A/N: This is my first story ever, so I would really appreciate feedback and criticism. It starts slow, but hopefully I'll be able to speed up the pace as the summer moves on.

Chapter 1: Float like a Butterfly, Sting like a Boar!

It was Choji's first day at the Konoha Ninja Academy. After years of hearing stories about the fearsome shinobi of Konoha, he was finally going to start training to become one. The air was sharp and clear and full of hope, and as Choji walked into the main Academy classroom his mind whirled with exciting visions of his future. A grown-up with one of the hitai-ite that marked a shinobi of the Leaf took roll call, and then began a lecture on the danger and responsibility of protecting the village.

Choji wasn't sure when he noticed the snickers, but the thought that they might be directed at him never entered his mind. It wasn't until the students stayed after school for free-sparring that Choji even realized anything was going on. It happened when he elbowed his way into the sparring circle, ready to finally try out the moves he had only ever practiced before a mirror.

Someone muttered, "Who wants to fight fatty?" Choji looked around, not quite sure what he had heard but instinctively beginning to tense up. A young boy with spiky, brown hair and red lines down his cheeks stepped into the ring, followed closely by a small, white dog.

"Let's see what you've got, fatty!" his opponent taunted. "The sooner you lose the sooner you can go get your dinner!" From the audience came a few chuckles and a loud "Go get him, Kiba!" Choji felt his lower lip start to tremble, and his eyes go moist with tears he refused to let fall. Why were they being so mean to him? He clenched his fists and set himself in the taijutsu stance his father taught him, determined to show everyone here he was as good as any of them. Kiba came right at him with a barrage of punches, his teeth clenched in a permanent snarl. Choji managed to block the first few wild swings, but one got past his guard and hit him a solid blow to the face. He rocked back on his heels, and before he could get his balance Kiba swept his legs out from under him. He tried to break his fall but couldn't twist his body in time, and ended up hitting the ground hard in a spray of dust and dirt.

Kiba looked down at him and sneered. "The fatter they are, the harder they fall." Choji got back up, but none of his attacks were quick to enough to hit Kiba. In a few minutes and as many falls, Choji was scratched and bruised and covered in dirt. After knocking Choji down a fifth time, Kiba snorted contemptuously, turned away and walked out of the circle, inviting the next match. Choji looked around at all of the unfamiliar faces of his classmates, faces which only that morning had represented the great potential of his exciting new life, but which were now jeering and laughing at him. He burst into tears and ran out of the circle, shouldering roughly past a boy in shorts with jet-black hair and a scowling expression. Since he was crying so loudly Choji wasn't able to hear the collective exclamation of surprise that went up as his quick shove sent Sasuke Uchiha flying backwards, to land sprawling in an awkward tangle of arms and legs.

oOoOo

Ino Yamanaka sat at the table with her father, idly picking at her food and thinking about Sasuke. Everyone knew about the Uchiha clan and its last surviving heir, though no one ever told children exactly what had happened. It was a mystery that was likely to remain unsolved, since even mentioning the Uchihas made Ino's father shut down. Though normally always willing to explain the complexities of the Leaf Village to an inquisitive young girl, Inoichi Yamanaka never said anything to his daughter about the downfall of the Sharingan users. Such a mysterious past practically guaranteed that Sasuke would be interesting, and he didn't disappoint. Ino remembered how the silent Uchiha had effortlessly beaten everyone brave enough to challenge him during the sparring after school, and how he rebuffed any overtures of friendship with a cool disdain. He was fascinating and cool, and almost never appeared at a loss.

Ino scowled, remembering the one moment when Sasuke had momentarily lost his mystery and poise - after that chubby kid had so rudely shoved him. Ino resented that the boy she was already beginning to idolize had been made to look foolish by a fat crybaby.

"Stupid Choji," Ino muttered under her breath. Inoichi turned to his daughter, startled into a short laugh at his daughter's remark.

"Choji… that's Choza Akimichi's boy, isn't it?" Inoichi asked, a slow grin working its way onto his face. "It's only the first day. He must have done something extraordinary to annoy you already..." He added, grinning wickedly, "It took his father at least a week when we were youngsters."

Ino started telling her father about the first day, but stopped when she saw the grin disappear from her father's face.

"I hope," Inoichi said, pausing deliberately and holding Ino's gaze with angry eyes, "that you did not participate in such shameful behavior. Choji is an Akimichi, a member of a noble clan that upholds our laws and protects our village. His father has saved my life countless times, and when you graduate from the academy you will most likely be on a team with Choji. I don't want to ever hear that you participated in making him feel unwelcome or different."

Ino hadn't paid attention to anything past "…on a team with Choji." She sat straight up and dropped her chopsticks, her food forgotten in her dismay. "On a team with him! But I don't want to! I want to be on a team with Sasuke, not a crybaby like Choji!"

Her father's gaze grew darker still. Then he sighed, and took a deep breath. "Ino, I want you to consider carefully what happened today. Forget about what team you'll be placed in; that's the Hokage's decision and we will all abide by his word. Instead, think about what it would be like if the other children were mean to you on your first day. Don't you think you'd feel hurt, and sad? Remember we are Yamanakas: our clan's pride lies in our ability to know what others are thinking. Wouldn't you cry in a situation like that? I promise you this: one day you and all the other children will recognize just how strong Choji can be. Don't think him weak for being upset by his classmates' cruelty."

Ino felt her outrage subside, although she still felt resentment towards Choji on Sasuke's behalf. But really, how bad would the Academy be if her classmates laughed at her, or taunted her? Choji was chubby, but she believed her father when he claimed so forcefully that it wouldn't affect his ability as a ninja. She started to feel a little guilty at how she, along with almost everyone else in the class, had sat by and watched Choji get heckled without doing anything about it.

Ino looked back up at her father, who was waiting expectantly. She sighed gustily, knowing exactly what he wanted her to say. "I'll apologize to him tomorrow, Dad. And I'll speak up for him if anyone calls him fat again." Her father nodded once, satisfied. Having avoided the potential danger, Ino thought it best not to mention that she would be rooting for Sasuke if he ever sparred with Choji. Ino knew Sasuke was far too cool to make fun of Choji's weight, which meant she could watch him get revenge with a clear conscience.

oOoOo

Choji arrived home in tears, and poured out his story to his alarmed parents. His father Choza took him to a room filled with pictures of Akimichi warriors, all wearing the distinctive armor of their clan.

"What do these shinobi have in common?" Choza asked. "They're all big, Choji. Like me, and like you. Our size is our strength, son. We have to eat more to gain more energy; then we use that energy to fuel our clan techniques. When you're older I will teach you the Akimichi jutsus, and you will realize just how powerful you are. But no matter what, always be proud of who you are, Choji. Your classmates are young, and make fun of anything that is different. But once you show them your worth as a ninja, they'll eat their words. Just you wait!"

Choji dried his eyes on his shirt, and gave a huge sniff. "But I lost, Dad. I couldn't beat Kiba because I'm too slow. What if I'm just not good enough?" His voice dropped to a whisper as he admitted his fear, and he looked down at his feet, ashamed.

His father reached out and placed his hands on Choji's shoulders. "Don't even think that, Choji! What you lack in speed you'll make up for in strength! Remember some of your classmates may have already received training in taijutsu, so naturally some of them might be better than you now. But if you train and work hard, you'll be able to catch up in no time." Choza let out a big laugh, which came straight from his belly and seemed to make the ground shake. "I promise you, Choji, if you work at it your classmates will soon be too scared to even think about fighting you!"

Choji felt a little better, but his fears remained. When he went up to bed that night, he dreaded waking up and facing another day at the Academy.

The sun set and rose without regard for Choji's wishes, and so the next morning he trudged reluctantly to class. While the instructor began telling the class the history of the founding of Konoha, Choji tried his best not to look around him at the children who had witnessed his humiliation the day before. Out of the corner of his eye he saw an older student pantomiming someone crying, and just like that all the anger and frustration of the day before started rushing back.

Choji passed the rest of the morning lesson with his fists clenched in his lap, sitting as still as possible and missing almost all of the instructor's words. The lunch bell was a welcome break, and he gladly left his seat along with the others to go eat outside. Choji took out his bento, which his mother had packed full of his favorite food that morning. He was about to take a bite when an older student walking by grabbed his bento from off his lap.

"I bet this weighs 20 pounds," the kid jeered. "No wonder you're so slow when you fight! It's amazing you can even move."

"Give it back!" Choji shouted, tears of helpless frustration starting to form in the corners of his eyes. He reached out and wrenched the bento from the older student, sending all of the carefully arranged food flying into the air and landing scattered in the grass at his feet. The student laughed and ground a piece of fish into the dirt with his foot.

"Maybe this will help you lose a little weight, fatty!" Choji ran to a tree on the far end of the yard, clutching his bento box tightly. He sat down with his back up against the tree and let the tears flow.

After a few minutes he stopped crying and looked regretfully down at the box, wishing it contained more than a pitiful few grains of rice.

"How troublesome," said a voice to Choji's left. He looked up and saw a boy his own age, with black hair pulled back and tied in a ponytail sticking up from his head. Choji watched as the boy reached into his own pack, then pulled something out and offered it to Choji. It was a bag of chips.

oOoOo

Shikamaru was bored. Granted, he was often bored. But usually when he found something too tedious, like chores for example, he could take a break for a game of shogi or a nap. Not so at the Konoha Ninja Academy. The first time Shikamaru tried to nap in class he found himself rudely awakened by a blunt kunai thrown at his head. Iruka-sensei didn't even stop talking about the First Hokage, and kept a perfectly straight face as Shikamaru rubbed his head and scowled. So now Shikamaru stayed awake and suffered in silence, waiting for the lunch bell to ring and deliver him from boring stories about boring dead people.

It wasn't the instructor's fault. He tried to make learning interesting, and to give credit where it was due Iruka threw in lots of information designed to keep the children interested. But Shikamaru wasn't most children. From the age of three, Shikamaru had effortlessly mastered anything anyone taught him. Reading, writing, mathematics – they posed no challenge to him at all, and by the age of five Shikamaru was receiving lessons in military strategy from his father. He was the pride and joy of the Nara clan, and much was expected of him - which was the problem. He didn't want to have people pushing him, spurring him on to greater and greater achievements. It was just too much trouble. Why couldn't he just do his duty like everyone else, without everyone always demanding more?

The lunch bell rang, distracting Shikamaru from his increasingly aggravated thoughts. He went outside and settled himself on a nice sunny patch of grass, determined that at least during the lunch hour he would be able to take a nap. He was wonderfully drowsy and comfortable when he heard Choji shout "Give it back!" Annoyed, Shikamaru propped himself up on his elbows to see what was causing this unwelcome interruption.

Shikamaru saw the older boy waving Choji's bento around and sized up the situation. He knew that Choji had become a target for some of the more obnoxious students, and his unfortunate bout against Kiba the day before was still fresh in their minds. He considered going to help out Choji, but dismissed the idea as too troublesome. Maybe if Choji was in actual danger he would stir himself, but this bully had no intention of fighting. It might even be worth it if he tried anything violent, because Shikamaru had no doubts of Choji's potential. Shikaku Nara had told his son of many missions carried out successfully by Akimichis, and it would definitely be amusing to see the stupid baka currently waving Choji's bento around run over by a Meatball Tank jutsu. So Shikamaru watched silently until Choji's lunch went flying.

Shikamaru experienced a twinge of guilt at the sight, because he knew he could have prevented that outcome. Though still no expert at his clan's signature techniques (even the simplest Shadow Possession jutsu required considerable chakra control and focus), he would have been more than capable of freezing the upperclassman long enough for Choji to get his lunch back. While he wanted nothing more than to go back to sleep, his conscience pulled him to his feet and sent him across the yard with the bag of chips that constituted the remainder of his lunch.

He stopped a few feet from the sniffling Choji, feeling increased guilt that he hadn't acted sooner. "How troublesome" he said to himself, meditating on the annoying requirements of a conscience.

After Choji took the proffered bag of chips, Shikamaru extended his hand to help pull the other boy to his feet. "I'm Shikamaru Nara" he said to Choji. "Don't worry about that boy; he's just a bully who picks on younger students to distract himself from the fact that he's failed the graduation exam two years in a row."

Choji smiled at this illuminating news, and shook Shikamaru's hand. "I'm Choji," he said shyly.

"I know who you are," Shikamaru replied. "Your father was on a team with my father, and they still work together. We'll definitely be on the same team when we become genin. Our techniques work well together."

"Oh? What techniques do you mean?" Choji asked.

"I use shadow-based jutsus to immobilize our opponents, and you pound the crap out of them with power moves like the Meatball Tank, which normally is pretty easy to avoid." In order to clarify his description, and possibly to show off just a little, Shikamaru made his shadow morph and change until it looked exactly like Choji's, and then made a quick seal and muttered "Kagemane no jutsu." His shadow stretched out like a striking snake along the ground and melded with the shadow of a small bird pecking at an acorn nearby. He hopped up and down, and treated them both to the sight of the bird awkwardly copying his movements. Choji nodded thoughtfully.

Shikamaru was happy to see Choji gradually brighten as they discussed the pros and cons of various jutsus, and smiled inwardly when Choji popped open the bag of chips and began to casually munch on a few as he talked. They were discussing the limitations of shadow possession when a thought seemed to strike Choji.

"If my dad and your dad were on a team together, who was the third member? A team can't be only two people."

"You know the Yamanaka clan, right? Inoichi Yamanaka was the third man. His techniques are mostly mind-possession and telepathy. Actually, his daughter Ino is in our class; she's the loud, annoying blond girl. I bet you anything we'll be on a team with her." Just then, a high-pitched squeal attracted their attention. They turned toward the Academy to see a blond girl dressed in purple, with white elbow warmers. She was dragging a boy by the ear, and after a shocked minute Shikamaru recognized the boy as the older student who had taken Choji's bento.

"Speak of the devil…" he muttered.

Ino reached the two boys and released her hold on the boy's ear. Now that he was right in front of them, it was clear that the boy was soon going to have a spectacular black eye.

"Apologize to Choji!" Ino snarled, raising her hand as if to smack the older boy again. He cringed, flinching away from the outstretched hand like it was on fire.

"I- I'm really sorry…" the boy muttered, not meeting Choji's eyes. "It won't happen again."

Choji was staring at Ino as if she had two heads. Without even looking at his erstwhile tormentor, he said "That's fine, don't worry about it." The boy ran back to the Academy, shooting one last terrified glance over his shoulder to make sure Ino wasn't following after him.

Ino snorted in derision and then turned towards Choji. "Hi Choji. I wanted to say I'm sorry for not sticking up for you yesterday. Anybody messes with you again, send 'em to me and I'll take care of it." Then, with a little flick of her blond ponytail that Shikamaru found highly irritating, Ino turned and walked back to rejoin Sakura Haruno outside the entrance to the Academy. Shikamaru sighed heavily. It looked like his genin years were going to be very troublesome indeed.

oOoOo

Choji felt like he could fly. After such a terrible first day, things had only seemed to be getting worse. But almost like magic he had found two friends; or rather, two friends had found him. Shikamaru might not have realized it, but that bag of chips had done more than quiet Choji's rumbling belly. It did what Choji's father had tried to do; it instilled him with the confidence that there were students willing to look past his appearance. Shikamaru's knowledge of the Akimichi clan's techniques had shocked Choji, but not nearly as much as the other boy's casual acceptance that Choji would use those techniques as part of his team. And when Ino had arrived with the older boy in tow, Choji felt the presence of his two new friends as an almost physical entity, lifting him up with a force that dwarfed anything any bullies could throw at him.

Choji watched Ino walking back across the yard, thinking about how wonderful it would be if his instructors placed him on a team with Ino and Shikamaru.

"Isn't she great?" he asked Shikamaru, puzzled by the gusty sigh the other boy had just let out.

Shikamaru just grunted in reply. Choji shrugged in confusion, and looked back towards the Academy, only to see that Ino's little show had won them an audience. The other students had left their lunches at their feet, watching the drama play out. Now that the fun was over most went back to their food or conversations, although Kiba shouted out "Too bad you have to get a girl to fight your battles!"

Choji flushed red with anger, but Shikamaru kept him from responding by placing a hand on his arm.

"That was a tactical mistake." Shikamaru commented dryly. Sure enough, Sakura and Ino rounded on Kiba together and he disappeared in a flurry of kicks and punches.

"He has a point, you know." Shikamaru told Choji after a while. "If others see you as unable to stand up for yourself, or in need of protection, it marks you out as a weakling. That would be very troublesome in the long run."

Choji nodded, chagrined. "But what happens if they're better than me? I couldn't land a hit on Kiba yesterday to save my life." Shikamaru was silent for a moment, and then without warning launched a punch at Choji's stomach. Choji was too surprised to even react, and Shikamaru's fist connected with a solid thunk.

"What was that for?" Choji demanded. He rubbed his stomach indignantly, hurt by the sudden attack from someone he had been thinking of as his friend. Shikamaru nodded decisively, as though he had had something confirmed.

"Just like I thought," he said, sounding satisfied. "That didn't even hurt you. You can take a lot more damage because you're bigger. Kiba is quick, but I bet you're more powerful. Forget about regular taijutsu, you're not going to be able to block every strike if someone's quicker than you, and your basic punches and kicks are going to be easy to dodge as well. But if you get hold of someone, and use your weight to your advantage, they won't be able to break free easily. Lure your opponent in, maybe by leaving an obvious opening, and then make them pay for it."

Choji processed this slowly, beginning to realize that Shikamaru was a lot smarter than he let on. Just then the bell rang, signaling the students that lunch was over. Choji walked back into the classroom, keeping step with Shikamaru and rehashing his fight with Kiba. Now that he thought about it, all of his falls occurred when Kiba got around his guard and pushed him off-balance. If he could set himself and get a solid hold on Kiba, maybe it wouldn't matter that he was slower.

He spent the entire afternoon thinking about Shikamaru's advice, planning how best to use his own strength against Kiba's speed. He didn't hear a word that Iruka-sensei said, and was only jolted out of his trance by the bell announcing the end of the day. Just like the first day, the majority of the students went to the courtyard and formed a circle. Choji followed, determined that today was going to be different.

Although Choji wanted to step forward immediately, he decided it would be best to wait until Kiba was already in the ring. It wasn't that he minded sparring with someone else, but he had something to prove. Choji watched with interest to see who would start the sparring. After furtively glancing around during class and wondering about his peers and their abilities, he was finally getting to know more about them. Sasuke went first, silently stepping into the circle as if it was his right to lead off. An even quieter boy with glasses and a jacket pulled up to cover his mouth entered the circle soon after. He shook hands with Sasuke, and introduced himself as Shino Aburame. It was the first time anyone had yet heard him speak. Sasuke only grunted.

The fight was over quickly. Sasuke attacked immediately, looking like a whirlwind of blue and black. Shino fought well as far as Choji was concerned, but was purely on the defensive from the start. Sasuke launched an impressive combination attack that ended with a palm strike to Shino's chest. Shino went crashing backwards into the students behind him. Once he managed to get back on his feet, he bowed slightly in acknowledgment and left the center of the circle. He didn't say anything, but a strange buzzing sound seemed to be emanating from him. The students on either side of him edged away slightly, not sure what to make of the buzzing sound but not quite daring to comment on it.

The next fight lasted a little longer, pitting Sakura against a shy girl with the white eyes characteristic of the Hyuuga clan. They each introduced themselves, following the protocol that had been informally established on the first day, and so Choji learned that the Hyuuga girl was named Hinata and was the daughter of the head of her clan. Hinata's taijutsu form was flowing and effective, keeping Sakura from landing any punches. However, Hinata was very hesitant and unwilling to launch many attacks of her own. Sakura grew visibly frustrated, throwing more and more force into her blows. The two grew winded, and then tired, and then exhausted; however, neither gained an advantage until Hinata faltered and one of Sakura's uppercuts floored the smaller girl.

Choji alternated between watching the fight and watching Kiba, who had been growing increasingly restless. Choji took a few deep breaths to settle the butterflies in his stomach, and waited for what he knew was about to happen.

Sure enough, no sooner did the two kunoichi leave the circle than Kiba sprang forward and set himself aggressively. Choji stepped up as fast as he could, clenching his fists in equal parts nervousness and determination.

"Didn't you have enough last time?" Kiba drawled. "I'd rather face someone who's going to give me a challenge. I'm tired of knocking your fat ass down." Out of the corner of his eye Choji saw Ino stepping forward, apparently determined to make good on her earlier promise. He waved her off, never taking his eyes off Kiba.

"You know, I am feeling a little hungry" Choji said with a confiding tone. "Actually, you look pretty tasty. Since I didn't get much lunch today, maybe I'll add you to my menu… and your little dog too" he added with a grin. Kiba and Akamaru growled simultaneously, and the boy threw himself forward.

Mindful of Shikamaru's advice, Choji didn't try to block Kiba's first punch. Instead, he let it fall and spun with the added momentum, grabbing Kiba's arm with one hand and using it to pull him forward and off-balance. He crushed Kiba against his ribs in a bear hug and threw himself to the ground, hearing with grim satisfaction the suppressed exclamation as the impact drove the air from Kiba's lungs. Kiba tried to wriggle free but Choji had his arms pinioned, and no matter what he tried Kiba couldn't seem to break Choji's hold. Choji squeezed tighter and tighter until Kiba went limp and tapped a hand twice on Choji's leg. Choji broke the hold and stepped away from Kiba, watching as the other boy gasped for breath and massaged his ribs.

Kiba eyed Choji with wary respect, and then, surprisingly, laughed. "I guess that'll teach me to call somebody names. That was a smart move, Choji! Next time, though, I won't let you get a hand on me!" He bowed his head and walked away. Choji thrust his fist into the air in triumph, but didn't forget to bow back respectfully. He looked at Shikamaru with a happy smile, and laughed outright when he saw the other boy was yawning. He went to stand next to his friend, and waited contentedly for the next match.

oOoOo

It was the end of a long day, and a long patrol. Inoichi Yamanaka stretched his legs out, reflecting sadly that he wasn't as young as he once was. He took a long pull from his mug of beer, and looked fondly around the table at his best friends and teammates.

Shikaku Nara was nursing his drink slowly, which Inoichi thought was appropriate. Shikaku struggled a bit with his fondness for drink, but Inoichi knew that his captain would never let it affect his duties. Every shinobi had to deal with the stress of losing comrades in battle, but Shikaku had to deal with more than most. As Jonin Commander of Konoha, he was responsible not only for his teammates but for every shinobi he sent out into the field. As such, every failed mission left him with ghosts and regrets. Inoichi knew how heavy a burden his friend carried, and was one of the few who appreciated that being a great strategist only made it more difficult to deal with failure and loss of life. Shikaku poured his all into every mission, and took it as a personal failure when a mission didn't go flawlessly.

Choza Akimichi provided a striking visual contrast with the dark, quiet Shikaku. His hair and armor were a riot of color, and he was currently living up to his reputation having already finished four mugs of beer and an entire haunch of meat. The large shinobi had dripped sauce down his colorful armor, thereby embellishing the sign of his clan on his breastplate; appropriately enough, the sign meant "food" in Japanese. Choza belched loudly, and clunked a fifth mug down to join the others.

"Nothing like a stiff drink after a mission," Choza declared. "And we can rest easy now that we put the fear of the gods into those damned Rock ninjas. It serves them right for testing our borders; I thought they were going to piss their pants when Shikaku froze them with his shadow. I've never seen anybody run away that fast in my life!"

"Just as well we didn't have to do anything more drastic," Shikaku observed soberly. "Our last war with the Rock Village wasn't anything I'd want to repeat. Our children are just starting their training, the last thing we need is an escalation of violence between the villages disrupting their education." Inoichi started at this reminder of their children, remembering something he'd been meaning to say but had forgotten in the excitement of the day.

"Speaking of our kids, I want to apologize for Ino" Inoichi said to Choza. "Apparently the other kids were a little rough on him because of his weight, and she admitted to watching it happen when she should have known better. I told her off, but she's a silly girl with nothing in her head but that Uchiha kid."

Choza let out one of his famous laughs, which almost shook the rafters and made other patrons turn their heads disapprovingly.

"Not to worry, old friend. My boy told me yesterday that a boy stole his food during lunch hour. Not a minute later your daughter blacked the bully's eye and dragged him over to ask forgiveness." Choza laughed again, incurring black looks from the bartender and the surrounding tables. "You taught her well, Inoichi. I'd give my right arm to have seen the boy get his clock cleaned. Although I have to admit, I was a little worried about Choji. He was really down after his first day, and apparently made a poor showing when the kids sparred after school. But the next day he met your son," Choza paused, nodding at Shikaku, "who gave him some pointers on his taijutsu. Next thing you know, he knocked Tsume's kid on his ass… I can't wait to give her hell about it next time we have a mission together." Choza nodded his head sagely. "It's fate is what it is – only two days and our kids are already working together."

Inoichi smiled, relieved that his words to Ino had apparently had some effect. "Makes a man feel old, doesn't it? Hearing about fights from his children? It sounds like Shikamaru is ready to take over for you already, eh, Shikaku?"

Shikaku grinned briefly, which caused the scars on his face to stretch alarmingly. Inoichi treasured those grins, because they happened so infrequently. "Shikamaru has a long way to go before he beats me at Shoji, let alone taking over my position. But I'm glad he took up with Choji and Ino; they're going to need to rely on each other once they make genin."

Choza lifted his sixth mug, holding it over the center of the table. "To Ino-Shika-Cho!" he roared. Inoichi and Shikaku echoed the toast, drinking deep from their own mugs. For a moment they were silent, thinking about their children and the future.