Chapter 2 is done! Sorry folks, this is a little heavier on the adventure than the romance, but bear with me!
Chapter 2: The Mission
Ino had a problem.
Somehow, her father had gotten wind of the ceremonial dates this year and – as if there wasn’t already about a million things wrong with this whole week altogether – was pretty much beside himself with paternal worry. Ino had had quite enough of this; following her mother’s third failed attempt to bring her depressingly inebriated father back from the small bar two streets over, she had gone down there to drag him home herself.
“Daddy, I’m going to say this one more time. I? Am a big girl now. I can take care of myself. Now put down your glass and come with me. We’re going home.”
Her father gulped down his drink in stony silence.
“Daddy,” Ino waited. “Daddy. Are you even listening to me?” She sighed loudly. “Look… please don’t worry about me. You’ve gone through the exact same thing and, look: you’re perfectly fine, aren’t you?”
Inoichi looked up, glassy-eyed, at his one and only daughter: light of his life, apple of his eye. Suddenly, the first four bottles of sake seemed sort of lonely. He gestured at the bartender. “Give me another one.”
This was beyond hopeless. As long as Inoichi knew exactly what the ritual entailed – and it was a little late to curb on this one; he had undergone the same thing himself, after all – paired with unfortunate fact that she would be to one to undergo it, the possibility that there would be any amount of alcohol in the world enough to console him was somewhat bleak.
Outside, the colder season had fallen in a seeming flash; fireflies warily tapped against tree branches, causing them to shed their leaves. Ino sighed heavily. “Ugh, fine. Don’t listen to me, then.”
Ino’s father closed his eyes. “Ino, sweetie, I know you’re trying to make me feel better and I appreciate it. But right now, you’re kind of the source of my woe.”
This was ridiculous – Ino could’ve sworn her father was under the impression that he was the one undergoing to ritual. “Are you serious? Oh, you’re right. It’s all so clear to me now. What with the whole doing my job properly and all, I’m a real terror.”
He father gave her a look for the sarcasm.
“Can’t you just be happy that you… I don’t know… Raised me well, or something?”
Shikaku gave a badly hidden cough from further down the bar.
“You know, I’m going to point out,” said Ino scathingly, “that the three of you are currently drinking at two in the afternoon. Am I the only one who sees something very wrong here?”
That was plenty enough to elicit silence from the peanut gallery; her father’s friends sunk guiltily into their seats.
Inoichi huffed. “I don’t understand,” he said despairingly. “Why has no one rallied this before?”
“Because everyone has to undergo it,” answered Shikaku, leaning over and helping himself to another glass. “You did it, I did it. Ino has to, Chouji has to and probably so does my good-for-nothing son, if he bothered to show up for the raffling.”
Ino realized she was gripping her shuriken holster so hard her fingertips were going numb, and became politely fascinated with the intriguing trajectories of passing fireflies outside of the window.
Chouza gave her a sympathetic smile. “I’m sorry you have to do this, Ino,” – here, Inoichi gave a heavy sob in her stead – “the whole thing seems really unfair to girls.”
Inoichi gave him a look that probably aimed to convey something along the lines of: you could never, for a thousand years, fathom the immense intricacies of having a daughter and the immense emotional hurdles I am having to overcome as a result of this, not to mention the relative amount of physical damage undergone from alcohol therapy which has also drained the bank account and angered the wife. This, predictably, shut Chouza right up.
Ino figured she needed to invoke some reality here. “Look, Daddy, it’s nothing you need to worry about. Go home. Despite the fact that I totally appreciate your blood, sweat and tears, I’ll be perfectly fine.” Well, maybe perfectly was a bit too strong. More like ‘maybe’. Or ‘possibly’. If she left Konoha tomorrow and never returned.
“Hey,” her father said, revelation lightening his voice. “Have you thought of talking to Tsunade-sama? She might be able to do something, you know. Perhaps give you an exemption. Or maybe scrap the whole thing altogether!”
Shikaku and Chouza swapped dubious glances further down the barstool.
Inoichi ignored them. “Maybe if you asked really, really, really nicely? People can’t say no to a good, old-fashioned heartfelt appeal.”
“Well, you were told wrong,” Ino explained tiredly, rubbing her temple with one hand. She herself had asked Sakura the same question that very morning – profoundly baffled as to why Tsunade-sama intended on giving such a blatantly sexist ritual the get-go in the first place. Sakura explained that the Hyuuga household had predictably gotten wind of the ceremonial dates that year and were backing it at full force. Ino despaired; hadn’t House Hyuuga ever heard of breaking the mold? Of course, being the oldest and most traditional family in Konoha – with the added monopoly of being the only sprawling example of an inner-city ocular kekkei genkai – she supposed they saw it as some god-given task to uphold the rites most – surprise, surprise – old and traditional.
Of course, it was a little more than surprising that they had so cleanly acquiesced to Hinata’s round-one assigned partner – not only was Sasuke the infamous one-time Konoha defector, he would also sully the bloodline with his rivalling trait. But then again, maybe Hinata just hadn’t told them. Considering the hell that would likely break loose, Ino couldn’t say she blamed her.
And so, with a major house pressing for the fulfillment of the ritual, Tsunade probably wouldn’t be doling out exemptions. If Ino wanted an out, it wasn’t going to happen this way. She’d have to think of something else.
She rubbed her neck thoughtfully. Somewhere in the space of Ino’s ruminations, the number of sake bottles had increased to an alarming seven. This had gone on long enough.
“Okay, okay. You know what? I’ll be perfectly fine, so don’t worry yourself over this.” She steadied her features in an attempt to look convincing. “Right now, I have somewhere I’ve got to be, so I’ll see you three later. Just… promise me you’ll go home soon, alright? And I never want to see any of you drinking at two in the afternoon, so long as I live.”
The three dutifully avoided her gaze.
Ino tapped a foot. “Understand?”
Chouza gave her a guilty smile. “Of course… who could break a promise like that?”
“That’s what I like to hear.”
Taking her leave, Ino breezed past them before Shikaku suddenly spoke up. “Hey,” he asked – and somewhere up there, the fates were chuckling maliciously – “you didn’t tell us who you pulled from the raffle.”
Oh, ho, ho. The irony. This was ridiculous – kind of like a hopped-up version of those crazy, prime-time hidden camera prank shows.
“You know,” replied Ino, sounding a little constipated. “I think this should stay strictly need-to-know.” She meaningfully indicated her father with a tilt of her head. “Don’t you agree, Uncle Shikaku?”
Chouza glared daggers at his friend, elbowing him in the gut and jerking his head towards the other end of the bar, where Ino’s father looked like he was trying to drown himself in a two-ounce sake cup or else by the sheer force of his tears. Shikaku backed off with an embarrassed look. “Oh, right, right. Sorry.”
But Ino, ever the opportunist, was already hurrying away.
The day was already fading by the time the cipher was broken – filaments of dusty sienna light yanked backwards through heavy cumulus like a sewn thread in reverse, bullied beneath the linear horizon by the encroaching, bruise-coloured night.
The target had dropped the coded text in his haste to get away: it tumbled from his rucksack as he spun for escape, limbs stretching, joints popping long enough, light enough but not nearly fast enough before the tendrils of dark shadow tightened around his ankles, holding him fast.
The poor guy never had a chance.
“Jesus,” noted Shikamaru with disdain. “Messy enough there?”
His partner had crouched low beside the body, invoking the appropriate cleanup jutsu. From the look of it, there would simply be nothing to do with all that blood. “What? That’s the fun part, man. Being a ninja wouldn’t be worth it without the garotting.”
“Yeah, but that just reached a new level of gruesome. You didn’t need to saw his head off.”
In return, Ryo just rolled his eyes as though his face wasn’t totally streaked with blood like some movie-grade serial killer – complete with a beheaded corpse by his side. “Fine, fine. Go ahead and spoil my fun. But I guess the blood’s going to be a problem, huh?”
Shikamaru looked up at the fading light; the fireflies had come out and were tracing errant paths through the twilight. A hint of red tinged the sky. “No. Just leave it. Looks like we’re going to have some rain soon, anyway.” Up in the surrounding trees, two more members of the squad crouched among the leafy branches, ready to leap for support if required. Their services hadn’t been needed. “You two! That was the last one; we’ll scour his stuff tonight and make for the meeting point tomorrow. Go on ahead without us.”
Ryo was wiping his kunai off on a leaf just as the rain started falling. “Damn,” he said, looking up with a grimace. “Did I ever tell you that I hate it when you’re right, you son of a bitch?”
But Shikamaru had already turned away, his foot stubbing the dropped piece of intelligence. It gave a wet crackle as he bent to pick it up.
“Awesome,” said Ryo, peeking over his shoulder. “With my beauty and your brains, deciphering this’ll be a snap, right?”
Shikamaru sighed heavily. It was going to be a long, long night.
“So, my life is over,” Sakura muttered darkly over the remains of her lunch. She was apparently in the process of molesting her uneaten salad, pushing it back and forth on her plate so many times, it resembled a platter of green lumps and smears. Ino glanced at it distastefully.
“Sakura, are you going to eat that, or do you want to fondle it some more?”
Sakura dropped her fork. “I can’t eat a bite. My life is over.”
Ino rolled her eyes. “Then you should have thought of this before you asked me to meet you for lunch.”
Sakura gave her a withering look. “Will you stop being such a bitch?”
“Excuse me?” Ino must not have been hearing things correctly. She wasn’t the one walking around with a rain-cloud perpetually over her head. “What is wrong with you these days?”
“Girls,” Tenten interjected, newly arrived and sliding out a seat for herself. “Let’s play nicely, alright?” She glanced at Sakura’s… meal. “Oh, you guys ordered without me. Well, I’m not that hungry. How goes the big suck?”
“Sucky,” pouted Sakura.
Tenten nodded with wide-eyed comprehension. “As I’ve heard these things go.”
In Ino’s opinion, Sakura was just being a drama queen. She rolled her eyes.
The tension in the air clearly had little to do with the impending rainy season. “Oh lighten up, girls,” she grinned cheerily, “it sucked for me, too. I mean, the thought is kind of, you know… appalling. Like, your team-mates are pretty much family.”
Both girls swivelled their heads towards her simultaneously. “Um… same boat here,” Ino prompted cattily. You know, just in case Tenten had forgotten or something.
Across the table, this cracked a slightly more conscious response from Sakura who, refocusing her wrath on Ino, gave her a look that would have likely withered flowers. “Oh that’s perfectly easy for you to say. It’s all hypothetical, right? I mean, it’s not like Shikamaru deigned to show up at the raffling of doom anyway, so do you even have a problem right now?”
Ino looked up at her. “What are you talking about? That doesn’t mean anything,” she offered defensively.
“Oh yes, it does. Today I was going through the assignment roster for Shishou and saw that he just got scheduled for an A-rank mission. He left last night. There’s no way Iruka-sensei caught up with him before then—”
Ino’s heart skipped a beat. “Wait a sec,” she said. “Wait, wait, wait, wait… go back.”
Sakura rolled her eyes.
“So…he’s gone? Not in Konoha? Like, as in ‘not here’?”
“I really don’t see any other way I could have meant that,” Sakura retorted bitterly.
Ino felt sweet, sweet elation well up in her throat. This? Was fabulous. With Shikamaru away, she wouldn’t have to undergo the ritual for the time being. And if she was really, really lucky, then he might not get back until well after the next raffle entirely. From where she was standing, only two things could possibly go wrong: 1) that Shikamaru returned before the next reassignment – the date of which had yet to be announced or 2) that she pulled Chouji in the next draw. Oh well, it was best not to think of these things. The fates were clearly throwing her a lifeline here, and Ino was anything if not ungrateful.
“Ugh. My life is over,” Sakura groaned, just in case no one had heard her the first dozen times. Being the good friend she was, Ino tried to keep her exploding glee to a minimum. It wasn’t working.
“Shishou is, like, crushing my will to live here.” Sakura put her face down on the table, prostrate with despair. “I can’t believe I have to do this.
“Hmm…Well there’s always having you cloned or something, don’t you think? Maybe we could assassinate Naruto? The old cyanide in the ramen trick?” Ino winked at Sakura, who gave her a grimace of profound unamusement.
“Hmm… would you like to brag about your good luck some more or am I going to have to rip you a new one?” Ino stuck her tongue at her. Sakura could be so violent sometimes.
Tenten was worrying her bottom lip thoughtfully. “You haven’t told Takuya yet, have you?”
Ino looked up. In the wake of Sasuke’s return to Konoha, he was already old news. The once enamored girls of the rookie nine had found solace in the plethora of non-shinobi boys about the village – team-mates were an unspoken off-limits, plus there was something intrinsically awesome about being able to kick your boyfriend’s ass by default. Takuya, a shopboy from the place two doors down from the Yamanaka Flower Shop, was Sakura’s recent on-again, off-again boyfriend. Despite the fact that he possessed the mental capacities of lesser species of plants, Ino supposed he was marginally better than those assholes her friend usually dated. Sakura just had really bad luck with men… Look at how the whole Sasuke thing turned out.
Finally, her villainous funk was making some sense.
“Come on,” balked Ino incredulously. “You’re seriously not going to tell him, are you?”
Sakura rolled her eyes. “Oh, I don’t know Ino. I have this sneaking suspicion that the whole ‘sleeping with other people’ thing might not go down so well with him.”
“It’s work,” Ino stated firmly. “It’s not something he can understand.”
“She’s right, you know,” nodded Tenten, “it’s really none of his business.”
Sakura didn’t look particularly mollified, fingering her napkin distractedly. “Yeah, I guess.”
Out of the corner of her vision, Ino spotted Naruto innocently rounding the street corner, a bundle of something-or-other under one arm. Someone spotted him and stopped to chat, the two laughing over something unheard, until Naruto caught sight of Ino and subsequently, the back of Sakura’s head. He stopped short, adopting a look of profound panic, contemplating the safest course of action. His companion was waving a hand in front of his face in an effort of regain his attention, but to no avail. Naruto finally opted for an abrupt about-face before swiftly tiptoeing away with painful caution.
Ino couldn’t say she blamed him – right now, she wouldn’t put Sakura past a little DIY castration.
“What are you looking at?” asked the girl in question, following Ino’s gaze.
By which point Naruto was long, long gone, leaving his companion in a confused daze. Let it not be said that ninja were masters of stealth for nothing. “Oh, nothing,” replied Ino innocently.
“Sakura,” Tenten asked. “When did you say Shikamaru was coming back?”
The girl shrugged. “I don’t know. It was an A-rank mission, so… a week, maybe? Two?”
“Then I guess you’ve got to start planning for the long-term, right Ino?” Tenten giggled.
She hated to admit it, but Ino knew Tenten had a point. She had no idea when the second draw would be held, or how long they’d have to finish the rite and though it seemed badly structured to her, personally, she supposed Tsunade had bigger and better things to deal with. In all actuality, a direct disobeyance of the rite might even pass entirely under the radar. But Konoha had bred better nin than that and this would be monitored on more than just faith and the honour system. Ridiculous as it was, it was still a test of their shinobi mettle, on the honor of their wills of fire. Unfathomable or not, Ino would never be so crass as to lie when it came to duty.
So fine. But let it be known that there was nothing dishonourable about crossing one’s fingers. “Oh… you know. I’ll just wait and see what happens, right?” Good faith had always done her right. Failing that, there was that patch of field where she had found two four-leaf clovers last year…
Just then, Kiba trotted up along the café fence, interrupting Ino’s thoughts. “Yo, Ino,” he called. “You’re wanted.”
Which could only mean one thing. When Tsunade called, nobody failed to answer.
Sakura was outraged. “No. NO. Now a mission? What, did you like win the lottery and forget to tell me about it? Make a deal with the devil?”
Ino rolled her eyes. “Sakura, you’re already on a mission, remember?”
Sakura gave a depressed sigh; she hated genin team training. “But that doesn’t count.”
“Well, maybe it would if you passed a team for once.” Ino sighed. “But I guess you are Kakashi-sensei’s pupil. You know what they say: like teacher, like stude—”
“Oh God,” interjected Tenten, clearly thinking of Gai. “Don’t finish that sentence. Please.”
Ino stood up; in the time of their little segue, Kiba had disappeared stealthily. “Anyway,” she offered cheerily. “You’ll just have to suck it up, Forehead. Some people just live in the light. You know what they say about jealousy making Jack a dull boy.”
Sakura pressed a weary hand to her face. “You’re quoting that wrong,” she said tiredly, but Ino was already gone.
Ino knew Tsunade’s office would be the usual kind of disorganized – a weird amalgamation of trite but endearing decorating attempts, courtesy of the late Third, plus Tsunade’s own line of day-to-day souvenirs (here, an overturned sake cup, poker chips strewn about, one bent corner of an ace of spades protruding from underneath the lumpy carpet) – but what she hadn’t been expecting was to find the room half-plunged into darkness, curtains drawn haphazardly against the sunlight and the moaning Hokage prostrate on her desk.
“Er… Tsunade-sama? Are you breathing?”
Tsunade didn’t even grace this with a look. “Oh, it’s you. Here,” she gestured at the manila folder balanced on her desk. “There are the mission details. You leave… I don’t know. Tomorrow or something. It’s all in there.”
Ino glanced at the teetering stack of papers dubiously. The mission folder looked a little heftier than she would’ve liked. She picked it up, gently drumming her fingers against the cover. “So… how was your night?”
From the other side of the darkened room, Tsunade finally looked up, raising an eyebrow at her. Despite the low lighting, Ino could see that both eyes were puffy and bloodshot, rheumy with cold. With the seasonal flu going around, it looked like Ino wasn’t the only one with a crappy weekend behind her.
“Oh, I don’t know. I mean, beside the swelling and the fact that I feel like I keep swallowing around a ball of steel wool, it’s been stellar. Any more questions or can I start the briefing now?”
Konoha’s Hokage sometimes made it very hard to feel sorry for her.
Tsunade flipped open a corresponding folder, clearing off the base of a table lamp before she flicked it on. She grimaced at the light. “Ahem. Anyway. So, your departure date’s tomorrow. The client will be waiting for you about twenty-seven paces southwest from the Takigakure’s Southern Border. He’ll be distinguishable by his briefcase and – I quote – its unusual color.”
Ino raised an eyebrow. Other than the sketchy specifics, this mission seemed to be fairly straightforward – C-rank and intended for her current four-man genin training cell. They would chaperone the client from Takigakure to his next job (the details of which Ino was not made privy to), offering him fairly low-level security on the way.
“On the second day, you’ll rendezvous with a backup squad—”
Ino looked up. “What? There’s a backup squad?” Maybe she hadn’t read the mission ranking correctly? Ino flipped a few pages back to make sure. As far as she knew, C-class missions did not require backup squads. C-class missions required rain-boots, sanitizing wipes and Ritalin for one third of her hyperactive team.
Tsunade looked at her expectantly.
Ino coughed, reiterating for the sake of her own personal safety. “Uh… I mean: did you intend to send out other shinobi as well, Hokage-sama?”
The Hokage rolled her eyes largely at her subordinate’s lack of a decent attention span. “Yes, Ino. Was there anything else you weren’t paying attention to that you would like me to repeat again?”
“Oh, no,” Ino said quickly, hoping she wouldn’t get on the wrong side of her cold-ridden superior today. “I was just… testing your enunciation. You know what they about public speaking. You don’t use it, you lose it, right?” And maybe one day, Ino would be able to not lie like an awkward fourteen-year-old boy. She could only hope.
“Right,” Tsunade said knowingly, but recommenced her briefing. “Your mission is straightforward enough; plenty to keep the little firecracker on your team engrossed for the next few days.” Ino sighed inwardly – she’d call Rikimaru a lot of things, but dynamite wasn’t one of them. Had the little idiot found some way to piss of the Hokage when he wasn’t under Ino’s supervision? Or even worse – had this potentially happened when he had been? Tsunade, oblivious to Ino’s clearly deep internal struggle, went on. “But there are two missions.”
Ino visually summarized the loose page. “We’re tailing both the client and his assailants.”
“Exactly,” Tsunade nodded approvingly. “The client is a free-lance cartographer of sorts, though he’s originally from the Wind Country. Turns out he was commissioned to map out the entries to the Hidden Waterfall – which just went top secret, as you well know – and they’re looking to wipe his memory the only permanent way.” Despite the macabre nature of the subject, Tsunade hurried through it summarily. “Clearly, the disposal squad is currently far too high level for one civilian to take on.”
Ino understood. The client would make the most of his hired help by striking out his problem at the source – most nin disposal squads were moderately well-trained and would likely find him anywhere, despite his free-lance status. Off the squad and you’d not only get rid of the problem for the time-being, you wouldn’t be mistaken for any old target. Konoha would be charge of disposing the disposers, financed by their mapmaker friend, of course.
Ino looked up. “And the next set of nin they set out?”
Tsunade nonchalantly rested her head against her hand. "Not our problem, is it?” No, of course not. Unless the client cared to make it worth their while. It was funny how money always tied into these things. “You'll meet a representative from the backup team here," Tsunade indicated a small river south of the village. “If they tell you they need more time, make some. But I’m capping this all off at about two weeks – try not to take any longer than that because we’ll need you back here.” Tsunade looked as though something had just occurred to her. “Plus,” she added blithely. “You’ve got that ritual to complete, right?”
Ino couldn’t say anything around the sudden lump in her throat.
The Hokage cast her eyes back to the folder while Ino swallowed heavily. “Anyway… the list of provisions is here, so I really don’t need to go over all this again, do I? Geez, Shizune’s handwriting is awful… Hmm… Water, food, tent, camouflage, kunai – kunai? No really. Of all the stupid –” She flung open the door harshly, just as Shizune happened to pass by. “Thank you, Captain Obvious. I mean… kunai on a mission? Such brilliance.”
Her assistant proceeded to slam the door in her face, looking very unamused.
The rest of the Hokage’s words blurred into a muddy lecture as Ino reiterated the key mission points and contemplated where this all left her. Shikamaru could return from his cryptic task any day now, bringing Ino back to a frantic square one. Then, in the next little while, a second raffle would be held, at which point she was pretty sure she wouldn’t luck out again. Ino sighed inwardly, looking down at her paper.
This mission was her ticket to a fortnight away from town. Two weeks, Ino thought, biting her lip. At least she could put this stupid thing on hold for the time-being.
Contrary to popular belief, Shikamaru was pretty sure that isolation and lack of other distractions really didn’t make the whole decipherment process any easier than it would’ve been, say, back in Konoha. In fact, it sort of had the entirely opposite effect altogether, making the buzzing of mosquitoes, bad candlelight and Daisuke, Okabe and Ryo’s muffled snores absolutely megaphone magnetized in the (not so) cosy tininess of their makeshift tent.
“For God’s sakes, turn off the fucking light,” groaned Ryo vehemently from beside him, totally oblivious to his imminent death by pillow-related asphyxiation. Shikamaru didn’t even grace his comment with a look.
He had been up half the night decrypting the cipher with uncharacteristic dedication – there was something awfully awry here and Shikamaru wouldn’t be able to relax until he could shirk off that feeling with finality. Unreasonable suspicion, he decided, was a really crappy thing altogether. Paired with the soaked underwear and socks, his discomfort had reached an all-new low.
The basic cryptanalytic mechanics had already been run through in the earlier hours of that night – frequency analysis had proved fruitless, leaving Shikamaru to believe that the text hadn’t been encrypted with a mere substitution cipher – made even harder by the fact that it was composed of foreign characters. It would be slightly more trying than they had originally thought. A foreign alphabet? Syllabilic or phonetic? Semagrams? At this point, the rest of the team had opted to hit the sack, ready to embark for the rendezvous point tomorrow.
“You? Not sleeping?” Ryo held a hand against his forehead. Shikamaru swiped it away. “What, are you dying or something?”
He ignored him. Sure, Shikamaru was tired. Damn, he was tired, but there was something about the cipher that was niggling at him. A jumbled set of symbols that occurred about five times throughout the text, underlined for emphasis. Shikamaru figured that the repeated set of symbols near the middle of the word meant something. An extended syllable, maybe…
The break was found at four-thirty that morning. He wrote the name down in the cluttered margin in heavy black letters. It read: Hyuuga.
Comprehension flooded through the symbols in a heady tidal wave, words crashing into logic and a plan was unfolding before his eyes. “Oh my god,” Shikamaru began solemnly, squinting in the still candlelight.
— The perfectly still candlelight.
Wait. He turned around. “Ryo? Okabe?” Why had the snoring stopped? “Daisuke!”
The tent was empty, nothing around but the dim glow of the candle by which they had picked apart the perplexing script. The flame gave one twitch, two.
Realization dawned on Shikamaru like a ton of bricks. He leapt out of the tent just as the figure shot forward; a heady swoosh from a moving body, the crinkle of desiccated leaves disturbed on the ground and the jittery light of a struggling flame.
Then, the candle flickered out, plunging the night into a blind and bitter darkness.