to know." Hopefully, he won't be dying any time soon.

"I get wanting the most for you, but I don't think I can openly express my unhappiness with you to an audience." She adds a little bit of water.

"What did she—"

"Chiharu embarrassed the girl. She ran out with her tail between her legs and you don't just run out on a full Akimichi plate..."

Shikamaru bites down and his jaws lock. If Ino had just talked about it, he would've been able to save himself from a sticky orgasm on the couch. He lets out a ragged sigh. The entirety of his face turns pink as he revisits their skin clapping.

Enough time passes for him to not realize that Yoshino had finished his rice. She sits a bowl in front him. The sound it makes against the table startles him straight out of his day dreaming.

Kakashi is right. There's a possibility that he won't finish the eight weeks. If he can't uphold simple rules that is. His future is a lot bigger than how wet or dry his dick is.

Yoshino peers down at him through the thick of her lashes. The corners of her lips are pinched downward but it's not a frown.

"As much as I love Temari and wanted to see you two married, I'm glad it didn't happen. You can only be as happy as your child." She helps herself to a bowl as well and sits across from him.

.

.

Anbu is going to make him a liar. He's going to have to lie to everyone. Civilians, family, victims, and prey alike. There's only one way to navigate impenetrable secrecy and that's to treat everyone as if they are a suspect. Shikamaru brushes his teeth in hopes to scrub away the craving for a cigarette.

Fakery isn't his strong suit. He hadn't been raised that way. Shikaku and Yoshino always told him the truth even if it made Shikamaru hate them for a day.

With a barely satisfied hunger, the toothpaste that he accidentally swallows causes his stomach to ache. He spits out the rest and turns the faucet off.

"I'm going to have to feel like this for eight weeks." Shikamaru talks to himself.

And for a very brief moment, he doubts his ability. Shikaku didn't raise him to be a punk, but fear is a normal human emotion. Not allowing himself to feel it could later result in an irreversible trauma. Avoiding his reflection, he shuts the light off in the bathroom.

Choji had left the container open and the room smells like it.

Sai told him to never get too comfortable— Shikamaru looks at his bed and tries to quantify a level of comfortability without being paranoid. Ino's shoes lay in the middle.

He picks them up by the buckle, lets out a grumbly sigh and glares out the window perfectly positioned in the middle of the wall.

"Why am I always apologizing first?" He asks his faint and transparent reflection in the window. It's because he loves her unconditionally, at his own expense. Shikamaru tightens his hold on her shoe straps and heads out of his room.

He just hopes that between now and the trip to Ino's place, his time to himself will go undisturbed.

But he stops to listen to Yoshino holding a conversation as he makes it down the stairs. He hears Sai before he turns into the kitchen and his stomach does a back flip.

Whatever they had been talking about, it had charmed away Yoshino's hard exterior. Shikamaru can't imagine Sai being good at jokes nor compliments. Sai has a beguiling effect on women, but Shikamaru didn't think his mother could easily fall victim to it. Sai sits at the table, specifically Shikaku's place, and wears his usual expression of indifference. Shikamaru has to remind himself that it's not intentional—that he's just readily defensive.

"Shikamaru, you're supposed to speak to a guest." Yoshino waves a hand.

Shikamaru doesn't budge from the doorway. Ino's shoes dangle at his side. Sai conjures up a slow and steady smile because they both share a similar thought—Shikamaru has to submit to whatever Sai demands of him.

Before Shikamaru can speak...

"Those belong to Ino." Sai stands up from Shikaku's chair. Yoshino makes a face at both of them. Words just refuse to reveal themselves to Shikamaru.

"Yea—" He tries to say more but Sai cuts him off.

"Is that where you're heading to?" Sai's presence is commanding and he seems unaware of it. He's curious in a way that isn't malicious. However the circumstances make Shikamaru's blood boil.

"Why did Ino leave her shoes?" Yoshino rests her chin in her hand, frowning incredibly hard, the wrinkles in her face defined.

"She was in a hurry." Shikamaru's words finally come but they aren't what he needs to use. He grimaces at how incriminating the statement is. Sai bewitches women and makes Shikamaru uncomfortable.

"I can come with you." Sai folds his arms then turns to smile at Yoshino. "It was nice getting the chance to properly meet you, Mrs. Nara."

Yoshino seemingly forgets that she had caught Shikamaru in the middle of a half truth and beams at Sai. "You're most definitely welcome, Sai. Rub some of your good sense off on Shikamaru."

Sai nods his head and turns to Shikamaru with a perfect smile. It's a very real smile, like Sai had gotten genuine joy out of Yoshino's company. Shikamaru doesn't even bother to challenge it, not that he has the option to. He sucks in a breath, and waves a weak hand at Yoshino. Sai follows him out the front door.

Shikamaru fumbles with the keys in the lock. All of his nerves are shot. He locks the door, blinded by a white rage.

"What's it like having a mother?" Sai still has his arms folded.

Shikamaru slides his keys back in his pocket and glares at Sai, bewildered.

"Are you being serious?" It rolls effortlessly off his tongue and sounds cruel. Sai shakes his head, doesn't blink.

The sun is out of view but a faint gold glow bleaches the impending darkness.

"Answer the question." Sai commands him with his natural softness.

Shikamaru stands straighter. Ino's heels poke his thigh. He doesn't know how to answer it, pressed to open his mouth because he might not answer it the way Sai wants him to.

"It's a feeling you just have to know. I can't explain it." Some people have bad mothers.

Sai lowers his head, takes his eyes off Shikamaru and looks up the road, licking his lips then biting the bottom one. Sai begins to walk in the direction of Ino's apartment and Shikamaru follows behind him.

"I see." Sai says after a while and a dark silence falls over them again. Shikamaru stares at the stars blinking down at him. It's amazing how your life can be dug so far in a hole but the world still remains beautiful, completely indifferent and oblivious to the shitty things humans get themselves into. The stars shimmer for Sai too, even though nothing good is about to transpire in the next hour or so.

Out the corner of Shikamaru's eye, he notices a shadowy figure scaling the buildings. Of course, Sai wouldn't come alone. At first he thinks, for Anbu, they should be more inconspicuous, but then he understands that they want him to see them. It's purposefully only at a peripheral view.

"What if she's not home?" Shikamaru sort of hopes she isn't out of one in a thousand chances. The village is small but something feels wrong about bringing a shadowy entourage to her place. Sai had stolen a secret and exposed it to the world.

"She's home." Sai says cooly.

Shikamaru had either shut off the spot in his brain that understood time or he had never realized how close she lives to his mother's house. Which is odd for him because he knows the exact time, down to the seconds, it takes for him to get anywhere else. Had it been a subconscious choice not to know? Did his mind just suddenly choose not to remember the minutes between him and Ino?

They stop at the bottom of the stairs. Sai faces Shikamaru, lips in a straight line as he leans against the railing. Shikamaru gapes at him discomposedly.

"I'll give you ten minutes." Sai doesn't stutter.

"You don't wanna say hi?" Shikamaru's palms are sweaty.

Sai smiles and shakes his head. "Not at all."

Ino is home. The light turns on in her bedroom and he can make out her silhouette behind her curtains.

Shikamaru doesn't waste another minute. As he climbs the stairs, Sai says to him, "Don't go inside."

"Why?" Shikamaru frowns.

"Because you won't come out in ten minutes." Sai is befuddled that Shikamaru has the nerve to ask like it isn't a very clear order. "If you can't do something that simple, then you're wasting my and Kakashi's time."

Ten minutes is a generous amount of time to spend on a porch.

.

.

.

The world just isn't right after any kind of disagreement with Shikamaru. She loses the ability to think straight, dropping things when her arms aren't full, occasionally stubbing her toe against hard corners.

The bottoms of her feet sting. She had chapped and beaten them on the way back. The ground had been so hot that she felt the heat rising like blood to her head. In the moment, it didn't matter, until she stepped her feet on the cool wooden floor of her apartment.

As she tiptoes around her place, she wishes she hadn't exploded. She could've held it in a little longer, screamed it inside of a jar or a pillow, like she has been doing for the past couple of years.

'I'm numb.' She had said some months ago.

'That's not numb. There's nothing numb about anything you do.' Shikamaru made smoke rings that widened into the air.

Ino drops her brush on the floor and just stares at it. The hair tangled in its teeth make her skin crawl, even though it's all hers. She feels terrible but she deserves to feel like this.

She doesn't know how to change the way she is or if it's possible to be less violent towards herself. Any other way feels untrue.

Her heart thumps like it could punch clean through her chest with Shikamaru's sequence of knocks on her door. If it had been anyone else, she would've shut off all the lights and hid behind her couch.

Not for him though. She can't push him out of her life. She had tried and her body protested against it.

When she answers the door, he looks unusually dejected but she blames herself. Her stomach fills up with butterflies. She never realized how much she loves his ears.

"You left your shoes." He smirks painfully, holding out her shoes.

Ino catches herself relearning his new face. His haircut is never going to get old.

"What if I don't want them anymore?" She lightly scoffs.

"Pfft...well I sure as hell can't get my feet in them."

She opens the door wider and waits for him to come inside. He doesn't and it confuses her. He just extends the shoes and she glares at them. They aren't what she wants and he knows this.

"You're not going to come inside?"

"I have some business to take care of. If I come inside I won't make it out in time."

"Right. Like that's a bad thing." She brushes her bangs out of her eyes.

"Don't say it like that." He tosses the shoes inside and they roll on the floor.

"You're really not..."

"I'm really really not gonna..." The most he does is lean against the door frame, close enough to inhale the scent of her shampoo and shower gel.

"Tell Kakashi to hire another glorified secretary." She snorts.

"Woooow. No. I'm not doing that." He laughs.

The overgrowth that made it difficult to love anything had revealed itself to her, yet truth be told, Ino isn't ready to carve it out. It's been there for so long, she's not sure if she is capable of surviving without it. Shikamaru regards her with so much restraint, she lets out a long breath.

"I'm sorry." He means it with every cell in his body.

"I bet you are." She stares back at him, doesn't blink.

"I will make it up to you."

"How?"

"I don't know yet but I will."

"Just five minutes?" She tries again, just to upset herself.

"I can't, Ino."

"Then I will see you later."

"Ok..." His smile fades and she tries her hardest not to melt.

They linger, waiting on the first goodbye.

"I'm sorry." Ino doesn't have it in her to close the door.

"I forgive you. See you later." He licks his bottom lip then bites down, tearing skin.

Ino keeps the door open until she can no longer hear his footsteps.

.

.

.

And it's done just as quickly as it started. It didn't take ten minutes.

.

.

.

.

Shikamaru can't help but to speculate that Sai had meant to invade his safe spaces. If it is the case, then he had succeeded, but Sai gives him no inkling that his assumption is right. Shikamaru does his best not to show that his focus is divided.

They journey into the outskirts until the sky is completely dark, clouds casting a smokey film before the moon. Summer bugs are a lot louder at night, away from the human invasion of buildings. They scream through the shadows with an instinctual indifference towards the season coming to a slow end.

"Have you ever considered your limits, Shikamaru?" Sai turns his head.

"In what capacity?" Shikamaru can think of a few without context, but it's small things like not being able to hold his pee or his irrational disgust towards wet leaves on tile floor.

"Your pain threshold."

"I don't like any kind of pain. Mild nor severe." Shikamaru rubs the back of his neck.

"If you expose yourself to it enough, it's just an itch...or a sneeze stuck in your nasal cavity." Sai stops walking and stands directly in front of Shikamaru.

The air smells like still water, the grass is damp, the soil soft clumps under his feet.

"Give me your right arm." Sai doesn't ask.

Shikamaru stands in place, face crinkling into a dark glower. He makes a fist and the corner of Sai's mouth twitches. It's so dark that the shadows around Sai's face give the faint illusion that his eye sockets are empty. He shifts to a different angle and he looks less like a ghost.

Sai takes his arm without force. Shikamaru allows himself to submit to the slight pressure of Sai's fingers on his skin, drawing air through his teeth as Sai pushes up his sleeve.

The tree canopies rustle and feet plummet to the surface like comets beating against the Earth. Five shadows take solid form, one shadow becomes fire and Sai's skin shimmers back to something human-like. Out of the dark, Sai had obtained a shuriken and presses a sharp edged into the scabbed patch of red on Shikamaru's forearm.

Sai doesn't press too hard. Squinting, he observes the puss pooling around his thumbnail. The fire faintly lights Shikamaru's arm, bright enough to make out the protruding vein in it, not enough to help with a precise cut. The reflex to jerk back is halted by an arm locked around Shikamaru's neck, and his free arm constricted behind his back.

There aren't enough days in a year, not even in a lifetime, that prepares you for pain. He doesn't gag at the sight of blood anymore, can breathe it in like the scent of clean linen.

Sai prods at the puss, peeling back the dried layer of skin and crust. The wind sweeps away the flakes.

"I don't need to tell you that this is going to hurt, but you cannot scream."

Shikamaru understands. Screaming would draw attention and it defeats the purpose of the trial. Fortunately, for the cause, Shikamaru believes he lost the ability to scream years ago.

"Why not?" Shikamaru just needs a few more seconds to adjust his eyes against the makeshift shadows of his peers and the shapes of their mask.

Sai doesn't look up. With clenched jaws, he digs the edge of the shuriken under Shikamaru's skin.

The pain disperses itself like a tiny explosion. He feels it in his knuckles, up the length of his neck to the tip of his earlobe, but he doesn't make a noise. Shikamaru balls a fist and his breathing scatters.

Sai digs around in the wound, and Shikamaru's only wish is that he doesn't touch an artery. Despite the pain being insufferable enough to faint, he doesn't think it's the worst thing that's ever hurt him. Physical things hurt but the soul can't easily be sewn back together. You can't catch smoke nor force its shape.

Sai drags his thumb through an outpour of blood and puss, then uses both of his thumbs to push. Shikamaru's elbow throbs like it could be broken, but it's just the skin swelling and tightening. Sai makes a noise of satisfaction when he finally finds what he had been searching for.

The harder he presses his thumbs into Shikamaru's skin, through the thick of blood, three worm-like shapes free themselves. Like tiny grains of swollen rice, they wiggle in distress to the sudden cool air. Attempting to drown themselves in his blood, Sai picks them with his fingers.

They'd put larvae inside of him. Shikamaru's skin pales to Sai's complexion. This still isn't the worst thing to ever happen to him. He tells himself so he doesn't strangle on his own vomit. With all the muscles in his throat, he gulps it back down.

"It looks worse than it feels, I bet." Someone's voice is muffled under their mask.

Two bugs crawl from his mangled flesh.

Sai brings the larvae closer to his face like a child unearthing an obvious truth. The arm that had been suffocating Shikamaru frees him and his body's immediate response to the trauma is to drop to his knees. It stings like his skin had been rubbed off against hot cement. He breaks out into a sweat, shuddering— he counts a series of tens in his head.

"Who told you to sit?" The voice comes from behind him.

"Let him sit." Sai rebuts. "We're going to be here for a while."

'A while' makes him dizzy. Shikamaru shakes but he overcomes the fear of touching the mess of his arm. The warmth of his own touch jolts him. His thoughts circle back to Kakashi and he cringes at the sickening amount of confidence he had when suggesting Anbu.

Change is a violently slow process. Shikamaru becomes aware that he's replacing something old for new. Not exactly discarding it, but giving it a proper burial. Like he had been raised to, he gets up with a rush of adrenaline.

"What's your definition of weakness, Shikamaru?" Sai's voice synchronizes with the shake of the trees.

"Accepting that there isn't an answer or reason for a problem." Shikamaru's palm is sticky with blood.

A shinobi steps from the small circle they had formed around him. The eyes of his mask protrude gibbously red like a lunar eclipse.

"If you can't question something, how do you know it's right or wrong...if you just accept it without consideration?" Shikamaru takes a deep breath and his vision tries to fix itself.

Sai extends the larvae in his palm to the shinobi in the moon-eyed mask. The mouth of it like dulled fangs. Not an animal Shikamaru readily recognizes. Perhaps, not an animal at all.

Nodding slowly, Sai wipes his hands on his shirt. His expression stays the same.

The shinobi tugs his mask back slightly and licks the larvae from his fingers with his mouth open wide. He rolls them back on his tongue and swallows. Two gulps as though it were a minor struggle to ingest them without chewing.

"History warns us that a shinobi plagued by too many questions shows signs of disloyalty." The shinobi speaks directly to Shikamaru with a heavy focus.

"He asked for my definition." Shikamaru now understands that the weight of someone's gaze can be more than just a euphemism. If it weren't for the searing pain in his arm, he'd challenge the shinobi's gravitas.

"I didn't ask to debate it." Sai places himself in the middle of the one sided crossfire. "Are we not individuals?"

"I didn't say we weren't, but when have we ever considered balancing the rights or wrongs of what we do? I think, before we do anything else with him, we destroy that sentiment or he is already unfit." The shinobi scoffs and tugs his mask back down over his mouth.

Shikamaru's spirit recoils and he can't place why the statement is so personal. Opinions are leaky assholes. Some gape. Some are too tight to whistle through.

"If that's how you feel..." Shikamaru catches himself.

"I don't think anyone here cares to unpack what is and isn't moral bankruptcy." Sai air-slices his hand across his neck. "If that's your concern, perhaps you've lost sight of yourself and should be dismissed immediately."

At that, the shinobi shuts his mouth, but gravity settles his invisible leer on Shikamaru's shaky shoulders.

After a lengthy stretch of silence, Sai rattles his throat and Shikamaru recognizes Shino's voice behind the mask. The locusts and crickets had stopped in the middle of his accusation with the insentient desire to listen.

"I like your definition, Shikamaru. It gives me some optimism for your first trial." Sai gestures for two of his peers to step forth. A bear and a tiger mask, both of them cradle scrolls.

Shino had already held his own trial and had ultimately decided that Shikamaru is guilty. He tries to remember the last thing he had said to Shino, combs through the months of memories in agonizingly long meetings. What he does remember is hardly an interaction. Shikamaru only remembers passing off a folder he hadn't opened. No words were exchanged.

"You're not known for being the strongest physically—do you consider yourself to be strong?" Sai helps the bear and tiger mask with their scrolls.

"Stronger than average, but not the strongest." Shikamaru frowns but he can't feel the muscles in his face sagging.

"That's your honest opinion of yourself?" Sai drums his fingers against a scroll.

"It's a realistic opinion." Shikamaru has a thought—Shikaku blesses him from the blackness of outer space. It has to be the only reason he hasn't collapsed from the trauma.

Sai unrolls the scroll, in one sweeping motion, like untying a soft ribbon. The wind blows hard enough to whistle, pushing the clouds west. Sai uses the same shuriken to slice open his palm. He cuts through his skin with a horrifying lack of effort.

Gently sprawling his fingers against the paper, Sai's lips move but the wind suffocates sound. A cloud of smoke rises from the scroll, curling up as tendrils into the westbound air.

"Before man used tools, we only had our teeth, nails, and senses. Imagine the superiority of a body that could purely sustain itself on adrenaline—I think we can get close to that state of being but we can never replicate it." An assortment of weapons rise from the misty puff of nothingness. The impact of the jutsu splits his dark bangs haphazardly across his sweaty forehead.

"We evolved, Sai." Shikamaru wheezes.

"The way we interpret the world around us evolved but our primitive instincts are still there. Every time you have sex, the irritation you feel when you've gone an unreasonable amount of time without eating..." Sai stands on his feet and admires his own effort.

"Pick three and pick wisely." Shino, again, steps out of turn but Sai remains collected.

"What am I picking for?" Shikamaru's black sleeve is hardened by dried blood.

"Three tools in the absence of your jutsu. I want to measure what you can do in the worst case scenario." Sai simply states.

"So I'm just supposed to let you beat my ass?" Shikamaru bristles.

"If that's your attitude, then sure." Sai folds his arms behind his back.

Not having an option other than withdrawing from the whole damn thing, Shikamaru steps up with his limbs like cement—hard, heavy, wading through imaginary water.

If by the will of some magnificent force he were sapped of all his inherited strength, he has five options: flash bombs, a tanto, kunai, shuriken, and kusarigama.

First, swallowing a wad of spit, he reminds himself that he's here to sate an appetite for something different. Then he begins to coach himself through the 'worst scenario'.

"You can't use your jutsu." Sai's voice is like a sharp jab.

"I figured that's what you meant the first time." Shikamaru observes the blades, but his body can't manage the work it would require for technique. Where he sweats profusely, his cotton shirt sticks to his skin.

"If I fail?" Shikamaru looks to Sai.

"We learn a weakness. That simple."

And Shikamaru decides on two flash bombs and one kunai. He waits for another stipulation, but no more come, so he lets out a shaky breath of relief. Sai nods and gleamingly smiles.

The circle breaks and someone snuffs out the fire. It takes a moment for his eyes to adjust to the sudden darkness. The clouds unwrap the moon, freeing enough light that he can still make out Sai and Shino's mask among the many in his vantage point. They all look like glowing eggs the way the moon cuts light across the angles of their masks.

"No one wants you to fail, Shikamaru." Unfortunately, that hardly matters. He doesn't want to resign himself to defeat, but the rawness of his torn skin burns. It looks a sooner loss than any kind of victory.

Shikamaru blinks and before he can set his mind on prevailing, only Shino stands in the clear line of his vision. The rest had melted into the shadows of the forest. Even Sai.

An unexpected cold feeling of aloneness takes his breath away. Shikamaru's second instinct is to put as much distance as he can between them. He takes off in the opposite direction with all the strength in his legs. It was like dragging bricks with his ankles.

If you don't try, you might as well lay down and die. Asuma used to say a lot.

Trying makes it easier to lose.

Shino falls in place behind him, as if he expected Shikamaru to fudge for as long as possible. Shino's footsteps are soft like wind combing through tall grass. To be someone so comfortable in natural darkness and shadows, Shikamaru struggles to pick out the shape and thickness of the trees. When he holds out his arms to hoist himself onto a branch, his muscles tighten and ache. A bone pops. He had moved the wrong way and angered a joint.

Shino deliberately misses and lunges his fist directly into the three. The bark doesn't crack. He'd hit it with a controlled force that disperses a vibration. Shikamaru scales the tree until there isn't a branch left to climb. He makes it high enough to peer out into the sky. The tops of the trees sway like a dark ocean. Shikamaru gives himself sixty seconds to think.

The moon stares back at him.

Sai had dug the bugs out of his arm, but he considers the chance of being poisoned. How much has it contributed to his handicap? Is there a bug somewhere under his clothes? On a scale from one to ten, his pain is at gloomy seven. Holding the kunai in his mouth, he proceeds to pat himself down under his shirt, then his pockets.

Sixty seconds pass.

He looks down and curses. Shino had moved into an unoccupied shadow. Rummaging in both pockets, he notices a distinct changing pattern of darkness along the bark. It moves in the opposite direction of the natural shadows disturbed by the breeze.

Two minutes.

He fishes out Asuma's lighter, takes two attempts to light it and holds the fire downward. A swath of Shino's beetles trail in his direction. They break off into different routes like a black river cutting through terrain.

"Shit." Shikamaru says under his breath. Setting the tree on fire would alert the village, and that's what he shouldn't do. Anbu isn't about chaotic victories. As he gauges what he can and can't do, he senses the closeness of Shino's chakra a moment too late.

Shino emerges like a bolt of lightning from the rustling leaves. His strikes Shikamaru in the chest with a tempered strength that knocks all the air from his lungs.. The kunai cuts the corner of Shikamaru's lips when it falls from impact.

The fall from the tree doesn't hurt nearly as bad as gasping for air. His head rings on the way down but he fears the little time he has more than what the ground will feel like against his body. He conjures up enough chakra to land on his knees without breaking his bones. Shino's bugs crawl under his shirt and one down the bridge of his nose.

"I'm being easy on you, Shikamaru." Shino says above him. His feet crack the branches as he descends.

Shikamaru sits in place, picking the bugs from his face.

"Truthfully, I don't think you're cut out for this kind of work. You lack the right amount of ambition."

He isn't wrong. Ambition isn't what brought Shikamaru here. Shino stands on the last branch. The moon specks his chest with swaying shadows. Shikamaru can't help but observe how fitting the Anbu uniform is on Shino. Even though Shikamaru can't see his face, he doesn't look like a child playing pretend.

It all becomes very real. He's never had ambition.

A distinct memory of Asuma's smoke curling up to the ceiling hurts worse than his arm. He's at the cusp of vomiting, but the memory is too vivid. He can smell the brand of tobacco, the cleanliness of the room, and a fly burning itself against the light fixture.

Shino plants his feet hard on the ground and again, Shikamaru sprints in the opposite direction. His mind creates a clear path for his next move and he guesstimates the time he has before he can no longer depend on his chakra. Shikamaru decides to exert it. He scales another tree until he makes it to the top.

Shimmying out of his shirt, he leaves it dangling around his head. He counts Shino's pace as he retrieves the flash bomb from the pocket on his leg. He then wraps the sleeves of his shirt around his ears and eyes. When he's sure of the last step Shino has to make, he drops the flash bomb.

As soon as it detonates, Shikamaru gives himself two minutes before propelling into another tree. He doesn't look down to observe Shino. If he does he will lose focus on his plan.

Shino has several minutes of deafness and dark confusion. That's several minutes Shikamaru has to take apart Asuma's lighter. He snatches his shirt from his head and sits it on his shoulder. Shino groans a stream of obscenities. The bugs stop crawling, they sit in place on Shikamaru's skin. Unclamping one of his earrings, Shikamaru uses the pointed back of it to lift the bottom of the lighter open.

There's not a whole lot of fluid, but enough to set a trap.

Taking a deep breath, he climbs down the tree. It could either go very right or very wrong, but at least he tried. No one can fault him for trying.

Shino senses him before he drops from the last branch and plants a foot in his back. The flash bomb had only been a mild inconvenience. Shikamaru takes the blow because he has to. There's enough low hanging tree limbs and leaves above them to catch fire.

Shikamaru's only priority is to empty the lighter fluid in a circle around them. He does so while poorly dodging and taking a few lunges from Shino. As though fate had grown bored of favoring him, in the midst of dumping the rest of the lighter fluid around them, Shino catches him by his sore arm and thrusts a series of punches in his abdomen. Each punch worse than the last with Shino's consistent chakra control.

Asuma's empty lighter slipped from Shikamaru's greasy fingers.

"Our Lord Sixth ordered that we keep your face intact." Shino shoves Shikamaru back with an effortless kick. The amount of bugs that crawled on him double, some wiggling their way in his crusting wound.

"I don't think it's possible to make me any uglier..." Shikamaru rasps on his hands and knees. That would be Kakashi's only stipulation.

Shikamaru takes the window of opportunity, shoving himself on his feet. He leaps backwards and tosses his last flash bomb. The sparks start a fire.

His circle hadn't been perfect. He can tell even with his blurred vision. The ringing sounds like a whispery scream. If he didn't have ambition, he made up for it with his determination. Shikamaru pushes through his confusion. Shino stumbles back.

The wind stokes the fire. Twigs and leaves ignite and fall together. The bugs no longer cling to Shino's command. They rise frantically. The mass of their bodies together, the zip of their wings creating a subdued hum. Insects were drawn to light.

"Phototaxis." He had read about it. Determination and curiosity.

Shikamaru doesn't have to wait for Shino's next move. Shino serves him exactly what he wants. He pummels Shikamaru to the ground.

What is an Aburame without the control of bugs?

Shino hits him in the face multiple times before Sai intervenes. He manifests from the smoke, almost translucent against the fire. He tugs Shino to his feet.

"Not his face!"

Shikamaru reads Sai's lips. The ringing vibration fills up his head, but it's doesn't dull his sharpness. He draws up a knee and shoves all of his foot between Shino's legs with the last ounce of chakra he had been saving.

Shino's knees buckle and he vomits. It leaks from his mask onto Shikamaru's stomach. Sai steps back.

Shikamaru rolls from beneath him and stands. A branch consumed in flames cracks from the tree and falls. The bugs shake in unison.

Not looking in Sai's direction, Shikamaru summons his frustration and grief, thrusting his fist in the center of Shino's mask, cracking it in half. Eyes rolling back, Shino falls unconscious.

The spirit that kept Shikamaru from collapsing freed his body. He allows himself to feel the trauma and he too falls in a dead faint.

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Sakura holds up a tiny bottle of rosewood oil, observing the amount she has left through the light of her kitchen. The sleeve of her pink kimono rolls down to her elbow, her hair pulled back in a tight short ponytail, so tight, Ino can make out the bone behind her ear. She mutters as she sifts through her pantry of bottles, which Ino thinks is incredibly morbid to have next to a fridge.

"Do you not have any hyssop oil?" Ino winces. The bottoms of her feet are cracked and any applied pressure is painful. She sits propped on Sakura's kitchen table. Next time, she will know not to stampede her emotions onto scalding cement and sand.

"Hyssop oil..." Sakura repeats in a sing-song tune as she re-arranges the bottles. She hums a noise of satisfaction, pulling out the hyssop oil and kicks the pantry door shut.

Sakura turns to Ino and smiles—her prettiness stuns Ino with a sour melancholy. She had really grown into herself in a way that Ino covets. It's a natural attractiveness that you can't study up on. It occurs almost as suddenly as an earthquake. Once it cracks up the old surface, a new one emerges and it only changes by human will or another disaster.

"Give me your foot." Sakura pulls up a chair. Ino hesitates because she hasn't bothered to re-paint the chipped corners of her nail polish. And her feet look like she had done laps on hot tar.

When she doesn't move fast enough, Sakura grabs her by an ankle and sits it on her lap.

"You're gonna get oil all over your kimono!" Ino whines, but Sakura unscrews the top and begins to dab the oil on Ino's feet.

"Stop protesting and let me help you!"

Ino leans back on her hands and lets out a gargle-like moan. She hadn't bothered to comb out yesterday's waves in her hair. Something had jumped inside of her this morning, prompting her to embrace a no-effort attitude. She had no appetite stepping out of her bed, threw her hair up in a tangled braid and picked the dullest of her three kimonos. Which isn't too dull. It's plain only because she feels plain.

"So...what's going on between you and Shikamaru?" Sakura can't read minds. Ino frowns. Apparently she's seeping her energy out into the air for any and everyone to catch a whiff of like cat urine.

"Why?" Ino frowns at her.

"Last time I heard..."

"Who are you hearing from?" This is the second time.

Sakura stops rubbing her foot and looks back at her in earnest. She sucks in her lips and thinks before she speaks, "Naruto. Obviously."

"Right...of course." Ino gives Sakura her other foot.

"We were all at the table, Ino..."

"Like one big happy family I bet." It had happened so long ago, she wonders why it still sits in the back of their minds. It isn't like she robbed anyone.

"I've just been waiting to ask."

"He's not my boyfriend if that's the answer you were searching for."

"I didn't think so."

"And what's that supposed to mean, Sakura?" Ino doesn't mean to raise her voice. She is grateful for someone wanting to soothe some damaged part of her. A shame it's the state of her crusty feet.

"I mean, considering he was engaged not too long ago—who would want that emotional baggage?" Sakura is the queen of subdued nosiness. She coats it with a real sweetness anyone would fall for. Ino allows herself to fall for it only because she is lonely.

"Some people are worth it. You of all people should understand that." Ino lowers her voice. Sakura rubs the last drop of oil into the cracks of skin, doesn't seem fazed by the statement.

"So you're admitting to something?" Sakura mumbles.

Ino hesitates. The intense need to cry all over again swells up in her chest, but she suppresses it. She taps her nails against the table and closes her eyes.

"You're so nosey." Ino sighs.

"I just wanted the truth from the source and not Naruto's imagination. Sai still doesn't talk about you at all."

"I wonder what he would say if he did." Ino says facetiously.

A pause. Sakura lets go of her foot and reaches for the bandages on the table. Ino straightens her back and readjusts the fold of her kimono.

"I was serious when I asked you to come to the hospital with me." Sakura begins to wrap up Ino's feet.

Ino doesn't respond, she just stares off into space.

"I think you've allowed a superficial anger or sadness to distort your own image of yourself." Sakura's fingers are like feathers.

"A superficial anger." Ino has never considered this.

"Yep. Don't let enough time pass or you will forget yourself."

"What would you know, Sakura?"

"I apparently know better than anyone else." Sakura's smile brightens. Ino's soul escapes her body.

The front door clicks and opens. They both crane their necks.

Sasuke steps inside and for a moment Ino forgets that he belongs here just as much as the fly running into closed windows. Her nose wrinkles up at the sight of him.

He mumbles a breathy 'hello' that sort of disrupts the air. The weight of his chakra causes the tiny hairs of her arms to stand. It's been a while—that's what her body tells her.

Sakura gently brushes Ino's feet from her lap so that she might stand to greet him. She doesn't wobble nor has the disposition of someone who has been silently enduring neglect.

"Ino, you're the last person I expected to see." Sasuke allows Sakura to help him out of his jacket. She does so with a noticeable tenderness—with a fear that if she overwhelms him with too much attention, she'll damage and crack up all his hard spots.

There's a tough squeeze at Ino's heart, she doesn't know why they cause her to feel so melancholy.

Maybe it's nostalgia.

"I never expect to see you either, Sasuke." Ino slides from the table, frowning at the pain when she applies too much pressure to her feet.

Sasuke smirks because there's no other way to respond to the truth. Sakura glares at Ino as she folds his jacket in her arms.

Some things are only meant to be silently understood—that's something Shikamaru would say.

"Don't miss the fireworks you two." Ino says absently, slipping her feet into her sandals.

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Suffering builds character.

If you can survive a war, you can survive anything. Time is the salve.

Shikamaru didn't have to stand a trial for his punishment. They didn't need to tell him what rule he broke. Sai ushered the ritual with no enthusiasm. They had carried Shino's body away and that was the end of that.

For his punishment, they dragged him out of his lightheadedness with cold water to his face. At least, that's the last thing he remembers before blacking out. The after smell of burnt wood and grass is what awakes him. Sunlight hurts his eyelids. He's brought back from temporary death with his arms and legs strung up to the trees that didn't collapse to the fire. The grass beneath him is black, still wafting traces of smoke.

Shikamaru hacks a dry cough. It feels like the balls of his joints are being tugged out of their sockets. His body had been coated in honey. The heat lifts the smell. Flies and light green bugs stick to him.

Someone had pitied him enough to bandage the bloody gash in his arm.

This is the time to think about what this all means. He should've asked Kakashi what he would stand to gain from this shit. Maybe the point is to beat a dog hard enough until it learns mean ugliness, but Shikamaru is sound enough, or so he thinks he is, to not be affected by this kind of abuse.

The longer he bakes in the sun, more bugs attach themselves to his sugary skin.

And then he starts to question...how many buzzes in his ear can he stand before he goes completely insane?

And the questioning stirs his appetite. The walls of his stomach want to cave in.

He watches his shadow change size to keep up with the time of day. Time is salve.

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Ino knew anger could be blind, even misplaced, but never thought to sit it next to superficial. A part of her wants to ignore any little insights Sakura might have but it only hurts because it's true. She can't exactly understand the chemistry to why it's true, she just knows how it feels and shoves a fist full of cotton candy in her mouth. Frowning at the shocking sweetness and the sugary residue that hardens at the corners of her lips.

Ino slumps forward on the bench, folding her feet together, the sand and dirt cake up on her sandals. The oil between her toes glues grit to her skin. As she tugs at more cotton candy, she realizes that Sakura has ghosted her for Sasuke. She chews faster as she thinks—this is her first Founder's Day alone.

No dad. No mom. Just her lonesome and loneliness. Tears puddle her vision, but damn it she is surrounded by so many familiar faces. She shouldn't feel so isolated, but it grows for every kid with a proud parent and every person with a partner—whether it's a partner in crime or partner in life.

Before the war, there are gaps in her memory. She can't remember a single Founder's Day, yet she's just fully aware, on her lonesome, that her dad is gone and there isn't anyone to distract her with new memories to challenge the old ones that hide from her.

Ino looks up into the blood orange sky, wiping her tears with her knuckles. Her fingers are sticky with sugar. With her mind, through the power of her heart, she asks the mighty universe to chase away the irksome presence of her gloominess.

But it tells her to befriend this homesickness without a home. She'll be better off if she did.

Wisdom. She hates its persistence.

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The sky changes colors.

Shikamaru's stomach feels like it's eating itself.

A white shape flutters forward, gliding directly against his forehead with a soft tap. It falls down but sticks to his stomach. It's a piece of paper. Then two more papery butterflies float from various directions, pecking him on the sides of his face. They also crumble and die.

"Did you know today is Founder's Day?" Sai's voice sounds like it comes from every direction. Shikamaru closes his eyes and shrugs to the best of his ability. Sai waits for a response he doesn't have. All Shikamaru can think about is the acid in his stomach. The rest of his discomfort shrinks. No pain is worse than hunger and dehydration.

"I woke up and noticed how decorated everything is—I spent all of yesterday wondering why shops were filling up their windows with ornaments. It's so easy to lose track of time."

The paper dissolves into ink on Shikamaru's abdomen, seeping down the defined curve of his pelvic bone. He still doesn't dignify Sai with an answer.

Sai sits in a patch of healthy green grass with his legs crossed, sitting his sketchbook in his lap.

"I didn't want you to spend it alone."

"How thoughtful." Shikamaru rasps. The energy required to speak worsens his fatigue.

"When Kakashi gave me your file, I wanted to reject you." He draws more butterflies. Shikamaru absorbs the sound of his ink pen against the paper.

"I didn't want you to think I hated you." Sai goes on.

"Why would I think that?" Shikamaru's tongue feels like sand. He doesn't want to talk about Ino.

"You know why I would think that. There's no need to skirt around it."

"You're projecting, Sai."

"No. I'm attempting to apologize."

Shikamaru opens his eyes. It takes a minute to not see double. Sweat trickles down the cave of his eye socket, burning as it collects in his tear ducts.

"I don't know what you want me to say." Shikamaru spits onto the ground. The side of his mouth is scabbed.

"To be honest, I don't expect you to say anything. I just want to establish that I'm only following protocol. It's not personal." Sai sends forth another paper butterfly, it explodes into ink on contact with Shikamaru's arm.

"I wouldn't care if you did hold a grudge against me."

Sai smiles at that—he doesn't say anything else. He sits quietly, gently tossing up his pretty ink bombs and detonating them on various parts of Shikamaru's body. Sometimes a butterfly, sometimes a bird. After a while, he only drew shuriken.

Shikamaru stops feeling everything altogether. It becomes an unspoken game of how long he can endure it without convulsing.

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"Sometimes I forget how big the village is!" Naruto slides a grilled chunk of meat from a stick, digs his teeth into the texture, pulling it back slowly as if to savor the flavor, but he just looks ridiculous. Hinata taps a napkin on his cheek, rubbing away barbecue sauce.

They both slide next to Ino on the bench, and Naruto, grubby fingers and shiny with sweat, swats her on the back. The wooden bench creaks like it's not strong enough to support their weight.

"Long time no speak, Yamanaka!" He sings into her ear. Hinata leans around him to greet Ino with a bright smile. Her meek greeting is swallowed up by Naruto's loud burp.

"Hinata still hasn't house broken you—I don't think you can, girl. Divorce him while the ink is still wet." Ino shakes her head, pinching another clump of cotton candy.

Hinata gets out one word—an airy 'But', that Naruto clips with a thunderous cackle. He chokes on his own saliva and coughs. One good whiff of his breath and it's evident that's he's had at least one bottle of cheap beer. Hinata clings to him and brushes back his hair. There's a subtle stain of sauce on her chin as well.

Ino imagines that it's the outcome of a slobbery kiss and her ears turn red.

"Where is Sakura?" Hinata wears her hair pinned up like the step away from royalty that she is, no makeup and a kimono that looks like it's a year's worth of Ino's rent. She resists the urge to reach out and caress the fabric with her sticky fingers.

Their relationship used to bewilder her. It seemed to not only happen out of thin air, but it made perfect sense. Naruto is the type of guy any woman can get used to. The chubbiness of his face had smoothened out into his own distinct and bold features.

While Naruto is an every man for every woman, Hinata is only one woman made specifically for Naruto.

"Sasuke is back." Ino tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. Sitting next to Hinata, she's put to shame.

"Hell no! And he didn't come to see me first!?" Naruto spits out crumbs.

"Yup, they stood us up, kiddo." Ino crosses her legs.

Scowling out at their decorated surroundings, Naruto swallows his meat without chewing.

"You wouldn't come to see me first, Naruto?" Hinata looks at him curiously. Her eyes shimmer, revealing a secret cunning nature. Ino's neck begins to sweat with jealousy.

Naruto grumbles and slaps his chest to force the food down.

"Yea, yea. Sure. Of course I would, Hinata..."And it's that easy. Ino wonders how she convinces him to do the dishes without asking.

They go back and forth, Ino a nonparticipant in their conversation. Hinata will spot a detail, anticipating Naruto's opinion— from the village symbols on the lanterns to the funny shape of someone's head.

"The sun needs to hurry up and go down." Naruto groans.

And Hinata says, "The faster the sun goes down, the faster tomorrow comes."

"I don't want to get up early..." He rubs his belly and slumps closer to her shoulders.

"I don't want you to get up either."

Ino makes it her purpose to finish the cotton candy before her stomach flips. It takes all of her home training not to gag.

Something catches Naruto's attention and he shoots up, squinting between the hoards of people. He lowers his head and his mouth hangs open. Handing Hinata the last of his shish kabob, he sets off into the crowd without a word.

Hinata is unfazed like it's a normal occurrence. She helps herself to the rest of his food.

They don't speak for some time. Hinata wipes the grease from her fingers on her kimono and Ino grimaces.

"Ino." Hinata hiccups softly into her hand.

Ino clears her throat and pretends to not be flummoxed by the grease stain on Hinata's nice kimono.

"Yeah-huh." Ino wobbles the plastic stick covered in dried cotton candy goo between two fingers.

"Are you feeling better?" Hinata turns her head in Ino's direction. The color of her eyes, or the lack of, gives her an otherworldly appearance. She gets this strong feeling that Hinata is an old soul with a gaze that can splinter bone if you look back for too long.

Ino stops herself from completely falling prey to Hinata's charm. Loud acts of weakness aren't included in Ino's emotional catalogue.

"Not really." Ino draws a dirt circle on the ground with her foot. "But it's a new day."

"After you left she didn't speak nearly as much. I think she was embarrassed." Hinata finishes the shish kabob.

"Embarrassed of me?"

"Of you and herself—mostly herself. I'm almost certain."

"When did you get so blunt?" Ino laughs disbelievingly.

"I'm sorry..." Bursts of pink color Hinata's cheeks.

Ino gets up, but not the least bit offended. It's no secret to anyone in Konoha that for all of her beauty and skill, she is a directionless failure to her mother. Despite the fact that she knows the precise point of each main artery in the human body, she is nothing if she is not making her mark in history. Forget the war and the smell of blood she couldn't get out of her uniform.

'What are you doing now to make yourself memorable, Ino?'

Naruto stumbles from the thickening crowd with three candy apples.

"Oh no, Ino don't leave— I barely see you!" Naruto's eyes shift from Hinata to Ino. Hinata holds her head down with her lips in a straight line. She takes a candy apple from him.

"Make a habit out of buying your pretty wife some flowers and you'd see me more often." She smiles weakly.

"I'd like that..." Hinata mutters, peeling the plastic from the apple.

"Then it's decided!" He hands Ino the candy apple.

She hesitates because it's too much sugar in one day, but he gets her with his one man for every woman smile and she accepts it. It's the biggest apple she's ever seen, the stick wedged in the core is weak in comparison.

Akamaru appears seemingly out of nowhere, squeezing himself between Naruto and Ino to sit his head in Hinata's lap.

"Oh hell..." Naruto rasps to himself as he tugs the ribbon from the plastic of his candy apple. "For a dog so big, he has feet like a ghost."

"Ghosts don't use their feet, Naruto. They float." Hinata pets Akamaru. Ino hates the way they communicate with each other.

"Whatever." He drags his tongue over the thick red shell of sugar.

Two hands gently grab Ino's shoulders and she doesn't have to turn to know it's Kiba. He carefully moves her to the side as he steps between her and Naruto. A fox mask sits on his forehead, covering his eyebrows.

"The older he gets the more stubborn he becomes!" Kiba has the kind of laugh that shakes birds from trees. Naruto narrows his eyes and begins to sweat. Ino can almost taste the energy seeping from his pores. The wind collects it like tiny dust particles, so she knows Kiba must taste it too.

"Well you don't have much of any manners either, Kiba. I wonder where he gets it from." Hinata says matter-of-factly. Akamaru strains his neck to lick Hinata's candy apple. Kiba releases Ino's shoulders and gives her a quick smile of acknowledgement. He stands squarely between Naruto and Hinata. He's incredibly brusque in his stance. Naruto drops his candy apple as he avoids Kiba stepping on his foot.

The hard thump the apple makes against the ground kicks up a tiny cloud of dirt. Naruto's face pales.

"Ino, does it sound like she's accusing me of uncouthness? I definitely don't go around sniffing out women and shoving my face in their thighs!" Kiba looks at Ino and his smile widens.

Ino's bottom lip slowly drops in a quiver, but she sucks up the gasp, holds all the air in her mouth. Naruto's skin whitens. Something unseen to the naked eye exits his body. Ino just tosses her braid over her shoulder and takes the first bite of her apple.

Hinata blinks for a few minutes, eventually smiling. Akamaru takes his nose from her lap and begins to sniff at Naruto's lost apple.

"How are you gonna speak to my wife but not me, huh? What's your deal?" Naruto growls.

His wife—Ino sniffs and rolls her eyes.

Kiba turns to face Naruto. The sweat makes his skin shine. He pushes his mask back further, the sleeve of his yukata folding back. His mesh undershirt is frayed, some holes bigger than others.

"Hey, Naruto..." Kiba sheds his smile, but he doesn't lose the joyousness in his tone. There's also the possibility that he has been drinking. Ino makes a point not to get closer to find out. She presses her tongue against the candy sticking to the roof of her mouth.

"Naruto, he's just happy to see me!" Hinata can't or won't stop giggling. Ino shakes her head.

"I just want the same energy is all!" Naruto shakes a little.

"Oh, I'm happy to see you too, Naruto. Even happier that she still thinks you're marriage material. I've been a little concerned..."

Naruto hooks his fingers in the mesh of Kiba's shirt and shakes him one good time with both of his hands. It's enough to bleach the color from Hinata's cheeks. She finally stands up. Ino wonders if this is the second or third time...

"I will stomp all your teeth out of your head if you don't apologize to me!" Naruto manages to alert the circle of people around them.

"What I got to be sorry for?" Kiba's face doesn't change. Ino realizes it was the good spirit of tranquility that left Naruto pale.

Unable to stomach the gossip that could reach her mother, Ino makes it her business to intervene. For the sake of poor sweaty Hinata and their reputations.

"C'mon guys, it's supposed to be about the food and fireworks." Ino steps between them, shoving away at Naruto's arms. Akamaru stops wagging his tail.

"I'm going to kill him before I'm thirty..." Naruto says to Hinata, pointing a finger.

"It's still about the food and fireworks." Kiba rubs his stomach.

"Can you shut the hell up please?" Ino grabs Kiba by the arm and tugs him away. Akamaru follows them into the crowd.

"He wasn't going to do shit." Kiba rubs his nose along his knuckles. Ino lets go of him when she thinks they've made it a good distance away from Naruto, who can still be heard choking insults into the air. "He's soft like putty around Hinata."

"What a master manipulator you are." Ino suddenly loses the desire to finish her candy apple. The sweetness makes her nauseous.

"It's just too easy." Kiba rubs the back of his head, and whistles away the tension in his muscles.

Ino catches her breath and eyes her apple pitifully. It suddenly becomes awkward when neither of them speak nor go their separate ways. They just savor the memory they have just made together. Akamaru whines and Kiba gives him an 'Oh really' expression.

"Well..." Ino begins.

"Ino, did you come out here all by yourself?" Kiba shakes his head at Akamaru's silent thought.

"Not on purpose—Sakura stood me up for a boy." She shrugs, looking down at her feet. The sky had darkened and the lantern-drawn shadows intensify

"No ShikaCho?" He laughs.

Ino has no idea where Shikamaru could be and has tried her hardest not to think about him. Choji is wherever the food stands are in abundance.

"We aren't kids anymore." She shrugs again, acutely aware of how he gazes at her.

"No but it's still weird not seeing you guys together."

"Contrary to popular belief, Ino, Shika, and Cho aren't extensions of each other."

"I guess it's normal to grow out of friendships." He chews his bottom lip.

"None of us really has anything in common other than history." Ino huffs, knowing good and damn well its ninety eight percent a lie. She blushes thinking of the hickeys Shikamaru has given her collar bone.

"I can believe that. That's part of being an adult. Growing up and apart..." He pauses and keeps his mouth open. Ino stops staring at the ground and looks back him, trying not to appear so knowing.

"Choji is still a good guy. Shikamaru...eehhh..." He shakes his hand.

"What's wrong with Shikamaru?" She's curious if it's something she doesn't know about. It has always bothered her that Shikamaru has a clean rapport.

"He's got no sense of humor." Kiba wrinkles his nose, recalling a memory Ino will never be privy to.

"That's not true at all." She sucks her teeth.

"I don't think I've ever seen him smile and he's so short when you talk to him."

"You only feel that way because he's not intimidated by you." Ino smirks.

"No! That's definitely not what it is!" Kiba retorts gruffly.

"That's exactly what it is. You can't just puff your chest and stomp your feet to get a reaction out of him." Aside from Temari, she can happily say that she is one of the two people that can upset Shikamaru Nara. It's gratifying. Too bad she's second place.

"You think that's what I do? Walk around like an ugly bear and snap at people?" He's not the least bit slighted.

Ino stomps a foot at him and jabs two fingers in his chest. "The ugliest damn bear in the whole wide world!"

"That's pretty damn ugly!" His laugh comes straight from his gut.

"Down right atrocious." Ino hesitantly licks the candy apple once more to decide if she still wants it. She really doesn't.

"Watch the fireworks with me and Akamaru," He says bluntly. It punctuates a short silence from Ino. She gapes at him and licks the stickiness of her lips.

"Ask me politely first." She holds his stare.

"I don't see why not. You're alone."

"Ask me."

Akamaru makes a noise of protest and Kiba's nostrils twitch. Rolling his tongue against his cheek, he lowers his lids.

"Ino."

"Yes." She flutters her lashes, sharpens the pitch of her voice.

"Will you watch the fireworks with me?" Kiba submits with a lot of effort. His shoulders fall like he had to physically drag it from his soul.

Her anger with Shikamaru is still fresh—it could be a 'superficial anger', but that doesn't make it hurt any less. Pain has been the way they've communicated. The feeling of a knife twisting its way through flesh to touch bone, it's really how they started. Parts of her body tingle.

"Please?" Kiba's face softens.

Would watching the fireworks with Kiba hurt Shikamaru's feelings if he knew? She imagines him coolly accepting it with a rage so quiet, it sucks the heat from her skin.

"Yes. I would love to watch the fireworks with you, Kiba."

So now we're even—Ino confronts the imaginary Shikamaru that takes up space in her heart.

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At some point, Shikamaru had slipped into unconsciousness. Pain—he can't feel it anymore. Night time happened so suddenly, he thinks he's dead when he opens his eyes to a blanket blackness. Sai had left. He's going to be here another night or two.

The fireworks disrupt his morbid line of thought. He is not dead. A shower of green lights up the forest. Then a rainbow eruption chases away the spots of darkness in between explosions.

'How do you say goodbye to the dead? They can't hear you...' Choji had whispered in his ear. They both watched Ino bury the shoebox with a plastic shovel. Shikamaru remembers the barrettes struggling to hold down her hair.

The fireworks color their ghostly bodies like he isn't hallucinating, but watching a moment in real time.

'Ino, this is dumb. You could've just flushed him down the toilet instead of dragging us out here.' Shikamaru grumbled. 'For all we know, fish might not even have souls.'

He doesn't feel that way now. It's hard to believe he ever felt that way.

Ino stood and stomped her feet. Her large eyes sparkled with tears. It's distinct in the darkness. 'You're a heartless stupid dumb moron! Fish do have souls!'

'Why can't fish go to heaven, Shikamaru?' Choji never could handle Ino's tears.

The apparitions lose their colors, turning into simple shadows at the last fade of fireworks.

He is wide awake now.

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Ino doesn't care about the fireworks. After the first three colorful explosions they all begin to look the same. Kiba doesn't care about the fireworks either. It was never about the fireworks in the first place. After the first shot in the sky of green, he watches her the entire time from two steps below. Ino keeps her eyes in the sky.

Akamaru isn't too ecstatic about her presence. She is stealing time that belongs to him. Every now and then, a soft growl rumbles his belly.

"Ino, I'm sorry about your mom."

"Not like I asked to be born, right...?"

She drops her attention from the yellow sparks in the sky to look at him. Kiba's sudden intensity sort of startles her. He turns away and chugs his bottle of root beer.

"It ruined the rest of the day, but it was doomed from the start. I don't know why Kurenai lets them cluck around her and Mirai like chickens." The food was good though, so he couldn't really complain.

"Lonely people do lonely things." Ino would know.

"What have you been up to though?" he asks. It's a normal question, yet it bothers her. Rubbing her shoulders, she recoils a bit, unsure how to really answer aloud. He notices the shift in her demeanor. She shudders knowing he knows the exact scent of her anxiety. Another person she can't hide anything from.

"I've been up to absolutely nothing," she says softly. A loud pop showers their little world in a fading glow of red.

"That's not true," he wheezes.

"It's the whole truth and nothing but the truth." She props her chin on knuckles.

He doesn't know what else to say. They've never had anything in common—Ino has never had to hold much a conversation with him. She could ask him what he's been up to lately as well but it feels too inviting.

"You've got good timing, Kiba." She leans back against the stairs.

"Some would argue with you about that..." He wipes his mouth against his wrist. The brown bottle glitters from within as another shot of multiple colors spray the sky.

"You saved me from an awkward social situation, so thank you."

"Oh yea—Naruto and Hinata make me dry heave. Hinata can do better..."

"I stopped riding the Naruto hate train years ago, you should too—"

"I did, but I still think she settled." Kiba lifts the bottle to his mouth again and it looks like he's drinking green, red, and yellow stars.

"And who would've been better than Naruto? You?"

He laughs and strangles on his root beer, but Ino is gravely serious. There's a brief pause in conversation. Kiba continues to smile, but she can tell he's sifting through multiple thoughts.

"You're welcome" is what he decides to say first and then, "I should really be thanking you."

"For what?" She rubs the back of her ear.

"I get to watch the fireworks with one of the prettiest girls in the village."

Ino sticks out her tongue and gags, but she'd be delusional if she doesn't acknowledge that it fed her ego. Kiba really does have perfect timing or vulnerability smells terribly sweet like honey.

"You're gonna run me off if you keep that up." She blushes like it's the first time she's ever heard it.

"If the truth makes you run, then so be it." He shrugs.

For some very odd reason, that stuns her. She just accepts it for what it is. Though he managed to be completely transparent, he doesn't look at her. She can't recall Kiba ever being physically unattractive—but she sees that he's grown into his features. He'd completely lost all of his baby fat.

"I guess I'm running." She gets up and descends the stairs. He reaches for her hand, fingers coiling around her tiny wrist so that she doesn't trip. It's pure instinct. His touch is hot, but it could be her mind playing tricks. All bodies with a steady heart beat are warm.

At the last step, their hands lock and neither of them make the effort to break the contact. Ino does make a point to not look at him directly.

"Can I walk you home?"

"No."

"Why not?" His smile fades.

"Because if you do, you'll invite yourself inside and won't leave." She lets go of his hand and takes the last step down.

"Is that a bad thing?" He gets a serious look that causes all of her covered skin to sweat. Yet she has enough sense to know that it's not a good thing to revel in. This is what loneliness looks like—mouth watering for temporary cravings for attention.

"Don't stay up too late and don't get into any trouble." Ino leaves it at that. She doesn't even have to hold her breath because he doesn't bother to chase her.

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Chapter Text

Fall is coming, but late summer clings to the end of its life. Today is hotter than yesterday, wringing out all its frustration with the order of nature. Soon a storm will come and alter the temperature completely. A week of rain then sudden cold.

"I don't miss this shit at all." Kakashi whistles.

Shikamaru hasn't slept. He's just dwindled in a very real purgatory. You can't sleep with a million tiny things crawling on you. Shikamaru moves his jaws to speak but Kakashi tuts.

"Don't even bother." He moves out of Shikamaru's fuzzy line of vision. "Didn't ask. Don't tell."

Kakashi saws at the rope with a kunai. He frees the left arm first. As it falls to Shikamaru's side, the blood flow washes away the numbness.

"Happened a lot sooner than I had expected." Kakashi busies himself with untying his right leg.

"So much for taking orders well...huh?" Shikamaru rasps with a dry throat.

"Was it worth it?" Kakashi's tone doesn't change.

Shikamaru keeps a laugh behind his teeth. It hurts when his muscles twitch. Kakashi stops and takes a good look at him, standing away from Shikamaru's left leg. He inhales and his mask outlines his nostrils.

"When it happened, it was well worth it. Today—not so much, Lord Sixth." Shikamaru can neither make nor keep direct eye contact. His soul is heavier.

"You're definitely Shikaku's son." Kakashi lightly slaps his face.

"No sex, sugar, or salt. It's dumb." Shikamaru's shoulder feels like it's been dislocated.

"The rules being dumb is the entire point. It's the principal. You need to get your head out of your ass."

"My head is on my neck. My neck is on my shoulders. Far away from my ass, sir."

Kakashi frees his right arm. Gravity crumbles Shikamaru to his knees. Had he been alone, he would've laid in the grass and taken a nap for the rest of his eight weeks. But it's possible to be exhausted and uncomfortable to sleep.

Kakashi dips his hands in Shikamaru's scalp, gripping the short hairs, and tugs his head back so that their eyes meet.

"You came to me. I gave you a solution. Whether you take it seriously or not, I'm still going to bed at night. You're the one who is going to have to live with being subpar. Not me. I'm not your father." Kakashi shoves his palm against Shikamaru's forehead and lets him go.

Shikamaru hacks up a glob of spit into the grass. A bug had crawled into his mouth.

"Go home and take a shower. We've got a meeting in three hours." Kakashi tosses Asuma's lighter in his lap.

"I can't go home like this." Shikamaru swats at the insects glued to his body.

"Well, there's a stream not too far from here. I'm not wasting any chakra on you." Kakashi steps away from him. "Don't be late."

The clouds cover the sun, dropping a sudden warm shadow. Shikamaru takes Asuma's lighter into a palm and squeezes against the metal. He bites down on his bottom lip, beginning to convulsively shake.

This too shall pass.

Shikamaru gets off his knees and tasks himself with one step at a time. The first step—find his shirt.

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After the planets exploded into existence, the universe was born like a sudden happy thought. Ino wishes she had that kind of power—to just think 'things' into existence. She would no longer have to endure the messy suffering of her desires.

Sitting down a pair of scissors, she wipes away a fallen eyelash from her cheek. Yesterday bleeds into the new morning like she hadn't slept a solid seven hours without dreaming. Her body just rebooted itself from the very moment she sunk her head into a pillow.

She diligently poured all of her effort into the day's first order. A bouquet of roses. The very first of many more to come throughout the day. If she could 'think' something away, it would be the world's obsession with red roses.

The door slides open with a light sigh, and the jellyfish wind chime starts up a sound she has yet to get used to. Again, she wipes the sleep from her eyes with the sleeve of her jacket. As she turns, her messy braid swings across her back.

"Whew, I took a chance and hoped you'd be here this early!" Kiba's voice is cruel divine intervention from her half sleep. Straightening her spine, she becomes hyper aware of herself. He's dressed in his green vest like he has somewhere important to be.

"I wonder what that says about me..." She grumbles.

"Nothing at all! If it says anything, it's saying I've got good intuition." He plops a fat plastic bag on the counter filled with water. Inside of it, two goldfish wiggle around each other. "These little guys are for you!"

Ino keeps her mouth shut for a long time. Her first inclination is to gently reject him but she finds it endearing and completely stops fidgeting with the roses.

"Throw me out if I'm getting ahead of myself...but I felt really bad about what happened..." Kiba doesn't exactly stutter. He just isn't the most articulate. "Pets can only love you. Unconditionally. And fish don't have the brains to judge you...so..."

Ino presses her finger into the bag and the fish twist in confusion. Kiba coils his fingers around her wrist and says, "They don't like that."

She gapes and allows him to tug her hand away from the bag. He gives her an apologetic smile, "This guy had them left over from last night and I got the impulse to save them."

"Are they in danger?" Ino frowns.

"No but would you want someone to stuff you in a disposable baggy?"

"No..."

"Exactly. Do you have something better to put them in?" He rolls up his sleeves. She peers around his shoulders and Akamaru glares at her on the other side of the window.

Ino hesitates. Kiba holds her widening stare without so much as flinching. He's very serious.

"Yes." She vanishes into the back, searching for a wide glass bowl they'd used for decoration some time ago. When she finds it in a cabinet, her whole body goes stiff when her fingers come in contact with its coldness.

Kiba pities her. She must look that put out and unlike herself. A fire burns her chest hot enough to breathe it, yet her knees sort of buckle. As she pulls the bowl from the shelf, she stares at the pressure of her fingertips paling against its shape.

Ino takes a deep breath and re-enters the storefront. She carefully sits the bowl on the counter and quirks a brow at him. "You must think I'm lonely or something?"

Kiba's lips wrinkle, unsure if he should smile or not. He takes a small container of feed pellets from the breast pocket of his vest.

"Absolutely—the loneliest looking third wheel I've ever seen!"

She slants her eyes and untwists her tongue to challenge him, opens her mouth too, but she can't think of anything to say. Giving her a huge smile, Kiba unties the bag and cautiously pours the fish inside the bowl. He doesn't spill a drop of water.

"If I tell you to take them back?" Ino untangles a lock from her earring.

"You're not going to." He sprinkles the pellets into the bowl.

"I'm not exactly feeling your overconfidence, Kiba."

"You went and got the damn bowl—that tells me you got all the intent of keeping them." Kiba speaks to her in the same tone, a little sharper. His smiles grows.

"A third wheel...huh?"

"Hey, it happens to the best of us. Look how happy they are to be with you!"

They both watch the goldfish in a standoffish silence. Ino enjoys gifts, but the sentiment behind this one makes her face hot. Fish can't judge her but he sure as hell made a snap judgement call on her person.

Any other day, she would fight him about it. She holds back all the fire building up in her throat and just accepts it for what it is. Fish are unobtrusive. She loved them as a kid.

"Ino."

She brings her eyes to his, dragging the zipper of her light jacket up to her collar bone.

"Be kinder to yourself." Kiba leaves on that, but time stops to suffocate her in a bubble, the sentiment echoes long after he's on the other side of the door.

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The smell of Naruto's coffee makes Shikamaru feel human. He crams three sticks of minty gum into his mouth because he can still taste bug juice and blood.

"It's too goddamned early for this shit." Naruto dumps four packs of sugar into his cup and stirs it. "I feel dead."

"Naruto...it's almost noon..." Choji squints at the wall clock.

"Anytime before one o'clock is too early." Naruto takes a short sip.

"And you really want to be Hokage?" Choji purses his lips.

"Ya damn right I do!" Naruto slams a fist on the table.

Shikamaru rubs the side of his nose, staving off the sleep that made his eyes burn. He holds them shut, becoming accustomed with this new found self-sufficiency. It's like keeping a horrible secret of a murderer. He wiggles a knee like an anxious four-year-old.

"This guy really might be our hope and future, Shikamaru." Choji nudges him in his wounded arm. Shikamaru opens one eye that happens to fall on Kakashi, who looks back at him with an undetectable emotion. He pops his gum.

"I guess we are all fucked." Shikamaru's face turns red so he slides his nose in his palm.

"You dickheads will see. Shikamaru, be prepared to start wiping my ass. It's coming soon, brother." Naruto pulls the cup a little too fast and spills some of his coffee on the table.

The active shinobi file inside of the compact conference hall. Kakashi waits for a natural silence with his arms folded across his chest. Tenten stands next to him with a focused stare at nothing.

Naruto stands, taking his last long swig before clearing his throat. He takes a folder from his seat that he had been sitting on the entire time. Choji balks.

"Is everybody gonna keep talking or are we going to have a meeting?" Naruto looks around the room.

"We really are fucked..." Choji whispers to Shikamaru, who simply shrugs, holds his eyes shuts, and chews his gum.

The room deadens. Naruto clears his throat again, without his usual vibrato.

"I think I can speak for everyone when I say we don't want or need another war. Especially one we would lose before it even starts." He gets a severe expression on his face.

"We've got an influx of defecting shinobi in various villages..."

Shikamaru sits up in his seat and opens his eyes. He thinks—why hadn't Kakashi passed the information on to him first.

"Our sources, who shall remain anonymous, have informed us that the missing-nin organizing this mass exodus are Mist shinobi." Naruto hands the folder to Shikamaru over Choji's head.

"They're taking advantage of Kirigakure's vulnerable political climate. What better time to sow discord..." Naruto huffs.

Inside the folder, Shikamaru reads a list of various names and dates—all recorded by Sasuke. He looks across the room at Kakashi, who gazes at Naruto proudly.

I'm not your father. Shikamaru hears it three times during Naruto's report.

"They're ultimately organizing a form of bioterrorism." Tenten doesn't necessarily interrupt Naruto, but clips the beginning of a new sentence.

The room bristles.

"There is no better weapon than nature itself. You can't get rid of a lysogenic virus. The DNA stays in your body forever." Shikamaru drops the folder and contemplates everything Kakashi has ever said to him for the past month.

"Definitely nothing a couple of shuriken and scrolls can fix." Tenten interjects.

"Not if we kill them all first." Naruto sits back in his seat.

"I think everyone in this room has experienced enough death in their lifetime to not even be fazed by this. I'm not the least bit surprised—the next move is our solution," Kakashi says to everyone.

More things are said. Many ideas are exchanged but Shikamaru tunes them out. He just stares at the information in front of him. Kakashi had asked him to be a part of Anbu for a reason and he isn't ready to accept the responsibility. Not because he thinks he can't do the work, but if he fails, all the worse that happens afterwards will be his fault.

Shikamaru doesn't want to be remembered as someone who loses a huge battle in history. Rubbing his sore arm, he notices Choji staring at him out the corner of his eye.

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Ino puts together a gift display, arranging a rack of tacky birthday cards. Some are specific to a certain culture or region—it's the first time their shop will sell cards from Sunagakure. The vast majority of them are general, but they give her a sense of how much the world around her is changing.

She stops to open one card with a fox jumping over a half moon. It smiles stupidly back at her with its cartoonish pointy ears. On the inside it reads,"A cluster of stars came together and made you. Can you imagine that?"

Shikamaru has a birthday creeping up, hers the next day—the seasons are changing. She feels like something inside of herself is changing as well. Maybe it will die in the winter. It never gets that cold in their pocket of the country to kill everything, but she wonders anyway. Will she be a new person by spring?

Ino tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear then rubs her cheek. Instead of stuffing the card back in its stack, she sits it aside for Shikamaru, propping it against the fishbowl.

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The conference hall clears but Shikamaru remains seated with the wind gone from his chest. Choji doesn't leave his side, like always. There's never been a time when Choji has abandoned him.

"You still look awful. Why did you really cut your hair?" Choji puts an elbow on the table.

"I'm having a midlife crisis. I'm gonna die before I'm 35." Shikamaru puts his head in his arms, swallowing the fat wad of gum. It hurts his stomach. It's the only thing he's eaten and he's going to be worse for it later.

"And you haven't had a cigarette. You're shaking."

"I'm trying to be better is all," Shikamaru says in the crook of his arm.

Choji slaps him on the back and the gentle impact feels like it had fractured all of Shikamaru's bones. He stifles a groan.

"Hey...sometimes I feel like you forget you can tell me anything?" Choji lowers his head.

Shikamaru peeks at him, gets all the nerve in the world to tell Choji—he has the kind of face you confess your worst crimes to, but Tenten approaches their table.

"Shikamaru." She doesn't look at Choji.

Shikamaru sits up, erecting his spine. "Yea."

He has a sneaking suspicion that he already knows what she is about to say. She has the kind of eyes that betrays her stoicism.

"The Hokage wants us in his office in five" Is what she says before she exits the hall. She absorbs the little warmth that was left in the room. Shikamaru shudders.

"Look, come by later and we can talk. Karui won't mind." And Choji leaves him too.

Shikamaru sits, alone, with his burdens for two minutes. He has three more to hike his ass up to Kakashi's office.

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If the door isn't locked, no one has to knock. That's the rule Kakashi has been trying to establish, but it's hard to break years' worth of customs. Especially in a village accustomed to the fatal secrets of how things 'have always been done'.

Kakashi had said to him once—you have to wait for a whole generation to die first for things to start feeling different. Good or bad.

The door is cracked open. Shikamaru makes a point to never knock. He nudges it open with his palm. Not being an Uchiha nor a Hyuga, Shikamaru questions his ability to forge a new legacy or destroy what's already been built.

Naruto full stops his spirited one-sided conversation with Kakashi and Tenten, jumps straight from his seat and topples over a stack of binders.

"Shika-fucking-maru! Can you believe this shit!"

"I definitely can." Shikamaru scratches the side of his nose.

"I just don't understand—what causes humans to want chaos? Who wants to fight all the time!?" Naruto melts back into his chair, holding his head back and grumbling.

"There's a reason why we have laws and people in positions of power. Humans need governing or we'd all be picking our teeth with splintered bones." Tenten muses.

"What's a pack without an alpha?" Kakashi nods at her.

"That's such a morbid thing to say. Picking our teeth clean with bones? Guh..." Naruto quivers.

"It's true though, Naruto. We've evolved from that, but it's still in our DNA." Shikamaru chimes in.

"You guys are really rationalizing terrorism..." But Naruto sucks in his bottom lip. He can't have selective empathy.

"No, we are just diagnosing the problem." Kakashi rubs his forehead, drops his pin and takes a long chest-deflating breath.

Naruto pouts.

"Shikamaru, please sit. We've got a lot to cover..." Kakashi rearranges the scrolls on his desk.

"Oh I can imagine. A lot can happen in forty eight hours." Shikamaru collapses in the chair next to Naruto. The instant satisfaction of sitting turns his limbs to jell-o. He does his best not to let the simple comfortability put him to sleep.

"Tenten has been undercover for three months—" Kakashi starts but...

"So you already know the source of the problem?" Naruto scratches his head. "Then what the hell are we waiting on!?"

"Naruto, we are supposed to be at peace. We can't exactly rush our forces into Kirigakure." Tenten knits her brows. She has the kind of dark eyes that only show their proper color in direct sunlight.

"Does the Mizukage even know?" Naruto puffs his cheeks.

"Of course she does, but the problem is too big to just hand out warrants. Change doesn't happen overnight. This is common sense, Naruto." Kakashi opens a drawer, shuffling out a tiny notepad. He hands it to Naruto.

"What am I supposed to do with this?" Naruto flips through the blank yellow pages.

"Instead of interrupting, write down your thoughts. Think about what you're about to say and solve it yourself. Or simply take notes. Notes declutter the brain." Kakashi's blank sincerity is almost impossible to rebuff. Naruto complies with red ears.

"Why does this involve you, Tenten? Shouldn't this be in the hands of Anbu?" Shikamaru thinks, if not Anbu, something he should have to deal with. His brain generates too many questions. A cold shower hadn't been enough.

"I had the misfortune of a 'clean-up' mission in Otogakure. Orochimaru, for all of his questionable morals, is leading in our sudden culture war for transformation. He might not have the palate for it anymore, but he definitely has the ingredients for a microscopic weapon." Tenten's tone never changes. She looks Shikamaru straight in the eyes with a level ofintensity he isn't used to.

"Culture...waaar...of...transfor...maation..." Naruto scribbles roughly into the notepad.

"Missing-nin were apprehended in his lab. Shortly after they killed themselves...I simply volunteered myself to the cause. I mean...why not?"

"I still don't follow." Shikamaru's hunger intensifies his migraine.

"Is it that indigestible or are you just not trying hard enough, Shikamaru?" Kakashi rebuffs.

Shikamaru straightens this neck. His lips twitch but he doesn't frown. Tenten smiles then looks away with her earrings swishing around her face.

"Tenten has assumed one of the missing-nin's identity with a little help from Anbu. Does that clarify things?"

Shikamaru rolls his eyes. "Affirmative."

"You're free to go." Kakashi says to Tenten with his eyes locked on Shikamaru.

Scooting back her chair against the hardwood floor, she stands to bow. None of them speak until the heels of her sandals can't be heard down the hallway.

"I'm putting Naruto in charge of this assignment and I want you to oversee him."

"Who would've thought you'd be 'training' me, Shikamaru." Naruto air quotes with the pen wobbling between his thumb and index finger.

"It won't be training. It's guidance. I don't have the patience required to be your sensei." Shikamaru huffs.

"The Hokage was my sensei. You should be honored." Naruto points the pen in his direction.

"Will I have the time, Kakashi?" Shikamaru slouches until his chin rolls into his neck.

"More than enough. Trust me." Kakashi gives Naruto a manila folder held together by a red rubber band. "That's yours until this shit comes to a head."

Naruto grabs for it, shocked by the weight, overwhelmed by the significance, and unabashedly excited. He plucks the rubber band against the folder—three loud thwacks.

"I won't let you down, Lord Sixth!" Pressing his forehead against the folder, Naruto bows.

"Get out of my office." Kakashi doesn't even hesitate. Naruto takes it in stride, like nothing in the world can damper his mood. Not even a pile of dead-bodies. He marches after Tenten with a bigger sense of purpose.

Shikamaru sometimes wishes he had that kind of enthusiasm. Kakashi says his name and he snaps his eyes open.

"You really do look bad. I almost feel sorry for you."

"Well, you did this to me."

"Nah. You did that to yourself by breaking the rules."

Shikaku was right. He never really knew exhaustion. Shikamaru felt his lethargy internally as though it had always been a functioning organ. His brain will melt and seep out his eye sockets, ears, nose, and mouth if he thinks any harder, so he just stops thinking. He props his face against his hand.

"Why me...?" Shikamaru feels a yawn but can't push it out.

"The day you stop asking that, the day you will realize that you are not anyone special. Why not you?" Kakashi moves around. Shikamaru's eyes fall shut and stay in place. He hears it but it doesn't register. The chair consumes him.

"Culture war of transformation." He feels it out with his tongue, drowsily laughing.

Kakashi works silently across from him. Shikamaru waits and waits for a long winded dump of information, but it never comes. He waits until he plummets into a hard sleep.

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And he wakes up with the last remains of a dream he can't remember—a bright sunlight yellow and the scent of grass. He opens his eyes and it's gone, thrusted back into a not so warm reality. Not exactly cold. An orange afternoon glow washes the Hokage's office, that smells nothing like grass, but like an enclosed attic and sun bleached paper.

Kurenai gifts Kakashi candles, but he never burns them. Shikamaru can't figure out if its outright refusal or forgetfulness. He sits up, makes a bubbly noise in his throat. Sleep shouldn't make you feel like you've run a marathon. It defeats the purpose of rest. He violently coughs into his arm, hurriedly wipes the spit from his mouth with the collar of his shirt as the door opens.

"You snore like a pig. Has anyone told you that?" Kakashi holds a bowl of soup.

"I don't believe you." Shikamaru watches the steam rise. It's not a special soup. It just smells appealing and he wants to cry like a small child. He doesn't, but the desire to do so is strong. If not cry, definitely throw a tantrum.

"If one person says it, it's a story. Two, maybe gossip...but three? It's most likely the truth and more than three people have been in and out of this office." Kakashi takes a seat. His shadow warps itself across the desk.

"I'd be fucked if I cared what people thought about me." Shikamaru salivates.

Kakashi sits the bowl on his desk, nudges it in Shikamaru's direction.

"Looking at you exhausts me. Eat before I change my mind."

"That's a negative, sir."

"If the Hokage tells you to do something, you do it right? This is your assignment for today. Eat."

Squinting, Shikamaru searches Kakashi's face for a sign, a glimmer, a twitch of the creases in his mask. He's facing the opposite direction of sunlight. It's hard to tell.

"No."

"You said the rules were dumb, right?" Kakashi tilts his head.

"They are."

"If you haven't figured out how to break them without getting caught, then why are you here?"

Silence. Shikamaru's shoulders slump. He looks away from Kakashi and the sunlight melting his eyes.

"This is one of the first things you learned in the academy. No system is perfect. There's always a possible way. Has that not occurred to you at all?"

Shikamaru has never felt dumb before.

"I really had to point it out to you?" Kakashi rubs his brows.

Every time Ino had ever accused him of going out of his way to make her feel stupid, he thinks he understands it now. Kakashi does it on purpose. Shikamaru takes the bowl and scarfs it down. There isn't a rebuttal to save himself. He accepts his failure.

"You're experiencing quite the learning curve. I'm not disappointed in you. There's just more work that needs to be done, clearly."

"I'm not perfect." Shikamaru's face warms with satisfaction. For the moment, nothing matters more than fulfilling his appetite.

"Never said you were, Shikamaru. I'm just curious to see how this will all unfold."

Shikamaru swallows a tepid 'same'. Kakashi allows him to eat undisturbed. They sit quietly as evening washes the windows in heat. The room is uncomfortably warm, stuffy. He pulls at his collar, beginning to feel a lot better, but downright sorry.

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Ino sometimes doesn't use her body consciously. All of her movements are muscle memory. When she closes the shop, she shuts off the lights—her brain breaks the monotony of standing all day when she really doesn't have to.

Her mom had taken the day off so tomorrow it will be her turn to sit and stare at the shadows changing on the floor. As she jiggles the keys in the lock, she stops and reopens the door to shut the lights back on for her nameless goldfish. She wouldn't be able to sleep at night knowing she subjected two helpless creatures to a confined darkness. Even if they did lack self-awareness. They didn't ask to be bred and held in captivity.

She busies herself with locking the door again.

"Ino."

She turns her head to Shikamaru a few feet away.

"Can you please stop happening out of thin air!?"

"The day I really scare you is the day I stop." He waits for her to approach him.

"I guess I'm screwed. I can never be scared of you." Ino takes one good look inside of the shop, but she can barely see through the blinds.

"Or you'll stab me in the throat not realizing it's me until it's too late."

"I know you in the dark. Unless you just absolutely want me to end you. Didn't know that was your kink, Shikamaru." Ino thinks about her words a little too late, she stops mid-step and flushes.

Shikamaru meets her half way. The sun hasn't completely tucked itself away. Its light cuts perfectly though the buildings, casting a golden strip across her face. She's pink from her nose to both of her ears.

He drenches her in his shadow and she turns away, as though looking at him would drop all the stars to Earth.

"Can I keep my promise?" It takes all of his training not to touch her. Whenever he does, shit just comes together while simultaneously falling apart. Putting two perfectly shaped puzzles pieces together, only to have unmatched colors.

"What promise?"

"Let's spend time together."

"Last time we ended up spending time together you told me it was a mistake."

Shikamaru had forgotten about that specifically.

"Having sex on my mom's couch was a mistake. I mean that in the nicest way possible." Blushing, he lowers his head and whispers.

"What she doesn't know won't hurt her." Ino shoves her keys in her soft pants pocket.

"You jumped my bones!"

"And you didn't stop me so it ultimately is your fault!"

"You expected me to say no?" He wheezes.

"You're supposed to be the reasonable one! Don't hold me to your standard of congeniality!" She tosses her hair over her shoulder.

"I just don't want..."

"Don't want what?"

"I just don't want us to repeatedly hurt each other. It's not worth it."

"Did it hurt, Shikamaru?" The red tint of her face fades. She's devastatingly pretty and for years he had tried his hardest to not fall victim to it. His thirteen-year-old self would gag at how soft his mind has become. Her look alone soothes the seventy-two hours' worth of pain he's endured.

"No." He isn't able to go back in time and convince himself that this will be and unfortunately is the state of his heart.

"That's all that matters." It's the clearest she's spoken in a long time. She begins to walk and he follows. Momentarily forgetting the crick in his neck, Shikamaru muddles over the statement.

"Yea—but I'd rather keep you as a friend instead of us one day resenting each other." He thinks about Temari and the gap between now and then.

Ino keeps her focus ahead, places a hand over her eyes to shield her face from the blinding sun fall. And to hide the hurt expression. She can't bring herself to argue with him about it. She's gotten used to listening to what she doesn't want to hear.

"If that's what you want, Shikamaru." Ino sniffles away a sneeze.

"I hope it's what you want too." He places a hand on her shoulder and squeezes.

"Sure. This isn't what I had in mind as 'spending time' together." She ignores the twisting knot in her stomach.

"Right..." Shikamaru drops his hand. "Choji invited me over. You should come with me."

"Nope. He hates my guts right now."

"That's not it at all. He doesn't have it in him to hate anything and you know that. You've clearly forgotten all the fights we had as kids and how often he took your side." He exhales.

Ino puts her bag on her other shoulder, shakes her head to make up for not having anything to counter him with.

"Ino..."

"Fine. I'll go."

He rubs his face and rattles a breathy 'thank you'.

"If he throws me out..."

"He's not going to. I won't let him."

"Whose side are you on then, Shikamaru?"

"Neither."

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Shikamaru surprises himself with how hard he pushes through his malaise. Ino grips his hand as he reaches to knock, the sensation shoots up his arm and neck—he wants to faint, but he squeezes her hand back. The pain pills have worn off. He should've stolen the bottle from Kakashi.

"It's just Choji." He reassures her.

"Yea but what kind of person do you have to be for Choji of all people..."

Shikamaru brings his index to finger to his lips and makes a long shush noise. He gives her one more minute to breathe then knocks on the door. She doesn't let go of his hand.

Karui opens the door in one swing. The smell of food on the stove drifts outside around them. Her smile dims when she makes eye contact with Ino. Not in a malicious way. Curiously.

"If I'd known you had a plus one I would've put on nicer clothes, Shika." Karui pats the bun on her head.

"She's no one special." He jokes but Ino's cheeks swell. She tugs her hand away from his.

"Long time no see, Ino." Karui moves aside for them.

Shikamaru gestures for Ino to make the first step. She re-zips her jacket as a nervous tic, but she makes that step.

Karui gives Shikamaru a quizzical expression and he nods. When it finally dawns on her what the mission is, her eyes brighten.

Choji storms out the kitchen with the intent to boisterously greet Shikamaru. The sight of Ino zaps the joy from his face. Food sizzling in a pan, the grease pops three times. He drops his arms to his side.

Ino's purse slides down her arm. She catches it before it hits the floor.

"Don't pop a blood vessel, Cho!" Karui stands beside Ino, both hands on her shoulders.

"I'm perfectly fine." He looks to Shikamaru for a silent answer.

"No you're not—that's why she's here." Shikamaru takes off his shoes.

"She's here because you forced her to come."

"No he didn't." Ino mutters loud enough for Choji to hear.

"I need a drink!" Choji saunters back into the kitchen. Karui follows behind him. The shuffle between glasses and running water drowns out their bickering.

Ino turns on her heels but Shikamaru stops her, walking her backwards into the kitchen.

"Maybe not today?" She pleads.

"It has to be today or you'll regret it." Shikamaru says with tight jaws. His sudden firmness sends her heart plummeting to her stomach. He delicately grabs her face to level their eyes.

"Life is too short, Ino. You can't not be ready forever."

With it being said, she trusts him.

"Ok." Ino lets go of her inhibitions.

The faucet stops running. Shikamaru breaks away from her and heads for the table. Ino steps out of her sandals, dropping her bag on the floor. She sits across from Choji. He throws back a bottle of beer, then slams it down on the table. As Karui passes Ino a plate of tempura, she rubs his shoulder.

"Choji?" Shikamaru rests his elbows on the table.

"Are you not eating?" Choji frowns.

"I'm on a diet..."

Rolling his eyes, Choji hisses between his teeth. "You guys are trying to kill me."

"That's far from the truth." Shikamaru drawls.

"You on a fucking diet is far from the truth." Choji takes another sip of his beer.

Karui takes a seat and begins to eat. Ino anxiously deliberates picking up the chopsticks with the irrational fear that moving too fast would cause the table to break in half. The minutes go by before either of them speak. Shikamaru waits, tapping his fingers against the table.

"Don't waste your food, Ino. It's rude." Choji starts but not in the way Shikamaru has hoped for.

Ino picks up her chopsticks and slides the fried shrimp in her mouth, chewing slowly.

A devastating pause sucks the warmth into a void. Shikamaru sighs. The smell of the food makes his mouth water. He begins to sweat.

"Goddamnit, Choji! Just tell her how you feel!" Karui snatches away his beer.

"No. You guys aren't about to pressure me into doing nothing I don't wanna do." Choji says with a mouthful of shrimp.

"I swear, Choji..." Karui makes a fist.

"It's not our battle, Karui." Shikamaru cuts her off.

"No, it is your problem too, Shikamaru. We've already talked about how she went out of her way to cut us out of her life. We went two years without talking to her and we both agreed she wasn't worth it. You just want me to get over it now so you can feel less terrible about rebounding with her." Choji scarfs down the rest of his tempura.

Ino drops her chopsticks and loses the little appetite she had. A wad of pain crawls from her chest and hangs in her throat.

Shikamaru experiences six different emotions at once. "That's not fair."

"What isn't fair is forcing me to explain myself to her on your time in my house." Choji wipes his mouth. Ino doesn't understand how he can speak so calmly but usher such emotional violence. Time had really gotten away from her. Choji isn't how she remembers him.

But she remains still in her seat. Anchors all of her attention on her plate.

Shikamaru just sits back in his chair, dragging his arms from the table, folding his hands in his lap. He cracks his knuckles. Should he apologize? He and Choji have only ever disagreed once.

Karui glares at Choji disbelievingly, but she's heard all of this before. More than twice.

"Am I not supposed to feel bad about you two having this secret life together without me? Am I wrong? Karui...am I wrong?"

Karui drinks her glass of water and shakes her head. A red tendril falls from its clip around her face.

"It hasn't been like that." Ino's voice cracks.

"It looks and feels that way." Choji massages his chest.

A funeral's silence. They'd unwittingly prodded a thing to death and were watching it die. Karui an unwilling bystander—unfortunately guilty by association.

Shikamaru's throat tightens. He's been wrong about a lot lately. Wasn't prepared to be wrong in surmising his best friend's feelings. For a moment in time, they did resent Ino for severing their bond, but his feelings had always been lukewarm. He reaches for Ino's hand under the table but she shies away.

"So what have you been up to, Ino? I'm done speaking." Choji rubs the back of his neck.

Ino drags her eyes from her plate to really face Choji.

"I haven't been up to anything. Just existing." The tears come slow at first. She fights them by picking up a shrimp with her fingers and shoving it in her mouth. Crying makes food tasteless.

"And I kinda don't know what to say other than to apologize—but I also feel like neither of you have given me enough credit." She swallows.

"You never came to any memorials. None of our family get togethers." Choji keeps the same tone.

"Because I couldn't." Her voice cracks.

"Did you try?" He shakes his head.

"Not as hard as I could've. I didn't want to feel bad."

"We all feel bad, Ino."

"If you think not showing up to celebrate my trauma is the worst thing I've ever done to you then I'm at a loss for words. Not everyone wants to perform sadness."

He doesn't respond.

"I can tell you what I lost. Almost two and half years' worth of sleep, the ability to feel anything but anger, my dad and what little bit of a mom I had. So I'm very sorry that neither of you personally asked me. That's all you had do. What did you lose? You still have your family and Shikamaru had Temari and a whole mom." Ino doesn't wipe at her tears. Her hands feel like two heavy bricks against her thighs.

Shikamaru thinks of Asuma and how disappointed he'd be in them. He knows it's at the forefront of Choji's mind and he's surprised when Choji doesn't speak on it.

No one says a word. Ino's hard sobs occupy the space of silence.

Karui isn't able to stand another unchecked silence. She gets up from her chair, embracing Ino like she herself had committed a great wrong and is sorry for it. This triggers all of Ino's pain and she cries as if she is experiencing death. It hurts her muscles and it hurts to breathe.

"Ino." Choji rasps. He rises and comes around the table. Karui gently tilts back Ino's head and wipes the tears from her face with a thumb.

Twenty-three years weigh Choji down to his knees. He takes Ino's limp hand in both of his. All of his anger vanishes as if it were superficial and he weeps an abundance of 'sorries'.

Shikamaru's body is frozen. The sensory overload puts him in a state of dead-like shock. Tempura. Beer. Salt from their pores. The kitchen is stuffy and hot like the inside of a coffin. His teeth tears at the dry skin of his bottom lip. There are no levels of emancipation that can surmount his culpability. Choji can say sorry all he wants to.

Sorry doesn't cut it. Shikamaru shudders at the crawling sensation under his skin.

Karui hands Ino Choji's unfinished beer. Ino gulps it like water, gagging, but finishes it.

She doesn't stop crying for another fifteen minutes. Every violent breath she takes, Shikamaru digs his nails in the fabric of his shirt, fighting the horrible reflex to flinch.

"I'm sorry. I'm a horrible person." Tasting her tears and snot through the beer, she sucks on her top lip.

"You're not horrible." Choji shakes her hand.

"But I am. I'm rotten..." Ino hiccups.

Unable to endure another torrent of her tears, Shikamaru removes himself from the table, heading straight for the living room. Freeing the suffocating heat of the kitchen, he opens the window as if he were in his own home. He digs out of his vest pocket a pack of cigarettes, but there's only one left. Crinkling the packet with his fingers, he thinks long and hard about how much he really needs it.

Smoking chisels off a year of your lifespan but depriving himself expedites this eventual death. But things were changing and needed to keep changing so he shoves it in his back pocket and just hangs his head outside of the window.

"I'm rotten too. We're all pretty rotten." Choji sucks his tears back. Karui rubs them both on their heads like the children they'd shrunken into. Choji squeezes Ino's hand so hard, it goes numb. All of her feels numb. She'd wept herself into a migraine.

Shikamaru sullenly watches the leftover fireworks zip across the sky. He can't will himself to participate in the conversation. Choji talks enough that Ino doesn't need to speak—he'd start a question but shortly after, find the answer inside of himself.

"Where has the time gone?"

Ino starts her second bottle. In the middle of breaking her lips away from the rim, Choji says, "We wasted it."

Of course.

But Shikamaru can't mitigate this strong feeling of betrayal. He is angry with Ino and knowing better, that he shouldn't, makes him even angrier. The shinobi in him revisits several moments from that month they were together—several clear moments he'd missed the mark.

Karui brushes back the curtain, standing beside him.

"What do you think?" She leans outside the window.

Shikamaru muddles over the appropriate thing to say. Dropping his hand from his face, he looks back at Choji consoling Ino.

Just like that. It was that easy. He seethes on the inside, a ghost spectating a life he had been denied.

"I think..." It starts but he lets it go. He'd just be saying anything for that sake of speaking and that's not a habit he wants to nurture.

Shikamaru shrugs with an unwinding roll of his shoulders and continues to watch the fireworks.

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Ino lets Shikamaru inside of her apartment without turning on the lights. Coming out of her shoes, she heads straight for her bedroom. He watches her through the unimposing darkness, her shadowy figure stops in the doorway. She unravels her hair. Her keys hit against a hard surface.

He shuts her front door. After a moment of hesitation, he gets enough nerve to head in her bedroom.

Laying on her back, Ino's features are dully illuminated by her lamp, save for her eyes. They hold no supernatural power, but looking long enough, it's easy to become captivated. The higher power commands you to marvel at a full moon. It never gets old. It's never any less appealing. In the same way, Ino is a natural wonder.

Shikamaru sits close to her on the edge of the bed. It's been a long time since he's been inside of her bedroom. He has purposefully avoided doing so.

"I feel empty." She turns her head in the pillow.

"I know." He responds hoarsely.

"I'm so drunk."

"That's how we bond." How they've been bonding for the last couple of years. It's been a placeholder for conversation.

Ino wipes her nose along her sleeve. Shikamaru begins to feel his exhaustion getting the best of him. His shoulders hang. He is no longer able to fight the fuzziness in his head.

"Ino."

"What?" She's heard her name enough like she's been on her deathbed.

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"Same reason you didn't ask." She croaks.

"You could've said something months ago." Shikamaru's nasal cavity burns. It worsens as he swallows the spit accumulating in his mouth.

Ino's lips are parted but she just breathes slowly. She lifts two fingers to her throat, rubs the length and folds of her skin.

"Even if I wanted to. It stops right here. And it stays there." Her lids dip slowly.

Rubbing a hand through his hair, Shikamaru tugs out his cigarette pack and his keys, dumps them on her nightstand. He realizes that this is an old habit and that he doesn't live here. Ino watches him hesitate in the middle of taking off his shoes. To correct himself, Shikamaru extends his arm to regather his things, but Ino takes the crumpled soft packet from his hand, fishing out the last crooked cigarette. Sinking her head into her pillow, she sits it between her lips.

"I'm you now." She folds her hands around her chin. Her red nails compliment her eyes.

Shikamaru reaches to take it from her mouth but she slaps his hand away.

"You're not gonna waste my last cigarette." He breathes out.

"Just buy yourself more. Give me a lighter."

"No."

She narrows her eyes and he does the same. Ino huffs a throaty 'fine', twisting her body around to open the drawer of her nightstand. Shikamaru didn't 'stay' with her anymore but he left artifacts like he had abruptly disappeared with the purpose to come back. Three of his lighters she held onto. A red one he had left on the back of the toilet, a green one he'd kept next to his keys in the kitchen, and a black one he must've dropped on his way out at some point.

Ino slumps back as she lights it. Shikamaru holds his breath, waiting for her to choke on the first drag, but she inhales it like a natural, holds all the smoke in her jaw and breathes it back out.

"You're wasting it."

"Nuh uh. This is how you do it all the time." She coughs.

"That's not..." He shuts up and rubs his earlobe.

"But it is." She sits up on her elbows. Rising from the edge of the bed, he takes it from her mouth and just smokes it. He opens her window and hangs his head out.

"My mouth tastes like an ashtray now." Ino whispers.

"You did it to yourself." The wind takes up the ash, sparks fading before they can touch the ground.

They allow a bout of speechlessness to pass. Shikamaru finishes the cigarette with a lump in his throat. Ino just stares at the shadow shapes in her ceiling. He flicks the cigarette into the darkness and shuts the window with a loud slap. The smoke smell wafts in her direction and she wrinkles her nose.

"Can you get up to lock your door?" He says shakily.

"There you go. In a hurry to leave me again." Ino deadpans.

Shikamaru stands over her bed. Straining her eyes, she doesn't angle her neck to look directly at him. He doesn't speak. Ino's lips break apart to free an airy noise. Not a sigh nor a whimper. Not even a groan. Like a failed attempt at swallowing or clearing her throat.

"You don't have to guilt trip me." He's too beaten to fight her.

"You don't have to leave so soon." She matches his soft tone but it rolls out of her coarsely. "That guilt is yours. You feel guilty because you know it's not what you want to do."

He can't help but crack a smirk. "You're certain that's how I feel?"

"No. I'm not. I'm just bluffing." Yawning, she closes her eyes and unzips her jacket down to her bellybutton. "Go ahead and leave. I won't die if you do."

She fidgets with the buttons of her pants but gives up. Her arms feel like jelly. The room doesn't spin, she's not that drunk—but her feelings are prevalent. Shikamaru climbs into the bed, sinking his knees around her, gripping the headboard, straddles her without all of his weight—sandals still on his feet.

Ino flutters her eyes open. She likes the pressure on her stomach.

"What do you want me to do, Ino?" He lowers his head.

"Stay." She almost cuts him off. The quickness of the answer startles him but he doesn't reveal this to her.

"That's all?" It comes out of him before his brain can process the invitation.

"That's all." She brings her hands to his face, massages his ears between her index and middle fingers. Ino's mouth waters at the thought of kissing him. Her thoughts don't exceed that. They stop at just his lips. She drags her fingers from his ears to his jaws, down his chest then abandons them at her side.

Shikamaru comes out of his vest and shoes. Throws them into the dark sea of shadows on her floor then flops next to Ino, coughing up the phlegm in his throat just to swallow it back down again.

He had been pushing his physical limits all day, but he didn't really understand how badly he neglected himself until he rests his neck against a pillow. Gravity hits him hard.

"Then I'll stay."

Sleep takes a hold of him. The scent of Ino's apartment and the wind pressing against her window—it takes him back to the first time he'd slept next to her as a fully grown man.

"Shikamaru?" Ino rolls into his side smelling like sugar berry lotion, sweat, and beer.

"Hey." He's expired himself. There's nothing left to put into the universe. It's time to wait for it to all come back tenfold.

"Where were you yesterday?" She sits a leg on top of his.

"You don't wanna know—typical shinobi shit. Not all of us get a day off." His ears ring.

Ino rolls her tongue in her mouth, shoving her nose in his shoulder, doesn't speak for a moment and then, "Shikamaru?"

"Yes." He's so tired.

"I'm sorry."

Over the span of twenty-four hours, he had gone through every single human emotion. Shikamaru turns his head slightly. Their foreheads touch. Ino's body heat becomes his and sooner, they are a unit.

"I'm mad but I forgive you." He whispers warmly against her skin.

"I don't want you to be mad." Her voice crackles.

"I won't be forever." It ought to wear off before morning. Maybe his lethargy amplifies his irritation.

"Good. I'm glad." She falls groggy and vague.

Gravity is perfect when it's not pulling you off a cliff. Ino doesn't snore so he knows that she isn't asleep yet. They plunge themselves in a thick quiet. The abrupt soundlessness causes the darkness to ring and appear static-like. Shikamaru's eyes are closed but Choji's sobbing haunts him.

"Ino."

She mewls his name drowsily.

"Inoichi told me and Choji to be gentle with you—I thought it was unnecessary at the time. You've always been independent, loud, stubborn, demanding, but he knew you better than me. So really I'm the asshole and I'm sorry." This releases some of the pressure in his head.

Ino is gone with her first snore, leaving him behind in the real world.

But he's not too far behind her.

Not too far at all.

It takes a little bit of time to get over his painful nostalgia. Ten minutes precisely, he watches her blaring alarm clock.

Then his heart catches up with the slow waterfall of his mind and he sleeps.

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Shikamaru doesn't restfully wake up to the sun burning his eyelids. His body jerks him straight out of his dreamless sleep with tightness in his chest like he had just finished running a mile's worth of laps. His shirt clings to him in various sweaty spots on his torso. He tugs it over his head to alleviate his body of the sudden constriction, balling it up in a wad, shooting it across the room.

Beneath the covers, Ino's body twists to face him, her fingers creeping on his hip bone and squeezing. She's still sleep, vividly dreaming. He watches her eyes move around under her lids.

His heart stops racing. It's ten in the morning—he has to be in Kakashi's office two hours from now. He throws his head back into Ino's pillows, the impact reminding him that his arm hasn't healed and he hadn't bothered to change the bandages. Blood soaks clean through them. He shudders. Today, it's the searing kind of pain that only hurts when you look at it. He holds the wounded arm up, the rays of sun cut between his fingers. He pops all the bones, forms a fist and stretches out more of the pain.

Ino's hand journeys up his abdomen and he turns to meet her very wide-awake eyes. Her wet lashes stick together. She lifts herself up, until she can reach his wound. Shikamaru grinds his teeth at the sight of her nipple, acutely aware of his morning wood. As she rises to observe his arm, her breasts rub against his chest.

"Ino, why the hell are you naked?" He attempts to drop his arm and pull away, but she draws up her knees and sits on his lower abdomen.

"You were making it hot under the covers. Not everyone wants to wake up sweaty like you. What happened to your arm?" She spreads her palm over his nose and gently tugs at his arm.

The inside of her hand still smells like her lotion. She shifts her weight and sits on his erection. He sucks in his stomach to catch his breath. Ino holds his wrist. He drops his hand limpid.

Ino releases his face to peel back the bandages. The air causes it to sting. Ino swallows down a gasp.

"What happened?" She looks down on him.

"I was peeling an onion..." He sucks his teeth.

"Shikamaru..." Ino cautiously turns his arm in the sun glow. It looks worse in natural light but doesn't feel nearly as bad. It still tingles his elbow, but he had unknowingly meditated with it enough so that it's only a mild inconvenience—aftershock. All of his hairs absorb the heat intensified by the window.

Ino's panties twist into tiny bows at her hips. He doesn't remember this pair. They must be new. He thinks to ask her. He wants to ask her.

"When did you get those?" He does ask her.

"Get your head out of the trash and tell me what happened?" Ino unravels the bandages. Her hair fluttering across his skin tickles.

"It was an accident." He brings his eyes back to her face, but it's a long arduous journey climbing up the soft protrusion of her bones and her champagne colored nipples.

He fills his cheeks with air.

"You've never been a liar so don't start now." Her face is twisted in a mortified frown. The gash looks infected. It's still wet like it refuses to heal.

"I'm so hungry, Ino." That is the truth.

Ino flattens her palms on his arm, sure that she encloses all ten fingers around his muscles. And she closes her eyes, knits her brows then focuses all of her chakra to her hands.

It's been a long time. She's rusty. It's like searching for a silver coin at the bottom of the ocean. Setting aside the anxiety of her energy expanding, her heart always feels like it's about to burst, but it never does.

At first, his skin burns like it's being twisted in Ino's firm grasp. Soon, every terrible feeling he's had recedes into the pressure of her fingertips. The welts in his arm fades and the hole corrects itself, like time is being rewinded. Every terrible discomfort disappears. Ino bites down on her bottom lip. Warmth builds up in his stomach.

Ino eases up her grip when she's done then presses her cheek into his palm. She forms a tiny 'o' with her lips, breathes.

Though his skin is clear, he wonders if they had planted anymore of Shino's bug inside of him. He hopes the thought kills his erection, but Ino opens her eyes.

"Really, what happened?" Her lips move against his thumb.

Shikamaru doesn't want to relive what happened. He pushes out a scattered breath. As he tries to pull his arm away, she holds it in place.

"It doesn't matter. Let me have just one secret." He shakes his head. She had everything else. She has everything else of his that isn't physical. It's the best and worst feeling.

"Just one, Ino. Please?"

"You sound like you're bargaining for your soul."

"I think I am. That's exactly what I'm doing."

"Fine. Don't tell me." She gets off of him, kicking her legs back under the sheets.

Shikamaru feels fine enough now, on her sustenance, to tug the sheets back. Her bangs stands up from the friction of the fabric. Ino gapes at him. The sun makes her eyes even brighter, a shinier blue that could be blinding if they reflected light instead of absorbing it.

He has nothing he wants to say. It's a bluff. A reflex. Chasing down a pill stuck in his throat with water. She knows it instantly.

"You make this shit so hard and confusing..." He doesn't think.

"If you stopped always trying to plan your next step, you wouldn't be so confused."

"Don't straw man me."

"I don't even know what that means so it doesn't affect me." She sits up on an elbow to shove a finger in his collarbone, but Shikamaru grabs her wrist and drops her into a rough kiss. Ino sucks his bottom lip and tastes her victory. She laments his loss, throatily, as he drags her panties down. She unwinds her legs and kicks her underwear from her feet. With the same swiftness, he breaks their kiss to unbutton his pants. She flinches at the severed contact.

Twining their fingers together, he anchors her down and shoves himself inside of her. Ino doesn't suppress her moans. They ripple out of her like it hurts to breathe. She digs her sharp nails into his knuckles.

Shikamaru likes to have reasons for every little thing he does. He doesn't have one this time. Not one that can be supported by rationality. He just woke up on the wrong side of the wrong bed. He makes a point not to break blood vessels in her neck, but it's hard. Every pinch of skin between his teeth, he drives himself deeper, as if he could split her in half. He holds himself at the very point he can't surpass and Ino grinds her hips against him with all the desire to be broken in two pieces. The sheets absorb her wetness.

Ino loosens their fingers and caresses his face, pressing her thumbs into his cheekbones.

"Is this going to hurt later?" She's serious for the most part.

Shikamaru looks down at her, unable to speak. He wipes the sweat from her temples. Ino's lips tremble each time he eases out of her.

He doesn't dignify it with an answer because he feels bested and foolish. She starts to kiss his jawline but he maneuvers himself on his knees and she arches her back as he holds her hips.

Ino covers her mouth, biting down on the skin of her middle finger when he slams inside of her on a violently fierce continuum. Her free hand grips and rolls back the sheet from the top corner of her mattress.

He is close to his orgasm, but he edges. They've never used condoms—this thought flickers across his mind like lightning. Fast and gone.

Ino's weak attempt to stuff her cries back down her throat falls apart. The entirety of her finesse crumbles to nothing. She tries to pull herself back, to reclaim a smidgen of her coyness, but he digs his nails in her skin, holding her in place.

But you can't turn off being ninja. It almost always comes before being a person with natural wants and needs. Shikamaru, amazingly, hears the front door click over Ino's whimpering and recognizes the strong choke of chakra. His primitive instincts want to achieve an orgasm but some things should be sacred and Ino would blame him until he's cold in a grave.

He's only this sharp in the morning because he's unusually aware of himself. If it were a different day, Ino would've just had to hate him. Even though she has had the same amount of training.

Right before, barely a minute, Choji bellows Ino's name from the living room, Shikamaru reluctantly withdraws himself from Ino, gripping his wet erection.

"You didn't lock my front door!?" Ino fights the compulsion to slap him across the face. Shikamaru almost trips out of the bed on his journey to her bathroom to finish himself.

"I don't live here!" He states before closing the bathroom door.

Rubbing the hair from her face, Ino gets up for Shikamaru's sweaty black shirt.

Choji begins opening cabinets and rummaging around the kitchen as if he went half on her rent.

As she moves across her bedroom, her thighs brushing together make her aware of just how wet she still is. And she has a strong feeling that it isn't going anywhere for awhile. She should put on underwear, but she'd just end up changing them. Shikamaru's shirt is long enough to hide this messy truth.

"Choji." She exasperates.

Choji stops searching Ino's fridge to gawk at the wildness of her hair—he has never caught her in such an unbecoming state. Scanning her head to toe, his face reddens. It dawns on him that he's an intruder.

"Is it normal for you to not lock your door?" Choji scoffs, slamming her fridge shut.

"I could say the same about your invasion of privacy."

"Look. I woke up this morning and couldn't control my excitement! We have so much catching up to do. Let me make you a heart-shaped pancake!" Choji is sincere. It makes her head hurt.

"I don't even have pancake mix..." Nor the means to go about making them from scratch either.

"Yea...actually...I noticed that. What do you eat? Air? Geeze..."

"You really just broke into my apartment..." She pulls a chair from her table and sits, startled by the cold wood on her ass cheeks.

"An unlocked door is an invitation, Ino! This place is so small too..." He drums his fingers on his chin.

"You got the money to buy me an estate, sir?" She rolls her eyes.

"No, but I can definitely buy you groceries, madam. You shall no longer eat like a hummingbird." He grabs at a half empty box of wheat cereal from the counter and shakes his head.

Not everyone has a bottomless hole for a stomach, but she thinks against saying this. She gets a feeling that it would unravel all the emotional labor she had endured. A fuzzy feeling tickles her belly—it's a vague feeling of hope and she hasn't felt this way in a long time.

Choji sits the cereal box in front of her. He begins to speak but the shower cuts on, thundering through the old pipes in her walls. She doesn't break their eye contact, just folds her arms and wrinkles her lips.

"Shikamaru couldn't say good morning..." He snorts and unknowingly sits in Shikamaru's designated chair, then proceeds to shove his hand in the cereal box.

"Well..."

"So what's going on with you guys? He doesn't tell me a damn thing—you know how he gets when he can't answer a question directly. He gets all cryptic and makes you feel dumb for ever asking, even though he can't answer the question himself..." He crunches.

Ino rubs the crust from an eye, sucking her jaws in. "We're just friends, Choji."

They sit quietly and listen to Shikamaru's feet rattling the tub. Ino releases her jaws. Lowering her head, her bangs fall around her face. She doesn't have a straightforward answer and she can feel Choji's energy swelling up to the ceiling.

"The truth isn't so compelling." She rubs her nose along the sleeve.

"I don't care if it's compelling or not. Nosey people just wanna know!"

"We're just friends." Ino nods perfunctory. That's what he had told her. Rearranging her insides most likely didn't change his mind. He'd rationalize it as a lapse in judgment and pretend it never happened. This time it's his fault. She can go to bed with that much certainty.

"You're in his shirt, Ino. I'm not dumb." He reaches over to thump the metal plaque sewn into the sleeve.

"Well, Choji, getting off doesn't exactly require a relationship."

"If that isn't bullshit..." Falling back, he continues to stuff the rest of her cereal into his mouth.

Shikamaru stands in the doorway with Ino's toothbrush in his mouth. Instead of speaking, he just nods at Choji. The color drains from Ino's face. He wipes the suds behind an ear with the towel around his neck.

"Are you serious!?" Ino squawks. "Now both of you are intruders in my safe space!"

Carrying the scent of cherries, Shikamaru walks to the kitchen sink, shuts on the faucet, and spits the toothpaste down the drain. His skin shines with soap.

"You both have to get out!"

"Ino, worse things have been in your mouth than my saliva." He takes the wet towel and throws it over her head.

"That's not the point!" Ino tears it from her head. Her hair falls to her side and tangles.

"I'm deciding that we all have breakfast together!" Choji changes the subject.

"I can't. Gotta report to Kakashi." Shikamaru leans against the counter, then unabashedly zips the fly of his pants, Ino's toothbrush dangling between his fingers.

Choji releases a belly rumbling sigh. "Guess it's just me and you, Ino."

"We saw each other yesterday." Shikamaru frowns.

"I was just extending the invite as courtesy. I didn't expect you to be here—but that's just me failing as a shinobi. I should've known you'd be here."

"What the hell does that mean?" Ino stomps a bare foot against the floor.

"It means I know him and his bad habits." Choji waves a hand, quickly getting over Shikamaru's passiveness. "You won't be missed."

Shikamaru walks back to Ino's bedroom, leaving footprint puddles. Ino screeches her chair back and follows him. She closes the door behind them and tosses the heavy damp towel back at him. He catches it wide-eyed—split between amusement and a scowl.

"Are you about to instigate an argument with me?" He sits on the edge of her bed and begins to put on his shoes.

A brief moment of desire stops the words at the center of her tongue. She admires his body long enough to forget what she wants to say. He pays her no attention, picking his keys and all of his lighters up and shoving them in his pockets.

"Can I have my shirt back, Ino?" Shikamaru drops the wet towel on the floor.

Ino doesn't hesitate. She comes out of the shirt fast, re-exposing herself. Extending an arm, she holds it out for him. "It stinks. You just took a shower."

Shikamaru does make a point to waver pettily. His lips wrinkle downward and twist to one side of his mouth and he rolls his eyes. "Who says I was going to put it on?"

"You can't go outside topless. Not out of my front door you won't." She puts a hand on her bare hip. He gets his vest and walks to her, snatching his shirt from her grasp with little to no effort.

"Watch me." He throws his shirt over his shoulder.

One question sits heavy on her conscience. Her brain can't form it into words. It's just a feeling of deprivation. She enjoys the smell of her soap on his skin.

"You're so cruel." But she doesn't have it in her to ask. It could ruin the moment and their morning would be for nothing. She lowers her head, opens her door for him.

"Sometimes, I feel the same way about you, Ino." It doesn't hurt when he says so.

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Choji kept his promise. He had woken up with a mission that he was determined to see through to the end. By the time Ino had finishes getting dressed, it's lunchtime. So lunch is what they eat. And after, he intends to stock her fridge with food that she must promise to not let go to waste.

It's an easy promise not to break.

Ino chews a mouthful of beef, onion, and mushrooms. Choji smiles at her approvingly.

"I told you I don't eat like a hummingbird." She swallows.

"I was just making sure. That was the most bare bones pantry I've ever seen." He helps himself to two plates at the same time.

Time elapses. They spent the first twenty minutes just being together. Ino doesn't have the words to start—nothing had transpired over the years. Nothing that he didn't already know about.

"Can you keep a secret?" He slurps his noodles.

"Mhhmmm." She tries to keep up even though she is full.

"I'm going to be a dad." He whispers across the table.

Ino hiccups into a napkin. What hits her is the overwhelming sense to cry, but she doesn't. She doesn't even understand why the feeling crawls into her throat.

"That's amazing..." But that isn't enough. More needs to be said but Choji takes charge of the conversation.

"It's nuts—there's a little person in Karui's stomach that's fifty percent me and fifty percent her." He gestures broadly with his hands.

"Kinda sorta like a love formula." Ino had never conceptualized Choji being in love. It's weird to think about. She wonders if she would feel the same if she were there to witness the evolution. Sai pops into her head but she suppresses the thought of him.

How would her life change if she knew then what she knows now?

"That's a funny way to put it. Makes total sense. A love formula...I really, really like that."

"I can be clever sometimes despite what Shikamaru might say or think." She washes down her food with lemonade.

"He's never said you weren't clever. Vapid, but definitely never anything about you not being clever." Choji licks his lips.

"Vapid and a rebound..." She pinches a sliced carrot with her chopsticks.

"He's never called you a rebound either. That wasn't very cool of me. I'm sorry."

"Am I really vapid, Choji?"

He takes a long time to sort the words in his head, has to stop eating just to be sure it comes out the right way. What's the exact opposite of what Shikamaru would say? It's the only way to form an answer.

"You have vapid tendencies, but you're definitely not a bad person. Maybe not whole, but who is whole before the age of forty? I'm not whole." He looks down at his food, takes a minute before continuing to shovel it down. "There's a lot more inside of you than you let on, Ino."

Ino nibbles her food now. She could pop at any moment.

"That's always been the case with you. It kind of makes you unpredictable." He downs his glass of water.

She crosses her legs under the table.

"What kind of person do you think you are, Ino?"

Nobody has ever asked her. She's always just known, or at least had an idea. There was an answer months ago. She looks Choji straight in the eyes.

"I think I'm just scared and uncertain. A little too concerned about stuff that doesn't matter. It sucks realizing that I've spent my whole life waiting on something that I don't even think exists..."

"What's that? How are you sure it doesn't?"

"Perfection and the constant stimulus of happiness."

"You're absolutely right. Neither of those exist. You might as well be a drug addict."

Ino drags her eyes back down to her food.

"I have an invasive question."

"Go for it. I got nothing to hide."

"I was at the table when Shikamaru told everyone he was in love with you. What really happened?"

The strong feelings squeeze her heart, daring it to skip a beat. She never forgot, supposedly, that had happened, but she buried it to detach herself.

"I don't think I'm ready for him the way he is for me or if he even feels that strongly still at all. I don't deserve him." It's a lot to admit to Choji and he's entirely unaware.

"Does he know that?"

"I sure as hell hope not. It's irrational and pathetic."

"No. You're just a damaged human like the rest of us."

Choji is easy to talk to.

"If he had said it to me personally, I wonder what would be different." Ino chokes down her tears. She's sick of crying like a two-year-old.

"Then is then and now is now. Gotta live in the now." He points his chopsticks at her.

"You're right." And makes it her mission to finish her plate.

"You two have birthdays coming up. We should do something together."

Ino breaks her lips into the biggest smile she can make with her muscles. The fox skips across a million stars with his tiny paws in her imagination.

It's the clearest sign that they were brought on this Earth to be together. If it took fifty years or their deathbeds, it's destiny. Ino believes it now. It's what she's been missing for a long time. Hope.

There's nothing wrong with hope.

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Chapter Text

"When others asked the truth of me, I was convinced it was not the truth they wanted, but an illusion they could bear to live with." ~ Anaïs Nin.

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Shikamaru has never thought of himself as someone opposed to evolving. Nothing stays one way forever. He presses his tongue against his crooked canine tooth, wanting another cigarette. He stops and shoves a hand under a sleeve to scratch his arm.

Rules are invisible constructs. No thing is infrangible—whether it's made up of matter or the manifestation of a human thought. He peers out the window, Konoha's colorful buildings soak up the midday sunlight.

Swilling spit in his mouth, Shikamaru decides to just live with the colossal fuck up of being in love, for the second damn time, and being the way he is. Hard-headed. His passivity has morphed into indecisiveness. He can't stand himself. His own vague reflection in the window makes him ill. Footsteps creep up on him but he doesn't twitch. He continues to stare into the blue sky.

"I guess punctuality isn't your strong suit?" Tenten stands next to him clutching a binder.

"Sorry for dragging my feet. I had a weird start this morning," he says to her reflection first, then turns to face her. The flush of his skin hasn't worn off either. Tenten doesn't smile and he can't place why he expects her to.

"I won't tattle. We've got..." she looks down at her watch, "exactly an hour and thirty minutes to come up with something for Kakashi."

"Deadlines blow." He massages his ear without an earring.

"I'm not too worried about it. You're resourceful, Shikamaru."

He follows her down the hall, continuing to pull at his earlobe.

"I honestly think I'm sick of hearing that. I'm not that resourceful. I just know the right questions to ask." He doesn't say it with confidence. Tenten doesn't miss it either. She makes a sound like a laugh.

"Ok. You're book smart but have no common sense. I gotcha." She snorts.

"Human." He corrects her.

"For someone with such a high IQ, you're very simple minded."

"So it's bad that I don't have an inflated ego? Damned if you do. Damned if you don't." Shikamaru's face burns.

"You don't need an inflated ego, but you've got modesty all backwards." She gestures with her fingers at her temple.

Shikamaru places a hand on her shoulder, anchoring her to a stop. Her earrings swing sideways as she tilts her head back.

"Hey, look, we don't know each other like that. Let's cool it with the snap judgments." He speaks forcibly calm. Lightning could strike him down where he stands and he'd be okay if that means never having to endure his personage measured ever again.

Tenten mirrors his concentrated glower, perfects it. He gets this strong sense that her eyes are so dark because she too is hiding an extreme flaw. She picks his hand from her shoulder, pinching his middle finger.

"We've got work to do, Nara. Naruto is waiting." And that is all she says to him.

Squeezing his thumb inside of a fist, he drops his hand to his side. Tenten steps slowly down the hallway.

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"So what have you been doing with yourself for… how many years has it been?"

Ino waits two minutes before she answers Choji's question. She puts away the jug of orange juice, drumming her fingers against the door of the fridge.

"Just living one day at a time." The optimistic way of saying 'nothing.' Sai had taken up most of her mental headspace. A lot of that time she spent waiting around for him to come home whole from missions, not dealing with the ramifications of her self-neglect. She'd gone years without really talking.

"Nothing," Choji says bluntly. Ino snorts.

"That makes me sound so depressing." She shuts the fridge.

"You and Shikamaru love to save face. I don't know why. It's just me." He finishes stuffing a cabinet with junk food that she swore she'd eat.

"What do you mean?" She arches a brow.

"You guys deflect. He's way better at it than you though."

Ino closes her mouth. Choji notices the sudden change in her mood.

"I can only speak for myself. I'm sure he has good reasons." She twists a lock of hair between her fingers.

"Probably. He's been different all year to be honest."

"In what way, Cho?"

Choji lets out a shaky sigh. He snaps open a cola can. She rarely drinks sodas, but he bought them. So now she had to indulge herself.

"I think he and Temari had a bad breakup. She went to Suna and never came back. He just started showing up without her. Never said a word until I asked." He slurps from the can looking hard at nothing but space.

She remembers Temari and Shikamaru being inseparable.

"He's never talked about her to me." Ino has never wanted the details. She's curious but not at her own expense.

"She's an asshole. He's an asshole too. There's no telling. She didn't leave behind a damn thing in his apartment." Choji drinks his cola like it's water. "Women leave things behind when they plan on coming back."

"Not always. Sometimes we just forget." Ino thinks about Temari as an individual for the first time.

"You forget because you know, deep down, that you're not going anywhere." He clearly speaks from a place of experience.

Ino looks down at the knot she tied in her shirt, sitting right above her belly button.

"I guess you're right. Most of the time that's the case." She notices that where her abs used to be defined, they've gone soft. Four years sometimes feels like the longest hour of her life. Other times it can feel like a century. The last time she'd seen Temari, in passing, was at Naruto and Hinata's wedding. She still looks strong, like femininity is just a consequence of being a woman. A model kunoichi.

Ino snatches up a cola to wash down the sinister daydream. Choji looks at her funny as she chugs it down. Mid-gag, Ino wipes the back of her hand across her mouth.

"We bake two cakes. What do you think about that?" He crushes the can.

"Who the hell is going to eat two cakes? Between me, you, Karui, and Shikamaru? One is enough, Choji." She shakes her head.

"Ok but two cakes means more time we get to spend together." He opens another can.

"I'm not going anywhere. We are spending plenty of time together right now."

"Two cakes it is. You don't have a say so. Sit and watch me bake the damn cakes, you're going to be present whether you want to or not."

"Shikamaru isn't even big on sweets." Ino doesn't bother to finish her soda.

"Sentiment, Ino. The sentiment!"

A bird flutters against the kitchen window, startling them both. They stare outside, waiting for something to drop from the sky. Anticipating some kind of clue to the future.

"I miss him." She says it out loud. It echoes deep within the swell and collapse of her chest.

"It hasn't been four hours." Choji gazes at her with an unreadable expression.

"Should it be a surprise party?" Ino's face washes pink.

"No. He'd hate that—see it coming before we even get around to buying the cake mix."

"You're right."

"We're getting so old, Ino..."

So damn old. All the things she's ever wanted as a child, she had received and rejected. If a grown woman were to ask her what she expects of herself, there would be no answer.

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Kakashi had requested that he oversee Naruto's assignment, so Shikamaru did just that. He keeps his mouth shut and only answers questions that Naruto sincerely could not solve alone. Tenten is sharp in her approach. She has dates memorized down to the exact hour, a list of names that he had to go over on paper. Her dedication reminds him of Temari, but she is soft spoken and articulate, not blunt and overbearing.

"I guess we didn't need you after all, Shikamaru!" Naruto twirls a pen with his fingers. Shikamaru grins with his eyes shut. Typically, he closes his eyes when he's focusing, but he doesn't focus on anything but his empty stomach.

"So what do you think?" Tenten speaks to Shikamaru. The too long silence causes him to open his eyes. She and Naruto stare through him like he's a ghost.

"What do I think?" he stutters.

"Yes." She smiles at him absently.

"You've managed to go this long without blowing your cover. Are you absolutely certain you've held on to your identity? It's alarming that you're communicating through a grapevine instead of..." Shikamaru loses his words but Naruto cuts in, inadvertently hiding this fact.

"He's not wrong about that. You've eaten, slept, and shit with these guys for months and they just dispersed? Doesn't sound reliable."

"How else do you recruit people for your cause? Send out your messengers." Tenten taps a finger against the table.

"It's just a very fragile way to go about things is all. Almost too good to be true. I hope you're a damn good actress, Ten." Naruto grumbles. "I still don't see why we can't just arrest the bastards. We have proof."

"There's the little people and then their leader. We can't pick off the little people without figuring out who is orchestrating the movement. It might be more than one person with power." She stops tapping her finger then flattens her palms.

"It could work to our benefit that the whole movement is unorganized." Shikamaru brushes his knuckles against his nose.

"I'm sure Anbu is ten steps ahead of us anyway. What a weird thing to get yourself involved in, Tenten." Naruto frowns at her.

"Look at it this way, we're both exploring diplomacy. You get to prove yourself to the Hokage and I look like a formidable kunoichi."

Shikamaru figures out that it's ambition that makes Tenten's eyes darker than what they actually are. She's got an unseen ruthlessness.

"Besides," Tenten gets up from her chair, scooting her notes to Naruto, "what are any of us here for if we aren't working towards anything?"

Naruto makes a noise in agreement and Tenten excuses herself to the bathroom. The air vents rattle, blowing cool air down on their heads. Shikamaru bites at his nails—wonders about what he's working for.

"She is definitely your type." Naruto says it like he'd been holding it in all morning.

"It's free to mind your own business, Naruto."

"Would you do it though?" Naruto whispers even though it's only the two of them.

Shikamaru chews too hard on a hangnail and it bleeds. He hasn't measured a woman that way in so long. His heart still clings to Ino. It's silly because he woke up one morning and made up his mind like she hasn't always been beautiful. He sucks the blood from his torn skin, blinks away what had transpired between them only a few hours ago.

"Maybe." Shikamaru answers. If Ino had never happened—maybe.

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Choji made the plans. Ino is expected to act accordingly. It's been years since the last time all three of them have sat together in unity. Blood, sweat, and tears blurred the good memories of their childhood.

She thinks about her two goldfish, hoping her mother feeds them. She should bring them home but she's scared of tripping on the journey. Imagining the glass on the ground and their little bodies strangling on air, her skin crawls.

Opening a bag of chips, the smell of sour cream startles her eyes wide. She stares down into the bag. Inside, there's more air than chips.

"You gotta eat it." She promised she would. Shaking the bag first, she slides her hands inside and crams a fistful in her mouth. The sunset cuts orange rays across her walls. Moving her legs, her shadow stretches itself, makes her a few feet taller. And she chews and thinks, licks her lips, shoves more in her mouth, thinking so hard she gives herself a bellyache.

Eating junk food is liberating. Ino can't believe she ever stopped indulging herself. She's gone soft all over like a marshmallow anyway. The only thing she's been preventing is joy.

"Ino!" Sakura bangs her fist against the front door. Ino sucks the salt from her fingers, grazing her teeth under her nails for crumbs. Before opening the door, she wipes her hands on her cotton pants.

Sakura holds a box of donuts with 'I'm Sorry' scribbled on the top. Two bright yellow hair clips hold her bangs back and Ino gets a good look at apologetic eyes.

"Are you mad at me?"

"What would I be mad at you for?" Ino wrinkles her lips. She was never mad about Sakura choosing to spend time with Sasuke. Honestly, she'd forgotten about it, but she wants to hear Sakura's testimony for her own amusement.

"Oooh Ino...being a bad friend." Sakura wears a white button down dress with folded sleeves.

"I've done worse to you so..." Ino lets her in.

Sakura steps out of her sandals, flipping open the lid and helping herself to a glazed donut.

"It has just been a while—" Sakura starts.

"You don't have to explain yourself to me. I'd choose a man's company over you in a heartbeat," Ino says jokingly. "God knows how long it's been since he's touched you."

Sakura's face burns red and she sits the chewed donut in her jaws.

"Let me guess. Four months?" Ino folds her arms, scratching her elbows.

"It's not funny and that's not true." Sakura sits the box on the coffee table then slinks onto the floor. Sprawls her legs out, pouting. "More like a year."

"A year!?" Ino crumples the bag of potato chips in her fists.

"Don't look at me like that."

"I'm not looking at you any kind of way, Sakura. I mean, we all have dry spells."

Sakura looks down at the stack of magazines supporting the table leg.

"Just none that dry." Ino lets out a cackle straight from her soul.

"Now you're being a bad friend." Sakura mutters.

"I'm not shocked that Sasuke Uchiha knows next to nothing about satisfying his girlfriend's needs. I'm willing to bet an arm and leg he doesn't even know how to satisfy himself. He's got the personality of a washboard."

"Ino!"

"Sakura." Ino mimics Sakura's sputter.

They share an awkward silence. Ino's lips remain splayed in a grin. Sakura clears her throat four times, ruffling her hair and says, "I'm happy. That's what counts."

"Right. Not trying to throw rocks and hide my hands or anything. If you love it, I like it." Ino sits on the floor next to her. "I don't think I'm in the position to judge anyone."

Another solid moment of silence passes before Ino speaks up again and says, "When we end up getting a thing we've always wanted, in the end, it's never really like how we imagined."

Sakura makes a whimper-like noise and helps herself to another donut. She gets a sudden paleness about her 's not that her skin goes white— thought she'd never share with Ino saps the vibrancy from her aura.

"Like growing up..." Ino goes on.

And Sakura says, "I think I'm content with my adulthood."

"Really?" Ino eases up her grip on the chip bag. The sound it makes as it unfolds itself eats the beginning of Sakura's sentence.

"Yes. I feel very accomplished. I don't want a redo. I'm where I want to be. Not exactly but close to it."

"Good for you, Sakura."

"And just like you aren't judging the bizarre state of my relationship, I'm not judging you for not having it all together."

"I never said I didn't have it together!" Ino gasps lightly.

"You don't need to say it. Anyone with good observation skills can see it. Is that a tummy roll?" Sakura pinches at Ino's stomach.

"How the hell are you going to bring me donuts then ridicule my belly?" Ino swats her hand away.

"I have a legitimate opportunity for you!" Sakura closes the box of donuts, sucking the sugar from her thumb.

Ino rolls her eyes and drops her head low, then rubs the space behind her ears.

"After explaining your case—"

"Explaining my case? Am I one of your soupy brained patients now?" Ino groans.

"After days of vouching for your ass..." Sakura waves a hand in Ino's face "Tsunade agreed to sit down with you."

Ino takes a minute to process the words. She stops massaging behind her ears. Her entire body freezes.

"She agreed to sit down with me?" For fucking what is what Ino wants to ask. The surprise really is Sakura holding her word. They had both discussed working together, but Ino never assumed it would come to fruition.

"Mhhhmmm. It wasn't easy. She said no five times." Sakura says with a smile.

"Can't say I blame her. I'm suddenly embarrassed for you." Ino's self-esteem tanks as she imagines a very resistant Tsunade. A very very very repulsed Tsunade.

"Oh don't be. She trusts me. I trust you not to screw it all up. So you'll do it, Ino?"

"Eeehh the pressure is making my armpits warm..." Ino's 'negative zero' self-esteem also makes her nauseous.

"Ino! You're not doing anything else!" Sakura sighs with devastation.

"Fine! I'll meet her!" Ino tosses the bag in the air and it glides on the coffee table.

"I will set a date!"

The longer Sakura hangs around, the more Ino realizes that she is committing to herself more so than to a promise. A fuzzy feeling tickles the bottom of her stomach. It expands and grows so that it fills her up. It's not a negative bloom of anxiety, but she won't be able to eat for another twenty-four hours.

Like Sakura, probably to a more severe degree, Tsunade reminds Ino of everything she isn't.

Baby steps...

It's easier to worry about what she will wear.

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The men's room smells like shit. Even though the floor had been mopped, the harsh chemicals left the tile feeling more sludgy than slick. The bottom of Shikamaru's sandals stick to the floor. Naruto talked for so long, it gave him a migraine. His growing hunger intensified his agitation. If he could smoke a cigarette, it would curb his appetite. Picking a urinal, he unzips his pants. As he relieves himself, he lets out a groan.

Almost everything contains sugar and salt, but there was no emphasis on artificial or natural ingredients. The only way to know? Trial and error. How many baby carrots can he eat to become full?

As he buttons his pants, Sai swings open the bathroom door. Their eye contact is immediate. The awkwardness Shikamaru feels is clearly one sided. He gives a constipated smile. Sai doesn't return it, but he only has one expression in the first place.

"Just the man I was looking for." Sai uses one tone of voice.

"What better place to search—the fucking toilets."

"Of course. I think about you every time I'm taking a shit."

Sai, with his hands in his pockets, doesn't follow it up with anything else. There is just a very ugly moment of silence right after. Shikamaru's eyes widen because he never seems to be prepared. Does he punch him in the face or laugh?

"This is purely coincidental. I make people uncomfortable but I'm not that big of a creep. Decency is an easy concept to grasp." Sai doesn't even smile to indicate that he is kidding.

Shikamaru nods slowly. So Sai does have self-awareness after all.

"Do I make you uncomfortable, Shikamaru?" He asks.

"Uh...sort of." Shikamaru doesn't know what sudden movements to make.

"Do you prefer hand sanitizer over soap?"

"What?" Shikamaru doesn't mean to frown.

"I'm just wondering why you haven't washed your hands." Sai looks at Shikamaru's hands and scrunches his nose.

The most appropriate response is to laugh disbelievingly. Rolling his eyes, Shikamaru walks to the sink, starts with the warm water first before slathering his hands with soap. Never before has he thought this hard about washing his hands. He counts how long he holds his hands under the water.

"Don't get too comfortable. I have another task for you later." Sai stands in front of a urinal.

"Am I going to disappear for days at a time again?" Shikamaru doesn't dry off his hands.

"That's entirely up to you but it's a strong possibility."

"Shit." Shikamaru mutters. "Between you and Kakashi, I just might die."

"You said you didn't set expectations for yourself, but that was clearly a lie." Sai pees into the urinal.

"I don't have expectations of myself." Shikamaru shakes the water from his hands.

"You complain a lot, Shikamaru."

"And you talk too damn much." Shikamaru doesn't forget his place. He knows that there isn't anything Sai can do in this particular setting. He storms out of the bathroom. The repercussions were going to come anyway.

"Work smart. Not hard." Sai calls out. His voice echoes.

Shikamaru scratches his scalp with both hands to serve himself some kind of relief.

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Now, it's not the trigger of her fits that makes her chest feel tight. Ino fears the feeling of her anxiety more than what causes it. Is it a good thing that Tsunade pities her? 'Pity' never came out of Sakura's mouth, but Ino wouldn't feel this way had Sakura never shared that Tsunade opposed the idea. It's easier for a child to learn things. Ino is very much set in her ways now. She's not even sure if it's possible for her to learn new tricks.

She stopped being a ninja for good reason. Unfortunately, it was the only thing she was good at. That isn't saying much compared to her entire class.

Ino opens the shop door gently enough so that the bell doesn't ring. If her mother spots her, she will be doomed to busywork. All she sets out to do is grab the fishbowl and be on her way.

At the back of the store, Chiharu carries a lively conversation. She sounds happy. Ino is ninety-nine percent positive that it's nothing she has done.

Realizing that the fishbowl has been moved, Ino tiptoes around the counter. She grumbles defeatedly. The worst her mother would make her do is wipe down the windows.

"People used to believe that snapdragons possessed the power to restore vitality and ward off evil. It comes as no surprise to me that they're your favorite." Chiharu steps through the curtain of beads first.

"To be honest, I only like their name. We're in the perfect season for them right?" Tsunade sets her eyes on Ino before Chiharu, who is too excited to see past the tip of her nose.

"Yes, they do better in the spring or fall." Ino doesn't think before she speaks.

"Looks like your visit wasn't for nothing, Lady Tsunade. Ino, were you not going to speak?"

"I just got here..." Her stomach does back flips. Tsunade doesn't have an ordinary smile. She speaks with her eyes like a cat. Knowingly, she blinks back at Ino. The only other two people Ino knows who have the same beguiling effect on people around them are Sasuke and Sai.

"It isn't a matter of urgency. I just wanted to get a personal confirmation from you, Ino. Sakura has talked about you for days but it's in poor taste to speak for other people." Tsunade looks at Ino like she's the only person in the world who matters. That's what it feels like. All beautiful people have the same affectation.

"I've been waiting on you to speak for yourself. It's been a while." Tsunade lowers her chin.

"Well, Ino...don't keep her waiting!" Chiharu clicks her tongue.

Ino knows how to talk big of herself. Her brain shuts off completely and out the door goes the fire of her personality. She folds under Tsunade's presence with her mouth open.

"Yes." Ino commits to something real after years of avoiding having to do so.

"Yes?" Tsunade mimics her lilt.

"Yes." Ino repeats herself while nodding her head.

Tsunade narrows her eyes—thinking.

It's the longest sixty seconds Ino has subjected herself to.

"Very well then." Tsunade cuts her gaze away from Ino, broadening her smile just for Chiharu. A gesture can be so subtle that it's only recognizable to a kindred spirit. Ino's cheeks color red.

They continue their conversation. Ino stands in place, feels all the hairs on the back of her neck curl. She can't help but feel like she has failed a pre-test. The goldfish are no longer her priority. A little bit of time passes and she hasn't budged from staring at her reflection within the plastic wall clock.

Tsunade doesn't leave without a typical arrangement of red roses.

Roses are what everyone wants. They are easy to decide on.

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The rest of Shikamaru's day, much like the current state of his life, is an agonizing slow burn. Every three minutes, with each step he takes, his legs get wobblier. He could sleep like a dead person and it couldn't fix how tired he is. Sai's cryptic warning won't allow him to relax.

The clever trick, he figures, is to prolong his discomfort. The more bothered and busy he appears could keep him from being surprised and irritated. He readjusts the plastic bag of food on his arm. Vegetables and sugar free junk food that tastes like cardboard. He spent an hour longer than normal skimming the back of packages.

Next time he's standing on his last leg, knocked free of all his pride, he will ask Sai if aspartame counts. It's not real sugar but it is sweeter than the real thing. He intends trial and error until he has completely run out of dignity.

He thinks about his father's disapproval out of nowhere—Shikaku never limited him. Shikamaru spent much of his life breezing by, he wonders if Shikaku ever had expectations of him that exceeded jounin. Shikamaru has no desire to be Hokage, never really considered himself a leader either.

But he wants something drastically different. If that means altering his values to achieve it, he doesn't mind. Who he is now has gotten him nothing but wasted time. Present-day Shikamaru Nara is every bit cracked and useless.

Shikamaru stops walking a building away from Ino's apartment complex. He left her to hang dry. The useless chunk of himself feels guilty for it. Damned if you do or don't, he supposes.

Just like he can't pass Choji's house without speaking, he has to make the attempt to be a better friend to her. Being spiteful unravels all the progress of last night. To avoid future hiccups, he has to discipline himself in the art of proximity.

It is possible to love from a distance.

Before he can make it up her flight of stairs, Ino steps out of her front door with a watering can. Their eyes lock. They don't say anything until he mounts the last step. He smiles at her but she doesn't smile back. She holds the container with both of her hands.

"I didn't think I'd see you for another two or three days." Watering her plants, she looks away from him.

"Sometimes hearing your voice is like therapy, but..."

"But what?" She snickers.

"More often than not, you make me want to drink battery acid." Shikamaru ties his plastic bag in a knot and sits it down on the concrete. He stands beside her, digging in his pocket for a bag of sunflower seeds he had ripped open before buying it.

"I'm glad your desire to live is stronger than wanting to ingest poison." Ino's eyes roam from one plant to another. Her mouth twitches into the grin she has been suppressing. "I hope I'm a good therapist."

"You're a trash therapist. You don't tell me what I want to hear."

"Therapists aren't supposed to 'tell' you what you want to hear. They aren't supposed to 'tell' you anything." She shakes her head with a growing smile.

"That's not completely true. They make very vague and neutral suggestions." He puts a sunflower seed on his tongue.

"What would you know? You've never been to therapy." She puts down the watering pot.

Shikamaru hardly smiles but when he does it's hard won and infectious. Ino catches a sickening case of butterflies looking at him. Her tongue salivates like she isn't used to him. She very well should be by now.

"What do you want for your birthday?" She hopes that asking this will change the course of the conversation. She doesn't want to joke about being sick in the head.

"I think I want a watch." He spits a shell over the rail and chews on the seed.

"A watch for what?" Ino watches his jaws flex.

"To tell time. Duh." He puts two shelled sunflower seeds into his mouth.

"When have you ever needed to keep up with time?"

"You asked me what I wanted, Ino. I'm a simple man. What's more important than time?"

"The kind that ticks or beeps?" She presses her elbows against the railing. The wind webs her hair.

"I'm not picky. As long as it fits my wrist." Again, Shikamaru spits out the shells and dumps more seeds into his hand. Saliva moistens his lips. Her heart thumps harder, filling up her eardrums. She hushes, waiting for it to pass. It doesn't but it lessens over their brief span of quiet.

"Choji wants all of us together." She clears her throat.

"When?"

"Your birthday."

"That escalated quickly. Glad you're invited, Ino. I spiritually felt the 'us' there."

"Shikamaru?" Ino stands straight, turns to press her lower back against the rail, curling her fingers around the sun-warmed metal.

"What?" This time, he takes the shell from his mouth then flicks it. After he swallows the seed, he scratches his tongue with his teeth.

"I wanted to ask you the other day but I chickened out..."

"Ask me what?" In his mind, Shikamaru answers his own question after speaking, but he wants to hear how she will say it. If she will say it at all or wait on him to ask it for her.

"Were you serious about us… you know..." She twists up her face like she's constipated.

Shikamaru waits, doesn't blink.

"Us resenting each other?"

"Yes," he says quickly.

"I don't believe you," she states sharply.

He fights a bulge in his throat. Instances of speechlessness are far and few between for him. At this point, he stops looking at her, wiggling two fingers inside of the plastic bag of sunflower seeds. The noise is loud.

"I didn't believe you the moment you said it."

"I don't say things I don't mean." He crunches, spits, and swallows.

"You meant it in bad faith."

"I don't want to ever not be able to stand in the same room as you. You make me that angry sometimes. I don't like feeling that way. And that's what I meant." Shikamaru continues to look at everything but her.

Ino can't find the right words. It's possible that there aren't any. Simply, she only feels deeply. Her soul darkens so that even if there is a right thing to say, she won't be able to find it.

"That's emotional warfare. You can't tell me you want to be friends then turn around and fuck me."

"You took your clothes off. Does that not count as emotional warfare? Even after I explicitly told you what I wanted." He puts it too calmly.

"That makes you a liar."

"And you haven't been one all this time? It takes one to know one." Shikamaru can't bring himself to eat another seed so he spits up his last one.

"But you're not supposed to be the liar, Shikamaru." Her voice is so soft, it breaks apart.

Crumpling up the bag of seeds into his pocket, his breathing unsteadies. He clamps his mouth shut. Ino waits a little longer for anything. He doesn't give it to her. The refusal flexes the muscles in his neck. He strains himself.

"Shikamaru..."

"You don't get to call me a liar when that's all you do. You've been doing it for years. People love you and you pretend like they don't." He grips the rail and his knuckles turns white, still unable to look at her.

The butterflies die in her stomach but her heart doesn't stop violently throbbing.

"What do I say to that?" she asks him.

"You didn't deny it..." He exhales. His words shake.

"Why would I? That's how you feel."

"But it's not about me 'feeling'. You have to realize it." He raises his voice.

"You didn't have to stay. You stayed."

"Because I love you and I'm going to always stay whenever you ask. C'mon, Ino! This shit isn't complicated arithmetic!" He loosens his hold on the rail and stands in front of her. His anger surfaces and seeps through his pores, too much to keep inside of his body.

The words still hide from her.

"This is why you make me so mad. No I don't want to just be your friend but you don't have room for me. It's really shitty. It sucks. It makes me ill, but I can only accept you for you. Asking you to change defeats the purpose..." He stops before he gives himself a headache.

"That's how you feel about me?" She doesn't think before she speaks. It just blossoms on her tongue and she's too put out to gulp it down.

"For the longest damn time. I think my heart is broken." Shikamaru declares it with a dragging sigh. Think is a security word. He knows that his heart is broken.

Ino holds her mouth open. Her eyes beginning to sting, she hangs her head low.

"Make it make sense to me."

Ino doesn't take the opportunity. She shakes her head and covers her mouth with a hand. Shikamaru gives up. He lifts his hands to shake her but grabs a fistful of air instead, then scratches behind his ear.

"It felt wrong not to at least stop and say 'Hi' but I guess it was a bad idea." Shikamaru has never been good at losing, even though he never really tries at succeeding.

"I love you too." She grabs his arm as he reaches down for his bag, hooking her fingers in the mesh peeking under his sleeve.

"Not like this..." He refrains from pulling away.

"It doesn't make it any less valid."

"But the jokes on you. I don't feel any better. I feel worse." Shikamaru swipes her hand from his arm as gently as his distress will allow him to.

"I said it and it's how I really feel!" she yells.

That isn't the point but Shikamaru has no more fight in him. This isn't how he wanted any of it to happen. It didn't happen like this the first time around but Ino isn't Temari. They are worlds apart in texture and taste. He shouldn't even be thinking about Temari, but he does so bitterly.

Ino pulls him by the neck into a kiss that crushes their noses together. Her cold tongue shocks him into a temporary state of longing for everything she has deprived him of. His fury quiets as he wraps his arms around her frame.

She breathes through her nose and his skin tickles. The metallic taste of her lip gloss mingles with their saliva. But it doesn't matter how wet the kiss is. It's not enough. He digs his nails into the curve of her back, catching strands of her hair between his fingers. If he holds on a little longer, maybe he will feel differently. They kiss until their lips are swollen numb. Shikamaru brings his hands to her face, peeling his tongue from hers, sucking her bottom lip as he pulls away.

The world doesn't revolve around them, yet it often feels like one of them is in control of the moon's twenty-seven day orbit. Out the corner of his eye, Ino's neighbor peers through their blinds. It reminds him of all the other times they've disturbed the peace in fits of happiness and blind rage.

Ino searches his face for the next thing she should say. This isn't the first time she has told a man that she loves him, but it's the first time she truly means it. A haunting spell of suffocation makes her skin cold. She can't breathe. A microsecond of death. Two mousy hiccups bring her back to life. Shikamaru drops his warm hands from her face. He steps away from her, dragging his fingers through his short hair to hide that he doesn't know what next to do with his hands. Ino watches him organizing his thoughts in complete silence.

Shikamaru does what she least expects of him. He grabs his grocery bag and walks away, takes the first step down.

"We agreed to meet at Choji's for your birthday. If you don't show up on time, he will be disappointed. No excuses." And she would be responsible for it.

Shikamaru stops on the third step with his back turned. Her lip gloss leaves his mouth sticky. He is the most ill-prepared ninja in all of the lands. It is possible to be a clever fool. Book-sense but no wisdom. That's how you achieve it. To come up shorthanded in the matters of the heart, he wants to upchuck this torrent of pain.

"Yea." He looks back at her half-heartedly.

Ino has the kind of love for him that you take up with God. It's merciless, makes her sweat through her t-shirt. The cotton sticks to her armpits. Shikamaru just needs time. Between now and tomorrow, he wants a solid eight hours of sleep. The shitty consequence of waiting for so long—months—leaves him with the rotten aftertaste of eating a bowl of raw sugar with a spoon. The sweetness stops. It's just a gross jaw-sucking twang. He continues stepping down the stairs.

Shikamaru makes walking away look so easy. Ino's entire body breaks into a cold sweat. Places that shouldn't moisten. The spaces between her toes. The creases in her elbows. Behind her ears.

Ino takes it for what it is. She is only a mortal woman and cannot think things into existence. There's a reason she doesn't have that kind of cosmic power.

Some seeds still sprout roots in the winter. Pansies, hellebores, dogwood, witch hazel...

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Shikamaru makes it home. First foot in the door, he drops his bag and inhales the scent of Yoshino's all-purpose cleaner. It awakens the nostalgia of his childhood. He spent the majority of his preteens thinking he was more of an adult than his peers. Everyone had told him so. No one told him that being able to do long-division in his head would be useless when it came to fixing emotional trauma.

He sits on the couch, buries his face in his hands, waits in the faint dark. One hour becomes six. Sai never shows up. No one shows up but he still keeps his asshole clenched tight.

After putting away his food he throws himself back on the couch and waits until the sun goes completely down, lying face down in complete darkness.

Now, Shikamaru is dealing with the aftermath of being told that he is a genius and that he just knows better. He tries to quantify 'genius.' It's possible to be unnaturally good at one thing and fail at everything else.

He curses himself for thinking too hard.

But maybe, all this time, he's been trying to uphold a false standard. While he has gone out of his way to be honest, everyone has been lying to him.

Waiting for something to happen, Shikamaru falls asleep. His last waking thought is Kakashi's disembodied voice saying a whole lot of nothing.

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He sleeps until the next day. No interruptions.

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Ino stares at the same three watches, tapping her nail on the glass case. Shikamaru wouldn't care what it looks like. He'd only yell at her and force her to return it if he she spent too much money. She could slip him a ryo bill inside of his birthday card, but she has never gotten him anything, as an adult, of value.

"Men don't care about the 'look' if they aren't trying to make a point." The new sales associate, whose name Ino forgets, leans against the glass.

"Yea but it's the thought that counts. I'm the one trying to make a point." Ino scratches the corner of her mouth.

"What's the occasion?" Konoha isn't huge and Ino has shopped at this boutique for years, but for the life of her, she cannot remember any point in time she might've seen this woman. She stares at the red-head without a name tag. Her unfamiliarity bothers Ino.

"It's for his birthday."

"Is he a shinobi?"

"Unfortunately." Ino sighs.

An uncomfortable silence detonates. The question feels accusatory. Why did it matter?

"Then I suggest something practical. It would be a waste to buy something nice that he'd never wear or lose eventually." She smiles at Ino. Either Ino heavily projects some of her own terror or the curly haired sales rep thinks highly of her own opinions.

"For someone who works off commission, you're not trying to make any money." Ino says this without looking her at.

"My number one priority is you walking out that door happy with what you buy." She responds to Ino with surprisingly believable sincerity. Ino quietly ruminates on several thoughts. The boutique is drenched in a perfume so rich, it makes her a little dizzy. Ino can't recall the smell ever being so sharp. She makes eye contact with the conventionally attractive woman, wonders if the smell permeates her clothes and hair.

"Is he a boyfriend? A relative..." She holds her mouth open, waiting for Ino's reply, but then, "Fiancé?"

"None of the above." Ino hurts her own feelings by taking it personally. It cuts deep because she hopes that this gesture will fill up the hole she had dug in their relationship.

"I was thinking you looked a little too young to be someone's wife."

"I'm too young to be anyone's anything." Ino replies dryly.

She has to reconcile with the fact that he isn't her boyfriend and won't be any time soon. Demanding a friendship from her when he knows it isn't that easy, it's asking her to be in denial. She has to forget the steps she has taken to not be.

Her dad used to tell her that she could manifest material things, but not people.

"He's just a very close friend who deserves something nice."

Ino picks the simplest watch—with little and big silver dots instead of numbers.

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Naruto unscrews the pen cap with his teeth and drags a bold line across his paper. He always gets a sheen of sweat across his forehead when he's deep in thought. Introspection is a physical exercise for him. Shikamaru wonders if his face strains when he can't figure out a problem.

"You know Kakashi summoned Orochimaru." Naruto breaks the monotony of their silence.

"That doesn't surprise me." Shikamaru can't sit down so he stands beside the Hokage's desk.

"He's not very trustworthy." Naruto grumbles.

"Wouldn't piss on him if he was on fire, but his lab was looted and that means he is a person of value. Even though he has no obligation..."

"He has all of the obligations—he's alive. He owes us one."

"I'm sure that simple fact is already on the table. Orochimaru is a psychopath. Not a moron." Shikamaru glares at the wall clock. Kakashi is the one running late this time by thirty minutes.

"The latter is debatable." Naruto stops chewing on the pen cap. After a while of staring off into space, Naruto, again, speaks when he really shouldn't. Shikamaru doesn't want to have a conversation. He lacks the focus to maintain one.

"Shikamaru, what's the difference between a sociopath and a psychopath?"

"Psychopaths don't feel. Sociopaths pick and choose when. They sorta..."

"Prioritize their feelings?" Naruto moves and the chair creaks under him.

"Yea. Exactly." Sai comes to Shikamaru's mind—as a subtle reminder that he's got some ramifications to deal with eventually. A painful lump forms in his throat. He massages the back of his neck, rubbing away his anxious nausea.

All he'd had for breakfast was an egg cracked into his rice.

Naruto makes a hiccupy noise as if to start another conversation but Kakashi finally opens the door. Alongside him is Sai. Shikamaru's catches a chill frigid enough to send him to an early grave. He swallows the lump. Suddenly, no longer nauseous.

"You're late." Naruto scratches the space under his chin.

"I have good reason." Kakashi retorts. Shikamaru notices the slight wrinkle of skin between his brows. Something is wrong, but Kakashi is never in a hurry for bad news. He exists on another plane of cool that either took years of shock to get to or he'd been born with.

Sai always looks apathetic. He doesn't sit in the seat Shikamaru has been avoiding next to Naruto.

Kakashi takes at seat behind his desk, letting out a long phlegmy sigh.

"The head of Kirigakure's Imamura family was found dead last night." Sai speaks for Kakashi.

"That sucks, but important people die all the time." Naruto shrugs.

"He was murdered here, in Konoha, in his hotel, Naruto." Kakashi's face straightens.

"He was here to see you, right?" Shikamaru gets a heavy feeling in his face, a tugging sensation at his jowls.

"Mhmmm." Kakashi holds his attention in one spot on his desk. "It doesn't make for good optics. One of the most powerful men, at my behest, comes to specifically see me and turns up dead while his entire country is more or less politically unstable."

"Did he have information about the missing nin?" Naruto finally measures the magnitude of the situation. His entire demeanor shifts.

"I'm sure he did. That's why he's dead." Shikamaru scowls.

"I just wanna know why people who aren't even natives to the country are involved." Naruto sinks back in his seat.

After having several good years of what looked like peace, it is strange to suddenly be called into action before the bubble expands and pops. Shikamaru still feels like that version of himself who failed his first mission. Though he is without the compunction to cry this time.

But maybe a good ole fashioned weeping is what he needs to process these passing years.

"Money is convincing, Naruto. Especially lots of it." Sai smirks.

"I know. I'm not a dumbass. Sheesh."

"It's good news for you though, Naruto." Kakashi's tone changes.

"Say no more. Investigating isn't the hard part." Naruto stands and slides the pen behind his ear.

Shikamaru twists his tongue in his mouth, glaring at Kakashi. Damage control is supposed to be his job.

"If I were you, I'd pay a visit to anyone he might have connections to here." Sai suggests.

Naruto waves his hand on his way out.

"I guess I contact the family and wait on the autopsy?" Shikamaru folds his arms.

"No. You've got other things to worry about, Shikamaru." Swiveling in Shikamaru's direction, Kakashi takes off his hat to scratch his head.

"So, did you just give Naruto my position?" Shikamaru raises his voice but doesn't yell. Sai's eyes dart back and forth between them.

"If I did, there's nothing you can do about it." Kakashi has always been blunt, but the hint of cruelty in his voice startles Shikamaru.

After a moment of no movement, Kakashi sits his hat back on his head and says, "I did not give Naruto your position. Is he acting like a substitute for you? Sure. Only for the time being. I need you to make good on your end. That's all you need to worry about."

"Yes sir." There's nothing else to be said. Shikamaru glowers at Sai.

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Shikamaru doesn't get nervous easily. He cracks his knuckles to distract himself from the strong scent of Sai's cologne. The elevator is too tight. He's too close.

"Only guilty people sweat profusely, Shikamaru." Sai watches the numbered buttons flicker on and off. "You should really work on hiding your emotions."

Shikamaru has been unaware of how hot his body has gotten. He doesn't respond to Sai because there is no correct way to respond to the statement without insulting him.

"Today won't be so bad. I promise." Sai presses a button, knowing it won't make the trip down faster.

"Can I ask you a question?" Shikamaru leans his shoulder against the wall, stretching the little distance between them.

"Sure. Only because you asked politely."

"Are you a sadist? You don't gain anything of physical value from patronizing me."

Sai quirks a brow and blinks a few times, scrunches his lips to one corner of his mouth. The doors open when they reach the last floor.

"I just don't like cry babies." Sai steps out of the elevator, and as if lightning had zapped Shikamaru's soul from his body, he follows.

"Typically, you wouldn't be seen at all for eight weeks, but because you are high profile, we made exceptions for you. It looks a lot like special treatment." Sai makes a point to not walk ahead, but beside him.

"That's not my fault."

"It's not but you keep talking at me instead of observing your own behavior."

They stop in front of the same door as last time. Before entering, Sai gives Shikamaru a stern head to toe look.

"I think you're too sensitive, Shikamaru. If you're determined, by the end of this, you won't be that way anymore. You can't get by doing the bare minimum. You've already failed if that's your mentality. What are you scared of?"

Shikamaru's first inkling is that it's a trick question. It strikes a chord and he does fail in hiding this, but quickly straightens his face, despite the burning of the skin inside of his nostrils.

Then he questions the bugs under his skin. Are they easily capable of sharing thoughts like they do sensory stimulation?

"Good answer." Sai opens the door and walks in first.

Shikamaru steps into the room expecting it to be different, but it's not. It's the same square metal table occupied by Sasuke.

Five questions arise—Shikamaru answers three of them himself.

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Ino rearranges the unused flower pots on her window sill for the fishbowl. Though fish cannot perceive concepts such as loneliness, she refuses to subject them to any form of darkness. And so she rationalizes her imagination by sitting her fish in the window. As long as there is a sun, moon, and street lamps, it won't matter if she forgets to cut on her lamp.

She sits by the window on her knees, observing the way the afternoon light causes their scales to glitter. Kiba was right—even if he had given her an option, she would've kept them anyway. They don't need names because they won't live very long. And it's not like they are aware of having an identity. She lifts her finger to press it against the bowl.

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Chapter Text

"Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor." ~ Truman Capote

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A long time ago, Shikamaru read a book with a title he can't remember, but he does recall a few chapters on the theory of 'eternal return'. Existing is finite, but time is infinite therefore life repeats itself.

He's never told anyone, not even Choji, that often he used to find it difficult to look forward to anything after deciding that 'existing' was pointless. Life, down to the tiniest atom, meant nothing. Stop a war. Another one is bound to happen again.

Loss is supposed to make you miserable. It had that effect on everyone around him, but loss gave him something similar to purpose. He doesn't want to call it desire nor passion. It feels narcissistic to call it either of those. Maybe a little sociopathic.

Life did mean something in the context of a human experience. Death allowed him to feel emotions he hadn't valued before.

Sasuke glares through Shikamaru with his mangekyo and rinnegan.

Time is an unending loop of a snake eating its tail.

"Do you have any legitimate fears, Shikamaru?" Sai stands beside the same white table that triggers a nauseous feeling inside of Shikamaru. His breakfast wasn't adequate.

What a jarring question to ask a shinobi. Shikamaru gawks disbelievingly at both of them. Sweat softens his palms. Everyone has fears, but this is a test. Why would he divulge any?

"No, I don't have arachnophobia if that's what you're really asking."

"Failure isn't one? You've never contemplated suicide as a means to escape responsibility?" Sai is always so specific. Clarity is supposed to help you understand someone, not worsen your confusion.

"Should there have been a time?" Shikamaru has always joked about killing himself, but there's never been a day where he's actually considered taking his own life. Even when he's been his most nihilistic.

Sasuke's expression doesn't change. He barely moves, but Sai moves like lightning. Shikamaru blinks and then Sai is lunging a foot in the middle of his chest. He doesn't kick with his chakra. It's blunt physical force. Doesn't break anything but Shikamaru's effort to keep his breathing steady. The chair slides back before Shikamaru crumbles out of it, unable to breath.

"Can you believe I've been waiting to do that for the past twenty four hours?" Sai says to a grimacing Sasuke.

"The sooner we start, the faster this will be over with, Sai." Sasuke rubs away a twitch in his right eye.

"Are you in hurry?" Sai quirks a brow.

Sasuke doesn't respond. His lips are a straight line—they stare at each other.

Shikamaru struggles like a fish on hot sand to breathe. As he attempts to sit up on his elbows, his entire body shakes from the impact.

"You call this shit training? This is bullshit!" Shikamaru rasps but continues,"This isn't training! You're a sick fuck with a personal vendetta against me..."

Sai kneels down and stabs a finger at Shikamaru's forehead.

"I'm going to diagnose you, Shikamaru. Somebody has to tell you—you're spoiled and jaded. I get it, you've gotten used to people letting you win arguments. It's just as exhausting listening to you jerk yourself off as it is looking at your ugly face." Sai digs his fingernail into Shikamaru's skin.

Their breathing synchronizes under the silence. Sai scans Shikamaru's face before releasing the pressure of his fingernail, leaving behind a tiny red indentation.

They start a waiting game. Sai waits for Shikamaru to reclaim the remaining integrity he hadn't pissed all over the floor. Shikamaru braces himself for the 'fuckery' that is waiting on him.

Sasuke gets out of his chair, picking at a loose eyelash.

"Here is what's about to happen to you, Nara." Sai's sandals squeak against the floor as he stands. "You're being subjected to a genjutsu."

Shikamaru's lips break apart to speak, but Sai shushes him, tapping a finger over his own mouth.

"Please shut up and listen, Shikamaru." Sasuke shakes his head.

"I need to measure your emotional competency. So far, you've been failing. Kakashi said you took orders well, but all you've done is throw your weight around at me. You don't have a lot of strength, which is fine. That's always solvable, but being clever—you're either born with or without it." Sai's voice sounds like the monotonous hum of a fan.

"In conclusion, I think you have a lot fears. I need to know if they handicap you. As much as you've irritated me, I don't think you're willfully sabotaging yourself." Sai speaks clearly. Shikamaru realizes his fatigue has seeped into all areas of his life.

Instead of trying to assess what could happen, Shikamaru waits for it to come.

"Can we start?" Sasuke walks towards the door with dragging foot steps. Each thump against the tile a little louder, a tunnel-like effect of sound stretching. Sai never removed his attention from Shikamaru.

"Get up." Sai commands softly, but the last syllable is voiceless. Sai moves his mouth but there is no sound. Shikamaru figures the genjutsu had started the moment they stepped inside of the room.

Shikamaru's dislike for Sai instantly becomes malignant. He knows that Sai knows. It's understood in the hard emptiness of Shikamaru's face.

Sasuke opens the door but it doesn't lead back into the hallway. A downpour of sunlight strains Shikamaru's eyes. The shrill sound of bugs in the summer fills him with stress. He can't think himself down from the disorientation. Sasuke doesn't give orders. He steps through the tall grass and expects Shikamaru and Sai to do the same.

A hot breeze splits across Shikamaru's face, sinister in reminding him that he really doesn't know what to expect. He hadn't realized how much he liked being in control until now.

They finally reach a clearing. The grass is still tall but it doesn't come above their knees. Sai walks past Shikamaru and speaks soundlessly to Sasuke. This intensifies Shikamaru's distress. He looks behind him and the door they came through is gone.

Of course, why would it still be there?

"I need you to dig a hole." Sasuke appears directly in front of Shikamaru with a shovel from nowhere.

"How deep?" Shikamaru inhales.

"Six feet." Sasuke doesn't blink. Up close, the lines under his eyes give him a human fragility.

Shikamaru hesitates before snatching the shovel from Sasuke's grip.

There is no specific place he is instructed to dig. Just to start. Shikamaru taps the pointed end into the soil. Before he begins, he gives Sai a long look, expecting something but not knowing what.

To assert himself?

Sai speaks again. Only Sasuke can hear him.

Shikamaru begins to dig.

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Chewing a thick wad of gum, Ino tries to imagine what working with Sakura will be like. She flips through a magazine to give her hands something to do. She gave up trying to read the articles. Her mind couldn't budge from Tsunade.

Working in the flower shop beside her mom lost its romanticism. It no longer serves as an escape from the dark times. She is now removed from that and worked hard for her current lifestyle to be possible. There are no more dark times just as she has run out of things to aesthetically please herself.

She bends down behind the counter, sliding off the edge of her seat to spit the tasteless gum into the waste bin.

Kiba calls out her name, the wind chimes above the door accentuate the natural cheerfulness of his voice. Ino hesitates behind the counter. He saw her so she can't hide—she peeks her head over the counter top with a not too bright smile.

"Are you here for the flowers or..." Her brows wrinkle.

"Um no. I'm here to see you." He looks at her dumbly. "Duh. Can you recall me ever buying flowers? Pft."

"You could at least pretend to be interested in the flowers." Ino doesn't make eye contact with him, continuing to mindlessly flip through her magazine.

"Then that would make me a liar." He flattens his palms on the counter.

"White lies are fine." She licks her fingertips, turns another page.

"I just wanted to see how you've been." Kiba's honesty is sweet enough to cause a cavity.

"I'm alright." It makes Ino feel good and it will for a while. It just isn't coming from who she wants.

"But not 'good'..."

Keeping her head low, Ino smiles, staring at the prominent veins in his hands.

"It's not the end of the world though. I love the fish, they're doing good."

"Ino, you should let me..." He applies pressure on the tips of his fingers. His veins shift.

"Let you take me out?"

"Yes!" Kiba makes a fist out of his left hand.

Ino pretends to think about it. Twisting her tongue in her mouth, she turns her head to look at an arrangement of gardenias.

"I'm going to be honest, I'm not interested in the whole nurturing of feelings thing." There is nothing honest about the statement.

"Who said anything about feelings?" Kiba doesn't mean to be, but he is wildly intense. When he talks, he looks directly at the person. Ino regrets allowing him to break her focus. He pays good attention, doesn't miss the blood coloring her cheeks, not that she could hide it. Her hair is pulled back. Even her ears turn red.

"It doesn't even have to be 'that' way." Kiba's smile changes because he knows that his words have a little bit of an effect.

"I'm not that kind of woman." It doesn't feel right to call herself one. The faces never change in Konoha. It impacts how she views herself. She hasn't stopped being her father's little girl. Even if no one else sees it with the same perspective, Ino can't seem to let go of being fourteen. And she remembers Kiba as boy—not a cute one either.

Konoha isn't big. They were all doomed to fuck each other at some point. How else is this place supposed to grow?

"I know you're not. That's why I'm trying to be chivalrous first."

"Are you normally not chivalrous?" Ino crosses her arms. That first stinks of confidence—like he knows something that she had yet to figure out.

"I wasn't raised in a garbage bin if that's any consolation."

"What if I told you there's someone else?"

"Then where is he?" Kiba doesn't lose a smidgen of his cool. His smile becomes a bit more dangerous as she fails at a rebuttal.

"I'm not available." Ino says after the longest pause.

"Just think about it. Stop being so suspect of kindness, Ino." Kiba isn't that ugly kid anymore and she struggles with it.

"There's nothing to think about." She scoffs with a very red face, slapping the magazine shut.

"You're already thinking about it now." He's gotten rid of his smile. The gentleness of his voice stays. It doesn't explain the sudden seriousness though.

She thinks about it, not in the way he wants her to. It clicks that she hasn't really been single. Not in the authentic sense as a person without commitments. The window between her and Sai had been small. Her body waited on him while her mind focused hard on being an individual.

She didn't share a title with Shikamaru but at some point in time, she had attached herself to his existence. Plants and the ocean give the Earth oxygen. The Earth needs gravity. It's that kind of simplicity.

Kiba leaves her feeling lonelier.

Ino wonders if that had been his plan all along.

It worked.

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Shikamaru digs with his whole heart. He does not rush himself. Time doesn't matter in a genjutsu. The sun stopped moving when it reached the middle of the sky, so he stopped counting imaginary hours. After what he had estimated to be three hours, he takes off his layers of shirts. He focuses so hard, the physical pain of moving in one motion for an extended period of time gives him a headache. The pain starts at the back of his neck, the subtle jut of his spinal cord.

It is disorienting not being able to tell time with the shadows. Shikamaru easily figures out the entire point of this exercise is to give him false comfort. Sasuke would answer an unheard question from Sai out loud, but it just sounds like Sasuke is talking to himself or God.

Curt 'nos'. Painfully blunt 'maybes'.

A sharp 'in a matter of minutes'.

The crack of Shikamaru's ass begins to sweat. They had succeeded in making him uncomfortable. The temperature also rises. Sasuke and Sai haven't broken a single drop of sweat.

He tells himself not to worry about them—the ground needs to be above his head. That's all that matters.

Time continues to be unorganized. His entire body is slick with sweat. Sweating out the weakness. He smiles dimly at himself. The hole is messy. He'd stopped digging with strategy when his stomach growls grew louder than the pulse in his ears. A water jutsu would've made the process faster but he didn't want to be digging in mud. Would the soil cave in on him?

These were things he'd been too distracted by Sai to consider. Was that the test?

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Sakura called while Ino was in the middle of shaving her legs. She shows up twenty minutes later in black shades and a mid length black dress.

"Sakura, it's dark outside, why are you wearing shades?" Ino locks the door behind her. Sakura also has on a pair of hot pink flip flops for no reason. Her toesnails are a pretty blood red though.

She doesn't respond at first. Dragging her feet out of her flip flops, she drops her purse and keys onto the floor, melting into Ino's couch as if it were her own.

"I'm wearing them so you can't get a good look at my face." Sakura taps her index finger against the tip of her nose, holding back a sniffle.

Ino scratches behind her wet ear, a towel still wrapped around her head. Water drips from her loose wet hairs down the nape of her neck. Sakura sucks in her bottom lip. She sits like that for a few minutes. Ino storms over and snatches the dark glasses from her nose.

Sakura doesn't jump. The sudden brightness of the room stings her watery eyes.

"Why are you crying?" Ino throws the shades on the opposite end of the couch.

"Because my feelings are hurt." Sakura's voice warbles.

"Who hurt them?" Ino doesn't need to ask. She already knows. There are only two things that make supposedly strong women cry. Death and men.

Sakura stays quiet, staring straight up, into Ino's eyes with her lips wrinkled. She grinds her teeth to hold down the strong desire to cry.

"What did Sasuke do?" Letting go of a deep sigh, Ino tightens the knot on the belt of her robe.

"Nothing."

"Ok, then why are you on my couch having a crisis?"

"That's exactly what he did. Absolutely nothing. We made plans, he hasn't showed up. We reserved a table..." Sakura pulls down the zipper on the side of her dress. Her cleavage drops from the pressure release.

Ino checks the time on her radio. It's 9:17 p.m.

"It's not even eleven. Relax." Ino is a hypocrite. She knows the feeling too well, but friends often give advice they never live by.

"No. This has happened before. If he's not home now, he won't be any time soon." Sakura hides her face in her hands. Doesn't weep. Ino doesn't want her to cry. All forms of intimacy are difficult for Ino. She likes it when there is nothing disrupting the atmosphere. Anything that requires emotional labor makes her anxious.

"Well, he is on Hokage's payroll. What do you expect? He isn't low tier...either. Neither are you...so..." Since childhood, she and Choji had created a philosophy: what would Shikamaru say if they couldn't figure it out on their own?

"I just created an image in my head of how today was supposed to end and it didn't happen that way. I could've cried over the phone about it but I thought walking it off would help." Sakura pulls her bottom eyelids down as she drags her hands from her face. "Romance isn't real. The older I get, the more I understand that."

"There are better things to cry about, Sakura."

"I know that but...that makes me wanna cry even more. It's really shitty crying over not getting to have sex while I've sent home postpartum moms with colicky babies..." Sakura grumbles.

"Wow you suck." Ino clicks her tongue.

"There's absolutely nothing wrong with acknowledging that. In many ways, you suck too, Ino.

"I suck ass, but I love myself." Ino questions her own sincerity after speaking. Did she love herself? "You're the one crying about a missed dick sucking opportunity. There's hunger going on in the world, Sakura. Geeze."

"You're right." Sakura taps one tear from her face. "This is ridiculous."

Ino sits beside Sakura. Complete silence engulfs them. The breeze washes in the sound of crickets through Ino's window. Sakura breathes in and out as if she is about to cry again, but she doesn't.

"Ino?" Sakura folds her hands between her thighs.

"Mhmm." Ino observes her long nails.

"I'm glad we reconnected. I've been feeling really damn lonely."

"I'm sure Naruto gives way better advice than I do." Ino realizes just how much she sucks ass at vulnerability.

"Believe it or not, we don't really 'talk' like that anymore. He doesn't want to hear it. But I can't blame him." Sakura's voice shrinks into a rattly whisper. When she speaks, the spit crackles in her mouth. "He just tells me I could've done better."

Ino doesn't know what to say— Sakura clearly hasn't noticed her emotional bankruptcy. As for excuses? Ino is out of them. They've lost value. She can't rationalize her insensible feelings anymore, so instead of giving them meaning, she lets her body endure the brain chemicals that cause sadness, anger, happiness, and grief.

"I feel like he's mad at me sometimes. I don't know why."

If Sakura had approached her months ago, she might have a clue as to what to say. Those 'girl power' pep talks simply don't hit the same anymore the older you get.

"You believe Sasuke is your soulmate right?" Ino yawns.

"In every way possible." Sakura doesn't hesitate. Ino wishes she had that much certainty about all facets of her life.

"Even though Sasuke has the emotional articulacy of a house plant, I don't think he'd feel good knowing you purposefully compromise yourself. Don't downsize your feelings to make his seem bigger. There's enough room for both of you..."

"You make it sound so poetic." Sakura's face is no longer red.

"There's a word for it. Melodramatic. Traumatizing yourself like it's a kink."

"For some odd reason, that sounds a lot like something Shikamaru would say."

"Oh no—absolutely not. He honestly would've stopped listening a long time ago and just told you to suck it up or leave." Ino shakes her head.

"I could see that too."

"When he wants to, he's a good listener and gives good advice. He acts like he doesn't care but he's a sensitive baby." Ino dampers her own mood.

"How is he doing?"

Instead of responding vocally, Ino sharply shrugs her shoulders. Her feelings are beyond hurt. They'd been obliterated into tiny dust particles.

After a while, Ino finally says quietly, " He doesn't want to be with me anymore. I make him sick."

"He didn't say that!" Sakura huffs with real disbelief.

"Straight from the horse's mouth. I swear." Ino has a fleeting moment of disbelief herself, but it happened. He's the first that leaves irreparable bruises. Her brain soaked up so much of the stimulus that he'd given her, that no one could ever match it. The kind of first that sets the standards for the second, third, fourth, fifth, and so on. She wants to laugh and cry at the same time. The intense feelings just mold a meaningless smile on her face.

"Are you in love with him, Ino?" Sakura has been wanting to ask this for some time. Crying has the same side effects as alcohol—it makes you sincere.

It takes time to answer. The truth is like a magic word. She knows the answer.

"Irrevocably." Ino can't begin to spell irrevocably, but it's a word grown-ups have always used and it seems fitting. It could be the right word. She rubs the back of her neck.

"Then if that's the case, I don't think he meant it that way. You probably just hurt his feelings bad enough to make him say it." Sakura's bad mood is gone and Ino is glad for it.

"He never says things he doesn't mean." Ino keeps her attention on the dimple in her knee cap.

"Hurt people hurt other people." Sakura's ability to stay optimistic is her best and worst quality.

"We were talking about you and Sasuke, not the bizarre state of my sex life." Ino stands up to stretch her legs. No use in crying over shit she can't fix. She is tired of crying.

"Ino, let's do something for your birthday..."

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The shovel pierced the surface of something hard. On impact, the forceful vibration jolts up Shikamaru's arms. He pauses briefly. Flicking a chunk of dirt from his cheek. His skin crawls from the unending pour of sunlight on his back. Where the ground surrounds him, his skin is cool, save for the path of his spinal cord. Sweat runs like a river down the middle of his back.

He scrapes the shovel against what looks like smooth wood, until it is clear that Sasuke had ordered him to dig up a coffin. Heat then is just a tingle to his skin. It's only a genjutsu—there's no real danger. He's confident that he has authority over his emotional wellbeing.

Shikamaru clears the excess clumps of dirt, takes a deep breath, and opens the coffin. He breaks a fingernail doing so. Tiny splinters of wood tear at his fingertips. As he swings it open, he releases a cloudy gust of grime. The hole fills with a thick smell of something wet and dead. Leaky excrement. This isn't what comes as a surprise to him. What else is the inside of a coffin supposed to smell like?

Asuma's dead body is grey. The inside of the coffin, around his gaunt body, is dusty like a full ash tray. Shikamaru is human. He understands fear. Lives with it invading minute spaces in his life. There isn't anything in the big world nor the vast openness of the sky that could've prepared him. Not a cell splitting under a microscope. No textbook or self help book exists. Science tells you what to expect. Enduring it can't be measured.

Shikamaru climbs out of the hole. Kicking and throwing back dirt. It gets under his finger and toenails. He reaches the grassy surface, collapsing on his hands and knees beside Sasuke. Holding back the strong cry had given him a pressure headache. The need to give in is so persistent, he feels it behind his eyeballs. Shikamaru's skin turns white. His ears pop when he swallows.

"Shikamaru, you've exhibited little to no discipline since we've started your training." Sai's voice is loud. "You haven't taken this process seriously at all. Let me make one thing clear. You won't get very far here doing the bare minimum."

Shikamaru stares at the clumps of grass he holds in his hands.

"We are going to bury you alive. The duration of this exercise is up to you. As an act of kindness, I thought it would be to your advantage to give you company. Sasuke didn't agree, but he is not your proctor."

Shikamaru's eyes burn. He blinks it away though. Inhales the mucus, sucks down the powerful urge.

"If you do not wish to participate, you can dismiss yourself. There won't be any consideration of you in the future should you change your mind. I will be sure of that as long as I'm still active." Sai speaks as though he is giving a eulogy. Sasuke doesn't make a sound.

They are generous enough to give Shikamaru a moment to digest his options. He is defeated either way. If the purpose is the break him, then they had succeeded. Shikamaru considers offering a compromise, but that will only make him look more pitiful than qualified.

He asks himself what he wants after all of this. Mild curiosity is a fragile foundation. Shikamaru has always known this but it finally resonates. If he quits, Sai gets to keep the ingredients for emotional blackmail. That shouldn't matter, yet it does. He's never cared about what anyone has thought of him.

If he endures this, it won't feel like anyone has taken anything from him. After all, a genjutsu isn't real. The dead stay dead. Living people are ten times scarier than a corpse.

Shikamaru crawls back into the hole. Soil falls behind him, peppering his skin. His sweat softens the crumbs of dirt into mud. He plants his feet inside of the coffin. Vomit climbs into his throat when his ankles brush against Asuma's cold, feet. He swallows the acid back down.

He accepts the challenge on a brittle belief that urinating on himself as an adult is far more disparaging than sleeping next to the illusion of a decomposing body. Shikamaru positions himself with his back towards the fake Asuma. He shuts himself inside.

The smell wraps around him like a blanket. He crams his nose inside the palm of his hands. The darkness triples his awareness. Pain is the body alerting you that something is wrong. His spiritual pain manifests into a phantom cognizance of the bugs under his skin—but this could be stress. Maybe there are bugs inside of the coffin...he is in the ground.

Dirt pours against coffin and he envisions being swept under a dark tide of water, like there's water in his ears and in his nose and he's going drown.

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Lavender oil is supposed to calm you. Ino keeps inhaling the scent on her wrists, where she had rubbed the oil into her skin. It smells more medicinal than aromatic and it doesn't declutter her brain. She's also overwhelmed by the mess Choji has made in the kitchen. Somehow, Karui had talked him out of two cakes, but the mess is big enough for five. Flour is stuck between her toes, on her elbows.

"Choji." Karui's voice is overpowered by the grumble of the cake mixer. Choji's face is stiffened with determination.

"This is what happens when you wait up to the last minute to do something." Karui says to Ino as she wipes down the counter.

"I don't think Shikamaru would care either way." Ino swats a strand of hair from her face. The bad feelings haven't gone away though. She's still standing at the top of her stairs watching Shikamaru. As time has passed, it sits in her stomach like she'd eaten something unhealthy, but she hides it well. Choji doesn't seem to notice that she hasn't had much to say. Karui doesn't know her well enough to sense that it is strange for Ino to keep checking the time or that she hasn't taken a seat since she set foot inside.

"Isn't he on some weird diet anyway, Cho?" Karui yells over the cake mixer. Choji looks away from the bowl and squints his eyes at her.

"He's going to leave that dumb shit on the other side of the door if I can help it. Diet my ass." Choji scoffs.

"Why is he on a diet again?" Ino rubs her nose against her wrist again.

"There really is no telling. I'm honestly sick of him acting strange." Choji wipes a messy hand on his apron.

"You're just unnecessarily hard on him...He's not obligated to tell you everything that goes on in his head." Karui rolls her eyes, readying the pan for the cake batter.

"I don't feel that way at all!" Choji sticks out his bottom lip.

"Of course you feel that way! You can stop stirring now!" Karui picks up a spoon and thumps his knuckles.

They bicker back and forth until the pan is successfully placed into the oven. Ino walks into their living room to recheck the gift bag for the sixth time. Lately, she hasn't been trusting of her memory. It's what happens after making too many mistakes.

The card and watch are still in the bright blue bag.

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Think rationally. That's what he keeps telling himself. He doesn't really think at all—he can't adjust to the claustrophobic darkness, but he does focus on the rhythm of his heartbeat. It's loud like the wall clock in his mother's kitchen. Yoshino swears she can hear it from upstairs. The whole house could burn down, and she'd sleep through it, but that damned clock.

His mother's kitchen is still his father's kitchen too. It's their kitchen.

This isn't real. He tries to imagine himself sitting stone still, in a dead like hypnosis. Even goes as far as to imagine Sai's hawkish silence, Sasuke's indifference. His imagination gives them the same expression. Their faces indistinguishable, but his subconscious can tell them apart.

Unfortunately, the attempt is like drifting in and out of sleep, without the painful grogginess of straining the eyes. The pitch black coats his skin like a solid substance. Spots his focus with black pockets—a reel of damaged film.

As time rolled on, Shikamaru starts to believe that he can hear Asuma breathe. He can't turn to look. Even if he could, he doesn't think he has enough strength, nor could ever obtain such a strength to talk to a dead body. What if he saw something in Asuma's eyes that could damage him? Do dead men's eyes even shine in the dark? There are no answers.

A light shuts on in his gloomy head. He's been sheltered in his own way. For emotional safety, he sacrificed a bottomless self preservation that most of his peers had mastered.

Sweating profusely, his body aches from the awkward cramped position he's laid. The arm he lies on goes numb. He's passed the point of gnawing hunger. All of his senses heighten. The primitive part of his soul keeps his eyes wide.

He thought the rhythm of his heartbeat was simply erratic, but he recognizes that the off kilter thump is another pulse. Outside of his own. And it becomes louder the longer he lies there in complete silence.

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Nine o'clock happens faster than they had expected. Choji makes three phone calls thirty minutes apart. Yoshino has no idea where Shikamaru has been all day, but she supposed 'work'. He has never committed himself to anything else but working and being Temari's prototype husband.

And all three of them know how demanding the shinobi lifestyle can be. They couldn't fathom being the Hokage's right hand man.

For Ino, that line of thinking is too rational. She stopped being rational after seven thirty two. Shikamaru is still mad at her for the umpteenth time.

"He could've at least called." Choji grumbles hanging up the receiver, fluffing his hair back.

"Choji, you said some important busybody was found dead not too long ago. Wouldn't Shikamaru have to help with that?" Karui pours Ino a glass of pink lemonade.

Ino hears but she partially listens.

"Yea, I guess that would eat up his time." Choji helps himself to Ino's lemonade when she doesn't move to drink it.

"We don't deserve a phone call? I made him promise..." Ino tangles a curl around her finger.

"Shit happens, Ino. You're a shinobi before you're a person." Choji finishes the lemonade.

"Really? Sounds like a lot of bullshit we've been groomed to believe." She doesn't know why she says it. Ino isn't entirely sure if she believes it. She feels her dad turn over in his grave.

Karui and Choji don't argue back.

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Five minutes till midnight and still no Shikamaru. Yoshino does call back to wish Ino a Happy Birthday.

They sit around the birthday cake. Karui had decorated it simply. White icing with sprinkles. Choji managed to fit ten candles on it.

"Alright, since he is AWOL, you can make a wish for both of you." Choji lit all the candles.

Ino had spent her last couple of birthdays with Sai. He always seemed to enjoy it more than she did. It was like one of his favorite 'holidays'. He would consistently give her a gratuitous amount of affection—as affectionate as he could possibly be. Ino never would've guessed that it would be the least of what she wants out of a relationship.

Last year, when she told Sai that he had spent too much money, he stopped smiling and told her, soberly, that 'Since it is physically impossible to wrangle every star from the sky, then the only way to compensate for what you deserve is to spend my whole paycheck. Happy Born Day!'

"Happy Birthday, Ino!" Choji and Karui say together.

By not showing up, Shikamaru had robbed Ino of not only childhood nostalgia, but a sense of normalcy that everything right is finally aligning itself.

Ino doesn't know what to wish for, so she doesn't bother when she blows out the candles. Twenty three years in the world hasn't been so bad.

"Wait, how old is Shikamaru now?" Karui claps her hands together.

"Twenty four." Choji can't hide his disappointment anymore. Tiny slivers of smoke rise from the candles.

Over the phone, Yoshino had asked Ino about her white heels. Ino told her she left them there so Shikamaru would have a reason to visit her. It was perfect feminine logic. Yoshino thought it was funny, agreed she would've done the same thing. Maybe not a pair of good shoes. A bra and a matching pair of panties.

"It's so funny that you two practically share a birthday." Karui smiles at Ino.

"It hasn't always been a source of joy." Choji recalls.

They talk over and around Ino as they cut the cake. Today hasn't been what Ino had hoped for, but it's been immensely better than her last birthday. She can't stand to look at or wear any of the jewelry, shoes, and the now ill-fitting dresses Sai had bought her.

The phone rings again but it's not Shikamaru.

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It fills his ears like the sound of war drums. A hard battering his childhood had understood as the sound of ancient beings slithering around the roots of old trees, cracking the surface with mighty earthquakes. Sooner accompanied by a whopping sigh. What little air he had to breathe, the corpse sucks into its lungs. The noise the body makes isn't similar to anything natural. Nothing Shikamaru has ever experienced in the years he has lived.

He wants to die. He'd much rather be dead than suffer through the ugly noise of Asuma dragging his soul from the spirit world. The rattly dry cough, the subtle crackle of Asuma's limbs, the foul smell that leaves his mouth causes Shikamaru to soundlessly sob.

This isn't the kind of last memory he wants to have of Asuma. Shikamaru's entire body begins to shake. He hiccups as he fights his tears. Grown men don't cry—children get sore throats from crying. That's exactly what he's reduced to. No longer does he think about the benefits nor the lesson he is supposed to learn. The back of his ears hurt. So do his cheekbones from grinding his teeth.

All Asuma does is breathe. Two minutes between. Shikamaru counts like a kid terrified of a dark corner. Two minutes turn into a natural rhythm of someone who isn't dead.

One would think that they'd outgrow the irrational fear of moving shadows in their bedroom. Shikamaru ought to know better. A manipulator of shadows is supposed to already know. Temari told him and he didn't listen.

What a waste of genetics.

But he's only human. That was his rebuttal.

Asuma continues to breathe. Shikamaru succeeds at what he thinks is the test. To thoroughly destroy him. The suffocation, the swelling burn in his throat, a thickness in his nostrils, his ringing ears.

Asuma speaks his name with a horrifying otherworldliness. Carrying the scent of a rotten tongue, his tone is disappointed, maybe even a little bit confused. Shikamaru doesn't acknowledge the authenticity of his voice. He just cries and that's what he resolves to do until it's over.

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Instead of feeling sorry for herself, Ino took her time waking up. No sense in rushing while Shikamaru sat on his hands somewhere. Don't be cruel—her brain tells her heart as she storms the Hokage compound. She'd give him the benefit of the doubt, but he better have an excuse. Pressing the envelope to her chest, she realizes how much she stands out amongst her former peers. It never registered how she has detached herself from being a kunoichi. The sense of belonging never went away and no one seems to notice her curiously marveling at how much hadn't changed. The walls were the same color, but repainted. The floorboards were shinier. And the smell had changed. It no longer smells like an old and damp crypt.

If she were Shikamaru, where would she be? She doesn't know where to start and doesn't want to ask. Ino weasels her away down the halls, peeping around doors, catching the tail end of conversations. Something about war. Something about death. But her focus is rock solid, so death and war had to find someone else to bother.

Ino ends up at the Hokage's office. If he had to be anywhere else, why not here? So she gets on her hands and knees, peering under the door for shadows. Her hair pools on the floor. Palms flat, her cheek an inch away from the surface, she squints. The lights are off. No one is inside. Ino slaps her hand against the floor and grumbles a sugary sweet 'damn it'.

"Ino...you can be arrested for that." Sai startles her. Ino pulls down her dress, looking up at him over a shoulder.

"Or you could not be a snitch." She sits up on her knees.

"Whatever you're looking for, you won't find it in there. You're trespassing," he says frankly.

Ino gets back on her feet, readjusting the front of her wrap dress. "Sai, could you—"

"You're trespassing, Ino. Unless you're coming out of retirement. I doubt that though."

"Ok, arrest me." She suspires. The exchange stops. Sai stares back at her blankly. She never learned how to interpret his quirks. He had many, but they never meant the same thing. His anger had always looked a lot like his happiness. And his quirks were just mirages of what he thought normal people did in the shortage of speech.

"Arrest me, but first, I need to give this to Shikamaru." She holds up the pale blue envelope. "Do you know where he is or could you give it to him for me?"

Sai narrows his eyes.

"Please? Yesterday was his birthday." She constricts her voice, willing it to work on him like it used to.

Sai's face softens. Ino waits for him to wish her a Happy Birthday...it doesn't come.

He takes it away with a swift pinch, gets down on his knees sitting the envelope flat against the floor. With two fingers, he scoots it under the door like he's whizzing a shuriken.

"There." He gets up, standing closer. She gets a whiff of the cologne she bought him a long time ago. "You should be on your way now."

Sai waits for her to start walking in the opposite direction. He tightens his jaws when she doesn't. Ino curls her upper lip, "You promise he's going to get it?"

For Sai, it's been the longest three minutes of his life. Feels just about as long as he's known her; one thousand six hundred and forty two days.

"Sure." His dead eyes match his very dead expression.

Anxiously rubbing her hands together, Ino grins at him.

"Thank you." Her cheeks dimple.

Sai estimates that it's been one thousand six hundred and forty two days. Maybe a little more if he counts the year he spent studying her from a distance.

"Happy Birthday, Ino." He says flatly. She stops mid turn, visibly startled. He knew she had been waiting for it, and she knew that it's not something he would forget. It's possible that he never will.

"Thanks." Ino thinks to herself—see that wasn't so hard, was it?

She turns away from him. He waits by the door until he hears the elevator ping and her heels step inside.

Sai hopes Shikamaru can withstand the next hour or he'd have to live with being accountable for Ino's despair. What a burden he'd have to carry. He has never thought of himself as a 'murderer'. Would this finally make him feel like one?

And none of this is fair to Sasuke.

The elevator door shuts and he shoves it all in the back of his mind.

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Chapter Text

Every year, Ino's mother gives her a bouquet of yellow peonies. She acts surprised each time to. It's real surprise—to make up for all the times Chiharu is vacant. Any act of kindness, even if it's the bare minimum, Ino is grateful for.

"How are you going to spend your special day?" Chiharu stops Ino before she sidles out the shop door.

"I actually don't know." Ino tips back her straw hat, cradling the peonies in one arm and carrying a bag filled with sliced fruit she had grabbed from the market. "The picnic was Sakura's idea...that's all I'm up to."

She had shoved Shikamaru's birthday in the back of her mind, left his watch in the top drawer with her pajamas.

"I was hoping you'd come by and eat dinner with me." Her mother's apron is so old, some of the threads are frayed.

"Sure." Ino shrugs.

"You sure you don't have any more plans?" Chiharu has that look all mothers get when they know their child is keeping a secret. Ino has many. If her mother weren't so critical, she'd share them.

"Aside from this picnic and having dinner with you, nope." Ino summons a smile from some place.

"Don't sit out in the sun for too long—you'll get freckles." Chiharu pushes the door open and holds it. The bell rings. Ino's smile fades as she steps outside into the sun.

People don't say 'I love you' enough in Konoha. Ino pulls her hat down to block the sun from her eyes.

"Mhm." She mumbles to herself. That's exactly what's wrong with this place.

Readjusting the bag on her shoulder, Ino starts down the familiar road. Until this very moment, Ino has never thought about how the culture change after the war might have affected her mom. The thought actually stops her dead in her tracks. A current of wind sweeps down and she secures her hat in place.

Ino tries to think of a model couple from her childhood—the Akimichi's. They talked about the hard stuff—not in depth but in the best way they knew how. It's why Choji is solid. The wind blows against her again and she almost drops her peonies. Ino realizes she spends a lot of her time sizing herself with other people instead of just dealing with the outcome of who she is.

After all this time, she doesn't really know herself. She just knows she was following an outline of what strong independence looked like. And that's ok. She isn't very strong but there is no use in blaming Chiharu for it. Blaming means she is waiting for an apology that will never come.

There is still time to be the kind of woman her father boasted about. He only got one daughter and no sons. One daughter that has survived at that.

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Sakura bites into a slice of watermelon like a cow. Ino watches her horrified. The juice runs down the lines of her puckered lips, down her neck. Sakura catches the spittle juice with her bare hand. A disgusted Ino stops peeling her orange.

"Just like old times!" Sakura swallows.

Kids chase each other around the swings.

"Can we not talk about the past today? It's my birthday. Let's talk about how pretty I've gotten over the years." Ino's hair unravels in the breeze. She sits her orange on her hat so the wind doesn't take it away.

"Alright, well I've got good news for you! Tsunade says she is willing to meet you tomorrow!" Sakura spits a seed in her hand.

"Why so soon?" Ino hollers.

"What else are you doing other than wiping the ceiling fans clean at your shop?" Sakura retorts pettily, but sweetly.

Ino pouts. She had been hoping that she would have more time to mentally prepare herself. An ant crawls up the chunky heel of her shoe.

"I'm not ready is all." Ino admits, flicking the ant into the grass.

"You don't have much else of an option but to be ready. Sitting around waiting is the easy part. You're never going to be prepared to do hard work." Sakura keeps checking her watch.

"Do you have somewhere to be?" Ino scoffs a little. This picnic was Sakura's idea.

"Yes and no. I've got to be back in the office in two hours though. Did you know Karui is pregnant?" Sakura spits the watermelon seeds into the grass.

"Of course I do. How'd you know?"

"I deliver babies, Ino."

"Well, if I didn't know, you just violated patient confidentiality."

Sakura brushes wind blown hair from her face with the back of her sticky hand. They sit quietly. The trees are slowly losing their leaves. Ino wonders if Shikamaru has found his birthday card by now. It's past noon. It sucked forcing herself to get up so early in the morning to catch him only to fail. She feels those missing hours of sleep.

"Did Sasuke ever come home?" Ino breaks the silence.

"No. Kakashi said he's working. I got tired of wondering." Sakura wraps up the remains of the watermelon in a napkin then busies herself with peeling a banana.

"Where am I meeting Tsunade?" Ino changes the subject.

"Her house. She expects you for brunch. I hope you didn't make any plans." Sakura adapts. It's been this way since they were little girls.

"That's even more stressful, Sakura. Will you be there?"

"Nope. I got sick babies to take care of."

Letting out a childlike groan, Ino sprawls out on the blanket, folding an arm over her face.

"My only advice to you is, no back talking. Tsunade only wants you to listen. The only person allowed to talk over her is the Hokage and even he knows better." Sakura speaks with a mouthful.

"I don't even back talk my mom. What makes you think I'd back talk the Lady Tsunade?"

"I'm just saying. Your mouth has always gotten you in trouble." She smacks on the banana chunks.

Ino isn't going to deny it. She has a history of speaking before she thinks.

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"Are you sure the Hokage isn't putting me through some rigorous training I'm unaware of?" Sasuke's voice is loud.

"This isn't about you." Sai speaks even louder.

This will be the year Shikamaru vomited the most. The smell of his own throw up makes him gag up even more. The genjutsu had ended some time ago but Shikamaru can't stop smelling the inside of the coffin. At this point, he thinks he is throwing up eroded parts of his stomach because he can't remember eating anything fleshy colored (he isn't supposed to be eating anything red anyway).

"Can I leave now?" is the last thing Shikamaru hears Sasuke say. How much time has passed? He doesn't really want to know but he knows it's been an unhealthy amount of time for someone to hold their pee. Shikamaru's bladder isn't heavy. He doesn't recall peeing on himself. Maybe he did. His vomit smells worse if he had.

Sai lets Shikamaru 'sweat' it out. A moment of silence for whatever part of him died. Shikamaru leans forward in his seat with his hands cradling his head. Staring down at his growing pool of vomit, he waits for another wave to hit him. His throat burns.

"You passed." Sai says with an infuriating level of nonchalantness, but Shikamaru chokes down a painful cry. He better have passed or his dad will beat him when he makes it to the afterlife. If Sai had told him anything else, he might've given in to the urge to kill him. Shikamaru has enough self-awareness to know that he'd lose. Sai is stronger but he would get satisfaction out of knowing he made an attempt on his life.

"Not to sound like a father or anything, but this was harder for me than you think." Sai doesn't mean to, yet he always sounds so patronizing. Shikamaru can't muster the strength to laugh. His head feels like it has been split open and all of the contents are the runny goo seeping from his nose.

"Most people have irrational fears of spiders. Being burned alive. Or something traumatic happened in their childhood. You have no irrational fears. Nothing specific that can be exploited." He keeps talking. "How do I break my foot off in the ass of someone who has had an arguably healthy upbringing?"

Shikamaru can't bring himself to look at Sai. His disorientation quickly turns into the kind of anger that makes him shake.

"Are you willing to agree with me that out of most of your peers, you hit the family jack-pot?" Sai waits for him to answer. Shikamaru doesn't bother.

"No daddy issues or anything. You're just spoiled."

Silence really is the absence of words. A buzzing sound comes from somewhere deep inside of the room. Shikamaru has no more juice to spit up. His throat is too raw to speak.

"This is a break you down to build you up process. We have to weed out the weak first. Imagine if we just started letting anybody join based on their paperwork and not by what actually goes on in their head? People get blinded by the compliment of being offered—they don't consider what kind of work they'll actually be doing. You've passed the process of being humbled." Sai takes a deep breath, slightly put off by Shikamaru's reluctance to acknowledge him.

"But you've still got a steep learning curve to navigate, Shikamaru."

"Ok." Shikamaru rasps.

"Now. Your punishment for breaking the rules— a vow of silence. You aren't allowed to speak to anyone but me. Not even the Hokage." Another pause follows after. Sai stares holes in Shikamaru's forehead.

"Ok." He shrugs.

"Then you're dismissed until further notice. Don't worry about your mess. I'll get someone else to clean it up." Sai gestures for the door.

Just like that it's over. Shikamaru waits a few more seconds before shakily standing to leave. It's reminds him of all the women he's asked to leave. What a weird thought to have after spitting up his guts.

Thankfully, Sai didn't ask him to suck it all back up with a straw. At this point, he wouldn't put it past him. The elevator ride makes him consider what Sai had said. Being Anbu isn't for flippant types of people. Peace is hard to keep—someone has to put out the small fires before they engulf everything. It all shifts into perspective.

He steps out of the elevator and can smell himself. Thankfully, it's a dead hour in the middle of the night. Everyone is at home or gone on some mission. He won't have to take a walk of shame.

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Before Ino can make it inside of her mother's house, she can smell the cooked food. It makes her feel better for coming at all. She avoids her childhood home so she doesn't have to feel bad about the memories. Without her dad, it just feels like a cavity in her life. Chiharu doesn't need her around. The garden flourishes. Bamboo rises above the wooden fence. Ino peaks inside of the mailbox before pushing herself through the wooden door. When it slaps shut, the fence shakes. Rows of flowers in pots and sprouting from the dirty line the short pathway to the front door.

She can hear her mother carrying on expressively in a conversation with Yoshino and the hesitation starts. Is there anyone else in Konoha that hates coming back 'home' the way she does? Ino unlocks the door and the strong smell of chicken makes her happy and uncertain. Contentment is what happens when you mix the two.

"Happy Birthday, Ino!" Yoshino floats from the kitchen to ambush her with a hug.

"Is Shikamaru with you?" It's the first thing Ino can get out of her head. The rest of her thoughts melt together.

Yoshino blinks at her as she takes a step back. The question doesn't necessarily confuse her—it just cements a thought that Ino isn't privy to. Her pinched expression changes into a warm smile.

"Nah. He never came home last night." Yoshino intends to say more but Chiharu unknowingly interrupts her with a short but gooey Happy Birthday.

Ino barely gets out of her heels before she is swept into the dining room. The ghost of her memories attack her from every corner. It flares up her anxiety. When she sits down at the table, Chiharu gently snatches Ino's hat from her head. Her bangs stick up in a cowlick.

"So you're working with Lady Tsunade?" Yoshino musses Ino's bangs down.

"That is the plan." Ino isn't in the right head space to enjoy the overwhelming affection but she appreciates it. She hasn't been very kind to herself after all.

"Your mom is so proud of you. She hasn't stopped talking about it since I got here. I came to see you by the way." Yoshino can't solve the static in Ino's hair so she lets it stick up wildly.

"I'm just glad she has something nice to say about me to her friends." Ino says loud enough for only Yoshino to hear. "I haven't exactly been a great daughter."

"Well who told you that damn lie?" Yoshino frowns like Shikamaru, even spaces her words out like him when she speaks.

"It's just a gut feeling. My stomach told me that." Ino says dumbly.

"Ino. You survived a war. Stop listening to your stomach. It's a rude bitch." It's the last thing Yoshino says to her directly before Chiharu brings out Ino's birthday dinner.

Awful things happen at the dinner table. Every bad conversation and argument Ino has ever had has happened in the middle of enjoying a meal, which she doesn't do often. She snacks all day but doesn't like to fix herself real food.

Yoshino and Chiharu gossip, every now and then asking for Ino's opinion. No, she doesn't like the new girl who does hair at the salon they've been going to for years. And then, absolutely Hinata married up and not the other way around. She robbed all the other young women the opportunity of being courted by Naruto. Ino gags. She will never not be able to see Naruto as a loud kid. Ino throws back her orange soda. Somehow the conversation spirals into a long debate about Kakashi Hatake's mysterious dating habits.

"Speaking of Konoha's young men..." Yoshino starts.

"Oh god. Can we please stop talking about men. I'm pretty sure it's illegal to speculate about the Hokage's girth. Geeze." Ino licks the sugary residue from her lips.

"Fine." Chiharu waves a dismissive hand.

"No. No. Chiharu you want to hear what I'm about to say." Yoshino places a hand over Ino's. "Have you told her, Ino?"

It is known, through InoShikaCho history, that Ino isn't a super sharp thinker. People are predictable, but Ino is never prepared for surprises. Especially when it comes to things she hasn't really had time to deal with personally.

"Told me what?" Chiharu looks genuinely curious. Not in her usual facetious way either.

The curse of the dinner table strikes again. Ino loses the color from her cheeks. Yoshino doesn't give Ino room to stop the conversation. Her excitement piques Chiharu's interest.

"Well, Ino didn't outright tell me but I used my general observation skills to solve the puzzle. Our kids have been sneaking around behind our backs." Yoshino's thinking is a clear path of happiness—out of everyone in the village, why wouldn't Shikaku and Inoichi's kids end up together? It should come as no surprise to anyone. They fought enough growing up to warrant the conjecture. Yoshino is rational. Chiharu, not so much when it comes to what she wants for Ino.

"Really?" Chiharu isn't known for being modest about her opinions either. It's a very small 'really', like she squeezed it out of her throat.

The brief pause doesn't smooth over the awkwardness.

"Don't get me wrong, I love Temari but she lacks the mental tools necessary to deal with Shikamaru. She had a big appetite. Not sharp enough teeth to chew through the things she wanted out of life. Ino, it just makes sense, yeah? Why not you?" If Yoshino notices the shift in the atmosphere, she does a damn good job at concealing. Ino didn't think Yoshino thought so highly of her juxtaposed to Temari. It makes Ino blush all over.

"Really?" Chiharu repeats herself albeit mechanically.

"Well, Shikamaru isn't here to speak his piece so..." Ino shrugs.

"Clearly, Yoshino, if they have to sneak around about it, it's no good." Chiharu isn't entirely wrong.

Ino doesn't defend herself because she doesn't know how. She isn't comfortable with divulging her intimacy with her mother. Maybe if Yoshino had asked her in private—nothing sacred can be shared with Chiharu.

"I think they're just worried about what we would think." Yoshino finally gets an expression like someone who has caught on.

"Ino has never had a reason to hide the men she dates—I don't know what makes Shikamaru different. It must be no good." Again, Chiharu is like a broken clock. Right twice a day but wrong all the other times.

"Are you implying that my son isn't good enough for your daughter?" Yoshino deadpans. Shikamaru's cold pitch is there, in her voice.

"I didn't say that. I'm just saying don't you think it's suspicious that he hasn't come right out and told you? He talks to you more than Ino talks to me is all."

Like three birds sitting on a branch. It's what Ino imagines as she sits in the middle of the tension.

"It's nothing to get worked up over. I promise. If anything Shikamaru is too good for me." Ino crosses her legs under the table.

"Don't disparage yourself, Ino." Chiharu completely brushes off Yoshino's visible crossness.

"It's the truth, mom." Ino cynically wonders how she even got here or why she thought it was a good idea. "We aren't together. You know how you go into a store to try on shoes. Sometimes they fit, sometimes there is too much or too little room for your toes. You don't always walk out of the store with new shoes."

"Right. This isn't about anyone not being good enough. Yoshino, don't be so confrontational." Chiharu laughs.

If Yoshino weren't tied to them by a legacy, she probably would've flipped the table. Ino wants to give the juicy details but all those positive things Yoshino thinks of her would dissolve.

Ino vows to never discuss politics, gossip, men, love, money, or anything serious over a meal ever again. She considers throwing her own tiny table out to make sure it never occurs in the safe space of her apartment.

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Yoshino had circled and marked out his birthday on the calendar stuck to the fridge. Ino's birthday is crossed out too. Two days gone. The time is 10:30 p.m. An oath of silence would be easier if Sai had picked a better time.

He searches around the kitchen for a pen as quietly as he can. There's one in the drawer filled with their mail. With a shaky hand, he writes big in an empty space on the calendar 'I love you, mom. Sorry'.

Shikamaru is too tired to eat. While he waits for the shower water to get hot, he drinks two glasses of water. Washing away the stink of two days and rubbing one out are his most important priorities before going to bed.

Two hours pass and he still feels numb. It's what happens when he isn't in control of the things going on his life. The last time he felt this way was when Temari expressed to him that she loved him out of habit and not necessarily out of want.

Prior to that, accepting his dad died a war hero.

It hits him after jizzing in his hand that he copes with bad things in his life through orgasms. He might've passed Sai's shitty test, he is definitely humble, but it did more to emphasize how susceptible he is to emotions. Temari always said he is too sensitive for his own good. She'd laugh if she knew a genjutsu made him cry like a two-year-old.

Shikamaru doesn't want to admit it, but Sai has done him a favor. Silence will force him to meditate with his weakness.

Yoshino finally comes home and calls out his name. Shikamaru forces himself to fall asleep through meditation.

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In the center of Konoha, Tsunade's house, for the better half of Ino's life, has always been a massive spectacle covered in vines. The grass had grown so tall during Tsunade's absence that no one could make out the front door. Like much of history, it stood not forgotten, but people stopped wondering about it.

Until Tsunade's return, the house was like a tall tree, shading the ground and occupying a stretch of space. As it stands now, Ino contemplates her life standing on the other side of the gate. The big house had taken a new form. Less ominous and more intimidating with its pristine lawn and sharply cut hedgerow. There is no bell to buzz her in. The gates swing open when her hands press against the iron. Unlike her mother's front yard—the beauty is orderly. Whoever tended to Tsunade's garden did not believe in beautiful wild things. That's certain. Ino takes off her sandals before sauntering up the stone path.

She rings the doorbell and the sound disperses through the house like an ancient gong. The fullness of her soul shrinks. Not even a year ago could anyone have told her that she'd be as bold as to submit herself to Tsunade's mentorship. The door cracks open, her heart stops beating, but it's Shizune who greets her.

"Ino!" Shizune gives her an odd surprised looked. Did she not think Ino would come?

"I know, I'm an hour early." The space behind Ino's ears begins to sweat.

"That's a good thing. An early start means an early finish, right?" Shizune moves when Ino steps through the doorway.

The inside is orderly like the garden. Tsunade loves simplicity. The bell was so loud because there is no excess of decoration. No furniture where it isn't needed. Empty walls save for a few picture frames. The wooden floors look clean enough to lick.

"I know what you're thinking." Shizune reads her face.

"Oh god. I'm sorry for gawking." Ino whispers so that her voice doesn't carry.

"Her bedroom looks nothing like the rest of the house." Shizune nudges Ino in her side and gestures for her to walk down the hallway. They pass two closed doors on their way to what Ino thinks wealthy people call a parlor.

"I mean no harm when I say this but you're overdressed." Shizune takes her by the arm and guides her to a tall window. Ino wears a simple white sundress with spaghetti straps.

"This is much?" She panics.

"Maybe not overdressed but you're not on a date."

Ino blushes so hard her shoulders turn red.

"It's not a big deal. She's not going to make you do anything laborious today." Shizune leaves her in the sun-filled room.

Ino sits in the nice chair and watches the foliage bend under the strong gust of wind. Excitement might give her a heart attack before Tsunade gets to her. She places a hand on her chest to feel her pulse. Her heart beats so fast it actually scares her.

She attempts to think of what advice Shikamaru would give her—the longer she tries to imagine his voice, eventually she realizes he wouldn't give her advice at all. He'd tease her to literal death. Shikamaru doesn't get weird around many people. After a while, her heart stops racing.

Tsunade slinks around the door behind Ino with Tonton under her arms. In her other hand she drinks from a tall steamy cup. Tsunade is known for her beauty but experiencing her fresh vanilla smell is truly like falling under a spell. When Tsunade sits in the cream colored loveseat across from her, Ino's heart rockets into her throat.

People write books about women like Tsunade. Long passages about healthiness, aliveness, perkiness, and some smoldering attribute. There's no doubt in Ino's mind that Tsunade is the muse responsible for all of Jiraiya's lusty books.

"Here we are at last!" Tsunade lets go of Tonton.

"A shame it hadn't happened sooner." Ino watches Tsunade reach over to sit her cup of tea down on a tiny table between them. Red lip prints stain the brim.

"It happened when it needed to. We all work at different paces." Tsunade seemingly says to Tonton who snorts back at her. Ino wonders if it's a personal statement about her or a simple conversation filler.

"So what are your expectations?" Tsunade says to her directly. The question startles Ino because she has no answer. Tsunade waits and waits but Ino gives her nothing. While she ought to have looked perturbed, Tsunade's face is stolid. She rests her cheek in her palm, elbow propped against the arm of her seat.

"I don't have any. I haven't been much of kunoichi since the war." Ino can't look Tsunade in the face.

"Why is that?" Tsunade inhales.

"Am I allowed to be honest?"

"I would hope you wouldn't lie to me, Ino. We're both grown women."

"I'm just out of touch and I'm anxious all the time."

"Why?" Tsunade curls a finger around Tonton's tail.

"I just am." Ino rubs behind an ear.

"That's not a good enough answer. You look pretty by the way." Tsunade puts her hand over Tonton's snout when she starts to squeal.

"Thank you."

"I don't know what the deal is with women your age not knowing how to articulate themselves. Just say what you mean and mean what you say—it isn't hard!" Tsunade's voice rises but she isn't yelling. Just passionate. "Wait, how old are you?"

"Twenty-three." Ino sighs.

"Let's get one thing straight first, Miss Twenty-Three. From here on out, 'I don't know' is an unacceptable answer when I ask you questions about yourself. If I ask you how your day is going, I don't know is a stupid answer. You know damn well how your day is going. Great or bad. See how easy that is." Tsunade takes a deep breath, reaches for her tea, and sips it gingerly.

"Let's start over, Ino. What are your expectations?" Her voice hums inside of the cup.

"I expect to become useful to my community again." Ino lowers her chin.

"Got a boyfriend?" Tsunade lifts her legs onto the loveseat.

"No." Ino answers quickly.

"Good to know. Men are distractions. Especially at twenty-three. So I've got a clear head to work with."

Ino grimaces. Her head isn't exactly clear but she's free of any other obligations. Tsunade doesn't speak again for a moment. She tilts her head back and gazes out the window,pensively. Ino tries not to stare. It's so hard.

"I'm familiar with your family—you've got some good blood. Your father would be very proud of you and don't think otherwise. I got a strong feeling that you don't think so." Tsunade continues to stare out the window. A wasp flies against the glass.

"What makes you say that?" Ino glares at her reflection in the window.

"If you listen real good, people will tell on themselves." Tsunade taps a finger at her temple in an all knowing way. She stands from the loveseat and Tonton jumps down and snorts around her feet. Even her toes are pretty.

"I've already got an assignment for you, but first we have a meeting to get to." Tsunade stretches.

"We?" Ino stands as well.

"If the goal is to reintegrate you into the shinobi world and make you useful, then you are to shadow me."

"Is that allowed?"

Tsunade pauses to drink her tea. Tonton rolls towards Ino's feet and snorts.

"Hatake bosses everyone else around. Not me. I do what I want!" She flippantly waves a hand. Tonton makes a loud noise of agreement.

"Should I change?" Ino laughs nervously. Tsunade gives her a sweeping look from her head to her toes.

"Are you comfortable?"

"I guess...I mean...yea."

Tsunade takes her sharp nails and pinches Ino's cheeks. "If you were confident enough to walk out the house in it, then you don't need to change! That dress doesn't scream 'I'm shy about my beauty' so don't try to act like it!"

She lets go of Ino's sore face and then proceeds to scream through the house for Shizune. For an hour she goes on about things beyond Ino. Old lady gossip pertaining to her almost equally as rich neighbors. The dragon facade she had obtained over the years becomes a small part of her personality in such a short amount of time. It has a lot to do with Ino being an adult now. Tsunade doesn't have to tiptoe around awful details about the goings-ons of Konoha.

And her bedroom is a chaotic world of its own. The vanilla scent wafting from her skin earlier is ten times stronger in her room. Clothes are thrown haphazardly around. Shoes litter the floor. Lifestyle magazines. Clipped ends of the newspaper. The roses she had gotten from Ino's shop wilting on her nightstand. Lots of empty and half full wine bottles.

"You're almost as pretty as me." Tsunade says to Ino as she reapplies lipstick at her vanity.

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Shikamaru wakes up at one in the afternoon to Yoshino's loud voice carrying through the house. She has company over. Before going down stairs he takes another shower and brushes his teeth. His voice echoes in the bathroom when he coughs. He remembers his sworn silence and rolls his eyes. There's no way he can be heard walking around and not at the very least, acknowledge that they have a guest.

He hasn't regretted moving back in until today.

Growing up, it's never been out of the ordinary for him to wake up with people in his parent's house. Shikaku hated it but Yoshino loves people. With Shikaku being gone, she has more reason to fill the house with an entire village. He attempts to make a beeline to the kitchen to feed himself first but Yoshino calls attention to him.

His biggest flaw is his inability to conceal his direct dislike for things—bad smells, bland foods, wrong opinions, or obvious lies. It did not matter how well his parents raised him, they could not spank this trait out of him.

Temari sits on the couch that's been in his house for years, but it's different now because he and Ino had made a terrible memory on it. He doesn't speak so it makes his visible shock more off putting.

"I guess Kakashi doesn't keep you busy if you've got enough time to sleep past noon." It's the very first thing Temari can think to say to him. She's never been polite. Ino would call it 'nice-nasty'.

"Oh, no, I disagree. He's been gone for two days. Missed his own birthday working." Yoshino glowers at his perceived rudeness.

"Really?" Temari turns her attention away from Yoshino to smile at him.

Shikamaru doesn't want her around. The feeling grows by the second. Temari knows him so it isn't some torturous secret. He just wishes his boundaries reached his mother. Instead of prolonging the awkwardness of the situation, he makes a gesture at his neck to imply that he has a sore throat. It's not a whole lie. His throat still feels destroyed from yesterday.

Yoshino gets up, briskly, from her seat and slaps a hand on his forehead.

"You are a little warm." She searches his eyes for his secrets but doesn't find anything. He can tell she speculates. The older he has gotten, the harder it is for her to guess, correctly, what is wrong with him. Yoshino forces him to sit on the couch beside Temari and storms off into the kitchen.

Temari is quiet. They both listen to Yoshino rummaging around the kitchen. Through the mysterious vine of the universe, Shikamaru thanks Sai. For this is a blessing and not punishment at all. He feels giddy on the inside.

"Just so you know, I didn't come to bother you. I'm filling in for Gaara. He's in Kirigakure right now." The space between them feels like a big ocean. "Kakashi was going to just give you a call, but I miss your mom so I told him that I'd bring you back with me."

Shikamaru is glad that he didn't anticipate having the day off—not while public figures are turning up dead in their village. He makes a phlegmy cough and folds his arms across his chest.

"I miss this sometimes." She admits. It makes him feel bad. If he could speak he'd say to her—well, no one told you to dump me. It isn't his fault.

Yoshino peeks her head out the kitchen. "Temari he's on a weird diet. Do you want boiled eggs too?"

She declines morosely.

But the tension eventually becomes too thick. When you've spent half of your life convinced that you're going to marry someone, that bond doesn't go away. No matter how many miles they've used to separate themselves—her disappointment is palpable like they never broke up.

"I don't have to tell you what this meeting is going to be about. You already know." Temari scratches her head. He nods.

She doesn't speak anymore after that. Not until his mother comes out of the kitchen. Yoshino throws a bottle of cold medicine into Shikamaru's chest and hands him the bowl of boiled eggs.

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Ino learns quickly not to ask Tsunade for her honest opinions. She will give it unfiltered. Her honesty isn't cruel. People just expect her to lie. Konoha is built on mendacity—such is the way of all men. That doesn't mean she has to participate.

People stop to speak with Tsunade and she graciously handles each personality like a true princess. Ino soaks up the attention for herself too.

"Lady Tsunade? Who are we having a meeting with besides the Hokage?" The 'we' gives Ino a sense of importance she hasn't felt in a long time.

"We're just gonna have to see when we make it upstairs." Tsunade makes a point not to allow Ino to walk behind her nor too far ahead.

"Don't you get tired of people calling your name every two minutes?" Ino sidles onto the elevator beside her. Tsunade waves at everyone who acknowledges up until the very moment the elevator door shuts.

"Of course I do but a big name carries big responsibilities." She fans herself with her hands. The elevator floats upward. "I've tried escaping it, believe me."

"What did it take for Sakura to convince you?" Ino doesn't know why she asks.

"Sakura didn't convince me to do anything. I refused for so long because it's rude to speak for other people. It's not her job to sell me your dreams. You understand?" She holds up a finger.

Nodding dumbly, Ino holds air in her cheeks.

"A closed mouth doesn't get fed." Tsunade manages to have the perfect balance of directness and empathy.

They reach the top floor. As both step out of the elevator, Tsunade tenderly grabs Ino's arm and says to her, "It's okay to ask for help. If you don't absorb anything else I teach you, learn that. It will save you wasted time."

It's amazing how easy the beginning of all of this is. She had been expecting a grievous vetting process. Tsunade sweeps her up and along the hallway. Ino notices the distinct pattern of her footsteps. It's hard to miss. Anyone behind a door should know it's Tsunade strutting down the hall.

She doesn't knock on the door to the Hokage's office, barges in like she never stopped being the fifth.

"You're early." Kakashi isn't surprised.

"Damn. You're right. We are early, Ino. I guess you're my good luck charm!" Tsunade shuts the door behind Ino.

"I wouldn't count on that. Don't put that kinda burden on a kid." With his arms folded behind his head, he looks less the Hokage and more like someone who accidentally acquired the title through precarious means.

"This is a whole adult human. Not a kid." She squeezes Ino's chin and turns her face left and right.

"Not half of an adult. Right..." He smiles with his eyes.

"I mean, I don't feel like an adult. I woke up one day and my mom told me I was one." Ino rubs her face when Tsunade lets go.

"Don't let anyone else hear you say that. It doesn't make you sound clever at all, Miss Twenty-Three." Tsunade flops in a chair. "Kakashi, do you not water your plants?"

Ino blanches, too stunned to sit down anywhere.

Kakashi reaches from under his desk for a spray bottle filled with water.

"Agree with me, Ino. Don't his plants look depressed to be here?" She takes the spray bottle and mists the potted plant next to his desk.

"Ma'am, I think you embarrassed her." Kakashi isn't wrong. They both stare at a frozen Ino.

Three knocks on the door save her from whatever Tsunade is about to say. Manila folder in hand, Naruto walks in with a defeated glower in his eyes. It could be exhaustion but she doubts this when he greets her curtly and not with his typical enthusiasm. Sai is also at his heels. He doesn't speak to Ino. Fleeting eye contact for the rest of their lives is fine by her.

"Here's the partial autopsy report." Naruto hands Kakashi the folder. "I'll save you some time and just tell you they haven't found anything yet. It's like he went to sleep and never woke up."

"Was he old?" Tsunade gazes at Naruto with admiration. He doesn't notice.

"Fifty isn't exactly old." Naruto exhales.

"But it is possible that he died of natural causes. People die in their sleep all the time." Tsunade makes it a priority to get up and water all of Kakashi's sagging plants.

"Regardless, the optics are bad. We still have to wait for a full report. In the meantime, there's no telling what the story will turn into before we get the facts." Sai remarks.

"What's the family name?" Tsunade opens a window.

"Imamura." Kakashi drops the folder, scratching his head.

Tsunade hums thoughtfully. Repositioning the spider-like plant, she breathes, "Don't know 'em."

Ino silently occupies negative wall space.

"Even if he did die of natural causes, it won't smooth over." Naruto melts into a puddle in Tsunade's seat.

The door clicks open again and as if impending doom hadn't already soured Ino's mood, seeing Shikamaru alongside Temari makes her physically ill. Not a single phone call. Complete radio silence—her feelings bounce around her head like rubber jack balls.

"It's not looking good, Shikamaru." Naruto grumbles.

The power of an oppressive silence could make a dead body roll over in its grave. Heat blooms in Ino's nasal cavity. Her anger does get rid of the funny taste in her mouth.

"How is Gaara, Temari?" Tsunade sits the spray bottle on the window sill.

It could be Ino's memory fooling her, possible that she could be seeing what she wants to in order to justify her distress, but they look natural together. What had happened in two days? Temporary insanity beats the years of her rationale schooling. The heart doesn't care about logic. It's her deepest personal flaw. A natural conversation happens. Ino and Shikamaru are the only two that don't engage. He gives Ino the weakest acknowledgement any man has ever given her.

Time of death— Ino looks at the clock on the wall, 2:16 p.m.

Temari talks a lot. Ino is hyper aware every time she makes a thoughtful comment. Naruto asks what 'posturing' means and Temari gives him a direct definition, surprisingly not in a condescending way. Ino didn't know what it meant either. The longer Ino listens to her talk, it makes complete sense why Temari's relationship with Shikamaru lasted so long. They're similar in more ways than they are different from the outside looking in.

Shikamaru isn't impressed by the things Temari has to say. He's used to it. Everyone else is though.

She isn't going to allow her legs to give out her first day with Tsunade. Ino doesn't excuse herself like a little girl, she just leaves for the bathroom. Ino closes the door behind her with deliberate gentleness. Shikamaru and Tsunade are the only two that look back at the door. Their eyes lock. Shikamaru prepares himself for what she is going to say to him.

"What do you think, Shikamaru? You're being unusually quiet." Tsunade grins.

"Yea. You have been—" Naruto squints at him.

Scratching his head, Shikamaru looks to Sai.

"You're the strategist. What's on your mind?" Sai gives him a sideways glance.

Shikamaru digs around the clutter of his head space for a moment.

"Give his body over to the family. I don't think we want hoards of Mist shinobi sniffling around in the middle of political instability. This could be bigger than some important person turning up dead—a dead body could be the start of some larger plan. What do you think, Sai?" Shikamaru stares at the lines in his hand.

"I think it's important that we figure out his cause of death. That's vital information." Naruto has had it on his mind all morning.

"Do you want to pass up that kind of intel, Shikamaru?" The tone Sai uses makes Shikamaru believe that he already knows what he is about to say.

"If he was killed, then it was by the hands of an experienced ninja. No visible marks of blunt trauma? No poison? We are better off letting the family put him in the ground." Shikamaru clears his throat.

"Shika. You're so passive." Temari huffs and rolls her eyes.

"I'm just suggesting that we practice utilitarianism a bit more...Don't you agree, Sai?" Shikamaru realizes he has spoken out of turn. His voice is hoarse.

"Put our village first. Makes sense to me. Give the body back and we don't have to worry about their press." Sai nods approvingly.

"Won't that make us look insensitive?" Naruto this time looks to Kakashi.

"A very important man, from a historically hostile culture, dies on a trip to meet a politically influential person in another country? No matter what we decide to do, insensitivity is the least of our problems." Tsunade waits for Naruto to agree with her. He comes around eventually.

"Then we should be the ones to deliver the body. For the sake of optics. I don't have a stronger case to make." Naruto falls back into his chair.

"I agree, Naruto. We're releasing the body to the family." Kakashi slides the folder back to Naruto.

And it's over. Naruto is the first to leave. Kakashi doesn't have to tell him the next step of action. Sai follows behind Naruto.

"I wonder where Ino went. We've got other things to do." Tsunade checks the time.

"She went to the bathroom. Probably." Temari's innocence causes Shikamaru to smirk.

Kakashi suddenly whips a drawer open, digs out an envelope and hands it to Shikamaru. Ino's handwriting can't be mistaken for anyone else. Kakashi doesn't say anything about it. He gives Shikamaru a deliberate brow quirk. If Temari weren't in the room, he would've shared the mocking thought creasing his forehead.

Shikamaru doesn't wait to open it.

"Temari, you should tell Gaara we want you around more." Kakashi grabs her attention. Tsunade's eyes dart from Shikamaru to Kakashi. She frowns.

"That'll never happen. He never misses a chance to visit Naruto if he doesn't have to." She watches Shikamaru peel open the envelope. Kakashi continues to hold a conversation. Temari manages to respond attentively with her attention divided.

Shikamaru opens the glittery card. The stars on the front weave into a pattern on the inside.

A cluster of stars came together and made you. Can you imagine that?

Beneath the squiggly letters curling around a sleeping fox, beside Choji's messy handwriting, Karui drew a huge heart with Happy Birthday written inside of it. Ino wrote at the very bottom of the card—I hope your twenty-fourth is everything you wanted and more.

He chokes up an exasperated laugh. His twenty-fourth had flown over his head. The worst day of his life. Not saying a word, Shikamaru gets up to find her, stealing Kakashi's good fountain pen first.

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Chapter Text

"Grief is different. Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life."~ Joan Didion

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Ino remembers being a cruel kid. When you're young, life has a superficial harshness. It should be morally reprehensible for a thirteen-year-old to know where the main arteries are to bleed someone out. Sprinkle a little puberty on top of it...no one should be surprised that she turned out to be an emotional disaster.

Her meanness is a coping mechanism.

The nail polish on her thumb is cracked down the middle. Tossing the paper towel in the trash-bin, a flustered Ino hastily scratches off the rest of the polish. Watching the flecks peel off give her a sense of release.

As she steps out of the bathroom. Shikamaru approaches her from down the hall. He inadvertently causes her to feel ashamed. Ino doesn't run when he reaches her. She confronts him pink-faced and nervous. After all this time, he shouldn't make her feel anything but acceptance. Unfortunately, her insecurities are much louder than any broad stroke of affection.

He hands her the envelope with the mouth torn open. His near perfect handwriting on the back says 'I'm Sorry'.

Shikamaru stares into her eyes, waiting for her to accept it. The birthday card dangles from his hand at his side, between his middle and index fingers. He gives her that typical heavy look of cognizance. If they were in their own space of privacy, she might've given him grief about it. Blinking away the hot tears, she takes the card with both hands.

"I'm sorry too." Ino crinkles the envelope with her grip. No more mean words. She is out of them. She lowers her head to cry about it, but Shikamaru drags her into a tight embrace. He diligently kisses the inside of her ear then down the side of her face. Ino can't bring herself to hug him back. Her arms hang at her sides. The spots where his lips caress her cheek tingle. He holds the back of her neck and it's enough to make her knees buckle.

Confident, strong Ino Yamanaka. To think there was ever a time she thought of herself that way. Crazy and damaged is right. An understatement really. Shikamaru presses his mouth against the space between her eyebrows. Ino works up the nerve to say, "I don't think I have it in me anymore to survive without you."

Hardly anything surprises him. As of late, he's been hit in the face with a few curveballs.

"I'd be settling." Her eyes sparkle but no tears fall.

Shikamaru wonders why their timing is so shitty. He grits his teeth together, not blinking.

"I love you. Please don't make me settle." Ino whispers.

He can't make her do anything. That's what he would say if he could say anything. Unable to keep holding her gaze, Shikamaru takes a step back, dropping his hands from her soft hair to her shoulders.

The click-clack of Tsunade's heels, her unmistakable stride, reverberate down the hall. Shikamaru breathes through his open mouth. He reminds himself again—Kakashi said no commitments. Ino already knows that he loves her. He spent a considerable amount of time trying to convince her.

He chooses his rank as ninja over his feelings and lets Ino go. Throughout the twenty-four years of his life, he has never seen her look so hopeless. The destruction of their skin to skin contact is irreversible.

Shikamaru pretends to catch a bad case of coughs, putting back all the time and space between them. He hates Sai with everything his soul is made up of. Walking away, he realizes that the severity of 'silence' is the mundane factor. Shikamaru finally sees the strategy in Sai's seemingly stupid rules.

"Kakashi needs you." A visibly vexed Tsunade says to him.

Ino swallows down her spoiled feelings. Before the tears can fall, she swipes them away with her fingertips.

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Tsunade's office is more organized than her bedroom, even though she spends more time at the hospital than she does at home. Her shelves are crammed full but nothing overflows. There's rhyme and reason for each relic of the past propped against her window—items of sentimental value Ino will never be privy to. Figurines from far away destinations. Two glassy toad paperweights. An old clock made of wood. Tsunade takes off her shoes and tosses them in a corner. She falls into her chair and snaps her fingers at Ino.

"Sit." It's the sweetest sounding command.

Eager to please and anxious, Ino sits with her legs crossed. Tsunade swipes a copy of the daily paper from a stack of folders on her desk. The date is from a week ago.

Ino hasn't been able to determine if Tsunade's simply not much of a talker. She doesn't say anything else for a few minutes, combing through the old news. Ino gets the feeling that Tsunade has already read it five times.

"Are you knowledgeable when it comes to poisonous plants, Ino?" Tsunade asks without looking up from the paper.

"Yea. I wouldn't go as far as calling myself a botanist. My mom is."

"There was never an incentive to learn how to be one?" Tsunade licks her fingertips then turns a page. She quirks a brow but doesn't look up.

Ino doesn't blink, completely frozen. She has an excuse. Most of her life has been dedicated to more demanding causes than the science of flowers. Her mother isn't the most patient person either. Has there been time? After the war, yes, but most good habits are harder to obtain as she creeps up the ladder of adulthood.

"No. There wasn't." Ino speaks the thought instead of meditating with it.

"Why is that? You have the resources."

"I just didn't utilize my resources. I didn't find it important to learn." Ino slumps her shoulders. Missed opportunities is a recurring theme in her life.

"It sounds like you're bad at prioritizing." Tsunade snorts.

"Tell me about it."

After a long silence, Tsunade cracks a sympathetic smile, folding the paper.

"Ten percent of it is your fault. The other ninety is hurt. It's hard to put things together when you're in excruciating pain. Am I wrong?" She looks directly at Ino with a great deal of intensity. Ino doesn't catch herself shying away from it.

"You're not." She slowly shakes her head, her spirit so low that the pain she feels is spiritual. Phantom pangs in her chest.

"Ok then." Tsunade sort of whispers, but is very clear, loud in it's honesty. Almost too knowing. "Now we move on, because that's what we are supposed to do. Get over it."

Tsunade scratches her scalp with both hands, dragging her fingers through her pigtails, flipping them back over her shoulders.

"After you scurried away with your tail between your legs, I asked Kakashi to re-examine the Imamura corpse." Tsunade smells incredibly good. Her scent floats across the desk.

"Is that what I looked like to you?" She laughs out of embarrassment.

"That's exactly what it looked like. You gotta learn to stop running, Ino. I don't know what it is you were running from but it ends today." Tsunade taps her sharp nail on her desk.

It all stops today. Ino thinks to herself—maybe it will be easier said than done.

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Kakashi is a good actor. He often surprises Shikamaru. It isn't what Kakashi chooses to say or not to say, to do or not do. Shikamaru never expects anything and he hasn't exactly figured out why he is short sighted when it comes to his Hokage. The gift of mystery. God had to have given it to Kakashi.

"An oath of silence? That's rough for someone like you." Kakashi hadn't laughed.

Shikamaru could only give him a look that said what is that supposed to even mean?

Kakashi didn't even bother to give him direct orders. He only looked Shikamaru square in the face, beholding the bags under his eyes. Inhaled so sharp, his nostrils created a depression in the fabric stretched across his face. He was taking in a job-well done. Sai is breaking him in well. It hadn't occurred to Shikamaru until then that Sai might also be on some journey of self-improvement.

He tries his very damn hardest to follow The Law of Attraction. At first, he thought only a masochist could wake up after having their body dragged through the dirt and still thank God for waking up before noon. It's hard to accept that there really isn't any other way to get on with his life. He has to stay positive or Anbu would not only scramble his mind, but he'd lose a chunk of his identity whether he succeeds or not. Instead of arguing with him about his suspicious dietary habits, Choji brings himself to Shikamaru's level. They both sit in their usual natural silence during a meal, eating plain rice. Choji does his best to not finish eating first, watching Shikamaru out the corner of his eye.

Tiny pockets of shade from the trees create crawling patterns on their bodies and the ground. Shikamaru's feet fall asleep from sitting cross-legged. He lets out a watery yawn. The silence between them gets deeper and deeper. Choji smacks his jaw harder, shovels larger portions of rice in his mouth. A hole can only go so deep. Eventually Choji's patience plateaus.

"What the fuck is wrong with you?" All of Choji's grievances with Shikamaru bubble up like saliva under his tongue.

I don't know, Choji. What the fuck is wrong with me? Shikamaru distantly shakes his head.

Choji balls his chubby fingers into a fist like he's about to stab Shikamaru with his chopsticks.

"You're not gonna apologize?" He waits for Shikamaru to answer. Waits a painfully long time for Shikamaru to not reply. He just rubs the side of his face, massaging the concave of his jaw. Choji bites down on his teeth, grinding them together.

"I get it, you don't owe me anything. You really don't." Choji never loses an appetite. He does today.

No, I don't owe you anything, but...Shikamaru picks at his rice, brows wrinkling in consternation. The but being that he loves Choji unconditionally. He deserves everything he asks for.

"I don't think it's fair is all. If you died tomorrow, I'd have to live the rest of my life wondering what crawled in your ass and got stuck there." Choji has learned honesty, which makes him the better adult. Shikamaru realizes that he's been more of a contrarian than a truthful person. Spiteful. The right kind of hunger really opens your eyes.

Choji goes silent. Disappointed to the point of anger. He isn't mad enough to get up and leave. Shikamaru puts down his rice and chopsticks, overcome by his intuition.

A good ninja knows how to break the rules without getting caught. It is the first thing that everyone learns at the academy. Being clever is where it all starts. Shikamaru has gone so long without speaking that his tongue feels stiff. He slides Kakashi's fountain pen from his chest pocket along with a crumpled piece of gum paper.

"I guess I'm the sorry one." Choji apologizes.

Shikamaru unfolds the wrapper. Gum residue had melted against the paper from the warmth of his pocket. In tiny, neat letters, he writes Anbu around the blue specks of minty gum.

Choji is looking straight ahead, pouting, when Shikamaru slides him the sticky piece of paper. He rests it on his friends knee and takes a deep breath. His heart is an organ that pumps blood, not the source of his wayward feelings.

When had he become so sensitive to personal critique? Shikamaru wasn't raised to be emotionally stunted, but lately, he has felt that way. Like he's stuck in a moment that ended a long time ago. What moment? He couldn't say. There are many moments that could be the culprit. They molded together as one huge wad of hurt, sat on his heart, and crushed it.

Choji holds the gum wrapper close to his face, squinting. Shikamaru stares at his half eaten rice. The past couple of weeks, how quickly they have happened to him, makes him a bit dizzy. He's not numb yet—thinks it's Sai's ulterior motive to make him so. Shikamaru can't tell if he is close. He means to ask Kakashi if numbness is the requirement. There's a difference in being focused and cold-blooded.

A breeze that reminds them that summer is over cuts through their tension.

Sometimes written words are more impactful. Letters and notes are a style of secrecy. Not having the space to speak, Choji stuffs the gum wrapper in his mouth. He guzzles the sweet tasting paper with a bottle of water. After he gulps down his very thick feelings along with the secret, he makes a guttural sound of disbelief.

"Does Ino...?" Choji has always talked to fill silence. It's a symptom of being too honest. "Well...of course she probably doesn't."

Shikamaru shakes his head, folding his arms across his chest. Everything that he is made up of, holds him in place, keeps him breathing, sane, functional, hurts like hell.

And he says to himself, in his head— this must be what being struck by lightning feels like.

Die. Be revived. Come back again from the other side a different person. His shadow on the ground looks unusually lighter compared to Choji's. He is at fifty percent.

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Being a kunoichi instilled in Ino, at a very early age, that there is nothing beautiful about death. Corpses don't look 'peacefully asleep'. Some people die with their faces twisted up, stuck in their last few minutes of pain. The eyes don't always close either. In her childhood, she concluded that it is the direct cause of ghosts. It's like leaving the house with doors unlocked and the windows open. Anything can pass through and exit.

The Imamura gentleman was given grace and died expressionless, like he'd accepted dying and came to Konoha to do just that. Tsunade has this hunch but only shares it with Ino and Shizune, because she could very well be wrong.

Ino stares at the man's pointy nose. The hairs of his skin collect the tiny specks of dust floating down from the humming lightbulb.

"A sacrificial suicide attempt...hmm. I wonder why it didn't cross anyone else's mind." Shizune's shoes click against the floor. Ino squints at the smooth expanse of the man's skin. He had better skin than her mother and they appeared to be around the same age.

"I was waiting for Shikamaru to make the suggestion, but..."Tsunade doesn't finish her sentence. Shizune hands her the files held together by thick a paperclip.

"He hasn't really been himself lately." Ino doesn't know what to do with her hands so she shoves them in the pockets of her dress. Shizune turned out to be right, she had overdressed, but Tsunade glides around the table in her heels.

"How unfortunate." Tsunade replies coldly, sliding her arms out of her robe.

"What a missed opportunity on his part if your hunch is correct, my lady." Shizune tuts.

"I'm sure he will eventually get around to it, if he hasn't already." Ino exhales.

They both look at her. Shizune's puzzlement more lucid than Tsunade's passivity.

After exactly sixty seconds (Ino counts), Tsunade stops flipping through the autopsy report and slaps the paper work against Shizune's chest. Tsunade's face lightens with cryptic delight. She steps around the table for a metal chair, dragging it across the floor with a roaring screech.

"Ino." Tsunade pushes the chair beside her. "If you're going to be my student, I want you, from now on, to consider the unthinkable."

A curious Ino's eyes swell. Tsunade motions for her to sit. Ino folds the hem of her dress. As she lowers herself, Tsunade walks behind the chair and clasps both hands around Ino's face. The space between her fingers smell like the vanilla hand cream sitting on her office desk.

"You want me to use my jutsu?" Ino's body goes rigid.

"Have you ever tried it on a corpse?" Tsunade's energy is static to the air. Her excitement, literally, shocks Ino's skin with a spark.

"Typically, it isn't necessary when the target is already a dead man." The hairs on the back of Ino's neck stand.

"It wouldn't hurt to try—we never talk about the trial and error of experimentation. History focuses on the success and never the many failures in the process of learning. We must fail first before we can truly know." Tsunade drops her hands from Ino's face, propping them on her squared shoulders.

Ino's chest tightens. This should be easy, but it isn't. The last time she forced herself to gaze at a dead body, she was looking down on her father. Something in her changed. The shelves of her memory, retaining everything she had learned in the academy, collapsed then. Ino hasn't taken it upon herself to salvage any of it until now. It overwhelms her.

If Tsunade notices, she doesn't say anything. She creeps back to the side of the table, Shizune not faltering once at her heels.

"Ino." Tsunade's voice breaks the thickness of Ino's thoughts. She looks up from staring at her knees.

"If this doesn't work, it won't be a reflection of you. If it does, then we've made a profound discovery together." Tsunade grips the old man's thick throat and squeezes. Focus knits her brows together. The static in the air worsens. Strands of Tsunade's hair curl up into the air. Her aura saturates every corner and all negative space.

The man's chest caves in slowly, then suddenly inflates like a rising flat balloon. Shizune glares at Ino, and this is her cue. Ino holds up her hands, tinting her fingers together. Inhaling Tsunade's chakra poisoned air is like filling her lungs up with water. Ino knows she isn't going to die of suffocation but she worries about how her body will fall once she stimulates her jutsu.

Ino gives herself twenty seconds. Pulling a deep breath into her chest, stomach expanding in her tight dress. Webs of her hair float upwards. The air sizzles. Ino lets go of her consciousness.

Choji and Shikamaru asked her what it feels like 'switching heads' with people. Ino can only liken it to not remembering the precise moment one falls asleep. She loses the innate sense of warmth and cold. Unable to feel hunger or thirst. Pure sentience.

As though it were a simple dream, Ino wakes up inside of the Imamura man's head. Her surroundings aren't the hotel room he spent his last moments. She experiences a dark stretch of sky pocked with stars. Immediately, she knows he'd been put in a genjutsu and died in the process.

The man sits in the swaying grass with his head in his lap. A smile frozen on his face, strands of his peppery gray hair washing over his features. Ino takes in the rest of the hallucination. There is no clear sign of his death. A fog rolls through the dreamy grass, blanketing his decapitated head. She tries to find the symbolism in all of it, but she is not Shikamaru. For a neck so horribly mangled, there is no trace of blood. His bone juts out of the jagged meat.

Like any dream, it ends abruptly and she has no recollection of when she 'switched'. Her limbs feel like noodles against the cold floor. She'd tipped the chair over with her collapse. Ino's right arm took the brunt of the fall. Body hot all over, her skin sticks to the cold floor. The hem of her dress sits high on her hips. The icy air snaking between her thighs. Shizune offers her a hand but Ino would much rather wait for her vision to correct itself on the floor. Standing up too soon will make the room spin.

"Well?" Tsunade steps around the autopsy table, her chokehold on the atmosphere loosening. She gapes down at Ino with her hands on her hips.

"He died in a genjutsu." Ino's stomach warbles like jell-o—she has definitely been out of practice for too long. It explains the weight that she cannot lose despite her habit of eating so little.

"Details. I need the details. Get up. Your jutsu is your birthright, it shouldn't turn you into a dirty puddle on the floor." Tsunade glowers.

Shizune urges Ino to sit upright, tugging her dress over her bare backside.

"I got bad news. It wasn't significant. He was decapitated." Ino gets a sudden surge of anger. Straightening her back made her feel worse. Shizune helps her on her feet. "If you're much of a philosopher, my lady, maybe you can analyze a severed head staring up at the stars. Doesn't seem like it means a damn thing..."

Tsunade draws closer and Ino then figures out what an artist means when they describe a smoldering stare, a flame flickering in the eyes.

"Do you remember why you stopped training with Sakura?" Tsunade asks Ino in a loud tone of voice.

Ino begins to speak, her voice cracks, but it takes her too long to answer.

"My point exactly. You're dismissed." Tsunade's face is calm, but her eyes tell a different story.

"You didn't let me answer." Ino clenches her teeth.

"Shizune, brief Ino on her upcoming schedule. I've got to make an important phone call." Tsunade turns away briskly. The vanilla smell slaps Ino across the face. Strong and pungent, Ino can taste it in her mouth.

Tsunade throws her robe over her shoulder. One click of the heel after the other. Each sharp tap, tap, down hammering down on Ino's fate. Her heartbeat fills up her ears, thundering out the sound of Tsunade's footsteps.

She gives Ino and Shizune one last glance, leaving with the paperwork close to her chest.

"Ino." Shizune waits until the door clicks shut.

"She didn't give me a chance..." Ino mutters to herself.

"If you're serious about all of this, I would treat this as if it were a quiz that you just horribly failed. Do better next time."

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Shikamaru knows Temari too well. She is standing in the kitchen with Yoshino when he gets back home. They know he is home but for some strange reason, like they'd known he'd purposely taken three extra hours on fifteen minutes' worth of paperwork for solace, they don't acknowledge him kicking out of his shoes.

Climbing up the stairs, Shikamaru tugs his shirt over his head, putting more distance between himself and their seemingly pleasant conversation. Temari laughs, genuinely. It follows him down the hall to the bathroom. With his tongue, he scratches the back of his throat. After his shitty lunch with Choji, he'd been pressing his tongue against the sore irritated spot. He also has a terrible case of heart burn. The water he had drank sits in his chest. Burping causes it to rise and bubble up his throat.

Time progresses and the feeling in his chest worsens. The dizziness after his steamy shower doesn't go away. As he adjusts the waistband of his sweatpants, a sudden wash of nausea makes his brain feels like it's sloshing in his skull. The sudden movement of putting his legs in the pants? Maybe? He doesn't know but he grabs an empty glass cup sitting on his nightstand and his throat burns with vomit. Like the first time, it's clear but two tiny black bugs float in bubbles of his saliva. Three gags and he fills the cup with throw up. More bugs swimming in it, rising to the frothy top.

All he can do is laugh at himself. It is time to stop asking why he has done this to himself. He knows damn well why—it is time to get to the next, the after.

Temari invites herself inside his room without knocking. She has never had to. Shikamaru doesn't flinch, anticipating this moment. It isn't like Temari to throw rocks and hide her hands. She pummels you to death until her point cracks your head open.

"Can we talk?" Temari asks, regardless that she very well intends on speaking her truth without his permission.

"Or you can just listen." She concedes to his silence.

Casually putting the cup down on his nightstand, drawing as little attention to it as possible, he sits on his bed. The mattress springs sigh. He looks at her sternly—well his jaws feel tight like he is frowning. Temari closes the door, then walks toward him. She gets on her knees and clamps her hands down on his legs. Temari chooses vulnerability. Shikamaru's entire body tenses. Her eyes soften. The square shape of her colored nails digging into his sweatpants. From below, between his legs, she looks like a pious woman about to pray.

"It hasn't been easy adjusting to living alone." She purposely avoids saying without him. Alone isn't the proper term. Temari is never alone. She is surrounded by whatever work she throws herself in. Sometimes not stopping to drink water or breathe.

It hasn't been easy for him either. Shikamaru keeps his bridle demeanor intact.

"I think I made a mistake. The womanly thing to do is to just tell you. I've never had a problem saying how I feel. I mean what I say." She puts her foot in her mouth a lot, gives fuck-all about the consequences. "I'm not saying I want you back 'cos that is selfish. I don't think I'm selfish. Do you think I'm selfish?"

Shikamaru only stares back at her, blankly. Not selfish. Just hard to please.

"I know the answer. I don't know why I asked..." Temari is one of a few people who has enough courage to look him straight in the face without turning away. She doesn't think of him as intimidating. "I still love you. I don't think it is something that can be fixed with time."

She expects him to talk. He won't. Without a vow of silence, still, he wouldn't know what to say. He loves her too but not like he did when he was sixteen. In the way you love all departed dear things. It is a very quiet sentiment. He can safely assume it is the same for her but she lacks the emotional capacity to express it. Temari only knows how to articulate her unhappiness. Never actually seeking a remedy for any of it.

He notices the pattern in his taste in women. A strong, unexplainable sickness of trepidation. Damaged goods. Shikamaru knows that he is not any better when it comes to spiritual uprightness, but he isn't inflicting wounds onto people he supposedly loves.

"Happy Birthday, Shikamaru." And like he had expected of her, she doesn't expound upon the things she said. Since they were teenagers, Temari made it his job to figure out the meaning of her words. So no, she hardly ever says what she means concisely. Temari gets up from her knees, leaning forward to land a dry kiss on the side of his face.

After she leaves, when he can no longer hear her feet dragging down the halls, he throws his head back into his pillows.

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Choji thinks of himself as a bottle of untouched wine. The older, the better. More to offer. More to love. Lots of substance. Karui validates him every morning. He isn't delusional and his life is filled with consistent happiness. It's not a complete circle. There are portions missing, but overall, if he does the math, his life is happy.

But his friends aren't. Choji shouldn't hate himself for building a sense of wholeness, yet he does. He can't even enjoy a beer with his colleagues. He stands outside the crammed bar, staring down into the half-full bottle of beer. A spell of sadness overwhelms him. He starts to sweat, even gets a bit sick to the stomach. It isn't right that he feels so full while Ino and Shikamaru carry on with their subsequent hollowness.

His chest tightens and he hunches forward, squatting. The smell of cigarette smoke wafts off the bodies of people going in and out of the bar. Choji tugs the zipper of his vest down, relieving himself of the trapped heat radiating from his body. It's been a long time since he's felt this anxious about things simply out of his control. He squeezes his eyes shut and endures the wash of intoxicating unease.

Soon, he will be a father and eventually he won't have the emotional capacity to nurture his friends. Where will that leave them?

He rubs a hand along his brow, face beet red.

"Cho." Ino's voice hasn't changed much since puberty. Choji snaps opens his eyes and he blinks until he can fully make out the bright color of her toenails.

Ino gawks at his peculiar disposition. Gripping the strap of her bag, she kneels to his level.

"Are you drunk?" She whispers lethargically. He can tell she is tired. A spiritually sober, bright-eyed Ino would never purposefully walk out in public with a cowlick.

"No." He mumbles. Suddenly his anxiety is gone.

"Do you wanna be?" Ino needs it after the day she has had.

"Do you?" His eyes had watered so bad, a tear trickles down the side of his face.

"I want to be very drunk." She smiles. It takes a minute for him to realize that she is actually on the verge of crying legitimate tears.

"Then say no more." He holds his bottle up to her lips. Ino takes the beer and sucks it down like she's drinking water. Beer runs down the side of her mouth and her neck. Her gulps are loud and desperate. When she is satisfied, she smacks her lips against the bottle, wiping her mouth in the crook of her arm.

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When it comes to romance, Shikamaru has always been decisive. It didn't take him a long time to figure out that he had strong feelings for Temari. Choji was the first to know but like Shikamaru, he was clueless about girls. Especially girls that weren't local. Konoha didn't (still doesn't) have a lot to choose from.

He figured, who better to ask for relationship advice than Ino.

He regretted telling her right after. Ino had said that Temari looked like a cactus.

"You're just mad because no one likes you enough to ask you out." Shikamaru delivered the blow with blunt force. It was true. For all of her good looks, her mouth just wasn't worth it.

Ino wouldn't talk to him for a month after that. Shikamaru didn't go out of his way to apologize. One day they just got over it and pretended the conversation never happened. Temari became his girlfriend. Ino never had anything to say about it.

It is painfully humorous now that he is in love with Ino. He thinks about her 'settling' for anyone else. Had that been a threat? He won't put it past her. He rolls on his side, abstaining from the thought of kissing her. Very mild memories attempt to interrupt his sleep. That one time he bit her nipple in the bath tub is the most prevalent. His sleep manifests the awful taste of the soap suds in his mouth.

Shikamaru drifts in and out of consciousness. The shadows on his walls warp out of their shapes, morphing into ghostly bodies. His emotional milage is used up, taken by a wash of numbness. The back of his eyes pulsate from exhaustion. He starts to dream of Asuma alive, opens his eyes, closes them again and he sees him dead. That dream turns into a memory. A dream thats feels like a memory. He and Choji trying their first cigarettes. Had it happened that way? He can't recall.

Shikamaru opens his eyes to the faint sound of tapping against his window. It is a summoning but he doesn't budge. He stares through the spit filled glass and the moon light filtering through the foamy bubbles. The tap gets fiercer. Sai's shadow elongates against his wall. Shikamaru's eye roll into the back of his head and he falls asleep again. In and out of bleary visions like he's bobbing his head over black water.

Sai slams his palm against the window, shaking the cracked wood of the old sill. Shikamaru gets out of his bed, stumbling out of a sluggish crawl. He slides open the window, assaulted by the smell of fresh air. His room harbors a stale quality of air from all those years of smoking inside.

"Throw a bag together. We're leaving for a while." Sai crawls through the window like a spider, wearing a backpack.

Shikamaru gets right to the order. Drowsily searching through the darkness of his bedroom.

"How long is a while?" He asks Sai, who cuts on his desk lamp. Shikamaru's eyes sting. A wry expression wrinkling the corners of his nose. Sai attentively observes the polaroid pictures thumbtacked up the wall. None of the pictures are recent. They are relics of Shikamaru's adolescence.

"A while while." Sai gives each picture equal attention.

Shikamaru holds down his frustration. Shoving two t-shirts in his backpack, watching Sai out of his peripheral. Sai moves on from the old pictures on the wall to Shikamaru's bookshelf and CD's.

"I guess nothing is sacred." Shikamaru stops in the middle of zipping his bag, remembering his toothbrush.

"What do you mean?" Sai's perfect posture is feline. He looks at Shikamaru owlishly.

"Scouting my room for more shit to use against me is what I mean." Shikamaru tugs a black long-sleeve shirt over his head.

Sai puzzles over it. He looks straight up at the ceiling, brings his head back down again, then smiles. Not directly at Shikamaru.

"No. I just think your personality is all over your room. Naruto's room, before Hinata, had his personality written everywhere too." Sai's vulnerability softens his pointed features. He gazes back at the polaroids. "I think it's cool."

Shikamaru feels sorry for him. It comes briefly. He remembers that Sai will use sentimental value as a weapon. He leaves the room for his toothbrush and shoes.

Sai combs every surface, but his curiosity leads him back to the pictures on Shikamaru's wall. They appear to be organized chronologically. It exhibits Shikamaru's subtle attention to detail. Small things matter to him. Minute details keep him focused. Sai makes a mental note of it. Being told Shikamaru is 'one way' is different than actually experiencing it himself. His bookshelf looks haphazardly thrown together but it's in order as well. Some volumes are upside down but they proceed in a coherent sequence.

"I don't think my personality is the same." Shikamaru walks back into his bedroom.

"You don't?" Sai thinks so.

"I mean, maybe some of it is the same but I'm an adult now. My interests have evolved." Shikamaru thought empathetically about Sai on his trip to and from the bathroom, down and up the stairs.

"I guess." Sai disagrees, but people rarely see themselves the way the world does.

They stand in an uncomfortable silence. Sai continues to stare at the photos, extending an arm and resting his index finger on one picture. He leans in to get a better look having no expression upon his face. Thirty seconds go by.

"This is the only picture I've ever seen of Ino not smiling." Sai's voice is distant but so loud.

Shikamaru doesn't respond. There's nothing to say to that. He couldn't even recall the day the photo had happened. Doesn't want to. Thinking about Ino is compromising.

"I'm ready." He will start to treat every conversation he has with Sai like a criminal interrogation.

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Ino drinks three bottles more than Choji, far surpassing him in tolerance. She hiccups after finishing the last beer. She maintains perfect posture. The only visible sign of her drunkenness is the wetness of her eyes. They were glossy before they started drinking.

"I didn't think it was possible for you to be unattractive." Choji's ears are hot.

"Only when I'm not trying to be." Her nose runs.

"I guess I never realized how hard you work at it." He wants to laugh but his sore throat won't let him.

Brushing her hair over one shoulder, she reorganizes their space on the counter, wiping up the wet rings with a napkin. Her eye-lids pink and puffy. Before making it here, she had wiped off her makeup.

"I'm sorry for hijacking your 'man' time. You need all the time you can get before the baby comes. I'm selfish." She sniffles.

Choji looks over his shoulder to glare at Lee entertaining the group he'd come with.

"Shikamaru forcing you to make new friends?" Ino stuffs the napkin in one of the bottles.

"Something like that." He really doesn't want to talk about Shikamaru.

"Don't worry. I won't tell him." Ino says without smiling.

"Even if you do, his plate is too full to care. With that guy turning up dead like that..." Among the three of them, Choji has never been the one capable of keeping secrets. He tells the truth one way or another.

"Right." Ino remarks but her entire demeanor is poisoned by the kind of day she has had. "Can I ask you something dumb? At least, I think its dumb?"

"A drunk man's words are a sober man's thoughts." Anything to keep him from telling Ino about Anbu.

"Temari is in Konoha. Has Shikamaru talked about them working out their issues?" Now, she looks him in the eyes.

"No, but if Shikamaru wanted us to know, we'd know." Choji shakes his head, coughing up a strangled sigh. His brows wrinkle together.

"What?" Narrowing her eyes, she taps a nail against the bottle.

"When he was adamant about being with you, to the point of compromising himself, you picked, Sai." Choji speaks his sober thought and it is quite sobering for Ino.

"Five points for Choji Akimichi." Ino intensifies her natural vocal fry, rolling her eyes and sticking out her tongue.

"I can assure you the likelihood is slim though. It wouldn't be out of character but it's very unlikely." He generously sips from his last beer. "I don't wanna talk about him. He upsets me."

Ino ponders on the past few months of her life. The beginning of the year did not foretell the nearing end of it. Her year started off so differently. All that time gone straight down the drain and Ino has no desire to reclaim any of it anymore. Let it dissolve in the sewage of her soul.

"He hates weakness." She mutters loud enough for Choji to hear.

"Who?" Choji blinks away his exhaustion.

"Shikaku's son." The tingly feeling in her lower back causes her to slump forward. There goes her good posture.

"Oh." Choji breathes inside of the bottle, creating a compact echo.

Ino plummets into deep thought, raking her nails through her hair. There's three hundred and sixty five days in a year. She can manage one bad day of poor timing. Shikamaru isn't a misplaced belonging. He is devoted to the village before he is devoted to her selfishness. A film of sleepy tears glaze her vision. She isn't crying, her sight always puddles when she is drunk.

"Ino!"

She is so tired of hearing her name. Snapping out of her trance, her memories suck back into the vacuum that is her headspace. She looks up and Lee had somehow managed to squeeze himself beside her.

How many minutes have gone by?

"What?" Ino gives him a disoriented scowl. Choji rests his cheek in his hand looking less put off.

"It is not yet ten o'clock! You both look miserable..." Lee had bought Choji another beer. Choji reluctantly stares at it.

"What if I told you that I am very miserable?" Ino waves a hand in his direction.

"Choji was doing just fine until you showed up—I hope you are telling a crummy joke!" Lee barks at her.

"Was I really?" Choji scratches the inside of his ear.

Lee carries on in conversation with Choji, using his entire body as a wedge between them. Not long after Konohomaru joins them. Just as loud as Lee but not nearly as dismissive of her presence.

"Happy Belated Birthday, Ino!" He offers her a shot. Like an idiot, she takes it.

Neither she nor Choji respond to the usual where is Shikamaru? Konohomaru quickly forgets that he ever asked.

"On a scale of one to ten, how drunk are you?" Kiba, the last person on this ugly planet she wants to deal with, slides himself in the stool next to her. He seems to always bring about some kind of emotional challenge.

"I'm at a cool seven—just right. Not enough to take up whatever you're about to offer me." She doesn't turn her head to look at him.

"I was just going to offer you another drink."

"I'm sick to my stomach. No more drinks please." She grumbles when Lee accidentally stabs her with his elbow.

"Did you enjoy your birthday?"

"You don't give a rat's ass about my birthday, Kiba." Ino blinks away the stinging blur of her vision.

"A rat's ass...pfft." He's got a good quality laugh, she will give him that.

"It was ok." She lowers and hangs her head to the side.

"You look pretty." He softens.

"I always look pretty. Thank you." Ino unfolds her legs, stepping down from the barstool. Not quite in a hurry, her legs feel like noodles when she stands, but she does her best to be quick. Grabbing her bag.

"Choji, pay my bill. I will spot you later." Not casting a glance in Kiba's direction, but speaking loud enough to interrupt the conversation, Ino leaves behind a cloud of her scent.

They watch her strut away, mystified.

"What did you say to her?" Choji scoffs at Kiba.

"I just asked her how her day went?" Kiba's shit-eating grin grows.

"It did not look like she was enjoying herself." Lee sits in the warmth of her seat.

"It's like you, Kiba—to scare a beautiful woman away." Konohomaru breathes out.

"Can you not, Konohomaru." Choji clears his throat.

"No really, she's crazy beautiful...when you get the chance to really talk to her, she looks at you like you're the only person she sees in the room." Konohomaru wipes sweat from his forehead.

A pause. Lee hums in agreement.

"Her eyes too. You can't look away. Man. Sai never stood a chance." Konohomaru goes on.

"She definitely does it on purpose." Choji knows that look. Not the way most men, save for Shikamaru, interprets it, but he knows it means she's waiting on you to finish speaking so she can talk louder. That look.

"Women that pretty do not belong to anyone." Lee retorts bittersweetly.

Another, long halt in conversation before Kiba says, "I disagree. You're all just ugly."

"To be honest, Ino wouldn't touch any of you with a ten foot pole." Choji doesn't think it's funny, but Lee and Konomaru bark laughter.

"That's your honest opinion, Choji?" Kiba is all teeth.

"She is unavailable." Choji says cooly.

"Challenge accepted." Kiba gets out of the stool.

"Kiba you're like an ant trying to reach the moon thinking you have a chance with Ino Yamanaka. My whole damn day has been made!" Konohomaru hoots.

"I don't know about that. We spent a long time together during the festival." Kiba doesn't loose his composure.

"Do you hear this moron?" Konohomaru nudges Lee. They laugh straight from their liquor full bellies.

"She is not available." Choji re-emphasizes.

"And you're not her father." Kiba pays his tab and leaves with a nonchalant wave over his head.

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Ino drags her deadweight down the dirt path with her shoes off. She has walked down this line of houses and closed shops for years and still nothing has changed. A new flower bed or two. Someone had planted a tree and now it hangs over a fence. One house has completely been repainted since the war. Konoha has adapted more than it has changed.

A trail of her small foot prints behind her, Ino stuffs her shoes in her nice bag. Takes off her earrings.

Choji is going to be a father. The thought materializes as she spindles her hair into a messy bun, but she doesn't get to have a pity party for herself.

She feels a very certain someone following her so she stops in the middle of the road. Her hair sitting lopsided on her head, she waits for Kiba to catch up. She is too tired to run. He isn't into 'giving up'.

"Drunk girls shouldn't wander around alone at night."

"This drunk girl is a kunoichi. Save it for the farm girls, Kiba. I'm not wandering either. I know exactly where I'm going."

"Last time I checked, you were in retirement." He huffs when he steps on her long shadow in the dirt.

"Things are looking up for me now." She places a hand on her chest, tilting her head to the side.

"You don't say?"

"I do say." She turns her nose into the air. "I don't need your company."

"Sure you don't need it but it wouldn't hurt to have it, yea?" He walks with her.

"Why are you doing this to yourself? I truly...cannot...understand." Ino shakes her head and the bun comes undone.

"Doing what?"

"Kiba...don't be a smooth brain! Setting yourself up for rejection." She lets the wind dishevel her hair.

He takes a minute to respond, smiling to himself. Ino doesn't have to meet his eyes to know that he is amused by her suffering.

"I think you like the chase but you're just not big enough to say so—you've got a very fake way of being modest." Kiba never filters himself. Ino stops dead in her tracks.

"You're an asshole!" She snaps.

"But I'm not wrong." Kiba shows no signs of faltering. He meant it and...he isn't wrong. Ino likes all the attention she can get. She is stubborn but she would never not admit that she doesn't love being doted on, always has since she was a little girl. Today it doesn't feel nearly as good though. It worsens the state of her heart. Women are supposed to just look like they are in love.

"Nobody asked you." Ino wrinkles her lips. She can feel the entirety of her face turning red. Kiba takes her hands in his and gets on his knees, in the dirt. The impulse to slap him across the face burns the inside of her nose.

"Ino, let me take you on a date. Just one." He hasn't changed at all, at least, not in a way that matters. Ino stares down at him through narrowed eyes. She returns the grip on his hands. The sweat of their palms mix together.

"I'll let you take me on a date when you unseat the sitting Hokage." She blinks slowly.

"Deal." Kiba bares all of his teeth, like she hadn't asked him to do the impossible.

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Whether he knows it or not, Sai gives him unorthodox therapy. It is how Shikamaru is able to measure their time together, if he looks at the situation and its outcome this way. The shadows of the trees deepen. There is no moon to guide them. It's shining glory hidden behind a thick spread of rain clouds. Watering eyes, Shikamaru unrolls his tongue in his mouth. The back of his throat still itches. He rolls his shoulders, readjusting the straps on his backpack.

The village lights can no longer be seen through the thick of the foliage. The sounds of the boonies gets louder the further they tread. Shikamaru can't say it is adrenaline pushing him through the hinterlands of his mental forbearance. Shadows beget more shadows. Tree frogs roaring through the darkness. If he had looked into Dead Asuma's eyes, this sentience darkness would've lived in the sockets of his skull.

"I have a secret." Sai doesn't stop walking.

"I'm good at keeping those." Shikamaru naturally adapts to the disorienting black of the trees.

"There's a greater point to all of this. Kakashi had this all planned out for some time. He was just waiting for you to say something."

"Sounds about right—me not really being in control of my own destiny." Shikamaru replies softly.

"He wants you to be a captain. Thinks of it as investing in the future, leaving behind something stable for the next Hokage." Sai hasn't looked ahead much. His head keeps tilting back, nose straight into the sky but he knows where he is going. "Believe it or not, Nara, you're absolutely in control of your own destiny."

Shikamaru has no argument to make a case for himself.

"You don't want to be that’s why you don't push for excellence." Sai's voice could read Shikamaru to sleep if he allowed it. "Which is a shame really. You could be Hokage if you wanted to."

"I don't want it." Shikamaru's sore throat worsens.

"But you could if you made it your life path." Sai's feet kick through rocks. "What do you want?"

Shikamaru takes all the time in the world to answer. Enough time for Sai to forget he even asked.

"I want a comprehensible purpose." He rasps.

This time, Sai stops in his tracks.

"Then first you have to embrace failure and not treat it as an illness. It's just as necessary as needing oxygen to live."

"Did Kakashi tell you to say that too?" Shikamaru grunts.

"No. He didn't." Half of Sai's face is illuminated by the moon filtering through the thinning clouds.

"He wants me to be a captain?"

"Yes. You as a captain would define a new era of how things are run in the organization. That's what Kakashi thinks."

"You don't think so highly of me, do you, Sai?" Shikamaru smirks.

"I don't. It has nothing to do with your capabilities. It's just you as a person. You're the worst kind of person."

"What kind of person am I to you?"

"A wimp." Sai retorts woodenly.

Shikamaru prepared himself for that kind of answer. Wimp—hasn't heard it in a while. Not since being on the playground.

"Fuck you too, Sai." He laughs, enduring the bullets of sweat trickling down the sides of his face. Autumn my asshole, he thinks.

"You are no longer allowed to speak to me until I say so." Sai says unfazed.

That isn't a tall order. Sai is the last person he wants to engage in conversation. Aside from job description and Naruto's unflinching approval, they don't have anything in common but Ino. Naruto would die on a hill defending them both, never speaking bad about anyone. Shikamaru has tried to find the glaringly likable qualities about Sai. So far, he is failing.

They make it to a clearing on a hill. A tiny shack sits in the middle of the sweeping long stretch of grass. Behind them, Konoha is still near but undoubtedly three hours away. The ramshackle shanty sits so high up on the hill, that from where Shikamaru stands, he can make out the fairy lights of Konoha.

Sai fishes out his canteen of water before tossing it into the grass. Looking back at Shikamaru, intently, he unscrews the cap breezily and takes a long sip. Shikamaru parts his lips to chastise Sai but thinks better of it. He is now at the mercy of his proctor if he plans to follow the rules.

"Drop your stuff." Sai orders him and Shikamaru complies. He walks towards Shikamaru, extending the canteen. The liquid inside sloshes around when Sai urges him with a nudging gesture against his chest.

Shikamaru remembers the first test he failed.

"You have to drink it before we can proceed." Sai's voice stays at the same tone and pacing. Still, skeptical, Shikamaru takes the canteen, but barely inhales it.

"All of it." Sai tips the canteen back and the rim thwarts against Shikamaru's teeth. The cool liquid drips down his neck. Its too dark to tell if it is just water. It doesn't taste like anything familiar. The closest thing Shikamaru can liken it to is drinking from a puddle in the ground.

He drinks all of it and hands Sai back the canteen.

The clouds thin out and Shikamaru can see the sky clearly now. Sai slides the canteen back into his bag on the ground, looks back up with a killer straight face and says, "I just poisoned us both."

Shikamaru doesn't react. Waiting. Sai takes his time hauling his bag back over his shoulder.

"I'm in no danger, obviously. I worked up the tolerance. You haven't." Sai walks towards the shack and Shikamaru follows, heart sinking into his stomach.

"In about thirty minutes, the dose you just took should have you vomiting." Sai has the nerve to check his watch hidden under his sleeve. "Every day, I'm going to increase your intake and you're gonna have to learn how to fight me under the circumstances."

"So this is your grand master plan? To get me out in the fucking sticks and murder me?" Shikamaru cannot fight the urge.

Sai turns on his heels with the swiftness of a snake, attempting to strike Shikamaru in the chest with his foot. This time, Shikamaru isn't blindsided. He knows the consequence. Sai doesn't respond to outright insults. He just dislikes having his authority called into question. Shikamaru catches his ankle and uses the open space of opportunity he created to land an attack.

Shikamaru misses. Sai is a trained Anbu vet. Shikamaru is well aware at this stage he doesn't have the physical fortitude to beat Sai at hand-to-hand combat. It just feels good to try after marinating in the smell of Dead Asuma and having to live with being Ino's second choice. Thatshouldn't matter but his logic is sound enough to acknowledge his resentment for Sai. Shikamaru is a procrastinator, not delusional.

Sai tackles him to the ground. Messy like it's a sandbox struggle but strategically. He sits on Shikamaru's chest with his hands wrapped around his throat. The impact of Shikamaru's head against the ground feels his ears up with a drumming pain. Pressure bursts in his jowls, thumping against the back of his eyes. Sai uses his chakra to make himself heavier and strengthen his grip.

Even in the act of cold blooded killing, Sai's expression is self-possessed. No shine in his eyes. Impossible to make out the color in the darkness. Shikamaru blinks and for only a second, Sai's eye sockets look like empty black holes. He curls his fingers around Sai's wrists but doesn't squeeze. Shikamaru dares Sai to strangle him to death. If the air wasn't being wrung out of him, he'd laugh in Sai's face.

Shikamaru's vision blurs and spots. He embraces the the force pressing against his eyeballs, drowning in the pool of thoughts fill up his cranium. His eyes begin to water as thoughts overflow, seeping out of him.

Sai can't kill Shikamaru. An accidental death isn't against the rules but it would be going against Kakashi's desire for change. Years ago, Shikamaru would've died right under him and there would be no repercussions. Sai tries not to think this way yet it is graphed on his soul like a fingerprint. Distinctly his. Only belonging to him. It triggers him and he feels unfit. Unfortunately, it sates him. He starts to perspire through his shirt as ringing clogs up his ears. Taking a deep breath, he lets go of Shikamaru's throat.

Shikamaru sucks in all the air he had been deprived of and coughs. His spit flies on Sai's face.

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For weeks, Shikamaru's desires were left unaccounted for. Much like suffocating, time was an important constraint. His past often flashed across his mind every time he wretched up his poor excuse of a meal. Time was crucial to his survival but he could not precisely measure it or make it meaningful. Time gave him anxiety. Sai gave him anxiety. Always checking his watch, vanishing for hours. Sometimes days. Shikamaru had to figure out how to stay hydrated without him.

Twice, Sai brought him back to the Hokage compound. He wasn't needed. Naruto had assumed his duties and clearly had been doing an exceedingly good job.

A gaunt Shikamaru sat in his usual spot, across from Kakashi like the many times before. Shikamaru missed mind-numbing paperwork and tedious reports. He wanted them all back more than he did water.

"I love watching the leaves change color." Kakashi ceased to talk about work with him. It was the most debasing 'meeting' to sit through. Shikamaru sat there, in abject silence, listening to his Hokage ramble on about how cool the air had become.

But through his time spent with Sai, Shikamaru needs to make a point. Being captain. That's where his mind goes.

Shikamaru sits still as stone, allowing the sun to coat his body in sweat. With his eyes tightly shut, he can feel the time of day changing with the sunlight against his skin. The last time he had eaten was four days ago. Spine straight, legs crossed, he chases back his survival instincts through powerful thought. Belly-aches? He stopped having them. Hunger pangs? He licks his lips and tastes the natural salt collecting at his Cupid's bow.

Not speaking made him a better listener. He catches the sound of feet gliding through the trees. Doesn't flinch when Naruto's feet thud against the grass, standing over him. Naruto's body blocks the direct rays of sun, washing Shikamaru in his shadow.

"You've kinda got it made, Shikamaru." Naruto squats down to his level. Shikamaru can hear the sigh of his pants folding and stretching. "Meditating out in the middle of nowhere like a monk. No one staring at your forehead, searching for answers all damn day. You're on a retreat!"

Shikamaru doesn't open his eyes.

"You hanging in there?" Naruto gently nudges him in the chest with a gloved fist.

Sai's abuse has been like the flies resting upon his face. There was no need to swat them away. They zigzag and come back to the same spot on his cheekbone.

"He isn't allowed to talk." Sai's voice is distant.

"What kind of fucking nonsense is that? How am I supposed to get his consulting?" Naruto yells in Sai's direction.

"I got tired of hearing his voice is all." Sai fumbles his hands around in his pocket.

Shikamaru then looks up, his eyes seesawing between them. Laughter bubbles up in Naruto's throat. He spits on the ground and returns Shikamaru's glare with a crooked smile. Naruto always laughs when he is at a loss for words.

"Shikamaru, Naruto is here to assign you a mission." Sai's pale face looks gray with the light wafting around his silhouette.

"Well, if he can't talk he can't exactly help me, can he?" Naruto slaps a hand down on a knee.

Sai locks his eyes onto Shikamaru. The minute between the silence makes Naruto bristle. In a breathy huff he stands and slaps the back of his hand on Sai's shoulder.

"It's my mission but he is better at figuring out the hard spots. I only have ideas. He can execute them." Naruto frowns when Sai doesn't look back at him.

Disobedience stops occurring to Shikamaru. The energy it takes could be put to better use, like trying not to faint from exhaustion.

"You're permitted to speak." The spit in Sai's mouth crackles.

Shikamaru blinks, glaring at Naruto. He waits, tracing his bottom row of teeth with his tongue.

"What kind of ideas, Naruto?" Shikamaru croaks.

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In the short weeks of working in the hospital, Ino learns that the local children had a terrible inclination towards eating poisonous plants. She'd seen rashes leaking pus. Swollen eye lids and lips. Anaphylactic shock. Kids are so susceptible to dying yet they have no sense of danger. It makes sense why it is so easy to organize generations of child soldiers.

Tsunade occupies all of Ino's free time. She only manages to get back to her apartment solely to feed her goldfish and to water her house plants, having not slept in her own bed for a week. The thought of her fish and plants dying gives her palpitations. They are the only things in her life unchanging, therefore the commitment is easy. They only need, unable to demand of her.

"Datura stramonium." Tsunade closely observes the bush with its hanging bulbs of white flowers. "It causes hallucinations and heart failure."

Ino watches her pick at a spiked seed capsules with gloved hands. When she frees it from the bush, she holds up the bright green pod.

"We can't crack them open until they've ripened." She drops the seed pod in the basket Ino holds out for her.

"Lady Tsunade, may I ask you something inappropriate?" Ino tilts her head to the side. Her high pony tail gives her a headache.

Tsunade looks up at her. Her wide brimmed straw hat slides to one side but she makes no effort to correct it. An accidental moment of beautiful vulnerability. Ino's heart shoots up into her throat. When she doesn't speak right away, Tsunade frowns.

"With me being the head of my clan, do you think not raising my child to be shinobi would be doing a disservice to my family?" It's the first time Ino has ever had this thought. "Especially in a time a peace."

"There is no such thing as an era of peace. Work has to be done to maintain it. Not always clean work either." Tsunade looks very interested, almost bewildered. She thinks about Ino's question, rubbing her lips together back and forth.

"It isn't illegal. I think it is a very rational and maternal instinct to not want to spoil your own child with war. Why do you ask? Are you pregnant?" Tsunade loses her owlish wonder and goes back to her perpetual scowl.

"Because you're a Senju." Ino drops next to her on the ground. Tsunade narrows her eyes, scanning Ino's face for hidden clues. She has made it known that she doesn't think of Ino as articulate. Ino hadn't argued about it. She has difficulty explaining her perspectives.

"I'm not pregnant." Ino blushes.

"Good to know." Tsunade rolls her eyes, sighing between her teeth.

"I need a husband to get pregnant. Can't do it alone."

"The way that Inuzuka orbits you, I was starting to speculate. I don't care by the way. Don't make it any of my business." Tsunade goes back to picking the seed pods.

Kiba has made a habit out of interrupting her life. A few times have been coincidental. Rotating between the Hokage's office and the hospital has caused their paths to cross more times than she would've liked, but she secretly delights in the attention. It has been a while since she has received this kind of attention from a man. Sai simply absorbed two years of her life. Shikamaru just happened and continues to happen every morning she wakes up without him. She has never properly been single.

"Yes, I am a Senju but where you come from shouldn't have any say so in where you're going." Tsunade rattles her throat after some time. She has slowly shown Ino instances of vulnerability. Like pinning her hair up and wiping off her makeup for their mini-adventure into the woods. She's pretty without it. Ino wonders why Tsunade bothers with makeup at all. "Don't forget who you're talking to. I know what has been said about me."

Ino says nothing, but she knows.

"While you were with Shizune and Sakura this morning, I was summoned to the Hokage's office—would you believe that Naruto Uzumaki gave me an order?" Tsunade tips back her hat.

Ino nods, sitting the basket on her hips.

"He wants me to attend a summit in Kirigakure with him. Some of their oldest clans have a hand in an attempted coup against Konoha." Tsunade loses interest in the datura bush and flounces in the opposite direction.

"And what does sitting down with a bunch of rich old dudes have to do with you?" Ino follows her dutifully.

"It is the polite thing to do when one of those old rich men dies here. Second, to send a message." Tsunade swats at a low hanging branch.

"And Kakashi can't go?"

"Would you really send a sitting Hokage to a hostile place without an army? C'mon, Ino. Your brain is bigger than that."

"Wouldn't it be more effective if the Hokage showed up with little to no forces?" Ino's cheeks flush.

"Sure but why not send me? My name has weight to it for a reason. I'm just as, if not more, convincing than Kakashi." Rolling up her sleeves, Tsunade stares off into space. Her lips spread into a smile and she laughs at an unspoken thought. "You're going with me, Ino."

Losing interest in the forest, Tsunade gets closer to Ino, invading Ino's personal space to look her dead in the eyes. And says, cooly, "Ino, how are we supposed to foster a relationship if you're not really being yourself around me?"

Obviously it doesn't come out of nowhere. Ino has given her reasons to feel this way. Tsunade has also given her reasons to suppress herself.

"Are you kidding? You just said yourself, there's weight to your name. How do you expect me to act around you?" Ino frowns.

"Was that so hard? You just told me how you felt. I need you to do that more and a little less of the nodding along to whatever I'm saying." Tsunade puts a hand on her hip. Ino chews the inside of her jaw.

"I'm sorry. You intimidate me." Ino lowers her head.

"Oh, don't apologize for that. I intimidate everybody. I know myself, so no one can tell me anything I don't already know about myself. Definitely don't apologize for it." Tsunade steps away from Ino and carries on whistling a song she made up on the fly. In the middle of catching her breath, she sings Ino's name to the birds flying south and the red leaves falling around them. The naked trees rustle along.

"You're a woman, Ino. Please start carrying yourself like one."

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Chapter Text

"I spin out into an anxiety hole so deep that it feels less like anxiety - or that I am dying, as I usually fear - but like I am in a battle with demons." ~ Melissa Broder

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The leaves are turning blood orange in Konoha, but Kiri retains its 'healthy foliage'. Shikamaru wrinkles his nose—it's disgustingly humorous that a place known for mists of blood and butchery has agreeable weather three hundred and sixty five days. He'd probably be more inclined to happiness if he woke up to the smell of sea salt every morning.

Not too hot. Not too cold. Somewhere in the middle. Like his personality.

He follows Tenten down a thin alley bustling with foot-traffic. Glints of sunlight slither through the taut strands of her hair. The part down the middle of her scalp is perfect. Not a lock out of place. The buns in her hair are so tight, it would be impossible for her to catch a cowlick in the breeze. Shikamaru wants to ask her if her head hurts for it.

"Where are we going again?" He knows exactly where they are going, he just wants to break the monotony of the silence. Kiri might be different on the surface, but they still tread on top of hundreds of years' worth of awful history. It feels like everyone is overcompensating for it with the bright colors.

Also, he gets to actually talk in full sentences without being interrupted.

"A business partner who I paid to help me." Tenten halts their journey down the crammed alley, full of side-shops for tourists, just to breathe in the disturbingly fresh air.

"You paid someone to help you?" Shikamaru ogles at her forehead, searching for the stress in her temples from her very tight buns.

"I paid off his debt so he could. You think all of the missing-nin here are willing?" She squints into the crowd as though she is searching for someone.

"Some are unwilling? You failed to mention that in your report." His tone flattens.

Tenten presses her lips in a thin line, glaring back at him. He can see her thoughts razing the emptiness in her eyes.

"I'm still your superior." Shikamaru's voice is cold.

"I didn't do it...well not do it with malintent. I just wanted to figure it all out on my own first. So I looked good. Maybe I'm shooting for your job." Tenten starts walking again.

"You don't want my job." Hell, sometimes he didn't. He wouldn't mind a sabbatical and a year of sleep. Only sometimes.

"Why do you say that?" She isn't hiding that she's trying to change the subject.

"Cos now I gotta deal with the responsibility of a half-truther on the Hokage's payroll." He stiffens.

Tenten tucks an invisible strand of hair behind her ear. They don't speak the rest of their walk through the fresh streets and the crisp breeze of a thousand souls floating from the sea.

She stops in front of a weapons store with the curtains drawn over the window. The 'Open' sign hangs on the door. Tenten doesn't seem to think it's weird. Shikamaru's intuition makes his skin crawl. She turns the knob and the door creaks open.

The irrefutable smell of something in the process of dying overwhelms them. Shikamaru's first response is to mentally retrace each step he took before and after leaving the shitty inn Naruto had assigned them to. Shikamaru uses one finger to barely pull back the curtain. There's no visible sign of anyone watching the building. He didn't feel anyone following them either.

Tenten's skin turns white.

"It's my job you want, huh?" Shikamaru steps away from the thick curtain. "You're not even cunning enough to not get your cover blown."

"Don't jump to conclusions." She walks towards a door behind a counter filled with torture toys Shikamaru couldn't begin to name. "My cover hasn't been blown."

"Then why does it smell like a dead body in here?" He continues to follow her to a slowly unraveling bad idea.

Tenten finds the body of her old friend first. For someone who has seen death many times, it destroys all the confidence she woke up with this morning. Holding her hands at her sides, she sprawls her fingers in what Shikamaru supposes is how she expresses frustration (or hopelessness).

The man's stomach had been gutted like a hunter would wild game. An arrangement of yellow and pink flowers were stuffed in the gaping hole of his abdomen. His head cut clean from his neck, stuffed inside of his stomach. A mouth full of those yellow flowers. Too big purple flowers stuffed in his eye sockets. White flowers up his nose. A cloud of flies hover over his body.

"Who was he in debt to?" Shikamaru rolls his tongue in his mouth, to prevent himself from gagging.

"The Imamura family." She replies robotically.

"So we're out of safe options for obtaining information?" Shikamaru retorts condescendingly. There is no such thing as safe.

"A man is dead and your first inclination is to be facetious about it?" She grits her teeth together.

The floor is slippery with blood. When Shikamaru bends down through the thick of flies, inhaling the scent of wet flowers and decay, the soles of his sandals slide.

"We can't leave out the front door." He grumbles, observing the specific details of the murder. Clean lacerations. He has a hunch that Tenten's friend was dead before having his body mangled.

"Yes we can. People don't snitch in Kiri." Tenten sighs away her tension.

"It's ok. We fucked up." Shikamaru wonders where the culprit might have taken the man's eyeballs. "This is a very specific way to go about humiliating someone."

Flower petals dust the wooden floor around them.

"Ten?" Shikamaru's skull feels cracked from his Anbu training (it hardly feels like he's preparing for anything other than his own funeral), but he is receptive to Tenten's obliterated ego. The staggering olfactory of morning dew and guts discombobulates his train of thought. He pinches the bridge of his nose, trying his hardest to think.

"Yea?" She swats the flies from her face as she combs through the shelf of the marked down death toys.

"I wanna ask you what's next but that's my job." He stands away from the body.

When he left Konoha, Sai had told him that the whole point of this mission was to see if he could actually lead. The whole concept of leadership makes him sweaty, but this is what growth is supposed to look like—he figures at least.

His stomach twists with thirst.

"Let's get out of here." As he turns, his shoes squeak awkwardly against the floor.

Tenten doesn't argue with him. Her forehead relaxes and he notices one fly away hair around her left ear.

Shikamaru hopes to God that she is right about the Kiri civilians not snitching. They coolly leave out the front door. The blaring sunlight startles his spine rigid.

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As though they hadn't left behind a decomposing body, Tenten suggested seafood from a local spot in Kiri. Shikamaru didn't ask how often she frequented the village for her side work. It's evident that she'd come here a lot on her paid time off before she took up the mission.

Somehow Shikamaru ends up carrying the bags of food like it had been his idea.

"I'm sorry." Once again, he grows tired of the silence between them.

"Sorry for what?" Tenten tilts her head to the side.

"For being hard on you earlier. I won't put it in the report that you withheld intelligence." Aside from Shino's invasive bugs, they'll be the only people to know. After all, this is his mission. He has no qualms taking any punishment at this point. "You've always tried your hardest and I know what it feels like to make a bad call."

She is quiet for two minutes. Shikamaru counts the one hundred and twenty seconds it takes for her to speak. The shabby inn is five more minutes away.

"Thanks. You weren't too hard on me. I deserved it. I don't like being coddled when I fail." She lies like a good subordinate. No one likes to have their nose rubbed in their own shit. Not even the Hokage.

"I'm an asshole. You didn't deserve it." He admires Tenten's commitment to her stoicism.

She chews her bottom lip, focused on a point in space only visible to her.

"It's ok, Shikamaru. If the worst thing someone can call me is a failure then I should look into an early retirement as a kunoichi."

He can't beat that logic. She laughs when he twists his face into an 'all telling' expression.

"Then I will stop making the effort to cheer you up." Shikamaru shrugs and the bags of food rattle.

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Their day ended and four days become three. Between not sleeping well and committing himself to the poison Sai tasked him to drink every night, he is greatly overcome by a sense of dread. Like all the things to come aren't in his control and he is being measured by what he won't be able to accomplish.

"The shrimp is good, Shikamaru." Tenten kept explaining how good it all tasted like he couldn't smell what he was depriving himself of.

"I can't eat when I'm thinking too hard." He had grumbled curmudgeonly.

The old inn creaks like it is haunted, louder than Tenten's snoring on the floor. She didn't make it past her second beer. All the food they had paid for and he couldn't eat it. Even if he wanted to, his stomach won't allow it.

He stops watching the sunlight fading behind the buildings and steps out onto the balcony for air that doesn't smell like food. The door slaps shut, Tenten doesn't flinch from her spot.

The lower the sun falls, the milkier the mist appears between the buildings. Scratching the side of his face, he just knows Kirigakure is perpetually haunted. Nowhere is simultaneously eerie and beautiful without a swath of ghosts. He squints through the evening fog, hoping to catch the manifestation of a body. He does. He sees Asuma, blinks and sees nothing again.

Vomit curdles in the back of his throat but he chokes it back down.

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On her last day before departing for Kirigakure, Ino spent the evening with Choji and Karui. Like Sakura, Choji likes to talk about the past in great length. It's less annoying when he does because she loves Choji a bit differently than she loves Sakura.

"Do you remember that time..." He started as they sat around the living room window, overlooking the dirt road and the row of colorful buildings.

Ino pretended that she had forgotten.

"Of course you don't remember..." He had said. It always seems to hurt him when she chooses amnesia. She isn't entirely sure he's aware that she's lying.

Ino allows every painful and humiliating thing that has occurred throughout twenty-three years to bother her. She woke up, in Kirigakure with the taste of a bad playground memory that still grinds her down to the bone to this very day.

Vacant.

She knows what Shikamaru meant but over her room service breakfast, she really began to pick it apart. Vacancy, meaning performance—performing a state of well-being that is contrary to the truth. A safer way at lying.

"You have to start from the root." Tsunade stuffs a wooden pipe with tobacco.

This is common sense. Ino knows it to be, but Tsunade's tone of voice makes it sound mind blowing. The answer, obviously, is at the root of every problem. The dangling bundles of eucalyptus give the room a sense of freshness. Masking the prior smell of old ladies.

"You get to the root of it and snatch it out with your bare hands." Tsunade talks expressively to a group of her very old, not so dear, acquaintances in Kiri. For someone who had amassed so much debt and gossip, she got along just fine with stuffy important people. Her charm is her selling point. People just do whatever she asks of them without questioning her motives.

Anxiety balloons in Ino's chest among the shelves of jars filled with soupy contents. Eyeballs. Toes. A foggy jar of what looks like tongues. But the overabundance of flowers brightens the backroom of the apothecary shop. Ino pokes the inside of a foxglove, a swarm of them hanging over her head. If you ingest enough foxglove, it can kill you. It's always the beautiful things in life that cause destruction. Colorful reptiles, too much love, not enough love, beautiful bodies, and euphoria. She noticed on their trip here that Kiri has no shortage of flowers, like the entire village had decided to supplement their trauma with excessive beauty.

"I'm pretty confident in Ino's abilities. She is a novice but her mother is an expert botanist." Tsunade exhales a huge cloud of smoke. The two old ladies crane their necks to get a good look at Ino. "She comes from good genes."

"What's the name of your clan, dear?" The skinnier, much more wrinkled woman speaks.

Having no clue to the context of their conversation, Ino stops poking her nose around the assortment of potted and bottled things, "Yamanaka."

"Never heard of them." The shorter woman with gray roots and bright ends whips her fan at her sweating bosom. Tsunade gestures for Ino to sit down with them.

Ino tiptoes around the clutter.

"The late Inoichi's daughter." The skinny woman looks surprised. The revelation having caused such a shock, she sits her cup of tea down.

"Yes." Ino doesn't like being reminded that her father is dead. The 'late' felt deliberately specific.

"You know of them, Fujiko?" Tsunade looks comfortable in their surroundings with one foot propped on her knee.

"Lady Tsunade, it is good for my business to know any and all things." Fujiko carries herself as though many years ago she was a beautiful woman who was used to having things simply given to her. She turns to her stumpy companion and says, "Natsu, they're the family who've mastered the technique of mind control."

Natsu is a terrible liar. She pretends to remember said conversation with a limp smile and nod. She slurps her tea.

"What is it like being in someone else's head? I've always wondered." Fujiko attentively watches Ino as she folds her dress before sitting down.

"Like lucid dreaming." Ino is overwhelmed with sudden grief. She misses her father.

"It renders your body completely useless though, right?" The creases around Fujiko's eyes deepen with concern. Tsunade drops her foot down on the floor with a hard thud. A stunned Ino glares back at Fujiko, unsure what to say.

"You're a very cultured woman, Fujiko—could you not conceive of a more appropriate word than useless." Tsunade holds her pipe to her lips.

"No, Lady Tsunade. She is right. I'm disposable while mind-transferring." Ino is hyper aware of her teeth pressing together.

"Oh Tsunade. I didn't mean it that way. You know my profession requires me to be very direct with what can be perceived as factual. A technique so powerful has to have a shortcoming." Fujiko looks to a disinterested Natsu.

"Ino is far from useless." Tsunade snips.

"Of course, Tsunade. You only have good taste..." Fujiko doesn't even seem a little bit apologetic.

"She graduated from the academy as one of the top students in her class." Tsunade cuts Fujiko's sentence in half. "It has nothing to do with my taste."

Ino doesn't know where all her determination went. The taller she grew, more weight accumulated on her shoulders. With Inoichi gone, she has no one to prove herself to—she got over being an affirmation junky. Being at the top of her class meant a lot but now, she isn't sure how much of it was her overcompensating for not being naturally as smart as Shikamaru or if she were really all that passionate in the first place.

"I'll take your word for it, Tsunade." Fujiko keeps a neutral expression and winks at Ino.

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"Why didn't you stand up for yourself? You know how capable you are." Tsunade had held it in for some time.

"I didn't want to embarrass you in front of your friends." Ino picks a strand of hair from her lashes.

"Those chickens weren't my friends. Old acquaintances." She emphasizes, erecting her index finger. "Fujiko is known for being a natural aesthetician. Notice how flushed her face was?"

Ino hadn't noticed. She made a point to not stare at either of the eccentric women.

"She rubs a nightshade extract on her skin. Enough of it can give your skin a rosier complexion. Would you believe if you eat a single leaf of it, it can kill you?" Tsunade tosses a pig tail over her shoulder. "She sells that hokey stuff to all the local women."

"She had an awful lot of toxic plants, I noticed." Ino scratches her elbow.

"Good. You're paying attention." Tsunade whispers and nudges her. "Useless my ass. The nerve of that decrepit bird."

"Lady Tsunade, what do you mean?" Ino stops dead in her tracks.

Tsunade grips her arm and moves her out of the way of a group of people. They stand under a shade of tapestries.

"The truth is always right in your face, staring back at you, Ino. You'll never be at a loss of direction if you keep that in mind." Tsunade gives Ino's arm a gentle shake.

"Shikamaru told me that once." He has told Ino this many times, in so many different ways. Tsunade watches the wash of sudden grief and sadness spreading across her face. The distance between grief and sadness is heartache.

"Shikamaru is someone worth listening to all the time. He's rarely wrong." Tsunade softens.

"I know, right? I wish I were that perfect." Ino has no idea who she is and what she is doing. The big-girl act she can only keep up for so long.

"Nobody is perfect. If that were the case, we wouldn't need to be kunoichi." Tsunade urges her to walk forward. "The world would have no sadness."

Sadness is just a fact of life.

"Are we even human if were aren't grieving in some capacity?" Tsunade doesn't let go of her arm the rest of the way.

"I would rather not think about it at all, Lady Tsunade."

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Kiri gave Shikamaru a sense of dread. Like all the ghosts that quietly floated down the alleys were latching themselves onto him. He can't see them, but he just knows they are there and the pressure makes him nauseous. The little sleep he gets makes him hyper sensitive to smell and sound. It feels like there are bugs crawling through the thick of his scalp but when he rakes his fingers through his hair, his hands come down empty.

"Are you doing ok?" Naruto is the first person to ask him this in a long time. Choji isn't readily available to ask him with the distance being the root of the problem. Ino simply couldn't. Everyone else wouldn't. He doesn't deserve it, no one deserves anything but it feels so good to be asked.

Naruto had vanished and returned with two cups of coffee. Tenten had stepped out at the crack of dawn to make up for her shortsightedness. Shikamaru is thankful she isn't the type to wait and around and be told what to do.

"I'm sorta ok." Shikamaru massages his forehead, watching the steam rise from the styrofoam cup.

"Sorta? You either are or ya ain't, pal." Naruto sits beside him, nudging the cup into Shikamaru's hand. "C'mon, I didn't put anything it it. I didn't want to be rude and not bring you any."

Shikamaru accepts it even though he hates black coffee. He has been craving anything that isn't water. The crawling sensation suffuses down the nape of his neck.

"So what's the report?" Naruto makes a hissing noise as he tears open a pack of sugar over his cup sitting between his legs.

"Some of the missing-nin are having their hands forced. Some have unpaid debts. Some of these debts are inherited." Shikamaru frowns.

"Blackmail essentially? What are we gonna do with this new information?" Naruto scratches his chin.

"I don't know how to spin the wheels just yet but it's good to know the motive behind the large number of defectors. Gotta learn the system before you take it down. I think this is going to take well over a year to actually solve." Shikamaru is too tired to be excited about the prospects of being involved. The future can only look so bright while your soul is still in the gutter.

"Sai says you're not doing so hot." Naruto is one of the few people that Shikamaru knows who is capable of keeping eye contact when communicating. His lips spread into a smug smile, bringing the cup to his mouth. The steam feels like a kiss. Shikamaru can only laugh. He isn't doing so hot.

"Turns out I'm not hot shit after all. Whoopty doo." Shikamaru hasn't been doing so hot since Asuma died. An avalanche of tragedy later, Shikaku dies, Temari stops wanting him. Almost an orphan. One moment you're the love of someone's life then next they can't stand looking at you.

"He's just mad cos I slept with his girlfriend." Shikamaru sips his coffee. It tastes horribly satisfying. "Breaking news—Shikamaru Nara is not only not hot shit, his kink is sloppy seconds."

Naruto's coffee goes down wrong and he chokes. His eyes watering, the laugh struggles to free itself from his throat.

"Can you die of laughter?" Shikamaru never asks the questions.

"At least you're not a Uchiha right? There's worse afflictions to have..." Naruto wipes his eyes on the sleeve of his shirt. "You're not that bad. You're pretty alright."

"I'm living with the truth." Shikamaru wheezes. Naruto notices how tired he looks. It pales his own face.

"Your personal life might be a mess but your professional life isn't suffering. You've practically been promoted." He stops laughing.

A long, long, very long silence hits them. Kiri and its ghost the backdrop. Tenten's perfume strong enough to be phantom itself.

"What time is the summit?" Shikamaru sits his coffee down on the floor and pops his shoulder.

"Four." Naruto sighs like he's shedding an excess layer of stress.

"That's pretty damn late."

"Well, there's press already there. If you want journalists in your face...we can go now."

"I don't want to answer hard questions."

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Ino thought that Tsunade's presence would eat her whole, being out of her element and whatnot, but Tsunade is unintentionally comforting. They were thirty minutes early and there is never any shortage of attention when Tsunade's attendance is made known.

"Is being a public figure really all what it's made out to be?" Ino leans in to whisper as they discover new corners of the Mizukage's office.

"I don't know a life without it. The grass might be greener but I'll never know." Tsunade is flippant about being the source of gossip and a muse to admirers like it's old dead news.

Tsunade introduces Ino to people she's only read about in the papers, having removed herself from the shinobi world. It's a sudden crash course on what she knows outside of Konoha. She tries her hardest to cram all the names into her head. Learning a new language, acquiring a new taste.

When they finally sit down, Ino dramatically sucks air through her nostrils, massaging her temples. She catches Tsunade glaring at her out the corner of her eye and immediately straightens herself.

"You're going to develop a palate for these sorts of things sooner than you think." Tsunade says to her. Ino hopes womanhood comes sooner rather than later along with her sense of diplomacy.

The air in the conference room is cold and stale. So unlike the atmosphere outside of the building. She wonders if it has anything to do with all the bad things that had been agreed upon in this room. When she thought of a summit, she figured there would be more Kages present but there's only the Mizukage and the heads of thriving clans throughout the country.

"Is it me or does this shit feel like we are about to be put on trial?" Naruto squeezes himself between Tsunade and Ino.

"You have to be guilty first to be put on trial." Tsunade says unfazed by the frigid energy floating around them. Ino wonders if she's immune to it entirely.

Shikamaru sits beside Ino with a hard thud. He looks more like a specter of himself from when she last saw him. Something is missing. He told her that had been the case in so many words a while ago but now she actually sees it.

Shikamaru violently chews on sugar free nicotine gum. Silence can be so loud when you need it to be comforting. All of their interactions seem to be subject to past brevity. With the many books written on the different love languages. The leading examples in their lives. Their history. None of it matters if they can never add the right amount of salt and sugar to their relationship.

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Naruto wasn't wrong in his observation. They were technically standing trial for a death completely out of their control. The main question being—what does this mean for the future? Is Konoha even safe for foreigners? The accusations spiraled into ridiculous paranoia. Theatrical paranoia really. Who'd be next? A Kage?

"You can't make crazy make sense." Naruto hummed loudly to himself when the meeting paused for a break. Suddenly, they aren't safe. Tsunade, still, beautifully unfazed says nothing. She stares across the room sunken in thought.

Ino scoots her seat back to excuse herself to the bathroom. Shikamaru waits until she is half way across the room before he follows her. He does it so coolly that Naruto doesn't realize it's a strategic move.

"Shikamaru, if you find some drinks around this place, grab me one too." Naruto says to him when he rises.

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Shikamaru catches up to Ino. He startles her when he grabs her elbow. The muscles in her arm tense up and she gapes at him. He lowers his mouth to her ear, tugging her in a different direction.

"We need to talk." His words trickle down the curve of her jaw.

"Now?" She rasps. Her coldness resurfacing—that fake affectlessness that he used to hate so much about her, but learned to accept. Ino wouldn't be Ino if she didn't pout. She'd be a completely different person and he's not sure he'd loved her more or at all without it.

They make two sharp turns until they are the only two occupying the hallway. He jiggles the handles on two doors, until the third one actually budges. Shikamaru becomes aware of her breathing, up to the point when she starts to speak. He follows the rhythm of her inhalation. She holds it in until they crush themselves inside of what appears to be a janitor's closet. His fingers scale the wall until he finds the light switch and he is still holding on to her elbow.

The light turns on with a static sound. This is definitely a janitor's closet. The mop smells like it hasn't been bleached in a while.

"What?" She finally gets it out, placing her hands on her hips. Shikamaru gets a feeling of deja vu, but he's never dreamed of this moment. Dreaming requires sleep. He hasn't slept. It could be his body reminding him how attracted he is to her. He has seen her many times but will never be able to get over how pretty she is. Despite her blistering attitude.

Shikamaru knows the What and has been anticipating the Whats arrival. How What was coming, he hadn't predicted.

"Ino." There's never going to be a perfect time because their timing is never balanced. "It doesn't matter. Now, tomorrow, a month from now. It just needs to happen. We've been so bad at communicating. We haven't been honest with each other from the start."

Her eagerness to forgive him turns her resolve to putty. She was going to be mad at him. That was the plan. It would've given their distance clear definition. Why she expected her frustration to stick, she doesn't know. It always goes away. Regardless if she is right or wrong.

"You're right. It's been very hard." Ino knows why, she just wishes she understood it enough to get over it.

"Why? It's just me." This seems to be the strain on everything. Sometimes, she acts like he hasn't been around for more than half of her life. Not everyone has that kind of familiarity. Even in Konoha.

"You're right. It's just you, Shikamaru." She looks away from him and studies the shelves of cleaning products.

"Then what gives?" He scowls but doesn't mean to.

"I'm scared."

"Of what, Ino?" He says her name with the same tenderness that he gives when they're having sex.

"Everything. The whole damn universe." The musty smell of the old mop makes her head spin.

The closet feels tighter than it actually is.

"I'm not asking you to be a philosopher. I can't help you if you keep withholding your feelings." He thinks about the day she cried at Choji's table.

"Can we talk about it later? After all of this is over with?" She gestures a hand around the damp closet.

"Yea." His hand slides down her arm. Their fingers hook together but he lets go.

The light bulb sizzles like it's going to pop at any moment.

"I can say this though. I really do believe you are my soulmate. Whatever that is supposed to mean. I don't think it promises forever but it is scary to surrender to a feeling that intense." She wishes there were a single word that could encapsulate all of her difficult feelings.

"Really?" The desperation in his voice saps all the trepidation out of her.

"I figured it out the day I threw my shoes at your head and walked out barefoot." She says without looking at him.

"When we defiled the couch?" He starts to chew on his gum again.

"Yes. That day." Ino smiles down at their feet.

When it feels like nothing more can be said, nothing that could take only a minute to articulate, Ino reaches for the doorknob. She peaks outside before putting one foot ahead.

"Hey, Ino." Shikamaru doesn't want the inevitable distance to start all over again. Ino looks back at him, standing in the bright light of the hallway. The curled ends of her hair slip over her shoulder.

"I love you a lot. Ok?" He is incapable of measuring it. Miles of love. Eons full of it.

Ino licks her lips, speechless for no good reason. She knows. She hadn't forgotten.

"I love you too, but you already know that."

Shikamaru knew it before she did.

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The summit didn't reach a verdict. Shikamaru figured they wouldn't come to a resolution. They'd endured two hours of noisy wrongness.

"This whole thing was for show." Tsunade finally speaks at the end of it.

"Well, we showed up." Naruto watches the Mizukage make her way in their direction. Shikamaru, not of a sound mind, decides this is the perfect time to make his exit. Two men dead on his time. His focus divides itself into tiny pieces. Death. Ino. More death. Trying not to die. Diplomacy. The nicotine gum isn't working.

"Sometimes, that's all you can do for the time being. Show up." Tsunade grimaces, not acknowledging Shikamaru's swift dismissal. Ino spindles a lock of hair around her index finger, sharing the same quiet sentiment Shikamaru leaves on.

His head pounds louder than his footsteps down the hall. He manages to miss the crowds of journalists and has an easy escape into the evening lull of Kiri. Tenten waits for him by the gate. Her hair falls around her face like a dark hood. No tight buns today. As soon as she spots him, she doesn't bother meeting him halfway. She approaches him with her mouth open.

"Start with the good news first." He holds up a heavy hand, feeling the residual effects of the abuse he's put his body through.

"I have a lead." She reports.

"Is that where the good news ends?" Shikamaru bites down on the tasteless wad of gum.

Tenten takes a deep breath and says, "Really, Shikamaru. News is news."

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Tsunade's terrible luck brings balance to all the great things about her life. If she didn't have awful luck, she'd be perfect and perfection would cause the world to collapse, turning in on itself until it turns into a black hole. Choji painted that picture for Ino. Choji and Shikamaru always have insightful things to say. Ino wonders if her insights ever stick with them.

The world collapsing. Eating itself. Correcting itself. Yea—she'd nodded back at Choji chewing on three sticks of gum. That's a rad way to put it.

Naruto could no longer stomach watching all that ryo move across the tables. First it was craps. Then poker, where she lost the hardest. Tsunade's vice is so intractable, that it's almost unbelievable. Ino can't not watch the absurdity of her master's failure. It's one thing to hear the stories. It's a whole different monster having to witness the truth.

"Ino." Tsunade leans back in her chair, smelling wonderful. Ino lowers into her scent. Tsunade holds out the dice in her palm. "Blow for good luck."

You've got to be kidding me. Ino grinds her teeth. Tsunade looks at her sweetly, like this is the most harmless thing Ino could do for her. Like a child asking for permission to eat a cookie. Ino puckers her glossy lips and blows. Tsunade wins. Her victory steamrolls and her addiction turns her into a cackling witch. The victories are worse than the losses. Ino removes herself from the growing frustration of angry old rich men and Tsunade's vainglory.

It already looks bad that someone important from Kiri winds up dead in Konoha. Even if there is a small chance that the old men in their pinstriped clothes had nothing to do with the death, Tsunade scooting their money across the table still doesn't help the changing attitudes bubbling beneath the surface. Tsunade in her bright colors and glowing exterior is the alcohol being poured over a gaping wound.

The only good thing about this trip is the over abundance of flowers. Even the casino is decorated with them. The smell of them stronger than the liquor she gorges herself on, to get over the fact that she is homesick and lovesick and everyone is glaring at her suspiciously.

"This stuff is so strong." Naruto appears beside her, sloshing around the brown contents of his glass. "It takes like battery acid mixed with sugar and honey."

"It's doing the job. That's what counts." Ino watches a group of old ladies in their kimonos gawking at the young women in obnoxious sequins.

"We're here on business, Ino. Don't get carried away." Either he's been handsome for a long time or she's very drunk.

"I'm not the one campaigning to be the next Hokage." Ino takes his drink and finishes it. Now she is holding two empty glasses. "I'm not worried about my public image."

Not anymore, she isn't. Worrying about it has done her more harm than good.

Tsunade howls for another win.

"Well you still need to slow down." Naruto scans her reddening face.

Rolling her eyes, Ino mimics him in a raspy patronizing tone of voice. Naruto doesn't think it's funny.

"Geeze. Don't be so stuffy." Ino sits the glasses down on an unoccupied stool at a slot machine.

"I just have a bad feeling and I need you to be lucid." He lightly takes her by the arm and drags her into a corner. They stand under a leaning tower of blue flowers.

"I am lucid! I'm a kunoichi, Naruto. Give me more damn credit." Ino hasn't proclaimed it so boisterously in so long. The funny taste in her mouth after saying it makes her a little dizzy. A rush of liquid confidence.

A man and woman stop their conversation to glance over at them

"Ok." She shrugs and he releases her arm.

Naruto doesn't let up his hard look. Ino doesn't think she's ever seen him quite this serious. Her memory is fogged by the honeyed drink though.

"Ok." Naruto gives her a perfunctory nod.

"Why didn't Shikamaru come?" She can't tell if it's just the desire to change the conversation that makes her ask or if she really cares all that much. Shikamaru is an introvert. His absence shouldn't bother her.

"You know he hates talking to people. He can't fake his funk like the rest of us." Naruto squints through the thickness of bodies and shiny machines. Ino tries to follow his eyes but can't find what he's looking at. Perhaps it's nothing at all.

"No. He can't. He's bursting at the seams with honesty." Ino hiccups.

"I think I'm cut out for this kinda stuff." Naruto softens.

"The politics? Definitely not the excessive drinking." Ino is surprisingly indifferent to all of it.

"Kowtowing with dirty old men. I got this in the bag."

"Just don't turn into one yourself." She wants another drink.

"I don't plan on it. I'm never getting old." He smiles brightly, sliding his hands from the pockets of his pants and folding his arms over his chest. Just as clearly as she sees his journey from then to now, his evolution from boy to man, she wonders if her story can be seen just as plainly on her face.

"Where even is Shikamaru?" She notices the flicker in his eyes, the slight downturn of his lips. Suddenly Naruto doesn't know where to look. Like Shikamaru, Naruto isn't a very good liar.

"Classified information." He winks at her.

Ino grumbles. Instead of standing in front of him, she stands beside him pressing her back against the cold wall.

"I know what you're thinking. Don't worry about it anymore." Naruto says a moment later.

"I'm not worried about anything." She is worried about everything.

"I know it's not cool to talk about people when they aren't around but there was this period after Temari broke off their engagement. Maybe before. I think when he started sleeping on the couch. He still did his job better than anyone else could, but he kept distracting..."

"You don't have to tell me. I already know." She doesn't need it to be reaffirmed that Shikamaru possesses the universal qualities that make him attractive to women. He is smart, funny (especially when he isn't trying to be), a good listener, and says all the right things. Even the right things you don't want to hear.

"He started looking a lot softer. It all just stopped. I could tell. Can't explain it really but I just know that look. I see it in myself every morning when I wash my face. I didn't know you were the reason at the time." Naruto is a good talker too.

"You're a gossiper." Ino gives him the same kind of wink he'd given her.

"Nah. We are supposed to be ninja and our life expectancy is too short to mince words. I pay attention." He gestures with two fingers at his eyes.

"Ok." Ino laughs for the first time all evening.

"I could tell you wanted to talk about him so there. I hope you feel ten pounds lighter and lay off the damn drinks. That shit is poison."

She really does feel ten pounds lighter.

"Thank you, Naruto."

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Two months later...

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Infinitesimal details are day ruiners. Ino walks into her apartment after two hard days in the hospital with Tsunade and is greeted by an awful rotten smell. She takes off her sweater and shoes first, then goes to investigate the fridge. The smell doesn't come from the fridge. Her garbage is filled with paper towels and candy wrappers. She lets down her hair, leans over the sink and sniffs the dampness of the drain.

It fills up her apartment, a bloated ghost of a haunt. She gags. Then she turns into her bedroom. Her eyes settle on the fish bowl on her vanity. Her two nameless goldfish floating at the top. She slowly steps toward the vanity. Her dread tugging her along, the realization choking her throat. The smell is worse. Her eyes watering before she accepts failure.

Ino peers down into the bowl. She hadn't bothered to name them for this very reason. Somehow, this makes their death much more painful. Their little bodies patched in white spots. She holds her hand to her scalp. Right there, she hyperventilates. Sobbing silently. The constriction of her muscles worsening the pain. She cries directly into the bowl. Her tears pelting their bodies.

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"It's called Ichthyophthirius." Kiba showed up without hearing an explanation as to why she was crying so hard. He accepted it with the same perceptiveness needed for all kinds of death.

"Ichy-What?" Ino watches him scoop the fish corpses into a plastic bag.

"It's a parasite fresh water fish get." Kiba looks at her solemnly.

Ino is past sobbing but tears still trickle down her face. She pecks at them with her fingertips, sniffling.

"I'm sorry. I don't know why I'm crying. I don't know why I called. I could've done that myself." She gulps.

"You called because I gave them to you and nobody wants to deal with dead bodies alone." He sounds so reasonable.

"They're just fish." She says it but doesn't believe it.

"They're more than just fish. Why are you so ashamed of being sad?" He closes the bags, sits the plastic on the vanity. Their tiny bodies limp and ugly. Ino wretches a gasp.

"I'm not ashamed." She sighs.

"You are. It's ok. Your feelings are valid." He takes the bowl in his hands with ease and heads into her bathroom.

Ino listens to the sound of him emptying the smelly water into the toilet bowl. On the edge of her bed, she stares at the plastic bag. Kiba flushes the toilet, making a disgruntled sound, like clearing his throat but not really. He stands in the doorway of the bathroom, cradling the empty bowl.

"Then what?" She rubs her forehead anxiously.

"We bury them." He states matter-of-factly. The stink of death isn't as repugnant. It's possible she's just gotten used to it. The inside of her nose burns from crying.

"Where?" Ino shrugs her shoulders.

Kiba stands straight and chews the inside of his jaw. His eyes roaming around the room. When he gets an idea, he sits the bowl back on the vanity and heads out the front door. There's the scraping of his feet on the steps and a light clang of her flower pots. He storms back inside holding one of her plants.

"What about this?"

"What about it?"

"Bury them in this."

The plant's green limbs sag outside of the pot, dangling like a depressed octopus. The leaves and stems cascading over and around Kiba's arms. Ino sucks up the snot and gets over herself.

"That's a great idea."

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Kiba watches her somberly shovel noodles in her mouth. Her cheeks full. She tucks a whisker of hair behind her ear.

"I killed your fish." She licks the corners of her mouth then takes a sip of her beer.

"Ino, you didn't kill the damn fish." He smiles but his tone his mirthless.

"How the hell am I supposed to be responsible for the lives of other people if I can't prevent illness from killing my fish? I'm supposed to be—" The my fish catches her off guard. She stops slouching over her food. My fish.

"Don't say it. Don't you dare say you're a kunoichi." Kiba drums his fingers on the table.

"But I am. I'm supposed to be this resilient, perceptive...person. I'm strong. I'm supposed to see the signs."

"Whenever we tell each other we are just shinobi, it's like we are slouching away from a real conversation." Kiba falls unusually quiet. His eyes on the vast nothingness of the table, observing the swirls in the wood. He finishes his drink and then says, "We are people first, Ino. Yea, we didn't get tested on our emotional intelligence, but that's because you can't exactly measure it with an exam. I don't even think it can be taught. It's inherent in all of us. We are taught to suppress it."

Ino actually sees Kiba for the first time. Minus the excessive flirting and big talk. His favorite thing to say is—somebody has gotta believe in you, and that person should be you first.

"Babies cry up until we tell them to stop and that it's not cute anymore." His fingers tear at the damp napkin.

"Kiba..." Ino washes down the noodles with her beer.

"You know what's wrong with Konoha? We don't have a healthy relationship with our mortality around here. At least in Kiri, death is something to look forward to. Even if it's a warped perspective. It's a good start." Kiba stuffs the shredded pieces of the napkin inside of his empty beer bottle.

"That makes a lot of sense. You're making too much sense." Ino holds his stare. It's the most serious he's ever looked without the context of a battle.

"I'm trying. My point is, Ino—feel everything. Even if you think it's dumb, allow yourself to feel it so it won't bleed out in other facets of your life. You've got a lot of leakage." He rubs his chest.

"Ok. Whatever." Ino's ears turn red with embarrassment.

"I care. That's why I'm telling you."

"Kiba, you wouldn't be the first." If only he really knew.

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Kiba went back to whatever she had interrupted him in the middle of doing. Ino didn't bother asking. He just told her to stop apologizing for it. Shit happens. She hopes calling him up doesn't make her a selfish-pig. Ino goes over the brief instances she might've been obtuse with him.

"Why am I so hellbent on feeling bad?" She asks no one as she walks home alone with her hands deep in the pockets of her sweater.

The sky is a milky purple as the sun sets. A cough tightens her chest. The wind is so cold.

It feels like she is atoning for every bad thing she has done or said. Karma is strangling the shit out of her by not giving her those immediate feelings of contentment. The cough doesn't relieve the tension in her chest. The cool causes her eyes to water.

Right then, Ino is lost. She knows how to get back home but her brain fogs. It's no mystery that she is dealing with a lot but the weight of it all is suddenly real. This isn't where she had envisioned herself—not dealing with the things that makes her soul sick.

Ino stops under a lamp post to catch her breath. With her memory, she lost her breath. Her stretched shadow stares back at her. She frees her hands from her pockets and the lint balls are swept from her palm by the air.

She allows herself to process whatever it is that is possessing her.

Time passes. The specific minutes irrelevant. It's completely dark. People walk by like she isn't there, which is how she feels. Not present. Ino stops glaring at her feet and looks up the pathway.

Without the gift of jutsu, Ino would still know Shikamaru. If she lost the ability to hear and see altogether too. Sometimes, the soul just calls for you—she doesn't remember who exactly said this to her (most likely Sakura).

She sees him first, which is different. Shikamaru has always seen her first. He is looking down. It's unlike him to not pay attention to what's in front of him. What could've happened in a span of two months? Ino walks in his direction at a self assured pace.

Eventually, his delayed acuity kicks in. At the precise moment his attention anchors on to her, she drops all semblance of sadness and flimsy coolness. Ino sprints towards him. He stops walking and drops all of his bags and the things he's accumulated in sixty-something days.

Ino holds her arms out and slams herself into his body. He absorbs the impact. She wraps her arms around him. Breathes in the sweaty smell of his shirt. He reciprocates the strong hold, squeezing a little harder, crushing the grief out of her.

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Like so many nights before, those times she took for granted, they walk together down the crisscrossing pathways that make up Konoha. The webs of wires that connect the power poles slopping and swaying in the air over their heads.

"Do you think you have a good relationship with your mortality?" Ino asks him out nowhere. She squeezes his hand.

"In what context?" He frowns through a headache.

It had sounded much better in her head and when Kiba had said it. She doesn't know how to make it sound insightful.

"Never mind. I'm glad you're back. How long are you going to be home?" Ino watches the cool exterior of his face. His eyes are wet.

"I really don't know." Shikamaru doesn't like the mystery of his schedule but he's acclimated to it.

"I'm glad you're back. That's really all that matters. You can never know..." She doesn't finish her sentence.

"Nope. You never can. I guess thats what you mean by being on good terms with your mortality? Right?" He has to tell her at some point. Not now.

"Yea." She wipes at her eyes with her free hand.

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They arrive at her apartment. Ino kicks her sandals across the room. It's always the first thing she does when she gets home. She shakes her pockets clean of her keys and chapstick. Only Ino can pull off a bare face with chapstick and make it look like effortless.

It is weird standing under her ceiling fan. He hesitates. Scans the room before dropping his bags on the floor. One candle sits on the table and the whole place smells like herself and sugar. He watches her light three more candles with a lighter he left behind.

"You look tired." She doesn't know how to start the conversation. Her nose is still red and irritated from crying earlier. The beer and spicy noodles make her stomach burn a little.

"I am. If only you knew." His entire body hurts. He cracks his knuckles, but it doesn't make him feel any better.

The apartment is silent. Outside noise floats in through the window. The sink drips and the fridge hums. Shikamaru breathes loudly, like his sinuses are draining.

"I made a mistake." Ino starts.

"We both made mistakes. I thought about what you said about being scared. Maybe I contributed to that." He stares at her and it makes her skin tingle. She scratches the back of her neck, bending her head forward. Her hair separates around her face and shoulders.

"No. It had nothing to do with you. None of it does. It's always been me. I think I reduced myself to safety and predictability." These words feel like adult-big-girl words. "I was supposed to marry Sai and have all of his babies and be with him for the rest of my life. Help plan weddings. That isn't how it happened."

"Is that what you wanted?" Shikamaru understands now, why she gets so mad about hearing Temari's name. He doesn't want to think about Sai.

"At one point, yes. Eventually, no. I didn't have time to process it. There was no transitionary period." Ino's voice breaks like water combing through rocks.

"Ino, why couldn't you express any of that to me?" He rasps.

"I physically couldn't. I just wanted you to read my mind and figure it out. Sometimes I get so anxious, it's like all the cells in my body freeze—that's not how that works but I can't. I just couldn't. I'm not able to communicate my feelings like you do." She has never been able to compete with him in any capacity. He's always just been the better, golden child. Even though he hates it.

"Do you know how embarrassing it was to sit at that table and have to explain myself to the person you picked over me? You were done with me and somehow...I still had to answer for it?" Shikamaru's voice swings a notch higher.

"You walked out on me, Shikamaru."

"Because I wanted you to feel the same way I felt." Sometimes he thinks that he is still stuck at that stupid table with no more truth left to tell.

"Who won?" Her eyes are puffy.

"Nobody." He wishes he knew what she had been crying about.

Ino grabs a filmy glass that's been sitting on her table for two days and lightly sits it in her sink. She runs the faucet water inside of it. Shikamaru watches her fidget. When he can no longer stand the water overflowing from the glass, he moves to turns off the faucet. The commanding gesture eliminating the open space of tension that's kept them apart.

"I don't want to just be friends." He bends towards her.

"I don't wanna just be friends either." She doesn't know the next step though. She hopes he does. Actually, she is certain he does.

"Then what do you want?" He holds her arm tightly so that the bottom of whatever they've just built doesn't fall out.

"You." It's her resolution. She is ready to give him everything at once, down to the tiniest atom. Her soul right along with her eyelashes. He pulls her into an embrace that brings their noses close. The sloppy braid she'd thrown together finally unravels itself. Her bangs curl around her eyes haphazardly.

"Then I belong to you." He encloses his fingers around her neck as he leans in to kiss her.

"I'm in love with you." She admits it, for the first time, as their lips brush together.

"I'm glad. The feeling is mutual." He inhales her top lip.

"I care so much." She moans with his tongue in her mouth. The world flipped right side up for, Ino. The anticipation of wanting it bad mixing with her fear of ruining it hitches her breathing.

"How much?" The adrenaline triumphs over all of his sleepless nights. He takes two handfuls of her behind.

"Infinitely. With an eternalness. I'm really sorry." She untucks his shirt and slides her hands against his hard stomach.

"Forever and a day?" Where she touches him his skin burns. Unceasing intimacy feels good having gone so long without it. He tries not to think about the dead strangers and dead Asuma. Ghosts. Anbu. He tenses. Ino doesn't notice. Eight weeks isn't a long time but he feels different. The past (before Anbu) a nebulous disproven fact, usurped by a crueler present.

"I've never heard that one before. Forever and a day." Ino stops caressing him, gazing at him thoughtfully.

"I take no credit. I read it in a book." He swallows back the negative thoughts attempting to ruin the comfort he's managed to live without for days.

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"I wondered where you went—grief had taken you away from me." Shikamaru confesses. Ino's lips pucker with her face pressed into a pillow.

"I was here." She massages his earlobe.

"I wanted my friend back." He squeezes the softness around her hip.

"I never went anywhere." She hadn't.

"When I did see you around, it was like watching a ghost who had no clue that they were dead." He caresses the space under her eye with his knuckles, marked by deep nicks in his skin, bright pink lines of lightning through his natural golden tan.

"Vacant. I know." Fundamentally, Ino believes she hasn't changed, but he does fill every physical and literal hole she has. Shikamaru rolls on top of her. Her breathing unsteadies under his weight, but she craves the crushing pressure.

He closes his mouth over hers, sucking down the sweet taste of her saliva—wishing it to neutralize his restlessness.

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It feels like he's cheated when difficult things turn out to be so simple. If not cheated, a bit stupid. Ino had fallen asleep and just like that, they are over it. The alternatives weren't desirable by any stretch of the imagination—he is tired of the roundaboutness that has been their intimacy.

Incapable of sleep despite an orgasm, he watches the streaks of flickering light shining through the window across the ceiling. He is plagued with questions regarding the future. It's always the future. Shikamaru thinks so hard he sweats bullets. He works back up the nausea he's been fighting since he's undertaken Anbu.

He throws back the covers and storms into Ino's crammed bathroom. Her place isn't exempt from the new habit of locking doors behind himself. Shikamaru throws up the cocktail he's been instructed to take. A pink liquid that mixes with his stomach acid. Shino's bugs too. They are slowly being flushed from his body. Sai didn't say what the stuff is for. The only detail is to drink it every day until he is told to stop.

Shikamaru hangs his head in the toilet. The cold tile tickles his tailbone. Frigidness has trapped itself inside of her bathroom. The porcelain toilet, sink, and tile absorb the warmth radiating off his body.

He stays there for hours uninterrupted. Observes the bras dangling from her towel rack. Makeup and body sprays piled in a basket on her sink. A red smear of what he thinks is nail polish along the back of the toilet, next to the handle. Ino's snoring loud on the other side of the door like something is trying to exit her body.

Shikamaru submits to another night of sleeplessness.

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