I rewrote this chapter about seven times... It use to cut to ten years in the future but I decided not to. Maybe later. There's always room for another chapter right? Anyway, hope you enjoy it.

It was about a year and a half later. Ino was given a solo mission to the Hidden Sand Village. I walked her to the gate that day. It was a routine message delivery, she'd be back in less than a week. But my heart ached that I had to let her go, and by herself. She'd be traveling through unfamiliar terrain. But for Ino I smiled, and hugged her goodbye, "How about when you get back I take you for Ramen? I've got something I want to talk to you about." I wanted to finally tell her. After twelve long years.

She gave me an inquisitive look. Acting like she didn't know what that something was. It was kind of cute when she played the blond. "I'd like that."

"Be careful..."

"I will." She gave my hand a squeeze and walked through the gate, before disappearing into the woods she turned and waved. Suddenly, I had a bad feeling deep in the pit of my stomach. Waving back I resisted the impulse to grab her and drag her back to the village. She'd hate me, but she'd be safe. A lot could happen in a week.

On the night that she'd be crossing the desert I dreamed I was a hawk, soaring over the forest. Beneath me it turned to grassy plains, then the sand dunes of the deserts. Ino raced across the desert, looking dangerous and half crazed, but beautiful. Like a wild goddess. She slid down a dune and let out a wild cry, enjoying the feeling of the wind rush by her face. It was like I with her. Sweat left trails in the dust that covered her face and arms. At the bottom of the dune she stumbled and fell flat on her ass, laughing hysterically. She caught her breath and dug in her shirt to find a silver chain. Pulling it out it revealed a sun and moon locket. She unclasped it, opening it carefully. Inside was a picture of us after our first big mission, her arm was around my neck, mine was around her waist. She looked up at the moon, where my hawk self flew, and whispered my name. It was almost like she knew I was there. That I was watching over her.

The day she was suppose to return, I waited by the gate, pacing anxiously. The guards gave me a sympathetic look, but said nothing. The day went by slowly and I waited there until they had to close it for the night. As the gate clanged shut my heart fell. That bad feeling in my gut gnawed my insides. At home I didn't sleep. Instead I studied the hunting and tracking guide Ino'd gotten me for my birthday. I never read it and knowing she thought I'd like it help ebb the concern until dawn. The next day I went straight to Tsunade. Voicing my worries to her only made her shake her head, "It's one day Shikamaru. I'm sure there's a reason-"

"I can't except that answer. I have no missions, let me go at least see if she got to the safe house at the edge of the desert. I can make it there in less than a day. And be back by tomorrow afternoon."

Tsunade sighed, then nodded, "Okay, though I believe you should have some faith in her." But I was gone. I did have faith in Ino. I had faith in her surviving until I got there. I ran out the village like a bat out of hell. I knew the forest well. This was my home after all. Me and Ino had played in these woods when we were young, and the best hiding places were as easy to recall as the image of Ino frowning when I found her time and time again. The forest melted into grassy plains and the sun was going down when I got to the little halfway house at the edge of the desert. I knew the innkeeper well. He and my father were friends from back during the great war... Or some nonsense like that.

When I told him Ino's description he nodded, offering me a cup of green tea, "She was in here about a week ago, took about two days worth of water and headed out. He studied me a moment, "Should she have been back by now?" I nodded and stared at the tea he gave me. "I'm sure she's alright, sonny. One sec... Hey, Yuri!" He called to a hidden sand ninja in the corner, she'd been sipping at a water and reading Make Out Tactics. "You seen a pretty young thing, about this tall, bright blonde hair, in purple with a leaf headband?"

"Yeah, I saw her leaving the Sand village four days ago. Why?" My heart sank.

"She hasn't stopped here yet. This is the only rest stop between the sand village and the leaf village."

The ninja frowned, "She did leave a day before that big sand storm. She could have run into trouble and been stranded out there." I stood and made my way for the door. Ino should be back, "Hey kid, you're not going out there alone are you?"

"I will if I must. She's my teammate and I..." My voice trailed off. I wasn't losing Ino. I couldn't.

The ninja nodded, understanding, "Well, I'm going with you. The desert is MY backyard." she gave me a curious look then turned to the older man, "We're going to need a LOT of water."

The innkeeper nodded going into the back he brought out two barrels with straps, "I keep these for just this sort of thing. It's about two weeks worth of water. One week for two people." He handed one to each of us.

"We won't be gone that long, but if- when we find this girl she'll be dehydrated. We'll need the excess water." An image of Ino looking like a dried up grape flashed across my eyes and I shivered. No, she was alright. She was a survivor and she'd be alright.

"Let's get going."

"Alright." I put the barrel on my back, it was surprisingly light. The stars over the desert were surprisingly bright. They kept me from nodding off as I walked. The moon was almost full and my heart lighten at the thought that maybe, somewhere in this sea of sand, Ino was looking up at the same moon. Yuri walked in front of me remaining silent for a good while, after we'd been searching a while she looked back over her shoulder, "So... This girl. She must be something special to risk life and limb out here in the desert."

I stopped and stared at Yuri who just kept on walking, then I smiled, "She's something alright."

"She's lucky to have someone like you."

"Nah, I'm the lucky one." My eyes filled with tears suddenly as the reality of the hopelessness of my task hit me. What if I never saw Ino again? Yuri didn't look back at me, or say anything else, taking the hint. I knew it was almost impossible, and now she knew I knew. That's when we saw the dark lump hidden between to dunes, "Oh no..." I ran to it, Yuri on my tail. The figure was cover by a dark cloak and half buried in the sand. My hand shook as I reached for the hood. I clasped it so tightly that my knuckles turned white. Pulling it back it revealed a man in his thirties with a hidden cloud headband on his forehead that was slashed thru. "It's not her." My voice was no more than a whisper. However, when I looked at his hand my heart stopped. In it was the locket from my dreams, the one that had been around Ino's neck. I took it and turned it over in my hands, it was smeared with blood. The cool metal pulse under my fingers and I jumped, startled. It was like the faint pulse of another's heart, and it beat in time with mine.

"Rogue... Looks like someone really did a number on him."

"It was her." I held the chain out to show Yuri, "This was Ino's, he must have attacked her."

Yuri frowned, "This guy's about a day dead. If she's injured than we had better hurry. That's more water loss..." She didn't need to finish. I knew what it meant. Ino would be weak and disoriented. We had to find her before sunrise. Only a few more hours. I scanned the moonlit sand and saw something that made heart rise, "Look!" There not ten yards away was a rock stacked on another rock. "She went that way." I ran to it and there on it was a smear of red. Five yards farther was a trail of red blood droplets. She was bleeding. Yuri ran in that direction, like a hound hot on the trail. We were close. The blood spatters became fewer and farther between the more we traveled. The desert became less sand and more hard earth, with strange rock formations and hills. It had taken on a gray tint and I knew why, sun up was coming and I was getting closer to her. The pulse of the necklace grew the farther we went. Suddenly, something caused me to look to the left and I skidded to a halt. There in the shade of a push of a dark figure, this one however was smaller and in the growing light, appeared purple, "Ino!" I sprinted to her, Yuri felt like a distant thought even as she knelt beside me. Ino was hot to the touch. A fever. Her arm had a make shift bandage made out of the same dark material as the cloak of the rogue ninja. I check her neck, "Damn!" Her pulse was dangerously weak. "Come on, Ino." I ripped a strip of cloth from my pants, opened the barrel and soaked it. Then I put the cloth to her forehead gingerly. The sun peeked over the horizon, just as her fever broke.

Yuri had given her arm a proper bandage, "We need to get her out of this desert before the full heat of the day hits us. We won't come out very close to your village but as long as we're out it won't matter." I nodded, Ino's heartbeat was stronger than it had been, and now that I had her, everything seemed possible. "I'll carry the other barrel, it's only half full. You can carry her." again I nodded, putting an arm under her legs and arms. Yuri picked up my barrel and we ran off into the dawn.

The next afternoon I awoke next to a rustle of fabric and someone shifting in the bed I had used as a pillow. I lifted my head to find Ino propped up against the head board. I almost cried out in joy. Almost. She grinned, "Morning, lazy bum." I smirked. She was adorable; hair a mess, make up gone, face bruised. She smiled sweetly, and I melted, "I knew you'd save me. I knew."

"Of course, I would. You didn't think I'd let you die out there did you?"

"But YOU? Doing work voluntarily?"

"I'm a late bloomer. My sense of duty has only begun to emerge." She let out a surprised laugh. I closed my eyes and smiled. Even through my eyes lids I could see her shine.


Ino had been safely home for about two weeks. Everyone had plans that Saturday night, Lee and Sakura, Tenten and Neji, Hinata and Kiba. Everyone but us. We were playing chess on the floor of my new apartment, and I was winning terribly. She was in a t-shirt and shorts, I sat across from her in a pair of sweats. Ino would move a space and I'd move my Queen, "Check." She moved her king again and I moved my Queen, "Check." She glared at me but suddenly her face went red and she looked away as a clap of lightning was followed by thunder that rolled across the sky. I was beginning to figure out women. Took me twelve years but I had a theory. Women are the ultimate game of strategy; the rules are always changing and they're different with every woman you meet. However, some rules are constant, like looking at THEM not their chest, they tend to find it demeaning. One move can cause all your hard work to go down the drain. You can't win all the battles but sometimes the easiest way to win is to say you're sorry and walk away (Before she decides if you're sorry you argued with her, sorry that she was right, or sorry you'd said anything at all). I also found that they are the champions of debate, because they don't let a little thing like reality screw with their argument and they know that one thing to say that, at first it sounds trivial and stupid but then it explodes in your face, like "You're unreasonable like your father." or better "You're acting just like your mother." I was confused, however, despite my theories. Lately she'd been acting oddly, I couldn't put my finger on it but-

Suddenly, she reached out and rubbed my chin, "Sorry. Something on your chin."

"Thanks. How about another game?"

"Sure... I mean-" she swallowed, "No I... I want to..." She cut herself off by leaning forward and kissing me. Suddenly there was to much space between us.

But I pulled away and sputtered, "Ino?" My voice sounded odd, throaty. I was unsure what I was asking. Was I asking why she kissed me? Who was she and where was Ino? Saying someone's name like you would a question doesn't exactly give a clear idea of what information you want them to convey.

"Yep?" She didn't look at me. She hadn't done anything wrong. I wanted her to kiss me again, and I wanted her to run far far away. She was throwing me off.

"I-I don't know wh- I mean I- What I'm trying-" My mind was swimming, my usual train of logic and calculations dismantling in my mind's eye. I was aware of my animal response; pulse rate, fluttering eyelids, sweat, haggard breath. I suddenly couldn't form a simple sentence. I couldn't get myself to lean forward and kiss her myself. My brain was shut down. INO had kissed ME.

But after a breath I didn't have to say or do a thing. She kissed me again, just as deeply as before. She climbed across the chess board, scattering the pieces. My hands slid over her cheeks, covering them completely. She pushed closer to me and I didn't know what to do but kiss her. She slid onto my lap, straddling me, and I knew what I wanted. My hands from her face down her back. She put her hands on my shoulders, they move slowly down my back and I shivered. I scooped her up and kissed her all the way to my room. I stumbled in the dark, laying her on the bed. I leaned over her, and kissed her again and again and again. Finding her by touch, by taste... I pulled away again, "We shouldn't." Her mouth was so close, our breath mingling in the small space between us. I was hot all over, "I shouldn't." I choked out the words with reluctance, my vocal cords were apparently still attached to my brain. It sent out an emergency broadcast. "Please, Ino. Tell me no." Instead there was a rustle of fabric and she kissed me again, and at a thought I pulled away to the edge of the bed. I was being seduced. I was being bewitched by my sexy teammate and it was unfair. I wasn't the one who was suppose to need convincing. I went to pull at my sweats again and stopped, "Are you sure, Ino?" I asked slowly, cautiously. Sure of what? A voice in my head asked. I wanted to bang that voice against the wall. Ino knew. Ino crawled towards me touching my hand, and following my arm to my neck then to my cheek. She kissed me pulling at my arm so we leaned back together. Outside the sky opened up and it poured down rain. That night we threw caution to the wind, and let ourselves be swept away.