He didn't know why it was this way. Whenever she performed the Shintenshin no jutsu, transferring her mind into someone else's body, leaving her own body unguarded- for some reason, it was always Shikamaru to whom she left the task of safekeeping her real body. If an enemy wised up and attacked it while it was helpless, after all, she would be killed.

But why was Shikamaru always left in charge of it? Chouji was always just as near, and often so were other allies. What it because the kagemane no jutsu could be just as easily performed while hardly moving at all? Because it was initially meant for keeping enemies at bay, away from him and resultantly her? Or maybe, was it a character judgement? Was there something about Chouji she trusted with her life less, or something about Shikamaru she trusted more?

Whatever it was, it had been that way now for four years.

Ino and Chouji were now finally chuunins, but Shikamaru had once again been separated in rank from them by getting promoted to jounin, which was more than entirely bothersome. He found he always had less free time this way, and a lot more was expected of him. He even went as far as to wonder why he didn't intentionally botch the jounin exam and try to stay chuunin, but then he remembered that if he hadn't tried his best, he probably would have died. In a test like that, your friends can be as brutal as your enemies, and there were a thousand ways to die. So, he grudgingly accepted his new jounin level missions, hoping they'd be over quickly and not be too dangerous. He had planned his life around being a ninja of whom very little was expected, but it turned out he was a genius, and that was so annoying.

In either case, whenever he was sent on missions, he was most often allowed to pick his own team. This was encouraged to promote a sense of unity between the away teams, because the practical thing to do is to pick who you work best with, both in fighting style and in character.

More often than not, everyone picked who they had been on a three-man team as genins with. Shikamaru was no exception. The three of them knew each other well, knew each others limits, the way the others think, what to expect, and- despite what Ino would have said- preferred each other above any one else to be fighting beside them.

So, here they were again, Ino, Shikamaru, and Chouji, hiding in the trees as they were so good at doing. Years ago, they all would have agreed that they were probably the most pathetic team trying to struggle through the chuunin exam, but if nothing else, that experience strengthened their ability to hide in broad daylight. But now, not wanting to be left behind, Ino and Chouji were training hard to keep up with Shikamaru so that they could stay on his team, be useful on missions. Chouji was learning how to become larger still, and how to use his bulk most accurately against his enemies and their jutsus. Ino was struggling to learn the technique in which her body will stay standing, or hiding, when she left it- but to very little avail, as once again, she was collapsed in Shikamaru's arms. Shikamaru's father, who was so proud of his son's talent, was teaching him every Nara clan jutsu he could remember. While Shikamaru DID protest, claiming the time it took to learn to be far too troublesome, he was nonetheless learning all of them at an exceptional rate.

Currently, Shikamaru was safekeeping Ino's body close to the enemy base. Chouji was eight yards to the left and out of sight. Ino had infiltrated the camp by possessing the carefully chosen body of a chuunin girl with a personality alike to her own, so that her allies wouldn't be alerted to the Shintenshin no jutsu when the girl did something out of character. This wasn't a fighting mission- if possible, that is. This was information gathering. The land of Hidden Waterfall, which had minded it's own business for so long, now seemed to be acting up and doing suspicious things. Word had spread around Hidden Leaf that Waterfall shinobi were seen spying and caught infiltrating. Shikamaru was to find out as much as he could. The hokage had probably sent him because she knew that he would pick Ino on his team, and Ino was practically built for espionage. If she somehow failed, Shikamaru figured they would probably use his technique to trap someone into wandering into the forest towards them, then tie him up and threaten him until they found out what they needed. Then they would probably have to kill him, which sounded perfectly annoying. Shikamaru's analytical brain began going through ways to lure someone to them if Ino couldn't find anything out, possible escape routes if she was caught, rescue techniques if she was captured, an any number of other things he thought about on missions, always planning for the worst. It was better to be prepared, anyhow.

Ten minutes. Did it always take this long? Shouldn't she be done by now? Shikamaru looked around. Nothing more than empty forest surrounded him. No one was in sight. What was taking so long? Could her jutsu even last this length of time? He glanced down at her body. It hadn't moved, jerked, blinked... Maybe she was succeeding as according to plan, was finding out everything they wanted to know about the suspicious activities of Hidden Waterfall. Or maybe she was still trying to convince the others that she was the arrogant blue-haired chuunin girl whose mind she had overthrown. Maybe Ino had been CAUGHT... no, she would release her jutsu immidiately if that happened. Unless she was already dead... Thoughtlessly, Shikamaru moved his fingers up to her pulse, pressing them there for a moment until he felt the relieving pulsating of her veins. He exhaled, and it occurred to him that for a moment he had held his breath. He held his fingers firm between her neck and her jaw, feeling the familiar thumping of her blood pumping against his fingertips. It was... comforting, somehow. Her thin body collapsed in his arms, relying on him, his hand on her face, her soft skin... it was like she was just sleeping, really. Not in any kind of mindless ninjutsu induced coma. Merely peacefully napping.

He was looking at her now, his hand had not left her neck, but he had lightened his touch to a gentle brushing against her soft skin. Slowly, carefully, as if he might wake her, he traced his fingertips up her jaw and rested them on her cheek, watching her sleeping face. How lovely.

How... annoying.

He withdrew his hand, and continued his lookout of the surrounding woods, keeping his senses open for signs of an ambush. He hadn't heard anything where Chouji was hiding, which meant it must be okay in his end- Chouji was not somebody who could be ambushed quietly.

His thoughts wandered again. Yamanaka Ino... She had to be the single most obnoxious person he had ever had the displeasure of knowing. She was conceited and arrogant, loud mouthed and foul tempered, and the MOST annoying when she mentioned the name "Sasuke".

Shikamaru had never really liked Uchiha Sasuke. He was always brooding and miserable and way too pretty. He had no interest in anything but revenge, and for some reason, he fascinated all the girls. They call him "mysterious" and "sexy". Even some of the boys were obsessed, always wanting to fight him, to test their skills against the famous Uchiha prodigy. Shikamaru found him to be nothing less than an, albeit talented, brooding and angsty pain in the ass whose life will only end miserably. He could see it. So, why couldn't Ino? Why couldn't she see that an angry prettyboy like him would only make her unhappy? Did it HAVE to be about looks? There were probably tons of guys who were so much better for her- like himself, for example. When was she going to give up on her silly girlish crush on those cold black eyes and let other guys have a chance to get to know her? Shikamaru even knew of a few people who have had crushes on her, some even daring to ask him about her, since he was her teammate; to which he was always explained to them that they were being annoying and if they wanted to find out so bad, ask her instead of troubling him with stupid questions.

Come to think of it, those guys were all pretty stupid, too. In fact, NO ONE that Shikamaru could think of would have been worthy of her. They were ALL stupid. And himself... being the worst.

He HATED when she talked about Sasuke, and then worst of all, he hated himself for realizing that it was because he was beginning to feel a pang of jealousy towards her feelings for that stuck up and arrogant Uchiha boy. Why always HIM? What was wrong with a plain looking, average guy? Did her standards have to be so HIGH? Granted, he himself may have been a little below her. He wasn't handsome, hard working, incredibly talented or even very nice. In fact, he really didn't have very many good qualities at all, as he was beginning to realize with disappointment. But he... he... for her...

DAMN IT! Girls are SO troublesome. He brushed back his hair in frustration, though there was nothing to brush back as it was all bound in a tight ponytail on top of his head. He looked at her again, with a sort of pathetic, defeated countenance. More and more often recently, he found himself thinking about her, found himself wandering into places she frequents most often as if in hopes of running into her. Found himself looking forward to the times when she was forced to trust her helpless body to him while she stole someone's mind for a while. Found himself enjoying holding her in his arms- even though, in a matter of speaking, it wasn't real. He wasn't holding her because she enjoyed it. He was holding her because she NEEDED it. Needed his protection. And protect her he would. With his life, if need be; though the prospect of that was more than a little disappointing.

You see? He thought, as if trying to send her a telepathic message, I can protect you. If nothing else... I can at least do THAT.

Hesitantly, he brushed aside the long lock of platinum blonde hair that always hung in front of her face. As usual, her hair had been pulled into a bun in the back of her head, where her ponytail had once hung before she cut it off four years ago. She hadn't grown it back out since, but at the same time she almost never took her hair down. He would have... liked to see that. He began to wonder... if he took out her bun right now, would she know? What excuse would he give when she came back to consciousness with her hair in her face? Would she be offended? Ah, she was Ino, of course she would be offended. She finds reasons to be offended. Still, his only chance may be when she's unconscious like this. He found that curiosity was now raging within him. It was probably really cute. Or maybe it was horribly uneven and she was trying to hide it.

He hesitantly touched her hair, wondering if he should do it. No big deal, right? It got caught on a twig. Or the binder suddenly snapped. Or her hair got caught on one of his buttons and he had to take it down to release himself. Or your hair's been down all day, what are you talking about? He was really thinking hard now, his hand hovering over her bun. He swallowed his breath. Did he dare? He touched the binder, and slowly he began to pull...

Ino jerked violently and Shikamaru jumped in shock, his hand flew to his chest, clutching his heart. Ino shook her head, pulling herself away from him. He tried to pretend that she hadn't startled him, though his heart was still racing. "TOOK long enough," he said bitterly. She rolled her eyes. "I didn't see YOU doing anything useful."

"I did plenty."

"You sat in a tree while I did all the work."

If she had time to argue, she must not have been caught, so the mission must have went smoothly. He scoffed. "So what happened in there? What did you find out?"

"From what I can tell," she began "Hidden Waterfall's been spying on us because they think that WE'RE spying on THEM- and they're just doing the same thing WE are- trying to find out why."

"Why would they think that? We haven't been bothering them."

She rolled her eyes again. "Well I couldn't very well say 'I'm sure it wasn't Konoha' when they had seen with their eyes our shinobi, or I would look a little suspicious, wouldn't I? But I think they know about as much as we do- that we think THEY'RE spying on US."

"Man," Shikamaru sighed irritably, "This sucks. This is just gonna get more and more confusing."

"Let's get Chouji and report back to the hokage," she suggested, "and quickly- that girl's going to wake up soon, and she's going to tell people what happened."

The two of them then sped away.

If only she had waited one more minute...


Kiba sped through the trees of the Hidden Leaf forest, his faithful companion Akamaru at his heels. He leapt from branch to branch, so fast he barely left any trace of having been there- a quality expected in any competent ninja, especially one with a nose as keen as his. As a recently titled jounin of the Inuzuka clan, he was especially cautious not to leave his scent behind where he didn't want to be tracked.

It had taken him four years, but he was a jounin at last. The test had been dangerous, perilous, and absolutely exhilarating. He still bore some scars from the event, and he displayed them like badges of honor. He had EARNED the title of jounin, with every fiber of his being. No more rivaling against his long time teammate, Aburame Shino, who had made jounin last year. He was one of Konoha's top shinobi now, and when he was a few years older and had some time to mature, he planned to take his own team of genins and train them as Kurenai-sensei had trained him, Shino, and Hinata.

Hinata... poor girl was still a chuunin, and probably would be for life. She was, sadly, not terribly talented, though she had a lot of spirit. Kiba had seen her training, when she didn't think he was looking. Her stamina was impressive, as was her will, but her body couldn't take the strain, and her self-respect was damaged, as even her father had given up on her in favor of her younger and more talented sister. Kiba always wished that he could have seen Hinata's fight with Neji at their first chuunin preliminary exam four years ago, seen her strong determination and a Hyuuga versus a Hyuuga... but at the same time, it was probably better that he hadn't been there, because he probably would have tried to jump down and punch Neji in the face. That guy was SO arrogant, Kiba couldn't STAND him. The way he treated Hinata, the way he made her feel... made Kiba really want to have a go at him, but he restrained himself knowing that it would hurt Hinata more to see her friend and her cousin fight.

Branches shook and leaves brushed past his face. He could hear Akamaru behind him. He grinned. "Almost there, Akamaru!" he shouted to his dog, who give a yip of acknowledgement. The dog was, amazingly, still puppy sized after four years, but that was okay because Kiba liked being able to carry his friend in his jacket.

The two of them at last landed noiselessly on the ground of the meeting place. Hinata was already there. He smirked. "Hey. Shino here?"

Startled, Hinata whipped her head around. She had not noticed his arrival, apparently not sensed him at all. Usually she was more attentive than that- her mind must have been elsewhere. "Uh- no. Not yet. Good morning, Kiba-kun," she smiled lightly, speaking in her quiet voice, and raising her fingers up to play with the zipper by her collar, as she so often did. As Kiba stepped forward, Akamaru leapt up onto his shoulder and then on top of his head, as he was trained to do, nuzzling himself under Kiba's hood. Hinata smiled at the puppy, and raised her nose up to him. "Good morning, Akamaru-kun," she smiled sweetly.

Kiba blushed lightly, smiling. Because he was so tall, she had to stand on her toes to reach Akamaru. He took a step forward so that Akamaru could lick her nose, and she giggled. There were merely inches between them. And she was so unbalanced. A little tip in the right direction, and she could fall directly into his arms... his eyes wandered a little, down to her chest. That coat really did her no justice. She should wear something tighter, or with a lower collar. Really, she was impressively well endowed when she was thirteen, now that she was sixteen she should appreciate her youth and good looks. Now that Kiba was a teenager, he had spent a lot of time studying the girls of the Hidden Leaf Village, and he could say that without a doubt Hinata had the best chest. Though, he considered, if she ever DID flaunt her femininity as many of the other girls did, he probably wouldn't be as attracted to her. It was her shy, reserved bashfulness, her quiet, nervous voice, and her timid demeanor that was her charm. Her blue-black hair, cut in the same short style she had always worn, her white, pupiless eyes, her tiny, perfect pink lips and smooth pale skin... She was SO CUTE...

He considered giving Hinata's foot a slight, accidental kick to see if she would fall into his arms... then maybe, if his hand had been in the wrong place when she fell and he tried to catch her, he could accidentally grab her breast...

Kiba thrust his hands into his pockets. Hinata lowered herself back onto her heels, gave him a slight smile, and backed away a few feet. He sighed slightly. Akamaru yipped happily and attempted to wag his tail under Kiba's hood, his tongue hanging out of his mouth.

Shino appeared behind them in no spectacular way. He just sort of meandered into their vicinity. "Mission's cancelled," he said flatly.

Kiba's eyes flew open. "What? WHY?" He demanded, as he had been looking forward to working again. Despite his outrage, Shino kept an infuriatingly level head, never showing any emotions he answered his teammate's question. "Because we were backup. Team A gathered all the information we can get from the enemy encampment. Then the enemy moved out."

"Shit!" Kiba cursed, and kicked a tree. "Hidden waterfall probably sensed Team A. Hokage-sama should have sent US as Team A! They never would have known we were there!"

"Nonetheless," Shino continued coldly, "The mission is cancelled. Go home." Then he left, just as unimpressively as he had entered. Kiba fumed for a moment after he was gone. Who appointed HIM the leader! They were the same rank! Why couldn't Kiba be in charge of an operation? How long was he going to take orders from that bug freak!

He sighed irritably, regaining his composure. Probably because Shino had made jounin FIRST. Because he was always cool and level headed, and never underestimated his opponent. Because he was always in perfect control of a situation, and never let his emotions rule his judgement. Because Shino was a born leader. Kiba was often everything but that, rushing headlong into battle, acting first and thinking later, arrogant and over-confident. Admittedly, in the back of his mind, he probably wouldn't make a good leader. He was fine alone, and under someone else's command, but he really couldn't imagine being in charge of an important A-rank mission with lives on the line. He'd rather, in that situation, leave the thinking to others and the fighting to him. The most he really wanted to command was a team of genins and their C and D rank missions. Despite how Shino enraged him, Kiba found that he DID sort of view him as the leader of their little trio.

And it was always THEM Shino took on missions with him, when he was allowed to choose his own team. Even though Kiba was often violent and unthinking, even though Hinata's lack of self respect often hampered her abilities, Shino was at his best with those two on his team.

It was... comforting. It pleased Kiba to know that his long time companion and unspoken rival preferred his and Hinata's company, trusted in their abilities. After all- Shino and Hinata are who would be on HIS team if HE were in charge.

He heard a rustling sound, and out of the corner of his eye, saw Hinata turn to leave. "Uh- hey-" he started awkwardly, "Where you going?"

"Um-" she seemed confused by the question. Had Shino not just told them to go home? "I... I don't know. I guess... probably my house."

He smiled at her. "We got the day off, it seems. You wanna go get some ice cream, or somethin'?..." he asked tentatively. She smiled a little shyly in response.

"Okay. That sounds fun, Kiba-kun."

His heart gave a slight flutter, and he grinned at her. Akamaru jumped off Kiba's head and lead the way out of the woods, towards the city.