1. i am sorry for the lack of action scenes - like training and stuff. sorry that i didn't go into detail with their training, i'm bad at confidently writing action scenes. whenever i write them they feel awkward and rushed.

2. i feel like i could have fleshed things out more. hm. C'est la vie, i like it.

3. concrit is always appreciated, but try to stay on topic if you have any crit! give me things i can generally improve on in the future, not ways to make this better, because unless i get an overwhelming amount of suggestions that're like 'this part was lacking, it could have been better if this had happened' i am not going back and rewriting parts of this. also be gentle please. THAT SAID REVIEWWWW

4. no flaming. it is literally so pointless.

5. she's not stressed.

6. suffixes are most a formality here, for the record.

7. SORRY... FOR ALL OF THE PAGE BREAKS... i really hope this is good OmO

Ino = 18; Neji = 19.

also this is dedicated to Kaara, who is a bamf and idek she's great and a really talented artist and writer, she's one of the reasons I managed to get this done so quickly. Ricochet by Nukumi inspired me greatly, if you haven't read it already, check it out.

Ino is just leaving the imposing Intelligence Division building when she spots her lazy teammate striding up the street, one hand up rubbing the back of his neck as always, his gaze cast upwards past the bright buildings to the cloudy sky.

"Shikamaru!" She calls, raising a hand and waving excitedly as she looks over at her. "Wait up!" she says, trotting down the steps and walking quickly to him through the light crowd of people that are commonplace in Konoha.

"Ino," he says, right before she flings her arms around him and rests her head in the crook of his neck. Sighing, he rests his hand on her back. "Hey, Ino."

"I missed you!" she chirps, stepping back. "When did you get back? I was going to meet you at the gate, but Ibiki called me in." She frowns. "He said my interrogating skills need more work before I can be properly inducted. Can you believe that?" her eyes narrow at his clouded eyes, a sigh escaping her. "Shikamaru, are you even listening?" He snaps back to attention as she loops her arm through his and begins to walk. It's not the action that brings him back down to earth, Ino has always been an affectionate woman, even as a scrawny genin, but rather the reminder than she will expect him to listen and interact now. He sighs lazily.

"Hm? Yeah. That elite stuff is too complicated anyway, I don't know how you can stand it." He rests his eyes on the Hokage building at the end of the long and sunny street. "And I got back just now. Lady Tsunade called me in right when I got back. Something about Suna," he groans. "How troublesome."

Ino giggles. "I bet you'll be happy to see Temari, then." She bumps her head against his, much to his chagrin.

"Troublesome woman," he grumbles as they walk up the steps into the hokage building.

Neji, as always, spends his days training in the fields just bordering the fences that mark Hyuuga territory. Hinata occasionally brings him food, though he says that she should not trouble herself to do so. (Like any good cousin, she ignores him and makes sure to bring his favorite food when she can. Deep down, he appreciates it that someone cares enough to make sure he is well fed.) He is just finishing up for the day when Tenten comes running up the worn path that leads to the training grounds and bounds right up to him.

"Neji!" Tenten says, looking pleased to have caught him before he retired for the night to the Hyuuga compound. "Good, you haven't left yet. Did Hinata-sama already bring you food?" He shakes his head slowly, eying his teammate with the slightest sliver of contempt.

"She is preparing for a mission tomorrow."

"Right. Well, do you want to go out to dinner?"

He raises a thin eyebrow, causing her to flush.

"Not like that! It's my birthday this weekend," she says shyly, her grin receding to a shy smile. "And since I'm going to be on a mission during it, I figured I'd get you and the others together for dinner before hand." He nods at that, pocketing a handful of shuriken as he does.

"That is logical. I shall join you, though I won't stay for long." She tilts her head, as if to ask why? Hastily - for a Hyuuga, that is - he adds, "I promised Hanabi-san I would help her with her technique." It is a lie, but if Tenten can tell, she does not call him out on it, instead nodding.

"Well, you should go and get changed, huh? We're all at that barbecue place, the one that got remodeled a few months ago. Near Ichiraku. Should be easy to find, right?" She smiles again and then she's off, waving slowly as she jogs down the path.

Imperceptibly, Neji sighs.

The last person he expects to see at the restaurant they're at is Ino. She's not with them per-se, she, Shikamaru and Chouji are at their own table reasonably far from his own, but he can tell something important is happening because they're all dressed nicely, even Shikamaru who normally can't even be bothered to wash his flak jackets. (How he became a jounin is beyond Neji.) Ino has her golden hair let down and she's wearing a knee-length sky blue dress, and Neji realizes for the first the that the girl he had brushed off as useless and forgettable all those years ago is actually quite pretty. He catches bits and pieces of their conversation through the chatter of his teammates and the noise of the other patrons, but mostly he hears names - or rather, a name. Asuma. At first the name doesn't ring any bells for him, until he remembers that Asuma Sarutobi was killed by the Akatsuki, and he was also the jounin leader of Team Ten, composed of Ino Yamanaka, Shikamaru Nara and Chouji Akimichi.

And all of a sudden, he understands why they look so solemn and why no one goes over to talk to them. Their sensei is dead and this is their time to mourn, because this is where they used to go. He doesn't realize it until a little bit later, but he and Ino have more than he originally thought in common. He's not sure if that's what caused him to do what he did, or perhaps some other variable, but before he knows it, he is watching the three pay their check and get up to leave, and then he's excusing himself as well. The three part ways outside of the restaurant, Chouji heading home, Shikamaru to 'check on Temari' and Ino to the flower shop. Neji simply walks back home, suddenly shaking off any odd sense of responsibility over the unassuming blonde as he gets farther and farther from the restaurant.

But it is just his luck that the Yamanaka Flower Shop is mere blocks away from the Hyuuga compound. He passes the cheerful building as he walks down the street and his eyes almost instinctively look into the building. He expects to see Ino working away with a smile on her face as she usually does, and those he does see her working, there is no smile on her face and her hands move slowly, almost as if her body is in a trance.

And Neji, Neji is not an impulsive person. He thinks through every move he makes, weighs the pros versus the cons and debates whether or not it is worth it. But in that moment, he wants nothing more than to waltz right into the shop and demand that she cheer up. He stops outside of the store, looking emotionlessly into the window as she stands and walks to the back of the shop, a plant in hand. It would be so easy to walk in with the excuse of buying Hinata flowers and figure out what's wrong. He catches himself, though, before he can fully finish his thought. This is not good. It is not his responsibility to find out what has upset the Yamanaka girl, nor should he care what has upset her. But her teammates are not around to comfort her, so Neji Hyuuga bites the bullet and hopes he has enough money on hand for a small bouquet of flowers.

She does not immediately look up when the bell that signals a customer dings, instead choosing to chirp "Welcome to the Yamanaka Flower Shop!" in the cheeriest voice she can manage before turning around, having placed the plant on a shelf. She catches sight of him and her forced smile falters. "Ah, hello Neji-sama. What brings you here?"

He bows his head to her before speaking, his eyes wandering around the spacious shop to take in the green, flower-print walls and clean floor. "Hello, Yamanaka-san. Would you perhaps have anything that would please Hinata-sama?"

Ino blinks quickly, placing a delicate hand on the counter of the shop. "That depends! If you want to go for generic platonic affection, acacias and white camillas are probably the way to go… of course, there are others, but those are very common."

"I simply wish to congratulate her on her promotion to jounin." Neji says calmly. "And I am sure you are more than capable of pulling together something pleasing for her."

The way she brightens almost makes Neji smile. "Alright! How soon do you want it? I can deliver it first thing tomorrow morning, if you want. I can have it tonight as well."

"Tonight would be preferred. She leaves on a mission tomorrow."

Ino nods, tapping her fingers on the counter. "Wait here, then! You can sit, if you want. It shouldn't take too long." She states happily, bounding off to peruse the rows of shelves that line the store as Neji takes a seat on the stool she had previously pointed to.

A few moments elapse as she maunders around the shop, plucking a flower here and there and muttering serenely to herself.

Now or never, he tells himself in a burst of confidence. "Yamanaka-san?" he calls calmly to her, turning his head so he catches a glimpse of her purple skirt.

"Yes, Neji-sama? And you can call me Ino."

"Ino-san, then. I could not help but notice, before I came in, you looked rather upset. Certainly it is not fitting for a girl surrounded by such beauty to look so unhappy?"

She does not speak for a few moments, and he can tell by the sudden lack of pots shifting that she is frozen. Finally, the sound of a flowerpot sliding back onto a shelf is heard and she emerges from behind a line of shelves, her hands bearing streaks of dirt. She looks oddly at him, her head tilted slightly, almost as if in confused shock. "Wh-" she begins slowly, but he cuts her off.

"What has upset you so?"

She smiles slowly. "Nothing to bother yourself over, Neji-sama."

"Tell me." he says, more sternly, and she laughs a little bit.

"It's nothing!"


"Fine." She pouts, just a little bit, but it suits her well, with her dirt-streaked fingers and the flowery yellow apron she wears that is currently overflowing with flowers. She glides over to where he sits and pulls herself up onto the counter, heaving a dramatic sigh as she does so. The corners of his mouth quirk up, and he realizes that he hasn't had this much fun teasing someone - not that he makes teasing people a priority - in a long while. Likewise, she finds dragging it out cheers her up, because he plays along as much as his reserved personality allows, if the small smile that toys with his lips has anything to say about it. "Shikamaru has been spending more time around Temari than he has me! I know she's visiting and she's the envoy so he has to escort her everywhere, but it wouldn't hurt him to show a little bit of affection for his only female teammate! It's only polite, right Neji-sama?" Her voice is light but her eyes fall ever-so-slightly when she mentions the lack of affection. She harbors feelings for him, he can tell, and so he mentally files that information away. It may be useful in the future.

"Correct, Ino-san. You two are siblings of a sort, after all."

She nods, hopping back to her feet. "See, at least someone gets it. When I told Chouji, he just smiled at me like I was completely missing something! Hmph." She pouts again, walking back. "Anyway, I'll have your bouquet ready really soon."

She comes back not to much later bearing a bouquet of bright flowers that smell delightful, still smiling. She wraps them up gingerly, making sure none of the petals fall.

"Here you go, Neji-sama!"

He takes the bouquet gingerly, rising from the stool gracefully. "Thank you, Ino-san."

"No problem! I'll give you a discount for giving a girl something to do." she says warmly, taking the money he produces from his pocket and sorting it quickly before handing him back his change. "Come back soon! Whether you buy something or not." she chirps. He nods at her.

"I shall." And then he walks through the door and disappears into the oncoming night.

She is walking through the streets of Konoha early the next day, jogging to the field Shikamaru usually cloud-watches in to watch the sun rise. (She also wants to beat him there, but considering Temari is in town, he will likely be catering to her needs before his own. She can already hear him muttering. Troublesome troublesome troublesome.) She makes it to the field just as the sun rises over the village, casting a pearly glow over the trees. A serene smile crosses her face as she sits down and leans back. She's thought this through before, this little habit of hers. Someone has to watch the clouds, and she figures that when Shikamaru can't, she will. So when he shows up, a slightly exasperated Temari in tow, she's surprised.

"Shika!" she exclaims, sitting up abruptly.

"Ino?" he says, confused. He raises an eyebrow. "What are you doing here?"

Ino grips a tuft of glass between her slim fingers. "I wanted to see the sunrise before going to train. What are you doing here? Shouldn't you and Temari-" she glances at the sand kunoichi and nods in greeting. "-be with Tsunade?"

"Not until later," Shikamaru drawls. "I wanted to see the sunrise too, though Temari here seemed intent on doing the exact opposite of that."

"I see sunrises every morning," she says bluntly. "They're not that great." Ino feels her hackles rise slightly. Leave it to Temari to irritate her before she even starts the day. But when Shikamaru merely sighs and rolls his eyes, she can tell something is a little off. And when Temari bumps her head against his with a sharp hiss of "Don't get exasperated with me," it all clicks into place, because Shikamaru definitely does not tell her off in his lazy tone.

"Troublesome woman," he merely says. A pang of sadness goes through Ino then, because she has finally realized that Shikamaru Nara, the guy she sort of liked, the boy that is practically her brother, likes someone, and that someone is not her.

She stands, taking her time and brushing stray strands of grass off of her. "Sunrises aren't for everyone, I suppose." She says, attempting to keep her voice normal and flighty as she quickly pecks Shikamaru on the cheek. "I'm going to go train. Come help me a bit later if you can, hm Shika?" He grumbles back at her, much to her amusement. "Troublesome." she teases as she runs off. She is lucky to disappear when she does, because not seconds after she leaves Temari is smirking as if she's won a prize at a carnival.

"Somebody's jealous." she singsongs smugly.

"She's not used to seeing other girls around me." he says simply, walking forward. Temari grabs his arm and pulls him back, much to his badly stifled surprise. "Hn-?"

"Too bad," Temari says before she crashes her lips against his.

And in a way, Shikamaru likes it. He's sure he a bad kisser and his breath probably tastes like nicotine, but he still rests his hands on her waist and hopes she doesn't hit him after.

Ino runs to Team Ten's usual training field on the outskirts of the village and she doesn't leave until it is late into the evening and the sun has set. Her clothes are damp with sweat, She's sporting bruises all over her body and she probably looks like a right mess, but for the first time in a few days she feels confident in her abilities as a special jounin in training. For days she repeats the process, going to the truing field early in the morning and leaving late in the evening, taking breaks only to eat and tend to any injuries. What exactly drives her to work harder is a little blurry still, but she decides that it's a combination of Temari and her own sick sense of inadequacy and leaves it at that. A few times Shikamaru himself comes to give her tips, but usually he just watches and corrects her as she goes. It almost feels like old times, even if she is no longer allowed into his head - nor does she want to be.

One day, a month into her new training regiment - hospital work and torture & interrogation training on the weekdays, working at the shop when she has time and generally training whenever she can - Neji finds her. The confounded look on his usually stoic face causes her to convulse in laughter right when she sees him, because she knows he is used to seeing her when he visits the flower shop, when she is delicate, all frail bones and gentle hands, certainly not when she trains and she is all muscle and sweat for miles and miles.

"Hello, Neji-sama," she greets him as soon as her mirth subsides.

"Ino-san," he says quietly, walking slowly into the training area and taking a seat on a particularly green patch of grass. "I did not known you trained so fiercely. Of course," he smirks. "Your training pales greatly in comparison to my own, but for a girl your size, this is impressive."

She flushes as she snatches her water bottle up and downs half of it. "How long have you been watching me?" she asks, half suspicious and half amused. She drops the bottle to the ground and moves to sit beside him.

"Long enough." he says evenly. After a few moments of looking her over, he speaks again. "You know, Ino-san, I would train with you, if you wish. Shikamaru cannot currently, and I take it Chouji cannot keep up for as long as you can, so I offer my services."

Her eyes widen. "Really? You'd do that, Neji-sama?"

He pauses. "Yes," he finally says, his voice quieting again. "We are friends, are we not?"

The smile that appears on her face then looks as if it could crack her tiny body in two. "Of course, Neji-kun!"

Ever-so-slightly, he smiles. "Are you free tomorrow?"

Ino glances down and threads her fingers through the blades of grass. "Hm! Well, I told Chouji I'd eat breakfast with him, and then I've got a few hours of hospital, but I've got the week off from hardcore torture and interrogation training until I'm inducted, so I'm free!"

"Then tomorrow we will start. I shall meet you outside the hospital at two." She lifts her head to glance inquisitively at him. "To enter Hyuuga grounds you must have had either expression permission from the head or have a Hyuuga with you. Since I did not have the foresight to ask Hiashi-sama, I will have to escort you."

She nods sharply, barely holding back the excited smile that crosses her face.

Neji is more than surprised when he originally sees her training. Her natural grace and endurance are glaringly obvious in the way she moves, but although she is a Yamanaka - the clan heiress at that - he had not expected her to pursue a field as grueling as torture and interrogation. He knew he was strong, but he has always thought that, despite being a Yamanaka, torture and interrogation would be too heavy for her, break her too easily, but Ibiki training her immediately changes that. He'll need to have a talk with Hinata about the blonde later, especially if he's going to be training with her. To shinobi, at the sharper the mind, the more dangerous the shinobi. And Ino Yamanaka, from what he's heard, is one of the sharpest.

He arrives outside of the hospital at exactly two, already equipped to train. She doesn't come immediately out, though he can see her clearly, standing at the front desk talking - or rather, arguing - with the receptionist.

"What do you mean I didn't work enough hours? If it weren't for Sakura and I, you'd have a corpse on your hands right now!" he hears her say sharply as he enters the building.

"Even so, Ino-sama, Shizune-sama has required work on at least five patients for medics at your level."

"I worked on four, and one would have died without my help! You can talk to Shizune about it and she can scold me if she likes, but I have things to do!" She gives the receptionist one final, fiery gaze before she grabs Neji by the hand and drags him out with an iron grip, raving as she does.

It's then that he decides, as she drops his hand, hisses at him to keep up and darts across the village to her apartment above the flower shop, that in the future, he'll take a good hard look at what he's getting into before he falls into it. (Because he has certainly fallen for the Yamanaka, he realizes with a startled blink of his milky eyes. Not because she is gorgeous, though that is certainly a plus, nor because she is a talented medic, though that is indeed useful, but for a rather different reason. Neji finds himself attracted to Ino Yamanaka because she is everything he did not expect she'd ever become, and to Neji, that is completely intoxicating.)

She is still raving when they reach her apartment, mostly about Shizune's rules and stupid receptionists. "What an idiot." She says finally as she pushes the door open. "Sorry. I just need to change quickly, and then I'm all yours! Help yourself to anything." She says as she drifts off, past framed photographs and scrolls, into her room.

"Including you?" He almost says back, but she is already gone, so he merely pours himself a glass of water and takes a seat on her lavender couch. this can't be happening, not to him. Hyuuga's do not and should not fall for mind walkers. Falling for a mind walker is almost as bad as letting one explore your head. One false move onto the mental trip wires the Byakugan set and there is an unimaginable pain searing your mind.

Ino has never really given a whole lot of thought to Neji Hyuuga in relation to herself past the idea that they'd be a cute couple and the fact that they'd work well together on missions. He declares them friends and she is content with that, except for when she's kept awake by the idea of his hands ghosting up her sides and his lips trailing down the curve of her neck to the hollows of her collarbones. Which, unfortunately, is often. Quite often. Now, actually.

Under her breath, Ino curses. Now is a bad time. He is in the other room, probably waiting, and no doubt he will be able to tell in a heartbeat. "Goddamnit." she says, pulling a cropped shirt, a pair of leggings and one of her trademark purple skirts from her closet before hastily changing. She stumbles out to her living room in the act of tying her hair up, a hair tie held between her white teeth.

"Just one second," she mumbles, grabbing the tie and pulling at her hair until it is in it's trademark ponytail again. (a part of him wises she'd kept it down, because she looks especially beautiful with her hair in pools of gold around her, but despite it's beauty - and Neji knows beauty, his own hair is something of a commodity amongst his fellow shinobi - having it down is impractical while training.) She eyes him curiously, having just noticed his form sprawled across her couch.

The corners of his mouth turn up in a smirk at her unimpressed expression. "Are you ready, or must you mess with your hair some more?"

"Why you - yes, I'm ready! And be careful what you say, or I may cut your pretty little locks right off!" She says smugly, a devious glint in her eyes, as she grabs her weapons pouch from the counter and straps it on.

Neji gulps as he stands, and Ino grins as they exit her apartment and race to the Hyuuga compound, through the streets of Konoha and onto delicate rooftops. They race past Tenten, so fast that she barely notices save for the whipping of her hair, but when they glide past Shikamaru and Temari, he sees her coming a mile away - it'd be hard not to, having been trained since birth to recognize the distinctive golden hair of his teammate - but he certainly does not expect Neji to be beside her, grinning.

"Ino!" he calls out, raising a hand to flag her down, but she breezes past him, with one single word - "Training!" - before disappearing in a blur of purple and white, along with the Hyuuga prodigy.

For what is certainly not the first time, Shikamaru Nara is both confused and worried for his only female teammate.

Training is swift, and it goes on for a month at least. They practice taijutsu and genjutsu - due to her mind techniques, ninjutsu is ruled out - and by the end of the month, she has advanced enough to be able to send him to the floor with a small number of well-timed punches and kicks, and he finds casting genjutsus to be a mite easier after she drills them into him. (Apparently navigating people's minds makes it easy for her to distinguish what's right and what is wrong in her surroundings. It shouldn't surprise him, but it does.) He's impressed, especially by how beat down he feels, even if she is the one near collapsing.

Even after being so very sure of his feelings for her, he is still not used to this feeling, a feeling that pools in his torso and rears its head whenever she does something even remotely attractive, be it stretching before training or falling to the forest floor after a particularly gruesome session. He makes a mental note as she does just that, her hair spreading around her like a halo, to talk to Hinata about this maddening feeling. (Herself, she tries not to think about it, even if it's majorly tempting. She is still recovering from finding out that Shikamaru likes Temari, and it is a mite too soon for her to actively want Neji. That, she decides, is probably for the best.)

"Ino?" she hears faintly.

Ino, who sits at her slightly cluttered desk, turns from her medical reports to look out at her open window. Sitting on her windowsill is none other than Shikamaru. Somehow, she isn't surprised. She rests a hand on the edge of her white desk, blue eyes boring into the brown ones of her longtime teammate and best friend.

"Shika? What are you doing here?" her face darkens then, her eyebrows' knitting together as he gracefully hauls himself into her lavender room. Her bed sits across from her desk, and it too is covered in reports, the black and white pattern of her sheets and blankets barely visible. "No that it's isn't nice to see you, but it's twelve am, Shikamaru! A girl needs her sleep!" She pouts, standing and clearing a space on her bed for the two of them to sit.

"You weren't even sleeping." He states plainly, taking a seat and almost squishing a thick stack of papers all bearing the insignia of the Konoha Torture and Interrogation Force. "And I doubt you were planning to soon, judging by all of these papers." He places the stack of papers he nearly sat on behind him. She sits down daintily next to him, a small stake of medical reports and a pencil in hand.

"They aren't due until the end of the week." she says quietly, her voice a little too pitchy to insinuate the usually perfect mental health Ino is known for. "And my medical reports are almost done." She glances down at her hands, which lay coiled in her lap. When Shikamaru takes a good hard look at her, her exhaustion is scarily apparent. The telltale purple bags have begun to form under her eyes, and he can see from the way she's slightly slouched over herself that she is losing weight again. He sighs, reaching over and taking the hand that doesn't write reports in his own strong one.

"Ino." he says again, her name a drawl on his tongue. "You're working too hard."

"Am not! This is normal for someone of my rank! I just need to get used to managing my time better, that's all." She says with a pout. "And you've been working pretty hard yourself, Shikamaru. Taking care of Temari is no walk in the park."

"She's easier to deal with than you think." He doesn't mention how he's discovered that kissing her is a very useful way to make her shut up, and that holding her against his body when they can't sleep makes the whole process go just a bit smoother. "But I didn't come here to talk about her."

"Then what are you here to talk about?" She asks dryly, tapping her foot on her carpeted floor and eying him out of the corner of her eye as she faintly fills out the reports.

"A good few things, no matter how much of a drag this'll be." he states simply. "What were you doing with Neji Hyuuga the other day?"

And just like that, her whole demeanor changes. Gone is the tired hunch of her shoulders and the faint way her hands move as she writes, replaced by straightened shoulders and a sudden halt. She places her report the side with narrowed eyes.

"He's been helping me train."

"Since when have you needed a Hyuuga to help you train? You have Chouji. And me," he says pointedly.

"He offered." she says stiffly, looking off to her right at her closed door. "And you've been too busy catering to Temari's every whim to notice." her voice is laced with an all-too-familiar venom that Shikamaru recognizes from past experiences. No doubt about it, Ino is upset and covering it with bitter anger. "And we work well together. Tsunade wants to make us mission partners when our workload eases."

His grasp on her hand tightens as his eyes flash with a mixture of disbelief and anger. "What?" His muscles visibly tighten under his green shirt, something Ino immediately recognizes as a rare expression of anger. "Why?"

Still, she sighs. "It's not really any of your business what I do, and who with. We're not-" her voice halts then, a look of regret pooling into her eyes at the words she speaks next. "We're not the same people, Shikamaru. We aren't mission partners anymore and you… you haven't bothered to properly catch me in a long time."

"That's completely untrue and you know it. I am always going to be around to catch you because that's my job, Ino. That's what I do." His voice is broken by confused fury as he slides of of her bed and crouches in front of her, taking her other hand in his own in the process.

"That's not what I meant-" she starts hastily, but he cuts her off without registering that she had even said anything.

"And I don't care if it's my job to escort Temari when she visits, you are one of my best friends and you always have been, you troublesome woman! Stop acting like your world is ending because you're not the most important woman in my life for once." His please goes unsaid, they both know that his body language and the way his shoulders slouch slightly, as if to convey surrender, say enough. "You don't think this hurts me? You don't think I hate it to see you train so easily with someone else when you and Chouji and I are supposed to be the best team out there when it comes to teamwork? This isn't about you," he finally whispers.

And the tears that threatened to spill down her flushed cheeks well up in her eyes at that. "It hurts me too, Shika! I h-hate seeing you look so happy when you're around Temari, because you're nice to her, and you like her! I liked you! So it's your fault too, you s-stupid boy." And then she is crying, fat tears rolling down her cheeks and collecting on the soft fabric of her sweater and broken sobs wracking her body. "And you don't have to be so mean about it. Just because it isn't about me doesn't mean you've done no wrong!" She says fiercely between suppressed wails. "I like Neji. He's kind and strong and we'll make a great team."

"Ino," he says with a stunned expression, standing slowly to take his seat next to her again. "I-" but her cries cut him off before he can even speak a single sentence. Carefully, he leans forward and hooks an arm under her knees, his other arm around her shoulders, and just like that he's scooped her up and onto his lap, where she rests her head against his chest and fists her hands in his shirt. "Shh," he murmurs into her ear, stroking her hair slowly as he goes.

"You made me cry." she whimpers after a few minutes.

"I know," is the first thing he says, followed shortly by "and I'm sorry." He places a brotherly kiss to her forehead at that, murmuring the words against her skin.

The next day, Neji is called into Tsunade's office, and it does not surprise him that Ino is already there, a scroll in hand. A breeze blows in from the open window, unsettling the loose pages of books on cluttered shelves.

"Hyuuga!" Tsunade bellows, snapping him from his trance. "Close the door behind you, this is going to be quick." He nods sharply, closing the door firmly and standing straight at Ino's side. "I'm making you two mission partners. It hasn't slipped my mind that you've been healing him more than usual, Yamanaka, and you've been training together as well. I have your first mission here. You leave tomorrow afternoon. Understood?"

They both nod sharply. "Neji, you are the leader. Ino, follow his orders." She stares them both down for a moment, her prior intoxication glaringly obvious in her hazy eyes, before handing a small scroll off to Neji. "You are both dismissed." Eagerly, they dart from her office.

"Race you to the shop!" she challenges him with a grin. He smiles grimly.

"I cannot. I promised Tenten I would help her with some weapons training." The way her face falls even under her bright smile tugs at his heart. Oh, how he aches to pull her tightly against his body and promise her that he would very much like to spend as much time as possible with her, if only he could. Finally, she shrugs.

"Alright. Well, have fun! Come see me after, and we can talk about the scroll, okay Neji?"

He nods, his hand subconsciously tightening into a fist. "Understood, Ino-san."

She smiles. "You can drop the san, if you want. Just Ino." and then she darts off, their mission scroll in hand.

"…Ino." he says quietly as her figure disappears down the street. "I could get used to that."

He comes to the flower shop right after training with Tenten, just as he promised, looking less than pristine. To any civilian eyes, or the eyes of those who do not know him, he just a little tired, but to Ino's sharp eyes, she immediately sees his slight limp and the way he favours the right side of his body. She cocks her head, a little panicked.

"Neji! Are you alright?" She comes rushing from behind the counter, grabbing a stool as she goes and placing it in front of the counter. She gently takes his arm and pushes him onto the stool. Her eyes rake up and down his body sharply, her medic senses kicking into overdrive.

"I am fine." he says before she pounces onto him with Mystical Palm.

She raises an eyebrow. "I find that hard to believe." But she leaves him alone for the most part, only bothering herself to heal whatever causes him to limp before taking a seat behind the counter and pulling their mission scroll out and unfurling it to show a map and their mission details. "Our mission is simple enough, for shinobi of our rank, at least. We just need to infiltrate this base," she points to a compound on the map sharply. "and extract any and all information we can on their plans. If necessary, I can seduce their leader, no problem. But I've seen photos, he's not a pretty man, so let's hope I don't need to do that-"

"You're a seduction nin?" He asks, his voice clipped. Add that to the list of things he never knew, he thinks with a slight sense of discontent.

She smiles a saccharine smile. "You didn't know that?" she laughs lightly. "Ever since the academy. Tsunade pulled me aside after she was inaugurated and asked if I'd be interested in pursuing it officially, so naturally I said yes. I mean, with this body, I'd have been hard-pressed to say no!" she jokes, cocking her hip and tossing her hair. Neji smiles undetectably and motions for her to continue briefing him with a sweep of his hand.

"Like I said, it should be easy. We can probably finish it in a few days, tops. Tsunade-sama is probably testing how well we work together with this one, so let's give her a show, alright?" She finishes a minute later as she rolls the scroll up and hands it to him.

He takes it smoothly, the subtle imprint of Tsunade's rough handwriting through paper briefly calming him. "Agreed. Pack accordingly and get a good nights sleep. Meet me at the gate no later than one. Understood?"

"Understood!" she chirps. He nods a silent goodbye, his eyes meeting hers for the briefest of moments, before exiting the flower shop, their mission scroll in hand.

They leave at exactly one, having said their temporary goodbyes. They take only one break to change before they reach the village they're supposed to infiltrate. It is a small village, populated largely by unassuming civilians who probably have no die that they are being lead by a misogynistic tyrant.

"This looks too easy." Ino says under her breath. He nods minutely, taking in the bland white buildings and sand-coloured streets with an aura of distaste.

"We start tomorrow. Until then, I want you to do recon."

"Agreed. We'll check in, and I can Shintenshin a bird from our room." They go up to the room they decided in advance to share with no further delay, and Ino situates herself in the equally bland bed, making sure the majority of her body is covered by the woolen blankets. He casts her a quizzical glance. "So if anyone comes up for some reason, I look like I'm napping instead of lying passed out on the ground." And without any further explanation - not that any is needed, he completely understands her logic - she makes her infamous hand sign and her body falls unconscious. A wave of irrational worry passes over him as he walks towards the window, searching the skies. A bluebird circles just outside of his window, chirping happily. Neji watches Ino flit about for a few minutes until he shoos her away, all worry washed away by the obvious realization that she will be fine, because Ino will at the very least make a very convincing bluebird.

A few hours she awakens with a discombobulated gasp, immediately clutching the beige sheets. Neji lies beside her, a book in hand and his raven hair pulled back.

"Kami-sama," she gasps, panting. "Neji, can you get me some water? Please?" He nods, placing his book down gently before swinging his legs over the side of the bed and quickly filling a tall glass of water up.

"I'm guessing being a bird didn't suit you well?' he asks dryly, handing the glass off to her and sitting back down. She frowns in-between gulps of water.

She scowls sharply, errantly aiming a kick towards him despite the weight from the heavy covers. "Being a bird suits me just fine, thank you! And you try flapping your wings incessantly for hours on end. Once you do that, you're allowed to make arrogant remarks about it."

He chuckles lightly, a smirk coming onto his face. "Driven creatures, aren't they? They suit you."

She just sighs, placing the now empty glass down on her bedside table. "The compound has many gardens, and all of the entrances have rather light security. They're clearly not expecting an infiltration of any sort any time soon. We should be able to make our move tomorrow night and leave in the morning. And even better," she adds with a smirk. "He has a son he's grooming to take his place. If I have to sleep with anyone, it'll be him. And he's cute, too," she leers. (Neji holds back an undignified snarl and the urge to tell her that she is his and if he can help it, she will not be bedding any other man any time soon.) She casts him an innocent smile then, turning over and gradually falling asleep.

Neji makes a mental note to acquire a bird feeder when they get back to Konoha. Their training field will certainly look much better with something of that sort around it.

The two of them first kiss a few missions after they become mission partners. They have to portray a businessman and his wife on a trip to Iwa, and Ino finds that the role of an adoring housewife comes far too easily. (It's times like that that she truly relishes being a ninja, because the idea of being a housewife scares her to death, no offense to her mother, bless her dear, departed soul.) They're dancing at a gala and his hand just barely brushes the curve of her breasts from its place on her waist, but it's enough to cause her to move closer, because years as a seduction-nin have taught her well enough how to react, and they are habits that are hard to break in the heat of the moment. The hand that rests on her lower back hovers there, careful to not move any lower than what is publicly decent. Internally, Ino curses public decency.

They do not join in public, limiting themselves to a dance and a few drinks. No, no, Neji kisses Ino when they are back in the room they have rented, almost in for the night. She is in the bathroom, carefully scrubbing makeup off of her face, and he is on his side of the bed they had decided to share when they checked in, reading a book. She comes out looking tired and serene, with her hair down and her eyelids lowered out of exhaust.

"I'm going to see if I can sleep tonight, Neji," she states, walking to her side of the bed and sliding under the covers swiftly. He nods in agreement, closing his book and leaning over to switch off his lamp.

"Goodnight, Ino," He says as he lies down next to her. Carefully she rolls over, placing a chaste kiss to his cheek in place of a spoken goodnight.

She falls asleep - or seems to, at least - long before him; her breathing evens as the tension that had been painfully apparent to his eyes escapes from her. A few times she seems to talk in her sleep, muttering names - he hears his almost immediately, followed by Shikamaru and then Chouji, which doesn't surprise him in the slightest, though he is somewhat surprised when she says his name more than once, her hands clenching the sheets in what he assumes is a fit of stress brought on by a bad dream. (He's heard of medics often having dreams of their patients being beyond their help, and he is certainly one of her patients after so many months of her patching him up, so perhaps this is one of those types of dreams?) Her mouth is parted slightly, her eyelashes ignited in the wavering moonlight, and Neji cannot help but to lean over and place a quick kiss on her lips.

He certainly does not expect her to kiss back with such speed.

Of all things, he shouldn't have expected her to fall into a deep sleep, because she had told him before they had even arrived at the location of their first mission together that she is a terribly light sleeper, even for a ninja. But she does exactly what he doesn't expect and kisses back with a muted excitement he didn't think she'd have in her, considering how tired she is. (In Neji's opinion, she is a very, very good kisser, and with a twinge of jealousy he wonders when she learned to kiss that well, and who with.)

"Neji." she murmurs against his lips, a spark of contention in her tone as she pushes herself up, raising a hand to drape across his shoulders. "Hi." she says sleepily, rolling over onto her stomach as he pulls away and lies back down. She rests her head on his chest, her ear against the pulse of his heartbeat.

"Hello, Ino." he says thoughtfully, glancing down at her.

"What brought that on?" She purrs.

He pauses, his hand resting gently on her head.

"I don't know." he finally says. The smug confidence in his eyes dims. "Perhaps because it seemed you were having a bad dream."

"A bad dream?" she bursts into sleepy giggles, the vibrations of her laughs reverberating through his bones. "Sure."

He blinks, a little confused, but brushes it off as slight delirium on her part and drops a kiss to her forehead. "You seemed troubled, so it seemed right to awaken you."

"But with a kiss? Maybe you should start calling me Sleeping Beauty." she giggles, "And you're my prince!" She doesn't ask if he likes her, because even through her sleepy delirium, she knows that Neji is not very impulsive, and if he kisses her, it means something. So she doesn't question him, not now. (Though she does hope he'll kiss her again - Neji Hyuuga is most definitely a good kisser.

And he does, a few minutes later, and those kisses are not as gentle as the first, they are more domineering in that he sits up and pulls her onto him, and traps her hips and kisses her almost desperately, as all of his pent up, unsure tension over his feelings for her escapes. His kisses are like fireworks in her head and behind her eyes, jolting her senses awake. She wraps her arms around him and smiles lazily.)

Both luckily and unluckily, it goes on for weeks after. Them sneaking into each other's houses after hours becomes commonplace, and more than once she spends the night in the Hyuuga Compound with him after a particularly gruesome mission, because those are nights that she cannot be alone with her psyche. (It's is usually those nights that he allows himself to be rougher with her, because gentle will not make her forget, it will only temporarily distract her.) Shikamaru has already given Ino what more or less amounts to his blessing, though that doesn't stop him from rather sharply pulling Neji aside a few days after they get back from their mission in Iwagakure and telling him that he will go through hell if he hurts Ino. Luckily, Neji fully understands that, all arrogant desire to tell Shikamaru that he doubts Shikamaru can touch him set aside, knowing that he'd say the same thing to anyone who even thought of laying his or her hands on Hinata.

One night, when they are both comfortably seated on the couch in her apartment, watching movies on their night off, with Ino perched easily on his lap, his arms wrapped around her waist and his lips pressed against her throat, all of her uncertainty comes rushing out.

"Neji?" she says somewhat hesitantly, threading her fingers through his.

"Yes, Ino-chan?" he says against her pulse, the cutesy suffix more of a tease than it is a legitimate suffix. She shudders briefly.

"What are we? I mean, what is this? This isn't humoring a sad girl, not anymore, is it?"

"Of course not." he murmurs, taking his lips from her neck.

"Exactly. So…"

"We are…" he takes a breath, closing his eyes. "Whatever you want us to be."

"I don't know what that is though! This isn't just sex, because we haven't-"

"We could." Neji says smoothly, not even missing a beat. Damn his clan's tradition, he is a branch member and if he wants to take the Yamanaka girl, he will, no matter what Hiashi demands of him.

She just barely blushes, covering it up with a know-it-all's frown. "Of course we could, but that's not the point. The point is that this is great, really, but I don't know what we are, and that worries me."

"I… enjoy you." he finally says, after a few skipped beats and a few moments of memorizing the pattern of her striped wallpaper to pass the time. "You are intelligent and beautiful, and you never cease to surprise me. And I would very much enjoy spending what time I can with you, if you would allow that."

She squeals in the most girlish way possible, twisting herself around so she is inadvertently straddling him to wrap her arms around his neck. "Of course I will!" And she quickly presses her lips against his. Without missing a beat, he slides his hands under her camisole and presses his fingers against the bare skin of her waist, easing her mouth open so he can deepen their kiss, a long since familiar practice. She mewls as she grants him access and his tongue sweeps across hers, her fingers threading through his hair.

"Then I suppose that settles that." He says thoughtfully when she has pulled away, his hands sliding down to rip circles under her skirt, against her hipbones. Internally, he commends himself for getting to the blonde before her other suitors. It would not hurt, though, to make it known, and with that thought he lowers his mouth to the curve of her neck and nips at her, faintly registering her shivering above him, more focused on his lips against her flesh and the feeling of her blood rushing to the spot beneath his lips, successfully creating a hickey. He leans back with a smirk, his work effectively done, and she laughs at his possessive gesture.

The first order of business after they declare themselves together is to tell their guardians. They decide that Inoichi will be the most difficult, considering that Ino is his baby girl and he'll be damned if anyone tries to take her from him, and Hiashi the least difficult, simply because he has two girls to take care of and Neji having a girlfriend (from a well to-do clan, no less) will mostly likely barely phase him. So the next day, they decide to pay her father a visit.

"Hey, daddy!" she cries, walking cheerily into her father's house, past the stairs with their worn scratches, dragging Neji behind her. "I brought someone for you to meet!" she calls from the living room, having told Neji to wait in the hallway.

"Baby girl!" Inoichi cries, coming fumbling out of the kitchen, wearing an apron and a slightly burnt kitchen mitt. He slows in front of her, taking her arms and looking her up and down. "You need to visit your old dad more! You've gotten so much more mature. Anyway," he grins. "Who do you want me to meet?"

Ino blushes, shuffling her feet shyly and praying he does not notice the small bruise on her neck. "You can come in!" she calls, casting her glance behind her at the off-white doorway. Neji strides in calmly, his hands in his pockets to hide his shaking hands. He is a strong man, more than deserving of his jounin title, but the father of his girlfriend is certainly someone to be feared.

Both luckily and unluckily, it takes Inoichi a moment to realize. "Hyuuga-sama? It's nice to see you again, but we've already met. When you were at the shop to talk to Ino about a mission..." he turns to face Ino, confusion apparent. "I don't get it, baby girl."

And again Ino flushes, glancing down. "He's my boyfriend, daddy. We're dating."

The look on Inoichi's face is priceless. His face goes red as fury overtakes him, his hands beginning to shake. "Your boyfriend?"

"I'm eighteen, daddy. It's okay."

"No, it is not okay! If you're going to date a Hyuuga, don't date the prodigy! In fact, don't date at all! Go to your room, young lady."

"I live alone." she reminds him quietly. "And not to be rude, but I'm not your little girl anymore, and I'll date whoever I want." she takes a seat on the couch, pulling Neji along with her.

Neji speaks up quietly before Inoichi can yell again, much to Ino's relief. "I can promise, at the very least, that I will never hurt her. I swear that on my life."

Inoichi seems to relax a little, his hands loosening from their previous tight fists. "If you hurt my Ino, I will personally make sure that you never-"

"Daddy." she says, her voice a cold warning. He clears his throat.

"Just don't hurt her, or else there will be hell to pay, I can assure you of that."

"Shikamaru, Shikaku, you, Chouza and Chouji. I understand." he bows his head in a rare show of deference, and Inoichi's shoulders slouch, the sign of a man defeated.

"Would you like to stay for dinner?" he says brokenly, still visibly upset.

Ino grins widely, bounding up and skittering gracefully over the pale hardwood floor to toss her arms around her father. "Oh, we can't, but daddy, oh, thank you daddy!" she cries.

Inoichi rests his hands on his daughter's shoulder blades and heaves a sigh. "I'm still not fully okay with this."he says gravely.

"That is understandable." Neji says, standing. "She will be treated with the upmost care while I may call her mine."

"I'm holding you to that, Hyuuga."

Neji nods, and after Ino pecks her father on the cheek, the two of them glide out.

"Well, that went better than expected." Neji states calmly as they start down the street. Ino just buries her head in her hands and groans.

Hiashi goes much smoother, overall. Neji is lucky enough to find him supervising Hanabi's training, and it is easy enough to request a short session with him after he and Hanabi finish, which he is readily granted. Hiashi excuses himself from her training an hour later, and finds Neji and Ino seated patiently outside of the training area.

"Hiashi-sama." Neji says, bowing his head respectfully. Ino echoes and bows as well.

"We shall talk inside." He says in way of a reply, and both teenagers nod and stand sharply, following the already moving Hyuuga swiftly. Once inside, he motions for Neji to shut the door o the meeting room he has lead them too. Neji does, while Ino takes in the grey walls and clean wood flooring. She takes a seat on one of the many tatami mats scattered across the floor, and Neji takes a quick seat beside her. Leisurely, Hiashi sits directly in front of them.

"Yamanaka-san." he says in greeting, the signature blonde hair of he Yamanaka clan tipping him off. "and Neji-sama. What has happened that requires Yamanaka-san to be here?"

Internally, Ino flinches. She knows that Hiashi does not mean to be as harsh as he sounds, it is simply a habit carried over and developed during his many years of leading the clan, but his distant nature still stings. She is used to her fathers warm and genial smile when dealing with others, not the official air Hiashi puts out.

"Ino-sama is my girlfriend." Neji states calmly, his head bowing again. "I have brought her here so she may receive your blessing."

"What makes you think that she is worthy of it?"

Ino clears her throat as she looks up at Hiashi. "With all due respect, Hyuuga-sama, I am the Yamanaka clans heiress. As the head of a noble clan, you should know well enough that the Yamanaka clan is quite powerful. We are, after all, closely associated with the Akimichi clan, another noble clan. Isn't that right, Hyuuga-sama?"

Hiashi nods, his hands folding in his lap. Neji rests a hand, plan flat, on the cold hardwood floor and silently prays that Hiashi does not forbid them from dating. "That is correct, Yamanaka-san. Stand, if you will. You as well, Neji-sama."

They both stand, careful to not slip on the floor, and look calmly at Hiashi. Ino feels goose bumps rise up under the gaze of Neji's uncle. Secretly, she is terrified that she will not be deemed good enough, that she will be too skinny and not look strong enough, or that she will be deemed unsuitable because she does not have wide hips like some of the other kunoichis. Hiashi's gaze glances over her swiftly, taking in her ocean blue sundress and loose hair, resting on her lower torso.

"You have my blessing." He finally says. "Do what you will." And then he stands and exits the room without another word.

A beat passes before the two teenagers glance at one another. Both shake ever so slightly, though if it is because of the cold that permeates the room or Hiashi's natural presence, neither of them bother to ask. Instead, Ino grins widely and tosses her arms around her boyfriend with a squeal of happiness. Instinctively, he wraps his arms around her, pressing her flush against his body. The fact that embracing her has become instinctive brings a rare smile to his face, and he quickly pulls back to kiss her lightly.

From just outside of the door, Hiashi watches as his only nephew easily embraces the overjoyed girl and kisses her. A small smile graces his features at the realization that his brother would be incredibly proud of his son for how far he's come. And just like that, Hiashi leaves.

They find themselves yet again in an inn on a mission, this time as a businessman and a geisha. (As such, Ino enters the village first to take her place to in the ranks as a transfer. Tsunade had arranged for the place to be called ahead and informed of a new arrival, and to make room. Thankfully, it worked.)

Neji stays behind for a few days, hiding safely in the woods and communicating with his teammate and girlfriend only through his head – a simple exchange of chakra and just like that, they could speak telepathically. It's strange how quickly the Yamanaka advance. (And as for the part of their mission that requires Ino to do some hardcore seduction on someone other than him, he has learned to bite his tongue when the subject comes up.)

She is tired, as she always is after missions of the sort they are on, and her movements as she carefully pushes him against the wall of their sparsely decorated room and drops a kiss to his jawline are slower than usual, less heady and rushed. Gently, he raises her chin and kisses her, understanding her subtle message that she wants to take this slow, and make it count. Of all of the missions they have been on, this is both the easiest and the hardest. Death is not an option.

"You know," she begins, her honey-slick voice quiet in his ear. "-when you woke me up because you thought I was having a bad dream all those months ago, I wasn't really having a bad dream."

"Then what were you dreaming of?" He asks, holding back a groan as she flits her tongue against the hollow of his collarbone. Truthfully, he hadn't bothered to remember much of what happened on that mission, mostly focusing on remembering exactly what her lips felt like, no matter how lovey-dovey he knows that is. (He's a little bit lovestruck, though he'd never admit it. She is the salt water that wears down the rocks that line the sea.)

She laughs, though it is more like a giggle, but either way she is making those pretty giggly noises again, the ones that make her eyes sparkle like aquamarine. "You didn't realize?" He shakes his head and she giggles even more, rolling her eyes adoringly before leaning in and whispers exactly what she had been dreaming of him doing to her that night, and by the time she is finished he is somewhere between a proud smirk and an embarrassed blush. (The small but well bred Hyuuga part of him screams that what she has just told him is incredibly uncouth and he should wait until marriage before engaging in any sexual activities, but the bigger, arrogant side of him says that he is more than capable of doing what she has just said and more.)

Needless to say, he wastes no time in leading her to the bed.

read and review, please!