My muse and I suffered an extremely long time-out, one that regrettably still has yet to finish. But seriously. This puppy comes on the heels of a super glorious AHA moment, in which I took a careful look at my transcript and decided that no, my major does not read masochist, and I should take a break and write something. YAY.
Anyway, getting to the good(?) stuff:
A Lighter Logic, chapter 4
They sat there for all of forty-two minutes, in which time the sun miraculously opted to make a surprise appearance and the temperature lobbied fast, rising almost palpably by the moment. Forty two minutes, but for all Ino’s incessant restlessness, Shikamaru swore it had been hours.
He watched her rip at a ragged hangnail one last time before speaking. "So, you two just randomly decided to pay me a visit out here, huh?"
"Yup." Chew, rip.
"Even though you knew I was coming home in two months for the wedding."
"Right." She cupped a hand above her eyes and glared out at the occupied runway, as though the sheer force of her gaze would conjure Chouji’s plane from thin air.
"Uh-huh." Sighing, Shikamaru leaned back against the near wall. Some sort of faux marble that felt cold through his shirt. "And about this favor you mentioned?"
"Look, can we talk about this later?" Her legs dangled over the edge of the railing, swinging anxiously over the slanted drop below. Shikamaru wondered belatedly why she hadn’t opted for a seat. But then again, Ino had always been weird like that. "God, it’s been how long now?"
Shikamaru gave her a sidelong glance. It was fairly obvious that Ino was acting strange and cagey, and it wasn’t the kind of change you could chalk up to three years of separation. Unfortunately, it was more the type of bizarre that meant something, somewhere out in the universe (or, to Shikamaru’s unending chagrin, likely closer) was or was going to be horribly, horribly wrong.
Brilliant. He tried to logically weigh the ups and downs of asking versus flat-out repression but came to a simpler conclusion. Shikamaru had never been one for facing his obstacles head-on before, and you know what they said about old habits.
"Come on, Chouji," Ino was pleading at the runway. "My ass is getting cramped just sitting here."
"You haven’t been just sitting there," Shikamaru pointed out evenly, glancing at her violently fidgeting leg. "Why didn’t you come on the same flight as Chouji?"
"God, I don’t know. My flight only had one seat left or something. Can you just let up with all the questions for once? We came to visit you, Shikamaru, end of story."
"You - okay, fine. Then about the whole favor thing -"
"Well, we’d talk too, right?" Ino shrugged. "Let’s just do this later, Shika. I think Chouji’s flight just got here. Look, look: here he comes."
Ino reached him first, not-so-daintily barreling a path through the frantic, motley crew of fliers, and tapped him twice on the shoulder. Chouji turned at the first brush of fingers against his rumpled sweater.
"Hi. Oh my god," she noted as a woman pushed past her towards customs. "Flying’s a death wish around here. No wonder Shikamaru never visits."
Chouji grinned and scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Where’s Shikamaru?" He asked as a man elbowed past him towards the luggage carousel.
"Oh, here." She made a flippant gesture at the roiling crowd. "You know, somewhere."
"Huh? Where? How is he? Is he okay?"
"I guess," she shrugged. "I mean… I haven’t really told him, but -""
Chouji blinked at her. "You haven’t told him?"
A woman rudely nudged past Ino’s shoulder. "No," she said. "I haven’t."
"But Ino -"
Sighing huffily, Ino shoved back at the man trying to hurry her along. "I know, Chouji."
"It’s just that I thought that - "
"Chouji, I know," she shrieked, glancing around them frustratedly. "I know. Look, I tried. Well, no, I didn’t."
Chouji hated flying, hated sitting in the cramped little seats thousands of feet above the earth, one stranger snoozing deeply on your shoulder and the other trying to convert you to their own fervent Christian sect. It always felt unnatural, intruding in this other, empty world, where no human feet were likely intended to tread. And so flying was a near never for him, except across the country to see the best friend he had ever had, and even then, only armed with a heavy artillery of snack bars and energy drinks to compensate for the acrophobic anxiety, the eve of sleeplessness. But still, it was only at this very moment that weariness really set into his bones.
All around them, the crowd rushed like a hostile river and Chouji knew that at any moment now Shikamaru would find them. He hadn’t wanted to be the one to tell him, but then again, life was sometimes all about things you didn’t like.
"Chouji, I’ve got to go to Isu," Ino said then, biting at a jagged fingernail. She was doing that a lot lately.
"No, please don’t go to Isu, Ino. You know that’s no good. Let’s just tell Shikamaru and get him to come home with us. I can tell him if you want."
It was a good plan, the original plan. Ino was supposed to head out here first and break the news, mostly because Chouji wasn’t sure what he’d say. Why it had taken so long. What had happened. But that didn’t matter, the important thing was letting Shikamaru know and bringing him home. The plan. But Ino was shaking her head, looking distracted. "Uh-uh," she said. "That’s a bad idea, Chouji, believe me. Let’s just go to Isu, like all three of us, okay? We’ll get Shikamaru to drive. And we can tell him then."
Which was when, as fate would have it, two hurried people parted and Shikamaru found them at last, heads bent conspiratorially and the last words of their conversation hanging thickly in the air.
He raised an eyebrow. "Tell me what, exactly?"
Stupid, Shikamaru thought to himself.
The rush from the gate was unprecedented, to say the least. In the few years since arriving here, he had clearly forgotten what it was like to emerge from a late flight, disgruntled and underfed, simultaneously looking for your luggage, your ride and your sanity. That way, he would’ve been prepared to move against the rush once Ino barely finished her sentence and darted off into the fray. He endured a barrage of hefty shoves as he beat a path through the mob, but Shikamaru just rolled his eyes and forged on. Airport violence, in his opinion, was the kind you just shouldered heroically. Post-flight status was very nearly equivalent to insanity. Any given person in that waiting room would have been trigger-happy about ripping him a new one.
A man passed, cradling a wailing baby. Shikamaru stepped by two twin sisters looking for their luggage. A child and his grandmother wandered past, speaking some foreign language.
Then he found them, the two standing completely still in the fray, Ino with a pleading expression on her face and Chouji looking distinctly uncomfortable. What had he just missed here?
"-We’ll tell him then," she finished.
"Tell me what?"
Shikamaru would always remember the way those two jumped guiltily at the sound of his voice. At the moment, it was all rather hilarious. In hindsight, he figured he should’ve seen it all coming.
"Hey, Chouji’s here," Ino offered, a tad unnecessarily. "He just… got here."
Shikamaru gritted his teeth and mulled over his options: something was obviously going on here the likes of which he wasn’t too sure he’d enjoy. Given Ino and Chouji’s supremely sketchy behaviour…
Well, ‘unenjoyable’ was kind of a no-brainer.
"Okay then, just tell me this: is this going to come back and bite me in the ass in the near future or thereabout?"
Chouji just glanced at Ino, who in turn adopted her custom look of resolute stubbornness. "God, Shikamaru, don’t be such a drama queen."
And that was that. Shikamaru had never really been one for facing his problems head-on anyway and he sure as hell wasn’t going to start now. Besides, peace and quiet (or some vague semblance thereof) was a hard thing to put back together once broken. And any moment now, knowing Chouji…
"I’m hungry," he moaned, rubbing at his stomach. "Can we get some food before we go?"
"You’re always hungry." Ino rolled her eyes. " Haven’t you heard of watching your weight?"
"Nuh-uh; I figure it’d be pretty cold if I was skinny. This way I’m comfortable, see? Oh, hey Shikamaru, do you have any food at your place? I’m broke."
"Sorry Chouji," he answered dully. This place was kind of getting to him. what with the mass overload of restless anxiety crawling through the woodwork. And then there was still that feeling that he was missing something important. Something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. "Don’t you want to drop off your bags and stuff at the hotel first?"
Chouji blinked. "Hotel?"
Aha. "No." Shikamaru turned painstakingly to the girl at his side. "Tell me he’s kidding."
Ino looked unapologetic. "Don’t be stupid."
"You didn’t book a hotel room," it was more a statement of disbelief rather than a question.
She sighed. "Well, I thought it would be fine if we just stayed with you," Ino explained unapologetically. "I still don’t see why we can’t."
"I don’t know. Maybe it’s because, for starters, you guys show up completely unexpected, then you drop the bomb in saying you’re staying? And at my place? What?"
Chouji looked dumbfounded. He turned to Ino. "I thought you called him."
Shikamaru sighed inwardly. Ino hadn’t called him. Of course Ino hadn’t called him. Ino had just shown up on his precious lunch hour, give or take three years, and nearly assaulted him and his sandwich. "Chouji, you guys can’t stay with me. My place is tiny. Like one-bedroom kind of tiny."
He threw this curveball to throw Ino off the prospect of comfort, but she was clearly not to be swayed. "Details. I’ll just take the bed and you two can take the living room. It’s not like we haven’t camped out before?"
Shikamaru couldn’t see how her getting the only bed in the apartment while him and Chouji braved the hardwood floors near-winter even got close to roughing it. On her part. But then again, Ino had spent the majority of their overnight dojo trips whining about the sub-par quality of sleeping bag fabric and totally decimated Shikamaru’s chances at a decent night’s rest like clockwork. Then came black belt, third dan and he vowed never to sleep within hearing distance of her again.
"No, you guys can’t stay with me. My landlord would freak if she found you there." Chouji opened his mouth to protest, but Shikamaru cut him off before he had the chance. "- Even if it’s only for a day. A few. Or a week -"
Ino propped her hands on her hips. "Three," she corrected.
"What! No, whatever. The answer’s definitely no, guys."
Ino just squinted at him in disbelief while Chouji looked sort of hurt. Shikamaru couldn’t help his mind from straying to the world-time clocks overhead and thinking that forty miles into the downtown core, Asahi was just off shift now, likely breathing fire and hunting his blood. Workplace safety was deeply lacking in these parts, seeing as Asahi was the kind of coworker that brought new meaning to the term "poisoned atmosphere".
Crossing her arms, Ino gave a loud sigh. "Well, your life sounds really hard Shikamaru, but we? Don’t have any money. Unfortunately."
Chouji nodded. "Yeah. Sorry, I just spent the last of it on the plane ticket here."
Shikamaru just stared at them like they had grown extra heads.
"So, are you going to toss your two oldest friends out onto the streets of this sleazy city?" A woman, clearly a citizen of the so-called ‘sleazy city’, gave Ino a dirty look as she passed. Ino ignored her, tugging on Chouji’s sleeve. "Chouji, your luggage. Come on, someone’s going to steal it."
"Ino, I don’t think - "
"Of course they will. This is the city, stupid, lots of crazies live here. For example, Shikamaru lives here."
And on that high note, the two stalked off towards the rotating carousel, leaving a very frustrated person in their ruined wake. Shikamaru took a deep breath and sighed, desperately crushing the urge to clutch at his wildly throbbing temples. This day had gone from bad to worse in the space of one lunch hour - since losing his sandwich, his chess partner’s respect and then the latter half of his workday (read: his chance at redeeming his life come the very next business hour), Shikamaru now faced a brand new smattering of issues that might possibly leave him broke and/or broken by the end of the week.
On a more optimistic note, both new arrivals were still semi-staples on his list of Things He Missed About Home But Would Never Admit To, and if he was really lucky, Chouji might have brought some of his aunt’s awesome peanut butter cookies. Failing all that, there was always the comforting thought that hey, he still had his life and sanity.
At least, for now.
The gas meter had dipped dangerously towards empty on their frantic search for a vacant hotel room, so Shikamaru had had to spring for gas along the way ("That didn’t count," said Ino, firmly protesting his threat of starting up an expense tab. "Totally your own negligence."). When they finally found a place that didn’t look like it was crawling with vermin all through the woodwork, in addition to having running water and various other important creature comforts, his two (currently) homeless teammates happily watched him shell over the cash. This day had just passed ‘expensive’ back around the hundredth dollar.
Shikamaru hated it when he was right.
"Thanks a lot," Chouji was saying. He looked a little uncomfortable in the overly lavish room but kept tossing anxious looks over at the complimentary mints on the pillows. "But I think I would’ve been fine with your couch."
Ino thwacked him on the shoulder. "Chouji, shut up. If Shikamaru’s willing to pay, then let’s not stop his uncharacteristic kindness. Besides, it’s too late anyway."
Chouji looked apologetic, Ino didn’t even look close. She picked up a chocolate-covered strawberry and popped it into her mouth.
"Hey. Where did you get that?" Though something was telling Shikamaru that he really didn’t want to know.
Chouji looked up. "Ino-"
"I know, I know. I’ll pay you back, Shika, don’t worry."
Sighing, Shikamaru sat down beside her on the edge of the blue bedspread. Chouji dragged his red armchair closer to the other two and both guys looked expectantly over at the blonde girl beside them.
"Well?" Shikamaru prompted.
Ino bit her lip thoughtfully, as though weighing the relative pros and cons of saying anything about the cryptic reasons behind their sudden journey. After a moment of struggling with his rapidly deteriorating patience, Shikamaru spoke up. Frankly, this was starting to piss him off.
"Okay, seriously. You’re telling me by, um, not telling me anything at all, that you two effectively shelled out how much in cash to haul your asses out across the country just to get me to buy you a room so we could sit around and smile at other like douches for a week?"
"Three," Ino corrected.
Nearby, Chouji was crumbling under guilt; after all these years, Shikamaru and Ino were both very well aware of his extremely oversized heart (figuratively, of course) and instead of watching him sweat absolute bullets while torn between the loyalty to his two best friends, Ino - for once - did the right thing and put him out of his misery.
"Okay," she started huffily, rearranging her legs beneath her. "Well, yes, I guess we did come out to see you, a little bit." At this, Chouji gave a her a furtive glance. "But there was also that favor. You know, the one I mentioned. About the guy." Another furtive glance. This was getting highly suspicious.
"The guy… that is or isn’t your current fiancé?"
Ino blinked. "Doesn’t matter. I just kind of need a break from home, is all, and figured that since we haven’t seen you for a while we’d stop by out here and… kindly request that you escort us on this incredibly important mission. Of sorts." The end of her sentence quickly tapered off.
Chouji gulped audibly. "Ino -"
She silenced him with a quick glare. "Besides, you totally know what it’s like to be holed up back there. There’s no space."
"Ino -" Chouji tried.
"Just one favor," she finished, tying up her request. "Come on, Shika. I’ll spring for gas."
Shikamaru sighed. Ino wouldn’t know what to do with please if it jumped out and bit her on the ass, meaning that this was the closest they’d get to a polite demand this side of the century. One favor, huh?
"You don’t have any money," he observed, turning to Chouji. "Neither of you do."
"I have a little," Ino corrected. "I wasn’t going to truck my ass all the way out here without any. That would make me crazy."
At this point, Chouji had totally given up the ghost on his abortive protests and instead nestled back into the voluminous covers, carefully chomping on an engorged strawberry. Shikamaru felt exactly how he looked. So instead of bringing up how the last of her comments was kind of a scarily accurate observation, he just ashed his cigarette on a suspiciously pristine crystal ashtray and signed his life away.
"Okay," he answered. "Let’s do it."
Chouji gave him a depressing kind of half-smile. Ino grinned brilliantly. "Awesome. I knew you’d be up for it, Shikamaru!"
He sighed and moved to stand up. "You’re going home?" Chouji asked, sounding a little disappointed.
"Yeah. Looks like I’ve got a long week ahead of me."
"Three," Ino corrected, turning on the television. "Hey, do you get satellite on this thing?"