Yamanaka Ino had awful taste in men.
Initially, there had been Sasuke, who turned out to be the least offensive of the bunch, which is saying something considering his rap sheet included things like, selling top secret information to enemies of the state, murdering countless innocent villagers, oh and betraying the whole goddamn village in one fell swoop. And that was just scratching the surface.
Then there was Kiba, who Ino dated briefly. She had been desperate and lonely; and he had been clingy and willing. Sakura couldn't wrap her mind around it; after all, they were diametrically opposed opposites. Kiba wanted a wife who would stay at home and take care the kids (and dogs). Ino did not share that same belief, but that didn't stop her from giving it a try anyway. They lasted for a wholesome two months before she broke it off with him. The crime? He'd claimed if he were ever in a position where he'd have to choose between Ino and Akamaru, he'd choose the dog.
There was Genma and Ito, who were both too indifferent and tired to give a shit. It was probably the age difference. They were homebodies. They had lived. They had their fun. Genma lasted three months and Ito lasted two weeks. The whole debacle gave her dejavu for almost a year because it was essentially like dating two of the same people in a row.
Taka came next, but he had been utterly secretive about their relationship. It was fun because it was dangerous and sneaky, but Ino never bothered asking why they shouldn't go public. He would simply say, "Why should other people know about our private relationship?" Which pleased Ino for some time because it sounded like he gave a shit. Turns out Taka had a girlfriend and Ino ended up being the dirty mistress. After that, she decided on her own volition that she'd never trust a man who wanted to keep their relationship a "secret."
And finally, there was Hiro, who was handsome in a delicate sort of way. Girls gushed over him and for a while, even Ino found herself lost in the allure. It was only after they slept together that she realized he was sort of a pansy, in a not-so-delicate way. Not only did he lack substance, he lacked experience. Which, for Ino, wasn't a deal-breaker. But it seemed those years of positive reinforcement made him complacent. The simple truth is, he was boring. Really, really, unfortunately boring.
So Yamanaka Ino decided to cut her hair.
It'd always troubled her. Sure, Ino was attractive in a conventional sort of way. She had round blue eyes, a small face, long legs and an attractive smile. But the hair fooled people into thinking she was someone she wasn't. The busty babe with a vivacious appetite for fun. The cool girl who was in with the guys. The chill girl who didn't care what others thought about her. The it girl who turned heads every time she walked into a room. But Yamanaka Ino was not cool, she certainly was not chill, and she definitely was not (and had no intention of being) an it-girl.
Now her hair sat shoulder-length, in a chic and modern bob. Ino also decided to go with side bangs to soften the look just a tad, but ultimately it was a refreshing change of pace. She didn't have to worry about her hair getting caught, and she didn't have to go out of her way to wash it everyday. She could afford to relax. Maybe she didn't have to go the extra mile and put on mascara before heading out the door. This new hair signaled the beginning of a new era, the "Yamanaka Ino does not give a shit" era.
As she ruminated on this revelation over a cup of sake, Sakura nudged her in the side.
"Oi, don't you have a mission tomorrow?" The pink-haired kunoichi eyed the half-empty cup of liquor the blonde was holding.
"I'm fine," Ino said in a sort-of sullen and drawn out way that probably meant she wasn't fine.
Sakura rolled her eyes and tossed a few coins onto the countertop, "Well, don't complain to me about your hangover tomorrow." She patted the blonde on the shoulder, "Good luck on your mission."
Ino swatted her away, which elicited a small smile from the pink-haired kunoichi as she sauntered out the bar.
Sake was stress relief. Shinobis had to find ways to make ends meet, even if it meant resorting to certain vices. For some, it was gratuitous sex. For others, it was alcohol. Ino always found herself somewhere between the two. Being a grown-up (whatever that even meant) certainly had its perks. No grown-ups telling her what to do. The only caveat was the burden of responsibility, something Ino really struggled with.
She downed the rest of her sake and threw two silver coins onto the countertop for good measure. Then, she departed the bar in good spirits.
As she strolled down the main road, she looked up at the sky, the moon full, the stars blinking. Ino remembered reciting constellations to her father when she was little; it was a distant memory, something she managed to bury deep inside herself after he'd passed away during the Shinobi War. She shook the thought off quickly as a soft breeze wafted through and kissed her cheeks pink. Ino smiled, feeling content, full and wholesome.
Yamanaka Ino was hungover. Like, seriously hungover.
As she approached the gates of Konoha, she began to massage her temples in a futile attempt to rub away the onset of a headache. She'd woken up late, barely had time to brush her teeth, and stumbled out of the front door with only minutes to spare. Still, her hair looked good.
Shikamaru, who was waiting at the gate for her, looked unimpressed. It'd been a few years since he had a duo mission with Ino. Between refereeing the Chunin Exam, heading up the new strategic division, and acting as the ambassador for Konoha, he was a busy man. Ino, on the other hand, spent her days in the hospital when she was around. Otherwise, she was usually holed up in the Intelligence Division.
"You're late," he said.
"That's my line," Ino replied, sighing wistfully. A small smile formed on her lips as she nudged him in the arm, "It's been a while, hasn't it, Shikamaru?"
The sooner they could finish the mission, the better. It was (very) likely the headache talking, but Ino was frankly tired. When the Hokage assigned another reconnaissance mission, Ino assumed she would have more backup, but having Shikamaru around wasn't so bad. There was only one issue. Stealth was her specialty, but it also had the highest probability of dragging out the timeline. That meant she was usually away more than she would like. Not that she was particularly attached to Konoha, but being away from her own bed could just be such a...drag.
"Bet you didn't think you'd be this busy 10 years ago," Ino said.
She was right. In Shikamaru's ideal world, he would've been married by now with two kids, living by the river in an unassuming terrace house. He'd be playing shogi on his front porch, and he'd spend his days staring at the sky, and watching life pass him by.
"Nice haircut," he said.
They started walking down the main road, side-by-side. Ino instinctively reached for a strand of her short blond hair and tugged on it. "I thought I could go for something new," she said.
"And here I thought you were just copying Sakura," Shikamaru mused.
"You really don't understand women at all," she snapped, crossing her arms over her chest.
He was miffed by the random (underhanded) attack on his character, but he managed to steel his resolve. This was Ino, after all. She was practically a master of thinking up insults on the fly.
The mission was simple. Extract information about the whereabouts of a rogue nin from a man named Yamazaki Daichi. The caveat? Ino had no idea who this man was, what he looked like, and more importantly, what he was capable of. It wasn't the worst case scenario. She'd been in situations where she didn't even have a name. Those missions were oftentimes the messiest.
Shikamaru and Ino found an inn on the outskirts of the Waterfall Village, where they decided to rest and reconvene in the morning. Konoha had been notoriously cheap when it came to housing expenses so they ended up sharing a room. Neither of them gave it much thought until the innkeeper's daughter make some off comment about what a cute couple they were. Shikamaru didn't bother denying it (in fact, he was more amused than anything), but the thought made Ino shudder.
They slept in separate futons on the ground, which made her reminisce about the days when they were Team 10. With Asuma-sensei around, Ino always felt safe. Not that she didn't feel safe now, but back then they'd felt more like a family under the same roof. Ino would always sleep off to the side, Shikamaru next to her, Choji next to him, then Asuma-sensei. The thought made her heart wrench, and she shook away the thought, knowing it would only cause her pain.
Shikamaru's breathing was sound and even, which meant that he was probably asleep. He was good at it and Ino envied him. Her thoughts had a tendency to cloud her mind and she often spent hours trying to fall asleep.
Ino woke up in a cold sweat. It took her a moment to gather herself; and when she did, she realized she was gripping onto Shikamaru's hand so tightly his knuckles were turning white. He met her gaze, his eyes filled with concern. He felt her forehead for a fever, but she brushed him away, releasing his hand in the process.
"You were having a nightmare," he said.
She wanted to bury her face in her knees. It was too embarrassing, really. She knew that shinobis were the most vulnerable when they were asleep, but she didn't expect this. A soft sigh escaped her parted lips as she gathered herself.
"It's nothing," she said.
Shikamaru didn't buy it, obviously. For a guy with a 200+ IQ, she could've expected that much. But he also didn't press her to explain. For that, Ino was grateful. As she buried herself in her comforter, she peeked over the edge and saw the moon filter through the window. It was so pretty, so distracting, and just what Ino needed. Distractions, in the end, were her saving grace.
Missions were often spent trying to find ways of passing time. For Shikamaru, this was easy. He had the sky, which was available during their travels. But Ino had always been more of a night owl. She liked counting stars and tracing constellations with her fingers, but night time was necessary for rest. As they crossed into Waterfall territory, they managed to find time to relax at a nearby hot spring. Shikamaru had declined to join, but Ino knew she'd be unlikely to get an opportunity like this once the mission proceeded, so she decided to take her chances.
"Ah, that's just what I needed," she said, patting her cheeks. Her skin was soft and bouncy after a good wash.
Shikamaru, who had been waiting on the porch outside, stood up from his seat, "Took you long enough."
Ino ignored his quip, humming a soft melody as she pranced to the main road. Shikamaru followed her out of obligation, crossing his arms over his chest as he approached her from behind.
"Why did Naruto assign you to this mission?" She asked.
"Sick of me already?" He asked with a tired smile.
"Wow, you really read my mind," Ino stated sarcastically.
Shikamaru shrugged, "I asked to observe the field. You were already assigned. It made logistical sense, since we've worked together before and have built up rapport. Naruto probably knew that."
It wasn't the answer she wanted to hear, but then again, she wasn't exactly sure what she wanted to hear.
"I guess that makes me your sensei," Ino said.
Shikamaru snorted, "Let's not go too far."
She grinned, "You asked to observe the field. I am the field. Me."
"Man, you're not going to make this easy for me," he said. "Troublesome woman."
Ino stuck out her tongue.
They didn't speak about last night. They didn't speak about the nightmare. Some things were just better off left unsaid. For Ino, it was easy. It was just another memory she could bury inside herself.
They found the outpost assigned to them, a little shack near the outskirts of town. Inside was a kitchen, a bedroom and a small washroom. This would be home for the next few weeks, or however long this mission would take. Ino brushed her finger against the dining table to find a thin film of dust imprinted on her fingers. This place would need a massive overhaul, especially if they wanted to be comfortable.
Shikamaru sauntered in the room, dropping his bag off near the couch, "You can take the bed."
Ino nodded. It was nice that they didn't have to exchange the pleasantries. She didn't have to pretend to want the couch, and he didn't have to overcompensate on the chivalry.
"So, what now?" He asked.
"We wait," she said, eyeing the open window. She pulled the blinds down, a shadow descending upon the living space. "The lady at the onsen told me about a bar that most of the Waterfall shinobi gather. Maybe we can find the perp there. At the very least, gather some intel."
It was rare to see Ino take charge. After all, Shikamaru had become the sort of unofficial leader of Team 10 (whether he intended to or not). Responsibility looked good on her, and for once, he was willing to take a backseat.
"I have to change," she said, grabbing her knapsack.
"Why don't you just transform?" He replied.
"It puts a strain on my chakra," she said. "I don't know if I can hold it for more than three or four hours."
So she knew her limitations. That was new. Normally, Ino was headstrong and willing to take on any challenge, which often meant Shikamaru had to pick up the pieces from behind. He had his reservations when he discovered she'd decided to go into stealth, but maybe she'd turned over a new leaf. Maybe she was more aware than she'd appeared.
Ino headed into the bedroom, where she dumped the contents of her bag onto the bed. She pulled out some casual clothing: an orange t-shirt, some white pants, and a pair of glasses. She peeled off her kunoichi attire and let it crumple to the floor. As she donned her new appearance, she glanced at herself in the mirror. She pulled her hair into a small ponytail and added some brown contacts for good measure.
When she re-emerged in the living room, Shikamaru blinked.
"You look...normal," he stated dully.
"Wow, what an incredibly astute observation," Ino replied, pushing the glasses up her nose bridge. "I'm not trying to catch flies tonight. We're simply there to observe and listen. The last thing we want is for someone to recognize us."
And then: "Welcome to stealth," she added, patting him on the shoulder. "You should probably change into something more...you."
When Ino asked Shikamaru to go for something more nondescript, she didn't expect him to simply remove his flak jacket and call it a day. Well, it fulfilled the job. Shikamaru looked plainer than ever, which was an achievement, even for him. They arrived at the bar at 9pm and found a spot at the counter. A group of surly looking men came in soon after and stepped through the front door, each scruffier than the other.
"Here, start a conversation with me," Ino said.
He was bad at this. She figured as much.
Time to put on the acting face.
"Honey, you know I like it when you let your hair down," Ino said, pouting.
Shikamaru was startled by Ino's acting, even more so because he'd almost been fooled by it. It took him only a second to compose himself as the group of men passing by behind them found a seat in the back corner of the room.
Ino's eyebrow twitched.
This was going to be a long night.
Turns out the men who headed into the bar were simply there to bitch about work and their wives. Ino knew this mission could be slow, but could the gods cut her some slack? As they filtered out through the exit, she realized that the bar was nearly empty at that point. Aside from her and Shikamaru, there was an older woman sitting near the front, drinking alone.
Ino was on her fifth cup of sake, which was saying something because Ino was no slouch when it came to keeping her priorities straight. Still, she had to ease the boredom somehow. Who knew how long she'd have to camp around for information?
Maybe it was the buzz of the alcohol, the atmosphere, or maybe it was the fact that it'd been a long time since she'd hung out with Shikamaru on her own volition (well, sort of, this was still a mission after all), but she felt at ease.
"Why haven't we dated?" She asked.
It was a question born of curiosity. It certainly made a lot of sense for them to date, though she didn't feel particularly attracted to him. (Then again, she felt very little attraction to most of the men she's dated, so that probably wasn't saying much. Maybe she could try women for a while.)
"We have," Shikamaru said. "Once."
Ino arched a brow.
"You got so drunk you threw up, and then you started crying," he said. He decided not to mention the fact that this all took place in the span of an hour.
It hit her, suddenly. He'd asked her out on a cool autumn day, when the leaves were red and littered over the roads in clumps. They were eating lunch at the barbecue restaurant with Choji when he decided to muster the courage and ask her out on a date. He'd even clarified his intentions by asking "so it's a date?" which Ino thought was tacky, but she'd relented anyway. She wasn't exactly sure what was going through her mind - that part was murky - but she did remember vomiting in the bathroom of a udon restaurant before being carried back to her apartment.
"Oh," she said.
That was really all she could say, at this point. She accepted it mainly because the alternative was too nauseating to even fathom.
That she would've hated it, or even worse, enjoyed it.
Suddenly, a man walked through the entrance. The woman at the front peered up from her drink, a small smile forming on her red lips. The man was on the softer side, frail and skinny. He had a five-o-clock shadow that might've been just shy of a goatee. His eyes were beady and he had a gold teeth where his canine should've been. He greeted the woman with a curt nod and took a seat.
Sometimes, Ino just knew. Having worked in stealth for so long, she had a pretty good grasp as to when to pay attention. She met Shikamaru's gaze and he nodded in understanding. It was a mutual kind of reckoning, something she didn't have to explain with words. One of the perks of working with an old teammate, though she would probably never admit it aloud.
The man slipped her two wads of cash, way more money than an average commoner in the Waterfall Village would be carrying around.
The woman counted the bills, "Where's the other half?"
"You'll get it after," he said.
She seemed to accept this, a small smile forming on her lips. "Come with me, then," she took him by the hand and led him to the backdoor of the bar, where they exited quietly.
Ino stood up and followed them.
"Oi, your tab," the bartender snapped.
Shikamaru threw a few coins on the countertop before following after her.
By the time he exited the back entrance, he found Ino standing in an empty alleyway outside the bar alone. The man and woman from earlier had vanished completely. There was no sense that they were even here at all.
"Looks like we have our work cut out for us," Shikamaru said.
The blonde sighed, turning her heel and heading back into the bar. Shikamaru took a deep breath and decided to follow her from behind, yet again, wondering what could compel her to move around with such purpose when they'd clearly lost their lead.
"How often does that cute couple come around?" Ino asked, propping an elbow on the countertop of the bar.
She started batting her eyelashes, putting on a smile for show. Only then did Shikamaru realize that she'd let her hair down and taken off her glasses.
The bartender, a young-ish looking man who looked like he was probably still in high school, flushed red, "It's my first day on the job."
Ino winked, "All good. I'll be around, so do let me know if you do find out."
He nodded diligently.
As Shikamaru followed her out the front door of the bar, she slipped her glasses back on and tied her hair back up. Funny. Shikamaru always preferred her with longer hair, but she wasn't half bad with the new do.
"What now?" He asked.
"Well, it's a waiting game now," Ino said, pensively, staring at the sky. "We should gather some intel in the morning, figure out who those two were."
"What if they have nothing to do with Daichi?"
The stars were out. Ino stared up at them and smiled. "I just have a hunch," she said. "That's all."
That was enough to assuage any doubts he had. Ino was pretty good at her job, after all.
She turned around and met his gaze, "Let's get some rest, Shikamaru."