I have big, update-related plans. Seriously. Stay with me, pretty please?
Rating: This chapter? PG ish. The story? M.
A/N: Unbetaed. If you catch any errors, pardon my godless ways and drop me a line.
Summary: An unexpected reunion...
The night prior, it had been decided that the members of team four would meet near the great gates of Konoha at the ungodly hour of 6AM. This was, in and of itself, not exactly the problem – somewhere in the past few years of hard missions, Ino had learned to keep her ritualistic morning bitching and groaning to a safe minimum. A few hours less of sleep, she had learned the hard way, was far, far more preferable to the sheer hell any terrain trip promised to be at night.
Puffy face or not.
It was more the fact that Ino had dedicated an appalling amount of the previous night to vigorously ignoring the tiny lottery ball not-so-artfully stashed in her shirt drawer (she had stuffed it in her underwear drawer initially, but that was so ironic it was hilarious). For a tiny ball, it was sure doing a mighty wonderful job of filling up every available inch of her bedroom, presence-wise.
According to contract plans, the four of them would make their way to a secluded little waterfall located in some patch of backwater forest, meet their mysterious client, escort him to parts unknown and then return home to collect their much-deserved pay.
It sounded so easy on paper. First and foremost, Iruka-sensei nearly burst something at her flippant description: “Takeshi Springs, Ino! As the team leader, you must always know your target location and the terrain surrounding it!”
Oh, that wasn’t the problem. She knew the terrain, alright: the land surrounding the Leaf was what all the guidebooks euphemistically called “unnaturally dense”. Which really meant that the first few hours of their trek would be spent in brutal bush-whacking through thick, (hopefully) uninhabited and unfriendly underbrush; staving off the man-eating mosquitoes and keeping vigilant for more shinobi-esque threats. Followed by a charming six miles of sheer swampland and mountains, in a not-so-helpful turn of evolution. Fabulous.
Luckily, the pre-set meeting date left plenty of time to make the journey and Ino had snuck in a few hours here and there for various (and necessary) breaks throughout. So, seventeen hours, she had posited. A little night travel, but they’d be there the next day.
“What?! A rest again? This is the second one today! You’re lucky we covered any ground at all, Sensei, at your pace!”
And Rikimaru was lucky that the contract she had signed at beginning of this whole teaching stint explicitly forbade her to maim, harm, rearrange or remove any part of her students whatsoever. With her bare hands, that is; Ino glanced mildly around her for a decent-sized stick.
“She’s ignoring you, Riki,” commented the dark-haired girl beside him. “Because you obviously can’t count, can you? Seventeen hours. We’re still on the first nine.”
He flushed an angry red. “No, I’m just saying that we’re never getting anywhere at this rate. It’ll take us a bajillion years! I know Sensei’s old, but she’s not that old yet!”
“Rikimaru,” Ino explained through gritted teeth at the ‘old’ comment. “I am telling you this only one. More. Time. The seventeen hour arrival estimate is a proven fact, not an insult to your track and field skills. So shut up.”
“But that’s crazy!” He continued, totally unfazed. “We always end up making better time than the arrival estimates, Sensei! Come on, let’s just skip the break.”
Clearly, nothing got through to this kid. He was going to drive her to drink one day. “Hey, Rikimaru,” Ino said, violently wringing out her rain-wet ponytail in lieu of the kid’s skinny little neck. “Let’s you and I make a deal. How about: you don’t say another word for the rest of our little voyage and I don’t hang you from the next high tree we see?”
This, predictably, shut him up for the next forty-five minutes.
Because she was nothing if not a fair girl, Ino had waylaid the break during the silent spell as a sort of unsaid reward for Rikimaru, taking solace instead in the simple things along the way: the serene chirping of crickets, the heady scent of florals, the dark-colored clouds lingering ominously overhead.
The dark-colored— Wait a second.
“Alright troops,” she stated, leaping lightly off her tree branch. “Break time.”
Beside her, there was a damp thump as one of her students alighted from her perch and landed beside her. Hatsumi straightened, readjusted the heavy pack gracing her shoulders and looked up at the treetops expectantly. Next came Yuu, his pack even heavier with his usual toolkit and their accompanying silencers; droplets of rain already gracing the dark lenses on his goggles. He flicked up the shaded lenses and glanced up, somewhat nervously, at the dark treetops.
Where the final member of their squadron stared stubbornly back at them, still perched on his branch. “Nuh-uh. Not yet. I can see the mountains from here,” he bluffed, squinting obviously at the darkened horizon. “We’ll rest when we get there.”
“I’m not going to weather another sudden rainstorm if I don’t have to, Rikimaru,” Ino explained through gritted teeth. “Get your ass off that branch right now.”
Hatsumi narrowed her light eyes at him threateningly; he met the stare, but was still utterly unswayed. If anything, he looked marginally more obstinate than before. God, Ino hated kids. She should have taken that transfer to the Konoha prison instead – heaven knew it would be a hell of lot less taxing on her mental health.
“Rikimaru,” she warned, tapping one foot impatiently and hoping she was exuding as much thunder and lightning as she hoped the gods would smite him with in his stupid little tree.
“Come on, Riki,” pled Yuu, a low note of somewhat desperate warning in his tone. “Let’s take a break while we still can. We’ll travel non-stop when we meet up with our target.”
This had clearly gone on long enough. Without another word, Ino reached into her damp rucksack with a frightening sort of calm as the other three watched curiously. First was the glove; Ino pulled it snugly over her right hand, painstakingly making the appropriate adjustments around each finger.
Hatsumi caught on first; at the glint in her light eyes and her devious grin, Yuu gave a nervous start. “Ino-sensei…”
Ignoring him, Ino turned and reached back into her bag. Above them, Rikimaru craned his neck to watch her, both feet still stubbornly planted on the wet branch nevertheless. Until she withdrew a bow and arrow, calmly assembling them with great and evil pleasure.
A thud. Rikimaru had practically leapt from his tree. “Fine, fine! I’m down, see? There’s no need for cold-blooded murder!”
Point made, Ino rolled her eyes and did a purposeful about-face, stalking towards the refreshment hut with a vengeance as the clouds rumbled darkly overhead, heavy with the prospect of rain. Hatsumi gave a gleeful chuckle at Rikimaru’s panicked expression, her white eyes glinting evilly in the half-light before trotting off after their teacher. Behind her, Yuu followed slightly more sedately, not before tossing a few sympathetic glances back at his teammate.
The rain began falling when they were barely twenty feet from the hut, ruining Ino’s ambitious plans at avoiding soakage.
Murder, huh? With students like these, the notion was kind of inevitable.
Ino cracked open an eye in the direction of the voice. It was Yuu, softly shaking her arm. Somewhere in the distance, she could hear the violent pattering of rain. “Should we order more tea?”
It had been the humid air coupled with the morning’s four or five missed hours of sleep that lulled Ino into a very brief catnap in her corner of the table.
She could almost hear Iruka-sensei’s utter horror at the fact that she had fallen asleep on the job, quite literally, but then again he was fond to freaking out over little lapses in discipline like they had personally killed his family. That and the fact that she couldn’t seem to will her dream-consciousness into staying far, far away from all notions of the ritual made Ino realize that maybe vigilance was the better option, anyway.
The waiter arrived then, with plates and plates of sticky-looking, multi-colored confections. You take one twenty minute tabletop catnap and the dumb brats totally stomp all over your calorie-Nazi regime. It figured. “I’ll take a coffee, thanks. Black.”
“Sensei,” Yuu asked her. “You didn’t tell us who we’re meeting, or why. What do we know about our client?”
Rikimaru rolled his eyes and scoffed around the four sugary balls crammed into his mouth. “Who cares? He’s a client, which means we get paid, which means we get a C-rank in our portfolios. What does it really matter?”
“Idiot,” answered Hatsumi from across the table. “And how exactly are you going to find someone you know nothing about?”
He shot her a death-glare. “I dunno. Recon isn’t really my thing. Aren’t you the one with the creepy x-ray vision?”
A cool half smile from the girl. “And aren’t those giraffes on your underpants?”
“Hey, let’s keep it clean,” Ino cut in, examining her nails uncaringly. In truth: whatever. She had to sign the big, bold-faced do-not-harm agreement, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t have a go at each other every once in a while. She was all front-row seats for that; hell, she’d even bring refreshments.
But it was true; Hatsumi was the latest in the line of Hyuuga heirs, second only to Hanabi once Hinata officially stepped down and they began accepting Branch children for the position (Neji had stoically refused, stating that his place remained forever as a pillar for the main house, or something that sounded equally er... honorable). Hatsumi’s reign, however, was likely a temporary one, being a descendant of the branch house as she was. Her mother was some cousin of Neji and Hinata’s, and until either decided to procreate, the girl would continue to warm the seat for her future relative.
Ino wondered sometimes if that fact bothered her at all.
Admittedly, Ino had experienced a rare moment of self-doubt upon being assigned to the girl's training and care, spending the majority of those first few weeks trying to surreptitiously poke holes in whatever unsaid logic had led to this particular assignation (were all the other teachers taken? Busy on other missions? Had Tsunade simply misspelled the name on the roster?) but in the end, her discomfort was assuaged. Hatsumi’s prickly disposition had made the transplant somewhat rough, but inevitably she turned out to be a most startling talent: keen, sharp and a tad wicked, which made for fairly spectacular fireworks when coupled with Rikimaru’s rather… wearying pace. And Yuu’s mild personality kept the explosions nicely contained.
“Client info is strictly need-to-know,” Ino explained, trying to sound confident. “Don’t worry your pretty little heads over it. We’ll know when we see, okay? Probably.”
“Probably?” Yuu looked politely suspicious.
Ino cleared her throat. “Right. All I need you guys to look out for are brightly colored briefcases.”
“What?” Rikimaru choked down a mouthful. “We’re hoping to just bump into him? We’re going on good faith and your judgment?!”
Eager at the impending fallout, Hatsumi leaned forward. “You sound like that’s a bad thing, Riki,” she prompted slyly.
“It is! Obviously.”
“Tell me, Rikimaru,” Ino deadpanned, tapping a menacing staccato on the tabletop. “Do you say everything with the sole intention of being harmed, or does that just happen?”
He huffed, turning back to his meal.
Yuu was digesting this information slowly. “Strange colors… What color are we looking for in particular, Sensei?”
Ino shrugged elaborately. “Well, I don’t really know.”
Hatsumi looked a unique blend of amused and thoughtful. “And country affiliation?”
Ino scowled at her. “I can’t do that either. Look: it’s complicated. Just trust that we’ll find him, okay?” She tried to look remotely convincing.
It turned out she didn’t need to. At that moment, a soft tapping came from the back of her seat. Ino whirled as the finger first brushed against the wood, hackles raised, reflex-sharp.
“Excuse me,” a mousy-looking man inquired. “Am I to believe those are Konoha hitai-ate? Are you Konoha nin?”
Ino sized him up with seasoned swiftness: slight-figured, light haired, both eyes rimmed with red in what was likely weariness. But most importantly: both hands free, no sign of a briefcase, oddly colored or not.
“Are you?” He asked again, with somewhat tepid apprehension.
Ino narrowed her eyes, reaching towards the holster wrapped around her leg. “Depends on who’s asking,” she answered, expertly turning over the kunai in her right hand.
“Oh, no, no,” the man offered, pointlessly raising both arms to show there was nothing there, as if he was a possible threat. “I’m terribly sorry, but there’s been a misunderstanding. My name is Itoigawa Ginta; I believe some of your… affiliates were supposed to meet me later in the day.”
Rikimaru sized him up suspiciously. Itoigawa nervously extended an arm towards him. “Um… Nice to meet you?”
Inwardly cursing Tsunade’s lack of appropriate physical descriptors, Ino sighed and motioned to their messy table. “Please have a seat, Itoigawa-san. I’m Yamanaka Ino and this is the rest of Squad Four. We’re were the ones commissioned to escort you where you needed to go.”
Hatsumi grinned insincerely. “It’s a pleasure.”
Yuu had sat down across from their nervous-looking new arrival and asked: “Itoigawa-san, why are you not at the designated meeting place? And how did you know that we would be here? If you don’t my asking.”
“No, no,” he offered, adjust his sweater. “Of course not. I had finished my contract work early at Takigakure and decided to make my way over to the rendez-vous point, yes. But I couldn’t find my way through the forest and managed to stumble upon this…” he looked around them, seemingly for the first time. “Refreshment hut.”
Ino leaned back. “And your briefcase?”
He sighed heavily. “That’s the problem. I had a particularly… nagging sensation of being watched ever since leaving Takigakure. I disposed of my briefcase for fear of drawing attention, but it seems I managed to lose my map of the area in the process.”
“And Takigakure? They didn’t provide you with any escort to the rendez-vous point?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “They never appeared, so I became rather nervous.”
Sighing, Ino raised a hand to her temples. “Wait a minute… you think someone is following you? Itoigawa-san, that’s really serious.”
“Really?” Rikimaru looked up, mouth full and suddenly intrigued. “Hey, do you have any idea about who’d want to come after you? Old grudges, vendettas and stuff?”
“Oh, it was likely for the material in my briefcase.”
Oh, right. In their sudden surprise, Ino had nearly forgotten entirely about the initial briefing – if the ‘material’ in his suitcase was what she thought it was, then he had on his person blueprints worth as many lives as were present in the Hidden Falls. Likely more.
And the idiot had tried to get through the dark forest all by himself.
Yuu looked like the same notion had occurred to him, as well. “Itoigawa-san, where are you going to? Where’s your next job?”
Nights in the Fire Country were wickedly cold, despite whatever the name entailed. This side of the mountains, night fell with surprising swiftness, usually bringing with it a superficial layer of light frost as the dampness succumbed to the dropping temperatures. It reverently dusted the land in a swaddle of glittering ice, dismissing the land’s cluttered asymmetry. A serene and tranquil mess under the frosty veneer. Come morning, all traces of the night’s alter-ego would be wiped entirely away.
“Oh, yes,” Itoigawa replied. “The Suna. Another hidden village.” He looked like he suddenly badly regretted taking on any such contract.
“I’m not sure if we can leave now, Sensei.” Yuu pointed at the window. “Night’s fallen, it’s cold out there.”
Beside him, Rikimaru gave a dusty scoff. “Oh please. It’s only cold. All you gotta do is put on more layers to get warm, right? It’s not like heat – you can’t take your skin off.”
Hatsumi rolled her eyes. “I’d think again, genius. Cold makes you sleepy, dulls your senses. And of course, the hypothermia, but let’s not get too technical.”
“Heat stroke, duh.”
Yuu made an abortive attempt at interception, but Hatsumi cut him off coolly. “Only if you’re exposed for a significant amount of time. And I don’t really think traveling under direct sunlight outside of Suna counts as stealth, Riki. Or do you need a little refresher course back at the academy?”
Why couldn’t he have just ordered them to pick him up from the Hidden Waterfall? Ino gave a mental sigh; this was all going to hell a lot earlier than she had thought, and the brats weren’t making any of it easier.
Okay, fine. Fine. If Itoigawa really did possess those blueprints somewhere, or at least knew where they were stashed, then the lucky team now had at least a few seasoned pursuers on their heels right now. Likely more.
That settled it. The best available plan was to hightail it to Suna – luckily the rendez-point was neatly along the way, so they would be able to pick up the back up that they dearly needed. They had to get moving soon, before the cold became bad enough to arrest their progress through the dense trees. Ino glanced at her three students. “Right. Guys, I need you to clear the area. You’ve got ten minutes, then I’m coming out to do it myself.”
“’Course,” Hatsumi affirmed, standing up to join Yuu, who was already hefting his heavy bundle onto his back.
Last of all was Rikimaru, who, for all his usual boisterous disobedience, was still smart enough to listen to his teacher when it really counted. He glanced at Ino with a look of guarded imploration, a half-eaten rice ball still in one hand. “Sensei?”
She gave him a half-smile. “Aren’t you the one who almost chewed my leg off for stopping?
“Sure…” He crammed the last bit of pastry into his mouth, but only in time to see the tail end of his two teammates’ apparently stealthy exit. They were already halfway to the door by the time Rikimaru shuffled messily from his seat.
“Better hurry up, Riki,” Hatsumi called back with a sly grin. “Or we’ll leave you behind.”
“Look, Itoigawa-san, I don’t mean to be rude,” Ino said, placing both hands on the table where he could see them. She hoped the kunai she held in one palm would aid in effectively … dissuading any lying he was planning to do. “But you need to tell me the truth about this contract you entered into with our village. Were you or were you not being pursued prior to this?”
He looked down at his lap. “I don’t know. Not that I was aware of, at least. I simply got the feeling as I made my way from my last location through here. I can’t truly explain it all to you… but I really do believe we should get moving as soon as possible.”
This was utterly mind-boggling. The fact that their mild-mannered, non-shinobi target had somehow managed to slip out from under the fingers of the escort squad from Takigakure didn’t bode well at all: they either incarcerated or remarkably stupid, and Ino figured it certainly wasn’t the latter.
That settled it, then. They’d get out of there as soon as possible, make it out past the heavy forest and swamp by morning and into the safe(r) lands of Suna. If things were as bad as Ino was starting to think they were, then rest was so not an option it wasn’t even funny.
Sliding her kunai back into its holster, Ino swung the rucksack onto her back. “Alright,” she said decisively, leaving a handful of coins on the tabletop for the shopkeep. “Let’s get out of here.” Ino made her way to the door, brushing aside the curtain and stepping out into the utterly quiet twilight.
And that’s when she realized something was wrong.
Her unique little squadron was a lot of things: a little loud-mouthed, a little scatterbrained, a little heavy with the team banter, wickedly efficient at break-ins and prone to sleeping in on Monday mornings. But one thing her team had never, ever been was utterly, completely quiet.
Eyes roving around the darkness, Ino drew her kunai back out, crouching low in an attack stance. “Itoigawa-san, get behind me.”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
If it was what she was thinking, then most likely everything. But she didn’t say this, moving towards the line of dark trees with aching caution. A dark shape flashed before her eyes and – there! – in the distance there was one, no: two, silhouettes in the darkness, their cut and sway telling of recent pursuit.
Ino blinked, the moment coming to a deafening standstill when all she could hear was the deafening beat of blood in her ears. Only two…Hatsumi. Where was Hatsumi? “Hey!” She yelled, grabbing at the small form nearest to her. “Why are you two alone?”
Rikimaru was holding his left arm at a strange distance from his body, the jut of his elbow looking possibly a little lopsided – she couldn’t tell in the godforsaken dark. “Why…? No, Riki. Where. Is. Hatsumi?”
A dull thud echoed through the tilted, moist expanse of the hill as Yuu dropped down beside them. “Taken,” he explained through raggedy, panting breaths. “They… took her… before we could – ”
Damn it, damn it, damn it. A deep breath, two. Ino tried to desperately center her thoughts.
“Okay.” She drew four kunai from her pouch and tossed them at a nearby tree. “We’re – what – three hours from the rendezvous point? No… that’s too far. Okay, Takigakure. Take to the trees, change your course often. Take Itoigawa with you and wait for me there. If you encounter danger, or think I’ve been offed, just keep going – we’re too far for you to make it home. If you can, hop through city centers, stay around people, alright? If anyone is tailing you, don’t let them get any of you alone at any cost.” She looked at Yuu. “You know where the Ally Entrance is near the Hidden Waterfall?”
He nodded grimly, transferring a handful of strange machinery to his belt before ditching the overweight pack and motioned for a very confused Itoigawa to get onto his back. Too afraid to argue, the man acquiesced, his slender form making the lift relatively easy, despite the child's age. The two looked expectantly at Rikimaru.
“No,” he objected, shaking his head in desperation. “What about Hatsumi?! We’ve gotta find –”
“NO!” Ino screamed abruptly, cutting him off. “You need to listen to exactly what I’m telling you and go now. Get the hell out of here!”
Rikimaru recoiled at her sudden outburst like he had been slapped in the face, but nodded curtly, regaining his common sense. In the corner of her eye, Ino saw a figure fleeing in the distance; Yuu had already taken off before them.
That was enough for her – Ino turned in the opposite direction and flung herself down the hill, adrenaline on overdrive and both legs pumping furiously beneath her. Faster. Faster. When the trees crept back onto the land cleared for the snack hut, she took to their upper branches, running a straight path for haste.
That had been a mistake.
One of the very first lessons imparted to young academy trainees were the inherent problems with linear movement: despite increasing speed and power, it was terribly simple to predict, wickedly easy to intercept. Ino’s pell-mell chase for the Hyuuga girl and her captors was clearly no exception.
One figure, moving upwards, whirred past her at a hair’s breadth – and suddenly her arm was jerked violently behind her back, her path thwarted and momentum began to drag her down, down to the dusty forest floor. She heard something that sounded vaguely like Stop, but Ino had never been the greatest listener, and she wasn't going to start now.
Stupid, she cursed herself, the dirt floor dangerously near her and nearer with every passing moment. There would be only one moment to make a move, if any, and it was now. The earth came closer, looming in the periphery of her vision; the sensation of falling had skewed her senses and vertigo churned her stomach, tightened around her head. But now was no time for nausea. Ino lifted her free arm and drew it back almost simultaneously, furiously blinking away dewdrops from her eyelashes; the chakra gathered in her left hand, pooling in the curves between the knuckles, crackling – electric – against the palm of her hand. Ino wasn’t nearly as adept nor as strong as Sakura, but at this proximity it wouldn’t make a difference. Closer, closer. Three milliseconds, two.
One. She swung.
In an almost supernatural pre-emption of her move, her assailant’s arm shot out bullet-quick a fraction of a split-second later, brutally forcing Ino back-first into the nearest tree. Her shoulder gave a wretched pull on impact. “Will you just stop already?” The voice said.
Then they were falling. Faster, faster, coming into painful contact with the ground with unexpected swiftness. Her shoulder bloomed with sudden pain – it seemed to flow through all the nerves in her body like an electric dam burst somewhere in her brain. Mind whirring, Ino made a furious mental scan of ways to avoid imminent capture until, vertigo dispelled, the earth and sky suddenly right themselves and she realized just how familiar that voice had been.
Ino looked. A Konoha hitai-ate hung from one of the nin’s arms. It couldn’t be –
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