Rule Twenty-Five

by Roxyryoko

�I�m okay, Shikamaru!� Ino screeched. Her voice was almost a plead. She quickly pulled her leg away from the young man�s grip. It slid out of his fingers and away from his examining eyes. Due to the sudden movement his hand connected with the warm sticky liquid on the girl�s shin that seeped out from the wound. Her leg came to rest on the ground a little to the left of him. It was far too painful to move the throbbing limb much more. That little effort had already sent a wave of agony through her body. But that was fine. It was away from his wrath for now. He looked to her face, which was strained with pain and an attempt to hold it in. His expression, however, only displayed his annoyance. He had a slight frown and his eyebrows were slightly furrowed. She told him, weakly, almost pitifully, yet in a oddly kind matter, �It hurts.�

�That�s your own fault,� he told her flatly, almost indifferently. His rough hands snatched her leg up once more and held strong against her attempts to resist his grip and draw her leg away again. He examined the wound intently, but in a much aggressive manner than before. He held her with one hand above the knee and the other just below the joint. He turned and twisted the limb around, inspecting it, with each movement causing the girl to whine in protest. She inhaled a sharp breath through gritted teeth at one particularly painful jerk.

He concluded that her knee was in bad shape. He could see the white bone under the rushing red blood seeping from the open gash. The cut ran from the lower left of her knee to the right of her thigh. A bad wound, yes, but it wasn�t anything life threatening. She would be fine as long as it didn�t get a serious infection. He reached into the supply kit on his right thigh and pulled out a roll of bandages.

�Well,� she grunted with a grimace, finally overcoming the pain enough to retort at his comment. �I don�t know how they realized I was a spy.� She had an air of that stubbornness in her tone. As she spoke his hands crept over her thigh and around it several times, each time wrapping the soft white cloth tighter and heavier over the injury.

�It doesn�t matter how they found out; it�s that they did.� His tone was colder than before. He knew very well that she was only making an excuse. The fact was obvious to him. Somehow she had done something, even if it was as simple as a speech pattern or the way she moved, that had revealed her to the enemy. No matter how long she had studied her target, she could not memorize every bit of their character and there was, of course, traits she had not seen. And he didn�t need to steal a glance away from his work to know that she was giving him a dirty look that would have sent shivers down just about anyone�s spine. He continued not really concerned with her feelings. �That means the mission failed.�

He was completely unaware of how deep that cut. It sliced far deeper than the wound. The fact that she had failed him penetrated her conscience far more than a failed mission. She didn�t express these thoughts, however, because she didn�t understand why she felt them herself.

�I don�t think-Hey! Be more gentle, will you?� she interrupted herself at a particularly stressed tug on the bandage. She wondered if he did that on purpose. Perhaps he did it just to shut her up, but it wouldn�t stop her. She tried again. �I don�t think that they are just normal travelers. There�s something fishy going on.� She tried her best to think of what and her face looked deep in thought.

Shikamaru proceeded to securing the white ribbon around her leg. He looped the two ends together and jerked them into a knot, not caring just how ugly a knot it really was. The white stained crimson it seconds, but he had no desire to wrap her leg anymore. It would hold. That�s what mattered. Who cared if it showed some blood? He remained silent as he put away the extra supplies. �Yeah,� he agreed, confidently as he rose to his feet. �They anticipated you. They wouldn�t have suspected a friend so easily as an enemy if they were just ordinary travelers with no intent of harm.� He looked out into the forest, in the general direction these nameless visitors were located.

Even if she did make mistakes when her mind was transferred in another, which he knew she did, the average person would not have so easily attacked a supposed ally. Perhaps they would think he wasn�t feeling well or think him gone mad, but to out right attack so quickly wasn�t normal. Obviously these won�t ordinary people. They were no doubt ninja. Ino followed his gaze. A sight of absolute green greeted her eyes. A canopy of emerald hung in the foreground. The trees were a golden brown with lush leaves dangled healthily from the strong branches; supporting their future children until they were old enough to break away and fall to the ground as a pinecone and sprout into vegetation of their own. The trees were intertwined; so closely wrapped that they created a maze both below and in the treetops above. From Ino�s position on the damp forest floor she saw a chipmunk scurry from out behind one of the patches of grass that dotted the ground and up a tree. It occurred to the girl that they should probably try and investigate the �visitors� more. She knew that Shikamaru would be upset, though he probably wouldn�t display it to her, that he didn�t succeed at a mission. She attempted to stand up, but as soon as she put weight on her injured leg a spark of pain shot up her right thigh and pierced her brain. Her support collapsed as she could no longer hold her body on the wobbly foot. Her bottom smarted as she made contact with the ground once again.

Shikamaru snapped out of his thoughts when he heard a thud behind him. He saw Ino lying on the ground, one leg sprawled out and bent in front of her and the other lying flat. Her weight was supported by her arms. He watched her try to get up again, but it wielded the same results. Once again pain hit her and a yelp of agony escaped her lips. Her body collided with the floor after that.

He frowned and then let out a small sigh. �Troublesome,� he muttered as he walked over to the crestfallen girl. He dropped a hand down in front of her. She stared at it dumbly for a few moments. Then with a smile she accepted it and with a swift movement she felt herself pulled off the ground in his quick hoist. On her feet she shook slightly as she attempted to find a firm balance on her one good leg. She found herself leaning on Shikamaru for support. Why did that send a chill up her spine and a rush of warmth to her cheeks?

�I guess,� he began with a shrug of his shoulders, rummaging through her hair with his one free hand. ��they�re in the same situation as us.� He looked over her uneasy figure in a quick glance. �You�re in no condition to fight them if we had to. Hopefully they aren�t either, but just in case�we better get you back to Konoha so you can get better treatment.� His tone of voice only made her feel like more and more of a burden. She felt a swarm of guilt buzz in her stomach.

�It�s troublesome�but you can�t really walk,� he continued with a sigh and a tone of indifference despite the obvious complaint. The next thing Ino knew she felt his rough hand press against the back of her knees and then the other hand leave her own hand and warp around her back just under her shoulder blades. Then she felt her legs being pushed up, causing her knees to give in under her. However, strong arms continued to push her up and she felt her body fly through the air. Her head flung back and down and her lower body rose up until both portions were about balance. She ignored the pain that erupted in her knee. She was much more aware of the furious color of pink her face had turned and the burning on her cheeks. Her heart seemed to had skipped a beat, but she didn�t know why. Her breathing had cut off for that moment that it took to be lifted off the ground. Why was that? It wasn�t exactly a shock as much as it was something else. Why was she blushing? Why was her heart fluttering? This was Shikamaru, after all!

�Hey,� he interrupted her thoughts. A slight annoyance was evident in his voice. �You could at least try not to be deadweight. Can�t you hold up your weight better?� Heat instantly rose to her face and she knew she was beet red, but this time it was due to anger. �Are you saying I�m fat, you lazy ass!�

He gave her a look, as if he couldn�t believe her. One of those oh-come-on-grow-up-looks. But he could believe her immaturity. Implying Ino was fat was almost as bad as calling Chouji fat. Except she broke out in anger; she didn�t become a destructive force. He rolled his eyes and replied. He was in no mood to provoke her. �No. But you�re just hanging there like a rag doll.� He avoided her eyes. �Can�t you� I don�t know�� He paused for a long moment, all the while determined not to meet her gaze. �Make it easier on me by putting your arms around my neck or something...� Ino swore she saw a light shade of pink creep up his cheeks.

�Are you lazy or just weak?� she grumbled, but when he gave her that look she smiled to show she was joking. She complied, but she was hesitant in doing so. She didn�t understand why, but for some reason it took her a lot of courage and effort to raise her arms up and just before flinging them around his neck she paused. Why? The heat had intensified on her face and her palms were so sweaty. What are you doing, Ino, she told herself. She shook her head slightly and with a stubborn determination placed her arms loosely at his neck. She was being silly. This wasn�t anything to be embarrassed about. He had taken care of her lifeless form many times before when she had used her Mind Transfer Jutsu. And many times that had involved lifting her up. He was her teammate after all; a friend. He was only helping her. Any honorable ninja would do the same thing.

Then it occurred to her: it would be embarrassing if someone saw them. A new fear swelled within her. Someone would see them and not just someone, many people, as soon as he took her into Konoha. That would be a disaster! She thought of all the rumors that would spread and saw people covering their mouths to drown out their voices as they told that gossip. She couldn�t allow that! Her head swirled at the thought and she felt dizzy.

However, she had no time to protest. In a moment she felt the air rushing past her in a cold breeze. Her hair blew frantically in front of her eyes and behind her head. She saw the trees whiz by in a blur and all that was still was the clouds above. No, scratch that. Besides her hair and her legs wobbling slightly as the wind pressured them to the side, she was pretty stable. She felt each step Shikamaru took. She felt his knees rise up and go back down at each swift stride, pressing against her body when it was fully bent. She gasped at the freefall down back to the solid ground and then the sudden rebound back into the air. At several occasions she clasped Shikamaru tight enough to suffocate him. Being a passenger made the normal experience slightly sickly.

She looked up Shikamaru�s visage. Was that because looking out made her dizzy enough to vomit and she needed something stable to look at? Or was it because she was bored? Or maybe something inside her compelled her to? When had he become so strong? she wondered. Her eyes shifted down from his face to his sturdy shoulders, which were half hidden by her own arms, and his chest. She could feel the muscles in his arms, bulging biceps against her thighs and under her back. She felt the shape of the muscles on his chest down to his stomach pressed against her side. She could make out every indentation and projection. How did this lazy man develop brawn? The thought of him doing pushups or pull-ups or any other exercise on a daily basis was laughable! Why had she never noticed it before? She gulped as the thoughts caused the now familiar blush to deepen on her cheeks. Oh, why was she putting so much notice on it now?

Then another thought came to her mind: Did he notice she was blushing? She shot a quick glance at his face. He was looking straight ahead, much too busy watching where he was going to notice her expression. Relief washed over her.

She wanted to slap herself. Stop thinking such crazy thoughts! she told herself. She definitely was not attracted to Shikamaru. That was absurd! This was just some crazy hallucination from her loss of blood. That�s all. She relaxed a bit more in his arms and let her chin rest on his shoulder, not caring about what was going through his mind. She closed her eyes so she wouldn�t have to look at the rushing world or at him. Soon this foreign bubbly feeling in her stomach would go away.

________

Ino starred up at the ceiling. Her cr�me blonde hair was free of a tie and was pulled to the side of her head so she couldn�t feel it against her neck as she lied on that hospital bed. It wasn�t exactly a soft bed. Her neck was hurting thanks to the poor excuse of a pillow her head rested on. She had thrown all the covers on the floor because of the heat. She didn�t care that her legs were fully exposed from the hospital gown. She had closed the room�s window blinds because the glare of the sun�s rays blinded her and stung her with a hot sensation. No one could see her so she didn�t have to worry about how she looked. It couldn�t have been too great. She was sweaty and her hair was oily; the curse of a blonde. But she didn�t care. No one had come to see her in a while now and she probably wouldn�t have any visitors anytime soon. People only visit when someone�s just been submitted to a hospital and as time goes on they visit less and less.

The familiar scent of disinfectant drifted to her nose. It only served to remind her where she was and the boredom that accompanied that place. And God, was she bored! She glanced down at her knee. It was wrapped in a white cast that stiffened the joint so she could barely move it. How long had she been here now? Only a week, but still�This was completely awful for her figure! She wanted to get out and about. She couldn�t just lie around anymore. Just one more day and she�d be out of here! She sighed. But only to be practically crippled at home. She sighed again and watched the particles dance in the air. A knock came at the door. Ino practically fell out of the bed. She couldn�t believe someone was actually coming to see her. It�d been about three days since the last visitor. She felt nervous and panic swelled inside her as she looked at her state. She grabbed the comforter that laid on the floor and pulled it over herself in hast. She had to look presentable to whoever it was. It fell on top of her in a twisted matter and she kicked at it furiously with her good leg until it was flat on her. She rose to a sitting position and called a little breathlessly, �Come in,� as she quickly tried to brush her hair by running her fingers through it.

She watched the gold door knob turn slowly and the door sluggishly slid open. She saw a foot step forward and the rest of a body followed suit. She felt a warm sensation prickle inside her when she saw who it was. Shikamaru walked in, hands in his pockets and the usual expression plastered on his face. He closed the door behind him, acting as if it was such a burden, and then leaned against the wood when the task was complete. Why was her heart beat suddenly racing? Why did her breath seem short? And why was she so happy to she him? These were all such unfamiliar reactions when he was present. She tried to ignore them. �Didn�t think you�d come visit me,� she remarked in a sly, joking manner. She hoped her voice wouldn�t betray her and stutter. She didn�t want to display to him just how nervous she had become. She felt butterflies in her stomach like she never felt before. It wasn�t like her to be nervous. She was always so outgoing. �I�d think you�d be out cloud watching or something. Isn�t it a good day for that?� She motioned to the window. The light from outside was gleaming strongly even though the blinds were closed.

�Yeah,� he agreed in a tone stung with his common laziness, but there was something else in his voice; something that was definitely not Shikamaru in there, but she couldn�t put her finger on what it was. �But I have to go on a mission in a little bit. Can�t really enjoy the clouds today.� He didn�t sound too disappointed. He gave her a cocked smirk and folded his arms. �Thought I�d visit you before I went. This way you can�t say I didn�t.�

�So you waited to the last minute because you�d be gone tomorrow and knew I�d bite your head off when you got back �cause you didn�t visit me at all while I was in the hospital?� Her eyes fell into slits that starred at him in an all knowing matter.

�Pretty much.� He pulled his arms up behind his head and used them as a rest as he leaned against the door.

�You can�t fool me, Shikamaru. I know you too well.�

He smiled at her words. This caught her eye. He was happy? Was that it? Was that the unordinary tone in his voice? But that was so unusual. He was going on a mission! Shouldn�t he be complaining like he normally did? And be saying how troublesome it was? And that he�d rather be out cloud watching- it was such a waste, because it was such a nice day for that? But instead he was semi-happy and was joking with her. What was going on?

�What�s your mission?� she inquired, hoping to find some answers.

�Temari and me are escorting the Kazekage back to Sand.� he stated flatly.

�Wow! That�s quite a mission? Why�d they chose you?� She smiled. He only rolled his eyes.

It was an unordinary mission, but Gaara had visited due to the recent Chunin Exams. A Jounin accompanying him back to his home was natural. A chunin coming along wasn�t too farfetched due to the lack of qualified ninja these days. A small amount of guards was necessary since they had to be quick and couldn�t draw attention to themselves. And a Kazekage could take care of himself after all. He didn�t need an entourage.

�I guess I�ll see you in seven days or so?� she asked sweetly. She mused that if Shikamaru had it his way, the normal three day trip to the Sand Village from the Leaf Village would take much longer. He�d take too many breaks.

The thought of him leaving made her heart ache. Oh, why was she feeling this way? ______

The young woman breathed in the sweet intoxicating aroma of the many flowers. A rainbow of colors surrounded her: lush pinks, lipstick reds, vivid violets, banana yellows, fiery oranges, innocent whites, and emerald greens; the colors of love; the colors of purity. She gently sprinkled the water on the blossoms from the canteen in her hand. She progressed up and down the aisles of many different shades both vivid and dark. She had to watch her step as she went. Not only did she have to be mindful not to put too much weight on her recovering leg with every step she took, but she also had to be careful not to slip on the slick ground, so she wouldn�t have an injured head as well. It had been nearly two weeks since her release from the hospital. She had shed the cast, but still had to be careful. She smiled as she worked. She truly did love these little children of nature. She came to the roses about midway through her chore. There were many different colors and sizes of roses: pinks, oranges, whites, yellows, pale blush; large and petite; some single and some in bouquets and some in pots. A speck of yellow on the floor caught her eye as her hand glided through the air sending a mini rainfall down from her tool. She stooped down, bending her back, not her legs. The little rose came into full view from its spot hidden under leaves and petals. Her fingers gently brushed against it, mindful of the thorns she gingerly picked the flower up.

She noted it was not only yellow but also had red tips. A soft shade of peach painted the petal tops as if they had been dipped in the color.

She smirked. The rose that meant �falling in love.�

The smile soon faded from her face as the image of a certain young man flashed in her mind�s eye in much too glamorous of a way to suit him. A lazy smile sported his lips. Why did a shudder run down her spine? And why did she suddenly feel compelled to kiss those lips; yearned to kiss those lips? It was such a crazy thought! She shook her head violently to get the idea out of her mind. She put the flower back with its companions. She muttered as she did, �I�m definitely not falling in love with Shikamaru!� Yet her eyes drifted back to that yellow rose with red tips and then cautiously to the red roses next to it.

She heard the door slide open and heard the plodding of footsteps against the hard floor. She delicately turned around and smiled at the customer. �Welcome,� she called, but the smile faded away to a smirk when she saw who it was. Yet, it wasn�t a smirk that was full-heartedly mischievous, nor taunting. It was more so a guise that she must wear for dignity. The bubblegum head of Sakura starred back at her. Her smile was wide despite any usual discontent at being in Ino�s presence. She bobbed to the side to reveal a very nervous looking Hinata. The girl was flushed and found great interest with the floor. She fiddled with her figures at a constant pace. She didn�t even seem to notice she was doing that. It appeared to be just a nervous tick. The girl�s long dark hair covered her face somewhat and draped down her back. �We need your help,� Sakura stated.

Intrigued, Ino asked, �What for?� It was a very big deal indeed when Sakura came to her for help.

Sakura looked at the girl behind her, who in turn looked like she wished nothing more than that she could sink into the ground and disappear. Hinata avoided the other two girls� eyes and continued to stare at the oh-so-interesting floor. The pink haired girl pushed her in front of herself and put her hands on the other�s shoulders to show her support for her friend. �Hinata, here, needs some flowers.� She left a dramatic pause before continuing with a grin. �For Naruto.�

At those words Hinata�s visage became cherry red and she began to sweat badly. She fidgeted even more.

A smile came to Ino�s lips. �For Naruto?� she mused.

Sakura nodded with a smirk on her lips. �It seems she likes him and I thought you could help us show him how she feels with some flowers.�

Ino couldn�t believe what she was hearing, but as she thought about it, she couldn�t find a reason for �why not?� People fell in love with so many different varieties of people. She pushed the thoughts that were beginning to surface in her mind back before she could completely comprehend them. This wasn�t the time to think crazy thoughts of him.

The other girl bit her lip. �Um...um� this was a-a bad i-idea,� Hinata stuttered. �I sh-shouldn�t have l-let Sakura talk m-me into th-this.� She hung her head low in an attempt to hide the intense shade of red she had become.

�No way!� Ino heard herself retort back. Suddenly she had felt an urge to speak even though she didn�t really know what she was going to say. She pointed her finger at the girl and placed her other hand on her hip. �If you like someone, you�ve got to tell him! Especially if that someone is as dense as Naruto!� These words�she was so compelled to say them. She felt that by speaking them she was solving her own problem too.

Hinata turned to Sakura shyly and looked up at her through a shield of hair. �But should I really give a boy flowers?�

Ino took Sakura�s pause as a opportunity to answer that question herself. �It doesn�t matter if it�s for a girl or a boy! You want to tell him your feelings, don�t you?� Hinata gave a reluctant nod of her head. �And a flower will tell him just that.� Her voice was full of confidence. She knew the way loved worked. Or at least she thought she did.

�Come on,� she said with an encouraging smile. �We�ll find the perfect flowers to display your feelings.� She walked over to the other females. However, as she walked she couldn�t help but be haunted by her own words, If you like someone, you�ve got to tell him! Her eyes glanced over at the roses. They scanned over the orange ones. They meant �desire.� Was that the feeling bubbling within her? Her sight then shifted to the red roses. If you like someone, you�ve got to tell him! repeated in her mind. Would a flower really tell him that?

________

What was she doing? This was crazy! Her mind was screaming those thoughts, but then her heart was encouraging her. It said, �You can do this, Ino!� Hadn�t she said the words she was preparing to say a billion times to Sasuke? Why were they so hard to say now? Why was she nervous now? Why was she so scared now? Maybe because this time the words weren�t meant to hurt or out show another. Maybe because this time the feeling made her tingle and nervous, yet excited. Maybe because this time the feeling was genuine and not just a little girl�s infatuation.

She tightened her grip on the red rose she clutched in her hands. She didn�t even notice the thorns seeping into her palms. Her breathing was rigid and she more so stomped down the street than she meant to. She felt that if she didn�t hold on tight enough to the flower; if she didn�t have her feet on the earth as strong as she could, she�d run away. She had to do this! She just had to! She needed to know if her feelings were true this time. Was it just a condition caused by her injury or did she somehow really love that lazy man? And was there any chance in the world that he somehow loved her too?

It had taken her all day to summon the courage to leave the flower shop. Hinata, with flowers in hand, and Sakura had left early afternoon. She had wished Hinata the best of luck, which had caused the girl to crumble into embarrassment behind the bouquet. Ino had wandered about the store for quite some time. She would walk over to the roses and her thoughts would race to him and then with a foolish laugh she�d walk away. She would decide that it couldn�t be a genuine feeling. Over and over she did this action and had these thoughts, until she finally grabbed that rose. And then she had plodded back and forth between the aisles and the door. She swore the floor now had an indent of several centimeters from the path she walked. However, she finally did bring up the courage. She was going to tell Shikamaru she loved him!

�Someone�s going to see us!� a woman�s voice whispered. The manner was slightly seductive and a giggle followed. Ino knew that voice.

�No they won�t�� came a reply from another voice she knew far too well. The voice was tinted with a tone of more enjoyment than usual. Ino stopped dead in her tracks. She was right at the end of a building that�s corner diverged into an alley and with the dark of the night you wouldn�t notice anyone in it. The tears were beginning to swell in her eyes. Her heart was racing. She was telling herself that what she was hearing wasn�t true. She wouldn�t believe it. She didn�t want to believe it! �No!� her mind shouted. She didn�t want to confirm her thoughts. She didn�t want to know the truth, but still her eyes darted around the corner with moisture blurring her vision. Even with the unclear view there was no denying what she saw. Her heart beat continued to rise and her breathing came out short and sharp in a race against her beating heart.

There he was bending over her, pinning her against the cold wooden wall, running lips down her neck and planting kisses on her lips. In the faint light Ino saw the gleam that revealed a village headband and she didn�t need to look hard to all ready know it belonged to the Sand Village�s Jounin kunoichi.

�When are you going to buy me a ring?� she asked, pulling her face close to his so that their noses almost touched and so that she looked into his eyes.

�So troublesome�� was his vague reply. Then he kissed her again.

Ino�s body was on fire. It was completely burning. Her flesh was being torn away and her heart was scorching away into charcoal. It was a slow pain, but it increased with more ferocity at each passing second. She tore her eyes away and leaned against the wall. She dug her nails in the hard wood. She felt the hard claws breaking, but that small amount of pain was insignificant. Her knees became weak under her. They wobbled but somehow she managed to continue standing. It wasn�t because she had the strength to. She had lost all her fortitude at the sight she just witnessed and continued to hear. No, instead, she forced her legs to stay locked, because she did not want to stay. She couldn�t bare to stay! She crumbled the rose in her hand. Tears were beginning to form in the corners of her eyes and she put her hand to her mouth to silence her wine. She couldn�t let herself be heard. She needed to run! She couldn�t bare this burning any longer. In those moments she knew her feelings for him were true, because if they weren�t it wouldn�t hurt so much. She needed to run away! Her brain kept demanding her to do just that. And that�s what she did. She ran as fast as she could, but no matter how swiftly her body moved the visions pf him kissing her pursued her. The foe was right on her heels and kept pace with her the entire sprint.

Now it made sense! Now it all made sense. That was why he was acting odd when he visited her in the hospital. It was because he was going to see her; he was going to spend time in her company. Why didn�t she notice it before? There must have been a ton of hints. Maybe because people saw only what they wanted to see. And why was she back in Konoha? Did it even matter?

When Ino could no longer take another step she collapsed onto the ground. She completely ignored the pain shooting up from her knee. She shouldn�t had been running on it, but what chose did she have? Don�t cry! Don�t cry! she told herself. Wasn�t there a rule about that? Yes, and she knew it. Ninja rule number twenty-five stated, �A ninja must never show his or her tears.� Don�t be weak! Don�t be weak! It�s just a stupid boy! She held back the threatening tears with a sniffle. She wouldn�t cry. She wouldn�t let herself cry. She coughed and then looked down at the murdered rose in her hand. Its petals were half missing and the few that remained were drooping pitifully. Some protruded at odd angles. Furiously she shoved it in her pocket. Stupid! she scolded herself. How could she had thought that he could love her. Temari was prettier. She was more mature. She was stronger. She was all around better.

�You didn�t love him,� she told herself. Maybe if she could believe that the pain in heart would go away, but she could taste the lie on her lips.

She didn�t care that it was cold and damp where she was. She didn�t care if she got sick. She didn�t care that it was pitch-black. Nothing mattered. She just sat there on her knees, with her head hung low, listening to her breaking heart. She stayed like that until the spell of sleep could no longer be repealed off.

�Ino! Ino!� a voice called. It was a phantom voice. At first it was distant and figureless, but it rose to a loud scream and soon she knew who it belonged to. She fluttered her eyes open. The ground was terribly uncomfortable beneath her and she ached all over. She was lying on her stomach now, with her head rested on the hard dirt. She felt her body wet with sweat and condensation. She turned over slowly so that she was laying on her back. The round face of Chouji looked down at her. His eyes were filled with concern. �What are you doing out here?� he asked. His voice was kind and riddled with worry. She looked away from him. She wasn�t going to answer that.

He was silent a moment. Then he said, �Shikamaru�s been looking all over for you.�

She instantly shot up. Had he seen her last night? �What does he want to see me for?� She didn�t want to sound panicked but she knew she did. And she knew her eyes were wide in terror.

Chouji was taken back. He eyed her warily as he answered, �I think it�s for a mission.� She felt sick. She didn�t want to be on a mission with him. She didn�t want to be anywhere near him, but if she showed that, Chouji would want to know what was going on. And she had no intention of telling him anything that was happening in her heart. Maybe she could fake that her leg was still in bad condition. No, that wouldn�t work. Sakura had personality healed it. Even if it still did hurt at certain movements it wasn�t anything serious enough to get her out of a mission. It didn�t disable her in anyway. It wasn�t a serious enough injury in the first place.

�Oh,� she mumbled and slowly got up. �Where is he?� her voice seemed unfamiliar to her.

�Don�t you want to go home and clean up first?� He raised an eyebrow at her.

She didn�t need a mirror to know that her hair was falling out of its pony-tale and was only hanging loosely in knots. Her skin was dirty and filth covered her clothes. Her eyes were swollen and her fingers had strange indents from the gravel.

�I don�t care.� And she didn�t.

__________________

Shikamaru eyed her cautiously upon seeing Ino. He had never seen her in such bad shape before and couldn�t imagine why she would even dare walk around in public like that. It was completely unlike her. Even in her worst state on missions she never let herself go so badly. She would always make sure her hair was perfect and that her makeup was just right; she had to be as attractive as possible. But now she was looking untidy. Even to a person that didn�t care about appearance it was far below expectations.

She felt his eyes wander up and down her figure, examining her pitiful state. This irritated her. �What do you want?� she snapped. Chouji, who was standing besides her, shared a look with Shikamaru. Taken back, Shikamaru�s words caught in his throat.

When he recovered he said, �We have a mission. Tsunade wants us to check on those so called �travelers� that have been camping out near the forest�s edge for the last couple of weeks. There�s no way that they�re just ordinary people. They must be up to something. They attacked you, after all.� His words were directed completely at Ino. �That�s why I want you to use your Mind Transfer Jutsu on them to see if we can find anything about their plan.�

He continued to her. �Temari�s going to come along in case they are dangerous.� Something inside Ino snapped. �Well, maybe I don�t want to come. Maybe I want to have at least one good leg,� she retorted. Her voice was snotty and slightly icy. Her eyes fell into cold slits. She didn�t care if she sounded rotten. It was how she was feeling.

He eyed her just as coolly. �You have no choice. It was an order from the Hokage.�

Fine! She�d go with him. She was fuming inside. She heard herself let out a loud, �Hmph!� She didn�t mind if they thought she was an A-class bitch. Didn�t they used to anyway? Even if her feelings hand changed for him, he�s hadn�t changed in the same way. Maybe if she made him dislike her, she could hate him back and then the feelings would vanish. Oh, she just wanted to be rid of him, but no! She was chained to him by a leash.

�Why does Temari have to come?� she inquired quite rudely. �Doesn�t she have some Sand matters to deal with?�

She knew the answer. It was in his eyes in unspoken words. It was because he was in love with her. He couldn�t bare to be without her. He couldn�t wait to eat more of her face! His eyes really became malicious at those words. Good! Let it hurt. It hurt her so much more. She hated that those eyes were showing such animosity at her when she adored them so much. �She�s an ally of the Leaf,� was his simple reply.

Ino bit her tongue. She had nothing else to say and not the heart to say it if she did. She didn�t want him to hate her. She couldn�t stand it!

The forest was silent all but for the occasional cry of wild animals or the hush rustling of the wind. Due to this Ino heard her pounding heart full throttle against her ears. She didn�t know exactly what caused her heat rate to race, but she knew for sure it had to do with being in Temari�s presence. A surge of jealousy and hatred rushed through her veins. She had to restrain her breathing, which threatened to come out in short snorts. An awkward silence had enveloped the mission. Not the sort needed for stealth, but a bitter refusal to recognize each other.

_________

Ino peaked out behind the thick branches of the trees she hid behind. She smelt the fresh scent of pine and oak. She took a deep whiff in, trying to calm her nerves. She was so restless. She just wanted to get this ordeal over with so she could leave! She wanted to leave him and leave her; leave them! The item called them! Oh, God. How she saw it now; saw the hints that had been obscured to her before. Those minor snuck shows of affection: little smiles, remarks with a sting of slyness attached, running near each other, sending her ahead so they could be together. She saw it all now, and, oh, how it made her stomach churn. She wanted to pound something until it was flat against the ground. It was only an amount of time before she completely snapped and someone ended up with a black eye. She wanted to hurt Temari. It was a terrible thought, yes, but that�s exactly what type of passion burned within her. Oh, how overwhelming the feeling was. Of course, she realized she was no match against Temari, but that didn�t cease the urge.

Their target was a triad of people. All were men. The three sat around a make-shift camp. They had a couple of logs gathered in a circle, which they used as seats. They were carrying out a conversation, but Ino couldn�t hear one word of their dialogue. Their voices were too low and she was too far away. She could only watch their lips open and close. They were suspicious all right. These were the same people Ino and Shikamaru had been asked to investigate a few weeks before. And even then they only came to the attention of the village due to the repetitive sightings of the squad by citizens of Konoha. And even more speculative was when Ino possessed one of them the others instantly attacked her. Yes, they probably realized the peculiar character of their comrade, but so quickly? She hadn�t even got a questioning look or remark before a kunai came hurdling through the air. The way they wielded the weapons proved they had experience. She had dodged, but the blade still managed to cut through her knee. She remembered the metal�s sting now and that look of accomplishment on their faces. She had quickly released her control and fled with Shikamaru until they were safe from danger and her leg gave out. She still remembered the touch of Shikamaru�s hands on her skin as he examined her injury and the chills that crept up her spine. Chills that she would never experience again.

It was of little doubt that these three had something planned and it most likely jeopardized Konoha. They weren�t unarmed travelers. They were dangerous with keen instincts. So what was she supposed to do? Wait until one strayed from the others two and use her jutsu on him? Yes, that worked like a charm last time. And she was pretty sure Shikmaru knew that too. So why was he being so reckless? Why wasn�t he in his usual planning stance?

It didn�t take that much brain power to know why. He kept glancing at the older kunoichi. He was distracted. It was odd for him to actually be interested in something and it sickened Ino. If he was going to be interested in someone, why couldn�t it be her? She thought bitterly, Why couldn�t it be her?

A sudden movement form the triad below caught her eye and her full attention focused on them. The three had risen to their feet and stood confidently. She saw a smirk cross the lips of one. She recognized him as the one who had directly attacked her days earlier. His eyes were dark and icy. They seemed to glare in her direction. His skin was milky white and his bones were visible under a thin layer of flesh. His long black hair added to his dark features in a terrifying aura. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a kunai. Ino saw the sun�s gleam reflect off the metal.

�Looks, like we have company, boys,� he said in a taunting voice. For the first time Ino was able to hear one of them. Even his voice was cool. He was purposely loud. He wanted them to know that their presence was known. Her eyes widened as his hand reached back and then shot forward, hurling the kunai toward them. No doubt about it now. They�d been spotted.

In an instant her instincts kicked in and adrenaline pushed her legs so that she leaped into the air. A rustle of branches followed as she crashed through them. Similar noises told her Shikamaru and Temari had escaped the attack too.

It had been a mocking attack. It wasn�t meant to hurt them. It was only meant to get them out in the open. And it had worked, Ino thought as she landed on the forest floor, fully revealed to the enemy. She knew that they would have risked injury if they stayed. Two thumps sounded behind her. Her eyes became narrow as she rose from a crouch to her full extent.

�Ah, you decided to join us?� said the same opponent, with a cocked grin. Ino stiffened. Something in that man�s eyes caused her muscles to tighten and her heart to become full of fright. There was so much malice in those eyes.

�What are you up to?� asked a male voice behind her. It was demanding despite a known lack of enthusiasm to actually get answers. �You�re little camping trip has lasted a bit too long, don�t you think?�

�I�m afraid that�s your fault. You caused us to injure our friend.� He motioned to the men behind him, but not to a specific one. And we had to postpone our plans.�

He chuckled as his companions stood firm behind him. It was obvious to Ino that he was the leader of this little gang. �It doesn�t matter.� His eyes gleamed maliciously. �You won�t live long enough to find out.�

Black streaks shot out at the Leaf shinobi. They glistened in the light and seemed to grow. The attack source was his head. As the danger came closer Ino realized that the blades were hair. She dodged, but the hair whirled around after her. She ran backwards and sidestepped but still it was locked onto her and coming closer and closer. She brought out her kunai and hacked at the strands. It cut, but it didn�t stop the attack. The hair re-grew at a frightening speed and continued its pursuit. She continued to slice and dice, but to no avail.

�Cutting isn�t going to work!� she heard Shikamaru shout from somewhere to her right. She was too busy avoiding being impaled to turn to him, but she guessed he was facing a similar situation.

Then an enormous gust of wind pulsed through the forest. Ino�s hair whipped back in front of her eyes and behind her back. She almost lost her footing. It took all her strength to keep her balance. The oncoming attack was blown away.

�Good job, Temari!� Shikamaru exclaimed. A tumbling feeling whirled in Ino�s stomach and a bitter taste befell her lips. She had to bit her lips to keep the sickening feeling in. She hated the tone in his voice. It was a tone of love and total appreciation. She wanted that tone to be targeted at her.

She turned to Temari, who smirked triumphantly. The long haired opponent gave them an ignored expression. He shot a glance to his companion at his right. The man stepped forward. He had blood-red hair and shifty eyes. His skin looked hard and not moistened. His lips were chapped and small red cracks made valleys on flesh. He licked them. Then he did something strange. He began choking and gagging. Loud coughs erupted through the forest. A liquid began to leak out of his mouth and soon it began to pour out. It was a dark purple solution. A few drops dribbled down his chin and when they hit the ground below, the ground sizzled and melted away the earth.

Next thing, Ino knew, he had flung back his head and the toxic came spiraling at them. It shot through the air to Ino�s right and she managed to turn her head fast enough to follow its path. Temari, who was much too shocked, barely sidestepped it enough to avoid the full-blow, but a few drops ricocheted off the ground and hit her. A strong �hiss� rang out as the acid burnt her flesh. She let out a loud agonized yell as Shikamaru cried her name in a tone of full concern.

A part of Ino wanted to feel triumph at the fellow kunoichi�s pain, but despite the pressing desire she couldn�t. Instead, she felt horrible with pity and guilt at the thought. Temari hadn�t done anything wrong. Not really, anyway. And she had never meant to hurt Ino; she wasn�t even aware she did. Shikamaru�s worried-ridden face was what really tore at Ino�s heart in those moments. She hated seeing him so hurt. She didn�t want him to be in pain, but she was completely useless to stop it. The event had all ready happened. It was his own fault, wasn�t it? It was his fault for loving Temari. That�s what caused his pain. But then again, it was her fault for feeling the way she did because she loved him. She caused her own pain when she saw him in agony. And the thought couldn�t leave her mind. She was useless to stop the pain in both their hurts.

She heard Temari curse under her breath. The female ninja gritted her teeth to withhold the pain. She was strong and wouldn�t let the sting bother her. She rushed forward and swung her fan in a fierce motion. A great gust of wind howled and sent the crimson haired man flying back until he collided with a tree. He slid down it, the bark scratching against his flesh, and a smile crept onto his lips. He laid there momentarily, but soon he rose to his feet. He shot a glance at Temari, as if daring her, and then ran off into the forest.

�Don�t let him get away!� Shikamaru ordered Temari. The woman hesitated a moment and then hurried after her opponent. He had complete fate in her abilities, Ino noted. No wonder. Temari was an awesome ninja. She truly was. And Ino also knew that Temari�s hesitation was caused by her worry for the man she loved.

�Heh,� she heard the black haired one chuckle. �Looks like it�s two and two now.� Ino�s gaze rested on his remaining companion. The man had short brown hair and a tired expression. His eyes were dark with rings of fatigue. His hair was dirty and had knots in it as if he had just woke up. He didn�t make any change in movement at the other man�s words. He was the one she had possessed weeks before.

Ino turned to Shikamaru, who seemed to fidget. She thought with a heavy heart, He�s worried about Temari�

�Do you have a plan?� she whispered to him. Maybe her tone sounded desperate, but that�s because she was. His mind wasn�t in the battle. Without his strategy she didn�t know how they�d win. It was always him that pulled Team Ten through; his tactics got the poor excuse for a team through the Chunin Exam and through all their missions. Ino wouldn�t be the ninja she was today without his plans.

He glanced at her. �I don�t know the abilities of the other one.� His eyes wandered to the tired looking enemy and stayed there in a hard stare.

�Well then,� Ino mumbled through gritted teeth. �There�s only one way to find out.� She took a deep breath to prepare herself and then rushed forward toward the opponents. She heard every pounding sound her feet made against the ground and her heart echoed back a nervous thump.

�That�s reckless Ino! Come back!�

Yes, she knew that. But he had no strategy. If seeing the other�s abilities would help him then she�d risk an injury. It was for him after all. And even if he didn�t want her she�d still do anything for him. She refused to be useless to him.

She was only two feet away now. She lifted her right leg up quickly and swung it around at her opponent. To her utter shock her target disappeared in front of her eyes. Was he that fast? No, he wasn�t! He was still there. Her foot collided with something even though her eyes saw nothing. He was invisible.

Her eyes widened and pain shot through her body. She shouldn�t have attacked with her injured leg. She lost her balance and had to pull back her kick sloppily. She placed it back down delicately, careful not to put weight on it.

Now she had another problem. She couldn�t see one of her opponents and the other was standing right behind her! And this time Temari wasn�t there to save the day. If Ino wasn�t paralyzed with fright she would have gulped.

�Ino!� she heard Shikamaru cry. One part of her was thrilled to know his lips spoke her name and to know he was worried about her, but then she was in much too great of a danger to appreciate the moment fully.

Suddenly she felt her body move back on its own. It was forced to move by an outside power as hair jabbed at her like a blade. The silky black weapon trailed after her, whipping and lashing out at moments and then stalking in a straight line. Ino had felt this sensation before during her days for training and she looked down at her feet to confirm her thoughts. She saw a dark elongated shadow was attached to her feet and extended to Shikamaru. Out of the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse of him running in sync with her. Each step pained her leg, but a great wave of warmth and relief had swept over her. She felt that familiar bubbling feeling of affection. He was saving her!

They shared a glance and in a matter of moments she felt his jutsu release her. She dodged of her won free will now. She sidestepped as the hair advanced on her and jumped out of the way. They met each other back to back as the ominous hair threatened them. �Got a plan now?� she more so ordered than asked, as she hacked with a kunai at the onslaught. �I�m working on it!� he replied in a both annoyed and desperate tone. She watched as his shadow stretched out from under his feet into the hair�s silhouette. It slithered over to the man�s feet. At contact he instantly froze and the hair stiffened in the air. Then long thin shadows hands crept up the man�s body. His eyes twitched as he became aware of them. In a moment his body became rigid and the hair fell from its stiff position back to drape at his side. He began to gag as he was choked. Shikamaru smirked.

Then his face shot upward and a moan of shock and pain escaped his lips. Ino�s full attention turned to him. A dark crimson liquid dribbled down his chin from his bleeding lower lip. It was as if he had been hit. Ino�s eyes widened. He had been hit. No doubt about that. She scanned the area. Now she was suddenly tense. She couldn�t see her opponent, but she could hear him, couldn�t she? However, if he was a ninja he knew the art of stealth. She heard the impact of another blow to Shikamaru. Instantly she turned back to him. Her companion was bent over, clutching his stomach, coughing. Then she realized with relief that he still managed to keep his jutsu up. He was struck again. Her opponent had to be there! She let out a wild punch, but stopped midway. She didn�t stop of her own free will, however, but, instead, because she was frozen. She couldn�t move a muscle. She cast her eyes down at the ground. Shikamaru�s shadow was extended in a circle with a diameter of about four feet. He was using her shadow to increase the size of his own. A thin sliver of it was shooting out to the long haired man, keeping him trapped.

�Just as I thought,� Shikamaru commented as he wiped the blood off of his lips and chin with the cuff of his hand. Ino felt herself mimic his movements. She also drew her hand across her mouth. �While you�re invisible you might not cast a shadow but you still can be caught by mine.� Ino realized the truth in his words. The invisible man must be caught because Shikamaru was no longer being attacked.

Shikamaru bent down low and placed his right hand on the ground. �Now let�s see where you are,� he said. His voice was rising in confidence. He scooped up some dirt as did Ino and the enemy who attacked with hair was also trapped in the mimicry. But the man that could not be seen also carried the dirt and as they all rose to their feet, a clump of brown dust hovered in the air, suspended by an unseen hand. Even though she knew his hand was there, she didn�t have a clear idea of his position. Shikamaru knew this too. �Better close your eyes, Ino.�

She understood what he was going to do. She nodded and did as she was told. She felt her hand lash out, scattering dirt and sand everywhere. She heard the sand shake in the air and fall down to the ground with a soft, �ssshhh.� She felt the dirt brush against her flesh. She then slowly opened her eyes to peek, despite what she had been told. A dust cloud had risen in the air, but couldn�t penetrate a certain spot directly in front of her. The particle were rebounding off of something. She could make out the shape of a man against the dirt. In an instant Ino felt her body released. Her muscles relaxed and she felt relieved to be free of the tension. She looked down to see the shadow creeping away from her and shrinking at the loss of her shadow. It slowly slithered up the shape of emptiness. The creepy hands gave a mighty squeeze and a yelp of pain rang in the air. In fragments a man�s figure reemerged.

Ino couldn�t help but grin. Success! Shakamaru had pulled them through!

However, she counted her chickens before they hatched. Another cry of agony thundered through the trees. Ino�s head shot to the direction it came from and she saw Shikamaru�s face became a washed with bitter anguish. Her heart ached at seeing the image. He turned too and made a step in that direction, but then stopped as he came to his senses again. Ino was positive that Temari�s scream was still ringing in his ears.

And in that instant of uncertainty, his jutsu must have become weak, because both enemies took it as an opportunity to escape and easily broke free. Shikamaru�s head shot around as the once invisible man charged at him. His eyes filled with shock.

Ino�s legs were moving before her mind was telling them to. She heard a pounding in her heart and she didn�t even have time to breathe. She brought her leg up to her chest and shot it straight out as she leaped through the air in a vicious jump side kick. She felt it connect as the impact vibrated throughout her body and heard a loud, �Urgh!� The cry told her to release another attack. She spun around and brought her leg around like a hook in a back round house kick to the stomach. The body was carried with the attack and partly due to his shock the tired-looking man went flying to the ground a few feet away to her left. The pain shot through her thigh once again. She bit her lip to hold in her own scream.

Shikamaru�s eyes widened behind her. It was rare to see Ino act so boldly and so ferocious. She had her back to him and was determined not to show him the pain in her eyes. A pain from both the attack she had blasted out, but also the attack on her own heart. He was so worried about Temari. He had nearly ran after her just a moment ago. She could see just how much he loved her. But that only proved how little he loved her. A sword was stabbing her heart over and over. She wouldn�t show him her pain ridden face and the tears threatening her eyes. Yet even still, she was determined to protect him, because she loved him.

Then something occurred to her and in the depths of her mind she knew it had to be done, even though she didn�t want it to be. �Shikamaru�� she said in a low tone and a slow manner. Something about those words hung on her tongue in a matter foreign to her. The voice didn�t sound like her�s. �Go after Temari. Go help her.� Oh, how the words choked her. They were a toxic to her. It killed her to say them. Her heart beat was increasing and every beat sent a pain through her body.

�What are you talking about ?� he shouted back, the shock evident in his voice. �I can�t leave you to take on these guys.� He wasn�t aware that he had all ready left her. His mind wasn�t with her in this battle and he�d never be with her as a lover.

�Go after her.� A tear was sliding down her cheek, but somehow she managed to keep a steady voice. She didn�t want to cry but she couldn�t stop the effortless water drops. �You�� she paused. It was so hard to say. She didn�t want to say it. Maybe if she never mentioned it, it wouldn�t be true or it wouldn�t last, but that was only wishful thinking; fruitless thinking. ��love her, don�t you?� She waited, but he didn�t respond. The area was silent. He didn�t admit it of course, but neither did he deny it. �Then don�t let her get hurt.� Somehow she managed to smile, because she knew all too well the truth of her next words. �We have to protect the people we love.� She turned her head and spread her lips farther apart in a reassuring smile. When she had returned to her previous position she added, with a tone of confidence she didn�t know she had left and didn�t know how she was able to pull off, �I can take these guys!�

There was silence for a long moment.

She felt the tears twinkling down her face. Please don�t notice the tears, she prayed, as one fell to the ground. Please don�t sniffle too loud. She held in the threatening sobs as best she could.

Finally an answer came, �Okay.� His voice was low, but something in it seemed thankful. Then she heard furious footsteps as he ran away to where Temari�s cry originated. �I�ll protect you�Shikamaru��she whispered.

She returned her attention to the threat before her. The two opponents shot their evil stares at her. Now the odds had shifted in their favor. Two on one. They knew just as well as she did that she didn�t stand a chance.

The tired looking one hesitated and then stepped forward to go after Shikamaru, but stopped as soon as he heard the icy tone of his companion hiss, �Wait! We�ll get him after we finish this one off.� His eyes fell on her. They were cold eyes that foretold death. �I won�t let you,� sputtered from her lips in a voice so low they couldn�t possibly hear. But even then her words meant little, because she knew something that they didn�t know and neither did Shikamaru. It was something she had hid from him, because she couldn�t bare his heart to ache over Temari any more. Even though she knew that Temari wouldn�t lose she didn�t want him to worry anymore. And what if she did? What if Temari did die? Wouldn�t that be good for Ino? No more competition. But she didn�t want that. She didn�t want to see him hurt so bad and she definitely didn�t want to be a replacement.

Somehow she�d win, even though her leg gave her no support. And she couldn�t move it to fight at all. Right now it was shaking violently in an attempt to hold her bodyweight up. �Let�s finish this quickly,� stated the ebony haired man. His eyes glistened maliciously. �You�re leg hurts, doesn�t it?� Those cold eyes darted to her leg. Her eyes narrowed and she gritted her teeth.

The other one crackled to her left. She watched him slowly get to his feet. Then she saw him come rushing to her. She couldn�t move! She couldn�t dodge! She could barely stand. She was completely defenseless. In an instant he had faded into his invisible state. Where was he? Ino�s mind shouted. She only knew the answer to that when pain erupted through her and she heard the impact of blow after blow.

How did she manage to stay on her feet? Some inner strength must have been burning inside her. Some rush of adrenaline must have been pulsing through her veins. She refused to fall. She refused to fail him! No matter how bad it hurt she would continue to stand, because it hurt in her heart far more.

�Out of the way!� the leader demanded his underling. The voice sent a chill down her spine. �I�m tired of playing around!� The pain stopped and she knew that she was no longer a punching bag, but what would she be next.? The invisible man was no longer hitting her, but what was going to happen next? Out of the corner of her eye she saw the long strands of black hair rushing toward her. She wouldn�t run from it. She wasn�t going to run.

An excruciating pain shot through her. It originated in her stomach and nerves carried the pain like a bullet to her brain and the pain was like no words could describe. She tasted the blood filling her mouth and her eyes were wide. She wanted to move, but all she could manage to do was choke and spit out blood. Then her body fell limp. She was only supported in her stance by the strands of hair that pierced through her body, but in a matter of seconds that suspension gave out too and she collapsed to the ground. She had known all along that she was going to die.

�That was too easy,� laughed the murderer in his venomous tone. The other ninja reappeared beside him, laughing along with him.

But she wouldn�t be the only one.

The pale skinned ninja reached down and grabbed a kunai from the holster wrapped around his thigh and in a swift movement jabbed it into the heart of the man next to him. The other man�s shocked eyes met cold ones. They were cold eyes, yes, but there was something new gleaming in them. It was the gleam of determination and the pride of success. He sputtered as blood poured over his lips and flowed to the ground. He shook and wobbled before he flinched and fell to the ground dead.

The maliciously man smiled; Ino smiled. It was a sad, pitiful, and weak smile. It was a strained smile. In those few moments when the hair was approaching her she had cast her jutsu and with the hairs as a guide had transferred her mind into him. She smiled at the memory of a similar event between her and Sakura. She knew that would be the last time she could relive that memory in her mind. She knew this well as she stared down at her motionless body that lay on her stomach on the ground with her face turned to the side so that she was laying on her cheek. Blood was pouring out from the wound in her stomach, staining the ground a dark crimson. She was dieing. It was absolutely hopeless. How long would it be before she died?

She knew she had to finish things here. If she returned to her own body she would lose and then Shikamaru would be in danger. If that happened then she would have not kept her promise to protect him. And he would have known that she didn�t �handle� it. She refused to fail him!

�Let�s see who bleeds to death first,� she murmured, but her voice was full of fright and she didn�t even try to cover the fear. She brought the kunai that she still held to her left wrist. She hesitated a long moment. It was the only way, wasn�t it? Her own body would bleed to death before she returned to Konoha and chances were if she released this body she wouldn�t even get the chance to try to escape. She bit her lower lip and took a deep breath, and she held it. Her body became stiff. She moved her hand down and pressed it against the skin, but didn�t pierce it. It wasn�t her body, shouldn�t this be easier. Then again she felt everything this body did and shared the same fate. She closed her eyes and sliced right up her forearm; right up her vein.

Pain roared through her body. She wouldn�t take any chances. Somehow she managed to switch the blade to the other hand and with shaking fingers she repeated the action. The exact same marks appeared on her real body. And blood began to pour from all four wounds. Then she released her jutsu by pressing her fingers together. She barely was able to keep them in place.

Her soul reemerged in her own body. She opened her eyes and lifted a weary head. She was a safe distance away from her enemy. He stood on his feet, shaking and then fell to the ground, cursing. He didn�t even try to attack her in revenge. He didn�t have the strength to move.

Why was she trying to get up? It was hopeless. Yet, still her body tried. Her leg barely moved, but somehow she was forcing herself up. Somehow she managed to rise to her feet and then stumble to a tree. Was she trying to get to him? Stupid! Tears flowed like a river down her eyes now. All this time she had tried to hold them back, but she had had some weak points. She shouldn�t cry. She was a ninja and it was a rule. Rule twenty-five: A ninja must never show his or her tears. But what did that matter now? She wouldn�t be a ninja for much longer.

She clasped the tree, but could no longer stand. Slowly her legs gave out and she slide down to the ground, staining the bark with a trail of blood. Tears were spilling out almost as fast as the blood pulsed out of her veins. She tasted the nasty liquid in her mouth and coughed awfully, sending spit and blood spiraling out of her mouth.

Don�t cry! Don�t cry! It only gets your heart beating faster. The faster your heart beats the faster you die!

She couldn�t help the feeling now. She didn�t want to die! She didn�t! She didn�t want to leave him! Even if she couldn�t be with him, wasn�t it enough to just see him? Oh, God, how she wanted to see him now. Why did she fall in love with him? There wasn�t anything worth wild about him. He was dull and unpopular, but she wanted him. She wanted him so bad. Did it even matter why she fell in love with him? The reasons were insignificant in these moments.

She choked on tears. He didn�t want her. And no matter how much she wanted it, he wouldn�t come and save her. He hadn�t chose her. He chose Temari. He chose her! Life wasn�t a fairy tale. Not everyone lived happily ever after and she definitely wasn�t one of the few who did.

She looked weakly to her pocket on her thigh and somehow managed to open it. Her fingers wandered into it and she felt around and pulled out the rose. It was wilting. Soon to be dead just like her; like her love. She clutched it weakly. Little flower, she thought. You were supposed to show him I loved him, But now he�ll never know. He�ll never know!

�I love you Shikamaru,� she whispered. He�d never hear those words. At least not from her. Her voice was drained and near lifeless. She continued wearily, �Better get Temari a nice ring, you lazy ass.� She gave a weak smile. The tears didn�t stop. Maybe Hinata will have better luck, she thought sadly. Maybe she�d find love with Naruto the person she loved. That only stung her heart more. It was worst than burning. It was an increasing agony that tore and ripped at her. The pain in her stomach and wrists were great, but they were far suppressed by the agony that pierced her heart.

She turned her eyes and saw the blood ever still leaking out of her arms and pouring out her stomach. She was completely covered in red. She could feel the sticky substance all over her. It was hot. As she starred her vision became blurry and her head spun. The liquid was dripping down her chin from her lips. Darkness was looming near.

He wasn�t coming, she thought bitterly. And in those moments in which she was tormented by thoughts of him, she wished death would come sooner so the pain would go away.

The End


Shikamaru and Ino are copyright to Kishimoto Masashi. This is simply a fanlisting/fansite.